tag: Africa



2
Jul 2013

Free Trade, Subsidies and the CAP

There’s a post over at the Liberal Conspiracy blog that’s getting a bit of attention today. It’s called Why are UKIP silent supporters of the biggest EU rip-off of all? and it is primarily an attack on the hypocrisy of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP, it seems, are quite unequivocal about their support for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and wish it to continue making large payments to farmers. And yes, given the stated aims (and general attitude) of UKIP, this does represent an interesting hypocrisy – one that appears to demonstrate UKIP’s allegiance to class above principles. Whether you agree with the principle of the CAP or not is irrelevant; it clearly represents a centralisation of power in Europe. Dishing out almost 50 billion a year makes it powerful. It’s enough to torpedo the economy of a small nation after all. The CAP should be against UKIP principles. They should be lobbying hard for its abolition (even if they believe food production should be subsidised, they should surely want it done by the UK government).
CAP
That they are not lobbying for the abolition of the CAP may well be because the CAP currently benefits, to a disproportionate degree, those who least need it… the wealthy. Where small farmers are being supported by the CAP – and yes it does happen – the argument is more fuzzy, but when the 8th richest man in Britain is being subsidised by the citizens of Europe to the tune of almost a million euro per year, clearly something is wrong with the system. The benefits – to the citizens of Europe – of giving a million euro of their money to the Duke of Westminster is surely vastly outweighed by the benefits of giving 100k each to ten struggling small-hold farmers. If you’re going to spend limited funds on subsidising food production, then do it properly. Otherwise just be honest and call it by its real name… theft.

The ultra-wealthy have gamed the system, and they have bought the support of – not the individual political parties, though they come with it – but the entire modern mainstream political system. Which is why a political party that all but defines itself by its opposition to European power can support those aspects of European power that unambiguously redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top.

But what about The Principle of The Thing!?

Yes indeed. The principle of European food production subsidies… what about it? I have heard right wing ideologues argue that the CAP represents a distortion of the free market and should be abolished entirely. I’m not going to address that argument right now. The people who make it are fools. The citizens of Europe can distort the markets any way they damn well please. The citizenry is not subject to the market. It is subject to them.

On the other hand, there is the “global development” argument against the CAP. The Overseas Development Institute (anyone know how reliable these people are? I have a basic distrust of organisations that call themselves a “leading think-tank”, and an initial flick through their website revealed an awful lot of fluffy management-speak and PR waffle, but very little of substance) published a short paper in which they argue that the CAP could be damaging agriculture in “developing” countries. And while they admit that the damage can’t be quantified without further research, the fact that the CAP budget far exceeds the annual total value of African food exports does give a person pause for thought. And when you couple that with the fact that the African continent is a net food importer, you can’t help but think that the CAP might be giving European farmers an advantage that their African counterparts simply don’t have access to.

And while the sophisticated right-wing ideologues might claim that’s actually a restatement of their argument, they’d be wrong about that. One argument states that “distorting markets is primarily wrong, because free markets are in principle the best way to run things”. The other argument states that “distorting markets is not necessarily wrong, but in this specific case it may be because it might be causing some people to go hungry”.

The latter is a valid argument. The former is a dangerous delusion.

The trouble is though, I think the latter argument is a good deal more complex than it appears to be… as is so often the case. And this additional complexity gets lost when people on the liberal left shout about starving children in Africa and people on the neoliberal right insist that everything would be so much better if we’d only allow the market to be free*.

Of course, first there’s the issue of just how much of the CAP actually goes to the already wealthy. I genuinely doubt that the Duke of Westminster’s land is any more productive than it would be if he wasn’t receiving that million euro prize from Europe’s citizens for owning so much land. And realistically, I doubt he’d need to charge any more for his produce if he wasn’t receiving that money. If anything is distorting the market in the case of the Duke of Westminster, it’s his own vast fortune. A free-market argument for high wealth taxation? Not that they’d ever admit it.

So there’s that… if the CAP is truly an instrument of wealth redistribution within Europe (from poor to rich) then it’s unlikely to be affecting global trade all that much. Which, weirdly enough, suggests that those most concerned with overseas development may well want to abolish the CAP, but if that is unachievable then at the very least prevent any reform from which the European citizenry could derive benefit.

Here’s the thing though… I feel strongly that the CAP should be reformed precisely with that goal in mind. And yes, even if that distorts global markets. This probably puts me on the opposite side of the fence to almost everyone discussing the CAP right now, bar small scale farmers (of which I’m not one, by the way), but fact is, I’m not a supporter of the principle of global free trade. I believe very strongly that the essentials for life should be produced as locally as possible. Yes, the scale of modern population centres makes that vastly more difficult than it’s ever been. In some cases, impossible – the island of Britain would probably have some difficulty feeding itself if all food imports were to stop tomorrow for example. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the principle completely.

Food shortages and poverty in large areas of Africa and other “developing” countries need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But it should not be done at the expense of European self-sufficiency in food. Let’s everyone get self-sufficient and then we can trade our surpluses in a sustainable manner; I have no problem with that. But if subsidies help ensure food production thrives in Europe, then that seems like a damn fine use for our collective wealth. Of course, we need to ensure the subsidies are targeted at those smaller farmers to whom it would make the biggest difference. Giving our money to multi-millionaires is just bloody stupid. And I hope it goes without saying that we should also be helping our global neighbours achieve thriving and sustainable food production for themselves. It’s just so important on so many levels.

Helping others achieve sustainable self-sufficiency is a moral obligation. Ensuring we achieve it ourselves is just basic good sense.

* I can actually recall using the “but there’s no market for starving children” argument back when I briefly dallied with libertarian capitalism in my teens. As a political philosophy for a grown adult, it’s a distressing state of affairs… but it’s a useful enough way-station on the path to a fully rounded intellect I guess.

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28
Jan 2011

Revolution in North Africa

First Tunisia. Then Egypt. Where next?

