Archive for July, 2013


Everyday Soft Power

July 16, 2013

In the Lords Committee Hearing on UK Soft Power and Influence the hearing started off with the four departments represented talking about the good work they are doing in this area and this stimulated the following comment from Baroness Nicholson

Following the point that Lord Forsyth was making, the excellent outcomes that departmental representatives are telling us about are fully laudable. However, is it possible that they are a little bit as one would expect you to produce from your departmental responsibilities? Actually, what we are looking for is that extra called soft power, which is something over and above the normal daily routine as one would expect it.

I’m with Bruno Latour on this one, as he says in Reassembling the Social  ‘power, like society, is the final result of a process and not a reservoir, a stock or a capital’ (p.64)

Baroness Nicholson is looking at this the wrong way round:  soft power is not in the ‘extra’ but precisely in the ‘normal daily routine’.   it’s in the routines of scientists who choose to partner with colleagues from particular universities, it’s in the decisions about which  films to watch, or which country to visit on holiday, or which stars to pay attention.   That everyday is embedded in networks of relationships – influence is related to particular areas and doesn’t provide an ‘extra’ that can be easily redeployed.

But this line of argument doesn’t just apply to ‘soft power’ it applies to any type of ‘power’.  The French concept of the diplomatie d’influence relates to precisely the everyday processes that go on in expert networks and international organizations.  Even if you’re thinking of military resources much of their political effect comes from the way that networks (media, intelligence, diplomatic) produce representations of their consequences through their routine everyday action.


What Ever Happened to UK Public Diplomacy Strategy?

July 12, 2013

I’ve been reading the transcript of the first evidence session of the House of Lords inquiry on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence and this is shaping up to be the most comprehensive investigation of the area since the House of Commons Committee did their report on public diplomacy in 2006.

The first set of witnesses come from civilian government departments: FCO, Business, Innovations and Skills, Department for International Development, and Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I’ll come back to some more conceptual issues about soft power in a later post but to start with but this session does clear up a couple of issues about things going missing in UK Public Diplomacy….

The Committee are unsurprisingly asking these departments about coordination and in particular the Public Diplomacy Board only to discover that

Hugh Elliott (Director of Communication and Engagement, FCO): In the interests of completeness, I will clarify for Baroness Goudie that the Public Diplomacy Board has since lapsed.

The reason?

Hugh Elliott: …The board served a valuable initial purpose in bringing together and giving direction to cross-Government soft power activities, especially around areas of best practice, but the decision that Ministers took over time was that the most important thing moving into the run-up to the Olympics was to focus on what was going to be a unique event and to focus what are always limited resources on making the very most out of that specific event.

Because of the Olympics we couldn’t manage to meet up…

A little later Lord Janvrin asks:

You said that there is no overall strategy but you have strategies in particular areas. I think I am right in saying that a business plan produced by the FCO some years ago talked in terms of producing an overall strategy. Is that now not the case and you are not going to try to draw the threads of soft power together in an overall strategy? If not, why not? The other element that I would like to come on to, but I do not know whether now is the time, is learning from other countries. But can I ask the overall strategy one, which is specifically for the FCO?

Hugh Elliott: The question about the intention to publish a soft power strategy goes back to my answer to the previous question. A great deal of work went on at official level in 2011 across government departments—this was not just the Foreign Office, although the Foreign Office was leading the work; and it was not just across departments, it was with outside organisations, our arm’s-length bodies, academics, NGOs, business and the voluntary sector—looking at exactly this broad issue of soft power. Ministers having looked at this, the decision was that with the Olympics looming extraordinarily large we should indeed focus very much on the Olympics and getting the most out of the Olympics as the unique opportunity for soft power projection that the United Kingdom had at that point in time. As for the future, I cannot really speculate.

I was wondering what had happened to the famous national soft power strategy and now we know. Haven’t managed to do that either.

