Paying for human rights violations: perceptions of the Colombian peace process

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. August 2015 - 8:30

New research shows that providing context for human rights issues yields a broader range of responses to peace talks in Colombia. A contribution to openGlobalRights’ debate on Public Opinion and Human Rights. Español

Peace negotiators face a tough audience: while the parties to the conflict may want to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society, victims and the general public often strongly demand justice for human rights abuses. In the past, this “peace vs. justice” tradeoff often produced mutual amnesties. Today, however, international law under the Rome Statute requires accountability and criminal prosecutions for grave human rights abuses, and domestic public opinion in democratic contexts clamors for justice. There is also an increasingly robust menu of “transitional justice” options that post-conflict states can choose from to deal with legacies of the violent past.

How can peace negotiators navigate these increasing pressures from above and below for some form of transitional justice, and still reach a peace accord to end civil conflicts? How might public opinion polls about attitudes towards various forms of transitional justice affect peace negotiations?

We investigated this question in a real-time negotiation process: the Colombian government’s ongoing talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to end a fifty-year old civil war. We conducted a two-wave national online experimental survey in Colombia in June 2014 and January 2015 that presented short vignettes about combatants with different degrees of responsibility for human rights abuses. We wanted to determine how legitimate the public finds the political participation of demobilized guerrillas and, especially, the proposal that they serve reduced prison sentences. Most importantly, we wanted to understand what “moves the needle” on these attitudes.09090909090909

The survey findings have the potential to help peace negotiators in several ways. First, they can tell human rights activists and peace negotiators the degree to which people will view different transitional justice arrangements as legitimate. This is crucial not only for predicting public approval in case of a referendum, as may happen in Colombia, but also for (re)generating the social cohesion required for sustainable peace. We found, for example, that even after acknowledging responsibility for lower-level crimes and disarming, the idea of demobilized combatants running for political office garners very little public support.


Demotix/Guille Legaria (All rights reserved)

Colombians call for "Peace without impunity," in rallies against peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Second, the survey findings can help political leaders and negotiators frame messages to build coalitions of support for peace agreements. For example, our research showed that Colombians who voted against President Santos and his peace platform in the last election, or those who abstained from voting at all, could be persuaded to support not only the peace process in general, but even specific transitional justice proposals. This means that the negotiating parties can make progress with gestures such as their latest agreement to work together to remove land mines, or the FARC’s recent promise to no longer recruit children younger than 17.

Third, our research showed that efforts to educate the public can boost the popular legitimacy of the peace process. Specifically, respondents who said they most understood the negotiations were also more likely to support the talks.

In an interesting contrast to the findings by Kreps and Wallace, we found that invoking international law and comparative experiences does not necessarily lead to more positive attitudes about transitional justice proposals. In fact, subjects who were told that Colombia has an obligation to carry out transitional justice mechanisms in accordance with international law were slightly less supportive of such measures. While Colombians may be ambivalent about international law and institutions—we speculate this is due to recent rulings against Colombia in the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—we also found they are much more willing to accept transitional justice if told other countries in the region have done the same thing.

What this indicates, in fact, is that international diffusion matters, but it is also deeply contextual. The way in which ordinary people understand international law and institutions often differs sharply from the interpretations of human rights activists and organizations.

Yet gauging public opinion is complicated by the fact that many citizens rarely think about human rights. Thus, our work suggests there is value in providing context to the respondents.

LAPOP results indicate a wide gulf in opinion, with most respondents answering that longer sentences contributed to reconciliation more than shorter ones. Consider the biennial Americas Barometer survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). In 2014, it asked what would contribute more to reconciliation: if FARC human rights violators received sentences of five to eight years in jail, or if they received over eight years. The question was pertinent because many former paramilitary leaders of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), another key party to the conflict, have spent or will spend five to eight years in jail, and survey respondents were aware of this.

LAPOP results indicate a wide gulf in opinion, with most respondents answering that longer sentences contributed to reconciliation more than shorter ones. The results from these questions—asked without context—contrast greatly with our experimental results. Specifically, in our survey we described exactly what human rights abuses a FARC commander we named Francisco committed (kidnapped a group of people for several years), his own motivations (to help the struggle), and the forms of transitional justice he underwent (publicly recognized crimes, disarmed, and paid reparations). Subjects were then randomly assigned to one of three punitive justice outcomes: (1) no jail time, even though some paramilitary/AUC commanders did go to jail for the same crime; (2) several years, about the same as paramilitary/AUC commanders; or (3) many years in jail, many more than paramilitary/AUC commanders.

Afterwards, subjects were asked to rate the sentencing outcome on the grounds of fairness, contribution to reconciliation and contribution to peace. Answers were summed into an index where 1 represented the lowest and 7 the highest rated outcome, in terms of perceived legitimacy. Comparing mean levels across groups, jail time for FARC and paramilitary commanders was ranked as the most appropriate (legitimate) outcome. The gap between equal jail time and more jail time was small but significant, and the “no jail” option was ranked as far less legitimate than any amount of jail time.

These answers are markedly different from the Americas Barometer survey noted above, and as a result we conclude that providing context around crimes and perpetrators can improve support for transitional justice measures. This is a message that should resonate with any practitioners seeking to alter public opinion on these difficult issues.

The advent of nationally representative online surveys and the proliferation of survey experimental approaches have expanded the horizons of public opinion research for human rights scholars and practitioners. Data from single surveys can generate initial insights into public opinion, and more rigorous statistical analysis provides a degree of control for testing those insights. Of course, determining causality is still complex, and definitive conclusions are not always possible. Threats to the validity of survey outcomes are often present. When used correctly, however, survey experiments can diminish these threats. Not only does this make our scholarship more rigorous, it should make our policy prescriptions more effective.

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Related stories:  International law and US public support for drone strikes Doubling down on human rights data Reframing the justice debate in Colombia The ICC and negotiated peace: reflections from Colombia The ‘interests of justice’ require challenging impunity Does the ICC advance the interests of justice? To empower women, prioritize their social and economic rights Improving family income does not ensure women’s economic empowerment Use of force: the American public and the ethics of war Data-driven optimism for global rights activists Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Lebanon’s refugees: resisting hegemony through culture

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. August 2015 - 7:27

Seenaryo, a small independent theatre project that starts this week with Syrian and Palestinian children, seeks to foster an alternative political proposal in a situation where politics has emphatically failed. 

Activities at Yaabad School, just outside of Shatila camp. Copyright: Seenaryo, August 2015“These boys had shot up like grass all along the streets of the deserted villages, where the bombing never stopped… Everywhere overflowed with them, as if they had all been suddenly abandoned and had never been anyone’s children. They were the children of chance, living in the hope that an opportunity would come their way, which would uproot them from the ground and toss them into a more welcoming world than this one.” - Samar Yazbek, The Crossing: My Journey into the Shattered Heart of Syria 

I first came to Beirut in 2007. I was struck, at the time, by the lack of homelessness in the city. One could walk from one end to the other and see far fewer people sleeping rough than on a similar walk in London, or Paris. The same was true, if not more so, of Damascus.

Now, eight years later – half of those years lived in Lebanon and Syria – life in the city has changed. Slowly, in late 2011, residents began to meet women begging under motorway bridges, saw the ranks of men waiting for temporary work on the roadside swell, and most noticeable were the children everywhere living the lives of adults: selling roses, washing windscreens, hawking ten packs of superglue or beard trimmers or a plastic gadget, sleeping rough.

One hot summer’s day two years ago, I walked past an old Syrian man rooting through one of the open rubbish skips that line Beirut’s streets: an increasingly common sight as revolution degenerated into war across the border. But this time, something caught my eye. The man was studying a shampoo bottle half-filled with scented liquid. He smelt it; he raised it to his lips, took a sip. He did not spit it out; he stored it in his pockets for later. The sight of someone savouring artificially flavoured hair products for nourishment seemed somehow emblematic.

Then one Saturday night in mid-winter, I was hopping from bar to bar with friends and almost tripped over a young boy, no more than 6 years old, lying stone cold on the floor with only a jumper to keep him warm. For a full minute, we shook him, shouted, but he did not move. His body lay prone on the floor.

A minute is a long time to try to wake somebody. He finally opened his bleary eyes, and called for a blanket.

We spent some time with Hussein – that was his name. He said he was alone, that he came from Aleppo. He wanted to return to find his family in Syria. We tried to find him a shelter, to find support for him through a charity; there were none that could take him in. He attempted the comportment of a grown man – gruffly acknowledging the eggs I cooked with a traditional phrase of formal thanks. But when he awoke from sleeping he mistook me for his mother and his eyes filled with tears, his learnt adulthood falling away.

There are now up to 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (including those who are unregistered by the UN), of which the great majority of adults do not work. 630,000 of registered refugees are school-aged children (the total including unregistered refugees is estimated to be significantly higher); 66% of those children have no access to any form of education. The scale of the tragedy is overwhelming.

Added to this is the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon. Those who have recently fled from Syria are now refugees for a second time, and face the prospect of building a life once again in ever more crowded camps squeezed onto a kilometre of land assigned to them 60 years ago to house a fraction of the number of Palestinians now living in them. Those whose families have been living in Lebanon’s refugee camps for up to three generations are little better off, remaining refugees without Lebanese nationality or full rights even though Lebanon is often the only country they or their parents know. The limited aid that exists is now focused squarely on providing for refugees from Syria, those facing the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” says Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Increasingly, the Palestinians in Lebanon are forgotten, even though their living space and conditions worsen by the year.

Culture in crisis

I am an arts producer and practitioner, rooted firmly in the art world and not the world of development and NGOs. But moments like the one I shared with Hussein, which surround our daily lives in Beirut, have left me with little choice but to engage with the refugee crisis in a direct way. Today, four British and Lebanese artists and teachers as well as myself will come together to initiate Seenaryo, a theatre project and training programme with refugees in Lebanon. We will spend a week in Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, hosted in a UN school by a self-organised troupe of Palestinian scouts. The second week we will be in the Beqaa Valley, building a show with a group of Syrian children in a centre run by the Syrian association Women Now. Women Now was founded in 2012 by Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek to support micro-businesses and the development of skills for Syrian women. The organisations empowers them to support their families, avoiding the early marriages that have already been the fate of many young Syrian refugee women.

The view from Women Now’s centre in Chtaura, Bekaa Valley. Copyright: Seenaryo, August 2015The Seenaryo project is initiated entirely independently of a wider organisation, and comes out of a series of conversations over a long period of time with members of grassroots refugee organisations in Lebanon. It is unambiguously a theatre project; and this fact, in the current context, leads to a fundamental question. Why insist on a cultural project when the urgent need for basic humanitarian aid is not being met?

Seenaryo will employ a collaborative mode of theatre making developed by UK arts organisation Upstage over the past decade, which is entirely geared towards empowering participants rather than teaching set structures. Starting from scratch today in Shatila, we will encourage our group of 30 children to play, improvise and write. From their ideas, we’ll shape a performance that includes specially-composed songs (with fully produced backing tracks), an original script and choreography, and a set designed by the children. We’ll be accompanied by three trainees from Shatila – young adults interested in theatre – who we will train so that eventually, perhaps a few years down the line, they can lead these “showbuilds” themselves. Next Friday, the group will perform their show to a local public.

I could attempt to define the value of Seenaryo as an educational project – and leave it open to the accusation that basic literacy and numeracy are far more important for a child’s education than building a play.

I could defend Seenaryo as therapy – and be left asking how we can hope to address the causes of traumas we cannot begin to apprehend.

I could try to quantify the impact that this work has: the transformative power I have witnessed working with Upstage with young people in the UK in bringing groups together, and confidence to individual children.

But as it was the scouts themselves who invited us to initiate this project with them in Shatila it makes more sense to consider this project from the ground up, rather than strictly through theory. It is scorching hot and humid in the summer. Up to 20,000 people live on a piece of land of one square kilometre. The camp’s population has more than doubled since the start of the Syrian revolution with Palestinian refugees from Syria. There is little to do – school is out, and indeed the UNRWA-funded schools in Lebanon, including the scouts’, have shut due to lack of funding and are not due to reopen until 2016, disrupting the curriculum for thousands of children. Spaces to play are practically non-existent: there is no free space. And to boot, this summer Beirut is in the midst of a rubbish disposal crisis, the result of which is mounds of trash piled building-high on every corner, so that some of Shatila’s narrow alleys are unpassable. In this context, the opportunity for children to work intensively for a week, and for the trainees to build leadership skills for the future, is a precious one. When I met the group of children last week, their enthusiasm was palpable. In the Bekaa Valley too, where the project will continue next week, whilst the women work, their children will be with us, developing a different set of skills. That Friday, the group will perform their show to a local public. 

The value of culture must lie in bringing an alternative political proposal in a situation where politics has, emphatically, failed. To use the words of one of the foremost voices of the Syrian revolution, Yassin Hajj Saleh: “The revolution would have been a longer stride forward if we managed to skip a stage, if we could get over our bad habits… this includes the extremely limited role of culture in the lives of the people. There is no culture.”

Aid for Syrians all too often goes one of two ways: on the one hand, to Islamist charity that imposes cultural conditions and restrictions on its recipients, all too aware of the power of culture in the battle for Syria. On the other, international development agendas that risk flattening all refugees into a subclass of reliant victims.

The infrastructure in Lebanon remains unfriendly to small-scale cultural work. But if it is true that, in the words of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, “culture forms the raw material out of which politics is made” – that it is the strongest tool of resistance to hegemony – then it is essential to work on cultural projects, in collaboration with and responsively to the needs of grassroots organisations. It is key to train young leaders in cultural skills and to work with children on art projects in a participatory way. Only then can young people begin to navigate their way through these crises.

Seenaryo is in partnership with Syrian organisations Ettijahat and Women Now, and the Yaabad Scout Troupe

Sideboxes Related stories:  Seeking safety in Algeria: Syrian refugee women’s resilience Syrian women refugees: out of the shadows Trojan Women in the twenty first century: women in war from Euripides to Syria Fear and fury: women and post-revolutionary violence I shall leave as my city turns to dust: Queens of Syria and women in war Palestinian refugees: homes in exile (Syrian) black skin, (Lebanese) white masks Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis Land, loss and longing: women and equalities in the north of Israel Palestine Palestinians in Lebanon: Weathering Syria’s encroaching storm Country or region:  Lebanon City:  Beirut Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Iran’s nuclear deal reconsidered

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. August 2015 - 7:03

Business delegations are flying in daily, making the most of this opportunity to establish themselves in Iran when Republican opposition to the deal is compromising US prospects at this critical early stage.

1953, when Eisenhower and Nixon supported Iran's first nuclear reactor. Wikicommons/Abbie Rowe. Some rights reserved.US President Eisenhower was carried away by the prospect of the widespread international use of peaceful nuclear energy and, in December 1953, proclaimed an international programme called Atoms for Peace with two major declared objectives: encouraging as many countries as possible to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and cornering as much as possible of the lucrative international market in nuclear technology for the US. The major undeclared objective was, in the context of considerable international concern about Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race, to legitimise the development of a market for peaceful nuclear energy on a large scale. Interestingly enough, the first three reactors built under this programme, by a US company with expertise in the manufacture of bowling equipment, were in Israel, Iran, and Pakistan. When the US exported highly enriched uranium to as many as 30 countries, the Soviet Union followed its example elsewhere. 

Only then did it dawn on the US and the Soviet Union that, because the nuclear fuel cycle requires uranium enrichment, the enriched uranium resulting from this process can be put to both peaceful and military use. The greater the number of governments with access to nuclear technology, the greater was the risk of the dilution of their monopoly on nuclear weapons, or proliferation, as they preferred to call it. Because they wanted nuclear weapons for themselves, but wanted to prevent their proliferation to other states, they drafted the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would be successful only if it had near universal membership. 

Unfortunately, the US and others knew even before the NPT entered into force in 1970 that Israel had developed nuclear weapons of its own, and failed to stop this. This was the beginning of the nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

False NPT promise of 'inalienable right' to develop and use nuclear energy

The nuclear weapon states had to persuade the international community to renounce nuclear weapons for themselves. If only a small number of states had ratified the NPT it would have sunk like a stone, politically speaking.  Nuclear proliferation would have been powerfully stimulated by the antagonism and distrust of the Cold War. States not possessing nuclear weapons accordingly had to be offered a powerful incentive to renounce them. 

A confidence trick was devised. The US and the Soviet Union baited the hook by assuring all governments that, if the international community commited to the NPT, the nuclear weapon states would provide active assistance in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This was set out in Article IV: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty” (author’s emphasis). 

Developing states in particular, convinced that nuclear energy would be a key to their much‑needed economic development, took the bait and flocked to join the treaty, thus guaranteeing its political success.  

US imposes unilateral embargo on Iran: blackmail enforces compliance

Iran developed its first five megawatt research reactor, provided by the US government, under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace programme. As soon as the Shah had been overthrown, depriving the US of its oil-rich military and intelligence powerbase in the Middle East, the US cut off all support for Iran’s nuclear reactor, imposing a drastic unilateral and illegal trade embargo on Iran from 1979 onwards. At the same time the US was covertly helping Israel to develop its nuclear weapons programme.

Iran was forced to creatively circumnavigate the embargo, which was initially not legally supported by either the international community or the United Nations. While Iran carefully complied with its safeguards obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency, it had to resort to all kinds of dodges to escape the dodgy US embargo on everything from lawnmowers to materials for its US‑built reactor. This was the origin of the storyline regarding Iran’s untrustworthiness. 

However, by resorting to international blackmail on a large scale, the US was able to force international companies to stop trading with Iran by threatening to block their trade with the US, the world’s largest marketplace. Only in 2006 did the UN Security Council, under massive pressure from the US, finally impose trade sanctions on Iran because it refused to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. In the eyes of Iran and many developing countries, the UN resolution was in direct violation of Article IV of the NPT as quoted above. 

Secret negotiations to end the embargo 

Since 2003 Iran has on many occasions sought to do away with the embargo through diplomatic negotiations, with most activity under governments led by Presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami and now Rouhani. We now know that, almost as soon as the new President Obama was inaugurated in 2005, feelers were put out to Iran. However, as Iran’s newly elected hard-line President Ahmadinejad was not particularly interested in opening up lines of communication with the west, this did not come to anything.  Previously the Bush administration had stonewalled all Iranian proposals. Negotiations kept breaking down over Bush’s insistence that Iran should formally abandon nuclear enrichment, in violation of Article IV of the NPT. 

Secret diplomatic initiatives were undertaken as early as 2011 by Iran’s then Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, apparently with the backing of the Supreme Leader, during the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thanks to the good offices of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, the initial discussions could be conducted beneath a cloak of absolute secrecy. Once it was clearly agreed that the US would no longer insist on the abandonment of enrichment activities as part of Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme, the talks could proceed.  

The US was represented by its Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and by Jake Sullivan, Obama’s foreign policy adviser. Iran’s negotiators also insisted on mutual respect as a cornerstone of the negotiations, by which they meant the suspension of US threats to invoke a military option if Iran did not find an accommodation acceptable to the US.  It was noticeable that, as the negotiations proceeded, the US conceded to the Iranians on this point. A basis of limited trust had been established enabling both sides to commit to an ongoing negotiation process, with an uncertain outcome at that early stage.

Diplomatic coup 

The negotiations eventually became publicly known in 2013, after President Ahmadinejad was replaced by President Rouhani. An astonished world was suddenly told that, after years of mounting tension and threats of war, Iran and the US were jointly committed to peacefully negotiating a deal to settle their differences about Iran's nuclear programme, with the involvement of the remaining members of the P5, plus Germany.  Netanyahu was enraged. It was a diplomatic coup.

Since then the negotiations have progressed in fits and starts, ultimately successfully. Both teams of negotiators and both presidents have had to contend with fierce resistance. Domestic resistance in Iran was ultimately restrained, as all Iranians could see that the Supreme Leader firmly supported the process and its outcome, notwithstanding the many verbal concessions he had to make to domestic opponents of a deal.

President Obama has not merely had to resist blind opposition from the Republican leadership, which has vociferously argued that a deal would bring Sodom and Gomorrah down on Israel, the Middle East, the United States and the world. With the Republicans now immersed in a raucous presidential selection process, all but one of their 16 candidates have vociferously attacked the nuclear deal in multiple TV ads and endless media broadsides. Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador, has been assiduously lobbying Congress, focusing on wavering Democrats, in an attempt to generate a two-thirds supermajority to override the US President’s veto in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Republicans can rely absolutely on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), although many younger US Jews support neither AIPAC nor Israel. A recent poll showed that 53% of Jewish voters support a deal. It should also not be forgotten that evangelical churches – who believe that Christ will come again in the Holy Land – have long been the bedrock of US support for Israel. 

It has long been an open secret that AIPAC is an extended arm of the Israeli government in the US, with one or two of its staff having even been convicted of spying for Israel. More than half of all members of Congress routinely attend its AGMs. Members of Congress who transgress seriously against AIPAC policy can find themselves targeted in the next congressional elections, and can lose their seats. Under normal circumstances AIPAC’s influence in the US has been very considerable. But this stepped up dramatically recently, when Israel’s Netanyahu intervened directly and forcefully in political campaigning throughout the US.  

Netanyahu doctrine violates the principle of national sovereignty

In the US Netanyahu has established the principle that Israel’s government may legitimately intervene in the democratic processes of other countries, including by addressing political decision-making bodies without the prior knowledge and consent of their governments. Israel may legitimately campaign against the elected governments of other countries in those countries, and may even openly associate itself with major campaigns by parties, groups and media opposing policies of elected governments. This novel and dangerous doctrine legitimising far-reaching interference in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states has so far not been challenged by any government, least of all by that of the US.  

Since the nuclear deal was adopted by the UN Security Council, between $20 and $40 million dollars have been set aside by Citizens for a Nuclear-Free Iran in a special fund that will be used to campaign against the acceptance of the nuclear deal by Congress. The campaign is being closely coordinated with the Republican Party and AIPAC. 

A gaggle of other well-funded organisations opposing the deal has emerged from the woodwork: United Against Nuclear Iran, the American Security Initiative, Secure America Now, and the Israel Project. Donations to these organisations are apparently tax-deductible. 

An Israeli website has openly advocated what it describes as a “Doomsday Weapon” – the funding of primary challengers and general election opponents of any Democratic senators defying AIPAC on this issue. 

Orchestrated misrepresentation of the nuclear deal

The combined efforts of Binjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government, AIPAC, various other organisations and funds, the Republican Party, and Fox News have recently exposed Americans to a tsunami of mostly ill-informed and sometimes vicious commentary slamming the nuclear deal. Fox News talking heads reel off wild and inaccurate generalisations as facts, portraying Iranians as devious, menacing and dishonest, in a manner reminiscent of anti-Semitic campaigns. President Obama, who prefers not to comment on a campaign to succeed him as President, was recently moved to state: “We've had a sitting senator who also happens to be running for president suggest that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders of the Republican Party."

In US political life any misrepresentation or half-truth that can improve the prospects of a campaign or a candidate is seemingly acceptable. The relationship between truth and politics is tenuous at best. Political campaigning follows the laws of marketing: anything, irrespective of its truth value, that will boost your product while discrediting another is acceptable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most recent polls show that US public opinion is currently being turned against the nuclear deal. 

Obama comes out fighting for the deal

Obama’s campaign presently lacks the considerable public exposure that is enabling Republicans to win numbers in the battle for public approval. He is focusing on Congress to an extent unprecedented for a President notorious for his past reluctance to engage with Congress, even on key issues such as Obamacare. 

