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.


[1] A short video shows what happened to the Arctic ice cover in 2017:


[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:

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