Thursday, 19 September 2013

Oliver Stone vs Steven Pinker

"The US must, can and will lead in this new century. The third world war that many feared never came. And many millions were lifted out of poverty, and exercised their human rights for the first time. These were the benefits of a global architecture forged over many years by American leaders of both political parties."
Hillary Clinton

Oliver Stone's 10 part documentary "The untold history of the United States" is a bold attempt to challenge the conventional version of post-World War II history.

Stone fought in Vietnam as an infantry soldier, and was shocked by the misrepresentation of the war when he returned to the US. But more importantly, when Stone had children, he was struck by the way in which pupils are still taught a simplistic story of good guys and bad guys at school today. This provided the motivation to produce "The untold history of the United States." 

The documentary begins with an overview of the Second World War. Stone charges that the American post-war period has been greatly shaped by two "founding myths:" that the US won the war, and that it was necessary to use the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, the US played an important role, but 80% of the German forces were focused on the Eastern Front. Approximately 400 000 Americans were killed in the war, compared to at least 22 million people in the Soviet Union, and possibly up to 30 million. 

The key role that the Soviet Union played in the Second World War remains largely ignored in American and British education. Stone alleges that this would not fit in with the conventional Cold War narrative, of freedom-loving Americans versus totalitarian Soviet communists.

Stone goes on to argue that contrary to popular belief, it was not necessary to use the bomb. 700 000 Soviet troops were pushing back the Japanese in Manchuria, and Japan was already heading for defeat. In addition to this, the number of lives saved through ending the war earlier has been revised upwards again and again. Stone sees Hiroshima as the moment the US lost its moral authority. As he puts it, "because we win, we are right, and because we are right, we are therefore good. There is no morality but our own."

The two founding myths led to the Cold War, and the frantic fight against communism both at home, and in proxy wars abroad. Millions of civilians were to die in the wars of Korea and Vietnam, while American history books continue to focus on the deaths of American soldiers, reveering them as dying to defend peace and democracy. The fear of communism was used to justify toppling democratically elected governments from Guatemala in 1954 to Chile in 1973, and some of the most despotic regimes were tolerated provided they were anti-communist. 

The documentary continues up to the present day, with 9/11 and the launching of the "war on terror" based on the same principle of "you're with us or you're against us" as the Cold War. Nor does it let Obama off the hook, berating him for his expansion of drone warfare. In 2011, the US sold 78% of the world's arms, and had military bases in 151 countries. Meanwhile, the US navy proclaims itself as a "global force for good" and statements such as Hillary Clinton's above continue to proliferate. Stone invites the viewer to consider whether the people of Hiroshima, Vietnam, Laos, Guatemala, Chile, Cuba and many other countries, might see the US in a different light. 

While Stone's documentary provides much food for thought, it is pretty depressing and whether intentionally or not, gives the impression that America's policing of the globe is making the world an ever more violent place. This is a notion which is very widespread - in a recent article on Syria in the Guardian, Nick Cohen claimed that the "world of tyranny and atrocity is no different now than it was 70 years ago", at the time of the Holocaust. 

Steven Pinker's book "The better angels of our nature" and related TED talk, although not written as a riposte to "The untold history of the United States" offers a fascinating counter-argument to Nick Cohen's statement. Pinker certainly doesn't set out to defend American policy. His argument is that we currently live in the most peaceful era that humanity has ever known, and that violence has been consistently decreasing for the past 500 years. 

He provides some fascinating statistics. The 20th century is commonly thought of as the most violent in human history. But while it is true that it was the century with the most violent deaths, this is due to the fact that the human population was at its highest. We have to look at the proportion of people who died in conflict to gauge the level of violence. In the 20th century, approximately 1% of the population was killed in war. In hunter gatherer societies of the past and present on the other hand, this figure ranges from 15% up to 60%. Pinker goes on to list the world's worst atrocities in terms of the proportion of the global population killed. Top of the list is the An Lushan revolt in 8th century China, in which 36 million people, 15% of the world's population at the time, were killed, the equivalent of 469 million people today.

