Chopping the UK aid budget

I wrote over 8 years ago in support of George Osborne and his measures to improve transparency over corporate tax, and at the time the UK Government’s continued commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross domestic income (GDI) on overseas aid and development.

Some of the details about how the UK Government has performed against its original pledge, back in 1970, to invest this 0.7% figure, can be found in this round-up piece from last month.

45 years on from that pledge, and Britain did finally join other countries, about 6 years ago now, in achieving the 0.7%.

Sadly, however, the merger of the UK Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, in June 2020, thwarted any momentum that Boris Johnson’s team may have inherited from the Osborne-Cameron era on the topic of overseas aid.

The writing was on the wall then, and the Covid-19 pandemic helped ensure the latest announcement, made as Britain hosts the G7 Summit this week, that the UK will be cutting aid by $4bn. The news sent the House of Commons into a frenzy yesterday, with Tory rebel MPs challenging the Government’s decision.

These latest proposals for cuts mean as much as 42% reductions for some countries and, ultimately, an overall drop down to 0.5% of the UK’s GDI. A decision which many organisations and commentators have pointed out will sever vital funding to countries around the world, such as Yemen and Syria, currently facing respectively inhumane levels of social disruption and economic uncertainty.

Whilst the Government sees the cuts as temporary, there remains a chance of reversing the decision over the coming days. Let’s wait and see. The UK held a strong seam of respect during the Labour administration of the early 2000s, of being innovators in aid and reframing ways of ensuring funds were well spent. It was also that administration which championed the 0.7% target. This respect will evaporate if these cuts go ahead.

And so why this constant going round in circles when it comes to overseas spending?

Those in the UK who voted to leave the EU in 2016, and the many who have switched from Labour to Conservative since, may well represent one reason why these cuts have been put forward. The Covid pandemic has wrought havoc for many, through sickness, job insecurities, and generally uprooting people’s previous priorities. The Government’s recent success at rolling out vaccinations has also piqued public support for Team Boris. He’s “getting the job done”, as he said he would.

Ironically, perhaps, some of these same Leave voters, whilst in theory jubilant now that their votes weren’t cast in vain, could easily be supporters of a reduction in overseas spending, given the unclear economic picture for Britain now that the country isn’t free to trade with its European neighbours.

The same argument would also work for a Remainer, pissed off at Brexit, but concerned at the consequences facing a new dawn of trading and travel agreements – usefully illustrated below by Statista.

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Whichever your chosen political preference, or your views on Brexit, isn’t the case for investing in the social and economic development of other countries around the world, with whom the UK shares business and cultural ties, not good enough a reason to stick to a 0.7% investment?

Last I checked, the UK is host to a multitude of ethnically diverse towns and cities, and home to generations of overseas diaspora, working and paying more taxes than your average multi-national corporation manages to cough up each year.

All sorts of pompous claims are made by the UK about its “global credentials”, most of which rely 100% on Britain’s multi-cultural make-up and diversity – because it certainly isn’t the case that these global credentials can draw any currency from harking back to a time when Great Britain colonised other nations.

Whether the UK has a right to make any of these sorts of claims, or not, the country simply has to find its humanitarian footing in the world.

As a G7 country alone, the wealth commanded by the UK is colossal, when compared to other nations. The decisions made about how the UK invests that wealth is critical in combating social and environmental issues which are stressing everyone, no matter where they are from.

To be in that category of prosperity, to carry that decision making power and influence, impacting not just the 70 million people in the UK, but hundreds of millions of others around the world, is a privilege that many other countries will never experience in the next fifty years.

And, still, with this fortunate positioning in the world, the UK Government is in massive debt and cutting costs wherever it can. It always seems to have been that way. Which means the UK cannot afford to loosen any grip it has on its connections with other countries, in whatever form – its economy and society relies on other nations for so much.

Countries like Bangladesh, one of the places to have benefitted in the past from UK aid, and which could now have that support diluted, supply UK fashion retailers with millions of items every week.

From all across the continent of Africa, where UK aid has historically been of vital importance, the UK imports a range of products – vegetables, fruits, nuts, metals, beverages, chemicals, crude oil, to name a few – and as an import market Africa is key for the UK motor industry, for medicines and electrical equipment.

To Pakistan, one of the UK’s largest recipients of aid, the UK also relies on exporting industrial and power generation machinery, telecoms equipment and pharmaceuticals to the tune of $1.5bn a year.

For these trade partnerships to thrive in the future, it is in the vested interests of the UK to see social and economic development thrive in partner countries. It’s a win-win. It has to be seen like this, or else we will forever be circling the drain in terms of this debate about overseas expenditure.

There was a time when Britain sought aid and support from the world: 1945, at the end of the Second World War, during a period when my old organisation, CARE International, was established, and “CARE packages” were sent to war-torn Europe.

That commitment, by the USA, laid a foundational brick for the CARE network, which has succeeded year-on-year since, in supporting the most vulnerable and marginalised around the world.

Now is not the time for the UK to be trimming the fat off the very same type of budgets which came to the rescue of the many millions of British families effected by conflict 75 years ago.

On the contrary, it is the time for the UK to aspire to actually being a global leader and decision maker, known for raising the bar of investment in the wellbeing of others, rather than lowering it.

Gender Equality and the role of business

For the past eighteen months, Coracle Consulting has taken on several client assignments, respectively seeking to tackle a common goal: how to best engage the Private Sector on the subject of Gender Equality?

Tackling outlandishly sized issues, such as the emancipation of women and girls, can be an equally daunting as well as inspiring proposition.

There have been notable public advocates for women’s empowerment, who have given traction to the surrounding causes, and possible solutions to redress, gender equality, and to bring more attention to the disparities that have always existed.

