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Public Diplomacy and ‘The Good Project’

July 28, 2014

Cardinal Richelieu saw diplomacy as process of ‘continuous negotiation’. States have an ongoing relationship that is subject to continuing adjustment and that is the job of the diplomat. The same can be said of the ‘classical’ modes of public diplomacy or cultural relations – the operation of an information service or a cultural institute is seen as an ongoing activity. Yet over the past 30 years an increasing volume of PD/CR work (as well as aid/development activity) has been organized as projects. This comes both from the attempt to ensure the effectiveness of government activity but also from the movement of resources from geographical to functional bureaux within MFAs. I’ve been wondering what the implications of this ‘projectization’ of diplomacy are. How much difference does it make to think of diplomacy as a set of discrete projects rather than as the maintenance of a relationship?

As a result I was intrigued to come across a new book that explore the impact of project working on humanitarian relief NGOs.   In The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason Monika Krause of Goldsmiths College, London argues that instead of analysing humanitarianism in terms of lofty goals or hidden interests we need to pay attention to how an organizational dimension shapes what actually gets done. Based on research on NGOs desk officers she concludes  that they are concerned with developing a portfolio of projects that can demonstrate that they have achieved their specified objectives.  NGOs will avoid projects that are too difficult but also where effectiveness cannot be demonstrated because their reputation for effectiveness is important for in getting funding from donors.  The donors are frequently government aid agencies that need to demonstrate to politicians and taxpayers that they are getting value for money. The logic of the ‘good project’ drives attention away from the ultimate ends of policy towards good execution of discrete activities. In some foreign ministries (the FCO is one) much of the discretionary programming spend is allocated as project funding either to embassies, mittlerorganizations or other NGOs. Would a similar investigation into how funding was allocated find that the organizational requirements of the ‘good project’ (and the skills needed to write a good application) were the overriding factor in determining the allocation of resources. My suspicion would be yes.

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