Pinker is no American triumphalist, but his book challenges the pessimistic outlook of Stone's documentary. Totalitarian regimes were responsible for 138 million deaths in the 20th century, while democracies killed 2 million. Despite so many atrocities, the faults of the US simply cannot be put on par with those of Stalin and Mao. In 1950, the average conflict killed 65 000 people. By 2000, this figure had fallen to 2000 people. Parallels drawn between Iraq and Vietnam are false and unfair - dropping napalm is no longer an option.

None of this is to excuse the wars carried out by the US under the banner of fighting for freedom and democracy. Stone is right to criticize the standard rhetoric surrounding US history. But we should also recognise the decline in violence that has taken place, and refrain from regurgitating the pessmistic mantra that history just repeats itself, or that violence is getting worse. Instead we should embrace Pinker's conclusion that while there is still far too much war, the world we live has never been more peaceful, and this peace is likely to last and spread in the future. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

How can the example of a babysitting co-op help us understand the financial crisis?

Economist Paul Krugman's latest book "End this Depression now!" is a passionate and well-argued call to action. He challenges the conventional understanding of the financial crisis and claims that "we have both the knowledge and the tools to end this suffering."

Krugman lambasts the proponents of austerity in both the Republican and Democrat parties. "They think of the US economy as if it were a family fallen on hard times, its income reduced by forces beyond its control, burdened with a debt too large for its income." Krugman's thesis is that on the contrary, the financial woes on both sides of the Atlantic persist because we are not spending enough to stimulate growth and demand. So if the metaphor of an indebted household is misleading and inaccurate, how should we understand the financial crisis?

Krugman proposes a story about a babysitting co-op which first appeared in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking in 1977. The story involves 150 couples who group together to share babysitting. Each couple is given 20 coupons which can be traded to pay for a babysitter. This way, each couple has reciprocate for the babysitting it desires and the hours balance out.

But the co-op hit difficulties when there weren't enough coupons in the system. Couples became worried about running out of coupons, so they kept a supply of them in reserve. This meant that the total amount of babysitting slumped, as there were less hours available. As Krugman puts it, the key message from this is that "your spending is my income, and my spending is your income." Saving coupons, cutting spending or "tightening our belts", whatever we call it, hurts the economy around us. Everyone in the co-op was going out less because of the shortage of coupons. The only way to get the co-op going again is to increase the number of coupons.

The cause of the babysitting co-op's difficulties was not  that members were abusing the system. They weren't bad parents and they didn't lack babysitting experience. The issue was simply a lack of supply. The same thing goes for the financial situation in the USA and the crisis in the Eurozone. It has nothing to do with government overspending, overgenerous benefits or a glut of "shirkers" as Labour minister Liam Byrne put it.

Historically, recessions such as the Great Depression before World War II or the recession of 1979-1982 have been overcome by spending our way out of them. Massive government borrowing to invest in industry and infrastructure create jobs, enabling people to buy products from others, thereby stimulating the economy as a whole.

Despite the fact that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008, governments continue to ignore his advice, at an extraordinary cost to the economy and the population. Essentially, the economy of the US is not using its resources. In 2011 there approximately 24 million people unemployed in the US. This is sometimes been blamed on a lack of skills in the workforce, but Krugman points out that unemployment has affected people across the board, regardless of qualifications. When MacDonalds advertised 50 000 vacancies in 2011 it received one million applications.

Between 2006 and 2010, the number of cars bought in the US dropped from 16.5 million to 11.6 million, and the number of houses built fell from 1.8 million to 585 000. Krugman claims "the US economy is operating at 7% below its potential," leading to a loss of one trillion dollars of value per year. And "what makes this disaster so terrible - what should make you angry - is that none of this need be happening."