As soon as the nuclear deal was approved in Vienna and adopted by the UN Security Council, the Democratic Party machine swung into action, with Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader in the House, and Obama himself spearheading an intensive and well-coordinated rolling wave of campaigning reaching out to each and every Democrat in the House and the Senate, with active support from John Kerry, Ernest Moniz and many others. Obama has been meeting personally with ever more Democrats, something which they are noting with pleased surprise. This is a pitched battle which Obama is absolutely determined to win. 

US political parties normally lack anything resembling party discipline in a European sense. Nancy Pelosi and Obama are going out of their way to ensure that all Democrats are intimately familiar with the issues, and have every opportunity to discuss them. If Democrats fail their own party and their own President on this critically important issue, they know that this will undoubtedly damage their standing within the party, while also compromising the President and the US on the international stage. 

At this early stage it looks as though Obama’s strategy is working, with even Republican‑friendly commentators such as Fox News’s Hannity publicly admitting that Congress may well be unable to override a presidential veto. 

But a lot can happen in the few weeks yet to elapse before the deal comes to a vote in Congress on 17 September. 

It is noteworthy that, despite impassioned Republican opposition to the nuclear deal, the Republican Party is also the party of US big business. If the deal goes through, the large and relatively advanced Iranian market supporting a population of about 75 million will be up for grabs. At a time of international recession and economic uncertainty, Iran offers market opportunities unprecedented in the last 30 years. 

Although no one wants to publicly admit this, Iran’s domestic stability in a highly volatile and destabilised region makes it doubly attractive to US and other investors. France and Germany have already sent senior ministers to Iran to capitalise on their involvement in the P5+1 negotiating process while the US is distracted by other things.  French Foreign Minister Fabius has already stolen a march on his P5+1 allies by inviting President Rouhani to make a state visit to France. Business delegations are flying in daily to explore openings. They are making the most of this opportunity to establish themselves in Iran when Republican opposition to the deal is compromising US prospects of penetrating the Iranian market at this critical early stage.

Is Iran a military threat to the region, or is the region a military threat to Iran?

Since 1979, western governments and media have bought into a narrative implying and sometimes stating that Iran is a military threat to the Middle East region. Even a cursory examination of the facts suffices to show that the opposite is the case.  

Iran has a well-trained and fairly well-equipped conventional army, although because of the embargo it does not have access to sophisticated equipment readily available to Israel and the Arab states.  Most importantly, Iran’s airforce has to rely on outdated US fighters from the period before 1979, and would be hopelessly outclassed and outnumbered by the airforces of Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all of which can make use of the most advanced aerial technology. 

Israel and GCC states have advanced US air defence systems, while western pressure has until now prevented Russia from delivering to Iran its feared S‑300 surface-to-air missile system, which could inflict high losses on any country wanting to attack Iran from the air. The anti S-300 campaign has continued for so long that the S-300 has recently been superseded by the even more effective S-400.  

A detailed recent study by Anthony Cordesman on “Military Spending and Arms Sales in the Gulf” shows that the gap between Iran and the Arab Gulf states widened sharply between 2009 and 2014, when Saudi Arabia’s arms imports were more than 18 times larger than Iran’s. Imports to the United Arab Emirates were 16 times larger. 

Israel is armed to the teeth with the very best that US armaments industries can provide.

Iran could defend itself effectively if attacked, with the active backing of its civilian population, but is simply not in a position to launch an attack on its regional neighbours, let alone on the formidable US forces in the region.

Though the US, Arab and Israeli forces are a threat to Iran, Iran is not in a position to initiate a war against anyone.  

Are all military options still on the table?

Perhaps the main reason why the US embarked on the nuclear deal with Iran was Binjamin Netanyahu, who, on at least one occasion, secretly instructed his generals to prepare for a conventional attack on Iran, only to find himself opposed by the military leadership backed by almost all living former heads of Israeli intelligence. The US certainly knew all about this. 

If Israel had attacked, and if Iran, as would have been certain, had retaliated, the US could have been dragged into a war not of its own making. The opening of the nuclear negotiations ruled out the military option for Israel. 

If Israel attacks Iran even before Congress takes a decision on the nuclear deal, it would become a pariah in the international community of nations. If, as is likely, the deal is approved by Congress, this would be even more true. 

Irrespective of whether Congress confirms or rejects the nuclear deal, it would be politically impossible for Israel to attack Iran, in violation of the UN Charter, and in the absence of any international backing. A united UN Security Council might condemn an unsanctioned Israeli war against Iran, possibly even subjecting Israel to UN sanctions. 

The Middle East would be in turmoil. Hezbollah would attack Israel, which would retaliate by setting Lebanon alight. Shia uprisings could threaten the stability of regional governments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank could erupt. ISIS would seize any such strategic opportunity to strengthen its position in the region, amongst other things by targeting Israel. 

The new US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, made waves immediately after the adoption of the nuclear deal when he said that, if Iran violated the terms of the deal, all options were on the table: “One of the reasons this deal is a good one is that it does nothing to prevent the military option . . . which we are preserving and continually improving.” Because, as noted above, the US had studiously avoided such threatening language throughout the negotiations, Carter’s statement landed like a bombshell. Iran’s normally urbane Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reacted angrily, as did President Rouhani, who retorted: “The table they are talking about has broken legs.”

Although the White House was quick to distance itself from recent testimony by Marine General Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defining Russia as an 'existential threat' to the US, John Kerry has more than once unhesitatingly repeated Ash Carter’s affirmation of 'all options'. Are these unsettling statements simply a sop to Israeli and Republican opinion, or do they reveal that, once the nuclear deal is set in concrete, the Obama administration may revert to its default position by once again confronting Iran internationally?

If the deal is voted down in Congress, what then? 

The US would be seriously discredited internationally. It would cease to be a credible conversation partner on the international stage if its President could not follow through on a major international agreement arising out of two years of hard‑fought negotiations involving five partners which was then unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council and welcomed by the international community.

Whatever happens, Iran will be recognised as a major player in the Middle East and on the international stage. The skill, restraint and honesty with which it has negotiated its way through a very difficult process, under acutely challenging circumstances, has earned it respect on the international stage. Iran is no longer on the periphery of international relations.  

Israel would be seen as having played the key role in scuppering an arduously negotiated agreement favoured by almost the entire international community. It would then be far more isolated internationally and regionally than ever before. The international community would be less willing to defend and support Israel at the UN Security Council and in other international forums. Trade boycotts directed at Israel would gather momentum.  

For as long as Israel continues to re‑elect Netanyahu as Prime Minister, it would be an international pariah. The international community would recognise that, given the current political constellation in Israel, peace with the Palestinians is a mirage. Instead attention could be redirected to the occupied territories, which do not legally form part of the state of Israel, and to legal ways and means of improving the lives of Palestinian citizens of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and of banishing Israeli settlers and most of the Israeli army from non-Israeli territories.  Israel could be legally required to hand the settlements over to the Palestinians intact. 

Russia and China would almost certainly break with UN sanctions on Iran, and would develop trade with Iran in currencies other than the US dollar, ultimately cementing a powerful new trading cabale independent of the UN and the IMF. 

The European Union, already suffering economically from the consequences of its own trade embargo against Russia, has hastened to abandon some of its sanctions on Iran, amongst other things to gain a foothold in the promising new Iranian market, and to weaken US political domination of the Middle East region.

 

Country or region:  Iran Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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A hotchpotch of hope

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. August 2015 - 7:01

The Labour Party machinery has long been prone to imagining outcomes within the narrowest, safest, and statistically verifiable ranges of business as usual. No wonder it’s panicking over the ‘Corbyn surge’.  

Jeremy Corbyn and Tariq Ali. Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.

The scenario is more a political patchwork, scrapbook of ironies, than one from which it is possible to draw many hard and fast judgements. From the Labour right we hear decried the inconsistency by which middle-class people explain to working-class non-voters why working-class people didn’t vote Labour. From the left; why the party machine and loud commentariat that just presided over a second consecutive election defeat, might want to pause a moment before hectoring anybody about what it takes to win an election.

The most prudent advice would be that Labour heed the words of Johns Prescott and McDonnell; there is no need for a crisis here, and cause still less to openly express so acrimoniously whatever divisions might lie within the party. To do Labour the favour of reframing their current scenario: they increased their 2010 result by half a million votes, George Osborne is implementing a large proportion of Ed Miliband’s economic policies, and the party is undertaking a historically open leadership election (credit again to Miliband) that has given airing to views on which Labour’s members and natural supporters have spent the last quarter-century feeling betrayed. At the same time – and though it is fleeting, flippant currency – Labour has once again attracted popular attention and energy as the party most concerned with the declining quality of life and real incomes the average Briton is suffering.

Corbyn is both a cause and an effect of all this, and it is prudent to remember that Labour’s post-election surge in membership began before he announced his candidacy. The party will have to hope that Corbyn’s arrival on the leadership scene, and now the likelihood of his taking the leadership, will further spur, and not quell, the spirits of those who initially returned to the Labour fold as merely a consequence of the election result and ominous idea of five more Tory years.

Hope, indeed, must feature large in the Corbyn prognosis. We must hope that the no-nonsense, everyman allure so disingenuously captured by Nigel Farage and UKIP will swing, in a rather more edifying, purposeful protest vote, towards Corbyn. We must hope that Green voters might – guiltily but amicably – be persuaded to drop new affinities in the anticipation that their concerns may be represented in the intent of a major party. We must hope wildly that nationalisation of the railways (with which most Tory voters agree) brings a single-issue swath of Labour gains to London’s commuter belt and the irate, Abellio franchise-suffering passengers of Anglia. There will be hope again that Corbyn is the turnout-catalyst amongst those who polled a 0% probability of voting on May 15th, but 40% of whom identified as Labour.

He will have limited ideological cover; indeed, what popularity he can attract and sustain amongst middle England will rest more in his personal appeal, and however long he can keep central the goal of a fair society, than ideas that Marxism is a sophisticated economic critique with contemporary relevance. Corbyn will often stand alone – the no-doubt withering attacks will be for his shoulders to bear, and no matter the allegiance and obvious respect he has earned from other MPs over a lengthy career in politics that has left Corbyn, enviably but not unjustifiably, untainted by the unflattering moniker of career politician.

And yet it is not all about hope, there are some strategic factors that don’t look unfavourable. Just as home county Tories are unlikely to vote in another party, no matter their rage at the ‘scar’ of High Speed 2, who – really – will Labour’s jilted, centrist membership vote for other than the same party led by Corbyn? After almost 20 years of Labour taking the votes of its left for granted, there would almost be a pleasant irony in the contrary scenario presenting itself. Moreover, it is pertinent that Labour successes of the last five years came in talking-up tax avoidance, energy companies operating as cartel, media ownership and hacking, the problems of declining real wages and quality of life. Labour were at their best and most popular when advancing a clear message of social justice, rather than attempting to assure of their ability to take moderated versions of the same decisions voters were anyway happy to entrust to the Tory Party. Though many Labour supporters oppose both Corbyn and the Tories, it is naïve on their part to assume that austerity policies can be ended without the political dialogue moving to the left, after which we might end up with something agreeable in the centre – the process of splitting hairs with the right has led only to the erosion of values so many still hold dear.

Whatever Tory assurances that they fear the candidate most like themselves (David over Ed, Liz Kendall above all other mortals), it is hard to imagine Cameron relishing the prospect of facing a man valued for the surety with which he holds opinions that will show his own for extreme, rather than as only the common sense that free market austerity has come to pass for. On a personal level, one suspects he will not so readily welcome engaging with a figure who makes no attempt – as Miliband always clearly felt obliged – to compete in the Etonian register of the swaggering, bantering male where Cameron will always excel.

In each of Corbyn’s leadership rivals – and this, certainly, is the point to which we always return – there appear only varying degrees of three people who, try as they might, fail to inspire much beyond an eerie sense of adults looking to take the obvious next step in already-accomplished careers. Corbyn’s laconic decency at the to-do surrounding his campaign and the controversy he has aroused, combined with a genuine warmth and gratitude for the episode’s more human impulses – the generosity of ideas by which he was nominated, the utopian openness of the process that has seen his popularity swell, the surprise engagement from people far younger than he – cannot help but endear him further to those who perhaps started with an only borderline loyalty.

Meanwhile, a lineup of media – both right and left – and so too the Labour Party machinery, will continue to either counsel against naivety and folly, or simply joke and play harbinger at the doom that would surely follow a Corbyn leadership. It is not that any one of these camps has a nefarious and preconceived agenda or alternative masterplan awaiting fulfilment, only that they have long been prone to imagining outcomes within the narrowest, safest, and statistically verifiable ranges of business as usual. It may be with Corbyn, it may be with scenarios waiting in the future, but eventually they will be left pondering how they got it so wrong, and be made to regret that they did not heed warnings, including this leadership contest, that their irrelevance to communities outside their own had long been inevitable.

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Why is the Corbyn campaign “gesture politics”? New Labour is 'unelectable' What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’ Topics:  Civil society Culture Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Prospects for Paris

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. August 2015 - 7:01

Where should the climate movement be focussing its energy?

In the USA, the Pope’s climate change encyclical “brought an outpouring of support from religious leaders, environmental, social justice, and public health groups”. The US Catholic bishops’ president called it “our marching orders for advocacy”. It is vital that this likely upsurge of climate activism is sustained, and well-targeted. Repeated efforts to influence governments have led merely to them “shifting all the difficult decisions into the future”, as Greenpeace pointed out at the 2014 UN summit. Research by Nicholas Stern concludes that pledges to be made at Paris “are likely to fall far short” of what we need to get on the vital track to 2º C maximum. Any American commitments at Paris could be reversed by the next president. The Senate Republican leader won his 2014 election on the slogan “guns, freedom, and coal”. The Pope linked “the failure of global summits on the environment” to the “special interests and economic interests” which “easily end up trumping the common good”. Therefore while environmentalists should try hard to influence Paris, we also need a complementary strategy.    
 
Most people are sceptical about governments’ commitment to tackle climate change. Only a fifth of Britons consider it likely that world leaders will keep temperature rise “within acceptable levels”, while over half consider it unlikely. Nearly all governments regard public opinion on climate as too weak for them to prioritise it. However there are numerous potential supporters of action. Nearly three quarters of Britons believe climate change poses a serious threat to global stability, while in late 2013 a sixth of EU citizens considered it the most “serious problem facing the world”. The overall EU sample rated its seriousness at 7.3 out of 10. But as Naomi Klein stated, if people believe there is no viable plan, they will avert their attention from the issue. To rouse sufficient people to activism, we urgently need a global “credible strategy that is to scale with the climate crisis”.    

The director of online activism network 38 Degrees, which regularly mobilises mass support, stated that “climate campaigning is difficult because it’s about … unfathomable targets  … far off in the future”, whereas “campaigning to stop big businesses, corporate greed … works much more for our kind of organisation”. Two fifths of EU citizens believe it is the responsibility of business and industry to tackle climate change. The Carbon Trust states that market research consistently shows that “a majority of consumers want to take action to protect the environment and are keen to buy goods that are less harmful to it.” Showing selected businesses that cutting emissions would enhance or protect their reputation and profits would probably achieve the necessary emissions cuts much sooner than majoring on governments.
 
Which businesses should be targeted? For over five years 350.org has been campaigning for divestment, aiming to “politically bankrupt” major fossil fuel companies and thus push governments to curb them. Despite praiseworthy progress, such as the coal divestment by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, vast amounts are still being invested in fossil fuel exploration, including in the Arctic, and tropical forests. Many potential supporters feel that the oil giants are too strong to defeat soon enough, and are “trapped by a short-term mandate that leaves little room for manoeuvre”, as Jonathon Porritt stated. In February Shell’s boss said “oil demand will continue to grow for at least two decades”. Such companies have massive amounts of capital tied up in fossil fuel assets, and therefore would lose enormously by ending those activities, which would entail writing off fixed assets, and a huge loss of potential revenue. Research concluded that despite certain divestments, fossil fuel companies would continue to be regarded as desirable investments by morally “neutral investors”. A study of the stock market’s “limited” reaction to the “unburnable carbon” publicity concluded that “many investors would be reluctant to make substantial portfolio adjustments” as the possible future benefits “can be quite small relative to” the current profits. Britain’s former finance regulator Lord Turner recently warned of this short-termism. Moreover “green bonds” still constitute only 0.04% of the bond market.
 

Targeting susceptible companies

 

However a campaign could succeed by targeting companies such as banks, and others, which are most likely and able to switch their investments, or cut their emissions, relatively soon. Extensive research shows that many companies are very keen to protect their reputation. As Unilever boss Paul Polman famously said, social media activists have the potential to “bring down” a company “in nanoseconds.” A campaign to name and shame, and if appropriate boycott, selected susceptible investors and companies in a wide range of high-carbon activities could gain mass support, giving an appealing, easy chance to hit corporate polluters. Research shows that highlighting culpable enemies would promote commitment to our cause. From 2005-2013 the big banks invested nearly $500 billion in coal. With increasing competition in retail banking, business experts have warned banks of “the importance of reconnecting with their customers” without delay. Every year fourteen million Britons invest in savings accounts, and millions of young people open their first account. 1.1 million Britons switched their current account between October 2013 and August 2014. The campaign could ask people to use the less guilty banks, or to add their name to a list of people who undertook to switch their account from a targeted bank by a certain day if our demands were not met. This would strengthen the ultimatum to the bank in question, and enable people to make a preliminary commitment if they were unsure about the larger commitment initially.
 
There are many potential supporters for such a campaign. High proportions of people consider banks irresponsible, and disapprove of companies causing pollution. One expert on the Catholic Church said that “in asking Catholics to reshape the market by changing their consumer habits, [the encyclical] could release a whole new form of people power”. A six nation survey found that one person in seven is strongly motivated to promote sustainable consumption, with “the potential to disproportionately influence others”. Globally, Greenpeace has nearly three million members, and Friends of the Earth two million. Many of these would enthusiastically take to the streets and social media to promote such a campaign, if it gained backing from one or more respected NGOs. Research suggests that once people saw that the campaign had a critical mass of supporters, many others would perceive it as viable and decide to support it.
 
Successful actions of the type proposed include that by Greenpeace, which got Volkswagen to pledge that its cars would meet EU fuel efficiency targets, and Rainforest Action Network’s campaign which led to Citigroup undertaking not to finance logging in tropical forests.
 
The campaign would link cutting carbon pollution to the potential of green jobs, and improving air quality. It would show business that consumers’ concerns make the risk of high carbon investments too great, and therefore that renewables and low emissions products have better profit prospects. Subject to each company’s response to our demand for emissions cuts, the campaign could then obtain media coverage, take various other actions, or launch a boycott. A 2012 survey found that sustainability experts consider consumer boycotts more likely than other tactics to influence companies. In 2014 Desmond Tutu called for such a boycott.
 

In addition to selected banks, companies the campaign could target include:

Selected companies which transport goods by air;

Supermarkets which make least effort to cut food waste;

Companies whose products contain palm oil which they could not show was innocent of adding to deforestation;

Utilities which generate most of their electricity from particularly high-carbon fuel such as coal. In 2013, in eight EU nations, more than 10% of customers switched electricity supplier;

Selected high-carbon products from countries whose governments permit particularly high-carbon practices, such as Canada and Australia, including exports of beef, lamb, and cars from, and tourism to, these nations;

Selected high-carbon products from nations which are failing to curb deforestation. This would give these nations’ often inter-connected business/government elite a strong incentive to cut deforestation, circumventing the complex issue of determining if specific products come from deforested land.

All of these companies/products sell in competitive markets, and would therefore stand to lose vital market share as the campaign inflicted reputational damage on them. Once targeted companies saw that the campaign could harm them, a wide range of companies would be anxious not to be targeted themselves, and would aim to cut their emissions faster, partly to attract concerned potential customers.
 
As stated by many insiders, the environmental movement lacks clout, and as a result most current climate campaigns have relatively modest goals. We must not succumb to the excessively risk-averse approach Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow, in which potential losses are given disproportionate weight in decision making. Instead, as Friends of the Earth’s Craig Bennett said, our campaigns must “really scale up the ambition of the transformational change we need.” Showing governments we can enlist large-scale support with such a campaign will in time also motivate them to adopt greener policies. Climate change is the world’s biggest issue by far. There are many celebrities we could recruit. An assertive global campaign can inspire support and succeed, provided we don’t delay!

Sideboxes Related stories:  Bill McKibben interview - time for the climate movement to get on the front foot Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Exposing the false prophets of social transformation

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. August 2015 - 0:00

A growing group of elite storytellers present radical solutions to global problems, but their ideas actually inhibit real change and strengthen the status quo.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. Credit: http://www.sustainablebrands.com. All rights reserved.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was a shock for many people. For a moment it seemed like capitalism, or at least ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, was on its last legs. But the moment passed and capitalism survived. The combination of huge cash subsidies for Wall Street and austerity for working people revived corporate profitability, trade, and production growth. Yet a sense of crisis and uncertainty remains pervasive in American society and many other countries around the world.

In the US, the economy remains the top concern. Good jobs lost during the recession have been replaced by low-wage, part-time jobs, while traders and lawmakers worry over whether Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s plan to raise the federal funds rate this year will derail the ‘recovery.’ The runaway success of Thomas Piketty’s treatise on global inequality; the surprising crowds drawn by an openly socialist candidate for the US Presidency like Bernie Sanders; and recent widespread mobilizations against police brutality in cities across the United States, all indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Outside the spheres of politics and economics, a different but related sense of crisis is apparent. There’s a growing feeling of dread that our way of life is destroying the planet, highlighted by books such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and popular films like Elysium and Snowpiercer. Naomi Klein’s far-reaching critique of capitalism and global warming has received the most attention, but she is not alone. Voices from across the political spectrum have declared that capitalism is in crisis.

These critiques don’t necessarily imply that capitalism is racing toward collapse under the weight of its own contradictions; instead, the system is facing a crisis of legitimacy. A growing number of people feel that this system can no longer meet their needs for justice and security and that, while capitalism is capable of generating fabulous wealth, its side effects are rapidly making life on Earth untenable for large swathes of the global population. The list of ‘new’ capitalisms that are being touted in response–‘conscious,’ ‘creative,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘equitable’ and ‘inclusive,’ or ‘philanthrocapitalism’ or ‘eco-capitalism’–illustrates the widespread feeling that something fundamental needs to change.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of people aren’t independently wealthy and must work to meet their basic needs, coercion is insufficient to maintain their support. Capitalism relies on legitimacy: it needs people to believe in it, and willingly devote their energy, creativity, and passion to helping companies grow and make profits. Yet, as scholars like Jennifer Silva show, the belief that society will provide young people a life as good as that of their parents’ generation is waning, particularly among poor and working class youth. There are currently over five and a half million ‘disconnected youth’ in the US (young people aged 16-24 who are neither working nor in school), many of whom feel that society holds no place for them.

This problem, particularly in the context of job-destroying technology, is generating increasing concern. Starbucks, along with 11 other U.S. companies including Walmart, CVS, Target, Microsoft, Taco Bell, and Macy’s, recently announced an initiative called 100,000 Opportunities to provide job training, internships, and jobs for up to 100,000 young people. In a press release, Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks said “As business leaders, I believe we have a critical role to play in hiring more Opportunity Youth and offering these young people excellent training, and the chance to dream big and reach their aspirations.”

But this will hardly put a dent in the problem of youth unemployment. As Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut of the think-tank Demos recently reported, the U.S. needs to add 4.4 million jobs just to get back to pre-recession youth employment numbers.

Schultz is interesting for another reason, however: he is part of growing group of elite storytellers who are raising their voices to critique and present solutions to some of the thorny problems caused by capitalism like poverty, environmental degradation, gender inequality, anxiety and alienation.

These days the loudest critics of the status quo are not social movements or labor unions; they are people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah Winfrey, and John Mackey. Each of them has a plan to solve the problems of society, and they use their power and reach to share their stories and implement their ideas.

Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, believe in the power of markets and the profit motive to solve problems like childhood disease and unequal educational attainment. They believe that these problems exist because markets don’t serve poor people equally, so institutions like the Gates Foundation need to step in and engage in ‘creative capitalism’ by commoditizing health care and using market logic to make public schools and teachers more ‘competitive.’

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, thinks we need to foster ‘true’ or ‘free-enterprise’ capitalism to save the planet from ecological collapse. He presents another new model called “conscious capitalism” that emphasizes free markets and entrepreneurship to optimize value for stakeholders and create an “operating system” that is “in harmony with the fundamentals of human nature” and the planet.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is passionate about ending gender inequality, while Oprah Winfrey is concerned about anxiety, depression and alienation. Both women tackle these problems by emphasizing internal barriers like fear, socialization, and negative thinking. They encourage people, especially other women, to take charge of their lives by being assertive and thinking positive, and insist that if all of us as individuals think and act more productively then we will reach our goals—whether the goal is ‘feminism’ Sandberg-style or prosperity and happiness in the case of Winfrey.

These storytellers and others like them are extremely powerful. Their voices are heard and their messages are internalized by millions of Americans and other people around the world. Bill and Melinda Gates are attempting to transform public education and global public health completely. Their popularity stems, in large part, from their wealth and power, but their messages also resonate with people because market-led solutions seem safe and achievable. They appeal to a widespread desire to fix problems like poverty, oppression, and environmental destruction, and they reinforce the hope that we can do so by making small changes—like buying better things, thinking differently, or supporting a charity.  

The problem is that these solutions don't work. They may improve the lives of a few people in the short run, but they do nothing to tackle the broad systemic problems that need to be solved. In the long run they may actually make things worse by deepening the reach of inherently divisive market forces. They burnish the meritocratic façade of corporate America while encouraging people to blame themselves for their failure to achieve a comfortable life, rather than empowering them to examine and challenge the political and economic structures that order their lives.  

So while elite storytellers present ideas like creative or inclusive capitalism as radical solutions to global problems, their ideas actually inhibit real change and strengthen the status quo.  

This might appear overly cynical, so an example is in order: take John Mackey’s model of “conscious capitalism.” Everyone wants to live on a clean, vibrant planet, and preserve nature’s beauty for their children and grandchildren. Mackey argues that this can be achieved by creating and supporting companies like Whole Foods that pay slightly higher wages, adopt eco-business practices, and sell sustainable products. If all companies become ‘conscious’ companies they can dig the world out of the environmental mess that traditional capitalism has created.

This message, while certainly appealing, is not a solution. It ignores the fundamental imperatives of global capitalism that force every company, conscious or not, to continuously expand, overcome their competitors, and most importantly, earn profits. As researchers like Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister argue, eco-business practices do very little to challenge the way we produce, consume, and dispose of material goods. When we channel our desire to end global warming or rainforest destruction or species extinction through corporations, our desires end up by getting absorbed into business strategies for growth and expansion, strengthening the production-for-profit architecture that’s consuming and destroying the world’s resources. 

In covering up the structural nature of problems and putting a radical sheen on ideas that reinforce existing hierarchies of power, these solutions ‘kick the can down the road,’ displacing critique and enabling capitalism to survive as a system. But we don't have time for false starts and platitudes. It’s imperative that we train a critical eye on easy solutions and start building collective, democratic projects of our own that develop real alternatives for change.  

Nicole Aschoff’s book The New Prophets of Capital is published by Verso.

 

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Turkey’s bombing campaign against the Kurds will affect domestic parliamentary politics

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. August 2015 - 21:07

Strikingly, during the hastily convened NATO meeting on Tuesday, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg refrained from directly mentioning Kurdish militant groups.

Syrian Kurdish refugees protest against ISIS in Suruc, November 2014. Demotix/Emre Caylak. All rights reserved. Last week a devastating blast tore apart a group of young Kurdish Turks who had gathered in Suruc, a small town near the Syrian border. The suicide bomber, who was later identified as Seyh-Abdurrahman Alagoz had travelled there from the conservative province of Adiyaman, a fertile radicalizing ground for jihadists. With his deplorable actions, the 20 year old has not only ushered in a potentially devastating chapter of Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East, indicative of the country’s failure to foresee the impact of its dual foreign policy of funding both Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants in the region, but has also offered the AKP a much-needed opportunity to strengthen its hand domestically.

As the previous week has seen the historic opening of Incirlik airbase to US and allied forces, as well as the equally unanticipated rupture of the Kurdish peace process, it is all too easy to oversee the significant ramifications that these events have already had on parliamentary politics in Turkey, and how they will continue to impact the coalition process in the foreseeable future.

To understand the effect that the current events will have on the parliamentary process, three pressing issues should take priority. These are - in no particular order, yet deeply interrelated –  (1) the increased likelihood of either early elections or an AKP/MHP coalition, (2) the vilification of the HDP, and (3) a renewed call for a strengthened presidency.

First, the widely condemned bombing campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq, and PKK targets could signal an opening for a coalition between the AKP and the MHP. The latter had previously stated that as long as the Kurdish peace process, formerly a hallmark promise of the Erdoğan administration, remained on the table, there would be no coalition possible.

With the resurgence of the conflict, and Erdoğan’s statement that a peace process was no longer feasible, such a coalition seems increasingly likely. Strikingly, during the hastily convened NATO meeting on Tuesday, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg refrained from directly mentioning Kurdish militant groups, signalling both the contentious nature of the air-strikes as well as the supposed extent to which the US has decided to turn a blind eye towards the AKP’s escalation of the Kurdish issue.

With the current number of air-strikes against Kurdish and PKK targets exceeding the amount of Turkish strikes against ISIS, observers have suggested that the current developments may have arisen as much out of a desire to implement an aggressive nationalist push to prevent an increase in Kurdish autonomy and influence in the Middle East, as they were to preserve security in the region by fighting ISIS.

On the other hand, the current Government’s nationalist policies could also indicate a desire to call snap elections, which would make the possibility of an AKP/MHP coalition seem less likely. As such, the idea of a grand coalition not only becomes less likely, the increased likelihood of early elections could also intensify strategic attempts to vilify the HDP in an attempt to bar the party from the political process altogether.

Which leads us to the second development; that the openly hostile stance of the current Government towards the Kurdish issue has already been felt in the Turkish parliament, and will almost certainly result in an increasingly inevitable showdown between nationalist forces and the freshly elected HDP. Already, the AKP Government has rather bizarrely accused the HDP of being directly responsible for the crumbling of the Kurdish peace process, and has taken first steps towards stripping the party’s deputies of the immunity from prosecution otherwise granted to politicians. 

In response, HDP deputies countered by offering to abandon their immunity themselves, and called upon other politicians to do so as well. In addition, the disproportionately large number of HDP members being arrested as part of a major sweep targeting ISIS and the PKK, should be interpreted as indicative of the way in which ‘security’ is being used to jeopardize and harass the HDP as a legitimate political contender. 

In short, the clash of ideologies has already expanded beyond parliamentary politics, and is currently being played out on the international stage. It is to be expected that these developments will deepen the divides in Turkish society, rather than preserve safety and security, even as they shift the allied efforts against ISIS into a new and more unpredictable phase. Whether the opening of the Incirlik airbase was worth the price of allowing the Kurdish peace process to implode, or even whether such a causal relationship is based on mere speculation rather than factual intent, will presumably become clear over the coming weeks and months, as the allied forces begin carrying out strikes using Turkish airbases.

Finally, it is to be expected – and can indeed already be felt by observing Turkish media reports – that the increased focus on securitization, and the fulfilment of the AKP’s longheld desire for military action in Syria, as well as the first steps towards a so-called ‘safe zone’ (although ‘security zone’ would be more accurate. the UN has pointed out that the term ‘safe’ could lead to a mass migration towards an area poorly equipped to actually enforce safety) will go hand in hand with a renewed call for a strengthened presidency along the lines of the Erdoğan-doctrine.

To a large extent such hopes rest on the President’s designs to implement a ‘safe zone’ in Syria, which would effectively constitute a no-fly zone, as a way to safeguard Turkey’s role as a significant force in the region, and to posit Erdoğan as a powerbroker dictating the flow of the Syrian conflict. This interpretation of events also points towards an increased probability of early elections, as the AKP will be able to make the case that Turkey’s security and international influence can only be secured by a continuation of the current policies and with the personal touch of Erdoğan’s efforts on the international stage. Despite recent tensions, it is likely that the US would look favourably upon such a consolidation of the AKP government, as it would prove easier to continue its current cooperation regarding the war on terror and the use of Turkish airbases.   

Whether this means that the AKP is leading the US on a merry dance in order to strong-arm their way back into a majority Government, or whether the tactical advantage will prove sufficiently decisive as to set the stage for the end of the fight against ISIS remains to be seen.

For now one thing seems certain, and that is that once again the Kurdish issue is being used to justify various political agendas in the Middle East, and that the AKP has shown no interest in tackling key issues of contention in Turkish society by means of parliamentary politics, but has instead reverted to the familiar antagonizing and securitizing of opponents.

That the guise under which these battles are fought comes in the form of a call for increased ‘security’ in the Middle East, comes as no surprise. Instead, the blatant way in which the AKP has used the bombing in Suruc, which itself targeted Kurds, as a justification to bomb the PKK should come as an unpleasant blow to the already incendiary logic of Turkish paradoxical foreign policies. Indeed, the logic is frail, and the attempts to justify the current military campaign to its allies will presumably only last for a limited amount of time.

This begs the question whether the current political climate isn’t indeed a direct attempt on the part of the AKP to build a momentum with which to delegitimize the HDP’s political mandate and to position itself for early elections. The only certainty is that the AKP either has until August 28 to put together a workable coalition, or else the country faces a return to the voting booths.

Unfortunately, all recent developments suggest that instead of embracing the democratic potential of parliamentary politics, the AKP has once again resorted to dividing, rather than bringing together, Turkish society.

Country or region:  Turkey Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Humanitarian pauses in Yemen?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 1. August 2015 - 10:44

To re-emphasise, it is now estimated that 80% of the country’s population, over 21 million people, are in need of assistance, 1.3 million officially displaced.

On 25 July, the ‘legitimate’ Yemeni Government [currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia] announced the third humanitarian pause in the war due to start the next day. Earlier a 7 day pause had been announced by the United Nations to start on 10 July. The previous one, for 5 days, started on 12 May.

This will be seen as an interesting new form of fiction by the people in Yemen who have seen no reduction of either coalition air strikes (in support of the legitimate government) or shelling and ground fighting between the resistance and the joint forces of former president Saleh and the Huthis.  At no time did the fighting cease completely, making a complete mockery of the concept of a humanitarian pause. Over 4000 people have been killed and 20,000 injured since 26 March, not to mention the material damage to infrastructure and the country’s unique cultural heritage.

In the past 126 days since the coalition bombing started and a little longer since the ground war has been in full force, three ‘humanitarian pauses’ have been announced. None of them had any significant impact on the ground, though the first saw a reduction in fighting allowing for more humanitarian aid convoys to travel in the country. 

While control and checking of ships trying to bring basic supplies of food, medicines and fuel has been relaxed in recent weeks, ships landing are far fewer than needed, and are queuing in the Red Sea or waiting in Djibouti. But as recently as this week, the UN reminded the world that it had long ago proposed ‘a light, UN-led inspections mechanism enabling the flow of commercial imports to increase’ and was still waiting for this to be approved. 

Until last week, Aden port, the main one in the country, was completely inaccessible due to Saleh/Huthi forces preventing its use, while Hodeida could only function at a fraction of its capacity due to shortages of fuel and electricity as well as insecurity which prevented staff from going to work and meant that all unloading had to be done manually. Onward movement inland also suffers from insecurity, occasional attacks on trucks as well as shortages of fuel.  The re-opening of Aden port now that the city is under the control of the legitimate authority will hopefully significantly ease relief efforts, for this city and its neighbouring areas at least.

Running out of disaster vocabulary

Meanwhile on 1 July, the UN system declared a ‘level 3 emergency response’ something it only does in extreme circumstances, reflecting the desperation of the situation, which is indeed shocking.  Senior UN officials are exhausting the diplomatic vocabulary for disastrous situations, trying to find words which might on the one hand influence the fighting groups to respect international humanitarian law, and on the other persuade the international community to finance urgently needed basic assistance. 

As the Under-Secretary for Humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brien put it, the situation in Yemen is deteriorating and ‘the impact on civilians is indeed catastrophic.’  His speech includes the words dire, catastrophic, staggering, starvation, harrowing, dangerous and more. With respect to the financing humanitarian assistance, he stated that it is ‘woefully under-resourced’, pointing out that only 15% of the required USD 1.6 billion have been received and that much has been advanced ‘in expectation of the original Saudi pledge of USD 274 million’ whose delivery is presumably still awaited. Readers are urged to contribute to the various appeals for funds for humanitarian support for Yemen and, in particular can do so through Medecins Sans Frontieres who are very active.

To re-emphasise the points, it is now estimated that 80% of the country’s population, ie over 21 million people are in need of assistance. Despite this frightening fact, the UN is only targeting just over half that number [under 12 million]; there are officially close to 1.3 million displaced people, but the real figure is likely to be much higher. For example, in al Baidha governorate, according to the UN there are 7, 700 displaced people - but I personally know of over 70 in just two households in one village coming from 3 different governorates! Without wanting to denigrate the heroic efforts of those on the ground who are delivering aid often under fire, it must be noted that, given shortage of funding and other factors, it has only been able to deliver water and sanitation assistance to 3.3 million of the 20.4 million in need, food to 1.9 or the 13 million in need, health services to 880 000 of the 15 million in need!

Taking the most basic needs: Yemen normally imports about 80% of its basic food supplies, particularly its main staples, wheat [90%] rice [100%] sugar [100%] tea [100%].  In the first 3 months of the war, the country imported only 25% of its food needs, while local production suffered from the massive fuel shortages which prevented transport of locally produced food to the areas where it is most needed as well as irrigation for vegetable cultivation. A journalist who stayed in Aden for a month reported not eating any vegetables during the whole period. Imports of fuel ranged from 1% of needs in April to 44% of needs in June. Fuel availability also affects that of water for drinking and domestic use, with over 20 million people now not having access to clean water. 

What fuel is available has increased in price by about 400% rising to 800% in some places. To address this situation, the Huthi ‘regime’ in Sana’a decreed the de-regulation of fuel prices on 27 July  [decree 36 of 2015] with details which will be sobering to anyone who came out in support of the Huthis just under a year ago when the Hadi regime increased prices in conformity with the requirements of the IMF. The new regulation allows the private sector to import fuel and changes taxation by replacing contributions to the road maintenance and the Agriculture & Fisheries promotion funds with contributions to the construction of an oil port in Salif [where there already is one] and of a power station in an unknown location. The absence of an official price for petrol and diesel will presumably simply mean that the black market prices are now legitimate.

As always in crises and emergencies, the poor are suffering most. While electricity bills are no longer a major item of expenditure for most households due to the disappearance of electricity altogether, cooking gas prices have doubled where it is available; most people now use what little firewood and charcoal they can get hold of. Water is either collected by hand from local wells and springs or from tankers delivering it to neighbourhoods and then collected by 20litre jerrycans, as the quantities previously available for washing and laundry, in towns at least, cannot be found. 

Water is now distributed in neighbourhoods as a charity by NGOs when they have fuel to get hold of it.  Food prices have increased on average by 25% since February this year but had gone up by 45% in April alone. Sources of income have dried up:  casual employment in construction, markets and anywhere still exists on a much reduced scale in the cities where relative peace prevails, such as Sana’a, Hodeida and Mukalla, but people only go out and take the risk of being caught in crossfire in Taiz and, until very recently in Aden. Hence one of the attractions of joining a militia, at least that means being paid and having money to acquire at least some basic necessities for one’s family.

Head of Central Bank tries to leave the country

Government salaries are still being paid, but this is unlikely to last much longer as the Ministry of Finance is close to running out of funds; in late June the deficit reached 23% at over YR 500 billion.  The Central Bank has not issued any reports since January, but the balance of foreign reserves has decreased by about 26% in the first five months of 2015, and the Head of the Central Bank has just been arrested by the Huthi/Saleh alliance as he was trying to leave the country. With some sense of realism, the Ministry of Planning is projecting a 13% decrease in GDP this year, but reliable observers expect this to be an underestimate due to the destruction of much of the country’s basic infrastructure through ground conflict, coalition airstrikes as well as worsening unemployment resulting for the interruption of most private and international business activities as well as agriculture and local industry.

Daily life, when not dodging the bullets, shells and bombs, is made up of attempts at carrying out basic tasks of obtaining water, food and fuel, as well as facing a broader than ever range of bureaucratic hurdles, whether to try and earn an income or to obtain funds from a bank or other institution or indeed anything else. Each outing into the streets puts younger men at risk of being forcibly enrolled in a militia or suspected of being an opponent of one kind or another. Displaced people are living mostly with relatives and friends, putting pressure on already overcrowded and underserviced homes.

Hands off Yemen protest, April 2015. Flickr/See Li. Some rights reserved.

Politics goes on

Now a few words about politics: Having announced a peace conference in Geneva to start on 28 May, the UN had to cancel this as no one agreed to attend and the announcement had been premature, to say the least. It was then postponed to mid-June when meetings which can fairly be described as a shambles took place, given that instead of the proposed two delegations of 7 members each, there were a number of delegations with many more members and meetings were held in separate rooms.  The southerners who were part of the ‘official’ delegation refused to sit with their delegation while the Huthi delegation included a number of senior General People’s Congress Saleh supporters. In addition to some farcical travel delays for the Sana’a mission, the meetings produced no notable outcome which could have been the subject of a press release. While the UN new Special Envoy is certainly doing his best to try and bring the various factions to further talks, his and the UN’s reputation were not enhanced either by these meetings or by the fiasco of the pre-Ramadan humanitarian pause.

While many initially wondered why the pause did not take effect since Hadi and the Saudis had agreed to it, the answer became evident on 13 July when the military stalemate was broken with the launch of the Golden Arrow offensive by combined naval Emirati forces with Yemeni landed troops and the continuation of Saudi strikes on Aden. Again one was left speculating about the relationship between events in Yemen and the Iranian nuclear talks as this breakthrough took place just the day after the signature of the Geneva agreement. While fighting in Aden continued for well over a week and, at the time of writing there are still Huthi/Saleh snipers in action, the airport was re-opened and by July 22, planes with military and humanitarian assistance started landing, despite the occasional Huthi/Saleh shelling from about  20km away. Some ministers have returned to Aden and the UN has sent many senior officials who returned with harrowing reports about the abysmal conditions and very heavy death toll prevailing in the ruins of what was once Yemen’s second city and an earlier capital.

While all this is going on there are some very slight hints of hope, mostly around a series of secret meetings taking place very quietly in a number of locations including Muscat, Cairo, Amman and Moscow. These have variously included senior Huthis, senior GPC members close to Saleh, representatives of Hadi, with Iranians, Americans and other diplomats. There have even been rumours [promptly denied] of meetings between Saleh representatives and US and UK diplomats. Certainly these are a long way from achieving results and in the case of the Huthis’ meetings in Muscat happened without Saleh’s say-so,  something which he complained about publicly in interviews,  and is yet another hint of the stresses in that alliance. 

However it is far too early to hope for its breakdown as both sides need each other and share one common objective, preventing the establishment of a federal state and the return of forces supporting the GCC agreement and transition started in 2011, and which they interrupted by their coups de force from mid-2014 onwards.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Donate to:

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Medecins sans Frontières. See Yemen.

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Related stories:  The war in Yemen The international community and the crisis in Yemen An introduction to Yemen's emergency Country or region:  Yemen Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Humanitarian pauses in Yemen?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 1. August 2015 - 10:44

To re-emphasise, it is now estimated that 80% of the country’s population, over 21 million people, are in need of assistance, 1.3 million officially displaced.

On 25 July, the ‘legitimate’ Yemeni Government [currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia] announced the third humanitarian pause in the war due to start the next day. Earlier a 7 day pause had been announced by the United Nations to start on 10 July. The previous one, for 5 days, started on 12 May.

This will be seen as an interesting new form of fiction by the people in Yemen who have seen no reduction of either coalition air strikes (in support of the legitimate government) or shelling and ground fighting between the resistance and the joint forces of former president Saleh and the Huthis.  At no time did the fighting cease completely, making a complete mockery of the concept of a humanitarian pause. Over 4000 people have been killed and 20,000 injured since 26 March, not to mention the material damage to infrastructure and the country’s unique cultural heritage.

In the past 126 days since the coalition bombing started and a little longer since the ground war has been in full force, three ‘humanitarian pauses’ have been announced. None of them had any significant impact on the ground, though the first saw a reduction in fighting allowing for more humanitarian aid convoys to travel in the country. 

While control and checking of ships trying to bring basic supplies of food, medicines and fuel has been relaxed in recent weeks, ships landing are far fewer than needed, and are queuing in the Red Sea or waiting in Djibouti. But as recently as this week, the UN reminded the world that it had long ago proposed ‘a light, UN-led inspections mechanism enabling the flow of commercial imports to increase’ and was still waiting for this to be approved. 

Until last week, Aden port, the main one in the country, was completely inaccessible due to Saleh/Huthi forces preventing its use, while Hodeida could only function at a fraction of its capacity due to shortages of fuel and electricity as well as insecurity which prevented staff from going to work and meant that all unloading had to be done manually. Onward movement inland also suffers from insecurity, occasional attacks on trucks as well as shortages of fuel.  The re-opening of Aden port now that the city is under the control of the legitimate authority will hopefully significantly ease relief efforts, for this city and its neighbouring areas at least.

Running out of disaster vocabulary

Meanwhile on 1 July, the UN system declared a ‘level 3 emergency response’ something it only does in extreme circumstances, reflecting the desperation of the situation, which is indeed shocking.  Senior UN officials are exhausting the diplomatic vocabulary for disastrous situations, trying to find words which might on the one hand influence the fighting groups to respect international humanitarian law, and on the other persuade the international community to finance urgently needed basic assistance. 

As the Under-Secretary for Humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brien put it, the situation in Yemen is deteriorating and ‘the impact on civilians is indeed catastrophic.’  His speech includes the words dire, catastrophic, staggering, starvation, harrowing, dangerous and more. With respect to the financing humanitarian assistance, he stated that it is ‘woefully under-resourced’, pointing out that only 15% of the required USD 1.6 billion have been received and that much has been advanced ‘in expectation of the original Saudi pledge of USD 274 million’ whose delivery is presumably still awaited. Readers are urged to contribute to the various appeals for funds for humanitarian support for Yemen and, in particular can do so through Medecins Sans Frontieres who are very active.

To re-emphasise the points, it is now estimated that 80% of the country’s population, ie over 21 million people are in need of assistance. Despite this frightening fact, the UN is only targeting just over half that number [under 12 million]; there are officially close to 1.3 million displaced people, but the real figure is likely to be much higher. For example, in al Baidha governorate, according to the UN there are 7, 700 displaced people - but I personally know of over 70 in just two households in one village coming from 3 different governorates! Without wanting to denigrate the heroic efforts of those on the ground who are delivering aid often under fire, it must be noted that, given shortage of funding and other factors, it has only been able to deliver water and sanitation assistance to 3.3 million of the 20.4 million in need, food to 1.9 or the 13 million in need, health services to 880 000 of the 15 million in need!

