Wednesday 21 November 2012

Why do charities need all-party parliamentary groups?

All-party groups can give the work of charities added credibility and validity – and allow MPs to find out more on a specialist subject.

Read my blog for Guardian Professional here

Friday 16 November 2012

Lord Oakeshott condemns pay gap

Lord Oakeshott has called for the role of the stock exchange to be re-evaluated to tackle the “grotesquely large” gap between top corporate pay and the salaries of the rest of the workforce.

Read my Left Foot Forward blog on the TUC ‘After Austerity’ event here.


Thursday 15 November 2012

A new approach to international development?

The appearance of key figures at select committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) over the last two weeks has given us some clues on the direction the government will take on international development policy over the second half of this Parliament.

New International Development Secretary Justine Greening, her predecessor Andrew Mitchell, and Stephen O'Brien - the former Under-Secretary of State of the Department for International Development (DfID) - spoke about changes in budget support, the role of the private sector and a move towards technical assistance.

Budget support

Andrew Mitchell changed the rules on aid
On his first high-profile public appearance since resigning as chief whip, Mitchell was summoned in front of the International Development Committee to answer questions about the suspension and reinstatement of aid to Rwanda.

He said that the rules governing budget support - money that goes directly from the UK to the receiving country's government - needed to be strengthened.

"Budget support is the best way of doing development if you can trust the government with which you are working and if the government has the systems to ensure real accountability," he said.

"When the coalition government came into office, we decided that the rules for budget support were not sufficiently tough and the coalition government has toughened them up very significantly."

The more stringent approach, he said, meant aid is delivered quarterly or biannually - rather than yearly.

Private sector

Last week, O'Brien made a presentation at the APPG on street children where he emphasised the role of the private sector in helping to deliver services for the poorest.

O'Brien is keen on private sector support
He added: "What some charities have done well is focus not just on the human development aspect of their work but also on what, in the future, will be their economic underpinning."

His comments provoked some sneers in an audience made up of academics, charity workers and foreign government representatives.

The APPG's chair Baroness Miller, a Lib Dem peer, said to me afterwards that private involvement was acceptable - but only if companies had a clean record, in particular in relation to human rights.

By adding that everything had to be done to make sure the aid budget - which is set to rise to 0.7% of GNI by 2013 - is not reduced, she hinted that private sector involvement should not be a substitute for direct state aid.

Technical assistance

It was the turn of Greening to face the International Development Committee on Tuesday and she gave an insight into why the government had decided to stop direct financial support to India by 2015.

"We, alongside the Indian government, want to see a transition of our role onto one that's essentially based around technical skills, based around us helping the Indian government grow its economy so we can create more jobs in the private sector," she said.

Justine Greening made the case for 'technical assistance'
She was keen to point out that the help provided by the UK, £280 million per year, was a drop in the ocean compared to what the Indian government itself spends on health and education: £40 billion.

Greening is a convincing speaker but fell short when it came to explaining what 'technical assistance' actually meant.

She also swerved a crucial point by committee chair Malcolm Bruce who questioned whether state governments in the poorest states of India - where British aid had been targeted - risked feeling abandoned by a sudden end to assistance.

Greening was keen to move the debate instead to human rights and committed to having "more structured conversations" with human rights organisations than DfID had done in the past.

"It's my plan to have a more structured approach within DfID and work with the Foreign Office to assess human rights and, critically, to get the views of human rights organisations," she added. 

Her biggest challenge - as she has already found out over Rwanda - will be to decide whether to fund countries who have excellent records of using aid to reduce poverty but at the same time have a more checkered past when it comes to violence and other suspect practices.

Friday 2 November 2012

Is the wind turbine debate just hot air?

Wind turbines have been in the headlines this week after energy minister John Hayes said they should no longer "be imposed on communities". Was this intervention a personal crusade or a sign that green scepticism is growing in the government more generally?

Hayes: I can protect our pleasant land
Back in February, an article in The Sunday Telegraph reporting on 101 Tory MPs opposing subsidies for the onshore wind turbine industry contained a sentence hidden away in the 16th paragraph which informed us that "it is understood that there is also support [to oppose wind farms] from the Treasury".

Just two days ago, at a hearing of the Environmental Audit Committee (which I was probably alone in watching), the willingness of the Treasury to go green was again brought into question.

Jenny Holland, from the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said: "The likes of DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) and others find it quite difficulty to knock on the door of the Treasury, which when not closed is downright bolted."

In the same session, David Powell of Friends of the Earth said roundtable discussions between his organisation and the Treasury had completely dried up.