It's high time governments in the US and Europe thought about the recession in terms of a babysitting co-op.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The anniversary of 9/12

Yesterday marked the anniversary of 9/11. In the tragic events of that fateful day nearly 3000 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks that struck the United States. But the planes that flew into the Twin Towers needn't have changed the course of history. The so-called 'war on terror' was unleashed by the misguided response of the Bush administration beginning on 9/12.

By mischaracterising 9/11 as an act of war the Bush administration justified its invasion of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden claimed that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11, and he had been given support by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But 9/11 was not an attack orchestrated by the Afghan government. Nevertheless, the US responded by overthrowing the Taliban regime which the US and Saudi Arabia had funded and enabled to come to power, back when they were the "good guys" fighting the Soviets. 12 years on with several thousand soldiers dead and unknown tens of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties, the war continues with no end in sight.

But it was the identification of an "axis of evil" - namely Iraq, Iran and North Korea - which took the war on terror to its next stage. With the logic that the "axis of evil" were supporting terrorism, the Bush administration invaded Iraq, a country which had no connection with 9/11 whatsoever. The war was based on false and doctored information, flouted international law, killing several hundred thousand Iraqis and displacing millions.

When George W. Bush declared "every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you're with us, or you're with the terrorists" he ushered in the absurd labelling of "good" and "evil" and the blanket term "Al Qaeda" for any terrorist attack, which continues to this day. This has allowed governments around the world from Russia and Israel to Indonesia and the Philippines to declare their support for the war on terror, thereby conveniently being able to label opposition movements as "terrorism." In Bush's framework, Hamas or Chechen rebels can simply be declared to be "linked to Al Qaeda," immediately qualifying them as "baddies," and by definition the governments fighting them the "goodies", regardless of the regime's democratic credentials. Thus the unsavoury regimes of Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Chad have managed to end up on the "good" side.

Perhaps the most disappointing episode of the war on terror has been Barack Obama's embrace of the policy begun on 9/12. Rather than embarking on a new course, the Obama administration has continued the war in Afghanistan, and has expanded the war on terror with the use of drones, most notably in Pakistan and Yemen. Drone attacks have killed more people than 3000 people in Pakistan alone - more than the total death toll of 9/11.

9/11 continues to be seen as Osama bin Laden's winning strike against the US. But as Bobby Ghosh argues in his powerful TED talk, 9/11 in fact marked the beginning of the end for Al Qaeda. Despite the sickening celebrations which took place in some extremist circles, the overwhelming reaction of people across the Islamic world was the same horror and revulsion as in the West. Al Qaeda completely failed to unite Muslims in a holy war on western civilization. Once again it was the reaction of the Bush administration beginning on 9/12 that did much more to aggravate anti-western sentiment.

As Phyllis Bennis wrote on Aljazeera in 2011, Bush could have responded to the attacks of 9/11 with the following words:

Our people have been the victims of a horrific crime, a crime against humanity.
We recognise even at the beginning of this crisis that we cannot answer this crime alone. This was not an act of war, carried out by a country, and we will not turn to war against any country. That will not find the perpetrators or bring them to justice, nor will it prevent future such crimes from occurring. Instead, we need a legal framework that is international in scope and that relies on international law and the United Nations Charter for its legitimacy.

We approach this crime internationally because we know that the only sustainable justice is international justice. And justice - not war and not vengeance - is our goal. We will seek the perpetrators and bring them to trial in a legitimate and fair court... 

It would be fascinating to know how events would have panned out if this had really happened.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Who stands to benefit from a war with Syria?

In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, who could possibly be in favour of a war with Syria? Of course there are members of the public and political elite who feel that we should attack or even oust the Assad regime out of sympathy for the Syrian population. I have tried to outline in previous blogs why I think this would in fact do more harm than good. The Iraq war was routinely condemned for being fought over oil, and similarly there are accusations of economic and geopolitical interests behind intervention in Syria. The aim of this blog post is not to put forward a conspiracy theory. It is inevitable that changes in world politics have winners and losers. This is an overview of the various different groups who stand to lose or gain in the event of a military intervention in Syria.

