Transparency in the Aid Business

I listened to this File on 4 programme  about the aid business last night.

Quite extraordinary.  It was almost enough to make me vote UKIP.

No one who has travelled or worked in any developing country will be surprised at the stories of corruption.  It’s how things get done.  Yes, we all know that we shouldn’t. You get pulled over for a traffic offence you didn’t commit because you’re a white guy in a car. You can pay the bribe to the traffic policeman, or you can protest your innocence while your car is impounded and your day is ruined and you face paying ever higher bribes to end the whole nightmare. And that little bribe to the traffic policeman, well, it’s a tip really.  In Nigerian English, it’s the same word: dash.  You dash the waiter and you dash the traffic cop.

But everyone knows that corruption is the single factor, above all else, that prevents these nations realising their potential.  Reducing it is essential if the aid budget is to have any effect. We know why it’s there – complex reasons of different loyalties to family and tribe, inadequate official salaries – but we wring our hands and continue our complicity.

The one thing that makes corruption easy is the proliferation of secret deals. We should not be complicit in any secret deals.

Solutions are complex, but they start at home and all involve transparency.  Let me get this clear: transparency means publishing loads of stuff.  In particular, contracts and accounts.  Publish exactly who gets the money  and exactly what it is spend on.  Publish all the project details, the project assessment criteria and the project assessment results.

Transparency isn’t what someone who had worked for the body that regulates DfIDs projects said. He used the word in relation to them being transparent to the aid providers (but not the rest of the world) about the criteria on which projects are assessed. That’s weaselly dilution of an important concept.

Publish, publish, publish. No secret deals, particularly in the aid sector.


Geeks for Greece

There’s a cool IndieGogo campaign to raise £1.6bn for Greece. After a flurry of Twitter activity it’s raised about €113k in less than a day, which is pretty good going for any crowdfunding but a long way short of what’s needed.

Crowdfunding the money for one instalment of its debt – €3 for every European – isn’t going to save Greece’s bacon.  There are many smarter ways for geeks and Greece to stick one to the bankers.

Maybe Greece could shift to Bitcoin instead of the Euro?

How quickly could the world come up with an online, open, digital solution to Greece’s problems? Make the new drachma an ecurrency, with mobile payments?

The IndieGogo site is offering rewards and such in return for donations, with all rewards sourced from Greece. This will get money into the hands of actual Greek people and is a far smarter way of helping them than paying of bankers who really don’t need the money any more.

The collapse of Greece’s Euro institutions provides an ideal ground in which innovative finance and settlement solutions can thrive, disintermediating banks, bankers and even governments.

A quick one on Greece….

We should not be scared of the Greek situation, but excited. Yes, it is unfortunate and it would be better otherwise, but there is no doubt that this is a pivotal moment for the Eurozone and for the politics of austerity.

First, read this: Stiglitz explains why Greeks should vote “no” on Sunday.

He’s right.  If there’s a “Yes” vote, anti-austerity worldwide is set back by years. Tsipras resigns, to be replaced by a puppet for the Troika, and Greeks lose control of their own destiny. Vote “No”, and they retain it. The Troika are mad because Tsipras has played the joker they always knew he had: democracy, and exposed the gap in their hand.

Then, listen to this: Giles Fraser – no stranger, you will remember, to controversy when forced to resign as Dean of St Pauls for sympathising with the Occupy demonstrators – giving  a most scholarly and eloquent explanation of Helleno-germanic differences on Thought for the Day today,

Dr Fraser leaves it to us to consider the the third apex of the triangle: capitalist greed.  It is the financial sector’s avarice (compounded with the other six) on which we should focus our concern, not Lutheran redemption or Orthodox forgiveness.

There’s an intriguing tree of possible outcomes after a No vote, some disastrous, some not so disastrous.  The Troika back down slightly, and Greece accepts?  Can they contain the consequences so that Podemos and the others aren’t too encouraged to follow suit?

Much more exciting: Greece defaults. Issues its own virtual digital-only currency using mobile payments, as in Kenya.  Opens up and radically deregulates its enterprise sector.  Processes citizenship for the migrants on its doorstep to liberate their economic potential at home and abroad.  Exploits solidarity networks so supporters can buy goods directly from Greek producers, paying online in eDrachma bought online  with Euros from the Greek government – which it then uses to pay for further green infrastructure investment.

Banks entirely disintermediated.

It is getting more interesting.

Stories About Secrets

It is alleged – in the Sunday Times yesterday – that Russian and Chinese intelligence agents have cracked encrypted data in the Snowden files, thus compromising the cover of  British and American agents who have had to be moved to ensure continuing  operational security. No one has been harmed.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who co-ordinated the release of the Snowden files, has written an article here claiming that the Sunday Times piece is wrong. I haven’t read the Sunday Times story. It is behind a paywall and I have vowed for many years that the Murdoch family will never get another brass farthing of my money.

