Who’s Afraid of Foreign Aid?

What scares you? What wakes you up in a cold sweat? In the United States a Gallup poll in 2005 showed that the thing teenagers are most afraid of are terrorist attacks. Other surveys by the pollsters show similar figures amongst adults fearing pandemics affecting them or their families. Other international issues like war and nuclear war rated highly in the same surveys. What I’m seeing here is that we are petrified of things we can’t predict or gain control of. In a globalised world we’re afraid of things that are triggered far away but at some point are going to hurt us in our own homes. The things that keep us up at night are also beyond the control of our governments and outside the reach of our armed forces.

No matter how much money we plough into fighter jets and spooks there will always be terrorists. Increasingly they don’t come from some far away country on the news, they were born in the local hospital. They sat with us in a lecture theatre at University. No amount of tanks and aircraft carriers are going to stop a disturbed person putting a bomb on a rush hour London bus.

We can buy billions of pounds of vaccines. We can put a surgical mask on every person in the world but a sneeze on the tube carrying a virus from an animal on a farm in a poor country can kill millions. What we have to understand is this: that trying to stop disasters once they have started is futile. But in the past futility has never convinced our governments, and the electorate pressuring them, not to try.

To articulate it in terms prime ministers and presidents understand: it’s very expensive. For every $60 spent on resolving wars it has cost $1 to prevent them (Oxpeace). It’s indisputable in fields from medicine to crime that prevention is not only cheaper but can be easier than resolution.

We don’t need to start a glossy government programme to prevent wars. We don’t need an initiative to prevent people from becoming terrorists or an NGO to work with developing countries to improve the terrible living and farming conditions that will breed next pandemic. We already have them. They are just chronically underfunded, they are sidelined and ridiculed and targeted in state spending cuts.

Sceptics will cry deficit reduction or ‘solving our problems at home before we give away money to the third world’. What these sorts of people need to realise is that countries and communities and individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Our homes and cities are vulnerable to both problems that originated far away or in a community centre 5 minutes drive from here. Prevention is the only answer.

Imagine this: instead of spending $1 trillion on the War on Terror (USA Today) we’d spent it on foreign aid. Countries that have decent schools and hospitals and better social equality don’ descend into violence. India doesn’t resent the UK for centuries of brutal oppression and strap bombs to its young people. Countries with clean, safe farming and a government food safety agency aren’t about to generate the next Swine Flu.

We need to stop seeing foreign aid as charity. We need to stop our governments portraying it as ‘the moral thing to do’. It’s neither. It’s a more pragmatic, effective and cheaper way of ensuring a world where we aren’t afraid to leave our homes. In the face of overwhelming evidence that prevention is better than cure you can’t help but look for another reason why people dislike foreign aid. It’s a sad state of affairs but even though it will make them safer, cost them less money and generally improve humanity’s lot people don’t care. If we can’t convince them with cold hard facts they’re unlikely to ever change their minds.


What can you do for international law? Just talk about it.

National laws are a tangible expression of the limits of behaviour that society is willing to tolerate. Anything beyond these limits is prohibited, subject to state sanction and ostracism from society. The same applies across borders to the international arena. International law exists to prohibit acts that are so heinous, so offensive to our collective human consciousness that they cannot be tolerated.

International society has demanded after events that have shocked and frightened us that institutions be set up to punish and seek out those who offend us, those who go beyond the limits that human kind has designated. These limits are more relaxed, less clear or strident than those at a national level. International society has a propensity to agree on very little yet when it does, it does so emphatically. We’ve agreed that it is unacceptable to commit genocide, for example.

Ratko Mladic is an international criminal whose crimes define international law. From ethnic cleansing to deportation and persecution he exists as a caricature of all that our international society deems unacceptable. Furthermore, he continues to offend our collective will by flouting the rules and procedures of the institutions we created to defend and enforce international law. Most notably, his refusal to cooperate with the judges in the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Under no circumstances must we forget he is there standing trial for crimes against humanity. When he murdered Bosniaks in the 90s it wasn’t just a crime against his victims it was a crime against our collective human consciousness. We can’t forget that it is as a result of our international view that genocide is unacceptable that he is there. We are part of this process. As an international society we can’t allow his disrespect for our collective agreement (considering how little we all agree on, this is even more important) to go unnoticed. If he is simply forgotten then he has won, he’s proved that humanity isn’t so offended by his actions after all. If his crimes are translated into opaque legalese few can understand or his trial bogged down by appeals and lack lustre evidence from governments (I am looking at the Serb government when I say that) then what can we expect from our fragile system?

