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Poetry Reading with Peter A.

June 24, 2021

I very much enjoyed reading a few poems on Home Stage Poetry‘s Meet The Poet last night. Not the least, because of the intelligent conversation with host Florrie Crass and fellow poet Peter A.

And especially, because it was moving to hear Peter read from his recent book of poems, Art of Insomnia, which I certainly recommend.

I read mainly from my collection Poetry After Auschwitz (still available for a mere £7 on Amazon and elsewhere!)

In case of interest, the one-hour broadcast can still be watched on You Tube here.

The Frontlines of Peace, by Séverine Autessere. A practical, incremental vision for peacebuilding.

May 16, 2021

Book review. The Frontlines of Peace, by Séverine Autessere

Two years ago I helped Peace Direct write a report designed to explore and showcase the impacts of local peacebuilding initiatives: actions intended to reduce or prevent violence, initiated by the people who were themselves affected or under threat. With limited time and resources, we produced a report that collected examples from many different countries, making the case that such initiatives deserve more space and support. Unfortunately, too many international organisations still find it difficult to acknowledge, much less actively support and complement such local efforts. The case still needs to be made.

It was with great pleasure therefore, that I sat down to read Séverine Autessere’s new book, The Frontlines of Peace. Autessere is a Barnard College anthropologist well known for her research on international peace efforts. Her book is based on many years’ research on local peacebuilding, and as a result I think I was probably expecting an inventory of hundreds of successful outcomes from all over the world, and a nicely wrought framework for conceptualising and considering local peace initiatives: a more thoroughly researched example of the report we had put together in 2019. Fortunately, I was disappointed.

Instead, her book takes a discursive, deeper approach. Rather than bombarding the reader with a thousand examples drawn from documents and research, she confidently and quietly builds her case using just a few examples, taken from places she knows first-hand. Rather than creating some new academic framework or concept of peace, she trusts that the reader will infer what she is talking about from the way she deploys her examples. And she does this effectively.

As she reminds us, international peacebuilding remains overly focused on national or elite level initiatives. Many of these are devised and driven by outsiders, and thus frequently destined to fail. By contrast, she shows that the core competencies and capacities for peace largely exist within communities, and can be leveraged and strengthened by local organisations and individuals, to reduce the risk and levels of violence affecting those communities. Using examples from places as diverse as East and Central Africa, Central and South America, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and East Timor, she shows how, with limited external support, local peacebuilders have succeeded in resolving tensions and differences without resort to violence, for example negotiating safe passage with local armed militias, and strengthening young people’s ability to resist the lure of recruitment by armed groups.

A practical vision of peace

She doesn’t devote long chapters to setting out an academic definition of peace: her version of peace is an eminently practical idea. If conflict emerges when disputes over resources remain unmanaged or unresolved, then peace means anticipating or resolving these disputes before they get out of hand. It means making sure all perspectives are listened to and taken into account in whatever solutions are proposed. It means retaining this problem-solving focus over the long term, adapting the solutions as new information becomes available, or the situation changes. Ideally, these solutions build on local institutions: the local ‘rules of the game’. Ultimately, they may join up to create a consistently peaceful environment across the whole of society – but in the meantime, it’s important to do what we can.

One example she gives is of farming and herding communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo taking the time to work out how to resolve the tensions between them, and establishing mutually agreed rules so that herds could have space to graze, without damaging farmers’ crops. A very practical solution to an essentially economic conflict that had otherwise been seen by many external observers as primarily ‘tribal’ in nature.

Complementary approaches

Autesserre’s previous book Peaceland contained a strong critique of many external peacebuilding approaches, and she revisits this in Frontlines for Peace. Too many external organisations attempt top-down initiatives, devised and implemented by out-of-touch outsiders with limited local understanding, and they are overwhelmingly focused on national and/or elite level outcomes, paying insufficient attention to the local. And yet, no society can be peaceful nationally for long, while local peace is absent. Local fractures not only undermine societal peace, they are open to exploitation by ‘spoilers’ – political entrepreneurs seeing economic and political power, and all too willing to take advantage of local grievances to achieve their own ambitions, and thus undermine any national peace that may seem to have been achieved.

