Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

In recent weeks you could be forgiven for thinking we were back in the early eighties at the height of the Reagan/Thatcher era’s talking up of the threat from Moscow.

The renewed Russian and Syrian assault on rebel-held east Aleppo and the images of destruction getting out and into western media has stimulated what can only be described as Russophobia to reach new heights, stoked as it is by Washington and London with many journalists and commentators in tow.

The charge list against the Kremlin is long and growing all the time.

President Putin is accused of a litany of wrongdoing from war crimes in Syria and Ukraine to attempting to subvert the US presidential election and funding Europe’s anti-EU populist parties.

Then there are the reports of actions that would be routine and barely worthy of comment if they were being done by the US – carrying out military flights close to other countries’ airspace, basing bombers in the Russian Far East to patrol the Pacific or test launching missiles from submarines – which are being given media prominence.

Historians can point to a long pedigree for Russophobia, and in Britain it long predated the 1917 Revolution, the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Even though Moscow and London ended up on the same side in the two world wars and during the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia was discounted as a weak, declining country of little consequence, the “Russian bear” has generally been portrayed as a rival and a threat in Britain since the imperial rivalry of the nineteenth century – by both politicians and journalists.

Of course, the current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is a journalist who went into politics and perhaps that explains his suggestion last week that people should protest about Syria outside the Russian embassy in London – a suggestion that indicates he still has to learn he’s no longer a practitioner of what one former diplomat joked to me is the journalist’s vice – the exercise of power without responsibility.

In the case of the assault on Aleppo, there is truth in the accusation that the bombing is being carried out without much concern for civilian casualties.

But while it may allow the politicians, like Johnson,  and media commentators to indulge in righteous indignation and – one suspects – to revel a bit in a feeling of moral superiority, it doesn’t make for good policy or a long-term solution to the war in Syria and the growing impasse in relations between the West and Russia.

The former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, allowed his sense outrage to get the better of his judgement when he went on the BBC to call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Syria – an act which would almost certainly mean going to war with Russia, something no serious western politician has any intention of doing.

Indignation can be constructive.

It can galvanise people to take action to prevent humanitarian abuses or to end armed conflicts where unwitting civilians are caught in the middle.

But selective indignation is counter-productive.

Undermined – as it inevitably is – by hypocrisy and double standards that undermine its moral force.

Be it the British government’s condemnation of Russian action in Syria while remaining relatively quiet about Saudi action in Yemen, or that of supporters of the Stop the War coalition who tend to be muted in criticism of Russia while focusing their ire on the British and Americans over Iraq, Afghanistan and – indeed – Syria.

Or Russia’s condemnation of American and British recognition of Kosovo’s break away from Serbia while subsequently recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s declarations of independence from Georgia.

And that’s before you consider how both sides are capable of sowing disinformation and outright lies to gain advantage.

Remember Russia’s insistence its forces have not been involved in Ukraine or the American refusal to own up for launching a cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Moral suasion requires consistency to carry authority.

The old saying “people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones” isn’t a call to stay silent; but it should be taken as an invocation to avoid hypocrisy if you want your words and actions to carry weight.

Double standards have practical consequences.

As I’ve written elsewhere, they undermine the trust that’s needed between opposing sides if there’s to be much hope of settling the disputes driving conflicts from Ukraine to Syria.





As the government tries to work out what its approach to Brexit will be – and so far its mantra that it won’t give a running commentary seems to be designed as much to hide the lack of substance to its plans as it is to disguise its negotiating strategy – it’s insisting the UK will remain an outward-looking country.

This seems partly designed to counter the impression that may have been given by the vote to leave the EU that the English – and it is primarily the English – are turning their backs to the world.

It also seems designed to reassure investors and businesses and shore up confidence in the economy hit by a 15% devaluation in the pound since the referendum.

That fall may make exports cheaper, but it’s widely predicted to lead to an increase in inflation in an economy that imports more than it exports.

Despite all this, the message about an outward-looking country doesn’t seem to be hitting home.

It’s being drowned out in the inchoate debate – if that is not too strong a word – on what Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world should be.

That’s because there’s another message coming from the upper echelons of the government.

This came through loud and clear in the Prime Minister’s speeches and comments during the Conservative party conference last week.

It was added to by Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s promise to cut immigration and pressure business and universities to reduce the numbers of foreign employees and students, as well as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s pledge to cut the numbers of non-British doctors in the NHS.

