Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Walking In the Mountains

The trip down south for Christmas is usually an opportunity for a welcome bout of outdoor activity. On a bright sunny Monday, my Dad took my sister Cecilia and I up into the mountains, to the border of Arthur's Pass National Park. From there we climbed up the Bealey Spur, through shady mountain beech forest, along the rim of a canyon dropping into a river gorge, and into the fragile alpine grasslands from where there were spectacular views across the mountains and the deep, glacier-carved valleys below.

These photos have been uploaded at full resolution, and can be enlarged to full screen size with a click.

This view from the Arthur's Pass road looks back east, following the Waimakariri river downstream. This stretch is part of the kayaking section of the Coast to Coast race in March.

At a rest stop climbing up the Bealey Spur just above the treeline, a fat blue mountain dragonfly was very taken with Cecilia's backpack, perhaps spying a family resemblance in its colours.

A herbfield's eye view towards the mountains of the main divide, in which the camera overruled my view that its focus should be on the mountain daisies in the foreground rather than the distant peaks.

Cecilia and my Dad feature in this view looking west towards the headwaters of the Bealey river, which flows out of this valley and joins up with the Waimakariri (first picture in this post). They are seated at the edge of an alpine herb field, which the GPS told us was just over 1,000 metres above sea level. The mountains at the head of the valley form the main divide between Canterbury and the West Coast, with the highest peaks in this picture reaching around 2,300 metres.

The rata vine winds its way parasitically around the trunk of its host tree (in this case a southern beech), stealing its nutrients and gradually strangling the host plant, until it has built up enough of a structure to support itself.

In a spirit of ironic intertextuality, the author inserts himself into a scene made famous by painter Rita Angus, near the main highway between Arthur's Pass and Craigieburn Forest. The lonesomeness suggested by the solitary railway station building against the backdrop of a sombre pine and brooding hills is emphasised by the weighty, post-impressionist brushstrokes of Rita Angus. Here, the effect is slightly undermined by the daytripper from Christchurch who has wondered over from the nearby parked car.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Notes from Academia

I'm putting up some of my university work this year on the Andean Observer website. So far, I have an essay on Latin America and dependency theory (some brief background here), and a literature review on 'Poverty and anti-poverty strategies in Peru'. They're both pretty short given the weight of the topics, but that's because of the approach taken to the development studies course: none of our assignments had more than a 2,500-word limit. This means that some serious questions are skimmed over pretty lightly. On the other hand, it may make some dry material a bit more readable.

If nothing else, there's a reasonable set of references, many hyperlinked, for anyone interested in the topics.

Although it's probably a bad idea to recommend something still half-finished, I'll still put in a plug for the images pages of the Andean Observer site. The 'Arequipa' and 'Cuzco' pages are pretty much there, and I'm working on tidying up the rest. Comments are welcome.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

World Cup Qualifiers: My Teams Take a Bath

While I was squirreling away on my studies and unable to blog, the latest round of double-headers in World Cup qualifying took place. For the teams I follow across three continents, it went about as badly as it could do.

The worst reversal was in the North American zone where a perfect storm of results saw Guatemala lose 1-2 away to lowly Cuba while Trinidad & Tobago pulled off an upset 2-1 result over the previously impregnable United States. The last round of the group was played on November 19, and Guatemala's demise was confirmed as they lost to the US while Trinidad & Tobago comfortably defeated Cuba.

Those two teams now go into a final group with El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico to decide three qualifiers and one playoff candidate.

Results were hardly better in South America. In the previous two rounds Peru showed signs of shedding basket-case status, but in the latest double header they lost 0-3 away to Bolivia and 0-1 away to Paraguay to sink to dead last and lose any chance of qualifying for South Africa. The real disappointment, however, is Colombia. A 0-0 draw with Brazil at the Maracana might have seemed like an achievement to balance a home loss to Paraguay. But having made some early running, the Colombians have now scored only four measly goals in ten games and are lingering in seventh.

The most notable result was a 1-0 win for Chile over Argentina, which would have been a memorable occasion for the Chileans, but mainly served to consolidate the Southern Cone countries into the five potential qualifying spots.

In Europe, Portugal didn't score a goal in either of their games (incuding a 0-0 draw at home to Albania) and are in an uncomfortable equal third position going into the next round of matches. It's all been pretty smooth so far for Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Fabio Capello's rejuvenated England, all of whom are at least three points clear at the top of their groups. The other big team to be in some trouble is France, in a three-way tie for third, five points behind Serbia and Lithuania.

It's still pretty early days in Africa, with 20 teams for the final qualifying groups only just decided. In Asia, however, it's looking good for previous qualifiers Australia, Japan, Iran and South Korea. If those four emerging powers stay in their current positions, the fifth Asian team to meet New Zealand in a playoff looks like being Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea.

It will make for an interesting situation. New Zealand's government derailed the national football team's home tie against Fiji by refusing a visa to the reserve goalkeeper because he was related to a member of the sanctioned military administration. Given that at least two of our likely playoff opponents hail from objectionable totalitarian dictatorships (assuming we exclude relatively 'liberal' Qatar), will we also be scrutinising the team members for connections with those in positions of political privilege in their home country?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Burro Sitting on a Lithium Mine

I came across this story on the BBC when I was clarifying some facts about Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni for a page on my Andean Observer website.

It turns out that below the surface of the salar lies about 50% of the world's commercially viable lithium deposits. As anyone who has compared a lithium battery to a normal alkaline battery will be aware, lithium stores energy better than alternative substances. Lithium batteries are the preferred technology for new fully electric and hybrid cars being produced by Toyota, GM and other companies. With demand for lithium set to increase rapidly, auto makers are eager to see its production stepped up.

Ironically, impoverished Bolivia once again has something that the rich world desparately wants.

The BBC article itself is quite a good, well-balanced piece. But the guy who writes the copy doesn't get to do the captions, and I can imagine Damian Kahya not being particularly impressed by the note under a photo of salt mounds on the salar that Bolivia's lithium reserves could bring wealth to the country.

As the article points out, wave after wave of resource extraction certainly has not brought wealth to the altiplano. Bolivia is a classic illustration of the 'resource curse', where a surfeit of natural riches within a country produces only massive inequality, corruption, conflict and environmental damage.

Bolivia's government is not enthusiastic about opening up the salt flats to mining. The BBC reports Minister for Mining Luis Alberto Echazu as saying:

"We will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century: raw materials exported for the industrialisation of the west that has left us poor."

This is fair enough. Bolivia's original experience with mineral riches was the mass enslavement of indigenous workers in the silver and tin mines of Potosi. Times have moved on since the 16th century, but the current simmering conflict over gas revenues demonstrates that turning resource wealth into benefit for all is far from a straightforward proposition.

Of the countries 'cursed' with mineral riches, Chile (copper) and Botswana (diamonds) are the notable exceptions where this wealth has contributed to sustainable development. And even in the best cases the unhealthy dominance of a single product produces economic and social distortions. Chile's military still benefits from a law developed during the Pinochet regime which awards it a guaranteed percentage of the revenue from the national copper mining company, and the military's disproportionate strength continues to cast a shadow over local democracy and the regional balance of power.

Bolivia's government is planning a small-scale lithium mining pilot project which will be under local control. The BBC article suggests impatience from the auto companies that this will not lead to enough production quickly enough to satify their demands.

Although it's good that car companies are now getting over their reluctance about developing electric vehicles, this isn't as progressive as it might look. I'm not all that sympathetic to 'no more growth' environmentalism, but in this case the pattern that environmentalists warn about is all too evident. The problems of peak oil and global warming caused by historical modes of western oil consumption are being 'addressed' by moving on to exploit another finite resource extracted from another environmentally fragile setting.

In essence, the purpose of escalating lithium production would be to allow people in the rich world to swap one addiction for another and carry on driving their cars around in the same way as before. In Bolivia, where functional roads are few and far between, and private cars extremely rare, there's an understandable lack of urgency about this objective.

With its 10,000 square kilometres of shimmering salt, the Salar de Uyuni is one the natural wonders of the world. It's not even economically 'idle', but is a focus of tourism which leaves visitors in awe their surroundings and gives reign to the imagination. It would be a tragedy to see such a unique place despoiled by mining.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

That Was Kind of Tough

Hair missed a long-overdue cut. Routine shopping trips to buy replacement clothes and toiletries were put off or never happened. Visits to the gym were missed or squeezed into ineffectual half hours between lectures. Numerous invitations to concerts, movies and dinner had to be turned down with an anti-social mumble about "assignment due in on Wednesday". Food preparation was haphazard: regular overloads on fish and chips or Chinese were balanced by the odd day when I subsisted mainly on weetbix and milk.

