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.