Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Drog sees RED

1 December was World AIDS Day – Niketown on Oxford Street has “gone RED”, as have their flagship shops around the world. They’ve produced red laces which all Nike football players are wearing. Their shops have red windows. The sales of these laces will raise money for the Global Fund to fight AIDS, raise awareness about RED and AIDS and help secure more public funding for the Global Fund in the US. RED’s already raised over $140m.

Didier Drogba came to the launch, alongside Bono whose idea RED was. The Ivorian man mountain likes his RED laces - in the photo above he's scoring the first of 2 goals for Chelsea against Arsenal while wearing them.

“Drog sees RED” made it on to Page 3 of The Sun, directly below Poppy, 19 from Swindon. Unfortunately Poppy didn’t have anything to say about World AIDS Day. She did have very small pants though. Her comment box featured her opinion on the front page story about a family of Somali asylum-seekers who have been given a big house in Westminster.

Biking through a cold but clear London I passed the fountains in Trafalgar Square spraying red water into the night sky while the giant London Eye shone a bright red arc over Whitehall. I’ve lost my gloves and wear socks on my hands instead. To regain sensation in my fingers I got a RED coffee from Starbucks. They’ve learnt from last year’s novelty, ginger flavoured coffee that RED coffee is best served in a red cup rather than the coffee literally being red.

The MP I went to meet turned out to be an Arsenal supporter. He wasn’t as enthusiastic about Drogba’s red laces. He did agree that the World Cup in South Africa makes 2010 a year when the world will see Africa differently. He said the right things about politicians keeping their promises to the world’s poor despite the economic crisis.

Will Drogba and the rest rise to the test? South Korea got to the semi-final when they hosted the World Cup and they were rubbish. The mighty elephants of Ivory Coast, lions of Cameroon and Bafana Bafana of South Africa should show Africa at its best up against the superpowers of Brazil, tricky Italians and cheating French: a continent fighting massive odds with an uncertain present and exciting future.

Cycling home beneath a full moon I looked north to the alien beacon that is the BT Tower. It was bright RED.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Biking in London

You never forget your first proper roundabout. Buses, taxis, trucks and motorbikes overtake from all angles. Death feels inevitable. When it doesn’t happen there’s a buzz: city cycling doesn’t get trickier, faster or more exhilarating than London. Cities on the continent with their bike lanes and compact centres are too easy, American ones impossible. Trans-Atlantic London sprawls and overwhelms with traffic, distance and, occasionally, stunning views.

Biking through Hyde Park is as good as weekdays get. The trees are changing colour in the only central park which gives a proper sense of space. In some places it almost looks like the King’s hunting ground it once was with nothing but meadow and trees. Crossing the Serpentine as the sun rising behind the spires of Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament London feels like a tranquil provincial city.

Women who look 20 from behind and at least 40 from the front walk dogs in make up and heels. There’s a curious vulnerability to them. Wandering round Hyde Park, as opposed to jogging purposefully in lycra, exposes the truth that dare not speak its name when “in town”: they have nothing to do. Appearing busy is essential to justifying one’s existence in London even if the activity is entirely pointless. Bored children ride horses, their vacant stares asking, “why don’t we live in the country?”

Cyclists zoom along paths making better progress than the cars on Bayswater Road. There is only one designated cycle path but it’s more exciting to go cross-country, even if it does mean dodging fat tourists. Biking home in the dark is good because you can’t see anything and it feels like flying. Avoiding park rangers in golf buggies adds frisson. Sometimes they look like they’re going to give chase, they can fine bikers £70. I wonder if I’d be able to shake them off. Would the dog women notice? Would they help me escape?

It is terrible having to go somewhere in the morning but it’s better than going nowhere slowly carrying a plastic bag full of dog shit. Helicopters come and go on the lawns behind Millionaires’ Row and toddlers in designer outfits with Polish au pairs look on from the giant pirate ship playground built in memory of Princess Diana. While unemployed I took my cousin’s children to the playground on a Tuesday morning. As the only Englishman (over the age of 4) I felt self-conscious that I wasn't in the City at work. I could have been their dad except I was too young and badly dressed to be able to afford to live anywhere within walking distance. I saw the au pair explain to a friend that I was a relative and word quickly got around the girls that I was not a paedophile. The glare of female disapproval moved on and I was able to play in the sandpit with the other kids.

