GKN in the 1970s: when nostalgia ruled

The takeover battle for GKN, spiced with rumours that closure of the company’s head office will be the first act of the successful vampire squid outfit known as Melrose, has stirred personal memories.  Forty years ago I worked for Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds in its head office, then located at the top end of Heath Street in Smethwick.

My curiosity over recent weeks has focused on the presumption of those opposed to the takeover that the company’s 18th century origins, its household name, and its (rather shaky) association with Spitfire aircraft could be deployed to sway the shareholder vote, or even to inspire government intervention.

Does such sentiment add to the goodwill of a business? Not enough, alas for GKN, but I’ve enjoyed transposing that question into the context of personal experience. If I now owned shares in the company, would my vote have been influenced by the soft glow of distant memories?

I occupied a position of microscopic importance, something to do with salaries and pensions, for over four years in the late 1970s, the decade that British industry would prefer to forget. Certainly, the company has claims to my gratitude. A staff minibus was available for my commute. My superiors were very demanding but ultimately dispensed kindness beyond merit. A benevolent 2nd mortgage from the company enabled me to purchase my first flat at the age of 26. On being promoted I was gravely informed that the managers’ restaurant was now available for lunches.

A decent employer’s reference from the head office of such a company was a passport to whatever one wanted to do next. And of course I gained a couple of special friends.

But these brownie points have lacked staying power. Affection for the business was diluted by its strategic drift into the embrace of the military, ironically the one characteristic that might bring a last-minute reprieve from government intervention. My nostalgia for the period therefore tends to coalesce around the experience of living in Birmingham rather than working for GKN.

These recollections inevitably highlight the transformation in working culture over the decades that followed. I honestly can’t recall the presence of a computer at Warley, as the GKN address was known, although by that time the technology must have been on site somewhere. I spent the days in my own office, alone with a telephone and with the door shut. Across the corridor were my two secretaries, who I periodically summoned for dictation of staggeringly repetitive and boring material. Internal correspondence was called a Memo, its cold manner of address: TO and FROM, relieved us of contemporary torment of how to start and finish emails.

GKN office notices in the 1970s – roneo technology and secretaries with no names

GKN 1970s noticeboard – roneo technology and secretaries with no names

The company existed in thrall to the trade unions. Fear of strikes, then called on the flimsiest of pretexts, was palpable. On excursions to subsidiary companies, I would invariably find myself ushered into an unscheduled meeting with the Works Committee whose union officials had somehow heard of my coming and wanted to discuss petty grievances.

As the junior, I tended to be despatched to ageing factories whose technologies could be described as cutting edge only in the literal sense. Many of them were relics of the ping pong battles of post-war steel nationalisation. To my untrained eye, the old Nettlefolds screws and fastenings factories that lined the Heath Street site surely predated 1914.

We were presided over through the 1970s by an avuncular Chairman called Sir Barrie Heath. His war record as a Spitfire pilot may have fermented the legend that GKN built the aircraft. I don’t recall ever seeing him or any of the executive directors in the flesh, despite our common premises, nor receiving much in the way of motivational communications.

In the absence of share options or bonuses, there was little passion for the company’s fortunes amongst my colleagues; they were a resigned and rather laconic bunch, half with an eye to retirement, the other half picking their moment to move on.

In 1980 GKN recorded a loss for the first time in its long history and the dreaded McKinsey consultants were summoned to head office. If ever the company was ripe for takeover, this was surely the moment.

Yet the share price barely moved, for the good reason that a takeover would have encountered implacable resistance. The unions wouldn’t have allowed it. The new Thatcher government hadn’t yet got into its stride for decimating British industry.

Sentiment for Britain’s industrial heritage would have been cited as the clinching argument for the defence.


January 2012: a curious month in Oxfam’s woes

Little has surprised me about Oxfam’s Haiti debacle apart from one big thing. Why did it take nearly seven years for the sordid affair to become public knowledge? How could the sudden departure of seven staff from a single country office, including the director, in circumstances ripe for tittle tattle, not have created a sensation within the humanitarian community?

To illustrate my bewilderment, I can offer two articles dating from January 2012 whose authors display apparent ignorance of the infamous events of a few months before, despite both being in pole positions to know.

The first is a real curiosity; offering no connection whatsoever with events in Haiti at the time of publication, it now seems tantalisingly bound up with them. Duncan Green, then Head of Research at Oxfam GB, and prominent blogger on overseas development issues, chose that moment in 2012 to engage his followers in a poll which questioned whether the swimming pool at Oxfam’s guesthouse in Nairobi should be re-opened.

