Skip to content


December 10, 2018
for Barbara Hepworth

How did you know
before you reached inside and opened it,
the surfaces within a solid sphere would be 
                                            so vast
that light would brush their grain like fingertips
and never die?

How did you know
the only place to tilt and tap the blade;
how did you dare to make 
the first – the final – cut? 

How did you know 
what we did not –
and would not, still: 
our fear of seeing space unfolding endlessly?

First published in Pennine Platform no. 84

Mysterious garden

December 4, 2018

That loosestrife overwhelms the rose
in June, which branches bow when wet,
a secret silence when it snows,
how birds change key before sunset,

that leaves now green were apple red,
where wrens build nests behind the fern,
which clematis wear velvet threads
and which wear silk: all this we’ve learned.

And yet, it’s only as we turn
the soil, and sow and thin and hoe,
and tie the taller stems to stays,

and coax the unforeseen, and prune
to let light in, we start to know
what this year’s garden wants to say.


Published in Earlyworks 2018 Anthology

DFID only spent 72% of UK official aid last year. Does that matter?

November 29, 2018

The UK Government released its data on 2017 official development assistance (ODA) spending today. As required by law, the total went up to match 0.7% of the UK’s GNI, reaching £14.1 billion, an increase of 5.1% over 2016. The UK was the third largest ODA donor in 2017, some way behind Germany and giving just over half of what the USA provides. Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway and Denmark are the other four governments which meet the 0.7% target (a target I have long questioned, and I was against the idea of making it a legally binding in the UK).

Predictably, there is already some criticism about the proportion of this money being spent by DFID and other departments. And I expect there to be more – just as in previous years. The proportion DFID spent has gone down from 88.6% in 2013 to 72% last year. Other departments spending comparatively large proportions were the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (5.4%), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (4.5%), The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (3.9%), and the Home Office (2.4%).

Capture DFID share of ODA

From Statistics on International Development, Final UK Aid Spend 2017. Nov 2018. UK National Statistics Office.

One of the criticisms levelled at the other departments is that their stewardship of ODA resources lacks transparency. This is not just something NGOs and other outsider critics have been saying, but was also raised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the House of Commons International Development Committee, both of which have a statutory role scrutinising UK overseas aid. This is a valid criticism. DFID is better – and better practised – at sharing information on its programmes, and conducting and sharing evaluations of their impacts. Scrutiny and transparency of international aid is essential because, unlike some other government spending, there a very wide – a legitimately wide – range of views about the best way to spend aid, especially the ‘development aid’ portion, designed to promote progress in other people’s countries and lives. After all, there are many legitimate definitions of progress, and even more ideas about how to get there – no-one really knows what works. (That’s what politics is mainly about, and look how many different ideas and proposals that throws up, both on where we ought to head for and the best way to get there…) So it’s really important that we can all see which pathways to progress for others the UK decides to support and promote, and have a chance to raise questions. It is especially important for people in the countries where aid is being spent to be able to see what is being proposed and what is done, and have  influential voices in the debates and decisions being made about their progress.

But let’s not get carried away by the degree of scrutiny available, even for DFID spending. Let’s not assume that people in developing countries really do have as much voice as ethics and theory – and my last paragraph – would suggest. Aid programmes in places like Nigeria and Pakistan (two of the top recipients of UK aid) are not designed democratically. And fully 37% of ODA was ‘core multi-lateral’, i.e. it was given to multilateral agencies (the UN, World Bank, etc), and thus became far harder to scrutinise.

Capture ODA proportions

From Statistics on International Development, Final UK Aid Spend 2017. Nov 2018. UK National Statistics Office.

Multilateral agencies have varied degrees of impact. Many of them do much highly effective work, and are the subject of a large amount of outside lobbying and criticism by NGOs and the like, designed to ‘keep them honest’. But it would be difficult for even their strongest fans to claim they are subject to genuinely detailed transparent scrutiny of their effectiveness and efficiency. If they were, far more of them would have closed down years ago, or at least become sharper and leaner.

So it’s clear that even DFID – which after all provides much, probably most, of that multilateral aid – isn’t as transparent and scrutinised as some voices might suggest. In truth it is hard to hold a single agency to account at central level for expenditure of such large sums on such a vast range of different programme types, and in so many different and dispersed locations. In fact, suspect that some of the voices calling for DFID’s share of aid to go back up are doing so, not wholly (or even much at all) because they feel other government departments are hugely less transparent. I think there is another motive for their criticism, which is that for many in the aid sector, DFID represents the true, pure-blood believers, flying the aid banner and holding the aid blazon. Aid money being spent by other departments is – almost by definition – a dilution of the blood, a fraying of the banner, and a sullying of the blazon, irrespective of the purposes and uses to which that aid is put.