On the bike Hyde Park leads to Mayfair and grand houses, hotels and hedge funds. People here are like the ladies in the park but less honest about having nothing to do. Avoiding a delivery van that came from nowhere I almost hit a sheik’s son the other day. He walked with his right arm tucked behind his back as if examining an army on parade. He didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Smug men in suits sit in cafés, happy to have escaped the City for grander, more exclusive surroundings where the girls are young and beautiful, unaware that in a few years it will be them walking dogs in Hyde Park.

Many of the most imposing houses look empty and soulless, probably because they are. How many are owned by dictators and criminals? How much of the wealth generated in these mansions helped cause the credit crunch? Do they deserve the bonuses they’ll be getting this Christmas? Isn’t some of the money they’ll be trousering mine?

The US Embassy is a hideous, 1960s bunker that with its post 9/11 defences looks like it should be in Basra, not Grosvenor Square. There are bollards in the road that I guess are meant to stop suicide bombers in cars.

Hanover Square is where Mayfair ends. There’s a kiosk that sells tea for 40p. Like the enduring bargain that is a 15p Fudge bar this defies all logic but is reassuring, a reminder that not everything in London is out to get you. On Brook Street there are blue plaques commemorating famous residents at adjacent houses. One remembers Handel, the next Jimi Hendrix.

Regent Street with its palatial shops is the border into Soho and the West End: where the fun happens. I escape Mayfair next to the Apple shop. With its golden mosaics on a façade that makes nearby Hamleys look plain it’s more of a testament to Apple’s global domination than a shop. Wiggling between the Palladium and Carnaby Street I turn right on Poland Street by the house where Shelley lived. Soho’s been home to immigrants and vagabonds since the Huguenots moved in having been kicked out of France for being Protestants. It was built to house the rich and important but was too close to town and when Mayfair came on the scene: bigger, smarter and further from the stink of ordinary people, artisans, bars, theatres and brothels replaced them. On Wardour Street I sneak past Crepe Affairs (French food) and Just Falafs (Lebanese food) and go into 151.

It’s a bummer arriving in the office sweaty but I've cheated death for another day.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Does the Tory party care about aid?

In a recent green paper on international development, the Conservative party sought to establish its commitment to aid. Is anyone convinced? Annie Kelly finds out

Annie Kelly guardian.co.uk, Thursday 8 October 2009

The question of how international development would be treated by a Conservative government has long been a concern of many in the aid community.

Today, Andrew Mitchell, shadow minister for international development, hopes to silence those fears. In a speech at the Conservative party conference, the minister will focus on affirming the pledges and commitments outlined in the Conservative party's first green paper on international development, published in July.

For the party with the poorest track record on aid, the green paper is an attempt to remodel the Tories as a party with a firm understanding and commitment to overseas aid and development.

Pledging to bring international development into the "post-bureaucratic age", the One World green paper promised to ensure that Britain continues to lead the way in the global commitment to effective development.

Two of the main promises – pledging to honour Labour's commitment of 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid and securing the Department for International Development's ministerial status and independence – managed to secure a cautious welcome to the green paper by many in the development community.

There was also a strong focus on transparency and accountability and an explicit move towards a "cash on delivery" approach to aid, where recipient governments are paid on the basis of positive results – for example paying a government a fixed amount for every child they get into school.

But just how different is this from current government thinking?

In the green paper the Conservative's hit out at Labour's "old fashioned" ideology, instinctively favouring top-down bureaucratic approaches that it claims have not taken British aid policy in the right direction. It also criticises DfID, claiming it "could do with a little more private sector DNA, a bit more civil service DNA and a little less NGO DNA".

The paper says that under a Conservative government, international aid will see "transparency over what is spent, accountability so people know we're paying for real results", adding that "sunlight is the best disinfectant" when it comes to ensuring transparency.

Aid heritage
The Labour government has been quick to highlight its international development track record and the Conservative's less impressive heritage on aid.

