domingo, 10 de febrero de 2008

Professor Jesse Mugambi

First posted 29 June 2006, Nairobi

If other Christian Aid reports are as good as mine the organisation regularly produces high quality pieces of work that both inform and persuade those that read them. It needs to translate them into all known languages (including both traditions of Cornish) and litter the world with them. To deny my insights to non-English speakers seems cruel and pointless.

Anyway, they speak English in Kenya and the recent climate change report has made an impact. I was invited to meet Professor Jesse Mugambi who teaches religious studies and philosophy at the University of Nairobi and is a member of the World Council of Churches Working Group on Climate Change. He thought our report was excellent and is keen to work with Christian Aid.

“When the rains fail, people that depend on rain-fed agriculture go hungry.” It is that simple. The recent drought in Kenya caused hardship for millions who simply had to sit and pray for rain. People I spoke to in lush Kisumu (by Lake Victoria) think that climate change is to blame for increasingly regular droughts. So does Professor Mugambi. Stopping the rain from falling must seem to those who wait for it like some ancient mythical curse that has somehow been conjured into a deadly reality. One wonders what the rich world will think up next. Frogs?

Mugambi has been involved in over a decade of high level UN talks on climate change and has become sceptical of government efforts to deal with the problem. “It will take more than our lifetimes to reverse global warming. That is why we need to focus on adaptation [as well as precaution and mitigation].”

I see this as, to some extent, an admission of defeat, an admission that global warming can now be added to colonialism, debt collection, natural resource theft and unfair trade [please add] as another injustice visited on the world’s poor by greedy people in greedy countries. An admission that, as with debt, as with trade etc, poor people cannot wait for others to do the right thing – it is not their fault, but they have to get on and deal with it.

“Trees”, say Mugambi. “What has happened globally has to be responded to locally.” One side of the Rift Valley escarpment gets rained on, the other does not. Why? Because re-forestation on one side has re-altered the microclimate and rain is again attracted. “On that side, people’s quality of life is much better.” God knows why rain falls on trees and I do not. Professor Mugambi does, but as he says, “Local people don’t need the science explained to them. They know what is happening to their climate.”

His message is clear. Yes we need to challenge the causes of climate change – and that means people on the streets banging drums, not just more discussions among bureaucrats. But equally important is to respond to a climate that has already changed and will continue to do so. There are many ways to adapt. I will be investing in a hammock and starting an olive tree plot on my dad’s allotment. It is perhaps an area that development organisations need to more fully integrate into their programmes and policy work. Not my dad's allotment. Adaptation.

Debt in Kenya follow up

First posted 28 June 2006, Nairobi

Tuesday 27 June
1030 Arrive back in Nairobi from beautiful Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria where I have been denouncing Sven to anyone that will listen. “Hello Sven, here are some fresh and juicy ingredients. You should be able to cook us all a delicious meal.” “Oh yes. Let me just take your offering and trample it under my feet and mash it all up arbitrarily. Oh how surprising. It is disgusting.” Have also been looking at a brilliantly successful microcredit scheme that has transformed the quality of life of thousands of fisher”folk” and farmers (mostly women). Have I missed something or is micro credit basically the answer to development. As the Christian Aid policy team try to reframe the debate about development finance, making domestic resources a far higher priority than inflows (like aid, foreign loans and foreign investment), these schemes, along with better tax policy, will surely feature regularly in our work.

1300-1500 Manage to dispatch a total of three emails.

1500 Meet with Kenyan debt campaigners in follow up meeting to last week’s conference. It is exciting to think that an idea hatched on the first floor in Waterloo has energized the entire campaign. Regular meetings are planned for the build up to the World Social Forum which Nairobi hosts in January next year. It is also election year and the team think it could become a political issue. (There is good reason to believe, by the way, that this WSF will be more than a talking shop. The first to be held in Africa, it could spur the development of active civil society similar to that of Latin America and parts of Asia. African campaigners I have spoken to are well aware that most African countries have serious catching up to do in this area.)

