Labour and the vision thing

Some of my best friends are spads. But it may be that they are just not suited to leadership. Spads are great at schmoozing and PR. Some may even be good at policy. But it’s rare that at any time in their career they will need to have vision. Because that’s their bosses’ job. So it’s understandable that a Labour party that has for years been run by a cabal of ex-spads — a ‘spadocracy’ perhaps — had no vision.

So said Diane Abbott MP in yesterday’s Guardian. (‘Spads’ are special advisers, if you’re wondering: political advisers to Ministers.)

To be fair, she doesn’t acknowledge that there are some big exceptions to her rule (Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor come to mind, for instance). Or that some people who she does admire — like Jon Cruddas, one of the most visionary minds in Labour politics — may not have been spads, but have even so worked for most of their careers in and around the Party.

But these are the exceptions, I concede — and I write this as a former special adviser myself, to Hilary Benn and before him Valerie Amos at the Department for International Development.

Being a spad (or a Labour policy officer, or a researcher for an MP) is, after all, first and foremost about the art of the possible. Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman captured this nicely in a five part typology of different kinds of special adviser in his book 1 out of 10: policy wonks; spin doctors; fixers; ‘comfort blankets’; and — rarest of all — political strategists.

Special advisers who are visionaries can also discover that they fit awkwardly into government, or find themselves at the receiving end of a powerful immune response from a system predisposed to write them off as dreamers or regard them as trouble makers: look at Dominic Cummings. (It’s a similar story with civil servants: only very rarely does a visionary like John Ashton make it to the highest levels, and even then generally only in an unusual role like John’s as the Foreign Office’s climate envoy.)

All of which leads in turn to a larger question that we too often overlook: how and where progressive politics incubates and nurtures visionary thinking. Continue reading

Posted in UK

BRICS in Africa – challenging the old order or consolidating it?

Arriving in Maputo last week I came across what has become a familiar sight in African airports: I don’t mean the big groups of Chinese businesspeople and officials passing through immigration, I mean the smaller groups of Europeans who mope about their own displacement, and whose look of despair grows ever more gaunt as they fail to get any sympathy. Observing the self-pity you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

Are the old powers being felled by the new? Has the glass ceiling of Northern domination been cracked by the BRICS – the “emerging” (now emerged) powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. If so, then amongst the Southern civil society representatives who met in Maputo last week, this challenge to the old order could not come a moment too soon. Their message was clear: we come not to mourn the G7-led world, but to bury it. There was celebration at the breaking of the monopoly that the old powers held, and excitement at the possibilities of South-South cooperation. But there were also worries at how in too many cases the lived reality of the BRICS in Africa for people had diverged so far from the promise.

BRICS are a work in progress. There is very little institutional solidity to the BRICS right now – their first intergovernmental institution, the BRICS bank, has just named its President and has not yet lent a penny. Very few people, if any, can be said to have been impacted by a “BRICS” decision. But civil society organisations have witnessed the impact of the BRICS in Africa, and sense where things are heading – and have reasons for cheers and for fears.

A story told about a bus: One day a bus was driving in the pouring rain, and as it drove towards its next stop, the people inside the bus, said ‘Don’t stop, if you let those people on it will be cramped and they will get us dirty.’ But the people at the bus stop called out ‘Please stop, we are cold and wet, and there is room enough for all.’ The bus stopped and the people got on, but when they got to the next stop there were more people asking to get on and those same people who had just got on said of those outside, ‘Don’t stop, if you let them on it will be cramped and they will get us dirty.’ Are the BRICS challenging the old G7 elite, so that all countries can get on the bus, or are they joining to form a new elite that will keep others off the bus and in the rain?

What will be the character of the relationships between BRICS countries and poorer developing countries: respect, or domination? To the BRICS bank pledge that it will be client-centred, people asked “who is the client?” A participant summed up the impact of a mining project in her locality that is backed by a number of BRICS countries: “Poisoned water. Poisoned air. Forced displacement. Abuse of workers. Non-payment of taxes. A crack down on protest.” She asked: “Is this South-South? Is this cooperation?” There were other, positive, stories too – of projects supporting family farming and genuine technology transfer. These different examples provided an opportunity for participants to sketch out both their no and their yes. Yes to investment, no to landgrabbing. Yes to welcoming companies, no to accepting tax avoidance. Yes to growth, no to dangerously widening inequality. Yes to agreements reached by consent, no to force. Yes to getting rid of the old elite, no to a new elite. Yes to the Bandung Conference of 1955, no to the Berlin Conference of 1884-5.

