The Orwell Essays

Orwell-Essays-1Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.

Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically correct absurdity”. He defends Enoch Powell.

Sewell emerges as compassionate, and committed to improving the welfare of the poorest in society, as well as animals. He empathizes with London’s beggars, and challenges the government line that young people on the street “should not have left home” as “unrealistic”, given the complex domestic tragedies many of these adolescents face. He attacks Tony Blair for seeing “the homeless, the vandal and the mugger as a single problem”. In several essays, Sewell abhors industrial animal farming. He laments the living conditions of battery hens: “reared in huge barrack sheds without windows, as many as 30,000 in each, the noise, stench and heat unbearable to any human being”; the birds are duly “slaughtered on the 42nd day of their wretched lives”.

Sewell possesses foresight on issues such as housing and foreign policy. “To save our countryside”, he writes, “we must first regenerate our cities.” Urban planning should focus on building upwards, rather than outwards. Attractive high-rise buildings with “airy” apartments, he believes, would be more convenient for city-dwellers while protecting the countryside from the encroachment of “wasteful garden cities like Welwyn, Letchworth, Harlow and the execrable Milton Keynes”. In a piece written in October 2001, he is sceptical of intervention in Afghanistan, asking whether any “replacement government” and “democratic elections” could work.

These articles are refreshingly honest, fearless, insightful and humane. Sewell was awarded the Orwell Prize for them in 2003.

The Times Literary Supplement

Advertisements

Hunger Shames

A comparative book review:

THE END OF PLENTY – The race to feed a crowded world, by Joel K. Bourne

THE REPROACH OF HUNGER – Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century, by David Rieff

Joel K. Bourne considers a world seemingly destined for even more hungry people. The planet’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Food production increases are barely able to match population increases. Food stocks are diminishing. The extraordinary growth of food production brought about by the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s is now levelling out due to soil nutrient depletion, a result of the intensive farming that was deemed necessary to address unprecedented global population growth. The increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, which requires and releases more carbon dioxide to produce, is exacerbating climate change. Climate change is already reducing production for farmers throughout the world.

It makes for scary reading. Bourne is happy to furnish our fears. He writes, “The world’s farmers face a . . . Herculean, task: to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. And they must do it without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends. It is the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”. Later he adds,  “we’re on a roller coaster that has just left the tracks”.

This catastrophic scenario is relieved somewhat by the book’s narrative structure. Bourne eases our worries with stories of ingenious and personable farmers doing their bit to help themselves and, implicitly, humanity.

Bourne has a passion for seeds and soil. He admires people working the land, none more so than the father of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. He describes an “iconic” image of Borlaug in a Mexican field in 1964: “His shirtsleeves are rolled high, revealing a brawny, sun-darkened right arm that scribbles in a large notebook . . . his eyes steeled on the wheat field in front of him, judging its height, vigor and yield.” Borlaug is one of many heroic figures in this story. Other hopeful characters include: a maverick American aquaculturist off the coast of Panama, an Ivy League microirrigation engineer launching his start-up in India, and corporate farmers in Ukraine looking to exploit the potential of Europe’s breadbasket.

The End of Plenty is both readable and compelling as a series of largely apolitical tales of farmers’ challenges and triumphs set against the wider environmental context.

Yet The End of Plenty does not go far enough, both in terms of analysis or prescription. As its subtitle states, this book is about “the race to feed a crowded world”. But Bourne sees the problem of hunger narrowly, as largely one of food supply, and suggests answers mainly in agricultural innovation alone.

This tendency to see the solution to global hunger through “innovative” agricultural development is the view of the “mainstream”, as David Rieff makes clear in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century. The mainstream comprises all the major players apparently aiming to tackle hunger: the United Nations, bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank, international NGOs and even agro-industrial multinationals. Reiff argues that they share a misguided “faith” that hunger can be eradicated – for that is their aim – through “smart aid”, scientific innovation and “best practices” drawn from the private sector.