Taking the most basic needs: Yemen normally imports about 80% of its basic food supplies, particularly its main staples, wheat [90%] rice [100%] sugar [100%] tea [100%].  In the first 3 months of the war, the country imported only 25% of its food needs, while local production suffered from the massive fuel shortages which prevented transport of locally produced food to the areas where it is most needed as well as irrigation for vegetable cultivation. A journalist who stayed in Aden for a month reported not eating any vegetables during the whole period. Imports of fuel ranged from 1% of needs in April to 44% of needs in June. Fuel availability also affects that of water for drinking and domestic use, with over 20 million people now not having access to clean water. 

What fuel is available has increased in price by about 400% rising to 800% in some places. To address this situation, the Huthi ‘regime’ in Sana’a decreed the de-regulation of fuel prices on 27 July  [decree 36 of 2015] with details which will be sobering to anyone who came out in support of the Huthis just under a year ago when the Hadi regime increased prices in conformity with the requirements of the IMF. The new regulation allows the private sector to import fuel and changes taxation by replacing contributions to the road maintenance and the Agriculture & Fisheries promotion funds with contributions to the construction of an oil port in Salif [where there already is one] and of a power station in an unknown location. The absence of an official price for petrol and diesel will presumably simply mean that the black market prices are now legitimate.

As always in crises and emergencies, the poor are suffering most. While electricity bills are no longer a major item of expenditure for most households due to the disappearance of electricity altogether, cooking gas prices have doubled where it is available; most people now use what little firewood and charcoal they can get hold of. Water is either collected by hand from local wells and springs or from tankers delivering it to neighbourhoods and then collected by 20litre jerrycans, as the quantities previously available for washing and laundry, in towns at least, cannot be found. 

Water is now distributed in neighbourhoods as a charity by NGOs when they have fuel to get hold of it.  Food prices have increased on average by 25% since February this year but had gone up by 45% in April alone. Sources of income have dried up:  casual employment in construction, markets and anywhere still exists on a much reduced scale in the cities where relative peace prevails, such as Sana’a, Hodeida and Mukalla, but people only go out and take the risk of being caught in crossfire in Taiz and, until very recently in Aden. Hence one of the attractions of joining a militia, at least that means being paid and having money to acquire at least some basic necessities for one’s family.

Head of Central Bank tries to leave the country

Government salaries are still being paid, but this is unlikely to last much longer as the Ministry of Finance is close to running out of funds; in late June the deficit reached 23% at over YR 500 billion.  The Central Bank has not issued any reports since January, but the balance of foreign reserves has decreased by about 26% in the first five months of 2015, and the Head of the Central Bank has just been arrested by the Huthi/Saleh alliance as he was trying to leave the country. With some sense of realism, the Ministry of Planning is projecting a 13% decrease in GDP this year, but reliable observers expect this to be an underestimate due to the destruction of much of the country’s basic infrastructure through ground conflict, coalition airstrikes as well as worsening unemployment resulting for the interruption of most private and international business activities as well as agriculture and local industry.

Daily life, when not dodging the bullets, shells and bombs, is made up of attempts at carrying out basic tasks of obtaining water, food and fuel, as well as facing a broader than ever range of bureaucratic hurdles, whether to try and earn an income or to obtain funds from a bank or other institution or indeed anything else. Each outing into the streets puts younger men at risk of being forcibly enrolled in a militia or suspected of being an opponent of one kind or another. Displaced people are living mostly with relatives and friends, putting pressure on already overcrowded and underserviced homes.

Hands off Yemen protest, April 2015. Flickr/See Li. Some rights reserved.

Politics goes on

Now a few words about politics: Having announced a peace conference in Geneva to start on 28 May, the UN had to cancel this as no one agreed to attend and the announcement had been premature, to say the least. It was then postponed to mid-June when meetings which can fairly be described as a shambles took place, given that instead of the proposed two delegations of 7 members each, there were a number of delegations with many more members and meetings were held in separate rooms.  The southerners who were part of the ‘official’ delegation refused to sit with their delegation while the Huthi delegation included a number of senior General People’s Congress Saleh supporters. In addition to some farcical travel delays for the Sana’a mission, the meetings produced no notable outcome which could have been the subject of a press release. While the UN new Special Envoy is certainly doing his best to try and bring the various factions to further talks, his and the UN’s reputation were not enhanced either by these meetings or by the fiasco of the pre-Ramadan humanitarian pause.

While many initially wondered why the pause did not take effect since Hadi and the Saudis had agreed to it, the answer became evident on 13 July when the military stalemate was broken with the launch of the Golden Arrow offensive by combined naval Emirati forces with Yemeni landed troops and the continuation of Saudi strikes on Aden. Again one was left speculating about the relationship between events in Yemen and the Iranian nuclear talks as this breakthrough took place just the day after the signature of the Geneva agreement. While fighting in Aden continued for well over a week and, at the time of writing there are still Huthi/Saleh snipers in action, the airport was re-opened and by July 22, planes with military and humanitarian assistance started landing, despite the occasional Huthi/Saleh shelling from about  20km away. Some ministers have returned to Aden and the UN has sent many senior officials who returned with harrowing reports about the abysmal conditions and very heavy death toll prevailing in the ruins of what was once Yemen’s second city and an earlier capital.

While all this is going on there are some very slight hints of hope, mostly around a series of secret meetings taking place very quietly in a number of locations including Muscat, Cairo, Amman and Moscow. These have variously included senior Huthis, senior GPC members close to Saleh, representatives of Hadi, with Iranians, Americans and other diplomats. There have even been rumours [promptly denied] of meetings between Saleh representatives and US and UK diplomats. Certainly these are a long way from achieving results and in the case of the Huthis’ meetings in Muscat happened without Saleh’s say-so,  something which he complained about publicly in interviews,  and is yet another hint of the stresses in that alliance. 

However it is far too early to hope for its breakdown as both sides need each other and share one common objective, preventing the establishment of a federal state and the return of forces supporting the GCC agreement and transition started in 2011, and which they interrupted by their coups de force from mid-2014 onwards.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Donate to:

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Medecins sans Frontières. See Yemen.

ICRC. See Yemen.

Related stories:  The war in Yemen The international community and the crisis in Yemen An introduction to Yemen's emergency Country or region:  Yemen Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

BBC Green Paper: red alert on funding

Open Democracy News Analysis - 1. August 2015 - 8:21

The government has promised a nit-picking examination of all the BBC does, focusing on how to redefine its mission as well as reform and improve its services in the internet age.

This report was produced by Enders Analysis and is published here in full with thanks:

The government has just landed the second of two massive blows on the BBC in the last five years. By 2020/21, the BBC will have taken over completely the government subsidy of the over-75s and seen, according to our estimates, a fall in total PSB funding of at least 20% since 2010/2011, the year of the first government intervention (see Figure 1).

Things could get still worse, only this time not just for the BBC, but also for the commercial TV broadcast distribution, subscription, advertising and content creation sectors should the government pursue its vision of mixed voluntary and compulsory funding, as laid out in the Green Paper published by the DCMS on 16 July.

This note looks at the government vision and why it is so dangerous for all concerned.

2020/21 is the rock bottom year for total BBC net income in real terms. Our latest forecasts in Figure 1 take into account the strong growth in BBC Worldwide revenue as published in the 2014/15 Annual Report.

The actual projections for 2020/21 could be worse, since our forecasts assume that the licence fee rises or falls in line with the CPI, which is the best possible outcome of the Charter Review. The only possible upside is the closure of the iPlayer loophole, by which a growing number of households can avoid paying the licence because they have no TV set, but still access BBC video content via online connections. However, as we discuss later in this note, we think the annual incremental payments are unlikely to amount to more than £100 million and the implementation is not straightforward.

Yet, will we have the licence fee in its current shape and form in 2021/22, once all government obligations have disappeared, as we assumed in our analysis of the settlement “agreed” between the government and the BBC?

The answer looks increasingly in doubt based on what is contained in the Green Paper. Though not explicitly stated, the government appears to be keen on introducing some form of hybrid publicly funded and voluntary, in other words subscription, payment solution into selected areas of BBC funding. This would allow it to hive off the BBC into separate components, be they BBC Television, BBC Radio, BBC online, BBC Nations or BBC genres such as children’s or local news; or what is tantamount to the de-scaling and end of the BBC as we know it.

In considering which areas will get what treatment, we see BBC Television as the most obvious candidate for voluntary subscription payment and much less BBC Radio, which we think the government will want to preserve within the public purse. Hence the main focus of this note is on the implications of the Green Paper for the TV sector, while online is covered more extensively in a separate note relating to news coverage.

Green Paper – Key points

The Green Paper lists four main areas for consultation across a 12 week-period lasting from 16 July to 8 October:

1) Mission and purpose – Why do we still want/need the BBC and does the concept of universality still hold water in an age of so much choice?

2) Scale and scope – How big should the BBC be and what should it cover, having grown so big in recent years, bearing in mind too its impact on the commercial sector as well as the variable needs and interests of its public?

3) Funding – How should we fund the BBC in the modern-day connected world, given the licence fee has an on-demand loophole and is regressive, being levied at a flat rate across all payers?

4) Governance – How should we reform the governance of the BBC?

To understand where the government is coming from, the two core sections are 'Scale and scope' and 'Funding'. Before looking at these sections more closely, we make a few general observations. In particular, two disturbing features of the Green Paper are:

- Its emphasis on online as the driver of change

- Its failure to consider the implications of change in BBC funding on the UK creative economy.

Online

For more than quarter of a century, we have been told by new age evangelists, such as George Gilder and Nicholas Negraponte, how old world linear TV will vanish in no time at all (say, five years) as the internet world allows people to watch anything on any device, anywhere, anytime.

The Green Paper may not go that far. Nevertheless, the present government comes across as a strong believer in the online on-demand future, as the Green Paper underlines the significance of “the explosion in the use of the internet and mobile devices” from the Secretary of State’s Foreword onwards. And when it comes to examining the rationale for the BBC, it states that “the ten years of the Charter have arguably seen the most dramatic period of change in broadcasting and telecommunications since the BBC came into existence.” In addition we learn that superfast broadband will be available to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017, even if no mention is made of what percentage of households will subscribe or can afford it. Meanwhile “new services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify and Deezer have already begun transforming peoples’ media habits and expectations, and we would expect this to continue in the years ahead.”

However, what is missing in the Green Paper is any kind of evidence to back the government’s assertion about the transforming impact of online access to on-demand content. Nor does it supply any factual detail about the timescale of change from a broadcast to online world, which the government appears to have in mind as it looks to the future of the television ecosystem and possible introduction of subscription funding. As it states in the Executive Summary, the government is seeking views “on the nature and extent to which the BBC should be migrating away from traditional broadcast platforms towards more of an online presence”.

In our view the shift from a broadcast to pure online delivery ecosystem has a long term horizon of beyond 2030 when we consider not only the bandwidth demands and costs of delivering long form broadcast quality over the internet during peak viewing, but also the viewing habits of the UK population. Here we observe that we have so far encountered very little change during the last five years in the viewing habits of the over-55s who now make up 36% of the UK adult 16+ population in TV homes (see Figure 2), and likely to exceed 40% by 2026, based on projections by the Office of National Statistics for the total UK population.

Not only do the over-55s account for a large section of the adult population, they also watch a lot more TV than the under-55s, accounting for a 48.5% share of total adult 16+ viewing in 2014. Quite simply, a large chunk of TV viewing is coming from older persons, who are more entrenched in their viewing habits. As for radio, online growth has so far had almost no discernible effect on listening to radio stations.

This is not to say that online growth has not made an important contribution by widening the field of content, above all via YouTube. Yet, important though YouTube has been in developing the market for short form content, a wide range of survey data points to low levels of long form content viewing on other screens (i.e. less than 5%). Indeed, the BBC’s own iPlayer accounts for less than 4% of viewing to BBC television content, whether on other screens or the TV set itself, while Netflix, Amazon Prime and Now TV are currently subscribed to by no more than 25% of UK households.

In short, online has a long way to go before it transforms the UK TV landscape. We are currently updating our long term forecasts of viewing to video content across all platforms and will present our latest thoughts on the pace of change upon completion. What we can say now is that data from several sources, such as Ofcom’s Digital Day 2014, indicate that the TV set accounts for 90-95% of all viewing of video content, whether long or short form. At the same time, broadcast sources account for about 95% of all video content viewing on TV sets (including PVR timeshift and online catch-up). Although Netflix and others have added to the broadcasting mix, we would contend that the most significant change during the current Charter is the expansion of the multichannel sector, whose share of total TV viewing has risen from 33% to 46% during the last ten years.

Finally, the emphasis placed on online by the Green Paper is reminiscent of the Peacock days in the mid-eighties when politicians mistakenly set high hopes on the ability of the burgeoning cable and satellite economy to generate UK content. In fact, it is only in relatively recent times that the non-PSB multichannel sector has begun to make a material contribution. Even as recently as 2010, the total Sky annual budget for its own news and entertainment channels, excluding sports and movies, amounted to little over £200 million, and with practically no in-house contribution apart from Sky News. Why should we expect anything more from the new online brigade of American companies – the Netflixes, Amazons and Googles? This now takes us to the UK creative economy, the second big area of concern.

UK creative economy

The Green Paper acknowledges the importance of the contribution made by the BBC to the UK creative economy. But, when it comes to discussing the UK creative economy in any detail, the Green Paper focuses entirely upon the terms under which the BBC now operates and whether they should be reformed in the new Charter. In this respect, the two key areas for discussion are:

1) The existing independent quota contributions in television, radio and online and the associated terms of trade

2) The size and role of BBC in-house productions, including the proposition put forward by the BBC of setting up BBC Studios as a commercial subsidiary of the BBC that has to compete with other independents for all BBC commissions, but may also compete for external commissions, which it cannot do at the moment

What is completely lacking from the Green Paper is any discussion of wider trends in the UK creative economy, including the consumption at home and abroad of UK-originated television content; or how this relates to the new online players like Netflix who are allegedly transforming the nation’s viewing habits.

Instead, the sole focus of the government seems to be on how to rein in the BBC rather than to consider at a more general level the value of the UK creative economy and the role of the PSB sector in sustaining it.

In the case of television, Ofcom’s PSB Annual 2015 Report reports total PSB national (i.e. excluding nations and regions) spend on UK first-run contributions in 2014 of £2.5 billion, 50% of it coming from the BBC. This covers all the national BBC channels (though not BBC HD) and the three main commercial PSBs. Ofcom does not break out the other commercial PSB portfolio and non-PSB channels. But, were we to add them in we are still looking at a BBC share of around 40%, in other words a major contribution towards UK TV content production, which needs to be considered carefully in the Charter Review.

Finally, by way of side observation about the overall value contribution of the BBC to the UK population, the latest BBC Annual Report for 2014/15 shows total spend on television content of £1,786 million. This delivered a total TV viewing share across all individuals aged 4+ of 32.9%, and average weekly reach of 85%. The BBC spend is only marginally higher than the annual payments, never mind the extra production costs, that Sky and BT will be paying for live televised football in 2016/17, with a weekly reach of around 5% when the season is in progress and all for an annual viewing share of 0.6% (see Figure 3).

The public value of the BBC is indeed broad and the bulk of its spend is on UK originated content, which the likes of Google, Netflix and Amazon show no signs of wishing to invest in to any significant extent even if they do greatly expand the viewing options. In our view, the UK creative economy needs to be a core topic of the Charter Review, the more so in view of mounting concerns about the future of Channel 4, which makes the second largest annual contribution to the UK independent production sector, as a publicly owned national broadcaster.

One final observation is that a key factor in allowing strong investment in long form domestic content origination is scale. This is what has always set the PSB system in the UK apart from the rest of the world. We tamper with it at our peril.

Scale and scope

The Green Paper chapter on scale and scope is all about what the BBC does: which services it provides; how well is it serving different audiences; whether it is providing the right mix in terms of quality; and how its content should be produced.

From the funding perspective the core topic is the scale of the BBC and the range of services that it provides. In this respect, a constant theme is the sheer size of the BBC, its great breadth of coverage, and the desirability of splitting it into variable parts, from which members of the public can take what they want according to their tastes. Reflecting the government mission to change the BBC:

- The Green Paper states at the very outset how “The range of services that the BBC provides has increased dramatically over the last two Charter periods”. It is a period which has seen an increase in the number of BBC television channels from two to nine along with the doubling of national radio stations from five to ten and creation of three online services, making the BBC the biggest PSB in the world

- The Green Paper invariably starts each section by heaping praise on the BBC’s record, followed by heavy criticism, with constant use of the word “reform” and suggestions for how it can do less

- As highlighted in the previous section, the views expressed in the Green Paper are almost entirely opinion- and not evidence-based, especially where it concerns the impact of the BBC on the commercial sector

Although the Green Paper later recognizes the role of other factors, such as the switch from analogue to digital, in shaping the growth in number of BBC television and radio services, there is much it also omits to mention. For example, in asserting the dramatic growth of the BBC services, the Green Paper leaves out mentioning that:

- Even in 1995, the BBC was the largest PSB in the world; ditto in 1975 and 1955

- The nine BBC TV channels occupy seven transmission feeds

- The TV channels include two channels with practically no audience – BBC Parliament and BBC Alba (in Gaelic) – as well as two children’s channels, which the commercial PSBs have shown no interest in matching…

- … while the launch of BBC3 and 4 had much to do with the BBC stepping up to the Freeview plate upon the closure of ITV Digital

- The increase in the number of BBC TV channels has to be judged in the context of the switch from analogue to digital. In 1995, there were fewer than 30 TV channels. Today, there are over 300

- The BBC Executive did try five years ago to close two of its national digital radio channels (BBC Radio 6 Music and Asian Network (to be replaced by a network of part-time local services in areas with large British-Asian communities)), but later had to withdraw after running into a public backlash

Overall, the government appears bent on trimming the BBC, whether this be a case of closing some services, increasing the participation of the commercial sector and/or awarding some public funding on a contestable basis. This approach is underlined by the choice of representatives on the Charter Review advisory group appointed by the Secretary of State, with its emphasis on individuals with rival commercial interests.

Funding

Universality is a core concept of the BBC television and radio broadcast services and their funding by the television licence fee charged for all households with one or more TV sets. Under the classic public service model the licence fee covers several universal attributes, which include:

- Universally available national, regional and local television and radio services within the defined reception areas

- Universal charge (including any subsidies), but with free access at the point of use

- Universal access to a wide selection of programming that includes listed events deemed to be in the national interest for all members of the public

However, the classic model has come under increasing pressure in the last few years. We may single out four main streams of criticism within political circles:

- The licence is a “regressive” tax that takes no account of individual household circumstances (over-75s subsidy apart)

- Non-paying households are liable to criminal prosecution if detected

- An increasing number of homes without TV sets can access BBC content online via the iPlayer on other screens, hence enabling them to avoid licence fee payment

- As the Green Paper has laboured at length to put across, the considerable increase in content options raises the question of whether we still need public funding to cover such a wide range of content

In considering how the licence fee model may be brought more in line in with these modern times, the government lists three most viable looking options in the short to medium term:

- A reformed licence fee that covers the iPlayer loophole, by which homes without a TV can still get BBC TV output via online access to the iPlayer

- A universal public funding model on the lines of the German ‘media levy’

- A mixed model of public and subscription funding

But, there is also a fourth fully subscription funded model, which the government has placed to one side for the time being on account of the very high costs and time required to introduce encryption funding across all terrestrial DTT as well as satellite and cable households. Though not on the table now, its introduction at some point in the coming Charter period post 2020/21 cannot be altogether ruled out.

In looking at the options, two general points which need to be made clear from the outset are:

- Modernisation of the current system to cover the iPlayer loophole is a feature of all four options; however, we cannot take it as a given. First, the technical solution is as yet unclear unless public funding were to switch from the current licence fee to a household levy. Second, it raises the question of whether not just the BBC iPlayer, but also the other PSB online catch-up services should be behind the paywall. And third, the financial benefits are unlikely to be that great. True, the non-TV household population has risen by roughly 750,000 between 2010 and 2014, which would yield a little over £100 million in extra annual revenues were they all paying the charge. But, (a) it is by no means certain that the BBC could extract payments from all these homes and (b) we may expect the decline to smooth out rapidly now that the smartphone and tablet markets have achieved mass adoption, and with televisions being preferred by all age groups as the best available screen for watching long form content

- Decriminalisation is a major concern under the present or revised licence fee models. The government appears to have accepted the advice from The TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review that criminalisation is “broadly fair and proportionate under the current regime”, though it is up for consideration under the other options, especially if the BBC were to move to some form of voluntary/subscription funding system

What comes across from reading the Green Paper is that the government has in mind some form of hybrid structure (i.e. option 3) as a preferred solution from the start. This is because it enables it to:

- Hive off areas not directly related to BBC services in the UK, such as the S4C levy, broadband roll-out or BBC World Service, where it is decided that the funds must be protected at all costs

- Decide which other areas should be publicly funded such as BBC Radio (say, by a household levy of £30 on the Council Tax), and separate them completely from areas that in this world of boundless choice could be covered by subscription (in particular television, the iPlayer, and even BBC online)

- Open the doors to contestable funding for some public services, be they children’s, Scottish or local or whatever else the Charter Renewal advisory group, replete with commercial interests, sees fit to put on the shelf

Of course, the present government does acknowledge in the Green Paper that switching to a full subscription model sets many practical challenges for the current broadcast system, especially to do with the roll-out of conditional access technology system, which it could take several years to surmount. However, it also contends that things stand to move much quicker for online services using existing paywall technology; hence we believe the listing of mixed public and subscription funding is a feasible option.

Red alert: subscription and online funding

Now the alarm bells ring. As long as the BBC continues with just the licence fee or other form of public funding, such as the household levy, there is limited cause for concern.

However, there are three areas that do raise major concerns from the outset:

- Contestable funding

- Voluntary subscription payment

- Move towards online

The first of these, contestable funding, arguably matters least to the wider television industry, although it implies further top-slicing at the expense of the BBC to other parties from the commercial sector.

This leaves voluntary subscription payment, whether on its own or as part of a hybrid model, and the possible move away from broadcast towards more online distribution models, as the two areas where government decisions could have far-reaching and possibly unintended consequences on the whole television ecosystem and not just the BBC.

With regard to some form of voluntary subscription payment, this will undoubtedly present concerns to the existing pay-TV platforms, as it implies potentially significant change to the current balance between the existing free-to-air and pay-TV platforms and services. At the same time, it raises a whole series of issues for the BBC concerning such items as:

- Extra costs of payment collection

- Undermining of the concept of the BBC as a universal public service to which all parties have full access

- Less predictable and more variable income streams

- Distortion of programming budgets towards content that yields more favourable ROIs, along with the possible ghettoising of some content areas where there is less public appetite for voluntary payment

Among the many consequences, we must also expect concurrent reappraisal of PSB rules relating to such items as EPG prominence, retransmission fees and listed events that are in the national interest.

Consequently, the immediate impact of the introduction of subscription payments may most directly affect the pay-TV platforms and mixed advertising and subscription channels that they carry; however, it risks major repercussions across the entire commercial sector, advertising as well as subscription. In the context of advertising, we should stress, in case of any misapprehension, that loss of BBC audience share in no way implies an increase in TV net advertising revenues. Indeed, recent UK trends suggest quite the reverse when we consider the supply and demand dynamics of the UK TV advertising market.

Then there is the move towards online, on which the government seems to have its eyes fixed, not simply because it could facilitate the introduction of subscription funding in TV households without set-top boxes, but also in so far as the Treasury may see it as a way of potentially freeing up the DTT spectrum for auction to the mobile operators in the next decade. Should that happen, it raises many issues and the effects could be very damaging to the broadcast free-to-air sector.

In short, the TV industry needs to think through carefully the implications of the different courses of action being put forward by the Green Paper and be ready with its response by 8 October when the consultation closes. It is not just on the BBC, but on the entire television industry – pay-TV, advertising, free-to-air broadcasting and content production – that the government axe is poised to fall.

