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.”

People Power – What Progress on Fighting Inequality Would Look Like

Movements overcome injustices not just by bearing witness to the wrongs of the time, but by enabling people to envision a better future. Martin Luther King described the Dream, the Promised Land, the place towards which people were marching. The Anti-Apartheid movement set out the Freedom Charter. Campaigners for debt cancellation painted a picture of a world where millions more kids would go to school. In a similar way, groups involved in the emerging and coalescing movement to tackle inequality are going beyond describing why inequality is wrong, and are articulating what progress on fighting inequality would look like. In listening to some of those discussions in Nairobi, Addis and New York, I’ve heard what amounts to a vision of transformation.

It’s clear that, for the movement against inequality, change would look like much more than just the use of the movement’s language by those whom the movement is pushing to change course. Activists are pleased that the World Bank and IMF now acknowledge that inequality has gotten out of hand and needs to be tackled. But they note that hasn’t yet noticeably shifted how they actually operate in countries. The World Bank’s confusion on school fees is still hindering access to free education for all. The IMF still promotes austerity and regressive taxes. Activists are pleased that every government (every single one) just committed at the UN meetings in New York to reduce inequality within and between countries – something that very senior leaders from very powerful countries told many of us they would never ever commit to, just weeks before they did. But they note that the number of governments seriously reducing inequality within countries can be counted on one hand – and say that the commitment to reducing inequality between countries has been undermined by rich countries blocking progress on an international body to tackle tax dodging. The movement to tackle inequality is not a campaign for nicer language – it’s a struggle for a fairer society, for shared prosperity, for a world where no one has impunity and no one is a nobody. It is a struggle for dignity.

Activists say that progress in the fight against inequality would look like governments across the world learning from, and going further than, the policies introduced by the Lula government in Brazil which redistributed income, increased social protection, increased jobs and salaries for the poor, and increased people’s access to land. Progress would look like access to free, publicly provided, health and education for all; it would look like more jobs, higher minimum wages more strongly enforced, and greater rights at work. It would look like a massive increase in people’s access to land and the enforcement of free prior and informed consent. It would look like progressive taxes, progressively spent, and a clamp down on tax dodging. It would look like action on climate change that kept temperature rises below 1.5 degrees and ensured the poorest people were compensated for the loss and damage that others have caused. It would look like proper checks on corporate power. Progress in the fight against inequality, activists emphasise, would not just mean a narrowing of the gap between the richest and the rest but also, and indivisibly, greater equality between women and men, and between racial, religious and caste groups.

Most importantly, activists are saying that progress in the fight against inequality would look like a strengthening of the power of ordinary people – more people finding support in community groups and trade unions, a stronger voice for people in decisions that affect them. This is partly because the scale of change entailed can only come about through pressure from below – it is the only way it ever has. And because any change would be either inadequately followed through, or be too easily reversible, unless people power hold governments to account. (As President Obama said in his speech to the UN, “Development is threatened by inequality: the wealthy like to keep things as they are, and have disproportionate influence.”) But it is also because inequality is ultimately a question of power – and societies are only truly more equal when power is more equal. This is not just a movement to change the rules but also to change who gets to make the rules.

It’s clear that change on this scale will be difficult, that it will take years, that it will meet resistance from the powerful. But it’s also clear that we have reason for hope. Victories are being achieved. We’ve seen glimpses of what is possible, of what progress in the fight against inequality already looks like: the successful halting of the Swedish sugar deal in Tanzania that would have left thousands of farmers landless; the mobilisation of a million farmers in Uganda against taxes on agricultural inputs; the ending of VAT on bread in Zambia; the resignation of the President of Guatemala after protests against corruption; the handing back of land illegally acquired in Cambodia; the expansion of primary education across Africa; the growing challenge to austerity in Europe; the resurgence of activism in the US led by the Black Lives Matter movement; the G77 standing together in Addis for a global tax body; developing countries insisting that compensation for loss and damage be part of the deal on climate change.