From the suffragette movement that influenced the British Government’s position on introducing womens’ right to vote, through to the more modern day, global ambassadors such as Malala Yousafzai, speaking out for young girls and their right to an education.

Very rarely, however, through the archives of campaigns and individual acts of sacrifice, in the fight for gender equality, has the private sector surfaced as a likely protagonist and champion for women’s rights.

If, by “private sector” we assume a definition that both includes profit-making entities, as well as the market systems within which they grow these profits, there has been a vacant chasm of inactivity and ignorance between how the private sector could impact positively on gender equality vs. what it has historically, and actually, done.

Although there are more women than men in the world, the trillions of dollars of revenue and capital flow connected to global markets are almost exclusively governed by men. Men monopolize high level political spaces, they monopolize multi-national corporation board rooms and, in the majority of countries still, the purchasing privileges of any one given household.

To turn this trend around, or at least to begin the process of re-calibrating the direction of this metaphorical ship, will take generations. However, that process, slowly but surely over the last decade, is underway.

This post won’t focus on the contrasting examples of progress seen from one country to the next. For every success story and anecdote of gains made and celebrated in one context, another more chilling chronicle of discrimination or vulnerability can be told from somewhere else.

Instead, we want to share Coracle’s recent experiences of how to best influence and engage an ever growing queue of companies, eager to take seriously their role in the pursuit of a new norm when it comes to treating men and women equally. To capture some of what we have learnt, the following lessons are shared, for those looking to invest in running their businesses in a more gender responsive way:

1. Don’t shy away from auditing how your existing business is performing in terms of addressing gender (and other diversity) issues. One of the most effective ways for the private sector to change, is through the influence that comes from within the sector itself. Just as companies react to how their peers innovate new products, or leverage technology, the same rule applies when one company actively publishes their progress to develop new policies and practice around issues of inclusion. It’s better to be a pioneer and fail a few times before making progress, than to aim for mediocrity at best, or at worst, remain enshrouded in antiquated operational past-times.

2. Work with others who can ensure you get the basics right. A myriad of recent research and tools have been published by institutions including the UN, USAID and international NGOs such as CARE International, that offer step-by-step guidance for companies when it comes to how to initiate and implement more gender responsive behaviours and outcomes. Becoming familiar with these is one minimum task for a company, but forging partnerships with NGOs and CSOs over a longer period of time, to collaborate more fittingly with experts is also going to significantly accelerate a company’s journey, both in defining standards and then designing long term plans for enacting these.

3. Create spaces and platforms for women to share their perspectives and suggestions on how to change the status quo. Female employees, women producers in a company’s supply chain, female customers and consumers of company products – where are their voices in your company’s strategy? If a company is dis-connected from its own eco-system of stakeholders, and their data and research excludes the perspectives of women writ large, then whatever changes are made will always be compromised.

4. Find the money and resources to make the changes to your business lasting and meaningful. Do not consign issues of diversity and gender equality to be the mainstay of a suitably titled “Corporate Social Responsibility” manager, or else farm them out to your human resources department. The CEO of your company, or equivalent, should be accountable for this, with no exception, and if your company tracks its operational progress using a catalogue of measurable indicators, these should feature gender-related criteria across all aspects of the company’s operations.

5. Don’t fall into the trap of making “socially responsible” decisions because you have been advised this will enhance your company’s reputation. The fact is, there is a way of balancing positive social and environmental impacts from your business, alongside growing your company’s revenue. The sacred “win-win” scenario does exist and an ever increasing number of companies – from the largest to the more discreet start-ups – are curating their strategies based on this very triple bottom line objective. An exciting legacy can be left by the private sector when it comes to environmental stewardship, social impact and financial profit making.

How your company chooses to embrace designing, and seeing through to fruition. a more blended set of outcomes such as these, is up to you.

Coracle’s commitment will always be to offer you our ideas and our experiences from collaborating with non-profits and the private sector for the past twenty years, and are aim will always be to inspire your business into action.

For more information about how Coracle can support you in this regard, feel free to connect with us at or email 

Damn Vices

The advancement of technology, like a powerful wave in the ocean, has been unstoppable. Exponentially accelerating year on year, week on week.

Steve Jobs’ role in this epic production sticks with me. Those black, turtle-necked onstage monologues of his, the famous “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” ad in 1997. Carefully choreographed to invite us all in – you don’t want to miss this, don’t want to be left behind.

Apple devices swooped into the marketplace like a swarm of locusts, and millions of consumers dutifully opened their windows and doors.

Over time, their loyal customers flocked to keep up with each new iPhone edition (while others, instead, chose to wake up each day to Android versions, their addictions claiming a higher moral foothold, on an already flawed landscape) as we were collectively being herded forward like lemmings at break neck speed.

I’ve already checked my phone three times since I began this pathetic bleating – sat, as I am, rather ironically next to a wall full of second-hand books, in a café that served me, almost, my first meal here in Saigon, over ten years ago.

If I’d captured that moment on my phone (I can’t recall, but in 2011 I was probably glued to my Blackberry, and the penchant for Instagram-ing photos of your meals wasn’t yet cresting) no doubt Google would have reminded me of the moment recently. As the corporation surely did, on cue, first thing this morning, as I turned off the phone alarm at 5am and automatically thumbed through a sequence of familiar apps, freshly pinned with their new red message counts.

This morning at dawn, it was the turn of ‘2015’ to beam at my half blinking eyes, as I acclimatised in the dark bedroom to my waking reality, with a brace of colourful photos from a mate’s wedding in Bangalore, followed by images from the couple of days work I did in Dhaka after that, six years ago “this week”.

High fives Google, you get me every time. Can you make me a cup of coffee and charge it into my veins whilst you’re at it?

