Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Peace Talk with Sigmund Freud!

Lots has happened in my life in a short space of time. Unfortunately this has left little time for staying up to date with current affairs - home raids, hail storms and the like - let alone for writing my blog. My end of year exams are also fast approaching so this blog will be fairly quiet over the next few weeks, but I hope to revive it come November. But here I am this morning determining to get something down not on paper, [IRD instructs me to "say goodbye to paper" on my last letter from them] but in pixels, as it were, and I'm going to return to one of my favourite topics: war and peace.

(But not this particular war and peace!)

They say that women, upon falling pregnant, notice other pregnant women everywhere. In other words, once you've taken an interest in a certain topic, you wind up encountering it all the time. It's been like that for me this year with peace initiatives. Now that I've got somewhat involved with peace movements in New Zealand, I get invited to events, I meet peace activists, I keep getting recommended articles to read... suddenly it seems to me as if every second person is just as interested in the topic as I am. (Perhaps they always have been and I'm just a slow learner!) Truly though, we have an impressive number of groups promoting peace in the community. These include faith-based groups, such as Sokka Gakkai - an offshoot of Buddhism which emphasises human rights, sustainability and peace - and my own Anglican church which has turned its attention to the ongoing suffering in the Middle East. In addition there are research centres like Otago University's Peace and Conflict Studies, community organisations like Peace Movement Aotearoa and branches such as the United Nations Association of New Zealand. There are many calendar days given over to reflection on peace. I wrote a post following the August commemorations of the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 and just last week I attended an event marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. We have all heard of Armistice Day and ANZAC Day, at which we acknowledge the sacrifice made by our soldiers in the wars and wish for future peace and security.

Mutiple days are given over to reflection on war and peace.

Over the ages, we humans have struggled with the idea of peace. Are humans inherently violent? Is peace desirable? If it is, how is it possible for us to become peaceful? I'm doing a paper on political philosophy at the moment and thought I could share some of the views we've been exposed to from thinkers such as Kant, Hegel and Butler. I want to start with Sigmund Freud. Most famous as the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud also philosophised on peace. He believed that we humans are caught between the conflicting drives of Eros (the desire to preserve) and Thanatos (the desire to destroy.) It was Freud's belief that man will always be caught in this struggle between Eros and Thanatos, and that this individual conflict also plays out on a societal level. The two drives are necessary for our existence and neither is inherently detrimental. For example, the act of loving another person is influenced by Eros - as we protect and nurture that person - as well as by Thanatos - as we possess that person and jealously guard him from anybody else who might dare to also love him. Freud thought it unlikely that we ever successfully overcome our aggressive tendencies, so wrought are they in the human psyche.

Freud's letter Why War? to Einstein is good to read.

Does this mean that we should immediately give up on empty ideals for peace? Not at all. Freud believed that, even though we will always struggle with Thanatos, we should attempt to repress our aggressive instincts. In Freud's own words, (in his letter to Albert Einstein Why War?), "it is not a matter of fully removing the human inclination to aggression; one can attempt to divert it in such a way that it need not find expression in war." This diversion could be created by instead appealing to Eros, for example, by placing a high emphasis on creating bonds between others so that we are less likely inflict violence on one another. "Everything that creates emotional bonds among human beings must work against war." Freud postulated that over time, as humans journey towards an understanding of progress or civilisation, that humans were learning to become more co-operative and peaceful. He noted that, "among the psychological features [since Freud was of course the founder of psychoanalysis] of civilisation two seem to be the most important: the strengthening of the intellect, which is beginning to dominate the instinctive life... and the internalisation of the tendency towards aggression." Freud pronounced himself a pacifist not because he thought that complete peace was achievable, but on the grounds of principle, because it was the right thing to do.

J.A. Panetta's representation of Eros and Thanatos.

Perhaps we should take Freud's writings with a grain of salt. After all, Freud did himself concede that, "not much is achieved by calling the unworldly theoretician [aka the philosopher] to solve practical problems." He also had a few ideas which seem misplaced to say the least. For example, his concern about the modern willingness to curb sexual tendencies lead him to remark that this could, "lead to the extinction of the human race, because it compromises the sexual function in more than one respect, and even today uncivilised races and backward strata of the population are multiplying more rapidly than those with a high level of culture." I had to read this a couple of times before I could take Freud seriously, as if expecting to suddenly notice a handwritten lol scrawled on the edge of the paper. (It seems completely out of place for a man one minute advocating peace and touting the benefits of universal human rights to be holding such apparently racist views!) Naturally Freud has his own human failings and we should always retain a healthy degree of scepticism about his writings. However, I do believe his thoughts on war and peace have some helpful insights for us today.

What does this mean for disarmament?

Much of Freud's analysis really resonates with me. When I have talk to people about nuclear disarmament, many are quick to retort that total disarmament is an unrealistic and absurd goal. In response to this I would say that just because a particular goal is challenging, this does not make it any less worth striving for. It may only stress the need to get as close as we can towards this goal, even if the goal itself may prove impossible.

In my opinion, it is far better to strive for disarmament and make small but significant steps in reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world, than it is to do nothing and risk total devastation of one or more human communities. Work towards disarmament has its own costs, it takes time and money in terms of research and advocacy, however, what monetary costs could ever match up to that of potential human lives? I believe we are compelled to curb mankind's aggressive Thanatos tendencies by promoting peace, and to give Thanatos less outlet by promoting disarmament and taking away the potential for mass death.

Finally, it is interesting to note that right back in 1933, Freud was highly concerned about modern warfare and its unprecedented potential for destruction. He noted darkly, "a future war, because of such great advances in the means of destruction, would mean the extermination of one or both adversaries." This is, in my view, all the more reason for us to take seriously our obligations to work for peace.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Introducing Human Rights Enthusiast Chennoah Pentecost Walford!

Everybody knows one of them. Those people who have an insane amount of energy, who are buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm. People who don't just express dismay when something bothers them, but who immediately start brainstorming how they can take action. They can get even the most complacent individuals rallying behind a cause. They have a genuine concern for others, a special smile and joke for all their friends. They try new things and are not afraid to be a little un-PC. I'm sure you know at least one of these people. For me, Chennoah Pentecost Walford springs to mind.

