Caveat elector

ConservativeHome and ConservativeIntelligence have just polled the 250 Tory candidates in the party’s most winnable seats.

The survey finds that in terms of personal priorities, cutting the deficit is top-of-the-league. Helping small businesses is priority two and reducing welfare bills is priority three. Interestingly, three issues associated with the modernising agenda (civil liberties, defending the NHS and fighting poverty) score above winning powers back from Europe and reducing the level of immigration.

At the bottom of the league table of personal priorities is a reduction in Britain’s carbon footprint. Just eight adopted candidates said it would be a top priority for them in the next parliament. It was the only policy goal that fell below 3.0 (the middle ranking). If the Tory leadership presses ahead with a decarbonisation strategy it will need to redouble Greg Clark’s tactic of emphasising the wider benefits of all green measures (eg in terms of energy security or household fuel bills). Candidates’ ‘green scepticism’ is shared by the Tory grassroots. 76% of Conservative members want Cameron to focus on energy bills above climate change.

FBI: Bin Laden cunningly disguised as Bin Laden

The big problem with catching Osama bin Laden is that everyone has forgotten what he looks like.  That, or he’s hiding in an ungoverned quarter of Pakistan.  One of those two.  Just in case it’s #1, the FBI has put out new photos of what the world’s most wanted man might look like today.  Here’s the FBI’s best shot of our man pre-9/11:

And here he is as he might be today… perhaps living on your street, caring for your children, or maybe just hiding out in some ungoverned corner of Pakistan:

Whoa! I mean… who’d have believed it?  Look at the guy.  It’s almost impossible to think it could be the same person.  For a start, he has got rid of the blanket over his shoulder.  And everyone (MI6, CIA) thought that the Bin-man wouldn’t go anywhere – like, for example, a well-guarded cave in an ungoverned quarter of Pakistan – without his beloved safety blanket.  He’s like Linus in Peanuts: no blanket, no identity.

And the turban!!! Where’s the cheeky bit of extra cloth flapping about? Gone. Is there nothing this man won’t do to hide his whereabouts?  He’s even started wearing (look closely) a brown shirt with a silver floral pattern!  Lucky the FBI put that photo out.  Without it, hell, anyone could have stumbled upon a well-guarded cave somewhere in, ooh, the Afghan-Pakistan border area, and met this blanket-free, small-turbaned, crap-shirted dude and thought “hey, isn’t that… no, my bad, that’s definitely not OBL. No resemblance.   Sorry about that fine sir, I’ll be on my way…”.

Haiti: how many Europeans does it take to assess an earthquake?

Yesterday – not long before news of the awful earthquake in Haiti – there was a rumpus in Brussels over whether the European Commissioner-designate for humanitarian aid (Bulgaria’s Rumiana Jeleva) has been fully honest about her business relationships.  There’s a chance that MEPs may try to claim Jeleva’s scalp as the price of voting in the new Commission.  I don’t know the rights and wrongs of her case, but events in Port-au-Prince have rammed home the need for properly-coordinated humanitarian response mechanisms – and shown that the EU has a lot more to do on this front.

Here’s how some of the Union’s leaders reacted to the news from Haiti:

Today, the Spanish Secretary of State for the EU, Diego López Garrido, stated, on behalf of the ministers for Europe that are taking part in the meeting in La Granja (Segovia), that they have been informed about ‘the horrific earthquake that has hit Haiti and that the EU has immediately mobilised to help the victims’.

‘All the EU’s institutions, especially those most involved with humanitarian affairs, such as ECHO, are working to provide an efficient response to this situation,’ he said during a press conference.

‘Spain,’ he went on, ‘as the Presidency of the EU Council, is in close contact with the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, and there will therefore be the most coordinated response possible to the tragedy in Haiti from the EU.’

The most coordinated response possible?  The Spanish announced that an assessment team would be flying out of Brussels for Haiti on Wednesday afternoon.  So there’s a single EU response here?  Not according to the NY Times:

France said it would send three military transport planes, including one from nearby Fort de France, Martinique, with aid supplies, and that 100 troops based in the French West Indies would be sent to help, according to TF1, a French television network. Britain and Germany were sending governmental assessment teams, and Germany said it would make 1.5 million euros, or about $2.2 million, available for emergency assistance.

There were some doubts if the British would be able to make it out of snow-bound Gatwick. But we now have four European assessment teams (to say nothing of the U.S., UN, a Chinese rescue squad, etc.). Or 5… the Italians are on their way:

Following the earthquake that yesterday afternoon shook the Democratic Republic of Haiti, on Minister Frattini’s instructions the Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGCS) went into immediate action.

Two financial contributions were earmarked for international agencies operating on the ground [500,000 euros for WFP and the same for the Red Cross/Crescent]. The DGCS will also be participating in a coordinated Italian mission made possible by a flight arranged by the Civil Defence Department scheduled to leave soon for Haiti.

I’m not an aid expert.  It’s possible that we need as many assessment teams in Haiti as possible right now. The people getting on all these planes are brave and committed individuals.  And I’m certainly pleased that European governments are signing up to throw money at the problem (assuming that they pay up, and it’s used properly, which can’t be guaranteed). But is this really the most coordinated EU response imaginable? Or just an ad hoc rush to do some good? Ms. Jeleva may or may not be the right person to take on these challenges. It’d be nice if someone did.