As the strategists strategise I have little to input and am left thinking what Christian Aid’s role is in this. We want to “build the movement” and the call for debt repudiation is actually as much about mobilizing a movement for change as it is for policy action. Is movement building perhaps the number one task Christian Aid should adopt as we leave the age of charity behind us and call for a world based on justice. As Njoki, a Kenyan campaigner, says, “Movement building is different to campaigning. A campaign has an end date.”

1800 Make it to posh bar just in time to see Ghana play brilliantly but fail to score. Talking of justice, Ukraine through, Ghana out. This annoys me as much as listening to Wolfowitz lecture on corruption.

2200 Make it to sleazy bar over the road from hotel just in time to see France v Spain. When Vieira scores the man next to me jumps up and shouts, “Yes, an African has scored.”

Day 3

First posted 23 June 2006, Nairobi

International Strategy Conference on Debt Repudiation, Day 3, 20 June

0900 Smiles and jokes at breakfast as we remember last night. First meeting of morning in small (thank god) regional group and atmosphere is slightly giggly. But we get down to some serious strategy nitty gritty. Northern campaigns can support southern counterparts by explaining why repudiation is a serious and sensible option. If debt movements had existed in the north 20 years ago, attempts by southern governments to repudiate may have had more success.

1100 Brilliant talk by Julius Okara of the Kenyan Debt Network (Kendren) explaining how debt repudiation is back on the agenda after many years, and that this conference will spur the Kenyan movement on as it builds to the World Social Forum in January. Kenya has borrowed $17bn, paid back $51bn, and still owes $10bn. It has received no debt cancellation because its debts are described as “sustainable” by the mad professors in Washington. Meanwhile life expectancy has fallen from 57 in the late 1980s to around 48 today.

Kendren is going round the country explaining that the money spent on servicing debt could pay for six government ministries. He pleads for support from northern organisations, some of whom, he worries, may undermine the call for repudiation. 10,000 postcards have been sent to President Kibaki calling for repudiation: “Debt is poverty! Debt is slavery! Refusal to pay is justice!” I will take some of the postcards back to show UK government colleagues.

1500 Serious conference fatigue leads to all out revolt. There appears to be no interest in taking seats as delegates wander aimlessly around the hotel trying to avoid creating the critical mass that would mean a resumption of proceedings. I eventually adopt the role of bouncer, directing people forcefully to the conference room. When we have begun some express frustration at those inside the movement that do not support the call for repudiation. I argue that persuasion will be as important as confrontation as we seek to progress our goals – well received.

1630 The UN in miniature as we write the inevitable “Nairobi Declaration” by committee. Except that people are actually quite sensible and only suggest broad changes to the draft rather than rejoining infinitives. Inevitable list of countries requiring special support gets longer and longer and is eventually (predictably) chopped completely.

1830 Its over. It has been a brilliant conference, as organised and strategic as it was inspirational. Am looking forward to going home to get started. I hope I haven’t made too many promises! How will I stay in touch with so many incredible people?

1930 Totally refuse to go to the planning meeting for civil society events in Indonesia during the Singapore IFI Annual Meetings.

0000 A good result. We proved we can play and then proved that we need to try harder. Kenyan’s split 50/50 between supporting England and Sweden, presumably a variety of reactions to history…

Day 2

First posted 21 June 2006, Nairobi

International Strategy Conference on Debt Repudiation, Day 2, 19 June

0700 Wake up feeling unhealthy. Have not actually left the hotel yet apart from me and Dereje being kicked out of the lobby for smoking. Resolve to go to the gym before breakfast. Conferences are bad for your health.

0850 Meet Jonah from Zimbabwe to agree some “Hard Questions about Repudiation” to put to the small groups for a prompt nine o’clock start.

0920 Delegates start to arrive.

0940 Coffee break

1000 My group has to answer, “How can you say you believe in a fair global system based on the rule of law and then call for unilateral repudiation of debts?” We respond that the rules have been written by the powerful, and they must sometimes be rejected. It is an old argument in the history of social movements, but on a global scale. Many of the debts claimed are themselves illegal and illegitimate. A just global order must be based on, erm, justice.

