Tuesday 8 November 2016

DFID, Brexit & Soft Power

DFID is dead. Long live DFID. The new UK Government which emerged from the fires of the June 23rd referendum is in some ways very similar to the old. Familiar faces in some cases. But the accession of Priti Patel to the helm of DFID illustrated just how different things now are. Ms Patel isn’t so much an aid sceptic as a pro-free trader absolutely determined to press the influence of DFID into the service of the United Kingdom as it forges a new role outside of the EU.

Anyone doubting Ms Patel’s ruthless commitment to that cause was disabused last week by the release of DFID’s core funding of UK civil society. Out with the PPA, and in with four strands of short term projectised funding. This will inevitably mean that the expertise and experience of much of British civil society will be lost, as INGOs lose the ability to plan with confidence and invest in the development of their staff. But is the British Government alone able to do without that expertise, and is it clear what it means by soft power anyway?

What is Soft Power?

There is no single accepted definition of what soft power actually is but the work of political scientists Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane (2004) would command general agreement. If we look at how they defined it, we might be able to judge how far DFID is able to generate this intangible commodity.

For them, soft power is the ability:
“to get desired outcomes because others want what you want”;
“to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion”;
“convincing others to follow or getting them to agree to norms or instituitions that produce the desired behaviour.”
It tends to rest on
“the appeal of one’s ideas or culture or the ability to set the agenda through standards and institutions that shape the preferences of others”;
“the persuasiveness of the free information that an actor seeks to transmit.”
For Nye and Keohane, scholars in the realist tradition of international relations, the fundamental argument for soft power is that it works and therefore obviates the need to resort to costly military and economic instruments to achieve policy goals. 

So at first sight Ms Patel’s strategy makes sense for a Britain forging a new role in the world. Britain achieved great power status which it still exercises, for example on the Security Council, through the use of overwhelming military force. It remains a great power but increasingly it projects that influence through soft rather than hard means, and arguably achieves much more as a result. But how does DFID measure up against their definition?

DFID can get desired outcomes through the sheer scale of its budgets. It is frequently far more the locus of British power in other countries than the Embassy or the Ambassadors could ever hope to have. It thus can achieve goals without coercion, but I would doubt it does so through 'attraction'. And as a result of its capacity to wield that power effectively it is conceivable that they can shape norms -although it's approach to short term projects undermines the long term engagement required to generate normative change. So I would say DFID's abilities here are significant, but mixed and often confused.

Is this legitimate?

For some this new vision for DFID is an act of heresy. Personally I don’t have a problem with DFID being explicitly used in the British national interest. It always has been, Ms Patel is just being very open about it. And in any case this is UK taxpayers money and it is right that any UK Government acts in their interests. I would also however argue that her brand of neo-liberal free trade is not always in either their or any other nations citizens interests. The poorest people live in states affected by conflict and fragility. Breaking those cycles of conflict to enable stable and equitable economic growth is thus in every citizens interest, at home and overseas.

The World Development Report of 2011 (WDR2011) found that some 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by repeated cycles of political and criminal violence – causing human misery and disrupting development to the extent that almost no MDGs have been met in any fragile state. It argues that to break these cycles, it is crucial to strengthen legitimate national institutions and governance in order to provide citizen security, justice and jobs – as well as alleviating the international stresses that increase the risks of violent conflict. SDG16 takes this several steps further, establishing the imperative to work towards good governance, justice and peace.

To address this, the UK needs to contribute to normative change at global and local level. Specifically, it needs to address the social and political factors that drive violent conflict, perpetuate widespread abuses and prevent the poorest countries from achieving sustainable growth. These are underpinned by a range of social and normative barriers preventing citizens from engaging and participating meaningfully with the governance of their countries.

By definition, addressing these issues requires the exercise of soft, rather than hard, power. Crucially this needs to be over the long term.

Yet the UK cannot project norms independently, or exclusively with its traditional allies, without being vulnerable to charges of neo-colonialism from governments and others whose current policies and practices are challenged. It must thus work in partnership, in many cases new partnerships, with actors from a range of governments, civil society coalitions and multilateral institutions.

So what’s in the tool box?

I would argue Britain’s levers of soft power are threefold: intergovernmental leadership, a free and independent media and credibility by example.

Inter-governmental leadership

The UK has demonstrably engaged in inter-governmental leadership to significant effect in the past. Examples include the Gleneagles Summit of 2005 in which UK leadership resulted in substantial agreements on climate change (associating leaders from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) and reducing poverty in Africa (with seven African presidents taking part). Without sustained British perseverance and exercise of soft power these outcomes would have been highly unlikely (Bayne, 2005).

