Wednesday 21 November 2012

Congratulations Malcolm Bruce!

Malcolm Bruce, the Chair of the International Development Select Committee in the UK Parliament is to receive his knighthood from the Queen today. The award was given in recognition of his service to the country both as a parliamentarian as well as his substantial charity work over several decades.

I have known Malcolm for over 10 years, having worked in the deafness charity sector prior to joining a peacebuilding NGO. One of Malcolm’s daughters was born profoundly deaf, so he had personal experience of the many dilemmas faced by parents of children with a very low incidence disability. The fact that there are not many other profoundly deaf children around you means that families are often left isolated, lacking in any real support and offered completely contradictory information from both “professionals” and campaigners, each with their own ideas of “whats for the best”.

Sign language or lip reading? Special school or mainstream? Cochlear implant, hearing aids or nothing? In each case the choice parents make have far reaching consequences and to be faced with advice that is often politicised – with campaigners on both sides warning of making the “wrong” or even “immoral” choice is less than helpful.

Malcolm was a Trustee of both RNID and the National Deaf Children’s Society/Deaf Child Worldwide during my time there and in both cases provided a lot of sage and wise advice as those organisations sought to navigate those difficult waters.

I remember one occasion when Malcolm popped up at Prime Minister's Questions, during a particularly difficult session for Gordon Brown. He bowled him a soft question about the importance of deaf kids education, and suggested a meeting. The Prime Minister, seeing a friendly question for once grasped it with both hands and said yes. I dont think he realised it was going to be a meeting with most of the deafness sector, and which ended up with a series of Ministerial committments on ensuring choice for parents

He has also been a forensic examiner of the UK’s international development policies as Chair of the Select Committee, which is the main scrutiny forum for parliamentarians in the UK. He played a key role in examining and challenging the approaches of the last and present Government, and despite his committee welcoming a lot of the positive moves this Government has made towards addressing conflict and fragility they have also not shied away from asking very awkward questions, such as how much money was being spent on consultants. The latter question led to the coining of the phrase “poverty barons” by the right wing press opposed to aid on principle, but they were valid questions nonetheless.

And as with the deafness charity sector at home, international NGOs are just as politicised in many ways as different advocates of approaches to deaf kids are. I’ve always felt deaf politics was a good preparation for international development debates.

I gave evidence to his committee earlier this year on the extent to which DFID was effective in its operations in the central African Great Lakes Region, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some tough questioning ensued and you certainly had to be on top of your detail to answer them, but recent events in and around Goma illustrate just why those questions are even more valid now than they ever were.

Looking ahead to the debate on what comes after the Millenium Development Goals, the UK is lucky to have Malcolm prodding and poking away. Keep being awkward, Sir Malcolm!

Monday 19 November 2012

Radi-Aid: Africans for Norway

This. is. hilarious!

I think it's trying to address a point often made by African civil society about their resentment at how they are often portrayed by Western NGOs, usually as part of a fundraising drive. Pictures of miserable children seem to be the order of the day, to the exclusion of any other image of Africa or Africans.

As a response, this is far better than simply getting angry about it - it's brilliant!

Sunday 18 November 2012

The battle for ideas with China

Paul Collier argues that the West, by which I assume he means liberal democracies, should concede defeat in the battle for economic power with China and instead focus on winning the war of values instead.

It’s a seductive argument, because it offers us a chance to fight a battle we feel we can win from within a comfort zone we’re comfortable with, and he makes it in the brutal context of political murders and corporate malfeasance in Guinea, a country wracked by corruption which he rightly points out is aided and abetted by corporate interests based in London, Paris and New York.

And one in which a local Treasury anti-corruption official could be gunned down in the streets when her fight for transparency presented a threat to the profit margins of these dark forces.

Aissatou Boiro: murdered anti-graft official
So what would this "battle" look like, and what sort of "weapons" would we need to fight it? And, more importantly, what would victory actually look like if we won?

The US election was dominated by increasingly hysterical descriptions of Chinese economic wrongdoing leading to car plants in Detroit standing empty. And in Africa, which is the focus of Professor Collier’s piece, we have seen that they adopt a no-questions-asked approach to trade. The new Premier, Xi Jiping, gives no indication of altering course.