Tonight the Egyptian regime is teetering on the edge of collapse. A lot of commentators are suggesting that the fall of Hosni Mubarak is inevitable, though I’d be wary of underestimating the man’s tenacity. The domino-effect is somewhat overrated and to simply assume that the pattern we saw in Tunisia will automatically repeat itself in Egypt is to be guilty of questionable generalisation. Certainly opposition movements across the Middle East have been inspired by the Jasmine Revolution, but the complex and unique internal dynamics of each nation cannot be ignored. These aren’t all “the same place” though they may face many of the same problems.

A police van burns on 6th October Bridge

My family lived in Cairo for a couple of years during my mid-teens so I know the city fairly well. Or rather, I knew 80s Cairo fairly well. Much has changed in the intervening years, though the images being broadcast today were of roads, bridges and buildings with which I am very familiar. Watching an honest-to-goodness revolution unfold on streets I once thought of as “home” has been a peculiar experience to say the least. It’s made me think about where else such events might happen.

One thing that hasn’t changed about Egypt since my time there in the mid-80s is the guy in charge. Hosni Mubarak, 25 years older and with saggier jowls, is still running the country. Which is what you’d expect in a “democracy” where the president tends to stand unopposed in elections. And as today’s events demonstrate, that isn’t because he’s universally loved. Mubarak is shrewd as hell and has a much larger and better equipped security apparatus than ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge from this chaos with a firm grip on the reins of power in Egypt. Though I suspect his dream of installing his son as successor is now over.

That said, I’m not suggesting things are looking good for Hosni Mubarak. There are rumours that he has already fled the country but while the odds are certainly stacked against him, they aren’t quite as heavily stacked as they were for the guy twelve hundred miles to his west.

The Devil You Know

Here’s where I get controversial. And please do me the favour of accepting my words at face value rather than trying to read some kind of veiled pro-Mubarak sentiment into them, or suggesting I’m putting forward a pro-western neoliberal neocolonial agenda. Those who know me will understand that’s not where my concerns are coming from. Those who don’t will just have to take that on faith.

Firstly let me state, unequivocally, that the Egyptian regime is corrupt, despotic and guilty of more human rights abuses than any of us will ever know. If the world was a truly just place, Hosni Mubarak would face trial for (and be convicted of) crimes against humanity. The people of Egypt deserve much better. And I fully support their attempts to achieve it.

However, the unintended consequences of those attempts could have ramifications far beyond the borders of Egypt. As I listened to reports of today’s protests on Al Jazeera, something was said… just once and not repeated… that made me feel a little uneasy. “Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in the past 24 hours” said the reporter. I have no idea whether the Muslim Brotherhood is playing any part in the current situation. In reality, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with it, Hosni Mubarak’s “round up the usual suspects” approach will have made them targets. What I do know is that some members of the Egyptian opposition have called upon the Brotherhood to form militia units to maintain order in the absence of the police. Mubarak’s efficient suppression of opposition groups will ensure a power vacuum if he is ousted in the next few days, and it seems very possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will be best-placed to take advantage of that vacuum.

Now, before you accuse me of anti-Muslim sentiment let me point out that my problem is with hardliners of any religion having too much political influence. Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish State gives me the creeps. The subordination of Iranian politics to the clerics appals me. And they both pale into insignificance compared with how appalled I am by the thought of the Christian Right gaining any more power in the United States than they already possess. The grip that Catholicism had on my country, Ireland, was nightmarish and I don’t wish to see a similar fate visited upon any other nation.

I do not see The Islamic Republic of Egypt to be a better option than what the Egyptians had last week. And there’s a real danger that could emerge from this situation. Neither are desirable of course, but the former — and this is the crucial point — seriously increases the possibility of another Arab-Israeli conflict. And that would be a disaster for the entire region, if not the world.

The Fall of The House of Saud

Meanwhile, during my time spent online today, I’ve encountered numerous tweets and blog posts and facebook comments excitedly anticipating the spread of this revolutionary fervor to Saudi Arabia… a regime far more brutal and oppressive than Egypt. I’ve also spent time there, and if ever there was a nation in need of regime change it’s Saudi Arabia.

However, while the dangers of the relatively secular Egyptian society falling under the spell of theocrats are real but not massive; the fall of the Saudi Royal Family would almost certainly result in the rise of a hardline Islamist government. See, people have this idea of Saudi Arabia being run by Islamists, but in fact the reality is more complex. Yes, it’s a society run along fundamentalist islamic principles, but the people right at the very top are cynical realists rather than True Believers. They pander to the religious tendencies within their culture, but they work hard to keep things on an even keel with regards to foreign policy. Purely for their own purposes, you understand, but it nonetheless maintains a certain level of peace in the region.

I want you to consider two crucial facts about Saudi Arabia… One: They are by far the largest oil exporter on the planet. Two: By percentage of GDP, they have the largest defence budget of any major country on the planet (and in real terms are the 8th biggest spender on weapons… spending almost 3 times more per annum than Israel on guns, bombs and planes).

I suspect that a Saudi revolution could lead to a radical Islamist government, and I suspect that in turn could lead to war with Israel. Nobody is more convinced than me that the world needs to wean itself off its addiction to oil. And I’m also convinced that Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people needs to change. I’m just not sure that a Saudi-Israeli war is the optimum way of achieving those ends.

In summary

I don’t for a moment want to give the impression that these are “predictions”. They are very much worst-case scenarios and I will be overjoyed if a wave of revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa leaving stable secular governments in their wake. Republics that fully maintain their Islamic cultural heritage while remaining pluralist, tolerant and non-confrontational. That would be my ideal and if Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution turns out to be the spark that set off such a beautiful flame, then it will be long remembered as one of the most positive developments in the history of a region for too long dominated by ruthless despots, unaccountable royal families and corrupt bureaucracies.

But history teaches us that revolutions rarely end up at the glorious destination envisioned by those who participate in them. Let us all hope that this time round, history won’t repeat itself.

UPDATE: As if on cue, a spokesman for the hardline Iranian government has come out in support of the uprisings in the secular Arab states and expresses his “optimism” about the situation in Egypt.

