Collapsing – an April blues

Although it may be a bit exaggerated, I find myself increasingly unable to listen or watch news bulletins, particularly on the mainstream media. The drone of right wing nationalists and the vacuity of centre-right politicians fill me with a mixture of disgust and despair. Many of the views and opinions turn me so far off that I turn off.

But I know that this response gets me nowhere. Knowing your enemy is useful advice. Yet in these murky times it is not easy to figure out what to do with such knowledge. I have minimal power and influence anyway.

As scientists document the decay and destruction of nature, the media focus on absurd cultural phenomena and entertainment – royal families, celebs and such like – wasting our precious time and insulting intelligence. On another level leaders in America and in Britain are floundering around in their nostalgic fantasies of greatness, retreating from international cooperation and re-establishing barriers to trade. In Russia, Turkey and elsewhere strongmen flex their muscles and assassinate or intimidate dissenters. In other parts of the world military budgets are increasing and the space for civil society and human rights organisations is shrinking. I recently attended meetings with Tanzanian researchers who are afraid of investigating potentially sensitive subjects – the factors driving high teenage pregnancy rates for example – as politicians threaten repressive measures against those undermining “traditional values.”[1]

At the heart of the matter are a series of primitive tribal instincts, which seem to be getting out of control in many regions. The Hungarian general election this weekend exemplifies the unfortunate (misguided) direction many European countries are taking. Sadly, according to opinion polls, thousands of people are prepared to vote for an ugly assortment of neo-fascist tough guys who promise to keep all the baddies away and are hell-bent on dismantling the ”liberal and democratic order.” What will replace it? I fear the prophecies of George Orwell, with boots coming down in human faces forever. Meanwhile in the US of A the “administration” is mobilising the national guard to defend the border with Mexico against “caravans” of destitute central Americans…

Although some global institutions seem to be collapsing, from readings of world history it would appear that the ebb and flow of stability and order have been commonplace over the centuries.[2] So I pin my hopes on new progressive movements confronting the old men in power and their barren ideologies. As the #me too movement against sexual harassment has shown recently, even the social media can be harnessed to enlightened causes. Surely, as the rapid spread of distress and stress amongst the web-fixated, twittering, instagram generation flashes warning lights, there are alternative possibilities for making use of these powerful communication tools, ensuring that they contribute to exchange of ideas. It is necessary to counter anti-democratic manipulation and thought control; as illustrated by the disturbing discoveries of Facebook in cahoots with the sinister “Cambridge Analytica.”. Some economic policy reforms for getting to grips with inequalities wouldn’t be a bad idea either!

[1] The Economist laments the latest developments in Tanzania in the 17th March 2018 issue: https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21738919-strong-constitutions-matter-tanzanias-rogue-president

[2] See for example: ”The Silk Roads – a New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015).

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On the shore of Lake Victoria and at the edge of the Indian Ocean (March 2018)

In March I went to the rock city, Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The purpose of the trip was to gain an impression of two research projects: investigating HIV and associated illnesses such as diabetes; and the economics and ecology of fisheries on the lake. I travelled with members of a consultative committee for development research and spent two days engrossed in discussions with two enthusiastic research teams.

En route to the lake we spent a night at a hotel near Kilimanjaro and ate breakfast on a terrace with fantastic views towards the mountain. It is strange to be at the equator and gaze at a snowy scene!

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In Mwanza we visited laboratories and clinics where the team from the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) are working. Around 5-7 per cent of the population are HIV positive and the research project is designed to determine their susceptibility to other diseases, as well as treatment. It was interesting to get some insights into a subject that I know very little about.

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We stayed at a giant monstrosity beach resort hotel, with water lilies and frogs in ponds.

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On the second day in Mwanza we met the fisheries research team, initially at the fish control lab on the outskirts of the city. Samples of fish are inspected and tested in order to ensure that they are free of diseases and that pollution levels are within limits. The lab was funded by the EU as a trade promotion initiative.

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Then we went to a beach landing site where we learnt about the fishing and processing techniques. Drying small sardines on beaches is common, but very primitive. The researchers are helping to introduce more efficient technologies that will increase the value of the catch.

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Our discussions concluded at the fish market in Mwanza where buyers gather from all over the region, coming from as far away as the DRC and South Sudan.