No independent person can have any way of knowing which side to believe. So, for the sake of argument, I will assume that the Sunday Times is right – that it’s not just acting as a mouthpiece for ASS propaganda. (ASS abbreviates for Allied Security Services, meaning essentially the UK and US intelligence services – CIA, NSA, GCHQ, MI6 and MI5 – and their champions and apologists in government and media.)

I assume that The Snowden Files, the data dump taken by Snowden consisted of:

  • A lot of cleartext procedural information about the extent and nature of data surveillance by the ASS (this is mostly what has already been revealed); and
  • Some cyphertext files containing ASS operational information (this is what is alleged to have been compromised, and which Snowden promised would not be revealed).

Procedural information describes how the ASS operate. It is information which might understandably have been available to a security contractor such as Snowden and would generally be accessible to everyone in the organisation. This is why it was held in cleartext on ASS internal servers and Snowden could download it all.

Operational information would include things such as agents’ identities, their location, their cover, and reports they may have submitted. It is highly sensitive and even within any branch of the ASS would be available only on a need-to-know basis. It should be encrypted with a long symmetric key,  which itself would be encrypted using an asymmetric algorithm to the key pairs assigned only to those need-to-knows.

  •  This encryption should be secure enough to allow the cyphertext to be transmitted over public networks.
  • If any of the key material to access this data had been available to Snowden, it represents a scandalous lapse in ASS internal security.

If the Sunday Times story is true, then either:

  •  Russian and Chinese intelligence have broken ASS cryptography; or
  • ASS internal security was already compromised.

ASS cryptography is broken?

Modern cyphers are vulnerable to various attacks. The simplest is a brute-force attack, and it has been demonstrated to work for short key-lengths around 128 bits using a network of computers running in parallel over several hours. Increasing the key length by one bit doubles the effort for a brute-force attack. It is a trivial problem for a large enough quantum computer but  no one is known to have built one sufficiently capable yet.  ASS should have been using long keys – at least 256 bits. A network of computers that could crack 128-bit encryption in a second would take about ten followed by twenty zeroes times the age of the universe to crack 256-bit encryption. So a brute force attack is unlikely.
More complex attacks use weaknesses in the encryption algorithm or software. Usually this involves a lack of randomness. Symmetric keys are long random numbers; if they are not truly random, they are much easier to break.
Most successful attacks use the human vector: procedural errors, or getting someone who does know a key to disclose it. (Despite Alan Turing’s genius and the new computers, it was Nazi procedural errors that let Bletchley Park into Enigma).

Most likely explanation

The Sunday Times story is partially true. ASS have assumed  that the operational information has been compromised, because the Russians and Chinese have had access to the cyphertext, and they have made the necessary operational adjustments to protect their agents.  Which they would do anyway, because you should always assume that your enemy can access your cyphertext.

ASS are very keen that the mass surveillance revealed by Snowden should continue and they want the legislative framework right. In both countries – the US and the UK – they are fighting political battles to give them the legal and political powers to do so. They want to discredit Snowden and show him as a traitor rather than a patriot, and the planted story is intended to achieve this.

However, if it shows anything, it shows first that ASS internal security procedures are not as good as they should be. And for lots of reasons, that should worry us, regardless of our position on Snowden.


A hundred Tories, led by Steve Baker MP, have got together to plan to knife Mr Cameron in the back or something.

I listened to Mr Baker and Mr Clarke explaining their respective positions on the radio yesterday. Mr Clarke made sense, Mr Baker didn’t. But perhaps I am just a prejudiced Europhile. Mr Clarke explained that the main benefit of the EU is a single market and  that a single market needs a single set of rules otherwise it isn’t a single market.  Mr Baker waffled on about parliamentary sovereignty.

There’s something almost endearing about British Conservative politicians’ love of the idea of Parliamentary Sovereignty, as if it were some sacred cow that, were we to sacrifice, we would all go to hell in a handcart. Or are heading that way because we have already done so.  In doing so they absolutely miss the point about what’s wrong with the EU – and there is a lot wrong with it.  Parliamentary sovereignty is an historical notion that goes back to the Civil War and the Orange putsch of 1688.  It’s not Parliament which is now sovereign, but the people. (please not for mercy’s sake “The British People” though, which has become as hideous a political cliche as “hard-working families”). Popular sovereignty gives us referenda and democracy, and that’s where we’re at.

