Tuesday, 29 April 2014

HS2: a wasted opportunity to transform British transport

With the HS2 project passing its second reading in the House of Commons on 28 April, Britain is one step closer to entering the age of high speed rail at last. Despite passing with a landslide of 451 votes to 50, HS2 remains controversial. While Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin insists the improvement in rail services would reduce the north-south divide, HS2’s opponents argue that at £50 billion it is too expensive and that the money could be better spent elsewhere. But the chief objection to HS2 ought to be that it is not ambitious enough.

HS2 will connect London with Birmingham where the line will fork, with a western line continuing to Manchester and Glasgow, and an eastern line going on to Leeds and Edinburgh. Once completed it would reduce journey times from London to Leeds from 132 minutes to 82 minutes, London to Manchester from 128 to 68 minutes and London to Birmingham from 84 to 49 minutes. The first phase from London to Birmingham is due to open in 2026, and HS2 is projected to reach Leeds and Manchester by 2033.

26 Conservative MPs voted against HS2 and others abstained, citing the damage to ancient woodlands and the potentially negative effect on house prices. The fact that the route of HS2 will go through their constituencies has of course got nothing to do with it. It is classic nimbyism, clothing a self-interested agenda in pseudo-environmentalist language. 

Others claim the money would be better spent on improving the existing railways. This has effectively been the British rail policy for decades, and the result has been painfully slow progress. In 1938 the Mallard managed 126 mph and took six and a half hours from London to Edinburgh. Today the journey still takes five hours, and our trains manage 140 mph. Without new track, faster trains will still get stuck behind the slow trains, and the poor state of the track prevents new trains from reaching their top speed. 

Meanwhile a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs has deemed it “highly unlikely” that HS2 would bring about a significant economic boost to the north. The IEA reached this conclusion on the basis that HS1, the high speed Eurostar link from London to Paris and Brussels, had not brought significant growth or jobs to East Kent. This comparison is unfair, given that the objective of HS1 was to improve rail travel to the continent. 

The real tragedy of the debate on HS2 is the inability to recognise a golden opportunity to revolutionise British transport. Why not break from the existing system of expensive trains primarily serving business, and introduce a high speed network that is affordable for all? This would enable long-distance commuting, allowing job-seekers in the north to work in London, and potentially ease the strain on rent and housing in the south east. An HS2 founded on this basis could also reduce the appeal of internal flights and reduce congestion on the motorways, with train services at last being able to compete financially with the car.

Bringing down rail prices can only be achieved by increasing the capacity of trains and ensuring they are used. Why not have double-decker trains like the TGV in France, so that each train can carry far more passengers? Why not plan an HS3 and HS4 to improve the appalling services between cities such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull? Why not follow Germany in building the track beside motorways, thereby addressing some of the environmental concerns?

As a late-comer to the era of high speed rail, Britain has the opportunity to learn from other countries and develop a new rail transport model. The failure to grasp this chance should be the main criticism of the HS2 project.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Five Myths About Slums

The tourist tours around Dharavi slum in Mumbai have sparked much debate - is it an important eye-opener or just poverty porn? I decided to find out for myself, and found it to be a worthwhile experience which shattered some of the preconceptions about slums I had picked up at school and in books.

1. Slums are where the poorest people live

The word 'slum' has nothing but bad connotations in the west. We immediately think of self built shacks, open sewers, disease and deprivation. A slum is commonly thought of as being defined by its poverty. But in India, the definition of a slum is simply a settlement built on land owned by the government. This means it is likely to be informal or even illegal, but it is not home to the poorest. As our guide explained, the poorest people in Mumbai can't afford to live in a slum.

2. A slum is on the periphery of a major city

This is what I was taught in geography lessons. But given the real definition of a slum, this doesn't have to be the case. Dharavi is relatively central in Mumbai, making it quite a desirable location. With two motorways and several trainlines nearby it is a convenient location for commuting. In fact, some people choose to move from their homes in the suburbs to Dharavi in order to reduce the length of their journey to work.

3. A slum is a self built makeshift settlement

Slums come in many forms across the world and even within India or just Mumbai. A slum may be a small collection of shacks. Dharavi is home to one million people, and most of them rent their accommodation. Houses are bought and sold and cost the equivalent of several thousand pounds. The standard varies, but many have two stories, and looking out across the slum you can see satellite dishes everywhere. Many people have smartphones and wireless broadband is the norm.

