Investing in our soft power assets – the British Council & the Spending Review

This is the second 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 British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Find the first, on the FCO here.

FCO financing, under the spotlight in the forthcoming Spending Review, has significant influence on key soft power assets, of which the UK has many, built up and consolidated over many centuries. Founded in 1934 to create ‘a friendly knowledge and understanding’ between the people of the UK and wider world, the British Council (interacting with nearly 550 million people in over 100 countries each year) receives grant-in-aid British-Council-plaque-001funding from the FCO allowing it to “represent the UK’s long term interest in countries where we cannot rely on earned income alone”.  Government funding was cut by 25% from 2010/2011 – 2013/2014, and in 2013 it received £172 million in government aid, on par with 1998-1999 levels. However, the organisation has been developing alternative funding streams, resulting in the perception that the organisation is adopting a more commercial approach, which, according to John Baron MP (member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee), “risks damaging a unique brand”. With over 75 per cent of turnover earned through teaching and exams, tendered contracts and partnerships, FCO funding is less than 20% of the organisation’s income. Last’s year’s Triennial Review of the British Council reported that self-generated income (English Language Teaching & exams) increased by over £100 million since 2010 and predicted it would increase by a further £100 million by 2015 – “well beyond levels needed” to compensate funding cuts. Nevertheless, as Colm McGivern, Director of the British Council in South Africa explains, “like every organization in receipt of public funds we have to be increasingly efficient and constantly innovative in the ways we connect the UK to other countries using education and culture.” This is in the face of increasing competition, with China’s Confucius Institute and Institut Français surpassing the British Council in number of offices globally.

Most recently, the Foreign Affair60888s Select Committee called for protection of the British Council’s budget in the Spending Review: “Any attempt to make a parallel cut to the British Council budget in the 2015 Spending Review would inevitably weaken the UK’s capacity to project soft power and culture in target countries with growing economies or regions with high priority political and human rights concerns, such as Russia and the Gulf.”

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.”

What is it with Canada?

Canadians used to think of themselves as global citizens, par excellence. Recently, though, this image has taken a battering.

Canada is now so obstructive in climate negotiations that even the Chinese government has had enough of its ‘conniving’ ways. In the midst of global economic turmoil, Canada’s main priority for the recent G7 summit was to force feed finance ministers seal meat.

And, at the Winter Olympics, it is so desperate to Own the Podium that it has  long planned to keep practise sessions for other countries to an absolute minimum in order to ensure its athletes get maximum home advantage. “Skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth will be flying down the fastest track in the world at Whistler with the benefit of 200-plus more practice runs than her rivals,” boasted one of its papers last week.

Canada was told that this policy could be disastrous, especially for the luge and for skeleton (a kind of tobogganing) where the Canadians have built a faster track than any in the world, making practise essential.  “The speeds are going to be high up in the 100s,” warned the British performance manager. ” Therefore accidents are going happen and do happen in sports such as these. We’ve seen broken legs or even worse before for example.”

Sure enough the worst did happen, with Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili killed just hours before the opening ceremony. Charmingly, the Canadians have quickly wrapped up an investigation that blames the dead guy for the accident.

On Thursday, a BBC survey showed that Canada’s international image is beginning to take a battering:

Several countries saw sharp falls in positive ratings of Canada—in the USA the proportion rating Canadian influence as positive fell from 82 per cent to 67 per cent, in the UK from 74 per cent to 62 per cent, in Australia from 77 per cent to 72 per cent, and in China from 75 per cent to 54 per cent.  Overall, comparing views in 15 of the countries that were surveyed last year, the proportion rating Canadian influence in the world as mainly positive has fallen on average from 57 per cent to 53 per cent.

Even Canadians, the survey shows, believe the country has a less positive global influence than before. One wonders: do they care?

Calling Colleen Graffy

Colleen Graffy - happy spinning Gitmo

I was once on the receiving end of Colleen Graffy’s attempts to spin conditions at Guantánamo. At the time, Graffy was the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the time – and she was on a PR offensive for the controversial prison camp. It was, she told a meeting I attended, a much nicer place to be than many British prisons.

It was a strangely undiplomatic line – strikingly cavalier about conditions at the base, while oddly rude about her British hosts. You can get a good idea of her position from this Guardian piece she wrote around the same time.

Graffy lives in London these days and landed at one of the capital’s airports five hours ago, after a long flight from California. Some journalist should call her up and get a comment on this story by Scott Horton, which alleges that three men who were said to have committed suicide at the base on June 9, 2006, were actually tortured to death.

I have no way of judging how robust Horton’s reporting is, but he certainly seems to have done his homework, with eye witness accounts from guards who were on duty that day and backing from this powerful analysis of the military’s cover story by Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research.

Here’s an extract from Horton’s story – but please take the time to read the whole thing if you haven’t seen it already:

Military pathologists connected with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology arranged immediate autopsies of the three dead prisoners, without securing the permission of the men’s families. The identities and findings of the pathologists remain shrouded in extraordinary secrecy, but the timing of the autopsies suggests that medical personnel stationed at Guantánamo may have undertaken the procedure without waiting for the arrival of an experienced medical examiner from the United States. Each of the heavily redacted autopsy reports states unequivocally that “the manner of death is suicide” and, more specifically, that the prisoner died of “hanging.” Each of the reports describes ligatures that were found wrapped around the prisoner’s neck, as well as circumferential dried abrasion furrows imprinted with the very fine weave pattern of the ligature fabric and forming an inverted “V” on the back of the head. This condition, the anonymous pathologists state, is consistent with that of a hanging victim.

The pathologists place the time of death “at least a couple of hours” before the bodies were discovered, which would be sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 9. Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging.

