Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Real Question About Aid

Dani Rodrik puts it nicely:

I feel that the debate on aid is stuck on an unproductive track, revolving around the question of whether it works or not. Yet at closer look, both the advocates and detractors seem to me to be saying something different. So, Jeff Sachs is hardly a fan of the foreign aid system as it currently exists, and he has tons of ideas about how it should be improved in order to become effective (start by cutting back the amount that is returned to rich countries in the form of technical assistance, streamlining the process, and involving the recipients more in the decisions). And Bill Easterly's book on White Man's Burden is full of examples of aid that actually worked (from fighting river blindness to Marshall Plan to the Polish stabilization).

So the real debate is not about whether aid works or not, but about (a) under what circumstances it actually works; (b) how it can be reformed, in principle, to become more effective; and (c) how likely is it that the requisite reforms can in fact be undertaken. The disagreements among Sachs, Easterly, Subramanian, Birdsall et al. are about these questions, but they are often left implicit in the discussion.

We can begin to make progress if we start focusing on these real issues.

Putting the D into Disingenuous

I've pointed out before that there is a certain bleak irony to the fact that Oliver Kamm manufactures evidence of Noam Chomsky misrepresenting people by, you guessed it, misrepresenting Chomsky himself.

Kamm's at it again; this time his target is Robert Fisk.

Here's Robert Fisk in Saturday's Independent : "I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11." You know what's coming, right down to the defensive protest "I am not a conspiracy theorist". Fisk is indeed a conspiracy theorist. He outed himself 18 months ago in a speech in Australia.

Yet all Fisk says when you read the actual column, is that there are questions he can't answer about 9-11.
Each time I lecture abroad on the Middle East, there is always someone in the audience – just one – whom I call the "raver"... His – or her – question goes like this. Why, if you believe you're a free journalist, don't you report what you really know about 9/11?...Usually, I have tried to tell the "truth"; that while there are unanswered questions about 9/11, I am the Middle East correspondent of The Independent, not the conspiracy correspondent; that I have quite enough real plots on my hands in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the Gulf, etc, to worry about imaginary ones in Manhattan. My final argument – a clincher, in my view – is that the Bush administration has screwed up everything – militarily, politically diplomatically – it has tried to do in the Middle East; so how on earth could it successfully bring off the international crimes against humanity in the United States on 11 September 2001?

Well, I still hold to that view...But – here we go. I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11. It's not just the obvious non sequiturs: where are the aircraft parts (engines, etc) from the attack on the Pentagon? Why have the officials involved in the United 93 flight (which crashed in Pennsylvania) been muzzled? Why did flight 93's debris spread over miles when it was supposed to have crashed in one piece in a field? Again, I'm not talking about the crazed "research" of David Icke's Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster – which should send any sane man back to reading the telephone directory.

I am talking about scientific issues. If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time? (They collapsed in 8.1 and 10 seconds.) What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September? Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it? The American National Institute of Standards and Technology was instructed to analyse the cause of the destruction of all three buildings. They have not yet reported on WTC 7. Two prominent American professors of mechanical engineering – very definitely not in the "raver" bracket – are now legally challenging the terms of reference of this final report on the grounds that it could be "fraudulent or deceptive".

Journalistically, there were many odd things about 9/11. Initial reports of reporters that they heard "explosions" in the towers – which could well have been the beams cracking – are easy to dismiss. Less so the report that the body of a female air crew member was found in a Manhattan street with her hands bound. OK, so let's claim that was just hearsay reporting at the time, just as the CIA's list of Arab suicide-hijackers, which included three men who were – and still are – very much alive and living in the Middle East, was an initial intelligence error.

But what about the weird letter allegedly written by Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian hijacker-murderer with the spooky face, whose "Islamic" advice to his gruesome comrades – released by the CIA – mystified every Muslim friend I know in the Middle East? Atta mentioned his family – which no Muslim, however ill-taught, would be likely to include in such a prayer. He reminds his comrades-in-murder to say the first Muslim prayer of the day and then goes on to quote from it. But no Muslim would need such a reminder – let alone expect the text of the "Fajr" prayer to be included in Atta's letter.

