Friday, December 7, 2007

Are all excuses poppycock?

I am a sad individual who likes making New Year's resolutions. I enjoy the challenge and think it contributes to personal growth. As the excess of Christmas approaches, I find reviewing my resolutions from the year before brings me down to earth, reminding me how inept I can be at times. I believe being reminded of one's ineptness is a sure road to humility, humility a path to personal enlightenment.

So in early December this year I began my retrospective reflection of last year's resolutions. However, this year my shortcomings were obvious before I even started. To be honest, I could not remember what my resolutions were at the end of 2006.

I am sure they must have had something to do with health, fitness or more quality time relaxing, but the specifics elude me. In fact, I cannot even remember if I made resolutions. When this dawned on me, I immediately found myself trying to think of excuses why I had let myself down. Could inebriation, at a New Year's Eve party, have impaired my capacity to remember? Or is my mind just deteriorating with age?

This questioning, in turn, led me to thinking about excuses. This helped me to realise that, even if I could remember my resolutions, I probably would now be making excuses about why I did not follow through on them. I was too busy to attend the gym regularly, and important work commitments prevented me from taking more time off, and so on.

Making excuses is deep in the human psyche. It all started when Adam blamed Eve for making him eat the apple and Eve, in turn, blamed the snake for leading her into sin. Highlighting so-called extenuating circumstances to account for our own failings protects our sense of self from a negative self-image. Not taking responsibility appears easier than being honest.

Remember Tony Blair's defence about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Essentially, his only mistake was he believed, being the trusting man he is, intelligence reports that were wrong. Or what about Bill Clinton's famous line: "I tried marijuana once – I did not inhale"? This is the best example of a half truth ever.

As the ANC conference approaches in mid-December, where the new ANC president will be crowned, I wonder what excuses will flow from that. If Thabo Mbeki is derailed, will it be because he was undermined by populist ethnic politics? Or, if Jacob Zuma finds himself in the political wilderness, will it be because he was demonised by his rivals, who undermined his cuddly image?

Bob Wall reminds us that the one common denominator in every mess you find yourself in is you. Much mud is slung in politics, but sincere politicians will shine through. No politician, especially of the stature of Mbeki or Zuma, or our friend Mugabe, who insists on blaming others for his failings, is a hapless victim. More than anyone else, politicians have the power to shape their and other people's destiny – they should not need excuses. To quote Shakespeare, "oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse".

I wonder what would happen if everyone owned up to their flaws. Would the world fall apart if we knew Clinton had smoked dope? Or that ambition is at the core of the power struggle in the ANC, and not a heartfelt desire to serve the people? Would the political system collapse if someone in South Africa admitted that arms-deal cash found its way into the hands of some politicians? Or if we knew sometimes fictitious reasons were given by politicians to help justify war?

Remarkably, we know the truth, but we collude in the illusion that we do not until it is acknowledged. In this context, who is more inept –the maker of excuses or those of us who choose to believe them?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 December 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

* Note this article was written prior to Jacob Zuma winning the ANC Presidency. The next piece focuses on this.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The truth commission lost in translation

The South African theatre production, Truth in Translation, was the hit of the Belfast Festival this year. The play, for those of you who have not seen it, focuses on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Instead of relying on the testimonies of victims, perpetrators, commissioners or the commission audience, Truth in Translation centres on the interpreters who worked for the commission. The production tells the story of a group of translators who have to contend with 11 official languages. At the same time, there is an expectation that they remain uninvolved while recounting atrocity after atrocity. However, by the nature of translating in the first person, they get absorbed into the process, becoming vehicles for the truth and the lies they themselves have to utter. Narrating other people’s stories also results in each interpreter grappling with his or her own past.

In Northern Ireland, the production added to the debate about dealing with the past in a society where active political conflict has just drawn to an end. Watching the play in Belfast, as a South African living there, reminded me of the distance that South Africa has travelled compared with Northern Ireland, where the debate about examining the past is in its early stages.

However, at the same time, I was left wondering if the play was currently creating more debate abroad than in the country.

To some degree, the South African commission was a victim of its own success. The more public it became and the more high-profile stories it told, the more people felt that, when it was over, the past had indeed been dealt with. However, most of the commissioners would probably concede that the TRC uncovered new truths in at best 10% of the 22 000 cases brought before it. No systematic process of implementing the commission’s recommendations was ever set up.

Further, investigations and prosecutions of those who failed to take the opportunity of the generous amnesty offered to them through the TRC is an unpopular issue. South Africans still fear that further investigations might destabilise the political process or be used for political purposes. However, although the commission was powerful in enabl-ing stories to be told, as Truth in Translation reinforces, did it uncover the whole truth or build lasting reconciliation? The TRC made a good start but I doubt that most victims would answer this in the affirmative.

The needs of victims do not disappear with the passage of time. This is difficult because victims have multiple needs and it would be naive to think that any process can meet all needs. Nevertheless, expecting victims to forget the past when their lives have been profoundly altered by violence is not an option.

That said, dealing with the past is also wider than meeting the needs of victims alone. Of course, taking the political stability of the country into account is important and wallowing in the past at a social level can be counterproductive. But, equally, if we are going to tout South Africa as a model for dealing with the past, we should not avoid hard quest- ions.

Have we really addressed the needs of apartheid victims? Are some of the factors that contributed to the conflict, such as poverty and racism, still stimulating new types of violence? Or what about ongoing human rights violations like torture of criminal suspects which allegedly continues in some South African jails.

So where does this leave South Africa? There are many lessons South Africa can teach others. I am delighted to see a South African production helping to stimulate debate elsewhere. Fittingly, however, Truth in Translation does not have a neat ending or a simple answer. All the characters continue to struggle with their history when the curtain goes down. Dealing with the past is a process and not an event. Have we, South Africans, forgotten this?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 November 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Do we just not like inconvenient truths?

The issue of climate change is now big news. This was brought home recently with the Nobel Peace Prize being given jointly to Al Gore and the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has helped drive home the dangers of climate change to the public. The Norwegian Nobel Committee felt Gore was 'probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted'. In turn, it praised the UN panel, made up of some 2 000 members, for achieving an 'informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming'.

The road to this recognition has, however, not been easy. Gore's controversial defeat by George W Bush in the 2001 election aside, those advocating the link between human activity and climate change have had an uphill struggle. The UN panel, which was set up in 1988, has consistently released hard-hitting reports into a disbelieving scientific community. Only recently has broad scientific and public acceptance of the threat of climate change been accepted. Science, coupled with cool-headed publicity on Gore's part, triumphed. But why did it take so long?

