Don’t Bomb Syria Protest, Whitehall, November 28th

Quite a good turn-out, Lindsey German claimed Whitehall was filled from end to end, not sure that was quite so but probably more than the last one. The most noticeable feature was the anger at Labour MPs trying to use the war to undermine Corbyn despite his overwhelming mandate from the party – my favourite banner reads ‘If your vote of conscience is a vote for war, then a claim to conscience you have no more.’ (Though I was also rather charmed by the slogan of the delegation from the English Collective of Prostitutes with a banner reading ‘Whores Against Wars’).

A succession of speakers ridiculed the arguments in favour of bombing in withering terms, pointing out the incoherence of Cameron’s case, poring scorn on the claim that there are 70,000 moderate fighters, and pointing out that there are multiple wars going on in Syria and we do not seem to be clear which one we are supporting. The role of Turkey (importing oil from ISIL sources) and Saudi Arabia (still providing some finance, and the source of the ideology through the export of extreme versions of wahabi Islam) came in for particular censure. The most effective speaker was Tariq Ali, though he didn’t do Corbyn any favours by saying he is the most left wing leader Labour has ever had – I dread to think what the press will do with that.

BBC Bias: Syria, Trident, and the UK Defiit, Today programme, 9th November

Syria As usual, the bellicose BBC gives time to a retired US general to make the case for us joining the bombing of Syria, but at least some of the holes in the argument were exposed. He admitted that bombing alone can’t do anything but needed to be accompanied by building up Syrian ground forces. The BBC did not challenge the general with the evidence that US efforts to build up secular resistance to ISIS have been a total failure. Very few of those trained by the US are still active, and the weapons have mostly ended up being used by the bits of the resistance that the US doesn’t support – i.e. those Shia rebels associated with Iran or with Hezbollah, or forces supporting Assad. Today also had a report from a BBC reporter in the field with forces that the US does support with airstrikes. It became clear that this force is dominated by Kurdish fighters: though nominally in alliance with some Christian and Islamic fighters the reporter said that the Kurds were not passing on any of the weapons they were being supplied with to non-Kurds, and relations between the groups were getting more difficult as they move out of areas with Kurdish population (only 10% of the population of Syria). So we are being invited to essentially support a Kurdish force with aspirations for Kurdish independence which have implications for the stability of Turkey and the whole region, and which has no prospect of success beyond the small part of the country where Kurds are the majority. Not a strong argument for us to participate.

Trident Today discussed Corbyn’s complaint that chief of defence staff had strayed into politics when he implied that Corbyn’s stated unwillingness to press the nuclear button would worry him if the Labour leader were in power. The BBC did briefly interview Kate Hudson of CND and included an extract of what Jeremy actually said, but as usual they of course gave most time to the views of a retired old military buffer – this time Admiral West, a former head of the defence staff. The surreal nature of any discussion of nuclear deterrence never ceases to amaze me.If others would press the button, who would they be trying to deter? Clearly not terrorists or ISIS, unless you are willing to countenance slaughtering far more innocents than combatants, in a way that would be counter-productive because the threat is ideologically based rather than territorial. Russia? There are some regional issues but no threat to our territorial integrity. There might be some niggles over violation of airspace but the existence of nuclear weapons just makes these solvable problems a lot more dangerous. There is no existential threat to the UK from Russia, they need the West and know they are too weak to challenge US hegemony, though it is politically useful for Putin to indulge himself in posturing. China? Too far away to threaten our territory or existence, they are an economic competitor and a useful counterweight to the US, but hardly a threat to us. Rogue states with a bomb or two? It is difficult to think of any reason why any of them would choose to attack us with nuclear weapons rather than their neighbours. The real reason for having Trident is as an enormous and ludicrous cod piece, trying to convince the rest of the world that our willy is larger than it actually is and thereby justifying our presence as a permanent member of the security council. Of course, the Trident cod piece isn’t really independent anyway, since it is impossible to think of circumstances where we would use it independently of the US, which makes our macho posturing even more absurd, the skinny little kid hiding behind the playground bully.

