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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

Poetry after Auschwitz

July 20, 2019

'Poetry is pointless – like kicking a stone’
- overheard at a poetry reading

At the start and the end of this long, straight road:
a silent child, a house in flames,
a leafless tree, an empty town
 
He kicks a stone to watch it leap
and skitter on the flattened clay,
then slow and stall and go to ground
 
Along the forest edge stand those
he's failed to save: he sings his song;
his unknown patrons hear no sound
 
and yet he feels their silence deep
beneath his feet, and sees beyond
the tree, the child, the house, the town


Published in the Kent & Sussex Folio, 2019

Sunday

July 13, 2019

I.
In shade is cold. I face the railway bank.
Each fresh wet blade of lawn is trimmed.
Birdsong, a distant plane and muffled train
augment the silence. Topmost limbs

of the tallest oaks and sycamores are lit.
Coffee drifts from the dew-damp table.
A robin hops and pokes the shadowed soil
beneath the feather-leaf maple.

I name my flowers: foxglove, poppy, rose…
Dew pools like mercury, on watertight
nasturtium leaves. In measureless time, I find
the perfect rhyme, and summer light

begins to peel the coverlet of day,
slips effortlessly down the bank towards me
brightening, and creeps across the grass
to touch my feet; abruptly warms me…

 

II.
… From Sunday’s topical TV,
vox populi intrudes in drifts
of sound, insisting lazily
on infiltrating all the gifts

of silence, time and space I’ve nursed.
Its current casually blows
the floating phrases into verse –
though scarcely quickening their prose.

‘… So why should I work hard to pay
for them to sit around all day?’

‘The vulnerable need our care –
I’m more than proud to pay my share.’

‘They take us for a bunch of fools:
‘if they live here, they follow our rules.’

‘Well I, for one, just don’t subscribe
to the kind of Britain you describe.’

While claiming depth, each voice defines
itself in shallow tones as pro
or con – as though to part from lines
already drawn would be to throw

away the comfort of deceit
and live in panicked fear – and swells
with self-reflection to repeat
ideas which paraphrase themselves…

 

III.
… afraid of synthesis, we stand around
the tree which grew within the forest while
we looked away, and each in different style
describes the contours of its bole and crown,

the spiny fruits in which its seeds are found,
its leaves and inch-long thorns… And thus profile
the traits we see, but make no common trial
of whether it will heal or harm our ground.

Though God, alarmed by Nimrod’s tower, to tame
us gave each tribe a language only He
and they could speak, His trick was not to name
a multiplicity of tongues, but the
illusion that within a single tongue,
by sharing words, we share a lexicon.

 

 

First published by Ink Sweat & Tears, December 2018

Perverse

June 12, 2019

The day we learned the Earth was doomed –
five years until the end –
we talked and talked the whole night through
and talked it through again,

and conjured plans for how we’d weave
new patterns in the past,
to reinvent today and cleave
our future from its path –

but then fell quiet as dawn revealed,
through misted glass, blurred views
of rooftops, roads and distant fields
we knew, and knew we’d lose,

and morning light diminished day,
extinguishing our fight,
while fog set in to shroud and weigh
upon five years of night –

in which we peered, saw no reprieve
but jagged, fire lit forms,
and children cowed, down on their knees
at barricades of thorns.

The floor above us creaked – we shared
an awful thought – a glance;
a child’s soft foot fell on the stairs
and silence stopped our hearts.

We’ve planted trees, although we knew
they’d never be but young,
and raised our son and daughter to
be whom they might become.

 

Published: Firewords #11, 2018

Stabat Mater

April 15, 2019
She sank to her knees on the shaking ground
when she reached the place.
 
A thorn pierced her heart,
as she raised her eyes
from the foot of the cross,
to her dying son.
 
A mother’s pain.
 
And we weep too,
as though we were there.
We see her shudder
to share the deep-bone pain he bore for us.
 
He died alone.
 
Mother, let me too
kneel down with you,
bear all I can of all he bore,
share in his love
and in the path he pointed to.
 
I know he felt those wounds and died for me –
don’t push me away –
mother, I need to feel this too:
I need to know the meaning of this place.
 