"I want to make absolutely clear to you now, there is no consensus on international aid," Douglas Alexander, the secretary of state for international development told the Labour party conference last week. "There is a world of difference between a party where 96% of its candidates admit that they would not prioritise keeping the aid budget and a party – the Labour party – that would enshrine that promise in the laws of this country." The prime minister said legislation would be passed to ensure the 0.7% figure on aid is met.

The minister also sought to highlight the Tory emphasis on private sector partnerships that has caused concern in some ranks of the development sector. He reminded delegates that the Conservative party halved the UK aid budget and would export privatisation and assisted places to the health and education services of poor countries.

But speak to those working in the development sector and a different picture emerges – that of two parties with similar approaches to aid.

Question marks have been raised over some of the more gimmicky elements in the Tory green paper – such as the idea to let the UK public vote on how and where UK aid is spent.

Yet there is a general agreement that international development is one area where there is now a broad cross-party consensus on the need to ensure international development remains a national priority.

"I think the thing that is most striking about the Conservative green paper is just how similar it is to Labour's white paper on development and that these similarities are much greater than the differences," says Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), based at Sussex University. "Many of the key elements - the goals, the spending, the focus on climate, growth, accountability and security - are the same. The biggest differences are actually on the how, but even then it's difficult to see how these might play out when, and if, the Conservatives make this green paper into actual policy."

The fact that all three major political parties are now pledging to commit 0.7% of UK GDP to aid by 2013 is also seen as a huge step forward.

"We now have cross-party pledges on international development underpinned by an economic commitment, laid out in black and white in policy papers," says Marie Staunton, chief executive at child protection NGO Plan International. "Of course these promises can be broken, but we have a number, something financial that we can pin down and that is an incredible starting point and with that in writing it's going to be difficult for any party to renege."

Economic commitments
Alexander Woollcombe, government relations manager at development NGO One, has been attending international development fringe events at the Conservative conference all week.

He says the main areas of concern voiced by delegates on the issue of international development has been value for money, but that the commitment to shoring up aid budgets seems strong.

"All week what we've been hearing from Andrew Mitchell is that at a time when budgets are being cut, the Conservatives' commitment to aid remains, which is a nice message for the development world to hear in this kind of economic climate," he says.

"There are contradictions in the paper that need to be ironed out, but it's almost impossible to see whether these will be addressed if they take power."

The challenge for the Conservative party now is shoring up support from within for its expansive claims that it is a party that will now place international development at the heart of its political thinking.

"I think it will be very interesting to see if what the leadership is saying on international development actually represents the ranks of the Tory party," says Haddad. "Certainly the senior Tories are talking a good game, but we must all be aware that things could change once an opposition party becomes a government."

Of great comfort is the reassurance that if the Conservatives take power, DfID will remain.

DfID's predecessor, the Ministry of Overseas Development (ODM), lost its ministerial status under the Tories in 1979 when international aid budgets were placed under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the direct supervision of the foreign secretary. This didn't change until DfID was established by the new Labour government in 1997.

Fragile states
There are still concerns that the UK's humanitarian aid budget could be increasingly used to meet foreign and military goals as the emphasis on supporting "fragile states" continues.

For example the Conservatives development green paper includes a pledge to ensure aid programmes in Afghanistan and Pakistan are "fully harmonised" with the rest of the British diplomatic and military engagement in the region. There paper also mentions the creation of a national security council where DfID will sit alongside the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office.

"I think NGOs are instinctively and rightly suspicious of the appropriation of development aid for political or military purposes and protective of the humanitarian space," says Bernard Aryeetey, head of government relations at Save The Children UK.

"Those concerns are still there, but I think as international development has moved up the political agenda it has become harder to blur those lines and the public support for the UK to genuinely lead the field in how overseas development aid can become more effective and accountable will be a great incentive for all party pledges to be met."

Despite the fact that international development has never been so high up the political agenda, Alison Evans, director at the Overseas Development Institute, says the development world should not get too carried away.

"I think we've had a very enabling environment for international development over the last 10 or 11 years," she says.

"But the financial crisis is going to concentrate people's minds on the perception that parts of the developing world are making slow progress despite the huge amount of donor assistance. We in the international development community have to be prepared to enter into an intense debate about whether we are doing the right thing in the right way no matter what party is in government."

Friday, 2 October 2009

Hello, is it me you're looking for?

