Book review: Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”

Book review

If you’ve ever written a book about Guinea-Bissau, you will know that popular interest in this remote little West African country is scant. Your oeuvre is unlikely to be spotted flying off the shelves of WHSmiths, even less likely to feature prominently on airport bookshops’ lists of Great Holiday Reads. The few journalists who write about the place trot out the old saw about no president having completed his term in office, and then move on to less somnolent parts of the continent.

But Guinea-Bissau, as a few eminent Africanists have noticed, provides an instructive example of how the survival into the post-colonial era of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s extractive political and economic institutions continues to impede Africa’s development half a century after independence. Among these Africanists is one of the most brilliant of them all, Patrick Chabal, whose Africa Works is an essential read for anyone trying to understand how and why so many of the continent’s Big Men have endured in power for so long. Chabal also wrote extensively on Guinea-Bissau, including a biography of one of the Big Men’s nemeses, Amílcar Cabral, who after leading his country to independence from Portugal would become another of Africa’s doomed figures of hope.

Patrick Chabal died before his final work could be completed. But ‘Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”’, co-edited with another Guinea-Bissau enthusiast Toby Green, is a worthy handing over of the baton (disclosure: Toby kindly reviewed and provided a blurb for my own, less academically rigorous book on the country). The book’s ten chapters, written by an assortment of academics from Guinea-Bissau, its diaspora and elsewhere, provide a thorough and clearly argued analysis of why the country remains one of the poorest in the world four decades after shrugging off the colonial yoke; of why it has been subjected to such venal leaders (most notoriously the thuggish Nino Vieira); and of how foreign meddling during and after colonialism contributed to the hollowing out of the institutions of government, exacerbated local ethnic and religious divides, and weakened this primarily agricultural society’s resilience. Continue reading

The State of the World: A Report Card on International Cooperation

Guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations

Last week the Council of Councils, a global network of think tanks, released its third annual Report Card on International Cooperation and the results are not pretty. The Report Card, which surveys the heads of member think tanks to evaluate the world’s performance on ten of the most important transnational challenges, found that global efforts earned a barely passing C-, a steep drop from the B earned last year. Moreover, across the ten issue areas that the Report Card covers, only one – combatting transnational terrorism – registered an improvement over 2016.

Few who pay even passing attention to global affairs will find the results surprising. The past year saw some of the most significant shocks to international cooperation since the end of the Cold War. After Brexiteers narrowly beat out Remainers in the United Kingdom, Americans voted Donald Trump into office. The scandalous longshot in a crowded field of Republican candidates, Trump made a number of campaign pledges to withdraw the United States from international entanglements that he viewed as unfair and incompatible with his vision of ‘America First.’

Echoes of this isolationist call have been felt in subsequent elections, most recently in Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency. And while liberal candidates prevailed over nativist calls this year in France and the Netherlands, there’s reason to believe that populism, far from being beaten back, has merely reached what the New York Times recently called “an awkward adolescence,” too small to win elections, yet large enough to disrupt national politics.

This matters all the more so because many of the world’s most pressing challenges cannot be stopped by borders. As the Report Card notes:

Around the world, a surge of populist nationalism poses a political challenge to globalization and calls into question continued support for multilateral institutions. At the same time, many of the most important challenges confronting governments and citizens – from economic shocks to climate change to infectious disease – are inherently transnational, crossing borders that leaders have vowed to reinforce.

Digging deeper into the ten issue areas, the Report Card reveals more pessimism. Once again, the Report Card reserves some of its poorest grades for international efforts to prevent and respond to violent conflict. Though the Report Card identifies conflict management as a high priority going forward, it is not expecting to see opportunities for breakthrough this year. In contrast, the areas that scored highest marks – mitigating and adapting to climate change, promoting global health, advancing development – were all seen as relatively lower priority areas for policymakers. In short, according to the Report Card there is little expectation for progress on important issues, where the world is already underperforming. And while there is hope for progress in areas already performing relatively better, these gains matter less.

Two issue areas – combatting transnational terrorism and promoting global trade – buck this trend in opposing directions. Despite scoring a middling grade for performance in 2016, international efforts to combat transnational terrorism ranked as both a high priority for policymakers and the top area where the Report Card expected to register progress this year as the international coalition fighting the Islamic State has rolled back significant swaths of the group’s territorial control.

