FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Friday:  August 15, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in sacsis (7)

Sunday
Mar182012

Do Environmentalists Lack a Theory of Change? (PERSPECTIVE)

The Cape Town waterfront: Can affluence and a low carbon future co-exist in harmony? CREDIT: M BociurkiwBy Saliem Fakir

Environmentalists in South Africa are largely seen as lone and desperate voices. Often they are perceived to be white and middle-class, but that is changing slowly.

Environmentalists remain at the margins of the mainstream economy and outside of key decision-making channels. Where they cannot control the excesses and harm belched out of the belly of a gluttonous economy, they mop up the aftermath.

They're fire fighting battles range from dealing with issues such as acid mine drainage to rhino poaching and the prevention of shale-gas extraction to exposing heavy polluters.

Despite all of these noble efforts and media wars, environmentalists are losing ground. This is not only due to a lack of resources but also because environmentalists have a tendency to form alliances amongst themselves and only talk to each other.

Take, for example, nuclear energy. The anti-nuclear debate is largely confined to a few environmentalists – some lone figures and others trying to work as an organized formation without any real broad appeal.

Despite some public sympathy, in the more than fifteen years that this debate has been raging, environmental groupings have not been able to build a coherent coalition against nuclear power. 

Winning the nuclear debate requires a broad-based alliance that will have to involve labour, business lobbies, religious groupings, agencies and individuals that work within government, and the public in general.

It’s hard work and can’t be done alone.

To succeed one also needs a broader political programme - a theory of change for the development of a new political economy.

The idea of a new political economy can’t be invented on its own. It has to be worked out by engaging others outside one’s own fold.

A new political economy can only emerge out of a new value system that restrains our addiction to consumption. The growth in shopping malls all around South Africa is testimony to this surge in consumptive behaviour despite the fact that our populace is heavily indebted.

So who is to blame?

Economic models are based on lifestyle choices. The greater the wants, the bigger the size of the economy and rate at which it must grow. Add to this the fact that nations also compete with each other for power, wealth and status in the world.

These wants are not only shaped by the desire to satisfy basic needs, but also by projects of vanity. Thus capitalism thrives because it can exploit our essential needs through a mark-up on the sale of basic necessities and more so because it exploits the human weakness for addiction to a particular lifestyle. Our growth paradigm commits so-called “consumers” to spending more on things they don’t really need.

We live in a world where flawed ideas about modernity drive the growth of new technologies and innovations in ways that are not always best suited to the needs of the planet and all of its people.

All of this unhealthy consumption takes place in the name of finance, jobs and more taxes.

Financial flows from the government purse, investments from government employee pension funds (South Africa’s is among the largest in the world), the decisions of trade union investment arms and the deployment of surplus capital from finance houses and corporations all shape the nature of the economy, where it invests and how.

In the end, the “growth at all costs” approach is the default compromise position between capital, organized labour and government. While capital, labour and government may seem at odds with each other - as they wrangle over the proceeds of wealth creation and its distribution - they are less questioning of the prevailing economic paradigm and the direction it is hurtling us towards.

As a result, contradictions prevail.

Governments perpetuate the dual problem of environmental and labour exploitation as necessary evils by choosing development models that are at odds with their rhetoric of sustainability, poverty alleviation and labour rights.

Firms encourage management and shareholder greed by incentivising the focus on the bottom line such that they end up working against social wellbeing and the planet’s future. They may be investing capital for economic growth, but at the same time, don’t take responsibility for the damage they cause to nature, labour and society.

Trade union investment arms are also not absolved from perpetuating the prevailing system. These investment arms and pension funds could help to shape a new type of economy, if they would just apply their minds to it.

Environmentalists are not entirely innocent either. Many environmentalists are pleased to do philanthropic work or take care of the mop up job when disaster strikes. However, the reduction of environmentalism to a beneficiary of philanthropy and charity demobilises its political relevance and guarantees it’s continued complicity in the prevailing, highly destructive, global economic system.

In this role, environmentalism merely enables the current system rather than disabling it. Without a theory of change, environmentalism is neither able to advance mechanisms for change nor is it able to demonstrate how a transition to a new kind of economy would be better than the existing one.

Thus, instead of just shouting from rooftops, environmentalists require a new theory of change. This can’t be invented through idealising alone but will have to evolve through active engagement with other organized formations where people are encouraged to seek a new ethos and moral compass for the economy.

Without new notions of equality and alliances for change beyond the narrow confines of environmental groupings, new models of economy won’t emerge and environmentalism will continue to remain at the margins, doing its usual mop up jobs, rather than contributing to pro-active change.

How we win a new economic system is partly a function of resistance. It is also the outcome of a new ethic – the ethic of moderation and less affluent lifestyle choices.  Shifts in the way capitalism works will, in the end, largely depend on the transformation of individual consciousness.

This change has to manifest in the real economy. Growth that is wasteful produces greater inequality and weakens the path to inter-generational sustainability.

Thus, the goals of a low carbon future must be melded to goals for better social development. The fight against inequality has to become an intrinsic part of broader environmentalism and in this regard, present-day environmentalists must be challenged to reflect on how embedded and comfortable they are in the current economic system.

Unless we address the central issue - the morality of our economic system - we will continue to trudge along as if the environmental cause is on track, when clearly it is not.