Perhaps most worringly, ideas for blog posts appeared and were considered, and then were quietly shelved.

The past eight months I've been doing three-quarters of the papers part of a Master of Development Studies, as well as working four days a week in a fairly demanding job in the bureaucracy. It's one of the harder things I've done. That might make it sound like I've had a remarkably easy life, but I'm referring more to stretching my mental limits than to any physical or emotional hardship.

I kind of feel like my brain has been under a heat-lamp for the past several months, and as it has cooled has shrunk and wrinkled, like sensitive fabric in a tumble dryer. For the first week or so after handing in my last assignment I could hardly develop a coherent thought, let alone write it down. I sat down to compose simple emails to friends or family then got up after starting blankly at the screen for ten minutes. When I was studying, sleep was disturbed; within a moment of waking for any reason, my consciousness immediately resumed worrying away at the problematic paragraph that had been abandoned the night before. After the end of term, although I was dog weary, I still couldn't sleep properly either, as my mind tried stubbornly to latch on to some alternative source of stress.

My flatmate Noam says this is normal and that he spent a couple of months in this state after finishing his PhD. I'm hoping that my intellectual capacities, such as they are, will return after a bit of rest and what what we are seeing here is not an early descent into senility. After all, I still need to do a thesis.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Exercising Our Democratic Rights

On Saturday morning shortly after eleven o'clock, I went with my flatmate Noam and his girlfriend Rachel down to the Aro Valley community centre to vote in the New Zealand general election, before we even got our food and coffee.

It was a sunny day with fluffy clouds framing the hills, and a light chill lingering from the previous day's southerly storm. There was a steady stream of people making their way to and from the voting booths. Lingering outstide the community centre, I heard at least four different languages being spoken. People were smiling; the atmosphere was relaxed and almost festive.

Inside were two rows of tables staffed by mostly young people, while fresh-faced observers with combed hair and wearing different-coloured party rosettes milled around with clipboards. The left side was for people who were registered in the Wellington Central electorate while the right hand tables took care of those with the slightly more complex task of making a special vote.

We had little ATM-sized cards with our names and addresses, which we'd cut out along the dotted line from the letter in the 'enrolment pack' that all registered voters had been sent about a week previously.

The girl at the desk took my card, looked up my name in the enrolment book, carefully crossed it out with a ruler and pen, and handed me a voting slip. I took the piece of paper behind a flimsy booth assembled from folded cardboard, took a fat orange marker pen and ticked my preferred party and electorate candiate, then dropped the folded paper into the 'Wellington Central' box on my way out the door.

The whole process took about three minutes. It was no more complex than making a bank deposit, notably simpler than mailing a package, and as reassuringly low-tech as either. You have to admire the dedication of those who stood hours in line on a weekday to vote in the US election, and the gravitas that gave the whoel event. But in its efficiency and low-key pleasantness, election day in New Zealand was 21st-century democracy.

About the results, perhaps the less said the better for now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

(Some Kind of) Change Is Gonna Come

The world is not going to change overnight. The United States remains in large part a socially conservative, insular, exceptionalist place (though hardly worse than New Zealand on the first two counts or, say, France on the last).

The patchwork quilt of American perspectives and passions is illustrated by some of the propositions that were added to the ballot in various states. Arizona, Florida and California voted for bans on gay marriage. Nebraska voted decisively to 'end affirmative action', while a similar vote in Colorado was too close to call. Colorado also rejected a proposition to define human life as beginning at the moment of conception -- though 27 percent of people voted in favour. From the liberal corner, Michigan voted to permit medical marijuana and (only just) stem-cell research, while Washington passed by a 60-40 margin a proposition that would allow doctor-assisted suicide.

Even if he wanted to, it's unlikely that Obama could sign up to the International Criminal Court, end the War on Drugs, or drive a fairer, less unilateralist approach to international trade and intellectual property law. Obama himself might be portrayed as an uber-liberal by his detractors, but his stated policies would position him as a pretty dry centrist in most parts of the western world. Managing the fallout from the financial crisis, starting some kind of orderly extraction from Iraq, and making a few baby steps towards health care reform are already herculean-enough tasks for a first term. A little progress on alternative energy and non-paranoid immigration policy would be an added bonus.

Caveats aside, let's face it, it feels like a dark, heavy cloud has lifted. At the very least, the sane and rational people are back in charge. The sensible, generous, optimistic side of America was in the ascendancy at last week's election, with outsiders in the unaccustomed position of drawing inspiration rather than despair from events in the US. The dark specter of racism hasn't exactly been ended by Obama's victory, but the symbolic value is enough to get people digging out their Sam Cooke.

The turn for the better should mainly be of benefit to US citizens themselves, who can be a little more confident that the executive arm of their government will show a little more sincerity and humility in pursuing its core objectives. But that might also mean that some other countries are a little less able to project their own pathologies onto an imperial scapegoat.

Should Obama grow weary of the inspiring speeches, be slow and cautious in his reforms, and generally turn out to be little other than a studious, lawyerly technocrat with a good command of the English language, that will still be a massive improvement and a cause for hope.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Peruvians to Get New Zealand Working Holiday Visa

Peruvians between the ages of 18 and 30 will soon be able to apply for a one-year New Zealand Working Holiday Visa, according to representatives from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and the Peruvian Embassy in New Zealand. Sources say that a formal agreement is likely to be signed by New Zealand and Peruvian government representatives at the APEC meeting in Lima in November.

The Working Holiday visa allows young people one year in which they can combine travel in New Zealand with part-time work. New Zealand has extended access to this visa to most European and other OECD countries, as well as other Asian and Latin American countries including Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil. The number of places available for each country has typically been 200, but may be increased depending on demand. Chile is now allocated 1,000 places, after the number of applicants consistently exceeded the available visas.

In order to obtain the visa, applicants have to show evidence of sufficient funds (currently $4,200 NZD), a return ticket or funds to purchase one, travel insurance, and medical clearance (specifically a TB-free certificate). They are also not allowed to bring dependent children with them and are only allowed to use the visa once.

People with Working Holiday visas in New Zealand often end up fruit picking or working in the hospitality industry. This may mean some hard work, but wages are usually high enough to save money to travel further, and most Latin American backpackers say they have a good time in New Zealand.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Does Land Reform = Socialism?

Some of the bloggers I've been reading from Bolivia say that the coverage from Reuters on the situation there has been reasonably balanced. Overall I suppose they're not doing a bad job by not making the expulsion of the American ambassador the only or the most crucial news.

However, it's annoying that most mainstream news sources see the need to mention Bolivia's 'leftist' or 'socialist' government, about four times more than they describe the regional governors as 'rightist'. And nowhere in the international media can we find any mention that the Union Juvenil Cruceñista, the Santa Cruz 'youth organisation' involved in the attacks on national government property, is described by independent parties as a neo-fascist group.

The article I linked to also contains subtle dog whistles such as describing Brazilian president Luiz Ignacio 'Lula da Silva as a 'moderate leftist' (with the implication that Evo Morales and the Bolivian government are 'extreme'?).

One throwaway phrase describes Evo Morales as advocating 'deeply socialist policies such as land reform'. This refers to Morales' aim to redistribute idle land from farms larger than 10,000 hectares to poor landless peasants. The paper I previously linked to from Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval makes the case for why such reform might be needed; Bolivia has close to the most concentrated land ownership in the world.

But regardless of arguments about inequality, is it true that land reform is 'deeply socialist'?

Land reform was indeed a key policy of socialist governments in Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. But breaking up estates and redistributing land has a long history in many countries, and has been carried out by administrations across the political spectrum, including nationalist military administrations in South Korea, Taiwan and Peru.

In fact, in a number of places land reform has been seen as a key step in capitalist development. There is evidence, argued by Amartya Sen and others, that small farms are more efficient, at least in the developing world. Small farmers need less incentive to become more productive compared to landlords with large holdings. The surplus generated by argiculture can be used for investment in industrial development. The distribution of land also equalises income and creates a larger internal market for the rest of the economy, further stimulating industry.

Renowned Latin America scholar Cristobal Kay argues that the comprehensive agrarian reforms, in South Korea and Taiwan, and agriculture's synergistic relationship with industry, were key reasons for the startling success of industrial development in those countries, while the half-hearted reforms in Latin America were too late and limited to have a similar effect (and in the case of Chile and Guatemala were almost entirely reversed).

We also shouldn't forget our part of the world, where in New Zealand the first Liberal goverment broke up large estates and distributed property to smallholders in the nineteenth century, and land reform began in Victoria from about 1860. These early reforms were instrumental in New Zealand and Australia becoming the relatively egalitarian countries of today rather than ending up more like Argentina.