Obviously, developing rigorous science took time. But was inconclusive science the issue? Or is there something in human nature that rallies against common sense, especially when it implies taking responsibility. Do we just not like 'inconvenient truths'?

Remember the public debate about whether smoking was bad for health. I recall scientists saying smoking does not cause lung cancer; it is only correlated with it, so do not panic . There are still those who might take this view. From a purely scientific perspective, this may be correct, but one does not need to be a scientist to figure out that inhaling smoke into one's lungs cannot be good for you. Equally, it does not take a PhD to realise that spewing gases into the atmosphere that we know in certain doses will kill humans and animals is ill-advised. Science can help us to figure out exactly what the problem is and solve it, but it is the denial of the obvious that I find interesting, yet disturbing at the same time.

Denial has its benefits. It keeps anxiety and potential distress at bay, and can often save us from embarrassment. Denying a problem can also mean we do not have to expend energy or resources on it. Refusing to accept that a wider social problem is present, especially when you are not affected, also helps preserve the personal illusion of immunity or safety.

This is not to say that coming to a consensus about problems such as climate change, or HIV/Aids for that matter, is not challenging. Many people are rightly sceptical about what they read in the media. Dare I mention the millennium bug. Even on the climate change issue, there have been alarmist reports at times that have not helped the cause.

Scepticism has its place and can drive good science. Scepticism is a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind. It is constructive questioning. However, these days scepticism has been replaced with cynicism.'

Cynicism is defined as an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity marked by a general distrust of the integrity of the motives of others. Although trusting others is difficult in our world, it is fashionable these days to usurp healthy questioning with derision and sarcasm. People build their careers on pulling others down publicly.

When it comes to debates about climate change and other issues of public concern, it seems that proving someone is wrong is not always about advancing a solution. Rather, it is about scoring political points, getting as much airtime as possible or proving intellectual prowess. Surely, in a world faced with multiple crises, humility and cooperation are the only show in town.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 October 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The bluetongue blues

Since the infamous war hero, Tony Blair, resigned and Gordon Brown took over, the news in the UK has been fitting for the most virulent of blues riffs. Brown’s Premiership began with floods, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and an economic downturn fuelled by a US housing crisis. The Gordon Brown blues then reached their apex with the discovery of bluetongue.

When I first heard the report, and showing my urban upbringing, I thought it was a joke or a new technology not too dissimilar to bluetooth but somehow related to cows. However, after hearing interviews with distraught farmers who had little time for gadgets or their livestock getting blue tongues, I realised it was no laughing matter.

For those of you living in countries spared the ongoing reporting of the disease, bluetongue is an illness transmitted by a specific midge. Sheep or cows bitten by the midges can suffer from fever, swelling, congestion, lameness and depression. A discoloured tongue, needless to say, is common and sheep whose lips and nose swell can apparently take on a ‘monkey-face’ appearance.

Most infected animals do not die but lose weight and, consequently, value, although in some species up to 70% can perish. The good news is that humans cannot get bluetongue (unless they drink too much cheap read wine) and animals cannot pass it to others animals (even if one sheep bites another after being teased for looking like an ape).

Bluetongue was first discovered in South Africa, which was the principal site of study for many years, since the disease was not present in other countries – but now it can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the US. Some scientists relate the movement of the midges to climate change.

In South Africa, a so-called ‘weakened’ vaccine is used against bluetongue with some success, but in Europe the vaccine is not considered safe and is still undergoing testing, presumably, because Europeans have the luxury of wealthy governments to assist farmers while a more tested vaccine is developed. This means that bluetongue, like climate change, media hype and terrible British summers, will be around for a while.

So understanding the spread of bluetongue or preventing it is shaped by a north–south divide, money, inconclusive science, environmental destruction and occasionally bad luck. Such a plot line is fitting for any gloomy blues tune. That said, I must admit, blues music cheers me up. I think this is because it alerts me to the fragility of our existence. Realising how flimsy life is, in turn, reminds me that I should use my time wisely.

To this end, I am becoming intolerant of media hype and public panic. I know bluetongue is serious, but the more I listen to the news in Britain, the more I think the media, and, perhaps, some overly comfortable suburbanites, long for the so-called good old days, when diseases sounded really nasty, like the Black Death or bovine spongiform encephalitis. There is an underlying nostalgia in some quarters for woebegone days, when people pulled together as German bombs rained down, and for the daily discussion, not about the weather but about some terrifying apocalypse-like uninhibited terrorism or rampant bird flu.

This might sound cynical, but I don’t think I can cope with another health scare in the media, and the exaggeration and hysteria that follow. It is interesting to learn about the challenges of livestock diseases and how this might affect the welfare of farmers, but that is not the story the media wants to tell. The desired story is about fear and uncontrollable pestilence, and fear sells newspapers and gets governments re-elected.

So here goes my own little blues riff: “Woke this morning, now my chickens got flu; woke this morning, Brown’s gonna see it through. Woke this morning, my sheep’s tongues were blue; woke this morning, jabbering media starting anew.”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 12 October 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Prejudiced and proud of it

A few weeks back, I wrote an article that highlighted some of the findings of the ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey Northern Ireland’. According to this survey, Northern Ireland was found to have the highest proportion of bigoted people in the western world. Following the recent release of the South African edition of the ‘World Values Survey’, it seems that South Africans are as bad as their northern counterparts.

On the positive side, the survey found that over 95% of South Africans of all races are now proud of their country. But the survey also found high levels of intolerance. Although racism, which remains a problem, could be expected to be high, given the history of South Africa, the findings about other groups, such as homosexuals and those who are HIV positive, were also alarming.

Gay neighbours were seen as unacceptable by 48% of black South African respondents, 39% of Indian respondents, 37% of coloured respondents and 26% of white respondents. Having a neighbour suffering from Aids was considered problematic by 21% of Indians, 13% of whites, 9% of coloureds and 6% of blacks.

In the Human Beliefs and Values Survey, nearly 36% of people from Northern Ireland said they would not like a homosexual living next door. Across Europe, about 20% of people had this view. So South Africans, when it comes to the minority groups mentioned above, are equally intolerant, if not slightly more intolerant than the people of Northern Ireland.

Clearly, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland and South Africa share some problems. At the risk of conflating the experiences of two very different societies, this leaves one asking: Is a consequence of political conflict a legacy of intolerance and a lack of respect for other people’s human rights? And does this generally extend beyond groups to which you differ politically to other groups?

Both societies, for example, suffer from fairly high levels of xenophobia against new immigrants. This could be a result of an increase in the number of people coming into the societies after peace. However, the rise in violence against foreigners in both societies generally outstrips the proportional increase in new arrivals, suggesting a more sinister conclusion. It would seem logical, if not disturbing, that, if a society has for several decades used violence and exclusion as a way of dealing with problems, some residue of this will remain after peace.

