Tuesday, 19 May 2009

'Tougher than a boiled owl'

Californian Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman has been making headlines in the US for three decades, but he’s about to become a global figure; as Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he’s responsible for shepherding Obama’s first major piece of environmental legislation – the American Clean Energy and Security Bill – through the House of Representatives. The most recent leaks (as reported in the Guardian) indicate that the bill will propose a 17 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020; green groups are arguing about whether this is a hopeful prelude to December’s climate meetings in Copenhagen, or a sell-out.

Representing the most glitzy district in Congress - including Malibu, Hollywood and Beverly Hills - Waxman is one of the most powerful figures in the House, and has had a hyperactive legislative career; his office walls are covered with the framed ceremonial pens that successive presidents have used to sign his bills into law. He is strongly pro-choice,  pro-universal health insurance, pro-gun control and pro-social security. James Purnell probably regards him as a dangerous radical. Concerned about green issues long before it was fashionable, he introduced his first climate bill in 1992, and has been campaigning on the issue ever since. His doggedness is legendary. A tearful-sounding Republican once told the National Review: ‘it’s the Ho Chi Minh approach. If [victory’s] not in the first year, it’s in the fifth.’ 

He has been involved in other glorious campaigns over the years – not least his discovery, as Chairman of the Government Reform Committee, that 363 tons of shrink-wrapped cash bundles had gone ‘missing’ in Iraq – but his most fabled coup was in 1994, when he got the chief executives of seven tobacco companies to swear under oath that nicotine isn’t addictive, paving the way for the success of the multi-billion dollar lawsuit that followed.

Waxman is close to Speaker Pelosi and Obama himself; the President poached Waxman’s long-serving Chief of Staff Phil Schiliro to run his Congressional liaison office, and several other Waxman staffers have also taken up jobs with the new administration, widening the Congressman’s influence across Washington. Let’s hope he continues to use his superpowers for good.




Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Committee News

This week’s session of the International Development Select Committee concentrated on urbanisation and poverty, taking evidence from Paul Taylor and Michael Mutter from UN-Habitat.

The good news is that Target 7d of the MDGs – ‘By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’ – has already been met; the economic growth of India and China alone has been enough to achieve this (another interesting example of Indian and Chinese growth affecting development statistics, and in some respects obscuring what’s happening elsewhere). Meanwhile, slums have continued to grow, and an extra 400 million people have become slum-dwellers. Paul Taylor believes that the MDG bar has been set too low. The target should be to improve the lives of one billion slum-dwellers, and tougher targets should be set to encourage governments to concentrate on slum-formation factors. There was some discussion of landuse planning (once fashionable but now somewhat sclerotic at the government level) and the need for funding of urban planning research, an area in which UK universities excel with little assistance from the government.

Are you cringing at the use of the term ‘slum-dwellers’? Malcolm Bruce questioned whether ‘slum’ is pejorative and lacking in dignity, but Taylor remarked that Habitat uses the term deliberately; it's unambiguous, attention-grabbing and accurate. Mutter commented that slum-dwellers are usually happy enough with the designation. Presumably they have more pressing concerns.

Taylor and Mutter gave a mixed report of DFID’s activities in this area, commenting that the UK is punching below its weight (unusually; as a committee member remarked, it’s more usual to be told that DFID is excelling). They pointed out, in courteous quango-ese, that DFID has not yet paid the £1 million contribution to core funding that was promised for last year, and that the Department has slipped dramatically in the Habitat funding league.

Finally, there was a rather alarming moment when the Labour MP for Preston, Mark Hendrik, asserted that ‘the obvious way to get rid of slums is to send the bulldozers in’. To nervous laughter, he commented that he’s ‘a novice’. That’s one word for it. Taylor and Mutter mounted a muscular defence of urbanisation as an unambiguous good; cities are motors of economic growth, disproportionately important contributors to GDP, and crucial in providing higher-order functions such as tertiary education and larger medical facilities. For those (such as Hendrik) who are concerned about population control, a more convincing argument might be that urbanisation, and its attendant increase in affluence, it almost always associated with a falling birth rate.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

How do G8 countries do on the MDGs?

