Friday, July 29, 2005

London bombings are not a movie sequel

Everyone has their theory about the London bombings, which killed over 50 people and injured some 700. We’ve all read them: it’s Al-Qaeda, home-grown British fanatics, revenge for British involvement in Iraq, and even those who think it is a response to London winning the 2012 Olympics. But more than anything the situation is starting to sound like a James Bond film. If Bush and Blair are to be believed, the cause of the terror is an evil genius who seeks world domination and wants to change civilised people’s way of life – whatever that means. Those responsible for the carnage in London, or in Madrid, Bali and New York, suffer from the same grandiose thinking. They think that murdering people across the globe will alter international relations and further their ideology – whatever that is. But the problem with both these views is they draw us into generalised thinking that only makes things worse.

This is not a movie that will have a neat ending. The number of deaths committed in the name of justice, no matter how it is defined, has real consequences. That said, the Western media seems more concerned about the deaths of British or American civilians than Iraqi or Afghan civilians killed by allied troops. But bombing commuters or killing civilians in illegally occupied countries are both wrong. One is not morally superior to the other. Both are abhorrent. Revenge as a solution only works in the movies. The enemy will not be beaten into submission in a swashbuckling finale, and no one is going to live happily ever after. Thinking that a global war can defeat terror or, conversely, that global terror can win the day, will only intensify the problem. One-dimensional views are everywhere. Some commentators want us to believe that poverty is the sole cause of acts of terror and the US is the root of all that is bad. Western politicians want us to think the driving force behind the bombers is ideologically vacuous and pure evil. Others argue that withdrawing troops from Iraq, as much as I am for that, will make it all go away. But the situation is more nuanced than that. There is no military solution to this problem. There is no simple answer.

Let us pull back from our grand theories and stop pontificating. Those who kill indiscriminately must be brought to justice, but we need to understand what is going on here. If the perpetrators of the London bombings are found to be Al-Qaeda fundamentalists, what is needed is knowledge from those that can fully articulate the root causes of what we are seeing. This can only come through closer alliances with Muslim countries and communities. But how is this possible if Muslim countries are not even invited to the G8 talks? How can we understand different perspectives if everyone is continually emphasising difference rather than commonality between cultures? It is not going to be possible to have an informed debate about causes and prevention as long as all sides engage in the polemic of good and evil. Now is not the time to hand over more power to the military and secret services – the same people who apparently miscalculated regarding Saddam’s weapons cache. Insights and guidance from those closest to the heart of the problem must be sought. It is the diplomats and those who can open the channels of communication and listen to one another that are needed, not more soldiers.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 29 July 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

IRA ends armed campaign

Yesterday, as most people know, the IRA leadership ordered members to stop the armed campaign. Read the full statement by clicking here.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Let's stop moralising about corruption in Africa

The big debate in the UK and Ireland at the moment is whether debt relief will help Africa, given that many African governments are corrupt. President Mbeki’s recent move to axe Deputy President Zuma because of a ‘generally corrupt relationship’ with Schabir Shaik, a Durban businessman sentenced to 15 years for corruption and fraud, seems to have offered a rebuttal. The Western world has declared its support for Mbeki’s approach, emphasising how he has set an example for the rest of Africa. To some degree, he has, but what is annoying is that everyone seems so surprised that an African leader would take such a step. Granted, many African countries are appallingly corrupt, but Mbeki is a world leader, not only an African leader. Making bold inferences about the importance of his actions for the rest of Africa reinforces the idea that somehow Mbeki is an exceptional black man and that Africans are somehow endemically corrupt or incapable of simply doing the right thing. We would all do well to remember that Mbeki’s actions set a precedent the world over and not only for Africa. Mbeki is also not alone. A recent anticorruption campaign in Nigeria has resulted in the firing of several senior officials. The Kenyan government is allegedly investigating 18 officials highlighted in a British government dossier. This is not to say Africa does not have a serious problem with corruption or that a dash of scepticism about recent anticorruption initiatives would go amiss. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index confirms that 18 of the 50 most corrupt nations are in Africa. Corruption has damaged investment and poverty-relief efforts. According to the World Bank, widespread corruption can cause the growth rate of a country to be 0,5 to 1,0 percentage points lower than that of a similar country with little corruption. But no country has the moral high ground on this issue. Transparency International points out that corrupt international business transactions involve both those who take and those who give. According to the 1997 United Nations World Development Report, 15% of all companies in industrialised countries have to pay bribes to win or retain business. All countries also have their corruption scandals. Tax evasion from the small scale to the grand is the corrupt vice of many wealthy people.

From a cynical perspective, if Zuma was in Tony Blair’s Cabinet he probably would have jumped before he was pushed. A well-timed resignation, perhaps when allegations about Shaik first emerged, may well have saved his skin, just as it has for ministers in the Blair Cabinet implicated in various scandals. Once the storm has passed, Blair has a tendency to reinstate ministers suspected of wrongdoing.

Of course, just because everyone is doing it does not let Africa off the hook, and the problem is dramatically worse in parts of the African continent than elsewhere. But in every society, as Transparency International points out, there are those who try to ‘beat the system’ and, if the system is vulnerable, there will be more of them. For Transparency International, the issue is not one of ‘moral superiority’, but developing the ability to control the menace. The debate on corruption must move beyond proselytising about corruption and Africa, as if they are synonymous. The result is that the continent as a whole is treated dismissively, rather than nuanced solutions for each unique country context being sought. So let us stop the moralising about Africa and its leadership and find ways to join the battle.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 July 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.