UPDATE 30-01-2011: Meanwhile Tunisia’s Islamist leader returns home after 22 years in exile.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


17
Nov 2010

Food shortages: still a serious issue

At the start of the year I wrote a short blog post entitled “2010: A year of global famine?” In it I linked to an agricultural analyst who suggested that crop yields were down across the globe in 2009 and would continue to fall in 2010. He suggested that we were facing global food shortages.

Today a comment was added to the post by Frank Maloney. I started to respond on that thread, but my comment grew to the point where it merited a post of its own. And here it is!

How’s that whole global food shortage for 2010 working out? Everyone just about exhausted their emergency supply of MRE’s?

The only thing that causes food shortages in modern societies is politics. Look at Ethiopia which has always been a poster child for famine, despite the poverty, cycle of droughts and hunger the region is producing and exporting huge surpluses of food on private farms owned by mid east governments.

Frank Maloney

Wrong! (and glad to be so)

Let me start by saying that the fact food shortages in 2010 weren’t as bad as were feared should be a cause for celebration rather than triumphalism and internet point-scoring. I’m very happy that predictions of global famine in 2010 were wrong. The predictions of worldwide food security issues for this year were shared by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and I suspect they are also very happy to discover that their worst fears were not realised.

That said, I fear we risk a dangerous complacency if we simply dismiss the issue because the worst case scenario for a single year failed to materialise. We should be happy that less people found themselves suffering food shortages in 2010 than had been expected by many analysts, but we should also be concerned by the numbers that did — nonetheless — face famine conditions and very worried indeed by the developments that created this year’s shortages. Because although a global famine did not occur, the situation remains extremely precarious and many — including the UNWFP — see it as a crisis postponed rather than a crisis prevented.

To an extent I agree with Frank’s comment, in that historically the primary reason for famine and food shortages has been political. However I disagree that will always be the case and believe we are already beginning to see it change. This change is being driven by two primary factors; Climate Change and resource depletion. The latter, resource depletion, covers a multitude of direct and indirect problems. Water shortages (also linked to Climate Change), peak oil (which drives up biofuel production — in the US this year, almost one third of all corn produced was converted to ethanol — as well as damaging fertiliser and pesticide production) and a looming shortage of essential nutrients such as phosphorous. All of these threaten to significantly impact the quantity of food being produced on our planet.

Now, there’s no doubt that you can tenuously link all of these things to “politics” rather than “nature”. But in doing so you essentially blur the distinction between the two to the point of meaninglessness. The Climate Change-driven droughts become “a political problem” because we have failed to find the political will to curb our emissions. Peak oil becomes “a political problem” because we haven’t found a politically acceptable way to eliminate non-essential consumption of crude oil. And so on.

But as I say, that’s semantics. Historically, when we spoke of famines as a political problem we generally meant that the shortages in a given area were the result of inequitable distribution due to the political machinations of corrupt (or incompetent) regimes. So while the Russian grain export ban (extended for another year in September) is obviously a political decision, it’s just sheer-bloody-mindedness to insist that the reason for that ban — successive low crop yields due to unusual weather — is also political.

High food and fuel prices

If you take a look at the UNWFP website, you’ll see the phrase “high food and fuel prices” crop up time and time again. Frank Maloney’s comment makes specific reference to Ethiopia, so I checked out the Ethiopia page. Because although the feared global famine did not appear in 2010, we did nonetheless suffer food shortages in several places this year and also witnessed food riots around the world. Ethiopia was one of the places to suffer, with the food security of over five million people coming under serious pressure. This is attributed to “a combination of factors: poor and erratic rainfall over the last two years, the high food and fuel prices that hit the country in 2008 and are persisting and the global financial crisis.” Of these factors, only the last one is unambiguously a political problem.

It is my contention, and I believe this is backed up by the evidence, that the current high food prices are here to stay (which isn’t to say that there won’t be periodic dips in the price, but like oil I feel we have reached a production peak — or perhaps “plateau” might be a better word — and that a long term drop in global food production is inevitable). As I say, there will be peaks and troughs; perhaps the weather in Russia and China will be perfect next year and we’ll see a bumper crop, but it looks almost certain that we’ve entered a new phase whereby Climate Change and resource depletion have placed our global production on a downward trend, notwithstanding the occasional spike.

In the wealthy countries this will mean we’ll have to spend more on our weekly shop. There’ll be some belt-tightening but starvation is unlikely. Here in Ireland, for instance, the combination of high food prices and economic collapse has resulted in a 2.6% drop in food consumption per capita in 2010 alone. For a nation that, by-and-large, has been overconsuming for a couple of decades, that’s not going to create serious hunger. But in the parts of the world already close to subsistence-level, that’s the kind of reduction that can tip them over into famine.

And it’s not the result of political decisions, or at least, it’s not only the result of politics; instead it’s the result of a very real drop in global food production. And there are few serious analysts suggesting that’s not set to continue.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


7
Nov 2009

A free Mann

Equatorial Guinea is a pretty awful place to live. Unless, of course, you happen to be a member of the ruling elite. Despite experiencing recent economic growth thanks to the discovery of oil, the population largely live in poverty with almost all of the petroleum revenue being appropriated by President Obiang to fund a luxurious lifestyle for him and his inner circle, as well as ensuring the military are paid well enough to keep him in power. Although there are occasional elections, they are quite obviously loaded in Obiang’s favour and nobody is under any illusions about him being willing to relinquish power voluntarily. He is a dictator in all but name, and while he probably isn’t responsible for quite as much bloodshed and tyranny as the guy he overthrew, that’s really not saying much given the record of Francisco Macías Nguema. Macías reputably had a penchant for mass public executions to the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days. His regime was nightmarish in the most literal of senses… terrifying and surreal all at once, like a David Lynch film writ large.

If you’re an ordinary person in Equatorial Guinea, you have a difficult life and probably quite a short one.