So, um, how do the G8 countries stack up on the domestic implementation of the MDGs? The first (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger), second (universal primary education), fourth and fifth (low levels of child and maternal mortality) and sixth (combating HIV/AIDS and malaria) are, thankfully, pretty much irrelevant for our purposes. But we can have some fun with the remainder.

MDG3: ‘To reduce gender equality and empower women’. Now, there has been no better time in history to be a woman, and no better place, than in developed countries in the early 21st century. It would be facile to argue otherwise. But how do we measure up against developing countries on one of the indicators used to measure MDG3: the proportion of women representatives in the national parliament?

Using UN statistics for 2007, a few interesting facts emerge. Within the G8, Germany comes out on top, with women making up 31.6 per cent of the national parliament. Meh. It’s a smaller proportion than Cuba (43.2) and Mozambique (34.8). Canada comes next, with 20.8 per cent; it trails (among others) Namibia (26.9), Guyana (29), and – get this! – Afghanistan (27.3) and Iraq (25.5). The UK is next, with 19.7 per cent. Then there’s Italy on 17.3 (many of these are semi-nude). The USA is on 16.3; on this measure, women in Zimbabwe (16.7) are doing better. Then, lamentably, we have France (12.2), the Russian Federation (9.8, beaten by Mali on 10.2) and – picking up the booby prize of a year’s subscription to Nuts magazine – Japan (9.4, just ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo on 8.4). Jesus, they’re not even trying.

And here's the doozy: the world leader in terms of women in parliament? Following elections in the autumn of 2008, it's Rwanda, with 56.6 per cent. That's more than Sweden (47.3). Read how they did it here.

Further appropriate uses of the word ‘lamentable’ – and, indeed, deplorable, regrettable, terrible, wretched, woeful and distressing – are to be found in the G8’s performance on MDG8 (‘developing a global partnership for development’). Back in October 1970, the UN asked OECD countries to spend 0.7 per cent of their gross national income on development aid by the mid-1970s. Thirty years later, this indicator was incorporated into the MDGs, and nearly forty years later, the role of shame is as follows (again, figures are for 2007): Japan, 0.17; Italy, 0.19; the USA, 0.16; Canada, 0.28; UK, 0.36; Germany, 0.37; and France, 0.39. (Data for the Russian Federation are not available.)

Hey, let’s look at MDG 7 (‘ensuring environmental sustainability’). Indicator 7.2 concerns CO2 emissions per capita, and I don’t want to boastful, but we totally hit it out of the park on this one. France, 6 tons per capita per annum; Russia and the UK, 10; Australia, 16; the USA, 20 big ones! And these are 2004 figures, so they’ve probably gone up since then.

Friday, 8 May 2009

According to Rebecca Tiessen, ‘gender mainstreaming’ is pinko-speak for ‘integrating gender concerns into the mainstream. GM was initiatied in response to criticisms that women and men do not enjoy equal … rights. GM is … understood … as a process for transforming institutions and organizations in order to promote gender equality.’ (According to Wikipedia, it’s also ‘an example of Eurospeak, in this case a coarse, Germanic juxtaposition of nouns not properly encountered among Anglophone peoples.’ I’m pretty sure the Wiki-writer wanted to use ‘pinko-speak’ there but was thwarted by the pitiless jackboot of political correctness.) GM aims to achieve gender equality; along the way it would quite probably also achieve world peace and an end to poverty. As a priority, it probably ranks somewhere above Post Office privatisation.

Global poverty and inequality are gendered issues. (I don’t know of anyone who disputes this, but if you have special sources of advanced eccentricity, please let me know.) First, women and girls bear the brunt of poverty. They have higher mortality rates and fewer resources (money, land, power, food). Second, when the lot of a woman or girl is improved, the ripples spread throughout her community. A woman who is educated will pass her learning on to her children and neighbours; a woman who has money will use it to improve her children’s diets and education; a woman who has good care during pregnancy and childbirth will raise children who are healthier and more resilient.