4. A slum is unproductive and most people don't work

Slum dwellers are generally thought of as being self-sufficient at best, and probably struggling to feed themselves. Dharavi's economy on the other hand is valued at 700 million dollars, and produces a range of goods to be sold domestically and even internationally. The biggest industry in the slum is leather, despite the traditional Hindu customs. Recycling is a major field of activity, employing hundreds of workers to sort, clean and sell plastic or metal containers. And fashion conscious westerners wearing Ralph Loren clothes may be surprised to learn that their garments may be produced in a slum. Thanks to its location Dharavi has a thriving economy and there is little unemployment.

5. A slum is a dangerous place

The stereotype of a slum as being a place of rampant criminality is widespread. The picture of Rio 's favelas shown in the film 'City of God' is just one example. However, our guide told us that Dharavi is safer than most other parts of Mumbai, and that the risk of pickpockets or mugging was far higher in the touristy area of Colaba. Dharavi didn't escape the ethnic violence that swept across India in the 1990s but today the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities live peacefully together.

Of course, Dharavi is just one slum, and our guide emphasised that it is not the norm. Dharavi appears suspiciously often in books, articles and TED talks covering slums. However, at the very least, Dharavi shows that some of our fundamental ideas about slums are flawed.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Against drones - a riposte to Philip Hammond

In an article published in the Guardian on 18 December, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond outlined his case for the use of drones in the war on terror. Hammond claims that contrary to the belief of what he calls "drone activists", drones are in fact a sensible and totally legal way of reducing casualties in warfare, and it is a "myth" that drones indiscriminately kill civilians.

Hammond begins by arguing that the word "drone" is misleading, giving connotations of a machine out of a science fiction story beyond human control. In fact, we are told, drones are manoevered by highly qualified people, applying the ultimate precision to avoid casualties. Mr Hammond concedes that he is aware of one terrible case in which a drone strike killed four Afghan civilians by mistake, but it's "hardly the picture of devastation so often painted by activists who so vociferously oppose their use." Other than this one exception, Hammond would have us believe, drones help to save "the lives of our personnel, our Afghan allies and Afghan civilians on a daily basis."

While insisting that his defence of drones is based "on the fundamental facts", Hammond's only recognition of civilian casulties is the aforementioned incident in Afghanistan. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes carried out by the CIA in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013 killed between 2534 to 3642 people. Meanwhile a report carried out by Al Jazeera found that drone strikes on Yemen have killed nearly 800 people, mostly civilians since 2002. Drones have killed more civilians than 9/11. This goes to show that the high precision technology is hardly impressive. Despite rejecting the idea that drone warfare is shrouded in secrecy, Hammond has no inclination to recognise or explain the civilian death toll.

The legal justification for drone warfare relies on the conflict being defined as between two state entities. But Al Qaeda isn't a state. British and American drones are terrorising civilian populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Hammond's talk of "saving lives" applies more to British troops than to innocents on the ground, who continue to be viewed as "collateral damage".

Barack Obama has claimed that in order for a drone strike to be authorised there must be a "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured." And yet time and again "military intelligence" has proved incapable of distinguishing villages from training camps, leading to carnage, such as the killing of 45 women and children in Yemen in 2009. As Simon Jenkins points out, ground troops would face severe punishment for an atrocity such as this but "air forces enjoy such prestige that civilian deaths are excused as a price worth paying for not jeopardising pilots' lives."

US Congressman Alan Grayson quoted an American official based in Yemen as saying "every drone death yields 50 to 60 new recruits for Al Qaeda." Drone attacks are the worst possible PR for Britain and America, and a gift to extremist groups seeking to recruit volunteers. Eliminating terrorist leaders is useless if the attack inspires many more to take their places.

It is difficult to point to any progress achieved by Philip Hammond and his drones since he became Defence Secretary in 2011. The war on terror continues and drones have not yielded any reduction in Al Qaeda attacks. Beyond this, drone warfare has jeopardised Western relations with both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, who have both condemned the use of drone strikes. Meanwhile as Tom Engelhardt observes, the supposedly invaluable data gathered by spy drones has not given the US or Britain the upper hand.