It’s worth pointing out that when people describe Equatorial Guinea as “oil rich”, it’s a statement that needs to be placed in some context. In fact, with estimated recoverable reserves of a little under 2 billion barrels, Equatorial Guinea represents a fraction of one percent of global oil. However, with a population of less than 650,000 that should, in the right hands, be enough wealth to provide the country with a more than adequate health, education and social welfare system. Given their oil resources in proportion to their population size Equatorial Guinea could be a very pleasant place to live given radically different circumstances.

It’s the sort of place that could desperately do with a change in government.

And about five years ago, a group of men decided to try do just that. A bunch of South African mercenaries led by Simon Mann (a former British SAS officer turned soldier-for-hire) were preparing to launch a coup d’état when they were seized enroute to Equatorial Guinea. The Zimbabwean government intercepted their chartered plane when it touched down in Harare to take on supplies and Mann was extradited to the small West African nation to stand trial. During the trial allegations were made that Mann’s coup attempt was being backed by members of the British establishment including Sir Mark Thatcher (son of a certain ex-Prime Minister) and Jeffrey Archer (baron, bad novelist, prominent tory and all round git). These remain “allegations”, though Thatcher’s involvement in providing logistical support has been proven despite his insistence that he was unaware of the details of the plan and had no idea Mann and his private army were up to anything dodgy.

The details of the operation are obviously a little vague, but the basic plan seems to have been to overthrow Obiang and install either Mann himself or a local puppet as President of the country whereupon those who organised, financed and took part in the coup would reap the rewards in much the same way that Obiang currently does. I feel confident that largescale infrastructure projects and a redistribution of the oil wealth to the general populace wasn’t on the cards.

Mann was placed on trial in Equatorial Guinea and found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government. In July last year he was sentenced to 34 years in prison.

Now, it’s fair to say that Equatorial Guinea probably doesn’t have the most robust or transparent judiciary. People like President Obiang rarely install that kind of thing in the countries they rule. Dictators can be funny like that. Nonetheless, there’s no question — given Mann’s own public statements — that the basic facts are as stated. Surprisingly (or not if you assume that some kind of deal was done… cf. not the most robust or transparent judiciary) Mann has just been released having served less than a year and a half of his 34 year sentence. He appears to be a guy with an axe to grind and is looking to get even with the other coup plotters who left him swinging in the wind.

Despite the obvious relish with which some are anticipating whatever he’s got up his sleeve for Thatcher, there are others; Merrick for instance; who point out quite rightly that “a vicious mercenary is now free to enjoy his millionaire’s lifestyle and work on his book deal and film options”. This is hardly very satisfactory and is a somewhat lamentable outcome to the entire affair.

John Band, on the other hand, via that horrid twitter service that irritates me considerably, makes the following comments…

Struggling to see why Merrick upset re S Mann – Eq Guinea one of Africa’s vilest regimes, so no biggie if overthrown

and then (because twitter insists on breaking simplistic soundbites down into absurd soundnibbles)

If he’d been overthrowing an (even vaguely) democratic or liberal government, *that* would actually matter

Taken at face value (and Twitter is doubtlessly doing John a disservice by reducing his position to two sentences of less than 140 characters each) that’s a pretty dreadful sentiment. It seems to be saying that so long as the regime is bad enough, it doesn’t matter if rich westerners storm into an African country, kill a bunch of people, overthrow the government and then syphon off the mineral wealth for their own benefit. It’s an endorsement of violent imperialism because the suggestion that Mann and his 70 heavily armed mercenaries were going to liberate the people of Equatorial Guinea from tyranny is risible.

Perhaps they’d have set up a regime that was moderately less oppressive? But that resolves into an endorsement of Obiang’s government given the fact that it is moderately less oppressive than the Macías dictatorship it replaced.

The reason we should be upset about the likes of Simon Mann and his establishment backers… the reason their actions should matter… is because military intervention and murder for personal gain should not be tolerated even if most of the dead were bastards. People like Mann are no different to the Obiangs of the world, even if he did go to Eton. And I’m a little taken aback that John seems to think it doesn’t matter if they go tearing around Africa pocketing the continent’s wealth at gunpoint.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


29
Oct 2009

Is AA Gill a psychopath?

OK, first up, let’s be clear about a couple of things. Although I have a Masters Degree in Psychoanalytic Studies, I’ve remained (as yet, anyways) in the academic side of the discipline. I have no clinical training or experience and am not professionally qualified to assess anyone’s mental health. I believe my grasp of theory is pretty strong by now, but diagnosis is its own unique set of skills and I make no claim to them.

Secondly, my entire knowledge of British restaurant critic, AA Gill, is gleaned from a single article in The Guardian containing but one or two direct quotations from the man. I’ve never read his writing as restaurant criticism doesn’t interest me in the slightest. So even if I did have the requisite clinical training, I don’t have anywhere like sufficient data to make a diagnosis.

I wanted to declare this because some of my regular readers, knowing my area of study, may assume that I’m making some kind of formal diagnosis here. That’s just not the case. On top of that, there’s a chance — albeit a slim one — that I may decide to pursue clinical psychoanalysis at some point in the future and I don’t want to be on record as doing anything so sloppy or unethical as making a public diagnosis of a person. Especially based upon such limited data. Even Freud himself, who was arguably rather cavalier about rushing to a diagnosis, would have balked at such a thing.

Nonetheless, when a person announces to the media that they have travelled to Africa and shot a baboon for the express purpose of getting “a sense of what it might be like to kill someone”, then they are pretty much inviting a public analysis of their behaviour. Such extreme, and I’d suggest spectacularly misjudged, pronouncements cannot be expected to remain unanalysed. Any semi-intelligent person who tells the world that they have an urge to be “a recreational primate killer” (his words) having already admitted that they were merely using the baboon as a stand-in for a human being, must accept that those of us in the field of psychoanalysis (whether academic or clinical) will inevitably view his comments through the lens of our learning.

And quite frankly, it’s a lens that does not show Mr. Gill’s claims and behaviour in a positive light. The Guardian article includes the following paragraph which — along with the “recreational primate killer” comment — reveals, I’d argue, a very dark aspect of his personality…

Gill admitted he had no good reason for killing the animal. “I know perfectly well there is absolutely no excuse for this,” he wrote. “There is no mitigation. Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard. The feeble argument of culling and control is much the same as for foxes: a veil for naughty fun. I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger. You see it in all those films: guns and bodies, barely a close-up of reflection or doubt. What does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone’s close relative?”