Deflated at such over-reliance on this these types of rituals, I nonetheless flicked through the selected photos, curated just for me. The bright hue of those local market crowds in Dhaka, froze forever in time, somewhere in my iCloud, spellbound me for a split second, firing up the memory bank – the bustle of people, the cackle of tradesmen and women, and the stench of that particular drainage system, which I recall all too nauseously as being horrific.

St Patrick’s Day, last week, produced a throwback to my frenzied escape from Laos on the very same day last year, as I fanged it back over the Vietnamese border to avoid a fortnight in a government quarantine camp.

Who knows what gems from my archives will be brought to my attention tomorrow?

The lure of expectation (more so than the final execution of actually finding out) is, perhaps, the secret to understanding how our devices take control over us so easily. No doubt millions has been spent on algorithmic nuance, and we know all too well (because those responsible went on TV to admit it themselves) of the manipulating tendencies of the tech companies to feed our insecurities and addictive persuasions.

Yet, armed with this knowledge, we pander to it and carry on regardless.

Arguably, however, the plain reality is that these profit-making entities are simply all taking part in respective races to the top. They all need more consumers, buying more. The same goes in other sectors (which, you could say, play to our addictive personalities): media giants; pharmaceutical companies; the tobacco and alcohol industries, as well as others – without profit these industries would go under, and without strong profit margins, they’d not have the resources to invest in technology and innovation.

Should we applaud Jeff Bezos for donating a fraction of his company’s profits into environmental initiatives? No one truly cares, but, for the sake of making a point, I think Bezos is prime case study territory for this conversation.

On the one hand, choosing to invest his $2billion in June 2020 cannot be sniffed at, no matter how slim a percentage some might feel this represents. Knowing how much global publicity this would create for his company, many argued that it was a ‘PR stunt’ (which of course these things always are).

Warren Buffet famously donated all of his wealth into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back in 2006. Maybe Bezos should have done the same? That said, what if all of the world’s CEO’s donated the same percentage as Bezos did last year – surely this would drum up some decent money and set a precedent and benchmark for the future?

Bezos has catapulted to the top at such a fast pace that he’ll never be able to win over all hearts and minds. Depending on how your newsfeed is manipulated, you’ll either hate him for underpaying his workers, or revere him for his innovation.

It is, like so much now in so many people’s 2021 lifestyles, all about the brand.

Ask yourself why you choose a certain brand of toothpaste and, part of the answer might hark back to an earlier time in your life when toothpaste adverts were competing for the #1 spot for that particular commercially exploitative past-time.

There was a time when Colgate outsold Coca-Cola annually based on the number of items shifted. And, yet, Forbes’ latest list of most valuable brands pegs them at #72, with Apple, Google Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook taking the top 5 spots.

None of this so far is new intel, or indeed news-worthy at all: me, a middle-aged man stuck for a year in a foreign country, wholly reliant on technology and his phone to survive, bitching about technology and his phone (kind of) and highlighting the unstoppable forces of capitalism, fake news and digital products…the very same middle-aged man who sent his god-daughter a belated birthday Amazon voucher last week…which took about 3 minutes to do, on my phone, whilst I was in the queue at our local Viettel shop paying our monthly internet bill.

If it wasn’t so darn hot and humid in Saigon at the moment, I’d get my coat.


So, what does make news these days anyway and who is in control of it?

As history books will record 2020 as the year of COVID-19 (as well as a rather fabulous wedding!) will they also reflect on just how life changing our technologies have proved themselves to be, during these protracted months of pandemic lockdown?

Without video conferencing, without online shopping, online schooling, online voting, and so on – without the myriad of possibilities that technologies have opened up for us, perhaps the current “war-time” footing we are experiencing would have been even more isolating and acutely uncomfortable for many millions of people.

COVID has cost and destroyed many lives but, for those not working in healthcare, the pandemic can also be credited with reframing for some the once predictable, normative aspects of how society and our economies function. Millions have used this reframe to re-boot their sense of who they are, and where they are going.

Some have become immersed in new pursuits, or more simply just abandoned their phones and social media completely (or at least beveled down the edges of their screen time and online binges) – rewarded and nourished, instead, from the very absence of technologies in their lives.

However we look back on the past 12 months, the resiliency of human nature, matched with the entrepreneurial DNA of the private sector has, pixel by pixel, started to “etch-a-sketch” out the intricacies and familiarities of life as we knew it before – socialising, schooling, travelling, learning, loving, playing – a long list, in a short time.

Going back to the topic of our phones, and like all vices, it seems our relationships with them are very much a personal thing. Steve Jobs may well have been pleased with the results so far: most of us are hooked to them 24/7.

As addicts, we don’t like to be judged on usage, we don’t take well to being told that our phones are distracting us from other things, and we fall into the trap of hastily judging others for their dependencies, whilst failing to recognise our own.

I’m noticing, too, how when out with others, someone (me included) might take their phone and look up the name of something or someone that is being discussed and, in so doing, mentally claim “helpful” rights within the group, for that half minute – at the same time, of course, momentarily enjoying the thrill of reviewing the five whatsapp messages which had teasingly pinged their arrival, whilst said person was pretending to listen to their mate’s story about the latest episode of Line of Duty.

Even how one uses their phone in these social scenarios is part of modern day etiquette. I went out without my phone recently and was rebuked for doing so, however my evening was instantly improved by not having it with me.

When we are out, are our phones in our pockets, or on the table, at the ready? Face up, or face down? Face down means we’re really concentrating on what another person is saying, right?


A group thing I heard about a few year’s back in the US, was to lock your phones in a box when out for dinner and then, should anyone feel so distraught that they had to check their phone during the meal, they also picked up the bill. Not a bad idea.

