Sunday 10 March 2024

Social mobility, feminism & me

HRH Duke of Edinburgh, Deputy President Paul Mashatile (front)

International Women's Day is important for all of us. I published this blog on how my own world, and the possibilities I experienced were only possible as a result of a very feminist fight fought by my mother. I am now so very grateful that I remembered to tell her that, before she died. This was first published at the end of January on the FCDO internal intranet. I've edited it, slightly. 

Yesterday I sat at a table with the Duke of Edinburgh and the Acting President of South Africa. It was the conclusion of a successful visit which garnered widespread positive commentary on the deep and broad relationship between the UK and a country which has played such a prominent role in the consciousness of my generation. My first year of University coincided with the end of Apartheid in 1994, we hosted South African trainee teachers in the UK, the first of many such projects.  So fast forward and I now have the privilege of representing my country in South Africa as Political Counsellor. I reflected yesterday, and today as I walked past the crest of the British High Commission how I’d arrived here. My own story began in Middlesbrough, an area with some of the highest social deprivation figures in Western Europe at the time.


But it didn’t really begin there for me, but with my mother. And that’s who I thought of at the high table of diplomacy yesterday. A woman who refused to accept her designated role, having been advised to leave school at 15 and concentrate on children alone. She bided her time, read voraciously and the more she did the more determined she became. Her Open University studies were often late at night and in the mornings discarded A4 scribbles, wobbling piles of books together with hastily prepared breakfasts and cramming of too many things into too few hours remain the strongest memories of my childhood. Ultimately, after many years she emerged from the fog with a PhD in Victorian feminist literature, a story of how so many women; George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte among them, chipped away at a patriarchal edifice that must have seemed overwhelmingly powerful at the time.


And without her, and her refusal to accept her role, I wouldn’t have been at that table yesterday, supporting a Royal Visit. 


FCDO has some amazing and powerful colleagues who are each driving an equalities and inclusion agenda forward in their own way. I do wonder if we sometimes miss the opportunity to join up the dots and think about how we advance equality in a holistic way. On the face of it a white middle-aged man working as a diplomat would not be the obvious place to look for feminist impact. So, what else might we be missing along the way?

Sunday 9 July 2023

First impressions

Last week I landed into OR Tambo airport to begin a four year posting as a diplomat representing the British Government in South Africa. Quite apart from the fact that I still can't quite believe I have the privilege of representing the UK, coming from a background where that idea would have seemed ridiculous, I feel most privileged at having been asked to come back to one of the most beautiful, fascinating and inspiring countries in the world. 

And what prompted this post was watching the Springboks dominate Australia in what was a very one-sided Southern hemisphere rugby international, but what was also a very powerful collective expression of national identity. All traditions across this diverse nation seemed to be represented somehow, and all came together in a rendition of the anthem at the start, and celebrations throughout. 

We overlook the role of sport at times, but this was a striking reminder of how important it can be. The London2012 Olympics having been a pivotal social and cultural moment for the UK, for example. And for those who love watching, or taking part in sport I can't think of a better place to be than here in South Africa. 

Saturday 21 January 2023

Development & Diplomacy: ‘twas ever thus

The merger creating the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in the UK was not the first of its’ kind; Australia and Canada had done it years before and there were other examples of merged mandate departments, such as that in the Netherlands combining development and trade. But given the size and scale of DFID it is perhaps the most closely watched, and remains in the word of its’ departed Director General Moazzam Malik a “work in progress”. This is a blog musing on how the new Department might turn a chimera of doing development and diplomacy coherently into a reality in the coming years.

What am I talking about? 

One of the challenges with this debate is that people use terms with multiple meanings interchangeably. What is development? I do not accept the traditional refrain of ‘poverty eradication’: such a feat is impossible by definition as poverty is relative and thus constant, and therefore non-eradicable. I also don’t think either outcomes such as $1.25 a day or inputs such as 0.7% of GNI are very helpful. That's not a metric to meaningfully measure anything except spending. When I met Amina from Dar es Salaam, she was probably earning over $1.25 - but her future had been stolen by corruption: economic metrics often miss what really matters. 

I take inspiration from former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios’ thesis that what actually counts, is what you can’t count. In other words, if the human condition is to be elevated then that is likely to be because of power, social norms around gender, class and/or the institutions within which communities can collaborate, compete without violence or hold each other accountable through electoral politics. Not by how much you’ve spent, or what their daily income at any one point is: Natsios termed this sort of measuring the "counter-bureaucracy". 

