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.

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