Those last four words are what lifts Gill’s statements out of mere testosterone-fueled bloodlust (which, sadly, we must accept is too common an element of human psychology to warrant classification as being extremely abnormal) and into something a little more chilling. The desire to kill is not itself psychopathic, but the specific urge to inflict the grief of bereavement upon a stranger’s family is certainly moving in that direction.

To then go one step further and act upon that fantasy suggests the sort of escalation in Gills’ “urges” that would almost certainly concern a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst if they witnessed it in one of their patients. It’s a cliché in fiction, but it is nonetheless true; violent psychopaths begin with fantasies of killing people, progress to killing animals, discover it doesn’t fulfill the urge they feel and, the worst of them, wind up going further. They often revel in — to the point of receiving a powerful sexual charge from — the suffering they have caused to those around their primary victim. It’s an extreme form of sadism.

Given this, one is forced to wonder whether perhaps Gill’s decision to publicly announce his sadistic fantasies might not be a cry for help?

“Stop me before I kill again.”


UPDATE 11:56: One commenter writes… “I’m gonna shoot AA Gill to get a sense of what it’s like to kill a baboon”. Well, it made me laugh.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


19
Mar 2007

Food miles. More complicated than you may think.

For me, food miles have become the single biggest factor when I do my weekly shop. They over-ride pretty much all other considerations these days. “Nothing from outside Europe” is the basic rule… broken only very rarely for certain tropical fruit. Usually in a fit of “Goddamn it! Mango is my favourite food! We’re all going to die someday and I’m denying myself my favourite food! It’s right there in front of me, for a price I can afford. I’m surrounded by people buying apples flown in from Chile despite the fact that they’re on a shelf next to some Irish ones and I’m denying myself a single mango. I’m a frakking hair-shirted weirdo! That’s it! I’m buying one!”

And yes, I do use that many exclamation marks when I’m thinking about it.

But by and large I spend time making sure that everything I buy is sourced from as close to me as is possible. I vividly recall standing in the supermarket one afternoon and pointing out to the woman next to me that she was buying Chilean apples rather than Irish ones. I’ll never forget the look of contempt I got… “I’ll buy what I want!” she insisted in brittle tones. There’s a part of me convinced that she now goes out of her way to buy food from the furthest flung corners of the earth just to spite me. She had that kind of look in her eyes and a terrible hiss in her voice.

It’s a little disheartening to say the least; the thought that my watchful attitude towards food miles is now merely balancing out the damage done by saying, “Excuse me, but did you realise that by choosing the Irish apples you’d be doing your part to combat Climate Change?” in as friendly a voice as serious ol’ me is capable.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as “Buy homegrown. Save the planet. Everyone lives happily ever after.” Because nothing’s ever that simple. Well, almost nothing. In fact it’s questionable as to whether it’s even possible any more. Can Europe grow enough food to support its population? According to the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), for example, it most certainly can’t. They claim that Western Europe’s arable land is only capable of carrying approximately a third of our current population at “present lifestyle”. This number increases to two thirds if we reduce our levels of consumption to what OPT describes as a “modest lifestyle”.

You can download the Excel Spreadsheet containing detailed global numbers, but for a brief flavour of OPT’s calculations; with zero food imports, the UK has a ‘present lifestyle’ carrying capacity of less than one third its current population. Belgium and Luxembourg; one tenth. France; a half. Germany; a quarter. Holland; one eighth. And so on.

The only Western European nations that come even close to being able to support their own populations at current levels of consumption are Finland, Ireland and Sweden. If you reduce consumption to modest levels, you can add Norway and Denmark to that list. The implications are clear… unless Europe reduces its population significantly, it will need to continue to import large amounts of food from Africa and elsewhere just to prevent starvation (note: this is even if we restrict our consumption to sensible / modest levels).

And that’s not the end of the story either. Hypothetically, what if Western Europe was suddenly capable of supporting the current population? Would we find ourselves in the “Buy homegrown. Save the planet. Everyone lives happily ever after.” situation? Sadly not. As this post over at worldchanging (via Gyrus) makes clear, Western Europe’s voracious appetite has led to a large number of poorer nations retooling their entire economy to function as an extension of European arable land. Huge areas of Kenya, for instance, are devoted to growing salad vegetables for European tables. If that market disappears, it will result in significant problems for Kenyan farmers.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that’s a good enough reason for us to be flying mange-tout and sugar-snap peas up from the equator. Frankly when you realise that amongst the nations bordering Kenya are three (Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia) which suffer regular devastating famines, the fact that Kenya is growing baby corn for our salads instead of regular corn to prevent local starvation becomes rather sinister. We all know the old cliché that famine is not a result of food shortages, but is instead a consequence of inequitable distribution and political corruption. Nonetheless, how many of us are aware of our own culpability in this inequity when we buy Kenyan vegetables?

God bless the market, eh? We in Europe can currently pay more to a Kenyan farmer to airlift fresh salad on to our table than an Ethiopian can pay the same farmer — his or her neighbour — to put staple food items on to theirs. As Tim Worstall (blogging economist) so eloquently put it, “Making money from customers is what businesses do, it is the very reason for their existence.” Market capitalism ensures that agriculture is a business like any other. It does not exist to feed the hungry, it exists to generate profit. Market economists see this as a good thing.

I don’t, needless to say. But as I’ve already illustrated, there is no easy solution here. Europe simply cannot grow enough food to feed itself. We could reduce our consumption significantly and still not have enough land. That said, I would nonetheless urge Kenyan farmers to restructure their economy, accept the pay cut, and start to feed their neighbours. Our inability to feed ourselves is our problem, and leaving hundreds of thousands of nameless black people to starve half a world away is not an ethical solution to that problem*.