There are many different theories about why minority groups are targeted in this situation. One argument is that aggression is a common feature of social and political conflict, a survival mechanism and a means to achieving power. In postconflict societies, when power relations are rewritten, a displacement of aggression takes place because old channels are no longer there. New avenues for reasserting power are found. The victims of this violence are those with seemingly less power in the new dispensation, such as foreigners and gays, not to mention women.

This means society has to protect the rights of minority groups vigorously. Minority groups have to have not only equal rights, which they largely do in South Africa and Northern Ireland, at least on paper, but also access to social, political and economic power. Put simply, minority groups are bullied because they can be. They are the weak kid on the playground, which is generally exacerbated by their social and economic position.

So, although some of you reading this might not like my saying this, minority groups, essentially, need a more proportional and equitable share of the economic pie. This confronts the fear that foreigners are taking local jobs head-on and pushes the situation to the extreme. But, if we truly believe in equality and a free and fair society, then access to jobs and opportunities should not be constrained by borders, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. Sadly, I suspect this is still the case.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 21 September 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 31, 2007

How to talk about books you haven't read

In this article, I would like to talk about a book I have never read. Strangely, though, I feel justified in doing so, since the book is entitled How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read – it was written by French academic Pierre Bayard.

The book, which I have read about second-hand, is a bestseller in France. In the book, the author, apparently, admits that there are many books he talks about that he has not read. In fact, he says he has given lectures on books he has skimmed.

Bayard’s book is, allegedly, filled with invaluable advice. To talk about a book you have not read, Bayard reckons, you should avoid precise details, put rational thought aside and let your subconscious express your personal relationship with the work.

Bayard claims his coming clean is part of an attempt to break down the pretension that surrounds reading and makes nonreaders feel less guilty. It would seem that Bayard has a point, or has at least hit on something, given the sales of his book.

Then again, perhaps, people are buying Bayard’s book, not in support of his general thesis, but because they would like to join the pompous book-loving sect. They see Bayard’s book as a self-help guide to faking erudite literacy.

Either way, this tells us something – for some reason, books have become mystical. They represent something beyond what they themselves are – mediums for transmitting information. They are rated higher than film, documentary or a good lecture. They are seen as a cornerstone of civilisation.

It is largely true that knowledge, so-called progress and the written word are entwined. But is it not possible that the veneration we attach to books is the exact reason children are put off reading? Is bookish snobbery not one of the reasons those who struggle with reading often end up in a declining self-esteem cycle, which results in their avoiding books rather than trying to overcome their difficulties?

About one-million new books are published each year, and a book is published every 30 seconds, according to Gabriel Zaid, author of So Many Books. This suggests that it is not possible to read all books and that many are rubbish. This links to one explanation for the pretension about books. The well read take it upon themselves to distinguish the good from the bad. Sadly, however, reviewing books has become an elitist sport.

Bayard suggests that, when it comes to reviewing a book, put the book in front of you, close your eyes and try to perceive what may interest you about it. Then write about yourself.

His advice is frivolous, but I like the idea of using books as a platform for imagination and to learn more about one another. Because there are so many books in the world, reading is, by its nature, selective. So we should celebrate the fact that we have not all read the same books. We should spend less time seeking the ‘must read’ book of the year and eulogising about it, and more time in imaginative conversation with one another, learning about what we have not read and what else tickles our respective fancies. As Bayard notes, “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books.”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 31 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The art of outsourcing frustration

In the UK and Ireland, almost all telephone queries, helplines, and even booking some domestic services, such as flights, are outsourced. Seemingly, it is cheaper to hire people in the developing world than to carry out such tasks locally. Last week, however, I reached the end of the road with the infamous call centre.

After struggling for a week with a terminally slow Internet connection, I made the dreaded call to the so-called help desk. I was greeted by a cheery voice, presumably in Bangalore. I explained the problem and was passed from person to person for 30 minutes, repeating my story. Eventually, I was told someone would call back within 48 hours. Someone phoned two days later with the joyous news that an engineer would visit between 8:00 and 13:00 the following day.

The next day no one arrived. I called at 13:00 to enquire and was told to call back at 14:00 because they could only investigate the matter from 14:00 because then it could be conclusively established that no one had arrived. I called back at 14:00, armed with the irrefutable knowledge there was no engineer at my house. I was shunted for 45 minutes between different departments, as they endeavoured to verify that indeed someone had not arrived. I was told to call back at 18:00 to check if someone could come the following day.

During the 18:00 call, which lasted a mere 20 minutes, it was established that someone might appear the next day. I was told to call at 9:00 the following day to confirm. I called at 9:00 and, after 25 minutes, was told an engineer was not available. As I wrote this article, it was still unclear whether the connection would be repaired.

Having said all this, I do not like to complain about call centres. Complaints in the UK and Ireland about call centres often have protectionist undertones that border on racism. Cursing foreigners for stealing Western jobs is a national pastime, even though only 5,5% of all jobs lost across Europe in the first quarter of 2007 were because of work being sent abroad, according to the Work Foundation.

That said, there clearly is a problem with call-centre outsourcing. How anyone can call the debacle I have been through ‘efficient’ is beyond me. It does, however, suggest that Indian workers are being paid so poorly that using 45 minutes to establish someone is not going to make an appointment is value for money for the employer.

This highlights the real issue, which is the exploitation of call-centre workers by multinationals and the brazen neglect of customers who, they know, have no option but to call repeatedly to resolve their issue.

This is not to say I oppose outsourcing – it has benefits. The West is naive to think the help desk is the flailing pinnacle of the outsourcing revolution. Outsourcing other services, such as software development, is big business. India’s high-tech sector is growing at 30% a year, largely because of outsourcing. It is not just cheap labour that is attracting business to the developing world, but the brain power in countries such as India and China. There are lessons in this for South Africa.

That said, as much as I like to see the developing world winning business from the West, we have to be aware of its price. I shudder to think of the mental impact on call-centre workers who spend each day getting an earful from people like me millions of miles away. Surely, there is a better way that could benefit worker and customer alike. If you want me to explain how this could be done, then call me between 9:00 and 21:00 during weekdays, press 1 to hear more about option 2, or press 2 to hear more about option 1, and when the frustration really sets in, press the hash key.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 17 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The woes of 'affluenza'

In his 1895, novel The Time Machine, HG Wells takes McEnroe’s view of affluenza to its logical (if not hyperbolic) conclusion. The novel centres on a time traveller, who travels forward in time into a world where the previously rich, because of their sedentary lifestyle, have devolved, rather than evolved, into a docile and ineffectual species called the Eloi. Members of the working class, in turn, have mutated into bestial creatures called Morlocks. The Morlocks live underground and toil to keep the Eloi’s world ticking over and bountiful. The twist, however, is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi from time to time to survive. Oddly, however, all have adapted to their roles and the strange world works with a de facto class structure still in place.

