Monday, March 19, 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 disproportionably 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.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 January 2007.

Stern warning about environmental disaster

If you are feeling upbeat about life, I have the medicine: read a copy of the Stern Report. The report, commissioned by the UK government and written by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, focuses on the potential impact of climate change. It is gloomy reading. In short, we are destroying the planet and dramatic climate change is on the way. Stern concludes that “the scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent global response”.

A small increase of 2 oC when living in the freezing northern hemisphere might seem like a blessing, but it is no laughing matter. According to Stern, carbon emissions have already pushed up global temperatures by half a degree. If no action is taken, there is a 75% chance that global temperatures will rise by between 2 oC and 3 oC over the next 50 years. There is a 50% chance they could rise 5 oC.

This might be great for sunbathing in some parts of the world, but in others the consequences will be dire. Climate change will affect access to water, food production, health and the environment, with hundreds of millions of people suffering hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding. Poorer countries will disproportionally feel these effects. By the middle of the century, 200-million people may become permanently displaced owing to rising sea levels, floods and droughts. Melting glaciers could increase the risk of flood to small islands and cities like Tokyo, New York, Cairo and London. Around 15% to 40% of species will potentially face extinction after only 2 oC of warming, not to mention ocean acidification, which will destroy marine ecosystems and many fish stocks, and so the report goes on. Stern also weighs up the economic impact. He notes that extreme weather could reduce global GDP by up to 1%. A 2 oC to 3 oC rise in temperatures could reduce global economic output by 3%, and a 5 oC temperature rise could mean up to 10% of global output being lost. The worse-case scenario is a 20% fall in global consumption for every person.

Of course, scientists have known all this for some time, but, typically, humans only take notice of something when it bashes down their own door. Even when this happens, we spend much time thinking of someone else to blame. Rich countries like to argue that it is poor, developing countries that are poisoning the atmosphere with their drive toward development and less sophisticated technologies. Developing countries, in turn, argue that it is the industrialised countries that are to blame, with their mass consumption and production. And you and I do little because we suffer from the delusion that our own consumption of fuels or recycling of waste is a drop in the proverbially acidifying ocean. So the cycle continues.

Stern is unequivocal that all are at fault and all have a role to play in averting catastrophe. Consumer demand for heavily polluting goods and services must be curtailed, global energy supply needs to be more efficient and reduced, deforestation reversed, and cleaner energy and transport technology promoted. These might sound like grand ideas beyond individual reach and the responsibility of governments, but charity, or, in this case, saving the planet, starts at home. So here comes the lecture: ditch the petrol-guzzling car and try walking somewhere, for a change, splash out a few extra bucks on energy-efficient appliances, recycle your waste, turn off lights and do not leave electrical appliances on standby, shower instead of bath and, while you're at it, get one of those little wind-up chargers for your cellphone and get winding. Being an ecowarrior is no longer the preserve of a few nutters on the fringe; it is a necessity.

*To download the Stern Report visit click here.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, December 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 6 December 2006.

Airport security: enough to turn one to drink

Recently, when I checked into the newly renamed George Best Belfast City Airport, I was asked if I was carrying any liquids. I found myself gagging as I suppressed a giggle. Attempts at humour in airports these days are enough to leave you sun-tanning in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay. Further, my snigger was in bad taste. Not everyone would see the funny side of the question, least of all the footballing legend George Best, who had a serious drink problem. Security these days is, of course, no laughing matter. There are genuine threats. To this end, I do not mind security procedures. But I want them to be logical, make me feel safer and minimise disruption. But, frankly, security officials at some airports seem to be making procedures up as they go along.

When travelling to the US recently with my wife and child, we had to taste six jars of baby food and four baby bottles at Belfast International Airport prior to departure. Our child’s teething gel was confiscated, his nappy rash lotion, and my wife’s hand cream, presumably a precaution against passengers making a bomb as a desperate measure to cope with a cranky child on a long-haul flight. On the way back, the US authorities let the teething gel, baby food, nappy rash lotion and hand cream through without a word, but refused to allow us to take the sterilised water through in the baby’s bottles. However, they were appeased when we mixed the powered formula into the bottles, although no tasting was required. When my wife explained that we had been able to carry the water through on the way there, the security guard replied: “This is the US”, as if we did not know that. I know that different jurisdictions probably have different rules. But, surely, if someone knew what was going on, there would be uniformity. Could the same security officials who thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq be those deciding what is hazardous on aeroplanes? Alternatively, the plan is to make the procedures so confusing that they leave would-be bombers so perplexed that they choose another mode of transport.

I know I should not make light of this important issue, and people have suffered as a result of security failures and misdirected acts of aggression, but questions have to be asked. According to airport authorities, the new security procedures have put an enormous weight on their shoulders, thus creating the mayhem.

The UK government, in turn, asks commuters for patience because it is the nasty terrorists who are the problem, not security officials. They revel in pointing out that the 9/11 attacks preceded the Iraq war. But other airports, such as those in Germany or Spain, countries which do not have troops in Iraq, are not in turmoil.

So there is a dual problem. Firstly, there is the denial in the UK that the Iraq invasion is related to the security situation at airports. Secondly, from my travels through a number of airports, there is ample evidence that suggests that no-one knows what he or she is doing. Cumulatively, this makes me feel a lot more insecure than before.

I understand this is a difficult time. But, as with this entire debacle of this so-called and amorphous ‘war on terror’, something is amiss and this involves ordinary people. Indiscriminate acts of terror against civilians, failure to listen to ordinary people opposed to the Iraq war, bombing civilians in Iraq who bear no relation to the original ‘war on terror’, and now forcing people through chaotic security systems, all add up to the same thing – we mere mortals are cannon fodder. We are caught in the cross-fire between a bunch of men who think they are all-powerful. It really winds me up and now I really need a drink.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, November 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 November 2006.