The Lib Dems have gathered in sunny Bournemouth (convention centre is hideous building on left of photo) for their party conference – showing the world they are serious. Since the recent expenses scandal here in the UK more MPs are staying in cheap bed and breakfasts than swanky hotels. According to one activist there are more suits than ever before, especially black ones. I thought as a ONE worker the Jeremy Clarkson, jeans’n’jacket combo would strike the right sartorial chord. I was wrong: suits all the way, ties for the politicians, open neck shirts for those, like me, eager to rebel.

It’s a difficult balance: the Lib Dems want to be recognised as progressive, authoritative and ahead of the curve politically – their Treasury Spokesperson and Deputy Leader Vince Cable has led the charge, throughout the economic crisis he has bestrode the sofas of political chat shows like a 21st century, economic Colossus. At the same time the Lib Dems also want to be “different” – unlike Labour and the Conservatives who they say don’t care about “normal people”.

Who are these “normal people”? What do they care about? Does caring about them mean getting them interested in issues which don’t obviously affect their everyday lives?

The truth is out there but political parties don’t know what it is. They have polling yet still disagree about what it means.

That’s why ONE is launching ONE Vote 2010 campaign. 2010 will be the biggest year for British politics since 1997 when Labour came to power. The economic climate means every single pound of Government money will be scrutinised as never before. ONE Vote 2010 will start a conversation about why we must both keep our promises to the world’s poorest people and get better at helping them.

Some will question whether we can afford to increase our help to Africa when Britain faces so many problems: is this a priority? Do people care? I think so, and we’re going to find out.

Few thought Africa and development would be a big issue in the last US Presidential campaign. But ONE ran an unprecedented, non-partisan, hugely successful ONE Vote 08 campaign which won the support of all the major candidates and a major award from the Center for Global Development. Since coming into office President Obama has pledged to double aid to Africa despite the US’s financial problems.

We live in an interconnected world and 2010 will be a huge year for Africa: the first football World Cup to be hosted in Africa, 25 years after Live Aid, 5 years after Live 8 and Make Poverty History and 5 years before the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals.

2010 will be a moment to celebrate the achievements of recent years and accelerate progress in the years to come. The UK is seen as a global leader on international development. As the Lib Dems and other parties think about how to make the public like them, everyone reading this needs to let their local candidates know that being serious about eradicating extreme poverty matters more than whether they’re wearing sharp suits or staying in a B&B.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Michael Jackson - Live from Glastonbury's Wine Bar

Kerri was the prettiest girl in the third grade. She had curly blonde hair and said she’d seen ‘Dirty Dancing’ 37 times. At church we were told to pray for “our famiy and loved ones”. After working my way through my relatives I thought of Kerri.

It was annoying to have to leave her 8th birthday party early. My grandparents were staying and we were going away for the weekend. As mum hurried me out Kerri pointed at a basket full of cassettes by the door.

“Party bags are lame”, she explained. “You’re lucky, you get first pick; choose a tape”. I was suddenly aware that Kerri was much cooler than me. I had no idea which one to choose. My only tape was about Ernie and Bert, their rubber ducky and a bath with a ring round it called Rosie. I hadn’t really trusted the car’s stereo since finding out that there weren’t small people living in the cassette machine waiting to sing every time I pressed play.

I looked blankly at the collection of tapes and was drawn to the one with a picture of a man with strange eyes staring straight at me. I had no idea who he was but Kerri said, “Good choice, I like him too”. I smiled and floated to the car where I demanded that we listened to my new tape immediately: ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson, the coolest man in the world.

Ernie and Bert’s days in the tape deck were numbered. Granny Biz, a musical Scottish lady in her late 60s pronounced it “very good". My little sister aged 5 said he was her favourite pop star. I got ‘Bad’, which had just come out, watched his videos and tried and failed to sing and dance like him.

Twenty years later and I’m working the late shift in a wine bar at Glastonbury. It’s Thursday night, the bands don’t start till Friday and business is brisk. I’m serving Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon - and they say music festivals have become middle class - playing music to get people dancing, trying to stay awake. I’m depressed that I can no longer party as hard as I used to.

“Have you heard Michael Jackson’s dead?”

