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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


How language shapes our future

May 29, 2018

How the way we think is getting in the way of what we need to do.

Dualism has enabled amazing advances, but at what cost? Is it time – is it indeed possible – to break free of our cultural backgrounds in order to save the world? 

A review of Jeremy’s Lent’s 2017 book: The Patterning Instinct


Tropes we need and use but seldom see

I’ve long been a student and lover of metonymy, including of how language is sprinkled with metaphors we no longer notice, so familiar have they become. Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to decide if the colours and imagery in our language are still metaphorical or not. Take the word ‘familiar’: in the way I’ve just used it, it draws on the notion that we know our family more intimately than the rest of the world, hence it must have been used metaphorically at some point, before becoming associated with its modern (and now familiar!) literal meaning. Perhaps we can say that while it’s now literal, it still contains the vestiges of metaphor. On the other hand, ‘sprinkled’ is still clearly a metaphor in the way I used it in my initial sentence above. (As is “on the other hand”, of course… and so it goes on…)

Yes, language is full of metaphor: the on-the-face of it crazy idea that using what Aristotle called an ‘alien’ image allows us better to communicate the idea or story in question. But it works, and Aristotle said that creating an original metaphor is an act of genius. A more recent commentator, Denis Donoghue, claimed that the ‘essential character of metaphor is prophetic… [because it changes] the world by changing one’s sense of it’. (Metaphor, Denis Donoghue, Harvard, 2014). I think he is right: every new metaphor is akin to prophecy. Hence its importance in religious texts and in politics: including in any attempt to make the world a better place, or save it from becoming worse.

Families of metaphors

Linguistics professor George Lakoff investigated the role of metonymy in language and culture, and came up with a taxonomy of metaphors. In this, he identified a series of fundamental metaphorical notions which imbue the way we think and communicate in the West, without us barely noticing. For example, these include (he uses capitals to denote these ur-concepts) Orientation/Spatial metaphors such as HAPPY IS UP, SADNESS IS DOWN; HEALTH IS UP, SICKNESS IS DOWN; MORE IS UP, LESS IS DOWN; VIRTUE IS UP, DEPRAVITY IS DOWN; and FUTURE IS AHEAD, PAST IS BEHIND.

He identifies several other categories, for example Substance metaphors (MIND AS MACHINE; MIND AS A BRITTLE OR PLASTIC OBJECT; INFLATION AS A MATERIAL ENTITY…), and Container metaphors (THE VISUAL FIELD AS A CONTAINER; STATES OF MIND AS CONTAINERS…). So for example when we say “the ship sailed into view” we are unconsciously using the culturally shared idea that the visual field is a container which the ship can be inside or outside; when we say “he nearly cracked up from the strain” we are using a substance metaphor of brittleness and strain; and when we say “she was an upstanding person” we are using an orientation metaphor (up = virtuous). The point is: our language and culture are suffused with invisible metaphors which allow us to communicate readily and efficiently, and permit the shared development and understanding of a sense of where and how we live, and of complex ideas, plans and inventions. For further reading on this basic idea: Metaphors we live by, by Lakoff and Johnson, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

How shared patterns of thinking shape and limit our lives

This is not just of academic interest. Lakoff has used this to explore how the choice of language in the USA helped frame US policy and the political discourse around the response to 9/11. Initially, it was described – accurately – as a terrible crime. But within hours the phrase ‘War on Terror’ was being used. This, as Lakoff has pointed out, has no literal meaning (how can you wage war against an abstract and very broad concept?), but by framing the US response as a war against an intangible target, those responsible created a framework for unquestioning public support (it is unpatriotic to question a war we are fighting) and room for manoeuvre (the government can define – and redefine – its ‘enemies’ as it sees fit). So choice of language is inherently political, in favouring some options and limiting others.

Jeremy Lent, in his recent book The Patterning Instinct (Prometheus Books, 2017), goes much further than this. Lent – like most of us – is deeply concerned that in our treatment of Earth we are heading towards a tipping point, after which we may not be able to recover. Science and common sense tell us we need to take significant remedial action now, but we are not doing so quickly enough. The economic and political reasons for this foot-dragging have been well-rehearsed. But Lent goes further, and identifies some of the dominant tropes which guide public policy, public and private behaviour, and shows that they are themselves part of the problem.

His book is fluently written, and easy to read and follow. He writes in engaging prose,  and turns a good clear sentence within a clearly sign-posted structure. At 440 pages of text it is probably 80 pages longer than it needed to be, for me. I think he might have got his point across at least as effectively in a shorter version. But it is divided into digestible chapters of around 20 pages each – bite-sized chunks, small enough to fit into the interstices of the busy day. So the extra length is manageable. It draws on history, biology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, geography, ecology, political science, economics and literary criticism – and no doubt other disciplines too – to tell the story of human development over millennia. He refers – unobtrusively enough – to many hundreds of sources: the notes and further reading lists run to 100 pages.

Dualism: key to a version of progress, but a hindrance to sustainability

The key part of Lent’s argument is that the world has become dominated by a primarily Western approach to thinking, built on dualism: the differentiation of body from soul, earth from heaven, appearance from reality, being from becoming, ideas and concepts from tangible things, mind from matter, fact from value, mind from brain, being from nothingness, religious from secular, infinite from finite, God from people, and so on. Starting with the migration of people who spread the Indo-European language groups over 5000 years ago, he explains how and where this seems to have happened, and explores some of the why?, linking it for example to ecology, technology, religion, economic patterns and the adoption of agriculture and settled, surplus-producing societies.