I am not concerned whether it’s one lot of snouts-in-the-trough politicians or another that gets the final say about the harmonised regulations on food safety.  I am concerned that across Europe, the regulations on food safety should protect innovative small producers against giant corporates,  let me buy artisanal Romanian cheese in London and make sure that none of the food I buy has too much arsenic in it. The quality of the regulation matters far more than who actually does it, and for food regulation it’s best done by technocrats who understand food hygiene than by  Parliamentarians who don’t even understand their own history.  However, it does need to be done transparently so we can see what the big corporates are lobbying for.  (to be allowed to sell bleach-cleaned chicken to European consumers without telling them, for one thing, in the secret TTIP negotiations….)

The EU is far too opaque and, with negotiations like TTIP, getting more opaque. That’s what’s wrong with it, not the fact that Mr Baker doesn’t get the chance to grandstand over every line of food safety regulations. Mr Cameron would do us all more favours if he were arguing for more openness rather than getting into a silly tug-of-war over who gets what power.

Oh and whatever the outcome of Mr Cameron’s negotiations, I will be voting “yes” just as surely as Mr Baker will be voting “No”. I want to fix the EU, not to flounce away from it.  And as pinky-green, I’m  really looking forward to watching the Tories go in for one their regular Euro-meltdowns.  Let’s just hope that this time they do a proper job of it.

Charles Kennedy RIP

De mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that, but of Charles Kennedy I get the impression that today’s encomiums are meant. He was a thoroughly decent politician, perhaps the most human of his generation.

The most successful modern Liberal Democrat leader,  whose success in building the party was betrayed by Nick Clegg.

The only party leader to vote against the Iraq war. The only Liberal Democrat MP to vote against the Coalition.

We do not yet know the cause of his death, but we do know the cause of his political failure and it was probably the same. Thanks to boundary changes, Charles ended his political career as MP for his home town at the foot of Ben Nevis, Fort William, where he died. He had first been elected, in 1983, for a constituency somewhat further to the North, while the late Sir Russell Johnston represented the town in which he grew up. He was a star pupil at Lochaber High School, and a classmate of my sister’s (with whom he had a very brief school-age fling..). And like many Highlanders, he had a problem with the drink.

An ambivalent relationship with alcohol is common to all Northern peoples – Scots, Scandinavians, Siberians. Long dark winters and summers where nights are hardly noticeable probably have something to do with it.  Abstinence is common – for the few, it is for religious reasons, pushed by puritanical churches such as the Scottish Wee Frees, but for many it is because they are – until they next fall off it – on the wagon. Drying out, perhaps after a spell in “Craigie” – Craigmore, Inverness’ mental hospital.  A culture that loves its dram also has space for those who don’t, won’t, or can’t.

But drink is a two-faced demon. Charles’ bonhomie and humour, his personality and his drive were lubricated by drink. A dried-out alcoholic is never as much fun as the drinker before he becomes a drunk (but always an improvement on the drunkard).  To ride the demon is like walking the Cuillin ridge in Charles’ constituency – breathtaking but always with the risk that you will stumble.

I don’t know if Charles fell off the wagon recently and it is not really seemly to speculate. His previous drinking is likely to have contributed to his death in any case. But I do know that he had every reason to be depressed about the state of British politics. As I have written earlier, the Lib Dem collapse was the most significant factor in giving the Tories a majority in England.  Charles led a party with 62 seats; ten years later it has 9, and the Tories – who he had always opposed – are in power again. That is as much Nick Clegg’s fault as it is Nicola Sturgeon’s.

The election again

As the dust settles, Labour is embarked on one of its usual tugs-of-war, between the left and the right. It’s as old as Labour. Gaitskell vs Bevan. Benn vs. Healy.

Blair-Brown was the exception: a clash of personalities, not policies.


But it is absolutely and crushingly irrelevant to the problem at hand.

Labour didn’t lose because it picked the wrong point on the political spectrum. Too Left? Too Right?No, just too dull. It lost partly because it didn’t inspire anyone – its campaign was based on waiting for the Conservatives to screw up.

But mainly, it lost because of the Lib Dems.

And the Nats.

Let’s deal with the Nats first. The Nats won because of the independence referendum. It created a momentum. The momentum didn’t stop with the referendum. There are thousands of disappointed activists, many of them young – the 45% – and the 45% won the election for the Nats. 45% loses a referendum but it’s a landslide in a general election.

Labour mostly lost because of the LibDems. Lots of LibDem voters either didn’t vote, or voted Labour. But they were in LibDem-Tory marginals. So as the LibDem vote collapsed, the Tories took over. The Tories didn’t increase their vote share by much over 2010. It’s just that they were by far the largest beneficiaries of the collapse of the LibDem vote. Disillusioned lib-dems didn’t switch to the Tories, they switched off. Even if Labour had targetted them, it is unlikely to have made much difference to the outcome.