This note is published with thanks to Enders Analysis 

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BBC Green Paper: red alert on funding

Open Democracy News Analysis - 1. August 2015 - 8:21

The government has promised a nit-picking examination of all the BBC does, focusing on how to redefine its mission as well as reform and improve its services in the internet age.

This report was produced by Enders Analysis and is published here in full with thanks:

The government has just landed the second of two massive blows on the BBC in the last five years. By 2020/21, the BBC will have taken over completely the government subsidy of the over-75s and seen, according to our estimates, a fall in total PSB funding of at least 20% since 2010/2011, the year of the first government intervention (see Figure 1).

Things could get still worse, only this time not just for the BBC, but also for the commercial TV broadcast distribution, subscription, advertising and content creation sectors should the government pursue its vision of mixed voluntary and compulsory funding, as laid out in the Green Paper published by the DCMS on 16 July.

This note looks at the government vision and why it is so dangerous for all concerned.

2020/21 is the rock bottom year for total BBC net income in real terms. Our latest forecasts in Figure 1 take into account the strong growth in BBC Worldwide revenue as published in the 2014/15 Annual Report.

The actual projections for 2020/21 could be worse, since our forecasts assume that the licence fee rises or falls in line with the CPI, which is the best possible outcome of the Charter Review. The only possible upside is the closure of the iPlayer loophole, by which a growing number of households can avoid paying the licence because they have no TV set, but still access BBC video content via online connections. However, as we discuss later in this note, we think the annual incremental payments are unlikely to amount to more than £100 million and the implementation is not straightforward.

Yet, will we have the licence fee in its current shape and form in 2021/22, once all government obligations have disappeared, as we assumed in our analysis of the settlement “agreed” between the government and the BBC?

The answer looks increasingly in doubt based on what is contained in the Green Paper. Though not explicitly stated, the government appears to be keen on introducing some form of hybrid publicly funded and voluntary, in other words subscription, payment solution into selected areas of BBC funding. This would allow it to hive off the BBC into separate components, be they BBC Television, BBC Radio, BBC online, BBC Nations or BBC genres such as children’s or local news; or what is tantamount to the de-scaling and end of the BBC as we know it.

In considering which areas will get what treatment, we see BBC Television as the most obvious candidate for voluntary subscription payment and much less BBC Radio, which we think the government will want to preserve within the public purse. Hence the main focus of this note is on the implications of the Green Paper for the TV sector, while online is covered more extensively in a separate note relating to news coverage.

Green Paper – Key points

The Green Paper lists four main areas for consultation across a 12 week-period lasting from 16 July to 8 October:

1) Mission and purpose – Why do we still want/need the BBC and does the concept of universality still hold water in an age of so much choice?

2) Scale and scope – How big should the BBC be and what should it cover, having grown so big in recent years, bearing in mind too its impact on the commercial sector as well as the variable needs and interests of its public?

3) Funding – How should we fund the BBC in the modern-day connected world, given the licence fee has an on-demand loophole and is regressive, being levied at a flat rate across all payers?

4) Governance – How should we reform the governance of the BBC?

To understand where the government is coming from, the two core sections are 'Scale and scope' and 'Funding'. Before looking at these sections more closely, we make a few general observations. In particular, two disturbing features of the Green Paper are:

- Its emphasis on online as the driver of change

- Its failure to consider the implications of change in BBC funding on the UK creative economy.

Online

For more than quarter of a century, we have been told by new age evangelists, such as George Gilder and Nicholas Negraponte, how old world linear TV will vanish in no time at all (say, five years) as the internet world allows people to watch anything on any device, anywhere, anytime.

The Green Paper may not go that far. Nevertheless, the present government comes across as a strong believer in the online on-demand future, as the Green Paper underlines the significance of “the explosion in the use of the internet and mobile devices” from the Secretary of State’s Foreword onwards. And when it comes to examining the rationale for the BBC, it states that “the ten years of the Charter have arguably seen the most dramatic period of change in broadcasting and telecommunications since the BBC came into existence.” In addition we learn that superfast broadband will be available to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017, even if no mention is made of what percentage of households will subscribe or can afford it. Meanwhile “new services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify and Deezer have already begun transforming peoples’ media habits and expectations, and we would expect this to continue in the years ahead.”

However, what is missing in the Green Paper is any kind of evidence to back the government’s assertion about the transforming impact of online access to on-demand content. Nor does it supply any factual detail about the timescale of change from a broadcast to online world, which the government appears to have in mind as it looks to the future of the television ecosystem and possible introduction of subscription funding. As it states in the Executive Summary, the government is seeking views “on the nature and extent to which the BBC should be migrating away from traditional broadcast platforms towards more of an online presence”.

In our view the shift from a broadcast to pure online delivery ecosystem has a long term horizon of beyond 2030 when we consider not only the bandwidth demands and costs of delivering long form broadcast quality over the internet during peak viewing, but also the viewing habits of the UK population. Here we observe that we have so far encountered very little change during the last five years in the viewing habits of the over-55s who now make up 36% of the UK adult 16+ population in TV homes (see Figure 2), and likely to exceed 40% by 2026, based on projections by the Office of National Statistics for the total UK population.

Not only do the over-55s account for a large section of the adult population, they also watch a lot more TV than the under-55s, accounting for a 48.5% share of total adult 16+ viewing in 2014. Quite simply, a large chunk of TV viewing is coming from older persons, who are more entrenched in their viewing habits. As for radio, online growth has so far had almost no discernible effect on listening to radio stations.

This is not to say that online growth has not made an important contribution by widening the field of content, above all via YouTube. Yet, important though YouTube has been in developing the market for short form content, a wide range of survey data points to low levels of long form content viewing on other screens (i.e. less than 5%). Indeed, the BBC’s own iPlayer accounts for less than 4% of viewing to BBC television content, whether on other screens or the TV set itself, while Netflix, Amazon Prime and Now TV are currently subscribed to by no more than 25% of UK households.

In short, online has a long way to go before it transforms the UK TV landscape. We are currently updating our long term forecasts of viewing to video content across all platforms and will present our latest thoughts on the pace of change upon completion. What we can say now is that data from several sources, such as Ofcom’s Digital Day 2014, indicate that the TV set accounts for 90-95% of all viewing of video content, whether long or short form. At the same time, broadcast sources account for about 95% of all video content viewing on TV sets (including PVR timeshift and online catch-up). Although Netflix and others have added to the broadcasting mix, we would contend that the most significant change during the current Charter is the expansion of the multichannel sector, whose share of total TV viewing has risen from 33% to 46% during the last ten years.

Finally, the emphasis placed on online by the Green Paper is reminiscent of the Peacock days in the mid-eighties when politicians mistakenly set high hopes on the ability of the burgeoning cable and satellite economy to generate UK content. In fact, it is only in relatively recent times that the non-PSB multichannel sector has begun to make a material contribution. Even as recently as 2010, the total Sky annual budget for its own news and entertainment channels, excluding sports and movies, amounted to little over £200 million, and with practically no in-house contribution apart from Sky News. Why should we expect anything more from the new online brigade of American companies – the Netflixes, Amazons and Googles? This now takes us to the UK creative economy, the second big area of concern.

UK creative economy

The Green Paper acknowledges the importance of the contribution made by the BBC to the UK creative economy. But, when it comes to discussing the UK creative economy in any detail, the Green Paper focuses entirely upon the terms under which the BBC now operates and whether they should be reformed in the new Charter. In this respect, the two key areas for discussion are:

1) The existing independent quota contributions in television, radio and online and the associated terms of trade

2) The size and role of BBC in-house productions, including the proposition put forward by the BBC of setting up BBC Studios as a commercial subsidiary of the BBC that has to compete with other independents for all BBC commissions, but may also compete for external commissions, which it cannot do at the moment

What is completely lacking from the Green Paper is any discussion of wider trends in the UK creative economy, including the consumption at home and abroad of UK-originated television content; or how this relates to the new online players like Netflix who are allegedly transforming the nation’s viewing habits.

Instead, the sole focus of the government seems to be on how to rein in the BBC rather than to consider at a more general level the value of the UK creative economy and the role of the PSB sector in sustaining it.

In the case of television, Ofcom’s PSB Annual 2015 Report reports total PSB national (i.e. excluding nations and regions) spend on UK first-run contributions in 2014 of £2.5 billion, 50% of it coming from the BBC. This covers all the national BBC channels (though not BBC HD) and the three main commercial PSBs. Ofcom does not break out the other commercial PSB portfolio and non-PSB channels. But, were we to add them in we are still looking at a BBC share of around 40%, in other words a major contribution towards UK TV content production, which needs to be considered carefully in the Charter Review.

Finally, by way of side observation about the overall value contribution of the BBC to the UK population, the latest BBC Annual Report for 2014/15 shows total spend on television content of £1,786 million. This delivered a total TV viewing share across all individuals aged 4+ of 32.9%, and average weekly reach of 85%. The BBC spend is only marginally higher than the annual payments, never mind the extra production costs, that Sky and BT will be paying for live televised football in 2016/17, with a weekly reach of around 5% when the season is in progress and all for an annual viewing share of 0.6% (see Figure 3).

The public value of the BBC is indeed broad and the bulk of its spend is on UK originated content, which the likes of Google, Netflix and Amazon show no signs of wishing to invest in to any significant extent even if they do greatly expand the viewing options. In our view, the UK creative economy needs to be a core topic of the Charter Review, the more so in view of mounting concerns about the future of Channel 4, which makes the second largest annual contribution to the UK independent production sector, as a publicly owned national broadcaster.

One final observation is that a key factor in allowing strong investment in long form domestic content origination is scale. This is what has always set the PSB system in the UK apart from the rest of the world. We tamper with it at our peril.

Scale and scope

The Green Paper chapter on scale and scope is all about what the BBC does: which services it provides; how well is it serving different audiences; whether it is providing the right mix in terms of quality; and how its content should be produced.

From the funding perspective the core topic is the scale of the BBC and the range of services that it provides. In this respect, a constant theme is the sheer size of the BBC, its great breadth of coverage, and the desirability of splitting it into variable parts, from which members of the public can take what they want according to their tastes. Reflecting the government mission to change the BBC:

- The Green Paper states at the very outset how “The range of services that the BBC provides has increased dramatically over the last two Charter periods”. It is a period which has seen an increase in the number of BBC television channels from two to nine along with the doubling of national radio stations from five to ten and creation of three online services, making the BBC the biggest PSB in the world

- The Green Paper invariably starts each section by heaping praise on the BBC’s record, followed by heavy criticism, with constant use of the word “reform” and suggestions for how it can do less

- As highlighted in the previous section, the views expressed in the Green Paper are almost entirely opinion- and not evidence-based, especially where it concerns the impact of the BBC on the commercial sector

Although the Green Paper later recognizes the role of other factors, such as the switch from analogue to digital, in shaping the growth in number of BBC television and radio services, there is much it also omits to mention. For example, in asserting the dramatic growth of the BBC services, the Green Paper leaves out mentioning that:

- Even in 1995, the BBC was the largest PSB in the world; ditto in 1975 and 1955

- The nine BBC TV channels occupy seven transmission feeds

- The TV channels include two channels with practically no audience – BBC Parliament and BBC Alba (in Gaelic) – as well as two children’s channels, which the commercial PSBs have shown no interest in matching…

- … while the launch of BBC3 and 4 had much to do with the BBC stepping up to the Freeview plate upon the closure of ITV Digital

- The increase in the number of BBC TV channels has to be judged in the context of the switch from analogue to digital. In 1995, there were fewer than 30 TV channels. Today, there are over 300

- The BBC Executive did try five years ago to close two of its national digital radio channels (BBC Radio 6 Music and Asian Network (to be replaced by a network of part-time local services in areas with large British-Asian communities)), but later had to withdraw after running into a public backlash

Overall, the government appears bent on trimming the BBC, whether this be a case of closing some services, increasing the participation of the commercial sector and/or awarding some public funding on a contestable basis. This approach is underlined by the choice of representatives on the Charter Review advisory group appointed by the Secretary of State, with its emphasis on individuals with rival commercial interests.

Funding

Universality is a core concept of the BBC television and radio broadcast services and their funding by the television licence fee charged for all households with one or more TV sets. Under the classic public service model the licence fee covers several universal attributes, which include:

- Universally available national, regional and local television and radio services within the defined reception areas

- Universal charge (including any subsidies), but with free access at the point of use

- Universal access to a wide selection of programming that includes listed events deemed to be in the national interest for all members of the public

However, the classic model has come under increasing pressure in the last few years. We may single out four main streams of criticism within political circles:

- The licence is a “regressive” tax that takes no account of individual household circumstances (over-75s subsidy apart)

- Non-paying households are liable to criminal prosecution if detected

- An increasing number of homes without TV sets can access BBC content online via the iPlayer on other screens, hence enabling them to avoid licence fee payment

- As the Green Paper has laboured at length to put across, the considerable increase in content options raises the question of whether we still need public funding to cover such a wide range of content

In considering how the licence fee model may be brought more in line in with these modern times, the government lists three most viable looking options in the short to medium term:

- A reformed licence fee that covers the iPlayer loophole, by which homes without a TV can still get BBC TV output via online access to the iPlayer

- A universal public funding model on the lines of the German ‘media levy’

- A mixed model of public and subscription funding

But, there is also a fourth fully subscription funded model, which the government has placed to one side for the time being on account of the very high costs and time required to introduce encryption funding across all terrestrial DTT as well as satellite and cable households. Though not on the table now, its introduction at some point in the coming Charter period post 2020/21 cannot be altogether ruled out.

In looking at the options, two general points which need to be made clear from the outset are:

- Modernisation of the current system to cover the iPlayer loophole is a feature of all four options; however, we cannot take it as a given. First, the technical solution is as yet unclear unless public funding were to switch from the current licence fee to a household levy. Second, it raises the question of whether not just the BBC iPlayer, but also the other PSB online catch-up services should be behind the paywall. And third, the financial benefits are unlikely to be that great. True, the non-TV household population has risen by roughly 750,000 between 2010 and 2014, which would yield a little over £100 million in extra annual revenues were they all paying the charge. But, (a) it is by no means certain that the BBC could extract payments from all these homes and (b) we may expect the decline to smooth out rapidly now that the smartphone and tablet markets have achieved mass adoption, and with televisions being preferred by all age groups as the best available screen for watching long form content

- Decriminalisation is a major concern under the present or revised licence fee models. The government appears to have accepted the advice from The TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review that criminalisation is “broadly fair and proportionate under the current regime”, though it is up for consideration under the other options, especially if the BBC were to move to some form of voluntary/subscription funding system

What comes across from reading the Green Paper is that the government has in mind some form of hybrid structure (i.e. option 3) as a preferred solution from the start. This is because it enables it to:

- Hive off areas not directly related to BBC services in the UK, such as the S4C levy, broadband roll-out or BBC World Service, where it is decided that the funds must be protected at all costs

- Decide which other areas should be publicly funded such as BBC Radio (say, by a household levy of £30 on the Council Tax), and separate them completely from areas that in this world of boundless choice could be covered by subscription (in particular television, the iPlayer, and even BBC online)

- Open the doors to contestable funding for some public services, be they children’s, Scottish or local or whatever else the Charter Renewal advisory group, replete with commercial interests, sees fit to put on the shelf

Of course, the present government does acknowledge in the Green Paper that switching to a full subscription model sets many practical challenges for the current broadcast system, especially to do with the roll-out of conditional access technology system, which it could take several years to surmount. However, it also contends that things stand to move much quicker for online services using existing paywall technology; hence we believe the listing of mixed public and subscription funding is a feasible option.

Red alert: subscription and online funding

Now the alarm bells ring. As long as the BBC continues with just the licence fee or other form of public funding, such as the household levy, there is limited cause for concern.

However, there are three areas that do raise major concerns from the outset:

- Contestable funding

- Voluntary subscription payment

- Move towards online

The first of these, contestable funding, arguably matters least to the wider television industry, although it implies further top-slicing at the expense of the BBC to other parties from the commercial sector.

This leaves voluntary subscription payment, whether on its own or as part of a hybrid model, and the possible move away from broadcast towards more online distribution models, as the two areas where government decisions could have far-reaching and possibly unintended consequences on the whole television ecosystem and not just the BBC.

With regard to some form of voluntary subscription payment, this will undoubtedly present concerns to the existing pay-TV platforms, as it implies potentially significant change to the current balance between the existing free-to-air and pay-TV platforms and services. At the same time, it raises a whole series of issues for the BBC concerning such items as:

- Extra costs of payment collection

- Undermining of the concept of the BBC as a universal public service to which all parties have full access

- Less predictable and more variable income streams

- Distortion of programming budgets towards content that yields more favourable ROIs, along with the possible ghettoising of some content areas where there is less public appetite for voluntary payment

Among the many consequences, we must also expect concurrent reappraisal of PSB rules relating to such items as EPG prominence, retransmission fees and listed events that are in the national interest.

Consequently, the immediate impact of the introduction of subscription payments may most directly affect the pay-TV platforms and mixed advertising and subscription channels that they carry; however, it risks major repercussions across the entire commercial sector, advertising as well as subscription. In the context of advertising, we should stress, in case of any misapprehension, that loss of BBC audience share in no way implies an increase in TV net advertising revenues. Indeed, recent UK trends suggest quite the reverse when we consider the supply and demand dynamics of the UK TV advertising market.

Then there is the move towards online, on which the government seems to have its eyes fixed, not simply because it could facilitate the introduction of subscription funding in TV households without set-top boxes, but also in so far as the Treasury may see it as a way of potentially freeing up the DTT spectrum for auction to the mobile operators in the next decade. Should that happen, it raises many issues and the effects could be very damaging to the broadcast free-to-air sector.

In short, the TV industry needs to think through carefully the implications of the different courses of action being put forward by the Green Paper and be ready with its response by 8 October when the consultation closes. It is not just on the BBC, but on the entire television industry – pay-TV, advertising, free-to-air broadcasting and content production – that the government axe is poised to fall.

This note is published with thanks to Enders Analysis 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Time to fight for the BBC No broadcaster is an island The BBC and the Tories: is it war? The BBC has little to fear from Britain’s new government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

13 things about the Labour leadership election

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 23:11

What does the Labour leadership election tell us about the state of British politics?


1) Corbyn is currently ahead

The opinion polls, bookies, the turnout at public meetings, the anecdotal evidence from phone canvassers and the analysis of the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush after his lengthy conversations with key activists across the country could individually be dismissed. But the fact that they all point in the same direction implies something powerful. It seems reasonably safe now to say that Jeremy Corbyn is currently ahead in the race for Labour leader.

2) It’s not just the radical left voting for him

A month or so ago, I met up with an old university friend. He’d been involved in the students’ union a bit, which was how I met him. But largely, he was, and still is, a theatrical sort. His politics at the union were always a bit of a bellwether for me: on the left, environmentalist, kind, but never what I’d call radical: from the left, but not in a left bubble. Since university, he’s joined the Labour party, and I was a little surprised when he told me that he’d be voting for Jeremy Corbyn - more out of despair than enthusiasm.

I mention this because my impression is that it’s typical. The MP for Islington North is doing better than expected not just because the radical left is strong, though that’s true too, but because the soft left, which Jeremy Gilbert and Neal Lawson have both well described, seems to have given him its tentative backing - for the moment.

3) Being ahead at the moment doesn’t mean that Corbyn will win.

I can well believe that my friend will end up wavering, and stumping for one of the others - because of Corbyn's hesitant support for the EU, or fears about electability, or because one of the other candidates does something, anything, to inspire him. Or something.

More importantly, the Labour establishment will be doing everything they can to stop Jezmania. We can expect more and more attack stories, shriller and shriller denunciations, etc.

4) If they can’t stop Corbyn, there’s no way they could have beaten the Tories

Internal elections in political parties are a chance for candidates to flex their muscles - to show how good they are at fighting election campaigns. Corbyn’s success is in part built on the fact that the other three candidates look like they’d be incapable of inspiring a rabbit into its own warren. The reaction so far of the party establishment - most iconically wheeling out Tony Blair - seems practically designed to drive the membership into Corbyn’s arms.

It may well be that they turn this around. But it may well be that they don’t. And if they aren’t able to, then that tells us something significant: the Labour party establishment is so moribund, so wilted, and so stuck in the Nineties that there is absolutely no way they will be able to beat the Tories in 2020. In other words, if Corbyn wins, it won’t be that which will make Labour unelectable - it’s a sign that they were incapable of winning an election.

5) The poor centrist candidates are a product of the gutting of Labour

In 1997, Tony Banks joked:

“Do you ever get that scary feeling that there's more than one Peter Mandelson? What are they really doing in Millbank Tower? They tell us it's a communications centre. Well, I reckon they're making Mandelsons up there and getting ready to store them in that Millennium Dome in Greenwich. When the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 1999, millions of Mandelsons will emerge from the Dome and civilisation as we know it will be at an end.”

This was as much satire as surrealism. Mandleson had got a firm grip of the Labour selection process, and ensured that a very particular type of person was chosen to be an MP; so often people who would do what they would told, who had the uncanny ability to repeat the exact lines given to them by the HQ.

The aim was, in part, that none would provide a challenge to Blair and Brown, that there would be no troublemakers. The result was that when the New Labour leadership got old, there was no one able to take over. Burnham, Kendall and Cooper are all products of this process. Let’s face it. All look like they’re on a training programme for middle managers not quite ready for promotion. Each has their own qualities, but the fact that these have largely been overlooked is telling: whatever “it” is, they don’t have it.

This is a story which is perhaps most easily told through a single person - Tommy Shepherd. Before Mhairi Black’s maiden speech eclipsed all others, it was Shepherd’s which had got the most attention, with his name trending on twitter for the following hours. The speech was moving, charismatic and thoughtful.

None of this was any surprise to anyone familiar with Scottish politics - for years, Tommy Shepherd was a prominent figure both in the Scottish Labour Party, and as founder of the Stand Comedy Club, a hub of the Edinburgh festival. For years, Labour refused to select him, for fear that he wouldn’t always toe the line, wouldn’t always follow the leader. Eventually, Tommy, having been persuaded of the case for independence, joined the SNP, and almost immediately became one of its more prominent MPs.

The problem for the party’s centre now, then, is that after keeping out anyone with their own ideas, with their own sense of direction, the resultant generation of very capable followers and superb middle managers has come of age, they are left with no leader to follow. One simple reason that Corbyn is ahead is that none of the other candidates look like winners either. If Labour's going to be in opposition anyway, many members seem to feel, it may as well actually oppose.

6) The radical left has taken a party turn

I have lots of friends who, a year ago, would swear that they would never join a party - radical, active, but not through such formal or hierarchical structures. In the last six months, lots of these people have signed up to two - the Greens during the surge, and now Labour, to vote for Corbyn.

For me, this willingness to engage with structures is a positive shift; showing a desire to take and redistribute hard power, as well as confronting it. Others disagree. But either way, it's notable.

7) Party membership doesn’t mean what it used to

In an age where political sorts get emails from 38 Degrees, Avaaz, and Greenpeace; endless notifications on Facebook from a plethora of groups and pages and where the only contact they have from their trade union - if they’ve bothered to join one - is the occasional text asking them their opinion in some absurd survey, what does it mean to ‘join’ a political party?

When I first signed up as a Green in 2001, it meant joining a family, a team, picking a side and sticking with it. A small group of us met up each month in a dingy meeting room in a run down hotel in Perth and had carefully minuted discussions about selection procedures, or consultations on landfill sites, or whatever. I imagine many of us didn’t even have an email address at that point.

