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, 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.