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.

The right to water

First posted 21 March 2006, Mexico City

Ironically, it almost rained. I have been here over a month and it has not rained once, but on the day thousands marched through the streets of Mexico City chanting “Water is life” and “Water is a right not a commodity”, I felt the first few drops of rain that I thought would turn into a short but intense tropical torrent. They didn’t, but it would have caused much amusement inside the 4th World Water Forum if they had.

The march (10-15,000 people) was a protest against the answers being given inside the Forum to the question ‘How do we make fresh water available to all in the 21st century?’ One of the strongest demands was an end to the series of water privatisations that have blighted many countries in Latin America in the last decade (most notably in Bolivia and Argentina).

The main reason countries have turned to the private sector in the last few years is heavy pressure from northern countries (exerted through loans conditions, trade agreements and other kinds of foreign policy). The other reasons are a lack of public money (tempting governments to conserve their scarce resources and let profit-making businesses stump up the much needed investment in water and sanitation) and the selective use of dominant economic theory, which argues with little evidence that the private sector is more “efficient” (depends what you mean by efficient) and less “corrupt” than the state (laughable).

The privatisation of the urban water sector has been heavily promoted by the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank since the 1990s. As with so many conditionalities it is a classic example of self serving, self-interested arguments masquerading as solutions for the poor. Multinational water companies were well represented at the Forum. It is their desire to make money that is the real force behind the drive to privatise, not the supposed inability of the public sector to deliver results. Not to recognise this is unutterably and frustratingly naïve, annoying, stupid, blinkered, grrrrr, sound of plates smashing, about the way economics and politics work.

The evidence, emerging in waves, is that the private sector no more effective at achieving results in water than the public sector has been, and that the promised investment, perhaps the main selling point, has failed to materialise. The intellectual basis of the pro-privatisation argument has been reduced to its bare bones – the public sector has failed, let’s try something different. The political basis was far stronger – big water companies in the north want new sources of profit, and their governments are responding.

Of course, the reality is that a well run public sector works brilliantly. 85% of US water is provided by the public sector. I learnt on Sunday that in Porto Alegre the water system is run by a publicly owned not-for-profit company with decisions taken by a council of civil society representatives. Investment decisions are subject to public meetings allowing local people to have a say. 99.5% of people in Porto Alegre have access to clean water. Interestingly, the pricing structure turns conventional economics on its head. The price is lowest for the first number of units consumed, with usage above a basic level (say swimming pools) becoming relatively more expensive. The effects are obvious – the poorest are able to consume what they need, while large scale usage of water is discouraged (total water consumption in the city has decreased since this system began).

And ‘conventional economics’ needs to be turned on its head if we are going to progress as a global society. The conventional economic understanding of “welfare” fails to take into account distribution. Thus, if one person’s income is increased by $1000, while 500 people suffer a decrease of $2 each, the “welfare effects” are said to be “neutral”. This astonishing way of understanding the economy is one of the reasons why so many solutions proffered in the last few decades have been so heinous. Another is that schemes such as water privatisation have been assessed on the basis of their profitability, which is clearly an extremely limited way of judging the effectiveness this kind of investment.

“I cannot understand how the old administration privatised basic services, especially water. We are obliged to change those policies.” In 2003 Evo Morales went to the 3rd World Water Forum as a representative of indigenous people’s organisations. On 18 December 2005 he was elected President of Bolivia. The above quote appears in the new policy statement from Bolivia’s new Water Ministry, led by Abel Mamani, whose CV includes bringing the country to a halt in week after week of protest.

This is not a left wing government. I have always remembered a speech given by Caroline Lucas when she was first elected MEP for the Green Party, in which she said that nowadays policies that are simply common sense are considered radical. Evo Morales will be described as radical, left wing, populist and probably communist (others, inevitably, will say he is not radical enough). He is none of these things. He is attempting to challenge policies in his country that led to the pricing of water out of the reach of the poor. He believes that only the public sector can realistically ensure that all people have access to clean water.

Of course the problems he faces are the same as they have always been. Severe lack of cash for investment and subsidy, and the reality that seeking money abroad, from the IFIs, bilateral creditors, or private sources, will bring heavy conditionality. His first step is to bring to an end the IMF program in Bolivia, now a possibility by the IMF debt cancellation that many in the UK and elsewhere worked so hard to achieve in 2005 – it has made a real difference in Bolivia, as much politically as financially.