It's worth drawing a comparison between Bolivia, and another land reform that is currently being pushed by a Latin American government that no one would accuse of being socialist. In Peru, Alan Garcia has argued stridently that large areas of communal land in the sierra and jungle regions are 'idle' and should be 'put into value' by being sold to investors.

Taking advantage of its powers to issue decrees granted by Congress to 'ready' the country for the implementation of the FTA with the US, the Peruvian government decreed that communal land in the sierra and jungle regions could be alienated if 50% of the community voted in favour. This sparked such vehement protests that Peru's usually-supine congress drafted a draw to repeal these provisions.

Like Evo Morales, Alan Garcia and his government are also pushing for the redistribution of land, only into fewer hands rather than more. He has described those who oppose such moves as 'dogs in the manger' for holding back the more intensive exploitation promised by outside investment in agribusiness, forestry and petroleum.

But if this is the description applied to impoverished communities in the sierra and jungle resisting the loss of what little they have, what should we then say about the rich landlords of Santa Cruz?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Unrest in Bolivia, Latin American Problem

The current unrest and violence in Bolivia is another reminder of just how difficult social and economic reform is in Latin America. In some ways Bolivia is a special case. It is deeply divided, not only socially, but also geographically, between the impoverished, indigenous altiplano of the northwest, and the 'half moon' of mestizo-dominated provinces in the southeastern lowlands which have wealth from gas fields and agribusiness.

Yet, throughout the region the problems of redressing the 500 year-old imbalances of wealth, power and resources continue to to seem intractable.

On the one hand, left-wing governments often seem over-eager to write new constitutions and strengthen presidential power, opening themselves to accusations of authoritarianism. On the other, the reluctance of wealthy elites to support an orderly process of reform (eg, by giving up some land and paying more taxes) give credence to arguments that change can't happen through existing processes and institutions. The frustrated expectations in Brazil and the apparent abandonment of reformist policies in Peru are examples of why more radical approaches start to seem attractive.

This paper from Mark Weisbrot and Jorge Sandoval at the Center of Economic Policy Research is a good summation of the current distribution of land, natural gas resources and revenue in Bolivia. It provides a reasonable case for the need of the central government to push through land reform and gain a greater share of taxes from gas production. Weisbrot and Sandoval point out that in Bolivia a much greater share of these revenues go to the regions than in most parts of the word, and that the 'autonomy' demanded by provincial leaders in Santa Cruz and Tarija would be regressive:

In most developing countries, it is assumed that these valuable resources belong to the nation
as a whole, not to the particular region in which happens to be underground. This is especially important for developing countries, since their development strategy – the means by which they can eliminate extreme poverty and reduce overall poverty – is based on using the rents from their mineral wealth to diversify away from hydrocarbons, as well as investing in economic and social infrastructure.

In the media, much of the international attention has focussed on the expulsion of the US ambassador from Bolivia, and the frankly uncouth 'show of solidarity' from grandstanding Hugo Chavez in also expelling the American ambassador to Venezuela. It's disappointing that there can't be more civility at the highest political levels as an exmaple to people who take their cues from national leaders. However, whether US agencies have had any role in fomenting the current discord in Bolivia is an open question; Weisbrot et al point out that the US government has refused to release information on who it gives funds to in Bolivia.

Reports of 17 deaths have been mixed up with discussion of the overall struggle between the government and the eastern provinces. But in fact the worst violence has been in the backwater region of Pando, which has a total population of 70,000 and is hardly a front line of the struggles over land and gas. Radio interviews claim that a group of peasants intent on marching to the provincial capital of Cobija were intercepted and fired on by a group of 'paramilitaries' with machine guns, who included employees of the provincial government and Brazilian mercenaries. The reports blame Pando governor Leopoldo Fernandez for the 'massacre', and government sources have said he will be arrested.

The ten presidents of the Union of South American Nations are meeting in Santiago on Monday to discuss the situation in Bolivia, and according to Bolivian-based blogger Jim Shultz, it will require leadership from outside -- perhaps from Brazil and Argentina -- to broker a political solution between Evo Morales government and the political oppostion from the 'half moon' provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija. But while there's hope for compromise and a sort-term restoration of stability, the ongoing conflicts over land, power and resources will take more than diplomacy to resolve.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the Road to South Africa 2010

The Olympics were definitely an exciting sportswatching dalliance. But as someone with a long-term relationship with international football, it's good to see the thrills of Euro 2008 be followed in pretty short order by the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa

As always, I have a series of allegiances and favourites as the qualifying drama unfolds across the different continents.

My greatest interest is perhaps in South America, where Peru remains as enigmatic as ever. In the first few rounds, the team seemed hellbent on creating ever-greater national embarassment, with five-goal thrashings by the likes of Ecuador and Uruguay. Just when it seemed like they were angling for a demotion to another continent, the Peruvians have dragged themselves off the floor with a 1-0 home win against Venezuela, and today, a thrilling last-minute 1-1 draw with Argentina, an epochal run down the left by Juan Vargas providing a sliding tap-in for Johan Fano and sending the Lima crowd into delirium.

Unfortunately, Colombia are going in the other direction. Having been in the top three and unbeaten after the first five rounds (including a 2-1 home win against Argentina), they have now slipped to sixth, with a home loss to Uruguay and a 4-0 thrashing from Chile. All the Andean teams have slipped off the pace, with Paraguay four points clear on 17 points, and the Southern Cone (Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay) threatening to monopolize the potential qualifying spots.

But the South American campaign is always long, tough, and full of reversals and surprises -- and surely at some stage a Latin American team other than Brazil or Argentina will prove the depth of the continent's football by matching the feats of non-giants like Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Croatia and South Korea, and making it to at least the semi-final stage of a World Cup.

In the North American zone, perennial qualifiers the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica are looking good to go through to the final group of six that will decide the candidates for 2010. My hopes are with Guatemala, who holds a slight edge over Trinidad & Tobago in the battle to take second place in the US group and also go to the final six.

If the South American qualifiers (18 games) reward perseverance and adaptability, the European groups, with strength in depth, are a cutthroat affair where a couple of slipups can leave even the bigger teams struggling for survival. There's already been a couple of those, with France going down 3-1 to lowly Austria in the first game, while today Switzerland were stunned 2-1 at home to Luxembourg. Portugal will be wondering what hit them, after somehow letting Denmark score three goals in the last ten minutes to lose 3-2. For Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands there have been few problems so far, while the much-maligned English surpised with a dynamic 4-1 win over the overconfident Croatians in Zagreb.

If I could pick a dark horse in Europe, Israel may have its best chance ever of qualifying. They're in Switzerland's group, with the only other major candidate being Greece (whose unlikely Euro 2004 triumph has made it a 'seeded' team for subsequent tournaments).

Then of course there's our little corner of the world. Say what you like about FIFA, they really seem to be sincere about having a 'world' cup. Cynics have long argued that the disproportionate number of places for North America and Asia has more to do with money-spinning tourists and television audiences than the desire for a quality global competition. But the recent changes which make it easier than ever for a team to qualify from Oceania can surely not be based on any potential for profit.

In the past, the Oceania winner -- usually Australia -- had to face a playoff against the fifth qualifier from South America. Having finally managed this task in 2006, the Australian federation then announced it was shifting its allegiance to Asia, where it thought it could qualify more easily. The joke is on the Australians, however, because although they will still probably get through without too much trouble, FIFA has changed the rules and the Oceania winner now only needs to win a playoff against the fifth-best Asian team in order to make to South Africa

Therefore, remarkably, after home-and-away rounds against Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a workmanlike New Zealand team only has to get a couple of good results next year to reach its second world cup. In reality, this will still probably be a bridge too far -- but likely opponents such as Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan, though superior, are not unbeatable.

It seems a little unfair when New Zealand is probably a notch below even traditional European minnows like Cyprus -- whose performance against Italy in the first European qualifying round deserved better than a last minute 1-2 loss. With all our limitations, we have a better chance of qulaifying for the world cup than they ever will.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ghost Stories of the Sierra IV: Isabel and the Duendes

Another story of Lizbeth's from her youth in the sierra. To the village of Cabanaconde, where her family live, a few men would occasionally arrive with a llama train from a remote settlement two days walk into the mountains, on the border between Arequipa and Cuzco. They walked without shoes, having rubbed alpaca fat into their feet to harden the soles. In their community they ate only charqui (dried llama meat) and chuño (dehydrated potato), so would bring salt and firewood to Cabanaconde to exchange for maize and other provisions.