He died for us.
 
Let me find my harbour in what happened in this place,
let me find my harbour in your arms,
and in his grace. 


Mater Dolorosa. Workshop of Dieric Bouts. C. 1420-75. Art Institute of Chicago.

This update of the 13th Century Latin hymn Stabat Mater was set to music beautifully by Nicola Burnett Smith and first performed at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, London on 15th April, 2019. The recording can be heard here.

The Latin original, followed by a rough translation, follows.

Stabat Mater

Stabat mater dolorósa
juxta Crucem lacrimósa,
dum pendébat Fílius.

Cuius ánimam geméntem,
contristátam et doléntem
pertransívit gládius.

O quam tristis et afflícta
fuit illa benedícta,
mater Unigéniti!

Quae mœrébat et dolébat,
pia Mater, dum vidébat
nati pœnas ínclyti.

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si vidéret
in tanto supplício?

Quis non posset contristári
Christi Matrem contemplári
doléntem cum Fílio?

Pro peccátis suæ gentis
vidit Iésum in torméntis,
et flagéllis súbditum.

Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriéndo desolátum,
dum emísit spíritum.

Eja, Mater, fons amóris
me sentíre vim dolóris
fac, ut tecum lúgeam.

Fac, ut árdeat cor meum
in amándo Christum Deum
ut sibi compláceam.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifíxi fige plagas
cordi meo válide.

Tui Nati vulneráti,
tam dignáti pro me pati,
pœnas mecum dívide.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifíxo condolére,
donec ego víxero.

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociáre
in planctu desídero.

Virgo vírginum præclára,
mihi iam non sis amára,
fac me tecum plángere.

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passiónis fac consórtem,
et plagas recólere.

Fac me plagis vulnerári,
fac me Cruce inebriári,
et cruóre Fílii.

Flammis ne urar succénsus,
per te, Virgo, sim defénsus
in die iudícii.

Christe, cum sit hinc exíre,
da per Matrem me veníre
ad palmam victóriæ.

Quando corpus moriétur,
fac, ut ánimæ donétur
paradísi glória.
Amen.

Rough translation, adapted from https://www.stabatmater.info/

The grieving Mother stood weeping beside the cross where her Son was hanging. Compassionate and grieving, a sword passed through her weeping soul. How sad and distressed was that blessed Mother of the Only-begotten, who mourned and grieved and trembled at the torment of her glorious Child.  

Who would not weep, seeing the Mother of Christ in such agony? Who would not feel compassion on beholding Christ’s Mother suffering with her Son? For the sins of His people she saw Jesus in torment, scourged. She saw her sweet child dying, forsaken, while He gave up his spirit.

O Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the power of sorrow, so I can grieve with you. Grant that my heart may burn in the love of Christ my Lord, that I may please Him. Holy Mother, grant that the wounds of the Crucified drive deep into my heart. Share with me the agony of your wounded Son, who so deigned to suffer for me. Let me sincerely weep with you, bemoan the Crucified, as long as I live. I desire to stand beside the cross with you, and gladly share the weeping. Chosen Virgin of virgins, do not be bitter with me, let me weep with you. Grant that I may bear the death of Christ, the fate of his Passion, and commemorate His wounds. Let me be wounded by his wounds, made drunk by the cross because of my love for the Son.

Defend me, O Virgin, lest I burn in the flames of hell on the day of judgement. Christ, when it is time to pass away, grant that through your Mother I may come to the palm of victory. When my body dies, grant that the glory of paradise is given to my soul. Amen

What happened?

April 11, 2019

Had he discovered Christ’s essential truth
when Luther nailed his theses to the door;

did Einstein’s never-ending search for proof
elucidate a universal law;

or was it humble happenstance that saw
us tell their counting beads to gauge our worth?

Can gilding tales of nightly siege and war
they knew, dissolve our children’s ingrained hurt?

Historians, parents, demagogues, the church,
our mischievous and guardian selves, TV…

make sense of all that’s passed, on our behalf
but – never mind how well they choose their words –

by naming, they distort the shapes they see
and blur the backlit veil on which they’re cast.

First published in Pennine Platform no. 84