So for me development is about advancing a process of change that all societies – that's all of ours, North and South – are constantly engaged in. This is therefore a state of freedoms, accountable institutions and rules-based systems which allow all in any one society to advance their own individual potential and secure adequate resources to live comfortably and free of fear. An example could be a schoolgirl from a marginalised minority who is able to walk to school confident of not being attacked, and widely supported to fulfil her potential. She and eventually her children thus grow: in potential, in their contribution to society and in relative economic security. This goes all the way up Maslow’s hierarchy. 

Where does diplomacy fit? 

If we take classic political science theory then International Relations are an “agora” – the Greek idea of a public space – within which states negotiate, compete and sometimes contest. Scholars often argue that there are no rules in this game: that the agora is an anarchic space with each State acting according to rational self-interest. That implies multilateral institutions or global norms are largely superficial, a means to an end with States paying lip-service when it suits. I don’t accept this notion fully, and believe here that most demonstrably democratic States are sufficiently sophisticated to mean that policy makers are minded to make the world a better place, as much as pursue their national self-interest. The two are often the same. Examples here are the human rights campaigners of the 1970s evolving into the political leaders of the 1980s & 90s and who delivered much of the human rights agendas that even authoritarian States seek to associate themselves with today. 

Plaza de Mayo demonstration about the 'disappeared': Argentina, 1982

So how do we do it? 

We learn from each other. Here are three challenges which are based on some core lessons, some of which are hard to hear depending on which side of the fence you traditionally sit.
  • Change takes time. The World Development Report of 2011 told us that societies emerging from conflict (which is where most poverty and pestilence are to be found) take an average of 30 years to break this cycle. That is well beyond what are often short-term horizons involved in foreign policy making.
  • Silos are bad. The development sector as a whole is fragmented, specialised and often works at cross purposes. That is largely down to the way in which donors fund it; but it is also reflected within donor agencies themselves. Foreign policy specialists illustrate that to achieve big things you need to work across multiple complex issue areas in a way which allows you to combine your advantages to good effect. The more successful COPs are examples of this. Development professionals need to become much better at doing the same: so the challenge to a new Department like FCDO is how do we support colleagues to develop and apply new combined skillsets? 
  • Incentives matter. This is an internal as well as an external point. Within a merged donor agency or Department, we need to ensure individuals can become professionals across traditional areas of both spheres. But incentives apply externally too. We need to recognise the hard truth that development programmes; either bilateral or multilaterally, have at times created perverse incentives that have worsened the circumstances of vulnerable populations, not enhanced them. Examples here are of structural adjustment programmes which often meant elites in Governments became more accountable to international creditors than they did to their own populations. In worse cases such programmes were instrumentalised in pursuit of harmful policies, entrenching exclusion and in some cases leading to violence or war. 
So what next 

Success for me would look like foreign policy making being conducted with the application of development insights from recent decades. In turn we would see development programming being designed in a way which is cognisant of wider political dynamics and risks, including that they could be doing more harm than good. Applying this approach to all aspects of foreign and development policy might get us towards a place where we could actually crack the nut.

Saturday 26 February 2022

Russia, Ukraine and the future

“Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone … everyone is afraid” said President Zelensky this week. Earlier this week he warned European leaders on a conference call that they may not see him alive again.

We are witnessing a human tragedy and a new era in international relations develop simultaneously and the outcome will shape the world for decades to come. Part of that new era will be the increasingly uncomfortable convergence of trade-offs. Climate change emissions commitments versus reliance on pipelines for Russian fossil fuels. Avoiding alliances versus existential threats. Spending on military force versus domestic priorities on health or education. 

But part of it also will be the question of how the liberal democratic parts of our world project power through civilian, not military means. Early thinkers of what became the European Union wrote of “Civilian Power Europe”, a beguiling concept of the projection of power through non military means: regulatory, normative, market-based and other means of influence. François Duchêne’s 1972 article on this painted a picture of a new form of shaping human affairs, where the use of force was largely redundant.

As we watch Russia brutally crush a free democratic and sovereign Ukraine this seems a distant concept for what may be a darker era ahead, particularly from the vantage point of Eastern Europe or other free countries across the World dominated by larger hostile neighbours. Freedom isn’t free, sadly, and our collective commitment to standing up to force with force will need to be reinforced. This will also be an immensely painful era for Russia as it enters the status of global pariah. 