-- Saliem Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town. This article first appeared on the website of the South Africa Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS).  

Tuesday
Nov222011

The Bad Host: Africa's Biggest Polluter Hosting Cop17 (PERSPECTIVE)

By Glen Ashton

(HN, November 22, 2011) - If we had to choose a country to host the COP17 international climate change negotiations and broker a consensus deal to manage the increasingly urgent matter of human induced climate change, we could not do much worse than choose South Africa.South African fur seals asleep in Cape Town harbour: annual, sanctioned hunts of this endangered species continue. CREDIT: M. Bociurkw

It is not that South Africa won’t be a gracious host. This is a nation renowned for its hospitality and its open, welcoming nature, across all cultures in this multifaceted society.

South Africans are certainly excellent negotiators as well. The country has vast experience reaching negotiated settlements between diametrically opposed sides. This is illustrated both in the recent history of the country as well as in the role it has played in the creation of the African Union and the resolution of numerous conflicts across the continent.

The reason South Africa is an abysmal choice is because of the hypocrisy inherent in having Africa’s biggest and most recalcitrant polluter oversee the world’s most important global climate change negotiations.

The only worse choice to chair COP17 would be the United States. Yet even that is moot. South Africa is so deeply compromised by its requirements to maintain positive perceptions for investment, to appease the Washington consensus and its neo-liberal economic policies, that we cannot realistically hope for this particular tail to wag the dog of international climate change negotiations.

South Africa proclaims its intent to shift to a lower carbon economy yet remains stubbornly committed to development of its coal and other non-renewable energy resources. Its view is so profoundly compromised it perceives natural gas as akin to renewable energy, as outlined in the recently release National Development Plan (NDP). 

If anything, the NDP reveals the absence of a properly considered, integrated energy policy. It emphasises the failures of South Africa’s recent energy white paper, inordinately influenced by major energy consumers and producers. 

South African economic development is founded on the market and corporate friendly lassiez-faire regulation of its emissions and dirty energy. It is responsible for more than 40% of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the worlds 12th largest emitter, yet only the worlds 25th largest economy. Brazil, with a GDP nearly four times greater than South Africa emits less, as do France, Italy and Indonesia.

South Africa’s emissions are directly linked to its coal addiction. The greatest local emitter is the secretive parastatal electrical utility Eskom, almost entirely reliant on coal.

The second significant emitter is Sasol, South Africa’s massive oil-from-coal industry. Sasol was originally state-owned but was privatised in 1979. Its Secunda plant is the world’s biggest single point source of CO2 emissions. 

The extent to which the South African state, through Eskom, subsidises energy is neatly illustrated in its incestuous relationship with BHP Billiton, the Australian owned transnational. Billiton pays less than it costs Eskom to produce power in an irrational sweetheart deal. 

South Africa committed to a 34% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 and a 45% by 2025. CREDIT: M BociurkiwBilliton’s Mozal aluminium smelter in Mozambique presently pays around 10% domestic consumers are charged in South Africa. Eskom has consistently refused to provide figures for Billiton’s power costs in South Africa. Attempts to gain transparency remain deadlocked in court. Billiton’s role is not insignificant, consuming up to 10% of Eskom’s total capacity. Billiton should be paying for new power plants, not the public.

Eskom has refused to provide any sort of transparent breakdown of costs for its power generation and supply networks in order to enable independent analysis of its operations. This is unacceptable behaviour by a national utility, but Eskom’s corporate arrogance is well established. Further, Eskom has obstinately blocked access to grid infrastructure thus thwarting entry by independent power generators.

South Africa’s failure to adopt renewable energy, despite numerous promises, is just as remarkable. The renewable energy white paper of 2003 committed to 4% of renewable energy (1650MW) by 2013. Not only is this target unattainable, the only installed renewable energy project to date - the Darling wind farm - is tiny (5.2MW), foreign-funded, privately managed and completed despite persistent state indifference.

Eskom’s only planned renewable projects, a 100MW concentrated solar plant and a similar capacity wind farm are only on the cards because their funding of US$240 million was offset against the World Bank’s US$3.4 billion loan granted to build Eskom’s massive coal power station at Medupi. That Eskom’s only renewable projects are the result of World Bank conditionalities demonstrates Eskom’s obstinate reluctance to pursue renewable energy options.

Besides paying lip service to renewables, the SA government committed to a 34% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 and a 45% by 2025 during the run-up to the Copenhagen COP15 negotiations. Clearly, considering Eskom’s commissioning of two massive coal power stations, these reduction commitments are now unattainable except through statistical manipulation. 

Eskom’s influence on government policy has undermined any meaningful mitigation of its catastrophic generation policies. Lobbyists from within Eskom and the nuclear industry reactivated the nuclear programme, shelved in 2008 because it was considered unaffordable.

On the other hand the open market has indicated willingness and capacity to immediately install over 11 000 Megawatts (MW) of wind generation capacity in the Western Cape Province alone. This has been stymied by government policy decisions to cap wind energy at 4 800 MW. Even this capacity is dependent upon a state-run tender system, with further negative implications.

As if all of these background shenanigans are not enough, the host country’s position as co-ordinator of negotiations is utterly compromised by having both Eskom and Sasol represented on its COP17 negotiation team. The unreality of it all is Kafkaesque. 