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Early in the morning of the third day we were booked on a flight to Dar es Salaam. But there were some delays caused by a spectacular tropical downpour with impressive thunder and lightning. Later as the “Fastjet” plane descended to land there were fine views of the Indian Ocean and the ”haven of peace.”

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Driving around the city I noticed that Tanzanian artists amuse themselves by painting mobile murals, such as this “photo shop style” image on the back of a bus, depicting Gaddafi and Saddam with a female gun-waving figure in between. The bus was in a traffic jam outside one of the largest shopping malls in Dar.

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It’s not easy to determine what the message is!

Kampala: urban landscape

Since returning from a trip to Kampala I have been struggling to find something profound to say about the growth of African cities. The capital of Uganda has an estimated 2 million inhabitants. I was lucky enough to view the city from the air descending to land at Entebbe airport on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I also travelled to eastern Uganda on the main road to the Kenyan border passing close to the medium sized town of Jinja, which is famous for a dam and hydro-electric installations on the Nile, where the river flows northwards from Lake Victoria. It is around 80 kilometres from Kampala to Jinja and the road is solid with crawling traffic, mostly oil trucks and container wagons hauling to and from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, as well as four wheel cruisers and sugar cane lorries and all manner of motorbikes.

I thought it might be fun to take some ’photos of the urban sprawl and the dense traffic in and around Kampala, but it wasn’t possible to get a good angle. Anyway, I preferred to get some pictures of vegetation and the hilly landscapes of the east. The urban landscapes are not very attractive. The ugliness of unplanned settlements with open drains, piles of waste, tumbledown houses covered with brightly painted adverts for mobile telephones, tangles of electric cables and dirty kids playing by the roadside astounds me. I stared from the window of our car at the scenes of urbanization gotten out of control, wondering how a traffic planner would go about sorting out the mess of congestion and chaos. I marvelled at the patience and tolerance of the workers packed into thousands of miserable mini-vans on their daily commutes.

The world’s cities are growing fast, more and more people are abandoning their rural lifestyles in search of urban delights. There are jobs in the towns and cities, plus bright lights, entertainment, the prospect of opportunities and partners far from the big skies above the fields and huts in remote villages. As migration analysts would say, there are push and pull factors. So Kampala is like a giant magnet pulling people from the surrounding countryside. And I guess once you’re sucked in to playing urban survival games, there’s no turning back!

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Even in Kampala there are green spaces, such as around the restaurant at the Villa Kololo where I stayed for four nights.

Reasons to be cheerful: smiles in Cambridge and Copenhagen

Many of the stories told as my caravan treks around the world have an undercurrent of doom and gloom, especially when I try to make some sense of the increasingly insane inhabitants of our globe. I’m in need of some antidotes…

When my son went to hear David Byrne speaking in Copenhagen recently, I was amused to find out that the ex-lead singer-songwriter in the 1970-80s band Talking Heads has launched a project called ”reasons to be cheerful.”[1] Martin attended the session in January 2018, just after a trip to Cambridge where we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday. I’m not sure that she was in a very celebratory state of mind as she is frail and fading, but there were some smiling moments, notably when I lined her up with my younger sister (aged 58) and her youngest daughter (aged 15).

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I’m quite pleased with this photo, indeed I guess documenting three generations spanning 75 years is a reason to be cheerful! And of course I’m happy (cheerful) as I have a picture of Martin, a friend of his called Mads and Mr. Byrne himself, smiling on a dark street outside the main library in Copenhagen.

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Checking through my notes I have found the following short description of a Talking Heads concert at the Roundhouse in North London in early 1978. It was probably the most exciting concert I ever went to, more or less reflected in the film called “Stop Making Sense” (which records the Heads performing their amazing and sometimes bizarre repertoire on stage in 1984). I don’t remember who I went to the concert with, apart from a strange girl called Cecilia who lived with my older sister in a flat in London in those days. She was a bit crazy. We got a bit drunk and the evening included a long taxi ride home after the concert. The band was electrifying, the crowd went wild and we sat high up above the stage looking down and got blown away. David Byrne was a bit like David Bowie in those days in that he projected an image of other worldliness, slightly alien, slightly out of place. The big suit and running on stage were effective gimmicks, but the key to the whole was the fantastic sound. I haven’t been to many concerts in London, but as I recall that evening was once in a lifetime (sic).