1100 Plenary. There is broad agreement that while refusing to pay debts could be suicide for some countries, when done collectively negative impacts can be reduced, and some bigger countries could go it alone. But most importantly, the call for repudiation is a statement of intent: it is time for southern countries to start to shape the terms of the debate. If we plan to wait for rich countries to act justly we could be here for some time…

1300 My lunch tactic is to take small amounts of each buffet option and then go back for major seconds of the ones I like. Strong Indian influence keeps hotel food honest. Discuss joint working with colleagues from three continents. Patricia from Ecuador is seeking to reenergise work on auditing the country’s debt that the government supported but is now ignoring. Agree to work with RD, the Indonesian delegate, to demonstrate illegitimacy of UK claims on Indonesia (the UK’s largest debtor now that Nigeria has been forced to pay). In Niger, Aboubakar is organising a “caravan” to travel the country educating people about debt and related issues. A great idea but I fear Christian Aid will not support it as we don’t work in Niger. Was invited to join the caravan – chance would be…

1400 More small groups. Latins turn up late en masse implying they have been out for a walk. Am jealous. My group discusses how to make debt repudiation a reality. We focus on the need to change and improve southern governments, especially talking about Zimbabwe. I ask about the rights of NGOs and the media in Zimbabwe and am told that, “Of course there is freedom of speech. It is just freedom after speech that is difficult.”

1900 Social event. Three lads sing brilliant songs called “G8” and “Somebody tell me why” a capella. They sing intelligently of injustice and turning the tables on their oppressors both outside and inside their country. After days of sitting down the desire to dance is overwhelming. Embarrassing conference party commences until we get bored of Abba, the only CD available (!!!). Then go over road to bar till two in the morning. Amazing live music. Bloke grabs me by shoulder and says, “We love you guys. At least you are trying to dance.”

Sleepless in Nairobi

First posted 20 June 2006, Nairobi

Saturday 17 June
0430 Am woken from three hours of semi-non-sleep by air stewards under the pretext that it is breakfast time despite it being 0430. Breakfast is disappointing.
0630 Arrive at Nairobi airport. My bag finally rounds the carousel over an hour later and am tired and hungry. Am met in car park by five other conference delegates from Cuba, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and two from Mauritania. Sidda from Mauritania has been waiting for three hours since her plane arrived and Jourdy from Cuba has spent 36 hours in planes and airports. I stop moaning.
0930 After 39 cups of coffee join a preliminary mini-conference on developing a global campaign on illegitimate debt. We want to turn the debt debate upside down – it is not the South that owes the North, but the North that are actually the debtors. The so-called debts of the South are unfair and illegitimate, whereas the debts owed by the north (ecological and environmental, material (extractives), financial, historical) need to be repaid.
1830 We have made progress. Am excited about the possible rebirth of a global campaign on debt. Have stressed throughout day the danger of UK and other northern campaign groups beginning to drop work on debt. Global joint-working will become increasingly important. Christian Aid will play a key role in trying to get the UK government to recognise the existence of odious/unfair/unjust/illegitimate/dictator debt, just as the Norwegian government has. All we want to do is get the facts straight!
2000. Watch Ghana play the best football so far this world cup. Kenyan audience are ecstatic. Early to bed to finish off speech for tomorrow.