This much is orthodoxy. The Millennium Development Goals are lousy with female-dominated aims: gender parity in education (2), female empowerment (3), child mortality (4), maternal mortality (5), HIV and malaria (largely diseases of the young and the female in Africa) (6). Although some progress has been made, very few of the targets associated with the MDGs are on course to be met by 2015, and MDG5 (maternal mortality) has seen the least progress of all.

There is some cheerful news. According to ActionAid’s excellent piece on women and MDGs, Bangladesh and Nepal have dramatically improved female health and education access using targeted policies and political commitment. Burkina Faso, India, Mozambique and Tanzania have all made great strides in girls’ education. In Rwanda, more than half of parliamentary representatives are women.

But the overall picture is less comfortable, and is only made more urgent by the effect of the global recession on women; when you’re already living on the edge, you suffer disproportionately from even small economic shocks. So what, as some bearded fella once asked, is to be done? And how appropriate is it for Westerners to lecture other countries about gender equality? As a sop to those who have complained that my posts are too long, I’ll get on to this next time.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Committee News

A few things that happened at the International Development Select Committee meeting on April 22.

A couple of exchanges revealed the Secretary of State's apparent frustration with the larger UK development NGOs. Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma noted that Oxfam and ActionAid had expressed concern over the governance of the international financial institutions, and asked for Alexander's response; it was slightly tetchy. 'If I had a pound for every time Oxfam and ActionAid expressed concern, I’d be almost as rich as the IMF.' (He went on to acknowledge that both had been 'generous with regard to the comments they made at the London Summit', and agreed that both the Bank and the Fund need to be reformed.)

Later in the session, while discussing the matter of DFID's rebranding exercise, Alexander appeared to be irritated that UK NGOs fail to publicly aknowledge the extent of the funding they receive from DFID.

‘Although I am greatly admiring of the work done by development NGOs in Britain, they don’t work very hard to publicise the funds given to them by DFID. So, say, Christian Aid or Oxfam – who we fund significantly in terms of PPAs [Partnership Programme Arrangements] – understandably do not spend a lot of time telling their own supporters that they’re receiving resources from the British government. VSO is another example; 75 per cent, if I recollect properly, maybe 70 per cent, of VSO’s core funding comes from DFID. VSO has a fabulous brand and a fabulous profile among the British people; I would be quite surprised if many of them knew [that statistic]. Over time this has to change. You don’t want to be in a position of undermining the reputation of those organisations, but it is something I’m giving a lot of thought to.’
It will be interesting to see what comes of this in the upcoming...

Leeds West MP John Battle referred to a recent survey about the British public's attitudes towards development aid and DFID. Feelings are broadly positive towards the former (although the prospect of savage public spending cuts could change this); apparently only 22 per cent have even heard of the latter. Alexander remarked that is is 'not sustainable' for British taxpayers to be so unaware of the projects that they are funding. He mused that politicans might not be the best people to take this issue to the public, and revealed that he has recently asked Bill Gates to throw the weight of his business expertise behind DFID by publically expressing his belief that 'aid works'.

More specifically, it turns out that DFID has been thinking about rebranding, and the results of this process will probably appear in the upcoming White Paper. Alexander commented that he wants development aid to become as central to the British identity as the BBC and the NHS. Committee members floated 'British Aid' and 'UK Aid' as possible new identities.

Douglas Alexander referred several times to the need for IMF reform, in both governance and operations, and expressed the hope that this issue would be addressed at the Spring Meetings. Sadly, we now know that the Spring Meetings turned out to be a disappointment. Rachel Turner (Director of DFID's International Finance division) emphasised the need for the fast disbursement of the funds agreed at the G20; she was confident that access quotas would be doubled (as they indeed were), and that gold sales proceeds would be used to help the poorest countries. As it turned out, the IMF Committee bucked at the fence on this one. DFID also strongly supports the view that the conditions attached to IMF loans should be reduced; but the Spring Meetings provided no concrete commitments on this issue, and recent research by ActionAid and others has indicated that the IMF continues to impose inappropriate conditions on LDCs.