They all seemed to be saying the same thing: foreigners are no longer welcome in the UK.

And the message doesn’t seem to be getting through just to prospective immigrants who maybe considering a move to the UK.

People who’ve come to Britain from other EU countries in good faith over the past 43 years are also feeling uneasy now they’re openly being used as a potential Brexit bargaining chip.

International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, was caught on mic advocating this last week.

And Theresa May repeated it – in more veiled terms – at her meeting with her Danish counterpart in Copenhagen on Monday when she said: “I expect to be able to guarantee the legal rights of EU nationals already in the UK, so long as the British nationals living in Europe – countries who are member states – receive the same treatment” (my emphasis).

With all this, it’s tempting to treat the outward-looking country rhetoric as just that – rhetoric

And judging from social media many foreign residents in the UK have taken from all this that they aren’t really welcome any more.

Of course, May, Rudd and Hunt were all in the Remain camp – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – before the referendum, so you can understand if, politically, they feel they need to convince the Tory grassroots and the 52% of voters who backed Leave that they are the people to deliver Brexit.

And paradoxically, it is leading Brexiteers, like Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, who have talked most about the country’s future being an outward-looking one.

But, the rest of the world could be forgiven for missing this when the message from the very top of government is dominated by an expressed intention to keep foreigners out of workplaces, universities and hospitals.

In the face of protests from business, the government has partly rolled back on its proposal that firms report on the numbers of foreigners they employ – they now say firms will have to report them, but the numbers won’t be made public.

If Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues want to dispel the impression they’ve given that post-Brexit Britain is far from being an outward-looking country, they’re going to have to work a bit harder.

They could start by unequivocally guaranteeing that all the people who’ve already come to the UK from other EU countries to live and work are very welcome and there’s no question they could be forced to leave if London doesn’t get what it wants in the upcoming talks.

They also need to bear in mind that 48% of voters opted to remain in the EU on June 23rd and part of why they did so was because they do want to live in an outward-looking country.



Since taking up her post a few months ago, Britain’s new International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, has been talking up how she’s going to crackdown on waste and fraud in the way her budget is spent.

In her first speech to a Tory party conference as Secretary of State yesterday, she continued in this vein,  promising to “follow the money” to root out waste and corruption.

A laudable ambition which no one can argue with.

But what constitutes “waste” seems to depend quite a bit on your overall view of aid.

Critics of the amount the UK spends on aid – and last year the Department for International Development, DFID, spent just over £10 billion – seem to define waste as spending on things they disapprove of.

Popular tabloids, like the Mail, which has run a campaign to reduce the amount spent on development aid, and the Express, for instance, highlight stories about what they describe as money being squandered on trivial things.

Fraud, on the other hand, is something where it’s easier for everyone to agree on a definition.

So please bear with me, as a look at some statistics tells an interesting story.

Last year, figures recently released by DFID show £1.04 million of spending was lost to fraud.

That works out at 0.0104% of the budget.

Compare that with the rest of government spending.

With a little digging, I turned up fraud figures from 2013/14 financial year which show that of total government spending, 5.5% was lost to dishonest activity.

This was in a year when DFID’s figures show it lost 0.0076% of its spend in this way.

If you compare that to the NHS for the same year, fraud cost the health service 1.97% of its spending, while the proportion for Whitehall as a whole was 3.72%.

Now, one penny lost to fraud is clearly one penny too much.

But these figures suggest DFID does a relatively rigorous job of ensuring its budget is spent honestly – which is even more impressive when you consider most of it is given to international organisations, NGOs and other governments who actually control the day to day spending of the money.

Ask any NGO or international organisation about the detailed monitoring and reporting they are required to do by DFID – a perspective you rarely hear from the critics who highlight misuse of the aid budget.

That said; is aid fraud a growing problem?

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted from the percentages above that the amount of aid money identified as lost to fraud has gone up over the past two years – in cash terms it has risen from £772,000 to £1,040,000.

On the surface that looks like a growing problem.

But as with many statistics, this needs to be seen in context.

The apparent growth in fraud can be largely put down to more effective detection and reporting of the problem. So, rather than the problem getting worse, it seems DFID is getting better at spotting it – the department says the higher figure is a result of heightened scrutiny by its staff and its counter fraud unit.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented sensational headlines such as “40% leap in foreign aid cash stolen by fraudsters”.

