Gorgeous George's British Muslim Spring

Ok, well, the Bradford Spring... according to Gorgeous George Galloway.

For those who don't follow British politics,; last month serial MP George Galloway (who is probably best known outside the UK for humbling US Senate comittees) contested and won the previously safe Labour seat of Bradford West. His victory, for many UK politics watchers, wasn't a huge surprise. Gorgeous George has made a habit out of wresting seats from his former party by campaigning against UK foreign policy in the Muslim world in areas with large Muslim populations.

It's quite common to hear GG called a single-issue campainger. Former Labour MP Oona King, who he defeated in the 2005 general election, said he was a "one-man band."

Researcher and scholar Parveen Akhtar says its not quite that simple. In an article on Open Democracy, Parveen argues that Galloway isn't merely whipping up support amongst Muslims by denouncing policies they don't like, he's making young Muslims feel like they are being listened to on global and local issues. 

In Londonstani's view, Parveen makes two key points, which are summed up by the words "young" and "local issues".

But first, a little background from Parveen based on ethnographic research conducted in Birmingham:

Pakistani immigrants arriving from the 1950s onwards, "drew the attention of the mainstream political parties to the emergence of a numerically significant - and thus potentially influential - Pakistani electoral constituency. Most Pakistanis were working class and therefore tended to support the Labour Party, though on social issues their values bore closer resemblance to those of the Conservative Party. For their part, both parties viewed the community as impenetrable without the help of community mediators, but they also came to realise that if kinship (biraderi) elders could be got "on side" this would be helpful in securing both their votes and the votes of their wives and voting-age children. The relationship with these elders thus led them to use the internal community kinship structure as a means of accessing a potentially election-winning bloc vote."

The next part is key:

"The consequence was a system of patronage whereby local politicians of all political parties (but especially the Labour Party) built links with community leaders in the Pakistani community, who became their gateway to the Pakistani vote....The local leaders were given minor positions of power and help in figuring out the political system, so that they could stand for council seats or influential roles as subaltern aides. Some community leaders negotiated for community provisions such as neighbourhood centres, whilst others were content with the status conferred on them in the eyes of their compatriots."

As time went on and the British-Pakistani community evolved from being predominantly foreign born and older to British-born and under 30, the cozy mutually beneficial tie-up became a distortion in the system of local politics, the aim of which should be to identify and address the needs of local communities. Instead, local issues went ignored (in many cases the "older generation" simply had no idea they existed.)

Parveen touches on how these "unseen" issues came to find expression through extremism:

"The result was a generation gap, where the older generation were not aware of the frustrations of the young - something clearly highlighted by reactions to the wave of riots in northern English cities in 2001, and by the radicalisation of some young people in colleges and on university campuses."

How does this connect to GG's popularity?

"Pakistani Muslims, like their co-religionists from other regions, certainly do have an interest in middle-east politics, but they are also deeply concerned with what are often seen as unglamorous local-level issues: the economy, housing, work and life opportunities, street-lighting, children’s schools, rubbish-collection. It may be then that in electing George Galloway, at least some Pakistanis have made a cognitive leap by calculating that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad he will care about them here and help to "fight their corner" - a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians."

GG suggested his "Bradford Spring" was about a community of British Muslims sticking it (democratically) to rulers who don't represent them or have their interests at heart. It might be more accurate to look at it as a democratic revolt by young British Pakistanis against the vested interests of their own self-appointed community leaders. This maybe specific to Bradford, but it may be also be emblematic of a wider trend. The make up of British Muslim and British Pakistani communities is evolving. The proportion of those under 30 is growing. Elders no longer hold a monopoly on what is deemed to be acceptable - there are new sources of information. Views are fashioned by experiences common to non-Muslim, non-Pakistani peers. All of which, is mirrored somewhat by sociological changes in the Muslim world. This British experience is what GG could have called the British Muslim Spring.

Maybe he didn't want to put it in those terms, because, after all, taking on Tony Blair and George W. Bush is one thing, the aunties and uncles of Bradford, are quite another.