For now, I shall continue to support Irish farmers 100% (OK, 99.9%… I’ll still buy the occasional mango). And as transportation fuel becomes less abundant, driving the price of imported food ever upwards, it will become easier to do so. But Europe will soon need to face up to this problem of how we feed our massive population. And between peak oil and climate change, it seems unlikely that using Africa and South America as our personal gardens will be an option for very much longer.

* A first, small, step towards an ethical solution, of course, might be to stop dumping so much food into landfills.

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


6
Dec 2006

The Limits of Empathy

This is a tough one. As with any attempt to discuss the reasons and motivations behind deplorable acts, one runs the risk – thanks to our psychologically illiterate culture – of appearing to condone them. In 2004 Jenny Tonge (a British Liberal Democrat MP) was sacked from her position for stating that she understood why Palestinians might choose to become suicide bombers. The Israeli ambassador to the UK welcomed her dismissal with the claim that “We must stand up against such remarks, which are an incitement against the state of Israel and against Jews.”

Now, I’m no fan of Jenny Tonge. Her statements about the Kalahari Bushmen were staggeringly offensive and displayed the kind of patronising colonial mindset that clearly blights the upper reaches of the British establishment to this day. Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that this attitude should be found in someone willing to bear the title “Baroness”. It’s very difficult to take a liberal democrat seriously when they occupy an unelected position in an archaic ruling aristocracy.

Nonetheless, Tonge’s sacking from the LibDem front bench was one of the more outrageous and cowardly acts to have occurred in mainstream politics of late. And just think of the competition it faces! The idea that “understanding” should be considered anything other than a positive thing is a demonstration of just how screwed up our culture is. Personally I’d introduce a policy whereby every MP was asked whether or not they could understand why Palestinians become suicide bombers. Those without the requisite levels of understanding, imagination and empathy should be fired. Certainly they shouldn’t be permitted to develop and implement policies that would affect anyone beyond their family and circle of friends.

As for the Israeli ambassador and his idiotic remarks; there’s few things that’ll generate anti-Israeli sentiment faster than Israeli officials telling the rest of the world what it may or may not understand.

But it’s not Palestinian suicide bombing that I wish to discuss here. Instead I want to go further into the heart of darkness. To a place we hear a lot less about, but where the horrors and atrocities make most of what we do hear pale into insignificance. I want to journey to the outer reaches of human behaviour where empathy, understanding… perhaps even psychological analysis… run into a brick wall that has most sane people reaching for the word “evil”. I want to talk about what’s been going on in Central Africa of late.

It’s fashionable within the liberal left to ascribe all of Africa’s problems to colonialism. If it wasn’t for the imperialism of white Europe, black Africa would be all sweetness and light. A more nuanced liberal analysis will draw attention to western post-colonial economic policy as a contributing factor. But ultimately it’s a view that boils down to an unconscious assumption of white supremacy.

Of course, I’m not denying the role that both colonialism and continued economic exploitation have played in creating the political chaos we see in much of Africa today. There can be no doubt that European and American policies have had a spectacularly destructive influence on African society (and not just Europe and America either… the tragedy currently occurring in Sudan is being fuelled in part by Chinese economic policy). However, just like the overbearing parent who takes credit for every success their child achieves and blames themself for every failure (as a strategy of establishing control through guilt), the liberal attitude towards Africa denies – or at least grossly minimises – the responsibility that Africans must bear for their own decisions and actions.

It’s important that this is not viewed as a race issue. The atrocities I wish to discuss here are being carried out by black men against black women in Central Africa. But anyone who wishes to draw racial conclusions should probably bear in mind the skin colour of those who ran the gas chambers in Europe in the 1940s. White Germans were responsible for arguably the worst genocide in human history. And it’s only “arguably” the worst because it has competition from black Rwandans and yellow Cambodians. The capacity for extreme cruelty and violence are clearly not the exclusive preserve of any skin colour.

Belgian Congo… The Congo… DRC… Zaire… DRC

And so, finally, to specifics. It was Natalie Bennett’s article in yesterday’s Guardian that prompted me to spend most of the past 24 hours thinking and reading about recent events in the Congo (see this map if you’re unsure of the geography). So thanks a lot Natalie; I’m now extremely depressed. Of course, it’s not really Natalie’s fault. Anyone who spends a little time reading the reports emerging from that war-torn nation can’t help but feel depressed.

For most of my life the Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC) was called Zaire. In 1997 the name was changed back to Democratic Republic of The Congo – it’s name between 1964 and 1971. For the majority of the 20th century, however (up until 1960), this vast area of land wasn’t a true nation at all. It was called Belgian Congo and was run from Brussels for the benefit of a bunch of north Europeans.

There’s no question that the effects of colonialism have contributed to the political instability in the region. However, the people of The Congo have now had more than forty years of independence and – by almost every measure – conditions have worsened consistently for those forty years.

Similarly, the desire of the industrial west to exploit the vast natural resources of The Congo has generated a massive incentive for disparate groups to control those resources. But liberal opinion does not – and should not – consider the desire for resources an acceptable motive for US political violence in Iraq. So the fact that the west is willing to pay top-dollar for Congolese diamonds, uranium or gold does not absolve the local militia groups of responsibility for their actions. Since 1996 DRC has been wracked by the single most violent conflict on the planet since World War Two. Conservative estimates place the number of dead at four million. That’s four million central Africans (not merely Congolese, for many of the dead are from neighbouring nations dragged into the conflict) massacred by other central Africans.

We must become more aware of the role that the west plays in this violence. For that’s something – in theory at least – we can do something about. But we must be very careful not to assume more responsibility than we bear. If I pay a man to commit murder then I am a murderer. But so is the man I paid. And he bears equal – if not more – responsibility for the act of violence. Certainly nobody should be making excuses for his actions.

The Inhumanity of Men

Did you notice that in the previous paragraph I dropped my usual gender neutrality? I didn’t say “If I pay a person…” It was a man I was paying. This was to better introduce the aspect of the Congolese violence that is perhaps most disturbing; the extreme sexual violence carried out against women. It’s at this point that I advise you to stop reading if descriptions of such violence are likely to upset you badly. My head’s in a pretty bad place right now having examined some of the reports – and it’s not the first time I’ve read such accounts. This is seriously nasty stuff.