Rieff correctly asserts that this mainstream development consensus represents an ideology that simplifies the causes of hunger and underestimates the scale of the changes required to tackle it. He argues that “hope has become the default of our age, and realism . . . is now widely considered to be a moral solecism and almost a betrayal of what it should mean to be a compassionate human being.” He laments this status quo, “in which good intentions are too often conflated with good deeds and good deeds with effective ones”. He deplores “an age where it is a fact and not an opinion that inequality is deepening across the world, that power and wealth are more and more concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority of the world’s population, and that politics even in democratic countries is increasingly unresponsive”. He concludes that “all this talk about individuals making a difference [is] at best a consoling farce”.

The Reproach of Hunger is a long, rambling book filled with long, rambling sentences. But Rieff’s insight on the illusory quality of the development consensus is important. As is his assertion that hunger is fundamentally a political problem, not a technical one. But Rieff, like Bourne, fails to offer an alternative. His overriding scepticism precludes it. Disconsolate, he agrees with the philosopher John Gray that the “emancipation of market forces from social and political control” represents the only revolution currently underway.

These books – one fearful, the other despairing – offer divergent visions of the challenges we face in feeding the “bottom billion”. Bourne fears we may not produce enough food considering existing farming methods, population growth and the effects of climate change, while Rieff doubts that “philanthrocapitalism” – the present approach – offers a real solution. Yet they struggle with the same binary: either working with, or against, capitalism. Neither ventures a credible political alternative.

Alternatives do exist, however. As with water, we must defend the aim of “enough food for all” from the vicissitudes of market economics. As a norm and an ideal, ending hunger should be a cross-party political goal. This should be safeguarded legally, by enshrining rights within all state constitutions. Governments that breach their citizens’ “right to food” should be liable.

 

The Times Literary Supplement

 

Mali’s Prospects for Peace

Bamako woman.jpg

The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on 20 November was symptomatic of Mali’s protracted social conflict. Twenty-one people were killed during the day-long siege, including the two jihadists from Al-Mourabitoun, one of several radical Muslim factions operating in the north of the country. A recurring conflict between northern Tuareg actors and the government has also plagued Mali since it gained independence in 1960. In 2012, the ‘fifth Tuareg uprising’ and almost simultaneous jihadist attacks broke out across the north, expelling government forces from Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions. These parallel movements threatened Mali’s state sovereignty, prompting French military and UN peacekeeping interventions as well as an internationally mediated peace process. Three years later, it remains to be seen whether lasting peace can be achieved in Mali.

In the short term, successive French military interventions Serval and Barkhane have weakened northern radical Islamic militant groups such as Ansar Dine, which led the 2012 jihad, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The French army recently reported that between July 2014 and 2015 Operation Barkhane had removed 125 terrorists from Mali and seized 20 tonnes of munitions. The UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) has also helped to stabilise the conflict, despite recently becoming the fourth-deadliest mission in the history of the blue helmets. In addition, Mali’s neighbouring states coordinate to tackle security challenges as part of the Nouakchott Process, which started in late 2014. These initiatives have de-escalated the conflict for now.

The peace process has also made some advances in conflict transformation between 2014 and 2015. The large number of northern armed actors were united in their hostility towards a Malian state they saw as exclusionary and corrupt, but splintered over goals and methods. By July 2014, the mediation team, led by Algeria, had successfully coalesced the actors into two coalitions – the more statist, government-leaning Platform, and the more secessionist Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad(known as ‘Coordination’) – which became compliant within a political process. By the time the Coordination signed the ‘Algiers Accord’ on 20 June 2015, the process had achieved notable compromises among parties. For example, the Coordination dropped its goal of a separate ‘Azawad’ territory and agreed to back a single, secular Malian state. The government also shifted its position, agreeing to the official use of the name ‘Azawad’ for the northeastern region, and several additional political concessions.

Significantly, the Accord offers considerable devolution to northern Tuareg populations represented by the Coordination. It also promises economic investment in the north, which both the Platform and the Coordination desire. Meanwhile, both northern factions have agreed to disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and reinsertion (DDRR), including merging some elements into the national security forces. Socially, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to investigate violence and abuses committed in the country during 1960–2013, is an important step towards fostering a culture of reconciliation.

The peace deal also generated a positive international response, with France pledging €360 million in reconstruction assistance on 21 October. The following day the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosted an international conference on Mali, to solicit further investment from the public and private sectors. The meeting concluded by stating that Mali requires some €3.5 billion in humanitarian and development assistance during the next six years.