[1] https://www.reasonstobecheerful.world

Twelve notes at Christmas, 2017

To whoever might be out there, these are notes for the twelve days of Christmas, fact-based comments on some events and trends in the old (year), as we get ready to ring in the new (2018). There’s a mixture of the positive and negative, ups and downs. Such is life I guess.

In May 2017 I joined a team in Kathmandu evaluating 25 years of Danish development cooperation with Nepal. The country was in the midst of local government elections, which had been postponed many times since they were last held in 1997. It was exciting to get an impression of the enthusiasm to vote and many people I met were upbeat about the prospects for strengthened democratic decision making. 29 million Nepalese citizens have endured a ten year insurgency with around 18,000 killed, a mad and angry prince gunning down the royal family, a series of unstable governments led by either ultra conservatives or by Maoists, the end of a 240 year old monarchy and a massive earthquake, as well as floods and an economic blockade along the border with India. Maybe I’m naïve, but I would like to believe that the successful organisation of both local elections and parliamentary elections later in the year were big steps forward in terms of human rights and economic development in one of Asia’s poorest countries. However, as the commentators always say: challenges remain!

There are challenges in other regions too. In early December I was somewhat shocked to read about the rapidly increasing suicide rates amongst 15 to 19 year olds in the United States of America. What purports to be the land of hope and manifest destiny has recorded a 31 per cent increase in boy’s suicides between 2007 and 2015, while the rate for girls in the same age cohort has doubled. What is going on? Why so much misery? According to some studies reported in the Economist, adolescents who spent more time on Facebook and Instagram were very likely to agree with remarks such as ”the future often seems hopeless.” Other studies suggest that social media can promote happiness, so there’s not necessarily any causal link between depression and addiction to digital rather than face-to-face communication. Nonetheless, the rates of increase in suicides amongst young Americans are alarming.

The human population of the planet reached a total of 7.6 billion (7,600,000,000) in 2017. Of these 2.7 billion or around one third reside in China and India. In the autumn I read Yuval Noah Harari’s 2014 book on the history of homo sapiens over the last 70,000 years – a present from my daughter and her partner – and wondered where we’re heading. Whatever else happens in the coming years, there is little doubt that the steady increase in the numbers of our species has fundamentally altered the planet’s ecosystems. Is the anthropocene the end?

For many years the risks of ecological collapse have been on my mind and I keep a close eye on updates about the impact of climate change. In July 2017 a chunk of ice twice the size of Luxembourg and weighing a trillion tonnes broke off the Antarctic ice shelf, a process called calving. On the other side of the globe, the extent of the Arctic sea ice is considered to be an important indicator of warming rates. The eighth lowest measurement tracked by NASA satellites since the 1970s was recorded in September 2017: 4.64 million square kilometres.[1]

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not the only dangerous emissions. The air that most of us breathe is saturated with contaminants. A 2016 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded that over 90 per cent of the planet’s inhabitants live in locations where air quality is unacceptable! Some 3 million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6 per cent of all global deaths) were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together. Nearly 90 per cent of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, with nearly 2 out of 3 occurring in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific regions. 94 per cent are due to cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Major sources of pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities. However, not all air pollution originates from human activity. For example, air quality can also be influenced by dust storms, particularly in regions close to deserts. Gasp!

The WHO also publishes reports on other matters, such as infant and maternal mortality. In Denmark, where our grandson Carl was born in January 2017, the under-five (years old) mortality rate is 3.5 per 1000 live births and there are 6 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. But in Tanzania, where I have been involved in selecting some health research projects over the past 18 months, the under-five mortality rate is 49 per 1000 live births and 398 mothers die per 100,000 births. These are dramatic differences between the two countries and illustrate the long road that has to be travelled in reaching the goal of quality health care for all. Underlining the message: in August I attended an awards ceremony at the Danida Fellowship Centre (DFC) in Copenhagen at which the newly appointed director of the WHO Tedros Ghebreyesus spoke about global health challenges and particularly the inequalities in access to care and treatment of both infectious and non-communicable diseases.[2]

There are gloomy scenarios for development in many African countries, not only as a result of minimal health services, but also due to widespread and often long-running, unresolved conflicts. Danish development assistance has been supporting peace-building and conflict resolution efforts in various ways over the last decade or so. The military dimensions of such operations have expanded considerably across the continent. There are over 85,000 African soldiers serving in United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) forces supposedly keeping or trying to build – the distinction is important – peace in numerous countries, notably Mali and Somalia. There’s even an African training centre for these troops; in Ghana.