Such reporting helps to reinforce public’s scepticism about spending their taxes on development aid.

This is a pity.

The reality is Britain’s aid budget is among the most transparent and least vulnerable to fraud across government.



The past week has been an unedifying one in the world of international diplomacy.

World leaders have been at the United Nations in New York for their annual gathering at the General Assembly where they immediately disappointed with a watered down agreement to consider reforming how they deal with the growing numbers of refugees.

If that were not enough, the proceedings were then overshadowed by an outbreak of finger pointing between the Americans and Russians over the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire.

Washington accused Russia of bombing the humanitarian convoy in Syria that killed at least 20 and undermining the ceasefire.

Russia denied it was involved. But that hasn’t stopped the Americans continuing to stoke outrage against Moscow in same week the US itself had helped undermine the ceasefire by killing 63 Syrian troops in an air strike – an attack the US insists was unintentional.

Whether or not Russia did carry out the convoy strike, and past experience of the veracity of American allegations in conflicts where it has taken clear sides gives pause for thought (remember Defense Secretary Cohen’s claim ahead of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 that 100,000 Albanians had been killed in Kosovo), Washington’s attempt to take the moral high ground over Syria is undermined by its actions in Yemen.

The Americans are supplying weapons and intelligence in support of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war that’s involved similar attacks on humanitarian workers, particularly hospitals and clinics.

Moscow is unlikely to feel under much pressure to change its approach in Syria as long as Washington doesn’t change its approach to Yemen

And it’s not just the Americans backing the Saudis.

As my former colleague, Robin Lustig, has pointed out in a powerful piece, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Teresa May, has brushed off criticism of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia emphasising Riyadh’s cooperation against Islamist terrorism.

The hypocrisy and double standards of the major powers and their allies – be they the Syrian or Saudi governments – are more than just words though.

They also directly undermine attempts to bring an end to the fighting and suffering of civilians that all parties claim to want – as I’ve argued before in the context of Ukraine.

With both sides effectively saying “do as I say, not as I do” and, in the eyes of their opponents, being rank dishonest, it makes it extremely difficult to build even the minimum of trust that’s needed for a durable peace effort.

As the siege of Syria’s second city Aleppo intensifies again and the Saudi campaign in Yemen grinds on, there is an urgent need for the main powers to get back round the table and at least agree to stop fuelling the conflicts.

But this week has shown that prospect seems remote.

So, one could forgive ordinary Syrians and Yemenis – living under siege and bombardment or having fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere – for looking at the images from New York and being reminded of Nero and his proverbial fiddling as Rome burned.

The huge numbers of people on the move around the world – be they seeking refuge from war or oppression, or looking for a better life – will be top of the agenda for world leaders gathering this week at the United Nations in New York for their annual get together at the General Assembly.

Monday sees the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to assess how to update the way the international community deals with people moving across borders.

On Tuesday, US President Obama is convening a Leaders Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis to directly consider how to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge in recent years partly – though by no means exclusively – driven by the conflict in Syria and the instability and repression in several parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Not to be too cynical about it, it’s noteworthy this high level focus on refugees follows the recent flow of large numbers into the European Union and growing pressure on wealthier countries to do more.

The majority of the world’s 21 million refugees are being hosted – as they have always been – by neighbouring countries, which, in the case of Syria, means Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Beirut, Amman and Ankara had been calling for greater support and solidarity from the rest of the world for several years, but the response so far has been underwhelming.

Few countries have been prepared to take in significant numbers of people and the UN’s humanitarian relief operations for Syria have been chronically underfunded – this year only 74% of the money needed – and, in many cases, promised – has actually being made available.

As the Syrian civil war entered its fifth year in early 2015 and the UN was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps, it’s no wonder many Syrians decided to take a chance on the perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean and through the Balkans or directly across the Mediterranean to Italy.

This week’s high level discussions may be being driven by the arrival of large numbers in Europe and demand for more action by richer countries, but it’s still the less wealthy countries in regions affected by conflict  that are doing the lion’s share of coping with the millions displaced by conflict.

Take the example of South Sudan where, following the breakdown in the fragile ceasefire in the civil war in July, another 100,000 South Sudanese have crossed into Uganda which is already hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of murder, rape and economic chaos.