The fact that Eskom, Sasol – and consequently the South African government – remain fixated on false solutions like “clean coal technology,” (a contradiction in terms) and “carbon capture and storage,” (another non-starter in terms of practicality and cost) demonstrates the degree to which the host nation’s perspectives are fundamentally compromised.

South Africa cannot, in any way, be taken seriously as an honest broker in the COP17 negotiations. Any failure to broker a fair and binding deal in Durban is symptomatic of the incestuous relationship between Eskom, Sasol and the South African Government, acting in concert as proxies for the polluters of the world.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org This commentary first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS)

Saturday
Aug202011

Employing the Poor: What Can South Africa Learn from India? (PERSPECTIVE)

A construction site near Cape Town. Job growth is slowing in most sectors in South Africa. CREDIT: M Bociurkiw/HUMNEWSBy Saliem Fakir

(HN, August 20, 2011) One can take a cynical view of the world. In the absence of a fundamental restructuring of the economy, all we end up doing is tinkering with the art of state philanthropy both on the side of social safety nets and as far as job creation goes.

If the market is unresponsive to job creation due to its interest in rent seeking, then our government will have to continue doing what it has been doing for the last 10 years: escalate the level of public sector employment. This is more than the private sector is willing to commit to.

The public sector in South Africa is witnessing the largest growth in jobs relative to other sectors. According to the Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2011, the state, at all three tiers of government, employs about 1.9 million people or 14.1% of the working population. This is up from 1.7 million in 2008 or 12.6% of the working population.  

As job growth is slow in other sectors, it appears that the state is, by default, becoming the employer of last resort.

So serious is the situation that the state has had to, as of this year, create a special jobs fund to incentivise the private sector to employ more people who are mainly young black job seekers.

Whether it will work remains to be seen.

If South Africa is to go in the direction of the state being the employer of last resort and extend this beyond the professional class, we should be mindful of the lessons being learnt in India at present.

India has similar challenges to South Africa. It is also a country where a minority cashes in on economic growth while the majority trails behind barely making it from one day to the next. India’s problems are structural. Ownership and economic power is one-sided.

Close to 300 million people are excluded from the benefits derived from the country’s booming economic growth. 

Structural problems such land ownership, inequality, the inability of the poor to gain access to credit, wage disparities and barriers to entry into the job market still persist.

India’s problems are also exacerbated by its history of religious conflict, ethnic, caste and class divisions that reinforce the structural patterns, which continue to plague the country’s ability to create an economy that includes its poor in a meaningful way.

India has faced high growth but a slow down in employment growth.  For instance, at average growth rates of 6.7% in India in the 1990s, the rate of growth of employment was only 2.7%. Moreover, this still doesn’t tell us whether employment creation was permanent or not.

This gap between economic growth and the number of jobs created is an ongoing challenge for both India and South Africa, as it perpetuates the “growth with no jobs” scenario. Or to put it more starkly: growth accompanied by the destruction of jobs.

Where South Africa has used various grants and public works programmes and Brazil the Bolsa Familia, India has crafted a macro-intervention that is not too far off, yet somewhat different.

India came up with what is called an employment guarantee scheme or the employer of last resort. An explicit admission, at least, that capitalist industrial economies are unable to ensure total inclusivity into the mainstream economy.

Full employment schemes have been worked out before. One of the early pioneers was the economist John Pierson. In the 1940s, Pierson designed the US government’s employment of last resort scheme. Thus, India’s scheme was tailored using an old idea, but within an emerging economy context.

In 2005, India enacted the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The law guarantees 100 days of employment per year to a member of a household on a rural public works project. The scheme was initially targeted at 200 of India’s 600 districts, but was later expanded.

The cost to the Indian government was estimated to be about 1.3% of GDP. The wages set under the MGNREGA are according to the minimum wage standards of the country.

The main areas of target have been labour intensive work in environmental programmes like watershed management (similar to South Africa’s Working for Water programme), soil erosion prevention and similar initiatives.

India opted for the MGNREGA as it found that non-guaranteed public works wage schemes did not create a sustainable situation for individual or family oriented economic progress. Neither did it create greater inclusion into the mainstream economy. Its successes with regard to this were, at best, minimal.

Under India’s MGNREGA, the work secured on public works programmes is casual and manual. In rural areas, it is meant to fill a seasonal unemployment problem.

Work has to be provided within 15 days of a person requesting employment and it should be located within 5km of the distance from the project. If the work is beyond the 5km zone, the employee is given a travel and living allowance.

If no work is provided, the job seeker qualifies for an unemployment allowance, which is usually set at a third of the minimum wage.

The introduction of such a scheme has led to policy shifts in several areas. The first is creating the political demand for the right to work. Secondly, it forces state allocations to be made in the right place and with the correct audience because of legal obligation. Thirdly, the scheme allows some transition into the mainstream economy as those covered by it can borrow from banks or micro-finance institutions. Fourthly, the scheme expands household enterprises and builds assets. And finally, the right to work, in a sense, also forces more rapid deployment of funds and the building of infrastructure, which acts as a positive stimulus on the economy of rural areas.

This is the case because the state is in one way or another legally obligated to provide employment.

However, there are also challenges and problems that come with such macro-economic interventions, as India currently runs the largest programme in the world.

