What is a progressive foreign policy anyway?

Labour left office three years ago this month and may return to it just two years from now. That’s not a very long time in which to formulate a distinctive foreign policy for government, nor to game out responses to the massive shifts in the global strategic context in which the next Prime Minister will be operating.

To lend a hand, Labour think tank/ pressure group Progress have commissioned a series on progressive dilemmas in foreign policy, addressing the 12 big questions where the tensions between different left-of-centre first principles are most acute. Whatever your politics, we hope seeing how that debate plays out inside what could be the next governing party of Britain will be of interest.

How to Start Development’s Gutenberg Revolution

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As a schoolboy I was troubled to learn about medieval Europe where a narrow elite maintained unaccountable power by controlling access to information; and I delighted in the heroic story of how Johanes Gutenberg’s humble printing press began a revolution that brought an end to the unchecked control of knowledge and power by a few. I loved stories of the fearless folk who refused to accept, even under torture, that information was best kept hidden, and cheered the fall of the men who thought that ordinary people were best left ignorant.

Then I ended up as a development worker, asking governments how much they were spending on health, education and hunger. And alongside the late, incomplete, and plain wrong answers that followed, I felt I could hear faintly the all-powerful medieval cardinals of my school history classes laughing at me.

We sometimes talk of how people in power “fail” to put out timely and accurate information. But just as failed states are often terribly lucrative for those in charge of the failing, so too a cynic might ask what incentives there are for elites to fix “information failures” which prevent citizens from seeing what they’re doing.

We need another Gutenberg Revolution – not just the technology of online whizzes (Printers 2.0) but the kind of free-thinking insubordination that made the renaissance and reformation possible. To exhalt the humble, we’re going to have to humble the exhalted.

That’s why charities are so focused on getting the G8 to deliver on transparency in land investments and in taxation – because knowledge is power, because stealing is harder in broad daylight. The G8 would, no doubt, prefer if we only asked them to beneficent. But we’re insisting, most of all, that they are transparent, and end their role in providing shadowy corners for shady characters to hide their dodgy deals.

For development to succeed in ending extreme poverty and extreme inequality, transparency will be needed not only from the governments of rich countries but from the governments of developing countries too. That’s why it’s such important news to see the launch today of Government Spending Watch which monitors spending in 52 low income countries, an NGO initiative that provides the most up-to-date and comprehensive data we’ve ever had. It reveals, for example, that fewer than a quarter of countries are spending what is needed to deliver education for all or to meet targets on water and sanitation; that declining aid is leading to rising borrowing and increasing debt burdens; and that the global rhetoric on investing in social protection and gender equality is backed by very little actual money. But most importantly, it helps puts power in the hands of citizens to know what their governments are spending, and to hold them to account. There’s a lot of money in keeping people ignorant. Which is why we need to know.

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Britain’s dirty secret – the island havens that make life hell for the world’s poor

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The G8 agenda on tax is getting increasingly radical, and much of the credit on that must go to to the UK Government hosts. Issues that were off the table months ago are now up not just for discussion but for decision. The agenda has moved beyond tax evasion to the kind of tax avoidance that has been able up to now to squeak through as legal. The UK is serious, not just in its public statements, but, representatives of other governments have confirmed to me, in the private intergovernmental discussions too. As one official from a European country told me, “We couldn’t believe it when the UK put tax on the agenda. For years, whenever we tried to put even a sentence on tax into communiques, the British got out their red pen. And now it is they who are leading the call for action. So thanks to them, to you NGOs … and to Starbucks.”

But a contradiction lies at the heart of the UK’s action on tax dodging, one that could both hold back progress in itself and undermine the UK’s ability to get others to act. The UK is a haven for havens. Whilst the government talks of “tough negotiations” with the Lichtensteins of the world, it has power, through the Crown, to stop some of the most egregious havens and yet is holding back. The claims that these British treasure islands are independent sovereign states over whom the UK has no power is a fiction that collapses under a few minutes of scrutiny. The Kilbrandon Commission confirmed in 1973 that “The United Kingdom parliament has the power to legislate for the islands.” In 2009, the UK suspended the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands to deal with a corruption crisis. The notionally independent decisions of some of the islands to make some concessions last week were all announced on a single day by a UK Treasury press notice. When you read about “British Virgin Islands”, “British Overseas Territories” and “Crown Dependencies”, the clue is in the name. If UK tax havens fail to adequately tackle the secrecy and other practices that facilitate tax dodging it is ultimately because the UK allows it.