A bit later our man from the FCO manages to pull things back a bit

it is important to note that in terms of strategy around soft power, Ministers decided that rather than taking a completely global approach, the National Security Council would focus on key emerging powers and within that develop a specific strand around soft power.

In the rest of the session there’s an effort to push back a bit and emphasize the role of the NSC but you get the impression that coordination and strategy will have a prominent role in the Committee’s report.

One other quick point.  The representative from the DCMS was the Head of Cultural Diplomacy.   Historically the UK rarely talks about cultural diplomacy, cultural relations is preferred term, and normally people in the cultural sector want to distance themselves from ‘diplomacy’.  Anybody know when and why DCMS started using this terminology?


Diplomats vs Project Management

July 11, 2013

While the UK government is struggling to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA it’s also trying to manage the political downside of this partly through creating something called the Independent Commission on Aid Impact that reviews aid programmes.   It’s done a couple of interesting reports on ODA work by the FCO.  There’s a recent one on FCO and British Council Aid Responses to the Arab Spring and one from last year on the Evaluation of the Inter-Departmental Conflict Pool.

The latter report is interesting because it puts its finger on a couple of features of modern statecraft.

The first thing is that a lot of what diplomats from big countries do isn’t actually diplomacy as it’s traditionally defined.  I would understand diplomacy as being about the maintenance of relationships.  It’s a continuing process.  What is happening with the programmes discussed in these reports is project management.  There’s a pot of money diplomats put in a proposal to bid for it, it gets assessed by a board (for the academics out there this may seem a bit familiar!) they get the funding,  execute it with local partners and that’s it.  Hopefully the project fulfils its goals, there’s policy benefit and the local partners are happy.   Of course this is how the aid community works.

The ICAI thinks that that the FCO (and the BC) do a pretty good job and sounds a bit surprised about how good they are at some aspects of this work.  They think that the FCO is good at identifying project partners, ‘encouraging them to develop their programmes in useful directions’, providing support on ‘problem analysis and activity design’, ‘building relationships of trust’ .  I think that this is exactly what you would expect diplomats to be good at.  Of course there are downsides.  The diplomats aren’t so good at project management and the FCO doesn’t have the financial systems for managing this work so there has to be an improvised solution.*  They also need to have proper theories of change – this is something that I’ve been advocating for a while.

The other point which has been rattling around at the back of my head for a while but which I’ve never seen discussed before is the fit between this project based mode of working and strategy.  There are several issues here

  1. The Conflict Pool has lacked a good strategic framework so that there’s been an element of funding projects independently of whether they will provide overall strategic benefits.
  2. Discussing the programme of work in Pakistan the report notes that ‘the programming generally lacks the scale or intensity required for substantial impact’.  I think that this is an issue that doesn’t just apply to this particular programme – I think that it’s also true of much US PD.  There’s a pot of money for activities and we use it to finance projects regardless of whether we can actually achieve an objective.
  3. If you’re working through partners what happens if you can’t find the right partner to match your objective?

“A major challenge in Pakistan has been identifying credible implementing partners.  This in turn limits the strategic choices available.  We noted that there are a number of objectives in the Conflict Pool strategy for Pakistan that are yet to be matched with convincing partners and activities.  This challenge also means that the Conflict Pool has  a tendency to continue working with its established partners each year, even where their activities are not highly strategic.”

This kind of project based working is fashionable it’s supposed to respond to local initiatives and tap into local expertise, you’ll get local ownership and so on.  But I think we have to be realistic about the results and payoffs.  Sometime what you can do isn’t what you need to do.  This also connects to the critiques of NGOs in democracy assistance that I discussed here.

*In fact one of the take aways from these reports is that the FCO needs to be more like DFID, diplomats need project management skills etc. This is a perfectly good point but this does strike me as a bit ironic as DFID used to be part of the FCO – might it make more sense to put them back together rather than turn the FCO in a junior DFID?