India’s employment guarantee scheme faces the same constraints as our proposed Basic Income Grant, which other centrally managed grant systems also face.

These programmes require good co-ordination and planning. Local demand from recipients has to be persistent and organized. And, local authorities have to be capable and properly governed.

Thirty years of prior experience in the State of Maharashtra has shown that while such schemes provide relief for the poor they have not led to fundamental shifts in the economy.

The level of poverty in the State of Maharashtra, compared to other states, remains persistent. Demand for unskilled wage work under the scheme has not subsided but rather increased, which further points to systemic problems within the economy.

The design of such a scheme has to answer two fundamental questions: Does it provide relief during difficult times or does it push people further behind the poverty line?

Given the complexities of implementing such a scheme without a fundamental restructuring of the economy, it is likely that such schemes will serve more as state welfare rather than a bridge into the mainstream economy.

One can tell a lot about whether a MGNREGA-like scheme will succeed by looking at what the poor are able to own in terms of land and other assets as well as the quality of educational and health services they have access to. In this respect, the MGNREGA and similar schemes are no silver bullet solution. 

Thus, in all this there is a crucial dilemma that cannot overlooked: this is the general problem of boxing poverty as a welfare issue, as well as the settling in of policy complacency and not doing enough to change the structure of the economy. If MGNREGA-like schemes are to succeed as transition tools, then economic restructuring must also happen simultaneously.

Fakir an independent writer based in Cape Town. This article is republished with permission from the South Africa Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS).

Thursday
May262011

Food Insecurity: Who Will Save Us, the Smallholder or Large-scale Farmer? (PERSPECTIVE)

A food market in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura, where prices have skyrocketed in recent months. CREDIT: M Bociurkiw/HUMNEWSBy Saliem Fakir

Land reform in South Africa is back as a lead item on the government’s agenda. It is a tacit admission that the process over the last seventeen years was a failure. The issue must also be seen in the light of growing food insecurity, as food prices seem to only go up rather than down.

South Africa’s land reform policy is not only a way to redress past loss but also an attempt to diversify farming as mainly white farmers dominate farming. However, in opening up the space for new entrants, the policy has inadvertently favoured larger farmers.

This too has not been entirely successful.

For a set of different reasons, the balance between small and large farming is quite important. Something we still have to get right. And, how we deal with it going forward will also determine how we deal with food insecurity.

In the meantime, food insecurity grows the world over, especially in Africa, where agriculture has not quite performed the way it should have despite the huge potential for both rain fed and irrigated farming.

Just as an illustration of the global challenge: about 925 million people are undernourished. Developing countries account for 98% of this number, while a significant number live in sub-Saharan Africa.  Feeding an additional 1.4 billion people by 2030 or a global population of 9.1 billion people by 2050 would require food production to increase by 50%.

The race to feed the world adequately is on. The question is, who can best help meet this projected demand: small or large farmers?

In classic supply and demand economics, food inflation tends to improve food production as high prices incentivise more planting. But the beneficiaries tend to be large farmers and commercialised agribusiness because of access to finance, well-established logistics and connections with the market. They tend to respond more quickly to incentives from increased food price shifts. 

However, there is considerable scope to look again at the role of smallholders in developing countries, especially Africa, where opportunity is ripe and also given that the success of large-holding ventures have not been as promising as initially thought.

There has also been a traditional bias against smallholding. In South Africa, smallholders have received little policy support, subsidies or preferential funding. The bias continues despite changes to land policy since 1994. Smallholdings are still thought of as being uneconomical and inefficient.

However, a report by Oxfam titled, Who Will Feed the World? The Production Challenge, seeks to dispel some of the myths around family run smallholding and small farming in general. The paper shows that in Vietnam and Thailand, family farming is highly productive and provides sufficient sources of income and food security for large rural populations.

Smallholding income can also be far more productive for rural areas than export orientated or foreign-owned large farms because any income earned, is spent in the rural area. This tends to stimulate other forms of rural economic activity besides simply just holding down the growth of unemployment.

However, the bias in favour of large-scale farming in Africa is being bolstered by a combination of factors acting in concert with each other.

Countries, such as China and Saudi Arabia, with significant sovereign funds are taking liberties by purchasing large chunks of land, most of which is in Africa, as they seek to feed their own growing populations and solve their own food insecurity. They tend to favour staple food or even cash crops that are capital intensive and largely labour saving operations.

Currently, Africa registers the lowest level of agricultural productivity in the world and this combined with the lack of infrastructure, large geographic spread and conflict, reinforces policy bias in favour of large-scale farming operations.

Large-farms tend to be associated with more productivity. They get favoured above investment in small-scale farming because foreign investors also inject significant investment in roads, irrigation schemes, power supply and making new market connections.

There is also that dazzle effect as big is seen as beautiful with the usual promise of lots of jobs and cash.

Some African children, like this young girl in Nigeria, consume just one meal-a-day due to high food prices. CREDIT: M Bociurkiw/HUMNEWSIncreased migration from rural cities to urban areas in the next decade or so is expected to double. The demand for food will grow while the supply of labour in rural areas to plough land and harvest fields is going to diminish.

Proponents for the revival of agriculture in Africa take these as cues for the defence of large-scale farming.

