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Is it time to fold DFID back into the FCO?

December 15, 2019

One of the issues raised during the recent UK general election campaign was, whether to maintain the Department for International Development (DFID) as a separate department of state, or fold it back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. DFID was established by New Labour in 1997, and has garnered a reputation internationally not only for spending most of the UK’s large aid budget, but for doing so in a highly professional, thoughtful and organised way. Through its actions and its advocacy, it has rightly been seen as a leading voice in global discussions about how best to deliver development and humanitarian aid.

Nevertheless, I was for many years sceptical about the need for DFID. Losing the aid budget and the staff who administered it, undermined the FCO’s capacity and clout. Meanwhile DFID’s own work was for many years undermined by an overly technical approach, lacking an understanding of how poverty is interwoven with the political economy in developing countries. Claiming that the UK was separating overseas aid from its foreign policy – as many people in the aid sector still claim – seemed somewhat disingenuous. It always seemed to me as a British citizen, that helping people escape poverty and recover from disaster was a core political choice, and was thus central to our foreign policy, not divorced from it. I still think that overall, it would have been better to administer overseas aid within an expanded FCO, and our embassies abroad, rather than separately.

The UK government is committed to providing at least 0.7% of GNI in official overseas assistance. As other government departmental budgets were progressively squeezed following the financial crash, it was inevitable that they would try and get their hands on some of the growing annual aid budget that now totals about £14bn. And so it has proved: DFID now spends less than 75% of official UK aid, with the rest going to the FCO and other ministries. As reported by numerous sources, including Parliament’s International Development Select Committee, DFID consistently scores far more highly than the FCO and other departments on measures of aid effectiveness and aid transparency, implying that other departments aren’t learning from its professionalism and expertise, even as they administer more of the resources DFID was established to spend.

On the face of it, then, there is a good case for folding DFID back into the FCO. Doing so would strengthen the link between UK’s aid and foreign policies, and restore some of the FCO’s lost clout and influence both at home and abroad. It would also potentially improve the effectiveness of the aid that is already spent by the FCO, by bringing across DFID’s better systems. Meanwhile, it would also improve some the programming now under DFID’s control, which would benefit from the FCO’s better knowledge of the political economy in developing countries.

However, I’ve come to believe this would be a major mistake. DFID has put down roots, and pulling those up would be a massive distraction from the task of delivery. The effort required, and the disruption caused by the process of reintegration would undermine the UK’s effectiveness as one of the world’s main – and most thoughtful – providers of aid. DFID has already fixed much of the excessive ‘technical’ bias it once showed, and should continue this process as a stand alone department. And any merger done today would further reduced the UK’s ‘soft power’ – which is already on the wane. Most of the world is puzzled by our decision to leave the EU – an organisation many countries would love to be able to join – and by our loss of influence in doing so.

Instead of folding DFID back into the FCO, the government should continue to improve collaboration among all externally facing Whitehall departments, thus ensuring that aid is transparently and effectively used, that aid spending is a treated as a foreign policy tool, alongside other instruments that help reduce poverty, prevent and support recovery from disaster, and promote liberal values and development progress across the world.

To borrow its domestic slogan, if the new government wants to help ‘level up’ the world, it should make this a key foreign policy goal and ensure that DFID, the FCO and all externally facing departments are working coherently towards it, rather than wasting resources on a government reorganisation that would send a message to the rest of the world that the UK no longer wishes to be an agent of humanitarian help and progressive change.

Place

January 16, 2020
But where shall wisdom be found? 
And where is the place of understanding?
– Job 28: 12
 
This garden breathes
as sunset strokes the goldenrod and slides away.
 
This place has known
the touch of raindrop, breeze and gale,
the sudden chill when crows call clouds –
the warmth when they disperse –
the breath of ghosts when breezes fail;
 
has felt the weight of ice
diminish, leaving
crumbled stone,
then heath, then grass, then trees;
 
has witnessed deer
then sheep, then horses graze,
lawns displace fields,
roads lead where paths once led,
to bivouacs, then barns, then homes;
 
has heard the sound of children’s games,
of disputes, clashes, laughter,
campfires, kitchens, idling cars;
the quieter tones of love and tears,
and parents pointing out the stars;
 
has stood its ground,
as shadows marked the years and seasons by
the way they fell,
and waned or grew,
and when and where
they travelled from and to;
 
and now, as fading summer falls
on rose, anemone and goldenrod –
the gardener’s pride –
if asked to weigh the worth of all it’s held,
this gentle place would likely say
it could not tell.