Although the US is the main backer of military intervention with Syria, the interests at stake are highly ambiguous. Although Barack Obama can't run again for election in 2016, he still wants his place in the history books and it is in his interests that he is succeeded by a Democrat. Despite his tough talk of a "red line" being crossed with the alleged use of chemical weapons and his threat of military intervention, Obama acknowledged in his address to the nation that war with Syria is not popular among the American public. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, nearly 60% of Americans oppose war with Syria. Of course, a short and successful war such as the Falkland Islands for Thatcher or Grenada for Reagan can be very popular and even win elections. But with the spectre of Iraq and Afghanistan in the background and the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, Obama knows war with Syria is difficult to sell to the public. 

In an article on Aljazeera entitled "will Syria's chemical weapons take down Assad - or Obama?", Mark Levine claims that Washington doesn't want with Syria at all, and has pushed itself into a corner through its own ineptitude. When Obama stated that he would put a vote on military intervention in Syria to Congress, it seemed like he was looking for a get out of jail free card. Secretary of State John Kerry clarified that Obama could still order a military intervention without Congress' approval, but a no-vote would also have made it easier for Obama to justify holding off.

But while Obama fears that Syria could become his Iraq, there are also other interests at stake in Washington. In her book "Empire of Capital" Ellen Wood points out that the US' superpower status depends increasingly on its military capacity. Economically the US is falling behind - the EU together is now a bigger economy, China is catching up fast, the Euro and Yuan are rivalling the once all-powerful Dollar and the US is heavily in debt. It is only in the military sphere that the US reigns supreme. Wood argues that interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now potentially Syria are necessary for the US to demonstrate its influence and maintain its superpower status. 

Hawks in Washington may believe that a show of force in Syria would show the Iranians that the US means business, thereby discouraging them from pursuing nuclear weapons. Of course, intervention in Syria could also make Iran feel more vulnerable, making it more resolved than ever to acquire nuclear capabilities. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has been one of the main backers of the Free Syria Army, the rebel movement fighting against the Assad regime. Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have long been the two rival great powers in the Middle East. Intervention in Syria is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to show its value as an ally to the US, and potentially to secure a fellow Sunni government in Syria, thereby striking a blow against  Iran.

In an article in the Asia Times Pepe Escobar claims that intervention in Syria "is all about control of natural resources and channels of distribution." This may sound somewhat hyperbolic, but it is clear that there are energy interests at stake. The biggest supplier of natural gas to the West is currently Russia, but Putin's government has been known to exert political pressure by increasing gas prices. It would therefore be beneficial to Western countries to reduce their dependency on Russian gas and to find another source. Qatar has enormous reserves of natural gas, but the question is how to access it. A pipeline from the Persian Gulf to Europe would need to cross either Israel, Lebanon or Syria in order to get to the Mediterranean. A friendly government in Damascus would be helpful. Of course, a military intervention that plunges Syria further into civil war and instability for the next decade would be counterproductive in achieving this goal. 

Syria's key ally at the UN has been Russia. Russia has had good relations with the Assad regime for many years, as Syria allows the Russian navy to use the port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. Assad has been able to rely on support from Russia as he knows the military strategic interests which are at stake. Russia would veto a UN resolution to intervene in Syria and Putin has questioned the credibility of the claims that chemical weapons have been used, but at the same time Russia doesn't want to be seen to be supporting dictatorships around the world. The Russian brokered plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under UN control has therefore been a masterstroke of diplomacy, steering clear of war, protecting Assad and coming across as far more reasonable and peace-loving than the belligerent looking Obama administration. 

Just 36 hours ago a military strike on with Syria seemed imminent - today it looks like war may be averted. Yesterday civilians in Damascus thought that within weeks American bombs could be falling on them. They still can't rule out the possibility but now it seems less likely. None of the geopolitical interests which I have mentioned can explain the change in the stance of the Obama administration on their own, but it is clear that there are various agendas being played out behind the scenes. It is horrifying that in the 21st century human lives, in this case of the Syrian people, can still be treated with such indifference.  