Therefore, as Autesserre shows, it is not a case of choosing top-down or bottom-up peacebuilding: both are important. Nor are all international attempts to partner with and support local efforts necessarily to be rejected. Provided the internationals take a long-term, listening, humble, supportive and adaptive approach, their financial and technical support and solidarity can enhance local outcomes and help link them up with the more top-down initiatives. Outsiders can also bring useful ideas from other environments, to complement and enrich local knowledge.

Recommended reading for NGOs, and for donor and UN staff

As a peacebuilding practitioner myself, it was enormously reassuring to read an academic work that reinforces many of my own prejudices about the importance of bottom-up peacebuilding. But that’s not to say that I didn’t learn new ideas myself from the book, and I’m sure that would be true for others in the field. So I recommend the book to colleagues in peacebuilding NGOs.

More importantly, I recommend this book to the leaders and staff of donor and UN agencies involved in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Frontlines for Peace is not a manual – far from it – but it quietly and gently sets out a way of thinking about how to work in such places. Too often, people see peace in binary terms: you either have it or you don’t. But, as Autesserre shows, we can think about peace rather as we think about ‘development’ – essentially a work in progress that’s never fully ‘achieved’. We don’t focus development efforts only at a national level, and on the elite: instead we recognise the relevance of local, as well as national development initiatives. We don’t avoid supporting local community schools until the national education policy has reached a level of perfection. Both can be done at once. Similarly with peacebuilding: we don’t need to wait until the nation has achieved ‘peace’ at a national level, before focusing on more local initiatives. Both should be done at once.

Nor, as Autesserre points out, do ‘all good things come together’ – indeed, some of the ‘good things’ like elections can cause as many problems as they are intended to resolve, exacerbating and even creating new conflicts, especially at first. What’s needed is an incremental approach to peacebuilding, and one that builds from the bottom up, even while attempting to create frameworks and policies from the top-down. And uses a long-term approach that listens, is continuously adaptable, and in which local voices and actors take the lead wherever possible.

Some ‘academic’ books are long, hard to penetrate. They can even be arrogant at times – presumably because attack is (sadly) the best form of defence in academia. Frontlines for Peace is not like that. It is written humbly and is highly accessible to a non-academic reader. Perhaps even better, at less than 200 pages it is blessedly short. A Sunday afternoon spent reading this is a Sunday afternoon well-spent.

Can the UN’s new Emergency Relief Coordinator give it the boost it badly needs, to implement Sustaining Peace?

May 13, 2021

Martin Griffiths has been announced as the next UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). Looked at from one angle, appointing Griffiths, a 69 year-old, white male representative of the humanitarian establishment hailing from the global North, seems a slap in the face to those calling for greater diversity and better representation of affected countries and communities. Even worse, Griffiths will be the fifth British ERC in a row, so this move clearly perpetuates the long-standing stitch-up of senior UN roles by Permanent Security Council Members. As an individual, Griffiths is highly experienced, respected and able. Nevertheless, this feels wrong. Growing cynicism about and within the UN can only be reinforced by the optics of this decision.

He takes on this role at a time of increasing global complexity and a recent UN record of dragging its feet on a series of critical reforms. Surely the available talent pool offered an opportunity to look beyond the usual suspects – beyond the pool of people who come from and represent the order that needs to be reformed? Sometimes only an outsider can break down the silos and clear away the decades of accumulated norms and habits that impede change.

On the other hand however, one of the UN’s major unfulfilled reforms is its re-commitment to preventing violence and building peace. Pretty much all donors and UN agencies are committed to mainstreaming this as a central priority, and have signed up to the Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus, an emblem of their commitment to combine these three UN functions more effectively. After all, the people they wish to help do not relinquish their right to and desire for peace and development, just because they face short term humanitarian needs.

Yet the UN is a difficult body to shift (to say the least), and has not yet achieved the momentum needed to bring about this change. Griffiths’ background suggests he may be better equipped than his development economist predecessor to help with this. He is a humanitarian, but also a diplomat. He co-founded international mediation organisation Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, was the first Executive Director of the European Institute for Peace, and has spent the past three years leading the UN’s peace efforts in Yemen. So he is an adept at both the P and the H of the HDP Nexus. While development and peacebuilding have a natural overlap, many humanitarians have long resisted calls to embrace peacebuilding as part of their work. And yet most humanitarian interventions are at least partly needed because of conflict. This challenge needs to be addressed as a major priority. Meanwhile, too many peacebuilders misunderstand the genuine challenges humanitarians face, in integrating peacebuilding into their frame of reference. So there are bridges to be built from both sides.