Changing relationships - Government and the people(s)

UK diplomat Tom Burn, an old friend of Londonstani's from the days they both studied Arabic at university, has started blogging on Her Majesty's Service. This, in Londonstani's view, is to be encouraged because 1) Tom is very clever and needs to be listened to, 3) It's not common to hear what clued-up people working in government are thinking about the evolving nature of how governments and people interact, and 3) Tom has good taste in Hip Hop music. (So please, drop him a line and ask him what OutKast and The Pharcyde can teach us about power relationships).

Tom's latest post makes some very interesting points about governance:

"What I think is interesting about the Arab Spring and the broader impact of change driven online across the world, is the potential it has not only for changing the relationship between citizens and government, but also for changing government itself. A government that simply changes how it delivers its messages might be missing the point. Might online society also change government itself?"

And then the killer line at the end;

"We cannot just go on governing in the same way, but communicating digitally. We also have to think about how to govern digitally."

In Londonstani's experience, sensible grown up types sometimes get a little incredulous at the idea that interwebs can change the world, and so dismiss the whole discussion outright. In Londonstani's view, the point here is that the online world, social media and the rest, is just a new tool for disseminating and sharing information. This by itself is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of a process that started with people drawing on cave walls before progressing to print, radio and television. However, it does change the relationship people have with information; where does it come from, who controls it, how much are you willing to share, how much do you get to know etc. This in turn affects the relationship between people, and between people and power.

Mubarak's end didn't come when Facebook and Twitter arrived in Egypt, but when al Jazeera showed Egyptians that US warships were moving through the Suez Canal on the way to attack Iraq.

British decline and jingo-ism

Interesting article in the Guardian last week on the decline of British power in the world and the inversely proportional surge in jingoism:

"The rattling of the old jingoistic sword is a sure sign that the English ruling class feels its power ebbing away, torn between a European super-state, the aspirations of the Celtic fringe and demographic changes within England itself. Whether the English can awake from their long dream of empire and use this opportunity to renew their sense of identity remains to be seen."

In Londonstani's experience, jingoism is definitely not limited to the UK, or England. That sense of belligerent nationalism can be found pretty much anywhere countries feel a sense of power and prestige ebbing away. Often, the greater the perceived past glory, the more ugly the jingoism, and the greater ability to ignore present failings (umm Egypt), or blame others (... Pakistan).

Anyway, Billy Bragg suggests:

"Unless and until we throw off our imperial pretensions and begin to relate to our neighbours as equals, joining with them in creating new networks of active devolution and shared sovereignty, we English are in danger of becoming an insular people, jealously guarding the right to make our own laws while increasingly unable to control our destiny."

Easier said than done... but still good idea.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and a new approach to foreign policy

Since 2009, Londonstani has been working on developing and applying communications strategies in the UK and abroad. While most of his time is spent on the nitty gritty of making things happen in places like Pakistan, Londonstani is also very interested in the theory behind the practice.

However, there doesn't seem to be much out there about building, maintaining and leveraging influence in a rapidly changing world. What thinking and discussion does exist on this tends to be American. Which isn't  surprising in light of the events of the past 10 years. But consider the UK for a moment. Britain has the advantage (and liability) of historical connections and associations, the English language - which ties together entertainment and information (BBC, Reuters). Add to this a relatively large global investment footprint as well as a domestic culture that is globally connected. Also, there are a number of UK thinkers and practioners who operate in this area; very competent people like Robin Brown (@rcmb), Aaron Ellis (@thinkstrat) and Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s). Last but not least, the UK has been trading on its soft power for several decades, and is quite good at it.

The aim of this blog is to collate and, where possible, add to discussions about developing realistic, successful policies and methods in the new global environment. It's in that vein that Londonstani thought readers, particularly British ones, might be interested in a recent discussion between high-profile US figures on exactly these issues. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an article back in July titled The New Foreign Policy Frontier. In it she argued that diplomacy is no longer just government-to-government, but also government-to-society and society-to-society. This new dynamic (or dynamics), she points out, opens up the potential for groups or individuals, not necessarily connected to a government, to undertake actions that affect countries in a way previously only governments could.

Equally clever person Dan Drezner (@dandrezner), professor of international relations at Tufts, took Anne-Marie to task over the point that micro-level, non-governmental initiatives - networked or not - had questionable impact on the general scheme of things. And that what networked interaction there was, had been there for a long time anyway.

Leaving the details of the discussion aside, the central point - are we moving from an era of the big men of state to one where "regular" people impact international relations - is one that Londonstani has had on-and-off with journalist and diplomat friends since 2003.

Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks are often cited as the ultimate example of a game-changer enacted by a small group of people without government ties. But the reason Londonstani started thinking about this in 2003 is because that was when he, as a young reporter, noticed that the dynamics of how people in the Middle East see themselves and the world had fundamentally changed. 

As the US geared up for war against Saddam many US-allied Arab nations had tacitly fallen in behind the US, but continued to express public opposition to the impeding war. Egypt under Mubarak was a tightly controlled information environment. State media organisations reinforced for Egyptians a worldview of their leader as an Arab champion and their country as a bulwark against US designs in the region. These were messages that had first been inculcated at school by the government education system.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel made plain that the collective deception would not hold. In early 2003, US warships started passing through the Suez Canal, and al Jazeera set a camera up on the banks of the international waterway. As state television showed Mubarak fulminating about Arab solidarity, the highly popular news channel showed US warships passing through Egyptian territory on the way to invade Iraq. At about the same time, Egypt was showing triumphant military marches on state television during its annual war commemoration. Predictably, the contrast between bluster and compliance brought out demonstrators on to the streets asking, "Where is the Egyptian army".

This isn't to say that new media technology changed the way the world works. It's just a new way of disseminating information. And information has been the key to social and political change for a long time. In fact, Egypt has seen it all before. During British rule in Egypt the likes of Ahmed Lutfi el Sayed were distributing leaflets calling for revolution. In the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeni was using taped speeches to build support and turn people away from the shah. As today, technology was making it possible for people to connect with each other and unite around a common cause. 

It seems to Londonstani that this discussion should be less about the world changing and more about changing the methods of those who try and deal with it. Anne-Marie seems, in essence, to be arguing that it's no longer possible (for whatever reason) to do deals with important men in foreign places and expect them to enforce your agreement on their own people. Londonstani would argue that approach never actually worked. If you take the long view of history, Western powers' dealings with Iranian shahs in the era of capitulations had an influence on the evolution that led to relationship the West and Iran have today. In more recent times, Israel and the West's dealing with the autocratic and corrupt PLO leadership has been a factor in the support Hamas can command.

What has changed is powerful peoples' ability to manipulate emotions in order to maintain their privileged positions. The tools they used grew accustomed to using don't work anymore.

So, the question is if you do decide that government-to-society or society-to-society connections provide the more stable relationships, what tools can you use, and how do you use them?

 

UPDATE: Anne-Marie responded to this post via twitter:

To , the question u pose at the end of your piece is EXACTLY my research agenda. Look forward to more convo"

Definitely...

 

Random readings - business and influence

Good NYT article by Roger Cohen making the point that firms moving operations abroad isn't necessarily a bad thing.

“A General Electric or a Goldman or a Twitter tries to work in each country in culturally appropriate ways, but at their base these companies hold an American set of values. And that is what influence is,” Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, told me. “Power viewed in state terms alone, or even primarily, is a false premise these days.”

In Londonstani's experience, that last sentence is key, and has been true for British influence abroad for quite a few years already. Wherever Londonstani has worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, job seekers want to work for foreign (ie Western) companies not solely because of the money on offer, but because they think their employers will operate a fairer set of standards. British organisations, in particular, retain a powerful association with values such as meritocracy, fairness, honesty. Londonstani isn't saying these are true (sadly in his experience, they often aren't) but the connotation is a powerful asset.

Speaking in a US-specific context, Cohen goes on:

"The conspicuous failure of American hard power — in Iraq and Afghanistan — has tended to obscure the way American soft power has flourished over the past decade. For a while soft power was undercut because the U.S. reputation was tarnished, but the Arab awakening has demonstrated how powerful American-driven social media are in opening up closed societies. Facebook and Twitter have been conspicuous. But when I.B.M. invests massively in Africa — which it has identified as the next major emerging growth market — it is also investing in an openness that advances U.S. interests."

Trade and communicate - It's the way forward

UPDATE: There's saying drummed into you if you do journalism training that seems to apply equally well to public diplomacy and strategic communications; "Show don't tell". This seems to be the crux of Cohen's point here.

