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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For these reasons, and based on sober political debate, I would therefore be happy to see the 2015 Act repealed, and aid budgets subject to normal democratic scrutiny in annual budgets and multi-annual spending plans.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

Measuring peace: is it so hard?

October 2, 2020

Measuring peace: it’s a challenge, for so many well-rehearsed reasons. Peace takes a long time to build. It’s a non-linear and unpredictable process, following variable, inconsistent and highly context-specific pathways. To make things even more complicated, these are not always peaceful: violent events and actions often make an important contribution to peace, while peaceful actions may have the opposite impact. In any case, one never really ‘arrives’ at peace, it’s more a question of heading in the right direction. But how to measure this?…

Measuring peace also depends on who is doing the measuring, and why: a philosopher may be content with soft signals that peace is improving somewhat, while a project donor or a politician seeks hard and fast short-term measures to justify their support.

Meantime, not everyone has the same definition of peace, anyway. Political concepts of peace may assume that ‘my’ side has the upper hand over ‘theirs’ or ‘yours’. Some people emphasise short-term stability above all – what’s sometimes known as Negative Peace (the absence of violence). Others argue that Negative Peace is unsustainable, and aim for Positive Peace – when societies have the capacity to anticipate and resolve their conflicts non-violently – and may be willing to forgo short-term stability in the struggle to achieve this.

Negative and Positive Peace are both important, and Negative Peace is probably best seen as a step on the road towards Positive Peace. With this in mind, and while accepting that peace is context specific, non-linear, and all the other caveats referred to above, I’d suggest that there are three relatively simple measures for estimating progress in peacebuilding. All three have the advantage that they can be used on any scale, and by more or less anyone or any institution, albeit at varying degrees of statistical sophistication. They lend themselves to a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurement approaches. All three are easily applied in participatory monitoring and measurement approaches; all three can be used in adaptive peacebuilding; all three can be used in impact assessment; and all three are useful at any scope and scale. And even where they can’t easily be measured objectively on the ground, they nevertheless stand as helpful generic goals to be used in developing strategy and programmes.

The three measures – which draw on peacebuilding frameworks such as International Alert’s Programming Framework and the United Nations/World Bank’s sprawling Pathways for Peace, are as follows:

  1. Prevalence of violence. Has violence increased or decreased; has it changed in nature; who is doing it to whom; how is it experienced differently by women, men, and other social categories? Taken alone, this is probably the closest measure of negative peace. Given the importance attached to their safety and that of their families and communities by people across the world, this is a critical measure of progress, and it has the advantage that it can be captured relatively easily by asking people their perceptions, when more objective measures of the incidence of violence are unavailable.
  2. Functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations. This takes us into the realms of Positive Peace: it looks at the degree to which active relationships between those with power, and those with less, are seen as helpful to both, and are imbued with mutual trust. These are what are known as ‘vertical relations’. The more trustful they are, and the more that ‘governors’ and ‘the governed’ engage in practical problem solving together within them, the more they will be able to understand each other, and identify and resolve problems and conflicts so they don’t get out of hand. Similarly, the more (horizontal) relationships between and among people (and peoples) are imbued with by trust and the practice of collaboration, the less likely it is that they will come to blows over issues such as access to resources. Functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations also help reduce the level and incidence of grievances, making it harder for politicians or ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ to enlist people in unrest and violence. At any scale – from the domestic to the global – vertical and horizontal relations are helpfully mediated by a formal and informal institutions that reflect the values of fairness, trust and pragmatism: from family and community systems (at their best) right up to the level of the United Nations (at its best).
  3. Fair access to opportunities to gain a decent livelihood, and to the means of security, justice, education, health and other dimensions of welfare. Delving further into the realms of Positive Peace, progress can also be measured by the degree to which people feel that access to these goods is improving, in ways that are fair to different societal groups – including their own, redressing any perceptions of unfairness that may have existed in the past. Income, assets, health, security and knowledge, along with the means to address and redress wrongdoing, help equip us all to co-exist peacefully. And they also reduce the presence of grievances, hence most people’s willingness and interest to engage in political violence.

Peace must always be defined in its context, and progress towards a more peaceful context will always need to be understood in nuanced terms, reflecting the contours of each particular social, political, economic and physical landscape. Nevertheless, I believe this simple collection of generic measures is a good a place to start in working out how to conceptualise and measure progress in what are inevitably messy and uncertain circumstances.