Thus, one of the potential advantages of his appointment in the eyes of the millions of people around the world who suffer the impact and threat of violent conflict, is that Griffiths has much of the knowledge and many of the networks through which, as ERC, he can help fulfill the UN’s commitment to Sustaining Peace. This seems like a real opportunity, and I hope all peacebuilding and multi-mandate agencies are already considering how they might help him in his efforts to do this.

Stakes and stakeholders: getting the perspective right

April 27, 2021

One of the recurrent – if infrequent – themes on this blog is the importance of language. In earlier posts, I have explored the way different tropes and metaphors can influence the way people approach building peace. Getting the language right is also true in the business world, and in this post I explore the way companies talk about ‘their stakeholders’ and what this suggests about their view of the world and their place in it.

Stakes and stakeholders

The origins of the words ‘stake’ and ‘stakeholder’ as used in reference to interests and interested parties aren’t entirely clear, at least based on a rapid internet search through various online dictionaries. But their modern day meaning is clear enough: the word stake stands for ‘interest’, while a stakeholder is a person, group or entity with an interest in a particular asset, project or enterprise. Thus a stakeholder is an interested party.

Usage maps show the word was little used until the final third of the twentieth century, and it’s fair to say that references by businesses to ‘our stakeholders’ has come in for a fair amount of criticism since then. Common criticisms are that companies are simply adopting fashionable language without necessarily changing their perceptions or treatment of others, nor their self-interested approach to political lobbying, and that this reflects an inherent cynicism.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that many businesses do take more trouble to identify and consider the needs of ‘their stakeholders’ than they once did. For example, mining companies pay far more attention to local communities, food conglomerates pay more attention to the farms and communities where their commodities are sourced, and many corporations in all sectors are conscious of the need to engage with and respond to the suggestions and demands of civil society on environmental, human rights and other social issues. Good signs of progress.

But the way we deploy words often says as much about us, as about the things we are describing or discussing. When companies talk about ‘their stakeholders’, it’s clear what they mean. They are saying that the people, groups or entities to which they refer are relevant to their projects, their enterprise, their profit and loss accounts. This may well be true: for example communities living in an area designated for mining are clearly going to have a stake in how the mining is done, because it will have an impact on their environment, their economy, their livelihoods and their health.

But referring to others simply in respect of their potential interest in the company’s project is narrow and short sighted. It risks creating an idea in the company’s mind that communities or other interested parties merely need to be brought onside, so that they support – or at least don’t undermine – the company’s project. In the mining sector this is sometimes called seeking a ‘social licence to operate’.

Clearly businesses do need to have others’ support. But focusing exclusively on this can lead them to look at different people, groups and entities habitually in a rather two-dimensional way. When a company sees others merely in terms of their relationship to its business project, this denies their whole identity and their broad spectrum of interests. And it is likely to foster a transactional approach to dealing with them: something they will all too readily pick up on, and therefore respond in kind.

A stake in what?

Far better, surely, for companies to take a step back, and consider the company itself, alongside others, as stakeholders in something wider – rather than seeing people just in terms of their stake in the company. This would mean, if we stick with the mining company example, considering the company, along with local communities, the local and provincial government, other land users, and so on, all as common stakeholders in a sustainable and prosperous future. Miners use a lot of water, so in practical terms this would mean the mining company would consider the various water needs in the landscape, including its own, when developing a water strategy – rather than simply considering how other users might be affected by its water needs. The latter approach may be progressive, but the former is far more enlightened. Similarly, a global IT company would consider itself as one stakeholder among many, and thus take account of how all stakeholders’ needs can be met, and all stakeholders’ interests considered – including its own. If that had been the approach of some of the Silicon Valley giants, it seems reasonable to suggest that they wouldn’t be in the trouble they find themselves in today, over online harms, privacy, electoral manipulation, fraud, and so on. Because ultimately, seeing oneself as part of the wider community – a corporate citizen, if you will – rather than merely at its service or seeking its approval for a specific project, is likely to engender a more ethical and sustainable way of doing business.

El Tres de Mayo

April 24, 2021

Recently my daughter the actor Paksie Vernon recorded my poem El Tres de Mayo (from my collection Poetry After Auschwitz). She read it beautifully and there is also a lovely symmetry in her doing so, since the poem was sparked years ago when she told me that sounds never actually die, they simply become ever, ever fainter, and remain in the background forever… You can hear her reading by clicking on the image below.