The most important solidarity, it was said, is between people. A couple of weeks ago in Brazil, members of the landless movement told me about how they had been right to celebrate when Lula swept into the Presidency, but wrong to assume that all that mattered was who was in power. The work of civil society in challenging the powerful must go on whoever the powerful are and wherever they are from. Last week’s meeting in Maputo reaffirmed that truth for international engagement too.

A key aspect of the discussions was the need to go beyond making policy recommendations to the BRICS. Emphasis was placed on self-determination. No one – from the West, the East, the North, or the South – is coming to save anyone. BRICS do represent a challenge to the old order but the economic logic they represent is similar. The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few will not be undermined by the rise of the BRICS, but it can be challenged by citizens. Communities need to set out, together: What is the development we want? How do we strengthen our power? So that whoever comes, from wherever, will see that guests are welcome but exploitation will be difficult to get away with. As the defeat of colonialism showed, the power of the people is stronger than the people in power.

5 flashing warning lights on the dashboard of the global humanitarian system

In case you hadn’t noticed, these are extraordinary times for the global emergency relief system, which has never looked more overstretched. 5 facts lifted from a new paper by my CIC colleagues Sarah Hearn and Alison Burt:

1. 76 million people now depend on the humanitarian system. A decade ago, the figure was 26 million.

2. The number of forced displaced people has more than doubled over the MDG era –  from 20 million in 1999 to more than 51 million at the end of last year.

3. The cost of global emergency assistance is now $18 billion – a more than threefold increase from the $5 billion it cost in 2000.

4. Internally displaced people now outnumber international refugees by a factor of 2 to 1 (24 million IDPs versus 12 million refugees – in 2000 it was 6 million IDPs and 12 million refugees).

5. The average displacement of a refugee now lasts for 17 years.

When we talk about ways of assisting the hardest to reach of the people living in poverty around the world, it’s often not governments or development actors but the humanitarian system that are delivering the basic services. So if the world is serious about the SDG aim of leaving no one behind, then this is where we have to start.

Back in 2005, UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland led a massive push to upgrade the humanitarian system. With next year’s World Humanitarian Summit coming up, it’s high time that the UN embarked on a similarly ambitious effort again.

Bill, Melinda, and the SDGs

About a week ago, the Humanosphere blog caused something of a stir in development circles with a piece on the UN’s draft Sustainable Development Goals entitled “Gates Foundation rallies the troops to attack UN development goals“. Its headline message:

The Gates Foundation really dislikes what the international community intends to do over the next 15 years to reduce poverty and inequality.

The post went on to claim that “the SDGs were not just debated and critiqued at [the Foundation’s annual Global Partners Forum in Seattle, which took place last week]; they were downright ridiculed, repeatedly”.

A week later, Humanosphere ran a follow-up by the same author, which included quotes from an interview with Mark Suzman, Gates’s president of global policy, advocacy, and country programs. According to this piece,

While Suzman acknowledged that there were plenty of critical – and yes, even snarky – comments made at the Gates Forum about the SDGs, he said it would be incorrect to interpret this as lack of support for what the UN agenda is aimed at accomplishing in general.

Fair enough – I’ve known Mark Suzman a long time, have huge respect for him as a development policy expert, and know him to completely straight-up about what he thinks and where he’s coming from. And I also understand how participants at the Global Partners Forum were feeling if (as Humanosphere paraphrases Mark),

The concern at the Gates confab appeared to be that the SDGs were looking more like vague or aspirational goals, such as MDG8, and moving away from the successful strategy of focusing on simpler, easily identified and tracked goals.

But the kerfuffle over the Gates Foundation’s stance on the SDGs still raises a couple of interesting questions worth considering. Continue reading

“Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful. Reflections from the landless movement in Brazil.