Re-reading La Peste in the time of COVID-19

September 7, 2020

Re-reading La Peste in the time of COVID-19
Fléau – I had to look it up – it’s ‘scourge’:
gunshots and shouts heard faintly in the night,
and then the sound of nothing, from the hour
we woke, till darkness muffled even silence.
It means the silhouette of cranes, unmoved
day after day, against the sea and sky,
the broken cliffs that penned us in, the tides
that ebbed and swelled but carried only time.
And coffins, queueing to be tipped in layers
and heaped with lime, in ground so hard it hurt,
and seabirds, flying from and to where only
they could know, and never looking down.
We were apart: from other towns,
from friends and lovers
gone before the gates were closed
or lost in layered graves,
and families of whom we feared to hear the news.
We were divorced from who we’d been
and from the times ahead
we’d dared to see in times before,
when we’d known how to grieve.
At first, when the sickness began to slow,
as birds returned, to watch us from the trees,
we couldn’t remember how to celebrate.
When we’d begun to learn the art of joy again
and rediscovered how to walk in crowds,
and ring the bells, a close friend died:
a soldier fallen,
as news of the armistice arrived.

This was published on the Poetry and COVID website, along with many other COVID-related poems and associated comments – well worth checking out.

Demystifying Conflict Sensitivity

July 31, 2020

Since becoming an independent consultant two and a half years ago, I’ve had several assignments concerning conflict sensitivity. This experience has made me realise that some of the messaging about conflict sensitivity put out by conflict and peacebuilding experts – perhaps including myself when I worked for a peacebuilding NGO – risks over complicating the issue.

At its heart, conflict sensitivity has always seemed a simple enough idea. It’s based on the idea that any significant action taken in a conflict-affected context will interact with the dynamics there, and is likely either to make things better or worse for peace. An irrigation project may – by unlocking the productive potential of land – bring age-old arguments about land tenure to the surface. Or it may create an incentive for those arguments to be resolved, so that communities can benefit from the new possibilities. A timber company felling timber in an area affected by ethnic tensions may well inadvertently inflame those tensions, depending on how it goes about its business; or it may help improve relations between ethnic groups, if it takes the trouble to understand the situation and tailor its way of working accordingly. There are many examples and resources available – for example on the conflict sensitivity hub.

The main thrust of the conflict sensitivity idea is that those intervening in conflict-affected contexts need to understand the peace and conflict dynamics there as well as possible, and tailor their intervention accordingly. In so doing, they can minimise the harm they might otherwise cause, and instead potentially make a contribution to peace. It’s perhaps not obvious at first, but it’s not rocket science, either.

One of the things proponents of conflict sensitivity – correctly – emphasise, is the need for effective monitoring. This is because the peace and conflict dynamics are constantly evolving, and because the interaction between the intervention and these dynamics is constantly evolving too. Therefore, the need to keep a finger on the pulse, to be able to anticipate changes and react in time. One of the things conflict experts are often asked by intervenors is, how they should do this monitoring? What kinds of systems do they need to set up?

Obviously the answer is partly context specific: it depends on the nature of the peace and conflict dynamics, the nature of your project, and the specific interaction between them. This will differ from sector to sector, from different kinds of conflict (from interstate war, through civil war to local ethnic tensions, for example), and due to the specificities of time and place. But at heart, it can helpfully be reduced to three generic questions, which all projects operating in conflict affected locations can ask as part of their management or monitoring system every few months, and whenever major new activities are being initiated. These should consider not just the local project zone, but also the wider context:

  • What changes have we seen in the peace and conflict dynamics in the past period, and what do we foresee in the next?
  • What two-way interactions have we seen, between the project and the peace and conflict dynamics; what is the impact of these; and what can we foresee in the next period?
  • What adaptation or mitigation actions have we taken/should we take?

These questions don’t necessarily need external peace and conflict experts to be deployed – though it can be helpful to bring them in from time to time. Getting staff together, along with partner organisations or others as appropriate, to ask these questions in a simple 2-3 hour workshop format may often be enough to gather the information needed, and design mitigations and adaptations as appropriate. Conflict sensitivity becomes easier, the more you do it. At heart it’s an intuitive idea: it’s not rocket science, but matters a lot.