Alexander set out some more specific reform aids with regard to the Banks, including an extra African seat on the board, and a transparent and merit-based procedure for selecting the Bank's President (fancy that!). In less detail, he alluded to the need for deeper, 'Phase II' reform, which he hopes to see progress on by the October meeting.

Alexander commented that he had 'worked hard' to get the Doha language (expressing the need to bring the round to a conclusion) into the final G20 communique. The incoming Obama administration is significant in this respect, but he noted that US officials had been 'candid' that given the current state of flux in administration positions, and the fact that incoming US Trade Representative Ron Kirk's most recent public position was as Mayor of Dallas, it might take some time for the new kids to get up to speed.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

What Would David Do?

As the Brown government continues in its light-hearted yet methodical pursuit of electoral wipeout, I thought I'd have a dig around to see what the Cameroons propose to do when they get their hands on DFID. The Tories aren't exactly renowned for their glorious abundance of fully fleshed-out policies, so Imagine My Surprise at discovering that they seem to have thought this one through in some detail.

The Conservatives do not have a great record when it comes to the governmental institutions of development aid. Thatcher removed the ministerial status of the Overseas Development Administration (DFID's predecessor), and decreed that its main function would be the promotion of British exports to developing countries. So began 18 thoroughly inglorious years of arms-linked scandals and backsliding on assistance targets. So if the Tory international development team notices us looking at them a bit suspiciously, they're going to have to forgive us. These days, they acknowledge that DFID is 'one of the best development agencies in the world', and are committed to maintaining its status as an independent department led by a Secretary of State. They are also committed to meeting the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP on development aid by 2013, as are Labour. (Don't be too impressed. The UN set this target before I was born.) They do, however, want to set up an independent agency to evaluate DFID's efforts.

The Shadow Secretary of State for International Development is Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield. He has acquired a degree of notoriety due to his seven (seven!) paid directorships for subsidiaries of the city bank Lazard, for which he used to work (after serving in the Royal Tank Regiment, including a stint as a UN peacekeeper in Cyprus). Anti-ID cards, pro-hunting, pro-abortion rights and does the usual Tory double of both fiercely supporting the Iraq war and wanting an immediate inquiry into everything to do with it. Fellas... you know that looks silly, right?

Unsurprisingly, given his blue-helmet background, Mitchell believes that 'conflict resolution is probably the most important aspect of international development', and says that UN peacekeeping needs to be more 'muscular'. He has argued for the deployment of more UN peacekeeping troops in the DRC and in Darfur, and for systemic reform of the UN itself.

As you'd expect, Mitchell emphasises the importance of trade in development. Peter Lilley's 'In It Together' policy report, on which much current Tory development thinking is based, outlined several trade-based initiatives. These include a cross-party 'Campaign for Real Trade' to put public pressure on Western governments to open up their markets, the abolition of high tarriffs in trade between developing countries, and support for the World Trade Organization's 'Aid For Trade' initiative, which aims to compensate developing countries for losses resulting from trade liberalisation. I can't find any indication of whether these initiatives would be supported by additional funds under a Conservative government, or by funds diverted from elsewhere within the aid budget.

A more controversial aspect of the Tories' development policies concerns their apparent desire to work around the governments of developing countries, rather than through them. They have floated the idea of 'partnership trusts' in each recipient country. These trusts - comprising representatives of the major donors - would coordinate programme support, monitoring and finance in each country. Some are concerned about the effect that such trusts would have on relationships between donor and recipient governments; others have asked why this function could not be performed by the extant regional development banks, or the UN.

Elaborating on the small-government riff, Cameron has taken up and run with William Easterly's proposal of development vouchers, proposing these should be given directly to poor communities, to be redeemed 'for development services of any kind, with an aid agency or supplier of their choice.' (What is it with the Tories and vouchers? Did they all have formative sexual experiences involving Puffin Club coupons?) Lilley's policy paper, meanwhile, proposed 'demand-led development assistance', in which NGOs, private sector companies, and local and national governments would 'bid' for project finance from a central fund administered by DFID . This is one of the few areas in which it is possible to perceive some old-fashioned left-right politics. Gareth Thomas, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, has said in response that there's no alternative to working with governments; Simon Maxwell at the ODI points to the state's role as the ultimate guarantor of social provision, and warns against undermining it.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Douglas Alexander on gender issues in developing countries

First, the transcript of a question-and-answer session with Douglas Alexander, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, when he gamely came to see us in Bloggers' Corner at the G20.