Far removed from the frontlines, it is increasingly difficult to listen to the rhetoric of right-wing Danish politicians who have little else to offer the masses but their hatred of foreigners and particularly of refugees from Middle Eastern countries often fleeing wars in which the Danish military have played active roles (e.g. in Iraq, Libya and Syria, etc.). Proposals have been tabled to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (which protects minorities) and from the UN arrangements for sharing refugee burdens between the member states. The High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are over 65 million people on the run, displaced, seeking refuge, persecuted and desperate. Not our problem say the fanatics and anyway most of the refugees and ”irregular migrants” don’t like eating pig meat, so how can they possibly be welcomed and assimilated in the kingdom of the Danes?

Turkey has been in the news a lot in the recent years, both as a result of domestic politics and in terms of international relations. Given the borders with Syria and Iraq as well as the strife associated with the Kurdish cause, it is not surprising that there is so much unrest. But President Erdogan’s clampdown on dissent has been disturbing. Amnesty International estimated that 40,000 people were detained without trial for six months after the attempted coup d’état in July 2016, while 90,000 civil servants were dismissed. The country seems to have become a dangerous place in which to speak your mind and although I have many good memories of exploring Istanbul, I’m in no hurry to visit for the time being…

Meanwhile in the European Union (EU) air travel has become a “common good” (or bad?) and tourism is booming. We flew to Malaga for a week’s holiday, with bus rides to and from Granada where were stayed for four nights. Andalucia has always been a popular destination for northern Europeans seeking sunshine. The Spanish airports authority (AENA) reported an increase in the number of passengers arriving at Malaga airport from 13.5 million in 2006 to close to 17 million in 2016 (an increase of 15 per cent from the year before). We haven’t been there in the summer months, but there were large crowds even in October.

And according to the world forum of elite economists (WEF) Finland has the world’s highest score for ”quality of life”, combining a series of indicators from personal freedom to satisfaction of basic needs. The main drawback is the temperature, which is often very low! Attending a meeting of Nordic evaluators I stayed in Helsinki in November and thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon exploring the city; from the up-market boutiques on ”boulevardi” (a main street) to the semi-underground Rock Church, from the bar on the top floor of the Hotel Torni with fantastic views towards the sea to the chocolates on display at the central Fazer Café. I rounded off my short stay eating pasta with smoked reindeer at Vantaa airport.

“Enfin”, I conclude my stories with Emmanuel Macron – M. le Président de la République – in action in Ouagadougou. At the end of November he travelled to an EU meets AU session in Abidjan with a stopover in the capital of Burkina Faso, where he lectured on current affairs at the university and answered questions from some 1500 students gathered for an unusual opportunity to confront the French leader “face à face.”[3] Thus, while the Americans seem to be encouraging conflict in the world’s hot spots (such as Jerusalem…), while the Germans are staggering towards a post-Angela Merkel era and while the British under a shambolic conservative minority government are wasting time on absurd negotiations to get an exit deal with the EU, the French have adopted a more constructive stance in international relations. In May Macron surprised many by upending the political landscape in France with his movement called “en marche” and winning the elections. Subsequently he seems keen to tackle not only youth unemployment in France but also the spread of terrorist violence in Africa, not to mention global warming. Whether the movement will succeed is an open question, but at least Macron seems to have little time for the narrow nationalist blind alleys down which most politicians seem to be running these days. So I wish him “bon courage!”

By way of conclusion, here’s a view of Helsinki’s fantastic railway station with giants holding lanterns that look like globes in their hands on each side of the main entrance.

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[1] A short video shows what happened to the Arctic ice cover in 2017: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/end-of-summer-arctic-sea-ice-extent-is-eighth-lowest-on-record

[2] http://dfcentre.com/acceptance-speech-by-danida-alumnus-dr-tedros-adhanom-ghebreyesus/

[3] Having spent 2 years as a research coordinator at the Université de Ouagadougou in the mid-1990s, it was fun to watch the speech and the debates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsSIgXofR-E

Manson, Mladic and Mugabe: three thugs in the news (November 2017)