Independence, partition and devo max - the narratives of separation

Say "Independence for Scotland" to many people across the English-speaking* world and you can be quietly confident that the image forming their minds' eye looks something like this: -

There is a reason for this. Whether we like it or not; where facts fail, narratives succeed. And at no time are narratives more important as when nations are seeking to turn a hazy idea of sovereignty and self determination into a living, breathing state with institutions, laws and most importantly, a social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Since the pro-independence Scottish National Party became the largest in Scotland's parliament following the 2011 election, the issue of independence for Scotland has emerged as a plausible eventuality.

Although the United Kingdom is an old and established democracy and state, competing regional indentities are still a very raw reality.

So, amongst all the discussion about political points and legalese, Londonstani was interested to read Anthony Barnett's article over at Open Democracy where, quoting Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph, he warns of the cost of defending the union of united kingdoms if the price was a "descent into mean squabbles and brutal negativity".

Brogan argues that the ruling Tory party's approach to campaigning against Scottish independence in a future referendum should not be an all-out onslaught that would run the risk of coming across as anti-Scottish. Part of his justification was the need to deal with the post-referendum reality, whatever it may be.

"His [Prime Minister David Cameron] reticence is required not because it will deprive Mr Salmond of something to complain about, but because he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will have to be a renegotiation of the terms between Scotland and the rest of the Union. Whether Scotland chooses independence or opts to remain, there must follow a detailed re-balancing of the political and financial relationship. Be it the “devo-max” Mr Salmond speaks of, or some other arrangement, Mr Cameron must be in a position to negotiate as a respected equal after Scotland has decided."

This sounds like the right way to go about the legally tricky and emotional charged process of decoupling communities with long, close (and often acrimonious) history.

A good example of when this can go wrong is painfully evident in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan scholars such as Stephen Cohen have noted that the idea of Pakistan was born out of an existential fear amongst the Muslim population of British-ruled India. In fact, Nicholas Schmidle's book about Pakistan takes its title from a pamphlet written in 1933 by a Indian Muslim worrying about the future of his community in a free India: To Live or to Perish Forever.

One version of events suggests that the men who carved India and Pakistan out of British India originally planned for a united India. But when they couldn't agree on a formulation that Muslim leaders felt safeguarded their community, the narrative of a separate Muslim land for a separate Muslim nation was born. And to this day, the effects of that narrative makes its presence felt on a global level.

Londonstani can't think of a better historical illustration of the power of narratives to change realities than Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This once magnificent building, built by the first avowed atheist member of the British parliament at the turn of the 20th century, played a central role in the founding and growth of the political party that rules India today.

Back in today's Britain, where Anthony Barnett seems to ask why the ethnicities that make up the UK couldn't have their own countries and yet live together happily, Londonstani wonders whether its time to consider a new narrative of belonging for the UK. One that doesn't focus on the outmoded concept of "blood and soil" but instead revolves around whether people share a mutual dependency within interdependent cultures.

* In Londonstani's experience, Braveheart was massively popular in the Arabic-speaking Middle East - Can't imagine why.

What is state-funded broadcasting overseas for?

Being a voice of reason when irrationality is the only game in town is not easy. On Tuesday, the Taliban killed Pakistani journalist Mukarram Khan Aatif, a correspondent in the Tribal Areas for Voice of America radio. 

The killing of reporters working for foreign, often Western, state-funded broadcasters tragically makes the point that they are often key frontline actors in conflict zones. Despite the fact that the influence they wield is enough to get them killed, it's not always understood by the people who fund their activities in the first place. 

Alex Belida, long-time US news professional, suggests over at the Mountainrunner blog that there are two lines of argument when it comes to justifying US public-funded broadcasting overseas.

Whereas Alex and other professionals believe that what they do should be about good journalism, he suggests that law makers in Congress (who approve funding for these organisations) feel their mission should be propaganda, in that it should feature "content which aggressively criticizes our perceived opponents around the globe while downplaying our own national faults."

While Alex has a bunch of proposals for re-organising and funding the multitude of radio and television station stations that make up the US international broadcasting world, he rightly stresses a core concern:

"I believe any discussion of the future structure of U.S. International Broadcasting must first address a more fundamental question: what is its purpose?"

Londonstani sympathises with Alex's position on this. As a journalist who has been lucky enough to work abroad for one of the world's best broadcasters, the BBC, Londonstani has seen seen first hand what sort of return a country gets on its investment in good public-service broadcasting overseas.