Support in countries neighbouring conflicts is provided by host governments, UN agencies like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR and its food agency, WFP, along with non-governmental organisations, like Sightsavers, the one I work for, which has helped organise medical treatment for eye diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases in refugee camps in Kenya, for instance.

But this week will hear calls for deeper reform of the global system and for developed countries to take on a fairer share of providing refuge for people seeking asylum.

The UN’s refugee agency has already hailed Monday’s summit as a “game changer…that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move”.

Humanitarian and development organisations and activists though are markedly less effusive.

They point to the watering down of the draft declaration for the summit, where governments, particularly the Europeans and Americans, have sought to limit their commitments to concrete action – suggesting political leaders in wealthier nations are still unwilling to fully cooperate and share responsibility for taking in people forced to flee their homelands  by war, oppression or poverty.

The growing electoral appeal of nativism and right-wing populism in the EU and US is inhibiting many governments from doing more. And that is not going to change any time soon.

The example of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose political fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse since she took a brave decision to take in the bulk of Syrian refugees who made it to the EU, is deterring even those who feel a moral duty from following her lead.

So UN agencies as well as humanitarian and development organisations will be forced to continue depending on uncertain finances and ad hoc solutions to look after those seeking asylum to continue their work.

It needn’t be this way.

The next few days provide an opportunity to make the step change the UNHCR has prematurely hailed in the way governments, working together, could make life easier for refugees and reduce the strain on the countries currently bearing the brunt.

This requires collective political will and individual leadership from the government heads gathered in New York, but, as things stand, the odds are this chance is going to be missed.

The United Nations has issued a stark warning that South Sudan is facing a growing humanitarian crisis even in areas that had previously been stable.

With much of the world’s media focusing on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this latest UN alert has got a little lost in all the noise, even though the UN’s top humanitarian official, Stephen O’Brien isn’t mincing his words.

“Let me be clear”, he told journalists in New York last week, “people in South Sudan are not just fleeing their homes because they need food, shelter or medical care and school for their children. They are fleeing [because they] fear for their lives”.

This sudden worsening is the result of the collapse a month ago of the truce between forces supporting the President, Salva Kir, and his deputy, Vice President Riek Machar, which also saw the killing and rape of civilians – including those seeking protection from UN peacekeepers.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s only existed for five years since breaking away from Sudan after a long, bloody conflict in July 2011.

But instead of celebrating their independence, many people have been packing up what belongings they can and trying to escape the violence.

Since the civil war between followers of Kir and Machar broke out at the end of 2013, 900,000 people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with 100,000 more fleeing in the past month alone, mainly to Uganda.

Inside the country, another 1.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes and are internally displaced.

All this out of a population of just over 12 million.

It is easy to blame South Sudanese politicians for what’s happening – and the government’s refusal so far to agree to the UN Security Council despatching reinforcements to the UNMISS peacekeeping mission with a tougher mandate to protect civilians, only underlines that.

But responsibility for the unfolding disaster in South Sudan can also be laid at the door of the international community.

The United States, for instance, was instrumental in pushing for its independence, but was not prepared for the long term commitment required to build a functioning state.

As so often, the UN was handed the task of helping build the new nation, but without really being given the necessary financial and political backing needed to make a success of it.

No doubt UNMISS has made mistakes, chief among them, many observers believe, has been its lack of neutrality in its dealings with a factionalised government.

However, the task it faces in South Sudan is daunting.

This is a country that lacks the basic infrastructure to function. There are few decent roads, hospitals and schools, and it has few qualified civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, police or judges.

A veteran of both the US State Department and UN peacekeeping told me when the civil war first started in 2013; either you do the job properly – by which he meant putting in the resources and time required – or it’s better not to do it at all.

And it’s not as if there haven’t been enough examples of the consequences of such half-hearted nation building to learn from.

When the UN went into to Timor Leste in 1999 as it voted for independence after 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, privately both UN officials and Timorese leaders said it would need to run the country for at least 10 years to train the people and build the infrastructure it required to ensure a stable future.

In the end, despite warnings from staff on the ground, because its member states wanted to wind down their financial and military commitments, the UN handed over government to Timorese politicians after only three years, and reduced its role to a support mission.

Four years later, the country descended into chaos with police and army fighting each other for control of the capital, Dili, setting back the country’s progress right back.