On the other side of the political divide, Ed Miliband recently made a 7,369-word speech to the Labour Party conference in which 'green', 'environment' and 'carbon' were not mentioned once.

Flint: Can she fill the breach?
And while shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint berates climate change deniers on the Tory backbenchers, Labour have not stepped into the breach.

Andrew Pendleton, also of Friends of the Earth, said last month: “The coalition and particularly the Treasury is leaving a planet-sized political space for Labour. It is a first-class opportunity politically... as well being the right thing to do.”

As politicians slow down, economic arguments to go green gather pace.

A Green Alliance report found that while the economy will only return to its 2007 levels by 2014 at the earliest, the green economy will grow by 40% in the same period.

Speaking at a Labour Party conference fringe event, Dimitri Zenghelis, a visiting fellow at LSE, said: “The long-run case for green and growth is often put as a juxtaposition – shall we go green or shall we go grow – and that is a false trade-off. It is inconceivable that the world will not move to become more resource-efficient and green."

While the hot air of political debate continues, the east coast of the United States recovers from a battering of epic proportions, while Haiti is a country once again devastated.

As yesterday's FT editorial points out: "Whether human activity is responsible for the extreme weather events that lie at the root of this, no one can dispute that they are occurring more frequently as a result of climate change."

Discussions on the efficiency of different low-carbon energy techniques are valid - but not if they get in the way of us doing anything at all.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Transition towns - should Cameron be jealous?

Honey produced in a cemetery, an installation of The Three Little Pigs made from plastic bottles and a sewing master class. Three small projects but a big agenda.

TTT's approach explained in flower form
Transition Town Tooting (TTT) was set up in 2008 and counts over 900 supporters in the local area. Their projects are centred around food, transport, energy, education, housing, waste and the arts. The aim is simple: "moving from oil dependency to an era of resilience".

TTT is part of a global network of community-based organisations looking to respond to climate change, economic hardship and shrinking supplies of cheap energy.

Some 364 initiatives in the UK are registered under the umbrella Transition Network - either official groups or still 'mulling' - including 37 within the M25 ring.

At this stage of reading you've probably classified this initiative as lefty hippie mumbo-jumbo. But these issues transcend politics and, whisper it quietly, are not far from three of David Cameron's most famous policy ideas.

Whether you look at his green pre-election promises, the Big Society or the happiness index, the prime minister shares many ideas with the Transition Network - although he has been much less successful in delivering on his agenda.

While Cameron - assuming he did actually believe in these ideas - faces a succession of obstacles in the form of right-wing backbenchers, dwindling public support and increasingly hostile coalition partners, TTT's only red tape is apathy.

"It's the opposite of sitting in our armchairs complaining about what's wrong. Instead, it's about getting up and doing something constructive alongside our neighbours," says the organisation.

Cameron in greener days
Cameron is often accused of basing his vision of The Big Society on the well-off community in which he grew up, but transition towns are succeeding in an era of economic difficulty.

Having volunteered for humanitarian organisations in some of the poorest parts of Latin America, it dawned on me that those who face the biggest struggles are often the most content - they would score highly on Cameron's happiness index.

That happiness comes from inter-dependance: people are constantly exchanging goods and services without passing through a monetary system. By default, people are producing locally, recycling, avoiding waste and forming a stronger community - which are all values shared by transition towns.

Western society has a gift for provide everything while happiness remains elusive. But maybe transition towns can bring something of what I saw in Bolivia and Costa Rica to Britain.

Sunday 22 April 2012

What a load of bull

If surveyed, the majority of people outside Spain would probably give bullfighting the thumbs down. The UK, the land of the pet-lovers, tuts in unison at the mention of the (blood) sport. But its namesake in the region of Arequipa in Peru is an altogether different bull game.
Replace an agile, bloodthirsty specimen with a rugged, oaf-like beast. Replace the matador with, well, another rugged, oaf-like beast. You end up with two huge creatures quite literally going head-to-head: in a brutally simple game, the winner is the one who head-butts his opponent into submission.

Watching the first few bouts is a strange initiation. There's a respect for the size of the animals, who throw their 1,000 kilos around with no restraint. Pieces of their horns fly off like sparks, dust rises off their backs to form big ash-like clouds, adding to the drama.

As if to emphasise the drama, there are long pauses mid-battle. The two animals stand in close proximity but it's a real effort to get them to even face eachother, let alone enter in battle. Their refusal is almost comical in the face of the outpouring of adrenaline from everywhere else.