It could, however, also be an era in which democratic and free States renew and develop multilateral means of protecting and projecting the alternative. Successful, vibrant and free populations often make for messy governments but over the long term are how most people want to live. And in that lies power far greater than anything a weapons manufacturer is capable of producing. East Germans could see the towers and hear the music on the other side of the wall. Ultimately they tore that wall down with their own hands as strongmen impotently looked on. Our way of life in which we celebrate diversity, exercise freedom and hold leaders to account, choosing our own governments is something to protect – against populism and the attempts to undermine it by hostile states. But it’s also our best hope of leaving this era with the boundaries of democratic freedom expanding rather than contracting. 

It's on all of us in our own ways to work towards that.

Saturday 11 September 2021

9/11 & Hope

So we all have a story of where we were. In my case sat agog inside my office reception in Farringdon, London. Crowds outside peering in at our large screen on the wall, broadcasting what we knew even then was history. The revolution was in the end televised. “Go home” said our manager “it’ll be us next”.

I was 25. Working out what I wanted to do with my life. For much of the next two decades I spent in the peacebuilding world. Peace, it seemed to me, was what we needed. The world at large had other ideas. Or did it?

Just as much of the world’s attention is understandably focused on Afghanistan, and the story of Iraq, Syria and terror attacks; I find optimism and hope in some of what I’ve had the privilege to see in the intervening years. Of individuals capable of finding it within themselves to forgive, to reach out and to build futures with those who had themselves often actively tried to kill them.

Like Grace, in Rwanda. She’d hidden in her family’s kitchen cupboard while her family were slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia in 1994. Fifteen years on she was establishing a new business with a man from the tribe and village who’d perpetrated that killing.

Like the old woman sitting under a tree in Western Nepal, at the end of her garden. Where she’d last seen her daughter kidnapped by armed Maoists during the civil war in 2004. Five years on she was still sitting under that tree. She knew she’d never see her daughter again. But she’d become a peacemaker to whom people would come to see, mediating disputes.

Teacher John's house

Like Teacher John in Turkana, NW Kenya. A harsh, arid place racked by armed violence carried out with impunity, particularly against girls. John spoke four languages and could have lived comfortably. Instead he lived in a mud hut and invested his money in a new school building so that girls could live while they studied, so they wouldn’t be at risk by journeying to school. He and his wife must have thought of what they were sacrificing as they used hot coals at the door by night to keep out the snakes.

Or like the young women from Herat, Afghanistan, who proudly presented plans for their villages as part of a governance programme designed to build stability and service delivery. Confidently describing the lack of trust anybody felt in the programme but determined to try to build a better future for the men, women, girls and boys of that beautiful part of Afghanistan.

These are people that represent the best of humanity. Their strengths and committment are beyond what most of us posess. And if we are to move collectively on from where our world finds itself now, then we need to find and support these individuals. Who quietly work in often remote places, overcoming psychological trauma and material hardship in the hope for a better future for us all. They, I hope, are the future now. 

Thursday 31 December 2020

Building back better: a dose of humility

Covid has been a sobering experience, revealing the frailties of our social fabric and laying waste to the most vulnerable among us. Without engaging in a counsel of despair, I think one of the lessons for us is that to overly rely on the State to guide human behaviour simply won't work. It may also be the case that the social frameworks that were in place before, are perhaps not with us any longer. And that part of our building back better in the West might involve re-learning those aspects of social control that underpin our responsibilities to each other, and the resilience to respond to crisis, from parts of the World where they remain strong.

The problem

To share an anecdotal experience. This afternoon I stood in a supermarket and observed an elderly man standing with a basket of food, waiting for a checkout. Around him bustled shop workers, many without masks, and several shouting to their colleagues. Shoppers, including a young man with no mask, brushed physically past the elderly gentleman, rolling their eyes because he was in their way. And throughout the store, while the majority were wearing masks, many repeatedly removed them and showed no inclination to engage in distancing of any kind. Earlier today an intensive care consultant described such people as having “blood on their hands”. He’d seen the inevitable result of the behaviour I’d just witnessed in the ICU wards. 

So what’s going on? Thoughtlessness or a lack of something intangible, that might otherwise have altered behaviour?