I have not analysed the various uses of the 28% of aid allocated to other departments of state. I am sure much of it is well spent, achieving relevant impact, and much is not.  I would venture to say the same about DFID’s allocations. I would also ask those who advocated an aid budget that would legally have to increase every year in line with GNI, irrespective of other factors, what did you expect?

It seems like basic economics that if you decide arbitrarily on a budget for a given area of spending (by enshrining the 0.7% target in law), rather building a budget based on an agreed set of policies and needs, you create a perverse incentive, almost guaranteeing that everyone who might, will try and fit their programmes to the ODA criteria. Especially when aid goes up by an incredible £5 bn (a more than 50% increase) over six years during a period of government cutbacks in almost every other area of spending, as it has done. So I think we just have to get used to ODA being allocated across different departments, at least until the 0.7% target is done away with.

Furthermore, it’s been accepted for years now, that ‘development’ encompasses a very wide array of interacting issues and themes, from micro-credit, through peacebuilding and security, water, sanitation, health, education, energy, agriculture, fisheries, land reform, justice, journalism, democracy, the business environment, local and international trade, anti-money laundering, climate change, the environment, and so on…. The Sustainable Development Goals cover most of it. If it’s right that progress can be seen through all these lenses and more – and I certainly think it is – it seems only right as well, that much of the capability the UK government can bring to bear on these issues is going to reside in other parts of Whitehall than DFID, and far beyond. So it would be weird if ODA money wasn’t being spent widely across those departments and far beyond. I think we need to get used to it.


Im Abendrot

November 25, 2018
For Mona and Paksie

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde...
- Joseph von Eichendorff

I've stood, transfixed, as perfect darkness hangs
its velvet for a million fireflies' perfect glow,
heard silence sliced in two as choirs sang,
awoken on the moor to silent snow;

breathed in the distant scent of desert rain,
felt sun desert the deep ravine like ebbing tide
as eagles called from tree to tree, and seen
a future in your future mother's eyes.

Now voice and strings stretch taut and fall away 
through open windows to the night: and steal
my chance to share those times with you when skies

blew clear, small sounds sailed far, and joy and pain
held one another still. And you will feel
your sun retreat, and know your own fireflies.



First published in Pennine Platform no. 84


November 11, 2018

He hasn’t had to go to war,
and won’t. He’s lived a Golden Age,
when young men of the village stayed
to build, and guide the plough, uncalled;
endowed by those who came before.

But now an ugly chorus grows
of senators and consuls, who
sing battle songs at heroes’ tombs,
and claim we need new heroes so
our children know that this is Rome.

He says: each dawn still yields the sun,
and Mars has opportunity
enough to slake his thirst, and meet
his other needs, without our sons;
that wars unfought are mettle won.



Published 11/11/2018 in Hedgehog Poetry Press’s Stickleback collection Other People’s Freedoms, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

What people say about peace

September 20, 2018

Two studies on peacebuilding were launched on the same day this week. ECDPM’s Supporting Peacebuilding in Times of Change, and the joint British Council / International Alert report of their Peace Perceptions Poll.

Support for peacebuilding
ECDPM’s in-depth, empirical research examined institutional support for international peacebuilding in the UK, Sweden, German and the EU institutions, and how this has evolved. This finds that there is an increased understanding of the need for peacebuilding approaches, and – to a degree – of those approaches themselves. It also demonstrates that the need for peacebuilding is far from diminishing. Budgetary support has grown considerably, but despite this, and a great deal of good policy rhetoric in support of peacebuilding, the levels of practical support are lagging way behind the need and opportunities. It explores the complex, mainly political and geopolitical reasons for this. And among other recommendations, it suggests peacebuilding organisations need to up their game in demonstrating the need and utility of such support.

Perceptions of peace
Which leads us nicely to the second report, on the Peace Perceptions Poll, conducted by polling firm riwi, on behalf of Alert and the British Council. This is intended not only to help shape Alert’s and the British Council’s own peacebuilding programmes, but also, in line with ECDPM’s suggestion, as a tool to widen understanding and support for peacebuilding, to which it makes an important contribution, elucidating ‘normal’ people’s views on peace and how to build it.

The research surveyed perceptions of peace in Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Hungary, India, Lebanon, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, the UK and USA – a wide range of contexts with different levels of peace, and different types of conflict. The report is concise, and well worth reading, and you can even try out a small part of the survey for yourself.