The commentator's ongoing account, broadcast over a loud tannoy, slips into fan mode as he excitedly urges on the animals. The fans are playing their part in the experience too, in stereotypical Latin male fashion. Within half of an hour of entering the stadium, I had been repeatedly been offered beer, the opportunity to take part in clandestine betting, and asked whether I was into cockfighting as well as bullfighting. Stood awkwardly at the top of the bottom tier, fellow fans (clad in a quasi-uniform of cowboy boots, jeans, chequered shirts and rodeo hats) made sure I had a decent view of the arena and slapped me on the back at the end of each of the six bouts I witnessed, a little harder than was comfortable.

My welcome made a farce out of the warning I'd be given that gringos might not receive a warm greeting from the locals. Bottles were opened by teeth, and the plastic crates, once emptied of their twelve large bottles of Arequipeña, were quickly converted into seats. The smell of chicken hearts grilling on the barbecue only added to the atmosphere.

Also pleading with the beasts to get stuck were their owners, stood awkwardly at the centre of the huge circular sand arena, near enough to their prized assets to cheer them on, but not so close to risk getting caught in the crossfire. The animals paid no attention, even when pushed or slapped on the backside - they will be the ones to decide the pace of the contest.

After a few minutes of non-action, your attention begins to wane, you might even start looking at the poor housing on the hills behind the stadium or spot a few startled children in the stands, looking confused as they witness their first combat.

Then, out of nowhere, it's like there is an explosion. The bulls charge full throttle at eachother's heads. The crowd leap to their feet. The announcer's voice jumps an octave or two.

Like two heavyweight boxers in the closing rounds of a long bout, the fighters have their defences down and muster one last effort to end their opponent. Their heads are a few inches off the ground, their front legs practically flat to the sand and their back legs provide the spring board for their bodies to launch forward.

And then, it's all over. The weaker animal most of the time shows no evidence of physical injury, simply runs away to the edge of the stage when it's had enough. But one one occasion, the defeated animal suffered a more severe injury than a bruised ego. As he ran away from its conqueror to our side of the stadium, his skin had been torn off all the way down the side of his body. It hung off him like a slice of turkey being sliced off the breast of the bird.

Underneath, the clear outline of a network of muscles was revealed. I was told that their physical condition was honed by long arduous walks in the days before the fight. The hard work that goes into rearing the bulls does not induce sentimentality though, an injured animal is taken off straight away to be put down.

Maybe some Spanish bullish mentality was exported after all.

Sunday 11 March 2012

The Devil's Miner

In most heavy-duty, large-scale, labour-intensive, poorly-paid work, the bad guy is usually the boss. The man is possession of the means of production. The machine. What is so heart-wrenching about the soul-destroying, lung-destroying work in the mines of Potosi is that there is no bad guy. There is no entity you can point at and say: you can't do this to these people.

Eight million people have lost their lives in the Potosi mines over the last 500 years. But that's just a number, and one so huge that no one can really get their head around it. Every day people sacrifice their lives on two levels: they risk being trapped as the tunnels collapse from poorly-planned dynamite explosions aimed at freeing a few low-value minerals. And, secondly, they crawl, scratch and snatch their way to an early grave, their lungs filling with poisonous gas and dust in their coffin-like workspace. And yet they work united. Not only in the face of these cruel, unreasonable dangers, but also in the face of intense competition. They work for a cooperative and yet each one's earning is yielded from the minerals they personally find and sell. Cerro Rico, a once fertile golden mountain, raped by generations, now only feeds its people scraps.

Some of the workers are boys, as young as 9, providing for their family as they fit being the main breadwinner in between classes of algebra and PE. The most famous, Basilio, who starred in The Devil's Miner is now 20 and, failing the aspirations he expressed when interviewed for the film six years ago, is still in the mines. His dreams of becoming a teacher unfulfilled, ten years now of hard labour. The film's many awards did not result in any rewards for his family. Oliver Baulch, in the book Viva South America!, tells the tale of how the film company did send Basilio a cheque for $30 – but it would cost $59 to cash it.

I walked up the mountain last week, chewing coca leaves to keep the altitude monsters at bay, in the hope of meeting Basilio's family, and found his mother. She said the family still had not been paid. Not only that, she seemed oblivious to the fact that hostels and bars throughout the city were airing their story on an almost daily basis to the swarms of new backpackers. Local businesses entertaining the Westerners at the expense of one of their own, it seems.

A staff member in my own hostel almost laughed when I asked if the 5 bolivianos (50p) we had paid for our viewing pleasure would go to the mining families. A long email to her manager on the topic was met by the following: “Many thanks for your message, we are planning what we can do with your opinion.”

