Investing in our soft power assets – the British Council & the Spending Review

This is the second 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 British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Find the first, on the FCO here.

FCO financing, under the spotlight in the forthcoming Spending Review, has significant influence on key soft power assets, of which the UK has many, built up and consolidated over many centuries. Founded in 1934 to create ‘a friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and wider world, the British Council (interacting with nearly 550 million people in over 100 countries each year) receives grant-in-aid British-Council-plaque-001funding from the FCO allowing it to “represent the UK’s long term interest in countries where we cannot rely on earned income alone”.  Government funding was cut by 25% from 2010/2011 – 2013/2014, and in 2013 it received £172 million in government aid, on par with 1998-1999 levels. However, the organisation has been developing alternative funding streams, resulting in the perception that the organisation is adopting a more commercial approach, which, according to John Baron MP (member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee), “risks damaging a unique brand”. With over 75 per cent of turnover earned through teaching and exams, tendered contracts and partnerships, FCO funding is less than 20% of the organisation’s income. Last’s year’s Triennial Review of the British Council reported that self-generated income (English Language Teaching & exams) increased by over £100 million since 2010 and predicted it would increase by a further £100 million by 2015 – “well beyond levels needed” to compensate funding cuts. Nevertheless, as Colm McGivern, Director of the British Council in South Africa explains, “like every organization in receipt of public funds we have to be increasingly efficient and constantly innovative in the ways we connect the UK to other countries using education and culture.” This is in the face of increasing competition, with China’s Confucius Institute and Institut Français surpassing the British Council in number of offices globally.

Most recently, the Foreign Affair60888s Select Committee called for protection of the British Council’s budget in the Spending Review: “Any attempt to make a parallel cut to the British Council budget in the 2015 Spending Review would inevitably weaken the UK’s capacity to project soft power and culture in target countries with growing economies or regions with high priority political and human rights concerns, such as Russia and the Gulf.”

A choice between decline and growth – UK global influence and the Spending Review

This is the first 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 Spending Review, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Civil servants across Whitehall returned from their summer holidays with a thump. Now in the thick of negotiations, the Chancellor’s Autumn spending review looms with huge departmental cuts on the horizon. Seeking to bring the money-and-maginifying-glassUK into surplus by 2019 / 2020, the review seeks £20bn of departmental savings. May’s Budget saw Chancellor George Osborne protecting over half of all public spending while simultaneously committing to increases in health and defence spending, ring-fencing schools funding on a per-pupil basis and renewing the pledge to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid. Unprotected departments will therefore bear the shoulder the heaviest burden, and have been asked to formulate ideas for savings of between 25% and 40%. These scenarios are not far-fetched. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that during the last Parliament, overall departmental spending was reduced by 9.5%, with unprotected departments facing cuts averaging 20.6%.

The UK’s Diplomatic Service under pressure

With defence and aid budgets largely protected, the FCO is the major remaining government department (working on the UK’s role overseas) which will be affected. With a budget that is 25% lower than its French equivalent (despite comparable network sizes), FCO funding (£1.7bn) amounts to less than 3% of the total of the three budgets combined, and as the only unprotected department in this group, the FCO is exposed to the full force of Sending Review cuts.

And there is limited scope for savings. With the devaluation of sterling, FCO spending power has reduced by between a fifth and a quFCO_1823237barter since 2009, requiring increased prioritisation and efficiencies. The 2010 review saw the FCO making a 10% cut (real-terms), followed by a further 6.3% reduction in 2013. Simon Fraser, former FCO Permanent Secretary, admitted in his farewell interview that “like other departments, we’ve faced a pretty tight resource situation since 2010”. Diplomatic capabilities remain underfunded, especially in the areas of compensation levels, technology infrastructure and staff numbers. A February report by the Westminster Foreign Affairs Committee described an FCO desperately in need of funding and a diplomatic service lacking the right skills. There is also evidence that human rights is no longer one of the FCO’s top priorities – believed to be a consequence of the savings imposed so far.