June 24, 2020

“For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.”

Lady Jane Grey,  reported by Roger Ascham who visited her family when she was a young child.
Ives, Eric (2009). Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.

The Execution Of Lady Jane Grey in the Tower of London in 1554, by Paul Delaroche 1833. (National Gallery, London).


They lead you, blindfold, through the maze,
and leave you there, lost and alone – 
and whisper as they walk away;

then later, to an injured throne
you neither spurn nor wish to claim,
as rival families, and Rome

and Cranmer play their deadly game;
at last, they lead you to the dark,
your eyes wrapped in a fold again.

The giant axeman stands apart 
until the drumbeat sounds, and prays 
for kind precision in his task;

as unkind Delaroche betrays,
and – licensed by your mask – defiles 
you with a practised, coward’s gaze,

caressing you with brushstrokes, while
your unlearned searching hands reveal
a nine days queen, and still a child.

This poem first appeared in The Ekphrastic Review

A global COVID-19 ceasefire? Does it make sense?

May 13, 2020

Oxfam has published a briefing paper calling for more to be done, to put the UN Secretary-General’s call for a COVID-19 global ceasefire into practice. The paper sets out very clearly the importance of locally led peace solutions, but it reminded me of my surprise, when the Secretary-General first made his call back in March – an exhortation which has since been championed by arms-selling P5 member France. (No irony there, then.) I’m not sure I agree.

Military conflicts are awful things: they cause untold suffering. But as Clausewitz famously declared, they are a form of political action, pursued by political actors who think violence is the best available mechanism through which to achieve their aims. In some circumstances, it is easy to imagine a ceasefire fitting in with their strategy, in which case, they will no doubt be amenable to exploring that possibility. But this is an entirely contextual matter, not something that is likely to happen because of a well-meaning global call.

Secondly, ceasefires can be harmful. If a ceasefire seems likely, there is every chance that military action will increase in the short term, so that any ceasefire kicks in at a time of maximum military advantage. So it is quite possible that local forces in some theatres have pre-empted the possibility of international ceasefire mediation by changing their tactics on the ground. Certainly the conflict in Libya has evolved rapidly and unexpectedly since the Secretary-General’s call.

Third, in the same vein, military forces will in all likelihood cynically exploit any ceasefire arrived at because of external calls – rather than due to local circumstances – to prepare for subsequent military action.

So, unless the moment really is locally ripe for a ceasefire – or even better, a peace agreement due to mutually hurting stalemate – I’m not sure that global ceasefire calls are helpful, or perhaps even ethical? Whatever we may think about the goals or methods of a particular protagonist in an armed conflict, surely the first thing well-meaning outsiders need to do is base their posture and proposals on an understanding of why that particular conflict is happening, and the local, national, regional and global political economies of which it is a part. Take context as the starting point.

Supporting civil society in the Global South, in its response to COVID-19

March 25, 2020

It is essential that international organisations continue to support, and where possible increase, their support for civil society in developing countries facing the ravages of COVID 19

Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society was an explanation of how civilisation had evolved, seen through an eighteenth century Edinburgh Enlightenment lens. 150 years later, Antonio Gramsci saw ‘civil society’ as the non-governmental dynamics through which consent was subtly obtained by the bourgeoisie to maintain their dominance of the political economy. More recently, especially in the international humanitarian and development sector, the term has frequently been used more functionally than analytically. It’s become a label for well-meaning citizens operating alongside but independently of businesses or the state. A thriving civil society is seen as critical to peace, development and humanitarian outcomes because of the services provided by civil society, and because of its importance in holding those in power to account, and providing a voice for citizens, especially in less democratic places.

As such, ‘civil society’ has often become the shorthand among humanitarian and development workers for civil society organisations (CSOs): the formally constituted NGOs and community-based outfits, often known by their acronyms, with whom international organisations increasingly work, and whose activities they fund. CSOs play an essential role in all societies where they are allowed to flourish.

As we know, as citizens ourselves, people often work together in less formal, more temporary ways that are essential, too. When I asked my colleagues in Uganda many years ago to come up with their functional definition of a ‘strong’ civil society they produced the following, which I still find helpful today.

