Thursday, 23 April 2009

Committee News

A few things that happened at the International Development Select Committee meeting on April 22.

A couple of exchanges revealed the Secretary of State's apparent frustration with the larger UK development NGOs. Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma noted that Oxfam and ActionAid had expressed concern over the governance of the international financial institutions, and asked for Alexander's response; it was slightly tetchy. 'If I had a pound for every time Oxfam and ActionAid expressed concern, I’d be almost as rich as the IMF.' (He went on to acknowledge that both had been 'generous with regard to the comments they made at the London Summit', and agreed that both the Bank and the Fund need to be reformed.)

Later in the session, while discussing the matter of DFID's rebranding exercise, Alexander appeared to be irritated that UK NGOs fail to publicly aknowledge the extent of the funding they receive from DFID.

‘Although I am greatly admiring of the work done by development NGOs in Britain, they don’t work very hard to publicise the funds given to them by DFID. So, say, Christian Aid or Oxfam – who we fund significantly in terms of PPAs [Partnership Programme Arrangements] – understandably do not spend a lot of time telling their own supporters that they’re receiving resources from the British government. VSO is another example; 75 per cent, if I recollect properly, maybe 70 per cent, of VSO’s core funding comes from DFID. VSO has a fabulous brand and a fabulous profile among the British people; I would be quite surprised if many of them knew [that statistic]. Over time this has to change. You don’t want to be in a position of undermining the reputation of those organisations, but it is something I’m giving a lot of thought to.’
It will be interesting to see what comes of this in the upcoming...

Leeds West MP John Battle referred to a recent survey about the British public's attitudes towards development aid and DFID. Feelings are broadly positive towards the former (although the prospect of savage public spending cuts could change this); apparently only 22 per cent have even heard of the latter. Alexander remarked that is is 'not sustainable' for British taxpayers to be so unaware of the projects that they are funding. He mused that politicans might not be the best people to take this issue to the public, and revealed that he has recently asked Bill Gates to throw the weight of his business expertise behind DFID by publically expressing his belief that 'aid works'.

More specifically, it turns out that DFID has been thinking about rebranding, and the results of this process will probably appear in the upcoming White Paper. Alexander commented that he wants development aid to become as central to the British identity as the BBC and the NHS. Committee members floated 'British Aid' and 'UK Aid' as possible new identities.

Douglas Alexander referred several times to the need for IMF reform, in both governance and operations, and expressed the hope that this issue would be addressed at the Spring Meetings. Sadly, we now know that the Spring Meetings turned out to be a disappointment. Rachel Turner (Director of DFID's International Finance division) emphasised the need for the fast disbursement of the funds agreed at the G20; she was confident that access quotas would be doubled (as they indeed were), and that gold sales proceeds would be used to help the poorest countries. As it turned out, the IMF Committee bucked at the fence on this one. DFID also strongly supports the view that the conditions attached to IMF loans should be reduced; but the Spring Meetings provided no concrete commitments on this issue, and recent research by ActionAid and others has indicated that the IMF continues to impose inappropriate conditions on LDCs.

Alexander set out some more specific reform aids with regard to the Banks, including an extra African seat on the board, and a transparent and merit-based procedure for selecting the Bank's President (fancy that!). In less detail, he alluded to the need for deeper, 'Phase II' reform, which he hopes to see progress on by the October meeting.

Alexander commented that he had 'worked hard' to get the Doha language (expressing the need to bring the round to a conclusion) into the final G20 communique. The incoming Obama administration is significant in this respect, but he noted that US officials had been 'candid' that given the current state of flux in administration positions, and the fact that incoming US Trade Representative Ron Kirk's most recent public position was as Mayor of Dallas, it might take some time for the new kids to get up to speed.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

What Would David Do?

As the Brown government continues in its light-hearted yet methodical pursuit of electoral wipeout, I thought I'd have a dig around to see what the Cameroons propose to do when they get their hands on DFID. The Tories aren't exactly renowned for their glorious abundance of fully fleshed-out policies, so Imagine My Surprise at discovering that they seem to have thought this one through in some detail.

