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Dead Aid?

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The national security council has said the ODA [Overseas Development Administration] budget should make the maximum possible contribution to national security consistent with ODA rules. Although the NSC will not in most cases direct DfID spend in country, we need to be able to make the case for how our work contributes to national security.”DFID document

Documents leaked from DFID over the past couple of weeks hint at a significant shift in the future direction of  Britain’s overseas development policy; a reorientation that cannot be viewed with optimism.

After Left Foot Forward initially received a leaked ‘submission to Ministers’ from DFID’s Director of Policy, Nick Dyer, on August 12, the story has continued to run until the Guardian decided to publish a similar story on August 29. Whilst the former discussed recommendations for which projects could be abandoned (and was intended, obviously, for Ministers), the latter covered DFID’s directive to the ODA that security considerations (and the NSC) should be utmost when justifying aid expenditure. The UK government, and in particular DFID, are not exactly flattered by these latest developments. The most pressing concerns for the UK’s forthcoming overseas development policy appear to be issues of national security and stakeholder interests. Apparently, this constitutes part of the reappraisal of how aid should be applied. The Tories would like aid to be measured by outputs and outcomes rather than inputs, which is an admirable intention however unfeasible that ultimately may prove. Unfortunately it can be used as a smokescreen for removing support for numerous important initiatives, raises the prospect of short-term gains being favoured over those occurring over a more extensive period of time, and is conducive to facilitating the increased securitisation of the UK’s overseas development programme.

Conflating concerns over national security with overseas development assistance is hardly a new phenomenon – much of the Marshall Plan was governed by similar issues – yet it’s increasing prevalence is in contrast to the dominant liberal orientation of international relations in the post-Cold War context. Liberalism, and therefore humanitarian intervention, has endured repeated attacks from both Right and Left. The Right have long argued that self-interest must govern foreign policy whilst the rise of post-structuralism on the Left has questioned the long-assumed moral superiority of the West. Technological development, and the attendant growth in public access to information, has fundamentally damaged the image of the West, and the US in particular, as the guardian of progressive, democratic values. There is no moral authority when the US attacks Afghanistan and Iraq or when Israel commits its regular atrocities, and global sentiment has become resolutely anti-American (although Obama has alleviated this to a certain extent). Put simply, there now exists a choice between supporting a truly altruistic aid agenda (where we expect little in return) or one based on overbearing conditionalities. It’s clear that the UK has chosen the latter. Given the present state of most Western economies, and the increasingly multipolar nature of global politics, this is hardly surprising.

Iraq and Afghanistan were both major recipients of DFID expenditure over the past decade (although Iraq was not in the top 15 for 2008/2009 – see figure 1), yet the trend has been for aid to largely go to where it is needed (or to former British colonies). Much of

figure 1

the aid directed to Iraq and Afghanistan was aimed at the amelioration of the fragile security situation in the two states (and ultimately British national security interests). Whilst this is understandable in the context of post-conflict reconstruction there are two key problems with the approach. Foremost is the issue of an aid imbalance – the vast majority of aid to Afghanistan from global sources has been targeted at security concerns, ignoring myriad other areas that would perhaps benefit more readily from aid spending, such as health and education. The lack of support for key areas of Afghan development might not prove particularly significant given the precipice that the country appears to be falling into, but propping up Karzai’s completely discredited and rotten regime (and its equally corrupt military) is rapidly becoming a disaster. The haste with which NATO appears to preparing to exit the country merely reinforces the notion that this is not a humanitarian intervention. The second important issues relates to the wider application of the use of aid for protecting issues of national security. In war zones there is an arguable necessity in directing aid towards a nation’s security capacity; what will happen in those states where the same principles do not apply? There is clearly the potential for a reappraisal of which nations will be useful recipients of DFID’s aid programme – those nations that are unlikely to contain threats to British national security could potentially see their aid cut. This would include much of Sub-Saharan Africa with the clear exception of Somalia. The region includes many of the world’s poorest nations; those that are dependent upon foreign aid (albeit with this having debatable consequences.) Somalia would be a prime target for a move towards an aid agenda driven by national security concerns, yet the state’s (used in the loosest term possible) incredibly unstable nature will most probably dissuade the West from any significant intervention. DFID’s future direction may be to move away from the more holistic approach it has taken in recent years to one guided by self-interest. Not only is this at odds with some of the guiding principles of aid provision, it is unlikely to prove especially successful.