In many, many countries where Londonstani has worked, the BBC will be the one (or one of a very few) trusted sources of objective information. This generates the kind of positive vibe around the UK that you just can't buy.

(One example that comes to mind occurred when Londonstani rolled into the one-donkey central Chadian town that is Mongo. Suspicious and curious townspeople crowded round. When Londonstani explained that he was a journalist with the BBC, moods immediately lightened, "Ah yes, the BBC!... You must know Mohammed Abdullahi" (who Londonstani had never heard of but suspects is the local language correspondent). Cans of Pepsi were passed around and the Ak47s put away.)

There is also a utility beyond image building. In many countries in conflict or political crisis, local media will often be a party to the problem. And local people will be aware of that. Non-partisan media that doesn't need the patronage of a local powerbroker to survive can afford to challenge violent narratives. For example, making the point that a country's or community's problems are not going to be solved by the sort of zero-sum arguments that become more attractive in times of conflict. 

Again, this plays a role in improving conditions and positioning the country seen as responsible as a potential parter, arbitrator etc. 

Propaganda broadcasting on the other hand is likely to be counterproductive. Audiences, even those in the most remotest of places, quickly catch on when they are being lied to or patronised. They usually then either switch off or take what they want from the broadcaster and ignore the underlying message. (Like say al Hurra). 

If like the US or the UK, you seek to draw international legitimacy on the basis of a set of values. Public-funded broadcasting is very cost-effective way of showing you mean what you say.

As a British taxpayer rather than an American one, Londonstani is no position to offer comment on how the US organises its affairs, but would agree with Alex's point on this:

"I would argue that to enhance a mission of accurate, objective and comprehensive journalism, it is time to remove USIB altogether from government control and funding."

Getting rid of despots - England style

If Arab revolutionaries want to hasten the departure of their despots, they need to stop looking at Turkey and examine English history, says Stephen Walt, who - as professor of international relations at Harvard - knows a thing or two about world politics.

"...a central issue is the familiar problem of credible commitment. In order to convince unpopular rulers to leave power (or at least to give up a lot of their current privileges), you have to convince them that they are not signing their own death warrants or ensuring their own financial ruin"

(This is also true in Pakistan, where you get into politics to protect the family business, and you stay in power to prevent it being destroyed by your enemies.)

Turkey's sideling of its former military kingpins might look all rosey, says Walt, but sacking men in uniform all over the place and putting generals in prison without trial is making their peers across the Middle East think twice about stepping down.

The sensible way to do this, Walt says over at Foreign Policy's Cable, is taking their power away slowly, the same sort of thing that happened to the English aristocracy.

"Beginning in the early 19th century, the gradual expansion of the franchise and the rise of the middle class gradually led to a curtailing of noble privilege and political power. But the aristocrats weren't dragged to guillotine or have their estates confiscated, they just got a little weaker and a little less rich, on average, with each successive generation. But this ensured that the nobility didn't try to dig in its heels and stop the process completely, which would have created a far greater risk of a major explosion."

Apart from the issue of time, which Walt acknowledges, the English experience more likely came about through a happy coincidence rather than someone's grand multi-generational plan. Still he has a point.

State of the British Nation

New UK think tank British Future has a poll out looking at British attitudes towards society, race and the future.

Director Sunder Katwala writes on Open Democracy about their recent State of the Nation poll:

"There is widespread economic anxiety and worries about falling living standards, which is perfectly rational, but this is combined with a stubborn optimism about prospects, even in this year ahead. There are high and sustained levels of national pride; a strong sense of belonging to cities, towns and neighbourhoods; and a welcoming attitude to newcomers who wish to contribute to thinking and debates about being “us”.

This echoes something that Londonstani has seen growing up and later working in the UK's multicultural capital; young British people of whatever background commonly find it easier and more natural to declare loyalty their city or their neighbourhood than their country.

The point though is that belonging, pride and loyalty are complicated emotions. But still vital for the UK's long-term good. So, you'd think that its the kind of thing people in charge would pay it proper attention, instead of say... proposing a "curry college" as the centre piece of their integration strategy.

... Seriously, they weren't joking:

"He [Communities Secretary Eric Pickles] has a dream: namely to set up a curry college. It combines border control with foreign cooking. It would both help satisfy the apparently inexhaustible appetite for onion bhajis and prawn birianis while also providing justification for the squeeze on visas.".