El Tres de Mayo

The edge of town. A lantern lights the man
about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.
He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills
defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

The friar murmurs blessings, swears and damns
the French. The waiting chorus moans and cries,
then ‘tirez!’, muskets fusillade; he spills
beside the corpses slumped among the stains.

Low fearful wails behind the victims’ hands,
the panicked mumbling of the priest who shrives
the doomed, the terse command, the gunshots – still
they resonate, among the faint remains

of ancient susurrus of surf on sand,
dead families’ and lovers’ truths and lies,
muezzin, birdsong, rain on rooftiles, peals
of laughter, angelus and lonesome trains.

Each wave, since noise and atmosphere began,
continuously pales but never dies:
each instant as it passes, pares and steals
a half, and then a half, and half again…

reducing history from the first big bang
towards a point it will not realise:
attenuated, yet its core prevails,
diminishing, but nowhere vanishing.

What’s past is present: faded cryptogram
of sound – no matter if we try to prise
a meaning out of or ignore it – fills
our ears with its abiding, quiet refrain:

the edge of town. A lantern lights the man
about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.
He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills
defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

Do Not Disturb – or perhaps: ‘Why We Should be Disturbed’?

March 26, 2021

Michela Wrong’s awaited new book on Rwanda is well researched, well written, and shines a light on uncomfortable truths.

I was living in the African Great Lakes region at the turn of this century, when Michela Wrong published In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz – her explanation of President Mobutu’s accession to and sustained hold on power, and why it eventually slipped from his grasp, in what was then Zaire. I read it avidly, as did several friends, including politicians whom I knew. The book provided helpful and accurate insights into how things had worked – and hadn’t worked – under Mobutu. It stood out as a diligent journalistic search for a story and an accurate explanation of that story, based on triangulated interviews with people who had been involved in or close to the action. And it was a complex story well-told: accessible to the non-specialist reader, but not over simplified.

I’ve known for some time that Wrong was working on a new book about the same region, in this case about Rwanda, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Published in the UK next week – almost 27 years after the Rwanda genocide was unleashed – Do Not Disturb does not disappoint.

It follows a similar format and style as Mr Kurtz: weaving different strands of a complex story together in an accessible manner, moving seamlessly forwards and backwards in time, and bringing to life many of the protagonists through sharply written accounts of their actions, as well as through their own words.

The story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, and why, has been told many times. Wrong avoids retelling too much of this, using it more to set the scene for and explain what has happened in Rwanda since, than to rehash a deeply tragic but well-rehearsed story. Her interest is in understanding how the governing regime in Rwanda has evolved in the quarter century since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought its way to power, as seen mainly from within.

To do this, she takes a very detailed, human drama as the backbone of her tale. This is the story of Patrick Karegeya, one-time political prisoner in Milton Obote’s Uganda, later a head of external intelligence for Paul Kagame’s government in Kigali, before becoming alienated from the regime and falling from grace, eventually escaping to exile and then his eventual murder – by the state, it is widely believed – in 2013.

Examining how the Kigali regime has acted since taking power, Wrong claims Kagame’s RPF has cleverly exploited its international reputation as Rwanda’s genocide saviour, as well as the international community’s guilt at its own failure to prevent the genocide. She shows how the RPF government has done this even while committing awful acts of violence itself – often against defenceless civilians. Somehow, the international community, and aid donors, have allowed themselves to ignore or accept this aspect of the Rwanda they continue largely to support.

Central to her account, she describes in great and convincing detail how individuals rise and – all too rapidly – fall within the RPF system, and how those who fall are dealt with – not stopping short of murder. She paints Karegeya and other disaffected RPF cadres in somewhat sympathetic shades, emphasising their personal histories and family lives. But she does not shy away from acknowledging the role they also played in organising and committing atrocities before they fell from grace, including acts of thuggery against other individuals accused of undermining the regime. One of the many interwoven themes running through the book is the immeasurable human suffering caused by political violence in Rwanda and neighbouring countries in recent decades: much of it seen as ‘collateral damage’ to which the RPF’s leaders (along with other political leaders) seem to have become inured, and which they appear quite cynically to instrumentalise.