The “dilemma”, as Green openly acknowledged, was whether the image of Oxfam staff enjoying such a facility, however commonplace in a Nairobi suburb, would appear damaging to the charity’s supporters, shivering in the heart of a British winter. As he put it: “Oxfam’s big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed (the pool).” At the time, Nairobi was the coordinating centre of the emergency humanitarian response to severe drought in East Africa.

Sounds familiar?

If Duncan Green knew the precise reasons for the staff exodus in Haiti, surely he would have relegated Oxfam guesthouses to his bucket of blog topics marked too hot to handle? His employer had escaped censure in Haiti by the skin of its teeth; why take the risk of a public debate about R&R for aid workers, whilst the potential scandal was still cooling?

Maybe Green thought that he was doing Oxfam a favour in prodding his followers to vote on a tricky ethical question. Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive had by then written to all staff worldwide in reference to Haiti, reminding them of Oxfam’s expectations of their behaviour.

I still find it hard to conceive that Green was ignorant of the facts, as a seasoned networker occupying one of the charity’s senior management positions. Be that as it may, his post did create trouble for Oxfam. The Daily Mail’s Ian Birrell got hold of the swimming pool story and published a piece in The Spectator lambasting the shallow values of over-remunerated aid workers. Green records that he “apologised” to Oxfam’s PR department.

Strange to say, it’s Birrell himself who offers my second example of missing the wood for the trees. He was in Haiti in January 2012 reporting for the Mail on Sunday on the second anniversary of the earthquake. By that point, the international humanitarian response was under the cosh for  incompetence and wasteful use of funds.

As an unreformed critic of UK aid, Birrell was on a mission to uncover dirt. On his desk were the facts that the UK’s largest overseas development charity had raised the formidable sum of $98 million from its Haiti appeal; and there was that curious Oxfam press release about “staff misconduct” in Haiti.

We know now, from Oxfam’s internal investigation report of 2011, that no fewer than 40 witnesses were interviewed. How could an investigative journalist of Birrell’s experience and sense of purpose have missed such a scoop?

Having survived unscathed over that anniversary period in January 2012, Oxfam may have felt that the crisis had passed. In subsequent years Duncan Green has never shied from references to his “somewhat notorious” article, even presenting it as a case study for books about international aid. These nostalgic posts may now become case studies from a rather different perspective.

There may be some quirky loose ends in this tale but so what. My own view is that Oxfam’s mistakes in 2011 have attracted disproportionate opprobrium. If charity governance is forced to accept a further layer of regulation, I hope it will focus on the more sinister picture of senior management culture that has come to light at Save The Children.


The great Nairobi guesthouse swimming pool dilemma – cast your vote now – from Duncan Green in From Poverty to Power, January 2012

Haiti and the shaming of the aid zealots Ian Birrell reports from Haiti for the Mail on Sunday in January 2012

Jobs for refugees in transit: the new aid conditionality

A fundamental reshaping of European and UK aid strategy may be happening under our noses, with little public scrutiny. The so-called “jobs compact” for Ethiopia announced at the UN’s September summit on refugees and migrants is a prime example but has provoked little reaction.

This package of UK aid and EU soft loans would be unremarkable in its aim to create 100,000 jobs through construction of a couple of business parks, were it not for the eye-watering price tag of $500 million. The premium reflects the condition that 30% of the jobs must be offered, not to Ethiopians, but to applicants from over 700,000 refugees. Mostly from Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea, these refugees are currently stuck in Ethiopian camps without work permits.

This job quota is designed to deter families from joining the African exodus heading for European shores. Similar compacts may be in the pipeline for other countries hosting large numbers of refugees, such as Lebanon.

Aid conditionality which reflects political expediency of the donor rather than the recipient has a terrible record. If there are flaws in these refugee compacts, it’s our task as observers to examine them swiftly.

Although the package was introduced in New York by a Vice-President of the European Commission, it has the fingerprints of a UK team, led by George Turkington, DFID’s director in Ethiopia.

These officials must be hugging themselves at the rabbits pulled from a relatively modest $100 million hat of UK aid. Working in unfashionably close cooperation with European institutions, they’ve persuaded the European Investment Bank not only to deploy its loan guarantee tools beyond European borders but also to pursue beneficiary outcomes which might normally be classed as humanitarian rather than development.

The concept of targeting aid to create jobs for refugees in transit, in the hope of snuffing out further travel, was probably inspired by a persuasive article in the Spectator by the development economist, Paul Collier, in August 2015.

Arguing that lavishing funds on refugees already in Europe would achieve little for Syria’s long term recovery, Collier preferred to focus on Syrian refugees in neighbouring Jordan:

Just minutes from the Za’atari camp is an empty industrial zone, fully equipped with infrastructure. This could be a perfect haven of employment, the means by which Europe could incubate Syrian post-conflict recovery

A “Jordan Compact” was duly announced at the London conference on Syria in February 2016. Development banks will finance the construction and operation of industrial business zones in Jordan. The EU will relax certain trade rules. And Jordan will provide work permits for thousands of refugees. This was an “innovative approach pioneered by the UK” according to prime minister, Theresa May, in her announcement of the subsequent Ethiopian initiative.