Chennoah! Her photo running for Equity Officer.

Chennoah and I lived in the same hall in our first year of university. We quickly realised we had much in common, both being Pols / IR students and ardent supporters of Amnesty International. At first I felt slightly intimidated by this larger-than-life, articulate woman, but I quickly came to appreciate Chennoah's friendship. Chennoah has definitely been an inspiration for me and I know she has inspired many others. So it makes sense to profile Chen as a politically-engaged individual who is determined to advance causes that she cares about and play her part in making the world a better place. I caught up with Chennoah yesterday morning over a coffee to learn more about the individual behind the activism.

Chennoah grew up in a loving family near Tauranga, in semi-rural Papamoa - not that it can be described as rural now. Her best memories are connected to her family and the land: bonfires on the beach, potluck dinners, eating her Mum's shellfish fritters (which she hated!) and digging up pipis with her cousins. My cousin liked to bite off their tongues, she told me with a laugh, before describing the process. Yeah, that's a bit gross, sorry... Her parents separated when she was young, but she can still remember the time when the family lived in a green house bus with stained glass windows and when her Dad had dreds down to his bum. Her mother raised her and her brother as a solo Mum. It is clear that Chennoah's mother has had a great influence on her, as Chen notes her mother's determination, her love for her children and her engagement with the local community.

Chennoah aged 14 - the Amnesty rebel!

I have only known Chennoah as an extrovert, a "people person" as she described herself in her recent campaign for Equity Officer. So it was interesting to learn that Chen had been quiet and reserved at primary. Once at high school, however, Chennoah set her mind to change. I know that when Chennoah sets her mind to something, nothing can weaken her resolve! In little time, Chen was involved with World Vision, SADD, arts festivals and the theatre scene in Tauranga. In her final year, she became Head Girl. I think people were surprised at first, Chennoah mused, because I wasn't the most conventional head girl. But they came to accept me. They even got used to my weird speeches in assembly! When she wasn't head girl, Chennoah was "the cluster bomb girl." A member of the school's Amnesty International group, she got fired up about banning cluster munitions and was busy making origami munitions and campaigning around the school grounds.

What led Chennoah to become interested in Amnesty? She was greatly influenced by two women: a Spanish teacher at her high school who also led the Amnesty group, and the mother of her intermediate English teacher, a long-time supporter who first introducued her to the organisation's work. Furthermore, growing up in the Bay of Plenty (which doesn't always live up to its name), Chennoah had been exposed to poverty from an early age. She had seen the hardship single mothers can experience. Being a mother is not valued in our society, Chennoah opines, it is not seen as a good economic move, even though it's such a valuable job raising children who can contribute to society. My Mum did very well in a system that didn't appreciate her. Chen came to identify with those who are struggling. It was only natural that Amnesty International, an organisation with a vision to help the vulnerable, would appeal to Chennoah. Moreover, Chen was struck by the magnitude of human rights abuses around the world which she learnt about through Amnesty. She had to learn more. As a fellow Amnesty member, I can confirm that Amnesty provides a wealth of information on global issues to high school students, from campaigns to reintegrate child soldiers in Sudan to women's rights activism in Myanmar. This is information that students are not normally exposed to as part of the curriculum.

The flat on campus - and the eviction squad!

Drawn to the capital for its political scene and vibrant culture, Chennoah enrolled in an LLB / BA at Vic Uni. She carried the Amnesty flame with her, getting involved in Amnesty on Campus. Chen and I had lots of fun putting on some great Amnesty events. My personal highlights include our tealight acoustics gig for freedom - with live music, cheap drinks, stalls with info about rights issues and a huge Amnesty logo made of candles. To raise awareness of the Arms Trade Treaty we gave out bananas with gun-shaped petitions tacked to the sides. (There are more regulations on the international trade in bananas than guns!) When it came to forced evicitions on the West Bank, it was Chen's idea to set up a "flat" on campus, complete with sunken couch, desk and scattered clothes and textbooks. The flat was ceremoniously evicted at lunchtime by fellow students dressed as police officers wielding cardboard batons. As well as organising university events, Chennoah attended the Amnesty AGMs in Auckland. When a role came up as Youth Co-opte on the Governance Board, Chennoah asked me if I thought she should apply. You'd be great, I said, but do you realistically have enough time for it? Study, part-time work and theatre productions sprang to mind. Chennoah just shrugged. Of course she'd have time. If it's something Chennoah cares about, somehow (I actually don't know how!) she is able to fit it into her hectic schedule. I've got good at planning, Chennoah confessed yesterday with a smile.

I know Chennoah primarily as an Amnesty supporter, but of course this is just part of what she does. Another great love of Chen's is drama. From a young age she was involved in theatre, and at high school and university she has acted in numerous productions. One group in particular, Unboxed Theatre (formerly known at The Clitlective), combines Chennoah's love for theatre with her advocacy. Unboxed Theatre puts on productions drawing attention to feminist causes, such as gender discrimination and sexual abuse. As well as feminism, Chennoah is concerned about the environment. A supporter of Gen Zero, Chen was part of the notorious 2012 demonstration to "expose climate change" which saw over fifty young people strip down to their undies on the trains and then march to Parliament.

Gen Zero's naked truth about climate change.

I asked Chennoah what, in her view, are the major issues for New Zealand and the world. In Aotearoa, Chen believes social attitudes can unwittingly cause others harm. The predominant view in our societies seems to be that hard work produces wealth, but although this is the case for many, it doesn't hold true for everyone. Some people, Chennoah explained, experience barriers which are almost impossible to overcome. People might find it harder to achieve highly due to their race, their gender, or due to disability. Chennoah believes we must improve the way we treat minority groups. Next year, Chen will be Equity Officer for student union VUWSA, a role which will see her ensure minority groups on campus are well-represented. Globally, Chennoah sees education as a major part of any plans for poverty-alleviation. Through increased education, we can support people to break the poverty cycle, she tells me, and, educating women is particularly important. Education provides people with more life opportunities and a more secure future.