The similarities between Syria's chemical weapons and Iraq's WMDs

So now it looks like Barack Obama has stepped back from war with Syria. In his address to the nation which only days ago had been intended to try to sell a war with Syria to the American public, Obama instead confirmed that he would pursue the Russian brokered peace plan. Diplomatic rather than military options are to be used to try to put Syria's chemical weapons under UN control. Nevertheless the possibility of war has not been ruled out - Obama stated that the US military would "maintain its current posture," and once again invoked the death of 1400 people in a chemical weaponsattack in a suburb of Damascus as a justification. But how sure can we be that the Assad regime really is guilty of killing civilians with chemical weapons?

In an article in the Asia Times, historian and journalist specialising in US national security policy Gareth Porter argues that the "intelligence" behind the chemical weapons claim is highly questionable. Obama's case for military intervention in Syria hinges on the widely circulated allegation that "1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children''. Porter states that there is no source for this figure. The number of casualties is also several times higher than estimates held by British and French intelligence.

So what is the source of information behind the chemical weapons allegation? According to Portas, "the White House selected those elements of the intelligence community assessments that supported the administration's policy of planning a strike against the Syrian government force and omitted those that didn't." The key document in question entitled "Government Assessment of the Syrian Government's Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013'' was in fact released by the White House press secretary rather than the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. 

The title of the document speaks volumes - is this a government report or an intelligence report? Former director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research Greg Thielmann asked "if it's an intelligence assessment why didn't they label it as such?" DNI James Clapper has refused to endorse the report. It sounds like yet another "dodgy dossier" and Iraq all over again. Another war with a Middle Eastern dictatorship based on doctored "intelligence."

And the similarities with Iraq don't end there. The Obama administration has made it clear that it would be prepared to intervene without a UN resolution. Once again an American government is prepared to start a war with a country which poses no threat to its own security, to flout international law and to ignore the lack of support both at home and abroad. The BRICS group of emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa voiced their opposition to military intervention without UN approval at a G20 summit last week. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton's comment on recent developments was "if the [Syrian] regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction." In other words, war can't be ruled out even if the Assad regime complies fully with the UN in giving up its chemical weapons stockpiles. 

Once again an American government is prepared to go to war based on a dubious claim to be upholding international human rights. As John Pilger points out in the Guardian today, Obama's condemnation of Assad reeks of hypocrisy and historical amnesia given the US usage of napalm in Vietnam, white phosphorous in Iraq and drones today. Meanwhile the fact that Saudi Arabia is a key backer of the Syrian rebels and would-be partner in a war on Assad shows that Washington is still happy to work with highly unsavoury regimes to further its own agendas. 

Obama has stressed war with Syria "would not be another Iraq or Afghanistan." But who exactly are the members of the Free Syria Army? Secretary of State John Kerry estimates that "hardcore Islamist fighters account for only some 15% of the rebel army." The removal of Assad's regime would likely plunge Syria into civil war, with various extremist factions fighting for power. In other words, it could well be Iraq or Afghanistan all over again. As Slavoj Zizek put it, "will the US repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future al-Qaida and Taliban cadres?"

We can only hope that the plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under UN control succeeds, and that Syria's similarities with Iraq and Afghanistan end before a military intervention takes place. But even if there is no war with Syria, it is terrifying that the Obama administration has come this close. 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Guest Post by Ben Ridley: Britain does look weak from abroad….on internet freedoms, not Syria

Did you know the collective term for a group of spies is a treachery?

Well, imagine if every day an almighty treachery of spooks left GCHQ to wander about your bank, your post office, your job – basically anywhere you might have private data stored or communicated through. Imagine that these spooks could – without a warrant or indeed any suspicions about you personally – rifle through your personal data and communications. Imagine they were doing this merely on the off-chance that they might, maybe, if they keep at it, find something sufficiently incriminating.  Imagine that they did this to the tune of 10, 800, 000, 000, 000* documents, each and every day. 