The fighting in South Sudan came even sooner after independence than in Timor, and has been much worse, with an estimated 300,000 people losing their lives so far.

And when the fighting starts, what work is being done to help build up healthcare systems or open schools is usually halted as it’s just too dangerous for the civilians engaged in this work to remain, and humanitarian relief becomes the priority.

In South Sudan, the UN says it needs another $700 billion for its emergency relief work and in the past few weeks, the non-governmental organisations involved in development work have had to suspend their operations.

Tending to the immediate needs of the 4.8 million people facing severe food shortages and trying to contain a cholera outbreak – as well as restoring the ceasefire between rival factions – are taking precedence.

As things stand, the resumption of the all-important work to build a functioning state and an economy underpinning decent healthcare, schools and universities seems some way off.

Yet with a greater international commitment at the time of independence, the setbacks in South Sudan might have been avoided.


George Monbiot – the environment commentator – wrote a recent cri de coeur on the failure of the media – by which I think he meant most mainstream outlets – to give sufficient coverage to climate change, despite the tumbling of global temperature records and accompanying floods and droughts that are hitting people all over the world.

He’s right of course.

It’s striking how little has been published or broadcast since last December’s United Nations Paris Climate summit agreed to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Do editors think the pledges – and that’s all they were – made in Paris are the last word on climate change?

A recent conversation I had with a former colleague, and a respected environment journalist, suggests they may.

He lamented that he just couldn’t get climate stories on – even with the record temperatures and constant flow of natural disaster stories so-beloved of those same editors.

Surely giving climate change prominent coverage is in the public interest, I observed.

Unarguable you might think, whatever your views on the causes of rising global temperatures.

But then, it’s not just climate change where mainstream media journalists are failing the public.

There is also scant coverage of sustainable development.

As I wrote last year, when all UN member states came together in a historic agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to produce a fairer world which actually has a long-term future, there was barely a peep of interest.

And things haven’t changed since then.

The first high level meeting to review progress towards the SDGs a couple of weeks ago, where 22 countries reported what they have done and plan to do, was largely ignored by the media.

If you do an internet search you’ll find stories on specialist development blogs and a few niche business news sites, but little else.

The only mainstream media outlet I could find that published anything was The Guardian, which actually has a development sub-index on its website. Although, even that merits only a qualified welcome given the Guardian gets the Gates Foundation to subsidise this coverage, suggesting even the editors there still don’t see development as deserving of much coverage purely on its own merits.

So why are journalists largely ignoring sustainable development?

Well, partly it’s because they are subject to the tyranny of the urgent over the important – there always seems to be something more immediate they judge needs reporting.

But they also fail to see development as a story because they’re prone to what I’d call a tramline mentality. There are certain kinds of stories they’re used to covering – be it political rows, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even changes in interest rates –  and they think they know how to cover them.

It means they stay in their comfort zone, but it’s a failure journalistic imagination.

How to break out of this compartmentalised thinking?

One way may be to create new indices on websites and in papers to encourage journalists to see the importance of sustainable development stories.

Many papers and news sites already have “environment” pages or indices – which is not just a way to help users navigate stories, but also, I’d argue, a reflection of how journalists categorise stories in their own minds.

So one suggestion I’ve heard – and will repeat here – is to rename those indices “people and planet”.This may help editors and reporters to think about environment and development, and their impact on people’s lives – the all-important human interest angle – as deeply entwined and interrelated.

Then there is the public interest argument.

What could be more important than the future of the planet we all depend on for our very existence?

Yet, many of the editors who respond to criticism of their coverage of the foibles – and worse – of politicians by citing the public interest (even when the scale of that coverage risks turning the public off) are the same ones who routinely ignore or underplay sustainable development.

If editors don’t see coverage of such existential matters as in the public interest, there is a more mundane, but perhaps more familiar, reason for covering the issue.

That old hoary chestnut “the way taxpayers’ money is spent”.

There has been a lot of media scrutiny over the past year in the UK of the foreign aid budget, including from outlets which, shall we say, are not well-known for their international coverage.

So there is already an appetite for covering development aid.

It’s also becoming clear that from now on much of that aid is going to be prioritised according to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goals.

So, with a bit of joining up of the dots, there may be hope that editors, who up to now have had little interest in covering the SDGs and international development, could be persuaded that there are good reasons for changing their approach.

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