Efforts to promote global trade, in contrast, received some of the Report Card’s poorest marks, as major mega-regional trade agreements failed, and the Council of Councils ranked trade as a low priority, in part because it did not see any hope for progress this year. In an environment of continued anti-trade rhetoric, the most that may be expected is that the world can avoid worst outcomes – a China-U.S. trade war, the collapse of NAFTA, orderly Brexit negotiations – but this is a low bar indeed.

To learn more about how events over the last year have shaped expectations for international cooperation in 2017, visit the Report Card on International Cooperation.

Elites claim we’ve persuaded them to fight inequality, but it’s only activism that can make them do it

The words we never thought they’d say have recently turned from a trickle into a mighty river. The very building block of any decent society, commitment to reduce inequality, which governments had rejected for decades, has now become the cornerstone of official policy. We in civil society pinched ourselves when the IMF started saying it. This week even the G7 – yes, them – have joined them. Has our dream come true?

Both wings of the rivalrous South African government now say that they are focused on tackling inequality; elite opinion-leaders from the FT to Davos regularly beat the anti-inequality drum; the European Union says reducing inequality is key to its own and global harmony; Indonesia’s President says it’s his top priority; even the world’s richest men highlight rising inequality as a threat to stability and progress. New French President Macron declared at his inauguration that social division has driven extremism, and that to heal the divisions the government must fight inequality.

That such statements would be made was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. And yet government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. Try listing every country that has signed up to fight inequality under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and you will run out of breath. Try counting every government taking the action that ensures a markedly more equal society within their term of office, and you won’t need to use more than one hand. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery.

This is partly because the current crop of world leaders are a poor imitation of better days. At a recent pan-Africa feminist meeting I attended, no one there felt they could name any current leader who matched Sankara, Mandela, Lumumba or Machel. And in the North, well, let’s just say that Americans have started saying they miss George W Bush. Yes – him. Our leaders will not lead us. But it is also because even when leaders are more inclined to change they cannot act without the wind at their back that civil society can give them. Remember how President Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King “I know what I have to do, but you have make me do it.” Politicians are currently under so much pressure from the ever more powerful 1% that, if they are well-intentioned, they need our pressure. And if they are not, well, we need to pressure them even more.

As a person who came from the mainstream NGO advocacy tradition, part of my own journey has been one of unlearning, of realising that the most important change isn’t brought by the professionals but by the amateurs. As friends from Kibera who stopped a slum eviction told me when I asked them how they did it, “we have no other home to go to.” Former Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “we’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.”

This is why, in the #fightinequality alliance I am part of, we do less “lobbying” and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to us, it will be fought for by us.

The leaders are there – but they are not in government. My hope these days comes from young civil society leaders like Aya Chebbi from Tunisia who was part of the Tunisian revolution and is now challenging the IMF restructuring of her country; Lamin Saidykhan who helped found Gambia Has Decided which toppled Jammeh and now leads support for youth activism to fight inequality across Africa; Brian Matyila who helps lead Fees Must Fall and also fights for LGBT rights; and Brazilian youth activist Lira Alli challenging austerity. Through the #fightinequality alliance they are learning from, and teaching, leaders who have led struggles for decades like Anti-Apartheid activist Jay Naidoo who hosted the first global #fightinequality gathering and Filipino debt campaigner Lidy Nacpil who hosted the second. Change is always collective, never individual, and the folks I’ve just mentioned would modestly point instead to other names. This is great – we are leaderful. I list these few to say that if we are looking for leaders, we will find them – but it is more likely nowadays we will find them active on the ground and not in the corridors of power.

Despite the claims of the elites that we have persuaded them to fight inequality, we are in a period that in the short term will likely see it get worse. In many respects, we have entered a dark tunnel, but it is one we will get through, and it is the fire of courage of activists which will light the way. The social movements who constitute the #fightinequality alliance have been out on the streets in the Philippines, Brazil, South Africa, the US and elsewhere challenging the policies which favour the 1% and hurt the rest. Together social movements are building a collective power that can shift power. And when that starts to happen, we really will have won.

