Richard Smith asks: How international do we want to be?

Richard Smith How international do we want to be? Many organisations find themselves discussing that question in a globalising world—and most don’t find it easy to answer. Britain itself can’t answer the question, flirting with the US and remaining semi-detached in Europe. I’ve spent the day trying to answer the question with an organisation—let’s call it the British Association of Ducks (BAD).

Ducks are an influential group in Britain—not as influential as swans but considerably above frogs. BAD is the main body representing ducks, with no serious competitors. BAD has long had an international department, spending about 2% of its income on international committees, and it founded the World Association of Ducks (WAD) almost a century ago. It also belongs to the Federation of European Ducks (FED).

BAD is the world’s oldest organisation of ducks, and ducks have a higher status in Britain than almost any where else. Indeed, in parts of the Far East, ducks are not listened to but simply eaten. BAD, which is respected throughout the world, founded WAD in something close to colonial mode, but now finds that it is the main funder of WAD yet doesn’t have any more influence than any of the other 148 members that include the Moldovian Association of Ducks (MAD), the Latvian association (LAD), and the Canadian association (CAD).

This disquiet has led to a debate on value for money from international activities, how international BAD wants to be, what it wants to do, and how much it should do things through WAD and FED and how much do its own thing.

Most of Britain’s ducks are having a hard time. Ponds are drying up. Food is becoming more expensive. Worms are disappearing. Young ducks are not getting adequate training, and many ducks are thinking of giving up being ducks or emigrating. In these circumstances BAD is worried that its members may not want to pay for international activities.

The core mission of BAD is improving the life and status of ducks, and to that end BAD must be able to lobby within the European Union—because European developments are increasingly affecting the everyday lives of British ducks. The recent European Swimming Directive, for example, has recently left a lot of ponds empty, particularly at night.

But should BAD do more than that? This is the crunch. There’s no doubt that there are not enough ducks internationally and that the status of many ducks is low. BAD is also convinced—as were those at the meeting—that ducks could have a crucial role in helping achieve the Millennium Development Goals for Birds.

Strong evidence shows that improving the status of fowl is vitally important for the development of birds. Investing in the education fowl, says the World Bird Organisation (WBO), is the single best way of improving the development of birds. And ducks are the most important group of fowl—so raising the status of ducks is not self serving but beneficial to all.

(A sideline in the debate was the irritating fact that WBO is dominated by swans. BAD is not against swans, but it worries that swans have too reductionist a view of the world. WBO will not advance the cause of birds if it doesn’t recognise the significance of ducks.)

So there is a strong case for BAD being more active internationally, not just in the cause of ducks and fowl but of all birds. But what should it do? Start at the top and try and change WBO? Work on the water with overseas ducks likely to end up in soy sauce? Or try to raise the leadership skills of ducks worldwide, perhaps through working with associations?

And should BAD do whatever it decides alone or through WAD? BAD could potentially do the work alone because it has resources and a high reputation, higher in many countries than WAD. But going it alone is not very collegial, and WAD is a truly global body in a way that BAD never can be. But the governance of WAD is a problem? If it’s one country one vote, then BAD will never have that much influence, but allocating votes by the size of the financial contribution is effectively buying votes.

During this conversation, I remembered reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin in which he describes how Franklin helped solve this very problem when designing the American constitution. The populous states wanted more votes as they had to contribute more money, but each state wanted equal influence. The compromise was a senate where all states have two votes and a house of representatives, where membership is proportional to population—and with the house having the final say on the budget. Perhaps WAD could follow the US.

By the end of the day we hadn’t answered the questions, but we’d agreed on a few things: most organisations have to be international in a globalising world; partnership and value for money are both important; and any organisation should concentrate on activities where it can add unique value. So BAD should work to keep ducks off the menu.