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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 whom 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


January 16, 2020
But where shall wisdom be found? 
And where is the place of understanding?
– Job 28: 12
This garden breathes
as sunset strokes the goldenrod and slides away.
This place has known
the touch of raindrop, breeze and gale,
the sudden chill when crows call clouds –
the warmth when they disperse –
the breath of ghosts when breezes fail;
has felt the weight of ice
diminish, leaving
crumbled stone,
then heath, then grass, then trees;
has witnessed deer
then sheep, then horses graze,
lawns displace fields,
roads lead where paths once led,
to bivouacs, then barns, then homes;
has heard the sound of children’s games,
of disputes, clashes, laughter,
campfires, kitchens, idling cars;
the quieter tones of love and tears,
and parents pointing out the stars;
has stood its ground,
as shadows marked the years and seasons by
the way they fell,
and waned or grew,
and when and where
they travelled from and to;
and now, as fading summer falls
on rose, anemone and goldenrod –
the gardener’s pride –
if asked to weigh the worth of all it’s held,
this gentle place would likely say
it could not tell.

First published in Poetry Salzburg Review no 34.

Is it time to fold DFID back into the FCO?

December 15, 2019

One of the issues raised during the recent UK general election campaign was, whether to maintain the Department for International Development (DFID) as a separate department of state, or fold it back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. DFID was established by New Labour in 1997, and has garnered a reputation internationally not only for spending most of the UK’s large aid budget, but for doing so in a highly professional, thoughtful and organised way. Through its actions and its advocacy, it has rightly been seen as a leading voice in global discussions about how best to deliver development and humanitarian aid.

Nevertheless, I was for many years sceptical about the need for DFID. Losing the aid budget and the staff who administered it, undermined the FCO’s capacity and clout. Meanwhile DFID’s own work was for many years undermined by an overly technical approach, lacking an understanding of how poverty is interwoven with the political economy in developing countries. Claiming that the UK was separating overseas aid from its foreign policy – as many people in the aid sector still claim – seemed somewhat disingenuous. It always seemed to me as a British citizen, that helping people escape poverty and recover from disaster was a core political choice, and was thus central to our foreign policy, not divorced from it. I still think that overall, it would have been better to administer overseas aid within an expanded FCO, and our embassies abroad, rather than separately.

The UK government is committed to providing at least 0.7% of GNI in official overseas assistance. As other government departmental budgets were progressively squeezed following the financial crash, it was inevitable that they would try and get their hands on some of the growing annual aid budget that now totals about £14bn. And so it has proved: DFID now spends less than 75% of official UK aid, with the rest going to the FCO and other ministries. As reported by numerous sources, including Parliament’s International Development Select Committee, DFID consistently scores far more highly than the FCO and other departments on measures of aid effectiveness and aid transparency, implying that other departments aren’t learning from its professionalism and expertise, even as they administer more of the resources DFID was established to spend.

On the face of it, then, there is a good case for folding DFID back into the FCO. Doing so would strengthen the link between UK’s aid and foreign policies, and restore some of the FCO’s lost clout and influence both at home and abroad. It would also potentially improve the effectiveness of the aid that is already spent by the FCO, by bringing across DFID’s better systems. Meanwhile, it would also improve some the programming now under DFID’s control, which would benefit from the FCO’s better knowledge of the political economy in developing countries.

However, I’ve come to believe this would be a major mistake. DFID has put down roots, and pulling those up would be a massive distraction from the task of delivery. The effort required, and the disruption caused by the process of reintegration would undermine the UK’s effectiveness as one of the world’s main – and most thoughtful – providers of aid. DFID has already fixed much of the excessive ‘technical’ bias it once showed, and should continue this process as a stand alone department. And any merger done today would further reduced the UK’s ‘soft power’ – which is already on the wane. Most of the world is puzzled by our decision to leave the EU – an organisation many countries would love to be able to join – and by our loss of influence in doing so.

Instead of folding DFID back into the FCO, the government should continue to improve collaboration among all externally facing Whitehall departments, thus ensuring that aid is transparently and effectively used, that aid spending is a treated as a foreign policy tool, alongside other instruments that help reduce poverty, prevent and support recovery from disaster, and promote liberal values and development progress across the world.

To borrow its domestic slogan, if the new government wants to help ‘level up’ the world, it should make this a key foreign policy goal and ensure that DFID, the FCO and all externally facing departments are working coherently towards it, rather than wasting resources on a government reorganisation that would send a message to the rest of the world that the UK no longer wishes to be an agent of humanitarian help and progressive change.


October 27, 2019

He rides a train
through slow flat land:
nothing to see
but horizon,
wanders clumps of yellowed grass
and sand,
and sets a wounded beetle
on a stone.
With awkward clattering
a lone jackdaw
and takes its unexpected prey.
Sometimes he waits all week
for a metaphor,
then two – or more –
turn up in a day.

Published Sept 2019 by Ink, Sweat & Tears