Aid is fundamentally altruistic. There exists a clear requirement to monitor the return upon the provision of aid, but this should be made on the basis of how it alleviates the suffering of those most in need. By placing issues of national security as the primary concern, the return upon aid provision has the potential to be measured in misguided terms. Aid related to the development of a nation’s health and education provision has repeatedly proven itself to be integral to a state’s progress. In the wider context of development models, investment in human capital and education have often been ultimately conducive to particularly fast rates of economic growth. Health and education are not usually central to a nation’s security concerns however. Through directing aid to other avenues, some of the world’s poorest individuals may become increasingly vulnerable as a consequence of DFID’s future aid policy. Not only may health and education programmes endure a shortfall from redirected aid spending but perverse incentives to actually undermine positive development approaches could yet arise. Investment in education creates possible conflict with national security concerns. Suppose aid earmarked for education encourages the establishment of Madrassas that ultimately encourage the radicalisation of a number of individuals. Perhaps investment in communications infrastructure will increase exposure to radical thought via the internet. On a particularly basic level, encouraging individuals to unite on a daily basis in one particular place (as education provision does) will lead to an exchange and consolidation of ideas antithetical to Western principles. This blog doesn’t believe that these processes will happen, yet this line of thought could be used as justification for DFID to restructure aid provision.

The most alarming outcome would be for the aid imbalance to overwhelmingly favour investment in a nation’s security and military capabilities at the expense of institution and basic infrastructure building. An increasingly militaristic state will always be vulnerable to a potential Coup d’état and, consequently, the establishment of an extremely powerful military dictatorship with little credible opposition. Should this new hypothetical regime support the UK’s national security interests would this be viewed as a satisfactory outcome? There really isn’t a significant difference between this and the disgraceful Reagan doctrine. It would be completely opposed to the humanitarian principles upon which the provision of aid is founded.

The realignment of DFID’s aid policy is in keeping with many of the wider changes the Conservative-dominated UK government wishes to implement. Although the pledge to retain overseas aid spending at 0.7% of GNI by 2013 is to be applauded, it has come at a cost. Under the guise of efficiency savings, DFID will cut a third of its present workforce in East Kilbride and abandon the majority of the near-100 aid-related pledges that were established under Labour. This is a somewhat mystifying decision given the proclaimed move towards an output-based approach to assessing overseas aid requirements. By removing established targets what are the ultimate aims of DFID’s aid programme? Using the ringfencing of DFID’s budget as justification for a pejorative shift in policy direction is embarrassing for the UK as a whole, and worrying for many smaller NGOs that are reliant upon DFID’s present investment choices. It’s another neoliberal answer that nobody needs. As if the British people weren’t going to suffer enough from a government with an ideological basis that has never worked, DFID’s aid revisions will ensure that this suffering is exported to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

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We’re all in this together (Part II)

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

So this is what societal regression looks like.

Cost of benefit fraud to the UK economy (2008-09): £900m (all figures approximations per annum)

Cost of the tax gap to the UK economy: anything from £40bn to £120bn

Demonising the poor, encouraging widespread cronyism, pursuing a discredited, economically illiterate agenda and ruining any chance of recovery: erm…priceless?

The unequivocally appalling rhetoric emerging from Cameron himself over the weekend is that, rather than challenge the vast amount of potential tax revenue lost through tax avoidance (not a crime, albeit socially irresponsible) and tax evasion (accounting for the overwhelming majority of the tax gap and a criminal act), they would rather attack some of the poorest members of society. Benefit fraud is undoubtedly a (relatively minor) problem but accounts for a minimal amount of the total fraudulent activity in the UK each year. Of the £5bn figure quoted by Cameron, a significant majority is in the form of benefit error, rather than fraud.

This is all illustrated strikingly by the following rather interesting graph from Left Foot Forward, and reinforced by this damning indictment of the Tory’s misguided focus from Richard Murphy at Tax Research UK.

In addition to attempting to denigrate and stigmatise those on low incomes for pretty much their entire duration in office thus far, the Tories have made a further disgraceful decision over the monitoring of this alleged rampant benefit fraud. Through incentivising credit reference agencies to seek out cases of benefit fraud (surely a move that will only encourage individuals to use cash rather than credit), there is a serious risk of accusations been levied at perfectly innocent people. By all accounts, over 80% of current allegations of benefit fraud are found to be malicious – a figure that will only rise under the new system. There is an absolute necessity for regulation of the credit reference agencies within this context, although this will almost certainly not be forthcoming.

It’s also fairly unsurprising to discover that there are vested interests between certain credit reference agencies and the Tory party themselves. Experian, one of the UK’s leading credit reference agencies, already has a contract to inspect housing benefit claimants and, with Michael Spencer as its founder, has a major Tory party donor as one of its leading lights.