The Conservatives do not have a great record when it comes to the governmental institutions of development aid. Thatcher removed the ministerial status of the Overseas Development Administration (DFID's predecessor), and decreed that its main function would be the promotion of British exports to developing countries. So began 18 thoroughly inglorious years of arms-linked scandals and backsliding on assistance targets. So if the Tory international development team notices us looking at them a bit suspiciously, they're going to have to forgive us. These days, they acknowledge that DFID is 'one of the best development agencies in the world', and are committed to maintaining its status as an independent department led by a Secretary of State. They are also committed to meeting the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP on development aid by 2013, as are Labour. (Don't be too impressed. The UN set this target before I was born.) They do, however, want to set up an independent agency to evaluate DFID's efforts.

The Shadow Secretary of State for International Development is Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield. He has acquired a degree of notoriety due to his seven (seven!) paid directorships for subsidiaries of the city bank Lazard, for which he used to work (after serving in the Royal Tank Regiment, including a stint as a UN peacekeeper in Cyprus). Anti-ID cards, pro-hunting, pro-abortion rights and does the usual Tory double of both fiercely supporting the Iraq war and wanting an immediate inquiry into everything to do with it. Fellas... you know that looks silly, right?

Unsurprisingly, given his blue-helmet background, Mitchell believes that 'conflict resolution is probably the most important aspect of international development', and says that UN peacekeeping needs to be more 'muscular'. He has argued for the deployment of more UN peacekeeping troops in the DRC and in Darfur, and for systemic reform of the UN itself.

As you'd expect, Mitchell emphasises the importance of trade in development. Peter Lilley's 'In It Together' policy report, on which much current Tory development thinking is based, outlined several trade-based initiatives. These include a cross-party 'Campaign for Real Trade' to put public pressure on Western governments to open up their markets, the abolition of high tarriffs in trade between developing countries, and support for the World Trade Organization's 'Aid For Trade' initiative, which aims to compensate developing countries for losses resulting from trade liberalisation. I can't find any indication of whether these initiatives would be supported by additional funds under a Conservative government, or by funds diverted from elsewhere within the aid budget.

A more controversial aspect of the Tories' development policies concerns their apparent desire to work around the governments of developing countries, rather than through them. They have floated the idea of 'partnership trusts' in each recipient country. These trusts - comprising representatives of the major donors - would coordinate programme support, monitoring and finance in each country. Some are concerned about the effect that such trusts would have on relationships between donor and recipient governments; others have asked why this function could not be performed by the extant regional development banks, or the UN.

Elaborating on the small-government riff, Cameron has taken up and run with William Easterly's proposal of development vouchers, proposing these should be given directly to poor communities, to be redeemed 'for development services of any kind, with an aid agency or supplier of their choice.' (What is it with the Tories and vouchers? Did they all have formative sexual experiences involving Puffin Club coupons?) Lilley's policy paper, meanwhile, proposed 'demand-led development assistance', in which NGOs, private sector companies, and local and national governments would 'bid' for project finance from a central fund administered by DFID . This is one of the few areas in which it is possible to perceive some old-fashioned left-right politics. Gareth Thomas, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, has said in response that there's no alternative to working with governments; Simon Maxwell at the ODI points to the state's role as the ultimate guarantor of social provision, and warns against undermining it.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Douglas Alexander on gender issues in developing countries

First, the transcript of a question-and-answer session with Douglas Alexander, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, when he gamely came to see us in Bloggers' Corner at the G20.

RD: Mumsnetters have asked me to concentrate on the maternal mortality issue, and also the education of girls and the economic empowerment of women. And I have been thinking, and talking to Adrian [Lovett, Director of Campaigns at Save the Children] and some of the Save the Children policy people yesterday. Do we have an issue here in which a lot of these gender issues, which are fundamental to developing countries’ fortunes – are they particularly difficult to address because they are mired in the culture of male power, essentially, which is very difficult for developed nations to address?

DA: Poverty, globally, still has a woman’s face, and the empowerment of women has benefits – in health, undoubtedly, but also in education and economics. That’s why, from the British government’s point of view, as we make the case to developing country governments to invest in basic healthcare and primary school education, we don’t fail to make the case that it makes a disproportionate impact if you deal with the issue of the inequality of women. I was in a school in Kenya last year, and sat with a group of Muslim mothers. They explained that the reason they were willing to let their daughters go to this school was that there were separate toilets. They said that unless there were separate toilets, they simply wouldn’t countenance letting their daughters go to school. So there can be cultural issues which affect this. But I don’t think that that should be an excuse for governments – here in the North or in developing countries – not to recognise the huge, disproportionate benefits that are gained. If you get a young girl to go to school, she is more likely to be healthy because she will be more aware of the choices that she is making. She is more likely to marry later. She will have fewer children. She will be more likely to work in the formal sector of the economy. The benefits of the empowerment of women, whether at the level of education or health, are huge, and that’s a very compelling case to make.