The Deficit The main news quoted Osborne’s exaggerated claims about the need for a surplus to deal with the deficit. As usual, BBC themselves gave no context – no stats on the size of the deficit or the debt relative to historic levels. Fortunately they did include a later interview with Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, who pointed out that a public debt of 80% of GDP isn’t large by historical standards, and will probably fall as a percentage of GDP anyway if economic growth returns to historic levels. (Broadly speaking, a deficit of the current level of about 4% of GDP will add 4% to the national debt each year, but the nominal GDP should grow faster than this because long-term economic growth rate is over 2% per year and the inflation target is about 2%, so debt as a share of GDP should fall over time even without a surplus. This is not just theory but is what happened throughout most of the post war period, without us running a surplus). The point that was not made was that the chance of us returning to a faster rate of economic growth is being damaged by the cuts themselves. Johnson is himself something of a fiscal conservative, and the absence of any comment from the Labour opposition indicates the very narrow and rather right-wing fulcrum around which BBC seeks balance.

I watched a bit of Al Jazeera afterwards – great coverage of the Burma elections with lots of context and stats that were missing from BBC coverage, followed by a discussion of the pro-Israel lobby in the US with pro and anti commentators given time to make their points and the audience left to reach it’s own conclusions. This is an issue BBC seems to be too scared to even take on. What a contrast, and not to the BBC’s advantage.

Publications on the Economics of Development

I had a long career as a developmen economist, first with DFID and then with the ODI, and finally as an independent consultant. With DFID, as head of Africa Economics Department, I did a lot of work on new approaches to development assistance, working with colleagues to develop more effective approaches to using aid to support sustainable poverty reduction and improved access to social services. This led on to me establishing the Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure (CAPE) within the ODI. I was the first head of CAPE, from 1999 to 2001, and I am proud that it continues to go from strength to strength. From 2002 until my eventual retirement in 2014 I worked as an independent consultant, but had the opportunity to combine practical consultancy work with some research. My focus in later years was on the problems of very high aid flows, and the difficulties of providing support in challenging policy and institutional environments.
I have pretty much retired now, and have no immediate plans to do more work in this area. The relevance of my work is clearly on a diminishing curve with time,but I do still get asked for copies of stuff I produced over the years. Most of my publications are available on Research Gate, but not necessarily well organised, and not everyone with an interest will necessarily find their way there. I thought it might be useful to provide this chronological listing of articles, book chapters, working papers, and consultancy reports. This is still work in progress. I will eventually aim to add links to where copies can be found, but that may take me a while. If you have trouble finding anything listed then please send me a request and I will do my best.

List of Publications
Mick Foster and Anthony Higgins, Programme Management Review for Australian Aid support to the Solomon Islands Health Sector, Options Paper, November 2013

Mick Foster, Anthony Higgins and Myra Harrison, Samoa Education Sector Policy Support Program, Report of First Sector Policy Support Design Mission, December 2011

Mick Foster, improving the provision of basic services for the poor:- linkages with broader public sector and Governance reform. AusAID, Office of Development Effectiveness.

Mick Foster, Rob Condon, Katja Janovsky and Chris Roche, Australian Aid to health Service Delivery in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu: Evaluation Report and country working papers, June 2009, AusAID, Office of Development Effectiveness

Foster, Mick. How to stop development aid from doing harm. Europe’s World, Autumn 2007.

Tony Killick and Mick Foster, The macroeconomics of doubling aid to Africa and the centrality of the supply side. Development Policy Review, March 2007.

Foster, Mick and Tony Killick, Economic management in Africa: what would be the effect of doubling aid? The Commonwealth Ministers Reference Book, 2007.

Foster, Mick and Killick,T (2006), What would doubling aid do for macroeconomic management in Africa: a synthesis paper (ODI Working paper 264, April 2006). Downloadable from

Foster, Mick. Fiscal Space and Sustainability: Towards a Solution for the health Sector. (Reproduced in WHO, World Bank (2006), High-level forum on the Millennium Development Goals, Selected papers 2003-2005).

Foster, Mick. MDG Oriented Sector and Poverty reduction Strategies (2005), Lessons from Experience in Health, HNP Discussion Paper, World Bank, October. (Reproduced in WHO, World Bank (2006), High-level forum on the Millennium Development Goals, Selected papers 2003-2005).

Fozzard, Adrian and Mick Foster (2004), Changing Approaches to Public Expenditure Management in Low-income Aid-dependent Countries. Chapter in “Fiscal Policy for Development, Poverty Reconstruction and Growth”. Edited by Tony Addison and Alan Roe, UNU-WIDER, May.

Foster, Mick (2003), A note on Criteria for Assessing the Case for Overseas Aid, Development Policy Review, May 2003. N/A

Foster, Mick, Adrian Fozzard, Felix Naschold and Tim Conway (2002), “How, when and why does poverty get budget priority? Poverty reduction strategy and public expenditure in five African countries. Synthesis Paper.” Overseas Development Institute, Working Paper 168. ISBN 0850035791.