More quietly, in the G8 context, the UK joined with Germany in leading a shift of emphasis into recognising the linkages between the pressures of climate change, security risk and poverty and beginning to develop the first elements of an internationally coordinated response to these dangerous connections (Harris 2012).

There are other inter-governmental partnerships in which the UK is a leading player, such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which consists of nearly 70 States. The OGP agenda, if enacted fully on the ground, would radically transform the lives of citizens. They are:
  • Open Data: Radically opening up government data for greater accountability, public service improvement and economic growth;
  • Government Integrity: fighting corruption and strengthening democracy through transparent government;
  • Fiscal Transparency: helping citizens to follow the money;
  • Empowering Citizens: transforming the relationship between citizens and governments, and;
  • Natural Resource Transparency: ensuring natural resources and extractive revenues are used for public benefit
The new British Government, therefore, should continue on this path by scaling up its investment in exercising soft power in support of redefining international normative and legal frameworks in support of building stability overseas.

Culture and media

The UK is a consolidated and well established democracy which enjoys widespread respect for its democratic institutions. It also benefits from the English language and mass appeal of the British media, particularly the BBC World Service in the context of developing nations. The BBC World Service and BBC more generally, is therefore a key basis of soft power.

Critically, however, this effect does not arise because the Service is a mouthpiece for British policy; in fact, it arises precisely because it is not. It is a critical and independent source of credible information accessed by populations who do not have alternative sources of independent information. It is thus an asymmetrical source of soft power. Returning to Nye & Keohane, on the importance of free information in building credibility through free information as a basis for soft power:
“…credibility is the crucial resource, and asymmetrical credibility is a key source of power. Establishing credibility means developing a reputation for providing correct information, even when it may reflect badly on the information provider’s own country. The BBC, for example, has earned a reputation for credibility, while state-controlled radio stations in Baghdad, Beijing and Havana have not.” (Nye, Keohane, 2004)
British soft power, paradoxically, is therefore gained by a unique source of news from a British perspective that is frequently critical of the UK.

It is thus disturbing that the Government has significantly cut the BBC World Service since 2010, already resulting in a loss of audience of around 14 million and the cancellation of five language services. There have been four funding cuts in four years, with each presented as a “one off” cut by Government, with the latest involving a reduction of £2.22 million in 2013.

Applying Nye & Keohane’s analysis of the centrality of free and credible information to generating soft power, therefore, surely these cuts are misguided at best.

Credibility by example: building stability & opening data

The UK has gained significant credibility by being among the first to reach internationally defined targets for international development, such as the commitment to spend 0.7% GDP on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). It has hosted initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership. It is supporting new and equitable partnerships with governments in conflict affected situations, such as the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States (New Deal), and is one of the leading financial and practical supporters of the UN Peacebuilding Fund. As a result the UK is able to utilise its soft power in pursuit of the foreign policy agenda represented by the Building Stability Overseas (BSOS) policy framework. Worrying, then, that Ms Patel has thus far been silent on all of the above.

The UK has also demonstrably led the world in the provision of Open Government Data (OGD), increasing transparency and by so doing enabling active citizens and civil society to hold decision makers to account. OGD aims, by the provision of usable data, to achieve impact on government efficiency, transparency, accountability, environmental sustainability, inclusion of marginalised groups, economic growth and supporting entrepreneurs. This is a practical agenda which builds on the insight of WDR11. The UK recently came top of 77 nations currently committed to pursuing OGD programmes in the latest Open Data Barometer index[4]. So when will be hear about this agenda from Ms Patel?

Soft power is entirely separate and not dependent on hard power, as some political scientists have claimed. Nye & Keohane make the same observation in relation to other states who have engaged in similar leadership and thus gained credibility and soft power which bears little relation to their capacity to project hard power:
“Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands have more influence than some other states with equivalent economic or military capabilities.” (Nye, Keohane, 2004)
The Government should therefore utilise the political capital it has generated to challenge other governments to follow suit. For example while the US comes second after the UK in the Open Data Barometer overall, it scores poorly in the provision of company and land registration. Encouraging governments of wealthy countries towards greater transparency could be an important step towards reducing global tax evasion, another important HMG priority. Corruption is a first world problem. To the same end, the Government should also prioritise supporting local civil society in being able to effectively use such data to hold those in power to account.


The UK Government is well placed to exercise significant soft power, relative to its peers. It has already demonstrated this, notably on changing norms and practices on good governance, sexual violence and open data. It benefits both from its active leadership on such agendas, in addition to the wider influence of the BBC World Service and historic links across the globe.