A history of campaigning for the welfare state

A guest blog by Rebecca Falcon (@RFalcon_) on a talk given by Roger Harding (@roger_harding) as part of the #changehistory series. You can listen to all the previous talks here and read previous blog summaries of them by clicking on the #changehistory tag at the bottom of this blog. 

As a single mum, Sarah has to juggle three jobs at once to provide for her son, but her low wages mean that if it weren’t for housing benefit she could still end up homeless. Down her street, Brian has had a hip replacement on the NHS and today his wife Beryl collected her pension from the post office next door.  Beryl noticed that her neighbour is home during the day again. She suspects he is cheating the system.

We all benefit from the welfare state, but holding on to taxpayer’s support for the system is no simple task. Support for benefits is only slightly higher among people who receive benefits than those who don’t, Shelter’s Roger Harding explains, and concerns about fraud and excessive taxpayer spending have been issues since Clement Attlee’s day when it all began.

In the latest History of Change talk on the Welfare State, Roger walked us through some of the lessons we can learn from the work by political parties, trade unions and issue groups to maintain the welfare state over the last seventy years.

He describes the longevity of the welfare state as a victory against the odds thanks to smart campaigning. These, he says, are the key lessons:

1) Big Change Doesn’t Happen overnight

Popular opinion may say that the NHS burst into life at the end of the Second World War, but in fact, it was the product of decades of campaigning by political parties and trade unions from the beginning of the 20th century.

2) This was a deal, not a gift

To win taxpayers’ support, and fund the welfare state, Clement Attlee introduced contributory National Insurance. Framing the welfare state as a project that we all pay into, based on responsibilities – not just rights or charity – helped to win over working and middle class voters.

3) Patriotism can unite people in common cause

Patriotism is a powerful driving force that can be used for good or bad. Campaigners for the welfare state tapped into post-war patriotism in the 1940s, selling the NHS and social housing as the best of Britain and a core pillar of our new post-war national identity.

4) Build solidarity across classes

Labour knew that working class voters alone couldn’t win general elections. By broadening the welfare state’s appeal to the middle classes, with some universal services and a contributory model, the project gained mass appeal.

5) With great [campaigning] power, comes great responsibility

Next was a warning to campaigners to learn from some of the single issue campaigns of the 1960s and 70s. The Child Poverty Action Group’s powerful criticisms of the disparity between rising wages and benefits played into the opposition’s hands. The opposition Conservatives used the pressure group’s evidence in a very political way in the next election. On the other hand, Harding spoke about CPAG’s success in the 1970’s to improve the child benefits system, by leaking minutes from a government meeting. The lesson is to be aware of your power and to use it responsibly.

6) Resistance works, if the cavalry is coming

In the 1980s, many councils refused to co-operate with Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy scheme. They believed that a subsequent Labour government would repeal her legislation. However, Thatcher’s continued success meant that in fact, by staunchly refusing to engage, they lost an opportunity to negotiate and improve the policy. Resistance can work, but you do need a chance of winning coming around the corner.

7) Responding to public concern can increase public concern

In the 1990s the government tried to build trust in the system with adverts warning benefits cheats that they were being watched. Although the action by the government did reduce levels of fraud, they didn’t receive credit for it as people thought fraud must have been widespread if the government were putting so much effort into advertising about it!

8) Don’t trash the brand

Criticising a government’s poor delivery of welfare policies can make people want to throw the towel in on the whole project. Nuance can be lost in the public sphere, so be careful about publicly criticising a system you ultimately support.

9) Learn from successes – contributarian and majoritarian

The NHS and pensions are amazing successes of the welfare state that we can learn from – both of which have record levels of funding today. Universal healthcare means there is no stigma associated with using the NHS, while the strong sense that pensions are contributarian has upheld public support (even though in reality pensions aren’t entirely contributory and actually the closest thing we have to a basic income).

10) Less ‘Saints vs Sinners’, more ‘Boringly Normal’

Studies show that painting people who will benefit as saints (for example focusing on pensioners and disabled children who receive benefits, who few people would object to the state supporting) can actually reduce public support for your cause. People think they are being misled if your policy sounds too good to be true. Better to describe those who will benefit as ‘boringly normal’, like the single mum who still needs housing benefit despite working as much as she can.