RD: Mumsnetters have asked me to concentrate on the maternal mortality issue, and also the education of girls and the economic empowerment of women. And I have been thinking, and talking to Adrian [Lovett, Director of Campaigns at Save the Children] and some of the Save the Children policy people yesterday. Do we have an issue here in which a lot of these gender issues, which are fundamental to developing countries’ fortunes – are they particularly difficult to address because they are mired in the culture of male power, essentially, which is very difficult for developed nations to address?

DA: Poverty, globally, still has a woman’s face, and the empowerment of women has benefits – in health, undoubtedly, but also in education and economics. That’s why, from the British government’s point of view, as we make the case to developing country governments to invest in basic healthcare and primary school education, we don’t fail to make the case that it makes a disproportionate impact if you deal with the issue of the inequality of women. I was in a school in Kenya last year, and sat with a group of Muslim mothers. They explained that the reason they were willing to let their daughters go to this school was that there were separate toilets. They said that unless there were separate toilets, they simply wouldn’t countenance letting their daughters go to school. So there can be cultural issues which affect this. But I don’t think that that should be an excuse for governments – here in the North or in developing countries – not to recognise the huge, disproportionate benefits that are gained. If you get a young girl to go to school, she is more likely to be healthy because she will be more aware of the choices that she is making. She is more likely to marry later. She will have fewer children. She will be more likely to work in the formal sector of the economy. The benefits of the empowerment of women, whether at the level of education or health, are huge, and that’s a very compelling case to make.

RD: But do you think that those developing countries with issues around the cultural empowerment of women are ready to hear those messages?

DA: Well, it clearly involves a dialogue with individual countries. We have made good progress, for example, in Ghana in recent months, where the outgoing President made a specific commitment in terms of using funds provided by the UK government to abolish the user fees that would otherwise have been charged to pregnant women. That would have been unimaginable a few years ago. In contrast, if you look, for example, at Northern Nigeria, the huge number of young girls who are still out of school, cultural issues can affect that. Similarly, in Afghanistan we moved from a position where, 2001, there were 900,000 boys in school in Afghanistan; [now] there are now up to four-and-a-half million kids in school, of which two million are young girls. Clearly, there were issues there around the policies of the Taliban when they were in power, and we’ve made huge progress.

I have to say that when I travel in the developing world, I am constantly struck by the commonality of people’s aspirations, for their sons and for their daughters. And in that sense, I think we need to be willing to engage in a sensitive way with cultural issues, but equally recognise that what binds us together is that desire for all children to be given the kind of chances we would want for our own.


Alexander struck me as a decent cove (and a clever one), and I believe that DFID has a good reputation on these issues, particularly MNH. I had been struck earlier in the day by the frankness with which he admitted that MNH is not a political priority in developed countries, and that this lack of priority accounts for the sickeningly slow progress on Millennium Development Goal Number 5, which aims to reduce maternal mortality in developing countries by 75 per cent by 2015 (as yet, it's the MDG that has seen the least progress).

I've had a poke around for information about the Ghana project that he mentioned. The DFID website appears to be ailing tonight, but I did find this citation, which suggests that the exemption policy has been in place for several years. However, if DFID is providing extra ring-fenced funding for it, then good on 'em.

Of course, the situation in Afghanistan is not as rosy as Alexander suggested. President Hamid Karzai is believed to have signed a law that legalises rape within marriage, and severely limits the rights of women, in direct contravention to the Afghan constitution. Karzai is under pressure to scrap the law, but as yet it remains in place.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Half a ton

What weighs half a ton, then? The world's heaviest woman, according to the Daily Mail . The amount of municipal waste each of us generates each year. Half of a Volvo 960. Hey, have you seen this Google application? It makes listing things so much easier!

