David Miliband at the podium

Foundation Lecture 2023

This year's Foundation Lecture, entitled 'Idealism in a time of crisis' was given on 20th November, 2023, by the Rt. Hon. David Miliband.

A recording of the event is available on YouTube, at this link. 

You can read the full text of David's lecture below:

"It’s really great to be here at the invitation of my colleague, teacher, counsel, and above all friend Sally Morgan.  She has always been a change-maker, and it is wonderful to see what she is doing for Fitzwilliam.  You are lucky to have her.

These are serious times, so I am going to launch right in.  I think we all know the world has never been richer, science more wondrous, possibility more limitless than in 2023. But that is not the prevailing mood in many countries.  It is certainly not the mood here and in the US, the two countries I know best, nor in the places where the International Rescue Committee works. 

Precious human values seem to be in retreat.  So are critical institutions, and the guardrails that they defend.  The norms that embodied the lessons of the 20th century are under threat in the 21st.  This makes the times feel brutal, divisive, unforgiving, when what is needed in our connected world is care, consideration, common ground, second chances.   

These commitments, to secure the best of human nature without being blind to the worst, to a big heart and an open mind, are to me important ideals.  And they need to be renewed.  This is what I wanted to address when I chose the title for this lecture, “Idealism in a Time of Crisis”, long before October 7th.

Today, of course, the title looks far more timely and the question it seeks to address far more difficult, than I would ever have wished.  The crisis in Gaza overshadows everything. The pain, anger and fear are raw.  At the IRC we feel this deeply.  Family and friends of my colleagues have been lost, kidnapped or injured in both Israel and Gaza.    An IRC team on the ground in Egypt is desperately trying to get aid and support into Gaza.  We have 1800 staff in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, desperate about the fate of Palestinian civilians and the danger of regional conflagration.  Jewish staff and Muslim staff outside the Middle East are fearful of attacks on them.  Someone wrote to me and said: “I feel I’m falling into a dark bottomless hole with nothing to grab onto…going through this as a mother hurts even more.” 

That just about sums it up.  And it speaks to the title I originally chose.  In pretty much every speech or

Today, of course, the title looks far more timely and the question it seeks to address far more difficult, than I would ever have wished.  The unprecedented death and destruction at the hands of Hamas attacks on Israel, and the huge and growing losses and suffering of Palestinian civilians as Israel takes forward its military campaign in retaliation in Gaza, has shocked the world.  The pain, anger and fear are raw.  At the IRC we feel this deeply. 

Family and friends of my colleagues have been lost, kidnapped or injured in both Israel and Gaza.    An IRC team on the ground in Egypt is desperately trying to get aid and support into Gaza.  We have 1800 staff in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, desperate about the fate of Palestinian civilians and the danger of regional conflagration.  Jewish staff and Muslim staff outside the Middle East are fearful of attacks on them.  Someone wrote to me and said: “I feel I’m falling into a dark bottomless hole with nothing to grab onto…going through this as a mother hurts even more.”  That just about sums it up.

I originally chose the title because in pretty much every speech or event I do I am asked: “How do you, or how do your teams, stay optimistic given crises you deal with”.   This is a real question for a mission-driven organization like the International Rescue Committee, now with 24 000 staff in over 300 field sites whose common denominator is crisis.  

I usually give the same answer.  “Look at the statistics, and you get depressed, but look at the people and you have hope”.  There’s truth in it, but since I am giving this lecture in Cambridge University, so facts should matter, and since the facts from Professor Stephen Pinker of Harvard and others actually show that many things are getting better not worse, we need to dig deeper.

Here is what I am going to do:

  • First, follow the US National Security Strategy in linking the question of crisis, in fact multiple crises, reflecting multiple global risks, to the shift in geopolitics towards fragmentation of power.  I don’t think you can understand one without the other.
  • Second, reflect three lessons of my own experience at the IRC. I think we sustain idealism in a time of crisis through bias to action, through embrace of risk, and through articulation and defense of universal values.
  • Third, I will say something about politics and policy here as the UK enters an election year after a decade in which crisis, rather than idealism, exploiting problems rather than solving them, has held the upper hand.  The UK needs a politics of shared purpose, of common endeavor, if it is to combat the economic and social rip tides that we face.