It has not yet, however, realised the full potential of this power and does not appear to take a systematic approach to doing so, as can be seen by short termism in cutting the reach of the BBC World Service and the removal of core strategic funding to UK civil society, favouring instead short-termist project funding.

The Government must therefore marshal its influence through the use of its intergovernmental leadership, free media and leadership by example, and in so doing realise the combined potential of the soft power Britain could potentially wield. Ms Patel may find she needs to revisit some of her decisions sooner than she imagines in order to achieve that vision.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Brexit Britain: a leader in peace, governance & growth?

Whisper it quietly: this new Government might not actually be all that bad. Amid the predictable sound and fury from many in the UK development industry, itself populated mainly by left-leaning voters who were appalled at Brexit, the actual emerging policy picture as regards the direction of UK development policy shows early promise. I’m told that NGOs at the Conservative Party conference this week were left slightly taken aback, having braced themselves for an ideological onslaught that never came.

Priti & Boris

First up was Priti Patel, DFID’s new boss and leading light of the Brexit campaign. She had a lot to say on the theme of the day: free trade. DFID’s role was to counter poverty, respond to disasters but also to create the conditions for growth. That she explicitly links the growth of markets to the UK national interest as a post-Brexit trading nation should not be held against her. It’s been the unspoken goal of Her Majesty’s Government since the creation of DFID in 1997. And the link to trade is also hardly new ground. One of the most progressive donors in the world today, the Netherlands, unified it’s trade and development Ministries years ago, arguably leading to greater coherence overall.

And on peace she had this:
“…we can and will play an active part in making our world a more peaceful and prosperous place”.
A bit thin on the ground for detail but nothing to especially dislike.

Then came Boris Johnson. And what a different Boris this was. Gone were the jokes, and the blatant political ambition. In came serious analysis which, by comparison to the soundbites of Patel, had some particularly positive pointers for those of us interested in effective interventions to support peace, responsive governance and justice in some of the most complex, fragile and volatile places in the world.

Development needs freedom

Boris was vocal and blunt in his rejection of the pernicious thesis that development was possible without openness, transparency and responsive governance. That is a welcome and direct slap down to the sort of thinking led recently by the Overseas Development Institute, and over which we have tangled before. Liberal freedoms were, he said, essential to growth that remained stable. End of.

In fact Boris went much further than that. He castigated the regimes currently re-writing constitutions to lengthen spells of unbroken power in Africa while citing directly the closing civic space that has resulted in NGOs being targeted by those governments at home. The link between closing civic space and fragility is well established, with Carothers' recent work being the latest to examine it.

Soft power?

Boris leaned heavily on the idea of British soft power as a means by which those freedoms being curtailed might be addressed. It was clear to me that he included UK aid relationships in that, but he also cited the BBC and other forms of influence around the world. It was possible, he argued, to marshal all of Britain’s collective influence to support openness as well as growth. (Britain's soft power is something that gets talked about a lot - I did an analysis of its true spread here)

Reasons for optimism

The centres of gravity in Theresa May’s Government have shifted radically. The Treasury has gone from one of the most powerful Departments to a weaker implementing arm of Downing Street. While DFID is now headed by a Secretary of State who is clearly aligned with an agenda on governance and growth which is backed by the more politically powerful Foreign Secretary. Left leaning NGO folk might not like the personalities but it’s not a bad set of alignments for a progressive development and foreign policy.

So – a good start in my book, if a little confused and light on the detail. Confusion, for example, could be seen by Boris’ reference to Ethiopia as a development good news story, with rising life expectancy and a £300m DFID programme.

Current events in Ethiopia may cast those statistics in a slightly less favourable light.

And, to address Brexit, both Patel and Johnson called for British leadership of the aid industry. Well, it is fair to say that over the years DFID has been a thought leader on peace and governance. It is also fair to say that the European Union’s development policies are frequently confused and incoherent. The European Union’s 11 million farmers and their political voice arguably led to the suspension of the Doha Round (the US directly blamed the EU for this) which would have done more for growth and poverty alleviation than all of the aid budgets combined. It was notable Boris Johnson directly cited British determination to restart that Round. Coherence between trade and development is not such a bad idea.

Ultimately Brexit has happened. We have a new administration in the UK. They face no meaningful opposition at home. So it’s just as well that, from what I saw this week, there is much to be optimistic about if you’re a peacebuilder.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Peace in Myanmar: Listen to the people

“Some of you don’t like me. Some of you don’t like the Army. Some of you don’t like the Karen National Union. But that’s OK. We all have to live together”.
The Bago Region State Minister had just summed up the status and sentiment of the peace process in this part of Northern Kayin State, Myanmar.