The impact of tax dodging on poverty is massive. Tax dodging deprives poor countries of the revenues they need to tackle poverty and to stand on their own two feet. As Jeff Sachs notes today, “The IF campaign makes a basic point: poverty can be fought, and austerity overcome, IF taxes are properly paid by those who owe them.”  Zambia would have 46% more money to invest in schools, health clinics, child nutrition and agricultural development if it could prevent tax dodging by multinationals. In a world where 2 million kids die before the age of five from malnutrition, tax dodging is literally fatal.

So why is the UK protecting its tax havens? It’s hard to know. I’ve heard, informally, from well-meaning people, arguments like “the money would just be moved elsewhere” and “it’s the only business they know”. Yet these are, sadly, no different in logic to the arguments made by drug dealers’ mums about their errant sons. I’ve heard “we can’t force them to behave”, which is flat out wrong. And “it’s OK, we’ve sorted it,” which is to mistake some minimal progress with a proper solution. Whatever the reason, it must be a very challenging cognitive dissonance, to lead an international negotiation to eradicate something which – unhappily, uneasily – you ultimately let your own people get away with. Especially when the mantra of the G8 is “Getting our own house in order.” And the dirty secret isn’t even secret any more. It’s a huge hulking big elephant in the room.

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The African Exodus: A View from the Ground

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Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading

A Balkan success for EU soft power?

Serbian leaders will make another attempt this week to convince Serbs in northern Kosovo to accept last month’s deal between Belgrade and Pristina to normalise relations between Serbia and its former province.

The April 19th agreement was  hailed in the much of the western media as a great success for the EU’s soft power and its oft-criticised Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Veteran Balkan watchers, like Misha Glenny and Tim Judah have both penned pieces lauding the potentially historic deal that took several rounds of tortuous negotiations mediated by Baroness Ashton.

The EU can be forgiven for celebrating a rare success given the unremitting gloom that has enveloped the European project as it struggles to find a way out of economic slump and the financial crisis threatening the Euro.

Furthermore, the agreement is certainly the closest the region has come to a comprehensive settlement of the Kosovo dispute since the violent break-up of Yugoslavia ended with NATO expelling Serbian security  forces from the province in 1999, and it was reached through talks hosted in Brussels, not decided on the battlefield. But was it really a victory for soft power?

True, most Serbian politicians see positive reasons for their country to join the EU. To them it represents a route to prosperity, modernisation and the restoration of the country’s reputation, blackened as it was by the repression and violence that marked the rule of its former leader, Slobodan Milosevic.  So the hope in Belgrade is that the deal will clear the way for Brussels to name a date for the start of full membership talks early next month.

Catherine Ashton and her team appear to have displayed diplomatic skill, tenacity and a good deal of imagination in crafting mutually acceptable wording to the fifteen point agreement .

But it was not skilful diplomacy that persuaded Belgrade to retreat so far from the deal it would have wanted. Before Kosovo unilaterally declared independence five years ago, there was another round of talks between the two sides led by the UN mediator, Martti Ahtisaari. Belgrade rejected the deal on offer then because Mr Ahtisaari never made any attempt to persuade the Kosovo Albanians to remain part of Serbia, instead offering a plan that would give Serbs in an independent Kosovo considerable autonomy with some links with Serbia.  The deal Belgrade has now accepted may not be called the Ahtisaari Plan. but it looks very much like it.

The key to getting Serbia to give so much ground – literally – is the German stick behind the Brussels  diplomats. Berlin has taken an increasingly hard line with Belgrade over the past few years and made it clear to Serbia there would be no EU membership talks if it didn’t normalise relations with Kosovo. Also, it is not lost on Belgrade that there are still more than five thousand NATO-led troops in Kosovo and the German contingent is by the far the largest. Ostensibly, they are there to keep the peace and their presence ensures Serbia hasn’t been able to resort to force to prevent Kosovo’s secession, even if it had had the will to do so. But in 2011 and 2012, these troops were deployed to try to face down resistance by Serbs in north Kosovo to an ultimately failed attempt by Pristina to unilaterally impose its rule there – an action that sent a clear message to Belgrade.

This looks more like the exercise of smart, than purely soft, power; something that may surprise many observers of EU foreign policy. But, as the two sides prepare to start discussing implementation, it is by no means certain the deal will stick.