The face of aid

“The nature of the ties linking the African with the European has not really changed since the first Portuguese ships went sailing down the west coast of the continent: the sophisticated magic of the white man remains irresistibly alluring to the black.” (Shiva Naipaul)

In all the debates about aid, its visual impact is rarely remarked upon. In rural areas, aid probably looks like a good thing. When you see that a donor has dug a well for your village, you may feel grateful to and enthusiastic about the donor (that is, if you don’t feel embarrassed that your community has failed to dig its own well – a fact rammed home in nearly every village in Guinea-Bissau by a billboard placed next to each well proclaiming that it was a gift of the Kuwaiti, Spanish, Portuguese or American people).

But in cities, to which young Africans are migrating in droves, the visual effect is more ambiguous. When the urban African looks at aid, he sees aid workers and missionaries driving around in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers or Hiluxes. He sees them staring at laptops or chatting on snazzy mobile phones. He sees them dining in expensive restaurants or drinking in smart cafes. And he sees their glittering air-conditioned offices and villas, with iron gates and security guards.

In countries like Senegal, where there are tourists and Western businessmen, aid workers do not stand out. But in poor, remote, unvisited Guinea-Bissau they play an important part in shaping perceptions of the developed world (Guinea-Bissau has no cinemas, precious few internet cafes or televisions, and no press to speak of). And, as they have done for centuries, Africans see all this opulence and want a part of it. Guinean politicians, grown rich on drug money, purchase Land Cruisers and build gated villas. Ordinary citizens spend more than they can afford on mobile phones. And young Guineans, who until recently have not joined the West African exodus to Europe, have begun to talk about taking the boat to Spain – a journey which at least one in six of the many Senegalese who attempt it does not survive.

Of course, foreign aid workers are not the only cause of this new yearning, but it is likely they play some role. Many young Guineans I spoke to, who do not want to risk the trip to Spain, are desperate instead to work for foreign NGOs or the UN. It could be argued that giving young Africans something to aspire to will hasten progress and encourage hard work. Maybe so, but is owning a mobile really progress when you can’t afford your daughter’s $10-a-month school fees (as one mobile-owning mother in Bissau complained to me recently)? And in a country like Guinea-Bissau where aspiration is outpacing people’s capabilities and even well-intentioned governments are struggling to manage expectations, are ostentatious displays of affluence the best way of promoting peaceful development rather than the violent upheavals Nigeria, Guinea-Conakry and others are beginning to experience?

Beat the recession (Punch it! Kick it!!)

New York State’s constantly-on-the-ropes Governor David Paterson has just come up with an excellent plan to boost economic recovery:

Gov. Paterson is pushing to legalize ultimate fighting in New York, claiming the unrestrained mixed-martial arts events will make a quick buck for the state’s troubled economy. If he gets his wish, the cage fighting exhibitions, which have been banned in the area since 1997, could take place not only in upstate arenas but in Madison Square Garden.

The controversy over the Brazilian-inspired fighting championships began when John McCain called the blood sport “repugnant” thirteen years ago. The practice was banned in 36 states, including NY, and some reforms were adopted. The UFC introduced weight classes and gloves and made kicks to a downed opponent, hair pulling, fish-hooking, headbutting, and groin strikes illegal. The championship also dropped its “There Are No Rules!” tagline.

Now proponents claim that the PG-13 version of the ultimate fighting is appropriate and necessary. “A study done in 2008 by the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization estimated one event would generate $11.5 million in economic activity in New York City and $5.2 million in Buffalo. Ultimate Fighting Championship estimates there could be two or three events a year in New York,” according to the NY Daily News. Paterson is slated to propose the legalization in his January 19 budget announcement.

Seriously? Why stop there, Governor? If we were to boot the Mets out of their lovely new Citi Field ballpark and turn it over to Roman-style gladitorial combat – possibly involving live tigers mauling slaves – then (i) we wouldn’t have to put up with the Mets being rubbish any longer, and (ii) you’d raise way over $11.5 million.

Afghans: cheerier than Americans

Some unexpected data comes in from the BBC:

Of more than 1,500 Afghans questioned, 70% said they believed Afghanistan was going in the right direction – a big jump from 40% a year ago. Of those questioned, 68% now back the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, compared with 63% a year ago.

The survey was conducted in all of the country’s 34 provinces in December 2009. In 2009 only 51% of those surveyed had expected improvement and 13% thought conditions would deteriorate. But in the latest survey 71% said they were optimistic about the situation in 12 months’ time, compared with 5% who said it would be worse.

Compare that with these Gallup figures, released last week:

Sixty-three percent of Americans describe their outlook for the United States during the next 20 years as “very optimistic” or “optimistic.” Americans expressed greater optimism about the country’s future near the beginning of the 1990s and 2000s, but the current level optimism exceeds that of Americans heading into the 1980s.

So, there you go: there’s 7% more hope in Afghanistan!

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