International Strategy Conference on Debt Repudiation, Day 1, 18 June
0630 Early to rise as Ezekiel arrives from Liberia. He has been in exile for 18 years and now has to share a room with me.
1000 Late start. My speech goes down well (claps but disappointingly no whooping or flowers). I say that now is the right time in the North to put the issue of repudiation back on the agenda. But Wahu Kaara’s rousing call for justice is what really wakes everyone up. Wahu is a leading Kenyan activist and has already inspired me over breakfast with the words, “Historical moments require historical actors” and thanking Christian Aid for stepping up to the plate when we were needed to organise this conference. She feels strongly that history and progress has brought us here. The plenary discussion implies that she might be right – there is a sense of destiny (always dangerous!).
1300 After lunch we hear more about historic precedents for repudiation. Constantly learning more about what a call for repudiation will mean. It means different things to different country delegates, but for all it is the vital accompaniment to a long term shift in power relations, which must go alongside our efforts to change the world for poor people as soon possible.
1730 Please stop talking. You have already made the same point in three different ways, a point that has already been made by someone else. I am tired and my stomach is rumbling. Surely your lengthy speech is no more effective than three quick bullet points. I beg you, shut up. I am beginning to hate you even though I know you do good work. Don’t make me hurt you.
2100 France vs Korea. I tend to support France but can’t help amusement at thought of tomorrow’s papers.

The myth of charity

First posted 17 April 2006, Mexico City

The now-developed world has spent much of its energy in the last few hundred years ripping off today’s poorer countries. Most Mexicans I know are well aware of this, while at the same time despising their own political elite for doing the same. That the Spanish and Portuguese plundered Latin America is not a matter of dispute – nor is the USA’s heinous involvement in some of the worst dictatorships of the modern era. Astonishingly, Haiti had to pay $21 billion (in today’s money) to the French as the price of its independence in the early 19th century – it has never recovered from its history of plunder and debt. God knows where Colombia’s gold is.

Britain has its own rather less than glorious history of taking other people’s things and justifying it in various specious ways. But we, along with other Western countries, appear more or less oblivious to this, regarding it as something like ancient history. I gave a talk recently in one of England’s top schools and asked when the students thought Britain’s last colony gained independence. The first answer was, "1905?"

When Tony Blair announced the G8’s promises at Gleneagles he said he wanted to replace our relationship of "charity" with poor countries with one of "partnership". Apart from this being nothing new – the same rhetoric has been used for decades – it was annoying that he can still get away with the idea that we are charitable. We are not. Cancelling debt is portrayed as an act of tremendous generosity – our complicity in the roots of debt and poverty is not examined. British civil society has a job to do to remind people of some of the facts as revisionist theories of Empire (such as Niall Ferguson’s dire TV series) appear to be gaining ground. In France, apparently, they have actually passed a law insisting that a positive spin is put on French history in schools.

The present emphasis in development circles in the North on ramping up aid is linked to this skewed view of our past and present. What is an important but relatively minor element in the fight against poverty has been elevated to the position of cornerstone (architects will forgive me if this is in fact impossible). More poor people (living on less than $2 a day) live in Mexico than in the whole of Central America. But doubling aid to Mexico will mean that inflows still account for only 0.04% of GNI – insignificant. What are significant are the vast outflows, both legal and illegal, that leave Mexico every year to be invested in the USA or hidden in tax havens. What is significant is the continued failure to levy sensible taxes – tax revenue is well under 20% of GDP compared to almost 40% in the UK. What is significant is the continued pressure to free up trade, which will hurt those who most need help and investment. What is significant is the continuing fallout of Mexico’s debt crises (debts of middle income countries have grown exponentially in the last two decades – the occasional rescheduling or bailout has done little to mitigate this trend). The same is true for most countries in the region and the world – 2.3 billion of the world’s 3 billion poor live in countries that receive under 3% of their GNI in aid (most receive a lot less).

There are a few dozen countries for which aid is of great significance. Nicaragua is one of them, receiving more aid per head than almost any other country in the world – most others are in Africa or are small islands. But then another set of problems arise – might there be negative impacts of increased aid? Probably, yes. It is perfectly sensible, regrettably, to conclude that the biggest impacts of official aid to poor countries in recent decades have been the neoliberal conditions attached to it. Changes in trade rules, bad privatisations, and the liberalisation of financial flows may well have had a more serious negative impact than the benefits of more cash in hand. And aid can retard institutional development too, with most evidence suggesting that countries receiving aid have less incentive to raise taxes, perhaps the fundamental step developing countries need to make, both to increase the resources available to the public sector to finance development and to improve governments’ accountability to their citizens.

