25. 03. 2008

Foreign Office Strategic Framework

For a very clever man, David Miliband does do some very stupid things.

Under his customary ‘forceful leadership’, the Foreign Office has just adopted a new Strategic Framework, replacing the 10 Strategic Objectives that preceded it. In the process, not only has sustainable development been eliminated from the Framework, but the Foreign Office’s SD team has been disbanded, resources axed, SD attachés in embassies around the world have been told to focus exclusively on climate change, and the visible presence of SD in the FCO has quite simply been eliminated.

Mr Miliband’s officials offer two rationalisations for this retrograde absurdity: first, that sustainable development is now “mainstreamed” across the whole of the FCO, and does not therefore need a ring-fenced resource. I’ve heard that lame excuse so many times, and I can assure you that it holds no more water for the FCO than it does anywhere else. Without a specific Departmental Strategic Objective, let alone a cross-departmental PSA, SD in the FCO has effectively been relegated to the ‘lip-service only’ league.

Secondly, they point to the fact that the new Framework does indeed include a high-level commitment to “promoting a low-carbon, high-growth global economy” – and that this covers off sustainable development.

Complete rubbish. Climate change is just one (albeit the most problematic) symptom of a fundamentally flawed model of economic progress – a consequence, incidentally, of the brainless advocacy of the kind of high growth that takes no account of the social and environmental externalities it causes. Does the Foreign Secretary honestly not understand that the world would still be falling to pieces even if climate change wasn’t now exacerbating every one of the existing crises? And what now happens to the excellent work the FCO once used to do on biodiversity, on sustainable forestry, on sustainable tourism, on the Millennium Development Goals – and so on.

It’s just so stupid. But unfortunately, Mr Miliband has a track record here. When he whirled to Defra as new Secretary of State a couple of years ago, he instantly got rid of sustainable development as the Department’s overarching mission, opting instead for the populist, but ultimately unusable notion of ‘One Planet Living’. (Which Defra instantly got rid of, by the way, as soon as Mr Miliband moved on.) This was not helpful, and as a direct consequence, Defra no longer has a PSA to “promote sustainable development across the whole of Government”, and bits of the ‘institutional architecture’ that Defra had laboriously built up (like the Sustainable Development Ministers) have just disappeared.

So it’s clear that there’s a bigger problem here. First Defra, then the FCO. Perish the thought, but my view of it is that Mr Miliband just doesn’t understand sustainable development, having dedicated only a fraction of that awesome cerebral capacity to really interrogating what it’s all about.

This is a particularly disturbing blind spot given that not one of the ‘big ideas’ that the Labour Party has wheeled in and promptly wheeled out again over the years has ever come close to sustainable development in terms of potential scale, relevance, impact and intellectual coherence.

But I’m much looking forward to the FCO’s next Sustainable Development Action Plan. At least it will be short.

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08. 04. 2008
David Miliband

I admire Jonathon's passion, but focusing the Foreign Office's resources on a smaller number of subjects where we can make the biggest difference on issues of greatest importance to the UK isn't stupid. That's why I've decided to double the number of staff in London and triple the number overseas working on climate change. I'm convinced that at this time that is the way we can make the greatest contribution to sustainable development. To enable me to do that, I've had to cut back elsewhere. So in future our Embassies will work directly with Defra on some aspects of sustainable development rather than to the FCO - they won't work exclusively on climate as you suggest.

And just because we don't mention SD explicitly in our objectives or no longer have a group of staff in London working under an SD title doesn't mean we don't do SD. We are in fact expanding our work on conflict prevention and human rights. We're increasing the resources we put into supporting the delivery of the Millennium Development goals. We'll continue to work on sustainable forestry. And we'll continue to work on biodiversity in our Overseas Territories. What we won't be doing is penny-packet initiatives which might be worthy in themselves but which won't achieve real strategic impact.

18. 04. 2008
Jonathon Porritt

Nice try, David, but that doesn’t quite do it for me.

When you were at Defra, you argued that narrowing the Department’s focus from sustainable development to straight environment constituted “the greatest contribution to sustainable development that the Department could make.”

Experience now tells us that this really didn’t work. Once the Department had lost its cross-cutting role to promote sustainable development across Government, it lost a lot of its leverage with other Departments such as DfT, CLG, and BERR. That’s one of reasons why BERR continues to ride roughshod over Defra on a number of different issues, but most particularly on energy efficiency – making it impossible, in my opinion, for the Government ever to achieve some of its climate change targets.

And now, at the FCO, what you have done in effect is to disaggregate lots of apparently unrelated ‘issues’ into project-based silos, with no overarching framework within which to integrate all those separate issues.

All those ‘environment’ issues you will be working on (biodiversity, forestry etc), all those ‘social justice’ issues you will be working on (human rights, Millennium Development Goals etc), and all those ‘security’ issues you’ll be working on, are all symptoms of an inherently unsustainable model of economic progress. As indeed is climate change, which is as much about social and security issues as it is about the environment.

And the truth of it is that no government will ever make much headway on any of those issues, as issues in their own right, until the systemic causes that lie behind them have been properly addressed. And that’s why this Government‘s continuing indifference to the intellectual, integrating rigour that underpins its own Sustainable Development Strategy remains such a problem. But you’ll never do joined-up government unless you first do joined-up thinking. And your own personal reluctance to get stuck in at that level remains in that respect very disappointing.


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