Then he has to find money, because someone has to pay for improved access to water and sanitation. There is hope that the Inter American Development Bank will cancel $1.4bn in debt which will help, although the USA, a 54% shareholder, has warned the Bolivian government to make a series of policy changes if it wants this money cancelled, changes that are unlikely to be made. Ultimately the money will come from the export of fossil fuels, and the higher taxes on extractive industries that are sure to be an important feature of the Morales administration.

My rule of thumb in politics has always been that if what some people claim is good for society/the world also just happens by pure chance to suit their own interests then it is time to be very sceptical (free trade being the most obvious global example). Never has there been a clearer case of this than the drive to privatise water. We have to urgently oppose this threat to the world’s health.

Liberalism or liberation?

First posted 14 March 2006, Mexico City

The Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio de Gobierno in the old centre of Mexico City are incredible and moving. They chart the history of the Mexican people before during and after the Spanish conquest. You could spend hours poring over them. The thing that most struck me was the way Rivera puts the Church at the heart of colonial Mexican history: a bible here, a cross there, a tonsured priest looking on approvingly as indigenous people are massacred.

A lot of people I know, from lots of different places, think that religious people are nutters, and that religion is responsible for a good proportion of the world’s problems. And you have to admit, they’ve got a point. Most obvious at the moment is the horrific form of Islam most barkingly represented by the Taleban in Afghanistan, and apparently followed in some form by a number of insurgents in Iraq and its surrounds. Their views are abhorrent and they do as many stupid things in the name of their religion (like blowing up vast, gorgeous Buddha statues) as violent and vicious things.

Go back a few hundred years and the crimes of the Catholic Church in Latin America were just as vile as those presently being committed by some in the name of Islam. And Christians have a proud history of lopping heads off other people’s statues. More recently, during the military repressions in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, the actions of parts of the Church were almost as brutal.

And you’d be mistaken if you thought that that was all past, and that the only Catholic crimes currently blighting this continent are the crimes against art that populate so many churches – blood, gore and graphic pain on statues which are today so kitsch that, although tempting, lopping would be an inappropriately harsh response. The church today plays a more subtle role in Latin American politics, but still a very powerful one.

Take sex and women’s rights. Whatever your views on abortion, it should at least be an issue of debate when women still die every year in back-streets – it hardly is in Mexico. It is difficult to separate the conservative approach to the role of women in many parts of the continent from the historic (and sometimes current) views expressed by the dominant religion. Abstinence rather than condoms in the face of AIDS is one of the more imbecilic views of my church that I am sometimes expected to defend by incredulous inquisitors. I reply that the day I accepted that Catholicism, Christianity and in fact all religions (except perhaps Hinduism in the age of Karma Sutra) are simply wrong about all aspects of sex, was the day I… well, let’s not go into that. Suffice to say it was a self-serving analysis but also an insightful one.

Why then, with its dark legacies and theological lunacies, am I still proud to be a Catholic? Partly because you don’t need religion to commit atrocities – murder and evil abound quite happily without religion interfering so to blame religion is simplistic. But mostly because I choose to sit in a corner of my church that is centuries old and still new and inspiring. It’s a bit like being proud to be British – I associate myself enthusiastically with Shakespeare, democracy and Monty Python, while expressing profound shame at imperialism, Thatcherism and Benny Hill.

The theology of liberation began on this continent and is the latest incarnation of a radical social message that dates back to, well, Jesus. And despite the best efforts of some popes who shall remain shameless it has had a profound impact on millions of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, trying to make sense of their faith in a sceptical era. Gustavo Gutierrez, father of liberation theology, expressed a devotion to changing our world whose basis is more profound than secular equivalents for its acknowledgement of men and women's need for spiritual wholeness (quite obvious you might have thought but nowadays very unusual). And his vision and historical analysis (from the perspective of the poor, from the underside of history) is as radical and innovative as any in the last century.