Although the Jordan programme has experienced difficulties, it’s too early for evaluation. But the jobs-for-refugees genie is out of the bottle. The President of the European Investment Bank described the Ethiopian scheme as “a showcase for Sub-Saharan Africa.” Jean-Claude Juncker has boasted that the new European External Investment Plan, of which the Ethiopia scheme is part, could mobilise up to EUR 44 billion of investments. In the UK, there are signs that migration anxiety is a fixture throughout the government’s foreign aid programme. I’ve seen those tell-tale phrases – “tackle the root causes of migration”, “strengthen the resilience of potential migrants” – pasted into DFID aid tenders, even for quite specialist interventions.

There’s no denying that these refugee job compacts press many buttons on the dashboard of innovative finance for development. Countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees on account of their proximity to the source have been neglected consistently by the aid community. Who could question the creation of jobs where none exist, in the process persuading host governments to respect human rights principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention? And the implied vision of repatriation is the solution preferred in principle by the authoritative UN Refugee Agency.

Two major reservations may stand in the way of these positive sentiments. The first observes that aid policy made on the hoof is rarely sound. The business of international development has learned the painful lesson that new ideas should be piloted before committing to scale. My guess is that pilot programmes are already out there but that research is needed to pull together their track record. The programmes in Jordan and Ethiopia are already on a scale which cannot afford to fail.

My second reservation springs from suspicion of “win-win” development programmes with more than one headline goal, especially if the goals contradict each other. Juncker’s press release boasts that the External Investment Plan will contribute not only to the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development Goals (jobs for locals) but also address the root causes of migration (jobs for refugees). (my phrases in italics)

There’s surely a hefty dose of naivety here. How will local families who are denied jobs by these quota systems react? Will governments shrink from the refugee quota conditions at the first sign of local dissent?

I’d like to hear more from the intended beneficiaries themselves. Do they see their futures working side by side, competent in similar skills in the demanding factory environments to be expected in special economic zones?

We know the painful answers to these questions in a European context. Just last week the UK Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, said: “(we) should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.”

Why should we impose loan conditions which we ourselves cannot contemplate?


Ethiopia pioneers in tackling root of European Migrant Crisis

European External Investment Plan: Questions and Answers

Paul Collier article in Spectator

The Jordan Compact from Leiden Law Blog


Climate change and art: just good friends

Is this a climate change poem which I see before me? I certainly hope so, because art in all its forms has the potential to succeed, where conventional channels of communication have so spectacularly failed to convey the urgency of global warming.

gormley-cathedralIt’s far from certain whether Hence, a short poem by Simon Armitage commissioned for the forthcoming Winchester Poetry Festival, aspires to offer more than a supremely imaginative description of Antony Gormley’s Sound II, the much-admired life-size human figure permanently installed in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral.

For my attennae, wired to any hint of environmental subtext, the poem presses a second tier of buttons marked climate change. As the subject narrates the reasoning for his choice of name, Hence is infused with the language of inundation, warning that “the next big surge” will require “lifeboats” for the bones of Anglo-Saxon kings resting close by. There is admonition for “my people” who “drew cloudbursts into the streets”. This finger-wagging culminates in the enigmatic baptism of Hence, a mocking reminder that human actions have environmental consequences.

I may be reading too much into the text but I’m buoyed by a 2012 New Statesman interview in which Armitage explains:

It’s not my style to meet political subjects head-on but it doesn’t mean that I’m any less enraged or inflamed. I would argue you can write a poem on the Middle East, climate change, any current political topic and make it of that subject with just the inclusion of one or two words.

Let’s hope that Armitage will be persuaded to reveal whether Hence contains the crucial “one or two words” during his contributions to the Winchester Festival next month.

The irony of this particular poem is that its subject, Gormley’s cast, has itself acquired a dynamic and ambiguous relationship with climate change. Each winter, the crypt of Winchester Cathedral floods, the level depending on the severity of rainfall. The photogenic drama of waters rising around the profile of Sound II requires little imagination to transform the image into a tidemark of global warming, threatening the foundations of English heritage.

ucl-climate-gormley-reportAt the height of the UK floods in February 2014, Gormley’s work illustrated front page media stories, waters lapping around its thighs. Later in the same year, the UCL Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science published its report “Time for Change”. The image chosen for the front cover was the enigmatic figure in the Winchester crypt – on a dry day. On the inside cover, our hero is standing in a lake, pensive as ever.