Foster, Mick and Douglas Zormelo (2002), “How, when and why does poverty get budget priority? Poverty reduction strategy and public expenditure in Ghana”. Overseas Development Institute, Working Paper 164. ISBN 0850035902.

Foster, Mick and Peter Mijumbi (2002), “How, when and why does poverty get budget priority? Poverty reduction strategy and public expenditure in Uganda”. Overseas Development Institute, Working Paper 163. ISBN 0850035929.

Norton, Andy, Tim Conway and Mick Foster (2002), Social Protection: Defining the Field of Action and Policy, Development Policy Review, 2002, 20 (5):541-567, November.

Foster, Mick and Felix Naschold (2001), Government-Donor Partnerships in Support of Public Expenditure, Chapter in Making Development Work, Development learning in a World of Poverty and Wealth, World Bank Series on Evaluation and Development, Volume 4, ed. by Nagy Hanna and Robert Picciotto, Transaction Publishers. N/A

Foster, Mick and Jennifer Leavy (2001), “The Choice of Financial Aid Instruments”. Overseas development Institute Working Paper 158. ISBN 085003 5724.

Andy Norton and Mick Foster (2001) “The Potential of Using Sustainable Livelihood Approaches in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers.” Overseas development Institute Working Paper 148. ISBN 085003 5287.

Norton, Andy Tim Conway and Mick Foster (2001) “Social Protection Concepts and Approaches: Implications for Policy and Practice in International Development”, ODI Working Paper 143.ISBN 085003 5139.

Foster, Mick and Sadie Mackintosh-Walker (2001), Sector Wide Programmes and Poverty reduction. ODI Working Paper 157, commissioned by Government of Finland for the like minded donor group. ISBN 085003 5716.

Brown, Adrienne, Mick Foster, Andy Norton and Felix Naschold (2001), “The Status of Sector Wide Approaches”. ODI Working Paper 142, commissioned by Ireland Aid for the like minded donor group. ISBN 085003 5074.

Foster, Mick (2000) “New Approaches to Development Co-operation: What can we learn from experience with implementing Sector Wide Approaches?” ODI Working Paper 140, commissioned for DFID White Paper, October. ISBN 085003 5023.

Foster, Mick, Adrian Fozzard (2000) “Aid and Public Expenditure: A Guide”. Commissioned by DFID for the economists guidance manual. ODI Working Paper 141. ISBN 085003 5031.

Foster, Mick, Adrienne Brown and Tim Conway (2000) “Sector-wide approaches for health development: a review of experience ” WHO, Geneva, June.

Foster, Mick and Felix Naschold (1999), ‘Pro-poor budgets and the role of development cooperation’, chapter of “Operationalising the Comprehensive Development Framework: Evidence from Contemporary Research” (ODI’s contribution to the World Bank Annual Review of Development Effectiveness), June.

• Foster, Mick (1999) ‘Lessons from Sector Wide Approaches in Health’, WHO: Geneva, March.

• Foster, Mick (1996), Improving Overseas Development Assistance: The Broad Sector Approach, May 1996, published with proceedings from May 1996 IMF seminar, ‘Deepening Structural Reforms in Africa’.

Today Programme, 3rd of November

Relieved that the Select Committee criticism of the usefulness of bombing Syria seems to have made it unlikely that this will go forward, and a somewhat better informed discussion on Today.
Unfortunately, they then spoiled it with a very biased interview with Liam Byrne. John Humphries claimed he was behind a ‘fightback by Labour moderates’ against ‘Corbynomics’, but the interview made clear that he was actually trying to contribute constructively to a policy debate that Corbyn has called for, focused on how to reduce inequality. Humphries tried to portray Corbyn as supporting widespread public ownership – though in practice he has only called for public sector ownership in the power sector (where he is likely to get his wish in part – though it is the public sectors of France and China that will own our nuclear power stations!), and in the railway sector – a natural monopoly that many economists would argue should be in public ownership.
The other piece of nonsense was Humphries repeating the Canard that when the coalition came to power ‘there was no money left.’ This was a very poor joke by Byrne when he left the Treasury, the actual fiscal position in 2010 was worse than expected, but the mainstream economic view is that the subsequent austerity policies of the coalition Government went too far and resulted in the slowest economic recovery in our history. Humphries made the point that our recovery was the fastest in Europe – but not the point that Europe as a whole has done very badly compared with the US and the rest of the world precisely because the Eurozone has been forced to adopt the tight policies favoured by Chancellor Merkel, and remains mired in recession as a consequence. Another example of BBC not being well informed enough to ask intelligent questions, and just being content to try to batter politicians over the head.