So the conservative forces in the Latin American church are balanced by a movement of passionate priests and laypeople who think more about this life than the next and are committed to building God’s kingdom in this world, in this time. (Recently the work of an important church NGO was threatened by the appointment of a conservative Archbishop – the struggle continues.) They’ve always been there but now they have a (local) theological backbone. Many take as their hero Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered by the military for denouncing the Salvadorean repression.

I like the line that “to not be involved politically is the greatest compromise the church has already made” (Steve Chalke) but the reality is that it is impossible not to be political, for church-people or anyone else. The decision not to actively side with a movement for social justice is a political decision with political and human consequences. Romero realised that.
So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ll admit it; the Catholic Church doesn’t have all the saints. Despite being a Lutheran, Bonhoeffer was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the last century. He talked tentatively about Christianity after religion. The Catholic Church needs to think about that (unlikely). To hear Pope Benedict savaging the façade of modern secular liberal ethics is to enjoy a masterclass in philosophy – but it is ever so slightly undermined by the fact that he still thinks gay sex is evil. Allowing apparent theological rigour to cloud what is self-evidently right is what religion does worst – it is an abuse of power.

The liberation theologians claim they do their theology from the bottom up (much as NGOs claim they do their policy!) listening to the reality of people’s lives and trying to live the gospel alongside that reality. The more traditional Catholic Church, and all the other religions (why not throw them all in for this final harangue), need to divest themselves of wealth and power, in both its material and psychological form, if they want to inspire progress, rather than block it.
Maybe then when the next set of Mexican murals is commissioned the Church will get a better paint-up.

Guitars and development

First posted 02 March 2006, Mexico City

“Jimmy joined the army ‘cos he had no place to go. Ain’t nobody hiring round here since all the jobs went down to Mexico.” So says Steve Earle in a song I like. It’s a common theme – everyone knows that cheap Mexican labour is costing American jobs. What not everyone knows is that China is in turn threatening Mexican manufacturing. I found that out in a most iconic manner – at a guitar-makers carpentry. Yes – the Mexican guitar industry is under threat from cheap Chinese imports.

Obviously this is quite funny. The Mexican mariachi is an international icon while as far as I am aware they don’t even play guitars in China (although I did once have t-shirt that said Wok ‘n’ Wol on it). Yet walk into any guitar shop in Mexico City and more than likely the first ten acoustic guitars you pick up will be Made in China by some horrific machine (have become terrible guitar snob since visiting the workshop). Handicrafts in general (I learn later in discussion with UN colleagues), which are an important source of income for low-income Mexicans, now compete with cheap imports from China.

Never underestimate Mexican hospitality (rule for life). I know people say that about every country they go to (except France) but it is strikingly true about Mexicans (at least those that I’ve met). I have been here under three weeks but it would take more like three years to do/see/drink all the things people have invited me to. (I have developed an extensive list of white lies which I deploy simply to ensure that I get my work done.)

So it was not surprising when my trip to Ricardo and Omar´s guitar workshop on Saturday (I want to buy a guitar) turned into a three hour setting of the world to rights, followed by dinner. They say that time is money, but in Mexico it is far more valuable than that. I think it is a combination of pride in their country, a relaxed attitude to strangers and, generally, time on their hands that makes Mexicans such easy people to get to know. And of course, it is through these kind of chats that you learn surprising things about politics and the economy (god, am I really that boring).

Apart from the threat of incoming Chinese guitars (possibly slightly less scary than Chinese guitarists) I learnt something else while chatting to Ricardo and Omar which will certainly influence my work here in Mexico. I am investigating the impact of overseas aid on development and poverty reduction in this part of the world. My thesis, building on work already being done at Christian Aid, is that there is an over-dependence on foreign ‘inflows’ (such as aid, loans and private investment) to the detriment of properly mobilising resources already in the country. We are right (as usual). I have lost count of the amount of Mexicans that have told me that, “The problem is not that we don’t have money. We do. The problem is what we do with it.”

A vital component is tax. Rich countries collect a lot more tax than Mexico and its neighbours do. In 2000 government tax revenue in the UK was almost 40% of GDP, and that is lower than most other European countries (Sweden reached 55% in 1990). The figure for Mexico is 17%, while Nicaragua collects about 20% (the same as it receives in foreign aid). One of the most important things developing countries can do, if they really mean to provide decent services to their citizens, is collect tax better.