One day, a man from this settlement brought with him a girl of about ten or eleven, who was his daughter, and left her with Lizbeth's mother. The girl's name was Isabel. Lizbeth's mother sent her to live with her sister in Lima, and when Lizbeth went to stay there when she was studying, Isabel would comb her hair and tell her stories about life in the mountains (years later, I myself would meet Isabel in a crowded, friendly house in the barrio of San Juan de Miraflores).

One story that Isabel told Lizbeth was of an incident that happened when she was about seven years old. At around 5:00 in the evening her mother had sent her home alone from the fields with her baby sister. She went into the family's little shack and prepared alpaca milk for the baby. Then she went down to the river to wash her hands and go to the bathroom. While she was occupied, she heard the baby crying nearby. She found it at the water's edge, without any clothes. Frightened, she picked up the baby and went back to the shack. Through a crack in the wall, she saw two duendes, laughing, down by the river. These are little creatures, old, with pale skins but with normal clothes, that appear around sundown, when the souls go to rest.

Isabel heard the alpacas running around nervously outside. A puma was nearby, causing the alpacas to take fright. She went outside and began to gather firewood, to light a fire and scare away the cat. When she went back into the shack, the baby was no longer there. She found it down by the river, half in the water, stone cold.

The duendes were responsible. They are old and malicious, and need to tap the strength of humans to maintain their life force. To try and make themselves younger, they had taken over the soul of the baby.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quality Content in New Zealand?

An interesting discussion on Public Address last week led by Russell Brown raised the possibility of a Guardian-style trust fund to support independent New Zealand journalism.

Several people said they'd commit $100 per annum to support such a venture. I would too. With the ongoing hollowing out and dumbing down of the print media here, the weight and quality of New Zealand feature writing is moving from thin to threadbare.

There was some debate about whether this initiative ought to be limited to a trust fund to support the generation of content, or should drive towards a free-standing publication. The latter of course is laden with risk. There was some discussion of online publication and earning revenue through micropayments (here I'd point out my own long-winded meditation on quality content, the internet as a medium and micropayments from a couple of years ago).

Realistically, though, if I'm going to read a weighty piece of investigative journalism, it has to be in print. As much as the internet is great for accessing content and skimming through news and opinion, it's a headache and a backache to focus on something more than 1,000 words on screen. Apart from actual books and readings for university, the only time I find myself concentrating on a longish piece of writing is when we get our monthly copy of The Atlantic (my flatmate Noam has a subscription, although he's constantly grumping about it going downhill and threatening to change to something else.

But as much as The Atlantic is uneven and shares some of the tendencies towards dumbing down and horse-race politics that we despair of here in New Zealand, there are some occasional very good pieces of in-depth research and writing that are best digested reclined on the battered old lounge sofa.

Another point is that New Zealand already has a reasonable stable of online analysts and opinion brokers, and the likes of Gordon Campbell really need to be digested with a cup of coffee and a comfortable chair.

Once we move toward the world of paper and staples, however, an uncomfortable truth needs to be recognised: many of the most venerable 'quality' publications -- from the Financial Times to the New Yorker to even the core Guardian newspaper itself -- make an operating loss.

This could mean that even a successful attempt to fund independent content would still be restricted to peddling that content to the monopolistic mainstream publications, remaining at the whim of editors whose only concern is how much advertising space they can fill.

The conclusion seems clear -- for properly resourced independent journalism in New Zealand, what we really need is a friendly billionaire philanthropist.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Radical Solutions?

Before I started a Master's in Development Studies, I was already interested in questions about development and mused frequently about them on this blog. After one-and-a-half semesters of fairly intensive studying and reading, it's interesting to look back at how my understanding and views have changed.

In deleting some emails, I came across a mini-rant (pasted below in italics) I'd sent to my US-based sister about the trade deals with Peru, Panama and Colombia, which were at the time a topic of discussion in both the mainstream and grassroots media there.

These were my thoughts a year ago:

I am on balance a supporter of the FTA for Peru because of the commercial opportunities it offers. However, a rudimentary examination of the existing agreement demonstrates that Peru, Panama and Colombia are being forced to suck eggs in order to get their deals. The US has been using its weight in the bilateral negotiations to impose conditions it can't get through the WTO (esp. with regard to intellectual property). This has little to do with the appropriateness or plausibility of these conditions for the country (US-standard copyright protection in Peru within 3 years, yeah right) but rather with a wider agenda.

I reckon if the US really wants to support development in the Andean countries, it should do the following:

1. offer unilateral tariff reductions on all products for a 10--15 year period (similar to the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, but with more certainty)
2. trade partners required to move towards international/WTO standards on labour, environment and intellectual property (i.e. NOT US-level standards for the latter); milestones to be met to ensure continuation of tariff-free access after 5 and 10-year review periods
3. reduce or freeze direct-to-government aid (including export subsidies disguised as aid), but offer technical assistance especially in local government, law enforcement, education, infrastructure development, agricultural productivity, distribution, marketing, etc. Foment partnerships between schools, universities, police departments, public service, small NGOs, churches, etc. Loans available for insfastructure conditional on robust analysis of the viability of the project.
4. trade partners remove or reduce tariffs on all or most non-agricultural products; non-complementary agricultural products to be left alone for the first 5 years
5. investment protections in place but trade partners allowed to place 'development' conditions such as use of local products or technology transfer
6. legalize cocaine, but slap on big import and sales taxes; coca leaves can be imported tariff-free

The last one is only partly in jest. At present, cocaine is one processed, added-value product that is highly profitable and makes its way easily into US markets (despite all attempts at law enforcement). It's also inevitably associated with significant violence and corruption. What needs to happen is the opposite of the historical: developing countries have a chance to produce and market added-value, mainstream products, while drug-related activity is disincentivised through making it uncompetitive. Such an approach would see all the cocaine labs move inside the US, where their activity would be tightly regulated by ATF officers...). Meanwile, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia would fill US health food stores with a range of coca teas, sweets, oils, and essences. Groups like the FARC, Shining Path (now moprhing into narcotrafficking operations in Peru), paramilitaries lose their funding and much raison d'etre, either disappearing or being forced to become normal political entities.

Many weighty articles and long perambulations through the thickets of economic history, sociology and politics, I've become much better informed, feel more able to engage in debate, but my views are not a million miles away from what they were then.

Overall, I'm even less sure about the net benefit of the US-Peru trade agreement than I was, in part because I've been made aware that the link between overall economic growth and benefit for the majority is even more tenuous than I realised; in part because of gaining a greater understanding of just how one-sided and hypocritical the conditions in the trade agreements are (and how few of them are even about trade).

As I've learnt recently, suggestion 3 above is just a partial version of what's been on the agenda for international donors for a while through the 'good governance' agenda and the OECD's Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness. There's been a commitment to phasing out 'tied aid' (i.e. exports subsidies disguised as aid) and 'technical assistance' is a major buzz phrase in the aid community (along with its sibling 'capability development'). However, this does still seem to suffer from the longstanding high-handedness of development assistance, and mainly be aimed at bureaucratic elites.

If we do care about 'institutions', a nice alternative approach would be for some kind of properly-funded 'adult exchange programme', where the likes of police officers, petty officials, local council members, etc from developing countries could spend a three-month sabbatical in the equivalent department in a rich country -- and vice versa.

Suggestion 6 is of course mostly flippant, but I'd still be interested in people's reaction to it. The drug trade is not a good thing -- but at the end of the day it's just another manifestation of the inexorable market logic that is elsewhere trumpeted as the solution to everyone's problems. It's rarely mentioned even by liberal commentators, but there's little that's more perverse than a social problem in the rich world being tackled by spraying poison all over environmentally fragile land in a much poorer country.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Back to Blogging

Fear not, dedicated and occasional readers, I have not disappeared from the blogosphere, but have merely had some major work/study/sports-watching commitments over the last few weeks. Hopefully will be back to more regular posting soon and have a bit of a backlog to finish off.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Why a US--New Zealand FTA Is Unlikely

Struggling to find time for getting any original thoughts on to the blog at the moment, but this is a very interesting and readable paper that dispels a few myths and sets out some complicated arguments very succintly.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Guatemala (and other) Stor(ies) at Road Junky

Update: they've now put up this one as well, which has been renamed from its original title: "Crazy Beat Nights on the Panamericana". I guess they thought the Kerouac reference was either too obscure or too pretentious...

Further update: And also this one on the Bus Busker in Latin America. Not seen before on this blog, although friends and family may have been subjected to draft versions.