The book is well-researched, but Wrong’s knowledge and understanding of political science sits lightly on the text. One senses that she draws on it without shoving it down the reader’s throat. That is welcome. This is not a scholarly book, but it’s serious, fully researched, triangulated, balanced, thoughtful and well-read journalism. I think Machiavelli – a man with his own painful, personal experience of the consequences of rising and falling politically – would recognise the story told here. This is not a book about a ‘grand theory’ of post-conflict governance. (God knows we have enough of those.) Rather it emphasises the role of individuals who played key roles at key moments, and it asks what drove them then, and what drives them now. In pursuit of this, Wrong traces some of the protagonists back to their early years at home and at school, and their formative experiences as young adults. This may be just one of the many reasons why President Kagame won’t like this book: because it paints him, supplying evidence from multiple sources in support, as a fundamentally unstable and vindictive individual, projecting a chronic inferiority complex onto the political dynamics that he has so far manipulated so masterfully.

As the narrative of Do Not Disturb unfolds, so the argument unfolds within it, of a revolutionary regime built on highly visible public lies. For example, the pretence that ethnicity is no longer a central question for Rwandans – when in fact, the regime is predicated above all on protecting one particular ethnicity from harm. The book provokes, but does not explicitly answer, the ‘big question’ often posed by foreign observers of Rwanda. On one hand, Kagame can be viewed as an autocrat with a benign vision, holding power close for now, in order to prepare his devastated county for a time when it will be safe to relax and allow the kinds of personal and political freedoms he currently denies Rwandans, because the country is ‘not yet ready’ to be free. On the other hand, he is a simply a cynical, tactical genius, ready to take whatever steps are needed to hold on to power, with no real vision and potentially thus undermining the sustainability even of whatever rickety political settlement currently exists. I’m not sure that Wrong specifically asks or answers this question, but one ends the book with the fairly clear impression that she tends – as Machiavelli might have, too – towards the second option.

To answer that question fully would probably require a fuller political economy analysis than Wrong provides. Personally, I would have liked her to have included more of that. I think it would have added an additional layer of explanation for the events she describes, and perhaps filled out the shape of her narrative a little more. But no matter, much of that analysis is available elsewhere: this book is already almost 450 pages long, and I can see that she – or her editor – had to set the limits somewhere.

For anyone interested to understand the origins of the RPF in 20th Century Rwandese politics and in the Ugandan civil war that brought President Museveni to power in 1986, as well as how power has been allocated and revoked in Rwanda since 1994, and also consider what all this means for the future of Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region, this book is eye-opening, essential – and deeply concerning. I thoroughly recommend it.

From a Global Britain, are people too small to see?

March 19, 2021

Does the UK’s new integrated approach to its foreign relations recognise the need for a human security approach? Probably not.

The UK government published Global Britain in a Competitive Age this week, its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It’s a veritable Christmas tree, draped in many sparkling, coloured lights and hard to know where to look. Or perhaps it’s more like visiting the zoo: just as one has finished being intrigued by the lion enclosure (the increased nuclear arsenal, say), one is immediately distracted by what’s going on in the monkey cage (science and technology) or the aquarium (bio-diversity). Perhaps as befits an ‘integrated’ review, there’s a lot going on.

So I decided to guide my own initial read-through by asking three key questions, premised on my own particular (and professional) interest in peacebuilding. I wanted to know, first of all, does this review prioritise building stability and long-term peace in fragile countries and regions? Second: does UK aim to support the kind of international order in which stability and peace are more likely to thrive and be sustained? Third, is this review self-aware? Does it reflect an awareness of the trade-offs between the UK’s own security, defence and development and that of others – does it adopt a human security approach to the UK’s overseas reach?

Supporting stability and peacebuilding
By and large, the review is quite encouraging here. Yes, there are questions to be asked about geographic focus and spending levels, and of course the devil may be in the details. But it clearly and explicitly says the UK will support the resolution of conflicts. It will also help conflict affected societies build resilience and tackling conflict causes, rather than just the symptoms. It sets out a series of thematic priorities for UK overseas aid which not only includes addressing conflict explicitly, but also covers many of the areas where conflict drivers are to be found: in governance, human rights abuses, economic, education and health inequalities, and so on. It proposes establishing a conflict centre in Whitehall, designed to coordinate cross-governmental expertise and actions in helping prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. Overall: promising, at least.