Emma Sky's Middle East Tour ft. 9mm

Look at this photo.

Seriously, if the British royal family came from North West London along the banks of the A40 and not Windsor, this is what you would expect to see.

The lady in the photograph is Emma Sky.

Emma Sky is an Oxford graduate who speaks Arabic and Hebrew. After graduating she spent a decade working in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. While opposed to the war, she volunteered to put her skills to use in post-invasion Iraq, where she was appointed the civilian representative of the CPA in Kirkuk. In 2006 she was made political advisor to General Odierno, the second most senior US military official in Iraq. Emma has also toured Walthamstow with Londonstani and Abu Muqawama.

In addition to all those accomplishments, Emma has been one of a very limited number of British officials working high up in the US military structure.

Presently, she's a visiting professor at the War Studies department at Kings College, London. Read about her Iraq (post US withdrawal) tour for Foreign Policy here.

Diane Abbot, twitter and.... really?

UK political types were transfixed last week by a story about a black MP who apparently said something racist on twitter. From the Guardian:

"The row began when [Diane] Abbott, who has more than 26,000 Twitter followers, became involved in a discussion with Bim Adewunmi, triggered by the Stephen Lawrence case, on Wednesday.

Adewunmi said she objected to the way in which the term the "black community" was used as a generalisation.

Abbott responded with a series of messages. "I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a 'divide and rule' agenda," she said. Then she added: "White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism."

After which, everyone got very worked up and lots of articles and blog posts etc were written while important people called on her to resign.

You might have missed it there, but apparently, someone lost their life in a racist murder. The only point that Londonstani can see as mattering in all this is the one made by Harmit Athwal at Open Democracy:

"Stephen Lawrence was a young black student stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack by five or six white youths in south London in April 1993. That his murderers have gone unpunished for so long, and that three or four still remain free, was not for lack of evidence but due to a police investigation hobbled by institutional racism and corruption...

"...the hideous fact is that since Stephen Lawrence's death, at least ninety-six people have lost their lives to racial violence — an average of five per year."

The P-word that everyone's doing

Interesting article by Clyde Prestowitz over at Foreign Policy continuing with the "economics of defence" and the rise of China theme by drawing attention to a little-noticed strategy that came out at about the same time as the defence guidance.

The commerce department's report on US competiveness, says Prestowitz, misses significant hindarances to US trade with emerging countries:

"At the moment, four great incentives are continuing to pull the production and provision of tradable goods and services out of the United States. These are foreign currency manipulation that overvalues the dollar, subsidization by many foreign governments of the offshoring of U.S. production capacity, the "buy national" policies and attitudes of many governments that force U.S. companies (and the corporations of other countries) to produce in a particular country if they want to sell there, and the subsidization of and risk reduction for capital investment by state-owned or indigenous private companies in designated "strategic" or "pillar" industries by a number of foreign governments. As long as the report doesn't even mention these elements, let alone address them, there is no hope for a shift in the downward arching American economic, industrial, and technological trajectory."

For the UK, trading with the rest of the world is even more important to the country's well being (the UK doesn't have the US's huge internal market). MP Kwasi Kwarteng, who has a Cambridge doctorate in economic history, offered this take a while ago on government's role in promoting manufacturing and trade. Acknowledging that it's a little surprising to hear a Conservative MP take positively about government support for the private sector, Kwarteng ends with this.

"Of course, we can’t mention the P-word, Protection, in polite company, but everyone is doing it. They always have. Once we recognise this, we realise that it makes sense to harness our excellent universities and scientists and our manufacturing traditions to preserve and grow our industrial base. Nothing could be more conservative than that." - Flashman would be proud!

As ever, Londonstani finds it difficult to resist a little econ geekery

"Yeah, but.." UK AID in the world

Parliament's Commons Select Committee published a report today calling for aid programmes to be cut in countries that don't honour agreements or avoid transparency.

Definitely worth having a look at if you are interested in what the British government does abroad.

A couple of questions jump out to Londonstani:

1 - The report seems to assume that host governments are going to be cowed into good behaviour because they fear the loss of the UK tax payer's millions (or thousands, ok, maybe hundreds). What happens if, actually, the UK government's contribution is a small part of a country's total aid package?