It’s ultimately a classic illustration of Tory politics. Attack the most vulnerable in society through protecting the interests of the wealthy, replacing state services with unregulated and incompetent private sector provision, a fair amount of cronyism if not corruption itself, and an outcome which only damages society and the economy further. It really has been remarkable to watch just how low the Tories will sink. New depths are reached with every passing week and the downward trajectory shows little sign of abating. Should they not successfully manage to achieve the most blatant and undemocratic piece of gerrymandering in recent decades, they will incur serious damage to their credibility during this first term of office.

Bitter and then some

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

The post hung-election political mêlée really has been hilarious to watch. From those who take pride in their ignorance over the constitutional process that has ensued, to some astonishing (and most probably/hopefully career damaging) outbursts from Sky News ‘journalists’ (see below).

The apparent failure of The Conservatives to secure a majority despite near-universal media support, the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and an overwhelmingly unpopular Prime Minister, has led their supporters and party members (though not, to be fair, its leadership as of yet) to claim that ‘we won’, despite evidence to the contrary like, um, the number of seats The Tories now hold.

With Gordon Brown promising to step down from his position as leader of The Labour Party by the time of their party conference in September, and the consequent development of formal talks between the Lib-Dems and Labour, the right-wing press has somehow managed to appear even more shrill. May 10 was apparently a ‘bleak day for democracy’ according to The Telegraph, whilst the Mail went (predictably) further, claiming that it was in fact a ‘squalid day for democracy’. In this context, ‘democracy’ evidently means The Conservatives getting into power.

Perhaps the most amusing (albeit unimportant) facet of this right-wing fury, was the following pretty-much-insane tirade from this apparently none-too-happy-chap. The comment was hidden deep amongst the usual idiotic suspects on the Mail’s article regarding Adam Boulton’s embarrassingly undignified rant at Alastair Campbell.

What bothers me more than anything is that little Communist RED STAR on the odious Campbell’s lapel. THAT is what “New” Fascist Labour was all about, a nasty MARXIST confiscatory, freedom stealing junta hidden behind Blair’s grin. campbell will soon be changing his name to Berya, although with the way they scapegoat and demonise people GOEBBELS would be more appropriate

Jeremy Zeid, Harrow, HMP-Loonybin-England, 11/5/2010 7:59

Zeid is a familiar presence to those of us who waste our lives trawling the Daily Mail comment sections. Although blatantly unhinged, this is nothing strictly new for Mr Zeid, although there is one noticeable difference. Never one to miss the opportunity to remind those around him of his status, Zeid proudly posted previous diatribes under the title, Cllr Jeremy Zeid. A quick google search leads us to Harrow council’s website and the discovery of this simple albeit telling statement on Zeid’s profile‘Not currently an elected Councillor’. Zeid lost his position during the under-reported (somewhat understandably) local council elections held alongside the general election last week. Hardly a surprising result in the wider context, though undoubtedly deserved. Acting almost as a caricature of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, Zeid wins this week’s right-wing-sore-loser award. Brilliant.

Vote Tactically

This post was originally going to list all the potential failings that a Tory government would likely possess, and the subsequently damaging impact that these would have upon the UK in the foreseeable future. However, such is the overwhelming presence of similar articles doing the rounds in the mainstream media and blogosphere, a simple picture seems a rather more effective warning.

Vote tactically. Don’t let The Conservatives destroy everything they touch.

Pre-election special: Missing the Issue

This article is rather more impressive than a thousand other contemporaries discussing non-issues such as ‘Bigotgate’, immigration, and tv debates. We remain so far stuck within a crisis of capitalism we cannot regain perspective upon it. Too large to contemplate, too problematic to challenge.

The current farce at Goldman Sachs should shock us in to action, though not akin to the action taken with Greece’s economic woes – the wrong prescription from an institution with an almost unparalleled history of disastrous economic intervention, which will ultimately aid those who need it least.

The market remains largely unadmonished, unregulated, and propelled through flawed speculation. Staffed by over-privileged incompetents, the financial sector will fail again; only this time there’ll be no state to pick up the pieces, no protection from brutal levels of unemployment, no safety net.

On a wider scale, the neoliberal system has somehow remained despite overwhelming indications of its complete inability to work effectively. On a local scale, a Conservative Party victory on Thursday/Friday will tear apart the fabric of UK society for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t have to be this way – small victories for the left will save the global financial system. Listening to Krugman, Stiglitz et al can help to craft the widespread regulation that is so vital. Sustainable growth should be the aim.

The threat to media diversity

October 9, 2009 Leave a comment

labourslostitAs was touched upon in this post, and following a week in which we have seen The Sun unsurprisingly shift its political allegiance to the Conservative Party, the influence that the media holds over our parliamentary representatives has never been greater.

The Sun has a remarkable track record in recent general elections of always backing the winning party. Is this merely that it closely matches the prevailing mood of the British public or, rather, that it shapes this public opinion through its editorial stance? Obviously these processes are not mutually exclusive, yet the idea that the present UK media could strongly influence UK public opinion is deeply troubling.