The chaps at Road Junky are putting up a few of my spare travel stories -- the more gonzo ones that I never managed to get a positive response to from the New Zealand newspapers and magazines (which is not to say that my net total of positive responses is even very high). This one has currently got fifth spot on their front page -- people who know me will recognize it as one I occasionally tell when everyone is bringing out their hair-raising travellers tales over a few beers.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Immigration Bill Has Elements of the Kafkaesque


The Human Rights Commission has made a highly critical submission on the Immigration Bill in which, carefully-worded independent Crown agency that the HRC is, it also saw fit to use the expression 'kafkaesque'. The HRC also picked out for special criticism clause 9 (1) (f) -- the one discussed in my original post that makes removal, deportation or exclusions from [any] other country sufficient (or mandatory?) grounds for denial of entry to New Zealand.

There is also now an anti-Bill website, and an online petition against the Bill. Those who sign the petition are able to submit a comment with their signature.

-- original post --

The new Immigration Bill currently working its way through the New Zealand legislative process should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about civil liberties, according to two detailed articles by Gordon Campbell.

The Bill gives a frightening new range of powers to immigration officials (search, seizure and detention without warrants) and enshrines the use of secret information to make accusations against people who will have no guarantee of being able to see a summary of the evidence against them. It removes current judicial oversight of immigration proceedings. It also requires institutions, businesses and individuals (including employers or accommodation providers) to provide information on a 'suspect' and allows for this information to be provided to a broadly-defined range of overseas agencies. It provides for the compulsory collection of biometric information (including from New Zealand citizens) and fails to establish safeguards on its use.

As with other bloggers, one clause sets personal alarm bells ringing: 9 (1), which states that "no visa or entry permission may be granted, and no visa waiver may apply to any person [who]" has (a) ever been convicted of a crime punishable by at least 5 years; (b) been convicted of a crime punishable by at least 12 months in the last 10 years; or (f) "has at any time been removed, deported or excluded from another country".

One blog commenter suggested that this may just be badly drafted and that an immigration officer may -- at their discretion -- deny entry to someone deported, removed or excluded from another country, rather than denial of entry being mandatory for someone in this circumstance.

Even in this case, these conditions are draconian. Presumably 9 (1) (a) and (b) would include someone who has been a political prisoner in a state like China or Saudi Arabia. Should a human rights activist from Burma be denied entry to New Zealand because she was thrown in jail by the dictatorship?

Clause (9) (1) (f) is just crazy. In this supposedly globalised world, the nation state still carries a fair wack of arbitrary power over personal movement. The rights which citizens of many states take for granted evaporate once a border is crossed, and you can be deported, removed or excluded from a country without being anything like a criminal or badly-intentioned person. When I was in Mexico a few years ago I had the chance to chat to a guy who worked at the New Zealand embassy, who said that his colleagues at the Spanish and Italian embassies had had to process the deportations of about 100 of their citizens in the past year, who had annoyed the Mexican military by volunteering as human rights observers in Chiapas. It was with this in mind that I narrowly decided not to do the same thing myself.

As other bloggers point out, you can be refused entry to a country through a simple misunderstanding, or because some petty official doesn't like the cut of your gib. You don't have to go far to find stories of a respected British journalist detained, strip-searched and deported at LAX by paranoid US Immigration because there was an irregularity in her paperwork. Is it the intention to turn all such people away from New Zealand?

Both major parties are supporting the Bill (only the Greens and the Maori Party are likely to oppose it), so with no 'horse race'-style story available, our lamentable excuse for a mainstream media is ignoring the Bill altogether.

Campbell comments that internationally centre-left parties have been only too willing to stengthen the authoritarian reach of the state, and it has been the crusty conservatives in the British and US courts who have been the last bastion of traditional civil liberties. Unfortunately, as I've argued previously, the principles of the 'liberal' right tend to disappear in the political arena. Campbell says:

[I]n New Zealand, the centre right and its libertarian wing seem concerned merely with corporate freedom and property rights, and not with the civil rights of individuals. Thus, Act and National seem certain to applaud the extensions of state power the Bill contains, and will vote with the Government to pass them into law. Much as they may whine on about the nanny state, the centre right in New Zealand has always had a love affair with the authoritarian powers of the daddy state

So it will be down to a couple of minor parties, civil groups like the Law Society and concerned citizens to oppose this overrreaching legislation.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Rescuing Ingrid Betancourt: Unanswered Questions

If the amazing tale of the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others by the Colombian armed forces left me with some lingering doubts, it didn't take long for a concrete conspiracy theory to appear. A French-Swiss radio station claimed to have been informed by a reliable source inside Colombia ('put to the test many times in the past') that the FARC had been paid $20 million for the release of the hostages, and that the dramatic 'rescue' was staged.

This was vehemently denied by Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos, who said the government would have no reason to deny paying for the release of hostages, when it had already established a $100 million fund in recent months to pay rewards to guerrillas who released hostages, also offering them legal benefits. Santo said it would "look worse for the FARC" for them to have sold their comrades out.

France, Switzerland and the United Stated likewise denied they had paid a single cent for the release of the hostages

Claims that Operation Jaque ('Operation Check' -- as in chess) had been run by the Americans or even the Israelis were also dispelled. Although the army has admitted recieving training and technical assistance from the US, Israel and even the British SAS, Minister Santos swore that the operation was '100 percent Colombian'.

For the curious among us, the Colombian authorities have been drip-feeding some more details about how the operation was set up and run. Apparently, it started in April when a group of military intelligence operatives who had since December been tracking the guerrilla group that held Ingrid Betancourt, infiltrated the FARC's security ring and managed to gain the confidence of 'Cesar', the guerrilla leader directly responsible for the hostages.

By May, the the infiltrators were able to move freely in the zone, and reported the co-ordinates of the FARC camp to the Colombian Special Forces.

Military intelligence then began to hatch the cinematic plan that was agreed to by army chief Mario Montoya at the beginning of June and kept secret from all but the president and a few officials.

According to reports in El Tiempo, the inflitrators got a high-ranking guerrilla, whose indentity hasn't been revealed [my italics], to convince 'Cesar' that FARC leader Alfonso Cano had ordered the hostages to be brought to him by an international humanitarian mission to discuss a prisoner exchange. The contact with the international group had supposedly been made by another top FARC leader, 'Mono Jojoy'.

The key, according to the Colombians, was the FARC's fear of using the radio, ever since the raid into Ecuador in April that killed 'Raul Reyes' in a pinpoint bombing attack. 'Cesar' was thus unable to directly confirm the arrangement with his superiors. As the time of the operation drew near, the army surrounded what was thought to be the location of 'Mono Jojoy' to intensify this nervousness about going on air.

At the same time, the goverment circulated a false report -- picked up by the BBC -- that French and Swiss representatives were in the zone where 'Alfonso Cano' was thought to be located, to give extra veracity to the story of the exchange negotiation.

Meanwhile, from the middle of June a select group of soldiers had began to rehearse the roles they would have to play as representatives of the supposed 'humanitarian mission'. They developed details such as ensuring at least one woman was among the group (as had been the case in previous unilateral liberations by the FARC), bringing a 'cameraman' and 'journalist' along on the mission, and having a couple of the crew wear Che Guevara t-shirts to inspire confidence in the guerrillas. On the morning of the 2nd of July, army chief Montoya dispatched the entrusted few from their base with inspiring words and a reading from the Acts of the Apostles -- the one where Peter is rescued by an angel from the clutches of Herod.

The rest is history, with the moment of the hostages' liberation now available around the world in this edited video.

It's a fascinating account, but there's still something about it that seems not quite complete. There's a logistical void between the story of the 'infiltrator' bringing supposed messages from the FARC leaders to the hostage camp, and the detailed arrangements of the time and place for the helicopter pickup by the 'humanitarian organisation'. According to El Tiempo, the 'messenger' who was really a military agent, brought a message from Alfonso Cano approving the plan in the third week of June. The rescue was two weeks later, on the 2nd of July. How were the exact arrangements of time and place made, and why was 'Cesar' so sure he could trust them?

Athough the FARC may have been fearful enough to maintain radio silence, was there no way for 'Cesar' to get independent confirmation from one of his superiors, which didn't come from somebody who he'd only known since April?

If I had to hazard a guess at what we aren't being told, it would involve the mysterious 'high-ranking guerilla' who helped the military infiltrators. My guess would be that this person might be a bit higher ranking than has been suggested, and that the nature of the deal struck with him (or her) will not be publicly revealed.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Perspective from Inside Burma

The world (as defined by the international media) is now largely 'moving on' from the devastating cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar, but of course reality proceeds at a more sluggish pace.

