Investing in our soft power assets – the BBC World Service & the Spending Review

This is the third in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the BBC World Service, “Britain’s gift to the world”. Find the others with the following links: FCO, British Council.

Other UK soft power assets fall into the “unprotected” category and are at risk of cuts. Since the Chatham House / YouGov Survey began polling in 2010, BBC World Service radio and TV broadcasting has been seen by UK opinion-formers as the UK’s top foreign policy tool, consistently ranking higher than all other foreign policy “assets”.

Broadcasting to 210m people every week and with a budget less than half that of BBC2, the World Service faces increasing challenges in the form of domestic and international competition, technical change, and a legacy of underinvestment. FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of bbcits staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. In contrast, there is increased competition – following a 2007 directive from Premier Hu Jintao, China has been investing heavily in soft power assets with state journalists now pumping out content in more than 60 languages. Lacking first mover advantage, it is clear that competitors have strategic ambitions. Yu-Shan Wu of the South African Institute for International Affairs comments, “Since the Beijing Olympics, we have seen increased efforts to provide China’s perspective on global affairs, signalling relations with Africa have moved beyond infrastructure development to include a broadcasting and a people-to-people element. There are now regular exchanges between Chinese and African journalists, and it is clear that China is stepping up and laying the foundations for a more concerted public diplomacy effort in the region.”

From April last year, the World Service ceased to be funded by the FCO, and is now resourced by a share of the BBC licence fee. Although its budget was increased by the BBC in 2014 (up by £6.5m to £245m), the BBC itself faces many of its own funding challenges. In July, the Chancellor called on the organisation to make savings and make ‘a contribution’ to the budget cuts Britain is facing. Ministers asked the BBC to shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s, and later that month unveiled a green paper on the future of the broadcaster which questioned if it should continue to be “all things to all people”. In the same month, the organisation announced that 1,000 jobs would go to cover a £150m shortfall in frozen licence fee income.

The World Service is somewhat insulated from wider BBC cuts, as the BBC has to seek the Foreign Secretary’s approval to close an existing language service (or launch a new one). Nevertheless, in early September, Director-GeneraWorldsNewsroom1l Tony Hall made the first of a series of responses to the green paper. Making a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”, he unveiled proposals for a significant expansion of the World Service, including; a satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers, a daily news programme on shortwave for North Korea, expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage), and increased digital and mobile offerings for Indian and Nigerian markets. Interestingly, the proposals sought financial support from the government, suggesting matched funding, conditional upon increased commercialisation of the BBC’s Global News operation outside the UK.

More on the expansion plans here.

Why the SDGs flunk the partnership test

Among the many useful elements of this year’s OECD Development Cooperation Report on partnerships, which is out today, is a handy 10 point checklist for what makes for a successful partnership.

The list comes courtesy of Hildegard Lingnau and Julia Sattelberger, who have co-authored a summary chapter that distils lessons learned from the various contributors’ chapters (among them one by me on public-private partnerships) and from a dozen case studies that explore a range of different partnerships in practice.

And while the list can certainly provide a good basis for gauging partnerships – more rigorous quality control of which would definitely be welcome – the thing that struck me as I read it was that their ten criteria were also not a bad basis for evaluating the larger undertaking that all these partnerships are supposed to contribute to: the Sustainable Development Goals themselves and the emerging Global Partnership that they are intended to help catalyse.