All of these initiatives are de-escalating conflict in Mali. But the question remains whether they are actually transforming the conflict. Three developments in 2015 would suggest not. Firstly, the Coordination refused to sign the Algiers Accord when the Platform did so in March, because, among other unmet aspirations, the group rejected the proposed security arrangements. This rejection was almost certainly based on concerns that its forces would not be stationed optimally when ‘guarding’ northern roads. Secondly, both the Platform and the Coordination broke the ceasefire agreement, central to the Accord, several times between May and September, halting the implementation of the peace deal. Each breach was a result of armed elements moving into ‘forbidden’ territories in the northern regions. Their objective, again, was to claim key strategic roads when, through the Accord, they would soon be entrusted to ‘police’ them. This manoeuvring led to several clashes, the last of which, on 17 September, resulted in 15 fatalities. Following this ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, the third key event was a three-week long meeting in Anefis between the Platform and the Coordination, which ended in mid-October with a deal to end hostilities. According to reports, this so-called ‘pact of honour’ again centred around cantonments along the northern roads.

Both parties’ concerns over the control of roads in the north is explained by the prevalence of smuggling in the area. Illicit trade across Mali’s northern border has grown since the 1970s – from cigarettes, to cannabis, to cocaine, heroin, arms and human beings – and has become a vital source of revenue for northern communities. Controlling roads heading into Algeria guarantees vital income through bribery and kickbacks. A worrying associated trend has been kidnapping, particularly by terrorist networks seeking cash for the release of hostages.

The fact that so much of the peace process has, in effect, hinged on control over trafficking routes reveals two key insights: firstly, that criminality and corruption is endemic both in the north, but also reputedly in Bamako, massively undermining Mali’s long-term governance and security. Secondly, that people engaged in such activities seek this income for themselves and their communities, revealing the persistent poverty and deprivation of the north, which is still resource-poor and economically marginalised. As Paul Collier has forcefully argued, this kind of poverty is a key driver of conflict. Both insights suggest that the structurally rooted nature of conflict in Mali persists, despite efforts at delivering peace.

For real conflict transformation in Mali to occur, northern criminality needs to be tackled by force, but also through strengthened governance and rule of law. Broader recognition of the problem is necessary: Mali’s diplomatic community still treats cross-border trafficking as a taboo; radical ‘Islamists’ or tribal dynamics are instead seen as the key drivers of conflict. The Nouakchott Declaration refers to transnational trafficking networks merely in passing. Donors should force Bamako to tackle the issue by disinvesting, for example, when trafficking indicators are triggered. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) remains weak in Mali. International organisations must be capable of confronting corruption at the central level.

But in parallel with such efforts, the international community must support the government in promoting legitimate forms of income to replace this criminal economy. France’s financial pledge is undoubtedly important, but it remains a ‘pledge’, only €80 million of which was dedicated to the north. The government must honour its commitments, enshrined in the Algiers Accord, to northern political and economic integration. Moreover, the international community must incentivise this assimilation into the national economy by promoting existing assets, like tourism, and identifying alternate revenue streams. In this way, the northern groups can be legitimately empowered, in conflict analysis terms, so as to be able to negotiate effectively with the government within an ongoing political process.

As long as trafficking and criminality are allowed to continue, and no viable alternative exists, then this war economy will prevail throughout northern Mali. In this context, armed actors will continue to rise against the state. And jihadi ‘spoilers’ will continue to kidnap and kill, as they did in Bamako on 20 November. As such, Mali’s prospects for peace remain worryingly remote.

International Institute for Strategic Studies

 

Stuffed and Starved

I have just finished reading Raj Patel’s ‘Stuffed & Starved’ (1st edition, 2008). In this brilliant polemic, he addresses most of the key factors underpinning the world food system.

Patel argues convincingly that the large food corporations are socially pernicious. His range is of research is really impressive. I also liked the tone he uses; he never speaks from a position of authority. He uses vignettes to paint the bigger picture. He lets others talk. And some of his ideas and insights are so illuminating.