Antagonising governments and civilian populations in countries around the world does not make us safer. Flouting international law only further erodes our moral credibility. Philip Hammond's defence of drones continues the long tradition of prioritising the safety of our troops and pilots over the lives of foreign civilians. This flawed logic will only serve to unnecessarily prolong the war on terror.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Debunking the myths around Swiss bank secrecy

It is widely thought that Swiss bank secrecy was established in the 1930s, in order to enable Jews and other victims of the Nazis to hide their money from the regime. In his fascinating 2011 book Treasure Islands, Nicholas Shaxson exposes this hypothesis as a myth, and gives an insight into the vast offshore empire used by companies and the super-rich to hide their money from the taxman.

Swiss bank secrecy is far more than 80 years old - it dates back centuries. In the 18th century, the Catholic monarchy of France borrowed money from Swiss banks - secrecy was crucial, as it would have been a scandal if it had been revealed that the monarchy was taking money from Protestant moneylenders. Bank secrecy and neutrality were the two crucial elements to Switzerland's international policy for centuries.

Whenever dirty money is traced to Switzerland and they comes under fire, Swiss banks always roll out the same World War Two story: if it had not been for Swiss bank secrecy, the Jews would have had nowhere to hide their money from the Nazis. In reality, it took decades after WWII for Swiss banks to release assets held by the victims.

The first investigation after WWII conducted by the Swiss Bankers' Association identified a miserly 482 000 francs held by victims of the Nazi regime. Thousands of relatives of account holders were turned away by Swiss banks demanding to see death certificates, something which concentration camps obviously didn't provide.

Further assets were released by Swiss banks in dribs and drabs, but it took until 1998 for a full pay out of $1.25 billion. So much for Swiss banks being the noble assistants of the victims of the Holocaust.

But beyond this, justifying secrecy jurisdictions on the basis that they enable people to hide their hard earned money from tyrannical regimes is absurd. As Shaxson points out, "Who uses secrecy jurisdictions to protect their money and bolster their positions? The human rights activist screaming in the torturers' dungeon? The brave investigative journalist?...Or the brutal kleptocratic tyrant oppressing them all? We all know the answer."

In 2007, Swiss banks held $3.1 trillion in offshore assets. But this is only a fraction of the money kept and transferred through offshore havens. Bank secrecy and tax havens have enabled dictators such Mubarak, Mobutu and Abacha to siphon billions of dollars from the coffers of their own treasuries. While organisations such as Transparency International condemn governments in developing countries for their corruption, it is partly the banking laws and secrecy in countries such as Switzerland which facilitate it.

An in-depth discussion of the arguments against tax havens can be found here. One of Shaxson's key points is that while people generally think of Switzerland and Caribbean islands such as the Caymans when they hear "tax haven", many offshore havens are in fact under American or British jurisdiction.

We can only speculate at how much money is hidden in tax havens - in 2012 a study arrived at an estimate of $21 trillion and $32 trillion. While it is depressing that such a vast web of international tax evasion and corruption exists, the still small but increasing interest, awareness and media attention given to this issue is encouraging.

Finally, the obscene amount of wealth hidden offshore makes a mockery of the argument for austerity. It shows that cuts in public services and living standards for the majority are not inevitable. Just think how much progress could be made in improving school and hospital facilities, reviving the economy and combating climate change if some of those trillions were taxed at a reasonable rate.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The most under-reported country in the world?

In March this year, a military coup took place in the Central African Republic which plunged the country into chaos. A group of rebels calling themselves the Seleka ousted former president Francois Bozize. Since then it is estimated that 1.5 million people have been displaced, and there have been reports of massacres of civilians, the burning of villages and widespread rape. While shedding some light on the situation in the CAR, the minimal news coverage there has been shows just how pitifully little we know.

As its unimaginative name suggests, the CAR lies in the middle of the African continent, bordering Chad and Sudan to the north, South Sudan to the East, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo to the south, and Cameroon to the west. The CAR was
colonised by the French, and prior to this the region had been ravaged by the Arab slave trade. Since independence in 1960, the CAR has suffered from bad governance, instability and chronic poverty, and it remains one of the ten poorest countries in the world to this day. Three times the size of the UK but with only 4.6 million inhabitants, the CAR is a vast territory about which we know next to nothing. Even before the outbreak of violence last year, neither the IMF nor the World Bank had any staff on the ground, and few NGOs are active in the CAR despite the desperate need.