I can’t help thinking of the stories I grew up with, of stoicism and communal support withstanding the onslaught of the Blitz. The images of St Pauls’ Cathedral, of newly homeless women making tea and others were echoed by my own grandparents in their own stories from that time. But I also think of some of the communities it’s been my privilege to work among during my own lifetime. In Turkana, Nepal, Afghanistan and elsewhere where communities have run their own affairs in the absence of a strong State and done so in a manner which would make the sort of behaviour I saw in the supermarket, and that we see in beach parties and other breaches highly unlikely. These are also places where the concept of 'positive deviance' often applies - where communities themselves have developed ways of dealing with challenges by innovating their own norms; be that cultivating land or looking after the elderly. No role for the State involved, nor for that matter international donors. Just ask Amina, from Dar es Salaam. 

Building back better?

It’s fair to say that the governance challenges witnessed in the West during the last few years undermine the idea that others should simply adopt our model of managing their affairs unquestioningly. There are other models out there and no doubt their relative merits will be hotly contested. But to me, that’s only part of the picture anyway.

We in the West will also do well to consider what we might want to learn from societies who have not relied on the State at all, be that either an authoritarian or liberal version, and have managed their affairs based on behaviours that do not encourage individualism, and the lack of empathy or responsibility that can entail, and which we have witnessed a great deal of throughout this pandemic with disastrous results. These are societies who have often managed to hang together in the face of challenges way greater than Covid, including armed conflict. Building back better will in my view need to involve a large helping of humility, and a willingness to learn from others. The vulnerable old man with his shopping basket deserved a great deal more care from those around him than he received. 

Sunday 5 April 2020

Covid-19: peace positive?

C19 will change the world, but are there positives for peace and stability that might emerge from the carnage, and how might these be supported? Here are some emerging thoughts on how this, the pre-eminent shared challenge of us all, might just unlock conflict systems that have appeared intractable for generations.

Regional cooperation 

If C19 has taught us anything, it is that closing borders doesn’t work. There is not a single country that has been protected by doing this. Accepting that fact, and the inescapable reality that what happens in our neighbours and our neighbourhoods near and far will affect us in my view changes the dial fundamentally. Populations are in my view unlikely to respond to jingoism and ‘othering’ from elites if they can see they may pay the price at huge scale. Leaders used to whipping up sentiment may find they are in fact held to account for not working together with others.

Resolving conflict 

If there is growing acceptance that we need to manage conflicts, to make way for collaboration on a shared pandemic, then what structures will we need? Beyond the UN perhaps the model of the African Union’s capacity to exert soft and hard pressure might be emulated within other regional structures in Asia for example. The AU’s condemnation of coups and isolation of coup leaders have in some cases resulted in change, while the African Union Mission to Somalia has involved the use of hard power. Could it be that we emerge with strengthened institutional frameworks to temper the worst excesses of power?

A new economy 

Measuring ‘development’ by economic metrics alone is bunkum. In the most fragile countries, including those ostensibly making progress, the model is frequently highly unequal with elites controlling the most successful sectors, at the expense of others. But that model itself has now been exposed, as C19 cuts off demand in the West for goods produced elsewhere. Building back will require a much wider and diverse economic base, and that will need to include a broader section of the population. This arguably presents a real opportunity to encourage a more diverse and inclusive economic model that may pay dividends in terms of peace as much as growth.


It is unlikely that civil society in any country will accept business as usual once this pandemic has passed. A renewed push for greater accountability, responsiveness and transparency within governance systems can be expected, and potentially encouraged. That is as true in the West as the South and East, and represents a potential moment to renegotiate social contracts between citizens and states. More accountability generally means more peaceful societies.

Taliban anti-coronavirus drive in NE Afghanistan. New form of legitimacy? (unclear how machine gun helps v Covid)

The Black Death in 14th Century England stripped the then ruling elite of their main claim to legitimacy: namely, that it was divine will. This had been clearly dis-proven, in the eyes of the people, who proceeded to revolt. It is hard to imagine that the legitimacy of force or power alone, or narratives of supremacy will survive C19 intact. Renegotiating that legitimacy, combined with greater accountability, may open the way for far-reaching change in the balance of power that could in turn yield positive and peaceful results.

What now? 

None of the above is inevitable. But then, nobody knows what happens, now. It will take decades to know, and new generations to judge. But it is also inescapable that this is a pivotal moment in human development.