Today was International Peace Day, and I was privileged to share it with two of the World’s longest military adversaries: Myanmar’s military (called the Tatmadaw) and one of the many Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar who have fought them since the late 1940s, the Karen National Union (KNU). I was here with Saferworld, for whom I work, and some of our partners working on the promotion of women’s role in the peace process.

Some areas of Karen are controlled by the Government. Other parts are controlled by the KNU. Having woken at dawn in Taungoo Township, itself under Government control, we journeyed off road for an hour through misty villages already well awake with the hard graft of farming. The dirt track got narrower, bumpier and more remote. And all of a sudden the odd soldier lining the route had a different insignia on their arm. We had crossed into KNU territory.

But this day was different. Karen civil society had painstakingly negotiated permissions to enable senior Government officials, Tatmadaw officers and even the Myanmar Police to cross into this area, attend and take part in a Peace Day event in front of several hundred villagers, who have borne the brunt of this conflict since before independence from Britain.

Even at 7am the sun was brutal but so were the people’s determination to sit there, sweat and listen to what these men had to say. And yes, they were all men. But it was not lost on anyone that it had been women, working behind the scenes and among their communities, who had brought them to the stage itself. The Commander of KNU’s 2nd Brigade spoke alongside the Tatmadaw officers. Both signatories to a ceasefire since 2012, but their polite mutual applause did not disguise how far remained to travel. In fact all of the speeches were conciliatory and the applause uniform. But what has struck me most in the conversations with those peacebuilders who have done so much to bring us to this point is how long and bumpy it will be before there is long term sustainable peace here. The sheer depth of antipathy, lack of trust in any part of the State by many, and the long term social impact of decades of violence will take generations to overcome, so that Myanmar can start to reach its potential.

Those of us wishing to support from the outside – donors and practitioners – have to start from a point of humility. We do not have the answers. They do. There are real opportunities but there is one simple metric to apply: will it be people-led instead of Government-centred? If the answer is no, it’s time to think again.

Setting Priorities: Listen and Learn

It was notable that behind the dignitaries the poster quoted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and stated that they were collectively “building blocks for peace”. Donors, UNDP: are you listening? That is real people telling us what they want the SDGs to mean in their realities. There are already proliferating SDG initiatives in this country that do not relate to building peace, but other agendas pre-determined by some donors and the government instead. Time to think again.

Making their voices count
Myanmar is about to embark on a process in which some form of federalism will be debated as a future governance settlement to bring the fighting to an end. But there are multiple and competing definitions of that federal state, and not every EAO has signed a ceasefire. Heavy fighting is currently taking place in different areas of the country. The momentum and genuine hope created and sustained by Aung San Suu Kyi is real reason to hope that these factors can be navigated and a more inclusive process can take shape. But it would be a profound mistake for outsiders not to place support for building peace at the centre of any and all of their strategies here, and to support the chances of peace by shaping those strategies from the bottom-up, listening and learning from what communities living in villages like this will gladly tell you about, if only they are asked. Peace will not ultimately be secured at a grand signing convention with world leaders looking on. It will be won or lost in these villages, with real people deciding if they have built enough trust in their former adversaries to begin to build together.


What today proved was that those people want peace. They showed that standing under the sun. From all generations. Holding candles. Gently scolding bored children. Wearing banners on their heads. They made sure their voices were heard today by those men who bear arms and wield power. That is their victory and what peace day is all about.

An even bigger victory would be for their voices to be heard, listened to and acted upon by those who will celebrate peace day later today at the UN General Assembly in New York, or in the capital cities of donor agencies as priorities are set.

Or is that too much for them to ask?

Friday 9 September 2016

The Failure Debate: Cold Shower Time

Failure is a sexy theme at the moment. How to adapt and iterate to it is the latest development Holy Grail. But rather like a religious text the conclusions people draw from the debate tend to depend on their own standpoint, interests and perspectives. A thoughtful blogpost by DFID thinker Pete Vowles illustrates this point. As a donor he wrestles with the idea that failure is inevitable and useful if it can be captured for learning and adaptation, while wondering at how to make it ‘OK to fail’ for those implementing projects.

Pete makes a number of useful observations. He highlights, for example, the constant waves of new donor metrics, clouding one’s ability to judge progress from one to the next. He cites the lack of space for donors to really listen to local communities enough. And the implicit pressure to avoid any kind of failure, for fear of undermining wider aid efforts by handing ammunition to skeptics. There’s no easy answer to any of those when you consider the political economy donors and practitioners inhabit.