Today, just as less and less extra-party political activity consists of going to minuted Wednesday evening meetings, I suspect that most Green members interact through email lists and discussions on Facebook threads. Why can’t someone who said that they ‘like’ the Green Party five months ago now click a couple of buttons, sign up as a Labour supporter, and vote for the leader? In the age of OKCupid, political polyamory is entirely plausible. It seems to me that modern parties will only thrive if they embrace this shift.

8) Electability is about more than policy popularity

There has been a significant debate about whether Jeremy Corbyn is electable. Strangely, both the left and right of the Labour party seem to have decided that the views of the public happen to coincide with their own; every side argues that their candidate is the one saying what voters want to hear.

All can cite some reasonable evidence. The left can cite the figures from polls on issues like the nationalisation of, well, pretty much all the things. The right can talk about attitudes on things like immigration.

Both, though, seem to miss the important point. Elections are as much about institutional support as they are about policy popularity. After all, if popular left wing policies were enough to win elections, Natalie Bennett would be Prime Minister.

Those on the left who point out that the SNP ran on an anti-austerity pro-immigrant ticket and swept the board need to acknowledge that they did so both on the crest of a wave of a vast social movement unleashed by the referendum, and from the pulpit of the Scottish government (though, of course, that means they had got into government in the first place).

The pertinent question isn’t about the popularity of Corbyn’s policies, or how relatively right or left they are or aren’t. It’s whether the pro-democratic institutions in Britain are ready for an all out assault on the British state or not. If the Miliband defeat teaches us anything, it’s that Labour leaders can’t win by on the one hand trying to rally the troops for an assault on the establishment and on the other trying to calm the nerves of that same establishment. If the Blair years teach us anything, it’s that there’s little point in a Labour government which doesn’t try to redistribute power.

Any brief assessment of the institutional power of the left in Britain - shattered unions, weak parties, co-opted NGOs, low levels of social solidarity - implies that an assault on the establishment will struggle. But...

9) Maybe it’s about building that movement

As Jeremy Gilbert points out in his excellent piece here on oD, it may be that the most sensible strategy for the left in Britain is to invest in building up this movement. After-all, as he points out, tacking to the right after 1983 failed to win Labour the 1987 and 1992 elections.

Blairism did, though, allow the dismantling of the institutions of power of the left, apart, arguably, from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Maybe the prerequisite to replacing neoliberalism with democracy in the UK is building those institutions anew. And it might well be that this will take 20 years. But at least that will lead us to a new place, where Labour’s strategy over the last 20 years just took us back to square one.

10) That means Corbyn embracing pluralism

If that’s the point of voting for Corbyn, then it means he needs to acknowledge the pluralism of modern social movement politics. Will he? We’ll be interviewing him here on oD in a couple of weeks’ time. We’ll do our best to find out.

11) It'll be Cooper or Corbyn

Burnham seems to have peaked prematurely, and got all of the flack for the equivication around the welfare reform vote. Cooper has very nearly caught him in constituency nominations and, I suspect, has a couple of rabbits up her sleeve. If anyone's going to beat Corbyn (which is looking less and less likely) I reckon it'll be her.

12) Why do both sides insist on living in the past?

This isn't 1945. It isn't 1964. It isn't 1974. It isn't 1983. And it isn't 1992. There are, of course, lessons to be learnt from each of those elections, but if that's your game, please stop cherry picking. If you think 1983 shows that Labour can't win on a left wing manifesto, then you have to explain why Labour did so much better in October 1974 than it did in 1987. If you're going to call Labour's '83 manifesto "the longest suicide note in history" then don't forget that the MP you're quoting broke the Labour whip for what is believed to be the first time in his 45 year career to vote against the Welfare Reform Bill.

On the day of the 1992 General Election, the world-wide-web had just had its first birthday, Shakespears Sister were at number one, the Berlin Wall hadn't yet been fully dismantled and the World Trade Organisation wouldn't be founded for three years. Around 12% of voters in 2020 hadn't been born yet, and by the next election, a third of us won't be old enough to have voted in 1992.

Since 1992, the Western world has been through the biggest economic boom in decades and then the biggest collapse since the dawn of industrial civilisation, trade union membership has collapsed yet people have become more connected than ever through new technologies. Jobs in factories have vanished. In the 1991 census, 94.1% of people in Britain identified as white. By 2011, this had fallen to 86.1%. By 2020, we can expect it to have fallen further.

I could tell a similar story about the 1983 election: fought in the midst of the Cold War, before the invention of the CD ROM and only a decade after the oil-shocks shook the social democratic consensus across the world; James Hansen hadn't yet given his famous evidence to the US Congress revealing the dangers of climate change and Brunei hadn't yet become independent from the UK. There are certainly things to learn from it, but if you think that 2020 is going to be 1983, you've not been paying attention for the last 32 years.

And if we want to learn from political history, then we're surely better going back to the years after previous economic collapses: the Long Depression from 1873-79 saw the first candidates emerge from the groupings which would form the Labour party. Let's hope that we manage to avoid the events of the 1930s.

The Labour centre and right endlessly accuse Jeremy Corbyn of harking back to the past - which in itself may in part be true. But in doing so, they reveal an obsession with 1983 and 1992 which show how much they live in carefully chosen moments of history, how unwilling they have been to grapple with the rapidly changing modern world.

13) We're not in Kansas anymore

The cut in Jeremy Corbyn's odds are said to be one of the biggest in British political history. Add that to the SNP surge, and the traditional rules of politics are clearly breaking down. Exactly how that will play out in the next five years, who knows. It'll be an interesting journey.

OurKingdom doesn’t have a billionaire proprietor telling us what to write - we rely on donations from readers like you. Please support us if you can.

Sideboxes Related stories:  What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’ Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

13 things about the Labour leadership election

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 23:11

What does the Labour leadership election tell us about the state of British politics?


1) Corbyn is currently ahead

The opinion polls, bookies, the turnout at public meetings, the anecdotal evidence from phone canvassers and the analysis of the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush after his lengthy conversations with key activists across the country could individually be dismissed. But the fact that they all point in the same direction implies something powerful. It seems reasonably safe now to say that Jeremy Corbyn is currently ahead in the race for Labour leader.

2) It’s not just the radical left voting for him

A month or so ago, I met up with an old university friend. He’d been involved in the students’ union a bit, which was how I met him. But largely, he was, and still is, a theatrical sort. His politics at the union were always a bit of a bellwether for me: on the left, environmentalist, kind, but never what I’d call radical: from the left, but not in a left bubble. Since university, he’s joined the Labour party, and I was a little surprised when he told me that he’d be voting for Jeremy Corbyn - more out of despair than enthusiasm.

I mention this because my impression is that it’s typical. The MP for Islington North is doing better than expected not just because the radical left is strong, though that’s true too, but because the soft left, which Jeremy Gilbert and Neal Lawson have both well described, seems to have given him its tentative backing - for the moment.

3) Being ahead at the moment doesn’t mean that Corbyn will win.

I can well believe that my friend will end up wavering, and stumping for one of the others - because of Corbyn's hesitant support for the EU, or fears about electability, or because one of the other candidates does something, anything, to inspire him. Or something.

More importantly, the Labour establishment will be doing everything they can to stop Jezmania. We can expect more and more attack stories, shriller and shriller denunciations, etc.

4) If they can’t stop Corbyn, there’s no way they could have beaten the Tories

Internal elections in political parties are a chance for candidates to flex their muscles - to show how good they are at fighting election campaigns. Corbyn’s success is in part built on the fact that the other three candidates look like they’d be incapable of inspiring a rabbit into its own warren. The reaction so far of the party establishment - most iconically wheeling out Tony Blair - seems practically designed to drive the membership into Corbyn’s arms.

It may well be that they turn this around. But it may well be that they don’t. And if they aren’t able to, then that tells us something significant: the Labour party establishment is so moribund, so wilted, and so stuck in the Nineties that there is absolutely no way they will be able to beat the Tories in 2020. In other words, if Corbyn wins, it won’t be that which will make Labour unelectable - it’s a sign that they were incapable of winning an election.

5) The poor centrist candidates are a product of the gutting of Labour

In 1997, Tony Banks joked:

“Do you ever get that scary feeling that there's more than one Peter Mandelson? What are they really doing in Millbank Tower? They tell us it's a communications centre. Well, I reckon they're making Mandelsons up there and getting ready to store them in that Millennium Dome in Greenwich. When the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 1999, millions of Mandelsons will emerge from the Dome and civilisation as we know it will be at an end.”

This was as much satire as surrealism. Mandleson had got a firm grip of the Labour selection process, and ensured that a very particular type of person was chosen to be an MP; so often people who would do what they would told, who had the uncanny ability to repeat the exact lines given to them by the HQ.

The aim was, in part, that none would provide a challenge to Blair and Brown, that there would be no troublemakers. The result was that when the New Labour leadership got old, there was no one able to take over. Burnham, Kendall and Cooper are all products of this process. Let’s face it. All look like they’re on a training programme for middle managers not quite ready for promotion. Each has their own qualities, but the fact that these have largely been overlooked is telling: whatever “it” is, they don’t have it.

This is a story which is perhaps most easily told through a single person - Tommy Shepherd. Before Mhairi Black’s maiden speech eclipsed all others, it was Shepherd’s which had got the most attention, with his name trending on twitter for the following hours. The speech was moving, charismatic and thoughtful.

None of this was any surprise to anyone familiar with Scottish politics - for years, Tommy Shepherd was a prominent figure both in the Scottish Labour Party, and as founder of the Stand Comedy Club, a hub of the Edinburgh festival. For years, Labour refused to select him, for fear that he wouldn’t always toe the line, wouldn’t always follow the leader. Eventually, Tommy, having been persuaded of the case for independence, joined the SNP, and almost immediately became one of its more prominent MPs.

The problem for the party’s centre now, then, is that after keeping out anyone with their own ideas, with their own sense of direction, the resultant generation of very capable followers and superb middle managers has come of age, they are left with no leader to follow. One simple reason that Corbyn is ahead is that none of the other candidates look like winners either. If Labour's going to be in opposition anyway, many members seem to feel, it may as well actually oppose.

6) The radical left has taken a party turn

I have lots of friends who, a year ago, would swear that they would never join a party - radical, active, but not through such formal or hierarchical structures. In the last six months, lots of these people have signed up to two - the Greens during the surge, and now Labour, to vote for Corbyn.

For me, this willingness to engage with structures is a positive shift; showing a desire to take and redistribute hard power, as well as confronting it. Others disagree. But either way, it's notable.

7) Party membership doesn’t mean what it used to

In an age where political sorts get emails from 38 Degrees, Avaaz, and Greenpeace; endless notifications on Facebook from a plethora of groups and pages and where the only contact they have from their trade union - if they’ve bothered to join one - is the occasional text asking them their opinion in some absurd survey, what does it mean to ‘join’ a political party?

When I first signed up as a Green in 2001, it meant joining a family, a team, picking a side and sticking with it. A small group of us met up each month in a dingy meeting room in a run down hotel in Perth and had carefully minuted discussions about selection procedures, or consultations on landfill sites, or whatever. I imagine many of us didn’t even have an email address at that point.

Today, just as less and less extra-party political activity consists of going to minuted Wednesday evening meetings, I suspect that most Green members interact through email lists and discussions on Facebook threads. Why can’t someone who said that they ‘like’ the Green Party five months ago now click a couple of buttons, sign up as a Labour supporter, and vote for the leader? In the age of OKCupid, political polyamory is entirely plausible. It seems to me that modern parties will only thrive if they embrace this shift.

8) Electability is about more than policy popularity

There has been a significant debate about whether Jeremy Corbyn is electable. Strangely, both the left and right of the Labour party seem to have decided that the views of the public happen to coincide with their own; every side argues that their candidate is the one saying what voters want to hear.

All can cite some reasonable evidence. The left can cite the figures from polls on issues like the nationalisation of, well, pretty much all the things. The right can talk about attitudes on things like immigration.

Both, though, seem to miss the important point. Elections are as much about institutional support as they are about policy popularity. After all, if popular left wing policies were enough to win elections, Natalie Bennett would be Prime Minister.

Those on the left who point out that the SNP ran on an anti-austerity pro-immigrant ticket and swept the board need to acknowledge that they did so both on the crest of a wave of a vast social movement unleashed by the referendum, and from the pulpit of the Scottish government (though, of course, that means they had got into government in the first place).

The pertinent question isn’t about the popularity of Corbyn’s policies, or how relatively right or left they are or aren’t. It’s whether the pro-democratic institutions in Britain are ready for an all out assault on the British state or not. If the Miliband defeat teaches us anything, it’s that Labour leaders can’t win by on the one hand trying to rally the troops for an assault on the establishment and on the other trying to calm the nerves of that same establishment. If the Blair years teach us anything, it’s that there’s little point in a Labour government which doesn’t try to redistribute power.

Any brief assessment of the institutional power of the left in Britain - shattered unions, weak parties, co-opted NGOs, low levels of social solidarity - implies that an assault on the establishment will struggle. But...

9) Maybe it’s about building that movement

As Jeremy Gilbert points out in his excellent piece here on oD, it may be that the most sensible strategy for the left in Britain is to invest in building up this movement. After-all, as he points out, tacking to the right after 1983 failed to win Labour the 1987 and 1992 elections.

Blairism did, though, allow the dismantling of the institutions of power of the left, apart, arguably, from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Maybe the prerequisite to replacing neoliberalism with democracy in the UK is building those institutions anew. And it might well be that this will take 20 years. But at least that will lead us to a new place, where Labour’s strategy over the last 20 years just took us back to square one.

10) That means Corbyn embracing pluralism

If that’s the point of voting for Corbyn, then it means he needs to acknowledge the pluralism of modern social movement politics. Will he? We’ll be interviewing him here on oD in a couple of weeks’ time. We’ll do our best to find out.

11) It'll be Cooper or Corbyn

Burnham seems to have peaked prematurely, and got all of the flack for the equivication around the welfare reform vote. Cooper has very nearly caught him in constituency nominations and, I suspect, has a couple of rabbits up her sleeve. If anyone's going to beat Corbyn (which is looking less and less likely) I reckon it'll be her.

12) Why do both sides insist on living in the past?

This isn't 1945. It isn't 1964. It isn't 1974. It isn't 1983. And it isn't 1992. There are, of course, lessons to be learnt from each of those elections, but if that's your game, please stop cherry picking. If you think 1983 shows that Labour can't win on a left wing manifesto, then you have to explain why Labour did so much better in October 1974 than it did in 1987. If you're going to call Labour's '83 manifesto "the longest suicide note in history" then don't forget that the MP you're quoting broke the Labour whip for what is believed to be the first time in his 45 year career to vote against the Welfare Reform Bill.

On the day of the 1992 General Election, the world-wide-web had just had its first birthday, Shakespears Sister were at number one, the Berlin Wall hadn't yet been fully dismantled and the World Trade Organisation wouldn't be founded for three years. Around 12% of voters in 2020 hadn't been born yet, and by the next election, a third of us won't be old enough to have voted in 1992.

Since 1992, the Western world has been through the biggest economic boom in decades and then the biggest collapse since the dawn of industrial civilisation, trade union membership has collapsed yet people have become more connected than ever through new technologies. Jobs in factories have vanished. In the 1991 census, 94.1% of people in Britain identified as white. By 2011, this had fallen to 86.1%. By 2020, we can expect it to have fallen further.

I could tell a similar story about the 1983 election: fought in the midst of the Cold War, before the invention of the CD ROM and only a decade after the oil-shocks shook the social democratic consensus across the world; James Hansen hadn't yet given his famous evidence to the US Congress revealing the dangers of climate change and Brunei hadn't yet become independent from the UK. There are certainly things to learn from it, but if you think that 2020 is going to be 1983, you've not been paying attention for the last 32 years.

And if we want to learn from political history, then we're surely better going back to the years after previous economic collapses: the Long Depression from 1873-79 saw the first candidates emerge from the groupings which would form the Labour party. Let's hope that we manage to avoid the events of the 1930s.

The Labour centre and right endlessly accuse Jeremy Corbyn of harking back to the past - which in itself may in part be true. But in doing so, they reveal an obsession with 1983 and 1992 which show how much they live in carefully chosen moments of history, how unwilling they have been to grapple with the rapidly changing modern world.

13) We're not in Kansas anymore

The cut in Jeremy Corbyn's odds are said to be one of the biggest in British political history. Add that to the SNP surge, and the traditional rules of politics are clearly breaking down. Exactly how that will play out in the next five years, who knows. It'll be an interesting journey.

OurKingdom doesn’t have a billionaire proprietor telling us what to write - we rely on donations from readers like you. Please support us if you can.

Sideboxes Related stories:  What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’ Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Salvaging the luminosity of a lost city

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 19:15

While the murder of hundreds of women in Juárez, Mexico, eventually attracted international attention – and with it, sensationalist headlines – photographer Itzel Aguilera’s work engages with the complex realities of her city.

"My idea was to begin to embrace the city," said photographer Itzel Aguilera, describing her attitude when she moved to Juárez in 2008, the first year it achieved notoriety as the most violent city in the world. In all my trips to Juárez, I had never heard anyone say those exact words. Aguilera arrived in the city with her husband and young daughters, Valeria and Dalia.

At the time Valeria was six years old and Dalia was seven months old. "What happened?" Aguilera asked. "We were going through a very difficult time, a period of true violence that was lived starting that year and continuing up to 2010. But in 2008 I already felt afraid. I began to realize that I didn't have very many options to go out."

In this situation, Aguilera began to consider what kind of photography she wanted to pursue. Living among some 22 million souls in Mexico City, her previous home, she had pursued both commercial projects and personal ones. Her series of portraits of the Mennonite community in northern Mexico are haunting black and whites that capture the joy of a life lived closely in connection with the earth. In Juárez, however, her work turned inward to represent the intimate details of daily life.

Photography by Itzel Aguilera

Aguilera explained, "I began to take photographs of our daily scenes. It wasn't a very forced confinement. I never felt claustrophobic. I didn't sit down and cry because I couldn't go out. I considered it a special situation in that, at that time, my daughters and I had to be protected in the house. We went out to the porch and to the patio."

And there is no way to explain it except to say that the series of photos of her daughters produced during the three highest years of violence in Juárez capture an almost unimaginable sense of peace, a world nestled within a world.

The sense of intimacy and tenderness captured in those photos of Valeria and Dalia is extraordinary, moments in between moments: the drawings that the two girls left on the steamy bathroom mirror after a shower, Dalia laughing on the patio in the rain, bodies napping in the sunlight. "The media is very cold and calculating, very into numbers. I would like to salvage the luminosity of scenes, of children. They are very candid photos," explained Aguilera.

Photography by Itzel Aguilera

"My photography was limited almost exclusively to exploring everyday images: spaces, the bedroom, games, the shower, water, laughter. After a few months, we extended our range—we went out to the patio, to the front porch of the house." This home photography project with her daughters was her way of coping with life in Juárez. "I needed to document those moments we lived in confinement," she said.

But news of the outside world filtered into the warm cocoon of home. As Aguilera watched how the city was represented in the national and international media, she asked herself, "How are you going to display your work? Who are you going to show it to? Because they are families, but they are people who have suffered a loss. For example, a father in one of the homes I visited was ravaged by alcohol. You see their loss, the fatality, the disgrace." Was there a way to represent the city, as damaged as it was, but still capture its humanity?

Photography by Itzel AguileraAguilera would stand out on her porch taking photos of the explosive Juárez sunsets and thinking about the news of the day. She began to connect each sunset, as intricate as a fingerprint, with a particular crime. "One Saturday or Sunday I had just read the terrible news that they had found the bodies of the Reyes Salazar brothers, who had disappeared. They were activists who had been persecuted for a long time. Their bodies were found in the Valle de Juárez. It was impossible for me to be there physically in solidarity. I remember that I took the camera, went to the patio, and looked up at the sky in lament, lament for what another part of Juárez was experiencing at that moment – the burial. I had the habit of going out to photograph the sky in the evening. I am at a point in the project where I am linking sublime images of the sky with a coincidental act of violence that occurred at that time."

Aguilera's photos capture cottony clouds swathed in the light at the end of the earth, the light of Juárez. The way that she has continued to embrace her city, to make it her home, and to find meaning in acts of everyday life is a thing of beauty.

When I was in Juárez in 2013, Aguilera took me to the official memorial park dedicated to the eight female victims whose bodies had been dumped in the Cotton Field in 2011, just in front of the city's Association of Maquiladoras building. The memorial, which cost 1.2 million dollars, was built to comply with recommendations made by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2009.

The court found Mexico guilty of not effectively investigating the abduction and murder of the women and ordered Juárez to create a national memorial for the victims, to pay reparations to the families, and to investigate the murders.

But on November 7, 2011, when the memorial was unveiled in a public ceremony, several of the victims' family members attended the event to protest and criticize city officials. They pointed out that the deaths and disappearances continued and that crimes were not being properly investigated or punished. Disappearances were disappearing, as the unfortunate wording of the anti-disappearance campaign suggested.

They were being officially ignored, unresolved, and forgotten to all those except the family members who lived that disappearance as a constant present, one that did not allow even the small peace that comes with being able to bury a body. On the way to the memorial, Itzel pointed out that it was surrounded by a high wall and was almost impossible to enter given that there was no parking lot.

"It is as if the government didn't want people to go there," she said. On the bars of the fence at the front of the park, I found posters asking for help finding missing girls who had disappeared in 2012: Perla, Esmeralda, María de la Luz, Jessica, Idall, and Nancy Iveth. How did a park dedicated to the memory of murdered women also become the place where residents taped posters of disappeared girls?

On my last night in the city in May 2013, I sat in an ice cream parlor with Aguilera and her daughters. Valeria and I ate cookies and cream ice cream while little Dalia attempted to eat a giant cone of lime ice cream that mostly ran down her face and onto her shirt.

Valeria proclaimed her love of ice cream and said, "Things I wish would never end: ice cream, fruit, my age." Then, sitting up straight in her chair, legs swinging beneath the table, she said, "But pollution and violence—I wish they would end."

This is an extract from Alice Driver's recent book More or Less Dead: Femicide, Haunting and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Slavenka Drakulić: violence, memory, and the nation Of canaries and coal mines The Handmaid's Tale of El Salvador A choir of lost voices: the murder of Loretta Saunders and Canada's missing women Missing and murdered: Am I next? Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Gender violence in the media: elusive reality Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Salvaging the luminosity of a lost city

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 19:15

While the murder of hundreds of women in Juárez, Mexico, eventually attracted international attention – and with it, sensationalist headlines – photographer Itzel Aguilera’s work engages with the complex realities of her city.

"My idea was to begin to embrace the city," said photographer Itzel Aguilera, describing her attitude when she moved to Juárez in 2008, the first year it achieved notoriety as the most violent city in the world. In all my trips to Juárez, I had never heard anyone say those exact words. Aguilera arrived in the city with her husband and young daughters, Valeria and Dalia.

At the time Valeria was six years old and Dalia was seven months old. "What happened?" Aguilera asked. "We were going through a very difficult time, a period of true violence that was lived starting that year and continuing up to 2010. But in 2008 I already felt afraid. I began to realize that I didn't have very many options to go out."

In this situation, Aguilera began to consider what kind of photography she wanted to pursue. Living among some 22 million souls in Mexico City, her previous home, she had pursued both commercial projects and personal ones. Her series of portraits of the Mennonite community in northern Mexico are haunting black and whites that capture the joy of a life lived closely in connection with the earth. In Juárez, however, her work turned inward to represent the intimate details of daily life.

Photography by Itzel Aguilera

Aguilera explained, "I began to take photographs of our daily scenes. It wasn't a very forced confinement. I never felt claustrophobic. I didn't sit down and cry because I couldn't go out. I considered it a special situation in that, at that time, my daughters and I had to be protected in the house. We went out to the porch and to the patio."