Three big time criminals were on the front pages recently, their crimes having been the stuff of news broadcasts and analyses stretching back to the 1960s. Charles Manson (aged 83) died in prison, where Ratko Mladic (aged 74) can also expect to end his days. Robert Gabriel – no angel – Mugabe (aged 93) was finally forced to resign from the presidency of a country he had slowly but surely impoverished during his 37 years as head of state. Like many others surveying the horrors inflicted by these three men, I wonder how they manage to live with the knowledge of their crimes. Probably they found arguments to justify their acts to themselves…

All three appear to have been dangerously off the rails. But while Manson was arrested, tried and found guilty of inciting and organising a series of gruesome murders in California, Mladic and Mugabe enjoyed considerable support for many years (indeed decades…) even after their crimes had been exposed to the world. Manson exerted demonic influence over a group of young people who he persuaded to carry out several bloody killings in Los Angeles in 1969.[1] Almost sixteen years after ordering the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men – notably those trapped in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995 – Mladic was finally caught in Belgrade and then tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where he has been sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and assorted crimes against humanity.[2] His own deputies finally deposed Mugabe, after he had managed to keep control over and the backing of the ZANU PF movement since the mid-1970s, despite the collapse of the economy. His most notorious crime was to mastermind the post-independence massacre of thousands of Ndebele people in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, aided by North Korean military advisers.

A common thread linking these three criminals is their obsession with ethnic identity; a kind of disease that seems to spread like an epidemic through many populations. Deviant white man Charles Manson’s sect hated blacks (Afro-Americans) and arranged murders ostensibly to provoke a race war. As an orthodox Bosnian Serb Ratko Mladic developed a virulent hatred of “Turks” (i.e. Muslims). Robert Mugabe is not only homophobic in the extreme, after his terror campaign against the Ndebele in the 1980s, in the 1990s he incited young Zimbabweans to racial hatred against white farmers, many of whom fled the country.

Unlike Manson and Mladic, it would appear that Mugabe has been given impunity, at least in his native land, so there will be no justice.[3] In that respect, his chaotic departure from the presidency leaves him in a similar position to countless other heads of state and governments, who transition from power without being held to account for the misery they have caused to thousands (sometimes millions) of people. Thus, while reflecting on the ugliness of dictators and murderers, it is also worth: i) considering why the rich and powerful are often able to avoid the long arm of the law; and, ii) rejoicing at the gradual emergence of a global system of justice that may be capable of discouraging power-hungry wannabes and violent thugs.

[1] See, inter alia: https://www.biography.com/people/charles-manson-9397912

[2] The judgement summary is horrific catalogue of human evil: http://www.icty.org/x/cases/mladic/tjug/en/171122-summary-en.pdf

[3] The story of Mugabe’s rise and fall is told in the Guardian newspaper (and elsewhere): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/23/zimbabwe-grants-robert-mugabe-immunity-from-prosecution

Fools going to war?

Apart from the haircut, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Mr. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is that he is quite a young man (only 33 years old) and an angry young man to boot! After old Mr. Don Trum-up threatened to destroy his country in a speech to the United Nations (sic), the North Korean response was to heap abuse on a doddering old man who has his finger on the biggest trigger in the world (and also has an absurd hairstyle). The Korean expression used was translated as ”mentally deranged dotard.” Many members of the American psychological profession apparently back up this assessment.

No doubt next year there will be lots of events to commemorate the end of the First World War (1914-18), a conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions of men, mostly in the ”flower of their youth.” Since then and particularly during the 20th Century – the age of extremes – millions more young men have been persuaded to bomb, strafe and snipe at their enemies in an endless blood-rush of fury and destruction. Surveying the ruins, it is hard to conclude that the species homo sapiens represents the apex of natural selection on Earth, rather the opposite: that people have had considerable difficulties dragging themselves beyond the entrances to their caves despite 70,000 years of technological progress.

Indeed, we seem powerless in the face of grunting stand-offs between off-balance dictators and their militarised minions. Disarmament negotiations are discarded in favour of chest beating from the decks of aircraft carriers and wild screams from submarines as groups of alpha males groom themselves in ridiculous uniforms while preparing for the great showdown. In a world cluttered to overflowing with guns and ammunition, nuclear missiles and poison gas, barbed wire and improvised explosive devices, I fear that many fools in powerful places don’t need much encouragement to resort to using weapons in pursuit of an illusion of security.

Or do they? Perhaps modern youth will be able to distinguish between war games on their video modules and smartphones and the crazed ranting of bitter politicians trying to convince one group of citizens to hate another. For the time being I rest my case and keep my one eye on the Korean peninsula.