Yet some of the points Pete makes I think could be helped along by a cold shower reality check followed by some political thinking.

Time, cost & quality 

Pete posits one useful way of understanding failure is to adopt three lenses of time, cost and quality. But then leaves that hanging without returning to it anywhere else in his blog. This sounds eerily like the magnificent sounding “3 E”’s that were unveiled excitedly by DFID bods some years ago. We were told that Efficiency, Economy and Effectiveness would be the yardstick of judging Value for Money, but that was never really defined either.

I recently read a DFID call for proposals that very clearly judged VFM not on any of the “E”s but squarely on what percentage their implementing partner would charge them in overheads. And not much else. We clearly need a framework for judging value for money. We don’t yet have one beyond buzzwords that are ill-understood and applied inconsistently. And that’s a problem for adapting and iterating to failure using public funds that are rightly under scrutiny.

Safe to fail? 

Pete states that donors need to make it ‘safe’ for implementers to own up to, highlight and learn from failure. That is absolutely correct. But if Pete doesn’t mind me saying so, he is whistling in the wind.

The brutal reality is that there is a massive power imbalance which it is naïve to pretend doesn’t exist. Donor agencies have plenty. Sometimes more than their host Governments. Implementers, be they community based organisations, activist networks, NGOs or INGOs have absolutely none. There is a sliding scale of ‘none’ with local CBOs at the bottom, as INGOs can lobby. But it’s still basically none. Take a look at how DFID is destroying some UK based INGOs at the moment by repeatedly missing its own deadlines and commitments to re-invest in a PPA agreement. It’s already too late for some of them. Consider how that has impacted in turn on the local partners with whom those INGOs work, who rely on flexible funding to experiment, try new ways of working and to do the things Pete says he wants to see more of. It’s already too late for some of them too.

Institutional self-awareness is not easily created, but for all the woolly talk of “partnership” by donors it will always be a patron-client relationship. So if donors are serious then they need to start placing a hard financial value on learning in project design that goes way beyond standardised approaches to M&E or disjointed ‘learning components’ that often look like a bolt-on. We need consistent investment in projects that incentivise learning and adaptation at the core, recognising the value of both. Time to stop talking and start doing.

Be an aid skeptic 

Pete comes to the right conclusions in many respects. His points about listening to local people being the most pertinent among them in my view. So long as listening is accompanied by a preparedness to change course. But I couldn’t let his final flourish go without comment. He urges the reader to “think like an aid skeptic” in order to understand how this might all appear externally and to be self-critical. He later states:
“After all, the task of poverty reduction is one of the most challenging there is.”
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly there is an implicit assumption that his readers are not skeptics. I am. In fact most of the people I consider to be doing the most innovative thinking on adaptive programming are also wizened old skeptics. We should all be skeptics in my view, all the time. That, surely, is a pre-requisite to recognising when things go wrong, and to avoid the overly optimistic theories of change that often lead to mistakes being repeated, frequently by donors themselves, while limiting a tendency to overstate the actual impact of our efforts on people’s lives. It would also help with reducing hype-cycles that lead to ever shifting metrics and priorities. 

Secondly, and linked to the first, should we perhaps drop the pretence that development is about poverty? What does that mean anyway? $1.25 a day, or freedom of expression? Going back to Pete’s point about listening to local communities I doubt very much they would all frame their challenges in that way.

Citizens in Turkana. Voice, not poverty alleviation

Development is politics

When I met these communities in Turkana, who score highly on any poverty index, they didn’t talk about ‘poverty’. They talked about power. And how they didn’t have a voice, as one teacher put it, because there was no local strongman fighting their corner. They wanted to be treated justly, to have a voice and to build a better world for their children. How do we judge the relative contribution our efforts might be making to them? Or to these open government activists in South Africa trying to realise Mandela's vision of liberty amid rampant elite corruption?

And to readers who have never met her before allow me to introduce a young woman who to me personified the chasm that lies between the aid industry and the international initiatives which become their world - and the reality of what the world actually looks like to ordinary people. In my view Amina from Dar es Salaam should be asked to write every donor agency's strategy with immediate effect. Is she poor? Absolutely. Would she describe herself and her ambitions in that way? Not a chance.

Development is politics, whether we like it or not. So how we ultimately judge success or failure surely needs to go way beyond a projectised approach to business as usual development in the short term and take a much, much more holistic and long term view of how our aggregate efforts are having an impact overall. Otherwise it might add up to a row of nicely arranged beans in the end.