BBC: Belicose, Biased, Complacent – and far too dominant

A letter from David Elstein in the most recent London Review of Books quotes official Offcom data showing that the average adult UK citizen gets over 60% of their news from the BBC. This is a consequence of BBC dominance of TV and radio news, their strong (and free access) presence on line, and the steep decline of print news media. As Epstein points out, if any commercial organisation commanded a 60% share of news consumption, there would be a national outcry and calls for it to be broken up.

If the BBC was a genuinely impartial reporter of the news (assuming such a thing to be even possible) then perhaps this would not matter, but it is clear that the BBC has a very narrowly defined idea of the political spectrum within which it tries to be impartial – roughly extending from the current right-wing conservative Government to the Blairite right of the labour party. They seem complacently unaware of their own bias, happily referring to Jeremy Corbyn as ‘extreme’ and ‘left-wing’, but never applying the description ‘right wing’ or ‘extreme’ to the policies of the current Government -despite their stated determination to cut public spending to 35% of GDP, a level not seen since the birth of the welfare state. This abandonment of the postwar political consensus by the current Conservative Government is in my view far more extreme than anything proposed by the current labour leadership, which has espoused domestic policies that were mainstream before Mrs Thatcher ended the tradition of ‘one nation’ Toryism.

The shoddy and complacent nature of BBC journalism is illustrated by another article in the LRB. Patrick Cockburn gives a detailed account of the state of the war in Syria. He makes a number of key points:-

I. The only effective opposition to ISIS in Syria is from the Assad Government, Shia militias and their Iranian allies, and the Kurds. The only one of these groups with which the US feels able to work is the Kurds, but they are only 10% of the population and only effective in a small part of the country – and US support for the nationalist ambitions of the Kurds is not without risk given the implications for the stability of Turkey.

ii. There is no such thing as a moderate Sunni opposition, and efforts to create one have been wholly ineffective.

iii.With no ground forces to support outside the areas where the Kurds have been engaged, the US bombing campaign has been entirely ineffective as a response to ISIS – though it has caused enormous destruction and killed a lot of people. Some fifty analysts working for US central command protested about official distortions of what was happening on the battlefield, aimed at trying to present a more positive picture.

Cockburn comments that ‘Britain is wrestling with the prospect of joining the US-led air campaign, without noticing that it has already failed in it’s purpose.’ He says that some even in Washington are beginning to think that the Russian approach may have some merit, because the Syrian army remains the most effective force opposing ISIS.

Anyone relying entirely on the BBC for news and analysis of the Syrian conflict would have little notion of these complexities. BBC reporting that I have seen has been obsessed with the politics of whether or not the UK Government has the political will to join the US in bombing Syria, with little or no discussion of what such bombing would achieve. They have not taken on the mission to explain the messy regional politics of Sunni and Shia rivalry. They have been highly critical of Russian involvement and support for Assad, but have not been prepared to give any real attention to asking what alternatives might stand a chance of working.

This is one example of a BBC coverage of foreign affairs that is as narrow as their coverage of domestic politics, with news priorities and perspectives reflecting a US-centric view of the World. There are times when I almost wonder if the CIA have infiltrated the BBC as a more trusted and therefore more effective alternative to Voice of America. I suspect though that the explanation is just laziness and complacency. The BBC seems to have more journalists and more contacts in the US than elsewhere, which is why the list of usual suspects called on for ‘expert’ opinions seems to be dominated by American voices.

I have searched in vain for any balanced account of events in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, or in the South China sea. The perspective of those opposed to the US in these disputes is almost entirely lacking. It is dangerous that our dominant source of news shows little interest in understanding and explaining the perspectives of countries in dispute with the US, preferring instead the knee-jerk assumption that our US allies must be in the right. There is an alternative narrative that perceives the US as no less the aggressor than those with whom it is in dispute, and that perspective needs to be understood if we are not to stumble into further conflicts.

Perhaps the BBC was always this bad – though my memories suggest otherwise – but, even if it was, it matters a lot more now that they have become so dominant. I am not sure how to adjust it without risking a US style corporate dominance of news media, but it ought not to be beyond us to find a way to combine public interest broadcasting with deeper analysis, and a greater diversity of voices and views, than are reflected by the current monolithic BBC