This week, Sources Close to Rowan Davies told her what a sustainable world would look like. It would mean each person on the planet emitting no more than half a ton of carbon per year. (That's before we even start to consider that, to fairly address the extraordinary imbalance between the emissions of developed countries and the emissions of majority-world countries, those of us in the West should actually emit a lot less and give the surplus to those who didn't create this mess.)

What could you do for your half-ton allowance? This is over a year, mind. Don't use it all at once. Fancy a cheeseburger? That'll be 6kg, so you could have about 83 of them. (I'm pretty sure I saw a guy engaged in that particular project yesterday.) A smoothie, by contrast, would account for only 2700g. You could take a short domestic return flight. One person could drive from London to Madrid, but s/he couldn't come back. That's actually not a bad deal. You could build one-hundredth of a new home, or heat one room in your current one. Bear in mind you can only do one of these things; the rest of your year would have to be taken up with zero-carbon activities. And no, you can't do that. New children take up a lot of carbon.

The UK government recommends that we all stick to around 8 tons of carbon emissions per person in 2009. The half-ton recommendation is an open secret in energy circles, but its implications are so frightening that no pressure group, let alone government, will publicise it.

The Obama press conference

So, you know when you're at an international summit, right. Various press conferences are scheduled to be held throughout the day. I tripped along, palpitating, to the ones I was most focussed on - Douglas Alexander (Secretary of State for International Development) and Ed Miliband (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) - and was struck by the boredom of the press pack (about 30, maybe 40, at each); another day, another international summit. I got the first question in at both of these because I was sitting in the front row like the swot I am, madly making eye contact and nodding intelligently as the minister gave his briefing.

(In fact - indulge me on this for a minute - I am the first blogger ever to ask a question at an international summit. Yeah, I know you don't give a shit. You have a good point and you're making it well. You would definitely be surprised by how much this accolade is being fought over in the blogosphere (look I CAN'T break into the narrative to make an excuse for each individual piece of toe-curling terminology, we'll be here for months). So, to sum up: Hey! Losers! I was first! I asked a question about THE LITTLE LADIES and their LADY BITS! Build a bridge and get over it!)

So. UK ministers, foreign heads of state; press conferences came and went and the press in general did a good impersonation of a fourth-former at morning assembly, only not so good-looking.

We'd been told that the POTUS's press conference would be at around 18.00, but as the afternoon wore on, the internal plasma screens that were giving out information made no reference to it. Nevertheless, at about 17.15 I thought it would be a good idea to walk down the ExCel's internal 'boulevard' (see disclaimer above) to see if anything was happening. There were already about 100 journalists in the queue. The people in front of me were German broadcasters; the people behind were Chinese print journos. It reminded me of being in the queue for day tickets at Wimbledon. Some people caught your eye and smiled; others insinuated themselves into the queue like a pensioner at the five-items-or-fewer till. Reader, I actually physically shoved someone back out who'd pushed in front of me.

I turned around. I was now in the front fifth of the queue. Security personnel came to have a look at us a couple of times, walking up and down and eye-balling people. (One of the other G20Voice bloggers, a risk-management expert, remarked that it's a sign of how good POTUS's security is that it's almost invisible; being surrounded by a pack of suits talking into their wrists is, apparently, a sure sign that someone's security is a bit second-rate, and needs to create a public impression.)

Then they started to let us in. There were five or six different briefing rooms, and we were heading into the arena-style space, with capacity for about 600 journalists. I wanted to run, but somehow restrained myself. Neverthless, I got a fairly central seat in the ninth row. Once we were all in, there was a short wait before a man I've never met, and yet feel immensely familiar with, walked purposefully to the lectern in the centre of the stage.