So would Chennoah describe herself as a political person? Not particularly. At least, not in the sense that she will always align with a certain party. Sure, she knows who she's voting for  (has voted for - make sure to vote, last chance tomorrow aka Saturday!!) in the election, but Chen is more interested in separate social issues and how to achieve progress on these issues than in any particular ideological viewpoint. And does Chennoah have any advice for people who are interested in human rights and social justice? Chen didn't want to comment fully at this stage of her life, but she does recommend that we all concentrate on our own particular skills and interests. Find your area of passion for change. It might be artistic, it might be academic, it might be within your family or out in the community. There is so much that you can do. Work out where your niche is! I reckon that's pretty solid advice for us all. Thanks Chennoah for your time!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Meet the Candidates - Who Said Politics Can't Be Fun?

Last night, from 7.30 to about 9.30pm, the notorious "Meet The Candidates" election debate was held in the Aro Valley Community Centre to packed audiences. My friend and I waited until 7pm to head down to the Valley. Other friends had arrived half an hour earlier to get good seats, but we were taking our chances. On second thoughts, as we neared the venue I text a friend asking if he could save us some seats. "Umm..." was the reply, "I would, but we're packed in here like sardines already!"

Meet the Candidates last night in Te Aro.

The centre was indeed crammed with men and women both young and old. People were peering through the windows and hanging around the outside doors to listen in. My friend and I found a vantage point alongside some uni friends standing on the outside ramp, looking in the back windows. It turned out to be a fortuitous position, for we could clearly see the candidates and observe the people milling around outside, whilst enjoying the cooler night air away from the indoor stuffiness.

Who says students aren't interested in politics?

The evening was full of jokes and teasing, cheers and boos from the audience and much squirting of water pistols. Candidates were introduced by Radio New Zealand's infamous Bryan Crump and given four minutes to convince the audience to vote for them. This was followed by a Q and A session. Once the speaker exceeded their allocated time, a bell was rung furiously and they were promptly zapped by an enthusiastic timekeeper brandishing a water pistol. There were speakers from NZ First, National, Labour, the Greens, Legalise Cannabis, Democrats for Social Credit, Internet Mana and the Conservative Party, as well as some independent candidates.

This man was dressed for the occasion.

Hugh Barr, the NZ First Candidate, declared that his party did not support the TPP and certainly would not give tracts of New Zealand away to transnational corporations. He also insisted, "Remember the Super Gold card! It'll be there for you in a few years... Tell your parents and grandparents!" At which point Barr was squirted by the water pistol man, leading Bryan Crump to ceremoniously declare, "you are baptised!"

Alister Gregory of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannibas Party.
To the left, an independent candidate: Huimaono Karena Puhi.

Alistair Gregory of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party stressed that cannabis should be decriminalised when used for spiritual or medicinal purposes. He argued that the state needs to engage in an honest discussion on the use of the drug. "Cannabis is an election issue," he cried, "other parties are finally starting to wake up to this fact!" When pressed to comment on other issues, Alistair reiterated, "legalise cannabis!"

James Knuckley of Social... Wrong. Democratics... Wrong. Democrats for Social Change? Wrong! Aha, Democrats for Social Credit... spoke about the importance of lifting people out of poverty and reducing the shame associated with receiving the benefit. (Reminiscent of my discussions with Seb as recorded in my last post.) A viable policy solution for James is the provision of the Universal Basic Income, which has become a reality in Switzerland. Another solution is to tax financial transactions.

Grant Robertson of Labour.

Grant Robertson of Labour talked about the need to address the issue of poverty, in light of people living on the street and young families struggling to make ends meet. Labour would lift the minimum wage and provide more emergency social housing in our cities. Robertson also insisted (to some groans from the audience) that he "hasn't had enough dirty politics" and that New Zealanders are not able to trust National politicians who have been embroiled in smear campaigns and attack politics. "There is only one undecided voter in this room," Robertson crowed at the end of his speech, "and that's Paul Foster-Bell's campaign manager."

James Shaw of the Greens had the people laughing.

James Shaw of the Greens was, unsurprisingly, the most popular speaker. He was also skilled in playing the audience, suavely making a show of taking his jacket off when he got drenched by the water pistols. Shaw noted that over the last 30 years, New Zealand has gone from being one of the most, to one of the least, equal societies in the OECD. The top 1% of New Zealanders now own 16% of New Zealand's wealth. In addition, our environment has deteriorated. 60% of our rivers are now unswimmable and our carbon emissions have more than doubled. The Greens would provide an adequate minimum wage, free off-peak public transport and an end to deep sea oil drilling.

First on the left: Brian Hooper of the Conservative Party.
Speaking: James Knuckley of Democrats for Social Change.
Fourth in the line: Bryan Crump of Radio New Zealand.

Callum Valentine of the Internet Mana party received little support and looked rather worse for wear as he stepped away from the mike. "My name is Callum and I am standing for..." he began, only to be cut off by an impatient, "Bryan already told us that!" I couldn't catch much of the rest, for it was drowned out by hecklers. "The Internet Party is for the poor, for unions, for..." "Log off!" "We are a diverse mix of activism, young faces and..." "Ignorance!" There was a roar of laughter when Callum promised Internet Mana would investigate crowd sourcing government policies. Callum battled on bravely, only to be ridiculed again when it was revealed that Internet Mana would provide free tertiary education. It was no doubt a long night for Callum.

Paul Poster-Bell of National.

Paul Foster-Bell of National also had no easy task ahead of him. He looked resigned to what was in store, probably contenting himself with the thought that it was only going to be another hour and that National is still topping the polls anyway. Again, I didn't hear much of his talk, because of the booing (which I find really rude and annoying.) One of the few things I did pick up though that National has provided world-class treatment for cancer. Foster-Bell did get a good line in though when he noted that he and Robertson share some similarities. When Robertson shook his head emphatically, Foster-Bell said with a grin, "ah, but we both want David Cunliffe to lose the election."

That's not all of the candidates - I missed some and left early - but you get the general idea. Just to wrap up quickly, if you haven't already, do make sure you're enrolled to vote, and do vote on the day. The Electoral Commission has certainly gone to a lot of trouble to make sure people are informed about what's happening - with signs plastered on busstops and billboards assuring us that our one vote is worth just the same as anyone else's. Political debates are fun to go to so you can get an idea of who's standing in your electorate, but the best thing in my opinion is to go online and do your own research looking at the party websites and reading their policies. Kia kaha!