So, partly humorously and partly seriously, I went through the OECD’s partnership checklist and gave the post-2015 story so far marks out of 10 on each of the checklist’s points – an exam grade, if you will, on the state of the SDG agenda. Continue reading

Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

What Happens Now? Time to deliver the post-2015 development agenda

This is the third in a series of What Happens Now? papers from the Center on International Cooperation. Like the previous papers, it provides a guide for all those interested in the debate on the post-2015 development agenda – including for those who have not followed the process closely, a set of players who will become especially important as the new agenda’s start date approaches. This paper tells the story so far, including the MDGs’ track record, the origin of the post-2015 agenda, highlights of the process to date, and an overview of milestones over the remainder of the year; argues that there are unlikely to be major changes from the proposed 17 goals and 169 targets, but that there is much to play for on implementation and financing; and calls for all stakeholders to look past the negotiation endgame, to 2016 and beyond (April 2015)

Download Full Report

Five Ways the Co-Facilitators Have Made the Post-2015 Targets Worse

What was once a storm whipped up around the question of whether the world needs 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets has now degenerated into a tempest about whether it is possible to “conservatively” tweak some of those targets to make them more meaningful and deliverable.

Last week, the poor souls who are responsible for shepherding the post-2015 negotiations (the UN ambassadors of Kenya and Ireland) released a proposal that was intended to show how this could be done.

Sadly, they have made some of the targets better rather than worse, indicating that ‘technical proofing’ – an expert-driven process supposedly stripped of political overtones – is no sure fire way to a better development agenda.

(And who on earth thought it could be? Experts disagree with each other more bitterly than governments do – fortunately they lack armies with which to settle their arguments.)

So here are five ways the tweaked targets are worse than the originals. Continue reading

OECD States of Fragility Report – Meeting Post-2015 Ambitions

This afternoon, in New York, the OECD is launching its States of Fragility 2015 report which explores how new sustainable development goals and targets (SDGs) can be implemented in countries and communities that lack the political stability and institutions to support inclusive growth, or that are affected by very high levels of violence.

The report was written with colleagues at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and is part of a broader effort to switch the focus from what should be part of the post-2015 development agenda, towards how the new agenda can be delivered.

It argues that we have no hope of delivering the SDGs in large parts of the world, unless we get serious about tackling fragility.

Robust global growth, and more equitable patterns of distribution, have the potential to lead to rapid and continued further reductions in all forms of poverty, but this would mean that those left behind would increasingly live in fragile situations. Continue reading

The future of DFID and the ‘beyond aid’ agenda

The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development is running an interesting inquiry at the moment on the future of Britain’s Department for International Development, in particular in light of the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (terms of reference here). Owen Barder and I submitted a note to the inquiry last week, which you can download here.

We argue that if the world is serious about ‘getting to zero’ on poverty by 2030, then three key front lines for development will be fragile states (and parts of states), inclusive growth in middle income countries, and transboundary risks (especially those to do with unsustainable consumption patterns).

These three challenges have a lot in common. None of them was well covered in the MDGs; all will be crucial for eradicating the second half of poverty; all are about messy, long-term processes of structural change; none of them has an established playbook for how to address them; and while there are important roles for international spending in each case, none of them is primarily about aid.

Instead, we suggest, DFID will increasingly need to focus on beyond aid agendas both in country – where it will need to undertake significant changes to its existing skills profile – and across Whitehall, so as to influence UK policy on areas from arms sales, tax havens, drug prohibition policies, and anti-corruption, through to trade, subsidies, migration, financial regulation, and above all the global impact of British citizens’ consumption patterns.

We argue that in order for DFID to be able to influence this much broader range of policies, it is essential that it remain an independent Cabinet department, and not be re-merged back into the Foreign Office. (Doing that would just make a future Minister of State for Development within the Foreign Office comparable to the Administrator of USAID: running an aid programme, but excluded from most of the key decisions affecting development.)

But we also think that, since 2010, it is hard to make out much evidence of DFID playing this cross-Whitehall influencing role. Instead, it has focused mainly on securing and defending a substantial increase in the aid budget. This has potentially eroded the case for DFID to be a separate department – despite the fact that the Department’s voice is needed in Whitehall and internationally.

So, we conclude, policymakers and other influencers – in government, in Parliament, and in the wider policy community – should be pushing for DFID to play a bigger role in development policy. Conversely, the last thing they should be doing is caving in to the temptation to retreat to a less controversial space centred on aid administration.