What I'm reading on governance & conflict, 26 February

Unintended consequences of wishful thinking in regime change, COVID-19, illicit finance, the origins of 'Global Britain' & more

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently (on top of home schooling, marking and taking a proper break at Christmas), and as a result I haven’t been able to make time to do my reading email for a couple of months. This doesn't mean I haven’t been reading, though, and there’s a lot to catch up on! Rather than trying to do this all at once, though, I’ll keep it short, sweet and relatively random (both in terms of content and day of the week I send this out). There should be something for everyone as a result. 📚

I’ll kick off with a story close to home in two ways - illicit finance in UK universities and schools. Carnegie Endowment’s Matthew Page wrote a great paper on West African elites’ spending on UK schools and universities where he flags a dual challenge facing UK educational institutions accepting fees from students overseas: the risk that the children of PEPs ‘convicted of corruption or subject to corruption-related asset seizures’ are having their fees paid by corrupt funds (a sum he says likely exceeds £30 million annually from West Africa alone), and a risk of money laundering when cash is accepted to pay for fees. This was also picked up in The Times this week with a story on ‘Money laundering fears as universities accept £52m in cash’ [paywall], where they report that, ‘At least 49 British universities let students use banknotes to pay £52 million in fees over the past five years, including millions from China, India, Russia and Nigeria’. Having stood behind students in my fair share of queues where I’ve not seen cash used in years, I think it’s safe to say that it’s hard to imagine any acceptable reason for accepting bags of cash to pay fees in 2021. It also shows both how the fight against transnational corruption starts at home and why it could be politically challenging to do so.

A friend suggested I read Philip H Gordon’s Losing the Long Game: The false promise of regime change in the Middle East. I plowed through the whole thing on a Sunday afternoon (thank you, lockdown, I guess…), and it’s a sharply written look at decades of failure - of lack of planning, of wishful thinking optimism where strategy should be. The unintended consequences heap upon each other throughout. The Council on Foreign Relations very helpfully provide teaching notes here. While Gordon focuses on US policy, much of the analysis applies to the UK as well. Country chapters include Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Syria. It’s worth following with this interesting podcast (from 2019) from NPR on ‘How the CIA overthrew Iran’s democracy in 4 days’.

Migration diplomacy in the Gulf – non-state actors, cross-border mobility, and the United Arab Emirates” by Froilan Malit Jr and Gersasimos Tsourapas (open access) presents findings from in-depth research on ‘migration diplomacy’ in the Gulf and the importance of non-state actors in navigating migration management policymaking.

PBS is running an interesting series on the war in Afghanistan, starting with episode 1 here. The most recent one looks at how non-state actors are currently filling in a widening security vacuum.

This article in Foreign Affairs by Graham Allison and Fred Hu looks at five decades of US foreign policy towards China and argues that the ‘central lesson’ coming out of this is that ‘it works best when focusing realistically on geopolitical objectives essential to protect American interests, and worst when attempting to engage in political engineering to promote American values’.

Lessons from Charles Kenny at the Center for Global Development on the US on pandemic preparedness (or not) that are also lessons for the UK and beyond: capacity isn’t enough if it’s not fully leveraged.

James Mulvenon on the conflict between the US (and allies) and Chinese ‘techno-nationalism’, including a number of recommendations for policy makers to consider. At the heart of the problem is the tension between growth and trade and export security concerns.

New research from Michael F Joseph, Michael Poznansky and William Spaniel on the challenge of whistleblowing and accountability in the covert national security space.

Tobias Jones writes in The Guardian about Italy and COVID-19 one year on, and there’s a striking section on extralegal governance - good and bad - that we should be paying attention to: a) why we need to get rid of shell companies asap, and b) why we need to protect civil society.

There have been two noticeable consequences of that economic suffering. As often happens when the Italian state seems flat-footed in a crisis, organised crime has stepped in. Mafiosi have distributed food parcels in deprived suburbs, suspended protection payments and offered immediate cash loans. This “mafia-welfare” is a strategic assertion of superiority to the state, a means to create consensus, control and indebtedness, literal and metaphorical.