You've read and heard all this before, but his charismatic authority is almost a physical force. I don't actually go a bundle on his rhetorical style myself - his cadences are repetitive - and politically he's not completely my style either. But he comes across as a fully-formed human being, only better (funnier, brighter, more skilled); he is Human 2.0. When it came to taking questions from the press, he didn't leave it to a flunkey at the side of the stage to pick who was going to get called on (as Gordon Brown had done earlier in the day). He said, apologetically, that he had a list of US journalists on whom he needed to call, but that he would try to 'sprinkle in' some 'random' questions from the rest of us. So the first few questions were the usual blah about US jobs; I'd like to be rude about this, but the questions to Brown had had the same domestic focus. Then he indicated that he was going to choose someone at random, and 600 journalists (including me? Hell yes!) put their hands in the air. He chose a woman who also turned out to be from the US. Later on, he chose an Indian journalist who asked a question about the bilateral meeting Obama had held with the Indian Prime Minster, Dr Manmohan Singh. Obama said that he was a great fan of Dr Singh's, and the Indian journo got a bit flustered and said 'Thank you, I'm very proud of him'. Her trembling voice and obvious excitement got the rest of us laughing, and Obama - with the timing of a master - looked at her quizzically and said 'Why, did you have something to do with it?'. It was like Saturday Night at the London Palladium.

At the end of the conference, I thought: are people going to applaud? Surely not. But they did. And as they applauded and got to their feet to leave, it created a little unintentional standing ovation. Then the press's inner fourth-former awoke from its daydream with a self-loathing start. Obama bt. International Press, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0.

What would I have asked him? 'Mr President [God you've GOT to say it haven't you], earlier today the UK's Secretary of State for International Development told me that maternal mortality rates in developing countries remain high because the issue is not a political priority in the West. Do you think his analysis is correct?'

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

I had an interesting conversation about tax regulation today

I really did. Richard Mabey from the Tax Justice Network http://www.taxjustice.net/cms/front_content.php?idcatart=2&changelang=1

He says that effective taxation (the eradication of tax avoidance and tax evasion) would enable a world without development aid. Each year, approximately $400 billion of taxation revenue is lost to governments through the use of evasive taxation techniques. This sum would pay for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals eight times over. Every year.

The TJN lobbies for a global system of tax declaration that is both multilateral (ie, a mutual system between all the member governments) and automatic (rather than governments having to request individual pieces of information). The G20 is not expected to deliver this this time around, but the issue is creeping up the agenda - because taxation revenue suddenly looks a lot more important to most of these governments.

Tomorrow's communique is expected to announce the setting up of a definitive list of tax havens, and a move towards automatic information sharing. The TJN sees this as the beginning of a move towards tax justice.

Monday, 30 March 2009

That's a good question and I'm glad you've raised it

Protestors - what in the name of Mike do they want?

I volunteered for a while at Schnews, a Brighton-based newsletter for the protest movement - http://www.schnews.org.uk/index.php. They were a funny lot. There was one very intense woman who was taking a forestry course in Lewes purely so that she could obtain a chainsaw license (crikey). I didn't gain a lot of insight while I was there, but I do remember being shaken by the depth of their loathing for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - I suggested contacting them for some help on a story. I might as well have shat in the fridge. There was a distinct flavour of the Judean People's Front about the place. Eeee, happy days.

I'm pretty sure there is no codified set of aims or beliefs associated with this movement. However, the most unifying theme is probably anti-capitalism. Mainstream environmental/development pressure groups tend to either accept or embrace capitalism, and work within its confines. The protest movement genuinely wants to participate in an old-fashioned revolution, in which for-profit economic activity will be shut down, international economic institutions will collapse, national governments will fall, and people across the globe will return to pre-lapsarian agrarian subsistence lifestyles, albeit with any modern technology that can survive in a non-profit model.

I think they know that this would result in extraordinary levels of upheaval and bloodshed in the short-to-medium term, but they believe that the long-term outcome (sustainable lifestyles and an end to economic inequality) would be worth it.

I do have a sneaking sympathy for their reasoning. You don't have to look far to find evidence that the governments of the West are motivated by nothing but self-interest, and that the obscenity of global inequality is only ever addressed as an afterthought. Capitalism can't prioritise the needs of developing countries - that's not what it's for.

