Posts Tagged ‘clash of civilizations’

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.


Not smart politics

A lot of times development and conservation struggle to get much political and media traction, and are thus starved of the oxygen of publicity. At other times, though, I wonder whether certain issues wouldn’t be best off in the shadows. This is not a call to depoliticize development into a purely technocratic discipline, for many of the most critical issues in aid are deeply political, and little progress can be achieved without political engagement.

But when big international politicians wade into issues quiet, nuanced discussions can all too easily get out shouted by megaphone pronouncements. A recent historical example concerns Zimbabwe; for every time the likes of Bush, Blair or Brown, likely as not driven as much by domestic political calculations, opened their mouths on economic and political mess that ZANU-PF had created, it made it all the easier for Mugabe et al to frame their arguments in the context of oppressed masses throwing off the colonial yoke. Many Zimbabweans, even if they agreed with what was being said, had no wish to hear such tickings-off from the ex-colonial master and their allies.

I fear the same thing might happen now with Gordon Brown’s call to action on the plight of women in Pakistan. It’s hard to disagree with Brown’s aims; the fate of Malala Yousafzai was a dramatic illustration of the challenges faced by women and girls in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I cannot see how improving their situation would not make life a whole lot better there, ultimately including for men and boys too, such is the multiplier effect in development of investing in education for girls. But I am far from convinced that there is a practical straight line from Gordon Brown’s intervention to the outcomes he seeks.

Security clearly continues to be a major concern in that part of the world. From what I understand, improved development outcomes could certainly help in the battle with the Taliban and other jihadists for local hearts and minds. But the pay off from investing in girls’ education will accrue over time, while security concerns are immediate. More to the point, girls’ education is a central battleground in the ‘clash of civilizations’ there. So it seems to me more than possible that promoting girls’ education could actually worsen security concerns, potentially making life overall worse for women and girls rather than better. At the end of the day it is the job of politicians to weigh up such trade-offs, and I know too little about the local situation there to do anything other than ask these questions. But did Mr Brown, his team, and allies such as Avaaz, ask themselves such questions before they picked up the megaphone?

The inevitability of international climate change politics

Happy New Year to you all! In between all the various merry making this is something I pondered over the holiday period.

If you frame your starting point appropriately, almost anything can look inevitable, I suppose. Certainly, given the powerful and enduring head-in-the-sand strands of parochialism and “I’m alright, Jack” in American politics, it is perhaps no great surprise that the US has not been a constructive player in UNFCCC negotiations. Even less surprising is the naked self interest of states sitting on major reserves of fossil fuels such as Saudi Arabia, Australia (previously) and Canada (more recently). But in the really big picture these are details, accidents almost, of history and geography. However, that the confrontation between the developed West and emerging powers such as China and India should play out also in climate change politics recently struck me, in a rather Fukuyama-ish and Jared Diamond kind of way, as almost a pre-ordained outcome of the great historical forces and economic interplays.

I am talking about one of the big sticking points in the diplomatic negotiations; that whilst China may now be the number one greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with India not that far behind, the West is responsible for a much greater historical contribution, and that is what is primarily driving climate change today. More to the point, according to India and China, the West got rich off all these carbon emissions, so the West should be the first ones to front up with some cash, call them carbon reparations if you will, to put it all right.* Then, just maybe, once we’ve shown our virtuous sides, the Indians and Chinese will consider coming to the party. It is a powerful argument rooted in social justice, of the sort that evinces pangs of guilt from angst-ridden Europeans, but goes down just marvellously with all those rich and powerful conservatives in the good ol’ US of A. Comparatively ill-informed I might be, but I could detect little optimism coming out of Durban that this was still anything other than a deal-breaker.

My insight, such as it was, is simply that from what we know of the science of climate change, and the broad brushstrokes of history, the diffusion of technology and modes of economic production, that whoever first made the breakthrough into the industrial age, whether they were British, Botswanan or Burmese, that such a clash would be inevitable. The first couple of centuries of carbon emissions were never going to be enough to move the climate dial much, and certainly not in a way that could have been detected with the science we had at the time. Thus it is, with all the inevitability of a great global version of a Greek tragedy, that the spectre of climate change should be raised just as historically less developed countries are on a big drive to industrialise as rapidly as possible, and thus ill-disposed to make further sacrifices (as they see it, after centuries of economic exploitation) to the decadent rich, who just happened, however unintentionally, to have fouled up the world.

Mike Shanahan from Under the Banyan, recently mused on the deep religious underpinnings to many people’s reactions to climate change. Which got me to further thinking, is climate change not the perfect fin de siècle apocalypse for our age? The grandest forces set in motion millennia ago by whichever deity or deities in which you believe, now come together to trigger a great dénouement?

This being the case, it would be easy to take a pessimistic point of view, that we’re all doomed, but, romantic that I am, I prefer the heroic vision; of the great crisis of our time and destiny calling for humankind. For if this always was inevitable, then it is almost in some ways comforting that we have now come to this great crossroads, and have an opportunity to choose. As both a hopeless romantic and an optimist I believe that eventually we will choose the right way … I just hope not before it is too late to save much that is good in this world. (Corny, I know, but it was the season for corniness.)

* p.s. There is a potentially important counter-argument to this that I have little heard. It follows the exponential nature of growth. Of all the people who were born since the start of the industrial revolution, some one third are alive today (based on data from here), and a big chunk of them are Chinese or Indian, so it is possible that, very rapidly, that historical inequality in carbon emissions could disappear. Has anyone ever calculated, based on current expectations and models of economic growth, when is the break even point? At what point will we find that the old rich, the OECD, will not have emitted the majority of greenhouse gases? I’d wager it is probably not that many years away. Then conservative politicians in the West will not have to resort to those insidious and frankly amoral self-justifications which are little more than thinly disguised versions of the “It’s your fault that you’re poor” line of argument.

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