Friday, 5 September 2014

Fixing New Zealand - Profiling Sebastiaan Bierema of Vic Uni

I chose "politics personified" to be the name of my blog for a reason. I'm no political science or legal expert, I'm not trying to promote any ideological viewpoint or represent a particular organisation. I'm simply a Kiwi student learning about the world and trying to grapple with some of what I perceive to be the big issues out there. But what I do enjoy is listening to other people's stories. One of the most wonderful things about studying politics is that everybody has political views. Those people who vow that they don't? "Nah, I'm not interested in politics," they say disdainfully, spitting out the final accursed word. Don't believe them. Maybe they turn away in disgust from all the electioneering and empty rhetoric, but pick an issue at random - marriage equality, asset sales or the retirement age - and they're bound to hold some firm views. These views are, necessarily, political.

So my aim now is to, from time to time, profile people in the community and talk to them about their political views. This will be a nice diversion from posts on current affairs and community events. What in the world of politics makes people tick? My first volunteer interviewee is fellow student Seb. Seb and I became friends this year through our involvement with New Zealand Red Cross. We're also both crazy Political Science / International Relations majors. I talked to Seb over a couple of days and what follows is my impression of Seb's opinions of current New Zealand politics.

Seb Bierema in civic square.

Seb meets me on his lunch break. He's already starting on his noodles when I arrive in civic square after my class. "Sorry, I only get an hour," he says, "but shall we go inside, it's a little nippy out." He looks suitably smart in his black jacket and trousers. I follow him to the staffroom of his workplace, the City Gallery. Seb points out the various artefacts on the windowsills as he pours us each a coffee. As I pretend to be a journalist, scrawling notes to myself in my ringbinder, Seb recounts his journey through the political world.

Seb grew up in Holland but came to New Zealand as a boy with his family, settling on a farm not far from Ashburton. Seb is a country kid at heart, but he got interested in politics through current affairs and his own reading, so he decided to move to the capital to pursue this interest. He enrolled in political science and international relations for his BA. New friends in Wellington were also politically engaged and conversation over drinks in town would inevitably turn to politics. Most days Seb wound up chatting about the New Zealand political system to his boss at the end of his work shift.

A defining moment had occurred when high-school-aged Seb went on exchange to Brazil. (The city below is near where Seb stayed with his host family.) He saw how people in poorer communities lived and realised how tightly meshed people's livelihoods are with the political realities of the societies into which they are born. Back in New Zealand, Seb quickly realised that in this self-declared 'developed country,' things were not so great as they could have been. In fact, Seb believes New Zealand has much to be thankful for with its abundant natural resources, low population and proud history. He thinks we should be doing far better than we are currently. In particular, Seb is concerned about inequality. "In New Zealand, our physical needs should be met," he observes, "there is no need for poverty in New Zealand." But yet, we hear of 250,000 + New Zealand children living in relative poverty, and of families living in cold, mouldy homes. Seb has been following the conversations on inequality, for example, through Max Rashbrooke's book and political debates. He has witnessed need first-hand in suburbs not far from Central Wellington, such as Cannons Creek, and has talked to debt-ridden students and young friends struggling to find work about the issues. So what is Seb's take on inequality?

Aquidauana in the Mato Grosso do Sul region of Brazil. 

In Seb's view, there are three main issues in New Zealand that need to be addressed. Get them right and we'll make positive progress. The good news is that these issues can be addressed by both left- and right-wing governments; and Seb is interested in taking a bipartisan approach to politics. The issues are linked to our banking, consitution and welfare system. Seb patiently takes me through the banking arguments, tolerating my lack of financial savvy and drawing little diagrams on my notepaper to illustrate his points. According to Seb, it's a miracle that New Zealand got through the GFC relatively unscathed. Our banking system is built on shaky ground, and fractional reserve banking could undermine economic stability if we let it continue. Banks are lending out amounts far in excess of what they actually possess. They lend out money that does not exist and then proceed to charge interest on it. In Seb's mind, this equates to theft. The system is a ticking time bomb which will inevitably come crashing down unless we intervene.

When it comes to our constitution, Seb is concerned that small parties are dominating our political system, effectively holding the larger parties to ransom. The policies of successful small parties may only be supported by 5% of the population, (the level is lower still once you take into account how many people don't vote), yet they are implemented as part and parcel of government policy. Is this democratic? If low voter turnouts indicate that people believe something is amiss, judging on the past few elections, our answer may be in the affirmative. Seb also worries that elections are hijacked by personality politics. We are, he believes, mixing up good management with good policies. Perhaps it will be necessary to separate the election of party leaders from the selection of sound policies.

Seb is deeply concerned about the levels of inequality in our country.
Image courtesy of Max Rashbrooke's blog.

Seb has some ideas about how our welfare system could be improved, but I'm not going to detail them in today's post. (There will be a follow up post later in the year!) Essentially, Seb sees our current system as flawed in that a person working for the minimum wage earns only slightly more than what a person receives on the benefit. There is little incentive to find work, as you can imagine if you compare getting about $10 an hour on the benefit, to working long hours in a low-paid job, for example cleaning or caregiving, and getting around $14 an hour. Moreover, societal attitudes need to change. People on the unemployment benefit suffer from undue stigmatisation when the reality is that most people in New Zealand are assisted by some form of benefit for part of their lives. "Full employment," Seb muses, "is put on a pedestal [in New Zealand.] But it's not always right for everyone." Seb doesn't just mean the young, infirm and elderly. He talks about new parents caring for children, students focusing on their courses, artists developing their skills and entrepreneurs trying out new business ideas. If we were all only concerned about paid work, our cities would be far less lively and friendly places.

"Well, I better get back to work," Seb says, in the same easy-going but determined manner in which he has spoken for the rest of the hour. If Seb has some answers to these three issues, this will have to wait for another time to discuss. I farewell him at the gallery entrance. No doubt he will be pondering politics as he shows people around the exhibits for the rest of the afternoon. I head back up the hill to university. I'm thinking about Seb's insistence for us Kiwis to be more decisive. As a nation, he reckons, we are good at being innovative, but we quickly fall into apathetic 'she'll be right' train of thought. We might be doing well, Seb says, but that's no reason to quit here. We could be doing a lot better.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Follow up on Land Grabs in Africa

Over the past week it has been a welcome change to put aside uni work and blogging to catch up with friends and family and enjoy the spring weather. But I've still been reading and one book which I've found really interesting is Paul McMahon's "Feeding Frenzy: The New Politics of Food." This fairly slim, but robustly-researched volume, published just last year, investigates the issue of feeding the world into the future. I appreciate the balanced way in which McMahon explores the myriad issues associated with the topic, (which have been politicised, manipulated and misunderstood), as well as his determination to not only point out the challenges we face, but to note the successes we have achieved and to lay out some suggestions for future improvements.