In any case, our phones have become higher currency to us than perhaps was ever envisioned, even by Jobs himself.

As the ego naturally leads so many of our decisions – and is largely responsible for our daydreaming about who we will be, what we will achieve and how we will carve out a legacy on this planet – technology has leveraged our egos tremendously well.

Although I’ve not been on Facebook now for almost a decade, is was their trail blazing of the ‘like’ button that instigated a flood of subsequent sneaky digital marketing tactics, with their suggestive ways of keeping us on the hook.

“Clickbait” and “kudos”, “reviews” and “comments” sections, “shares” and “hashtags”. And on, and on. These days, you can’t hum a tune in the shower without it being leaked to Amazon or iTunes and, through some glitch in the matrix (or simply through the microphones in our phones and our laptops) an advert for the same band’s new album lands in your lap the next morning.

And so, once more, and for the last time in this post, hats off to you Google, and well done Facebook wizards, you deserve the kudos (and the bonuses your bosses reward you) for product development, for your digital savvy and, yes, for your manipulative ways.

You have delivered so much, so quickly. And you have created so much dependency.

Just as I chastise you, I do respect your efforts, because I respect the contributions being made, fingers crossed, towards what will become a more conscientious technological movement in the future.

Good morning Vietnam

Tomorrow will mark 6 months since I last posted on definitelymaybe. Like others, I have found the groundhog day experience of this pandemic somewhat distracting. Being “stuck” – in the proverbial and the literal sense – does often feel like you have to reinvent the way you not only go about your daily work/life routines, but also how you source and manage your energy flows.

For some people, I know this new norm hasn’t been as challenging as it has for others. During this last year, I think, whatever our persuasion, we’ve all had the chance to imagine new norms and new realities. Some days this newness has an appeal, and some days it provokes a more panicked sense about the future. The very visceral, physical dawning reality that many of your closest friends and family will remain available only via zoom calls, doesn’t sit well in the conscience or the stomach.

Until, perhaps, you place that reality into the mix of things more generally, more globally, and are reminded about the realities of others – those fleeing countries, or caught up in genocidal regimes, those trafficked for money, those unable to go to school. Etc.

Albeit a predictable way to find perspective in a muddled world, it always remains powerful to imagine your anxieties within a wider context. I understand why this can feel like an artificial exercise. It is also unrealistic to strut about pontificating evangelically about the plight of others, whilst simultaneously expecting to retain any friendly acquaintances who won’t, after a period of time, feel the compulsion to knock you over the head with a blunt instrument.

As vaccines roll out, and 2022 comes into a sharper focus with the passing of another day, and soon, the second month of another year, it is through the mediums of art, music, and sport, through the familiar past-times of newly curated interaction and camaraderie, that many of us, fortunate to be healthy and active and employed, seek refuge.

As I buy street-food here in Saigon, I wonder to what extent the foundations of day-to-day existence have really altered for the vendor who sells to me? In Vietnam, the virus has been kept out, and in such an effective way that it has had minimal impact on the local population. The government decisions on response, from the outset, were transformative in spite of appearing quite the opposite to any onlooker, including myself.

I hope attention to these efforts, to how a country such such as Vietnam has curated its own reinvention, doesn’t go unnoticed.

Understanding CARE’s Resilient Market Systems work

In the international development sector, it’s commonplace to read about “systems change”. This is a broad objective. There are many different types of systems in the world, and many ways to change them. There’s a system for how banks distribute money, and how utility companies manage the flow of clean water to households. A system for how to hold your government to account on social welfare measures. A system, more culturally nuanced, for how families inherit assets. A system for addressing global health pandemics. And so on. Millions of systems and ways to both disrupt them and to improve them.

Typically, the INGO industry champions those citizens directly facing marginalisation, vulnerability and injustice.  At CARE International, where I spent thirteen years, the target group supported are women and girls. One particular area of focus that I worked on was how to bring the potential of businesses and markets to bear, for the women and girls CARE sought to assist. Many of you have been subjected to years of my posting here, on related experiences from this starting objective. For which I am most grateful.

Having recently completed a consulting assignment with a very special CARE team, based in Palestine, we’ve published a ‘Compendium‘ for those practitioners in the sector who are looking at systems change in the context of fragility and crisis. Better still, for practitioners who are also advancing their engagement with the private sector and their women’s economic development efforts.

The Compendium is titled “Resilient Market Systems” because its goal is to influence not just the economic opportunities for women and girls (enhancing their resilience to economic fluctuations) who are faced with crisis situations, but to improve the resiliency of the wider market systems, themselves impacted by the same crisis.

2020 has also produced Covid-19, a merciless ‘crisis’ that has touched the lives of everyone, and which calls for organisations to pull together. Enabling more ‘resilient market systems’ is clearly not an overnight project, nor something that CARE can do without collaborating with others. However, as a global confederation with a strong cadre of practitioners working in some of the world’s most complex crisis contexts, just aligning CARE’s own teams can be a challenge in itself.

In many ways, this Compendium is a call to action to us all to think about our own role in the market systems within which we operate.

What is a market system? Well, at the heart a market system (captured in the schematic below) exists goods and services value chains, running from production to consumption, and linking up national, regional and global markets. From essential services (eg banking or health) to the production of a range of consumable goods, the roles of the many stakeholders that participate in this chain, who are affected by each of the various external environmental, political and societal influences, are all inter-related.

RMS model vers2

CARE’s work sets out to trigger a range of improvements that make crisis affected market systems more resilient, inclusive, and profitable in such a way that addresses the previous inequalities which prevented women from benefiting from markets on the same footing as men.

The Compendium aims to help practitioners think through how to do this. From the type of analysis at the beginning of planning the work, through to considerations of how the work will transform gender dynamics favourably for women, to the ways in which the private sector can be engaged, through to how to test people’s resiliency to dynamic economic change.