For starters, it is only an outline and there will be plenty of potential pratfalls when working out the details – as the wrangling over interpreting and implementing a previous limited agreement on joint administration of customs and disputes over details as apparently mundane as car number plates, shows.

Then there are the conflicting meanings the two sides attach to the deal. For Pristina it represents de facto – if not de jure – recognition of its independence by Belgrade, but Belgrade insists it is no such thing, preferring to characterise it as a practical agreement to ensure the interests of Serbs living in Kosovo.

But most importantly, there is the attitude of the Serb majority who live in northern Kosovo. Even during the period of UN rule in Kosovo  from 1999-2008, Pristina’s writ never ran in northern Mitrovica and the three municipalities abutting central Serbia, and there is no sign that is about to change. Since the deal was signed, local Serb leaders who, crucially, were not involved in the talks have refused to accept the agreement, and there have been large protests suggesting most of the Serb population back them and are not reconciled to accepting having to live in an independent Kosovo.

Even if Belgrade withdraws its financial and political support from the Serbs in the north, they may take a leaf out of their opponent’s playbook by boycotting Kosovo’s institutions and looking after their own education and health needs, much as the Albanians did under Milosevic in the 1990s.

None of this is to say that the deal won’t eventually take root and the western Balkans will find the long-term stability it has lacked since the Ottoman Empire went into decline two centuries ago. But, as even Francis Fukuyama now acknowledges, history doesn’t end, and there is no guarantee that this deal marks the final resolution of the struggle between Serbs and Albanians for control of Kosovo.

For now, Kosovo’s Albanians have got their independence and are set to extend their control over all the territory claimed by Pristina, not because they are more powerful than their Serbian rivals, but because they have the support of the United States and the EU’s most influential states; while Serbia’s refusal to recognise Pristina’s UDI has support from Russia and other BRICS.

And, as the global power balance shifts over time, there is no guarantee the new status quo is immutable.

What the World Bank Does Not Understand About “Doing Business”

World Bank Doing Business

In its 10-year history, the World Bank’s Doing Business Report has achieved enormous influence. The annual study, one of the flagship knowledge products of the World Bank, is the leading tool to judge the business environments of developing countries, generating huge coverage in the media every year. Several countries—such as Rwanda—have used it as a guide to design reform programs. For its part, the Bank has advised over 80 countries on reforms to regulations measured in the DB. Its influence stretches even to academia, with over 1,000 articles being published in peer-reviewed journals using data in the index.

But does it focus on the most important issues for companies in less developed countries?

Based on my own almost 20 years of experience doing business in places such as Nigeria, Turkey, and China, the answer is no. Continue reading

Stuart Hall – The danger of anonymity for rape defendants

When the UK’s coalition government came to power, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised that they would increase ‘fairness in the justice system’ by providing defendants in rape cases with anonymity. This had been Lib Dem policy since 2006, while the coalition’s Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt, had supported anonymity while a Conservative backbencher.

Subsequently, however, Blunt was forced to drop the proposal after a MoJ report found a lack of evidence on the likely impact on convictions. According to the minister:

Evidence is lacking in a number of key areas, in particular, whether the inability to publicise a person’s identity will prevent further witnesses to a known offence from coming forward, or further unknown offences by the same person from coming to light.

Today’s conviction of veteran BBC broadcaster, Stuart Hall, for 14 counts of indecent assault on young girls demonstrates this was the right decision. Hall was also accused of rape (the charge remains on file), so would have been able to keep his name away from the media.

But we now have testimony from one victim, assaulted by Hall when she was 17, that she only came forward because she heard that he was being investigated.

After the Jimmy Saville case came out, I said to family I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Stuart Hall would be next and, within three weeks, it was coming out…

Hearing it on the radio I said to my husband: “What do I do? What do you think’s best?” My husband has known for thirty-six years what happened. When I heard it on the radio, I then got in touch with the local police.

Independent statements from victims who did not know each other was vital to building a case against Hall after so many years had passed. Anonymity would have stopped that happening. While terrible for the innocent, those accused of sex offences must continue to be named.

Update: An opinion poll published today reveals strong support for anonymity:

Three out of four people believe that people accused of rape and other sexual assaults should have their identities protected until they are convicted.

A ComRes survey for The Independent found strong public support for the controversial view expressed by Maura McGowan, chairman of the Bar Council, who argued that suspects in sex cases should enjoy the same right to anonymity as defendants.

In this case, 76% of the public, and the head of the Bar Council, are wrong.

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