The book and its author.

Colin McMahon confirmed some of the assertions of the Green Ideas and NatGeo articles which I discussed in my last post. Our current systems of agricultural production and food distribution are, in significant aspects, flawed and in need of reformation. We live in a world where one in eight people go hungry, and one in five people are obese. Even though population growth is now slowing, there are still over 200,000 extra mouths to feed every day. Climate change is expected to lead to increasingly unpredictable weather which will impact food production methods.

However, McMahon urges us to never jump to conclusions. He does not agree with doomsday prophesies that have gained notoriety in recent years. We have made stunning progress in recent years, for example, in raising livestock and developing fertilisers, and as a result we are better fed than ever before. Climate change will not impact all areas equally and in some parts of the world harvests may well be improved. Nevertheless, we face some grave challenges. People are dying from starvation and malnutrition. There are enormous discrepancies in crop yields across the world. We are using up the reserves of oil and gas which enable our intensive agricultural systems to work and we are degrading the environment in the process. In eleven chapters, McMahon discusses some of the main issues that face us today, how they have arisen and how they can be tackled.

McMahon devotes one of his chapters to the question of land grabs across the world. There is a lot of crossover between this chapter and the articles from my last blog. For example, McMahon notes that land grabs taking place in many different regions of the world, whilst significant, are no match for what is taking place in Africa; the region with the greatest potential for large-scale agricultural intensification. The number one country for foreign deals is Sudan, followed by Madagascar, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Benin. McMahon also wonders whether sub-Saharan Africa (along with South America) can be a new breadbasket for Africa and the world. He discusses issues covered in the other articles, such as the lack of compensation given to local people who lose their land and the damage inflicted on the environment. What I am more interested to discuss here, however, are the points on which he diverges from (the impression I got of) the other articles. How has McMahon challenged my nascent understanding of this topic?

Who is responsible for these deals?

In my last blog I wrote that it is "investors in countries such as Brazil, Japan, Portugal and China" who are snapping up areas of land in Africa to develop into large-scale agricultural projects. Aside from the fact that "investors" is a very vague term, (I should probably have specified financial investors, governments and multinational corporations), it is interesting that McMahon argues that the principal foreign companies and states interested in acquiring African land actually hail from the rich Gulf states. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE are looking abroad to gain land and water to achieve security of supply, especially in the wake of the global food crisis. (McMahon notes that the private and public spheres operating in these countries are often interlinked, for "the same princes and sheikhs dominate both," [p.189] so maybe my slippery term can be partly excused.) Other states seeking to obtain land overseas include Asian countries such as South Korea, EU members such as Germany and Sweden, and established or rising powers such as the USA, India and Brazil.

Saudi Arabia is often behind lucrative land deals.
Image from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Furthermore, despite popular sentiment bolstered by the media, China does not have well-defined foreign policy interests (at least not at this stage) in developing tracts of land in Africa. (So including China in my list last time may have been unintentionally inaccurate.) According to McMahon, "China's activities in Africa have been limited. Although individual Chinese migrants and companies have been running small farms or livestock production units in Africa for many years, the official policy of the Chinese government is not to acquire large tracts of land... The rumour of China as a rapacious grabber of African land says more about Western perceptions of China, and Western paranoia about China's economic rise, than it does about China itself." [pp. 195-6]

Are land deals even successful?

Something I gave no consideration to in my last post was whether or not these land acquisitions are actually worthwhile. I assumed that they are profitable, after all, the articles suggested that crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa are extremely low but that the soil is fertile - so surely new technologies and agricultural methods would ramp up old techniques. As usual, the reality is more complex, so this is not necessarily the case. In fact, McMahon suggests that a great proportion of land deals have been stunning failures and that companies and governments are having to rethink their methods. (However it is worth noting, as McMahon himself does, that it is difficult to gain accurate information on these topics, as these deals are highly secretive.)

The problem seems to be that Western methods of agricultural production are being applied to an African context where they often do not work. McMahon cites examples of heavy machinery breaking down and needing to be replaced, migratory antelope destroying pastures and seasonal rainfall washing away expensive crops. Some of the areas which are being developed are isolated and require huge injections of capital to establish the necessary adequate infrastructure such as roads and ports to transport harvests out of the country. If companies are not careful, they can end up overspending and going bankrupt. As McMahon writes, "Conditions are very different in sub-Saharan Africa to the USA or Brazil. Land and labour and plentiful and cheap. Conversely, getting machinery and inputs to remote farms is extremely expensive." [p.203]

There is no such thing as terra nullius.

In other cases, foreigners have imposed themselves on tracts of land, ignoring the fact that the land belongs to indigenous people through long-standing customary titles. McMahon writes that, "it is a myth that there are vast areas of 'idle' or 'vacant' land in the world, suitable for cultivation. This is similar to the concept of terra nullius that past imperialists used to justify their occupation of distant territory, brushing indigenous people out of the picture." [p.197] When their land rights are not respected, local people may fight back - destroying crops and machinery and causing farms to be deserted, or expensive security systems to be deployed. In the eyes of many people from developing countries, according to McMahon, "land has cultural, sentimental and political meaning. It is a reminder of past dispossession, a symbol of present dignity and a source of future security." [p.201] Having one's land taken away is not to be taken lightly. NGOs often take up the cause of the local people and their potential to damage the reputation of multinationals has convinced companies to back out of deals. Dozens of land projects have been abandoned.

What's going to happen then?

