Thatcher: The Facts (well, a few of them)

Unlike many of those who were still in their childhood or teens through most of her reign, I don’t have a very strong view about Margaret Thatcher. I wasn’t interested in politics at the time, and although generally viewing her in a negative light for what she did to the miners have never been sure that she wasn’t beneficial overall for the British economy.

I don’t intend to start spouting my opinions now, but since many others are doing so I thought I’d put forward a few statistics to help guide the discussion. What, I asked myself, would I have wanted to see happen during an eleven-year reign? I discarded foreign policy as it’s too vague an area for concrete data (Twitterites can’t even agree on whether or not she called Nelson Mandela a terrorist), and limited myself to the Iron Lady’s impact on quality of life in Britain. Where possible, I compared Britain’s progress between 1979 and 1990 with Europe’s and the world’s. I realise that some of her structural reforms might not be expected to bear fruit for many years, but 1990, when she stepped down, is the only clear and indisputable time threshold available, so 1990 is what I stuck with. I also didn’t have much time, so limited my search to five key quality of life indicators. Here’s the rub:

  • Life expectancy at birth:  Rose in the UK from 72.9 years to 75 years, a 2.8% increase. This compares with a European increase of 2.4% and a world increase of 4.8%. (Source: UN Population Division)
  • GDP per capita (at constant 2005 international $): Rose in the UK from $18153 in 1980 to $23348 in 1990, a 29% increase. This compares with a  European increase of 23% and a world increase of 15%.  (Source: World Bank)
  • Unemployment: Rose in the UK from 5.4% to 6.4%, and in the European Union from 5% to 8% (Source: Office for National Statistics)
  • Poverty: Rose in the UK from 13.4% to 22.2% (Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies report)
  • Crime: Hard to find concrete data, but this British Crime Survey report shows a rise in crime during the 1980s, at a rate slightly faster than population growth.

So there you have it – and this is of course far from an exhaustive list. Poverty, unemployment and crime all increased during Thatcher’s time in office, as did GDP per capita and life expectancy. Britain under Thatcher performed better than the European average in terms of life expectancy improvements, GDP per capita growth, and unemployment. I’ll leave it to others to draw conclusions, and would welcome any additional quality of life data to add to the list.

The end of a colourful career, as former Guinea-Bissau navy chief Bubo Na Tchuto is caught trafficking drugs

The Bijagós Islands, Guinea-Bissau

The Bijagós Islands, Guinea-Bissau

Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who was arrested by US agents in a sting operation in international waters on Tuesday, has had an exciting career.

As head of Guinea-Bissau’s ill equipped navy in the middle of the last decade, he was widely thought to be a key player in facilitating the passage of cocaine from South America to Europe via his country’s Bijagós islands. Perfectly placed to oversee the traffic through the remote, forest-covered archipelago, he gained popularity among ordinary Guineans by being lavish with the rewards that came with his position.

Power, however, went to his head, and in 2008 Bubo was forced to flee the country in fear of his life after a coup he plotted to oust then-president Nino Vieira failed. He went to Gambia, but after two years there, and weary of exile, he took advantage of the assassination of Vieira to return to his homeland. Leaving Gambia in a dugout canoe, he made his way through the waterways and forests of northern Guinea-Bissau and, having evaded numerous checkpoints (one of which snagged me a few days later as checkpoint guards were belatedly put on high alert), walked into the United Nations building in the capital and demanded refugee status. The national government was outraged, but the UN was obliged by its constitution to grant him asylum, and Bubo remained under its protection until a group of renegade soldiers took him under their “protection” a few months later and made him a figurehead in their own coup attempt.