I don’t wish to minimise any form of violence. There are very few victims of rape (even extremely violent rape… all rape is violence, but there are levels of violence as we shall soon discover) who would prefer not to have survived the ordeal. So, as far as most people are concerned, it’s better to be raped than murdered. Let me quickly repeat, this is not an attempt to play down the severity of rape. Indeed, as you’ll see, I intend quite the opposite. For while I can honestly say that I understand why a Palestinian might choose to put on an explosive belt, my empathy and imagination fall short when confronted with the tactics of, for example, the Federation for the Liberation of Rwanda (one of the most active militias in The Second Congo War, and generally considered largely responsible for the preceding genocide in Rwanda).

So there’s a disconnect. A Palestinian suicide bomber is arguably committing a “worse” crime than an FLR rapist. Murder Vs. Rape. Yet the worse crime is understandable while the “lesser” one is not. What’s the reason for this disconnect? Well, before I try to answer that let’s get the nasty graphic bit out of the way so you can better understand my failure of understanding. Let me repeat my previous warning… this is disturbing.

“Fistula”. I’d never heard the word before yesterday. It’s an extremely rare medical condition where the wall between the vagina and the bladder and/or rectum is ruptured. Extremely rare, that is, except in Central Africa. In the rest of the world the condition generally occurs due to serious complications during childbirth. Most gynecologists and obstetricians will go their entire career without ever encountering a single case. In DRC, however, there’s an epidemic. And it’s not down to an increase in complicated births.

Many of the militias in DRC have adopted a deliberate policy of terror through mass rape. There’s no question that this is a horribly effective way to cause massive social damage. However rape – even violent rape – does not as a rule cause fistula. No, instead the militiamen, having already gang-raped the woman (often a huge number of times over a period of weeks or months) will deliberately inflict major damage to her genitals before sending her back to her village. More often than not this is achieved by carefully shooting the woman’s vagina at point-blank range. “Carefully” because they want her to survive, to return to her village. Having commit this sickening crime against the woman, they then use her as a psychological weapon against the rest of her people.

Often the fistula is not a result of a bullet. Knives, broken glass or just sharp sticks are used to cause as much damage as possible. Girls as young as 12 months have been subjected to this violence. Sometimes, prior to the mutilation women and young girls are impregnated, held for months, and then given violent late-term abortions. The vast majority of women who suffer this are rendered permanently incontinent, incapable of bearing children or of menstruation, sexually inactive and prone to a lifetime of unpleasant infections. As though that weren’t enough, the extreme incontinence produced by fistula means they face a lifetime smelling of shit and piss… social outcasts.

The Limits of Empathy

If we are entirely unemotional about these horrors, it is possible to understand the reason that militias would adopt this policy of extreme sexual violence. Indeed, this reason has already been mentioned… it’s a very effective method of terrorism and social disruption. But while that may provide an adequate analysis for the history books, it’s a world away from an understanding of the individual man who chooses to commit these acts.

And it’s here that I hit the aforementioned brick wall. You see, to me this appears, bizarrely, like “learned psychopathy”. An isolated case of a psychopath committing vile acts of sexual violence is comprehensible in the context of a severe personality disorder. But when this form of sadistic violence is adopted as policy and willingly implemented by large numbers of men, then we’re faced with something entirely different.

Can we describe these men as suffering from a personality disorder? Are they mentally ill? It seems to me that an essential element in any diagnosis of psychopathy is that the individual is acting in a manner incompatible with the values and sanctioned behaviour patterns of their society. This is why, in our own culture, we do not diagnose as psychopaths those businessmen who are willing to place career advancement and profit above more human concerns… such behaviour is clearly sanctioned within the context of capitalism. It makes little sense to describe as psychopathic any behaviour which is actively encouraged by one’s culture. Psychopathy has both medical and social components.

But in order to work successfully, industrial capitalism has had to insulate the individual businessman from the negative consequences of their actions. This prevents basic human empathy from intervening and forcing a change in behaviour. No such insulation from the consequences of their actions exists for a Congolese militiaman. It perplexes me, and it disturbs me. So while I can envision a set of extreme circumstances that might see me strap a bomb to my body, I simply cannot find any empathy at all with a man willing to repeatedly rape a woman and then shove a broken bottle into her body in order to lash out at his enemies.

I therefore reject outright the implication of Natalie Bennett’s article that this behaviour is essentially a factor of the “maleness” of the perpetrators. Something else is at work in DRC. Something that has even me reaching for the word “evil”.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


15
Aug 2006

Bloody markets

The problem, as is so often the case, is free markets. You see, they are maybe possibly perhaps a half-decent way of handling the distribution of new computer games. For instance. But they’re an awful way of dealing with essential non-renewable resources. Seriously awful. In fact, if you had to design a system with the express purpose of bungling resource management you’d probably arrive at something a lot like free market economics.

We’ve arrived at a system which provides as motivation for the production and supply of essential non-renewable resources; the generation of profit. And it bestows the right to choose how the resource should be consumed onto those wealthy enough to purchase it.

I see it as being somewhat akin to a national blood bank / transfusion service being run exclusively for the profit of those who own the system. And to make matters worse, there’s a cabal of millionaires who get their kicks buying blood to bathe in. I mean, let’s be honest, there’s no reason at all for a defender of the free-market principle to object to that.

Certainly if millionaires are buying blood to bathe in, it’ll raise the price and – presumably – generate a greater supply. But this is a finite resource we’re talking about. Over 10% of the population has “needle phobia”. Another 10 – 15% are barred from giving blood because of various contamination issues. And health and safety recommends that nobody should donate blood more than once a month (restricted to 4 times a year in many countries). It’s a finite resource and increased demand will not generate an increased supply beyond the limits imposed by nature.