Would we consider this army of snoopers a proportionate response to supposed threats to our nation? Would we consider it an appropriate allocation of resources? Would we accept the alleged security it supposedly provides as a fair trade-off for the intrusion?

One might think that such a thing would ruffle a few feathers, no? Inspire a few questions in parliament? A few principled resignations? Public outrage? Because this is happening – in the form of Tempora in the UK – it’s just that it’s not flesh-and-blood spooks doing the searching but rather clandestine hardware and software (See here and here for an overview). I’m hoping the fact that the latter are less tangible, more ephemeral, explains why Edward Snowden’s revelations haven’t created more of a storm about Tempora in the UK specifically.

Maybe not - maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe people don’t care? If not, why not? And how much has the pitiful coverage contributed to this lack of reaction? I’m not currently based in the UK and I get my news from home via RSS and podcasts mainly, but I was surprised I wasn’t hearing more about this. Turns out, there was a reason: a D-Notice – an official but not legally binding request to keep quiet - was issued by the MoD in relation to reports about Tempora and PRISM. Even if you think Tempora and its ilk are okay – and I’ll see if I can convince you otherwise below - surely the act of leaning on outlets to silence debate, and the fact that those outlets appear to have gone along with it, is an equally worrying and separate issue? The BBC, for example, appears to be denying the D-notice’s existence, and argues it has given the story “the appropriate level of coverage”.    

So why should you care?

If you are innocent you have nothing to worry about, apparently. There seems to be two sides to this trope, one technical and the other more concerned with legality and morality. 1) The search techniques use “sophisticated filters” to remove uninteresting content and data, and most UK-UK traffic is removed anyway. Given that much UK-UK traffic will exit and re-enter via the ‘intercepted’ fibre-optics, it’s not clear how such traffic can be reliably differentiated from the general flow. 2) Only the guilty need be fearful. This trope requires that we accept that the terms of the ‘filters’ are set up in a way we would be happy with, and that any oversight in place is effective. Without debate or transparency, can we be sure about this? If the operation at the NSA is any clue, the agency decides what to share with its overseers. And GCHQ is apparently an attractive prospect as a partner in this kind of data gathering precisely because of its “light oversight regime compared with the US”. Even supposing the technology could do what is claimed, and the oversight was well-motivated and effective, are we really happy that any government organ has this power?

People roll their eyes at the “what if it’s abused in the future” argument, but governments and the times do change. Are you sure something like state-sponsored homophobia - as in Russia – couldn’t happen in your country? Even if that’s not a hot-button issue for you, take whatever group or set of beliefs you feel to be contrary to your own political perspective, your own take on what is and isn’t in the interests of your society. Are you certain that none of your data or online activities could become incriminating if their priorities and beliefs had unfettered dominion over the scope of those ‘sophisticated filters’, and had the right to decide what counts as ‘suspicious’?  

But it’s all legal, right? Reassured by the Intelligence and Security Committee’s whitewash? Note that what they concluded was that the law, such as it is, wasn’t broken. They did not rule on the appropriacy of the laws, nor whether they were fit for purpose. Also, who’s to say they have the full picture?  Worth remembering that the pattern of official responses to each new leak has been to argue that, basically, we should be happy the next worst thing isn’t being done to us.  Except, as time goes on it increasingly seems it actually is. NSA doesn’t monitor its own citizen’s data without a warrant? Yes they do. Government backdoors in programs and services we all use are a conspiracy nut’s fever dream? Apparently not

Would I prefer terrorist plots succeeded? This argument relies on the idea that the system is at least effective at what it was set up for – stopping terrorists – and that it is better than other methods. That’s certainly the claim of government on both sides of the Atlantic. Given the clandestine nature of the pursued and the pursuers it’s hard to verify this claim one way or another. However, it’s interesting that in the American context two senators who have served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have publically contested the claim that Tempora-style spying has prevented ‘dozens’ of terrorist attacks. You can read about that here, in addition to research suggesting that most attacks have been thwarted due to routine police methods. If this is representative of the UK experience, one might question if the programme is even cost effective: a billion pound budget for results that could been achieved by less blanket methods?   