Of course, the real world is not as straightforward or as fantastical as Wells’s make-believe world. Many scientists and businesspeople come from wealthy homes and continue to evolve up the prosperity ladder. Some are even philanthropists. Children of high achievers, especially those that have to continue to work hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, are usually very motivated. They are not simply modern Elois. It is equally problematic to paint the working class as inherently brutish.

That said, children born into wealth, who do not need to work to keep their comforts, are, arguably, becoming more Eloi-like. The celebrity world is filled with the offspring of the wealthy who are layabouts with little social utility, typified by Paris Hilton, heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune.

Now I am not recommending that the working class devour the rich or Paris Hilton, particularly. Publicly endorsing cannibalism seldom wins friends. But McEnroe’s comments and Wells’s novel provide food for thought.

Are sections of the wealthy slowly sinking into Eloi-like uselessness because people are too comfortable? Is the growing wealth gap alienating the needy from the world of cappuccinos and coffee shops, trapping them in a destitute and brutalising world? Will this, in turn, lead to violent revolution? Or is Wells’ two-tier world of haves and have-nots, which ‘functions’ in a perverse cycle of mutual dependence more realistic?

In terms of the latter, I was thinking of writing a science-fiction novel. The story will centre, as unrealistic as it might sound, on a world made up of people who have no choice but to work like slaves for $1 a day. These unnamed individuals work in dark sweatshops to create clothes with fashionable labels on them for others who inhabit air-conditioned shopping malls seldom seen by the sweatshop workers. The people in the malls lust after the clothes with fashionable labels, but only get temporary satisfaction from each purchase so they continually demand more clothes and varied styles. In turn, the sweatshops grind on indefinitely.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why squirrels are as dangerous as TV

One of my child’s favourite television programmes is Dora the Explorer. It is a fantastical animation about a young girl and her sidekick, Boots the monkey, who live in the rainforest and have adventures helping forest creatures. To up the educational ante, the animals speak Spanish and the adventures require colour, number and shape recognition to be completed.

According to psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, however, I am damaging my two-year-old child by allowing him to watch Dora. Sigman recently told British MPs that the State should offer guidelines on children’s TV consumption. He recommended banning TV for children under three and reducing older children’s watching hours to no more than one-and-a-half hours a day. His guidelines are considerably less than the three hours of viewing a day the average British child imbibes. He backs his recommendations by studies that link watching TV with obesity, as well as sleeping and behavioural problems.

That said, Sigman is accused of trying to create a ‘nanny State’ that regulates everyday life. Organisations such as the Save Kids’ TV Campaign see Sigman’s suggestions as unrealistic and highlight studies that demonstrate the educational benefits of TV. I have some sympathy with this lobby, which is interested in the content of TV rather than simply seeing it as an evil instrument. It feels the intellectual, creative and cultural diet we feed our children is as important as the food we give them. If done correctly, this lobby adds, TV can encourage diversity as well as an interest in sports and the arts.

Sigman is, no doubt, worried about my boy’s mental health, but, to the best of my knowledge, his TV watching, which is done in moderation, has benefits. The joy he gets out of Dora’s adventures is palpable. I could not rob him of that. It adds layers of humour and imagination to his world. In fact, if anything, I think the excessive concern with education is problematic, at times.

As much as my child enjoys Dora’s adventures and can now recognise shapes and colours, and speak a little Spanish (or so I think), as a result, the constant educational emphasis can be absurd. With traditional education, Dora the Explorer also embeds messages such as the importance of wearing seat belts in cars or life jackets at sea. The problem with this is the car Dora drives safely buckled into is chauffeured by a squirrel. She also makes a point of wearing her life jacket when riding on the back of sea creatures such as whales.

I am all for my child getting free public education. But is the seat belt message not overshadowed by the fact she’s getting into a pink convertible driven by a purple bolero-wearing squirrel, and the life jacket safety message somewhat redundant, given the fact that she’s wearing it while bareback whale-riding with a talking monkey for company.

When I think of the children and TV debate, it is the advice a teacher gave me that springs to mind: the problem with common sense is that it is not so common. Science does not need to tell us that excessive television watching could be hazardous, just as too much outdoor activity could result in injuries. Equally, we know we should give children healthy food but the odd sugary snack can be a nice treat, even if it has no intellectual benefit.

Most dangers in this world come from warmongering politicians, corrupt intellectual ideas, reckless drivers, corporations that destroy the environment, media organisations that distort reality, fanatics of all kind, criminals, some schoolteachers and, sadly, even parents.

TV can be educational – and it should be. But why not also allow it to be a medium for escapist entertainment at times? Obviously, all this should be part of a balanced diet of creative activities and exercise. Everything in moderation, I say, even the odd bit of whale riding.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 13 July 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Paradise Lost or Pragmatism?

The recent journal of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 13(1) has just been published. It contains a number of articles on the theme of forgiveness. I wrote a commentary on the various pieces entitled Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Paradise Lost or Pragmatism?. Click here to download it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Time flies in a coma

Nineteen years ago, a Polish railway worker, Jan Grzewski, was hit by a train and fell into a coma. Recently, he woke from what doctors cruelly call a “permanent vegetative state”. It is remarkable to think that someone could have been asleep for nearly 20 years. Before his coma, in 1988, Poland was still communist and the Berlin Wall was its imposing iron curtain self. When Grzewski woke, he found the changes astonishing. He is quoted as saying that shops filled with food compared to communist rationing, and the excessive number of people speaking on cellphones in the street made his head spin. But he also observed that, although life seemed better, people complained just as much as before. Clearly, singer Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Song of the Year when Grzewski passed into his coma, had little lasting impact. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, I am constantly struck by persistent complaining.

In South Africa, I often hear people, from all different race groups, say that things were better in the past. Do people remember the past? Do you remember 1988? Let me refresh your memory – there were at least 25 major bombs that went off in 1988 in South Africa, most notably at Wits Command, killing 12 people. It was also the year the Hyde Park shopping centre, and several Wimpy bars and police stations went up in smoke. The South African Defence Force continually crossed borders that year, killing African National Congress activists in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. One such attack severely injured anti-apartheid lawyer and now Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. The police detained, tortured and killed a plethora of people, too, including children. The so-called ‘Wit Wolf’, Barend Strydom, killed eight black passers-by in Strijdom Square, in Pretoria. So, 1988 was not exactly stress free.