The Ugandan government presently gets as much money from aid as it does from tax revenue. Under some projections aid to Africa is set to triple by 2015 – few believe that tax revenues will follow suit. Despite serious attempts by DFID and other donors to improve accountability and ownership it is naïve to suppose that present complaints about governments being more responsive to donor preferences than to their own citizens will improve as the statistics get more skewed.

Talking of evidence, there is simply no robust evidence suggesting that aid leads to economic growth (which is unfortunately the best proxy we have in the literature for poverty reduction). Even those studies that find a positive relationship under certain circumstances cannot agree what those circumstances are. In a paper published last year Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian (respectively the head of a respected, relatively orthodox, think tank, an eminent, slightly less orthodox, Harvard economist and the IMF’s head of research) argued that "financial aid and the further opening of wealthy countries' markets are tools with only a limited ability to trigger growth, especially in the poorest countries. The tremendous amount of energy and political capital expended on these efforts in official circles threatens to crowd out attention to other ways in which rich countries could do less harm and more good." The paper goes on to suggest actions rich countries could take which would have a far greater poverty reducing impact: reforming TRIPs, giving countries far more policy space, confronting bribery and corruption by western actors, investing in technology that would benefit poor countries, and improving the cross-border mobility of labour. There are many others, most importantly helping prevent capital flight and helping ensure that foreign investment has a better impact on poverty reduction.

None of this is to discount the important role aid has played, and will hopefully continue to play, in improving the lives of millions of people. NGO aid in particular has been shown to respond to the needs of the poorest and has few harmful conditions. But we have to get real. Aid is a bit player in the history of poverty reduction. It has become the centrepiece of the new era of development because it is the easiest thing rich governments can do to respond to their electorates’ occasional horror at continuing extreme poverty (and in the case of Gordon Brown, Hilary Benn and others, an inspirational passion to end it), not the most important. In the post-9/11 context, it is also likely that aid will continue to be used to augment political partnerships.

While DFID has made bold statements on reforming conditionality (largely because of immense campaigning pressure) there is little sign yet that other donor governments will follow suit.
The Independent, in one of its lucid editorials on Iraq, suggested that history students a hundred years from now would get poor marks if they claimed that the Iraq war was about WMD. They would do better if they demonstrated an understanding of the political and economic drivers of the war, oil being important. This is a helpful way to analyse the present day. While the British civil service (and public) spent the nineteenth century believing it was playing a civilising role in the affairs of its colonies, history students today understand the economic exploitation that was tied up with occasionally generous instincts. What will history students write in 2106? Is aid partly a smokescreen to disguise continued exploitation?

A lot changed in the 20th century – compassion in particular appears to have made a welcome return to humanity’s list of priorities (despite the eighties!). But whichever way you look at the world its plentiful resources, financial as well as natural, continue to satisfy the desires of only a very small minority. The world is more unequal than ever and until we become less fixated on trash TV (guilty) and mobile phones (not guilty) and more concerned with actually sorting this shameful trend out it will continue. Giving more aid will simply not do it, even if it is also ‘better aid’.

In the nineteenth century the British claimed to be "civilising" the world (you may have noticed the rhetoric of "civilised" and "uncivilised" making a triumphant comeback in recent years). I wonder whether today, despite our rhetoric of "charity", we realise how similar our practices are to those of our predecessors. The time is long overdue to explode the myth of charity.

My view

First posted 03 April 2006, Mexico City

As I sit writing this in my 12th floor office a gentle orange brightens the far horizon and I can see the mountains eerily outlined in the evening haze. This is one of modern life’s most unique phenomena, the pollution sunset. Perhaps the Kinks should write a song. It took me my first week here to realise that the head and eye aches I was feeling were not only down to the fanatical working hours I was putting in trying to prettify my graphs demonstrating the role of aid and debt in development. They were due to one of Mexico City’s most famous inhabitants, Mr S. Mog. I appear to have acclimatised since but am not sure if that is a good thing.