Recently I've been forwarded a couple of updates from a development practitioner working for an international NGO inside Burma and trying to assist the relief effort. The observations from this practitioner -- who we'll call 'John' -- provide a perspective that is different from the potted reports on the news wires. At times they read a little like an except from Catch-22.

In the first communique several weeks ago, 'John' described sitting in frustration in a comfortable hotel in Rangoon. All foreigners were restricted from visiting the affected areas in the Irawaddy delta, able only to blindly funnel aid through in the hope that it would reach the right people. The NGOs in the country were having proposals approved and were receiving funds, but were unable to obtain any detailed information from the affected areas or deploy staff skilled in programme logistics.

Meanwhile, great effort was going into restoring the ornamental parks of the capital to their former prettiness. Cranes, heavy machinery and workers toiled each day to repair the damage. At the same time, the principal waterways of the capital were still contaminated by rotting corposes, which were pushed away from the banks with long bamboo poles in the hope that they would float out to sea. It was too late for indentification, and John speculated that perhaps his 'host' didn't want to count the numbers dead, or couldn't spare the equipment for digging mass graves -- tied up as it was in the important task of park restoration.

Three weeks later, John forwarded another update. He had finally made it to the delta (six weeks late) and was endeavouring to take stock of the situation. What he found was a little different from the picture painted in the international media.

He said it was clear that many people had died needlessly, the Burmese regime cared little for the people, and there was a need for targeted humanitarian intervention.

Yet, as far as he could see, the local people had largely got on with the task of struggling through and rebuilding. In Bogale (one of the worst hit areas), by the time he arrived things seemed quite normal, the streets were clean, and all business were open.

Perhaps through no fault of the NGOs and the donors, the aid was late, and in many cases inappropriate. Post-hurricane, the 'experts' had worried about the risk of water-borne disease. International NGOs had arranged for airdrops of expensive water-purification kits, and a 747 had been chartered to bring in 15,000 50-litre plastic buckets. Yet this has turned out to be far less of an issue than predicted. Burmese village houses have guttering made of a split bamboo pole down which water runs into large clay pots (cheaper than and superior to the imported plastic buckets). Being monsoon season, there was plenty of clean drinking water and the rains were washing away parasites and mosquito eggs, meaning there wasn't much risk of water-borne disease or malaria.

Another practitioner with a food aid programme had returned from outlying villages where they had been distributing 'Kitchen Sets', complete with pots, pans, forks and spoons. He reported that people in the villages were quite mystified, having no idea what a spoon was used for.

The NGOs and development practitioners were left scratching their heads. Donor agencies had flooded the country with money and expensive equipment intended for an emergency which had largely passed and which in some cases was effectively useless. John wondered how much the donors really cared, given the overriding western agenda to open Burma up, and the opportunity to pump in money and people that the hurricane had offered.

On the other hand, the generals of the Burmese regime had seen this coming. Given their overriding interest in maintaining control of the country, their initial move of restricting the movement of aid workers, and ensuring they had little information about conditions in the hurricane-affected areas, made perfect logical sense.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Amazing Rescue of Ingrid Betancourt

The way it's being told by news sources, it was like something out of Biggles or Boy's Own. Six years after being kidnapped by FARC guerillas, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was today dramatically rescued by the Colombian military along with four US military contractors and eleven members of the Colombian police and armed forces.

Ever since she and running mate Clara Rojas wandered into FARC-controlled territory during the 2002 presidential campaign, Betancourt has been by far the most high-profile hostage of the guerilla group. With her political profile and dual French/Colombian citizenship, she went beyond just being a long-suffering hostage trapped in the jungle, to become a centre of political intrigue. French president Nicolas Sakorzy had personally sworn to secure her liberty. Hugo Chavez aimed to win kudos by leading the negotiations to free her and the other hostages, and was furious when Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe froze him out of this role in November 2007.

Uribe was then seen to have made a faux pas when he authorised the cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed FARC leader 'Raul Reyes' in March. Not only did this create an international incident, but Reyes had also been the main point of contact for international representatives -- including Chavez and Sakorzy -- that were seeking to negotiate Betancourt's release. With the FARC put on the defensive and Betancourt's health rumoured to be deteriorating, hopes of a timely negotiated solution had been deflated. Yet now it's Uribe and the Colombian military who have come up trumps.

Here's the story of the rescue, as told by official news outlets, and narrated in a press conference by Betancourt herself, shortly after her release, clad in army fatigues and looking in remarkably good order for someone who has spent so long in jungle captivity.

Members of the Colombian armed forces infiltrated the FARC unit responsible for holding the key hostages. The infiltrators managed to have three separate groups of hostages brought together in the jungle south of Bogota, and to convince the local FARC commandant 'Cesar' that the hostages were to be transferred to another site in the helicopter of a fictitious organisation that was supposedly negotiating with current FARC chief Alfonso Cano.

As narrated by Ingrid Betancourt herself, early on Wednesday morning, two white helicopters landed in the jungle clearing. Men identifying themselves as delegates of an unknown international organisation, but wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, got out and spoke with the FARC leaders. But no sooner had the helicopter which was transporting the hostages taken off, than it was revealed to belong to the Colombian armed forces. The four FARC guards were quickly overpowered, and the crew of the helicopter announced; "we're the Colombian army; you're freed". According to Betancourt, the helicopter then nearly crashed, as all the hostages jumped up with joy.

Of course, the release of the hostages is great news. And as a victory for law and order without a drop of blood being spilled, it ranks alongside the Peruvian police sifting through the garbage behind a Lima apartment to track down Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman. Betancourt glowingly speculated that only the Israeli special forces could have pulled off a comparable operation.

For Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, it's a massive victory, for him personally and for his no-compromise approach to the FARC. He and the Colombian army were made to appear magnanimous and humanitarian, as they reportedly left untouched another 60 or so guerillas that were in the same area, and which they had surrounded.

But I wonder if anyone else thinks there is something too good to be true about the story? How did the army operatives infiltrate the FARC so successfully? Were they on the ground with the other guerillas in the same zone, and if so, how long had they been there? And how were the battle-hardened FARC guerillas tricked so easily into delivering their crucial bargaining chip into the hands of an unknown group? Why did the freed American contractors not appear before the Colombian media but were flown straight to the US?

I wonder if there isn't a more complicated tale to be told -- and whether in fact the full story will ever be known.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Euro 2008 Final: Spain or Germany?

Can the flaky underachieving Spanish finally make the most of their talent and take their first title in 44 years? Or will the pace and physicality of Michael Ballack, Lucas Podolski et al once again prove the observation that "football is a game in which eleven players pass the ball up and down the field until Germany wins".

Perhaps more crucially, will I get up in time to see part of the game?

Questions to be answered in a few hours time.


Miracles do happen. Not only did Spain shake off their hoodoo and take the game 1-0, but I also got up early enough to catch the second half (the first half had to wait for the replay at 8:30 pm. I join most neutrals in being overjoyed at Spain's achievement, both because of my penchant for the historical underdog, and because they were the best team in the game and the tournament overall. As someone who has seen it happen too many times, I always expected Germany to sneak an equaliser in the 88th minute, but in the end it didn't happen, and Spain's relative profligacy didn't cost them (at times you felt like shouting at their tricky little midfielders to just take a goddamn shot as they decided to make three extra passes when five metres from the goal).

It was a pretty exciting tournament with the goals and fluid, attacking play continuing into the knockout rounds (and just two quarter-finals decided on penalties). A fan of the international game should come away feeling rather more positive than after the eventual letdown that was the last World Cup. The improved spectacle was due perhaps to more evenly-matched teams (meaning fewer boring mismatches), perhaps to younger lineups without experienced defensive formations (meaning attacking tactics were necessary), perhaps to good refereeing.

In any case, the boring dour teams largely fell out at the earlier stages (France, Italy, Sweden and the stonewalling Greeks) while those who progressed were those with greater enterprise (in particular the finalists, Holland, Turkey, and the at-times dazzling Russians).

For football fans, attention now shifts to the qualifying stages for the next World Cup in South Africa in 2010. While the European teams are just starting off, other continents are already part way through their process. I'm pleased to report that many of my favoured teams remain in contention, including Colombia, Guatemala, and even lowly New Zealand. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Peru, who after recent losses by 5-1 to Ecuador and 6-0 to Uruguay appear to be doing their best to get relegated to another continent. Maybe we should let them join Oceania.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bogotá Tales

A story told by Paola's flatmate Olguita about her an experience of her mother's cousin's wife (that description alone may sound a warning, but we'll get back to that later). For now, let's call Olguita's extended family member Rosa.