“This dance is not mine alone, this dance is by us all” – they move as one circle, hand in hand. Then, still as one circle, they put their arms around each other – “when we are tired, we have each other’s shoulders to rest on.”

The women proudly show us the fruits of their labour: coconuts turned into oil, soap, flour and more; a cooperative factory that processes the goods so that they don’t need to rely on middlemen; a small farm with a vegetable patch, a fish pond and a chicken coop. And they talk of the victories won in the face of entrenched power.

“The richest man in this area claimed that all this land was his. He was also the area’s politician. He had the money power and the political power. The family have been powerful for hundreds of years. Police and gunmen kept harassing us. They told us to leave but we had nowhere else to go. I remember the sound of the six bullets.”

But they do not want to dwell on the pain. When a conversation turns to those who died, one woman interjects “but if we keep on telling all these sad stories we could go on for days. What do we need to do now?”

There has been real progress: those landless workers who collect coconuts from the forests and from the big estates successfully campaigned for a law that protects their right to do so; some communities have secured recognition for the small pieces of land on which they live and farm; the cooperatives have secured from the government a guaranteed minimum price for key products so that they can be assured of a minimum income; in several districts the groups have secured free, public, pre-school for small children and won access to water and sanitation.

All are clear how these victories were won. “Individually we coconut-breakers are small. But when we organised we became visible. We said ‘look at us, listen.’” “Everything we have achieved has been through the strength of our friendship.” “We got together in our community, then we linked with communities across the region. We went and got support from the trade unions, from the Catholic Church, and from the wider public. We started an association and kept pressing for our rights to earn a living and live in dignity.”

They are clear that they cannot rely on the good will of politicians. When the local establishment politician was replaced by his daughter, “it made no difference that she was a woman. She was her father’s daughter. He lived on through her.” There is a recognition that the national government of Lula, whose party emerged from the social movements and which brought several leaders of the social movement into power, introduced substantial reforms and was the best government they have known. Unemployment was reduced, the minimum wage increased, and inequality went down. But, they say, “we made a mistake of thinking when the good people got into power we didn’t need to keep pressuring them. It’s like we went to sleep. Whoever is in power we need to keep pushing.” “Yes,” says a coconut breaker, “things are better, but now, when we try to enter the coconut forests to which we have the right of access, the big landlords, who used to kill us with dogs and guns, kill us with electric fences instead.” “Yes,” agrees a peasant farmer, “we have managed to stay on our farm, but we are still denied water. We want more than to live, we want to live with dignity.” There is a worry that the Dilma government, which pledged to continue the progress of Lula has instead, under pressure from big corporations and landlords, started to roll back. “They have stopped listening to us. Government listens to the rich and big companies. Not to us, the poor, Indians, blacks, women. We have to struggle.”

They share, none the less, a profound sense that their struggle will ultimately win. Discussions regularly burst into song. “Even though it is dark, I sing, for the morning will come.” In one community facing eviction we meet in the one-room clay and straw building they built as their church, their school, the headquarters of their association, and their village meeting hall. They call the building “Our Lady of Good Hope.”

“We are strong. My grandfather escaped from slavery with his friends. And I have secured my piece of land with you, my friends. But we cannot just wait. We need to demand.”

At a special event of the landless movements, Deje, a coconut breaker, is seated next to a government official who apologises for having arrived late and for needing to leave early. Deje stands up and directly addresses him in front of the crowd. Brazilian Portuguese has such a sweet melody that to the English ear everything I’ve heard, whatever the content, has sounded gentle. Until now. She points her finger at his face. “Whenever we try to meet government they fail to see us. Whenever we write to government they fail to reply.” She pulls out a piece a paper. “We have a letter for you. I’m going to read it to you.” It begins: “We landless demand our right to fetch coconuts unharassed by landowners…” Then the coup de grace: “Now, you cannot leave until you to sign it. We need you to sign it right now.” And he does. Then he thanks her. “We know that all progress depends on the social movements. We need to work with you.”

We’ve just witnessed a lesson in courage, in democracy, and in power. It is the same lesson we learnt in the dance. And that we read on the T-shirt of one of the landless women workers: “Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful.

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