This is my 6th Glastonbury. Every year outlandish rumours spread like swine flu, incubated and spread by the Chinese whispers of 180,000 people off their heads with no access to the internet and poor mobile phone coverage. But something about the question's tone is convincing: a mixture of worry, sadness and realisation that what was surprising was not that he’d died but that dying was something we’d not thought about happening to him before, unlike other more druggy stars.

“Someone’s just told me and I don’t know whether to believe them”.

There are a couple of people waiting, about 10 dancing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and as Freddie Mercury’s voice fades I cut to “Billie Jean”. The dancers roar and 10 soon becomes 20, then 30. As the song ends I put on “Don’t Stop (till you get enough)”.

A girl comes up to the bar and asks, “Are you playing Michael Jackson songs because he’s dead?” I shrug. “Play some more. Have you got ‘Smooth Criminal’?”

For the next hour I rotate my i-pod’s limited selection of Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 songs. The crowd swells to 60-70 people. More people ask if he’s dead. As a provider of both alcohol and loud music I’m the closest this part of Glastonbury’s got to an oracle. A couple of people show me text messages received from “outside”, confirming news that feels weird, like the death of a close friend who no one knew and meant something different to each person who wanted to but didn’t know him. There are people crying. Someone shouts, “Jacko Lives!” A cabaret band starts up on the corner playing “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s really, really dead” to the tune of ‘Bad’.

No one except Michael Jackson could get black, white and Asian people aged between 15 and 50 singing and dancing with this much enthusiasm. As the crowd get drunker people start coming up and telling me about why they love Michael Jackson. Different age groups talk about different stages of his career. The child abuse stuff is joked about or ignored; perhaps it’s inappropriate on the night he’s died or maybe because it’s awkward to love someone who is such a freak and has a consistently young fan base. Of all those dancing it’s the teenagers who are the most enthusiastic. None of them were born the last time he wrote a good song, few were able to walk when he last toured and in their lifetimes he’s only been in the news for being a suspected paedophile. So why do they like him? It’s the music. The rhythms are accessible. His incredible energy speaks to children and young people, as well as to those of other cultures, because he’s entirely sincere in what he sings and how he performed. His music makes people feel good about themselves. At least it did to this young fan who never got invited round for sleepovers. Celebrating his genius isn’t condoning his lifestyle. Both are facets of the same character.

As the dance area becomes increasingly slippery in the mud 2 boys start moonwalking. This turns into a dance off with the crowd in a circle clapping in time with the music as the guys take it in turns to impress with their moves, some copied from Michael’s videos, some not.

Over the next 4 hours the crowd stays about the same size as people walk past, dance for a bit and then move on. Those who stay become increasingly frustrated with the my i-pod, “HOW CAN YOU NOT HAVE THRILLER?!” a girl screams at me as I put on Billie Jean for the 20th time.
“I didn’t realise he was going to die”, I reply.

She returns with an i-phone. “This belongs to that guy over there, he’s got HIStory. Play Thriller NOW”. With the i-phone the crowd now has the full greatest hits to dance to. Top requests are: Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller, Don’t Stop (till you get enough), Bad, Smooth Criminal, Want to Be Startin' Something and Man in the Mirror.

At first playing the same songs repeatedly gets me down. I feel old, tired, annoyed (my camera’s been nicked from behind the bar while I was DJing) and depressed by MJ’s grotesque physical mutation and messed up life. Was it the media's fault? His dad's? His fans'? Was it inevitable that someone so good so young ends up a screwball? Why?

After a while I get into a rhythm of mixing his songs together, which ones lead naturally into others, dropping the volume for choruses to get the crowd to sing along. Earth Song and Black or White are hugely popular despite being astoundingly cheesy. The enthusiasm of the crowd for the music is infectious. The skill in the crafting of his songs becomes more obvious the more I play them: major key changes for choruses create a sense of euphoria, the catchy hooks combine brilliantly with the irrepressible joy of the vocals.

The bar’s coated in a slippery film of spilt wine and I spin, howl and grab my crotch while singing my heart out. I’m 8 years old again and it’s great. I still can’t moonwalk but I can slide backwards a bit. It’s closing time and the crowd demand more Michael. I tell them we’ve got to close but they can have one last song.

