The strongest theme of my work this month has been the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and reflection on all its consequences. I visited Baghdad for the first time on 3 May for a conference launching their EITI report. I was meant to go on to Erbil but the KRG withdrew their invitation so we were unable to discuss progress on EITI in Kurdistan. As I said at the conference this was my first visit to Iraq although I had been there in my mind and concerns many, many times before.

It was not possible to see very much of how people lived in Iraq because the hotel where the conference was held was in the green zone. This meant that it took local people 4-5 hours to get into the conference! We did go out of the green zone for a couple of events and had to go through security check after security check. There were walls and traffic jams everywhere and lots of security all over the place.

Two days later, on 8 April, I attended a conference in London organised by the Cordoba Foundation on the situation in Iraq 10 years on; and immediately after that on 10 and 11 April I went to Doha to attend a conference organised by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, on the same topic; the majority of the participants in this conference were Iraqi academics. (See video of conference below; my contribution starts around 1:18:47.) To prepare for these events I did quite a lot of reading, and I strongly recommend anyone who is concerned about the current situation in Iraq to read a fairly new book by Toby Dodge entitled Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism. The picture is depressing; a very poisonous sectarianism has been unleashed upon the country, and is indeed spreading across the region. Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed, Kurdistan is planning separation; nobody trusts anyone from other communities whereas in the past people used to intermarry quite regularly and were often not aware of each other’s religious persuasion.

And there are still desperate shortages of water, sanitation and electricity. Iraq used to be a highly developed country with many very educated people and now there is division, sectarianism and poverty. It is a very sad story and those who defend the invasion because it bought an end to the Saddam Hussein regime are not facing up to its dreadful consequences. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a cruel ruler, though the US was happy to collaborate with him during the Iran/Iraq war, but the invasion was not the right way to assist the people of Iraq to change the government. This will be to the eternal shame of all the countries that participated and all those who justified and organised the invasion.

The death of Mrs. Thatcher

Mrs Thatcher was an old lady and had apparently suffered from dementia for sometime. No one wants to speak ill of the dead and everyone wants to respect the mourning of those who loved her, but the behaviour of the British establishment over her death was in my view disgracefully unbalanced. She was a Prime Minister who deeply divided the nation and never got the support of even half of those who voted – 42% then 43% then 42%. Her policies were deeply divisive and brought a lot of hurt and suffering to many parts of the country. She posed as an old-fashioned, socially conservative nationalist but in fact opened up the era of greed and mounting inequality and handed control of the country to free-wheeling finance capital, that led on eventually to the crises with which we are still living. it is said that she claimed her greatest achievement was Tony Blair; whether she said this or not it was fundamentally true. She entrenched neo-liberal values and he continued with them. Because there was an economic boom, he was able to spend more on public services and therefore disguised the fact that he continued her economic policies. This means that New Labour did nothing to reverse the big growth in inequality that took place in the Thatcher years and still scars the country.

I did not object to talk to her funeral service in St Paul’s, but the lying in state and the gun carriage through the streets was way over the top. She was treated as though she was a royal figure, but the royals are not allowed to express political opinions and therefore stand as symbols for the nation. She was most certainly political and very divisive and should not have been treated in this way. It is notable that they say the previous government laid down the basic plans for her funeral; this leaves me with the awful fear that the Blairites might be planning something similar for him! But I am pretty confident that the Chilcot commission will put paid to that.

Launch of Sheffield Institute for International Development

I went to Sheffield on 24th of April to give a lecture at the launch of their new Institute for International Development. You can see a video of the lecture below.

It really is important that we should debate what we mean by “international development”. I’m afraid it’s dominated by a culture of charitable giving and has a patronising air. It really needs to be rethought. I provide some reflections in my lecture.

Paris in the springtime

A few days ago I went to Paris on Eurostar to attend a meeting at the OECD to discuss the issue of corruption and transparency as the Russians prepare for their chair of the G20. It is encouraging that the movement for transparently and against corruption is gaining momentum worldwide. However, the woman representing the UN global compact said that multinational companies, who are now constrained by their national law, often tip the wink to local companies that they should bribe as they find necessary but not tell them about it. The most important development I heard of was local trade associations bringing together small companies in developing countries who will sign up to refuse bribes and organise together to give backup to anyone who gets into trouble. It was suggested that multinationals and government departments should give advantages to local companies that sign up to anti-bribery principles.

It is also very important that there is increasing stress now on tax avoidance and transfer pricing. Developing countries have suffered this for a long time but now it is undermining the tax take in OECD countries and people are demanding action. There is growing anger when people discover the companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Google paid very little in tax when local people and firms have to pay their taxes. Multinationals enjoy the advantages of public expenditure like law-and-order systems, educated populations, infrastructure etc., all provided through taxation, but do not pay their way. There is a growing demand across the world to restrict such behaviour. This is right in itself and will have important benefits for developing countries.

Interesting facts

  • The idea of bankruptcy was invented in 1706 by ministers of Queen Anne; before then insolvency had led to debtors’ prison. This was done because the economic crisis of 1690 would have resulted in most of the merchant class going to jail. But bankruptcy was only allowed for merchants who could settle part of their debt, not for commentators who continue to languish in jail (Robert Kuttner New York Review of Books 9 May 2013).
  • In 1816 the net public debt of the UK reached 240% of GDP. This was the legacy of 125 years of war against France. The next economic development in the UK was the Industrial Revolution; the growth in that era was the parent of subsequent sustained growth everywhere. In contrast, before the present crisis, UK net public debt was close to its lowest ratio to GDP in the last 300 years. The UK rising debt is a result of the financial crisis and its aftermath (Martin Wolf FT 24 April 2013).
  • In the US roughly 100 people per day are killed by guns (John V Whitbeck discussing the Boston bomb).
  • The Zambian government estimates that it is losing $2 billion annually as a result of tax avoidance and transfer pricing. The country has achieved lower-middle-income status, yet 60% of the people live in poverty. Copper provides 20%of export earnings but state revenues of less than 0.5% of GDP. The FT editorial of 1 May 2013 advocates a continent-wide mining code and a continental standard to cap the deductibility of payments to foreign affiliates. Africa-wide rules would greatly enhance the bargaining power of individual countries

Posted by