Give Us the Courage to Change the Things We Can

October 06, 2016

As my friends know, I’m not religious—indeed, I fall into the ‘militant atheist’ category—but as my day job is trying to promote peace and prosperity around the world, I am often reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous ‘Serenity Prayer’:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was on my mind recently when I had the opportunity to respond to Rory Stewart MP, who was giving his first speech as Minister of State at the UK Department for International Development. He brings real expertise and experience to the role, having served in East Timor, Montenegro, and Iraq; and he travelled on foot through rural districts of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey totaling around 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses.

Mr Stewart gave a wise speech about how Britain can play a role in global peace and stability. He called for policymakers to be modest and patient when they intervene in conflicts and in fragile states, and to act with greater self-awareness. I agree with everything he said.

There are good examples of successful humanitarian interventions, including, to various degrees, in Bosnia, East Timor, El Salvador, Kosovo, Liberia, Macedonia, Mali, and Sierra Leone. As Mr Stewart said, we should not be isolationist or pacifist, but we should be aware of just how difficult it is to intervene successfully in other countries.

But there is a complementary policy agenda which the Minister did not touch on. There are many decisions over which we do have control, or at least significant influence, which would help promote global peace and security, and secure greater, fairer prosperity both here and abroad. Yet somehow discussions about global peace and security seem to dwell on what we can do over there, not what we can do over here.

In my brief response to the Minister, I suggested twelve policies which are within our control which would help create conditions for stronger, more peaceful, more prosperous countries to thrive, and so reduce the risks of future conflict and instability. Here they are:

  1. We could help tackle the resource curseby requiring our citizens and companies to be transparent about what they pay for and from whom; and we could go further, as Leif Wenar suggests, by treating as stolen property the oil, minerals and other resources sold by governments that do not have the moral, political or legal authority to sell them on behalf of their population.
  2. We could do more to promote economic growth, stability and jobs by investing in and trading with fragile countries.  Countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia should have predictable, long-term, access to our markets, including in agriculture and services; we should ensure that companies who invest overseas are able to offset the taxes they pay overseas against their domestic tax liabilities; and we should use development finance to invest more in fragile states;
  3. We could help countries to build up a social contract by including developing countries in the mechanisms which determine international tax rules and cooperation, and by shutting down tax havens and financial secrecy jurisdictions, so that countries can collect more tax from citizens and companies operating within their borders, and be less dependent on aid from outside;
  4. We can address resource scarcity, which is a major driver of conflict, by increasing our investment in global public goods.  For example we could accept the Lima Challenge proposing a partnership to do more to reduce deforestation. This would be hugely good value in terms of the cost per tonne of carbon saved. We could tackle overfishing, the pollution of our seas, and protect biodiversity. And we could put a price on carbon emissions, both to help stop climate change and to give the poorest countries a tradeable asset.
  5. We could offer more opportunities to temporary and permanent migrants from fragile states, as a proportion of whatever limit we set on immigration, for example by enabling them to come here as students, offering seasonal agricultural workers’ visas and through  global skills partnerships that educate them in skills that are in short supply here, like nursing and care for the elderly. That integration increases incomes and opportunities for families in fragile states, it spreads democratic ideas and values, and it is good for our own economy and society too.
  6. We can promote global values and norms, and increase global accountability including by the way we ourselves behave, e.g. through rules on controlling land mines and small arms, rules of war and prosecuting war crimes, supporting the international criminal court, standing out against the use of torture, or detention without trial, or capital punishment, and for open government, freedom of the press, and the rights of minorities.
  7. We can do more to fight corruption and illicit financial flows, including by opening up public registers of beneficial ownership, by forcing UK overseas territories and crown dependencies to open up, and by announcing that the UK courts will no longer enforce contracts on behalf of anonymous shell companies or other anonymous parties.
  8. We can invest more in UN peacekeeping, both in money and in troops. And we should consider Paul Collier’s proposal for a security guarantee, by which a democratically elected government could ask for a guarantee that if they are overthrown by a coup, the international community will step in, with force if necessary, to restore democracy.
  9. We should have much tighter controls on arms sales—it is obscene that the UK is selling arms to Saudi Arabia which are used to bomb Yemen, which we then provide aid to rebuild.
  10. We can reform international sanctions and prevent the accumulation of debt by odious regimes.  For example, it is deeply short-sighted and hypocritical that when Assad is no longer in charge in Syria, the contracts entered into by his government will be enforceable in British courts against a legitimate successor government, even though those contracts are in breach of UK sanctions.  (I worked in the South African Treasury when Nelson Mandela was President and we found that we had to pay the debts of the apartheid regime because those contracts could be enforced against the new government in international courts.)
  11. We can work harder on the reform of governance of international institutions such as the World Bank, Security Council, the WHO to give all countries a stake in these institutions that we need to build and strengthen. It is a great shame that the UK acquiesced this month in the uncontested re-election of Jim Kim as President of the World Bank, rather than insist on the agreed policy of an open, merit-based process.
  12. We can reform the international humanitarian architecture, over which the UK has direct power as one of a handful of key funders, but which we are reluctant to take on.  Refugee camps are a breeding ground for resentment, conflict and terrorism, and we have all the evidence we need on how to improve it. Compacts, like the one the international community is developing with Jordan, could help migrants work legally, supporting the services they need by growing their local economies.

The Minister responded—rightly—by pointing out that there are domestic political constraints to all of these things. But there are domestic political constraints in developing countries too: that doesn’t stop well-meaning westerners from flying around the world telling governments that they need to get themselves a new judiciary, reform their state-owned enterprises or embrace federal autonomy.

I don’t believe that it is politically too difficult for the UK to close the tax havens in its overseas territories, or to stick to its promises to appoint the leadership of international institutions on merit; nor do I believe that these policies require a political lift of the same magnitude as we routinely expect of others. These reforms would be good for the majority of our own citizens too—while they require a bit of backbone to take on vested interests who benefit from the status quo, they could potentially bring about huge, long-lasting and sustainable benefits for the rest of us and for the rest of the world.

By all means, let’s have the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; but give us the courage too to change the things we can.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.