RD: But do you think that those developing countries with issues around the cultural empowerment of women are ready to hear those messages?

DA: Well, it clearly involves a dialogue with individual countries. We have made good progress, for example, in Ghana in recent months, where the outgoing President made a specific commitment in terms of using funds provided by the UK government to abolish the user fees that would otherwise have been charged to pregnant women. That would have been unimaginable a few years ago. In contrast, if you look, for example, at Northern Nigeria, the huge number of young girls who are still out of school, cultural issues can affect that. Similarly, in Afghanistan we moved from a position where, 2001, there were 900,000 boys in school in Afghanistan; [now] there are now up to four-and-a-half million kids in school, of which two million are young girls. Clearly, there were issues there around the policies of the Taliban when they were in power, and we’ve made huge progress.

I have to say that when I travel in the developing world, I am constantly struck by the commonality of people’s aspirations, for their sons and for their daughters. And in that sense, I think we need to be willing to engage in a sensitive way with cultural issues, but equally recognise that what binds us together is that desire for all children to be given the kind of chances we would want for our own.


Alexander struck me as a decent cove (and a clever one), and I believe that DFID has a good reputation on these issues, particularly MNH. I had been struck earlier in the day by the frankness with which he admitted that MNH is not a political priority in developed countries, and that this lack of priority accounts for the sickeningly slow progress on Millennium Development Goal Number 5, which aims to reduce maternal mortality in developing countries by 75 per cent by 2015 (as yet, it's the MDG that has seen the least progress).

I've had a poke around for information about the Ghana project that he mentioned. The DFID website appears to be ailing tonight, but I did find this citation, which suggests that the exemption policy has been in place for several years. However, if DFID is providing extra ring-fenced funding for it, then good on 'em.

Of course, the situation in Afghanistan is not as rosy as Alexander suggested. President Hamid Karzai is believed to have signed a law that legalises rape within marriage, and severely limits the rights of women, in direct contravention to the Afghan constitution. Karzai is under pressure to scrap the law, but as yet it remains in place.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Half a ton

What weighs half a ton, then? The world's heaviest woman, according to the Daily Mail . The amount of municipal waste each of us generates each year. Half of a Volvo 960. Hey, have you seen this Google application? It makes listing things so much easier!

This week, Sources Close to Rowan Davies told her what a sustainable world would look like. It would mean each person on the planet emitting no more than half a ton of carbon per year. (That's before we even start to consider that, to fairly address the extraordinary imbalance between the emissions of developed countries and the emissions of majority-world countries, those of us in the West should actually emit a lot less and give the surplus to those who didn't create this mess.)

What could you do for your half-ton allowance? This is over a year, mind. Don't use it all at once. Fancy a cheeseburger? That'll be 6kg, so you could have about 83 of them. (I'm pretty sure I saw a guy engaged in that particular project yesterday.) A smoothie, by contrast, would account for only 2700g. You could take a short domestic return flight. One person could drive from London to Madrid, but s/he couldn't come back. That's actually not a bad deal. You could build one-hundredth of a new home, or heat one room in your current one. Bear in mind you can only do one of these things; the rest of your year would have to be taken up with zero-carbon activities. And no, you can't do that. New children take up a lot of carbon.

The UK government recommends that we all stick to around 8 tons of carbon emissions per person in 2009. The half-ton recommendation is an open secret in energy circles, but its implications are so frightening that no pressure group, let alone government, will publicise it.

The Obama press conference

So, you know when you're at an international summit, right. Various press conferences are scheduled to be held throughout the day. I tripped along, palpitating, to the ones I was most focussed on - Douglas Alexander (Secretary of State for International Development) and Ed Miliband (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) - and was struck by the boredom of the press pack (about 30, maybe 40, at each); another day, another international summit. I got the first question in at both of these because I was sitting in the front row like the swot I am, madly making eye contact and nodding intelligently as the minister gave his briefing.

(In fact - indulge me on this for a minute - I am the first blogger ever to ask a question at an international summit. Yeah, I know you don't give a shit. You have a good point and you're making it well. You would definitely be surprised by how much this accolade is being fought over in the blogosphere (look I CAN'T break into the narrative to make an excuse for each individual piece of toe-curling terminology, we'll be here for months). So, to sum up: Hey! Losers! I was first! I asked a question about THE LITTLE LADIES and their LADY BITS! Build a bridge and get over it!)