Peace was most commonly described by the respondents as when people:
• experience less violence
• can resolve disputes without violence
• have the opportunity to earn a living to support their family
• experience less crime
• can vote in elections and can participate in local decision making
• can go to school.

Similarly, when asked why people fight, respondents said it was when (in order of diminishing importance) people:
• lack the means to provide for their families
• are treated unjustly
• want to improve their social status
• are driven by religious or political ideology
• lack a voice in political decisions
• are reacting to state actions, or those of armed groups.

When asked what would be most effective in creating peace, they suggested it was important to:
• Deal with the reason why people fight in the first place (29%)
• Support societies and communities to resolve conflicts peacefully (22%)
• Democratic elections (17%)
• Negotiate peace agreements (13%)
• Use the military to address violence (11%)
• International security forces (9%)

And finally, when asked to suggest what their governments should prioritise in budgets, to support peace, their responses were broadly in line with the answers to the previous question, with over half saying either ‘deal with the reason why people fight in the first place’ or ‘teach peace, tolerance and conflict resolution in schools’.

All this adds up to a definition of peace and peacebuilding pretty close to what experts would say. Or, to put it another way: what the experts say seems to reflect what people across society think about peace. Whether you consult the international Peacebuilding and State building Goals, International Alert’s own peacebuilding framework, or the UN’s recent work on Sustaining Peace, they all say that peace is about more than simply bringing the latest manifestations of armed violence to a close: we must go further by promoting positive peace, through greater fairness, improved governance, wider economic participation and a greater sense of well-being and status for people from across society – just as the peace perception poll respondents also said.


Covering so many different contexts as the research does, one has to be careful to generalise too much from its results. However, there are some broad lessons we can draw from the poll. Attending the launch of the Peace Perceptions Poll in London last night, three implications in particular came to mind.

The first was that the poll data reinforce the idea that peacebuilding is of necessity a long-term endeavour. All of the reasons given in the poll for why people fight are structural in nature – i.e. in Christopher Clapham’s very practical definition of “structural”, they are “very hard to change”. And all the solutions to conflict suggested by respondents are political in nature. But the very fact that armed violence is happening means politics have failed. Indeed, politics in any context generally emerges from and thus sustains the status quo. Thus we have a conundrum: if politics supports the status quo, and the status quo has led to violence, how do we break the cycle so that a peaceful politics emerges?

Peacebuilding does have good answers to this question, and many of these were reflected in respondents’ views. Ultimately, if politics is “civil war by other means”, as David Armitage suggested in his recent book about civil war, then politics must change, for peace to be sustained. This kind of transformation can be supported by outsiders but it certainly can’t be imposed, and must be driven by local people and circumstances. It is clear that this kind of change will take a long time if it succeeds at all – and will be subject to setbacks. And, as the ECDPM report demonstrates, political institutions in donor countries have a limited appetite for long term initiatives, especially those with uncertain outcomes…

Secondly however, peace is built not just by self-described ‘peacebuilders’, but by many others too; and peace can be built not just by ‘peacebuilding’ seen as a separate discipline, but by many other means. Judging from what poll respondents suggested, it can be built by community members and leaders, by politicians and diplomats, by teachers and writers, by bankers and business people, and many others. This means multiple efforts can be undertaken simultaneously, something International Alert argued last year has been critical to successful peacebuilding processes.

And this brings me to my third implication: that the institutions in the EU and elsewhere which ECDPM say should provide more support for peacebuilding, have many opportunities through which to do so. They can integrate peacebuilding goals into their participation in setting multilateral regulations and norms; into the development and humanitarian projects they fund; and into the way their companies do business abroad. And they can tailor domestic policies ands legislation with peace outcomes in mind.

All they need do, is ensure they articulate outcomes and goals in terms of one or more of: helping people resolve disputes without violence, increasing people’s opportunity to earn a living to support their family, reducing crime, promoting elections and greater participation in local decision making, and increasing access to a decent education which encourages critical thinking and mutual respect. It is hard to see how anyone could fail find a way to contribute to at least one of these outcomes in conflict-affected places at home or abroad, through their domestic or international initiatives.

Word was…

August 27, 2018

… there were several ways
to reach beyond

you could
fly over, scale, vault
or tunnel beneath

or breach

or bring it down

or simply picture
marshlands and willows

wandering their wide
meander towards the distant sea

or walk
with the wall to your left or right

until the end




This poem also appears on the fascinating 100 Vapour Trails poetry site