Posts tagged ‘University of Birmingham’

April, 2014

Let’s heed the canary

Professor Rob MacKenzie


IMAGE: Smog in the city (

Day three of southeast-England-in-the-murk, and still a pool of smoggy gloom catches your throat and wipes out the middle distance. This little week of blogs, with which I had hoped to engage with the large-scale and chronic challenges highlighted by the University of Birmingham’s Saving Humans theme, has — in the event — mutated into reflections on a local and acute threat to health and well-being. Such a change of focus may actually be for the better; perhaps through learning what pollution ‘feels like’ the debate about how to ameliorate the pollution that surrounds us every day can be reignited.

My suspicion is that there is a window of opportunity in public engagement with issues that are difficult to perceive directly most of the time. If nothing brings air pollution to our attention — really, tangibly to our attention — then we have to rely on expert opinion and ‘white-coat fatigue’ can set in. If we have to struggle through a pea-soup of pollution each and every day then it becomes easy to regard it as unavoidable and irremediable. But, in communities in which public engagement counts, sudden and perceptible reductions in quality of life can cause a commotion and galvanise governments into action.

Having issued the smog alerts and kept the message simple, scientific commentators are now beginning to fill-in some details. The analyses may, in the end, change our diagnosis of the event quite radically, reducing the role of Saharan dust and increasing the role of chemical production of particles in air travelling to us from Europe. A more complete diagnosis will enable policy-makers to consider options to minimise the risk of a repeat of these conditions in the future. Controlling local pollution would improve our chronic exposure to pollution and provide a little more ‘head room’ within which natural particle loadings and long-range transport of pollution can vary, but car bans and the like are unlikely to be a useful measure in the middle of episodes. International action to limit emission of the gases that react in the atmosphere to form particles looks to be necessary. Certainly we should not accept that there is nothing we can do simply because the particles did not, in the main, originate from within our borders.

International environmental regulation has enabled us to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer and has outlawed many environmentally persistent poisons. Where, as in these instances, technological ‘fixes’ to industrial processes reduce the emission of pollutants, the chances of binding international agreement seem relatively high. Unfortunately, for smog, improving engine efficiency and fitting stack and tailpipe filters only gets us so far; human behaviour can subvert our best efforts. To go the next step towards clean air requires joined-up ‘systems thinking’ that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocated this week, seeks win-win-win solutions, recognises that there will be unintended consequences, and privileges a love of life over incomplete measures of cost and benefit.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

The three-legged race to sustainability

Professor Rob MacKenzie


Image: Dawn Smog (

The old adage says if you want to give God a laugh, tell her your plans. I had the best of intentions of putting all the cares of everyday academic life to one side for a day in order to enjoy the Trees, People & Built Environment conference, here at University of Birmingham. Then, late on Tuesday night, news began to filter through that weather patterns had conspired to produce a situation in which local air pollution, regional-scale pollution from north and central Europe, and Saharan dust were all contributing to an air pollution episode. So, instead of musing deeply on urban sustainability and our innate connection to “nature”, I spent the day saying what amounted to the content of the third sentence of this blog. Well, truth be told, I did manage to smuggle in a few sneaky references to what I think is really the “big picture” when we are confronted by one of these environmental episodes, be it flood, or heat wave, or smog: these are symptoms of a systems failure, and the system (or system-of-system) that is failing is UK land management.


Image: Green City (

We can apply sticking plasters to a particular transport bottleneck, or a particular river, and relieve the problem for a while, only for it — or something quite different but subtly related — to pop up somewhere else. But perhaps there is another approach. I am feeling fired-up enough by Tuesday’s seminar on the biophilic city to venture an outlandishly ambitious vision: to reconfigure our relationship with “Nature” and with the City so that we break apart the old-fashioned dichotomy of town and country. Breaking these boundaries would usher-in a new view of human life: shared with every other form of life that can help us turn a linear highway to hell into a circular pattern of birth, death, regrowth. We have the visionaries to show us some of the way and we should not be scared to add to the canon of those ideas, so long as we recognise that ideas only work when in harness with strategy and serendipity. We are in a three-legged race to sustainability and, as I eventually learnt as a child, that can be an exhilarating race once you learn how not to fall over.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

November, 2013

A conversation on Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels

Today’s post is a conversation on Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels, currently in production in the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts, between Rose Whyman, Tom Mansfield (director) and Zoe Baum, Georgina Brehaut, Daniel Burke, Lorna Newman, Harriet Redfern and Hayley Robinson: 

How aware you were of the Kindertransport and its scale before working on the play?

Tom: I first became aware of the Kindertransport when I saw the play for the first time several years ago. Prior to having seen the play, I’d had no idea about the existence of the Kindertransport, never mind its scale, so for me this was a great example of how drama can be used to make the audience aware of a historical event or issue.

Zoe: I am Jewish and for as long as I can remember I have known about the Holocaust but much less about Kindertransport.