They argue that modern agriculture – in terms of technology, markets and finance – favour larger holdings as they give better economies of scale, they are more productive, efficient and it is the only way to meet growing demand for food quickly.

Opponents argue that this model tends to favour corporate agribusiness. That agriculture becomes too commercialised and less attuned to a pro-poor agenda.

Large-scale farming can also displace smallholdings through consolidation or African governments desperate for foreign investment who will grant concessions that involve the removal of people -- raising questions about land rights and other entitlements that are eroded as a result. 

Overseas sovereign funds that own these large tracts of land can also undermine national development objectives. They are not necessarily pro-poor even if they create jobs.

While Brazil has shown that large-farming, that is export orientated (cash crops such as soya), can boost foreign earnings and the country’s reserves. This is not often the case with farms owned by foreign sovereign wealth funds – depending on how governments set capital repatriation terms on earnings – as access to land does not translate into localising benefits in a substantive manner.

Sometimes, developing countries would be better off with a lesser evil. Large retail businesses, like supermarkets, that have strong supply chain ties and favour small holder production can do more for smallholders as they are more likely to create beneficiation than foreign holding of land that is unconditional.

A retail food market that is decidedly pushed in a pro-poor direction can ensure that contract arrangements retain the smallholding character of African agriculture and help diversify crop production from staple to high value crops. They could bring financial stability through long-term contracts.

Sometimes large-scale farming makes sense for crops that have short shelf lives and require good storage and transport infrastructure so they can be dispatched quickly to overseas markets. In areas where a large in-migration of labour is required mechanised large-scale farming is probably better suited because labour intensity is not an option.

In the meantime, about five hundred million smallholders currently support two billion people. They are an important part of the agricultural system. However, most smallholders (close to 60%) either produce sufficiently for themselves or have to still purchase food to meet all their requirements.

The Oxfam paper argues for complementarity, while overwhelmingly suggesting that smallholdings can vastly improve the productivity and value for African rural economies provided the right types of policies and forms of support are put in place. The paper though, intriguingly, says little about co-operatives and nationally owned farms.

A pragmatic approach may be warranted in this debate. It is not, as numerous studies have also shown, an either/or situation. Smallholders can bring far more than just economic activity in rural areas as they also can act as safeguards over social capital. Large-holders whose aim is to see agriculture as an investment opportunity will always see it that way rather than protecting a way of life.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS)

 

Wednesday
May252011

Exploiting the Commons - Time to Change Course (PERSPECTIVE)

The poor are the most heavily impacted by exploitation of the environment, argues Ashton. CREDIT: HUMNEWSBy Glenn Ashton

The business of exploiting the natural resources of the world for profit continues at an ever-increasing rate. While people are the generally unwitting drivers of exploitation and damage to natural resources, the real driver is laissez faire capitalism, as pursued by the dominant corporate-political nexus.

We all rely on our collective natural resources – water, air, soil, natural diversity – to keep us alive. This is the natural commons of the planet, the common property of all living organisms, which happens to include humans. The commons includes the biosphere, the living aspect of the planet that sustains the web of life upon which we are each individually and collectively dependent. 

We each have a collective interest and ownership of the commons. The commons is on loan to present generations from future generations yet to be born. Accordingly we individually and collectively bear responsibility to maintain the natural commons in a condition that is as pristine and unspoiled as possible.

The reality is that large commercial entities rely on exploiting the commons to provide the resources and services from which they profit. In doing so the commons is exploited for private gain. Any and all negative impacts on the commons are externalised. Thus the real long-term cost and impact of exploiting the commons is indirectly borne by every living species that inhabits our biosphere. Degradation of any single aspect of the common space inevitably has knock-on impacts in this interconnected world. 

Pollution of the air, water, land or destruction and exploitation of biodiversity are today taken for granted. These collective impacts are now exhibiting such a massive impact on the collective planetary organism, that life as we know it is in distinct danger of unravelling.

James Martin, who predicted the Internet and cell phones in the 1960's, is founder of Oxford University's 21st Century School. He hired the world's top brains to predict future scenarios. Their collective conclusion was that, should we continue as we are there will be a few breeding pairs of humans left at the poles by the end of this century. This may seem extreme to us in our comfortable cocoon, but the everyday reality of extinction faces not only humanity but many other species of life on earth.

Water resources are under extreme pressure in many parts of the developing world. CREDIT: M Bociurkiw/HUMNEWSCorporations engage with the public through advertising and public relations to sell as much of their product as possible. On the other they insist that they have green credentials. The inherent contradiction of these claims is visible to anyone prepared to look.

Through carefully devised psychology, through which they justify their impacts as essential to our collective well being, industry does its utmost to portray itself to society as benign. This is now commonly termed “greenwashing,” the whitewashing of negative environmental impacts.

In reality, greenwash has become the status quo. Its practitioners realise precisely how they dishonestly portray their destructive practices as “green.” The massive PR industry, involved in both spin and advertising, work only to hoodwink us, the public. And in order to feel okay we want to believe the lies. 

In this regard South Africans are essentially more vulnerable than most other nations because of our high levels of inequality and poverty. 

The motivation for exploitation of the commons is portrayed as an ongoing attempt to create employment, to provide services for those attempting to escape the poverty trap, to create wealth and prosperity for all. The alternative, we are reminded, is too awful to contemplate.