Put in context, it is hard to argue that South Africa is now a worse place than before. South Africa, obviously, still has its problems, including ongoing violent crime and poverty. Equally, for many Poles and people in Northern Ireland, life can be harsh. But Grzewski’s observation that people complain despite positive changes is more profound than it first appears. The key to successful complaining, according to the website, howtocomplain.com (no seriously), is to be clear as to why you are dissatisfied. Grzewski is observing a general trend towards complaining for the sake of complaining, when it is unjustified and seldom specific.

So why do people complain? The answer may well depend on your socioeconomic standing and where you live, and your complaints may well be warranted if you are living on skidrow and in constant fear. Some complaining, as is often the case in South Africa, can also be politically motivated. But incessant complaining can also be the product of the forgetfulness brought on by the relentless drive towards the future, more money and being better off than the person next door. This makes us neglect the past. Most of us complain because, unlike Grzewski, who only has memories of the distant past, our most recent memories are of the present. We forget the bad old days and hone in on the problems of today. But we should spend more time remembering how appalling things were and how far we have come. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, this would make us more grateful and a lot more positive.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The war and peace legacy

Being a columnist can be taxing. The relentless search for interesting topics to waffle on about is never ending. However, now and then, a week comes along where so much happens that it is difficult to decide where to start. The week starting May 7 was one such week.

Ian Paisley, George W. Bush and Martin McGuinness
Credit Chris Greenberg / Public domain
In that week, the Northern Ireland peace process reached a decisive climax. Ian Paisley, of the DUP, and Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP, which had said that it would never sit down with Sinn Fein because it considers Sinn Fein a terrorist organisation because of its links with the Irish Republican Army, agreed to share power. In turn, Sinn Fein set aside the likelihood of a united Ireland, at least in the foreseeable future, and agreed to participate in a devolved administration within the UK.

If that was not enough, in the same week, Tony Blair took the plunge, which had been pending for months, and announced his resignation date – June 27. Of course, the two events are related. Blair chose the date for announcing his departure because it was close to the Northern Ireland deal. With his legacy literally bombed to pieces in Iraq, Blair was desperate to link his exit with something positive.

This is not to say he simply jumped on the Northern Ireland peace train at the last minute. He had played a significant role in it. He kept the peace process high on his agenda, more so than any other British Prime Minister. Shortly after coming to office, he agreed to face-to-face talks with Republicans in 1997. The last British Prime Minister to do that was Lloyd George, some time after World War I.

While Blair was waging war in the rest of the world, he visited Northern Ireland a remarkable 37 times to help ensure the peace. McGuinness, who, no doubt, still feels the British have a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland, was quoted in the Guardian earlier this year, saying: “Tony Blair and Iraq is almost like a total contradiction of Tony Blair and Ireland.”

So why the split personality? And why did he become Bush’s lackey over Iraq?

My theory is that, after nearly a decade in power, he became more concerned with his global legacy than bottom-up change. I am not sure if he even saw the full significance of Northern Ireland in his own backyard until it was all he had left.

The destruction of the Twin Towers gave him an opportunity to cement his place in history. He felt this was his Churchillian moment to be heralded a saviour of the so-called free world. He misguidedly backed the wrong horse.

In Africa, his record is mixed. He showed concern, calling the continent a “scar on the conscience of the world”. He set up the African Commission and pushed debt relief. This has had an impact; for example, debt relief in Mozambique meant half a million children were immunised.

Yet, as much as things moved under his premiership, they have also fallen short and poverty certainly ain’t history. The G8 committed itself under his leadership to a $5,4-billion increase in support to sub-Saharan Africa; since 2004, it has increased by $2,3-billion.

This is no small contribution, but it typifies his leadership style – a style emblematic of many politicians. He came to power with a populist mandate, but, over time, he lost the common touch. Blair is about vision over capability and rhetoric over delivery, and his biggest weakness is that he believes his own hype. Sometimes this pays off, as it did in Northern Ireland but, mostly, over time, it belly-flops. If you don’t believe me, just ask the average Iraqi, or next time you are in the Middle East, try to find your way with the so-called road map he helped broker.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Will more billionaires help the poor

Every year, in the UK, a ‘rich list’ is published that outlines the names and fortunes of the richest people in the country. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, who is also the richest company director listed on the JSE, tops the UK list with a personal fortune of £19,25-billion. The top 1 000 rich people have a combined wealth of nearly £360-billion.

The UK Sunday Times also publishes a rich list of those under 30. Those involved in sport, film, fashion and pop dominate the list, with 65 of the 100 occupying these worlds.

The 2007 list also confirms that the superrich are getting richer. The number of billionaires in the UK rose from 54 to 68 between last year and this year, with the top 1 000 richest people’s wealth increasing by 20%. Over the last decade, there was a 260% rise in the wealth of the richest, compared with the 120% average wealth increase for the population as a whole.

So what does all this tell us?

Firstly, it proves the adage that the rich do indeed get richer. Secondly, fame, sporting prowess and celebrity are now surprisingly seen by most young people as a stepping stone to wealth, hence the obsession with TV talent shows. This feeds the obsession with celebrity status both on and off the sports field. Celebrity is seen as a quick financial fix.

Interestingly, however, 75% of those on the UK rich list have a university or college education. When the list was first launched in 1989, 75% of those on it were wealthy because of inheritance. Today, 78% of those on the list have made their money through business. This suggests that hard work does pay. But this does not mean that everyone has an equal chance of doing well. Those with access to education will do better. Not to mention that 90% of those on the UK rich list are men. Although there is a growing number of Asians on the British rich list, black faces are few. Clearly, the glass ceiling for women and for most ethnic minorities is alive and well in the UK.

South Africa has an even bigger problem owing to a massively distorted past in terms of access to wealth for blacks and whites, and men and women.

Transformation in the boardroom is, however, under way. Currently, 405 black South Africans hold 558 of the 3 125 director positions on South African listed companies. Black company ownership has moved from 0% to 10% in ten years, and the incomes of the richest black people have risen by 30%.

This suggests that wealth is slowly being shared, to a degree. Broadly, this is a step in the right direction, even though there is a long way to go. With time, South Africa will, no doubt, have its own, hopefully representative and rainbow coloured, rich list. But, if South Africa follows the UK, perhaps the real question is whether a growing number of billionaires, black or white, will really make a difference to the lives of the less fortunate?

In the UK, the wealthy are quick to point out that £1,2-billion was given to benevolent causes by the top 30 philanthropists alone in the past year. But about 25% of South Africans, almost exclusively black, have little chance of getting a job, let alone making it into the so-called middle class, or becoming superrich. Will charity, which domestically in South Africa is appallingly low, anyway, be enough to change this situation? I doubt it.

