A consultant speaks out on the donor economy in Cyprus-Interview with Kate Flynn

My interview with Kate Flynn on speaking out as a development consultant on European aid in Cyprus, the power of traditional news media & the challenges for critical academics in the UK.

A few weeks ago, I came across a critical article on EU aid in Cyprus (
European aid: sleepy island in an aid cash row) and how my colleague Kate Flynn spoke out about her work as a consultant. She was also featured in an interesting follow-up article with a newspaper in Cyprus (Academics question point of EU funding for peace). It all started with her report for the European Commission
I recently caught up with Kate on Skype for a short interview to discuss some of the broader issues surrounding her public ‘whistle-blowing’ on the 'uncoordinated donor economy' on the island.

TD: For many people who know about the aid industry your report wasn’t really ground-breaking. But I kept wondering why we don’t read these articles more often? Why am I still being surprised if an academic speaks out publicly about development consultancy work? And what does that say about the contemporary nature of ‘public engagement’ of academics? So what were your motivations for speaking out in the first place?

KF: I went into academia to be an independent voice and I trace this back to my undergrad studies at Berkeley. I always wanted to be an academic and to have that independent voice – otherwise I would have done something else, perhaps go to law School or into business.

But why my concerns with this particular report? Well, I knew that the aim of the funding for this particular consultancy was to provide an independent, outside assessment. I spoke out the way I did for various reasons. First, there was my engagement with the EU. As far as I know, no EU personnel showed up at my final workshop in Cyprus in October 2011. And when I returned in January they cancelled another appointment because they were too busy. I sent in my report in February and never got any acknowledgement - nobody sent any comments or even a ‘Thank You’. I again tried unsuccessfully to make an appointment for last September for when I last went to Cyprus. And some people in Cyprus had told me that the EU is known for putting reports in a drawer and never looking at them again.

In the end I came across an article by Andrew Gilligan about misuses of European aid and I had a rethink about my role and work. So I emailed Andrew and suggested Cyprus as a case study. In the end, my report became the focus of the story and I was glad that my criticism found an appropriate outlet so it didn’t disappear too quietly. It wasn’t a specifically thought-out process of whistle-blowing.

TD: It is interesting to contrast your story with the traditional time frame of academic publication where processes can easily take 6, 8 or 10 months of time.

KF: The report has been posted on the Internet since last March so it has already been in the public domain and I wanted the findings to get some actual attention. After all the EU paid a good deal of money for it. Then the next step wasn’t really far.

TD: Have you received any informal or other feedback as to why the EU has been so hesitant to engage with your report? Is it just normal bureaucratic inertia or this there a bigger political agenda involved?

KF: The project office in Cyprus had a high turnaround of personnel and was not very responsive. My report was publicly available on my academia.edu website and on the Monday morning after the article was published the apparent downloads from Belgium went through the roof [laughs]. So somebody seemed to have started to engage with it at last.

TD: This is an interesting observation with regard to traditional news media and their power to influence so-called decisions makers.

KF: I got a couple of emails from Cyprus right after the article was published and they told me that UN personnel had been sending around the article. And in the process of working with a journalist from the Cyprus Mail it was confirmed that my report had some validity and foundation. This later article confirmed the substance of my findings which was really important for me.

TD: Many academics do similar work in similar circumstances but rarely speak out publicly. Do you feel that you have risked future opportunities for work by speaking out?

KF: Yes. Yes I do. When I decided to speak with Andrew Gilligan I knew that I would probably not work in Cyprus again as my main network would, as a result, be gone. This is also a useful warning that academics should not specialise too narrowly on one area or region or network. I have worked on Northern Ireland and South Africa and these are areas where I can work again. In retrospect my main conclusion was actually that you can’t create civil society externally. And the democratic deficit of how the EU works in Cyprus was particularly striking for me. I may have burned some bridges, but the overall findings and conclusions are more important than my involvement in a single project.

Right now, the UN system and other international organisations have employed a lot of young talent that is now missing in the local political systems of both sides. Some of the best and brightest are using their skills to write reports and do funded projects for the UN and EU.

TD: So what is your overall reflection?

KF: I’m leaving academia. As of this month I no longer work fulltime in academia although have an affiliation at a specialist centre at Liverpool Hope university.

The current demands in the UK system and the extreme focus on peer-reviewed articles is not what I went into academia for. I think academics are increasingly de-skilled in the British system with its increasingly narrower focus. Many of us have a broad basket of skills, but the profession has changed and it doesn’t suit me anymore. I want to engage with a broader constituency and a range of projects. I just have to follow my own advice I used to give to students regarding so-called employability agenda [laughs]. In fact when I started talking to Andrew I was actually preparing lectures on democracy, transparency and governance and I wondered to myself how I could teach these classes and not be honest with myself and say something more publicly about the Cyprus project.

The latest issue of
Peace Review is dedicated to the conflict in Cyprus and also includes a co-authored article by Kate and her colleague Tony King based on their research.

Since I spoke with Kate the EU, well, ‘responded’ to some of the criticism raised in her report in what I would describe as a very typical EU-style. Buried inside a document of the Committee on Foreign Affairs with the handy and transparent title

‘AMENDMENTS

1 - 30

Draft opinion

Marietta Giannakou

(PE498.035v02-00)

Special Report No 6/2012 (discharge 2011) - 'European Union Assistance to the Turkish Cypriot Community', (pursuant to Article 287(4), second subparagraph, TFEU)

(2012/2107(DEC))’

amendment 13 now includes

‘the necessity to fund infrastructure projects and cooperate in a more efficient way with the United Nations Agencies and Programmes’.
And amendment 18 states that the EU
‘encourages devolution of power as well as a better EU funding predictability through a multiannual programming framework to ensure better sustainability and efficiency of EU funded programs’.

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