Crisis in a New Context

If you ask ChatGPT “is the world in crisis?” the answer starts “Yes”.  Nouriel Roubini, who famously predicted the 2008/9 financial crisis, has written a book devoted to listing ten MegaThreats, from financial instability and trade wars to demography and AI.  Our former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has written a book with Mohamed el Arian (who is here tonight) called Permacrisis.  That was the Collins word of the year in 2022.  Somehow I wasn’t surprised when they argued that things went right when economics drove politics, and things have gone wrong since politics took over.

David Runciman, Professor of Politics here in Cambridge, has defined a crisis as “when a system, a system of government or finance, or an organization, ceases to function in a way that is sustainable”.  War is the ultimate proof that a system cannot endure. 

The crisis in the Middle East is such a crisis. But this example is not isolated.

  • There are over 50 civil conflicts going on at the moment. 
  • There are 110 million people fleeing those conflicts, as IDPs, refugees and asylum seekers.  There were 40 million ten years ago. 
  • There are 350 million people facing what is called food insecurity. That means they are at the UN’s standard of hunger of Level 3 or higher (5 is famine, and 9 countries are facing that).  In plain terms it means 350 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  Three years ago, the figure was one third this level.
  • And of course the biggest crisis of all, the climate crisis, truly an existential crisis, is shockingly un-addressed.

This is the world my colleagues at IRC confront every day.  If these statistics don’t justify the word crisis I don’t know what does. 

If I think about the people we serve, they are dealing with multiple crises.  The forcibly displaced and abused in DRC, Syria, Ethiopia, Afghanistan or Myanmar, not just Gaza, are confronting crisis in all dimensions: poverty compounded by tumult and impunity.

There is a word for this, promulgated by Professor Adam Tooze: “polycrisis”.  He defines it as follows: “A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity.  In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate but they intersect so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.”

I think this is quite a good description of what is going on.  This is an age of interdependence, when everything doesn’t just seem connected, but is connected.  Climate is linked to conflict, and to health, and to migration, and to the economy, and to political malaise. 

We talked in the 2000s about a connected world.  Today it is hyper-connected.  And the rise of multiple crises needs to be linked to changes in geopolitics.

I’ve been living outside the UK for 10 years now. I can’t really believe how quickly the time has gone by, or how much has happened.  Covid, Trump, Brexit, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 5 UK Prime Ministers, Corbyn. 

The longer I am away the more British I feel.  But while I feel more British, the last decade has given me a much more global view.  And what I see is a world, especially a geopolitical world, that is more fluid, competitive, risky, sharp-elbowed than I saw before; a world full of opportunity and possibility but burdened by new and growing risks; a world that is “multi aligned”.  I want to pause on that idea for a moment.

We are used to the idea of a multipolar world.  It means a world that has more than one center of power, with wealth or military or other sway that balances American power.  China is very keen on the idea of it; so is Brazil; also important countries in the so called Global South.  But I think this idea of multipolarity is too comforting, in the sense that it suggests a degree of order and stability, inherent in the idea of balancing powers, that I think is faulty. 

The world I see is much more unstable, with many more players, private sector and non state as well as nation states, than just a small number of serious power blocs, with many more cross-cutting alliances than is conveyed by the idea of a fixed number of balanced power centers.

There is a term for this.  15 years ago the Indian diplomat Shashi Tharoor, now an Indian Opposition politician, coined the idea of a multi aligned world.  Today the Indian government, in the form of the Foreign Minister, is using the term again.    And if you look at the way India is part of the US-Australia-Japan Quad, sits in the BRICS with Russia and China, chairs the G20, asks UAE, Saudi, Ethiopia, Egypt and Iran to join the BRICS, also sits in the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, you can see why it is more appropriate to foresee a world of many world orders, not just one. 

It is a world of overlapping, transactional, shifting alliances.  And that is even before you start thinking about the private sector players, and civil society actors, that can play a role.

I see this world of many power centers playing out in the places where IRC works.  In Sudan, Egypt and UAE are on different sides backing government and rebels.  Turkey and Russia are also on opposing sides.  The push and pull has neutered diplomatic pressure to protect the people from an outbreak of conflict that has become a nightmare across North East Africa.  Western diplomacy seems to be in baulk.   

The story in Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Burkina Faso is similar. 

There is no global order.  The absence has created space for many local and regional disorders.

What’s more, the crises exacerbate the political fragmentation; just think about the war in Israel-Gaza today; and the political fragmentation exacerbates the crises; just think about the disjointed response to Covid.

There is a separate lecture about how to strengthen the global order, as well as tackle regional and local disorder.  But that is not my exam question tonight.  Instead it is how to sustain idealism, hope for a better tomorrow, at a time of crisis exacerbated by political fragmentation.