First published in Poetry Salzburg Review no 34.

Journey

October 27, 2019
 

He rides a train
through slow flat land:
nothing to see
but horizon,
 
wanders clumps of yellowed grass
and sand,
and sets a wounded beetle
on a stone.
 
With awkward clattering
a lone jackdaw
alights
and takes its unexpected prey.
 
Sometimes he waits all week
for a metaphor,
then two – or more –
turn up in a day.


Published Sept 2019 by Ink, Sweat & Tears

Letter to the future

September 21, 2019

When you read history books, they may not show
the many ways that people lived today:
it’s critical you know the things we know.
 
To tame a girl, her aunties pin her so
she’s still, and then reduce her with a blade.
When you read history books, it may not show.
 
To keep them safe, we welcome those who hoe
a different furrow – to farms far away.
It’s critical you know the things we know.
 
The ragged pick among the scraps we throw
aside: the iron will never cleave to clay.
When you read history books, it may not show
 
up clearly, but when someone from below
makes claims beyond her due – we make her pay.
It’s critical you know the things we know
 
so you avoid reaping the weeds you sow
among the corn. Although it’s clear today,
when you read history books, it may not show:
it’s critical you know the things we know.
 

Published in Poetry Salzburg Review no 34

What are companies for?

September 18, 2019

Last month The Economist newspaper published a special Briefing on corporate purpose – What Are Companies For? This explained the increased interest among business corporations in pursuing a social purpose, in addition to increasing shareholder returns and providing value to customers. This trend, according to The Economist, is a reaction to the global financial crash, and represents companies either seeing the light or caving in to external pressure, ‘depending on who you ask’.

The article gave several examples, such as BlackRock, a giant investment fund, which expects all major companies to articulate their social purpose. It notes that at a recent Business Roundtable, major CEOs agreed that their firms should serve stakeholders as well as shareholders; offer good value to customers and training to staff; promote inclusivity; treat suppliers fairly and ethically; support the communities in which they work; and protect the environment. This list doesn’t, in truth, seem particularly radical, but the article also presented the other side of the argument, citing activists who have used the courts to force the giant CalPERS pension fund to revert to picking investments for their financial performance alone, rather than their ‘social performance’; and a major hedge fund which claims that generating competitive shareholder returns is social value enough. Overall, while presenting a more or less balanced account of the debate, The Economist seemed to come down more or less on the latter point of view.

As a long-term reader of the newspaper, I found this surprising: I read the article fully expecting it to end with an endorsement of the need for businesses to contribute purposefully to three kinds of value: to their customers, to their investors, and to society more broadly. This is not a new or radical idea, and especially in an age when we are learning to expect less and less of our communities and governments, and therefore need to be able to rely on businesses acting responsibly of their own accord, against a background of social inequality, institutional decay, environmental degradation and political instability.

Among many things the article did not clearly say, I’d make three points.

1. Corporate citizenship and the social contract

Citizenship is one of the great public goods, where it exists. A healthy polity is one whose people are citizens, rather than subjects. They have a voice in the directions in which they are led, and in who does the leading; they hold their leaders accountable; and they accept a duty towards their fellow citizens, and to the nation state, which guides and sets limits on how they behave, including how they contribute to society. Good citizens behave accordingly not only because they are held accountable for doing so, but because they feel a sense of responsibility to do so. They not only pay their taxes as required, they also engage in community activities which enhance the common good. This is part of the social contract.

Businesses are in many ways corporate citizens. Not just because so many of them use the language of ‘good corporate citizenship’ in their public relations, but because, like individual citizens, they have a voice in the politics which determine where they are led, and who does the leading – and in holding leaders accountable (even if some may disingenuously deny having this influence). Therefore, in addition to paying taxes and otherwise complying with the law, they should also display a sense of responsibility towards others, and aim to behave in ways that enhance the common good.

