Musings on research, international development and other stuff


Get some perspective, Mr Brand!

In an interruption to normal service, I am taking the liberty of using my blog to engage with popular culture. In case you’ve missed it, Russell Brand, a British comedian, mainly famous for marrying an American pop star and for being an ex-heroin addict, has written an article calling on British people to start a revolution.

In a rather bloated and meandering diatribe, Mr Brand moans about his disillusionment with British politics, stating that “like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites”. To which my initial response is – “you don’t know you’re born, son!”.

Of course, it is true that there are politicians who you shouldn’t trust and that the system that supports them in this country is far from perfect. But I would really encourage Mr Brand to go and take a look at the political systems in some other places before whining about what we have. When the expenses scandal broke in the UK, I spoke to a number of African friends who were shocked – not that MPs were using public money for personal gain – but by the fact that anyone cared about politicians stealing what to them seemed like trivial amounts. We should be delighted that we live in a country where that type of behaviour IS seen as a scandal.
In many countries, politicians and officials routinely make use of public funds. In some cases this is illicit (see the recent scandal in Malawi). But the amount of funds that goes to support politician’s ‘legitimate’ expenses in many countries is even more shocking. For example, many politicians expect to be paid ‘sitting fees’ (on top of their inflated salaries) for turning up to meetings. This, along with accommodation at expensive hotels and business class travel is seen as normal and legitimate. I turned up to one meeting with a group of MPs in one African country and each of them was given an ‘arrival present’ of a high-spec new laptop (paid for with public money) to thank them for their attendance. A government official from a country in which millions of people live in poverty complained to me at a conference that his accommodation was not acceptable since when he travels he expects to stay in hotels with a minibar, a Sky Sports subscription and a Jacuzzi. While on a trip to another desperately poor country, the nation’s only functioning ambulance was taken out of service for a day in order to escort a group of dignitaries on a trip to the beach.

Mr Brand’s statement that “apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents the vast majority of people” suggests he believes that there was a previous golden age in which the system did represent all people and the people were as a result motivated and engaged – a concept which I find hard to swallow. He appears to believe that this golden age was responsible for all the great advances such as “the formation of the NHS, holiday pay, sick pay, the weekend” and that no further advances have been made in living memory. Really Russell? Really? I mean there is the small matter of equal marriage for gay people, equal rights for the disabled, the minimum wage, flexible paternity arrangements… All advances which have taken place during my lifetime and thus, presumably, his (unless he is in fact a toddler… and his whiny manner does make me wonder…).

Maybe, the fact that there are not revolutions on the streets of Britain is not because everyone is disillusioned and apathetic. Maybe it’s because some people recognise that they are bloomin’ lucky to live in a place in which they are comparatively free and have relatively equal access to opportunities. Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna and there are many things about the UK which I think could and should change. Of course prejudices exist in the UK including racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest. But I feel incredibly lucky to live somewhere where such behaviour is increasingly socially unacceptable and, crucially, not sanctioned by politicians. I still remember the first time I truly felt proud to be British (a relatively controversial sentiment for a Scottish person!) and it was when I happened upon a gay pride march in central London and saw the Gay and Lesbian Society of the Metropolitan police proudly marching in uniform down Oxford Street.

Rather predictably, Russel attempts to regain some credibility by telling a story about how he had visited poor suffering children in Kibera slum in Nairobi – poverty porn destination of choice for celebrities wishing to demonstrate their caring side (see @mjrobbins’ great article on Kibera here). This visit apparently made him feel a little bit guilty for a while about his lavish lifestyle and shallow existence. But rather than dwell on that for too long, Brand seems to have decided that fomenting unrest and railing against the evil capitalist system with pseudointellectual tripe is the most appropriate way of saving the world.


Brand attempts to deflect criticisms by acknowledging that people will accuse him of being a hypocrite who is “a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth”. In a way, this is a clever rhetorical device – somehow by getting in there first and predicting how he will be viewed, he almost manages to persuade the reader that the accusations that will be levelled at him are unfair. But actually, in the remainder of the article he does not really say anything that persuaded me not to view him in this way. He comes across as someone who badly needs to get some perspective in his life.

Right, sorry about that – I realise it was a bit of a rant. If you need some light relief, I recommend you check out someone else who decided to put on their fighting trousers here. Alternatively, if you want to hear more reactions to the Russell Brand article, check out this article from @arobertwebb and this editorial from @helenlewis.


It’s complicated… or is it?

If you’ve ever seen a talk by the a member of the Research and Policy in Development team you may well have seen their rather marvellous slide (on the right) illustrating the policy making process. It starts with a standard diagram of the cyclical policy making process (agenda setting leads to policy formulation etc etc) and then each time the speaker clicks a new arrow appears indicating the linkages between stages and various policy making actors. What’s great about it is that as the speaker continues to speak, the arrows continue to appear until the initial diagram is completely obscured by a tangled web of interactions. I think it is a perfect illustration of the potential complexity of policy making processes that provides the rationale for one of the cental tenets of the rapid approach – because policy making processes can work in so many different ways, it is vital that you understand the particular context that you are working in.

However, unfortunately, I think this potential complexity is sometimes used to justify another approach – inaction! On a number of occassions I have heard people involved in evidence-informed policy or policy influence projects assert that they cannot/will not understand the policy making context because ‘its too complicated/complex’. I think this is misssing the point. It is true that there are many different ways in which policy might be made but they don’t all exist in any one context and in fact sometimes when you look into the way in which policy is made on a given topic, in a given place, it is remarkably simple.

For example, I know the guy who more or less single handedly wrote the science and technology monitoring policy of an entire country. He was in charge of the parastatal organisation which handles science issues and so, with input from his staff and advisors, he wrote it before feeding it up to relevant minister who approved it. Similarly, I know a woman who wrote a parliamentary committe report scrutinising climate change policy in her country. She was the parliamentary researcher assigned to the committee and, since the MPs did not have the time or expertise to write such reports, she wrote it and it was later signed off with minor changes by the MPs. As an aside, in both these cases the person in question had the necessary skills to find, synthesise and use the necessary research evidence and thus the policies were evidence-informed but unfortunately this is not always the case. But anyway, these cases illustrate that some policy making processes are neither complicated nor complex.

So how do you understand the policy making process in your context? Well for starters, you need to know the basics – you have no right to complain that policy makers don’t understand the basics of research if you don’t understand the basics of policy making! Do you understand what the basic functions of a parliament are (clue: there are three)? What about the functions of government or the civil service? What is the difference between a parliamentary and a presidential systems of government (n.b. they both have parliaments so its not that!) and which system does your country have? These were some of the questions which we used in an opening ‘quiz’ at the International Conference on Evidence-Informed Policy Making and suprisingly few people got the right answers. If you are struggling too, I strongly recommend some Wikipedia browsing!

Once you’ve mastered the basics you are ready to talk to someone in the system (without risking looking stupid!). My suggestion is to find an opportunity to speak to a member of the civil service or a member of parliamentary staff – they are generally great repositories of information on how the system works – and find out who actually makes policy (and here you will need to be clear on what you mean by policy) in the area you are interested in.

Please note that none of the above is meant to criticise the great work on complexity, adaptive systems and development (see for example this excellent series of three blogs by Owen Barder). Starting to ask questions about how policy is made will just be the start of your investigative work and I am not saying it will necessarily be easy or even possible to fully understand the system. You might find it is complicated. You might even find it is complex. But the point is that there are things you can find out and getting even some information on the context will dramatically improve the success of any intervention.