I hope Labour gets some passion for real politics back. I am sure it would win with a charismatic leader on the left or on the right; I suspect its new leader will be Mr Umunna and that despite his being another shiny hollow thing he will win in 2020. Against BoJo.

Those letters….

Are not really a transparency issue.

It did take the Freedom of Information Act to get them published.

The issue is not that they were secret, but that they were replied to. The right government policy is to return such missives unopened.

What went wrong?

To say I am disappointed is an understatement.  The worst government I have ever lived under has just been replaced by one containing all its pathological elements and none of its potentially moderating influences.  I supported the Green Party, not Labour, and Labour will blame people like me for their loss. There’ll be time enough for analysis, to see if the Green vote did actually decide any marginals – but I think that’s carping. I’m not going to apologise for my vote: I’m in a safe Labour seat, and I voted Green because, bankers or bedroom tax, the most critical issue facing the country and the world is climate change. I’ve got a gripe with my party that they didn’t put that issue front and centre of everything in the campaign, but this post is about Labour, not the Green Party.


The plain fact is that Labour never looked like winners, however much those of us on the anti-Tory side hoped they might be.  I still think that Ed Miliband would be a better PM than Cameron  – he could hardly be worse – but he has never seemed prime ministerial, whatever that means. In the media-obsessed world we live in, Miliband always seemed a little geeky – his offensive nickname “Beaker” – and decent intelligent human though he is, I don’t think he was the right person to lead Labour. He lacks the necessary charisma. I would have liked Alan Johnson or perhaps Andy Burnham.  I wish this wasn’t an issue, but I’m afraid it is, because the  media says it is.

Policies and politics.

I can’t fault most of Labour’s policies on their own, but the whole package was just a bit meh.  I think the bigger problem is the political narrative, which affects the Left globally. “Socialism” is still a toxic word. Neo-liberalism has failed on the right, but there isn’t a coherent political narrative for the left to replace it.  There’s no shortage of ideas, particularly in economics. Piketty, Stiglitz and even Krugman have been widely read and trenchantly critical of the neoliberal consensus but as yet translating their ideas into policies seems to elude the parties of the left.  Labour needed to be much more critical of the banks and bankers and to propose radical banking and monetary reform.  Unfortunately, the two-Eds leadership was heavily implicated in Brown mismanagement of this issue and can’t really be trusted to tackle it head on, as it needs to be.

It comes down to a key problem. Labour threw out its soul with the Clause IV bathwater; Blair replaced idealism with the hollow branding of New Labour.  Now that New Labour has gone, the party  needs to rebrand the ideals that most of its members hold into something of value.


Labour is still deeply divided. I don’t think this is an issue now, but it will be.  Did they fail because they were too left or too right? This failure to agree on a political compass is one of the reasons the party finds it so difficult to express a coherent narrative about its purpose.

Management and activism

The PLP still consists mostly of the former spadocracy, career politicians who joined the party when its star was burning bright in the firmament.  There isn’t the passion from the roots for the Labour project: compare it with the SNP, which has a vast number of passionate grass-roots members whose activism was kindled in the indyref.  Unless Labour can rekindle this sort of grass-roots passion – and many in Labour have tried – I’m personally doubtful whether the party has much of a future.  However, there is nothing like a  Tory government on a destructive rampage to fire up youthful protest – so perhaps there is a silver lining for Labour in the present catastrophe.

Saving the drownded

This post from the Daily Mash gets it about right.  Letting people drown as they try to escape from one or other countries we’ve managed to mess up by misjudged interventions is simply not great foreign policy.

So here’s what we should be doing. By the way, it will cost a little money.

First, we make sure that there’s an EU mission in every country in the world. Even relatively rich countries like France and Britain can’t afford to keep missions in every country, but a little co-ordination between member states would make sure that at least one member state had diplomatic representation in every country. And that mission has to be authorised to take a small but non-zero number of EU migrants every year – thus providing a legitimate way for some people to migrate to the EU.

Second, we make those missions much more outspoken on human rights.  Of the people turning up on the shores of Libya for the dangerous Med crossing, many are from countries in trouble – like Syria and Somalia. But it’s surprising how often Eritrea comes up. Eritrea’s government is currently one of the most brutal.  We need to help Eritrea sort its own governance out so that it doesn’t become another Somalia or South Sudan.

Third, we intercept the boats coming from Libya and process the migrants. The majority must be sent back to their country of origin, before they land in the EU.  If the usual outcome of paying a people-smuggler is that you end up back where you started, the trade will stop being so lucrative.

Fourth, we increase and refocus overseas aid. If we focus our aid spending on the countries from where there’s the greatest migration pressure, we can reduce the economic pressure to migrate.

Fifth, we refocus foreign policy. The first objective of all foreign policy must be to reduce conflict.