Friday, May 27, 2005

Phoney Tony gets his knuckles rapped

Australian golfer Greg Norman is quoted as saying, “It’s not the victories that count to me. It’s the quality of how you deliver your losses and the quality of how you deliver your victories”. For Tony Blair, whose Labour Party won the May 2005 election in the UK, the quality of the victory was dismal. Granted, Blair won a historic third term and is the only UK prime minister since the war, with Margaret Thatcher, to have triumphed in three successive general elections. But his majority of 161 seats was cut dramatically to 67; less than half of what it was in the landslide victories of 1997 and 2001. More alarming for Blair is that his party now has the lowest share of the vote for a UK ruling party in modern times. Due to the “first past the post” electoral system, Labour holds 55% of the seats in parliament. However, it has only 35% of the share of the vote, with the Conservatives holding 32% and the Liberal Democrats 22%. So, although Blair won the election, the electorate has rapped his knuckles. Blair acknowledges that Iraq was ‘deeply divisive’, and commentators put it and the lack of trust in Blair generally at the core of the slump in the Labour vote. A recent Populus poll found that close to half of the public who claim to have once trusted Blair feel this has now been lost. It is no wonder that taunting names such as B-Liar and Phoney Tony have stuck in the public consciousness.

Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council
Paul Morse / Public domain
But will Blair go? No one really knows. There are strong calls for him to hand over to Gordon Brown, his most likely successor, sooner rather than later. Blair insists he will see out his term of office and is already trying to rush legislation through on controversial issues ranging from immigration control to identity cards. Blair is obviously a fighter, but he is also driven by concerns about his own legacy. This is partly what drove him into his fated relationship with George W Bush. I think he rather fancied the idea of waging a Churchillian-style global war and writing his name indelibly into the history books. His ambitions got the better of him.

For Africa, however, there may be a silver lining in Blair’s gradual demise. If I am correct and Blair worries not only about his current reputation but how history will write about him, he will have to do something spectacular before he leaves office to set the record straight. In that regard, he will have his eye keenly on his forthcoming role as chair of the G8. In a perverse way, coupled with growing pressure from campaigns such as Make Poverty History, perhaps he will choose the current context to make a move on African debt relief. Not only will this balance his blunders in Iraq and increase his international standing, at least in his mind, he will also steal the thunder from Brown, who has championed the Africa debt issue. So, as Blair scrambles to save his tarnished image, now is the time for antidebt campaigners to turn up the heat. Who knows, for some of the wrong reasons (and hopefully some right ones too), maybe Blair is ready to agree to sweeping debt relief following the G8 Summit in July. Like Blair’s election, the quality of such a victory may not be entirely satisfying for antidebt campaigners, but this will be of little concern if its impact makes a real difference in Africa.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 27 May 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission

The Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission is now available online. The report was released on April 22, 2005 and deals with the work of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) appointed in May 2002 to investigate past human rights abuses in the country. To view the report, click here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Do drug companies and the media make us sick?

When I studied clinical psychology I recall one of my professors warning our class of the dangers of ''medical-student syndrome'. The condition is suffered by students who experience unsubstantiated fears and symptoms of illnesses they are learning about. They become what the average person might consider a hypochondriac. So, seemingly, if you study illness you start to think you may have that illness. This seems to be infectious in more ways than one. Recently, British doctors warned of what they call 'telly belly'. Immediately after watching health items on television or a soap opera with a character experiencing a particular illness, 'patients' with allegedly similar symptoms tend to appear at doctors' offices.

This can be a good thing. Television helps shape how people feel and can raise awareness about health problems.

MorgueFile : see [1] / CC BY-SA
But, at the same time, it tells us how susceptible we are to media manipulation. There is a fine line between health education and educating us to constantly think we are sick. But does this matter if it means the potential for early diagnosis? To some degree it does. It is a waste of money, stretches State services and pushes up premiums for health insurance. Worse, it opens the door for various commercial interests to continue to persuade us into availing of their services and products.

Take your average bookshop. The health section is generally extensive, dozens of books promising to help you diagnose your problems and alleviate them with the purchase of some product. But is it not ironic that the average person who can afford to buy books these days and who tries out the cures has never been healthier in world history? Drug companies do the same. According to Marcia Angell, author of The Truth About Drug Companies, about 75% of new medications are 'me too' drugs which are no better than drugs already on the market to treat the identical condition. So three quarters of medications on the market are not necessary, but they have to sell. This explains why drug companies spend two-and-a-half times more on marketing and administration than on research. To increase the market is simple: tell people they are increasingly suffering from a range of conditions they did not even know they had and turn normal experience into illness. No doubt, certain people suffer from clinical depression and may need medication but, increasingly, unhappiness is being painted as a disease needing pills. Is illness creating the need for certain drugs or are drugs helping shape illnesses? I am not advocating a world without medication.

We all know the importance of antiretroviral drugs in treating people living with HIV/Aids. There is also a critical place for genuine health education through programmes such as Soul City in South Africa. But what concerns me is that average people who are generally well are being sucked into a commercialised medical universe. The flagship of medicalisation is the media, which continually report on the slightest health scares and tempt us into self-diagnosis through relentless entertainment with medical themes such as ER and reality hospital-based TV shows. Let us not turn everyone in society into 'patients' with health obsessions. The more we do this, the more we lose perspective. While the middle class snap up the latest health-related books and drug companies roll out their new ad campaigns, people in genuine need of medication are dying. It seems that Mark Twain was right when he said: "Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint".

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 13 May 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.