Though Patel  seems to steer clear of any major political or structural analysis. Government policies and the role of global governance institutions, outside of the WTO, are barely addressed.  I got the impression that Patel implies that it is these corporations who are responsible for the ‘starved’; that they are leaving populations destitute. I would have liked a clearer argument on food security here. I think the responsibility for food security lies more with the governments within these countries than foreign corporations. But the role of government lies largely outside of Patel’s narrative.

In any case, this is, as Naomi Klein described it, a “dazzling” book and well worth a read.

The Real Transition That Afghanistan Needs

The Afghan guessing game is intensifying. Nobody can accurately predict what will happen in 2014 – the “transition” year – when international ground forces finally exit and a new Afghan president is elected. Pessimists foresee the outbreak of civil war and a rise in the number of safe havens used by international terrorists. This current rise in attacks, assassinations and abductions around the country will increase their anxiety.

May’s Nato conference in Chicago saw world leaders promise more cash to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling security services, but can we not learn from history and recognise that no matter how much money and lives are expended on military intervention and training, more soldiering and policing will not deliver long-term security.

Military force seeks to prevent insecurity but ignores its root causes. Afghanistan’s insurgencies find acceptance among the poorest, most marginalised communities. These are villages in remote districts that are neglected by government and aid agencies. As US General Eikenberry was fond of saying, “where the road ends, the Taliban begins”.  Roads are important, but providing quality services that vulnerable populations can reach is vital.

Afghanistan’s under-development remains shocking. One in two children under five is chronically malnourished. Nearly half of school age children are out of school. Around half the population is underemployed. Over a third of the country lives below the poverty line. In such precarious environments, religious extremism, narco-trafficking, criminality and corruption thrive, for survival is paramount.

Undeniably there have been achievements over the past ten years. Access to primary health care has increased from 8 percent of the population to more than 60 percent. Access to electricity has increased by 250 percent. The Afghan government has increased its ability to collect revenue. And, yes, thousands of kilometres of roads have been constructed. Donors, development partners and NGOs have played a critical role in supporting Kabul in these and other areas.

But the fact remains that, despite over ten years of enormous foreign investment in Afghanistan, the lives of ordinary Afghans have changed little. About 40,000 Afghans die each year due to poverty and hunger. This figure is fifteen times more than casualties from war. Yet NATO has spent more than twice as much on its intervention in one month than all the combined international aid spent on social protection in eight years.

2012-03-24 14.08.22

Investments in the basic building blocks – quality education, nutrition and rural livelihoods – have for too long been dismally low when compared with the vast sums disbursed on governance and more “visible” macro-economic projects deemed to be the “silver bullet” for Afghanistan’s future GDP.

The poorest Afghans have understandably grown disillusioned with the corruption among Kabul’s political elites when tax-payers’ money should be going towards improving people’s social services. These Afghans naturally start to view the international aid community as equally self-serving and hypocritical. No wonder then that they accept the alternatives that are pressed upon them by Islamist clerics and their foot soldiers.

Next week, Afghanistan’s stakeholders from the international community will meet in Tokyo to discuss development. This is a major conference and needs to be treated as such, not simply as another stop-off in the Afghan diplomatic carousel.  It presents a genuine opportunity for policymakers to shift the balance of power away from war-weary Generals to the Ministers, Ambassadors and senior UN officials who will be responsible for the country’s future development.

If the “transition” is a discursive tool, let us frame it this way: the following two years should see the international community transition from a security-dominated agenda to a development agenda. Critically, this agenda must prioritise the most vulnerable Afghans’ needs and focus on sustainability. The UN must become the major partner in supporting the government’s development strategy.

One thing is clear: the elephant in the room at Tokyo will be the abject lack of human development in Afghanistan; that is, the international community’s failure to help the country’s poorest. Everyone there will be aware of it, but few will have the courage to speak up and propose solutions.

When aid targets the right people directly, it can work. The National Solidarity Programme, funded by the US, UK, Canada and Denmark among others, has empowered communities across rural Afghanistan to spend US$1.2 billion on their own development priorities. This kind of development practice is helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans move out of poverty. What’s more, such measures improve security, cheaply.