The reality is somewhat different. The garden path we are being led down is actually creating the circumstances which are truly too awful to contemplate. The commons has been so badly eroded that the well being of future generations has already become irrevocably compromised. 

We need to ask whether we are going about things the right way. 

We grow our food in ways that waste water, that pollute water and that erode the land. The very practice of intensive, industrial agriculture is ultimately a destructive practice, from the level of soil biodiversity at the bottom, to the impacts on mega-biodiversity above. The external costs and impacts on our collective commons are far higher than the benefit we reap from the crops we harvest.

Our ways of providing energy destroy the very fabric of the land. Mining coal creates acid mine drainage, polluting water sources. The atmosphere is a dumping ground for greenhouse and noxious gases and poisons. We are left with heaps of slag and biologically sterile waste. While the health impacts are borne by all, the poorest are least able to cushion themselves against these impacts on the natural world.

It has become increasingly difficult for the common man to decide just who the good guys are. For instance the very organisation that is tasked with monitoring and managing the impacts of these activities on our collective commons, which maintains the global database of threatened species, a huge organisation known as Conservation International (CI), is funded directly by some of the worlds most pernicious polluters.

ArcelorMittal, BHP Billiton, BP, Cargill, Chevron, Coca-Cola, De Beers, Goldman Sachs, Kraft Foods, MacDonald’s, Monsanto, Newmont Mining, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Rio Tinto, Shell, Walmart and many other major corporations fund CI. The contradictions in accepting funding while promoting conservation were recently pointed out in an excellent article by Chris Lang.

Other reputable conservation organisations like the World Wildlife Fund are funded by a similar list of corporate partners. Coca-Cola, IBM, HP, Toyota, Walmart, IKEA, Cargill, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and many others are directly involved in funding this self-appointed conservation organisation. 

This is not to say that organisations like WWF and CI are evil or that their motivation is to undermine our collective commons. The real issue is that these supposed guardians of the global commons, of our collective biosphere, are profoundly compromised through their ties to industry, just as our governments are more responsive to corporate interests than to those of their citizens. 

These organisations cannot truly claim to provide actual, meaningful or sustainable solutions to the problems of deforestation, of over fishing, of global warming, or to change the global industrial agricultural paradigm if they are so compromised by their funders. WWF is even involved in a programme called the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy that benefits major agricultural entities like Monsanto and Cargill, while simultaneously destroying our common biodiversity.

Even groups like Greenpeace, portrayed as radical environmental campaigners are compromised by their intrinsic ties to the exploitative economic system. Of course all of these organisations will howl against these allegations but what else are they to do? Yet it is notable that more radical groups like Earth First and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are gaining a broader credence that ties in with the forceful arguments made by thinkers like Derrick Jensen, Joanna Macey and Vandana Shiva.

While the poorest are the most profoundly impacted, those protesting the exploitation are largely relatively wealthy and well educated. This creates a major disconnect about who speaks for who. Do the poor and exploited actually have any voice at all in this debate? The reality is that they are effectively gagged by many of very same organisations that claim to speak for them. Consultation and stakeholder agreements are tools to placate wealthy interests while the “bottom billion” or two remain outside the negotiation tent, as do most other species on earth.

So at the heart of it our existing system is broken. We, together our institutions, are too compromised to truly care for the commons. Changing our system is assumed to be a quixotic quest. Yet there are certainly other, better ways of doing things than continuing down the road we are being led down by governments, dictated to in turn by the lords of corporate and free market ideology. 

Many hoped, in a perverse kind of way that the global economic crisis of 2008 would prove so disruptive to the dominant economic model that something new would be able to emerge. That was not to be. However our model of endless growth, founded upon continued externalisation of its environmental impact will certainly founder, probably sooner rather than later. We cannot continue as we are. 

So surely we must begin to adapt our systems, now? We must explore ways that are utterly different to our dominant, exploitative economic model. New economics, the zero growth model, green capitalism, triple bottom line accounting and so on are all ideas that have been floated. But are they enough? 

These are not questions we have much time to contemplate. They should be placed at the top of our list of priorities. The alternative is simple – the extinction of people, along with the systems that sustained them. Surely examining our rather uncomfortable predicament can no longer be postponed? It can certainly no longer be sidetracked by the oligarchy that controls the corporate-political nexus. 

Perhaps a real starting point would be to meaningfully redistribute the ill-gotten gains from the 1% at the top that control nearly half of the worlds wealth and to use this to begin to apply first aid to an ailing world and society? It is not only the poor who are staring down the barrel of desperation but increasingly the exploited middle and emerging middle classes as well. 

At its root this discussion is not only about class or structure, it is one that affects us all; together with every living thing that shares our world. It must be prioritised. Our failure to embrace fundamental change condemns our children to a world closer to hell than to heaven.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org. This article first appeared on the site of the South Africa Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS)

 

Thursday
Feb242011

Are 'European Values' Being Eroded in Dealings With Libya? (PERSPECTIVE)

By Richard Pithouse

(HN, February 24, 2011) - As the first unconfirmed reports of airborne attacks on protestors in Tripoli and Benghazi reached Al Jazeera the station crossed to a spokesperson for the European Union.Colonel Qaddafi in 2009 on “visit of reconciliation” with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The two countries have significant bilateral investments.