House of Lords Takes Evidence on UK Soft Power

July 11, 2013

Via twitter Alistair Miskimmons draws attention to the fact that the House of Lords has a committee investigating Britain’s soft power and influence.  They’ve already taken evidence two lots of evidence (, had another evidence session on Monday and have another one scheduled.  Should be interesting.   Transcripts of the first two sessions are here.


A Lesson from the BBC World Service for VoA?

July 5, 2013

US international broadcasting seems to be in a permanent state of meltdown;  I’ve given up on trying to keep track of the posts on BBG Watch.  I was interested to see reports on the testimony given to the House of Representatives last week – which given that the witnesses couldn’t agree doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Gary Thomas, a long time VoA journalist, correctly identifies the core of the problem in the multiple roles of US International Broadcasting in particular the tension between public diplomacy (that is broadcasting is an instrument) and journalism.  Interestingly there’s a degree of slippage in the piece between journalism and international broadcasting – this is striking because most of his criticisms of VoA are about dumbing down as a result of a management imported from the commercial sector not about the instrumentalization by diplomats.  His solution is that the VoA should be centralized around a newsroom overseen by a journalist.  If the station focuses on journalism everything will be fine.

The problem with this is that non-commercial international broadcasting (like public diplomacy in general) is constructed around multiple objectives.  Firstly, we would like an audience.  Secondly, we would like to do something for or to that audience beyond just getting them to listen, watch or click.   The identity of our intended audience is a function of what we want to do to or for them.  The instrumental aspect is probably necessary to justify the funds that we need to broadcast at all.   These tensions are inherent in the activity.  The key step is recognize that they exist and then work out how to manage them.  Pretending that they don’t exist is just sowing the seeds for more trouble down the line.

In this context have a look at how the BBC World Service squares the circle.  Last week the BBC Trust – ie the regulatory board for the BBC issued a draft of the license that that the BBC will operate under when the Trust takes over funding of the World Service from the FCO.  There’s also a position paper explaining things in a bit more detail.

Have a look at the ‘remit’ from the license:

BBC World Service broadcasts and distributes accurate, impartial and independent news and content in a range of genres aimed primarily at users outside the UK. The editorial agenda of the World Service should provide a global perspective on the world, not one based upon any national or commercial interest. BBC World Service should contribute to the BBC’s international news mission to address the global gap in provision of trusted international news, by providing accurate, impartial and independent news and analysis of the highest quality. In developing countries the World Service aims, through journalism that contributes to accountability and g ood governance, to improve the welfare and economic development of citizens. It should aim to provide a distinctive service tailored to its audience’s need, and maximise reach of all services in their target markets, subject to value for money. BBC World Service should make a significant contribution to promoting the BBC’s public purposes.

What’s interesting here is the notion of the ‘global news gap’.  Why do you have a shortage of good news coverage? Either because poverty means that your local broadcasters don’t have the resources to do the job or because you have an authoritarian government.  Then look at what journalism is supposed to do in developing countries – contribute to accountability and good governance.

The remit brings together three things; we’re a journalistic organization; but our journalism is part of an organization that has some non-journalistic purposes; and we’d better make sure that we get an audience.  How you balance out these three things on a day to day basis requires work but a remit like this starts from the premise that there isn’t a simple answer.

My advice for US international broadcasting?  Start with a purpose, generate a strategy and then look at the organization.




Is the Tail Wagging the Dog? The 0.7% Aid Target and UK Foreign Policy

July 1, 2013

On Wednesday the Government updated spending plans out to the 2015-16 financial year.  There were cuts to the basic budgets to  all government departments except for Health (0.1%) growth over the previous plans, Department for International Development (1.1%) and the intelligence services (3.4%).  The FCO gets a cut of 6.3% and Defence 1.9%.

The document outlining the spending plans also says that there will be “a review of the operating model of the British Council to encourage greater self funding, reduce the burden on the taxpayer, and promote UK prosperity” which certainly raises the possibility of further cuts in the government grant to the Council.