Anyway, if you look at that Schnews link you'll see a pretty cogent explanation of their aims.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The capering generalist

So, the G20 Voice people have set up a Ning site (no, me neither) for us bloggers to get to know each other. I'm beginning to wish they hadn't. All the other folks started blogging c. 1953. This is despite the fact that some of them are 12. They are all enthusiastically setting up pipetubes (that's for recreational drugs, surely) and RSS feeds (nope). They all run massively innovative carbon-capture schemes while working for the World Bank.

The G20 Voice people want us each to run a round table discussion in our 'area of expertise'.
Shall we make this a poll? We could do a poll, right?

My area of expertise could be:

a) things a four-year-old won't eat;
b) the circumstances in which you can legitimately add the possessive 's' after an apostrophe;
c) Welsh funerals (with special reference to gob-smacking displays of rapacity and drunkenness).

Thursday, 26 March 2009

An abbreviation a day. Maybe an acronym if you're lucky.

MNH: maternal and newborn health.
*A woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes every minute of every day
*Childbirth is the leading killer of young women worldwide
*Infants of mothers who do not survive the delivery are more likely to die within two years
*When a mother dies, enrolment in school for younger children is delayed and older children often leave school to support their family.
*Children without a mother are less likely to be immunized, and are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth. The implications for girls tend to be even greater.

Millennium Development Goal #5 is to reduce maternal mortality rates by 75 per cent by 2015. It’s the MDG that has seen the least progress in the last decade.

The interventions that are needed are relatively low-tech and inexpensive: trained midwives at the local level, and obstetric care for emergencies. As far as I can make out, DFID has a fairly good record in this area; the country that needs to take a big lead is (inevitably) the USA. Its funding for maternal health programmes has consistently declined. The aim is to secure $3.9 billion per year for the next ten years (based on a World Health Organization estimate). This would enable significant progress towards providing universal access to maternal and newborn care.

The current orthodoxy is that to maximise effectiveness, the donor countries need to set up innovative funding channels so that, for instance, resources for countries or regions can be pooled. The High-Level Taskforce on Innovative International Funding for Health Systems met in London earlier this month to discuss such funding channels. The published note of the meeting contains some truly frightening predictions of mortality increases in developing countries as a result of the crash in the West. It also seems to place a depressing emphasis on the importance of the private sector, which has such a mixed record of providing vital services in developing country contexts.

Some of the proposals for raising the necessary funds are unedifying (optional levies on aeroplane tickets); some are potentially more interesting (an Italian proposal to ringfence a proportion of VAT income). The note also mentions a drive towards patent pooling of important drugs (such as the three drugs used to treat childhood HIV infection, each of which is currently under patent to a different company). Australia, apparently, is 'not interested in new taxes', but then I'm guessing most of its new mothers can confidently expect to return home with their babies in good health, so that's nice for them. The Japanese observer wisely emphasised the necessity for new funding, rather than channels that would simply replace existing development aid.

Governance and corruption... wait! Come back!

There’s an interesting blog here http://thekaufmannpost.net/ about good governance (in both developed and developing countries), and how governments get ‘captured’. Unfortunately, I have yet to find the page on which he provides a point-by-point explanation of wtf we should do about this. But I’m sure he’s written one, right? (He’s one of the other G20 bloggers.)

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


There I was, trundling along with my gobby opinions (some of them family heirlooms, some of them from out of my own brain), when the great goddess of mumsnet.com handed me a golden bauble: a blogger's spot at the London G20 summit.

The idea of the G20 Voice blogger project is to focus attention on global poverty and climate change, rather than the self-inflicted economic woes of some of the developed nations. The agenda of the summit and its media coverage are overwhelmed by talk of the crisis in the West, and appropriate measures of fiscal stimulus (or not). Once again, the majority world will stand and watch while its future is determined, in passing, by others.

Will the G20 Voice bloggers be able to have any effect on this bleakly familiar scenario? I know that the summit outcomes will remain absolutely unaffected by anything we do. But maybe we'll get our talons into an understrapper or two. And maybe some folks will read the blogs and use the information in them to get their elected representatives into some stress positions.