11) So many ideas to steal

Finally, we were reminded that the issues we face today are not new. We have a duty to look at the work of previous campaigners to understand what worked and what didn’t.

Some further reading suggestions

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 – Tales of a New Jerusalem, Daniel Kynaston

The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State, Nicolas Timmins

Citizen Clem – A biography of Attlee, John Bew 

Shelter’s analysis of current drivers of attitudes to welfare, Jenny Pennington

Historical analysis of support for welfare (second doc in this link), University of York for Shelter

•How to talk about inequality in a way that might actually fix it 

•A series of blogs on Shelter’s current campaigning pilots on welfare, Paul Donnelly and Tilly Williams

Meeting Martin McGuinness

“Ben, Martin, I have to introduce you to each other,” said an Irish writer who knew us both.

It was Dublin March 2016, and we were there to commemorate Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising against British imperial rule. I, an Englishman with what friends tell me is the most English accent ever, was there as a descendant of 1916 Irish rebel leader, Padraig Pearse; Martin McGuinness, former Provisional IRA man, was there as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK.

As a student of history, follower of politics and staunch supporter of the Peace Process I had become, from a distance, and intellectually only, an admirer of Martin McGuiness. He’d ended a war and was central to the new Northern Ireland of inclusivity and progress. He was a super smart politician. Tony Blair once shared at a talk I attended about how in the Peace Process he’d come to like Irish Republican leaders Adams and McGuinness “almost too much”.

And yet I remain an Englishman, steeped in the culture and conversations of my people. To many in England, including amongst those closest to me, McGuinness remained a hate figure, a Bogeyman. In any conversations in which I contextualised what had happened in Northern Ireland I was told back: “no, no, he’s a terrorist, nothing justifies it, nothing.” “But I’m not justifying it, I’m …” “No, no, stop. He’s a terrorist.” And the brutality of the conflict, of which he was a central part, was truly horrific. I strongly opposed the paramilitarism he embodied. Not only did I understand why he personally filled so many with dread, I felt some of it myself. And I felt it surge in me at the very moment we met.

We started talking about the beautiful service of remembrance that had just taken place, what it meant for the elderly relatives. Then we talked about the events being commemorated. I said, as if in challenge, “it wasn’t just about nationalism, it was about a society where all were cherished equally.” “Oh yes yes,” he replied, “that’s what inspires me most about it, how progressive it was: it was 1916 Ireland, and their proclamation begins ‘Irish men and Irish women.’ We’ve still a lot to do on that score.” “Ben is a descendant of Pearse,” our mutual friend shared. “Oh I love his poetry,” McGuinness replied.

He seemed to be doing too well at being gentle and charming, and I worried that I was letting down my English folk, perhaps even my own English self. “I’m English,” I said, “as you can hear from my accent. Pearse’s sister, my great-grandmother, married an Englishman, and we’ve been English ever since.” I smiled in challenge to see his response. “Oh there’s nothing wrong with being English. One of my nieces came to me and said ‘Uncle I’m going to marry an Englishman’ and she waited for my reaction and I said ‘is he a good Englishman?'” And he laughed. And I couldn’t help laugh back.

He asked me about my life as a development worker and shared what he’d learnt from South Africa. He asked me to get in touch if he could ever help my work.

Martin McGuinness had shaken hands with the Queen and made a friendship with the firebrand Protestant Ian Paisley, so befriending an English descendant of an Irish rebel was nothing compared to that. But in my case it was a private conversation with a person irrelevant to political gain and from which he could have extracted himself with ease. And yet he chose not to. Making peace can be the smartest strategy, the best calculation, and it is clear that the strategy he chose was a smart one and that he had especially acute political nous. But that day we met I couldn’t put it all down to that. For all the contradictions of any life, and he was clear that his had been one of both light and dark, it seemed he really was, deeply, a man who sought peace, and his achievement in bringing it was not only political but personal. And it taught me that even our Bogeymen, perhaps especially our Bogeymen, can be our teachers, and that we can learn not only to love our enemies but even to like them. May Martin rest in peace.