We have to keep talking about international law. We have to keep writing about human rights and about those who have yet to be brought to justice by our system. Our legislators need to keep asking probing questions of our governments, our judges need to keep laying precedent upon precedent in support of our unified revulsion for crimes against humanity.

Teachers need to talk about it with their pupils. You need to talk about it with your friends and family. Bring it up at your workplace and get a debate started. We can’t let people like Mladic win. We’re all part of this and if it’s allowed to fall out of the public eye or interest then those with the power to do more to catch war criminals and bring them to justice will have no pressure to continue and increase their efforts.

‘Follow our model of development’ – The IMF, World Bank and the double standards of aid.

The news of the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the IMF, and the speculation around his successor has shone a spot light on the organisation for the first time in a number of years. Who will take over? Lagarde? A history making non-European? This spotlight has illuminated something else: so few people are aware of the IMF, what it does or why it was created. I’m writing this post to discuss broadly the purpose of the Bretton Woods institutions (those created by the Bretton Woods agreements at the end of World War Two) take a look at what they do for the world and warn of the double standards inherent in so many aid agreements.

The last time(s) people have been generally made aware of the World Bank or IMF have been a sex scandal and the riots triggered by their presence in a city. From Doha to Genoa to Seattle, whenever the World Bank comes into town people set fire to buildings and the tear gas comes out. This seems unusual considering none of these events have actually been held for the Bretton Woods institutions, they were held for the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and IMF just came to participate. What this shows us is that there is a huge deficit in the public understanding of international financial organisations but that they are seen as symbols of globalisation, the greed of Washington and the capitalist system and as having responsibility generally for so many of the world’s problems.

For all the bad press the World Bank and the IMF get they are still powerful forces for good. The Bretton Woods institutions were founded to redevelop the world after World War Two but also to prevent the catastrophic economic meltdown that some argued precipitated the War – the Great Depression. As part of global governance building they were created to eliminate poverty, regulate the international economy and prevent the unpredictable shocks that encourage protectionism and other factors that contributed to the War – fear and resentment come from want, economic uncertainty generates economic nationalism which in turn feeds xenophobia.
However particularly the World Bank soon found itself with little do when the Marshall Plan swiftly overtook them rebuilding Europe.

They turned their sights on new endeavours, the newly independent countries of former empires with generous loans (with tiny or even negative rates of interest) for infrastructure, investment and development projects. The ability to fund these came from the wealthy donor countries that steered the institutions.

But exceptional generosity came with strings attached. This is known as conditionality or more broadly as ‘structural adjustment programmes’. These countries were to reform (and often radically downsize) their public sectors, liberalise their economies in a relentless drive towards the freer market and reduce barriers to foreign investment. The argument was simple (and I would argue sound), that capitalism is a very effective way at making people richer.


However vicious circles emerged: loans were given, targets were set and the Bretton Woods institutions would disappear for five years before returning to discover not much had changed. Where the school teachers had been fired in structural adjustment programmes they had gone on to work in a nascent telecommunications company set up with infrastructure investment, as a result of reducing foreign investment barriers a telecoms company in the Global North had immediately bought the company and downsized it’s overheads to make it more profitable, the teachers were out of work once again and unable to rely on state benefits which had been reduced as part of the trimming of the state. We’re back to square one except people are poorer and the state can’t or won’t help.

Another example: a wealthy country acting on behalf of the IMF offers a bilateral loan to a developing country, then notes the relative lack of attack helicopters in its armed forces, low and behold the wealthy country has a few spare to sell for the money it just loaned to the developing country. Convenient right?

This militarist relationship between the developed and the developing manifests in a more subtle but pernicious way as a model of development. A wealthy (often former colonial) country will offer a bilateral loan to their former imperial subjects and in return they must embrace capitalism and the free market. The aid conditions revolve around ‘follow our model of development and we will give you money’ (this was particularly problematic during the Cold War when two opposing models competed for attention like divorcing parents buying their children’s love) so when the donor came back in five years to find a slightly more marketised economy, liberalised trade laws but also a vast and unnecessary army…

Why did they act shocked? The developing country was simply following the model of development that was set for it. A donor saying to recipient ‘do as we say not as we do’ smacks of double standards and would simply be a return to imperialism. So whilst I do not condone the use of aid for military spending can you blame them?