Thus, as good corporate citizens, it’s essential corporations act in a socially responsible way, and recognise how they are contributing, and will in future contribute, to society: through their goods and services, their returns to investors, and in how they comport themselves and treat the environment and those around them. They should aim to enhance society and its prospects for the future, rather than simply avoid undermining them.

2. Stakeholders in a common future

Companies increasingly talk about ‘their stakeholders’, and The Economist article adopts the same language. It’s true, of course, that corporations have their stakeholders – i.e. others with a stake in their success and how they achieve it: the communities in which they operate, local and national governments, employees, their suppliers and customers, and so on.

But the concept of a ‘stake’ is far more powerful than that. The truth is, companies and others have a shared stake in a sustainable future, characterised by an open, well-regulated economy, greater equality of opportunity, a restored and sustained natural environment, democratic governance, and some version of ‘the pursuit of happiness’. My family and friends, the farmer in Harissa and the farmer just down the road here in Kent, BP, Huawei, Microsoft and the local corner ship: we are all stakeholders in that future. None of us can meet our goals in the medium term, unless we recognise our common stake.

Therefore companies which seek to define their social purpose are not stepping outside the appropriate parameters of business decision making. They are simply recognising the truth that it is in their interests – in common with others in society with whom they share a stake – to contribute social value.

3. Long-term interests

Of course, there will always be businesses willing to take a short-term view, seeking to maximise financial profits above all. And some business sectors are controversial simply because of the products and services they produce, even before considering a wider social purpose (arms, tobacco, etc.). But this should not alter the recognition that businesses should aim do ‘do well by doing good’. Indeed, there are many sectors for whom taking a ‘common weal’ approach is particularly well aligned with their evident economic interests. These include companies operating in sectors which perforce take a long term view because of the nature of their business: pension funds, miners, forestry, water supply, insurance companies, and the like. They all need to generate income in the short term, but they do so on the basis of long-term assets, much of whose value and benefits will ultimately accrue to people in future generations. Therefore they have no choice but to consider how they can help ensure those future customers will be in a position to purchase and benefit from their products, and thus how they might contribute to societal well-being.

For these three reasons, among others, The Economist got the balance of its briefing wrong. As good corporate citizens, with a stake in a sustainable future, and a future in which customers will be in a position to purchase their wares, corporations have an interest in behaving responsibly, and understanding and aiming to increase their net benefit to society. In any case, since it would be weird to suggest that businesses should not contribute to the good of society, it seems intuitively right that they should.

If I was a billionaire wanting to do good…

August 20, 2019

If one had to choose a single development sector, which would it be?

Several times in the past few years, I’ve quoted what I’ve come to regard as Natsioss Law: that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. In writing this, Andrew Natsios was making the point that, given the obsession with predicting and measuring the impact of public investments and actions, some of the most important actions lose out, because although they seek to achieve the things that matter most, they are hard to measure.

Some of the things he had in mind were improvements in governance, politics and accountability, and the adoption of tolerance, justice, respect for human rights and other values. Meanwhile, easily measurable interventions like infrastructure and the delivery of reproductive health services were far easier to fund. By this he wasn’t undervaluing the more measurable changes (the ‘hardware’, if you like); he was simply pointing out that because of the role of ‘bean counters’ in judging what was good or not good enough, international aid was skewed towards the hardware and away from the ‘software’. This remains the case today.

I wrote about this in a blog post back in 2013, and also proposed what I suggested was ‘Natsios’s Second Law’: our ability to understand and describe societal problems in sophisticated detail is in inverse proportion to our ability to address them. The ability of people in the development sector to understand the characteristics of a peaceful, developmental or resilient society had hugely improved, compared with 15 years earlier, but their ability to help people embed those characteristics in their own societies had not kept pace. It’s one thing to recognise resilience or the lack thereof, it’s quite another to become resilient, especially in the face of the structural factors make societies fragile instead, and the softer, societal factors that contribute so much towards resilience.