Harriet: It was the play that introduced me to it.

Daniel: My understanding of the scale of the operation has grown as a result of working on the play.


What do you think the significance of the play is today? 

Tom: In a sense the play is about every child forced to abandon their home by conflict, natural disaster and economic necessity. The discrimination that Eva is faced with is a real experience for many newly arrived children and adults in this country. As Helga, Eva’s mother, points out, the story is experienced ‘not only by our ancestors but as if it happened to us. Not legend but truth’. While we must not forget the evils that led to the Kindertransport, it is equally important to remember that comparable experiences are taking place as we speak.

Zoe: 75 years on we are reaching a time where the Kindertransport generation are sadly dying. This play is a way of representing the survivor stories so that younger generations can learn about the Holocaust.


Is it important for historical events to be used as subject matter for plays and what the problems/ possibilities are? 

Hayley: Definitely – it is important to learn not only about the terrible events of the war but also the good actions by ordinary people that saved hundreds of lives.

Tom: Seeing the play may encourage audience members to do more detailed research into the history; it seems to me though that our primary responsibility in telling this story is to create something that communicates how the Kindertransport was experienced emotionally.


How do you think the experience would have been for children and young people? 

Lorna: The experience of Kindertransport may have been frightening and overwhelming, though children do bounce back.

Georgina: Some of the children were excited, as they did not know at that point that they were not going to see their parents again.


How you are approaching the emotional demands of the roles? 

Georgina: I have found it helpful to research current political issues in order to try to understand what is happening to the children –just seeing the terror occurring in places like Syria and seeing photos of pure devastation.


Kindertransport will be performed in the Department of Drama and Theatre Studies (5th – 7th December 2013)


November, 2013

From “thinking politically” to “working politically”

Most people involved in the development enterprise, however, are ‘doers’ as well as ‘thinkers’ – far more of my students hope to work for donor agencies, NGOs or charities than within university faculties or think tanks. A key challenge for proponents of the ‘thinking politically’ agenda, therefore, comes with the ‘operationalization’ of said agenda. How can policy-makers and those dealing with the practical implementation of development projects learn to ‘think politically’? How can ‘thinking politically’ simply become second nature for these individuals? How, ultimately, can we move from ‘thinking politically’ to ‘working politically’?

These vital questions will be addressed by a range of scholars and practitioners at the University of Birmingham at a special International Development Department (IDD) – Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop on ‘Making Politics Practical’ and a summary of the workshop’s major points will be provided on this blog shortly after the event. Today’s entry, however, will place this discussion in context by exploring some of the basic obstacles development policy-makers and managers often face when attempting to mainstream political thinking within their organizations.

  1. ‘Doing development’ and the political scientist deficit

It remains the case that most employees of major donor agencies (particularly within the World Bank) are economists or technicians of some kind by training. Informed by the somewhat discredited view of development as a technical, mechanical process commonplace in the decades following 1945 (see Monday and Tuesday’s blog entries), donors have traditionally recruited people based on their technical know-how rather than their understandings of local contexts. These recruitment patterns have been amended in recent years in some cases – DFID, for example, has employed a growing number of political scientists since the mid-2000s, albeit primarily in its Governance cadre. 

Most donors remain, however, populated by people with a certain type of intellectual background and approach to development. This has rarely been addressed or acknowledged, however, by those within these organizations attempting to mainstream political thinking, many of whom have themselves been political scientists! As Sue Unsworth, James Copestake and Richard Williams have argued, donors have not been sufficiently ‘reflexive’ in trying to understand their own workforce and its dominant mindsets when advancing the thinking politically agenda. 

  1. Career incentives and the fear of ‘risk’

Mainstreaming political thinking in donor organizations has also been resisted because its implications undermine the prevailing bureaucratic incentive structures within these organizations. For most donor officials, spending (or in the World Bank’s case, lending) money is the main avenue to promotion and, indeed, World Bank managers frequently implore their subordinates to ‘meet our lending targets’. Thinking politically, however, raises problems here since understanding local political contexts often makes policy-makers more wary of ‘risks’ presented to their programmes from corruption, conflict etc which they otherwise might have been blissfully unaware of. Political analysis for many donor officials, therefore, is what Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams have called ‘the dismal science of constraints’ – it flags risks and problems which few donors wish to hear about because it means spending less money.

What is at fault here, however, is not political analysis but the incentive structures within donor organizations and the way in which taking risks is punished rather than encouraged. A growing consensus is emerging in development and wider scholarship (see the work of Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Tim Harford) that real progress comes only when actors are given the space and incentives to take risks and be flexible. Successfully mainstreaming political thinking, therefore, requires a wholescale rebalancing of the ways in which development bureaucracies work internally – something that numerous officials I have spoken to voluntarily acknowledge.