Let me repeat. I am not a conspiracy theorist. Spare me the ravers. Spare me the plots. But like everyone else, I would like to know the full story of 9/11, not least because it was the trigger for the whole lunatic, meretricious "war on terror" which has led us to disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan and in much of the Middle East. Bush's happily departed adviser Karl Rove once said that "we're an empire now – we create our own reality". True? At least tell us. It would stop people kicking over chairs.

Does this really sound like someone who is propounding a conspiracy theory? All Fisk is saying is that there are questions he can not answer and that he would like to see an open inquiry into.

It is true, as Kamm points out that, if Fisk did some looking he could find plenty of good answers to the questions above. The steel in the towers didn't, for example, need to be hot enough to melt to cause them to collapse, just hot enough to loose its structural integrity.

But by completely omitting the section where Fisk claims that he disagrees with the conspiracy Kamm turns Fisk from someone who is troubled by doubts into someone who "is indeed a conspiracy theorist".

Nice job Ollie.


As for me personally, while I think that most of the questions troubling Robert Fisk can be easily answered, I am also in favour of a full honest and open investigation. Not because I think it will reveal a conspiracy but simply because that is the sort of inquiry that ought to take place in a democracy.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Price to High

From here:

A Price Too High: The cost of Australia’s approach to Asylum Seekers,’ a joint report by Oxfam and A Just Australia, presents new research that found since 2001 it has cost the Australian taxpayer more than $500,000 per person to process fewer than 1,700 asylum seekers in Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island. By comparison, the latest estimate from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship suggests that the cost of holding asylum seekers in a mainland Australian detention centre is only 3.5% of the running costs of the Pacific Solution.

‘The Pacific Solution is neither value for money nor humane,’ said Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewett. In six years since Tampa the cost of the Pacific Solution to the Australian taxpayer has been $1 billion. We are calling on the Australian National Audit Office to investigate the full financial cost of the Pacific Solution.’

The research found that The Pacific Solution has been both costly to the nation’s taxpayers as well as to the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers who have had to endure years of isolated offshore detention, compounding post traumatic stress disorder after having fled persecution from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
[emphasis mine]

[text missing]

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Not really in the mood for blogging, but I think that Rory Carroll gets it right on Chavez.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Goodbye Paka

To add to the grief-load of the last two weeks, my girlfriend and I got home from work today to discover that our pet cat had been attacked and killed by two dogs.

Loosing your cat is a slight thing compared to loosing your father, but right now it doesn't seem so slight.

"There are no proportions in death" Kenneth Patchen.

Goodbye Paka.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Not Blogging

My girlfriend's father died suddenly a week and a half ago. So for obvious reasons I haven't been blogging recently; nor will I be, I expect, for a little while.

In the meantime I found this Guardian comment interesting (as much for what I disagreed with as for what I agreed with).

One of the things I did think rather smart was Swift's assessment of religion.

Swift, looking at Europe ravaged by the thirty years' war, remarked that we have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Rule (of thumb) Utilitarianism

I'm not a political philosopher. I'm interested in the subject mainly because you need to know a bit about it when you start to confront the 'what is good?', 'why is it good?' types of questions associated with international development.

Not being a political philosopher, I'm always slightly nervous writing about issues of political philosophy either because I'll make some sort of glaring error, or because I'll present something as my own that was long ago thought up by someone else.

Nevertheless, having explained in some detail what I'm against I thought I'd better at least sketch what I'm for - as a reference point if nothing else.

I am, at least for the time being, an adherent of some form of Utilitarianism: that is, the right course of action is that which leads to the greatest good (well being, happiness, something like that) for the greatest number of people.

The main reason for my position is because I simply can't think of any deontological principal that I wouldn't be willing to break if not breaking it lead to horrific consequences (i.e. absolute property rights in a situation where maintaining them for a few led to a famine for the many).