Yet that contrast is where I think Professor Collier’s argument partly falls down. No liberal democratic government that wants to be re-elected is going to concede defeat to China on economic grounds. The fact is that China can manufacture goods at a fraction of the cost, and that’s not going to change. The challenge for the West, surely, is to rise to that challenge by responding with knowledge driven services that don’t involve factories as the chief means of production. It might be an idea to turn that Detroit car factory into a business school.

Robin Cook
But that doesn’t mean we can’t open a second front and launch an all-out offensive on values. One of my favourite politicians of the last century was the much maligned Robin Cook who, as Foreign Secretary, announced his pursuit of an “ethical foreign policy”. The idea was that the driving aims of foreign policy would be normative as much as power-politics. It didn’t work out, but that might have been because he didn’t seem to get much support even from within his own Government for the idea.

The battle ground for the second offensive on values would almost certainly be Africa, for the reason Professor Collier gives: home to vast natural resources but also home to violence, poverty and corruption on a similarly vast scale. Yet also home to people, like Aissatou Boiro, willing to put their lives on the line to fight for a better world for themselves and their fellow citizens. They are the people who will do the fighting in this battle. The prize being economic growth, yes, but growth with peace and social justice too.

And that battle will commence *after* 2015, not before it. The current debate over the post-2015 framework is taking off, with some exciting and progressive work already having been done, such as the New Deal for engagement with fragile states, a partnership for inclusive growth, peace and justice between donors and countries affected by conflict. But the debate will need to conclude in a way that countries like China and Russia are happy with, or at least not so unhappy with that they veto it.  So there is much to fight for to shape that overall agenda, but it will only ever create an environment in which the battle for values will be contested.

So one Foreign Secretary of one Western (or African) country, however enlightened, isn’t going to cut it. What might do, however, is an institution that can act on a global scale with the resources and people who are able to support those fighting for the values of fairness, transparency and democracy effectively. Step forward, perhaps, the European External Action Service, the EEAS.

European External Action Service
As an institution it has had a rocky start, not helped by turf wars within the EU itself. But taking the long view this might be the institution that could bring some coherence to Europe’s engagement with Africa, starting by aligning trade policy with development and peacebuilding objectives, and designing its’ support effectively by well thought out interventions, designed in partnership with all those struggling for growth with peace and justice.

Their thinking was outlined by Nick Westcott, Managing Director for the Africa Division, in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty in 2011. He talked of three pillars forming a "new framework of engagement" between Europe and Africa. They being: "supporting peace, promoting prosperity, and working through partnership with African countries and others." Not a bad set of goals to marry growth with peace and justice. 

Pie in the sky? It seems so, particularly when you look at some of the ridiculous manoeuvrings that sometimes characterise the European Union. But what are the alternatives?

Syria highlights the utter inadequacy of the UN in the face of a struggle between East and West because it can be held to ransom by one side or the other; while the US is no longer that useful global hegemon that we can all rely on to do that values stuff while we Europeans get on with making consumer goods.

So if this is a battle worth fighting, do we really have any alternative means of collectively supporting, on a global scale, those in Africa fighting for a vision of a better world?

And if the answer to that question is no, it seems to me we either just give up or try to get our European acts together and make this institution work. Sharpish.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Lecture: Arab Uprising & Social Media

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is one of the best known social media operators who played a key role in the momentous events which have re-cast the Middle East over the course of the past two years. He is one of the best connected Twitter users both within the region and without and is regularly ahead of the game on emerging trends.

I've corresponded with him every now and again during that time and, despite having 148,000 followers to his name, have always received friendly responses. 

Here in the West there have already been lots of seminars and debates on the role of social media throughout the events which were ignited by a self immolation in Tunisia but many have not actually featured any of those who were actually using the media directly. 

So here's a brief talk he gave to students at NorthWestern University last night in Chicago, Illinois.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday: Thoughts on peace

One of my first jobs after finishing University was a temporary post at the Royal British Legion in 1997. I was one of the few non-military people in the building, and this soon grew to be the basis of much of the ribald banter between myself and my colleagues, who were all recently retired from the three services.