Okay, it’s bad but the information shouldn’t have been leaked this way. You think a challenge “within the system” would have been better? Thomas Drake, William Benny, J. Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis tried that in relation to the Trailblazer project - and were first ignored, then harassed, then prosecuted for their troubles.

But what can we do about it? Well, there are some tech and service choices you could make to reduce your data ‘shadow’ and potentially reduce your exposure to surveillance (see here, here and here). But given the resources of the organisations you’d be trying to thwart, and the cooperation – voluntary or not – of many tech companies’ means that for the average person tech fixes to this can’t be the whole solution. There needs to be parallel political pressure for there to be any movement on this. You could sign the petitions calling for an inquiry, here and here.  You could find, and then write to your MP and MEP. You can even write to GCHQ. You can contact the any of the news media you consume and ask why they haven’t been covering this issue appropriately (for the BBC look here). If you are outside the UK or the US, remember you are likely affected by this too ( such as this, this, this, this, this, this, or this), and it’s in your interests also to be pressuring your own representatives about these issues.

This isn’t about thoughtlessly bashing the countries involved or the intelligence services en masse. It’s not about denying the legitimacy of appropriately warranted and targeted surveillance of targets for which there is a basis for suspicion. It’s intended to spell out the contempt for the public evident in the attempt to avoid and stifle debate. It’s an attempt to argue that programs like  Tempora and the ways they’re being applied are more dangerous to the values of our society than the alleged benefit they deliver to law enforcement or the ‘war on terror’. It’s shocking and infuriating – precisely because of the high regard I have for my nation and its people.

*based on the 21.6 petabytes per day GCHQ potentially has access to via its cable intercepts – as reported here and here – divided by the 2 kilobytes that this and this say is the equivalent of a page of text. By the way, this is related to the information flowing through the fibre optic cables based in the UK. This figure doesn’t take into the account the other ways that recent revelations have suggested you online activities could run afoul of the NSA, GCHQ or other agencies and countries.   

Friday, 6 September 2013

What are NGOs for?

In March this year I attended an NGO training weekend organised by the BMZ, the German ministry for international development. The objective was to learn how to apply for government funding, which conditions have to be fulfilled, and which documentation is required to prove how the money has been spent. I was representing a small NGO in Berlin called Schulbausteine fur Gando which funds the building of schools in Burkina Faso, West Africa. The training session taught me both how government funding works, and why the NGO sector is not for me.

What struck and disturbed me straight away was that the German government defines NGOs based in Germany as "project carriers". If an NGO's application for government funding is successful, the government funnels over the money. At this point, the role of the NGO is simply to find a "project partner" in some country deemed worthy of assistance, and hand the money over to them. In fact, the government stipulates that there must be a distinction between the project carrier and partner. My NGO had very close contacts with our project partner, (which you would think ought to be a plus), and this could potentially have jeopardised our eligibility for funding. In other words, the NGO in Germany is simply a fundraising mechanism shovelling money from A to B, completely distanced from the people it is ostensibly trying to help.

This is the root of many of the problems in international development today. Firstly, as David Damberger points out in his impassioned TED talk, it creates a lack of accountability. Despite any number of systemic flaws, a government is ultimately accountable to its electorate, and a private company to its customers or shareholders. But an NGO is not accountable to the supposed beneficiaries of development projects. On the contrary, the NGO is accountable to the donors. The NGO simply hands over the money to a project partner - if some of the money goes missing, or is used to build a school which collapses after two years, the people affected have no come back. The NGO will simply make a note not to use the same project partner next time. The NGO in Germany doesn't even necessarily know who they are helping - they are busy chasing donors.

