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."

Friday, 11 October 2013

Tangier: a forgotten episode of the British Empire

As an ex-world power, Britain sometimes seems to be wishing it had its empire back. When cuts in the defence budget were introduced in 2012 even the BBC seemed to be lamenting the fact that the army is now smaller than it was in 1900, and that Britain could now no longer fight more than one war at the same time. While few people today still believe in white superiority or Britain's duty to "civilise", many myths surrounding the British Empire remain intact. Linda Colley's 2002 book Captives challenges the conventional narrative by focusing on a largely neglected aspect of the Empire: British slaves.

Events such as the recent stand-off with Spain over Gibraltar illustrate the impact that the British Empire still exerts over the world map today. But as Colley points out, Gibraltar was only acquired after a disastrous and perhaps deliberately forgotten chapter of the British Empire. After the English civil war and Oliver Cromwell's republic, King Charles II took the throne and married Catherine of Braganza, whose dowry included the city of Tangier. Located on what is today the Moroccan coast, Tangier seemed an ideal strategic outpost with its position at the gateway to the Mediterranean.

Colley argues that the British Empire at this stage was far more fragile than is often thought. As from 1662 the English monarchy poured resources into the Tangier project, an average of £75 000 per year - more than was spent on all home garrisons put together. In theory, Tangier was to be defended by 4000 soldiers, but in practice there were often no more than 1500. But this is perhaps not surprising given that the population of England at the time was approximately 3 million. The empire was overstretched in terms of both finance and manpower.

Nor was the force in Tangier homogenous or unified. The soldiers were a mix of English, Scots, Welsh and Irishmen although this was before the Act of Union in 1707. Despite the threat of harsh punishment, defection was common. Many soldiers had fought on Cromwell's side in the civil war and felt no loyalty towards the king. Compared to Cromwell's New Model Army, pay was low and irregular. On one occasion, Irish soldiers were defending Tangier against English defectors, and communicated in Gaelic so as not to be understood. 

At this time piracy in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was rife. The so-called Barbary Pirates, who operated from ports on the North African coast, captured hundreds of ships and took those on board as slaves. Colley estimates that at least 20 000 English men and women were enslaved in this period. In addition to this, one of the punishments for defection from the English army was slavery. Despite the grand words of Rule Britannia, the English were enslaving their own kind.

But the greatest threat to Tangier was in fact the sea. Hugely expensive efforts to build a harbour wall to protect the port were thwarted time and again by the strong Atlantic currents and waves. In 1684, the Tangier project was finally abandoned and the port was demolished. The story of Tangier is an embarrassing defeat for the British Empire and has therefore been quietly forgotten. By reviving it, Linda Colley shows the British Empire in a different light.