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My other self regrets

July 20, 2018

Apart from the first and final stanza, this poem can be read in any order, meaning there are a staggering 39,916,800 poems here. (Isn’t maths wonderful?).  You are invited to draw a zig-zag line at random between them, to create a reading pathway. And then try again.


My other self graphic


Published in Hedgehog Press 2018’s: Little Book of Inspiration

Wickedness in fragile contexts

July 17, 2018

Today, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) publishes its annual States of Fragility report. It’s a mammoth, 250+ page document setting out current fragility trends as well as some current responses.

More than 80% of the world’s poorest will be living in fragile contexts – places with inadequate governance and the presence or a high risk of violence – by 2030 on current trends. The report makes a strong case for more, better and more widely distributed funding and support for them, and to strengthen their institutions.

The report says ‘there is no straightforward way to describe the state of fragility in 2018’, not least because fragility is by nature a multi-dimensional problem. Of course, and I’d go further and say it’s a classic “wicked problem” – i.e. a problem so complicated that it can’t be adequately defined or described in order to prescribe a solution. Wicked problems were first defined in respect of social planning, half a century ago. The way to approach wicked problems is, first and foremost – recognise their “wickedness” and accept there are no simple solutions. Having done so, it’s then important to work collaboratively in diverse teams, in a participatory and iterative manner, taking stock frequently of what one has learned and achieved – and revising the approach as required as new opportunities present themselves or apparent opening close down. One can’t ‘solve’ them, but one can make and recognise progress towards “better”.

Recognising the wickedness of fragility is – perhaps counter-intuitively – empowering, as it allows one to accept that it’s beyond our ken to fully grasp, and thus work on specific, narrower aspects of an issue – while of course keeping the wider complexity in mind. I’m currently involved in a project examining how to respond to the complex situation in the Lake Chad Basin, where Islamic extremist violence, state neglect and repression, climate fluctuations, climate change, rapid population increase and a host of other factors are interacting to make most people’s lives a misery, and where the search for ‘a solution’ is a fool’s errand. A veritably wicked set of problems.

Recognising wickedness also means it’s OK not to be able to fit your programme into a classic cause-and-effect log-frame. In fact, it’s often better not to try and know the outcomes in advance, but set up systems to monitor what occurs and take it from there.

The tension between values and interests in aid

Fragility is correlated with conflict. Indeed, fragility is practically a synonym for conflict-prone. Yet, according to the report, only 2% of aid funding to fragile contexts in 2016 was classified as supporting conflict-prevention, and a further 10% as supporting peacebuilding (though I’m unsure of the difference). While this is no doubt partly a product of blunt aid classification systems, it’s surely also a sign that much aid in fragile contexts is deployed without being properly tailored to the context. After all, it’s hard to argue that practically all aid in fragile contexts should not have the goal of reducing fragility, and thus violence, as a matter of pragmatism and ethics. And any programmes designed with that in mind surely entail either conflict prevention or peacebuilding…

With that in mind, I contributed a short piece to the OECD’s report: section 1.4 on page 35. This explores aspects of the ever present tension between the altruistic values supposedly inherent in aid, and the political interests of donor governments. There is much to be said on this subject, much of it unfortunately unlikely to be acceptable in a document published by the major aid donors’ own think tank. Nevertheless it’s commendable they wanted to commission such a piece.

In the article, I question the way ‘Value for Money’ is deployed in fragile contexts, where value (in terms of reduced risk and fragility) is hard to evaluate a priori, and may in fact take many years to accrue – and may never, in some cases. I also challenge the insidious ‘what works?’ agenda, which assumes that only methodologies which have already shown their worth should be deployed and funded. This risks side-lining some of the innovative, iterative, process-oriented programmes required to address “wicked problems”. If the goal is reducing fragility, surely it will take many years before we know if a particular methodology has ‘worked’?

I also point out how rich country voters’ fears of terrorism and immigrants are being exploited in perverse ways to distort programming – and ignoring evidence which does not fit donors’ political claims. For example, the evidence that development progress increases, rather than decreases emigration from poor countries, at least initially.

