Have NGOs gone soft on the Government?

“Non-Governmental Organisation” is a foolproof reminder to us of the one thing we are not: the Government. “Remember, we don’t work for them.” We must ward off the temptations of “access” just as Frodo must resist the temptations of the ring. If you work for an NGO and you never hear that the Government is angry with you, you should be angry with yourself.

So Richard Darlington’s challenge in a  recent well-argued piece in the New Statesman, asking whether NGOs have gone soft on the Government, is a vital one, and needs to be asked during every Government.

Well, have we? No.

Where we’ve been disappointed by government action, we have been very very frank. In response to the Welfare Uprating Bill, for example, that will effectively cut benefits for low-income families in the UK, we called the changes “Dickensian, cold-hearted and wrong-headed”.  We’ve demanded a clamp down on tax havens, and the cancellation of millionaires’ tax cuts. When the Government launched a legal action to prevent a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, we accused them of “rank hypocrisy”.  We can do tough.

We can also do happy. The recent 0.7% aid victory was a real one. It will help 16 million kids get to school. It makes Britain the first G8 country to meet the international promise on aid, and resonated around the world, with, for example, Canadian MPs asking questions demanding their government follow suit. It is a tribute, to people in this government, in the previous government, but most of all to the British public, that this has been achieved. We don’t do champagne at Oxfam, but we did celebrate with a home made “0.7” cake and a big thank you to all our supporters. And we did say well done.

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I’m no fan of politicians, but I have seen for myself that the decisions politicians make can for people in poverty mean the difference between life and death.  And that sometimes they make the right ones. When they do, we say so.

At the G8 this year the UK government, as hosts, can ensure leaders tackle seriously the key root causes of poverty, including land grabbing and tax dodging.  If they deliver real results ,we’ll give praise where praise is due. If they let the world down, we will let the world know.

That warm feeling is us holding their feet to the fire.

Boston and the new rules of media

Full marks to Buzzfeed for identifying the key point amid today’s information blizzard from Boston (and for keeping their heads while all around them are losing theirs):

Yesterday, the conspiracy nuts at Infowars and the proud tabloid hacks at the New York Post, the amateur sleuths on Reddit and and the top-notch journalists at CNN shared something: They each failed to understand their new roles in a radically changed news environment.

The traditional journalists ignored the reality that their audiences were swimming in information, good and bad, and weren’t waiting for anyone’s permission to share it. The Redditors didn’t realize that as many people were looking at their wild, superficially compelling speculations as at John King’s. (The leader of Reddit’s bombing investigation told BuzzFeed yesterday, in complete seriousness: “Things shouldn’t be going any further than this forum and the FBI.”)

The shift here is, basically, from the media having one major responsibility — finding, vetting, and sharing new information — to having another one: guiding an audience that has already been exposed to much more.

The job of a news organization — and of a citizen — has changed with frightening speed in a world where information is everywhere; where the tip line is public; where the distinction between source, subject, and publisher has blurred; and where, crucially, questionable reports and anonymous postings are part of the fabric of that story.

A pogrom against bankers?

What an appalling quote from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph:

Let us all agree that top bankers behaved very badly. Let us agree too with Vince Cable that the fraternity operated like a cartel, rewarded far beyond ability or worth to society.

That said, the global crisis would have occurred even if bankers had been saints. The roots lie in the “China effect”, the world “savings glut”, and the whole way that globalisation has worked for 20 years.

The rising powers of Asia and the oil bloc accumulated $10 trillion of reserves, flooding bond markets with money. Japan put $1 trillion into play through the carry trade. Central banks in the West played their part by running negative real interest rates. They set the price of credit too low, especially in Club Med and Ireland.

All this combined into one colossal bubble. Bankers were the agents, not the cause. The witchhunt against them gathering force in this country has a nasty edge, and it has the character of a pogrom in much of Europe. We should be careful.

At a lunch in the City of London a couple of years ago, I was astounded to learn that many of those present felt that bankers were, indeed, the primary victims of the financial crisis – harried by a citizenry that had been happy to live off their taxes in the good times. This pushes the self-pity to an astounding level though.

Wikipedia:

A pogrom is a violent mob attack generally against Jews, and often condoned by the forces of law, characterized by killings and/or destruction of homes and properties, businesses, and religious centers.

Jaw-dropping.

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

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