It was the señora Rosa's first trip to Bogota, and she was very nervous, having heard so much about what a dangerous place it was. Travelling across town on the bus, she was seated next to a man who she thought looked like a suspicious character. While looking out the window at the crowds and sights, she suddenly felt that her purse was lighter in her hand.

Convinced that she had been sneakily robbed, in a flash of panic she turned to the man sitting next to her and snapped: "the wallet!". The man gave a startled look and started to shuffle guiltily away across the seat. Rosa's heart was racing. She clutched her keys in a fist and jabbed them towards the man's ribs. "Give me the wallet" she demanded, her voice shaking.

Looking uneasily at the pointy object being pushed towards his stomach, the man reached slowly into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wallet, which the señora Rosa snatched back and placed in her purse. The man got up from the seat, beat a hasty retreat to the front of the bus, and got off at the next stop.

When the señora Rosa got to her cousin's place and was able to check her belongings, she found that she had an extra wallet -- belonging to the man on the bus.

Certain aspects of this tale, such as the relation of the protagonist to the story-teller, and the lack of further details (like, what did the señora do then?) raise alarm bells*. It has many of the characteristics of an urban legend. But I guess the point is not so much whether it's true, but that it could be. In Bogotá, the moral says, people can even get mugged by accident.

I actually like better another story told by Olguita, this time about her immediate family. Her cousins had gone out on the town with a friend, taking the family car. The boys were out partying until the small hours, until in a rather inebriated state, they somehow managed to drag the car back home and sneak into the house.

The next day Olguita's uncle asked them how the night had been. "Oh, you know, nothing special, said Olguita's cousin. " We came home really early".

Olguita's uncle nodded sagely. "Yes, isn't it amazing how early they're getting the paper out these days", he mused.

On their arrival home, the boys had parked on top of the recently delivered morning newspaper, which was found jammed under the car's right front tyre.

*This story relies on the tendency not to use possessive pronouns in Spanish for things where ownership is obvious -- so the señora demanded 'la billetera' rather than 'mi billetera'. But it also requires a suspension of disbelief that in a situation of dispute she wouldn't have insisted she wanted 'my wallet'.

Venezuela, Once More

If you get past this first paragraph without a groan, it's because you not only read my previous posts

So I'll skip the

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Peru to (Finally)Get Ministry for the Environment

In a couple of posts on Peru, I've mentioned that it has no Ministry for the Environment. Within a generally weak state apparatus, this appears a particularly glaring absence. With its huge tract of jungle and numerous ecological niches, Peru is one of the world's greatest reservoirs of biodiversity. It also has a long history of rapacious resource exploitation: boom and bust periods of nitrate, guano,and rubber exploitation left scars on the environment, while the mining industry has a long history of contamination and damage.

Despite this, until no central authority has been charged with overseeing the protection of the environment. Bodies like the National Commission on the Environment (CONAM) and Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) lack teeth and have roles that gap and overlap with regional governments. The Ministry of Mining and Energy has the role of assessing environmental impact reports at the same time as it is supposed to promote investment in mining.

Credit to Alan Garcia's government: it has recently announced that a Ministry for the Environment will be established. The exact shape and role of the Ministry is yet to be determined by legislation, but it will be part of central government with its own Minister and oversight of all things environmental.

Some commentators are suggesting that the long-overdue measure has only occurred because the government needs to demonstrate that it is serious about getting its laws and regulations in shape for the entry into force of the free trade agreement with the US. This may be so, but it's better than not happening at all. This also suggests some credit should be given to the centre-left Democrats like Charles Rangel and Sander Levin who negotiated the strengthening of the labour and environmental conditions in the FTA.

Of course, the real test is just how active and effective a Ministry for the Environment will be in a country where the president has recently complained that too many natural areas are 'lying idle' and declared several major mining projects to be 'in the national interest'.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Paradoxes of Development Part 1

If I'm asked to think of how life should be, I think of my time in La Antigua, Guatemala. In a valley with a climate of eternal spring, in a town of cobblestone streets with flowers growing from rooftops, I and scores of other backpackers happily wiled away our days studying or teaching in language schools. We drank mojitos and played dominoes with the beautiful daughters of the local oligarchy; relaxed in splendid baroque courtyards full of hanging plants in large ceramic pots; ate delicious late breakfasts of fresh beans and eggs, seasoned with green chili and served by indulgent mestizo matrons.

In the streets, local women in colourful, elaborately woven ponchos sold crafts or plump bocadillos of chicken and avocado. People were friendly and smiled a lot. On Sundays, people gathered to gossip and flirt in the plaza, as the hazy outline of Volcan de Agua hovered over the 17th-century arches. To this day it brings me pleasant memories.

But did not the whole reality of this idyll rest -- from the 16th century to the modern day -- on hierarchy, exploitation and oppression?

Beyond the pretty plazas of Antigua was a polluted capital of slums and rampant crime, a rural hinterland of peasants struggling to subsist on patches of land, rich landlords exporting cash crops on the back of exploited rural labourers. The whole country was still traumatized by a vicious, twenty-year civil war that had seen death squads rampaging through indigenous villages.

Gazing dreamily over the volcanoes from our sunny courtyards as we drank the damn fine coffee, we were inheriting the role of the Spanish colonial elite. Look into almost any critical history of Latin America, and this lot come out the villains. Whether as the first wave of a long line of outsiders tapping the continent's 'open veins'; a corrupt and decadent culture who bequeathed fatalism, supersitition and lethargy to their mestizo descendants; or simply inflexible defenders of privilege who failed to ever achieve political reform, the Spanish tend to get the blame.

And yet...has anyone devised an urban layout more harmonious, an architecture more suited for living; a religion richer in ritual, metaphor and existential comfort, a more seductive blend of music and food and romance?

Compared to Guatemala, New Zealand is an oasis of peace, equitable wealth distribution, transparent government and progressive politics. Despite a few economic hiccups in the past forty years, we're still in the world's twenty 'most developed' countries. We've always been at the forefront: land reform, the vote for women, social welfare programmes, rejection of the nuclear umbrella, civil rights for gay people. We're thirty years into an imperfect but world-leading process to compensate indigenous tribes for historical abuses.

Life should be good, right?

Instead, people are grumpy and bitter that they aren't even better off. The political issues that most excite people are tax cuts are retaining the legal right to hit their kids. There's precious little respect for the life of the intellect. The popular press has nearly scraped right though the bottom of the barrel. Our cities have nothing that is visionary and very little that is even attractive. The slums of third world cities are hardly more depressing, and certainly more colourful, than the surburban monotony of Papakura, Tawa, or Bishopdale. Social interaction is timid and superficial. We go out to bars where we can't hear, and drink until we can't speak. When we win at our favourite sport we feel only relief; when we lose we're plunged into wordless despair. An undercurrent of violence simmers uncomfortably beneath the surface of our society.

Do the most pleasant ways of organising life need to be the province of a privileged elite? Does opportunity to contemplate the volcanoes over a coffee rely on an underclass of peasants slaving in the fields? Does it take antidemocratic tyranny to make the imaginative leap beyond acquiring the next consumer good?

Does equity and progress produce only people envious of each other's imagined advantages, squabbling over their rightful share? Does successful political compromise and the rule of law just produce a nation of NIMBYs? Does beauty, charm and passion require hierarchy, oppression and supersitition? Does development equal banality?

Or could it be that it's all even more complicated than we thought; that there are good things hidden in the middle of the worst systems? That our greatest satisfactions might be our greatest illusions? That we haven't even really started to figure it out?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sustainability of Development

The semester passes quickly. In a couple of weeks, this subsection of my development studies course is all over, and next Friday I have to hand in the 'journal' which is made up by the last umpteen posts on this blog.

I've jumped about thematically, and have spent an inordinate amount of time on a couple of peripheral topics. I'll try and wrap it up in some kind of coherent way.

Within much of the standard development theory, a range of competing theories -- from both liberal/modernisationist and Marxist/dependency perspectives -- assume similar processes and results for development: urbanisation, industrialisation, economic growth and increased material consumption.

In the last couple of weeks we've been looking at critiques of those assumptions from the indigenous, rural, feminist, environmentalist, and postmodernist angles.

I'm just going to look briefly at one of those: the environmental perspective. This is often presented as the true full-frontal challenge to the 'development' paradigm. It worms its way into most debates, whether they be in the letters to the editor, blog comments section, and questions to visiting speakers (the Joe Stiglitz talk was no exception).

Let for a moment me take on the character of the environmentalist interlocutor.

All these arguments you're having, you the capitalists and you the socialists, they all assume that what we want is growth. As if there are unlimited resources and we can just keep on growing. We let me tell you, we live on a single planet with finite resources, and we just can't keep on growing forever...