SunWon390-8337

The timing of The Sun’s shift in political allegiance (on the night after Gordon Brown’s keynote speech at the Labour Party conference) was intended to cause maximum damage to the Labour brand at a particularly sensitive time. Labour, to their discredit, appeared to fall into denial. Dismissive and mocking of The Sun’s decision, whilst simultaneously not failing to make repeat mentions of it throughout the remainder of the conference.

Labour are concerned and rightfully so. Clearly, there is more to this story than a mere editorial decision. Cameron openly welcomed The Sun’s move with an element of faux-surprise. His disingenuously earnest face matched by his now all-too-familiar empty rhetoric about ‘the task in hand’. Whilst The Sun’s decision has the dirty prints of the Tories all over it, particularly with respect to its timing, the even filthier paw of the Murdochs left its greasy residue for all to see. The Sun openly admitted so, yet this makes their overwhelming involvement no more palatable.

It has become increasingly clear that the Murdochs are fantasising over the potential dismantling of the BBC, and the Tories are happy to comply if it gains the support of one of the globe’s most powerful media actors. Both have made threatening noises over the perceived media dominance of the inefficient behemoth that is the contemporary BBC. The Conservatives will almost certainly prevent any further rises to the licence fee over the coming years, which (due to inflationary pressures) will significantly reduce the BBC’s amount of revenue leading to possible job losses, lower quality programming, and the loss of channels BBC3 and BBC4.

Mini Murdoch has, unsurprisingly, reinforced such attacks upon the BBC, citing in a speech at this year’s Edinburgh TV festival that the BBC’s prominent position across a range of media is a threat to private competition. Such apparent concern for retaining media plurality is disingenuous at best, given the apparent ease in which the Murdoch empire continues to expand, removing many competing media outlets as it does so. The BBC stands as a major obstacle to a Murdoch media monopoly, an entity that would prove extremely threatening to democratic ideals in the UK.

Given the apparently coincidental coalescence of both the Murdoch and Tory attitudes to the UK media’s future, it is pertinent to question the relationship between the two. It seems increasingly likely that a behind-the-scenes deal has been brokered. The Tories will emasculate the BBC in its current form, providing an increasingly open media market for the Murdoch empire to further increase its presence and, potentially, control. In return, the Murdochs will use their increasingly dominant media presence to promote the Conservative Party and its ideals. An easy decision given the favourable economic and sociopolitical climate that the Tories will provide for the Murdochs. Make no mistake, this is an overwhelmingly political decision. The creation of this coalition is a serious threat to an already divided and weak British Left.

Further evidence is provided by the Conservative’s threats/blackmailing of The Guardian. Removing the newspaper’s invaluable revenue stream by ensuring that “all government and local authority jobs will only be advertised on a single government-run website” could very conceivably lead to its destruction. The notion that both the BBC and The Guardian have given the Conservative Party a relatively easy ride in recent months is becoming increasingly prevalent. Blackmailing the media’s Left into submission is a cowardly act by a Party that is only too self-aware of the unpalatable nature of many of its policies and members.

The financial crisis is central to these recent media developments. Besides obviously suffering a sharp reduction in advertising revenue, the Murdoch’s media empire represents a world view that has become almost wholly discredited. The same view that is largely shared by the Conservatives. The idea that unfettered markets have failed is unquestionably damaging to the Right. However, much of the UK media has spun the lie that it is the monolithic UK state that is to blame for our economic downturn – a view widely supported by the Conservatives. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the UK public appear to be buying this myth. A fact that has not gone unnoticed to Murdoch et al.

Whilst global opinion favours a return to more Keynesian economic models, the Conservatives will reduce state expenditure on a level not experienced since the Thatcher era. Despite such ideas holding little credibility amongst most prominent economists, they do gain support from many media owners. The gravest short-term danger of this Conservative-Murdoch alliance is that the UK public will support economic reforms that will lead to a double-dip recession. The long-term effects could be even more damaging. Attacking what remains of the media Left will only serve to reduce government accountability in the UK – a healthy society has a balanced political spectrum. Without a credible opposition, government can operate with impunity.

A final note should be made of a definite trend, particularly (although not exclusively) prevalent amongst media outlets on the Right of the political divide, for misinforming the public. The mythical association between the state and the financial crisis is relatively benign in comparison to the recent rise in the number of children suffering measles infections – a direct consequence of Right-wing media outlets’ lies regarding the MMR vaccine. Recent belligerence from the Daily Mail with respect to the alleged (though completely unfounded) dangers of the cervical cancer vaccine suggests little has changed.