I liked them, a lot, and still remember them more vividly than more recent work places. Partly because of the fantastically filthy jokes and terms they had for civvies, but mainly because they were some of the most genuine and warm people I have ever spent time with.

I remember Ron, whose hands still shook from the stress he suffered half a century before, aboard a submarine which had suddenly gone into an uncontrolled dive in the East Asian Sea during the Korean conflict. Had Ron and his colleagues not managed to get the vessel out of the dive at the last minute the pressure of the depths would have crushed it instantaneously. It had been very close.

I remember Ben, who had served on the cold war’s first front-line in Germany in the years immediately following 1945. Tensions were high between the former allies and the prospect of war erupting over what Stalin regarded as the intolerable capitalist presence in West Berlin, deep in his territory of East Germany, was very real. Ben learned a few words of Russian and, being an enterprising man, soon had an illicit cigarette business going with his erstwhile enemies. All the while knowing that if conflict did come to pass he wouldn’t stand a chance.

Both Ben and Ron had lived in a twentieth century whose first half had been obliterated by global conflict and economic depression, and a second half which existed for the most part under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation. Understandably, then, they thought that conflict was just one of life’s constants and you had to make the best of it. The poppy appeal, held every year as a means of raising money for the Legion and a way for the nation to mark its respects to the fallen, was a practical affair which didn’t change that underlying truism about the nature of our world.

Perhaps Ben and Ron were right. Looking around today we see easily where the spotlight happens to shine, such as on Syria, but in the shadows there are far larger human tragedies unfolding daily such as in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As well as national remembrance days there is now an International Day of Peace, marked by the United Nations every September 21st on which the emphasis is less about honouring the memory of war dead, and more on what needs to be done to promote genuine peace. One of the ideas behind the day is to promote a global truce in all armed conflicts to mark the day, which is promoted by the PR campaign behind Peace One Day

But wouldn't it be better if we were aiming just a bit higher than a single day? And how about dealing effectively with the causes of each conflict rather than its symptoms, which is basically what a truce is about? You wonder sometimes about how limited the human imagination can be when faced with its biggest challenges.

Remembrance Sunday is about symbolism and it feels right that we honour those who gave their todays for our tomorrows, but I wonder if in future we could combine a mark of respect for the fallen with a mark of hope for a better world to come, and a determination to think big to achieve it. After all, the alternative, as the last British Tommy Harry Patch once said " organised murder and nothing else."

Ron and Ben would roll their eyes, laugh out loud and scoff at that idea, but secretly, I bet they’d agree.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Bottom Billion: The right theory?

Theories of change are the currency of development and peace practitioners alike, but they all rest on assumptions. So what about Professor Collier's assumption that there is a bottom billion? Have a watch of a recent TED lecture he gave, to see what you think:

Saturday 3 November 2012

London High Level Panel: Reflections

In conversation with the High Level Panel
It had been a long time coming. Since the first meeting of the High Level Panel, set up by Ban Ki Moon and co-chaired by the British, Liberian and Indonesian Heads of State in New York the massed ranks of civil society had been looking forward to this meeting with expectations and anxiety in equal measure.

Expectations were high of a genuine dialogue and opportunity to reshape the path out of extreme poverty with people at its centre, while anxieties were heightened by the prospect of politicians reverting to type and stymieing the process in the search for a bland compromise that everyone could live with.

Those of us lucky enough to have been asked to take part in the dialogue with the High Level Panel members through the Beyond 2015 campaign met wider civil society the day before, and it was already very clear indeed that there were some very impressive voices to be heard. Leaders of the disability movement from South Africa, the climate change campaign from Bangladesh and the grassroots Niger Delta Women's movement for Peace and Development were among them. Surely the Panel members had to be struck by the power of the arguments they advanced?

On the day, the session for civil society was the second of three outreach events and our trepidation wasn’t helped by the sight of the first lot coming out in super sharp suits and uber confident smiles. Yes, it was the business folk who’d come to pow-wow over a power-breakfast, get down to the bottom line and seal the deal with the panel. Business has a vital role to play and it was absolutely right they were there, but they have a very different way of doing things, those folk from the City. And we had to follow them.