My response comes in the form of three lessons that I have learnt over the last ten years in leading an organization whose mission statement is precisely to help people whose lives have been shattered by crisis and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future.

Lessons from Crisis

Rebecca Solnit has written an interesting book about how crisis creates new kinds of action and new coalitions for action.  The title is “A Paradise Built in Hell”. 

She looks at major disasters and their aftermath from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake through to Hurricane Katrina 99 years later.   She has interesting insights about how amidst the destruction there is creativity as hierarchies and established institutions often fail, and dispersed, previously disorganized civil society has to step in. 

Solnit says two things matter in these moments: “they demonstrate what is possible, or perhaps more accurately latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of society.  Second, they demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism and purposefulness.”

I think this is important, but it does not quite get to the question of hope or optimism in the midst of crisis, still less idealism.  More important, I think, is something simpler: it is action which creates hope, rather than hope which creates action.  This is my first learning from ten years of running a humanitarian organization – about a bias to action. 

The reason I am running a humanitarian agency, and not an academic institution or a think tank, is that I don’t just learn from being close to the action; I get my energy and hope from trying to make a difference there. 

When I talk to IRC teams who are in Kharkiv 36 hours after the Russians are forced out, or colleagues who work in North West Syria for people living under an armed opposition group, I can feel how they are engaged and energized by their work, and so am I. 

This is what makes our inability to make a difference in Gaza, because of the fighting and its nature, so frustrating. 

I know the bias to action has got a bad rap from the association with the culture of “break things and see what happens”.  But action does not have to be about breaking things.  It can be about mending them.  This is how the bias to action is important in offering hope.

To stop there, however, is to risk exhaustion, because action that is ad hoc, uncoordinated, un-strategic, is less than the sum of its parts, and ultimately unsustainable.  This is my second lesson.  Strategy without action is barren; but action without strategy is ineffective; and the heart of strategy is about how much risk you are willing to take. 

I use our strategy every day.  It helps us decide what to do, and what not to do.  It brings together the means at our disposal, essentially operations with impact and scale alongside thought leadership, to fulfill our mission.  The strategy is the discipline that helps me say no not just yes, the North Star that makes me push myself and my teams to do better not just more. 

I want to highlight one aspect of our approach to strategy.  It concerns risk.

IRC’s $1.5bn a year budget is 3 per cent of the humanitarian sector.  But we do 30 per cent of all evidence and impact evaluations in the sector.  Now I know from my political life that a focus on “what works” can be derided as technocratic.  I confess I never understood this.  If technocratic means making interventions work, isn’t that a good thing? 

But you can’t be interested in what works unless you are also interested in testing and finding out what doesn’t work, and that means you have to embrace risk.  For obvious reasons, this is very hard for government.  But if you don’t risk failure, you will never find success. 

We have a very interesting example of that in the funding of our Innovation Fund.  Our funders press us to answer the question: what proportion of your projects fail.  And the worst possible answer is zero.  You won’t get a penny from them if you say that.  If you have a failure rate of zero in your innovation team, you are not taking enough risk. 

It’s completely counter-cultural to the methods of government.  But in round 1 innovations, the earliest stage, our failure rate is 40 per cent, and that is derided as too low.  This is why our major innovations – in early child learning or malnutrition treatment or information for refugees – are private sector funded.  They are comfortable with risk.

So hope comes from the freedom to take calculated, organized, strategic risks. Because without risks you cannot learn or make progress. 

The third lesson is about the defense of universal human values.  It suggests that politics cannot just be for politicians because crisis smashes the boundaries between politicians and the rest of us; to the extent that politics is about the compromises by which we live together, crisis makes us all politicians. 

Politics in this sense is a process of finding out what we share.  It is about generating collective action.  Compromise is in this model not about timidity; it is about bringing people together.  Of course this is harder than ever in the midst of conflict, which polarizes contending parties and narratives, demonizes enemies.  But that is where it is more necessary than ever to proceed from clear principles.

In my view, the times call for that voice to be used to argue for our common humanity, to make the case for universal values set out in the UN Charter, founded on the dignity and agency of every individual, whatever their identity or belief or situation.  This is what is under threat today.  We don’t need new rules, whether on civilian protection or human rights or state sovereignty; we need to defend the rules we have got.