To be honest, studying the rich list over the last few days has left me a bit queasy. I strongly agree with the need for the economic pie in South Africa to be deracialised and for the economy to keep growing. However, I am left wondering, especially when growth largely benefits those at the top of the pile, exactly how this will make a difference to the poorest of the poor.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 May 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reconciliation: Time to grasp the nettle

Recently, Grainne Kelly and I published a short article in the Scope, a social affairs magazine in Northern Ireland, on our reconciliation research. This research looked at definitions of reconciliation. The article focuses briefly on how this research has been taken up by the EU, to download the article click here.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Is there a point to the web?

Every time I make my way into cyberspace to trawl for interesting news, the words of recently deceased Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist and social critic, come to mind. Vonnegut nobly stated: "We are here on earth to fart around." His words ring true when it comes to the Internet. The Internet is, of course, a source of vast information, but it is also a time waster and source of junk par excellence. Needless to say, I find it irresistible.

The most recent Internet toy I came across is Google Zeitgeist. This tool highlights the so-called "the spirit of time" by retrieving information about what people are searching for on the Internet. It is meant to provide a snapshot of a past week, month, or year. Google Zeitgeist excludes generic searches such as 'ebay', 'dictionary', 'yellow pages', 'games', 'maps' and X-rated keywords, drawing out trends and topics that are obsessing net users.

Credit Michael Mandiberg / CC BY-SA
In 2006, for example, it noted that Bebo, My Space, and World Cup were the top three Zeitgeist movers. This highlights how, particularly among the young and restless largely in the Western world, social networking on sites, such as Bebo and My Space, made a major impact on the Internet that year. The soccer World Cup also sucked up hours of Internet (not to mention TV) time.

More recently, Google Zeitgeist introduced a facility to track trends in different countries. A quick review of top queries for March 2007 is revealing.

The five top queries gaining the most growth in South Africa were medicine, a porn site that slipped through the Net that I won't mention, Martin Luther King, Christianity and Starbucks. In the UK, they were PSP games, Johnny Depp, PC World, Audi A3 and British Telecom. In Ireland, the top four searches were tourism and health service-related. Number five was slownik angielsko polski, which I think is an online Polish-English dictionary or, alternatively, I just inadvertently advertised a Polish porn site.

Does this tell us anything? To some degree it highlights where different societies are at. The Internet in the UK is largely a tool for shopping, gaming and celebrity gossip, and is clearly used a lot by young people. This is made possible because over 60% of people have access to the Internet at home, and broadband speeds are high. In Ireland, Google Zeitgeist provides evidence of a growing Polish population.

In South Africa, the picture is less clear. Seemingly, the Internet, which is only used by 10% of South Africans regularly, is a growing source of medical advice, but also a place of contradiction. It currently appears to be oscillating between porn seekers, Christians, or those in search of non-violent political action or a cup of coffee.

Worse still, South Africans could be searching for the five categories simultaneously. Could this mean the average Internet user in South Africa, at least in March 2007, is an ailing perverted activist Christian who needs coffee to keep himself or herself awake to engage in wicked habits?

But before you write to complain about my provocative analysis, the South African trends could also suggest that South African activists, inspired by Martin Luther King, are considering a mass protest against Starbucks. Or Christians are trying to head pornographers off at the proverbial moral pass. Conversely, coffee is the source of all evil.

Then again, in Vonnegut's words, it could just be evidence that indeed we are here to fart around and cumulatively it all means squat. So what does that tell us?

Well, if you have read this far, it is yet more evidence that baiting a reader with useless information is easy, no matter how inane. It is no wonder the Internet is filled with garbage. We love it. So why did the chicken cross the information superhighway? Sadly, the evidence suggests it was simply to get to the other site.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 4 May 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Day of Reflection

Healing Through Remembering is calling for a Private Day of Reflection on 21 June 2007 focused on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. The Day of Reflection website - www.dayofreflection.com - is now live. The website contains all the latest information regarding the forthcoming initial Day of Private Reflection on Thursday, 21 June 2007.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Apology over the slave trade two centuries overdue

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, in 1807. As a result, debates are raging about what should be done and, specifically, whether the government should offer an apology.

Tony Blair has expressed "deep sorrow" for Britain's role in the slave trade and called it "profoundly shameful", but has stopped short of an official apology. Campaigners demand he goes further and that reparations are paid. But, needless to say, debates about what is to be done about slavery, especially two centuries afterwards, are complicated and emotive.

No one knows the exact number of Africans who were shipped overseas as part of the slave trade. Research puts the figures somewhere between 10-million and 28-million.

The system too was linked with wars which served as a recruiting ground for slaves, and it included deadly cross-country marches, as those captured were corralled towards harbours for export. Some estimate that a minimum of four-million people died in this way.

About 12-million slaves crossed the Atlantic or Middle Passage from Europe in slave ships alone, with a high percentage dying in dreadful conditions on the way. About 17-million slaves were exported to the Indian Ocean coast, the Middle East, and North Africa by Muslim traders too. There were also African middlemen who served as capturers and initial salespersons of slaves. This highlights the global and complex nature of the phenomena that lasted from the 1500s to the early 1900s in some countries.

That said, there is little doubt who got rich from the system, namely the Europeans. The slave trade allowed new markets to be developed, and slaves were integral to processing raw materials abroad and sparked the industrial revolution.

Cities such as London and Amsterdam were substantially built on wealth generated through trading human beings. This cumulatively created a wealth gap that persists to this day, and some argue a snowballing skills gap caused by the systematic removal of generations of the strongest and healthiest citizens from certain African countries.

But does this justify present day reparations and an apology? The main problem with reparations is the question of who should be making reparations to whom, considering all those linked directly with the system are long buried. Should the present generation of Europeans pay for the sins of their fathers' fathers' fathers? Also, not all European families were implicated in the system.

Irrespective of the slave trade, what is obvious is that structural injustice exists in the world, and this remains racialised. The enormous gap between rich and poor needs attention through debt relief and allowing better market access to developing countries, no matter how the situation came about. Where reparations and apologies are important in that they can force those who like to pretend history never happened to acknowledge it, and be a rallying point to address current social injustice.

More importantly, it is a truism that fundamental distrust exists between the haves and have-nots. This has a racial dimension too that is evident in how quickly Africans turn to issues such as slavery and colonialism to explain their current problems, and how swiftly many Europeans blame Africa’s problems on present inadequacies, such as leadership, rather than looking at historical legacies.

Apologies can be a way of building trust, a way of creating reconnection and, thus, can be instrumental in generating cooperation to overcome present inequalities.