As western constituencies vote for accelerated troop withdrawals, and the military aid teams pack up their bases, and the media spotlight moves away from this country after over ten long years, we must finally transition to a more realistic approach. Spending a greater share of limited budgets towards ‘smarter’ development will improve the lives of millions of Afghans, both immediately and in the longer term.

Reducing poverty and hunger, preventing illiteracy and disease – these are not only inherently good things, but they also make communities less amenable to an insurgent’s methods of persuasion. This clearly benefits Afghan people and will go some way to relieving the concerns of a worried, if tired, international community.

Hunger

Locust Control in Madagascar

What is hunger? An abdominal pang you feel around midday? A craving for snacks at five in the afternoon? For over a billion people worldwide, hunger is a chronic state: suffered almost all the time, every day.

It’s a struggle of mental endurance as well as sustenance. I once went five days without eating, but I knew at some point I’d be able to eat, so while I became thin and tired, I was never mentally weakened. Chronic hunger leaves no such comfort; it’s as psychologically debilitating as it is physically emaciating.

This month the United Nations meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Despite what those assembled will say, MDG 1, to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people suffering from hunger, is an embarrassing failure. There were 817 million hungry people in 1990. We were aiming at close to 400 million. Today there are over a billion. So why have we failed so spectacularly to solve the problem of hunger, what causes it and can we do anything to solve it?

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, man has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

Before trying to prescribe solutions to it, we should understand that hunger is not a distinct entity; there is no single hunger, but multiple hungers, of diverse forms, severity, duration, origin and consequence. Hunger can be seen as a nested concept, within the larger bracket of ‘food insecurity’, and part of a process that leads to undernutrition,  or clinical forms of hunger, resulting from serious deficiencies in one or a number of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins and minerals). A food insecure person can become hungry if their food availability, access or utilization fails.

Decades of research and indeed the lessons of history have shown that hunger does not necessarily stem from inadequacy of food output and supply, as alarmists from the production side and neo-Malthusian development theorists are prone to propagate. The warnings that world food output is falling behind population growth not only fail to address the causes of hunger, but also blind us from the complex range of causes that demand our attention.

Steve Wiggins from development think tank ODI says, “It’s never about food availability [production]. The big issue is distribution.” Wiggins adds that “people go hungry because they are poor.” Wiggins proposes poverty reduction and a focus on child healthcare as macro and micro level solutions to hunger. However, macro increases in income have not translated into proportional decreases in hunger.

Oxfam’s Chris Leather describes political will, community-based participation, good governance, fulfilment of ODA pledges, social protection, appropriate humanitarian assistance, international systems, multilateral collaboration and accountability mechanisms as priority areas for solving hunger. The list is exhaustive, and narrated with weariness, so as to make these concepts mundane, like a shopping list. Hunger is always highly localised; such all-encompassing prescriptions seem almost abstract.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s most renowned scholar on famine and poverty, has maintained the need for a nuanced analytical approach, yet even he veers into prescriptive overload. Economic growth, expansion of gainful employment, diversification of production, enhanced medical and health care, safety nets for vulnerable women and children, increasing basic education and literacy, strengthening democracy and reducing gender inequalities are, he argues, the right causal avenues to address.

The problems lie in our social, political and economic systems; most were not designed for the purpose of sharing goods equitably. The ‘smaller’ our world appears to have become through miraculous transport and communications achievements, the more tragically evident this fact becomes. Despite the advantages of globalization and the supposed dominance of liberalism in the international system, we nevertheless remain unable to re-organise these systems according to all peoples’ equal needs. This failure is ultimately an ethical one.

At the global level, tackling hunger requires structural changes, like transforming global trading systems. U.S. and European subsidies schemes render their leaders’ rhetoric on the benefits of the free market hypocritical. Most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today. As the prices of imported commodities creep up again, millions more risk going hungry. At the rural community level, where most of the hungry are located, we need to focus our efforts on expanding social protection and promoting nutritionally-enhanced, pro-poor agricultural development.

Progress should be about fulfilling mankind’s needs. Today’s political, economic and ethical systems incentivise economic growth and individual wealth over real human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century; it doesn’t have to be. We need to galvanise our moral and political strength to change this.

The East African