I commend the concepts behind this publication, and the range of experiences and case studies (ten of which are featured in the Annexes) contained inside. Not just for the more technical components to the document, but because of the nature of how the contents and the spirit behind the work was conceived. Drawing from across the Middle East and North Africa region – countries including Palestine, Turkey and the Caucasus featuring prominently – but also wider, this Compendium walks the talk of how a large confederation such as CARE should be working collegiality across its teams, diversifying its thought leadership in the pursuit of the right solutions, for those most in need of them.

Johnson’s DfID merger is sending us back in time – again.

Aside from the plausible accusations that the Government’s merging this week of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office was a “media stunt” to distract away from their U-turn earlier in the day on free school meals, the announcement about DfID was depressingly predictable, and in-step with an administration, yet again, talking about their vision for “change” but acting in ways that only serve to drag the country backwards.

I’ve plenty of disparagement to channel at both Labour and Conservative leaderships over the last 20 years. However, under Claire Short for the first six years of Tony Blair’s Government, in my opinion we experienced a conviction and clarity about the role of DfID that has since to be matched.

Blair’s re-branding and re-positioning of DfID (previously the ‘Overseas Development Administration’) as having full departmental status, complete with a Secretary of State was, in itself, a turning point.

During her tenure, Short had plenty of critics, however a cornerstone outcome of these early years with her at the helm was the Partnership Programme Agreement (PPA). The PPA was a multi-million pound investment from DfID that was used to leverage their relationships with British INGOs (International Non-Government Organisations) – including CARE International, for whom I worked from 2006.

From first hand experience, I saw how effective these funds were for INGOs looking to build the capacities of their teams around the world and, in doing that, mobilising local community based organisations.

The PPA covered Latin America to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia, all the way to Vanuatu in the Pacific and funding wasn’t “restricted” – the term used by institutional donors which means money is earmarked only to be spent on certain items. Instead, it was more simply a requirement that funds complemented DfID’s priority areas of work – which initially included: conflict and peace building; women’s economic development; governance; and private sector engagement.

Following the Iraq invasion in 2003, and the Asian Tsunami in December 2004 and then, indeed, throughout the period I was based in London (from 2006 to 2011) DfID consistently updated the issues and geographies they felt to be of prime importance.

As DfID’s global coverage was reviewed under Cameron’s team from 2010, offices in Latin America closed first, deemed predominantly a region consisting of “middle-income” status countries and less in need of traditional aid. South East Asia was next (they closed their Vietnam office in 2016) and overall the nature of PPA funding and how it used was dictated by other criteria.

From here on it felt like DfID was re-purposed all over again. Whilst Cameron was committed to DfID receiving and spending 0.7% of GDP (the magical figure to which very few donor countries have aspired) he introduced an annual “value for money” evaluator which held back funds until organisations could prove they had delivered results on the ground.

On the one hand, he was calling out agencies on being more accountable (as well as trying to keep Daily Mail readers charmed for polling days, given the rising outrage propagated by the “Red Tops” about British aid money being sent to countries such as India – a nation with 350 million people living on less than one dollar a day, but also housing a nascent space programme).

On the other hand, it is ludicrous to measure meaningful change taking place in under twelve months. At the time, the previous 7-8 years of PPA funded work was only just on the verge of being able to quantify ways in which programmes had addressed gender norms, let alone to have fully rehabilitated a state such as Tamil Nadu, which had been destroyed during the Tsunami.

And so, in place of a more open, thoughtful and practical distribution of funds, through mechanisms like the PPA, the Tories instead focused on trade issues, on supporting ex-commonwealth countries (in particular Kenya, which hosted regular delegations of Ministers and their wives) and on gradually reducing the amount of money they were prepared to invest in partnerships with INGOs.

I don’t feel qualified to mention the fine balance – always there – with which the British Government has forever had to deal with being one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of high grade military weapons the world over, whilst at the same time being held up as a beacon of ‘know-how’ when it comes to their work on social injustice, poverty and inequality. Go figure. Perhaps that is for another blog.

What I do know is that, within that complex backdrop, DfID had many very progressive years of designing a new approach, and a more appropriate role for itself and for its international ambassadors, be they individuals or partner organisations.

Johnson and Co. have just rendered that progress irrelevant with this merger. Just as the Australians have done with their previous international development arm, now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in the process slashing millions of previously sacred aid money. Not that dissimilar too, to the stance taken by Donald Trump since he took office, and cut the legs off the US Government’s aid department (USAID) budgets.

These power-plays are related. They smack of Governments losing the foresight and the global citizenship credentials required to sit at some of the world’s most important decision making tables.

The DfID merger is sending the UK back in time – a core characteristic of the Johnson administration on many fronts – and it’s a terrible, terrible shame.

2020 Vision

sunrise may 12
Sun up, Saigon, 12 May 2020.

Thanks to technology, we have all kinds of information at the click of a button. Whilst huge numbers of population groups can’t access the internet, not long from now everyone will be connected in some shape or form.

Technology is helping us make better sense of our impacts on the environment, and how to resolve the negative aspects of these. Technology has enabled block chain systems to evolve, challenging how existing global market transactions work, and providing alternative methods for citizens to cast votes in elections. Technology is enhancing the way we communicate with each other, how we forge and maintain relationships, both professional and personal.

I’ve been working with The Partnering Initiative (TPI) recently and we’re seeing how technology can also be a positive vehicle for partnership work. In particular, between organisations seeking to solve societal issues, such as poverty, injustice and now, during such comprehensively macabre times, a health pandemic.

The current implications of Covid-19 are reverberating through every country of the world. We rely on technology to support our response to this virus, as well as to develop its vaccine.