And there is no way to explain it except to say that the series of photos of her daughters produced during the three highest years of violence in Juárez capture an almost unimaginable sense of peace, a world nestled within a world.

The sense of intimacy and tenderness captured in those photos of Valeria and Dalia is extraordinary, moments in between moments: the drawings that the two girls left on the steamy bathroom mirror after a shower, Dalia laughing on the patio in the rain, bodies napping in the sunlight. "The media is very cold and calculating, very into numbers. I would like to salvage the luminosity of scenes, of children. They are very candid photos," explained Aguilera.

Photography by Itzel Aguilera

"My photography was limited almost exclusively to exploring everyday images: spaces, the bedroom, games, the shower, water, laughter. After a few months, we extended our range—we went out to the patio, to the front porch of the house." This home photography project with her daughters was her way of coping with life in Juárez. "I needed to document those moments we lived in confinement," she said.

But news of the outside world filtered into the warm cocoon of home. As Aguilera watched how the city was represented in the national and international media, she asked herself, "How are you going to display your work? Who are you going to show it to? Because they are families, but they are people who have suffered a loss. For example, a father in one of the homes I visited was ravaged by alcohol. You see their loss, the fatality, the disgrace." Was there a way to represent the city, as damaged as it was, but still capture its humanity?

Photography by Itzel AguileraAguilera would stand out on her porch taking photos of the explosive Juárez sunsets and thinking about the news of the day. She began to connect each sunset, as intricate as a fingerprint, with a particular crime. "One Saturday or Sunday I had just read the terrible news that they had found the bodies of the Reyes Salazar brothers, who had disappeared. They were activists who had been persecuted for a long time. Their bodies were found in the Valle de Juárez. It was impossible for me to be there physically in solidarity. I remember that I took the camera, went to the patio, and looked up at the sky in lament, lament for what another part of Juárez was experiencing at that moment – the burial. I had the habit of going out to photograph the sky in the evening. I am at a point in the project where I am linking sublime images of the sky with a coincidental act of violence that occurred at that time."

Aguilera's photos capture cottony clouds swathed in the light at the end of the earth, the light of Juárez. The way that she has continued to embrace her city, to make it her home, and to find meaning in acts of everyday life is a thing of beauty.

When I was in Juárez in 2013, Aguilera took me to the official memorial park dedicated to the eight female victims whose bodies had been dumped in the Cotton Field in 2011, just in front of the city's Association of Maquiladoras building. The memorial, which cost 1.2 million dollars, was built to comply with recommendations made by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2009.

The court found Mexico guilty of not effectively investigating the abduction and murder of the women and ordered Juárez to create a national memorial for the victims, to pay reparations to the families, and to investigate the murders.

But on November 7, 2011, when the memorial was unveiled in a public ceremony, several of the victims' family members attended the event to protest and criticize city officials. They pointed out that the deaths and disappearances continued and that crimes were not being properly investigated or punished. Disappearances were disappearing, as the unfortunate wording of the anti-disappearance campaign suggested.

They were being officially ignored, unresolved, and forgotten to all those except the family members who lived that disappearance as a constant present, one that did not allow even the small peace that comes with being able to bury a body. On the way to the memorial, Itzel pointed out that it was surrounded by a high wall and was almost impossible to enter given that there was no parking lot.

"It is as if the government didn't want people to go there," she said. On the bars of the fence at the front of the park, I found posters asking for help finding missing girls who had disappeared in 2012: Perla, Esmeralda, María de la Luz, Jessica, Idall, and Nancy Iveth. How did a park dedicated to the memory of murdered women also become the place where residents taped posters of disappeared girls?

On my last night in the city in May 2013, I sat in an ice cream parlor with Aguilera and her daughters. Valeria and I ate cookies and cream ice cream while little Dalia attempted to eat a giant cone of lime ice cream that mostly ran down her face and onto her shirt.

Valeria proclaimed her love of ice cream and said, "Things I wish would never end: ice cream, fruit, my age." Then, sitting up straight in her chair, legs swinging beneath the table, she said, "But pollution and violence—I wish they would end."

This is an extract from Alice Driver's recent book More or Less Dead: Femicide, Haunting and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Slavenka Drakulić: violence, memory, and the nation Of canaries and coal mines The Handmaid's Tale of El Salvador A choir of lost voices: the murder of Loretta Saunders and Canada's missing women Missing and murdered: Am I next? Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Gender violence in the media: elusive reality Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The previous sole superpower

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 16:42

A little history of Great Britain excerpted from Galeano's late-in-life masterpiece, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone.

Eduardo Galeano. Flickr/DONOSTIA KULTURA. Some rights reserved.Recently, Susan Bergholz, the devoted literary agent of the late Uruguayan writer and planetary great Eduardo Galeano, sent me this brief email: “A friend of Eduardo's and mine called yesterday to tell me, ‘Now we know where Eduardo went: he became pope!’” Somehow, that thought raised my spirits immeasurably. I was about to turn 71 and feeling my age as the dog days of summer approached. After all, when I flip through my address book—and yes, I’m old enough to have a “dumb” one filled out with that ancient potion, ink—it often reads like a book of the dead. I miss friends and authors I worked with like Chalmers Johnson and Jonathan Schell whose ways of thinking helped me make sense of our world. Eduardo has now entered that realm. I was once his English-language book editor and couldn’t be more proud of it. He remains one of my heroes.

When I’m in such moods, TomDispatch offers me an advantage few have. I can resuscitate the dead—and so, with Pope Francis’s excoriating words about our deteriorating planet in mind, I thought I might bring back from the grave the “pope” of my life. History had a strange way of spilling its secrets to Eduardo Galeano, who died in April, and in his late-in-life masterpiece, Mirrors, a history of humanity in 366 episodes, he took us from our first myths to late last night. He could blend the distant past and yesterday (or even tomorrow) in a fashion that took your breath away. Here, for instance, is a passage he wrote early in Mirrors on the “origin of writing” that captures the essence of those first scratches on clay tablets and of the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

“When Iraq was not yet Iraq, it was the birthplace of the first written words.

 

The words look like bird tracks. Masterful hands drew them in clay with sharpened canes.

 

Fire annihilates and rescues, kills and gives life, as do the gods, as do we. Fire hardened the clay and preserved the words. Thanks to fire, the clay tablets still tell what they told thousands of years ago in that land of two rivers.

 

In our days, George W. Bush, perhaps believing that writing was invented in Texas, launched with joyful impunity a war to exterminate Iraq. There were thousands upon thousands of victims, and not all of them were flesh and blood. A great deal of memory was murdered too.

 

Living history in the form of numerous clay tablets were stolen or destroyed by bombs.

 

One of the tablets said:

 

We are dust and nothing
All that we do is no more than wind.”

If George W. Bush did a remarkable impersonation of the (whirl)wind across the Greater Middle East, with results that grow more horrific by the day, here is a set of passages from Mirrors on the planet's previous superpower, a small island nation that caused its own kind of devastation. This little history of Great Britain from the Opium Wars to Darwin’s finches ends on a typically spectacular Galeano riff on the nature of humanity. My thanks go to his publisher, Nation Books, for allowing me to bring Eduardo alive again at TomDispatch. I hope his spirit continues to inhabit this planet for a long time to come. Tom Engelhardt

God’s masterpiece or the Devil’s bad joke?
Barbarians and apes—from the Opium Wars to the origin of the species

By Eduardo Galeano

[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).]

Origin of freedom of oppression

Opium poppy field. Flickr/United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.Opium was outlawed in China.

British merchants smuggled it in from India. Their diligent efforts led to a surge in the number of Chinese dependent on the mother of heroin and morphine, who charmed them with false happiness and ruined their lives.

The smugglers were fed up with the hindrances they faced at the hands of Chinese authorities. Developing the market required free trade, and free trade demanded war.

William Jardine, a generous sort, was the most powerful of the drug traffickers and vice president of the Medical Missionary Society, which offered treatment to the victims of the opium he sold.

In London, Jardine hired a few influential writers and journalists, including best-selling author Samuel Warren, to create a favorable environment for war. These communications professionals ran the cause of freedom high up the flagpole. Freedom of expression at the service of free trade: pamphlets and articles rained down upon British public opinion, exalting the sacrifice of the honest citizens who challenged Chinese despotism, risking jail, torture, and death in that kingdom of cruelty.

The proper climate established, the storm was unleashed. The Opium War lasted, with a few interruptions, from 1839 to 1860.

Our lady of the seas, narco Queen

Exhibit at the Opium War Museum in Dongguan, China. Flickr/Chris. Some rights reserved.The sale of people had been the juiciest enterprise in the British Empire. But happiness, as everyone knows, does not last. After three prosperous centuries, the Crown had to pull out of the slave trade, and selling drugs came to be the most lucrative source of imperial glory.

Queen Victoria was obliged to break down China’s closed doors. On board the ships of the Royal Navy, Christ’s missionaries joined the warriors of free trade. Behind them came the merchant fleet, boats that once carried black Africans, now filled with poison.

In the first stage of the Opium War, the British Empire took over the island of Hong Kong. The colorful governor, Sir John Bowring, declared:

“Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade.”

Here lay China 

Pavillion and stone arch among the Old Summer Palace ruins. Wikimedia/Shizhao. Some rights reserved.Outside its borders the Chinese traded little and were not in the habit of waging war.

Merchants and warriors were looked down upon. “Barbarians” was what they called the English and the few Europeans they met.

And so it was foretold. China had to fall, defeated by the deadliest fleet of warships in the world, and by mortars that perforated a dozen enemy soldiers in formation with a single shell.

In 1860, after razing ports and cities, the British, accompanied by the French, entered Beijing, sacked the Summer Palace, and told their colonial troops recruited in India and Senegal they could help themselves to the leftovers.The palace, center of the Manchu Dynasty’s power, was in reality many palaces, more than 200 residences and pagodas set among lakes and gardens, not unlike paradise. The victors stole everything, absolutely everything: furniture and drapes, jade sculptures, silk dresses, pearl necklaces, gold clocks, diamond bracelets... All that survived was the library, plus a telescope and a rifle that the king of England had given China 70 years before.

Then they burned the looted buildings. Flames reddened the earth and sky for many days and nights, and all that had been became nothing.

Lootie

Ruins in Yuan Ming Yuan, looted and burned by British and French troops in 1860. Flickr/Philip. R. Some rights reserved.Lord Elgin, who ordered the burning of the imperial palace, arrived in Beijing on a litter carried by eight scarlet-liveried porters and escorted by 400 horsemen. This Lord Elgin, son of the Lord Elgin who sold the sculptures of the Parthenon to the British Museum, donated to that same museum the entire palace library, which had been saved from the looting and fire for that very reason. And soon in another palace, Buckingham, Queen Victoria was presented with the gold and jade scepter of the vanquished king, as well as the first Pekinese in Europe. The little dog was also part of the booty. They named it “Lootie.”

China was obliged to pay an immense sum in reparations to its executioners, since incorporating it into the community of civilized nations had turned out to be so expensive. Quickly, China became the principal market for opium and the largest customer for Lancashire cloth.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Chinese workshops produced one-third of all the world’s manufactures. At the end of the nineteenth century, they produced 6%.

Then China was invaded by Japan. Conquest was not difficult. The country was drugged and humiliated and ruined.

Natural disasters

Gobi desert. Flickr/Kit Ng. Some rights reserved.An empty desert of footsteps and voices, nothing but dust stirred by the wind.

Many Chinese hang themselves, rather than killing to kill their hunger or waiting for hunger to kill them.

In London, the British merchants who triumphed in the Opium War establish the China Famine Relief Fund.

This charitable institution promises to evangelize the pagan nation via the stomach: food sent by Jesus will rain from heaven.

In 1879, after three years without rain, the Chinese number 15 million fewer.

Other natural disasters

The effects of famine 1879. Wikimedia Commons/Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Some rights reserved.In 1879, after three years without rain, the Indians number nine million fewer.

It is the fault of nature:

“These are natural disasters,” say those who know.

But in India during these atrocious years, the market is more punishing than the drought.

Under the law of the market, freedom oppresses. Free trade, which obliges you to sell, forbids you to eat.

India is a not a poorhouse, but a colonial plantation. The market rules. Wise is the invisible hand, which makes and unmakes, and no one should dare correct it.

The British government confines itself to helping a few of the moribund die in work camps it calls “relief camps,” and to demanding the taxes that the peasants cannot pay. The peasants lose their lands, sold for a pittance, and for a pittance they sell the hands that work it, while shortages send the price of grain hoarded by merchants sky-high.

Exporters do a booming trade. Mountains of wheat and rice pile up on the wharves of London and Liverpool. India, starving colony, does not eat, but it feeds. The British eat the Indians' hunger.

On the market this merchandise called hunger is highly valued, since it broadens investment opportunities, reduces the cost of production, and raises the price of goods.

Natural glories

Famine in India under colonial rule. Wikimedia Commons/Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Some rights reserved.Queen Victoria was the most enthusiastic admirer and the only reader of the verses of Lord Lytton, her viceroy in India.

Moved by literary gratitude or patriotic fervor, the viceregal poet held an enormous banquet in Victoria’s honor when she was proclaimed empress. Lord Lytton invited 70,000 guests to his palace in Delhi for seven days and seven nights.

According to the Times, this was “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history.”

At the height of the drought, when fields baked by day and froze by night, the viceroy arose at the banquet to read out an upbeat message from Queen Victoria, who predicted for her Indian subjects “happiness, prosperity, and welfare.”

English journalist William Digby, who happened to be present, calculated that about 100,000 Indians died of hunger during the seven days and seven nights of the great feast.

Upstairs, downstairs

World map glorifying the late-19th-century British Empire. Norman B. Flickr/Leventhal Map Center. Some rights reserved.In a slow and complicated ceremony marked by the back and forth of speeches, presentation of insignia, and exchange of offerings, India’s princes became English gentlemen and swore loyalty to Queen Victoria. For these vassal princes, the bartering of gifts was, according to well-informed sources, a trading of bribes for tribute.

The numerous princes lived at the summit of the caste pyramid, a system reproduced and perfected by British imperial power.

The empire did not need to divide to rule. Long-sacred social, racial, and cultural divisions were history’s bequest.

From 1872 on, the British census classified the population of India according to caste. Imperial rule thus not only reaffirmed the legitimacy of this national tradition, but also used it to organize an even more stratified and rigid society. No policeman could have dreamed up a better way to control the function and destiny of each person. The empire codified hierarchies and servitudes, and forbade any and all from stepping out of place.

Calloused hands

The Palace at Mysore. Flickr/Natesh Ramasamy. Some rights reserved.The princes who served the British Crown lived in perpetual despair over the scarcity of tigers in the jungle and the abundance of jealousy in the harem.

In the twentieth century, they still consoled themselves as best they could:

the maharaja of Bharatpur bought all the Rolls-Royces on the market in London and used them for garbage collection;

the one from Junagadh had many dogs, each with his own room, servant, and telephone;

the one from Alwar set fire to the racetrack when his pony lost a race;

the one from Kapurthala built an exact replica of the Palace of Versailles;

the one from Mysore built an exact replica of Windsor Palace;

the one from Gwalior bought a miniature gold and silver train that ran about the palace dining room carrying salt and spices to his guests;

the cannons of the maharaja of Baroda were made of solid gold;

and for a paperweight the one from Hyderabad used a 184-carat diamond.

Darwin’s voyage

Galapagos tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Flickr/Dallas Krentzel. Some rights reserved.Young Charles Darwin did not know what to do with his life. His father encouraged him thus:

“You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

At the end of 1831, he left.

After five years navigating South America, the Galapagos, and other far-flung realms, he returned to London. He brought with him three giant tortoises, one of which died in the year 2007 in a zoo in Australia.

 He came back a different man. Even his father noticed:

“Why the shape of his head is quite altered!”

He brought back more than tortoises. He brought questions. His head was teeming with questions.

Darwin’s questions

Human evolution. Flickr/Vector Open Stock. Some rights reserved.Why does the wooly mammoth have a thick coat? Could the mammoth be an elephant that found a way to stay warm when the ice age set in?

Why is the giraffe’s neck so long? Could it be because over time it got stretched in order to reach fruit high in the treetops?

Were the rabbits that run in the snow always white, or did they become white to fool the foxes?

Why does the finch have a different beak depending on where it lives? Could it be that their beaks adapted bit by bit to the environment through a long evolutionary process, so they could crack open fruits, catch larvae, drink nectar?

Does the incredibly long pistil of the orchid indicate that there are butterflies nearby whose remarkably long tongues are as long as the pistil that awaits them?

No doubt it was a thousand and one questions like these which, with the passage of years and doubts and contradictions, became the pages of his explosive book on the origin of the species and the evolution of life in the world.

Blasphemous notion, intolerable lesson in humility: Darwin revealed that God did not create the world in seven days, nor did He model us in His image and likeness.

Such horrible news was not well received. Who did this fellow think he was to correct the Bible?

Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, asked Darwin’s readers:

“Are you descended from the apes on your grandfather’s side or your grandmother’s?”

I’ll show you the world

Zanzibar sunset. Flickr/Mitchpa1984. Some rights reserved.Darwin liked to cite James Coleman’s travel notes.

No one better described the fauna of the Indian Ocean,

the sky above flaming Vesuvius,

the glow of Arabian nights,

the color of the heat in Zanzibar,

the air in Ceylon, which is made of cinnamon,

the winter shadows of Edinburgh,

and the grayness of Russian jails.

Preceded by his white cane, Coleman went around the world, from tip to toe.

This traveler, who did so much to help us see, was blind.

“I see with my feet,” he said.

Only human

"Town of pollution". Flickr/shinobu sugiyama. Some rights reserved.Darwin told us we are cousins of the apes, not the angels. Later on, we learned we emerged from Africa’s jungle and that no stork ever carried us from Paris. And not long ago we discovered that our genes are almost identical to those of mice.

Now we can’t tell if we are God’s masterpiece or the devil’s bad joke. We puny humans:

exterminators of everything,

hunters of our own,

creators of the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the neutron bomb, which is the healthiest of all bombs since it vaporizes people and leaves objects intact,

we, the only animals who invent machines,

the only ones who live at the service of the machines they invent,

the only ones who devour their own home,

the only ones who poison the water they drink and the earth that feeds them,

the only ones capable of renting or selling themselves, or renting or selling their fellow humans,

the only ones who kill for fun,

the only ones who torture,

the only ones who rape.

And also

the only ones who laugh,

the only ones who daydream,

the ones who make silk from the spit of a worm,

the ones who find beauty in rubbish,

the ones who discover colors beyond the rainbow,

the ones who furnish the voices of the world with new music,

and who create words so that

neither reality nor memory will be mute.

This piece, including Tom Engelhardt's intro, is reposted from TomDispatch.com with that site's permission.

This post is excerpted from Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone Copyright © 2009 by Eduardo Galeano; translation copyright © 2009 by Mark Fried. Published by Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Group, New York, N.Y. Originally published in the Spanish language in 2008 by Siglo XXI Editores (Spain and Mexico) and Ediciones del Chanchito (Uruguay). By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City, and Lamy, N.M. All rights reserved.

Sideboxes Related stories:  "Voices of Time: A Life in Stories", Eduardo Galeano Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The previous sole superpower

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 16:42

A little history of Great Britain excerpted from Galeano's late-in-life masterpiece, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone.

Eduardo Galeano. Flickr/DONOSTIA KULTURA. Some rights reserved.Recently, Susan Bergholz, the devoted literary agent of the late Uruguayan writer and planetary great Eduardo Galeano, sent me this brief email: “A friend of Eduardo's and mine called yesterday to tell me, ‘Now we know where Eduardo went: he became pope!’” Somehow, that thought raised my spirits immeasurably. I was about to turn 71 and feeling my age as the dog days of summer approached. After all, when I flip through my address book—and yes, I’m old enough to have a “dumb” one filled out with that ancient potion, ink—it often reads like a book of the dead. I miss friends and authors I worked with like Chalmers Johnson and Jonathan Schell whose ways of thinking helped me make sense of our world. Eduardo has now entered that realm. I was once his English-language book editor and couldn’t be more proud of it. He remains one of my heroes.

When I’m in such moods, TomDispatch offers me an advantage few have. I can resuscitate the dead—and so, with Pope Francis’s excoriating words about our deteriorating planet in mind, I thought I might bring back from the grave the “pope” of my life. History had a strange way of spilling its secrets to Eduardo Galeano, who died in April, and in his late-in-life masterpiece, Mirrors, a history of humanity in 366 episodes, he took us from our first myths to late last night. He could blend the distant past and yesterday (or even tomorrow) in a fashion that took your breath away. Here, for instance, is a passage he wrote early in Mirrors on the “origin of writing” that captures the essence of those first scratches on clay tablets and of the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

“When Iraq was not yet Iraq, it was the birthplace of the first written words.

 

The words look like bird tracks. Masterful hands drew them in clay with sharpened canes.

 

Fire annihilates and rescues, kills and gives life, as do the gods, as do we. Fire hardened the clay and preserved the words. Thanks to fire, the clay tablets still tell what they told thousands of years ago in that land of two rivers.

 

In our days, George W. Bush, perhaps believing that writing was invented in Texas, launched with joyful impunity a war to exterminate Iraq. There were thousands upon thousands of victims, and not all of them were flesh and blood. A great deal of memory was murdered too.

 

Living history in the form of numerous clay tablets were stolen or destroyed by bombs.

 

One of the tablets said:

 

We are dust and nothing
All that we do is no more than wind.”

If George W. Bush did a remarkable impersonation of the (whirl)wind across the Greater Middle East, with results that grow more horrific by the day, here is a set of passages from Mirrors on the planet's previous superpower, a small island nation that caused its own kind of devastation. This little history of Great Britain from the Opium Wars to Darwin’s finches ends on a typically spectacular Galeano riff on the nature of humanity. My thanks go to his publisher, Nation Books, for allowing me to bring Eduardo alive again at TomDispatch. I hope his spirit continues to inhabit this planet for a long time to come. Tom Engelhardt

God’s masterpiece or the Devil’s bad joke?
Barbarians and apes—from the Opium Wars to the origin of the species

By Eduardo Galeano

[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).]

Origin of freedom of oppression

Opium poppy field. Flickr/United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.Opium was outlawed in China.

British merchants smuggled it in from India. Their diligent efforts led to a surge in the number of Chinese dependent on the mother of heroin and morphine, who charmed them with false happiness and ruined their lives.

The smugglers were fed up with the hindrances they faced at the hands of Chinese authorities. Developing the market required free trade, and free trade demanded war.

William Jardine, a generous sort, was the most powerful of the drug traffickers and vice president of the Medical Missionary Society, which offered treatment to the victims of the opium he sold.

In London, Jardine hired a few influential writers and journalists, including best-selling author Samuel Warren, to create a favorable environment for war. These communications professionals ran the cause of freedom high up the flagpole. Freedom of expression at the service of free trade: pamphlets and articles rained down upon British public opinion, exalting the sacrifice of the honest citizens who challenged Chinese despotism, risking jail, torture, and death in that kingdom of cruelty.

The proper climate established, the storm was unleashed. The Opium War lasted, with a few interruptions, from 1839 to 1860.

Our lady of the seas, narco Queen

Exhibit at the Opium War Museum in Dongguan, China. Flickr/Chris. Some rights reserved.The sale of people had been the juiciest enterprise in the British Empire. But happiness, as everyone knows, does not last. After three prosperous centuries, the Crown had to pull out of the slave trade, and selling drugs came to be the most lucrative source of imperial glory.

Queen Victoria was obliged to break down China’s closed doors. On board the ships of the Royal Navy, Christ’s missionaries joined the warriors of free trade. Behind them came the merchant fleet, boats that once carried black Africans, now filled with poison.

