Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: democracy

Democracy UK

This article was published in The Nation on January 15 2012

 

The phrase ‘the mother of parliaments’ is often mistakenly used to describe the legislature that sits at Westminster. The phrase was originally coined by John Bright in 1865 and he used it to describe the nation of England.

 

 

People who live in those islands at the north of Europe get a bit confused about nomenclature. The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. Historian Norman Davies wrote a monumental book called The Isles – the term British Isles also includes the nation known as the Republic of Ireland. Davies’s latest book is called Vanishing Kingdoms. In it he predicts the break-up of the UK. The English “in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922, and will probably continue”.
Notice that Bright did not say that the UK was the mother of parliaments, even though the legislature that now sits at Westminster is a UK parliament. The English Parliament developed its power and influence by limiting the power of the monarchy, even going to the extent of chopping off the head of Charles I (the executioner was appropriately named Colonel Hacker). The monarchy was allowed back in 1660 but Parliament was supreme. All future sovereigns had little executive authority. This continues today as a group of aging people of German origin sit in an expensive gilded cage representing Britishness to visiting tourists.
English Parliament
The 1707 Act of Union merged the English Parliament with the Parliament of Scotland to form the Parliament of Britain. When the Parliament of Ireland was abolished in 1801, its former members were merged into the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

 

 

The current Westminster Parliament is a peculiar institution in that it includes members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even though those components of the UK now have their own devolved assemblies. Indeed, it often seems that the UK is ruled by Scotsmen as there have been so many of them in British cabinets.

 

 

The West Lothian Question has been much discussed. Before 1998, all political issues, even when only concerning parts of the UK, were decided by the UK Parliament at Westminster. Issues concerning only those other parts of the UK were often decided by the respective devolved assemblies; purely English issues were decided by the entire UK parliament, with MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully participating in debating and voting. Members of Parliament are elected simultaneously in general elections all over the UK. There are 529 English constituencies, which because of their large number form an inbuilt majority in the Commons. However, there have been occasions where MPs elected in England have been outvoted by MPs from the rest of the UK on legislation relating only to England.

 

 

The idea of representative democracy is further complicated by the UK’s membership of the EU. Previous articles in this series have looked at how the PIGS EU countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) have had their democracies usurped by EU and IMF technocrats and bankers.

 

 

Eurozone

 

 

The UK seemed to be bucking this trend. It was not part of the Eurozone. David Cameron has used his power of veto to block an EU-wide deal proposed by Germany and France for treaty changes that would lead to greater fiscal union. Instead, France and Germany will lead the 17 Eurozone countries and at least six other EU nations in a new treaty. Many hailed Cameron’s decision to use his veto as a triumph for British independence. One French diplomat said Cameron was acting “like a man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife”. This was not about democracy and power for the UK voter; it was a “principled” stand on behalf of the City of London. London is no longer the capital of England or the UK. It is the capital of international capital. The government’s main aim is to protect the financiers rather than ordinary voters.
Democracy as practised in the UK does not seem to help ordinary voters. They wanted to punish New Labour but did not give a ringing vote of confidence to the Conservatives. Cameron had to rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but that support has effectively destroyed the Lib Dems’ electoral future.

 

 

Threat to democracy

 

 

Ordinary voters did not vote for the vicious austerity measures now being implemented. It is more likely that they would have wanted the banksters who got the country in such a mess to be punished. The mild regulatory measures proposed by John Vickers will not be implemented until 2019. As Robert Jenkins, who sits on the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, points out, the date is distant enough “to allow lobbyists to chip away until the proposal becomes both unrecognisable and ineffective.”

 

 

While the government has introduced no meaningful sanctions to discourage a repetition of the crash, it has also failed to repeal the oppressive laws preventing voters from challenging those who caused it. When he became deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg promised that the government would “remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest” but there is no such measure in the Protection of Freedoms bill, which was supposed to have been the vehicle for this reform.
As well as the banksters, another threat to democracy has been the power of the Murdoch empire. Nobody voted for Murdoch, but this ruthless advocate of the market system, opponent of regulation and the welfare state, was able to enter Downing Street by the back door for secret meetings at will for over thirty years, whichever party was theoretically “governing”.

 

 

The less regulated the better

 

 

Anthony Barnett writes: “In the UK this informal, elitist constitution of ours while lauded as strong because flexible is, in fact, a weakness. Murdoch joined with Thatcher in exploiting its informality to expand their power and in the process further hollowed out its self-belief. They began to dismantle the old regime without any desire to replace it by anything other than themselves, the less regulated the better. The process continued under Tony Blair.”

 

 

Peter Oborne, no left wing radical, argues that a new “ethic’’ appeared under Thatcher and developed further under New Labour. The incorrupt disinterested administrative class of the 19th century was replaced by a political class who are mostly Oxbridge-educated men recruited young into the circuits of political influence. This class seeks personal gain from public office and makes its fortune from “a fusion between the media and political domains”. People like Gordon Brown, David Cameron and both Milibands have little experience of real life as experienced by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. They go straight from university to think tank to internship to governing.
The English feel proud that their brand of parliamentary democracy has been exported around the world but do not seem to have noticed that democracy is dead in their own country.
Another phrase coined by John Bright was “flogging a dead horse”.

 

Democracy and Cuckoo Clocks

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 8 2012

 

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? – The cuckoo clock!”

 

 

Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, portentously intoned those words, from the great height of the Wiener Riesenrad, a Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in Vienna, from which he looks down on the ant-like humans scurrying below. Lime, like many of today’s politicians, was able to cheerfully use his charisma to make money and disregard the human suffering he caused. Lime made his money selling contaminated medicines. on the black market  Welles himself added those words to Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man. Welles is quoted as saying “When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks, as they are in fact German, native to the Black forest”..

 

Confederation
Welles’s insertion was a travesty of the reality of Swiss history and echoes remarks made by the painter Whistler in a lecture published in 1888. The original Swiss were known as Helvetic Celts. They were subdued by the Romans and became free-born subjects of the Roman Empire. In the 13th century their independence was threatened by the Hapsburg Empire in nearby Austria. In 1291, the Forest Cantons formed an Everlasting League against the aggressor which developed into the Swiss Confederation. By the 16th century, the Confederation had 13 members and had developed a fearsome military force. Historian Douglas Miller has pointed out that during the period of time the Borgias flourished in Italy, the Swiss Confederation provided “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe”; this was not the peacefully neutral country it is today.

 

 

The Swiss nation as we know is very young. As the Website Direct Democracy Ireland commented: “Not five hundred years of democracy and peace, merely 162 years, in the epicentre of war-torn Europe, with enviable prosperity and direct democracy.”

 

 

Women’s suffrage

 

 

Switzerland is a country of four  languages which was, until recently, poor, backward and divided. It was established as a modern and devolved republic in 1848, the year of revolutions, and only became really established as a nation in 1891. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy was the last Western republic to grant women’s suffrage. Women got the vote in Ceylon in 1931. The Swiss referendum on women’s suffrage was held on February 1, 1959. The majority of Switzerland’s men voted “no”, but in some cantons, women obtained the vote. The first Swiss woman to hold political office, Trudy Späth-Schweitzer, was elected to the municipal government of Riehen in1958. Swiss women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1971. Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last Swiss canton, in 1991, to grant women the vote on local issues.