However, there is one damning chasm that technology has failed to fill in: inequality.

American author, William Gibson, once said: “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. 

Inequality, on a global scale, rages on.

Recently, the stark extent to which our planet’s wealth is unevenly distributed has been shared wider and wider.

Oxfam’s Inequality Campaign helps put the data into perspective – 1% of the world’s population own more than the rest combined. Other agencies have provided tools to help us determine how our own wealth fares, when compared to global median levels. If you are curious about your ranking, then The Giving What We Can platform calculates this for you here: How Rich Are You?

Covid-19 has exposed the pervasive extent to which social inequalities direct so much of what and how societies function.

Capitalist market-based models and patriarchal and cultural norms clearly also contribute heavily. Too many men in positions of power. Too many assumed entitlements, personified daily by too many people used to getting what they want, when they want it.

Which is, of course, where the remedial qualities of partnership working can play a critical role.

As TPI and others have experienced, on the topic of partnership working, it is not sustainable to broker a meaningful partnership with another organization if both parties refuse to embrace new methods, new approaches and new behaviours. Partnerships also won’t sustain if individuals don’t cede elements of control and influence to which they might intuitively feel they are entitled.

Instead, long-term, impactful partnerships will only succeed in their objectives if any aspects of inequality within them are not re-balanced.

Covid-19 should be seen as an overdue warning shot across a country’s bows, but specifically the world’s wealthiest ones.

The US and the UK are floundering with their responses to the pandemic. Caught up in political points scoring, unwilling to learn from the experiences of other nations, blinkered in their pursuit of populist messages.

There was a time when these countries took pride in their international development investments, a time when being a “global citizen” was worn as a badge of some honour by political ambassadors.

A time when signing up to the doctrine of partnership, that the Sustainable Development Goals got close to evangelizing (as part of the United Nation’s second round of fifteen year commitments to the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable citizens) was taken ‘as a given’.

These times have changed. Those sentiments shelved.

And, one scenario perhaps, is that we won’t now see a return to that previous status quo. It’s plausible that the seismic nature of the shifts caused by Covid-19 are too severe to be fully repairable.

Gibson’s statement asks us to consider if our new normal will see more people living comfortably with wealth, or more people living uncomfortably with poverty?

Will our human condition – when so flagrantly put under the microscope and tested, as it could be argued is happening in 2020 – regenerate more altruistically as a result of Covid-19? Or, will the opposite scenario unfold, and a more self-centered and individualistic norm rise from the ashes of the pandemic?

That partnerships can solve complex social and environmental challenges is undisputed.

But partnerships, we also know concretely, won’t survive long, if those leading them choose not to believe in the power of the many, and in the spectacular innovation that comes from collaboration.

To hope for a future where collective action and shared goals are espoused by all (by organisations who traditionally function to benefit only their shareholders, or by governments who only crave election votes) is, of course, a version of a utopia state. And that hope itself carries with it many complications and flaws.

And yet, no amount of technological advances will ever truly make a difference in the pursuit of a more just and equal society.

Real change only ever comes from hearts and minds. Not from algorithms.

Put more women in charge

Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey

Last Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. The day the “American war” officially ended. Evacuations from Saigon continued for some time after 30th April 1975, but Reunification Day is the day that residents here hoist up their flags and commemorate the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

I remember talking to a friend a few year’s back, she was born in Saigon, and her family fled later in the ’70s, bound for Melbourne, Australia. She recalls the memory of being in a boat, aged 5, and can picture still the anguish plastered across her parents’ brows, and their clipped, firm instructions to her.

The plight of a family on the run isn’t something anyone would choose to put themselves through.

Just as no parent would want their loved ones to be victims of war over peace, violent conflict over dialogue.

And, yet, war and conflict riddle our generation, as they have every other one before us, and peace and dialogue so often resolve far less than seems possible.

‘Change’ in our society, as required by the human condition, thrives off of a combination of war and peace, reinforced and shaped, as these forces are, by various forms of dialogue and iterations of conflict.

There is a predictability around the cycles of these dynamics and conditions, and humans seem stuck in the cadence and inevitability of the ebb and flow of these things.

But we needn’t be stuck, dear reader.

I put it to you that we’ve gathered plenty of recent and favourable lessons about how to tackle societal issues (including addressing conflict and war) and one thing is certain: we don’t have enough women in charge.

It’s not necessarily that a Head of State (there are currently 29 female Heads of State out of 195 countries) always single-handedly makes the key decisions. Nor every corporate CEO the same. It takes many voices and influences to ultimately persuade a country to go “to war” in the first place.

However, with power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and men simply don’t care enough about the impacts of their decisions, when compared to women.

Forgive the sweeping generalisations but, for too long – forever – men have sat smug and uncontested, their creativity and compassion rendered, more often than not, lethargic and complacent when compared, in the cold and searching light of day, to that of women.

The Mars vs. Venus analogies neatly document the critical differences between men and women. We have this data. Men don’t care as much as women do. They don’t care as much.

The alarm bells have been ringing loud and clear on this point for a long while now. But nothing changes.

Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckeberg, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Pope Francis. A plethora of male power brokers. Angela Merkel the one female counter-part over the last ten years whose influence is comparable.

More recently, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has captured the attention of many. Because she cares. Because she is self-aware and because her ego, unlike the inflated zeppelins of her male peers, doesn’t take over how she makes decisions.

In the archives of these posts you will find attempts to describe CARE’s solutions to poverty and social injustice. The #1 proof of concept that CARE has? Put more women in charge. Put gender equality at the centre of all poverty programmes, of all campaigns to tackle social injustice. Done. It’s that simple.