Gonna Make a Change for once in my life
It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right.
I’m talking to the Man in the Mirror.
I’m asking him to change his ways.
And no message could have been any clearer:
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change”.

On paper his lyrics look mawkish but they're not after a few bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with 50 people singing arm in arm in a circle at Glastonbury. We shut up the bar and tell everyone to go home. I remember the giant inflatable wine bottle on the roof. I put on ‘You are not alone’, climb the ladder and look across Glastonbury – Europe’s biggest festival in the middle of the most beautiful countryside in England. In the distance is the medieval Tor, around me is a temporary town sprawled over green fields, which except for these 4 days is home to 47 cows.

Below me the crowd is still there, singing along to Michael Jackson as they walk back to their tents in the dawn’s drizzle. I slowly let the air out of the giant wine bottle and wonder what Kerri is doing. Rest in Peace Michael.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Meeting Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd: why Blogging is Rubbish

'Only write when you've got something to say' was what I took from my conversation with William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks on Thursday. I had a list of questions beyond: “what inspired you to get involved with Bookfest?” Fortunately neither of them mentioned their new books and both seemed genuinely interested in Oxfam. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to ask them much else but I did get to watch and listen to them talk to each other for an hour: it was the first time they’d met. Both are famous for writing well about wars, France, as women and as spies. Both live near the Portobello Road bookshop where we met.

I asked William Boyd, who was born in West Africa, why he hadn't written more about the injustice in Africa in his novels set on the continent. He replied, "being a novelist is about examining the human condition. Novelists do not have a duty to educate their readers about particular issues. Novels are about character and story. If you allow politics to dominate it becomes a political tract, not a novel".

That seemed a bit of a cop-out. There's obviously a balance to be struck between giving your characters enough of yourself to be real and removing your thoughts sufficiently to allow the story to come to life. However, if Orwell's a novelist and 'The Poisonwood Bible' is a novel with insights into why the Congo is such a disaster, isn't Boyd hiding behind his definition of what a novelist is rather than answering the question? He certainly cares about West Africa, he was a friend of Ken Saro-Wiwa who was killed by the Government of Nigeria for standing up to them and Shell who oppressed his people in the Niger Delta. Boyd helped his friend and criticised the Government in newspaper articles, to the extent that he's not been back to Nigeria since. Maybe he doesn't really know why he writes what he does.

Both Boyd and Faulks seemed very aware of the people around them, but they also seemed a bit shy, keener to examine others than themselves, not naturally fond of the limelight but after years of book tours clever at disguising this.

They seem to view novels as the purest form of expression, which struck me as a bit smug. Neither seemed likely to have much time for blogging or twitter. Faulks was inspiring because he said a lot of what he wrote during his twenties was crap, but the thing was to get on with it and write. When I asked him why so many of his and Boyd’s books were set in the past he said it would take him too long to answer but “Tolstoy, Dickens and more than half of what we consider ‘great’ literature was set in an earlier period than when it was written”.

He added, “I don’t consider writing about the first half of the 20th century to be ‘history’. It’s the lifetime of my parents and grandparents, people I knew, and while aspects of their lives were different their way of looking at things wouldn’t have been all that far from our own”.

I've not written my blog or twittered for over 2 months. I didn't see the point as I'd lost my job and moved home aged 28 having left my beloved motorcycle in Senegal. I knew anything I wrote would have been self-pitying, angsty and boring.

If I had been blogging constantly I wouldn't have got the job that allowed me to meet two of the cleverest men I've ever encountered. Their thoughts on writing are much more worthy of blogging than a lengthy post explaining and excusing my laziness in not blogging more often.

Why Blogging is Rubbish

The beauty of the internet is that there are no rules.

So why does everyone say that blogging and tweeting must be done all the time? Why is constantly communicating, uploading links, videos and photos, commenting on other blogs and writing provocative, instant analysis in an effort to generate comments every day the only way to success?

Surely it all depends on what kind of blog you are writing and why you are writing it. Why do all blogs have to contribute to the information overload that means that despite technology making everything quicker we actually get less done than we did before email?

In the future won't magazines be replaced by the occasional blogger? Most of the time no one has anything interesting to say so why not wait until you do?