The mafia is also buying up struggling companies: 43,688 Italian firms changed hands between April and September 2020: not all passed into criminal ownership, but – because of the high number of new owners choosing anonymity through offshore solutions and opaque trusts – it’s believed that many did. Mafia-controlled companies will, of course, be looking greedily at the €209bn recovery fund that Italy is about to receive from the European Union.

But there’s also been an increase in genuine solidarity. Given a growing awareness of the vulnerability of the weakest in society, voluntary associations, charities and informal foodbanks have been created to protect them.

A pretty harrowing look at Libya in this Guardian documentary - ‘Untold Chaos: living through Libya’s wars’, though there is a glimpse of hope here with growing support for democracy coming though.

Shell Nazneen and Maria Fernanda Silva Olivares pull together findings from research on strengthening women’s inclusive in social accountability initiatives in this useful policy brief. Main findings include: ‘(a) build technical and other forms of capacity amongst women; (b) change formal rules on women’s inclusion; (c) apply political economy analysis to unpack power dynamics, identify actors in favour of gender equality, and build a network in support of women; and (d) make long-term funding commitments for sustainable change in gender-biased norms’.

With both COVID-19 and the SDGs, the World Bank look at the need for infrastructure investments globally is huge - as much as $3-4 trillion (yes, that’s a ‘t’) annually - and argue that this means tackling corruption in infrastructure is also key.

Some new COVID-19 resources:

Just for fun…

I’ve been curious about the origin of the phrase ‘Global Britain’, and the earliest I’ve found is a 1999 ‘Global Britain Briefing Note’ on the the EU single currency. Founded in 1997 by Lord Pearson of Rannoch (businessman and former leader of UKIP), Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Labour MP and former chair of the Campaign for an Independent Britain) and Lord Harris of High Cross (former director of the Institute of Economic Affairs), Global Britain’s website and its collection of briefing notes provide a fascinating journey through time for anyone interested in UK foreign policy (and the influence of think tanks in setting the agenda). We see a call to turn to the Asia-Pacific region (now the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’) in note 4 (1999) and ‘Britain as an independent sovereign state’ in note 14 (2001). We also see analysis that really could have used some better peer review - note 36 (2004) on ‘Cherry-Picking’ and note 83 (2012) on ‘Rules of origin: a peripheral, low-ranking matter’ are good examples, and note 33 (2004) on ‘Customs duties: hardly worth collecting’ has become a bit of a catch phrase in our house (‘Leafy green veg: hardly worth eating’). If anyone knows of an earlier source than this, just get in touch!

We’ve moved into the stage of lockdown where some escapism is welcome, and so we were happy to discover Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (on Disney+ in the UK). It’s something our teens are happy to watch with us (a real bonus nowadays), and they do plot twists like no one’s business. The only problem is that with so little day-to-day stimulation, we all keep having AoS dreams. I’m not sure I need that much excitement when I would really rather be resting…

Finally, I read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig last weekend, and it’s worth every bit of the coverage it’s been getting. It’s a book about living life full of regret and what happens if we confront these, wrapped up in sharp, funny, heartbreaking prose. I can’t guarantee this is an accurate quote, as a friend of mine snapped up my copy as soon as I’d finished it, but this quote on Goodreads gives a sense for what to expect - and some lessons for life too:

“It is easy to mourn the lives we aren't living. Easy to wish we'd developed other other talents, said yes to different offers. Easy to wish we'd worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular, stayed in the band, gone to Australia, said yes to the coffee or done more bloody yoga.
It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn't make and the work we didn't do the people we didn't do and the people we didn't marry and the children we didn't have. It is not difficult to see yourself through the lens of other people, and to wish you were all the different kaleidoscopic versions of you they wanted you to be. It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out.
But it is not lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It's the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people's worst enemy.
We can't tell if any of those other versions would of been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.”