The IMF and World Bank have come a long way from these days but the problems described above have yet to be relegated to the history books. Countries now participate in the development of the poverty reduction strategies that act in concert with structural adjustment programmes but ‘liberalise and marketise’ are still the dish of the day.

To conclude I think it’s useful to point out some statistics on what the Bretton Woods institutions have done for the world. They have vast potential for good, I honestly believe they think they are doing the right thing and want to make the world a more prosperous and stable place. Just to note: ongoing World Bank development projects exist in 105 countries with a subset of 16,000 locations spending $169,000,000,000. The IMF has a total pledged resource of $600,000,000,000 to help struggling governments. The Bretton Woods institutions may be evangelising the capitalist system but I’d rather have a sermon and a meal than no meal at all.

Ratko Mladic arrested – now for truth and reconciliation between the Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs

The news of the arrest of Ratko Mladic’s arrest in Serbia is excellent for truth and reconciliation between the Bosinan Serbs and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks).

Mladic was responsible for attacks on civilians in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the conflict in the early ’90s. These attacks on non-combatants constituted crimes against humanity, civilians were not part of the Balkan wars at the time and should have been immune from attack. Srebrenica went a step further and instead of random attacks on Bosnian Muslims it was a calculated invasion of a UN guarded safe-area for Bosniaks in which the Bosnian Serb army commanded by Mladic (note the difference between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, the conflict consisting of ethnic wars between the former and the latter) murdered 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in an ethnic cleansing incident. This constituted an act of genocide, the intention being to eradicate another ethnic group.

Mladic is responsible for these two incidents which left an indelible mark on the Bosnian cultural consciousness and shredded the carefully woven patchwork of co-exsiting and interconnected social, political, ethnic and religious groups in Bosnian society.

It is not easy to wash out these marks or mend the tears in the social fabric. Retribution by the Bosniaks on the Bosnian Serb army members for the crimes against humanity might result in temporary pain relief but in the long term it would only further embitter the Serbs to their historical enemy. Putting the Bosnian Serb army in prison would do the same. Instead of redress it would be revenge. An excellent example of where revenge was used instead of redress was the Treaty of Versailles which allowed facist and racist sentiment to brew in post-Great War Germany and explode into the Second World War.

For clarity we need to separate out the ideas of conflict and violence in our heads. Conflict is an umbrella term that is used to describe lots of different types of violence. Conflict isn’t always as clear cut as two countries going to war. For example the aforementioned marks and tears are known as structural violence. States and societies in the throes of structural violence are considered in a state of negative peace. They are not at war but they cannot be considered to be living peaceful existences. Whilst not overt structural violence is characterised by different traits for example prejudice between social groups, hatred being passed down to children and taught in schools, division in living or working rights and areas and poverty. It can be detected in any society on earth, inner cities in the United States, the British National Party being elected in the North of England, the riots in the Paris banlieue. In my personal opinion there is no society in existence that is free from social inequality, hatred and poverty. No society has ever achieved positive peace, some are relatively very close for example the Netherlands (now to a lesser extent) and Scandinavian countries.

For the Bosnian society to move close to positive peace what is needed is a degree of amnesty, absolute truth and the expectation of reconciliation on both sides. People like Mladic however are not included in this. He is directly responsible for the actions and they would not have taken place without his assent and planning, he cannot be granted amnesty or the fragile process of healing would have no chance of success. Part of reconciliation is justice, without truth there is no justice, it cannot be done in secret. Mladic needs to stand trial in the International Criminal Court and be proved guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and he must serve his sentence.

What is needed now is a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). You may wonder why this was not attempted before. Rightly so, but the wounds were still open, to try and attempt healing with people like Mladic still ‘at large’ would be unrealistic. For those of you unfamiliar with the nature of these commissions I will explain briefly. I have peppered this post already with the terminology, processes and outcomes expected of TRCs. A TRC is an agency which is tasked with uncovering past wrongdoing by the government (but this is frequently broadened out to non-state actors) usually with regard to genocide and human rights abuses. They provide proof against historical revisionism and the glorifying of the past. However they do not seek out war criminals to punish them, they merely aim to reveal the truth of the situation usually by providing amnesty to perpetrators who admit to their crimes and express remorse. By doing this all sides of a conflict can come to terms with human tragedy but more importantly acknowledge the humanity of the attackers and attacked. It is so easy to portray the genocidaires as inhuman monsters but they are not, they are people too. It is so easy for the war criminals to pretend that the people they are murdering are subhuman, but they are not, they are people too.