Ethics in aid

As I have said in earlier blog posts, aid in fragile contexts needs to be held to a very high ethical standard, in part because of these kinds of tensions between values and interests. In some respects the conflict between donors’ interests and virtue is akin to the conflict of interests known to the medical profession, which gave rise to the concept of do no harm. But the political institutions typically available in fragile contexts don’t readily allow international actors to obtain the equivalent of the medical patient’s consent, nor to be held accountable by citizens. As a result, the ethics of international development aid must place a high value on the need for responsible and informed practice, and we need to be more explicit about this.

A renewed emphasis on ethics becomes all the more important as aid is increasingly concentrated in fragile contexts, and especially in situations where donors are also trying to achieve other goals than human development, and which may be in tension with them, such as reducing terror threats within, and immigration towards their own borders.

Ragged lawn

July 10, 2018

                                            ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

– Hamlet act 1 sc. 2


A man came in, from time to time,
to mow and weed and hoe and trim
the ordered world you left behind.

He worked with diligence and speed,
but it was only work to him,
and then he stopped – I don’t know why.

And now, my cat stalks wrens among
your ragged grass and giant weeds,
and straggling dogwood overhung

with thorns – she holds her hunter’s pose
amidst damp shade and rotting leaves
where phlox once bloomed in open sun.

The perfect geometry which framed
your realm has all but decomposed –
its squares and pentagrams decayed.

This wilding hunter’s paradise
where any seed or rootlet grows
is fine for birds and butterflies,
but not the garden that you made.


Published in Pennine Platform No. 83



July 4, 2018

You ask why that man sleeps so late
in a winter doorway, cold, alone,
as we step round him, wide awake.
I do not know.

You ask why girls your age are chased
by men with knives and guns, from home,
while you stay warmly loved, and safe.
I do not know.

You ask, why we live high and well
while others fade and sink so low,
and not give half we have to them.
I do not know.

You’ve asked if it’s we lack the will
to act – or perhaps it’s not our role?
For fifty years, I’ve asked, and still
I do not know.

But should you ask: by not doing more,
do we not hurt ourselves, and show
we’ve made a world that’s deeply flawed?
Now that, I know.

Published by The Poetry Shed, as part of a series in support of The Nourish Community Food Bank


Aid agencies should be clearer about their ethical dilemmas

June 25, 2018

Phil Vernon's blog

Are international aid organisations paying enough attention to the ethical complexities of what they do and how they do it?

Last year, as one of my final projects before I left International Alert after thirteen years, I led a review of the organisation’s ethical approach to its international peacebuilding work, and the development of a new ethical guidance to replace the one that had last been updated in the 1990s.

Along with colleagues from various parts of the world with whom I did this, I found it a fascinating experience which reminded me of and helped clarify some of the ethical tensions inherent in international aid, while also reassuring me that my colleagues at Alert were by and large acutely aware of these, and doing their best to navigate them carefully and responsibly -if not necessarily getting enough support and guidance from senior staff such as myself.

An ethical minefield

View original post 1,464 more words

The visitors’ book at the Knoydart bothy

June 10, 2018

Three hundred miles by train and bus,
fifteen on foot, just to spend a night
with the woman I love. Has it come to this?
I read in muted peat firelight.

I pictured him: a wife, two kids,
a month of scheming, then to crest
a ridge and share a gasp amidst
this vast, receding endlessness;

a mutual glance, his arm around
her shoulder, hers about his waist;
their futures and dilemmas drowned
by silence, resonance and space.

And his exquisite moment pierced
my carapace, exquisitely.
The peat smoke lifted acrid fears
across the room, and clung to me

thereafter, placing next ahead
of now: glimpsed oceans, distant peaks
still beckoned but dispersed – the red
armada, drifting out of reach.

And so I traded wilderness
for suburbs where, late nights, I draw
peat smoke, uncanny loneliness
and mountains: shadows on the wall.


Published in Pennine Platform No 83


June 4, 2018

Your eyelids flicker while you sleep
in filtered moonlight, and betray
a reservoir of dark, hid deep,
swept ceaselessly by squalls which play
and whip the waves, until sunrise
when you assume a veil to view
yourself and those around you through
and shroud your secrets from your eyes.

He offered love without entail
while hers was rationed, rare, withdrawn:
they wove cold, angry, constant, warm
and doubting colours in your veil,
distorting what you see and feel,
and storing hurt, too deep to heal.


Published in Poetry Salzburg Review May 2018