So to me Utilitarianism is the least worst political philosophy*.

Humans aren't Delphic though; we can't necessarily tell when we make certain choices what will lead to the greatest good. For this reason I'm not an act utilitarian.

Instead my beliefs map to some form of rule-utilitarianism. We need to devise rules which we ought not break; these rules should be based on what we think is mostly likely to maximise wellbeing.

For this reason I support human rights. Not because I believe that such rights are absolute and inalienable but because all the evidence of history shows us that when a core set of rights are violated on a large scale significant suffering results.

At the same time I can't think of any set of rules which I wouldn't want to modify when more information came to light or which I wouldn't want the flexibility to break in extreme circumstances. (For example, if depriving one person of their human rights were necessary to save the lives of hundreds of others I would be in favour of this).

For this reason I think the best name for my own half-baked preferred political philosophy is 'rule of thumb utilitarianism'.

The one final point I wanted to note here is that, while I am not an negative utilitarian, I do think that it is worth focusing on reducing suffering rather than increasing happiness per se simply because, in a practical sense, suffering is much easier to identify and quantify.

* That I have any real understanding of.

[Update: Argh! withing 1 minute of posting this I've just read on the wikipedia that believing in rles of thumb makes me an act utilitarian - oh well]

Monday, August 06, 2007

Viva Life!

On Sunday a friend and I went surfing on a remote part of the Wairarapa coast. The waves were good, but not great. The water and air were freezing. Today I'm tired and sore. But - and this is what counts - in the evening, after the surf, I stood by my car and watched the high clouds of the rising Nor'West gale carry the sunset into the eastern sky, and white squalls of wind blown salt-spray twist out to sea. And that view alone was worth the drive, and the petrol, and the early start and the week before at work.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Apparent Logic of the War on Terror

The only way to stop the terrorists from destroying our freedoms and democracy is to destroy them ourselves. Read this and weep.

Saturday Night Evil-Off

Dick Cheney vs Erik Prince

Earlier in the evening we heard the case for Prince, now it's Cheney's turn. For which we only need one deft sentence from Thomas Jones.

Gellman and Becker focus on three areas of policy in which Cheney has made his considerable presence felt: defence, the economy and the environment; in other words, torture, tax cuts and pollution – all of which he has worked tirelessly to promote.
This one's a close call - Prince has packed a heck of a lot of badness into his 38 years, but Cheney wins, I think, simply because of his reach. Vice(?) Presidents have the tools to achieve so much more than even he hardest working mercenary generals.

Of course, given a few more years maybe Prince will equal Dick. But hopefully not; hopefully, given a few more years, they'll both be languishing in the same prison cell.

Heart of Darkness

From the LRB:

The founder and owner of Blackwater [which is, among other things, a mercenary placement agency], Erik not, legally, a villain. It doesn’t make him a villain that he is a privately educated, avowedly devout Roman Catholic, a former member of US Navy special forces and the father of six children. It doesn’t make him a villain that he has declared: ‘Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the postal service.’ It doesn’t make him a villain that he is part of the right-wing Republican DeVos-Prince dynasty of Michigan, which has bankrolled radical Christian evangelical movements that campaign against homosexuality, abortion and stem-cell research. The fact that he was an intern in the administration of the elder President Bush, but found him too liberal and backed the extreme right-winger Pat Buchanan to replace him, doesn’t make him a villain; nor does the fact that he has given a quarter of a million dollars in campaign contributions to Republican politicians. It doesn’t make him a villain that he donated half a million dollars to an organisation set up by Charles Colson, a felon convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, to get prisoners to become born-again Christians in exchange for better jail conditions (in 1996, Colson floated the possibility of a Christian coup against the re-elected President Clinton). Nor does it make Prince a villain that, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when survivors were desperate for food, drinking water, shelter and medical supplies, his company flew ammunition into New Orleans to supply the groups of heavily-armed mercenaries it had rushed to the disaster zone. It is true that he helps fund campaigners against high taxation and welfare spending, while the hundreds of millions of dollars Blackwater has taken in fees since 2001 have come almost exclusively from the US taxpayer. Yet this does not make him a villain.