Put more women in charge of balancing a low-income household budget and we know they will think more about healthcare and education, than they will about spending that budget on consumption. They will care more about the welfare of their children. There will be less violence and conflict.

Picture credit:

Putting more women in charge of everything can only reap dividends for everyone in the longer term. The stock market, the military, the media, the respective governance structures of every country in the world, the political systems, which toxically cause pain and suffering for so many people. Hell, we’ve even the evidence now that investing more in girls’ education is one of the most important counters to the effects of climate change.

Women make up 51% of the world’s population and yet we are leaving seismic decision-making about the planet’s extractive industry, the planet’s nuclear capacities, the planet’s healthcare and financial systems, dis-proportionality to men. Who we know care less about issues of humanity and welfare than women do.

Patriarchal social norms, everywhere, dictate this status quo. Capitalism only worsens the effects of inequality, and of gender bias.

The world, we are told, is constantly changing. Covid-19 our latest gruesome illustration of this. And yet nothing has meaningfully changed in terms the gender inequality. It rages on.

The #MeToo movement, and the wave of awareness which followed about domestic violence, workplace harassment, and gender-based violence more generally, was long overdue.

But it didn’t stop the election of Donald Trump. It hasn’t resulted in root and branch changes to how some of the world’s most powerful nations staff their top tier of power holders. It hasn’t influenced the accepted norm, the world over, that men can use violence against women as a weapon.

In Vietnam, as this week’s commemorative anniversary of the end of a brutal and protracted war draws to a close, the government continues to flagrantly lead from the front in terms of the male-female ratios of its leaders. And they are not alone in doing that. It’s the same everywhere.

Everyday, unchallenged, predictable and disastrous decisions are made by men.

Put more women in charge of everything.

Covid-19 requires us to put partnerships front and centre

Paul Polman and Peter Tufano

Yesterday, in an interview with Peter Tufano from Saïd Business School Paul Polman concluded that covid-19 had “shown the gaps that exist in our society”, and that a “global crisis like this requires a global response”.

Polman, who stood down from running Unilever at the end of 2018, is a seasoned businessman when it comes to discussing sustainability issues. Under his leadership, Unilever helped lead the charge, on behalf of large corporations, in defining why pursuing a “shared value” agenda (coined as such by Porter and Kramer in the Harvard Business Review almost a decade ago) might end up being more than just a newfangled public relations exercise.

From designing a unique global sustainability charter (The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan) for their business operations, and investing in their own accountability frameworks and evaluation metrics for this, through to chairing the private sector group who influenced the UN’s shaping of the current Sustainable Development Goals, Unilever’s ten year sustainability trajectory under Polman paved the way for many other industries.

Way before this last particular decade, many of Unilever’s brands had more than dabbled in the “CSR” space. One of the first tie-ups I learnt about, when I joined CARE International in 2006, were the hand-washing initiatives led by Dove soap in south Asia, and which engaged local CARE teams in finding innovative ways to distribute health messages to rural communities.

It was clear to me, during my initial years with CARE in London, that Unilever had an omnipresent feel about it as a company, in terms of its presence on the sustainability scene.

When I joined the WSUP management team in 2008 for CARE, Unilever were one of the most active private sector partners, determined to prove that the answer to global water-sanitation issues lay in the collaboration between government, private sector and civil society working together.

And then, by 2010, CARE had launched JITA, a rural sales programme in Bangladesh that relied on everyday products being sold by local tradeswomen. No surprise, then, that Unilever had pioneered the earlier pilots to JITA, adapting certain products for harder to reach communities (also no surprise that it was Professor Linda Scott from Saïd Business School who championed a significant investment in measuring the impacts of JITA’s work).

Indeed, in the arena of the emerging partnerships and collaborations, which I saw take shape during those years, Unilever were front-runners.

Moving to Vietnam in 2011, I spent more time in the Asia-Pacific sustainability arena, only to find a similar dynamic out here, with Unilever once more driving the debates and popping up at conferences and seminars to lead the examples of good practice, particularly when it came to partnerships and sustainability.

So, in many ways, Polman’s insights yesterday fell well in line with what I would expect him to say about the current covid-19 pandemic.

Words are easy – real and sustained action tends not to be so.

The tension with putting words into action is not a new phenomenon. I’d be the first to challenge a lot of the work that companies put out there under a sustainability banner. To me, we’ve a long way to go on the topic of forging genuinely meaningful and long lasting partnerships between different organisations and especially when it comes to multi-national companies.

It seems to me, though, that covid-19 has somewhat re-written the script, not just for how businesses might engage in societal and environmental issues, but how every organisation engages.

Every conversation that anyone in the world is having today is in some way influenced by covid-19. It has changed everything. Forget starting any new chapter headings, we all need to learn a new language to read this particular book.

And that is, perhaps, why I found Polmans’ words so inspiring.

Already, covid-19 and the new realities it has brought upon society, simply must now be a catalyst for changing the way organisations work together. Somehow, before old habits and models and behaviours are allowed to creep back in, we must foster long-term commitments by government, private sector, and civil society to actually be the global “responders” that Polman is insisting are required.

In the interview, Polman cites some immediately comforting examples of where health, tech, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors have collaborated together to address the pandemic. The world is rising to certain aspects of the challenge it faces.

Many commentators have been quick, also, to recognise the very positive way in which these recent months can help shape a healthier society in the future. One where larger numbers of people make choices not geared towards satisfying their own desires or needs.

Also in the mix, as the realities for the world’s poorest and most marginalised population groups come sharper into focus, is a greater awareness about the extent to which covid-19 will almost certainly end up further increasing the world’s inequalities – inequalities that have for so many years exacerbated the vulnerabilities of those living with very little prosperity and facing constant injustices.