But if you think there is scepticism about how taxes are spent in the UK, you need to share a few moments with Ricardo and Omar. It is not that they are against redistribution as a concept – they agree in principle with raising taxes on middle and high earners. It is simply that they have no faith in the authorities to do anything sensible with the money they raise. And they point to scandal after scandal to support their concerns. So they will not be voting for tax rises in the coming election.

And it is not just central government they loathe. They are livid at the increased clamping and ticketing of parked cars by the capital’s authorities not so much because of the inconvenience this new assault causes to the honest driver, but because they think the money raised will be spent not on road improvements but on the favoured drink of some politician’s girlfriend. Until there is public confidence that revenues will be used wisely, there will be no support for increases in taxes in Mexico, and ditto the rest of Central America I expect. And that reality has to affect our critique of the role foreign sources of money play in development.

It is also why Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would be a good thing for Mexico. The former Mayor of Mexico City addressed thousands of supporters on Sunday in the Zócalo, the massive square in the Centro Historico, and I went along to watch. Lopez Obrador has a good chance of becoming the latest President of the New Left on the continent, following the likes of Lula, Chavez, Kirchner, Morales and others. But five years after the people dispatched the institutionally corrupt PRI party – in power for seventy years – Lopez Obrador has more than just his reputation for getting things done for the disadvantaged to commend him. Of all the candidates he is by far the cleanest and most obviously honest. He lives a relatively humble existence, and part of his platform (he leads the PRD coalition) is a reduction in the wages of top politicians and officials.

Ricardo and Omar are sceptical. So are some of my colleagues, who regard him as an untrustworthy populist. So am I. It is good to be sceptical. But elections are about choosing the best that is on offer, not waiting for perfection.

ps ¿Que hora son mi corazón? Went to see Mánu Chao on Friday. He did a cover of Volver.

Feeling insecure

First posted 22 Feb 2006, Mexico City

Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq made the UK less safe. It was painful to watch him and his team try to persuade us in July that it was simply coincidence that the UK had been hit by a terrorist attack and that, you know, it was just as likely that, say, Mexico would be hit by one soon, because these terrorists are lunatic sadists that thirst only after blood and have no sensible strategy or goal.

We were then treated to tearful proclamations that “this will not change the British way of life”, as MPs passed through the ‘Yea’ lobby in support of legislation that prohibits the most basic of public demonstrations. As the news from Guantanamo Bay gets worse (impossibly) it is no longer sensationalist to say that there is a genuine civil rights crisis in the UK and America, as we struggle with our worries about security.

Thus my amusement when I passed through the metal detector of the UN office yesterday morning. I beeped and went back to empty my pockets but the guard waved me away with the words, “Don’t worry, that’ll just be the pistol.” You would quite possibly get arrested for making that kind of joke in the UK.

In terms of the “global terrorist threat” Latin America has got to be your safest holiday destination. But residents of Mexico City are plagued by an insecurity of another kind.
I have lived in some pretty dangerous places in my time (Indiana Jones grimace) – Medellìn, Guatemala City, the wrong end of Hammersmith after closing time – but I have never before heard so much talk of crime and violence. It simply crops up the whole time. People have advised me not to walk more than flour blocks on my own in case I get beaten up – I should get a taxi. But not any taxi. The “Kidnap Express” is a very real threat – a colleague in finance was attacked two weeks ago when a taxi driver drove him to be beaten up somewhere. I should ring proper taxi firms.

I was looking round an apartment last week and the owner proudly demonstrated that one of the TV channels was a video camera of the outside of the house. We then went through to the kitchen where there was another smaller TV, this time dedicated entirely to surveying the road. In the kitchen.

And then, today, the Reforma (broadsheet) leads with this: “The cost of crime [delinquency] in Mexico is estimated at about 15% of GDP.” Crime is not only causing people to live in constant fear, it is also shaving around US$108 billion off the country’s annual earnings.

The report, by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, says that this 15% includes costs associated with healthcare (1.9%), productive investments that are not made (1.8%), and reduced consumption i.e. not going to the pub because of risk of assault (5.3%).
The article concludes that an increase in the likelihood of getting caught will reduce criminal activity. This is certainly true – presently an amazing 99% of crimes in Mexico go unpunished (apparently)!But that can’t be the whole answer.