 

 

Constitutional theorist Albert Venn Dicey was an implacable enemy of Irish Home Rule and had railed against it in books, pamphlets, letters to and series in The Times.

 

 

In 1914 Dicey wrote about Switzerland:

 

“Never was there a country in which it seemed more difficult to produce national unity. The Swiss cantons are divided by difference of race, by difference of language, by difference of religion.” Dicey continued: “These distinctions till nearly the middle of the nineteenth century produced a kind of disunion among the Swiss people which in 1914 seems almost incredible. They forbade the existence of a common coinage; they allowed any one canton to protect the financial interest of its citizens against competition by the inhabitants of every other canton.”

 

 

A Swiss historian, William Martin, argued that his nation’s success was mainly because of its answering the needs of the time and addressing the needs of the future by the insertion of revision clauses in the federal and in all cantonal constitutions. The constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922 promised similar referendum choices but this was reneged on through successive amendments.

 

 

Positive examples

 

 

Contemporary Switzerland offers some positive examples of democracy to the rest of the world. In today’s Switzerland, a republic of seven million people, citizens’ law-making is exercised on all political levels – including almost 3,000 autonomous municipalities, 26 sovereign states and on the common, federal level.

 

 

Switzerland is still a representative democracy in that most laws are made by parliament. The important difference, however, between the Swiss system and the “indirect” democracy of Britain is that citizens are entitled to put almost every law decided by their representatives to a general vote.

 
If 50,000 signatures can be gathered within 100 days of the publication of a new law, a referendum is needed. In 96 out of 100 cases, no such referendum is triggered, because the parliamentary process enjoys a very high level of legitimacy. In 1993, the Swiss military chief of staff, as a citizen, collected the necessary signatures for a referendum to have a moratorium on military spending. Elsewhere this would constitute insubordination, or possibly mutiny.

 

 

According to Bruno Kaufman, president of IRI (Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, a transnational think-tank dedicated to research and education on the procedures and practices of modern direct democracy): “That is because the elected lawmakers know that their work will be seriously checked by the public, so they do a very good job indeed.”

 

 

Kaufman says: “Interestingly, the strong elements of direct democracy in Swiss politics have not weakened representative democracy or parliament. … It took many years, and many democratic movements, to get a more fine-tuned division of power, which now offers all forces and groups in the country a fair opportunity to take an active part in setting the political agenda, and in determining the final decision. And this is not simply oppositional: while most popular initiatives proposed by minority groups fail at the ballot box, most governmental proposals get support. Government in Switzerland is not delivering for people, but with them…Startlingly, those parts of the country where the people are most involved in politics also have better public services and stronger economies.”

 

According to Direct Democracy Ireland:
“The ultimate Swiss genius was the transformation of the country’s greatest liabilities, its political geography and related religious, cultural schisms and economic disparities into one of its greatest assets. By retaining the cantons’ independence and counteracting the huge disparities in populations [largest 1,242,000: smallest 15,000] through the Council of States and in referenda, they converted what might have been the “tyranny of the majority into transparent justice….The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation is unlikely to be accepted as an ideal model; ruling élites [e.g. the Irish political parties] much prefer constitutions, where the people cannot interfere without the élite’s sanction”.

 

 

That could be said of other nations than Ireland.

Monitory Democracy for Better Governance

This article was published in The Nation on January 29 2012

 

Since writing a series of articles for The Nation on how democracy was working out in practice in the contemporary world, I have been reading John Keane’s monumental work, The Life and Death of Democracy. In almost 1,000 pages, Keane, Professor of Politics at Westminster University, goes back beyond ancient Athens and also looks into the future. He challenges the myth that democracy began in Athens 2,500 years ago and argues that the ancient civilisations of Syria-Mesopotamia were experimenting with popular assemblies 2,000 years before the Athenians. Keane objects to the distorting foundation myth that leads us to assume that, as an inherently Western idea, democracy must have gone into hibernation until rediscovered in England/France/the US about 2,000 years later.

 

 

As I have shown in previous articles, the kind of “assembly democracy” or “direct democracy” seen in Athens was replaced in the modern era by “representative democracy”, where those elected made decisions on behalf of voters. Keane expresses his distaste for what he calls “the pseudo-democratic doctrine of self-determination” that emerged after the First World War and was used to justify “the brazen murdering and herding of people”.

 

 

Pragmatic democracy

 

 

Keane uses the term “monitory” democracy to describe a phenomenon he identifies as having developed after the Second World War. Democracy is now viewed pragmatically as a vital weapon for guaranteeing political equality against concentrations of unaccountability. “From roughly the mid‐twentieth century, representative democracy began to morph into a new historical form of ‘post‐representative’ democracy.” This works between elections and across national borders. As well as exploring the idea in his book, Keane has also given it much currency in lectures and articles. An example can be found at:

 

 

Click to access keane_monitory_democracy.pdf

 

 

“Monitory mechanisms are geared as well to the definition, scrutiny and enforcement of public standards and ethical rules for preventing corruption, or the improper behaviour of those responsible for making decisions, not only in the field of elected government, but also in a wide variety of settings. The new institutions of monitory democracy are further defined by their overall commitment to strengthening the diversity and influence of citizens’ voices and choices in decisions that affect their lives – regardless of the outcome of elections.”

 

 

This is not the same as top-down surveillance. Keane provides a long list of means by which civil society influences policy between elections, including think tanks, teach‐ins, local community consultation schemes, information and advisory and advocacy services, professional networking, citizens’ assemblies, democratic audits, brainstorming conferences, global associations of parliamentarians against corruption, banyan democracy, public interest litigation and satyagraha methods of civil resistance. Included as well are consumer organisations, online petitions and chat rooms, public vigils, peaceful sieges and global watchdog organisations.

 
– See more at:

http://www.nation.lk/edition/focus/item/1987-monitory-democracy-for-better-governance#sthash.0pHtalAy.dpuf

 

 

New vocabulary

 

 

This activity has introduced a new vocabulary: “public accountability”, “empowerment”, “transparency”,”stakeholders”, “participatory governance”. Keane says: “Democracy is no longer simply a way of handling the power of elected governments by electoral and parliamentary and constitutional means, and no longer a matter confined to territorial states.” Ideas come from all nations. “Participatory budgeting” is a Brazilian invention; truth and reconciliation commissions began in Central America, while integrity commissions first sprang up in Australia. These activities discomfit politicians, parties and elected governments, questioning their authority and forcing them to change their agendas.

 

 

There are many ways of influencing elected governments. One of my teachers at Manchester University back in the middle of the last century was Professor SE Finer. He made his name as a political scientist; his magnum opus, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, was many years in the making. It is approximately 1,700 pages long. A three-volume comparative analysis of all significant civilised government systems, past and present. There were two missing chapters when he died in 1993. These were to have covered the exportation of the modern state model outside the “West”, and variations on the theme of modern totalitarianism.

 

 

He has been described as charismatic. I recall that he was a small man and very funny, although teaching topics that could have been dull. His main topic was the role of interest groups in government. He had covered this subject in his 1958 book The Anonymous Empire.