McMahon's most positive scenario is for foreign investors to achieve deals that respect local communities and the environment. Such schemes would be on a smaller scale and would make use of agro-ecology methods to preserve the environment. Perhaps people will learn a lesson from the failed past land grabs and start on this alternative route? Maybe. A bleaker scenario is that countries will be so desperate for security of food supply that they will fork out huge amounts of money to maintain expensive overseas agricultural projects. They will do deals with governments to suppress local dissent, ship in machinery, fly in foreign labour and run their farms like mini colonies. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that we are going to see great transformations over the next few decades. Overseas land deals are taking place on an unprecedented scale - unlike anything else that we have seen in the past century. This is definitely worth further investigation.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Africa on its Way to Feeding the World

Having just made it through the last two hectic weeks of the third uni term, my self-discipline appears to be waning and instead of writing the two NZ-based blogs that I intended to, apparently I am back to one of my current favourite topics: world food production. (But I promise to get to the other blogs soon!) I continue to find this subject fascinating, since what we eat is a highly personal matter with strong emotional connections and it's continues to surprise me how defensive people become when you appear to question their dietary choices. But the way we eat has immense repercussions on other people's livelihoods and on the world. And everyone has to eat - indeed we owe our very existence to the food that nourishes us - so it is vital that we find ways to produce food on a mass scale which uphold human dignity and which preserve the natural environment. This is increasingly important in a world where the human population continues to rise but where our impact on the planet is straining the world's limited resources. Feeding the world in an ethical way is a challenge which is going to test our co-operation and intellect as a species over the coming years.

The future of food production:
I believe this is one of the most important issues for the world today.

Recently I've read two informative articles on this subject. The first is "Can We Beat Global Hunger," by Veronica Schmidt for the magazine Green Ideas, the last edition of which you can find in bookstores and libraries. The second is "The Next Breadbasket" by Joel Bourne and Robin Hammond of National Geographic as part of the magazine's series on world food production. (Robin Hammond, born in New Zealand, is a photojournalist for NatGeo who will be speaking this week at Massey Uni in Welly, read this article on Stuff for more info and have a look at Robin's website.)

Veronica's article starts from the premise that there is something wrong with the food system as it stands. This is also the basis for the NatGeo article which focuses on a case study of Mozambique and finishes by insisting the status quo must change but questioning how exactly it this change is to occur. As Veronica sees it:

Our earth is currently home to seven billion people - and each of us needs about 2100 calories every day. The good news is there is more than enough for us all, with the planet producing about 2800 calories for each person every day. The bad news, however, is that about 870 million people are still going hungry, and more perversely some 1.4 billion people are overweight or obese.

Veronica then goes on to detail some of the reasons behind this global hunger. One reason may be that agricultural investment in poor countries (by governments and NGOs) has decreased for the most part over the last few decades. The FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) estimates that $95 billion needs to be invested each year into agriculture to allow food production to keep up with population growth.

The FAO is a reputable source of info on this topic.

The NatGeo article investigates investments by global agribusinesses into countries in Sub-Sarahan Africa. This region of the world could be the "new breadbasket" and is currently being used as a sort of "laboratory" by domestic and overseas investors. In the last few years, the economy of Mozambique has been propelled upwards as overseas companies have sliced up parts of the country's fertile land to convert into large, intensive farm tracts. But what are the implications of such land conversion on the local people?

In an eloquently-expressed piece of writing accompanied by vivid and stiking photographs and a number of short videos, NatGeo feature writer Joel recounts the stories of local people in Mozambique who have lost their land to new land grabs. It is uncertain what the future of these people will look like. The government sees the new agricultural developments as a way to provide jobs, to benefit from new technologies and infrastructure projects and to grow the economy through export-earnings. The corporate investors, from countries such as Brazil, Japan, Portugal and China, see this as a profitable exercise where they can benefit from low land prices, little government regulation and a cheap labour force. The local people want food and shelter and the ability to provide for their families. Are these opportunities provided through the existence of small plots of land which families have been working on for decades? Or could they be better catered for on the vast new farms envisaged by developments such as ProSavava, the brainchild of the Wanbao Africa Agricultural Development Company?

The changing face of Mozambique's food production.
Photograph by Robin Hammond.

There are multiple issues to take into account here. Is this just another example of rife postcolonialism? Are wealthy corporations out to exploit more vulnerable individuals and manipulate governments along the way? Will this increase levels of poverty and inequality in Mozambique and lead to conflicts over land? It is already clear that neither the corporations nor the government have a good track record of fulfilling promises made to local people when the latter are forced off their land. Months later, many locals have not received the money, land and other concessions they were guaranteed. Instead they have lost their home, farm and source of income and pride. But perhaps foreign investment and an injection of new skills and technologies is the only way forward for Mozambique. After all, 37% of the nation's population are currently malnourished - so could this be part of the solution of providing food and reducing poverty? Perhaps the ongoing projects in Sub-Saharan Africa will follow the progress made by the government in bringing people out of extreme poverty in China?

The positive improvements that have been witnessed include a boom to Mozambique's economy and a dramatic increase in infrastructure projects. Countries are racing to construct new buildings and develop ports and airports. Many of the new farms have provided secure jobs for the people of Mozambique and the country is now an exporter of bananas. On the flipside, people working on the new farms work long hours for little pay and many are simply pushed off their land with no opportunity of alternative jobs. It is also debatable how much of the new wealth will ever benefit the poorest people and clear that the new farms are catering for Western interests. For example, huge swaths of land are being converted in soybean production, the soybeans of course eventually being turned into cattle fodder to satiate American and European appetites for meat.

Not everyone's happy about the new changes in Mozambique.

The NatGeo article asked more questions than it could possibly answer, but what came out of the article was that, as I mentioned, the current system needs to change, there are massive upheavals taking place as you read and that the solution may lie in a mix of large and small farms. It might be possible to balance interests so that corporations are still incentivised to invest, crop yields are raised and more food is provided, but also that land rights of local people are protected. (Sounds ideal. How this is translated into reality is the tricky part!) For its part, the government of Mozambique sees the solution lying in the development of medium-sized farms which would aim to increase food security for the citizens of this sub-Sarahan nation.

Another point of interest shared by both articles was the importance of educating women in increasing food production. Veronica explains the current problem.

When women and girls have limited access to education and employment, they have less power within their families. This can lead to differential feeding and poorer health and nutrition. Women with poor health are then less able to fulfil their roles in food production and preparation and the hunger situation worsens for everybody.