While all this was going on, Bubo had been labelled a “drug kingpin” by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (a well-named agency if ever there was one), but had shrugged off the threat this posed to his business activities by saying he didn’t have enough money to open a bank account in the US. In October 2010, much to the chagrin of European Union officials who had been trying to stamp out the drug trade, he was reinstated as navy chief (Bubo always denied involvement in the trade, challenging his accusers to provide proof). Continue reading

Being wrong, wrong wrong about migration: David Goodhart in the Guardian

Migration is a notoriously divisive issue. Maybe David Goodhart, writing in the Guardian last week, should be commended for trying to say something new on the subject. But alas, his attempt to marry fairly standard right-wing anti-immigrant views with pro-welfare liberalism results in an article that is, to put it kindly, a little confused. Others have written well about the fact that he’s wrong on the evidence about the impact of immigration on the UK, and about how immigration policy is made. But he also makes some wild assertions about migration and development, which is what I know about, so let me start there.

First, he attributes some pretty extraordinary views to people like me who work in development and live in the UK. Apparently we think that UK policy should be just as much about people in Burundi as people in Birmingham (loving that alliteration, David). But, oh dear, he then tells us that in the UK, the apparent home of this hotbed of internationalist liberalism, we spend 25 times more every year on the NHS than on development aid. And, er, that most people see this as a ‘perfectly natural reflection of our layered obligations’ although ‘to a true universalist it must seem like a crime’. Spot the straw man. I have been working among these strange ‘universalist’ creatures for nearly 15 years now, and I have never met anyone, not one single person, who would argue to cut the NHS budget to spend more on overseas aid.

Tempting to say that there is no argument here since the people to whom the article is addressed do not exist, and the point of view he is rebutting is not one that anyone actually holds. Tempting to stop right there. But let’s plough on. Continue reading

Social Covenants: The Missing Ingredient in State Building Efforts

Loya Jirga

Political theorists have for the most part focused on the state when thinking about how to make countries work better for their populations. This has naturally led to a concern with state-society relations, how governments are chosen and run, and institutions. There is wide consensus that social contracts play the central role in state building.

This thinking has heavily influenced how the international community approaches fragile states, post-conflict situations, and transitions as well as development in general. As the OECD/DAC explained in Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations:

Fragility arises primarily from weaknesses in the dynamic political process through which citizens’ expectations of the state and state expectations of citizens are reconciled and brought into equilibrium with the state’s capacity to deliver services. Reaching equilibrium in this negotiation over the social contract is the critical if not sole determinant of resilience, and disequilibrium the determinant of fragility. [page 7]

This focus on the state shapes responses to crises in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, compelling the international community to prioritize the establishment of a transitional regime and fast track elections under the belief that this is the sole way to create legitimacy no matter the circumstances or the context.

But many of these countries have deeply-entrenched problems that a focus on the state cannot solve. Different religious, ethnic, and clan groups do not work together well, and see any competition for power as a zero sum game for exclusive control of the state. Government is weakly institutionalized, and unable to act as an independent, equitable arbitrator between different interests. Judges and officials are beholden to personal relationships, power politics, or money (and sometimes all three). In such places, winners of elections rarely see it as their duty to serve all their people, and often define their rights as whatever they can get away with—negating whatever social contract the process was supposed to establish. Continue reading

Annan on Syria: “we left it too late” to invade

Anna-Assad

It’s six months since Kofi Annan stepped down as UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.  Does he have second thoughts about his efforts to mediate an end to the civil war last year?  He said something odd this week:

“I don’t see a military intervention in Syria. We left it too late. I’m not sure it would not do more harm,” he told the Graduate Institute in Geneva on Tuesday night.  “Further militarisation of the conflict, I’m not sure that is the way to help the Syrian people. They are waiting for the killing to stop. You find some people far away from Syria are the ones very keen for putting in weapons.”

Annan went on to say that he still thinks a political solution is the only viable option, although he’s pessimistic about the chances of achieving this.  Still, his “we left it too late” line is striking.  Does he think that a military intervention might have been feasible a year ago, when he was trying to secure a ceasefire?