So, as a first step, an apology is necessary because the impact of slavery remains, at the very least, in the mindsets of Africans and Europeans. The fact a debate is happening about slavery two centuries later is proof in itself of this. All means necessary are needed to shift these mindsets. So it is time those with the most power in the relationship, such as the British State and the monarchy, bite the bullet and, at a bare minimum, make an official statement.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 13 April 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Don't worry, Zimbabwe is just a hiccup

A 15-year old girl in Florida in the US, recently hiccupped nonstop for five weeks. Before her hiccups stopped, she was hiccupping 50 times a minute. All manner of remedies, including various juices, breathing into a bag and consulting neurologists, were tried but nothing helped. Remarkably, the hiccups stopped on their own. The moral of this tale seems simple: sometimes, despite our best efforts, certain things just go away when they are ready to. There are no logical reasons why this happens – they just do.

It appears that world politics operates largely on this hiccup principle. Seemingly, international relations are governed by the belief that most of the time things tick over smoothly like a healthy functioning human diaphragm. Occasionally, when the hiccups start, like they have for the last number of years in Zimbabwe, the diplomatic response is to sit quietly by, waiting for them to come to a natural end. Some paltry gestures like consulting experts or knocking back the odd glass of beetroot juice can be attempted, but, in the end, the hiccups will end when they are good and ready.

The hiccup principle of international relations is, however, risky. This was evident in the bruised face of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, after being severely assaulted by Zimbabwean State forces. It was remarkable to watch him give an interview, relating his ordeal calmly and calling for international action, given what had happened. A few statements of condemnation followed, then interest waned and the world retreated into waiting for Robert Mugabe’s tyranny to go into spontaneous remission.

In seems that in Africa a little hiccupping of the Mugabe kind is generally accepted. Imagine if Tony Blair’s police assaulted David Cameron, or George Bush decided to beat the hell out of Hilary Clinton for good measure. What would the world say then? Although the latter might sometimes seem feasible in the US these days, the outrage would be immeasurable. In Zimbabwe, it is treated as a minor malfunction and par for the course.

Well, frankly, I am tired of it. I know all the arguments for and against speaking out about Zimbabwe. I know complaining about Mugabe is some white people’s way, especially in South Africa, of publicly airing racist views without as much as saying it. I know for some trashing Mugabe in this context, and a global environment that loves to portray African leaders as despots and Western leaders as angels, feels like the betrayal of the often unfairly hounded Africa continent. But I also know when enough is enough, and when excuses for silence are no longer acceptable. Should the international community have stayed quiet about apartheid?

Did you know the life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 37 years old? It was 60 in 1990. The infant mortality was 53 deaths for every 1000 live births in 1990, and it is now 81. The national income per head is $340. In South Africa, a country renowned for excessive poverty, it is $4 960. This means 56% of people in Zimbabwe earn less than $1 a day, compared with 11% in South Africa.

The situation is desperate. The decision to speak out is not a political one; it is a humanitarian one.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, some poor fellow once had the hiccups for 69 straight years. In retrospect, this makes interesting and almost amusing reading. Is that how we are going to look back on the situation in Zimbabwe in years to come? Zimbabwe, the curious little hiccup in history that lasted a mere 30 or so years, forgetting what this meant to the lives of human beings like the unemployed, the tortured, the starving and the mother who just lost her child. Waiting for Zimbabwe’s hiccups to subside is no longer an option – sustained international action led by South Africa is what is needed.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 30 March 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bigots, building bridges and multiculturalism

According to the recently published ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey’, Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of bigoted people in the Western world. The study of nearly 32 000 people across 19 European countries, as well as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, asked if people would like to have persons from different groups as neighbours. These groups included those of a different race, immigrants or foreign workers, Muslims, Jews and homosexuals. In Northern Ireland, 44% of the 1 000 respondents did not want at least one of the five groups as neighbour. Specifically, 35,9% of people would not like a homosexual living next door, 18,9% immigrants or foreign workers, 16% Muslims, 11,6% Jews, and people of a different race 11,1%. This was significantly higher than the average percentage across the countries surveyed, that were 19,6%, 10,1%, 14,5%, 9,5% and 8,5% for the same groups respectively.

The findings are startling. It is hard to imagine that nearly 20% of people across the Western world would be unhappy about a homosexual living next door, or, given Europe’s history, that nearly 10% would still be unhappy with a Jew living in their neighbourhood. Of course, one could see the glass half-full. After all, 90% of people have no problems with someone of a different race living next door. Arguably, holding a prejudiced view may also not be a problem, if you keep it to yourself and do not harm others. But, sadly, hate crimes have been increasing in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as the number of immigrants has grown. Racist attacks in Northern Ireland have a surged by 60% in the last year, while assaults on gays and lesbians have doubled.

One answer given to these problems is that we need to move towards multiculturalism. Multiculturalism implies a world where we respect differences, tolerate one another and allow different cultures to flourish on their own terms. Proponents of multiculturalism argue that this is the best option in a world where it is difficult to reconcile different values and beliefs. But is multiculturalism enough, given the astonishing statistics quoted above? And why is the term barely used in South Africa? Given South Africa’s history of segregation and ongoing problems with racism, it seems one knows intuitively that more needs to be done. If one wanted to be crude, multiculturalism that does not seek to bring people together in some way, or socioeconomic inequality that exists between groups, could end up akin to the perverse apartheid delusion of separate development. Some proponents of multiculturalism argue that groups will learn to coexist over time, if they have equal power and status. But this seldom happens.

Zygmunt Bauman lecturing 2006
Credit Jerzy Kociatkiewicz from Sheffield / CC BY-SA
Immigrant communities generally remain socially excluded and the result is, in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ghetto communities. Perhaps what is needed is interculturalism, where we move towards learning about different cultures and views, and engage with these in robust dialogue. This requires a recognition of interdependence that is neither assimilation nor simply coexistence. Granted coexistence might be a step along the way to interculturalism, but to seek a society that is multicultural, rather than intercultural, seems limiting.

That said, an intercultural approach can be threatening to those who see themselves as belonging to a specific community or ethnic group. But, as Bauman points out, the need for community, no matter how understandable in a world where society is so fractured, creates a double bind. As much as it provides the security of being with your own kind, the more you immerse yourself in your so-called community, the more you feel threatened by the other. Security and insecurity become intertwined, feeding “mutual derision, contempt and hatred” and making multiculturalism impossible. In short, we need to shatter the myth of the community, and, although it sounds rather schmaltzy, searching for our common humanity and celebrating interdependence while vigorously ‘dialoguing’ about our differences, seem a much better option.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 23 February 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

RAWA News and Anti-War Site

Today I was reminded, by two separate emails that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan still requires ongoing attention. RAWA have now produced a great little news ticker to give you a news feed for a website on the situation in Afghanistan. I have installed in on my news page or if you want one for your site, click here. I was also emailed by a group called Arms Against War so I added a link to my site to highlight there efforts to end the war in Iraq.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

INCORE Summer School 2007

The INCORE Summer School provides a structured learning opportunity to analyse the dynamic and constantly changing field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Focusing on the latest research and concepts in specific topics of conflict resolution, participants are invited to compare, contrast and learn from different perspectives.