So. UK ministers, foreign heads of state; press conferences came and went and the press in general did a good impersonation of a fourth-former at morning assembly, only not so good-looking.

We'd been told that the POTUS's press conference would be at around 18.00, but as the afternoon wore on, the internal plasma screens that were giving out information made no reference to it. Nevertheless, at about 17.15 I thought it would be a good idea to walk down the ExCel's internal 'boulevard' (see disclaimer above) to see if anything was happening. There were already about 100 journalists in the queue. The people in front of me were German broadcasters; the people behind were Chinese print journos. It reminded me of being in the queue for day tickets at Wimbledon. Some people caught your eye and smiled; others insinuated themselves into the queue like a pensioner at the five-items-or-fewer till. Reader, I actually physically shoved someone back out who'd pushed in front of me.

I turned around. I was now in the front fifth of the queue. Security personnel came to have a look at us a couple of times, walking up and down and eye-balling people. (One of the other G20Voice bloggers, a risk-management expert, remarked that it's a sign of how good POTUS's security is that it's almost invisible; being surrounded by a pack of suits talking into their wrists is, apparently, a sure sign that someone's security is a bit second-rate, and needs to create a public impression.)

Then they started to let us in. There were five or six different briefing rooms, and we were heading into the arena-style space, with capacity for about 600 journalists. I wanted to run, but somehow restrained myself. Neverthless, I got a fairly central seat in the ninth row. Once we were all in, there was a short wait before a man I've never met, and yet feel immensely familiar with, walked purposefully to the lectern in the centre of the stage.

You've read and heard all this before, but his charismatic authority is almost a physical force. I don't actually go a bundle on his rhetorical style myself - his cadences are repetitive - and politically he's not completely my style either. But he comes across as a fully-formed human being, only better (funnier, brighter, more skilled); he is Human 2.0. When it came to taking questions from the press, he didn't leave it to a flunkey at the side of the stage to pick who was going to get called on (as Gordon Brown had done earlier in the day). He said, apologetically, that he had a list of US journalists on whom he needed to call, but that he would try to 'sprinkle in' some 'random' questions from the rest of us. So the first few questions were the usual blah about US jobs; I'd like to be rude about this, but the questions to Brown had had the same domestic focus. Then he indicated that he was going to choose someone at random, and 600 journalists (including me? Hell yes!) put their hands in the air. He chose a woman who also turned out to be from the US. Later on, he chose an Indian journalist who asked a question about the bilateral meeting Obama had held with the Indian Prime Minster, Dr Manmohan Singh. Obama said that he was a great fan of Dr Singh's, and the Indian journo got a bit flustered and said 'Thank you, I'm very proud of him'. Her trembling voice and obvious excitement got the rest of us laughing, and Obama - with the timing of a master - looked at her quizzically and said 'Why, did you have something to do with it?'. It was like Saturday Night at the London Palladium.

At the end of the conference, I thought: are people going to applaud? Surely not. But they did. And as they applauded and got to their feet to leave, it created a little unintentional standing ovation. Then the press's inner fourth-former awoke from its daydream with a self-loathing start. Obama bt. International Press, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0.

What would I have asked him? 'Mr President [God you've GOT to say it haven't you], earlier today the UK's Secretary of State for International Development told me that maternal mortality rates in developing countries remain high because the issue is not a political priority in the West. Do you think his analysis is correct?'

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

I had an interesting conversation about tax regulation today

I really did. Richard Mabey from the Tax Justice Network

He says that effective taxation (the eradication of tax avoidance and tax evasion) would enable a world without development aid. Each year, approximately $400 billion of taxation revenue is lost to governments through the use of evasive taxation techniques. This sum would pay for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals eight times over. Every year.

The TJN lobbies for a global system of tax declaration that is both multilateral (ie, a mutual system between all the member governments) and automatic (rather than governments having to request individual pieces of information). The G20 is not expected to deliver this this time around, but the issue is creeping up the agenda - because taxation revenue suddenly looks a lot more important to most of these governments.

Tomorrow's communique is expected to announce the setting up of a definitive list of tax havens, and a move towards automatic information sharing. The TJN sees this as the beginning of a move towards tax justice.