He identifies the origins of monotheism in the core metaphor of duality, and shows how this embedded the seemingly inescapable duality of right and wrong, good and evil – and the intolerance this engendered. He also argues that dualistic cognitive approaches enabled much of the progress on which the modern world has come to depend for our welfare. A key phase of that journey was obviously the Western Enlightenment, at the core of which was the idea of deconstruction and natural rules, and Lent reminds us of the importance of figures like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.

Bacon’s own use of metaphor is instructive. As someone with a high level responsibility for state security in early seventeenth century England, he was all-too-familiar with the mechanisms of torture in interrogation, including over religious beliefs (that intolerance again), and he used metaphors of torture (nature on the rack) to describe how man must master nature by better understanding how nature works. Bacon is often seen as the originator of modern experimental, empirical inquiry. In doing this, he helped establish two core metaphors which have underpinned Western economic and political life ever since: MASTERY OF MANKIND OVER NATURE, and NATURE AS MACHINE.

Clearly, the Scientific Revolution and all that followed, has brought us many advantages. Lent is no Luddite, and he acknowledges these. But in telling the story of how – because of the dominant role of the West in world affairs over the past few centuries – its metaphors have infiltrated much of the world, including our multinational institutions, he also reminds us that there are other tropes available. He makes much of the various cultures which view the world in a more holistic (non-dualistic) way. He points out that not seeing nature as separate, or a machine, or as something to control, but rather as an indivisible part of the whole along with ourselves, would likely be an advantage in correcting the way the NATURE AS MACHINE metaphor has run amok and led to dangerous climate change – not to mention the desperate levels of inequality, violence and suffering embedded in the status quo, for all its successes.

And this is the fundamental problem he wishes to illuminate: that climate change, environmental degradation and all sorts of deep social inequalities are making the prospects of sustainable human life on Earth increasingly bleak, and that our dominant tropes are preventing us from reacting adequately. For example, our continued dependence on the ideas of MANKIND MASTERING NATURE and NATURE AS MACHINE, is preventing us from thinking outside the box. He suggests that by adopting more holistic tropes – WE ARE INTIMATELY PART OF OUR ENVIRONMENT; LIVES ARE MUTUALLY DEPENDENT, perhaps – we might release ourselves from this blinkered state. Indeed, he thinks we have to do so.

Big picture writing

This is a book full of riches. Like other “sweep of history” books (e.g. Lent references Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel, which he much admires) it offers the non-specialist reader a glimpse at the wealth of multi-disciplinary knowledge which can be marshalled by those with the access, intelligence and time, to illuminate big questions and consider big answers. It felt like a privilege to be a beneficiary of Lent’s research  and reflection.

Perhaps, like Guns, Germs and Steel (and some of Stephen Pinker’s work, of which Lent is critical) it errs at times on the side of seeking evidence for its arguments, rather than arguments based on the evidence. Pretty much everything in the book is adduced in support of his thesis, even though the world seen on such a scale is surely far too messy for that. Lent is comfortable with sweeping statements, some of which I wonder about. Picking a couple at random: “For the most part, extremes of inequality in these great agrarian civilizations [4000 years ago] came to be regarded as the normal condition”; or “in Neo-Confucian thought, the […] divide between science and spiritual meaning is nowhere to be found” – really, how do we know with such certainty?

And the book’s sweeping thesis inevitably raises inconvenient questions along the way which nag at the reader even as he continues to read with great interest. If monotheism gave rise to fundamentally intolerant societies, as Lent argues, how is it that Western societies are so comparatively free? If monotheism is such a differentiator, how is it that mystical Christian works are so similar to mystical Buddhist works; how is it that my personal reading of Christ’s teachings sees so much empathy and encouragement to scepticism there?

But any book devised on such a scale is bound to be open to such questions, and especially one written by someone on a mission to help save the world. Overall, this is a really useful entry point for readers interested to know how our cultural conditioning determines (or very strongly influences) how we see the world and our place within it. We know this already, but Lent helps explain it, and he also shares the important insight that a global human society limited by an increasingly homogenous set of tropes and values is – to use a Substance metaphor – likely to be brittle, rather than resilient. Because resilience requires diversity of thinking.

Where next?

Lent’s final chapter attempts a solution. What’s needed is a Great Transformation, and thus a Herculean effort on the part of us all to see beyond – or step outside – our inherited world view. This will be – or rather, this is already proving itself to be – very hard. That is the nature of culture and values: they are self-reinforcing unless a crisis undermines them. Unfortunately, I fear this will be too difficult, and we will pass the tipping point before the survivors are galvanised into enough change. I hope I am wrong. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves and to the world of which we are part, to understand why we seem to be stuck in a rut heading towards – if not a cliff edge – a very steep downward slope. In addition to the familiar political and economic reasons why we are finding it so hard to change course, The Patterning Instinct is extremely helpful in reminding us that there are deep-set cultural reasons, too. Even if we shy away from tackling THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION in one go, perhaps we can contribute by taking account of Lent’s ideas as we try to address the various social and political and environmental and economic and spiritual issues in which we each try to make a small difference – and thus enact the Great Transformation one step at a time.

When I tried to purchase this book at London’s most famous and largest bookshop recently, the assistant told me their only copy had been sold, and it was therefore out of stock. In other words, their purchasing policy for The Patterning Instinct was to maintain a stock of only one volume. That is a real shame: it’s an enjoyably instructive text which they ought to be marketing more positively. I recommend it to all students of “Why?”