The School offers a unique opportunity to create links between theory, practice and policy. Special attention is given to how the experience and research of both practitioners and academics can impact upon policy makers within the field of conflict resolution. Participants also benefit from the networking opportunities with other course participants.

The 2007 International Summer School will run from June 11 - 15 2007.

This year we are offering three courses:

* The Management of Peace Processes facilitated by Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan
* Evaluation and Impact Assessment of Peacebuilding Programmes facilitated by Emery Brusset and Margie Buchanan-Smith
* Reconciliation in Societies Coming out of Conflict facilitated by Dr Brandon Hamber and Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd.

Detailed information about the 2007 Summer School, including online application details, click here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Are we all torturers inside?

When I was flying from Johannesburg to Belfast recently, I was caught out by the new system some airlines have started of weighing bags before you check in. As a result, I was found to be carrying a 24-kg bag. I was subsequently reprimanded by an official, who claimed he was just doing his job and that I had to shed four kilos or pay for the extra weight. I removed two large books and a file from my bag, reducing the weight to 20 kg. I was then told I could carry the books on board in hand luggage. That said, I was lucky compared to the woman in front of me. Her bag weighed 26 kg and, when she pointed out she had no hand luggage, she was told by the same bureaucrat to “make some hand luggage” of precisely 6 kg of weight. She had to run around the airport trying to get a plastic bag so she could carry some of her clothes on to the plane. She then had to deal with other people “just doing their jobs” who refused to give her a large bag unless she made a large purchase. “I am just doing my job” has to be one of the most inane excuses in the world. It is a phrase that I most associate with bureaucracy and, at the risk of being melodramatic, Nazi Germany and other atrocities. Remember the case of the American soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners and then took photos of them – they, too, claimed they were just doing their jobs and carrying out orders.

Of course, the annoying airline bureaucrat who enjoyed bossing me and others around cannot be compared a torturer, but the process that led to his unquestioning rule enforcement has, at least to a degree, the same root cause. Like the American marine or ‘grunt’, as they are known, who tortures someone, our friend, the baggage-weighing man, also finds himself at the bottom of a heap of bureaucratic power. No doubt, he was ordered to ensure passengers’ bags do not exceed the weight limit. Whether people do this or not is irrelevant to him personally, but he feels the hand of the rational bureaucratic machine on his shoulders and that his competence will be measured by carrying out instructions. The result is an unwavering and illogical set of actions, because, in this case, extra weight would mean little (other than more profit for the airline), considering the aeroplane was half-full. But why are we, humans, so bad at resisting problematic orders? In the 1960s, Milgram carried out his famous experiment on obedience. He showed that, when people were ordered by an official-looking person to administer shocks to participants in a study (actors, who were not hurt) when they answered questions incorrectly, most people continued to ratchet up the power because they felt they needed to do what they were told. Over 60% of the volunteers obediently administered up to 450 V.

Despite Milgram’s highlighting our weaknesses over 40 years ago, people still carry out orders which are damaging. Soldiers who commit atrocities continue to use it as an unacceptable defence. It seems, as Milgram himself warned, that when individuals merge “into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority”. But Milgram teaches us more than the fact that people will follow problematic orders when instructed to do so. The real finding Milgram made was that most of us (okay, 65% of us) have a little torturer inside and, given the right conditions, we too might just “do our jobs”, no matter how unpalatable. So I forgive the baggage-weighing man in Johannesburg and his sardonic smile, because, apparently, there but for the grace of God go I.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 February 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Dinners, starving babies and fat cats

There are many challenges that face parents, but there is one that only faces certain parents. It is a complaint that I wish every one in the world would have, and it is called guilt.

Let me explain: children’s charities, certainly in the UK, now target dinner times to run adverts featuring starving children followed by a call for a donation. The result is that, when- ever we sit down for a meal with the television on, and especially if my young son is present, I am wracked with guilt about the nutritionally good life we are giving him. Despite feeling angry at the audacity of charities to bombard people so unashamedly during dinner, and that we now prefer to have dinner with the television off, the charities, of course, have a point. According to Unicef, 26% of children under five are moderately or severely underweight across the globe, and 31% of children under five suffer from moderate or severe stunting of their physical and psychological development because of undernourishment. Over 5,5-million children under five die every year from causes related to malnutrition. This disproportionally affects the developing world, which also happens to be made up of countries with greater numbers of children. Perversely, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, there is enough food to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,72 kilocalories a day. The problem is the lack of access to land and inadequate income to buy food. Poverty is the principal cause of hunger. Hunger causes poor health, which also reduces the ability of people to work.

There are many reasons for poverty, such as the unfair distribution of global wealth and a history of colonisation that devastated the developing world. Unicef notes that reducing poverty in the least-developed countries will require greater efforts in five major areas: national development strategies, official development assistance, full debt cancellation, fair trade and enhanced technical assistance from donors. Wealthy countries have a vital role in this.

But developing countries are also not blameless. Corruption and mismanagement of resources contribute to poverty. Although poverty is the main cause of hunger, endemic and unnecessary conflicts also have a part to play. According to Unicef, of the 12 countries where 20% or more of children die before the age of five, nine have suffered a major armed conflict in the past five years. So, what ever happened to the Nepad dream of Africa policing itself, holding warmongers to account and fostering peace on the African continent? Whatever happened to promises of the G8 Summit to make the world a fairer place? Where are the much-vaunted corporate social-responsibility programmes, not to mention those politicians that allegedly care about the starving? I imagine progress is being made somewhere and an objective article would balance the criticisms I raise, with some statistics showing how Nepad, the G8, some companies and concerned politicians are chipping away at eradicating poverty. But, perhaps, because of exposure to too many traumatic television advertisements, I am not in the mood. For once, I want those in the world with resources that can make a difference beyond small donations from people like me, to stand up and be counted in the fight against child poverty.

Governments, whether in the West or in the developing world, should be measured by their ability to address the needs of children. If children are the future, then why do they keep dying while the weapons industry, fat-cat multi-nationals and government officials continue to live it up? Nothing, I suspect, will ease my guilt as I have my dinner this evening, not even the meagre donation I just made to a child anti- poverty charity. But, if you people with power and wealth out there are willing to tell me what you are doing to fill a child’s stomach tonight, I am all ears.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 January 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.