Earlier this month, I wrote a commentary for Stability – an up-and-coming online journal devoted to conflict issues – about Annan’s early days as Syria envoy in February and March 2012.  I argue that the chances of a military intervention were always low, but there was “prevailing uncertainty about how the intentions of major powers towards Syria might evolve as the crisis continued.”

Russia appeared genuinely convinced that the West might use force. And while the Assad government responded to the splits in the Security Council by escalating military operations, it could not be certain that its Arab and Western opponents might not take a more aggressive line. This doubt was a potential point of leverage for Annan. Should he take advantage of the uncertainties over external powers’ intentions or try to clarify them?

How did the former UN Secretary-General handle this dilemma?

After his appointment Annan pulled together a team of veteran UN officials and set up office in Geneva. While his team was highly loyal to him, divisions emerged over what strategy he should adopt. A relatively hawkish faction believed that Annan could use the swirling uncertainty to persuade Assad that his position was unsustainable. A more dovish group felt that it was necessary to reassure both Assad and the Russians that regime change was not imminent, creating a framework for talks. The doves were convinced that the chances of an outside intervention were still infinitesimally low and that it was essential to disabuse those opposition forces hoping for a repeat of the Libyan episode. Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has mixed relations with Annan, was pressing hard for an early ceasefire.

Annan visited Damascus on 10 March 2012 and held difficult talks with Assad, who declared he would not talk to “terrorists”. Although declaring himself disappointed by this encounter, Annan opted to follow the dovish route. His six-point plan was an effort to create a climate of confidence both outside and inside Syria. By tabling proposals that all the members of the Security Council could approve, he eased tensions between Russia and the West. By getting these powers to sign on to a deliberately non-threatening text, he reassured Assad that the chances of an intervention were low.

So if “we left it too late” to intervene, Annan was partially responsible for the delay.  You can read the rest of the Stability article – including some thoughts on what Annan could have done differently – here.

Now why would David Miliband be leaving for New York?

Honestly, the Westminster village can be so up itself in its sheer self-referentiality. More or less every piece I’ve read today on why David Miliband might have taken the job running the International Rescue Committee in New York has taken it as a given that his motivation must of course be rooted in Westminster factors, above all the “permanent pantomime” of his relationship with his brother Ed.

No doubt that will have been a factor, but it’s still astonishing that so little of today’s coverage stops to think about how Miliband’s decision might also have been influenced by a calculation about the politics of New York rather than Westminster.

Consider:

  • Since 2007, the senior UN post that has been informally regarded as ‘belonging’ to Britain is that of… why, Under Secretary General (USG) for Humanitarian Affairs. (The current postholder is my former boss Valerie Amos; before her it was career FCO diplomat John Holmes.) When Ban Ki-moon and his team finish their term, in 2016, David Miliband will have impeccable credentials on emergency relief and foreign policy and management of international organisations.
  • Britain also has a pretty strong claim to an alternative, more senior USG post – or even to an additional one. Until recently, Britain had two USG posts (the other being the low profile but important role of running Safety and Security). Prior to 2005, Britain had a 12 year track record of filling the crucial post of USG for Political Affairs – the UN’s equivalent of Foreign Secretary (so another post that Miliband would be obviously qualified to fill). And for a little while, we fielded the post of Deputy Secretary-General too, in the form of Mark Malloch Brown. Who knows what Britain might end up with in 2016 if the government decided to make a strong push. And on that note…
  • …when these jobs come up again in 2016, there’s a substantial chance that the government taking the decision on who to nominate for which post will led by one… Ed Miliband. Even if the Conservatives were still in power after the next election, the widespread respect for David Miliband on all sides of the Commons and in the Foreign Office (including William Hague himself) would still give him a strong shot at nomination.

Obviously the domestic political context will have been a factor in his decision. But David Miliband is far too experienced a foreign policy operator not to be competely aware of all the points above. And remember that he’ll still be only be 51 when Ban Ki-moon’s administration wraps up…

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