It’s clear too that all that change only happened through the building of pressure from below. Last month we saw key civil society leaders commit to this agenda. “Fulfilling our promises to eliminate extreme poverty requires everyone to tackle inequality,” declared Graca Machel, “I welcome this initiative to build a movement for a more equal world where each one of us takes responsibility.” “We will get back down to the ground, back to organising, village by village, street by street,” promised Anti-Apartheid leader Jay Naidoo. ActionAid’s Adriano Campolina recalled that “every single moment when we defeated power, we did so working together – NGOs, unions, social movements – united”. Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima declared that “the energy for tackling inequality must be driven by the 99%”. Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary pledged to strengthen partnerships to help organise informal workers and the unemployed. Leaders from faith based groups including Bernd Nilles of CIDSE and John Nduna of ACT Alliance committed to a transformational agenda to challenge inequalities. And Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation committed to tackling the root causes of inequality including by confronting privilege. The commitment to a people-powered approach from these powerful leaders can help give the growing movement against inequality vital strength and support. But even as I kept pinching myself on hearing from so many leaders in New York the rousing recognition of both the problem and the solution, I found myself feeling that I might be in the wrong place in terms of the change we need. In the middle of a formal UN meeting I opened a picture sent by a friend of the Soweto Pride March for LGBT equality – and was reminded where the most important change will come from. Later, with youth activists who had stopped a demolition of a neighbourhood in Kibera slum in Nairobi, I saw again the power that comes from grassroots mobilisation. Progress in the fight against inequality will not look like lots of international meetings – it will look like lots of local mobilisations, connected across the world.

Kenyan activist Njoki Njehu, who started in grassroots mobilisation with Wangari Maathai, and then went on lead movements challenging the World Bank in DC, talked recently with a group of campaigners about why she returned from DC to Kenya and went back to organising at the grassroots. “DC can be a great place to fight for change but you can also get lost in circles. You can have a campaign with great reports and media but will change no lives, until you start to organise and mobilise people. Don’t get lost in influencing peddling. Power for change always comes from below.”

What will progress in the fight against inequality look like? It will look like people power.

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.

The struggle over inequality: What to expect as world leaders meet in New York this week

If you’re in New York this week, you’re in good company, as world leaders congregate at the United Nations to mark the end of the old Millennium Development Goals (old promises hampered by a lack of funding and a failure to tackle vested interests and so not fully met) and the start of the new Sustainable Development Goals (new promises hampered by a lack of funding and a failure to tackle vested interests and so …)

Also here are the NGOs asking world leaders awkward questions like “How will you pay for your promises? Have you thought about tackling tax dodging?” and “But you know that to tackle poverty you’re going to have to reduce inequality, right?” Stuff like that. (Memo to governments annoyed with such impertinence: the NG stands for Non-Government, that’s our role.)

But the really big draw this year is the PopeStar, the PopeIdol, the RockandRoll: Francis. He’s got the smallest country but the biggest fan club. Other world leaders wonder why everyone keeps cheering the kind old man who keeps saying that the rich and powerful have a duty to share what they have, that governments have a responsibility to make their countries and the world more equal, and that every person deserves a decent job with a living wage and the right to join a union. Those other leaders can’t see what it might be that makes such a leader so popular, and they guess it must be the hat.

popehere

Meetings like the UN General Assembly are partly an excuse for a schmoozfest, and partly a chance for pomp, and partly a place for fixing immediate crises.

But they are also an occasion where global norms are shaped – not just by the text that is signed but also by the debates that are held. And the big debate, the big clash, is about the importance of inequality. For several decades now most leaders have pursued policies that have increased inequality, and claimed that a rising tide will lift all boats. The consequence of that has been an increase in the number of superyachts from 6000 to 9000, and a divided unstable world that cannot meet the pledge to end poverty unless it changes course.

inequalitychess

That in Africa the 10 richest families have the same wealth as the poorest half of that continent (calculations by the World Bank) is a one more illustration of today’s brutal inequality. So too is that, across countries, the number of people in guard labour can be predicted by how unequal a country is. And that even the IMF says inequality is slowing down growth. And that even top business chiefs are warning that inequality has gotten out of control for a functioning market. But still most world leaders either deny that there is an inequality crisis or continue to pursue policies that make inequality worse.

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That’s why a growing movement across civil society is coming together to challenge inequality. This week Graca Machel will join International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow, NGO chief executives and grassroots activists, to highlight how inequality is holding the world back and how to build pressure from below to force world leaders to tackle it. Link here if you’d like to come along. NGOs will also be holding rallies and stunts to push the issue of inequality onto the leaders’ agenda – challenging governments in the hallways and in the streets. This is what Anti-Apartheid leader Jay Naidoo calls the struggle against “Apartheid 2.0” – the widening chasm between a powerful few and the rest. And that’s why he’s here alongside us in New York.

We already know exactly what the new SDGs will say. Every dot and comma has been pre-agreed. The only thing we don’t yet know is whether this time leaders will keep their promises. What will determine the answer to that is whether they get serious about tackling inequality. And what will determine that is whether the rest of us make them do so. Increasingly, people are fighting back. They are saying they can’t win when the game is rigged, and asking what would the world look like if the rules were fair.

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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?

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