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

How to defuse the twin climate finance / post-2015 finance for development timebombs (updated)

Whether it’s at the climate summit currently underway in Warsaw (from where I’m writing this post) or at two key meetings happening in NYC next month on the post-2015 agenda, financing is one of the issues furrowing most brows.

Right now, progress in both places is stalled. Promises of $100 billion a year by 2020 under the Green Climate Fund are starting to look like a bad joke – especially to the least developed countries (LDCs) who most urgently need help to adapt to climate impacts.

Aid flows, meanwhile, have actually been declining for the last two yeas, rather than rising towards the 0.7% target. And they’re falling fastest for LDCs: while bilateral aid as a whole fell by 4% last year, it fell by 12.8% for them.

Nor does it look likely that rich countries are about to put big new pledges of cash on the table any time soon, what with weak growth, high unemployment, and fiscal pressures – despite the crucial 2015 deadlines on both climate and development. Yet if they fail to do so, it could toxify the dynamics on both issues – and contribute to an outcome where the climate and development ‘tribes’ perceive themselves to be fighting over the same pot of cash rather than working together on a shared agenda.

Is there any way to defuse this ticking timebomb? Well, there might be. Continue reading

The UK’s Anti-Malala Backlash

Sadly, Malala Yousafzai became a controversial figure in Pakistan soon after she was shot and the theory that she is a pawn of the West is now entrenched.

It’s depressing, however, to realize these views have also gained currency in the UK. Yesterday, Nihal – a radio presenter – hosted a phone-in discussion on BBC Asian Network, in response to news that some private schools in Pakistan have banned Malala’s book.

The first guest was Mizanur Rahman, who was introduced as a UK-based ‘lecturer’. It’s quite an interview – you can listen to for the next few days here (2:10 onwards). According to Rahman, Malala was always “a tool of the BBC and Western governments” and that the idea she is promoting girls’ education is a lie. Instead, her main purpose is to justify Western aggression against Muslims, and the Taliban in particular.

The Taliban, in contrast, has been much maligned. “The Taliban has always education promoted for boys and girls,” he claimed. Anyone, like Malala, who claimed otherwise was dehumanizing Taliban members in order to justify their killing by American forces. “The Taliban never barred girls from attending schools,” an incredulous Nihal asked. “Never! Never!” Rahman replied.

Other guests refuted Rahman with great gusto, including Bina Shah, who writes about her experience here. Nihal, himself, is a skilled and patient interviewer. “My gosh, he’s a rude man,” was as cross as he got and he did a good job puncturing some of the guy’s more blatant fabrications and distortions.

But Rahman was not without his supporters. One young woman phoned in to say that she had friends from the Swat valley and they had had no trouble gaining an education. Malala’s father was to blame for the attack on her, she said, not the Taliban. She believed that Malala’s story was mostly a fabrication.

So who is Rahman? There is a lecturer with that name at a British business school, but I very much doubt it’s the same guy.

There’s also an activist called Mizanur Rahman, who has a conviction for inciting racial hatred and for soliciting murder in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons. Maybe it was him. If it was, surely the BBC had a duty to warn its listeners about his background and criminal record.

I’d also be interested to see some polling on how widespread Malala conspiracy theories have become in the UK. On the one hand, her book is so widely distributed that it’s one of only a handful on sale in my local supermarket. On the other, I suspect an anti-Malala backlash is now well underway.

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