I only see the point in blogging when I'm:
A) Doing something that I'd be interested in reading about
B) Giving a perspective on something I care about in the hope that other people might like it.

That's why this blog post is a failure and why most of blogging is rubbish: it encourages you to write about what you think rather than what's really interesting. I set out to write about 2 famous writers and end up writing about myself.

I blogged and twittered in Sierra Leone because I was inspired by the people, the places, the stories and the ideas it provoked in me: the fourth generation of my family to come to this beautiful country; messed-up in many ways by well-intentioned people like me.

I'm blogging now because I feel guilty and frustrated I haven't managed to do more with the stories that found me in Sierra Leone. It's a guilt I feel every time I travel to a developing country and talk to people. In exchange for their time there's an implicit promise that through me their stories will get out to the world and people will realise that our dreams are not so different no matter where we live.

The problem is that no one except blogspot publishes me and 2 months of blog inactivity went unnoticed by all except my mother. There's too much information in the world and it's only going to get worse.

The answer is that less is more. You can't get anywhere that matters if you're constantly twittering.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

What the credit crunch should mean for development

George Freeman, 22, former street child in Freetown, is a  social entrepeneur running  projects that get street children into school and micro-finance, youth-led employment programmes (see video).  

My "Comment is Free" story got onto the Guardian website.

I've had a story there before but this time I got more comments and more anger about why Africa hasn't developed despite 50 years of aid.

It's a good question. What makes Sierra Leone so interesting is that it's the test case of whether aid works. All the sexy development ideas from budget support to gender mainstreaming are being implemented and if the international community can't help the people of Sierra Leone get back on their feet then it's time to call it a day and say: "hey guys, this development thing, yeah, um we don't have a clue what we're doing, let's go home".

Is it a lack of money, or understanding, or good people and ideas? Are the problems simply too great? Are donors doing the wrong thing with the right people? Are they doing the right things but badly because they don't understand the context and are not working with the right people? Maybe it's just too complicated and to fix it needs much more money and time. No one knows. 

But it's our money that's being spent and development practitioners need to be able to explain what they're doing and what is changing and what isn't. The reality is complex. Good and bad things are happening and the good things need to be communicated better. Saying "aid works" was fine in 2005 but not in 2009. 

Those who are doing work that is creating change should be celebrated, people like George Freeman. They need to be helped to explain to the world what they're doing, why it's working, how they see the future development of their country and the role aid plays in that vision. The problem is George can't afford a laptop, which is why his website's out of date. He needs help from people in the West who chuck away laptops to build his business.

There needs to be more honesty about the bits that aren't working and explanation of why they're not working. Either those bits are abandoned or it's explained that "this is important for long-term development and in 10 years time we'll see real differences because of x,y and z". 

The anger in the comments on my piece calling for more help for Sierra Leone is well-founded. Much of what I've seen in Africa has made me really angry too. It's our money. Good intentions aren't enough. Especially in a credit crunch. The fact that despite this in 2009 Comic Relief raised record amounts is amazing. 

2005 was meant to Make Poverty History. Why didn't it happen? Is aid a waste of time? To counter the idea that aid is useless there needs to be more information and evidence of how aid helps. That evidence exists but the UK's view of Africa is still shaped by the famines of the early 1970s. 

The cliches of what Africa is like are not the daily realities of the average African in 2009. The development community needs to use the opportunities presented by new media to show that things are changing. Yes Darfur and Congo are awful but that is not all of Africa. From Freetown to Maseru to Ouagadougou millions of ordinary people are working hard to feed and educate their kids and keep their families healthy and in a decent house. The problems they face, along with their politicians and business people, are the same as those in the West. It's just they're a lot poorer and that makes life difficult in ways we can't begin to imagine.
When things go wrong everyone looks for someone to blame. Bankers are a fair target and should lose their bonuses. Poor people are not and should not lose aid intended for them. But the development community needs to get better at explaining what's going on and now is the time to become more serious about how the additional money that's come since Gleneagles has helped and why there needs to be more of it in the future. The credit crunch means people don't trust experts any more whether they're financial, political or developmental. We want to understand where our money is going and why and if we can do that we're still happy to give (as Comic Relief showed). People need to know about George Freeman and the millions of Africans like him.