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.


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.

What transformation looks like

Over the years I’ve frequently been a source of amusement to my wife Emma, but rarely more so than when I came home from work at DFID one day a decade or so ago and recounted to her a particularly mortifying interaction I’d had with the IT department. My computer had gone on the fritz during a password update, and in order to resolve it I’d had to tell the tech support guys my old password over the phone – while a senior official was in the room. Imagine my joy as I had to spell out “f-u-c-k-i-n-c-r-e-m-e-n-t-a-l-i-s-m” while my visitor attempted and failed to stifle their mirth.

Although I use slightly more discreet passwords these days, I’ve still never really drunk the Kool-aid on change that happens one step at a time, at a grindingly slow pace, measurable in decades. Which can be a rather frustrating worldview when you work on global climate policy – but, now and again, a deeply satisfying one when you get out and see real development happening in real places at unreal speed.

And it turns out that it looks like this:

SavingsEach row belongs to a woman who’s a member of a Self Help Group in a village near Nazret in Ethiopia. Each column is one of their weekly meetings. And each of those number ‘5’s is five birr that each member saves, week in, week out – about 15 pence.

Not a lot, but you’d be surprised what happens next. Right away, the women can buy their food in bulk at a big discount. More importantly, they can each start borrowing money from the self help group and diversifying their income. At first in tiny ways – by buying sand and concrete to make fuel efficient cook stoves and then selling them on, or by financing setting themselves up as a baker rather than a day labourer.

By the time a group’s been around for a few years – like the group I saw the following day in Adama town – it’s all kicked off. Members of the self help group are saving ten times as much. They’re putting money aside into a social insurance fund in case one of them gets sick or has an accident. And they’re taking out loans at a much bigger scale – to buy cows and sell the milk, or build a house extension and letting out the rooms, or buy a taxi, or (in one case) open a tiny pool hall. They talk in terms of capital adequacy, and rate of return, and business plans. They say their next step is to go into business together to set up a livestock operation. I believe them.

In every single case, these are people who were targeted in the initial outreach because they were the very poorest of the poor – the hardest to reach, the most vulnerable, the ones living on a single meal a day if that. Now they have smartphones, sofas, little houses. Some of their kids are in higher education.

But here’s the thing: they all say that the money’s not the point. They’re evangelical about the saving, don’t get me wrong. But they all say that the thing that’s really changed their lives is the relationships with each other. (“We’re family now.”) The trust they have in their group. The shift in their relationships with their husbands as they’ve stopped being dependent and started being income earners. Above all, the power – to make change happen, rather than have it as something that happens to them. (“We used to be so timid.”)

This is designed in. Each group draws up its own bye-laws; although a facilitator is on hand to help, no one tells them how to run themselves. Everyone takes turns drawing up the agenda, chairing the meetings, summing up the discussion. Groups self-assess their members on confidence and articulacy. They hold themselves to account. They charge themselves penalties if they’re late.

As Self Help Groups mature, they self-organise into clusters, and then those clusters into federations. They set up and nurture more Self Help Groups. They set up kids’ clubs during the holidays. Then they set up kindergartens. Then they set up schools. They arrange skills training for their members. They start sorting out water and sanitation. They plant trees in their neighbourhood to spruce the place up.

So guess how much aid it costs to run each Self Help Group?

A pittance. And according to one cost-benefit analysis the rates of return are £173 for every £1 spent – an almost unbelievably high multiple, among the very highest available for any development project.

To a large extent, these groups are self-financing. True, it costs money to run networks of facilitators in areas where mature clusters aren’t in place yet – but these are met primarily by local church or community groups. When I first heard about Self Help Groups in Ethiopia I thought they were a form of social protection. Having visited them, I realise it’s the opposite. This has nothing to do with welfare.

I’m not a program expert, nor a monitoring and evaluation nerd – but I’ve visited a fair few development projects over the years, especially when I was at DFID, and I’ve never seen anything like this. This isn’t a project, it’s a movement – there are now 25,000 Self Help Groups in Ethiopia, and they’re multiplying like yeast. And it is absolutely, categorically, totally transformative.

All this has happened in large part because of work that Tearfund, a Christian development NGO, has been doing with local churches over the past nearly two decades. And when you talk to Tearfund’s country head, Keith Etherington, you get a strong sense that you’re still only seeing the opening act of this story.

This is some of the most impressive development work I’ve ever seen, and it’s being done on a shoestring – and with more funding, much more can be done to roll this out across the country. If you’re planning on giving money to anything any time soon, I simply cannot imagine a better rate of return than this.