In the humanitarian sector we are on the side of civilians.  Our sector needs to stay out of party politics, and it is pledged to remain neutral, impartial and independent in conflict.  But we run into politics all the time as we seek to speak up for our staff and the safety they need, our clients and the services we deliver, and our ethical code and the demands it makes. 

Sometimes the demands of staff safety, or of politics, mean we cannot say what we think.  But when we call out impunity, call for aid or grain deals or cross border aid or adherence to laws of war we are sustaining idealism and hope, because in crisis our values are needed more than ever. 

Expanding the Realm of the Possible

These three lessons have something important in common. 

They challenge the traditional model of change.  That model is linear and top down.  It is a hierarchical, singular, closed model of change.   But when government is in retreat, as in many ways it is today, then change has to be led from outside – from business, NGOs, civil society. 

The crises we face demand a response that is more open, more generative, more adequate to a multi-aligned world.  This is my biggest learning in ten years out of politics.

I still think governments have to deliver what they promise.  The failure of the Tories to deliver in the UK has corroded confidence in them but also in the very idea of effective government.  But today, I increasingly think about elected politics as a vehicle to create possibility rather than just deliver outcomes.  I want to finish by explaining that.

I mentioned Adam Tooze earlier and his idea of polycrisis.  This is the idea that multiple crises feed off each other.  It is of the essence of polycrisis that the answer to it must be multiple not singular.  As Tooze says, there is no single denouement, no grand finale in the style of a Wagner opera, to the polycrisis: “Modern history appears as a tale of progress by way of improvisation, innovation, reform and crisis management…Our tightrope walk with no end is only going to become more precarious and nerve wracking.”

I think this is very powerful, and very important.  Improvisation, innovation, reform, crisis management.  This is the playbook. It is a vision of change as the creation of different possibilities. 

If it is right it has important implications for the big decisions that Britain has to make over the next few years.  And this is where I want to draw to a close: with the case of the UK and its “crisis”.

There is a good case that we have created our own polycrisis in this country. Low growth plus higher tax plus austerity plus Brexit plus downgraded public realm plus destruction of political trust constitute a polycrisis. It is much more like the 1970s than the 1990s.   But moving much faster.  The danger for Britain is that it gets out-run. 

Essentially politics has let the country down.  Contributing to the feeling of a vortex where “nothing works”, rather than offering a route forward. 

The Conservatives let the country down by abandoning their historic role – to be conservative.  Brexit was the ultimate leap in the dark, trading something for nothing.  No Tory party since the repeal of the Corn Laws would have taken this risk.  And Labour let the country down by failing to provide an electable alternative.  The Corbyn years betrayed what Labour, my party, is supposed to stand for – and not just because of the anti semitism.

So the statistics on economic performance, poverty levels in the UK, even child height, are depressing.  Our separation from geopolitical power, out of the EU and in the peripheral vision of an increasingly transactional US, is real.   But if you look at the people, anywhere in the country, and what they are doing, you have hope.  That’s what I feel every time I go back to South Shields, my old constituency, where we continue to feel at home. 

So the issue we face as a country, in tackling our own polycrisis, is one of process not just policy. 

It leads me to think about the lessons of how to sustain hope: a bias to action, a willingness to take intelligent, knowing risks, and the need to see politics as a collective creative effort not just an elite project.  Britain needs some of that.  A lot of it really.

In all the talk of what should be Labour’s “retail offer”, I am reminded more and more of Tawney’s essay after the 1931 electoral debacle.  He derided the idea that politics consisted of “offering larger and larger carrots”.  Instead of “offering too much and demanding too little”, he called for Labour to espouse a politics of shared purpose, shared struggle and shared possibility.   

Britain needs politics to level about the challenges we face.  It is absurd to believe that telling the truth is talking the country down.  It’s the first step to building the country up. 

This it seems to me is the potential of Keir Starmer’s “missions”.    They are aspirational, but also honest about where we start.  Read any of the background papers to Keir’s speeches and they are unflinching about economic decline, an NHS driven to decay, communities that feel marginalized.

But I think the missions are in danger of being misunderstood in the commentary.  They are missions for the country, not just missions for the government or the Labour Party. 

Seen in that light, they are a way to fuel idealism.  They are not what government does forpeople.  They are what government and people do together.  Creating possibility for the talent, resilience and creativity of communities all across the country, and sectors all across economy and society, to come together and make change. Government is a catalyst, partnering in change, not always delivering it.

Keir Starmer’s missions for Britain are the project of all of us, not just the promise of the politicians.  That is truly the way to sustain idealism in a time of crisis."