July 17th, 2010

not happy

Unfashionable opinion: Zac Goldsmith

I don't like much of what I know about Zac Goldsmith. But I think that the media coverage of his alleged dubious election expenses should be seen in the context of the bizarre and arcane requirements of British election law. I have twice myself been a candidate, and twice an election agent, in UK elections between 1990 and 1996. I was frankly stunned at the mismatch between the actual costs of the campaign and what was required to be declared to the authorities. This was also the time when Joe Hendron, the MP for West Belfast, was found to have overspent on his expenses but the court ruled that it was OK anyway (in McCrory v Hendron and Kelly [1993], if m'learned legal friends want to look that up).

I'm obviously a bit out of touch, and I suppose it is possible that the system has been drastically reformed since 1996 to bring it into line with reality. But my suspicion is that any breach by Goldsmith's campaign was almost certainly in line with, or not far out of line from, current practice by all British political parties running candidates in winnable constituencies. Whether or not that current practice is in line with the letter of the law is a different question, and whether the limits set by the law are in the right place is another. But I miss that context in the coverage of the Goldsmith affair.

I hesitate to use the word 'unfair' about the current pursuit of Goldsmith. He has a past record of failing to comply with political spending laws. Having inherited vast wealth from his father, he is not exactly under-privileged; and I suspect that his visible fury at the implication that he has managed to buy his way into the House of Commons is because at some level he himself knows it may be true. As I said above, I don't like much of what I know about him. But I don't like witch-hunts either.

Statistically improbable phrases

I came across this meme while browsing my visitor stats and thought I should try it out. Much though I dislike Amazon, it does have some fun bells and whistles, including the listing of Statistically Improbable Phrases from any book where they have got adequate access to the text and interesting enough results. I've pulled out a few from books I have read so far this year; can you identify any of them?

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2) punishable assault, marrow wound, notice that the suit, full outlawry, fifth court, old beardless, nine neighbours, lesser outlawry, lawful notice, lawful request, property forfeit, quarter court, named witnesses, forfeited property, same bloodline, brain wound, greatest lawyers, internal wound - Njal's Saga, identified by londonkds

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4) most different climates, temperate productions, arctic productions, transitional gradations, modified descendants, naturalised plants, consecutive formations, sessile cirripedes, aboriginal species, unknown progenitor, transitional grades, domesticated productions, larger genera, doubtful forms, modified offspring, transitional varieties, profitable variations, diversified habits, neuter insects, systematic affinity, fossiliferous formations, mere individual differences, mongrel offspring, occasional means - The Origin of Species, identified by redfiona99

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USAID, compliance culture, and doing decent development

Andrew Natsios was in charge of the US Agency for International Development from 2001 to 2006, and he knows what he is talking about in this 80-page essay (summary here, also covered by Laura Freschi here). His basic argument is that USAID is now running so scared of the multitude of government bodies to which it is accountable that the effort put into compliance with the petty bureaucratic requirements of Washington bean-counters is squeezing out actual, you know, aid work. (I was referred to Freschi's synopsis of Natsios by John Ashworth's mailing list, which is mainly of interest to Sudan-watchers but sometimes carries more general material.)

It made a lot of sense to me. I have twice been on the receiving end of USAID grants and my view was that they were the donor from hell; the reporting requirements bore little relation to the nature of the work (in my last job, I spent hours diligently chasing up and submitting time sheets for my entire team, purely to comply with USAID demands; I am sure that - as I warned management before we formally applied for the grant - nobody in USAID ever looked at them), and indeed the task of servicing USAID's bureaucratic requirements was generally delegated to tolerant (and often very junior) colleagues in Washington rather than those in the field carrying out the work.

But Natsios' essay puts this in perspective. If USAID's demands of its grantees appeared insane to us, that was because the demands made on USAID by what Natsios precisely terms the 'counter-bureaucracy' were equally insane. From his account, my first dealings with USAID were at a particularly low point in morale in the mid-1990s. (It probably didn't help the dynamics between me and my AID interlocutors that my line manager in Washington was married to Natsios' then predecessor as USAID administrator, though everyone was entirely professional and correct about it.) No wonder the USAID officials I dealt with in the field appeared to be so paranoid; populist politicians in Washington actually were out to get them. 

I remember one occasion when I was instructed to wait in my freezing Bosnian office in Banja Luka on a Saturday afternoon for a visitation from the General Accounting Office, one of the many oversight bodies which kept USAID on its toes. Half an hour after the appointed time, a knock came on the door; it was a steamingly angry US Marine who had been nursemaiding the visitors from Washington and had come to bring me the news that it would be another two hours before they arrived. I had instructions from HQ that on no account was I to miss the meeting, but I did not engage with the GAO with terribly good grace once they did show up. I now realise that this was just one symptom of the arrogance with which the counter-bureaucrats treated the objects of their scrutiny.

Natsios does not argue that all accountancy controls should be lifted. He does however plead that they should be the right controls. Current practice is forcing USAID to look at shorter and shorter timescales, when a genuine development perspective requires committed funding and staffing for the order of a decade. The framework for judging development work is barely being developed; the framework for judging political aid (which Natsios rightly distinguishes from economic and social development) barely exists. Business paradigms can be useful for short-term projects such as disaster relief but should otherwise be taken with a pinch of salt.

If anything I feel Natsios is too nice about emergency humanitarian aid (or perhaps he just doesn't want to open that particular can of worms here). Everyone involved in post-conflict situations knows that as the single biggest element of international assistance it is also the single biggest locus of corruption and theft. Again, going back to Banja Luka, I remember the tins of tuna in the shops labelled "This Fish Is A Gift To The People Of Bosnia From The Japanese Government Via The World Food Programme. It Is Not For Sale." Normally this would still be legible under the price tag. I've seen a couple of scare stories in the media recently about humanitarian aid sometimes being abused by local warlords. Not actually news, guys; and simply impossible to prevent.

Natsios makes one comment with which I respectfully if partially disagree; that "many of the European aid agencies" also suffer "from multiple layers of regulation and oversight." Actually my experience with European aid agencies - with one exception - has uniformly been positive; they treat grantees and potential grantees as partners in dialogue and programming, in the confidence that we share a joint goal rather than that we are trying to steal money from them. The one exception, interestingly, is the European Commission itself, which has precisely the problem identified by Natsios of multiple and conflicting layers of regulation and oversight - in particular, the European Parliament tends to overcompensate for its lack of authority (both legal and intellectual) in foreign affairs by striking at the budget lines and demanding more financial reporting. The EU aid budget has had other problems, not shared by USAID, as well; but I found significant flashes of recognition as Natsios described the dynamics of international aid politics inside the Washington beltway.

It's a shame. The US has the biggest development budget of any single country (though shamefully remains among the lowest donors in per capita terms in the developed world); on political aid, the US has an expertise and ability that no other country can match. But the political credibility of this vital work seems to have tumbled off the wall of Washington discourse many years ago. While Natsios' article has mapped out the trajectory of the fall, I don't really see how anyone can put Humpty back together again.
doctor who

The Guardian of the Solar System

This is the third of the series of audio plays by Simon Guerrier produced by Big Finish as part of their Companion Chronicle series, bringing back Jean Marsh as the short-lived Sara Kingdom, who originally appeared in Doctor Who for a few weeks at the end of 1965 and start of 1966, paired with Scottish actor Niall MacGregor as Robert, a constant visitor to the far-future house in the fens which appears to be haunted by Sara's ghost.

Knowing that this was about to come out, I revisited the previous two plays, Home Truths and The Drowned World, which both take the established Sara story from The Daleks' Master Plan and twist it slightly sideways. Here the story is definitely twisted backwards, and we get a lot more illumination not only into Sara's character - she must always bear the guilt of killing her own brother - but also into the motivations of Mavic Chen, the eponymous Guardian of the Solar System, and one of the most effective villains ever to appear in Doctor Who.

There's also a fantastic image of elderly prisoners forced to maintain a gigantic clock - I thought this might be based on Aldiss's Wheel of Kharnabar from Helliconia Winter, but it turns out to be inspired partly by The Hudsucker Proxy (which I haven't seen) and partly by John Noakes cleaning Big Ben on Blue Peter. (This is revealed by Guerrier in the extras track, where we also find out that Jean Marsh never actually saw her own episodes due to a) not having a television at the time and b) being very short-sighted.)

It doesn't all make perfect sense, and the three stories will probably confuse listeners who know nothing of The Daleks' Master Plan. But I enjoyed it.