There was talk of the need to affirm ‘European values’. Moments later the programme cut away to the story of the two Libyan fighter pilots who had landed in Malta and sought political asylum rather than obey orders to attack protestors in Benghazi.

Those pilots are not the first people to have arrived in Malta after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. But most people who make that journey don’t arrive in Mirage F1s. Migrants take many routes into Europe. Some people cross into Greece from Turkey, others from Algeria into Spain. For many, the way into Europe is through the Sahara into Libya, across the ocean and into Malta and Italy. The migrants come from Somalia, from Chad, from Senegal, from Nigeria and from all over North and West Africa.

The journey across the Mediterranean in small and usually over crowded boats is perilous and many have sunk. If they are intercepted by the Italian navy the migrants are forced off the boats, often with clubs and batons that dispense electric shocks, and taken to prisons in Tripoli. In crass violation of international law no attempt is made to ascertain whether or not the migrants are political refugees or to enquire into their health or where the parents of children may be.

From Tripoli they are taken to European funded migrant detention centres in places like the tiny village of Al Qatran out in the dessert near the border with Chad and Niger. Al Qatran is a thousand kilometres from Tripoli and it may take three days for captured migrants to be moved across that distance in trucks. In the detention centres there may be more than fifty people in a room. They sleep on the floor. The routine sadism that always occurs in any situation in which some people are given absolute power over others is endemic. There are beatings, rapes and extortion. Suicides are a common response as are mass jailbreaks in which many migrants have been killed by the Libyan police. But some have escaped out into the vastness of the Sahara to make what they can of sudden freedom without papers or money in a desert.

Protesters in Europe call for the ouster of GaddafiIt was in the early days of the 2003 Iraq war that Tony Blair first proposed the idea that migrants trying to enter Europe should be sent to ‘transit processing centres’ outside of Europe. There is a similar logic here to the way in which the United States has outsourced torture to countries like Egypt.

Muammar Gaddafi’s early attempts to show that he would be able to take on the policing of Europe’s borders were not a huge success. In August 2004 a plane was chartered to deport 75 captured Eritrean migrants from Tripoli but the passengers seized control of the plane in mid flight and diverted it to Khartoum where the UNHCR recognised 60 of them as legitimate political refugees.

But on the same day that the European union lifted its economic sanctions and arms embargo on Libya in October 2004 it was agreed to engage with Libya on ‘immigration matters’ and a technical team was sent to Libya the following month. The United Kingdom and France both moved quickly to sell weapons to Libya and in 2008 Italy and Libya signed The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in which Italy agreed to invest five billion dollars in Libya in exchange for, amongst other things, a Libyan agreement to undertake to police migration into Europe via Libya. Silvio Berlusconi declared that closer relations with Libya are about “fewer illegal immigrants and more oil.” Since then Berlusconi and Gaddafi have, through the investment arms of their respective family trusts, become co-owners of a major communications company.

This sort of personal connection between an elected politician in the West and a despot elsewhere is hardly unique. The French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie spent her Christmas holiday in Tunisia as a guest of a businessman with close ties to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as the protests against Ben Ali were gathering strength. The first response of the French state to the protests in Tunisia was to send arms to Ben Ali. The French Prime Minister Francois Fillon spent his Christmas holiday on the Nile as a guest of the Egyptian state.  In March 2009 US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, commented, in a discussion about severe and routine human rights violations by the Mubarak regime, that “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”

In recent years all sorts of European institutions beyond oil companies and security agencies made their own deals with the dictatorship in Tripoli. The London School of Economics accepted a £1.5m grant from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation for a ‘virtual democracy centre’. The Foundation is headed by the same Saif al-Islam Gaddafi who recently went on to Libyan television to tell protestors that his father’s government would ‘fight to the last minute, until the last bullet’.

The Europe of colonialism, slavery and genocide has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that backed the Mubarak dictatorship for thirty years and the Ben Ali dictatorship for twenty-three years has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that helped to smash Iraq in the invasion of 2003 has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that refused to allow the Haitian people to elect a leadership of its choosing by supporting a coup against that leadership in 2004 has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that has been directly responsible for the documented deaths of almost 14,000 migrants since 1993 has no claim to moral leadership in this world.

It is true enough that the modern form of democracy began in Europe with the French Revolution of 1789. But when African slaves in Haiti took the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity seriously and won their own revolution in 1804 it immediately became clear that the French did not intend democracy to be for everyone. That has been the European position ever since.A woman and her family cross from Libya to Tunisia at the Ras Jdir border crossing today. They were among thousands of people fleeing the violence in Libya. Credit: UNHCR

To choose democracy is not to choose Europe and it is certainly not to choose the United States of America, which has overthrown democratically elected governments around the world when electorates have had the temerity to elect the ‘wrong’ leaders. In fact, any serious commitment to democracy has to reject the moral and political authority of Europe and the United States of America. Any commitment to democracy has to assert, very clearly, that all people everywhere have the right to govern themselves according to their own will.

We cannot know the trajectories of the uprisings that have swept North Africa and the Middle East. But one thing is for sure. Whatever pompous claims to the contrary come out of Washington and Brussels, these are not revolts for American or European values. On the contrary they are a direct challenge to those values. They are revolts against a global power structure that is formed by an international alliance of elites with one of its key principles being the idea, the racist idea, that Arabs are ‘not yet ready’ for democracy. This, of course, is an echo of one of the common justifications for apartheid. But the plain fact of the matter is that anyone who says that anyone else isn’t yet ready for democracy is no democrat.