3. The ‘so what?’ question

The final obstacle to mainstreaming political thinking in development organizations can be summarized by two words: ‘so what?’

People working in development are busy people. They often work in very difficult and challenging environments on complex projects and programmes with sometimes limited support or even security. Even those officials chained to a desk in Washington or London must spend their days wading through endless boxes of paper, log frames and evaluation reports with little time to reflect on their ‘thinking’ about development. For many donor officials, therefore, learning how to ‘think politically’ is a distraction – in their minds – from an already over-brimming schedule of responsibilities. Moreover, the theoretical debates on coalitions, relationships and local ownership that political analysis often delves into (see this week’s earlier blog entries) often seem a mile away from the nitty-gritty of the work that most development actors undertake on a daily basis; “this is all fascinating”, say many such officials at ‘political economy analysis’ promotion and training events, “but what do I do with it on Monday morning?”

Making ‘political thinking’ appealing and relevant to donor officials without turning it into another ‘tool’ or subsection of a project planning application is a difficult task…..over to the experts at tomorrow’s workshop!


James Copestake and Richard Williams (2012): ‘The evolving art of political economy analysis: Unlocking its practical potential through a more interactive approach.’ Development Futures Paper, Oxford Policy Management.

Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams (2012): ‘Making Development Assistance More Effective Through Using Political-economy Analysis: What Has Been Done and What Have We Learned?’ Development Policy Review 30 (2): 133-148.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

November, 2013

“Thinking politically” Part I: “Thinking and working politically” in development interventions Jonathan Fisher

The ‘age of austerity’ has not been kind to Western aid agencies and their staff or to those who would defend them. Though Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has had its budget ‘ring-fenced’ since 2010 its counterparts elsewhere in Europe have not been so lucky while its equivalent in Australia – AusAID – has disappeared altogether as an independent entity, subsumed into the country’s foreign ministry only weeks ago.

Tales of costly white elephant projects and failed interventions from the likes of Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) coupled with stories of corruption in Uganda and space programmes in ‘more people living in poverty than the whole of Africa’ India have seriously damaged the image of the development enterprise across the world. Western publics have been particularly frustrated – or so we are told – at the sight of hospitals at home being closed while taxpayers’ funds are sent abroad seemingly – depending on which newspaper you read – into the pockets of well-fed, venal crooks. In this unforgiving context observers might be forgiven for viewing Western ‘donors’ today as incorrigible, disingenuous amateurs – singing the same tune they have sung for decades with the audience growing ever more restive and impatient; “When does this end?!”

In fact there is room for optimism – albeit not so much, perhaps, for those former AusAID staff facing redundancy. For the last decade has seen a crucial shift in the mindsets of most donors with potentially profound implications for the ways in which development actors approach and engage with the developing world. Until the early 2000s, development ‘failures’ were seen as the fault of the recipient. In the 1980s, the World Bank concluded that economic stagnation in Africa and elsewhere was the result of dirigiste economic management and that removing the state’s grip on a nation’s economy would lead to economic growth. Structural adjustment was born.

By the 1990s, with this ‘medicine’ proving ineffective, flawed political systems became the culprit for stalled development processes. Western donors therefore sought to make their aid flows conditional upon democratization in many parts of the world resulting in the abolition of one-party states in some aid-dependent countries (notably Malawi, Kenya and Zambia) but the continuation in power of numerous autocrats including Zairian dinosaur Mobutu Sese Seko.

In recent years, however, donors have started to reflect on their own role in the successes or failures of the development enterprise. Since the early 2000s, donors have begun to ask not ‘what is the recipient doing wrong?’ but ‘what are we doing wrong?’. This welcome – and overdue – introspection has led donors to several important conclusions, the most central being that successful development interventions require the donor to fully understand the political dimensions of the country or region it is intervening in. Development projects fail when external actors attempt to impose something upon a society or culture whose contours and nuances they do not understand. Development projects rely on the buy-in of local actors to work – donors now accept – and so donors need to understand who the local actors are, what they want and why. To this end, donors have enthusiastically accepted the importance of ‘thinking politically’ in their operations.

This move from ‘doing development’ to ‘thinking politically’ represents perhaps the most important sea-change in donor mentalities since the end of the Cold War. The ‘thinking politically’ project has not, however, come without its difficulties. This week’s blog entries will explore this project and its implications for those interested in ‘Saving Humans’. Many of those with such an interest – both in the academic and policy-making worlds – are gathering in Birmingham this Friday 15th November to discuss ‘Making Politics Practical’ in a joint International Development Department (IDD)-Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop. The final blog entry of the week will reflect on this workshop and its key messages – along with those of Manchester University’s Professor Sam Hickey, who will be presenting on ‘Taking Politics Seriously’ in development following the IDD-PSA workshop.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

Further links:

Thinking politically about development

Overseas development Institute: Thnking politically

Thinking politically, IDD blog Heather Marquette

Development leadership programme

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