The process of healing and reconciliation for both the Bosniaks and Bosnians Serbs has a much greater chance of success now he has been arrested. Without him there is no standard bearer for the Bosnian Serb community to fetishise their role in the ethnic cleansing or glorify Mladic as a local hero. If Mladic were still on the run the psychological wounds he inflicted on the friends and family of those murdered would still be open and raw.

The Bosniaks need to learn to forgive the Serbs for the crimes against them, obsessing about the past will prevent the two ethnic groups progressing into a productive future of mutual respect. The Bosnian Serbs need to understand that what they did was wrong, that it can be forgiven but that it will never be forgotten. It must continue to exist as a sad but unalterable memory that serves to fuel their desire for closer friendship to prevent it ever happening again. The two groups have lived together for centuries before and for decades after their tragedy, they live in a state of negative peace and their existence is characterised by structural violence but without truth for the victims about what went on nearly 20 years ago and justice and protection for the perpetrators what can we expect?

Killing Osama Bin Laden – justice, healing and ‘what next?’

Regardless of your feelings on the methods used to kill Osama Bin Laden or your opinions on their just nature, it is somewhat relieving to wake up this morning to a world with one less unscrupulous person in it willing to kills thousands of people.

What happens now? Will Al-Qaeda cease to exist? Will we see a dramatic fall in terrorist plots and those murdered by them?

Probably not. This is for two reasons, one structural and one symbolic:

Al-Qaeda has not got a rigid hierarchy in the form of a triangle with Bin Laden at the top presiding. Members of a broader terrorist group may be unaware of the vast majority of other members, their relative size and capability and most importantly their plans. The group is broken down into reasonably autonomous cells who have infrequent communication with leadership by which they receive often vague directions and objectives, they are not nearly as well planned out, regimented and organised as they can appear. This ‘cell’ structure has inherent benefits, it means that if one cell is neutralised by national security forces the others continue, there are no weak links in the chain to break because the cells aren’t connected by very much. The members of the cell (who may be taken off for extraordinary rendition in the unlikely event they are captured alive) are ignorant of the activities of the other cells, their members or locations. This fragmented nature serves these dangerous, isolated and undeniably disturbed people well when they have agreed to lay down their lives for a cause, they don’t feel the need to demand legitimacy from the leadership or to play a role in decision making. So killing the head of such an organisation is frankly unlikely to derail their plans for long, the cells have their orders and some may even be unaware of the news of the loss of their leader.

The symbolic effect of murdering Bin Laden is much more hard to quantify or draw in a neat diagram. The people who serve the ideals he represents are not ones to feel despair at his loss. They serve a greater purpose more important than a single life, this is evidenced by their total willingness to die for the organisation. They are not going to have a mourning period or take some time to reflect on their next steps. They are psychologically damaged, brainwashed, radicalised, angry and isolated from society. They will lash out at the nearest target or if they had existing plans that could be sped up the one they feel will hurt the people who murdered him most. This is not good news for the Global North, we may have incurred the wrath of very dangerous people who have been driven into a frenzy of hatred and are now more than willing to take risks and try untested plans. They may reach out their feelers into countries like the United Kingdom or the USA and activate cells lying dormant, we cannot be complacent or expect reprisal to take place in a small town north of Islamabad, it may well take place much closer to home, if at all.

I wanted to discuss the nature of the incident that resulted in Bin Laden’s murder. Notice I have chosen to use the word murder, I did so to imply the lack of justice in yesterday’s events. He was killed by soldiers, in secret and without trial. This smacks of extra-judicial killing, of ignoring the judicial process and of failing to take the opportunity to kick start the process by which people can come to terms with the horror that he caused them. Make no mistake, I am by no means upset at hearing of his death, quite the opposite, but I cannot be completely satisfied at the way it was conducted. Yes Bin Laden is a military target so by international law his murder was legitimate and legal but he has committed crimes against humanity and for that simply being shot in a firefight just isn’t good enough. I would have much preferred to see him dragged to the International Criminal Court to stand trial, televised across the world, and receive thousands of consecutive life sentences. Why would I have preferred this option? For three reasons, one is that it is justice, it is how international  law works, the second is that the imagery of the Coalition’s capture of Bin Laden is a potent tool in the fight against terrorism and thirdly because without truth, openness and accountability the people that Bin Laden hurt will struggle to heal.

Bin Laden is an international criminal and frankly being shot by a marine isn’t how the judicial system works, he needed to stand trial and accept his punishment. The former is an easy way out for him. However the United States struggles with the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court so would probably have refused to allow him to stand trial there and Bin Laden himself would have dismissed it and had a greater opportunity to appear as a martyr.