So with some nerves in we went and for the next 90 minutes our faith in the process, I think, was very much reinforced. It became immediately obvious that these Panel members genuinely wanted to rise to the challenge that they’d been set: find a way forward that delivers on the goal first outlined in 2000: of ending poverty in our time.

Graca Machel during our discussions
They listened and genuinely engaged, among them Graca Machel, a former Mozambican education minister and advocate for the rights of southern African women and children, who herself had some challenging words for us. Keep up the pressure, she said, but look to yourselves too. We could not expect, she argued, to be taken seriously if we couldn’t demonstrate as civil society that we genuinely represented our constituencies and managed to construct a single coherent narrative from within ourselves.

The Panel, who by and large mix in high circles generally, were confronted by some uncomfortable truths from the ground. No, we didn’t need a “social floor”, whatever that jargon means, said the woman from the Niger Delta, responding to a Panel member's suggestion. It’s quite straightforward – we need insurance, just like any other business, as she described how a group of women in her community had received micro credit loans to start fish farming businesses. But a recent flood had destroyed the fish farms leaving them with no assets but a mountain of debt. Pencils were sharpened and notes were made. It was one of many references to climate change throughout the day.

Lunch was at the IoD
Our discussions were over too soon, of course, and off we trooped for lunch which was cleverly procured by those bods at Development Initiatives who’d hired a room in the Institute of Directors next door. The irony of discussing extreme poverty over prawn sandwiches in the plush surroundings of the IoD was not lost, but it was a good chance to debrief, and the mood among us was really positive. We were actually getting somewhere with these guys.

The youth were the next bunch in, and by all accounts they were seriously impressive too.

But at 4pm things, in my view at least, started to go downhill. There was a town-hall style meeting, the idea of which was to allow members of the panel to hear direct from members of civil society who hadn’t been part of the earlier chunks of the day. And, frankly, I think we all rather let ourselves down.

The Panel members were lined up in a row in front of the massed ranks of what must have been over 200 people, who'd been urged to tweet like there was no tomorrow, even having been issued with WiFi passes on the way in. Top blogger Duncan Green of Oxfam did a great job chairing the debate and managed to drill some discipline into the first exchanges. 15 seconds was your lot, he said, any more and you are effectively robbing someone else of the chance to speak.

What followed, however, was two hours of mostly random single issue mini and not-so-mini speeches with each speech maker, in some cases reading from a pre-prepared script, underlining how their own issue was the single most important thing of all and really must be seen as such, you know.

This prompted Graca Machel to re-iterate her plea for coherence and discipline – “I am you” she said standing from her chair, referring to her own civil society status, “but you must help us”. The message was that we were definitely not helping by this sort of approach. What we needed was a ”package” and civil society had to help, not hinder that work. Having completed this oration she promptly announced she had a plane to catch and left the stage, still telling us to behave ourselves, as an unfortunate aide tried to disentangle her from the microphone cable on her lapel, nearly falling over in the process. Quite an exit.

Tawakkul Karman
This was also the message from Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman, a fearsomely impressive young woman, who has fought for human rights and social justice in the context of highly conservative Yemen, and the “war on terror” being prosecuted all around her. I would imagine she doesn't take fright too easily. We had to keep up the pressure, yes, she said – but we also had to help the panel, not pepper them with a very long shopping list.

Yet this was immediately followed by one gentleman who treated us to a long and winding speech, which seemed to be punctuated by regular name checks for his organisation. Oh dear.

Towards the end however, my own faith was renewed by one young man from Sierra Leone.

He had no interest in long speeches, nor name checking anyone or anything. He was a former child soldier who had been forced to do terrible things, he said. Kidnapped at a very young age during the waves of civil war, that was his reality. That had been his childhood. By now he was speaking to a silent hall, as he looked at the Panel members and told them calmly that if they produced a framework that again missed the likes of people like him as the MDGs had, the world would never forgive them. And then promptly sat down.

Clearly moved, former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, responded that missing people like him had been one of the biggest errors of the previous framework, and that it couldn't be allowed to happen again.

That is the scale of the challenge, both for the Panel members but also for us. And reflecting on the last couple of days I think there is an awful lot of work to do on both sides.