While it is difficult and dangerous to get information out of a war-zone such as Syria, amazingly, there are still scheduled flights, and as a high interest story, there are channels for the media to get into the country. In stark contrast, the CAR is less extensively mapped today than Britain in the year 1800. While tarmac roads connect the capital city, Bangui, with some of the other principle towns, dirt tracks are the norm, and these can become impassable after the rains. According to the Wikipedia page, there are "over 1800 motor vehicles on the road." Before last year's coup, there was one flight from Paris to Bangui per week.

The main route to the outside world should be the Oubangui river, which connects to the Congo and the Atlantic Ocean. But continued conflict in the DRC has made this route impassable. Sudan and South Sudan have recently been at war, and the Chad is politically unstable. As a result, CAR's main route to the outside world is through Cameroon, and this road is in very poor condition due to the damage caused by heavily laden trucks.

Deposed President Bozize himself came to power through a military coup in 2003, after a five year period in which there had been numerous attempts by different military groups to seize the capital. The only means of social mobility in the country is the army, and except for Bozize's predecessor Patasse, all of the country's leaders since 1960 have been military men. While political commentators are now discussing whether the CAR is in danger of becoming a failed state, no government has ever been able to control the whole country.

As is often the case in international affairs, Aljazeera has given the CAR much more coverage than the western media, although there have been reports on the latest conflict in the Independent and the Guardian. The Seleka rebels marched into Bangui on March 24, and their leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president. But while "Seleka" means "alliance", it quickly became clear that the rebels were far from united. Djotodia has even tried to disband the Seleka, amid continued fighting among the rebels. Djotodia has admitted that he can't control the rebels, stating, "it is difficult for me because I don't know who they are."

Last week Aljazeera has reported that another armed group, calling itself Anti-balika, has attacked Seleka rebels, displacing a further 200 000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and are taking refuge in the forests, or gathering in make-shift refugee camps. Evidence of a massacre in which 18 people were killed has been found, but it is likely that this is only a tiny fraction of the violence unfolding in the country.

But the international response has been pathetic: Britain has pledged £5 million in aid, a laughable amount which will make barely any difference. The African Union hopes to have a force of 1100 soldiers in the country in 2014. What exactly they are expected to achieve remains unclear.

The CAR briefly made the headlines during the Kony 2012 phenomenon, and Joseph Kony was thought to be hiding in the east of the country. Commentators interviewed in an Aljazeera programme claimed that armed groups as diverse as the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, the Janjaweed from Sudan, and the Nigerian Boko Haram may have spilled over the borders into the CAR. But the the striking fact is that we simply don't know. Statements from the French government stressing the danger that the CAR could become a failed state and a safehaven for terrorists give the illusion of some sort of command and understanding of the situation.

In reality, to talk of the CAR's "borders" is meaningless. Most of the borders are unmarked and unprotected areas of jungle. While the CAR would make an effective hiding place for Kony, it seems unlikely that Boko Haram would want to take refuge or try to recruit here. The crisis in the CAR is the worst humanitarian disaster in the history of the country. Framing it in terms of terrorism makes little sense and only serves to disguise our ignorance of what is really going on.

Portraying the conflict in the CAR as a threat to our security may raise some foreign interest. However, the grim truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us are not affected by the events in the CAR. In a civilised world that shouldn't be a reason not to care.

Friday, 8 November 2013

75 years after Kristallnacht Germany deserves admiration for the way it has dealt with its past

75 years ago today was Kristallnacht, the terrible pogrom against the Jews in Germany which foreshadowed the Holocaust. The BBC covered of the anniversary with an article by Stephan Evans, posing the question: "how strong is anti-semitism in Germany?"

By implication, this headline suggests that anti-semitism is still a negative force to be reckoned with in Germany today. Evans acknowledges that the Holocaust is taught in schools, "but how much anti-semitism lingers despite the knowledge of what happened?" The answer to this question is said to be a "complex picture."

Evans quotes a study conducted in 2011 which apparently showed that anti-semitism was strongest in Poland and Hungary, but that also in Germany, "anti-semitism is significantly more prominent than in the other western European countries." The evidence for this is shaky at best. Nearly half of respondents in Germany agreed with the statement: "Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era", compared with 22% in the UK and 32% in France. With no exact figures or information regarding the phrasing of the questions, there is no proof that these responses are representative, nor that the answers themselves are anti-semitic.