The imagery of the Coalition’s capture of ‘public enemy number one’ could have been extremely useful from a publicity perspective. I have noted before his followers are unlikely to be put off by his loss, quite the reverse, but his being brought to justice would have shown the public, from Afghanistan to America and every where in between that the Coalition is in control, succeeding and that terrorism will always fail and you will always lose.

Finally the question of healing is very important. His standing trial and being sentenced would have acted as closure. His questioning and the presentation of evidence would have shed light on the mystique around him. He would have been shown as ‘just a person’ or ‘a damaged, frightened and angry man’. The friends and families of those murdered by him would be able to look at his face in the dock, and think ‘we won, justice will be served, it wasn’t futile’. A moment of ecstasy, as demonstrated by the parties erupting across the United States, or a burst of jubilation isn’t going to help them recover emotionally from the damage he did. What we need is truth – why did he do those things? Even if the answer is nonsensical, then at least we know he is insane and can close the book psychologically on the pain and loss and move forwards.

Osama Bin Laden’s killing is good because it has slightly reduced the number of terrorists in the world, but it wasn’t justice, it won’t help the people he hurt recover and it was a missed opportunity to show the world how effective anti-terrorist military activity can be.

Cuba and the right to property – capitalism or equality?

The Cuban Government announced last week that it was going to allow its people to own property for the first time. This is a huge change in what is arguably the only country in the world that still runs a centrally planned socialist economy.

Marxism demands the abolition of private property as one of the most important points in the move away from the free market so allowing it is surely a sign that Cuba is now moving closer to capitalism.

In all fairness Cuba does allow people to ‘sell’ for example their house but it more closely resembles a complicated system of bartering and government monitoring through officials that usually need to be bribed. It’s more like a state sponsored trade where the government acts like the mafia and demands a cut of the profit.

What does this mean for the Cuban people? For the first time since the revolution Cubans can now they say they own their house or a piece of land. This could trigger the most rudimentary market, cause Cubans to recognise this as their right and cut out the state from the process of allowing individuals to buy, sell and exchange their property for goods or services.

I’ve just inadvertently made an assertion that is pivotal in the next section: that Cubans have the right to own property and the state should be cut out of the process of buying or selling it.

There are several human rights that would support the presence of a free market in property, the right of individuals to own things and the right to be left alone by the state when you’re conducting private business.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states our right to privacy and to a home, denying the state the right to interfere with the process of buying or selling things or owning our home at all.

Article 17 of the Declaration explicitly states we have the right to own property; therefore there is no reason why we cannot buy and sell things, the basis of the free market.

I am unimpressed by the Cuban Government’s statement that it will ‘allow its people to own property’. It simply isn’t empowered to say which human rights Cubans do or don’t have. Cuban people have always had the right to own property and the right to be left alone by the state; the Cuban Government just didn’t respect it. I don’t think we should dismiss this important move towards greater freedom for Cubans simply because ‘they’ve always had it’ but I don’t think we should stand up and applaud Raul Castro for not denying his people their human rights. We wouldn’t say ‘well done’ if he announced that the Cuban Government had decided not to deny the people the right to life would we? It’s an extreme parallel to draw but human rights are indivisible, you can’t have one without the others. The right to life is part of the right to property and vice versa. They are also interdependent, they rely upon each other.

The right to property is one that comes up against attack from left of centre governments and ideologues more often than the others. They claim ‘property is theft’, ownership is taking away from the environment or property instead of being an individual right is a collective right belonging to society. All of these arguments have their merits but simply put, guaranteeing the right to property, with all its inherent connotations such as buying or selling goods or services, is guaranteeing equality in a market economy. Let me give some examples, the right to property prohibits a person of one ethnicity refusing to sell their home to a person of another. The buyer is human being therefore has the right to own property. It prohibits a gay person being refused service in a restaurant, that person is a human being therefore has the right to buy a service. It prohibits women being denied inheritance, she is a human being therefore has the right to own land and to receive and pass it on without interference. A wheelchair user can expect an access ramp into a cinema because they have an equal right to use the service as someone who can take the stairs. To paraphrase: the right to own property is not just the right to acquire a house, it’s the right of all human beings to participate in a market as equals, irrespective of any personal defining characteristic. The right to own property might be arguably the most capitalist of our human rights, it’s inextricably tied to the market and ownership, but it is also a great equaliser and without knowing it I am sure many of us invoke it every day.