Goinggoinggone. Whether I can see the mountains from my office window is a function of how many cars there are on the road and how much wind there is. There are billions of cars and it’s quite nervewracking crossing the road because people drive like imbeciles. This is at once predictable (people everywhere drive like imbeciles) and surprising: why is it that such laid back people with so much time on their hands suddenly decide that they are in a desperate hurry the minute they don’t put on their seatbelts? (I once saw this brilliant sketch of what life would be like if we walked like we drive – beeping at each other to get out of the way, walking really close behind the person in front etc.) I have seen more people in neck braces in the last month than I have in the previous ten years – there was one today at a conference. Either this is the latest hip fashion accessory or there are tonnes of accidents here in DF.

Then there is the pollution. I climbed (a bit of) the Popacatepetl volcano yesterday. It is 2 hours drive outside DF but the views are still subject to serious ensmogification. A Christian Aid colleague (John McGhie) found an astonishing statistic from the World Bank – apparently pollution from cooking with wood and dung is the biggest killer of children in the world. Given how sceptical I am of most other things emanating from the World Bank (and also, in fact, John Mcghie) I don’t know why we should trust them on this but while car fumes may not be quite so bad I presume they don’t do children’s health much good either. It underlines the absurdity of working on behalf of poor people without working to improve the environment, both locally and globally. Because you can bet your bottom peso it isn’t rich kids dying.

Then there is global warming. This occurs when… actually just pick up The Independent tomorrow and it is more than likely to be explained for you (again). It will hurt the poor the most as well as penguins.

So, what needs doing? Well in a recent incarnation, presidential candidate and people’s champion Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was Mayor of Mexico City. His answer, impressive only in its boneheadedness, was to build a large new road. Good thinking. That’ll fix it. What in fact needs to be done – and I realise this sounds tedious – is to gradually reclaim the city for public transport, pedestrians and bikes (there are no bikes to speak of except superb Harleys which make me want to take off round Latin America with a best friend every time I see one). Which is why I have so much respect for Ken Livingstone, despite (or maybe secretly because of) his increasingly absurd attempts to annoy people.

Most Mexicans I have spoken to say public transport is terrible in DF. Actually I have never experienced more regular buses or more reliable tubes. The people I tend to speak to have nice cars and, I reckon, basically don’t like slumming it with the proletariat. The more they denigrate public transport, the more they feel justified about jumping into their cars/trucks/A-team vans.

One of the messages on public adverts around the city at the moment, following the recent water forum, is, “Play your part – conserve water.” That’s great, but I have become very sceptical of individual action to conserve the environment, to curtail climate change and car usage, and, in fact, to achieve many public goods. I support giving to charity (obviously). But I don’t think we should rely on that to redress inequality and provide basic services. I think it’s great when companies make an effort to have a positive social and environmental impact. But I am not naïve enough to look the other way once they have promised to do so. That’s why we have governments, to provide public goods and to punish wrong doing. People and companies have to agree to be regulated because we know we can’t be relied upon to always do the right thing.

It is unfortunate but it takes politicians to make change happen. There will always be some people that are prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment, like not flying off to check out Tuscany for £50 on Easyjet. But most won’t, precisely because they know that most aren’t. If we were sure that everyone else was sacrificing Tuscany, we might be prepared to. But while we watch other families enjoying espressos under the cedars, we generally feel like doing the same. Tuscany is awesome.

So I’ll turn off the TV standby when I go to bed, and put the green bottles through the green bottle hole. But mostly my individual lifestyle choice to protect the environment for my children will be to lobby my government to introduce green legislation, and to try and persuade other people to do the same.

And it is our countries that need to take the lead. In poorer countries where incomes are rising, the aspirational classes compare there lifestyles with those in the West. It is no good preaching to Mexicans about reducing inequality, which will necessarily mean some sacrifices for the middle classes, while we continue to flaunt our mind-boggling wealth and seemingly endless opportunities. It is global inequality that feeds the grim national inequality dividing Mexico's benighted poor from its besunglassed rich. So in that sense I do agree that we need to start at home.