So first our hypothetical cabal raises the price beyond the capability of the NHS to pay for transfusions, then it raises it beyond the capability of most private patients to pay. Do proponents of the free market believe this is an acceptable situation? Is it OK for rich people to deliberately waste a resource vital to sustain the lives of those with less purchasing power? Is it still OK when it’s your ten-year-old daughter dying in hospital because Peter Stringfellow, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Richard Branson want to sit in a bath of blood?

Of course, nobody bathes in blood. Leastways nobody you’d invite round for dinner. But I was drawing an analogy, not suggesting that Richard Branson actually has a blood fetish (though you do have to wonder about Lloyd-Webber… nothing would surprise me about him). And it’s an analogy that can be applied more directly than perhaps you’d imagine.

There are rather worrying reports emerging from some of the poorer African nations; Zimbabwe in particular. These reports are unconfirmed and I’ve only read them (thus far) on peak oil mailing lists (so I’m not using them as “evidence”; merely illustrative examples of how market forces will affect essential resource distribution… i.e. if this is not happening now, then it will be soon). As the recent rises in oil price kicked in, the poorest nations have been forced to cut back on the quantity they imported. This is what free markets are all about, after all.

However, in Zimbabwe this is resulting in a major curtailing of the – already decrepit – ambulance service*. People are dying right now because western consumers are willing to pay more for petrol to drive their SUVs to the hypermarket than the Zimbabwean health service can afford to pay to keep their vehicles on the road.

Bloody markets, eh?

* Yes, yes, I’m aware that the unique political disaster occurring in Zimbabwe is a major factor in the collapse of the health service (and just about everything else). However I trust you’re smart enough to realise that merely explains why Zimbabweans can’t afford to fuel their ambulances. Saying “Oh! Oh! Mugabe is a Bad Man!” loudly while sticking your fingers in your ears doesn’t actually redress the basic injustice that people are dying for want of a global resource while others are frivolously squandering it.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


29
Mar 2006

Charles Taylor to face trial

I must admit to having mixed feelings to the news that former Liberian president Charles Taylor is being repatriated to face war crimes charges. This is despite the fact he’s almost certainly guilty of widespread atrocities in two nations in West Africa. Despite the fact that when Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor of the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, describes Taylor as “one of the three most important wanted war crimes suspects in the world”, there’s probably not a lot of hyperbole involved.

My family lived in Nigeria for a couple of years, and I tend to take a slightly greater interest in news involving that nation than I might take in news from other places. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that… for a period of my life, events in Nigeria affected me directly. Much more than events in – say – Angola or Ecuador or New Zealand. So I kept abreast of the Nigerian news, and as happens with a politics junkie like myself, I became quite interested in the subject so that even now – after my family have left the country – I tend to keep an eye on the major developments.

Also, the fact that Nigeria is a politically unstable major oil exporter puts it on the map for anyone interested in energy issues.

Anyways, a brief summary of the Charles Taylor situation for those who aren’t familiar with recent West African affairs: Taylor led a rebellion against the government of Liberia throughout the 1990s. By 1995 the nation was in a state of all-out civil war. By mid-96 the government could no longer be described as “governing” in any sense, and – with the backing of the major regional power, Nigeria – called elections. In 1997 Charles Taylor was elected. The poll was a sham. It’s hard to say which side did the most voter-intimidation… though in the end Taylor seemed most effective at it.

Which brings us to Taylor’s tactics, and the fact that during the entirety of his Liberian rebellion, Taylor was spending at least as much of his time plundering diamonds from neighbouring Sierra Leone (a nation in a near-permanent state of civil war thanks, largely, to the diamond mines). During his longtime involvement in the conflict diamond trade (which dates back at least until 1991, but probably started even earlier), Taylor inspired fear by ordering his fighters to hack off the hands and feet of anyone in an area suspected of collaborating with his enemies.

This often extended to entire villages.

Needless to say, the international war crimes tribunals currently in session with regards to Sierra Leone consider Charles Taylor to be their most important suspect. He, more than anyone, escalated the civil war in Sierra Leone… in order to fund his civil war in Liberia. He, more than anyone, is associated with the committing of widespread atrocities. And his involvement in his neighbour’s war didn’t end when he’d seized power in Liberia either. For the next half-decade, until French-led international forces intervened and things degenerated into all-out civil war at home again, he continued to plunder diamonds and fan the flames of conflict.

So it seems rather perverse to hold mixed feelings about his extradition to face these charges. And I should point out that I’m not suggesting that there’s some kind of ‘stitch-up’ of Taylor in the Western media. There’s not much doubt that this is a man guilty of some truly terrible crimes.

However, and here’s where I have the problem, the long civil war in Liberia would almost certainly still be going on had Taylor not agreed to exile in Nigeria. Certainly he had lost his grip on power by then, but there’s no reason to imagine he wouldn’t simply have become a rebel leader again – a role he exulted in for more than a decade – and continued to spread conflict throughout the region. Indeed he threatened as much… demanding a cushy exile in exchange for a promise not to plunge the area in further chaos.

And despite the arrest warrant from the Sierra Leone tribunal, the Liberians and Nigerians agreed that – from a purely pragmatic standpoint – letting the man live out his years in silent exile was the best option. They didn’t want him to return to being a rebel and probably didn’t much relish the idea of giving him an international platform like the tribunal either. So they made a promise. Taylor got a lovely villa in Nigeria and all the imported luxuries his ill-gotten diamonds will buy.

And for the first time in almost two decades the conflict in both Liberia and Sierra Leone began to ease off. To describe the situation in either country as far from perfect is akin to describing the sun as far from cold. But it’s getting better. Slowly, painfully it’s getting better.

I certainly don’t think that Taylor deserves to get away with it. And yes, it is a staggering injustice that he should live out his life lighting cuban cigars with burning hundred dollar bills, when he helped cripple two entire nations in order to do so. And I agree fully with the argument that such a fate for Charles Taylor sends all manner of destabilising messages to the region and the wider world.

Yet part of me still believes that a deal is a deal. And when the outcome results in progress towards ending two terrible conflicts, then perhaps there’s an obligation to hold up your side of the bargain?

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion