Vignettes from my travels

June for me was a mad month of travel. Each of my visits was satisfying and worthwhile and obviously I had agreed to each in turn, but they did come together in a way that meant I was on the road for most of the month.

Mongolia is a country of ancient rolling hills and warm people. The people have been nomadic until very recently and deeply love their lands; this means that the riches of mining, which hold the promise of development, also scar the landscape and are contentious.

Lebanon has a population of just over 4 million and 1.2 million recent refugees from Syria. (This is the equivalent the UK hosting 16 million refugees). Before the recent exodus from Syria there were already half a million Palestinian refugees living in 12 refugee camps in Lebanon. Palestinians in Lebanon are not able to claim the same rights as other foreigners and Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty, so there is enormous strain on the camps which are now taking in new Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria.

Nigeria has a great sense of excitement and expectation about the prospects from the new government they proudly elected recently. Whilst there I met the new Vice President and found him very impressive. I dearly hope the new government is able to deliver. I have no doubt that this is their intention but Nigeria is a very large country with deeply entrenched corrupt practices as the elite continued to capture most of the proceeds of oil.

Liberia was established as a country to enable liberated slaves to return from America to Africa. There has been tension between returnees and local population ever since which helps to explain the history of conflict in Liberia and is the reason why it lies very near the bottom of the Human Development Report. The really good news is is that having seen the danger from ebola, the whole country came together to defeat the disease and have done so successfully. The purpose of my visit with Cities Alliance was to improve the life of the slum dwellers of Monrovia who Make up 70% of the population. I really hope that this spirit of cooperation that defeated ebola can be retained to improve the life of the slum dwellers.

The UK budget

The biggest development in the UK has been in the new government’s budget. It will make the working poor poorer and is based on a lie. Of course everyone agrees that it would be better to improve wage levels and reduce the number of people who are dependent on Working Tax Credit because their wages are so low that they are not enough to support a family. Similarly, we have a housing crisis which is the fault of successive governments and has resulted in house prices and rents being very high indeed.

For this reason the welfare costs of subsidies to rents for working families is also high. The government claims that it wants to increase wages and reduce the welfare bill. It has therefore immediately cut the tax credits to poor working families and promised that the minimum wage will increase in years to come. It has also cut the rents that public-housing can charge, which will reduce the housing benefit bill but will also reduce the availability of low-cost rented housing.

On top of this the government has cancelled any benefit for poor working families for more than two children! I find this outrageous. So now we have a government that tells people how many children they can have. This will make the working poor with more than two children even poorer. But of course the headline description of the budget is – higher wages and less welfare.


An agreement has been reached between the EU and the Greek government but the process has been shocking. All serious economists, including the IMF, agree that the Greek debt is unpayable and on the basis of the previous agreements Greek people would be locked into austerity and poverty forever more. This is why the Greek people threw out their previous Government and elected Syriza. But the voices from the EU – and most stridently Germany – have repeatedly said those elections don’t matter, it is the views of all the other member states that must dominate. So much for democracy!

Clearly the rules of the single currency are flawed, but the Greek governments that got Greece into this mess have gone. The EU governments that admitted Greece to to the single currency have not taken any public blame; and many German and French companies gained great benefits from the unwise lending to Greece but have not taken any losses. Clearly there needs to be a reform agenda in Greece but there also needs to be a debt write-off and this is repeatedly refused.

All this bodes ill for the future of the Euro and continues to bring the European union into disrepute. We can only hope that the agreement that has been concocted will bring some relief to the Greek people and the prospect of working their way out of the terrible situation they are in. But the way Greece has been humiliated will have consequences.


Christopher Reuter has written an important article in Der Spiegel online about the origins of Isis. It is here.

In brief, the article says that Isis is a coming together of fanatical Islamists and previous senior figures in Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus which helps to explain how they are on so well organised.

Stephen Walt, who is an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University, has written an important article in Foreign Affairs arguing that Isis has taken over control of the desert parts of Syria and Iraq and the policy should be to contain them there as has been done with other extremist states in the past. Professor Walt is a serious scholar of the “realist” school of foreign policy and his views are well worth considering.

There are two other articles I would recommend to those who are trying to understand Isis. The first – “Yes, it is Islamic extremism – but why?” by Graham E Fuller – explains why Islamic fanaticism has emerged; and the second – “Religious fanaticism is a huge factor in Americans’ support for Israel” by Glenn Greenwald – how Christian zionist fanaticism in the US is a major factor in US policy towards Israel.

Open Bethlehem

I am very proud to have been made an ambassador for Open Bethlehem by Leila Sansour and presented with a Bethlehem Passport which looks much like an EU passport but bears the inscription:

The bearer of this passport is a citizen of Bethlehem; … they recognise this ancient city provides a light to the world, and to all people who uphold the values of a just and open society … that they will remain a true friend to Bethlehem through its imprisonment, and that they will strive to keep the ideals of Bethlehem alive as long as the wall stands…

Bethlehem, which is a predominantly Christian Palestinian village but with a open-minded tolerance and respect for all the different Christian denominations and the Muslim population, is being decimated and destroyed by the illegal route of the Israeli wall. The Open Bethlehem campaign – see their website – asks you to visit Bethlehem, spend a little time there and meet the locals. (Israeli tourism firms are taking people in and out very quickly which is destroying the Bethlehem economy and cutting visitors off from the reality.)

Please make an effort to watch Leila’s film, which is entitled “Open Bethlehem”. It tells the whole story. Bethlehem needs your support. If enough people object, the ugly sectarian wall will be removed.

Alger Hiss

I have just read a very important book by Joan Brady, America’s Dreyfus:The Case Nixon Rigged. It tells, in a very readable way, the story of a grave miscarriage of justice which is important in itself. But it also explains how the great progressive American contribution to ending the terrible depression of the 1920s/30s and insisting on decolonisation became the reactionary American of today. The smearing of all progressive officials – including the very senior ones such as Alger Hiss – as Communists or Communist spies changed America in a way that is still damaging the world. The book is about to be published by Skyscraper. I strongly recommend it.

Boycott Divestments and Sanctions

It is the tenth anniversary of the civil society movement in Palestine putting out their call to all of us to support their Boycott Divestments and Sanctions movement to bring to an end the oppression of Palestine, as happened in the case of apartheid in South Africa. Please look at their website. It reports great achievements of the movement. And please support BDS, it is a way that we can all contribute to righting one of the greatest injustices of our times.

Interesting facts

  • One in four English private-sector tenants claim housing benefit, a rise of 90% in the last six years (FT 6/6/15)
  • Nearly one third of UK managers who were ranked as underperforming last year were given a bonus anyway and 45% of senior managers and directors (FT 3/6/2015 quoting data from the Chartered Management Institute)
  • One in six of the world’s largest companies are either based in a tax haven or have a majority-owned subsidiary in a haven (FT 1/6/15)
  • “Our blunders since 9/11 have been characterised by using the wrong tools in pursuit of unachievable objectives based on a faulty understanding of the problem” (Major General Jonathan Shaw The Tablet 6/6/2015)
  • It has been estimated that over 220,00 Syrians have been killed in the civil war and 11 million have fled their homes (Sophie McBain New Statesman 22/28 May 2015).
  • “In an online poll conducted in July 2014 a formidable 92% of Saudi citizens agreed that Isis conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law” (New York Review of Books 9/6/2015).
  • Worldwide 10.9% of people are undernourished, down from 18.6% in 1990/92. Progress has been concentrated in Latin America, the Caribbean, and East, South East and Central Asia. The proportion of hungry people in Africa has fallen but the absolute number has grown. Central Africa and West Asia – which includes Iraq, Syria and Yemen have gone backwards. 58% of Pakistani people do not get enough to eat (Beth Gardiner New York Times June 24, 2015).
  • Traffic killed 1.24 million people in 2010. Terrorism killed 18,000 people in 2013 (Simon Kuper FT Magazine 11/12 July 2015).
  • About a fifth of UK jobs are low paid, a higher share than average in OECD countries. And if you are low-paid in Britain, you are more likely to remain so long-term then in most other developed economies (Sarah O’Connor FT 13/7/2015).

Posted by