Foreign policy challenges in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis have not abated, and there has been significant turbulence across the globe affecting UK interests. Shifts in world order (e.g. reduced power of Bretton Woods institutions) are also coinciding with this relative decline in the UK’s material capacities and its ability to apply international leverage. So what to do in an era of declining budgets and increasing challenges? Prioritisation is key, according to Fraser “…you cannot carry on doing more and more if you’re under continuing resource pressure – and I think we have to face that. The government has to think about that and we have to think about the priorities – what really matters and how we can focus our effort on the things that we can make the most difference on.” There are already some indicators of focus – in June, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the Foreign Affairs Committee that that the FCO would aim to protect its network of overseas embassies, “I am clear that the crown jewel of the Foreign Office’s capability is the network of international platforms, embassies, and missions around the world…   …We must seek to protect that sharp end presence while addressing the need for further efficiencies.” Were there to be cuts, they would likely be made to support functions, subordinate posts in developed countries, and UK operations. The Permanent Under-Secretary, Simon McDonald stated in a recent inquiry; “the logical conclusion of protecting the network and having to reduce is that such reductions that have to take place will be at home”.

Early indicators for 2015 are not promising – the Chancellor unveiled a £4.5bn savings “down payment” in June, with the FCO taking a £20m hit of in-year spending reductions, and more cuts expected. With no constituency in the UK to speak up for it and already stretched, the organisation has largely been left to fight for itself. Echoing an assessment made by the predecessor Committee in the last Parliament, last week’s report by the Foreign Affairs Committee called on the Treasury to protect and increase the FCO budget, “We recommend that the Treasury protect the FCO budget for the period covered by the 2015 Spending Review, with a view to increasing rather than cutting the funds available to support the diplomatic work on which the country’s security and prosperity depend.”

NGO air miles? Whose bright idea was THAT?

Remember a time when people went out and joined hands in the streets to demonstrate their passion about the issues they cared most about? Well, forget all that sentimental crap and get with the 21st century, my friend. These days, it’s all about the NGO airmiles.

NGO air milesThis is an excerpt from the website of the Global Citizen Festival, next weekend’s jamboree in Central Park at which Coldplay, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and Pearl Jam will extol the virtues of the Sustainable Development Goals. Wondering how to get hold of a ticket? Answer: you have to go on an “Action Journey” (yes, really). Once you accumulate 65 points from taking actions like the ones above, presto! – you’re entered into the lottery for tickets.

Now, call me old fashioned, but isn’t the point of mobilising people for demonstrations to show politicians clearly that said demonstrators really care about the issue in question? True, that clarity may have got a bit blurred once demonstrations started turning into free U2 gigs like Live8. But that’s nothing to the mixed messages we’re sending politicians once they start to wonder if the people tweeting them about water and sanitation are actually just after free Beyonce tickets.

Worse than that, we’re also sending people the implicit but still unambiguous message that the SDGs aren’t worth caring about in and of themselves; that we understand that of course we’ll need to throw in some freebies in order to get you to give a shit about ending poverty by 2030, or bringing today’s levels of inequality under some kind of control, or ending violence against women and kids. Seriously? Is that really our model of activism?

A bold Beeb – ambitious plans for the BBC World Service

The BBC World Service is often seen as one of the UK’s great soft power assets. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agrees, describing the world’s largest international broadcaster as “perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

BBC satellite dishes

Tomorrow will see Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, set out the first of a series of responses to the government’s green paper on the future of the broadcaster – a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”. The green paper opened up plenty of issues for discussion (aims, funding, license fee, digital approach etc.), but tomorrow’s response is expected to focus on some rather bold expansion proposals for the World Service. Bold because the BBC has already been asked to make cuts and shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s. And also bold because they are explicit in seeking to counter the challenge of state-sponsored rivals, such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV.

“This is about Britain’s place in the world…   …It is above the politics of the debates about the BBC’s future. It has to be a national priority. Other news outlets are growing globally and many do not share our traditions and values. We have a strong commitment to uphold global democracy through accurate, impartial and independent news.”

A cursory glance at the expansion plans give a good indication of priorities / challenges:

  • satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers
  • daily news programme for North Korea
  • expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage)
  • increased digital and mobile offerings in India and Nigeria

But how real are these challenges? Very, actually, especially if you, like 68% of opinion formers, consider the  World Service to be one of the UK’s most important foreign policy assets, or are concerned about the strategic decline of the UK’s soft power.

Firstly, the World Service faces a legacy of underinvestment. With a budget less than half that of BBC2, FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of its staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. Some services have been ceased, and at one stage, audiences of 10 million in India were under threat for the sake of £900,000.

