Alex Evans

About Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, and the author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren't Enough? (Penguin, 2017), a book about the power of deep stories to unlock transformational change. He lives in North Yorkshire and is currently working on political polarisation and learning dry stone walling. Full biog here.

The coolest thing I’ve been involved in (in a very small way) this year

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Ever since I was very small, I’ve always just been crazy, crazy, crazy about space. I still miss a particular book about space that I had as a kid and which I lost somewhere between then and now. My favourite dressing up stuff when I was little was an astronaut suit; my favourite toy, a tent done up like an Apollo capsule. And I never really grew out of it.

Even today, space films have the capacity to affect me like nothing else. Emma always chuckles at me because while there may be few things in life you can really count on, one of them is the fact that I will *invariably* get slightly teary at the ending of ‘Contact’ (which I must have watched more times than any other movie). Or at the ending of ‘Gravity’. Or for that matter at the Imax film about how shuttle astronauts repaired Hubble. Anything with stars in it, really.

Then, four years ago, there was a point when I was the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. In many ways it was a deeply frustrating experience, and there was one particularly dispiriting morning, when I was in a windowless room in the UN’s North Lawn Building in NYC, listening to one member of the Panel in particular block one thing after another.

And the thing was that I’d just been reading this book called The Overview Effect, which was all about how the view of earth from space changed astronauts’ perspectives for ever, and made them think in terms of a larger, truly global ‘us’.

And all I could think of, as I listened to all these politicians, was: if only you were all in space, this would be such a different conversation. And as I sat there, feeling mutinous, I tuned out of the conversation for a few minutes and scribbled off this blog post. Serendipitously, I got a lovely email just a few hours later from Frank White, the author of the Overview Effect, to say hello – and amid all the disillusionment, his email kept me going through the rest of the meeting.

But that wasn’t the end of the serendipities. Earlier this year, in the spring I think, I was over in NYC for a work trip. It was my first night in town, I was jetlagged to hell, and I was grabbing a quick bite to eat in my hotel’s bar before crashing out. Sitting next to me at the bar was another guy eating on his own, and I just happened to glance in his direction as he opened his wallet – and I saw that he had several of the same business cards in there, all with the NASA logo on them.

So obviously I surmised that they were his cards, and my eyes widened, and I heard myself say, “excuse me, do you work at NASA?!” And it turns out that he was called Matt Pearce, that he did indeed work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies – and off we went.

I talked about how much I adored Contact; it turned out he’d actually done some work on it. I told him about that Panel meeting four years ago; he got it 100%. And then we got to talking about this year’s big summit moments, and the Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 and all the rest of it, and somewhere along the way we hit upon an idea.

We may not be able to bring summits to space, we figured, but we can at least bring space, and the overview perspective it gives, to summits. What would it be like, we wondered, if a UN summit were to open with a live uplink to the International Space Station – talking to the astronauts as they look down at us, with them explaining to us how irrelevant borders look, and how fragile the earth seems, from all the way up there?

So eventually we wrapped it up for the evening, but not before we’d swapped business cards and I’d promised to put him in touch with friends in the UN Secretary-General’s office, whom he’d then put in touch with people at NASA HQ. And we both did, and later I gathered that a meeting had duly gone ahead, and that was about as much as I heard about it – until now, this week, here in Paris at COP21.

I have to say at this point that in Addis Ababa, where we live, Emma and I often make a point of watching the International Space Station as it goes overhead. (You can sign up for updates about when it’s due to fly over where you live here.) It never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I see it: it’s the third brightest object in the sky, and though it takes a full 6 minutes to cross from one horizon to the other, you really have the sense of it hurtling along; of the fact that this is an object travelling at 17,500 miles an hour.

And I especially love the fact that our two kids Isabel (5) and Kit (2) also totally get how awesome this is. Last time Isabel watched it with me, she dressed up in her snow suit because it’s the closest thing she has to a space suit. And on its very next orbit, one of the crew tweeted a picture of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains from space. We tweeted him back to say hello. That was really great.

But it pales in comparison with having been one small link in a long and utterly serendipitous chain that resulted in this video being played at the COP21 climate summit. It’s a beautiful film, and I take my hat off to the people involved in making it. I have this big, silly smile on my face as I type this to think that, even if in a very circuitous and tangential way, I’ve been involved in a space mission. All the more so given that that mission is about the issue that I’ve spent the last 20 years or so working on.

Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is a disaster. That’s not a reason to bomb Syria

Like many Labour members, I despair of the direction in which Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party. Back when he was elected, I wondered whether he had a plan for reaching out to the public and taking them with us. In the wake of John McDonnell’s decision to produce a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book at the Despatch Box, I think we have the answer to that question.

Worse, Labour risks building this disaster in for a generation. The kind of hard left organising happening at CLP level looks like a re-run of Militant circa 1981. You have to wonder whether the people who voted for Corbyn over the summer knew what they were letting themselves in for – or even if they really care that Labour is becoming an unelectable NGO, if this week’s Economist is anything to go by:

 “A YouGov poll in The Times on November 24th found that 66% of current party members thought that Mr Corbyn was doing a good job – even more than voted for him in September. And this result came although half of party members also believed he was unlikely ever to become Prime Minister.”

Understandable, then, that centrist Labour MPs are spoiling for a fight, and why they might decide that Syrian airstrikes are the ground on which to have it. Public unease about ISIS is spiking after Paris, and Corbyn has seemed badly out of sync. Labour MPs also sense a chance to set the record straight after Ed Miliband’s disastrous mishandling of a previous vote on the issue in the last Parliament.

Yet for all of Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence in other areas, the plain fact is that on air strikes he is right and the Labour MPs thinking about voting for them are wrong (including my former boss Hilary Benn – who, for the record, is a man whom I think has more integrity than anyone else I’ve met in politics).

First, because air strikes don’t work unless they’re undertaken in conjunction with effective allied forces on the ground, and these don’t exist in Syria. As counter-insurgency writer William Lind puts it,

“The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids.”

Second, because air strikes will bestow a priceless gift to ISIS. Lind again:

“By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.”

And third, because surely we’ve learned by now that “something must be done” is no substitute for a proper war strategy with clear aims. Look how often that impulse has got us into trouble, for heaven’s sake – Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, the disastrous US mission to Somalia that resulted in the Black Hawk down debacle.

To be clear, I’m a passionate believer in the Responsibility to Protect, and the principle of humanitarian intervention. I supported Labour MP Jo Cox in her joint call with former development secretary Andrew Mitchell for a new approach to Syria, and slated shadow development secretary Dianne Abbott for her kneejerk rejection of it.

But we should only undertake humanitarian intervention when it will actually work. This won’t. And my worry is that many Labour MPs are now so enraged with Corbyn that they’ll vote for it anyway.

What Diane Abbott gets wrong about Jo Cox’s proposals on Syria

Oh dear.

Labour Shadow International Development Secretary Diane Abbott is right to be sceptical of air strikes on ISIS. But she’s completely misread where Jo Cox and John Woodcock, two centrist Labour MPs, are coming from in their push for a cross-party approach on Syria. And in the process, she’s played straight into the hands of those parts of the media that are rubbing their hands in anticipation of a big bust-up within the Labour Party.

Start with the air strikes. As I wrote in a post here on Global Dashboard almost exactly a year ago, I have great misgivings about the west’s existing strategy of air strikes on ISIS, for two reasons.

One, because they’re militarily dubious. Air strikes only work in conjunction with effective allied forces on the ground. Those exist in Kurdistan, but not elsewhere in Iraq – and barely at all in Syria. What’s more, as counter-insurgency writer William Lind observes,

The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids.

This leads on to the second problem with air strikes on ISIS, again succinctly summed up by Lind (emphasis added):

By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.

For both of those reasons, I share Abbott’s instinctive scepticism of air strikes on ISIS. They may make us feel better, and scratch the “something must be done” itch – but they’re unlikely to work, and may well end up empowering the forces they’re supposed to weaken.

But Abbott gets it totally wrong with her late night tweet yesterday, responding to a Guardian piece with news that as many as 50 Labour MPs, led by Cox and Woodcock, may vote with the Conservatives to support a new approach to Syria set out in a joint article, also published today, by Cox and former Conservative International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

In her tweet, Abbott makes two big errors.

The first is to imply that Cox and Mitchell’s proposal is simply to “bomb Syria” – as if they are merely proposing a continuation of the current, failed approach of ‘air strikes only / ISIS only’.

Instead, Cox and Mitchell’s article is calling for a major shift – starting with the recognition that if your priority is civilian protection, then you can’t just target ISIS and ignore the Assad regime which, with its barrel bombs and chemical weapons attacks, is by far the biggest source of innocent casualties in this long conflict.