The problem is also that much scope for food production is simply not realised when women are unable to access land and credit, as the NatGeo article emphasises. If women have the same ability to access land and credit as men, outputs should naturally rise. 

All of these issues are interrelated, as I know I have stressed in some of my other blog posts. Food production issues, since agriculture is so crucially dependent on the natural environment (what isn't at the end of the day?), are tied up with issues of climate change. All these ambitious goals of turning Sub-Saharan Africa into the new breadbasket of the world could be undermined if climate change is to disrupt the region's weather patterns. Equally so if tensions between different factions in society spiral into internal conflict. And another trend that concerns me is the automisation of farm work - what happens if few people are actually needed to work on these massive farms, since the bulk of the work is done on automated production lines? What impact does the technological revolution have on food production and the division of labour? If you are interested in these ideas I encourage you to read the articles I have mentioned and then see where you go from there. There is plenty of material out there to keep you interested.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

An Aside on Aid

I'm going to interrupt my mini series here to talk about the VicIDS (International Development Society's) "Great Aid Debate" which took place at Victoria University on Monday night. This event was organised by Mica Moore, a Development Studies graduate, and it investigated New Zealand's Aid Programme as it is perceived by three of our major political parties. The speakers were Paul Foster-Bell representing National, Maryan Street for Labour and Barry Coates (former head of Oxfam) for the Greens, with Professor John Overton of Development Studies as Chair.

International aid - a controversial subject to begin with.
What better than to have a debate on the topic?

The scope of the debate was expansive and we only had an hour in which to flesh out the ideas, so I think it was fair for Maryan to note at the conclusion that we were, "just skimming the surface" of multiple serious issues. Nevertheless, there were some interesting points raised and the audience got some idea of the different party positions on New Zealand's ODA. (Official or overseas development assistance.) What's more, the event also became the honorary policy launch for the Labour Party's ODA 2014 policy. (National policy will not be released until closer to the election.) I will outline what for me were some of the main themes of the talk. Please take this information with a grain of salt, firstly because I was a little tired at the time so may have missed important details, and secondly because I have not had a chance to independently verify any of this information.

Paul (National), Maryan (Labour) and Barry (Greens.)

Why do we give aid?

We give aid because we care about the plight of other people in the world and we realise that as a relatively affluent country, we have an ability to help out in situations of need overseas. (Which is by itself a contentious claim, see the position of Dambisa Moyo on aid to Africa for example.) New Zealand is a global citizen, Paul opined, and "part of what it means to be a Kiwi is helping others." It's not just about getting a seat on the UN Security Council. (Although the implication was that this would be a convenient bonus.) Maryan added that New Zealand envisages a world which is more prosperous and environmentally-secure. Ultimately it's a question of helping others and creating a more stable world which will also benefit New Zealanders. Barry stressed that we give aid out of compassion; we want to help people who are poor. By giving aid we also help to address global issues such as political insecurity and climate change.

How much aid is given?

New Zealand's target is to direct 0.7% of its GNI to international aid. This seems like an insignificant amount to begin with (but of course it sits in the millions of dollars), but currently it seems we are barely contributing 0.35 of our GNI towards aid. Both Paul Foster-Bell for National and Maryan Street for Labour emphasised their commitment to reaching this 0.7% target. Paul put an actual figure on this aim, stating that the government (over the next term if re-elected) would increase ODA from $0.5 > $0.65 billion per year. (But why hasn't it already done this?)

Soldiers ... and aid, moving away grom Afghanistan.

Who receives this aid?

Under the current government, aid has been primarily targeted to the Pacific region. It has re-orientated away from countries like Afghanistan and towards those such as the Cook Islands. The reasoning seems to be that New Zealand has close ties with the Pacific nations, that there are severe problems facing our Pacific nations which we can help resolve and thus it makes practical and economic sense to concentrate our events in our geographical region. National, if re-elected, would continue to primarily target the Pacific region, as would Labour and the Greens.

What is the purpose of giving aid?

This was the most controversial topic, in fact one of the few areas where there seemed to be any significant difference in party policies. Maryan and Barry both accused the current government of putting economic considerations first and humanitarian motivations second. The most vivid illustration of this mindset was the example given by Maryan of the government obliging the vast majority of aid to Myanmar to be used in the creation of dairy farms. (Not to the protection of the Rohingya people for example.) Purportedly agricultural investment would assist the Burmese people by allowing them to develop farming capacities and potential for export, but the implied reason was that this would facilitate opening up more of South-East Asia to Fonterra's operations. As Aung San Suu Kyi (who you surely can't argue with after all) noted when commenting on these aid policies, "but my people don't eat milk."

Are dairy farms any good in Myanmar?

It is hard to critically evaluate this case study (described as a mere "anecdote" by Paul) in the absence of background information (if any readers know more about this please feel free to comment) and certainly Paul was determined to show that this was a gross generalisation which misunderstood the Burmese context. However, the case certainly achieved its purpose of putting doubt in the audience's mind as to the motivations behind our current aid policies.

Oxfam - just one NGO working in the field of aid.

How does aid achieve its purpose?

For National, aid must invest in those sectors crucial for economic growth, namely agriculture, tourism and business. Money would also be invested in developing IT and in enabling countries to be sustainable. Aid must help to increase employment and revenue streams. For Labour, it's about refocusing on the elimination of poverty. A large part of this would be to concentrate on the education of women and girls. (Paul also noted that the government has put money into the education of women in the past, in the context of Pakistan.) Labour would re-establish NZ Aid as a semi-autonomous international development agency and would work closely with NGOs that are well-equipped to give policy advice and logistical guidance.

The Greens would also align more closely with NGOs. Barry argued that aid is currently devised too heavily in Wellington, with not enough input from local communities. Aid that is solely focused on economic development does not always get through to poor workers in the informal economy. (Aid does not 'trickle down.') Furthermore, aid must be viewed together with domestic policies so that it does not become a simple bandaid, for example, the government must ensure that New Zealand is participating fully in international climate change negotiations so that the situation improves for our Pacific neighbours and that we don't just have to channel money into helping Islanders recover from the effects of climate disasters.

How are ODA and climate change linked?

What does this mean overall??