Dmitry_Medvedev_took_part_in_the_launch_of_Russia_Today_Documentary

Secondly, and more importantly, the organisation faces increased competition with the news / information arena seeing increased investment by state-sponsored broadcasters – a “soft power battle”. The BBC sounded the alarm bell in January with its Future of News report highlighting the disparity in investment seen elsewhere – “China, Russia and Qatar are investing in their international channels in ways that we cannot match, but none has our values and our ability to investigate any story no matter how difficult.” Compared to the World Service’s £245m budget (2014), both competitor investment and aspiration levels are high. China’s CCTC received nearly $7bn to expand global operations and both RT (previously named Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news service, $300m budget), and Qatar’s Al Jazeera ($100m budget) recently launched channels targeting UK / English-language audiences. Before being named UK Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale said it was “frightening” that the World Service was being “outgunned massively by the Russians and the Chinese”. 1

The report also warned of ‘dangerous and disparate’ threats to independent and reliable world news from other well-funded state broadcasters, arguing that cuts would reduce the UK’s influence, “The World Service faces a choice between decline and growth…   …If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will have to recognise this.”

With ministerial discussions on the Autumn spending review already well underway, we can expect further lobbying and positioning in advance of the November announcement on departmental settlements. More on this in my forthcoming Chatham House article on how Britain maximises its influence across the world at a time of declining resources.

Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

Lessons from Make Poverty History

At Save the Children we’re acutely conscious both of how much there is to be done to shape the future and also how much there is to be learnt from the past. We have introduced a programme of events on the history of change where people who have been part of huge social movements will talk about what the movement was trying to achieve, what tactics they employed (with what success) and, crucially, what lessons their movement holds for people campaigning for social justice today. The hashtag for all the events is #changehistory and we will share resources from each event here at Global Dashboard.

The first talk, on the lessons of Make Poverty History, was held to coincide with the ten year anniversary of Live 8 and the Gleneagles summit.

The video above (audio only) contains some pretty frank reflections from me and from Care International’s Laurie Lee. At the time I was on the board of Make Poverty History and running the Stop AIDS Campaign while Laurie was the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser on development.  This is our attempt to give both an insider and outsider account of the main phases of the campaign, including the launch, the debt deal, Live 8 and the march on Edinburgh, Gleneagles and the aftermath.

I won’t pretend it is a short listen, but it does give answers to questions like ‘what is development’s worst ever stunt?’, ‘what is our movement’s biggest failure of the last decade?’, ‘what single issue did MPH do the most to infuence?’ and ‘what’s the right size for a big tent?’.

If you don’t have time for the whole talk, there is a summary of some of the key lessons here.

A great generation: Make Poverty History ten years on

In 2005 some of us thought white bands and rock bands could change the world.

We were right.

Make Poverty History was an unprecedented popular mobilisation on global poverty and it secured unprecedented results. Since 2005 many millions more people are on anti AIDS drugs and millions more children are in school. Fellow Make Poverty History veteran Adrian Lovett sums up the new world the campaign helped to create in just one word: better. In campaigning terms the numbers are yet to be beaten: a global audience of approximately 3 billion for Live 8, millions of people wearing the campaign’s white band, quarter of a million people marching on Edinburgh and a brand recognition that leapt from zero to 90% in just six months.

MPH was, in short, HUGE.

Like any huge campaign, the story of Make Poverty History is contested. What happened, why it happened, and what would have happened had it been done differently are all still debated. This, therefore, is not the definitive view, but it is one from a unique vantage point. I was on the board of Make Poverty History, then worked for Bono and Bob Geldof’s advocacy organisation DATA (now ONE), then spent three years as a Special Adviser in Number 10. There are plenty more lessons to be learnt from MPH than we have space for here, but here are just six lessons I think we should still consider as we try to influence global outcomes in 2015 and beyond.

1) It is easier to ride waves than make waves

Sometimes the stars align behind a campaign. In 2005 we had major policy windows for impact (the UK had the chair of the G8, the Presidency of the EU and a potentially influential role at that year’s WTO ministerial), a political opportunity for mobilisation (there was a UK general election in May) and a public hook for a big focus on development (2005 was the 20th anniversary of both Live Aid and Comic Relief). The neatness of the choreography did make it easier to get a hearing with policy makers, politicians and the press, but it still took a heavy lift to convince people that 2005 represented a unique window of opportunity to deliver something massive on development. Lobbying of Number 10 to focus their G8 presidency on Africa started in 2003 and huge credit is due to those in Oxfam and elsewhere who saw this opportunity coming and seized and shaped it so that there was a growing wave ready for Make Poverty History to ride it when we formally launched in January 2005. By the time Nelson Mandela addressed a rally in Trafalgar Square in February, 2005 already felt special enough that his call to be ‘a great generation’ did not feel overblown. You can (and should!) watch the whole speech here.