When we were walking up the mountain towards a statue of Christ that overlooks the city, we felt the earth move. One, two, three, four... eight dynamite explosions, one after the other. It felt like the Cerro's fragile chest was pounding under our feet. We quickly moved to a safer path to get away from the dangerous mines - we're lucky we had the option.  

Sunday 5 February 2012

Following the fallen 45

A trek usually culminates in a feeling of exhausted achievement and, if you’re lucky, some beautiful views. But what greets you at the end of the five-hour ascent through Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja to Puerto Viejo is just the beginning of another, more dramatic, story.

Rock faces are sprinkled with marble plaques, fresh flowers recently placed beneath each one, and the familiar Chilean phrase “siempre in nuestro corazon” is graffitied over and over at the side of the path. A closer look reveals something that takes your breath away: each name is that of a fallen soldier, and each died at only 18 or 19.

The young men were covering the 28km between military bases in Los Barros and Puerto Nuevo in May 2005. But as they came closer to reaching their goal, they were hit by a terrifying white-out. The fast-dropping temperatures shook them to the core, but it was perhaps more to do with the unique surroundings that 45 of them lost their lives.

Although the nearby Volcan Antuco has not erupted for 300 years, there is still an absolute absence of vegetation around its base and therefore a scarcity of reference points. Even without snow, there are no trees to guide visitors, only rough roads dug through the porous rock. With deep snow evening out the landscape, the storm reduced vision to a vast, flat blindness. Spun into disastrous disorientation, they froze to death, some losing their lives while they still hugged each other. Many of them had only started their conscription three months earlier.

As we walked along their path, the grimmest reality emerged: many of them died within sight of their destination. We found the last tribute in the entrance to the military refugio – one man had lost his battle with life within touching distance of safety. Officers trapped inside peered helplessly out of the window, counting those still missing.

When trying to make sense of such a tale – it was the Chilean Army’s second largest loss of life outside of battle – one obvious question rattles around your head: ‘why?’ And that’s what I asked a current member of the Chilean army, who I had met at the start of the ascent and shared most of the journey with. He was closely linked to the incident – he belongs to the same regiment as the fallen soldiers and one of his closest friends survived the tragic journey.

Although he was technically trekking for pleasure, my travel companion for the day was carrying 40km on his back and had a gruelling schedule ahead of him. The next day he would tackle the peak of the 2900m volcano, and, after some sleep, conquer Sierra Veluda at 3,585m. Just a normal day’s work, he joked.

He explained that, although the country is not currently in conflict, it relied on an army highly specialised in mountaineering to defend its vast Andean borders. Even fairly stable relations with neighbours did not mean Chile could remain passive, he added, and explained that a group of Bolivian military had been sent packing recently after attempting an Andean intrusion.

An army general at the time of the tragedy was criticised for conducting such a difficult exercise, and I was surprised to hear that the very same drill continues to be carried out.

“Every year,” said my companion, “it’s part of the training.”

Monday 2 January 2012

No New Year cheer in Chile

Puerto Natales limped into the New Year, still in shock from the devastation of the wildfire in nearby Torres del Paine (read our report from yesterday). The city is the main stopping point for the 200,000 yearly visitors to the National Park, but as we left this morning, it was a windy, cold and grey ghost town. The owner of our near-empty hostel has been barely capable of more than a grunt over the last few days, moping around the building when he has not been watching TV for updates. We had to climb over his suitcases on the way out – he was leaving too.

On Thursday, rumours reached the town that a group of Israelis could have been responsible for starting the fire and this was subsequently confirmed, with one of them now being questioned. He denies that he previously admitted responsibility, but even if found guilty the expected 60-day sentence and fine seem small change compared to the damage caused to the local community.

Unlike the rest of the country, people from this province (ironically called the Ultima Esperanza, or ‘last hope’) are not proud Chileans. The regional flag which depicts mountains and stars is more prominent in Puerto Natales than the national colours of blue, red and white. Although there are few signs of absolute poverty, life here is tough. We found out yesterday that desperate local businesses had come together to ask the Government to rethink its 30-day closure of the park.

No one can predict exactly what the impact on the tourism trade - and subsequently the local community - will be but there are worrying similarities with the effects of the Puyehueon volcano, which has devastated cities in the west of neighbouring Argentina

Sunday 1 January 2012

Independent on Sunday

My piece in today's Independent on Sunday on the wildfires in Chile:

"Wildfires sweeping through one of South America's most famous national parks are devastating thousands of acres of pristine habitat. So far, more than 21,000 acres of Torres del Paine have been destroyed by blazes that have yet to be brought under control..."

Article in full