Supporting an enabling international order
The review is also quite encouraging in its repeated emphasis of the need to support the evolution of an international order that’s fit for the future, replacing the post-WW2 and post-Cold War arrangements that everyone acknowledges have been creaking for years. The UK wants to play a leadership role, bringing cutting edge thinking to maximising collaboration and security, minimising conflicts, and enabling good, democratic governance and open societies across our ‘increasingly fragmented’ world. I am not sure the challenge has been identified quite right here. Is ‘fragmentation’ really the issue, or is it that we need institutions reflective of new and evolving patterns in the distribution of power? It would have been helpful to see a recognition of how countries like the UK have disproportionately benefited from the international order of the past, arguably at the expense of others’ conflicts. The review does identifies specific new and evolving challenges on which the UK will focus its contribution: these include space, cyber, regulations, science and technology, and conflict prevention and resolution. The review says that the UK’s diplomatic capacity will be boosted – but does it say enough about how the UK will contribute to the softer international governance challenges? It seems more focused on new issues, rather than new international approaches. Overall: encouraging, but needs to be watched and nudged.

Human security
It is my third question that gives me most pause. An Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that was self-aware would explicitly discuss trade-offs. But I’m not sure this document does that, or at least not enough. It does recognise that the UK’s values and interests will not always be aligned – but I didn’t see much – or anything, really – about how the conflicts between them will be resolved.

What I did see however, was a preponderance of rhetoric – on practically every page it seems – about the UK’s interests: maintaining its competitive advantage, keeping its citizens safe, ensuring the prosperity of its people. Whereas the problem of insecurity and conflicts elsewhere are framed in terms of their challenge to global stability, rather than the challenge they pose for those caught up in conflict. To take just one example on page 63, the UK will focus on security in the Middle East ‘to protect our interests’ (my italics). More grandly put: ‘The precondition for Global Britain is the security of its citizens’.

But there is nothing really to suggest that the human security of people affected by violence in, say, West Africa or the Middle East matters because it matters; nor that by emphasising a human security approach, there is more likelihood of building a stronger and more stable social contract and thus stability and peace in such places.

The document rather gives itself away when it glibly suggests that the UK’s ‘prosperity and security are mutually reinforcing’. Well, yes, but only if its prosperity relies less and less on exploiting unequal terms of trade with the developing world, and on partnerships with regimes that harm their own citizens. Otherwise, prosperity in the UK will continue to create and exacerbate the kinds of grievances that undermine peaceful and open societies, rather than enable them.

So returning to my three questions, and subject to the devil and the details, I’d say that on the first, a commitment to supporting peacebuilding, the document is encouraging. It is also quite encouraging on the second, supporting an enabling international order, but I’m a bit concerned that the issue is not quite framed correctly, and thus may not succeed. While on the third, the Review is disappointing, as it seems pretty clear that human security has been marginalised, and therefore people ‘over there’ are less likely to benefit from the UK’s support, than they have a right to expect.

My Interview in Sentinel Literary Quarterly

December 1, 2020

I was highlighted as the Monday Writer this week, for the Sentinel Literary Quarterly. My interview with publisher Nnorom Azuonye, along with three of the poems from my collection Poetry After Auschwitz can be read here: phil-vernon-slq-monday-writer-30-november-2020.pdf (

Should the UK government cut overseas aid now?

November 24, 2020

I have never been a great fan of legally fixing the floor of the UK’s overseas aid budget by law, at an arbitrary 0.7% of GNI, as was done by parliament through the International Development Target Act in 2015. While I support overseas aid enthusiastically, I always felt that establishing the figure in law was anti-democratic. I also though it likely to have perverse consequences both for the quality of some aid, and for the future of overseas aid itself, because it would create a negative pushback.

For these reasons, and based on sober political debate, I would therefore be happy to see the 2015 Act repealed, and aid budgets subject to normal democratic scrutiny in annual budgets and multi-annual spending plans. But I don’t agree with the government’s suggestion that it should cut aid back from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI in response to COVID’s fiscal impact. There are three reasons why not.

First, this is leading to a somewhat hysterical, generalised debate, rather than a rational discussion about the merits of particular aid spending versus the particular domestic spending to which the funds would be diverted. The debate is about generalities, lacking in substance. That is not the right basis for such an important decision.