  • Civil society includes all institutions and groupings other than government, political organisations, businesses or family structures.
  • These may be long-term or temporary, formal or informal.
  • They play a critical role in pursuing, defending, fulfilling and responding to the interests, rights, needs and responsibilities of their constituencies, and linking them to others in civil society, and to the private sector and government.
  • We regard our civil society as strong, when we are able to fulfil this role effectively and peacefully.

Civil society in the Corona pandemic

I am fortunate to live in a country with one of the largest economies in the world, with a highly competent civil service, and many decades of democratic practice under its belt. Nevertheless, working at home in the UK last week, where I had been ‘self-isolating’ due to the COVID-19 virus, I was reminded constantly in the radio and TV news, and from messages from friends and family, of the essential role of civil society here. People offering to collect elderly neighbours’ shopping or prescriptions, local residents’ associations setting up systems through which people can request and provide help to others, the local food bank ramping up its offer, doctors’ representatives on the TV demanding better protective equipment for their members, trades unions and business associations advising the government on how to support workers through the crisis: civil society is playing its role in myriad ways. Without it, no matter how effective our health service and other governmental services, we would be hugely worse off than we are. I’m certain historians of the pandemic will rightly judge that the UK’s strong and effective civil society made a major difference to the outcomes.

How much more important is civil society then, for citizens of poorer countries with less effective governments, in dealing with Corona? Citizens working together play a critical role where the ratio of hospital beds, doctors and nurses to people are far lower; where washing one’s hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap under warm running water is unattainable for most; where ‘underlying health conditions’ are the norm for people of all ages; where public services are underfunded, under-skilled and over stretched; where the tax take and public borrowing capacity are far too low to support businesses and workers the way rich world governments are trying to do; and where decisions affecting people’s lives are based on limited data, and too often influenced by ethnic affinity or corruption.

COVID-19 may not be as susceptible to the heat of tropical climates as was at first hoped. If so, it will spread across warmer, often poorer parts of the world fairly easily, despite such places being less ‘connected’ than Europe, say. One has only to imagine the over-crowded commuter taxis of places such as Nairobi or Kinshasa, or the homes in which too many Kenyan or Congolese commuters are obliged to live, to see how easily the virus could take hold, in communities where living conditions and livelihood options will make quarantine and health care extremely challenging.

In these circumstances, people will rely even more on civil society, than those of us who live in Europe. I have no doubt, having worked in many parts of Africa for more than 30 years, that people will rise to the challenge. I guess this will focus largely on the provision of services: health care where the skills, equipment and supplies are available; social services everywhere; and economic support too – which will rightly be seen as a social service in many communities.

Where governments have limited capacity to respond to crisis, civil society may be less effective than one would hope, in shaping that response and holding their governments to account. Nevertheless, that role will be important, too. Women’s organisations will no doubt have to raise their voices in support of women’s concerns. Associations of HIV-positive people are common across Africa, and may have to stand up for their members to ensure they continue to receive vital drugs and services during the crisis. Health professionals’ associations will try to guide their government’s allocation of resources and public information campaigns. And civil society organisations will be vital partners of governmental and international efforts to raise awareness and organise people locally to help them stay safe. A recent position paper by the Alliance for Empowering Partnership makes this point very eloquently in a recent position paper.

If crises often bring out the best in people, they can also expose our less attractive traits. Already, there is evidence that fear of COVID-19 is fuelling – and perhaps being whipped up to fuel – anti-foreigner sentiment in some countries.  This is the kind of situation where Adam Ferguson’s emphasis on the ‘civil’ in civil society comes into play. Citizens who deplore the virus of xenophobia that the biological virus has uncovered are quite rightly standing up against it, calling for people to pull together, and reminding us that everyone has a right to be safe, whatever their citizenship; and pointing out the political and conflict entrepreneurs who would take advantage of this crisis for their political ends.

The need to support civil society now

International agencies – donors, the UN, international NGOs – provide essential support in the countries where poverty and inadequate systems make them particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. It’s therefore essential that they include support to civil society as a major component in their programmes. This means not only getting funds and supplies, and technical know-how to the more formal organisations as soon as possible; but also providing support to citizens raising their voices for fairness and tolerance, and against discrimination; and channelling funds to CSOs who have a track record of supporting the less visible, small-scale, local neighbourhood initiatives of citizens who are simply trying to help their neighbours informally and temporarily, because that is the right thing to do.