I also said, just because one can’t ordain a better future, doesn’t mean one should stop trying to help make it happen, and I proposed four rules for programming, to take account of this disconnect between ambition and the capacity to achieve it. (And as it happens, I still agree with what I wrote then).

  1. Don’t promise too much.
  2. Given how hard it is to chart progress in the big picture, it makes sense to work at a smaller scale: with individuals, households, communities – and support their efforts to make a difference to the bigger picture they are part of.
  3. Rather than basing strategy on ‘solving problems’, it may be more realistic to focus on a vision of a better future, keep it in view, and aim to make progress towards it. The means to get there will no doubt be different from what we might have envisaged, but if we keep the end in sight, we can adjust and readjust as we go.
  4. Perhaps it was also time to come up with institutions and organisations more fit for the purpose at hand.

I went back to reread this blogpost recently, after a friend who is not involved in overseas aid asked me how I would invest my charitable donations, if I were a billionaire. My initial, ready response was to describe the charity I once dreamed of setting up. This would use minimal budgets to seek out and support leaders in developing countries with the combination of drive, values and courage to make a difference on the ‘software’ side. I shared the blogpost I had written about this (also in 2013) with my friend. But after she’d read it, she pointed out that my proposal was relatively cheap, costing only $3 million per year or an endowment of $60 million. Not enough for a billionaire to spend, surely?

So she asked the question again, in a slightly different way: in which single international development sector would I invest a significant sum of money annually, if I were a billionaire?

Given my own long-term commitment to softer aspects of development – dialogue, local accountability projects, and the like – I was surprised at the conclusion I came to – assuming the funding was my own – i.e. that I had skin in the game.

The answer was education – the very same answer I’d have given more than thirty years ago, before I started work in the aid sector; though the reasons are perhaps a little more thought-through today.

Formation: knowledge, empathy, critical thinking and ambition for change

If I had the means to do so, I’d invest heavily in the kinds of education that develop young people’s knowledge, empathy, critical thinking skills and ambition for change. In French, one of the words for education is ‘formation’, and I’ve always thought that appropriate in English, too. By forming young people’s capability to think critically and act accordingly, on the basis of knowledge and empathy, the investment would help build the software needed to overcome, dissolve or at least sidestep some of the structural constraints to resilience and progress.

This would require a massive investment, not least because the education systems and teaching methods in so many places seem almost designed to undermine critical thinking. It would need a continued and committed subsidy for at least a generation, and a major injection of external technical assistance. It would also be able to piggy back on technological innovation. But while it would draw on international knowledge and skills, it would also have to be homegrown, based on cultures and knowledge systems in the countries concerned.

There is no guarantee that enhancing the critical thinking skills, confidence and ambition of a generation of young women and men would be enough to turn the corner in making their societies resilient. But it would at least endow them with the language and knowledge they’d need, to decide what good progress looked like in their own context, and decide whether what was being achieved was transformational enough. And in so doing, it would relieve Andrew Natsios’s bean counters of the need to measure progress themselves. And thus clear the way for more initiatives designed to be truly transformational, whether or not they were easily measurable in reports to Washington, Brussels and New York.

The girl in the swimming pool

July 20, 2019
It's magical to watch a girl begin to drown,
suspended with her face towards the rain,
then lift and place her gently on the ground
and coax her lungs to believe and breathe again.
 
Your dad had raced the tide, and fought his way
through surf, on jagged granite, years before,
to reach and rescue you from panicked spray
and the pull of the sea, and swim you back to shore.
 
You fancy higher powers had bid him save
you, so you'd later rescue in her turn
this girl half-floating on her enchanting wave
who sank, and rose, and sank; a stricken bird
 
but when you lean out from the parapet
above the shadowed gorge, where far below
those blue and sightless swollen dolls forget,
forget, forget, in time with the river, you know
 
one life saved means no more nor less beside
whole families who cowered in stands of cane
and, hopeless, queued in quiet lines to die
than one life saved: unlinked in any chain. 


Published in the Kent & Sussex Folio, 2019