A problem for every solution on climate

It frustrates me so much that UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres was rubbishing the idea of a carbon budget two years ago, even as the IPCC was being more trenchant than ever before about the need for one …and now here she is two years later saying there’s no way Paris will agree a 2 degree deal.

*Obviously* Paris isn’t going to do a 2 degree deal, in this lame incremental paradigm where everyone just talks about what they think they can manage, as opposed to what’s actually necessary. But that’s because no one is leading by putting the question of how we share a safe global emissions budget out between 195 countries squarely on the table.

Surely Christiana Figueres’s job as UNFCCC Executive Secretary is to tell the world what it will take to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a safe level? Am I missing something here?

Few things infuriate me more than when people tell me that there’s no way we’ll ever agree on how to share out a global carbon budget because it would inevitably lead to a zero sum game in which everyone ends up fighting – without their having taken the trouble to sit down and actually run the numbers.

Owen Barder, Alice Lepissier and I just spent the last three years building a quant model to answer the question of what it would look like if the world agreed a 2 degree carbon budget, shared it out on the basis of equal per capita shares of the sky, and allowed emissions trading. (Our report is out in a month’s time at the SDG summit, but here’s a 3 page preview if you’re interested.)

You know what we found? That not only is it way cheaper than you’d think for high emitters, but even more strikingly, that low and lower middle income countries receive  $419 billion a year from emissions trading by 2025. Which is more than three times as much as total current aid flows. So we stabilise the climate – and in the process we sort out the finance for development gap that last month’s Addis FFD summit so manifestly failed to do anything about.

Climate change and poverty eradication are just so _solvable_. And yet here we are still running round and round and round in circles telling ourselves it can’t be done – with the effect that emissions are now up 52% since the UN Climate Convention was signed in 1992. We can do a lot better than this.

Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

The powerful have shown a really nasty side this month. That’s great news.

In the Addis talks over tackling tax dodging, and in the EU-IMF talks on Euro-austerity, the powerful have shown a really nasty side this month. That’s great news.

How can I say that when we see the suffering that this will cause? How could be I so heartless as to see the opportunity in the crisis? Of course I don’t mean that the suffering is a price worth paying, or even that suffering should be necessary to social change. I only mean this: the suffering has been happening. What has been happening less is the powerful showing how deliberate their actions are. Now we see it. It’s the difference between brutality that has been caught on a cameraphone and broadcast on youtube, and brutality hidden behind a wall. Events in Addis and in Athens show how business as usual works, who dominates it, and its emptiness. It’s not hidden anymore. As Gandhi noted, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. We’ve got to stage three.

In the EU-IMF talks on Euro-austerity, we know that terms have been imposed on Greece that aren’t deliverable. We know this because the IMF’s own documents say so. In the Addis talks, we know that the reason we don’t have a global tax body to tackle tax dodging is because the rich countries blocked it – not that people looked at it and decided on a better way, but that poor countries proposed it and rich countries blocked it. We may wish that the powerful were not like that – but if they are it is better that we know that they are. What Addis showed is there is no reliable “global leadership” from the great powers of the North. Southern government assertiveness, backed up by South-North civil society solidarity, will be key. That’s how we stopped the steamroller of the WTO.

As we look at how to tackle inequality and how to combat climate change, it is clear that we are not all on the same side. Sometimes pushing a rock up a hill is hard because it’s a rock and it’s a hill. But sometimes it’s even harder because someone at the top is trying to push that rock back down the hill.

But what’s also clear is this. The powerful don’t usually like having to show the force behind their power except when they actually have to. As social theorists from Gramsci to Chomsky have pointed out, things run much smoother for those in power when there is a semblance of process and consent. That the type of power shown over the Addis talks and the Greece talks has been so nakedly brutal is paradoxically a sign of its weakness. This is what Martin Luther King noted in the struggle for civil rights. We’re relearning it now.

This isn’t an argument for exclusivism. I’ve just come back from meeting on inequality and climate change that brought together Naomi Klein and the Vatican. That’s quite a broad movement. As different issue groups converge in common cause, as unions and environmentalists, faith groups and feminists, grassroots movements and NGOs, all link up, the power from below is building. And one day the establishment will organise stamps and holidays to celebrate the victories for tax justice, climate action and the reversal of inequality, just as now they do for yesteryear’s victories that they fought just as hard to prevent, and lost. Remember the powerful resisted civil society on slavery, suffragettes, colonialism, apartheid and civil rights.

NGOs need to stop saying “this is a crucial year” or “this is a key meeting”, and get back to the business of organising. Justice won’t come today just because there is a meeting, or a moment. But it can come tomorrow, when there is momentum from a movement. That movement is growing. And it’s becoming smarter, clearer-eyed about who is in the way. And that’s great news.

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.

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