The conversation went round in circles a bit much for my liking. Labour would claim something and then National would vow that this was also it's stance. ("Well said Maryan!" was Paul's catch-phrase for the evening, however, I can't blame him for as it happened a fourth speaker was unable to come so it seemed like a Labour Greens v National dichotomy... and he was talking to a bunch of most probably left-wing Vic Uni development studies students.) I would also have liked to have heard about more factual case studies of NZ aid in action. (The law student in me is coming out: where is the authority for these claims? Where is the evidence??)

But clearly the policies of all three parties are distinct to some extent. The differing levels of belief in the redemptive power of economic growth and the significance given to care for the environment are two key areas of divergence. You'd find plenty more if you look into the specifics of the policies. This is a complex issue since we do not personally observe the impacts of our aid, unless we are able to travel overseas to the recipient countries. (Which is where I believe NGOs are of invaluable in assisting with research and desseminating information.) The average New Zealander does not see what happens with this money (and probably has little desire to know anyway!) Certainly Monday's talk was the first event on ODA in the run-up to the upcoming election. Let's hope it won't be the last. And please, if this is something that interests you, dig a little deeper. Explore the positions of all the political parties on their websites and in their press releases. Get in touch with Paul, Maryan or Barry personally. Oh and do let me know if you know any more about dairy farms in Myanmar!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Reforming New Zealand: Dignity in the Workplace

This is the second in my mini series investigating some of the challenges we face at home in New Zealand and some of the solutions proposed to address these challenges. Last time I talked about child poverty and the policy recommendations of MPs, this time I'm back to talking about the Living Wage. The living wage is something I'm pretty excited about, for it's a campaign that's attracted a whole heap of interest and the base idea is simple (that employers are encouraged to pay their staff a decent wage) but ultimately transformative. Last Wednesday, we held a panel in the Hub at Victoria University on the topic, with Rick Zwaan from VUWSA our student's association as the Chair, and speakers Dr Sandra Grey (Tertiary Education Union), Rev Brian Dawson (Vicar of Saint Peters on Willis Street) and Prof Morris Altman (School Economics and Finance at Vic Uni.)

Thanks to Rory and Lyndy for photos!

Living Wage event at Victoria University.

It was an experiment to hold this discussion in the Hub, for traditionally HumanFM (student radio station) events are held at the Anglican Chaplaincy. The Chaplaincy is a cosy, contemplative venue conducive to intimate discussions, whereas the Hub is huge, draughty and buzzing with people running late for classes and fretting about assignments. But Rick and the speakers coped admirably well. The crew rose to the challenge of keeping the audience engaged even amidst all the distracting hustle and bustle, whilst also projecting their voices out across the space to awaken unsuspecting passersby from their lecture-induced reveries and propel them into political action!

In my post from last weekend, I recorded some ideas on how many thousands of New Zealanders employed in low-paid jobs are struggling to make ends meet. The people who spring to my mind are caregivers, cleaners, retail staff, teaching assistants and catering staff... but I am sure there are many other categories of such workers. The bottom line is that these people are simply not earning enough to eke out a decent existence. In a country like New Zealand, with plentiful natural resources and a history of egalitarianism and comprehensive support services, this does not have to be the reality.

What only serves to exacerbate the problem is that we live in a society where if we don't actually judge people by their material wealth, persuasive and ubiquitous marketing schemes (aka, adverts everywhere) try to have us believe that the wealth a person possesses determines how that person is viewed by others. This should be a nonsense, but somewhere along the line humans are insecure beings, relying on the opinions of others for a sense of self-worth, so ads that present stuff that we need and that will make us popular and fun play on our emotions and make us feel even more removed from the rest of society if we don't have the money required to make all of these necessary purchases. So our materialistic culture only serves to further isolate those people who can't afford the basics, let alone the luxuries which are presented to us as necessities for social inclusion. And nothing hurts more than feeling left out of the group.

But enough of my ramblings. There are much more well-informed individuals who we can consult! Here I want to make a brief note of some of the points raised by the three speakers on Wednesday. As always, remember I am paraphrasing here, so I apologise for any mistakes and I don't necessarily agree with the views that follow.

Professor Morris Altman

The "living wage" is not a magic number. It could be $4 an hour in some societies, or $100 an hour in others. What is important is the concept: that it is a wage which allows people to adequately support themselves.

The economic model we work with today is too simplistic. People argue that if employers start paying the living wage in low-paid occupations, people will start losing their jobs. That there is not enough money to go around. But this view ignores the fact that workers who earn more are happier and more productive.

Reducing inequality is by itself not necessarily a laudable aim. We must question how inequality is reduced, and if the ways this is carried out are wise. The living wage is a smart way to address the inequality in our societies.

Doctor Sandra Grey

What does it mean to have a "decent" lifestyle? It means being able to afford adequate food and clothing. It means children being able to go on school trips and have friends over for dinner. It means families able to participate in the social and cultural landscape of NZ. It means a well-earned holiday on occasion. It doesn't mean flash meals or overseas travel, just the items and experiences most of us regard as a normal part of life, but an increasing number of Kiwis cannot afford.

[My note: I went to a combined 21st party last night which featured photos of the two guys as children: on holiday with family, eating out, having birthday parties, and I was thinking these are the kinds of activities many children in New Zealand don't get a chance to enjoy which is a real shame.]

Discussions on the living wage cannot be held in isolation from the other factors concerned with inequality in our society. We need to talk about reforming our benefit system, as well as combating social ills of alcohol and drug addiction.

Reverend Brian Dawson

Describing himself as a "bleeding heart left-wing liberal vicar," Rev Dawson described how he helped out in the early 1990s with Wellington's Downtown Community Ministry. Nowadays he is still kept busy helping people, but whereas a couple of decades back the people in need were unemployed, nowadays they are working people (both partners working) who require assistance because they still can't meet their expenses!

The Bible calls us all to looks after the "widows and orphans;" those who are at the most vulnerable. It does not say that "people without a degree" - for example - shouldn't expect a good standard of living. And nowhere in the Bible do we see the words "trickle down effect." !!

At the end of the day, we need to relearn how to value one another. People are the most important commodities we have. People are not just assets to create wealth; they are beings to be respected, made in the image of God. We should support a Living Wage because it is the right thing to do.