The report asserts that the hyoid was broken “during the removal of the neck organs.” An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts—the larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage—that would have been essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men’s families finally received their bodies.

At the time, Graffy was heavily involved in the public affairs response to the alleged suicides. In an interview with the BBC, she acused the men of hanging themselves as “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.” Their suicide was “a good PR move to draw attention” by men who did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them.

Not so, says Horton. Two of the men (one just a boy really, Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani was just 17 years old when captured) were slated for release. The other could not be returned to Yemen, but analysts had apparently concluded that “there is no credible information to suggest [he] received terrorist related training or is a member of the Al Qaeda network.”

So, journos – now would be a good time to call Graffy for a quote. Has she read Horton’s story? Does she still believe the men committed suicide? And does she still maintain they killed themselves to get a juicy headline?

These are not simply gotcha questions. Maybe, she’s had a change of mind as the evidence about torture has continued to mount. It would be interesting to know…

Italy to world – we’re ridiculous

Another European country is going to great lengths to render itself absurd in the eyes of the rest of the world. Yes, it’s Italy’s turn (emulating Germany’s example from over the weekend):

An emergency taskforce is to be established within a month to monitor airwaves and news-stands the world over for coverage of Italy and bombard foreign newsrooms with good news about the country.

The plan was announced by the tourism minister, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, who said a crack team of young journalists and communications experts would be assembled to stamp out bad news.

“Their first job will be to monitor all the foreign press, including dailies, periodicals and TV in every latitude, from Japan to Peru,” she told Corriere della Sera today.

The second task will be to “bombard those newsrooms with truthful and positive news”, and reveal to the world “a generous, truthful and audacious Italy – the Italy of entrepreneurs, art, cultural events and our products”.

This, needless to say, is the brainwave of Signor Berlusconi who – crazier by the day – is intent on crushing anti-Italian forces that are intent on destroying him. If this was a film (and perhaps it is), we’d be nearing point in the plot when the mad dictator is put out of his misery by faceless henchmen…

US in Pakistan: Diplomats or Missonaries? [updated]

Fail - photo from Flickr user The Happy Robot

Reading the papers over breakfast in Lahore, I was dumbfounded by the story of a US diplomatic official being attacked while she attempted to distribute – personally! – aid to a hundred or so Christians who have been victims of communal violence.

Sitting on a stage, Carmella Conroy, who heads the US consulate in Lahore, kicked off proceedings by presenting a relief package to Shahbaz Hameed.

Hameed, who saw 7 members of his family burnt alive in Gojra after an alleged desecration of the Koran, was not happy. He refused the aid, saying that Christians needed not food, but justice. A minor riot ensued, with the crowd throwing aid parcels back at Ms Conroy.

This story seems wrong in so many ways.  Does USAID really see its job as spinning charity into PR opportunities (and doing so hamfistedly)? And is the US’s mission in Pakistan to act as a defender of the Christian faith? It certainly seems that way when you read the newspaper report. Continue reading

Would the EU please stand up?

Teheran burning

Over at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey is itching for Obama to get stuck in to the Iranian regime:

We have an opportunity to get the Iranians to use this thick-skulled blunder by the mullahs to press for real regime change.  It wouldn’t take an expression of support for Mousavi from Obama to help increase the momentum in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere for the removal of the theocracy.  An expression of support for self-determination in a free and fair election system in Iran would be plenty.  Obama could use his bully pulpit to point out that the mullahs handpickedall of the candidates, which has obviously left the Iranians feeling manipulated and unrepresented by their government.  Obama could call on the Guardian Council and Ali Khamenei to stage actual elections, without the GC’s interference, and an election with international observers to certify that the Iranian people are allowed to choose their own government.

Morrissey, to his credit, details the other side of the argument – that overt expressions of support from the US could be counter-productive, helping the Iranian regime paint its opponents as stooges of the Great Satan.

I find this argument much more compelling that Morrissey does. It’s not a perfect comparison – but in Pakistan, vocal US support for President Musharraf cut the ground from under the feet of a leader the US was desperate to shore up. Pakistanis love conspiracy theories and I used to joke with them that the Bush adminstration was, in fact, trying to bring down the Musharraf regime – and had chosen vocal praise as a novel, but deadly, weapon.

So I think Obama and his proxies should remain studied, neutral. They shouldn’t recognise the election result, but neither should they get dragged too far in the fray. (Some of Morrissey’s messaging around the importance of democracy would actually work quite well, if the tone and rhetoric were kept low key.)

Instead, I’d like to see the Europeans (with behind-the-scenes encouragement from Obama) start to play bad cop, steadily ramping up the pressure as the regime tries to crack down on demonstrators. In particular, we should look to Germany – a major trading partner for Iran – to take a lead. (The UK probably needs to take a back seat – for similar reasons to the US.)

Will this happen? Probably not. The statement from the Czechs, who hold the EU Presidency, was not just weak – it was barely literate.

The Presidency is concerned about alledged irregularities during the election process and post-electional violence that broke out immediately after the release of the official election results on 13 June 2009.

The Presidency hopes that outcome of the Presidential elections will bring the opportunity to resume the dialogue on nuclear issue and clear up Iranian possition in this regard. The Presidency expects the new Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran will take its responsibility towards international community and respect its international obligations.

But Angela Merkel has gone on the record to says that the election was irregular and to say that she is ‘very worried’ about events that have followed. France, too, has shown some signs of disquiet. Reuters detects signs of an emerging EU campaign to question the election results. So maybe there is hope.

The Americans and Europeans badly need to find a way to work in unison on major foreign policy risks. My fingers are crossed that this crisis in Iran will see the emergence of a deeper, more media savvy, and – above all – more effective mode of transatlantic cooperation. But for that to happen, we need to see the Europeans pull their fingers out and show they too can talk tough.