But this state of affairs also leads to dishonesty towards donors. Any number of glamorous NGO websites talk about what "we" do and "our projects". Of course, some NGOs do great work and deserve credit for their efforts. But for a standard project carrier to talk about "our achievements" is deceit. They are simply fundraising organisations - they don't actually carry out any projects themselves, and can provide no guarantees as to the quality or durability of the development work. As Paul Collier says in his book "The Bottom Billion," most NGOs don't even have an office in the countries where they claim to be active, particularly in the poorest countries which don't appeal to staff or are deemed too dangerous.

Even in NGOs active in the field the prioritisation of donor over beneficiary often leads to shoddy projects. David Damberger recounts his experiences with Engineers without Borders, installing water points in Malawi. Returning to the sites 18 months later, he found that 80% of the taps were not working. Donors are happy to provide money for building schools, hospitals or water points, but maintenance is not as sexy. The result is that many projects don't last, and therefore many of the pictures on NGO websites of happy children running their hands under a new tap are lies: the tap has rusted and fallen into disrepair by the time the donor sees the photo.

Many of the people working in the NGO sector work tirelessly for their causes, and some NGOs achieve great things. But if the role of the NGO is merely to raise money it would make more sense for the government to send the money and bypass NGOs altogether. The NGO sector is in desperate need of a radical shake-up but its already poor reputation will probably have to worsen further before anything major is achieved. The amount of poverty in the world is decreasing but is still shameful, and therefore there is a need for international aid. Sadly in its current form the NGO sector is incapable of being much use.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Intervention in Syria would only further erode the credibility of the West

As David Cameron is reeling after his defeat in the House of Commons, Nick Clegg has accused Labour of not respecting the gravity of the situation in Syria. But the issue is not whether or not the situation is serious - everyone agrees that Syria is a disaster. The question is whether an intervention would improve the situation.

As Simon Jenkins has pointed out in the Guardian, it is unclear what the objective of a miltary intervention in Syria would be. Obama's plan which Cameron failed to sell to House of Commons seems to be "punish" the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons with a bombing campaign which would inevitably hurt the Syrian population far more than the government. Jenkins believes the West doesn't have the political will to try to topple Assad, in which case the intervention would do nothing but inevitably kill dozens or perhaps hundreds of civilians. Aerial bombardment would be futile.

But Jenkins also seems to imply that toppling Assad would be a better option, concluding, "if the west really wants to "save Syria" it should go in and save it. Otherwise shut up." At least there would be a clear objective, but as in the case of Iraq the it is far from clear who would take over.

A ground invasion of troops could rapidly take Damascus and oust the Assad regime, although they wouldn't be seen as "liberators" by the considerable proportion of the population who still support him. Christians make up about 10% of the Syrian population and many continue to back Assad out of fear that an Islamic government would persecute them. The Free Syria Army remains fragmented, rudderless and guilty of its own atrocities and abuses. A bombing campaign would achieve little, but a full scale intervention would be far more problematic, with troops potentially bogged down for years and the country descending further into civil war. Attacking Assad's forces and arming the opposition would only make sense if there is a coherent group ready to take power. This simply is not the case in Syria.

The Obama administration claims that the Assad regime has crossed a "red line" in its usage of chemical warfare. But as Murtaza Hussain has observed on Aljazeera, there have already been 14 recorded uses of chemical weapons and more than 100 000 Syrians have been killed - why is Washington suddenly so interested in this one attack? By talking tough about a "red line" Obama has pushed himself into a corner - it would look weak not to act now. The proposal to intervene in Syria has more to do with saving face than principles of democracy or human rights.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has questioned the "proof" that chemical weapons have been used. Given that the WMDs in Iraq never showed up it is reasonable to be sceptical. After all, in the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden the Obama administration has shown a total disregard of true information supposedly on the grounds of national security. And now we're supposed to believe that information regarding usage of chemical weapons hasn't been fabricated to further its national interests.

A military intervention in Syria would do nothing to improve the situation and would only further weaken Washington's international standing and credibility. Meanwhile China is playing the long game, keeping out of the conflict and watching Obama adminsitration expose its double standards.