In the first stage of the Opium War, the British Empire took over the island of Hong Kong. The colorful governor, Sir John Bowring, declared:

“Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade.”

Here lay China 

Pavillion and stone arch among the Old Summer Palace ruins. Wikimedia/Shizhao. Some rights reserved.Outside its borders the Chinese traded little and were not in the habit of waging war.

Merchants and warriors were looked down upon. “Barbarians” was what they called the English and the few Europeans they met.

And so it was foretold. China had to fall, defeated by the deadliest fleet of warships in the world, and by mortars that perforated a dozen enemy soldiers in formation with a single shell.

In 1860, after razing ports and cities, the British, accompanied by the French, entered Beijing, sacked the Summer Palace, and told their colonial troops recruited in India and Senegal they could help themselves to the leftovers.The palace, center of the Manchu Dynasty’s power, was in reality many palaces, more than 200 residences and pagodas set among lakes and gardens, not unlike paradise. The victors stole everything, absolutely everything: furniture and drapes, jade sculptures, silk dresses, pearl necklaces, gold clocks, diamond bracelets... All that survived was the library, plus a telescope and a rifle that the king of England had given China 70 years before.

Then they burned the looted buildings. Flames reddened the earth and sky for many days and nights, and all that had been became nothing.

Lootie

Ruins in Yuan Ming Yuan, looted and burned by British and French troops in 1860. Flickr/Philip. R. Some rights reserved.Lord Elgin, who ordered the burning of the imperial palace, arrived in Beijing on a litter carried by eight scarlet-liveried porters and escorted by 400 horsemen. This Lord Elgin, son of the Lord Elgin who sold the sculptures of the Parthenon to the British Museum, donated to that same museum the entire palace library, which had been saved from the looting and fire for that very reason. And soon in another palace, Buckingham, Queen Victoria was presented with the gold and jade scepter of the vanquished king, as well as the first Pekinese in Europe. The little dog was also part of the booty. They named it “Lootie.”

China was obliged to pay an immense sum in reparations to its executioners, since incorporating it into the community of civilized nations had turned out to be so expensive. Quickly, China became the principal market for opium and the largest customer for Lancashire cloth.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Chinese workshops produced one-third of all the world’s manufactures. At the end of the nineteenth century, they produced 6%.

Then China was invaded by Japan. Conquest was not difficult. The country was drugged and humiliated and ruined.

Natural disasters

Gobi desert. Flickr/Kit Ng. Some rights reserved.An empty desert of footsteps and voices, nothing but dust stirred by the wind.

Many Chinese hang themselves, rather than killing to kill their hunger or waiting for hunger to kill them.

In London, the British merchants who triumphed in the Opium War establish the China Famine Relief Fund.

This charitable institution promises to evangelize the pagan nation via the stomach: food sent by Jesus will rain from heaven.

In 1879, after three years without rain, the Chinese number 15 million fewer.

Other natural disasters

The effects of famine 1879. Wikimedia Commons/Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Some rights reserved.In 1879, after three years without rain, the Indians number nine million fewer.

It is the fault of nature:

“These are natural disasters,” say those who know.

But in India during these atrocious years, the market is more punishing than the drought.

Under the law of the market, freedom oppresses. Free trade, which obliges you to sell, forbids you to eat.

India is a not a poorhouse, but a colonial plantation. The market rules. Wise is the invisible hand, which makes and unmakes, and no one should dare correct it.

The British government confines itself to helping a few of the moribund die in work camps it calls “relief camps,” and to demanding the taxes that the peasants cannot pay. The peasants lose their lands, sold for a pittance, and for a pittance they sell the hands that work it, while shortages send the price of grain hoarded by merchants sky-high.

Exporters do a booming trade. Mountains of wheat and rice pile up on the wharves of London and Liverpool. India, starving colony, does not eat, but it feeds. The British eat the Indians' hunger.

On the market this merchandise called hunger is highly valued, since it broadens investment opportunities, reduces the cost of production, and raises the price of goods.

Natural glories

Famine in India under colonial rule. Wikimedia Commons/Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Some rights reserved.Queen Victoria was the most enthusiastic admirer and the only reader of the verses of Lord Lytton, her viceroy in India.

Moved by literary gratitude or patriotic fervor, the viceregal poet held an enormous banquet in Victoria’s honor when she was proclaimed empress. Lord Lytton invited 70,000 guests to his palace in Delhi for seven days and seven nights.

According to the Times, this was “the most colossal and expensive meal in world history.”

At the height of the drought, when fields baked by day and froze by night, the viceroy arose at the banquet to read out an upbeat message from Queen Victoria, who predicted for her Indian subjects “happiness, prosperity, and welfare.”

English journalist William Digby, who happened to be present, calculated that about 100,000 Indians died of hunger during the seven days and seven nights of the great feast.

Upstairs, downstairs

World map glorifying the late-19th-century British Empire. Norman B. Flickr/Leventhal Map Center. Some rights reserved.In a slow and complicated ceremony marked by the back and forth of speeches, presentation of insignia, and exchange of offerings, India’s princes became English gentlemen and swore loyalty to Queen Victoria. For these vassal princes, the bartering of gifts was, according to well-informed sources, a trading of bribes for tribute.

The numerous princes lived at the summit of the caste pyramid, a system reproduced and perfected by British imperial power.

The empire did not need to divide to rule. Long-sacred social, racial, and cultural divisions were history’s bequest.

From 1872 on, the British census classified the population of India according to caste. Imperial rule thus not only reaffirmed the legitimacy of this national tradition, but also used it to organize an even more stratified and rigid society. No policeman could have dreamed up a better way to control the function and destiny of each person. The empire codified hierarchies and servitudes, and forbade any and all from stepping out of place.

Calloused hands

The Palace at Mysore. Flickr/Natesh Ramasamy. Some rights reserved.The princes who served the British Crown lived in perpetual despair over the scarcity of tigers in the jungle and the abundance of jealousy in the harem.

In the twentieth century, they still consoled themselves as best they could:

the maharaja of Bharatpur bought all the Rolls-Royces on the market in London and used them for garbage collection;

the one from Junagadh had many dogs, each with his own room, servant, and telephone;

the one from Alwar set fire to the racetrack when his pony lost a race;

the one from Kapurthala built an exact replica of the Palace of Versailles;

the one from Mysore built an exact replica of Windsor Palace;

the one from Gwalior bought a miniature gold and silver train that ran about the palace dining room carrying salt and spices to his guests;

the cannons of the maharaja of Baroda were made of solid gold;

and for a paperweight the one from Hyderabad used a 184-carat diamond.

Darwin’s voyage

Galapagos tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Flickr/Dallas Krentzel. Some rights reserved.Young Charles Darwin did not know what to do with his life. His father encouraged him thus:

“You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

At the end of 1831, he left.

After five years navigating South America, the Galapagos, and other far-flung realms, he returned to London. He brought with him three giant tortoises, one of which died in the year 2007 in a zoo in Australia.

 He came back a different man. Even his father noticed:

“Why the shape of his head is quite altered!”

He brought back more than tortoises. He brought questions. His head was teeming with questions.

Darwin’s questions

Human evolution. Flickr/Vector Open Stock. Some rights reserved.Why does the wooly mammoth have a thick coat? Could the mammoth be an elephant that found a way to stay warm when the ice age set in?

Why is the giraffe’s neck so long? Could it be because over time it got stretched in order to reach fruit high in the treetops?

Were the rabbits that run in the snow always white, or did they become white to fool the foxes?

Why does the finch have a different beak depending on where it lives? Could it be that their beaks adapted bit by bit to the environment through a long evolutionary process, so they could crack open fruits, catch larvae, drink nectar?

Does the incredibly long pistil of the orchid indicate that there are butterflies nearby whose remarkably long tongues are as long as the pistil that awaits them?

No doubt it was a thousand and one questions like these which, with the passage of years and doubts and contradictions, became the pages of his explosive book on the origin of the species and the evolution of life in the world.

Blasphemous notion, intolerable lesson in humility: Darwin revealed that God did not create the world in seven days, nor did He model us in His image and likeness.

Such horrible news was not well received. Who did this fellow think he was to correct the Bible?

Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, asked Darwin’s readers:

“Are you descended from the apes on your grandfather’s side or your grandmother’s?”

I’ll show you the world

Zanzibar sunset. Flickr/Mitchpa1984. Some rights reserved.Darwin liked to cite James Coleman’s travel notes.

No one better described the fauna of the Indian Ocean,

the sky above flaming Vesuvius,

the glow of Arabian nights,

the color of the heat in Zanzibar,

the air in Ceylon, which is made of cinnamon,

the winter shadows of Edinburgh,

and the grayness of Russian jails.

Preceded by his white cane, Coleman went around the world, from tip to toe.

This traveler, who did so much to help us see, was blind.

“I see with my feet,” he said.

Only human

"Town of pollution". Flickr/shinobu sugiyama. Some rights reserved.Darwin told us we are cousins of the apes, not the angels. Later on, we learned we emerged from Africa’s jungle and that no stork ever carried us from Paris. And not long ago we discovered that our genes are almost identical to those of mice.

Now we can’t tell if we are God’s masterpiece or the devil’s bad joke. We puny humans:

exterminators of everything,

hunters of our own,

creators of the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the neutron bomb, which is the healthiest of all bombs since it vaporizes people and leaves objects intact,

we, the only animals who invent machines,

the only ones who live at the service of the machines they invent,

the only ones who devour their own home,

the only ones who poison the water they drink and the earth that feeds them,

the only ones capable of renting or selling themselves, or renting or selling their fellow humans,

the only ones who kill for fun,

the only ones who torture,

the only ones who rape.

And also

the only ones who laugh,

the only ones who daydream,

the ones who make silk from the spit of a worm,

the ones who find beauty in rubbish,

the ones who discover colors beyond the rainbow,

the ones who furnish the voices of the world with new music,

and who create words so that

neither reality nor memory will be mute.

This piece, including Tom Engelhardt's intro, is reposted from TomDispatch.com with that site's permission.

This post is excerpted from Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone Copyright © 2009 by Eduardo Galeano; translation copyright © 2009 by Mark Fried. Published by Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Group, New York, N.Y. Originally published in the Spanish language in 2008 by Siglo XXI Editores (Spain and Mexico) and Ediciones del Chanchito (Uruguay). By permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City, and Lamy, N.M. All rights reserved.

Sideboxes Related stories:  "Voices of Time: A Life in Stories", Eduardo Galeano Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Australia's cruel treatment of gay asylum-seekers

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 16:23

Australia continues to resettle homosexual refugees in homophobic Papua New Guinea. Gay men seeking asylum are both required yet unable to declare their sexuality for fear of persecution.

RefugeesArePeople Perth walk. Flickr/Louise Coghill. Some rights reserved.It’s no secret that Australia’s policy of mandatory and indefinite offshore detention is harming asylum seekers. Men detained in the Manus processing centre have died. Women and children detained on Nauru have been abused. The United Nations have repeatedly assessed conditions in the camps as in violation of basic standards of human rights.

But what makes these policies even crueller is their inflexible application. Gay asylum seekers face particular dangers under these policies: for example, gay men have been sent to Papua New Guinea, a country which has criminalised consensual homosexual sex between males.

Australian law now mandates that all asylum seekers arriving by boat should either be sent to Nauru or PNG’s Manus Island for processing. While families, women and children have been sent to Nauru, over 1000 single adult men have been transferred to Manus Island. If they are found to be refugees, they may then be resettled in PNG. Yet PNG’s criminal code makes it a serious criminal offence for a man to have consensual sex with another man, an act deemed to be ‘against the order of nature’. The penalty for such an offence is imprisonment of up to 14 years.

Young Liberty for Law Reform recently hosted an event at Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival to draw attention to the plight of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) asylum seekers under Australia’s current mandatory offshore processing and resettlement policy.

Police remove Christians from prayer sit-in for asylum seekers. Flickr/Jeff Tan. Some rights reserved.Determining refugee claims on the basis of sexuality-based persecution is a challenging and complex process at the best of times. According to LGBTQI rights advocate Senthorun Raj and barrister Kristen Walker SC, Australia’s form in determining sexuality-based refugee claims isn’t great because of decision makers’ failure to understand the complexity, fluidity and diverse nature of cultural and sexual identity. Decision makers have often relied on western-centric homosexual stereotypes to assess applications. Applicants have been questioned about their knowledge of the gay club scene in their country of origin or the music of ‘gay icons’ like Madonna.

The complex process for determining sexuality-based refugee claims is made infinitely more challenging because PNG criminalises conduct which may need to be disclosed in the course of substantiating such claim. Same-sex attracted asylum seekers sent to PNG for processing are caught in a catch-22 situation. Those who wish to make a claim for refugee status on the basis of their sexual orientation need to disclose it. However they face the possibility of discrimination and persecution under PNG’s laws if they do so. 

On arrival to Manus Island, all asylum seekers are made aware of the attitudes of the PNG government towards consensual sex between men. For instance, The Guardian reported last year that an orientation given to newly arrived asylum seekers at Manus Island contained an image of two men kissing with a large red cross through it accompanied by a warning that “homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guinea. People have been imprisoned or killed for performing homosexual acts.”

Citizens for Refugees Banner. Flickr/Cheryl Howard. Some rights reserved.Such warnings are clearly not conducive to men – indefinitely detained on a remote island in harsh conditions – fully, frankly and persuasively disclosing conduct which they’ve just been told is a crime. Nevertheless, the outcome of the refugee claim, and indeed their lives, may well depend on them doing so.

Dame Carol Kidu – a former PNG Member of Parliament and chair of PNG’s expert panel on refugee resettlement policy – reported that while PNG’s anti-homosexual laws are rarely used, they may still be abused. The mere existence of such laws means that asylum seekers and resettled refugees may face intimidation, threats, fear and violence, with no real recourse to authorities due to the possibility of facing prison time.

The resettlement of refugees in PNG will already be challenging. Dame Carol noted that while many parts of Papuan civil society – such as local churches and community groups – expressed their willingness to try and support the integration of refugees into PNG society, negative stereotypes are still widespread. Many Papuans still consider asylum seekers to be ‘terrorists’, while many of the asylum seekers view the Papuans as ‘cannibals’. Given PNG's criminalisation of homosexuality, the situation will be even worse for LGBTQI refugees, making any chance of successful resettlement extremely unlikely.

Processing and resettling gay men in a country that continues to persecute people on the basis of this very attribute is not only cruel and unnecessary, it is also a breach of international law. As a signatory to the Refugee Convention and other important human rights treaties, Australia is bound to not return a person to a state where their lives or freedom may be threatened. This is exactly what we are doing by sending gay men to a country that criminalises consensual sex between men. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The sea is full of bodies Country or region:  Australia Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Australia's cruel treatment of gay asylum-seekers

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 16:23

Australia continues to resettle homosexual refugees in homophobic Papua New Guinea. Gay men seeking asylum are both required yet unable to declare their sexuality for fear of persecution.

RefugeesArePeople Perth walk. Flickr/Louise Coghill. Some rights reserved.It’s no secret that Australia’s policy of mandatory and indefinite offshore detention is harming asylum seekers. Men detained in the Manus processing centre have died. Women and children detained on Nauru have been abused. The United Nations have repeatedly assessed conditions in the camps as in violation of basic standards of human rights.

But what makes these policies even crueller is their inflexible application. Gay asylum seekers face particular dangers under these policies: for example, gay men have been sent to Papua New Guinea, a country which has criminalised consensual homosexual sex between males.

Australian law now mandates that all asylum seekers arriving by boat should either be sent to Nauru or PNG’s Manus Island for processing. While families, women and children have been sent to Nauru, over 1000 single adult men have been transferred to Manus Island. If they are found to be refugees, they may then be resettled in PNG. Yet PNG’s criminal code makes it a serious criminal offence for a man to have consensual sex with another man, an act deemed to be ‘against the order of nature’. The penalty for such an offence is imprisonment of up to 14 years.

Young Liberty for Law Reform recently hosted an event at Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival to draw attention to the plight of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) asylum seekers under Australia’s current mandatory offshore processing and resettlement policy.

Police remove Christians from prayer sit-in for asylum seekers. Flickr/Jeff Tan. Some rights reserved.Determining refugee claims on the basis of sexuality-based persecution is a challenging and complex process at the best of times. According to LGBTQI rights advocate Senthorun Raj and barrister Kristen Walker SC, Australia’s form in determining sexuality-based refugee claims isn’t great because of decision makers’ failure to understand the complexity, fluidity and diverse nature of cultural and sexual identity. Decision makers have often relied on western-centric homosexual stereotypes to assess applications. Applicants have been questioned about their knowledge of the gay club scene in their country of origin or the music of ‘gay icons’ like Madonna.

The complex process for determining sexuality-based refugee claims is made infinitely more challenging because PNG criminalises conduct which may need to be disclosed in the course of substantiating such claim. Same-sex attracted asylum seekers sent to PNG for processing are caught in a catch-22 situation. Those who wish to make a claim for refugee status on the basis of their sexual orientation need to disclose it. However they face the possibility of discrimination and persecution under PNG’s laws if they do so. 

On arrival to Manus Island, all asylum seekers are made aware of the attitudes of the PNG government towards consensual sex between men. For instance, The Guardian reported last year that an orientation given to newly arrived asylum seekers at Manus Island contained an image of two men kissing with a large red cross through it accompanied by a warning that “homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guinea. People have been imprisoned or killed for performing homosexual acts.”

Citizens for Refugees Banner. Flickr/Cheryl Howard. Some rights reserved.Such warnings are clearly not conducive to men – indefinitely detained on a remote island in harsh conditions – fully, frankly and persuasively disclosing conduct which they’ve just been told is a crime. Nevertheless, the outcome of the refugee claim, and indeed their lives, may well depend on them doing so.

Dame Carol Kidu – a former PNG Member of Parliament and chair of PNG’s expert panel on refugee resettlement policy – reported that while PNG’s anti-homosexual laws are rarely used, they may still be abused. The mere existence of such laws means that asylum seekers and resettled refugees may face intimidation, threats, fear and violence, with no real recourse to authorities due to the possibility of facing prison time.

The resettlement of refugees in PNG will already be challenging. Dame Carol noted that while many parts of Papuan civil society – such as local churches and community groups – expressed their willingness to try and support the integration of refugees into PNG society, negative stereotypes are still widespread. Many Papuans still consider asylum seekers to be ‘terrorists’, while many of the asylum seekers view the Papuans as ‘cannibals’. Given PNG's criminalisation of homosexuality, the situation will be even worse for LGBTQI refugees, making any chance of successful resettlement extremely unlikely.

Processing and resettling gay men in a country that continues to persecute people on the basis of this very attribute is not only cruel and unnecessary, it is also a breach of international law. As a signatory to the Refugee Convention and other important human rights treaties, Australia is bound to not return a person to a state where their lives or freedom may be threatened. This is exactly what we are doing by sending gay men to a country that criminalises consensual sex between men. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The sea is full of bodies Country or region:  Australia Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Should western countries support Tunisia and if so how?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 31. July 2015 - 15:09

The new Tunisian leaders would prefer that westerners invest in Tunisia by building factories and processing plants, creating thousands of jobs for Tunisians at home and quality goods at fair prices.

Doux,Tunisia,2010.Flickr/McKay Savage. Some rights reserved.The intent of those who planned and carried out the recent terrorist attack in Tunisia and the reactions to it, both underscore the idiosyncratic connections between economic development and terrorism. Importantly, the attack ought to remind us of the global nature and imperatives, not only of ISIL’s brand of terrorism, but also of economic development.

Both problems, terrorism and lack of economic development in the Global South, must be confronted cooperatively, because European countries were indeed involved, directly and indirectly, in creating the kind of conditions that weaken their southern neighbors’ economies, which in turn have created the kind of environment most suitable for terrorism.

When 30 British citizens vacationing in the city of Sousse, Tunisia, were killed along with three Irish, two Germans, one Belgian, one Portuguese, and one Russian, the Foreign Office ordered all but essential travelers to leave that country immediately. Habib Essid, Tunisia’s Prime Minister, said that his government would help to evacuate approximately 3,000 Britons, but told Tunisia’s parliament that he was “dismayed by the advice from the Foreign Office.” The Tunisian government said the UK “was damaging the country’s economy,” which is heavily reliant on tourism, and may end up inadvertently fueling poverty and therefore terrorism. Oliver Miles, a former UK ambassador to Libya and Greece “found the [UK]’s response puzzling.” Other commentators and international affairs analysts contended that Britain was “wrong to bring tourists home” because it would weaken the only true emerging democracy in that part of the world.

Having just returned from Tunisia, I have had a chance to observe up-close life, the hopeful and fearful aspects of it, in that beautiful country. I have witnessed how ordinary citizens, bureaucrats and government officials, and business leaders are coping with the new reality of citizens’ mandated governance. It is clear that Tunisia deserves support from the global community for moral reasons, and deserves support from NATO countries for legal, political, and economic reasons.

The world community ought to support Tunisia because it is the only country in the region thus far that has managed to transition to representative rule without military coups, civil wars, and violent takeovers. Support for Tunisia means support for peaceful transfer of power, and serves the global community’s stake in political and economic stability.

More specifically, NATO countries have the legal obligation to stand by Tunisia because NATO, and its Gulf allies like Qatar, undermined Tunisian security when they launched the ill-planned bombing campaign against Libya. The two persons who carried out the Bardo and Sousse attacks were trained in Libya. Libyan weapons that were not secured after the fall of the Libyan government are now being used to destabilize Tunisia and other neighboring countries. In other words, NATO broke it, so NATO bought it.

Furthermore, NATO and European countries have a long history of supporting authoritarian regimes in North Africa, including the Tunisian and Libyan dictators. France sent its diplomats to show support for Ben Ali even as he was killing protesters in December 2010. Italy and other European countries paid off Gaddafi so that he could prevent African immigrants from reaching the European continent while continuing to deny his people basic political and economic rights. European countries must atone for their political and economic dealings with oppressive regimes.

European countries must also atone for decades of exploitation and unfair economic practices. Italy, for instance, used to buy Tunisian olive oil in bulk, process it in Italy, and ship it to the global markets as an Italian product. Agricultural, mineral, and other natural Tunisian resources were shipped to Europe for processing adding thousands of job opportunities to Europeans, denying them to Tunisian workers.

Having considered these facts, let’s consider what Tunisians really want from their northern neighbors. Young Tunisian entrepreneurs and government officials want to be treated fairly and with dignity. They do not want handouts. They do not want loans. They do not want to be dependent on tourism or for European leaders to risk the lives of their citizens to shore up tourism in Tunisia. What they want is for the European leaders to encourage their powerful businesses and rich citizens who made some of their wealth through exploitation of African communities to invest in Tunisia and the Tunisian economy.

For example, in a conversation I had with Zakaria Hamad, Tunisia’s current Minister of Industry, Energy and Mining, it became clear that Tunisian leaders want the added value from their country’s products, of which it has been deprived in the past. For instance, instead of shipping raw materials to Europe for processing and sale, the new Tunisian leaders would prefer that westerners invest in Tunisia by building factories and processing plants, creating thousands of jobs for Tunisians at home and producing quality goods for the global markets at fair prices.

If Europeans genuinely invested in the Tunisian economy, they would limit the flow of migrant workers, help stabilize their neighboring communities, undo years of past exploitative and unfair practices, and receive a healthy return on their investment. In the long run, this change in attitude and practices are the best way forward for western countries and their southern neighbors. Military interventions, bombing campaigns, and reliance on dictatorial regimes are shortsighted, costly, callous, and destructive. Such acts are moral and legal burdens on western societies and powerful propaganda tools for genocidal terrorists.

Country or region:  Tunisia Topics:  Democracy and government Economics International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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