Ben Ali and Mubarak were little more than co-opted Bantustan leaders in a system of global apartheid. Gadaffi’s oil funded cruelty, megalomania and opportunism has taken him in many directions in his 42-year reign but have, in recent years, been leading him in the same direction. Democratising a Bantustan is progress. But democratising a Bantustan is not enough. The whole global system needs to be democratised.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of the South Africa Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS).

Tuesday
Feb152011

Revolution Comes Like a Thief in the Night (Perspective)

By Richard Pithouse

(HN, February 15, 2011) - Life, ordinary life, is meant to follow certain rhythms. We grow, seasons change and we assume new positions in the world. When you have finished being a child you put away childish things and move on to the next stage of life.A protester in Cairo walks by an ad for Business Class seats. Pithouse says the widening gulf between rich and poor is a powder keg waiting to explode. Credit: M Bociurkiw/HUMNEWS

But there is a multitude of people in this world who cannot build a home, marry and care for their children and aging parents. There is a multitude of people who are growing older as they remain stuck in an exhausting limbo, perhaps just managing to scrape together the rent for a backyard shack by selling tomatoes or cell phone chargers on some street.

Mohamed Bouazizi was one person amongst that multitude. He was born in 1984 in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. His father died on a Libyan construction site when Mohamed was three. He went to a one roomed village school but had to start working from the age of ten and abandoned school altogether in his late teens.

In a city with an unemployment rate of 30% he couldn’t find work and began, like so many others, selling fruit and vegetables in the street. With the thousand rand that he made each month he looked after his mother, his uncle and his younger siblings. He was, incredibly, managing to pay for his sister, Samia, to study at university.

Since he was a child he had been harassed by the police who regularly confiscated his wheelbarrow and his wares. On the 17th of December last year he had just laid out one thousand and five hundred Rand to buy stock when a municipal official asked him for a bribe to keep his place on the street. He couldn’t pay it and so they turned his cart over, confiscated his scales, spat at him and slapped him. He went to the municipal offices to complain but no one would see him.  He went outside, bought some petrol, poured it all over his body and set himself alight outside the municipal offices. Mohammed’s mother told a journalist that he didn’t kill himself because he was poor but because he had been humiliated. "It got to him deep inside, it hurt his pride."

In 1961 Frantz Fanon wrote, from Tunisia, “The colonial world is a world cut into two....The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not how or where.”

Fifty years later cities are still divided into separate zones for those who count and those who don't count. These days what distinguishes those who count from those who don’t is usually the possession of wealth. But the people spurned by society continue to be taken as a threat to society. Jacques Depelchin, the Congolese historian, writes, “the poor in Africa have replaced the Dark Continent as the symbolic conceptual definition of the obstacle to civilization.”

But of course Mohamed Bouzazi didn’t die the invisible death of the average poor person. When he set his own body alight he ignited the uprising that drove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia, toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and then spread like a prairie fire to Algeria, Yemen, Iran and beyond. Revolt is leaping across the borders that are supposed to contain people while money is moved, dissidents rendered and intelligence exchanged.

These revolts may, like the European Revolutions of 1848 or the revolts against Stalinism in 1989, remake the world order in ways that we cannot yet predict.

Popular anger can be mobilised against innocent scapegoats like gay people in Uganda, Muslims in parts of India or migrants in South Africa. Revolutions are often rolled back, co-opted or even used to strengthen oppression by modernising it.  The future of Tunisia, Egypt and all the other countries where people are now taking to the streets against the police and party thugs has yet to be written. Local elites and imperialism will certainly aim to do more of that writing than the ordinary people that have already brought down two dictatorships.

But whatever the eventual fate of the struggles in North Africa and the Middle East something has been done that cannot be undone. That something is the fact that the refusal of a street vendor to continue to tolerate indignity and the sheer sadism of so much bureaucratic power was heard and acted on in a way that eventually brought down a brutal dictator and ally of imperialism and, for a moment at least, seized the initiative from the dictators, the officials, the experts, the police and the NGOs and put it, firmly and gloriously, in the hands of the people.

This is not the first time that the agency of people that don’t count has, like the proverbial thief in the night, suddenly appeared at the centre of the world stage without warning.

The Christian story is just one of many in which a poor man from some village in the provinces assumes a tremendous historical consequence that far outweighs that of his tormentors. And from the Haitian Revolution of 1804 to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the anti-colonial movements of the 50s and 60s that ignited a global rebellion in 1968 the modern world has periodically been remade by the intelligence and courage of the women and men it has most denigrated.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the drama unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. One of them is that we should not assume that South Africans will continue to trudge through life without work, without homes and without dignity forever.

If we carry on as we are, the day will come when a fire will be lit in Grahamstown or Harrismith or Ermelo, or on some farm or in some school or shack settlement whose name we don’t yet know, and neither the rubber bullets, party thugs, offers of jobs and money to leaders or senior politicians arriving in helicopters with smiles and big promises will put it out.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This first appeared on the website of The South African Civil Society Information Service - SACSIS