2) Necessary is sometimes sufficient

The time between the campaign being conceived and launched was spent piecing together governance and plans. We were only able to do the second effectively because we had done the first strategically. The campaign always had three objectives: i) policy change, ii) recruitment of a huge, diverse, new group of supporters and iii) leaving the sector stronger at the end of the campaign that it was at the beginning. The campaign ended up attracting a much wider range of organisations than any of us had planned at the beginning, but the only organisations hardwired into the board were those without whom the three objectives could not be achieved. While there were undoubtedly tensions inside the campaign, the most controversial decisions of the board were always related back to one of these three objectives and neither these objectives nor the policy manifesto were up for negotiation when new organisations came on board. On reflection, however, I don’t think we priced the opportunity costs of such a wide coalition appropriately. Time spent negotiating internal tensions was time not spent engaging with policymakers and the public, and it isn’t clear the organisations requiring the most accommodation brought us enough to make the price worth paying. Sometimes the necessary coalition really is the sufficient one.

3) The feet of a ladder sit on the ground

Activists often talk about getting people up the ladder of engagement, and then promptly forget that most people climb ladders from the ground. If mass participation is central to your cause then barriers to entry have to be as close to the floor as possible. In Make Poverty History’s case that meant huge mainstream moments like Live 8 and getting our launch written in to the script of the Vicar of Dibley. Both of those caused arguments that seem bizarre in retrospect. Live 8 left some activists furious that the headlines of the next day’s tabloids were not about the nuances of policy, as if that had been on offer until Bono came along. Meanwhile the Vicar of Dibley tensions offer a classic lesson in leaving people to what the are good at. When Richard Curtis offered to mention the campaign in the New Year special of his much-loved sitcom, our instinctive response was not to send some thank you flowers but to work out which committee should vet the script. A simple mental exercise would have helped here: if we wouldn’t let Richard Curtis write our policy report, we probably shouldn’t have asked to write his show. One of the campaign’s biggest failings is that in working with incredible talents from the creative industries we tried to make them more like us not us more like them. I wish we’d been more appreciative at the time of what a difference it made to have some of Britain’s biggest creative brains onboard.

4) The success belongs to the public, the failure belongs to you

“How. Can. These. 8. Men. Refuse. Us. NOW? How can they refuse us?”. This speech, from Bob Geldof on the eve of the summit, sums what it felt like to be part of a truly mass, truly global moment. His subsequent assessment of whether the G8 refused us – “ten out of ten for aid and eight out of ten for debt” is, on reflection, a fairer one than that of the global coalition that “the people have roared but the G8 has whispered”. Part of the reason for the gulf between the verdicts is that some activists operated on the assumption that telling supporters they had won would somehow be demotivating. I think that profoundly misreads human psychology, as well as leading to perverse incentives to misrepresent reality. The simple fact is that the outcomes of the summit were unprecedented, something several journalists were already on camera explaining to their viewers while we were stuck in a room working out our line. Make Poverty History supporters, many of them taking campaign action for the first time in their lives, deserved to know whether marching to the top of the hill was worth it. It was and they should be very, very proud of what they achieved. The successes of the campaign are theirs, only its failures belong to us.

5) Campaigners made it possible, politicians made it happen

Part of the reason for the public’s success was that their political consent for action was harnessed to a clear advocacy calendar for action. The public might have been piling on the pressure, but in the end the deal was done by governments. Both the elected politicians and the backroom bureaucrats needed and deserved praise for the hard yards they put in. The key lesson for me is that while charity campaigners need not be partisans in politics, we should always be partisans for politics. Leaders had the power to do the right thing, we had the power to make them. Both sides played their part.

6) Exits are as important as entrances

Make Poverty History built the biggest anti-poverty mailing list in history.

And then we burnt it.

The rationale for doing so was twofold. Firstly, having the campaign exist for only one year was one of the ways of dramatising the idea of 2005 as being of unique urgency. Secondly, see point 2 above. Some of the organisations whose participation was critical for success made the winding down of Make Poverty History at the end of 2005 an explicit condition of their entry. In retrospect should the decision ever have been made in the first place? Probably not. Once made, however, it was impossible not to honour it. The consequence was that the whole year ended on a significant low. Tom Baker’s blog here is a good reminder of our failure to achieve much in the ‘second act’ when we shifted focus on aid and debt at the G8 to trade reform in the WTO. That failure, combined with a controversial wind-down, meant campaigners ended an incredible year not sure about what they had achieved.

If they, or any other readers, are still unsure, you can find out here. If you watched Live 8, or wore a white band, or marched on Edinburgh, these achievements belong to you. You did join a great generation. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.