Taken at face value, there's a lot there to nod sagely and agree with. We do indeed live on a physical world with finite resources. (We haven't figured out how to live anywhere else yet, and even if we could create some controlled environment on Mars, I know where I'd rather be). In just a couple of hundred years of industrial development, we've managed to make some significant alterations to fragile membrane of rocks and gases on which we live. About thirty years ago, we'd begun to punch a hole in the ozone layer. Now climate change is the dominant issue. Who knows what irreversible changes will eventually be seen in the world's oceans?

Preserving the environment and even rolling back some of the damage is an essential part of development. GDP per capita is an inadequate measure of human wellbeing, and no technological miracle in the near future will make it reasonable for replicas of Los Angeles to cover the planet.

Yet, I do have some problems with the attitudes that are lurking in this environmentalist objection. Firstly, there's a strong streak of pessimism about human potential and the ability to creatively overcome difficulties. Collective action to address the ozone problem was an example of what canbe achieved when needed. Climate change presents a far greater challenge, but we can only keep trying. Also, if the negative consequences of our actions are often unpredictable, so are the positive twists of fate: who in the 1950s and 1960s would have predicted the internet, or even the Green Revolution.

More importantly, I find the 'no more growth' to frequently be in bad faith. All too often, it is delivered by the 'we live a sustainable lifestyle with our olives and organic chickens in Martinborough, our solar heating panels and our Toyota Prius' set. If such people reluctantly acknowledge their inability to 'wean' themselves off all modern conveniences, they rarely accept that their position as privileged members of an interdependent capitalist society (computer programmer, consultant, boutique food producer) is the result of a centuries-long chain of specialisation, high energy use, and resource exploitation.

As I said in the 'why do I care' post, the freedoms they [I] have, and the ability to worry so much about future generations, are a direct result of the material prosperity which we have inherited from the resource-using technological development of the past. Making a choice to live a certain kind of life with the cushion of money in the bank and modern services at hand is entirely different from condemning people in developing countries to stick to their donkey-powered wells.

Of course the very same processes that built Sheffield and Los Angeles can't be repeated in exactly the same way all around the world. And the rest of the world has probably learnt enough not to want that (ok, China's current development pathway notwithstanding). But assertingthat 'sustainable development is impossible' is a unilateral declaration that progress has ended. This violates the Kantian or Rawlsian principle of integrity (if you didn't know your place within it, what kind of world would you wish for).

Witin the debates are about how the lives of the world's billions of poor can be improved, putting forward the 'no more growth' environmentalist objection is a little like saying 'I don't care'.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Venezuela: Yes, There's More

In two recent posts I covered the debate about social and economic policies in Venezuela, partly to emphasize how in considering development issues it's important to understand the facts and all their nuances before lanching into ideological debates.

I linked to an article from Francisco Rodriguez, former economist to the Venezuelan national assembly, who made the intriguing argument that the Hugo Chavez government had not actually made a very high priority of addressing poverty (something generally assumed by both boosters and critics of Chavez).

I then discovered a piece by US analyst Mark Weisbrot, who critiqued Rodriguez' use of data and suggested that in fact the evidence generally pointed to increased social spending and steady progress for the Venzuelan poor.

My second post was sympathetic to Weisbrot's contention that the picture changed after a fuller review of the data. However, I then received a communication from Francisco Rodriguez himself, who pointed out that I had obviously not seen his rebuttal to Weisbrot. He noted that because Foreign Policy does not allow the use of footnotes, it hadn't been possible to make clear all the data sources he had used, which in fact drew from the work he has been doing for at least ten years.

Rodriguez says that the arguments of Weisbrot "[rely] on erroneous reading of the evidence or use of severely biased indicators that do not accurately reflect the evolution of the Venezuelan economy or the well-being of the poor".

Let's review the substance of the rebuttal to Weisbrot, under the categories I used in the previous two posts.

Spending Priorities

Rodriguez questions the relevance of Weisbot's point that the absolute level of social spending has increased during the Chavez administration. Given that Venezuela has had a huge windfall thanks to oil boom, he points out, all categories of spending are going to increase. Therefore, " if we are interested in evaluating a government’s priorities... we want to study how it has allocated it among different possible objectives". And he returns to his original point that the relative portion allocated to Venezuelan health, education, and housing is the same as it was in the 1990s.

The only big increase in government social spending is on social security, which Rodriguez argues is regressive because people in the informal economy don't have access to pensions (an important point, and akin to my convoluted argument about Peruvian labour laws in this post -- i.e. for them to be important, first you've got to have a job).

Weisbrot had also pointed to what he quoted as $13 billion social spending by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. Rodriguez publishes the detailsof the PDVSA budget, showing that of this spending only about a quarter is on health, education and housing (the 'misiones'). The rest of the 'social spending' includes debt refinancing, infrastructure projects, and defense projects.

My question would be: although not as large as claimed, the social programmes funded by PDVSA are new initiatives, and therefore should they not bolster the total proportion of public spending counted as 'social'?


In the two previous posts I described how Weibsrot and Rodriguez disagreed about whether inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, had gone up or down during the Chavez administration. Weisbrot had been unsure about which sources Rodriguez had used for his inequality measures and suggested that they might have been cherry picked. He cited data from the Venezuelan National Statistics Insitute to suggest that inequality has actually dropped since Chavez came to power.

In his rebuttal, Rodriguez points out that the series cited by Weisbrot excludes people whose reported income is zero (presumably the poorest of the poor). Furthermore, he provides time-series graphs using data derived directly from the Venezuelan Household Surveys. Using different methods (and including people with zero income), these all show that income inequality has dropped from a peak in 2002, but is only now back to the level it was in 1995. Latest data suggests inequality is still on a downward track, but that still excludes the zero-income groups, so the jury is out.

Poverty reduction

Weisbrot had interpreted Rodriguez as saying that many developing countries achieved a two point reduction in poverty for every point of GDP growth -- meaning Venezuela would have had to eliminate poverty entirely by 2007. Rodriguez makes clear that he was talking about the 'income elasticity of poverty reduction', a technical calculation, which, despite digging tentatively into some background reading, I can't entirely understand. Suffice to say that according to Rodriguez, given its level of economic growth, Venezuela should have seen poverty reduced to between 18--22.5 percent, rather than the 27 percent that has been achieved.

In correspondence, Francisco Rodriguez agreed that Peru was a far worse performer again (having seen poverty reduce very slowly from 54 to 43 percent in a period when its economy grew by around 40 percent) but that Chile, Mexico and Brazil are the examples commonly cited as having combined economic growth with good social progress. I'd note that each of these countries is subject to its own debate -- there are some discussions of Chile here and here.


Rodriguez had written a paper with co-author Daniel Ortega (presumably not the Nicaraguan Sandinista leader) which cast grave doubt on whether the Chavez government's Mision Robinson literacy programme had taught 1.5 million Venezuelans to read and write. Using information from the Venezuealan Household Surveys, Rodriguez and Ortega pointed out that there were still more than a million illiterate Venezuelans in 2005, barely less than the 1.1 million before the start of the Mision Robinson programme.

Weisbrot complained that Rodriguez had used a question from the Household Survey not designed to measure literacy, and also took issue with some of the methodology in the analysis. But Rodriguez argues in his rebuttal that if we assume the Household Survey data to be accurate, there is no possible interpretation consistent with the claim that Mision Robinson enrolled and educated 1.5 million people. At most, around 40,000 people (a small fraction of the number claimed) could have been taught to read and write since 2003.

Health Indicators

Weisbrot suggested that individual indicators which Rodriguez reported as worsening (low birth-weight babies, ) could be due to measurement errors, since overall the indicators show improvement. Rodriguez counters by arguing that under a government with a strong focus on poverty we should expect to see across-the-board improvements. Instead, infant mortality has declined at the same rate as during the 90s, while some things might have got worse. He concludes by agreeing with Weisbrot that "official Venezuelan statistics are far from...ideal", pitching this as further evidence of a haphazard approach by the government to implementing and evaluating its social programmes..


Phew. There endeth the debate (for now at least). Why have I spent so much time on this, and how indeed do I justify including it in what is supposed to be my development studies journal (ends next week)?

I guess because in looking at development issues there are several different questions to ask. There's the question of what development is, which is a favourite in the humanities section of the academic setting and which I've flirted with in a couple of recent posts. There's the question of how this can be achieved, which is the issue that a lot of the practical and political debate focuses on. Then there's the third question, worth asking before we jump to the second or even the first: do we know what's actually going on?

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