Nor are they proposing air strikes alone. Instead, it’s clear from briefings given to inform the Guardian’s accompanying news article that this is about a much more comprehensive approach, which could include “the use of troops to protect new “safe havens” inside Syria, and enforce a “no-fly” or “no bombing zone” to prevent Assad launching further attacks on his own people, as well as moves to hit Islamic State in Syria”.

To be sure, there are still big questions about what Cox and Mitchell are proposing.

For one thing, I still feel uneasy about including air strikes on ISIS as part of the mix, for the reasons set out above. (True, a no-fly zone would also include air strikes, primarily on Assad’s air defences and airfields – but Lind’s ‘Goliath vs David’ point about perceptions, legitimacy and the moral level of warfare wouldn’t apply in the same way here, and I also find it easier to see how these strikes would work militarily.)

More fundamentally, I have a lot of questions about how their proposed approach would work in the multi-side proxy conflict that Syria’s civil war has now become. After all, Russian air forces have been responsible for plenty of civilian deaths in the past week: would we be attacking their air base at Latakia too?

(Of course, Cox and Mitchell aren‘t suggesting this, and instead it proves their point that any military scaling up would have to be matched by a diplomatic scaling up too, where there are tentative signs of progress in talks between the US and Russia – but the Russia question remains the gorilla in the room in all this.)

The bottom line, though, is that Cox and Mitchell are making a valuable and important contribution in reviving and bringing fresh ideas to a debate in Britain that’s become stuck and that has too often lost sight of what should be our top priority: the humanitarian and civilian protection dimension.

And this leads to the other thing that Abbott gets wrong in her tweet: its tone, with its sour references to Cox, Woodcock and other Labour MPs as “these people” and to “join[ing] with the Tories”.

Abbott may disagree with Cox and Woodcock’s position, but she should at least acknowledge the seriousness of their intent and the integrity of their motives. Instead, she weakens her case, and offers a gift to all those hoping that Labour will go to war with itself under Jeremy Corbyn. Most of all, she diminishes her own standing by bringing party politics into it – as though this were about her or Jeremy Corbyn’s authority, or “the Tories”, rather than about thinking much harder about what we can do to protect the innocent victims of Syria’s war.

Quoted without comment

If anything, I have had to keep empathy at bay. It is such a saturation of suffering that somehow as a journalist you have to harden yourself, otherwise it becomes too painful to do your job. Then on 7 April, a few months after I began researching a book on the subject, my first child was born.

In the weeks after Nathaniel’s birth, there was one image I could not shake from my mind. It was of the mothers who gave birth in the sinking smuggling boats, their stories told by survivors who had witnessed the deliveries and by rescue divers who found the bodies of babies still attached to their mothers by their umbilical cord. I had just experienced a pregnancy and birth, that blooming of hope, the excitement at the onset of labour, the hours of terrible pain then the euphoria of the delivery and wriggling new life in front of you.

Imagine doing all that, but in the darkness of the rotting hull of a fishing vessel, surrounded by so many bodies in the grip fear and panic, inhaling hot air saturated with the smell of human waste and diesel fumes, lost in the middle of the sea and knowing that you were drowning.

Would that rush of pure, indescribable joy when your baby finally leaves your body still be there, even if you knew you and the child you brought into the world were about to die? Did they have a chance to hold their babies, to try and comfort them? Did anyone help comfort them at that moment when they were delivering that doomed life, or was the panic so complete that they were alone?

As I nursed Nathaniel in the small hours of the morning, I could not stop putting myself on those boats, imagining the horror of it over and over and over again. What scares me most about the current debate over the refugee crisis is the utter inability of some people and politicians to acknowledge any shared experience with the people asking for sanctuary on this rich continent.

It is the British politicians speaking of ‘swarms’ and ‘marauders’. This is the language of plague and pestilence, not human lives. At its worst it is the Hungarian and Slovakian leaders speaking about the dilution of Christian values, and refusing refuge to Muslims.

In 1938, American and European leaders met in the French spa town of Evian to debate whether to offer sanctuary to the growing numbers of Jewish refugees. Politician after politician took to the podium and spoke about high unemployment and economic hardship, and nothing was done. The next year, W.H. Auden wrote his Refugee Blues: ‘Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees; They had no politicians and sang at their ease; They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race’. So much time has passed, yet how little we have learnt.

From Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in Granta.

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?

10 thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s win

1.Whatever you think about Jeremy Corbyn, it is kind of astonishing to see a party leader who goes straight from being elected to participating in a march for refugees’ rights. I’ve grown up used to Labour leaders who pitch themselves at Middle England while assuring us Party members sotto voce that they’re one of us really. It feels weird to have a Labour leader pitching himself at me.

2. I do though wonder about ‘polarisation’ and the risk of issues becoming partisan where they weren’t before. Look at climate change. Once there was a consensus on this; now, it’s arguably the single biggest dividing line between left and right, partly because us lefties made it ‘our’ issue (thanks, Naomi). Is the same thing going to happen on more issues if a leader like Jeremy Corbyn champions them? If so, would that be a good or a bad thing?

3.Which leads me to a bigger underlying question: now that Jeremy Corbyn is our leader, do we have a plan for reaching out to the public and taking them with us? Or is this going to be like all our Facebook walls, where we just talk to ourselves?

4. The right clearly takes the latter view and is giddy with excitement. Janan Ganesh in the FT today: “If David Cameron showed up to parliament in his Bullingdon Club tailcoat to announce the sale of Great Ormond Street children’s hospital to a consortium led by ExxonMobil, his Conservatives would still be competitive against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at the next election.” It would be nice to defy these expectations.

5.  For the right / New Labour / Blairites, and not a few Brownites, this means they need to (how to put this?) shut the f**k up and acknowledge Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate. They were the first to expect loyalty to the leader when they ran the show. For them to be muttering about ousting Corbyn – as lots of them are privately, and some even publicly – is totally inappropriate.

6. For the left / people who voted for Corbyn, the quid pro quo – one that will be just as hard for them as shutting up will be for the New Labour folk – must be that they have got to let go of this instinct to denounce any questioning of anything Corbyn says / does / has ever done / has ever said as part of a conspiracy to ‘smear’ their guy. Heaven knows Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have never felt shy of living out their view that debate within the Party is healthy…

7. …which is just as well, because we have a lot to debate right now, and it would be nice to be able to do so without being at each other’s throats. Truth is, I feel deeply conflicted about the result. I voted Kendall, Cooper, Burnham because I want Labour to win elections; yet my main feeling about the Blair and Brown eras is one of disappointment. Sure, there were successes – but bloody modest ones, given the scale of the 97 landslide. I want a radical alternative for the 21st century.

8. But I feel uneasy that so much of the Corbyn agenda seems so 20th century: more Socialist Worker than New Economics Foundation. I want us to build new institutions, not just defend the old ones. Above all a lot of it seems deeply statist where I’ve been hoping for something that’s much more about decentralisation and communities. There’s been a lot of good thinking about this in recent years from people like Jon Cruddas and Paul Hilder (see this piece of mine from back in May for links to their stuff). I don’t see much of it represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s platform.

8. On that note, as much as the media try to spin this as New versus Old Labour, there’s actually something much more interesting going on here, as Paul Mason noted a few days ago. Jeremy Corbyn surged to victory by talking about “progressive, left, green, feminist and anti-racist values” – messages that appeal to Party members who are “metropolitan, multi-ethnic, networked and … young”. What none of the leadership candidates really spoke to, on the other hand, was the ‘blue’ Labour agenda of “‘reconnecting’ with the working class base … old Labour voters worried about migration, declining communites etc.”

9. Whereas Tom Watson does align much more with these ‘blue’ Labour values. So for me the question I’m most fascinated by is this: will the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ Labour worldviews and their new standard bearers, Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, be able to work together? Is there some kind of synthesis out there waiting to be found between these two very different takes on what the left should look like? Or is it just a matter of time before the gloves come off? I hope the former; even then, it may not be enough. But let’s go for it.

10. After all, who the hell knows about anything any more. Everyone was wrong about the general election. Everyone was wrong about Corbyn’s chances of winning the Labour leadership. Maybe they’re all wrong about his chances in the next general election too. (As the Daily Mash put it, “A man who just defied expectations to get elected definitely could not win an election, it has been confirmed”.) For sure if there’s another financial crisis then all bets are off: the Conservatives won’t have Labour to blame this time, and with nothing left in the kitty to bail anyone out it could look a lot nastier than the last one.