In the nature of such publications, these choices of illustration were not explained. We were left to infer that, as journalists and scientists fail to communicate the threat of climate change, art must be deployed in the cause.

It’s very possible that this lonely figure gazing into its cupped hands in the 11th century crypt in Winchester will become a symbol of our generation’s inadequate response to climate change, in the UK and beyond.

The twist in this story is that the Sound works were created 30 years ago, surely predating Antony Gormley’s anxiety about global warming. Today, his concerns are unequivocal; when one of the installations on the Dorset coastline was destroyed by a storm in 2015, Gormley’s relaxed reaction seemed to welcome the disaster as supporting evidence.

Nonetheless, I would be very surprised if Gormley had absorbed this broader agenda as early as 1986. How many of us were alive to the threat of global warming at that date? The work has acquired an interpretation that the artist could not have imagined.

This serendipity may conceal a pertinent warning. Tempted as campaigners are to encourage artists to be more explicit in addressing environmental calamity, art and its consumption rarely behaves to order. As Gormley himself has written:

Being preached at is the worst thing that can happen in art..…..It’s very important that the image is not a didactic one. Hopefully it gives you an opportunity to put yourself in the place offered by this silhouette and to think about your connection to and dependence on the context in which we find ourselves… the most important being the elemental world that we have managed for the first time ever, for any species, to have destabilised.

Art offers no silver bullet for environmentalists. They must plug away with their tweets and supporter databases. And take comfort in knowing that art will in its own way reflect and illuminate the deepest concerns of our times.


To read Hence by Simon Armitage, download the Winchester Poetry Festival Programme and refer to the back cover.

New Statesman Interview with Simon Armitage

Antony Gormley discusses climate change artwork, in the Guardian

Third World Network website: treasure or trash?

Every weekend I suffer a spasm of fear as my routine trawl of development news reaches the visit to twn.my. Will I be confronted by one of those breathless announcements that a new design of the site is to be released, nowadays as common as the disappointment that follows?

My fears are amply justified and have been agonisingly prolonged: twn.my is the inconspicuous address of the international NGO sector’s most archaic website. The distance by which the Third World Network site deserves this accolade is considerable. If there was an online equivalent of world heritage sites, twn.my would be on the UNESCO leaderboard.

Preserve this site in digital aspic

Preserve this site in digital aspic

Even veterans of online publishing may have difficulty in dating the technology of twn.my. The crude box headlines at the top of the front page remind me of the websites that my own organisation (OneWorld) was building for major development NGOs in the late 1990s. Images appear on the page reluctantly, probably involving Herculean editorial effort, and the banner section headings evoke the output of a John Bull printing set. The search box disappears from the masthead in the archive pages, just where it’s most needed.

So why should I lament the inevitable demise of this digital dinosaur, given my unwavering admiration for TWN? For me, its survival defies the tyranny of communications experts who decree that your website must be redesigned every couple of years, if your organisation is to avoid an identity crisis and worse.

Unless I’m much mistaken, Third World Network continues to do what it has always done extremely well. It retains the trust of UN and WTO secretariats necessary to gain the highest available NGO observer status, through which we receive detailed reports of negotiations. Its policy research tackles the hard yards that others fear, currently grappling with the complex interaction of global justice with genomics and synthetic biology. Above all, TWN remains fiercely loyal to its origins as a voice for developing countries, speaking out against the inadequacy of the Paris climate agreement at the endgame of the negotiations, when most NGOs were ready to settle.

These qualities survive, in spite of evident aversion to branding or marketing. The organisation’s name alone is testimony; any self-respecting corporatist NGO would have long since deemed “Third World” to be politically incorrect and adopted the acronym as a standalone title. Yet, for all its retro public image, TWN has fielded consistently inspiring advocates for global justice, many of whom I would love to have met: Martin Khor, Chee Yoke Ling, Lim Li Lin and many more. Shame about the Penang address!

A professional mobile-friendly website and active social media accounts are important branding tools. But they are insufficient to compensate for shortcomings in the traditional areas of business competence. If Third World Network is comfortable with what it does and is recognised as such, it may be justified in steering resources away from conventional areas towards subdomain sites such as its bookshop and Mandarin language site – these appear to use smarter content management software.

Nonetheless, I’ve little doubt that younger members of the organisation are in a constant state of agitation over the pre-millennial state of external communications, attributing whatever currently ails the organisation accordingly. There are signs of change; during last month’s climate negotiations in Bonn I spotted a Drupal beta version of TWN reports and, more remarkable still, active accounts on Facebook and Twitter. None of these yet show signs of taking root, so I’m confident that my weekly adrenalin rush on clicking through to twn.my is safe for now.

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