But readers (particularly from outside the UK) may be a bit puzzled by something.  If all other government departments are being cut how come foreign aid is going up?  Surely that’s politics 101:  times are tough so cut the aid budget because foreigners don’t have votes.

When it came to power the Coalition Government announced that it was going to hit the 0.7% GNI target for Official Development Assistance that the UN has being promoting since the 1970s.  This will mean Britain joins Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as the only countries to be doing this at present.  There are even proposals to make this legally binding.

Let’s start with the politics of this.  The commitment to the target was in the Conservative manifesto – which is surprising as back in the Thatcher/Major years aid was about 0.25%.    The reason for this change in the domestic political troubles of the Conservative Party.  While many voters liked Tory policies they had negative perception of the party’s brand.  Part of David Cameron’s strategy was to ‘detoxify the brand’ by ostentatiously adopting policies that underlined his party’s caring side.  Aid was one of the beneficiaries.  Hence the 0.7% figure represents a strong political commitment.

In this post I want to look at it a narrow foreign policy perspective because there is some evidence that the combination of expanding ODA target and funding combined with the overall spending squeeze is having unintended consequences on the rest of British foreign policy.

The definition for official development assistance is set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Flows of official financing administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as the main objective, and which are concessional in character with a grant element of at least 25 percent (using a fixed 10 percent rate of discount). By convention, ODA flows comprise contributions of donor government agencies, at all levels, to developing countries (“bilateral ODA”) and to multilateral institutions. ODA receipts comprise disbursements by bilateral donors and multilateral institutions. Lending by export credit agencies—with the pure purpose of export promotion—is excluded.

So you need to hit 0.7 in way that is consistent with this definition.  Who can you give the aid to?  Anyone except high income countries.

That might be a bit too easy so the UK has made things a bit harder.

A. under the 2002 International Development Act aid needs to be targeted on poverty reduction.

B. There’s a commitment to spend 30% of aid in fragile states and

C. There’s a strategic focus on a limited range of poor countries.

Given the focus on fragile states it’s important to note that with some caveats security or military type aid doesn’t count – so you may be in a situation where you have ODA money to spend but it’s not possible to spend it without substantial non ODA expenditure

So now we need to hit 0.7 but in a way that meets these requirements at the same time.  The problem is that there isn’t a big pot of money that says ODA (for instance the DFID budget) on it that is separate from all the other money that government has. Other departments have to pitch in to help.  The FCO has a target for ODA spend, part of which is passed on to the British Council – in the most recent Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report on the FCO it points out the difficulty for the BC because it’s grant is being cut but that grant then has to be used in ODA consistent ways.

I’m getting the impression from reading documents from the Independent Commission on Aid Effectiveness and the National Audit Office that it’s actually quite hard to spend enough to hit the 0.7 target and that the mix of activities that FCO/BC/MoD/DFID is actually doing is being shaped by this.  The consequence is that everything that isn’t ODA compliant is being cut back.

One clue to this in contained in some of the documents about the Conflict Pool.  This is a fund that is intended to be used to deal with conflict prevention tasks and which can be used by DFID, MoD and FCO.  This money pays for the Stabilization Unit.  This is one of the areas that British governments are very proud of because it shows joined up working.  Reading between the lines there are tensions here not just between the three departments but also along the ODA/non-ODA line.  The latest strategy document points out that one of the attractions of the fund is that it could use non-ODA money to support ODA spending – for instance security funding that can’t be classed as ODA.  The irony here is that it’s the non-ODA money that is short supply.

Not surprisingly DFID is focusing its resources in its priority countries and not dealing with small projects (too much management overhead) and we need to get the money out of the door.  As anyone who reads this blog will appreciate running a policy area by setting a spending target rather than a strategic objective is not the way that government is supposed to be run but seems to be precisely what is happening here.

What I’m picking up is that in some respects it is the ODA spend tail that is wagging the foreign policy dog. Or am I reading too much into this?