As Polman mentioned yesterday, every year 8 million people die because of cigarettes, and 7-8 million because of air pollution. That the fatalities for which covid will be responsible won’t reach such numbers, further highlights perhaps the complacency that exists about the sales of tobacco and the number of regulatory controls that effect air quality.

I listened earlier in the week to someone on the radio talking about the many millions of people the world over who, for reasons of old age or disability, have been self-isolated from society their whole lives. That radical re-thinking about the digital and virtual nature of providing services and products – be they educational or health related, or other – is now well underway because of covid-19 is both exciting and deeply revealing.

Does this mean covid-19 embodies some type of perfect humanitarian storm of circumstances, out of which new alliances, partnerships and cross-sector collaborations will be forged? Did the world need the “re-boot” that I’ve read some people describe the current circumstances as?

Time will tell.

To quote Polman from the start, this crisis like none other before it, is “showing our society’s gaps” – for everyone to see. Acknowledging these gaps is one thing. Finding the right, long term solutions to them is another.

Polman indefatigably believes that the right type of solutions will only be found if the world works together.

And, at this point in time, I can only whole-heartedly agree.


Making a connection in difficult times

This morning I woke up to a flurry of whatsapp messages from my cousins in the UK.

The messages drew from our respective memories of making child-hood visits to our grandparent’s house, down in Ramsgate, Kent.

What felt, for my brother and me back then in the early to mid 1980’s, like a life-time spent in the back seat of our parent’s car (playing ‘I-spy’, stopping at service stations, before – at last – pitching up alongside the seafront, and knocking on the pale green back-door, awaiting our Grandad’s inevitable greeting of “not today, thank-you”) was brought back to life in the moments of recall described in my cousins’ whatsapp chatter.

The instant recall and sentiments that popped up in these messages was palpable. Our Nan’s signature offerings (cherry cakes, iced fingers, Dandelion and Burdoock fizzy drinks, apple and blackberry pies) alongside our grandparent’s familiar household ornaments (a glass-topped table displaying our school photos, KP salted peanuts in a bowl, and a walnut cracker proudly stood between a family of wooden elephants) and then the excitable excursions we all took in between being served up huge quantities of food (down to the games arcade, “moving the flags on the putting green” and throwing little parachuted plastic soldiers off the white cliff tops).

The picture painted was so very satisfying and instant. I sensed we’d all happily opened our hearts to it, and to being back there again.

me and matt
Me, Mum and my brother, Matt, in our Grandparents’ garden in Ramsgate, circa 1980.

Amid so much turmoil right now, these moments are sacred and unifying.

When markets recover and normality is restored, regardless of how shaped it will be from these recent times, there is a sense (shared by some commentators) that our ambitions and values, and sense of civic responsibilities, might have been enhanced in a positive way. That we will, perhaps, think more about each other, and less about our own desires.

Part of the anxieties surrounding these present and future scenarios could well be the ‘not knowing’. The lack of control we have in the current moment. The diminishing returns being presented to those of us unaccustomed to such a reality.

Already, in the international development sector (the core realm from where my definitelymaybe posts typically begin their journey) much is being written about the fact that, for years now, we’ve designed development programmes for marginalised communities around the world that ultimately try to build people’s capacities to be resilient in the face of crisis. How to best absorb, adapt and transform when “shocks” occur.

The related concepts and tools published about resiliency are multiple.

The learning cycles that unfold in typical social development programming have never been easy to fully articulate, nor, ironically, to learn from. I imagine, in current times, powerful lessons will be captured about resiliency, from countries around the world who are themselves locking down right now, freezing their economic development, and moving into unprecedented waters.

The reasons that programme learning cycles might not be up to scratch are many. There can, for example, often be no clear learning strategy made early on in the design of a programme, which then undermines learning at a later date. There are awkward funding processes, too, which mean organisations aren’t always readily resourced to invest in their partnerships, and in their learning, because they are under pressure to chase down the next grant.

I think there also exist fundamental divides between the different stakeholders engaged in social programming. Namely, and crudely, those designing and implementing and then those on the “receiving end”. Whilst there are a plethora of human-centred design frameworks growing in number (where the emphasis on design is led by “end-user”) too often organisations are not localising their solutions.

We devise a micro-loan product, for example, without properly testing the assumption that micro-loans are needed or desired. A training course might provide women with new skills and the confidence to earn better income, without involving their husbands in the process, and considering the consequences of the dis-empowerment which this new dynamic might cause the men.

Right now, one of the outcomes of Covid-19 is that some people are turning more attention “inwards”, to their families and friends – looking for answers, for reassurances, for distraction, for compassion and empathy, for something light-hearted, something human.

These acts of unity and solidarity are, in many ways, the same acts playing out everyday, and across every local community, acts born out of survival and respect, given freely and with humility. From the street-vendors I pass here in Saigon, to the farmers harvesting rice in the fields outside the city, and the young woman working in a garment factory and sending home her earnings.

There is a unifying chemistry binding people here in Vietnam who are, one day at a time, hustling to make a living, coping, ready for things to change one way or the other, determined to keep moving forward.

Theirs is as wide spanning a connection, in a country of 96 million, as can be made. A rich network of knowledge and intuition, of grit and resilience.

Have we, perhaps, missed the simplicity of answering some of the world’s weightiest development challenges by trying to invent solutions too complicated, with processes and systems too politically charged, when the actual answers are staring us in the face?

What does sustainable development look like beyond the horizon of this current pandemic, and in light of what can be learnt from it, I wonder?

That is to be seen.

However, it feels our biggest chance to learn from one another – on so many levels – and to put that learning into practice in the future, could come from these inward facing instincts and, indeed, in this very moment of our time.

nan and grandad
My Grandparents, Ron and Lilian, with my Mum and her brother, Brian. Early 1970s.