A man who hires a squad of elite lawyers to fight to protect his company from liability for anyone’s death, foreign or American, anywhere overseas, despite at least one incident of Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq shooting dead an innocent man; despite the death in Fallujah of four Blackwater mercenaries to whom the company hadn’t given proper armoured vehicles, manpower, weapons, training, instructions or maps; despite the death of three US servicemen in Afghanistan at the hands of a reckless Blackwater aircrew, who also died: well, casual observers might think this would render Erik Prince a villain. Yet it would make him a villain only in some liberal, humanistic, ethical sense. In the eyes of American law, Prince has done nothing villainous; on the contrary, he is a patriot and a Christian, which is to say, a good man.


Ark! I've been Simpsonized

Trust me, that's a very flattering Simpsonization...

Friday, August 03, 2007

Viva the Resistance! (Whoever they might be)

Paul disagrees with Maia who agrees with Lenin who disagrees with Katha Pollitt who disagrees with Alex Cockburn.

The issue at hand being whether the left should be supporting the Iraqi 'resistance'.

Cockburn - who I dislike in so many ways* - starts the whole thing off with the, um, intriguing argument that part of the reason why the anti war movement in the US is so lackluster and lacking public support is because they can't bring themselves to support the Iraqi 'resistance'. (No really...)

And on at least part of this Pollitt agrees: she can't bring herself to support "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia? Shiites massacring their Sunni neighbors? Sunnis killing Shiites? Religious reactionaries who have murdered doctors, professors, working women, Christians, students, hand-holding couples?"

Lenin argues that she's got it all wrong, that by definition the resistance are people resisting the occupation. And that - conveniently - the term "excludes those who are undermining the resistance by trying to turn it into a sectarian civil war."

Lenin also links to a US military document that purports to show that the bulk of violent attacks in Iraq, that the US military is aware of, are on the US military.

Maia likes this, and - while declining to actively support the resistance - agrees with Lenin's point that:

A little humility would compel her [Pollitt] to recognise that the Iraqi resistance is doing far more to frustrate American imperialism than then American left is. The resistance is supporting us. It is their courageous insistence on combatting an enemy with immense death-dealing power, confronting them in the streets despite years of savage murder, despite the prospect of incineration and shredding, that is causing Bush's unpopularity.
Maybe that's the case, but it misses the point if you ask me. The point being: shouldn't we, sometime about now, be supporting what's best for the people of Iraq?

And if you ask me, that's probably not increased activity from the 'resistance'.

I say this for three reasons.

The first being that, while the majority of violent attacks may be on the US military in Iraq at present, the majority of casualties are Iraqi civilians. (Something that Lenin manages to murmur halfway through his piece.) I, personally, would like to see fewer dead Iraqis - for this reason I'm all in favour of less, rather than more, violence.

Secondly, while Lenin and Cockburn may believe that there is a nice simple distinction between the resistance (aka the good guys) and the sectarian fighters, Baathists and violent criminals currently contributing to the hell on Earth in Iraq, I've never been able to spot one.

And, finally, if a speedy withdrawal from Iraq is what you want then, if you ask me, supporting the resistance is precisely the wrong strategy. This is because there is nothing that the US government would like more now than to be able to declare that Iraq is approximately peaceful, mission accomplished, now let's get the heck out of here. More fighting on the other hand, simply means a prolonged occupation as the US political establishment struggles on looking for a politically bearable time to withdraw.

Maia wants the Iraqi resistance to win, Paul wants them to loose. Me personally, I wouldn't mind if the Iraqi people won one for a change - that is, got to live in a more peaceful more stable country. And I honestly don't think that the 'resistance' is helping this happen.


* While I dislike Cockburn, I think that Lenin's blog is worth a read even if I disagree with a lot of it. Similarly, while I disagree with quite a bit of what Maia writes, I always read her blog: it's well written, smart, and, for a boring moderate like myself, thought provoking.