The meanest goddamn debate about the UN ever

Academics and policy wonks are mainly mild-mannered folk.  I know that I am.  But occasionally it’s fun to cut loose and have a really nasty debate with an intellectual opponent.  The New Internationalist gave Phil Leech of Liverpool University and me a chance to do just that by asking us to conduct a debate on abolishing the Security Council for their latest issue.  Our debate quickly and entertainingly turned into the IR academic equivalent of professional wresting.

Phil started off by stating the case for the Council’s abolition:

The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.

The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states – rather than that of individual human beings or human societies – and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.

I actually agree with a lot of that, but I wasn’t going to admit defeat so easily..

You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be.

Time for me to ramp up the battle!

Let’s pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council’s current members.

Phil strikes back:

You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies –which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost – merely because of a poverty of creative thought. I am unconvinced.

Ouch!  Me again:

I may not be thinking very creatively, but your alternative adds up to a couple of slogans.

If you want to find out what Phil had to say to that, read through the full multilateral wrestling-match here.  Rest assured that we made up afterwards!

Why can’t politicians ‘cut through’ on climate?

In the Guardian, Hugh Muir complains that the Daily Mail has “helped erode trust in the probity of the political establishment to the extent that politicians cannot now receive a fair hearing on anything.”

We don’t listen much to any of them these days, and sometimes that doesn’t matter, because we live quite happily day to day without ministerial interference. But when it comes to issues that affect the state and mood of the nation; the inability of even serious politicians to cut through becomes troubling.

This is spot on for climate change, as can be seen by a look at how Hugh’s own paper covered three stories in the run up to the Warsaw summit.

First, fossil fuel subsidies, where the Guardian gobbles up a global report from the Overseas Development Institute and presents it through a primarily national lens.

Fossil fuel subsidies

As I have explained, the Guardian’s framing is largely fallacious, but to pick up Hugh’s point, the government’s position is not reflected at all. No quotes. Nothing.

Only a tiny minority of readers would suspect that ministers deny Britain has any inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at all (or understand why). Nor would they realise that eliminating the ‘subsidy’ identified by ODI equates to quadrupling VAT on all domestic energy, whether it comes from fossil fuels or renewables. Continue reading

DFID in Russian Navy takeover shock

Hats off to DFID’s communications team for a classy graphical overview of the humanitarian assistance that the UK has sent to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

There’s just one problem: the warship silhouettes. The top one is supposed to represent HMS Illustrious – but even I can tell the difference between the silhouette above and what Illustrious actually looks like (h/t Wikipedia):

So what is the silhouette in the DFID graphic? In fact, as is now being gleefully pointed out on Facebook by people who know what they’re talking about on matters maritime, it turns out that it’s… er… the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. D’oh!

A UN translator’s tale

The London Review of Books has a nice piece by Lynn Visson, a former UN translator, on the secrets of her trade:

The most important language in most international organisations has no name: it is the institution’s own bureaucratese, its linguistic Esperanto. We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied. You are never doing a great job: you are performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them. There is not heft or embezzlement, but rather failure to ensure compliance with proper accounting and auditing procedures in the handling of financial resources. This is a language the interpreter must master very early on.

But sometimes there are surprises…

Some colleagues play tic-tac-toe with each other out of sheer boredom. Delegates too sometimes get bored. Instead of beginning his speech with the usual ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman,’ a Russian delegate for whom I was interpreting launched in with ‘O my lost youth, my lost youth,’ and proceeded to reminisce about the mosaics in the main cathedral in Sofia, including one figure in the cupola that reminded him, as he put it, of ‘Christ in a space suit’. Several delegates turned towards the English booth with puzzled looks, undoubtedly wondering if I had gone mad.

…and sometimes things go horribly wrong:

One unfortunate freelancer announced to an entire room that a Spanish speech he had just finished translating was ‘the stupidest and most boring speech I have ever interpreted in my entire life’. I doubt that he was ever hired again.

China – not yet a global power

China has been taking flak for its relatively small contribution to the international aid effort in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. It’s pledged about $1.7m so far compared to much larger amounts from the US, Japan and European countries. One possible explanation for this is the escalating dispute over maritime borders between Beijing and Manila, although the slow bureaucratic gears in China may also responsible. But if China wants to be seen as a global – or even regional – power, the argument goes, then it should be contributing more to global public goods, such as humanitarian aid.  But does China see itself as a global power and how do the Chinese view their integration into the global economy and their new-found international influence? Here’s a review I’ve written of leading sinologist, David Shambaugh’s latest book which unpacks Beijing’s impact on the world

What life’s actually like for Ethiopians in the Gulf

The BBC and other outlets are tonight carrying the story that some 23,000 Ethiopians have “surrendered” to police in Riyadh following a clampdown on illegal migrants last week that led to rioting and at least five deaths (accounts vary of the nationalities of those killed).

Local media reports like this have talked of “troublemakers” on the “rampage”, or of how many Saudi families have decided to fire their Ethiopian maids (“I have hired maids from different nationalities but I should say Ethiopians are the most arrogant and stubborn ones” … “I have always feared leaving my children under their care.”)

A psychologist might say that there’s some projection going on here, given that many, if not most, Ethiopian workers in the Gulf (and there are a lot of them) have a pretty awful time.

I’ve lived in Ethiopia since early 2012, and every time I fly out of Addis Ababa’s Bole airport I see dozens of migrant labourers waiting for flights to the other side of the Red Sea. This time last year, when I was in Qatar for the climate summit, I saw some of what awaited them at the other end. Continue reading

Who chooses? a response to Jishnu Das

There was widespread admiration in my Twitter stream yesterday for an article by World Bank Senior Economist Jishnu Das slamming The Economist for its support for making cash transfers to the poor conditional. I am less convinced by it.

Jishnu finds it ‘ridiculous’ that the Economist could reach the conclusion that conditional transfers are attractive based on the following evidence:

School enrolment among families that got conditional grants rose by 41% on average in the various programmes; the increase among those that got unconditional grants was only 23%. If conditions were implicit or soft (eg, if recipients were simply encouraged to take children to school), enrolment merely rose by 25%. The big difference came when conditions were tough (eg, if school attendance was mandatory): that boosted enrolment by 60%, a big bang for the relatively few bucks involved.

As he sees it, without conditions, parents are able to take better account of their own priorities, favouring nutrition or healthcare over education, or simply spending the money on beer so they can relax after a long day at work.

Any imposition of conditions suggests that donors know better than parents and is an example of the ‘purely elitist’ mind-set that bedevils development. “Has our hubris really taken us that far?” he asks, despairingly. “What happened to respect for the poor?” Continue reading

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