But the refusal to believe that Germany has come to terms with its past is also reflected in Germany itself. Evans refers to a study carried out by the German parliament in 2012 which found that 20% of Germans hold at least "latent anti-semitism." Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation claims that "anti-semitism is acceptable again". Moreover, the AAF found that in 2011 there were 811 attacks on Jews in Germany, of which 16 were violent. On the basis that this increased to 865 in 2012 and 27 acts of violence, the AAF infers that anti-semitism is on the rise. The other 838 attacks are not defined, and there is no indication whether the 27 violent attacks were racially motivated.

These figures show that the extent of anti-semitism in Germany today is not a "complex picture" at all. To say that anti-semitism  has become "acceptable" is obscene. Even the extreme far-right neo-Nazi NPD party, while openly hostile to the Roma and Sinti, doesn't dare to even mention the Jews. Rather than ban NPD posters inciting racial hatred, the German government tolerated them, safe in the knowledge that hardly anybody would be persuaded by them. The recent elections proved them right, with the NPD failing to secure one single MP.

At an open-air karaoke event I attended in Berlin several months ago, a drunk blundered on to the stage and began telling an anti-semitic joke. A chorus of hundreds of voices from the crowd booed him off stage. While anecdotes such as these do not conclusive proof, they are indicative of attitudes in Germany today.

To claim that 27 violent attacks is evidence of mounting anti-semitism is a gross distortion of reality, and trivialises the attacks on thousands of Jews that took place on Kristallnacht. The real headline ought to have been that 75 years after that terrible night in 1938, anti-semitism in Germany is negligible. Contrary to popular belief in the UK, the Holocaust has been taught in German schools for decades. Berlin is full of memorials, museums and exhibitions about  the Holocaust and in 2011, 58 000 Germans visited Auschwitz.

Germany deserves admiration for the way in which it has come to terms with its past, something which Britain, still clinging to its "one world cup and two world wars" mantra would do well to follow.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The End of Poverty in our time?

The contemporary debate on aid to the third world is polarised, with advocates and opponents arguing whether or not aid has failed. Discussing the merits of "aid" in this way conceals some amazing advances in development across some of the poorest countries in the world. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's 2011 book Poor Economics expands on the ideas laid out in Duflo's TED talk, and brings to light some major advances in the war on poverty which too often go unnoticed.

Between 1999 and 2006, primary school enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 54% to 70%. In East Asia, the same seven year period saw the proportion of children in primary education rise from 77% to 88%. Despite rapid population growth in the world's poorest countries, the number of children of primary school age who did not attend fell from 103 million in 1999, to 73 million in 2006.

Of course, this leaves much to be done, and it is a scandal that there is still so much poverty amidst an abundance of wealth. Admittedly, the quality of teaching in primary schools is low in many countries, and millions of children go back to work in the fields at the age of 12, with no access to secondary education.

But there has been progress here too. Research conducted by Duflo and Banerjee shows that between 1995, enrollment in secondary schools increased from 25% to 34%  in sub-Saharan Africa, 44% to 51% in South Asia, and 64% to 74% in East Asia. These are major, positive changes which have happened in my lifetime. These developments are a reason to be optimistic about the future, and people should be aware of them.

As Paul Collier argues in his book The Bottom Billion, the number of people living in extreme poverty across the world is falling. " For forty years the development challenge has been a rich world of one billion facing a poor world of five billion people." Today, 80% of the world's poor live in countries which are on the up, while one billion are languishing in countries stuck at the bottom. Quoting UN figures in his book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley states that there has been a greater reduction in world poverty over the last 50 years than in the past 500. In a recent TED talk, economist Charles Robertson argues that Africa is now at the stage Mexico and Turkey were at 30 years ago, and a boom is coming.

For various reasons, this progress, although ostensibly the goal of NGOs, is widely ignored in the aid industry. Some are concerned that donations from the public would decrease if they knew that poverty was falling. But progress such as this, for example in the field of education, is a powerful reason to step up the war on poverty. For this progress shows that change is possible, and worth fighting for. On a practical level, these successes allow us to analyse which developmental and economic policies have been successful, and which have not, paving the way to a better approach towards tackling poverty in future. Suppressing success stories only reinforces pessimism and cynicism that development in the poorest countries is even possible under capitalism.

The fact that tens of millions more children across the world now have access to education is something that should be recognised and celebrated. News such as this belongs in the national curriculum. Positive change of this sort is a testament to human achievement and ingenuity. As Duflo and Banerjee conclude, "poverty has been with us for many thousands of years; if we have to wait another fifty or hundred years for the end of poverty, so be it."