2 - Even if the UK government is a major donor, does aid spending actually give you clout? Not as much as you might think if the Malawian president's decision to chuck out the UK high commissioner is anything to go by. "So you don't like private jets, Mr. Ambassador? Let's see you row home."

3 - What if the host country decides to thank the international community for paying for the care of its poorest, and then decides to hold those same vulnerable people to ransom if the donors get crazy ideas about demanding accountability or transparency.. cough Sudan cough..

Don't get it twisted, Londonstani agrees with the MPs recommendations - in principle:

"The MPs urge DFID to set out specific governance conditions under which it will provide direct budget support to fragile states, and any under which it will be withdrawn and apply these consistently. They also recommend that DFID invest more in community-led local initiatives which respond to community priorities and give communities more confidence to hold their governments to account."

.. but you gotta wonder if they've figured out how these ideas work on the ground.

Kicking Off

After a six-month break from blogging, it’s time for Londonstani to once again put pixel to webpage.

But first, as a courtesy to those stumbling across Londonstani for the first time, this is probably a good time to explain.

Londonstani is the alter ego of Amil Khan, who – about four years ago, was working as a documentary journalist at the BBC and Channel 4 on projects that involved crime, gang warfare, extremism and armed conflict in far off places. Andrew Exum - aka Abu Muqawama – who was sharing a flat with Londonstani in East London’s Walthamstow area, featured some of Londonstani’s whispered ramblings on his counter insurgency blog.

It wasn’t long after that Abu Muqawama’s “violent Pashtun flatmate” started writing regularly for the blog, drawing on his privileged access to people and places as a journalist to analyse issues related to extremism, UK foreign policy and identity in Britain.

Blogging at Abu Muqawama gave Londonstani the leeway to delve unfettered into the topics Amil was being asked to cover as a professional journalist. Amil and Londonstani settled into a productive partnership. Amil would pimp his languages/professional background/ability to use a camera to get access to refugee camps/war zones or sink estates and Londonstani would bask in the freedom of the interwebs and write whatever he wanted.

The arrangement produced articles that Amil had to grudgingly admit he was glad to have collaborated on. Including:

An interview with an al Qaeda fighter returning from Iraq.

A series of three reports from Sudan’s Darfur conflict that looked at how traditional societies are affected by political upheaval and violence.

And, while Amil covered racism in a typical UK housing estate, Londonstani looked at the draw of the extremist narrative in less nice parts of modern Britain.

Amil arrived in Pakistan in 2009 to run a UK-funded counter extremism project that worked with religious leaders. Londonstani, of course, came along too. Pakistan was as newsworthy then as it is now (perhaps more so). Several foreign correspondents do a great job covering headline news events in Pakistan. So, as before, Londonstani stuck to exploring the issues behind the headlines in an effort to present a little context and background to those hoping to understand why people feel and/or act as they do.

Since then Amil has caught up to Londonstani with some writing of his own at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. As the Arab Spring rolled around, Amil couldn’t resist revisiting his first infatuation - the politics of the Middle East – and wrote a couple of articles looking at why Arabs had decided they had had enough.

With the situation in the Middle East evolving around us and Pakistan looking like its set for social and political changes as its young (65 percent of the population) look to have their voices heard, Londonstani will be going through a little transformative process of his own.

After nearly four years residence at Abu Muqawama, it’s about time Londonstani ventured out in the big wide world on his own. The Londonstani blog will look at the issues of violence and politics, much as before (ie. in the third person tense of plausible deniability). But as the world changes, Londonstani’s coverage will adapt to address it. The blog will still cover extremism and how to address it but will expand its horizons to encompass issues of political development (the developing ideas behind the politics of the Muslim world) and how to engage with emerging trends in a productive way. In addition, the Londonstani blog will come at these issues from a UK angle, because – well – Londonstan is part (by consent and not coercion) of a larger entity known as the United Kingdom.

There will doubtless be technical teething problems as the blog takes its first steps. Feel free to comment (if they work), get in contact (if that works) or get a hold of Londonstani via twitter @Londonstani.

Londonstani aims to be a resource for all those interested in the politics of the Middle East, South Asia and community relations in the UK. If nothing else, you’re likely to find out something you might not ever have known about a fascinating and underreported part of the world… like the ‘Stow.