I remember a young inspiring Shadow Home Secretary telling us to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, thus proving that it doesn’t take great intellect to realize that poverty and inequality are major factors in rising levels of crime. In fact, inequality is the main issue. People commit crime not because they are destitute but (generalisation) because they have significantly less than other people in their society.

Reducing extreme poverty in Mexico, a vital and difficult task in itself, will not affect crime levels significantly if inequality continues to rise. The middle and upper class are paying for their increased wealth with, literally in many cases, a fear of walking the streets. The poor suffer most from rising crime and Mexico is losing billions of dollars a year because of it.

UK foreign policy has made much of the world more insecure – we need to change course and address the causes of terrorism. Whoever is the new president of Mexico (elections in June) also has to change course. He will have to mount a concerted and sustained attack on inequality if he also hopes to reduce Mexico’s own brand of insecurity. At least one of the candidates looks like he may take some steps down that road.

A walk in the park

First posted Feb 15 2006, Mexico City

Am writing this at 4am. Foolishly stayed up late on first night here as got hooked on Silence of the Lambs on hotel room TV – wanted to see favourite scene (“It places the lotion in the basket”) and thus sacrificed an extra day to jet lag. Have since watched the end of The Fugitive, the whole of The Long Kiss Goodnight (terrible, theme much better dealt with in the excellent A History of Violence) and most of The Anchorman (superb). Must surely soon get over novelty of having a TV in my bedroom.

Mexico City is big. Arriving in Mexico City from London feels like arriving in London from Newton Abbot. I thought I would take a quiet wander through Chapultepec park on Sunday, the biggest green (technical rather than descriptive term – park is brown) urban space in Latin America. It was like taking a stroll on the Japanese subway – I half expected to see uniformed crammers with huge wooden planks cramming us into the park so we’d all fit in. I have not seen so many people since the anti-war demo. Most of Mexico City’s 20 million inhabitants appeared to be there – a genuine sea of people, with market stalls as far as the eye could see selling food, sunglasses, balloons and wrestling masks (obviously).

I took a desperate lunge to my right, thrusting whole picnicking families aside, until I found myself in Polanca, posh barrio, big iron gates, interior design shops. Suddenly it was very different, not least the people. I had come to Mexico with the vague idea that I would more or less fit in with my dark hair, moustache, sombrero and mini-guitar. Well, dark hair. In the park I was disavowed of this notion – I was about a foot taller than everyone else, much lighter skinned and about as inconspicuous as a Swede in Papua New Guinea. But turn into Polanca and I do actually fit in (only my lousy Spanish and tourist-green combats give me away) – everyone is taller and whiter and sipping coffee in the roadside cafés. The shorter, darker people in this part of town are cleaning things, building things, or selling me talcum powder in the supermarket.
This is, of course, what I had been told to expect. Inequality is the fundamental economic and social issue in Mexico, as it is in Britain, and perhaps everywhere. Predictably, and this is a massive generalisation, it shadows the race divide – income differences between people with indigenous roots and taller whiter people are vast. If it turns out to be anything like Guatemala, which I know better, Mexico will be two countries in one. So what is to be done?

Well, actually addressing the problem would be a start. A blinkered prioritisation of economic growth has, in many countries, led to policy choices that have not only failed to address inequality, but have actually exacerbated it. Growth is certainly part of the answer, but focusing much more on reducing inequality would be a better way of tackling extreme poverty and reducing social division than just trying to ‘grow’ faster.

The good news is that more and more people are realising this. Even the World Bank (reach for a glass of water) launched a flagship report on inequality last year, with some old NGO arguments masquerading as the latest in economic modelling. Touchingly, and presumably to emphasise their revolutionary intent, they put a Diego Rivera masterpiece on the cover (who is far superior as an artist, by the way, to Frida Kahlo; I struggle to understand why she receives so much more attention).

The bad news is that many policy makers appear reluctant to detach themselves from a belief in trickle-down economics (country/world ‘grows’, everyone benefits) which is as harmful as it is self-serving. But their narrow obsession with growth is looking increasingly like an embarrassing fetish, especially as environmental constraints become ever more apparent. I hope other optimistic egalitarians are sensing a new breeze beginning to blow as they take their Sunday strolls through the park…