Second, such a decision would reduce our borrowing requirement by an amount that would not be hugely material in terms of its long-term comparative impacts on interest and capital repayment. It would also negatively impact the UK’s reputation at a time when we’ve damaged it enough already. And more importantly, it would inevitably cause harms to poorer people, poorer communities and poorer nations, just a time when they can least absorb it.

Third, because it will be virtually impossible to target such a huge cut effectively, in terms of its impact on poor people’s lives. Let’s look at the possible figures.

The government has already predicted that aid expenditure will probably decrease next year by about £2.9 billion, because of the fall in GNI. (To put this in context, aid expenditure was £15.2 bn in 2019). It’s not easy to find the precise figures – newspaper, MPs’ and NGO comments on both sides of the discussion are light on actual figures, perhaps reinforcing my earlier point about the lack of precision in debate. But if we assume that the original aid budget was 15.4 bn, then the already mooted £2.9 bn cut must have assumed an 18% reduction in GNI due to COVID. If that’s the case, then 0.5% of this reduced GNI would be something like £9.35 bn. If that’s anywhere near right, it represents a staggering 39% or £6 bn reduction on an assumed, original pre-COVID budget of £15.4 bn.

Now, it may be true that the perverse incentive created by establishing an aid budget floor by law, combined with the genuine difficulties in achieving and measuring success in aid programmes has led to some poor programming. Surely it has. But even most aid sceptics would probably not argue that this represents 39% of the budget. And even if it did, the way to address this would surely be to examine aid programmes and make a considered, technical judgement about which ones to keep, and which to cut.  Given the complexity of aid, there is no way this could be done within the timeframe of the proposed cuts. Therefore, they are wrong and will inevitably damage good programmes helping people in need.

By all means, review and repeal the International Development Target Act, as part of a rigorous debate about how best to continue supporting poorer communities and nations over the long term. But don’t cut aid now, as a knee jerk response to a short term crisis.

Poetry After Auschwitz

October 7, 2020

Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949 that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’:

“The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Prisms, 1955, MIT Press.

He later softened this much-cited dictum, at least a little – though in so doing, while allowing the potential of poetry, he went on to pose the even greater – and for him, deeply personal – question of whether it was possible to go on living at all, after the Holocaust. Both his original and modified comments provoke a stream of questions for poets and other artists: how can beauty continue to co-exist with brutality? What purpose can or should it serve? How could the same German nation that had produced such sublime artistic expressions as the music of Bach, Beethoven and – yes – Richard Strauss who had been co-opted by the Nazis, also have committed the barbarism of genocide? How dare a poet claim to create beautiful strings of words, in a world still resounding with the echoes of Auschwitz, and the misery and cruelty that has continued to pile up since? Indeed, how do those of us lucky enough to live in less miserable situations reconcile our good fortune with the values of fairness, equality and universal love?

Book cover, featuring Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee, 1920

In my newly published collection of poems, named for Adorno’s quote, I don’t answer these questions. But many of the poems in the collection do explore them. Indeed, the title poem – which can be read on the publisher’s website, was a specific, personal response to a meditation on Adorno’s words: words which I admit I do not fully understand.

In another poem, entitled Debris, I imagine Stalin’s daughter using Walter Benjamin’s image of The Angel Of History as a way to channel her feelings and insights about her father’s motivation. (Benjamin – whose prose can be at least as difficult to understand as that of his friend Adorno – committed suicide while fleeing from occupied France to Spain in 1940.) Debris also provides the inspiration for the book’s cover, featuring a Paul Klee print, Angelus Novus, of which Benjamin owned a copy and which he used as a reference for his Angel of History.

I’m interested in how the brushstroke of history touches each of us in our particular landscape, and what remains of us after the brush has passed. The book draws partly on my experience of working with people in some troubled places. But the poems also touch on love, landscapes, gardens and plenty more besides. Many of them are written in formal forms – sonnets and the like – where I have tried to exploit the energy created in the convergence of and collision between form, ideas, music and emotion, to explore what poetry offers – perhaps in a kind of shadow or reflection of the dialectic to which Adorno refers.

For anyone interested to read the poems, the book can be bought for £7 plus P&P from the publisher, through local bookshops, Amazon or other websites. I also have some copies to hand, which I’d be happy to sell at the same price plus P&P – and even sign if you like! My email is