 
Finer did not denounce lobbying and accepted that specialised advice was needed if laws were not to be bungled. Finer’s examples of lobbyists included chambers of commerce, trade unions, professional bodies and propaganda organisations. There was some transparency about these organisations, their aims and methods. However, Samuel Finer was worried about the lack of clarity about when MPs acted on behalf of lobbyists. He had traced every amendment to the Transport Bill of 1946-47 to one interest group or another, but it was a hard slog. ‘Light! More light!’ he cried, demanding a register of members’ interests.

 

 

Voice of minority

 

 

The new power‐scrutinising inventions break the grip of the majority rule principle – the worship of numbers – associated with representative democracy and give a voice to minorities. Other monitors publicise long‐term issues that are neglected in the short‐term mentality encouraged by election cycles.

 

 

Part of the monitory machinery consists of bodies set up by governments themselves. In the early 80s, I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at SSAC (Social Security Advisory Committee). This body was made up of people from industry, the unions, local authorities, social work professionals and academics, people from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and ethnic minorities. When the Welsh member dropped out, I suggested Shirley Bassey as a replacement – Welsh, a woman, black. The actual replacement was an Indian GP from Neil Kinnock’s constituency. A jolly fellow but he snored loudly during meetings. The government was required to submit to SSAC legislation which it was considering relating to the social security system. SSAC would then initiate a consultation exercise inviting interest groups, charities, NGOs and members of the public to offer their views. Taking account of all this feedback SSAC would prepare a report in which it might recommend changes to the legislation. In the British way, these diverse individuals always reached consensus.

 

 

Public exposure

 

 

Keane notes that the establishment of such monitory bodies by government itself contains a paradox. “Not only are government scrutiny mechanisms often established by governments who subsequently fail to control their workings – for instance, in cases of corruption and the enforcement of legal standards; the new mechanisms also have democratic, power‐checking effects, even though they are normally staffed by un‐elected officials who operate at several arms’ length from the rhythm of periodic elections.”

 

 

Finer would have enjoyed analysing the multimedia‐saturated societies of the 21st century. Today, more than ever before, the arrogance of power is being challenged and the word is being spread. Keane writes: “The quiet discriminations and injustices that happen behind closed doors and in the world of everyday life – become the potential target of ‘publicity’ and ‘public exposure’.”

 

 

Keane concludes that in the age of public monitoring of power, democracy can no longer be seen as an end in itself. Monitory democracy is an unfinished experiment that both thrives on imperfection and requires fresh ways of thinking about democracy’s virtues and its imperfections and failures.

It’s all Greek to me!

This article was published in The Nation on December 25 2011

 

 

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Democracy is often thought of as a gift from ancient Greece. Athens is one of the first known democracies – functioning around 508 BC. Other Greek city states set up democracies, and most followed an Athenian model – an experiment in direct democracy, where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote in their own right on legislation and executive bills. This did not mean universal suffrage, but participation did not depend on economic status.

 
There is little connection between the democratic city-states of classical times and the Greece of 2011. The nation as it is today is very different and its geography makes it somewhat difficult to administer. Modern Greece has a population of nearly eleven million and the nation is spread over many distant islands as well as the mainland. The main ethnic groups are Greeks 93.76%, Albanians 4.32%, Bulgarians 0.39%, Romanians 0.23%, Ukrainians 0.18%, Pakistani 0.14%, Russians 0.12%, Georgians 0.12%, Indians 0.09% and others 0.65%.Two-thirds of the population live in urban areas, with Athens having four million residents.

 
Greece is linguistically homogeneous, with most people using Greek as their first or only language. However, former PM Papandreou was not comfortable with the language, having spent much of his life in exile. Gia tis kalpes! he was supposed to say.”To the ballot boxes” ! What he said was Gia tis kaltses! “To the socks!”

 

 
Greece became independent in 1830, but foreign interference kept the fragile fledgling nation in a servile condition, bullying it into joining the global capitalist economy. Before the modern Greek state assumed its present form after the First World War, communities in the trading cities already had a long history of running their own school systems, hospitals, and orphanages. Through local and communal organisation, by the mid to late nineteenth century, the Greeks were one of the most prosperous and dynamic groups in Southeast Europe.

 

 
As the Greek state expanded, it undermined that spirit of local autonomy and self-sufficiency but did not replace it with centralised competence. In the 1920s, autonomous local elites were replaced by a new group of people skilled at forging a relationship with the state. The new local leaders built up party machines by channelling funds from central government, which was heavily complicit in the patronage culture.

 
After the Second World War, the nation-state continued to be weak and failed to build a resilient system of social protection. The Greek political system has always been authoritarian and centralised, artificially imposed on a fragmented society traditionally centred on local loyalties, the extended family and community values. This has been the recipe, as in Ireland and Sri Lanka, for a politics of clientelism, cronyism, nepotism and corruption. Greece has its mudalalis and Gombeen men. The Greeks have resigned themselves to the lack of a responsive bureaucracy able to shape economic and social development.

 
EU funding only exacerbated patronage politics. According to Eurostat, public payroll expenses rose in Greece from 38% of state revenue in 2000 to 55% in 2009. Local elites became hostile to coherent national reform. In the mid-2000s, a local alliance in Salonika successfully resisted the granting of a concession to a major international port operator, to retain management of it themselves.

 
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Antonis Kamaras has hope for a return to tradition: “A majority of Greeks today cannot see a way out of the pit their country is in. But they need only look to their grandparents to find a way out… By decentralising, the Athens government will both revive the nation’s distinguished legacy of local autonomy and move the country closer to the European norm in terms of delegation of power and authority.” He also recommends marshalling resources and know-how from the extensive Greek diaspora.

 
Kamaras may be deluding himself when he calls for local institutions to be “pushed into the non-profit sector”. Although the Washington Consensus has clearly been a disaster, its acolytes are now taking over power from elected politicians and demanding austerity measures which punish the victims and reward the culprits. Traditionally strong family ties are collapsing and the Greek state is unable to help. Before the financial crisis, Greece had the lowest suicide rate in Europe at 2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Statistics released by the Greek Ministry of Health show a 40% rise in suicides between January and May compared to the same period last year.

 

 
Robert Reich asked on Huffington Post: “Which do you trust more: democracy or financial markets? Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided in favour of democracy …when he announced a national referendum on the draconian budget cuts Europe and the IMF are demanding from Greece in return for bailing it out.” Reich believed that, “without the austerity measures the rest of Europe and the IMF are demanding, the Greek economy has a better chance of growing and more Greeks are likely to find jobs.” He asked: “Shouldn’t Greeks be able to make this decision for themselves?… So which is it? Rule by democracy or by financial markets? Based on what’s happened in America, I’d choose the former.”

 
Reich was too optimistic. Merkel and Sarkozy quickly stamped on this exercise of democracy. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, who promptly installed in the government a far-right group banned since the military government lost power in 1974. Nevertheless, opinion polls showed voters were resigned to the new arrangement. This might be a weary acceptance that a technocratic administration might be preferable to scoundrel politicians. Greek politicians rarely venture out in public, and when they do, even the most obscure MP has a bodyguard. Even foreign interference might guarantee an honest and competent government acting in the interests of the country.

 

 

 

 

Searching for Democracy

This article was published in The Nation on December 18 2011

 

One reads a lot about the democratic deficit in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan, as well as western commentators, bemoan the weakness of the Sri Lankan opposition and the gathering of power to the executive through the 18th amendment and the use of urgent bills. We read about the inspiring hunger for democracy in nations like Libya, Egypt and Syria, where people are prepared to die (and kill) for democracy.