Given the uncertainty and volatility which COVID-19 brings with it, it would also be helpful – as has been suggested to me by Rod MacLeod of the civil society support organisation INTRAC – for international agencies to loosen the terms under which they provide support to civil society organisations. For example by offering longer periods of support (a year seems reasonable), lessening some of the long-drawn out budget and planning negotiations that often seem to be needed before funding can flow, and committing larger proportions of their funding than usual to organisational costs and overheads, which may be harder for local organisations to fund from other sources during the coming months.

Time for Peacebuilding NGOs to support the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda?

March 14, 2020

The UK’s Conservative government has made Levelling Up one of its slogans. If we put the rather strange tautology of ‘levelling up’ to one side, and think of it as ‘levelling’, then it’s intriguing to me that the government appears to be putting peacebuilding theory at the heart of its domestic rhetoric – and potentially of its policy and practice, too.

Back in 2015, I wrote a paper for International Alert called Peace Through Prosperity. The core (and not especially original) idea of which was that the economic actions of businesses, governments and international agencies have an impact on conflict and peace, and that they should therefore aim purposefully to make a contribution to the latter: i.e. to peace.

Looking back at the paper now, it was over complicated. (Indeed, many of my colleagues said so at the time). In trying to make sense of what’s a fairly simple idea, I created a analytical framework through which economic actors might define how to maximise their contribution to peace – and in so doing I probably made the simple idea more complex than it needed to be.

I proposed looking at the political economy and at seven ‘levers of change’: areas that businesses and governments already influence, that they might use to strengthen social peace, if they so decided: the sectoral make up of the economy, the nature of relationships in society, human capital, security, the rule of law, access to land and capital, and infrastructure. Each of these has a role in determining the degree to which society is functional and inclusive for its citizens, and thus whether it is intrinsically peaceable or not.

My paper was designed primarily to influence policy and practice in the more obviously ‘fragile and conflict affected’ places, among which I did not include the UK. But I knew then, and Brexit has demonstrated in spades, that the UK is certainly conflict-affected, and seems to have become increasingly fragile. Certainly our governance has frayed, even as the sense and reality of exclusion has grown. If the simplest measure of peace is the functioning and resilience of trusting vertical and horizontal relationships in society, as I believe, then peace has degenerated in the UK in the past few years.

Therefore it is good to see that, in theory at least, the present government seems to be following a peacebuilding playbook. They are proposing major infrastructure investments, and to revise the Treasury Green Book this year, to redefine what public investments are legally required to achieve: moving away from simple economic returns to consider societal balancing goals. In 2015, I wrote :

‘Infrastructure: Governments should maintain a balance between large, attractive investments with a high potential return accruing to a particular region or to particularly powerful interests, and the need to promote economic development more widely in the interests of peace. Even as the roads, railways or ports needed to exploit economic comparative advantages are built, the infrastructure servicing regions with a comparative advantage for peace must also be developed. [Governments] should also ensure public and private infrastructure is designed and built with enough consultation and popular participation: this improves effectiveness and sustainability, and also inculcates habits of public participation and good governance more broadly.’

There are many other ideas in that 2015 paper that apply to healing post-Thatcher, post-Blair and post-Brexit Britain, and several of the present government’s policies appear to be aligned with many of them (though I wouldn’t personally include Brexit). It may not sit comfortably with many of my ex-NGO colleagues, that a Tory government is putting some of their cherished peacebuilding ideas into practice. But given the risk that, despite the government’s large majority, predominant interests in the British political economy will continue to resist levelling up – as they have done for 40 years – perhaps now is the time for British peacebuilding NGOs to come to the aid of the (Tory) party!

Wedding day

February 25, 2020

Wedding day
Look at us then: my buttonhole, your pearls,
your hand in mine, our smiles with energy
enough to make the harbour flags unfurl –
and as we placed our hands upon the wheel
we chose our course, and when to put to sea.
Our wedding gifts were lost in violence.
The boat flung us like flotsam as she heeled
and plunged. With reckless seamanship – with senseless
will – with ragged sails – we pitched our way
and frightened crew through torment and ordeal.
Look at us now: our boat survived the storms,
scraped past the reef and, limping to this bay
fetched us together on this quieter shore –
our weathered hands guiding the wheel no more,
but touching one another when they may.

Published in a Hedgehog Press Stickleback edition