 

I thought it might be instructive to see how that democracy thing is working out in some of those countries that have had it for a long time.
First, let us attempt an analysis of the concept itself. According to Raymond Williams in Keywords, democracy is an old word, but its meanings have always been complex. The word first entered the English language in the 16th century, as a translation from the Greek demos – people, and kratos – rule. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “people” and what you mean by “rule”.
Aristotle wrote that “a democracy is a state where the freemen and the poor, being in the majority, are invested with the power of the state”. What does “power of the state” actually mean? Socrates, according to Plato, said, “democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power”.

 

Popular power

 

Aristotle’s disciple, St Thomas Aquinas, did not see democracy as a good thing. He defined democracy as popular power, where the ordinary people, by force of numbers oppressed the rich. Democracy was a form of tyranny. In my schoolboy study of American history, I noted the fear in the early days of independence of the canaille (pack of dogs), the mob.
According to Raymond Williams, the most striking historical fact about the word democracy is that it was, until the 19th century, generally a highly derogatory term and it has only been since the early 20th century that most western political parties have felt the need to pay lip service to it.

 

The first constitution to use the word democracy was that of Rhode Island in 1641. What democracy meant in that document was that the people, in “orderly assembly” made the laws and ministers “faithfully executed” them. Alexander Hamilton, in 1777, saw this as recipe for anarchy. He favoured representative democracy “where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons”.
Representative tyranny.

 

Today, Hamilton’s concept is all we are left with. Anyone who argues for the original idea of direct democracy might be seen as a dangerous radical. So, the voter opts for a particular candidate and in doing so leaves that candidate to make his or her own decisions. A majority of voters might be in favour of capital punishment but that counts as nothing against the opinion of the elected representative. A majority might be against the invasion of Iraq, but in a representative democracy, their views have no standing. In a further twist, the views of the elected representatives do not count when balanced against the views of the Cabinet. The views of the Cabinet do not count against the views of the prime minister. In guarding against the tyranny of the mob, representative democracy gives tyrannical powers to one man who gets his way by lying.

 

Representative democracy, in effect, gives little power to the voter. The voter makes a choice on the basis of the party manifesto, the personality and record of a particular candidate. The only control over the candidate’s performance is to vote for someone else at the next election, which maybe five years away. The candidate/representative may break every promise in the manifesto and may even change party but still stay in parliament without consulting the voters.

 

John Stuart Mill ran for the British parliament in 1865. His campaign was very unlike a modern one. He refused to spend any money. When a raucous working class crowd asked him whether he had written that the working class were habitually liars, he had no hesitation in saying “yes”. The audience cheered and one of their numbers stood up to announce that the workers needed friends not flatterers.

 
Government of the people by the people

 

One definition of democracy is “government of the people by the people”. What do we mean by “people”? Throughout history, suffrage has been limited to certain groups – freemen, whites, property-owners, the educated, the mature in years. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy (more of that in a later article) did not grant the vote to women in all elections until 1991. Women got the vote in Ceylon in 1931.

 

“Democracy” is often seen as synonymous with liberal democracy, which is expected to include elements such as political pluralism and equality before the law. Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy, but it is possible for a party or candidate to rule with a numerical minority of votes. See Bush v Gore.

 

Economists have found fault with democracy in general because voters are uninformed about many issues, especially relating to economics. Democracy is criticised for not offering enough political stability or continuity. Pareto argued that democracy masked the reality that elite oligarchy is the unbendable law of human society, and that democratic institutions would do no more than shift the exercise of power from oppression to manipulation.

 
Corporate interest

 

Pareto’s view is borne out by what we see in the world today. JS Mill would get nowhere. In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This allows corporate interests to call the shots. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of ‘persons’ when it comes to campaign contributions.

 

Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.
The EU has accrued many powers that allow it to override the wishes of voters in previously sovereign nations. The crisis of global capitalism has not brought punishment on the perpetrators, who have been bailed out and given new power. Austerity measures and failed neo-liberal policies of privatisation, reduction in public services and deregulation are being forced on individual governments by the troika of the EU, the ECB and the IMF.

 

Look at Greece, often thought of as the birthplace of democracy. George Papandreou sought the views of his demos with a referendum and brought on his head the fury of Merkel and Sarkozy who had exacerbated the crisis. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, who promptly installed in the government a far-right group banned since the military government lost power in 1974.

 

In Italy, the ludicrous (but elected) Berlusconi was replaced by ex-Goldman Sachs executive Mario Monti. The decision was made by the Italian president without consulting the voters. The next election is in 2013. In Ireland, the voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.
Is this version of democracy any better than the Sri Lankan one?

 

Commentators assert that drug barons, rapists and murderers populate the Sri Lankan parliament. It seems that the very banksters who toppled their economies now rule European democracies.

Democratic Deficit

This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.

 

Will austerity trump apathy at EU Parliamentary Elections?

 

All EU member states will hold elections between 22 and 25 May 2014 to choose 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). This will be the eighth Europe-wide election to the EP (European Parliament). The EP is the only EU institution to be directly elected.

 
The electorate in EU member countries never displayed much enthusiasm about the EP. Voters think voting is futile because decision-making generally resides in the European Council, which comprises heads of state and governing ministers from member nations. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first election in 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004. In Britain, the turnout was just 34.3%, down from 38% in 2004. Turnout is not yet as low as that of the US Midterm elections which usually falls below 40%. The participation of young people voting for MEPs is particularly discouraging. In 2009, 50% of those over 55 voted, while only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds bothered to vote. Low voter turnout weakens the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

 
Distrust about the treaties and conventions that hold together modern Europe appear at an all-time high. The percentage of Greeks approving the EU leadership decreased from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013, while in Spain, the approval plummeted from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.

 
In Ireland, polls indicate that Sinn Féin, once the political voice of the IRA, as the TNA was the voice of the LTTE, will easily elect three MEPs. The political gains to the Irish mainstream parties and the ruling coalition arising from positive economic indicators now mean nothing. UKIP’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) support rose from about four percent in 2012 to about eleven percent in 2013 – despite having no members in the British parliament. Proportional representation in the EP favours UK fringe parties that do not do well under the first-past-the-post Westminster system. At the last EP elections in 2009, UKIP came second behind David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Radical right-wing populist parties do well in EP elections because of differences in the degree to which voters vote strategically and dissimilarities in the issues that are at stake. Diverging levels of turnout allow populist parties disproportionate representation. For example, the Dutch PVV, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration party, obtained 5.9% of the seats in the 2006 and 15.5% in the 2010 national elections, as opposed to 17.0% in the 2009 elections for the EP.

 

Exit polls suggest that PRRPs (Populist Radical Right Parties), a group of parties with fascist tendencies, could win around 67 seats, close to 10%, up from the 37 they now control. The Economist estimated in January 2014 that anti-EU populists could win between 16% and 25% of seats. Cross-border alliances may strengthen their bargaining power. Dutch right-wingers are discussing an alliance with their right wing French counterparts.

 
Not everyone believes that fascist parties will take over the EU. Some assert that concern about populism is exaggerated. In Conflicted Politicians: the populist radical right in the European Parliament, Counterpoint, a research and advisory group that uses social science methods to examine social, political and cultural dynamics, investigated how the PRRPs currently operate in the EP.

 
The report concluded that PRRP MEPs face a fundamental conflict. On the one hand, their ideology commits them to being fiercely critical of the EU – in some cases they want out altogether. At the same time, they benefit from the EU – obtaining money, representation, legitimacy and contacts – and are part of one of its core institutions.

 

Some PRRP MEPs react by rebelling against the institution and regularly voting against the majority on the issues that matter to them, such as immigration. PRRPs do not find it easy to maintain alliances and their weakness is rooted in ideological heterogeneity, a fear of stigmatisation, and conflicting nationalisms. The populist radical right has little impact on policy and substantive issues in the EP. When compared to other political groups, its MEPs participate less, write fewer reports and opinions, and are less successful at pushing through amendments and winning votes. They rarely hold the balance of power and so have little ‘blackmail power’ to offer the other political groups votes in exchange for advancing their policy interests. The PRRP focuses its role on gaining publicity rather than participating in policy-making activities.

 
Why do EP elections matter? These elections are taking place during a period of profound political and economic crisis, and will shape EU politics for the next five years. The results will determine the answers to such questions as: How can the eurozone be made robust? Should austerity policies be maintained or abandoned? The power of banks operating on a global scale is beyond the control of individual states. So far, only the conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized European elections. The ability of citizens to combat the EU’s democratic deficit from below is key to changing the representational structure for the better.

 
Even if the EP is reformed, it will not be a parliament as we know it. In democracies, the legislature normally initiates and amends laws, whereas in the EU, faceless technocrats devise directives behind closed doors. Axel Weber, chairman of UBS, told an audience at Davos that the coming elections could undermine recent progress by governments and the ECB (European Central Bank) by allowing extreme anti-European parties to gain influence in the parliament. What Weber calls “progress” is that banks are not lending to businesses. Bank lending has been falling for years now. Most of the €1 trillion that the ECB lent to the banks at the height of the crisis, ostensibly to stimulate national economies, has been repaid to the ECB. There is a liquidity trap because European banks have been paying money back to the ECB while starving companies and people of credit – in Ireland, Italy, France, Spain and Greece.

 
Even a higher voter turnout will not put right the lack of democracy in the EU. Technocrats, not the elected parliament will continue to make the important decisions. Voters know this and do not bother to vote. This allows right wing parties that have no chance of representation in their home parliaments to win seats in the European parliament. They may not be able to affect EU policy but they do get a platform and the oxygen of publicity. Even those, like Axel Weber, who warn of the dangers of right wing parties getting into the EP, are really saying that they do not want elected representatives interfering with the plans of the technocrats (who favour bankers like Weber).

 
Herr Weber would probably also object if voters elected non-right parties who did something practical to restrain the banks.

 

He is probably not really in favour of democracy.

 

 

Privatisation

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Echelon, a Sri Lankan business magazine.

All systems of government are flawed. But few are as flawed as those controlled by private money. George Monbiot.

Self-Mutilation by the State

I once had to wait nine months to get Sri Lankan government permission to buy with my own money, from a prominent national company, a printer for my own personal use. No-one in the ministry would answer my e-mails, letters or telephone calls. In 1977, JR Jayawardene cried, “Let the robber barons come!” There is no doubt that public services in Sri Lanka are in dire need of an overhaul. Beware of seeing privatisation as a panacea.

George Monbiot has written of the loathing that elected governments express for the concept of government: “Deregulation, privatisation, the shrinking of the scope, scale and spending of the state: these are now seen as the only legitimate policies. The corporations and billionaires to whom governments defer will have it no other way.”

Bretton Woods

The British Empire imposed western institutions and Christianity on the savages. In more recent times, the Bretton Woods institutions have imposed neo-liberalist orthodoxy on the “developing” world, often hindering their real development.

Developing countries were blackmailed into accepting the Washington Consensus – deregulation and “liberalisation” of markets. Health and education were cut and essential utilities like water handed over to foreign entrepreneurs. The people of Cochabamba in Bolivia succeeded, in April 2000, in throwing out the multi-national corporation Bechtel who had made a basic necessity unaffordable. Recently, Portugal was bailed out by the EU and IMF on condition that it privatised water, among other services.

Privatisation

I grew up with nationalised industries in the UK. Both of my parents and myself worked for the state. I tried hard, snoozing over hefty tomes on nationalisation by Ralph Miliband (father of David and Ed), but I did not learn to love British Gas or British Steel.

Employees of public services were often arrogant, rude and incompetent (I exclude my family). After privatisation, UK public utilities saw, initially, a positive customer service ethos briefly replacing surly sloth. Britain did not become a share-owning democracy. The man on the Clapham omnibus bought shares but was encouraged to offload them instantly to make a quick profit. Controlling blocks were acquired by big institutions, often foreign.

For and Against Privatisation

The argument in favour of privatisation is that a private firm’s main aim is profit which encourages efficiency. State-owned enterprises tend to inefficiency because they employ too many workers. The break-up of state-run monopolies should increase competition.

On the other hand, for some services a public monopoly might be more appropriate. Can the air we breathe be privatised and commodified for profit? Tap water has been commodified in the UK and most of the profit goes to foreign corporations who avoid UK tax.

Privatisation in Practice

British Rail seemed to be a privatisation too far, mainly designed for John Major’s ego and for private profit. The rail network was artificially fragmented causing confusion about responsibilities and skimping on safety. People died. Privatisation of rural bus services deprived a quarter of English parishes of public transport and forced an increased use of cars.

In Manchester, the bus company Arriva took over the ambulance service with dire results. Serco took on “out of hours” GP services and took the cheaper option of delivering patients to Accident and Emergency rather than to GP locums. Last year, private provider Harmoni had one advanced nurse practitioner responsible for out of hours GP cover for 250,000 patients.

A health worker complained to The Guardian: “If you privatise the NHS a large part of the budget that comes from our taxes goes to profit and often away to some tax haven, Doesn’t that automatically mean there is less to be spent on actually providing the service?”

Tom Gash, director of research at the IfG, (Institute for Government), a respected think tank, said: “Markets in public services can and do often work, but our research shows that mistakes can have a real impact on people’s lives and value for money. The IfG found mistakes in the setting up and management of outsourcing in areas such as care for older people, schools, probation and employment services.“

The Prison of Privatisation

There are currently 14 private prisons in England and Wales. G4S, Serco and Sodexo Justice Services currently manage them.  The private security firm G4S will lose £70m because of its monumental cock-up during the London Olympics. The Government was forced to bring in the army. An Angolan man died after being restrained by three G4S guards as he was being deported from the UK.  Lincolnshire’s police force now spends the lowest amount per head of population on policing in England and Wales after it handed over the bulk of its back-office functions to G4S.

The Serious Fraud Office has been asked to investigate G4S contracts going back more than ten years. An audit discovered G4S and Serco had overcharged taxpayers by up to £50m, billing them for offenders who were dead, back in custody or out of the country.

Disenchantment

There has been in the UK a relentless drive to sell off public services. Anything, it seems can be hived off – from the Royal Mail (Even Margaret Thatcher said she was “not prepared to have the Queen’s head privatised”) to children’s services, from blood plasma to search and rescue helicopters. In the pipeline is a huge sell-off of the probation service.

Dr Hamish Meldrum told a BMA conference: “End the ludicrous, divisive, expensive experiment of the market in healthcare in England. Never has there been a better time to abandon the wasteful bureaucracy of the market”.

The trade union, Unison, recently urged the government to halt pending privatisation and outsourcing deals to allow for a forensic review. In the UK, an organisation has been established to campaign against privatisation. Cat Hobbs Director of We Own It, said: “Despite what the government might think, people aren’t sold on the idea of privatising and outsourcing public services.” Damian Lyons Lowe, CEO of Survation, said a poll his organisation conducted showed: “A clear majority of the general public, including Conservative voters, reject automatic privatisation of public services; 80% want to see public sector bids for all public service tenders, showing a clear desire not to see services simply privatised by default.“

Across Europe, public ownership is making a comeback. Southwark council recently took its customer call-centre back in-house, terminating a long-running contract with a private company. The in-house service costs £3m less to run each year and will provide a better service. Although private French corporations control the water supply in many countries, the water in Paris itself is now owned and controlled by the city.

No Panacea

Tom Gash: “Unless Whitehall and other agencies improve their skills and techniques for ensuring public service markets work, mistakes will be made and the public may lose confidence in this approach to reform”. The IfG report warns that big outsourcing companies tend to act as monopolies, stifling competition and preventing small companies getting involved.

As Monbiot writes: “If a market is to serve a wider social goal than simply maximising corporate profits, it must operate within a tight regulatory framework. Pricing mechanisms do not magic away the need for regulation: if anything they enhance it. To make them work, politicians still have to confront and overcome powerful interests.”

It surely was not too much regulation or not enough privatisation that caused Europe’s current financial woes.

Ireland – Democracy without Choices

This article was published in the Sri Lankan paper The Nation but has disappeared from their website.

 

The internationally renowned Irish political scientist, the late Peter Mair, who died suddenly at the age of 60 in August 2011, used the phrase “democracy without choices” to describe the situation of Ireland today. Political parties are expected to respond to voter preferences, but international and supranational actors demand that certain policies are pursued by domestic authorities. It is clear that outside actors trump the wishes of Irish voters.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times: “It is  obvious to everyone that ordinary government has ceased to function in Ireland. What has been less clear is that something even more profound has happened: our system of government has been set aside. This is not a rhetorical exaggeration, but a demonstrable truth.”

The parlous state of Irish democracy in 2012 must be seen in the light of  Ireland’s historical links with Britain and the USA and the nation’s  more recent enthusiastic membership of the EU and commitment to the euro. However, the Irish politicians who ran the state from the beginning must take credit for their own part in undermining democracy. When Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922, the new Irish constitution appeared in the newspapers on the morning of Polling Day. Those voters who lived at any distance from Dublin did not see it before going to the Poll.  Tens of thousands voted with the promise of a Republican Constitution still in their minds.

Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, announced to the Dáil , the new Irish parliament, in October 1922: “If a large section of the people feel that a certain law is desirable; and if Parliament fails to introduce the desired legislation, power is given here to the people to initiate legislation themselves. …  it keeps contact between the people and their laws, and keeps responsibility and consciousness in the minds of the people that they are the real and ultimate rulers of the country.”

This sounded good but turned out to be humbuggery. That kind of open democracy never happened. On 3rd May 1928, opposition leader, Eamon De Valera failed with a petition of 96,000 signatures to force a referendum for the removal of the oath of allegiance to the English monarch.  [The Constitution, Article 48, required only 75,000] On 12th July, by  Constitutional Amendment No. 10, in less than 100 words, the Government effectively buried true democracy. In June 1928,  many other constitutional amendments were rushed through. A senator complained that the voters should be consulted. “Ministers have made statements to the public, which they must know are not true. They have stated that this Bill, if it is not passed, will produce a state of war or disturbance in this country. It is hard to understand how any people with any intelligence could possibly make such statements.”

The website Direct Democracy Ireland comments: “The British Government and preeminent jurists refused to acknowledge Direct Democracy… Our elected rulers probably recognised its benefits for the people and scuppered them.  The amending statutes … provided stark evidence of its serial manipulation into a Westminster-style elective dictatorship. While cynically and systematically denying the electorate the necessary power, the Free State government duplicitously proclaimed the people as ‘the real and ultimate rulers of the country’.”

Ireland was dominated by Britain for so long that it saw Europe as a means of taking a different path.  Accession to the European community in the 1970s was seen as completing the removal of  postcolonial constraints. Europe was popular with voters and  political elites saw it as  compatible with Irish nationalism. The EU gave the Irish economy a chance to escape economic dependence on Britain. Irish diplomats were skilled  at getting what they wanted from the EU. An insider told me that they were to be seen at all the social functions in Brussels, working the room with a charm offensive,  while the Brits sulked in their hotel rooms.

The EU gave great assistance in improving the Irish infrastructure and protecting Irish agriculture. US multinationals were attracted to Ireland because they wanted to participate in the single European market. There was an educated English-speaking work-force and Ireland’s low corporation tax was an incentive. The downside was that Ireland had to commit to the neo-liberal voodoo economics of  the Washington Consensus. This was successful for a time. Ireland became a global model for development and modernisation and bettered the UK in many indicators of prosperity.

Although the referendum idea had been scuppered  by the Free State government in the 1920s, Ireland’s EU profile was as a referendum state. There have been ten referendums on EC/EU treaties, beginning with accession in 1972 and then on each successive treaty since. Irish Governments decided  it was more politically prudent to hold referendums than rely on parliamentary ratification. The electorate felt it was  safer to be an integral part of the European Union than not in troubled economic times.

The Irish population has been quiescent about Europe, but this could be changing. They did vote out the Fianna Fail scoundrels who caused the economic mess but have not got much confidence in the current government.

Dr Paul Gillespie, former foreign policy editor of The Irish Times and a lecturer in the University College Dublin school of politics and international relations: “Being locked into the European credit and banking system meant Ireland’s capacity to act unilaterally was tightly constrained in any action which might be perceived to endanger the wider euro system. Not paying in full debts to bondholders who lent money to Irish banks was put top of that list by the European Central Bank and key member-states for fear of contagion – and they now had the financial power because of the bailout to insist they got their way.”

Asked why he was permitting unsecured bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank to be repaid €700 million, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, said in the Dáil: “It is the choice between two evils, as far as I am concerned, and the decision we are taking is the lesser of two evils … It is more in the interests of the Irish people to grit our teeth and allow Anglo Irish Bank to pay the bond than to default, because default takes us over the edge of the cliff.”

Former PM John Bruton argued that repaying loans in full is unfair and unethical because they were originally lent as a risk and have since been profited on in secondary trading.

O’Toole argues that Ireland has a weak parliamentary democracy but constitutionally a strong executive cabinet system. Article 28 of the Constitution defines the cabinet directly as “the government”. Constitutional expert, John Kelly, interprets this as meaning that, in relation to the statutory functions of government, “the valid exercise of these functions must presuppose a formal consideration and decision at a government meeting.” A TV documentary demonstrated that the blanket bank guarantee of September 2008, was made without “formal consideration and decision at a government meeting”. Uninformative phone calls were made but the Cabinet did not meet.

During the troika bailout, decisions were made without consulting the Cabinet, and, indeed, deliberately keeping them in the dark. Details of the next two budgets were communicated to the EU and other European governments before those decisions were made by the cabinet.

O’Toole believes legal action should be taken over this unconstitutional activity: “The Offences Against the State Act outlaws anyone ‘taking part in any way in a body of persons purporting to be a government . . . but not authorised in that behalf by or under the Constitution.’ But the legal establishment, which felt obliged to warn us that cutting judges’ pay was a threat to our system of government, is oddly silent. The Supreme Court has found the attorney general is obliged to act when faced with breaches of the Constitution: ‘It is a power, function and duty imposed on him by the Constitution”. The duty of the Attorney General in such a case is entirely independent of her role as legal adviser to the Government. She has to ask the appalling question: on what lawful authority do the bank bailout, the troika deal and the budget rest?”

Paul  Gillespie wrote in a tribute to Peter Mair: “Mair argued that political parties which originated in representing ordinary citizens in 20th century democracies have been transformed by professionalisation, elite dominance, experience of government and the search for political power. Democracy, as a result, has been hollowed out.”

Democracy all over the world is suffering the same fate.

NGOs Speak with Forked Tongue

This article appeared in Lakbima News on April 1. It has disappeared from the paper’s website. This was not an April Fool’s joke because I have the print edition in front of me. I did not imagine seeing it on the website because someone e-mailed me about it only today, April 10. I saw it on the website and a few people commented. Where has it gone?

 

Susantha Goonatilake called his 2006 book on foreign-funded NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonization. In his conclusion he wrote: “Sri Lankan NGOs emerged in the late 1970s when the then government cracked down on democracy, transparency and accountability and killed locally-grown civil society… Sri Lanka thus became a partial NGO franchise state, with the NGOs attempting to erode the country’s sovereignty.”

Neo-liberal imperialism leads to the assumption  that poor countries cannot modernize without foreign help. In the 1990s this “help” meant blackmailing developing countries into accepting the Washington Consensus – deregulation and liberalisation of markets, privatisation and severe cuts in the public sector and undermining sovereignty. The World Bank learnt  obfuscatory cant  from its NGO partners and NGOs reciprocally learnt to be “businesslike”. By stressing citizen “participation”, institutional “transparency”, respect for “the rule of law” and the flourishing of “civil society”, the bank was camouflaging its authoritarian preference for imposing its  doctrinaire free-market policies which can be lethal for the weak economies of developing countries.

In my recent article on the subject of cant I gave passing mention to the strong showing that NGOs are making in the jargon department. I now want to give NGOs the more detailed attention they so richly deserve. Much NGO language is verbiage  that is never translated into action, aphasic gobbledygook  that displays the arrogance of the outsider and is not designed to communicate. NGO workers themselves like to joke about  language like “Successful Good Practice Related to Local Ownership and Crosscutting Holistic Gender Empowerment for Excluded Adolescent Girls based on Positive Deviance Methodology”. This is in-crowd humour displaying group solidarity against the funny “locals”.

Let me remind you that Dr Johnson defined cant as: “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms”, “a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men”.

For NGO condescension in abundance check out this blogsite: http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/

I know a lot of this stuff is intended as self-deprecatory humour but it still comes across as arrogant and esoteric. A blogger on that site called D (none of these people are prepared to use their real names) finds armed militias a source of humour. “Rebel presence means that the EAW (Expatriate Aid Worker) is doing some hardship living (and getting hardship pay!). Rebels remind the EAW that he is living in a dodgy place. And we all know EAWs like dodgy places.” If only Tamil civilians in the north could have got some “hardship pay” for their proximity to the “rebel presence”! “Rebels, militias and freedom fighters — what would the hardcore EAW do without them?”

Bit too close to the truth, what?

During the Sri Lankan conflict there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA?

A blogger called J finds sexual exploitation amusing: “Few things say, ‘I am one with the people’ like nailing the hot, local office manager or getting nailed by the suave local driver.”

There are those who argue that foreign aid is bad for recipients and donors. William Easterly , who is  the main proponent of this view, sent out a twitter call for aid workers to help him compile a dictionary of AidSpeak.

Here is a selection of the contributions:

 “beneficiaries” : the people who make it possible for us to be paid by other people

 “civil society involvement”: consulting the middle class employee of a US or European NGO

“community capacity building” : teach them what they already know

“entrepreneurial” : vaguely innovative and cool, but definitely nothing to do with the hated “market”

participatory stakeholders” : people who should solve their own problems

 “participation” : the right to agree with preconceived projects or programs

“Global North” : White academics; “Global South” : Indian academics

“pro-poor” : the rich know best

“outreach” : intrude

 “sensitize” : tell people what to do

 “tackling root causes of poverty” : repackaging what we’ve already done in a slightly more sexy font –

I wrote in these pages about 27-year-old  Joshua M Schoop, who spent three months in the Northern province while studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane University, Louisiana. He wrote: “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating  a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh, are you not planning a career based on such dependence? Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to  third- world nations. Most of Sri Lanka’s social indicators are better than Louisiana’s. America’s  civil war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. I have been to Louisiana and the war does not seem to have ended. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and ended less than three years  ago. The Reconstruction era was a difficult period in American history. Progress is already being made in Sri Lanka but we are too slow for Josh.

It was good of Josh to take the trouble come over here to Sri Lanka to help us out when there is so much for him to do back home. How does Sri Lanka benefit from twenty-somethings with little experience of life bringing their jargon over here?

A couple of years back I had some e-mail exchanges with a fellow Irish citizen who had made her career with a US-based NGO whose speciality was fostering democracy. A previous posting had been in Bosnia. Now she was bringing democracy to Sri Lanka. I  wondered how  a young Irishwoman would, in practical terms, address the particular nature of Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit. Would she walk into a local Pradeshiya Sabha and disarm the politico-thugs? Would she go to the parliament with a whip and drive out all the thieves, murderers and rapists? Would she use her Irish charm and eloquence to persuade the president to repeal the 18th Amendment? Would she sort out the leadership crisis in the UNP?

I think it more likely that she would sit in a Colombo office dispensing cant.

A young  British woman posts on Facebook to her friends abroad jottings about life as an NGO intern in Sri Lanka. She finds there are often stupid things in Sri Lankan newspapers. It seems that train journeys can be uncomfortable and fellow passengers smell and have unpleasant eating habits.  Batticaloa and Vavuniya leave something to be desired compared to Didsbury. At one point she did have the grace to describe as  this as “spoiltwesternwhinings”. There are compensations: “Swimming in the Indian Ocean, cricket on the beach, blagging a press pass for the Galle Literature Fest, stalking Richard Dawkins, surfing, fancy beach party….”

I am reminded of something that Gomin Dayasri wrote about the unhealthy symbiosis between NGOs, the Bretton Woods agents of neo-liberal capitalism, foreign journalists and what he calls “Colombians” –  the western-orientated English-speaking elite:“Such comfortable digs are not in the market in the recession-stung home country. There is exotic food and groovy watering holes at affordable prices. NGOs provide the freebies and roll out the red carpet…With the LTTE gone where will they go? After few more horror stories to demean the Security Forces and back to the west to face the shock treatment of recession. War is an investment relief to the Foreign Correspondent. The order will soon come to pack the flak jackets and return to a not so sweet home and to wait patiently for a call to another exotic destination?”

Simon Akam reported from Sierra Leone for the Literary Review that NGO-speak has  infected broadcasting and government in that benighted country and is being absorbed into the local language, Krio: “The national dialogue is framed in the vernacular of NGOs…. What Sierra Leone needs is a functioning central government to deal with the allocation of resources, both domestic and those provided by aid. The issues at stake are too large to be dealt with by smaller institutions…. Instead, numerous foreign NGOs – a surfeit of white people in white Landcruisers – surround a weak central bureaucracy. None of them has the means to perform the grand functions that are needed; even if they did, concern about sovereignty would probably prevent them.”

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business. Analysts at Development Initiatives estimate that the humanitarian aid sector globally was worth at least $18 billion in 2008. World Vision International, spent over $6.5 million on relief assistance in 60 countries that year, distributing over half a million tonnes of food to 8.5 million people. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

 

Paul Murphy MEP

This was my first article for The Nation newspaper, published on October 23 2011. It has disappeared from their website.

My compatriot, Paul Murphy MEP, an Irish member of the EU Parliament,  wants to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about democracy.

He is  a prematurely balding twitchy 28 years old, (There are many videos on You Tube showing Murphy ranting to an empty hall  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjToY8jULCY and demonstrating that he cannot pronounce “Sinhala”).

He has never had a proper job and has been an MEP for around eight months. No-one ever voted for him to be an MEP.

He  has been complaining about Sri Lanka in several media outlets.

“The idea to travel to Sri Lanka came from the meeting I hosted in the Parliament a few months ago about the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. My wish to go was strengthened by the many meetings I have had with the Tamil Diaspora, and others active on the issue of Tamil rights, in the recent period.”

“I will continue to highlight and speak out against what I consider to be war crimes of the Rajapaksa regime and to defend the right to self determination by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. I will also continue to speak out against the ongoing militarisation of Sri Lankan society and against the repression used against any opposition to the Sri Lankan regime. The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.”

As well as complaining that he was refused a visa to visit Sri Lanka, he is raising the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram,  whom he says has been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.

Other than the assertions of Murphy himself. I have been unable to find much  information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. All I know is that the man studied polymers at Queen Mary College in the 1970s.

I asked the Irish Ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Thompson, if any representations  had been made to him about this case.  I was  fobbed off by one of His Excellency’s minions. The press office of the Foreign Ministry in Dublin told me: “The Department is aware of this case and all possible consular assistance is being provided to Mr. Gunasundaram Jayasunderam’s wife and family through the Consular Assistance section in Dublin, the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi and the Honorary Consul of Ireland in Sri Lanka.”

I have asked Paul Murphy himself for more information. He has not responded.

I would greatly appreciate it if  any readers  point me in the direction of some information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. (I can be contacted at spikeyriter@gmail.com.)  Is he in custody in Sri Lanka? If so what has he done?

I was sorry to hear that Paul Murphy was  unable to get a visa to visit Sri Lanka. I understand that he  wished to visit the north of the country. It will be  a pity if he does  not get an opportunity to do so. I do not think he has  visited Sri Lanka before. If he  had, he should  be impressed by the changes that have occurred all over the country since the Tamil Tigers were defeated.

Paul Murphy wants to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? President Rajapaksa, despite a strong  animosity expressed in some papers, notably the Sunday Leader, and despite anxieties about the economy and worker unrest,  has  generally won the confidence of voters and he currently seems unassailable. A recent Gallup found that more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans approved of the president. Mainly, Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are grateful to President Rajapaksa that their children can go to school without fear of being blown to giblets.

Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party won the Dublin EP seat in 2009 but gave it up when he was elected to the Irish national parliament on the wave of voter disgust with mainstream Irish parties.

There was criticism that Higgins was being less than transparent: “He deliberately kept people in the dark about the fact that if he got elected to Europe he would throw in the towel at the first smell of a general election and that in truth people were not electing him but some unknown entity”. There was a great deal of high-minded debate about how the Socialist Party would choose a successor to Higgins but none of this seemed to involve consulting  the electorate.

Paul Murphy worked for Higgins and took over Higgins’s EP seat. The above comment is from the website politics.ie. Here are some more:  “He [Murphy] is known to nobody outside of his small party and has never sought election…This appointment of Higgins’s assistant is complete cronyism despite the tripe being written by the hard-line socialists.” “The people voted for a list that named Ruth Coppinger as the replacement for Joe Higgins, in the present circumstances. For the Socialist Party to instead appoint a crony of Joe Higgins is a sign of contempt for democracy.”

How many votes did Paul Murphy get? None! How many votes did President Rajapaksa get?

Paul Murphy, in his infinite compassion,  wants to get involved in everyone’s problems and spreads himself thin. The British satirical magazine Private Eye has been bursting bubbles of pomposity since the early 60s. One of the Eye’s great comic creations is the all-purpose lefty agitator Dave Spart. Spartism has entered the English language. The Urban Dictionary defines a Spartist as: “An individual who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else. Often condemns most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, and often ends up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, hare-brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.”

There is a lot of Spartism on Paul Murphy’s website: http://www.paulmurphymep.eu/

Paul is a feisty little fellow. His tireless ecumenical activism tempts me to rename him  Daibhéid Ó Speartáin. Murphy is supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza), he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy, he feels for the homeless all over the world. The Chinese government must be trembling to know that Daibhéid Ó Speartáin has them sussed.

There are many problems to be solved in Ireland.

Ireland has a reasonable international image when it comes to human rights and global charitable works. However, it has to be noted that the Irish government (not the current one) allowed Shannon Airport to be used by the CIA for extraordinary rendition flights. That means anonymous people held without charge were being flown all over the world to be tortured with the complicity of the Irish government.

This was not Paul Murphy’s fault, of course. He was not a member of the Irish government. He has never been elected by anyone. He has no power or influence. Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems.

Lest we accuse Paul of neglecting problems back home in dear old Ireland, it should be noted that he is suing the Irish police for assaulting him when he was protesting at the Shell gas plant at Corrib. He protested  against cutbacks at Tallaght Hospital. He is active in Free Education for Everyone. In 2009, he was working on a PhD thesis titled “Does socialist law exist?” In Ireland,  he has been prominent in campaigning for young workers rights, holding a series of public meetings throughout Dublin as part of the “Jobs not Dole” campaign. Paul Murphy has also been vocal in opposition to the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland and austerity measures being carried out by the government including the proposed “Household Tax”.

Mind you,  he has not got a mandate from the Irish people to address those issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all.

Writing in the October 2011 issue of Lanka Monthly Digest, Amantha Perera reminisces about his grim visits to Vavuniya during the war. He finds the North as a whole transformed for the better, with Vavuniya a particular revelation. The Tampa hotel is providing better facilities for journalists than five-stars in Bangkok and a boisterous crowd gets drunk around the pool. The next morning Perera chats to some students one of whom says he is sleepy because he studies late into the night. “I am not scared to study alone at night, there are no more loud noises”.

This reminded me of something my friend the Reverend Harold Good said in 2008 when receiving his  award from the Gandhi Foundation for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. A child wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth? Do we need a young Dublin jackeen who has never set foot on Sri Lankan soil  and has very little experience of life in general to remind us that horrors have occurred in this land?

Don’t be a begrudger,  Paul. Let Sri Lanka continue to enjoy the peace we have had for over two years.

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