On Ethiopian famine reunion, Stephen Grey and other pieces and bits
Some random jottings about current happenings:
I was slightly disconcerted this morning, lying in bed half-asleep with the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on in the background, suddenly to hear my own voice for a few seconds, apparently explaining that it’s OK to carry on eating in the middle of a famine. It was a trailer or plug for a programme being broadcast tomorrow morning (Sunday 30 Aug) at 11:15am on BBC Radio 4, and repeated at 9am the following Friday, 4 September. It will also be available for download or listening on the Radio 4 BBC website. The Radio Times billing says:
Sunday 30 August 11:15am – 12:00pm BBC Radio 4
Sue MacGregor presents the series which reunites a group of people intimately involved in a moment of modern history. In Ethiopia, close to eight million people became famine victims during the drought of 1984, and over one million died. The international relief effort that followed was the largest ever mounted, culminating in the Live Aid concert in 1985. Reporter Michael Buerk, nurse Claire Bertschinger, former head of Oxfam Hugh Goyder, Major Dawit Wolde Giorgis of the Ethiopian relief effort and Sir Brian Barder, Ambassador to Ethiopia at the time, join Sue to recall the events.
Whistledown, who make the programme for the BBC, recorded the five of us exchanging recollections for more than two hours, so only a fraction of the discussion will be included in the 45-minute programme. I shall hear it for the first time tomorrow and await the experience with some trepidation.
Update, 31 Aug. 09 : Listen to the programme as transmitted on 30 Aug 2009 by clicking “Listen now” on the Ethiopia item at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007x9vc. Listeners outside the United Kingdom may not be able to play this. In that case try http://bit.ly/nS2GI. Or hear the programme repeated on BBC Radio 4 at 9am UK time next Friday, 4 September (accessible in streaming video worldwide on the BBC Radio 4 website’s “Listen Live”).
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John Plender, writing in today’s weekend FT (29/30 Aug 09), makes some interesting points about the current signs of incipient recovery from the recession:
Fears of global financial collapse and, at least in the short term, deflation have been put to rest by the huge policy response. The effectiveness of the various initiatives – Tarps, Talfs, quantitative easing and the rest – may have been mixed. But the outcome is clear. These and similar moves around the world have prompted an incipient economic recovery. … [B]ig banks are in clover because their capital position continues to be subsidised by the state. Loose monetary policy delivers easy profits by cutting their borrowing costs and increasing their interest spreads. Increased concentration resulting from bail-outs means that pricing power is strengthened. …
In the private sector corporate profit margins have held up well against the recession, thanks to cost-cutting. Yet one company’s cost-cuts subtract from another company’s revenues. As wages are cut and people laid off, consumption is dented. … while quantitative easing, the modern equivalent of printing money, has so far failed to crank up bank lending significantly, it has undoubtedly put money into the hands of the investment institutions from whom central banks have been buying bonds.
There’s an obvious irony in the spectacle of the main beneficiaries of the crisis being the financial institutions whose greed and folly brought the world economy to the brink of collapse, while its main victims are the guiltless unfortunates who have lost their jobs, been evicted from their homes, and seen their incomes and savings slashed. There’ll be more guiltless victims yet when spending on public services is ruthlessly cut to begin paying off some of the huge accumulation of national debt made necessary by the crisis, once we have begun to emerge from the recession — or even sooner if and when Messrs Cameron and Osborne move into Downing Street. It seems they aren’t going to wait for the end of the recession to get to work with their little hatchets, such is their instinctive enthusiasm for ‘small government’.
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Another irony: as Plender’s FT article confirms, the drastic measures taken by virtually all western governments to counter the credit crunch and consequent global economic crisis are manifestly beginning, in Plender’s words, to “[prompt] an incipient economic recovery”, and the principal unchallenged architect of those growingly effective counter-measures is Gordon Brown. Brown was no more responsible for the crisis than any other national or international leader, none of whom saw it coming but few if any of whom reacted to it as speedily and decisively as our prime minister. It seems a little unfair, therefore, that throughout the media and especially the blogosphere, his name is mud. He’s even being blamed by some of the vengeful harpies who wanted the convicted Lockerbie bomber to be left to die in his Scottish prison cell in a few weeks’ time on the novel (and AFAIK non-scriptural) principle that compassion should be reserved for the virtuous: apparently few people have yet grasped that devolution actually means some powers having been transferred to the government in Edinburgh with the UK government at Westminster no longer having any say in how they are exercised.
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Gordon Brown might however take some limited comfort from one statistic that seems to have been largely overlooked. According to an opinion poll reported in the Guardian on 24 August 09, —
In an immediate general election, 25% say they would vote Labour – the joint lowest score in Guardian/ICM polling history and the worst for Labour in the series since June last year. The figure has only been lower once, in an ICM poll carried out for another paper during Labour’s spring leadership crisis.
Yet according to the same poll report, —
While 58% of all voters – including 37% of people who voted Labour in 2005 – now think Cameron would be best, only 31% back Brown.
So if both figures are to be relied on, and despite that qualifier “only”, Gordon Brown is currently running some six percentage points ahead of his own party in the opinion polls. That doesn’t seem to add up to a powerful case for a change of Labour leader (or prime minister, not necessarily the same thing) before next year’s general election.
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The investigative journalist, war correspondent and author Stephen Grey goes from strength to strength. More than any other single person he was responsible for uncovering by dint of dogged research the scandal of extraordinary rendition, and he wrote a powerful book about it. His reporting in print and on radio and television of long, often hair-raising stints on the front lines in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been vivid, moving and innovative, making sometimes startling use of his immense range of contacts with military and political leaders. The scope and range of his articles in the New Statesman alone add up to an impressive corpus of work. His book on the war in Afghanistan, “Operation Snakebite: the Explosive True Story of an Afghan Desert Siege” (Viking), won deservedly high praise: it’s a riveting read. Now the current edition of Prospect magazine publishes an analysis of the Afghanistan war by Stephen Grey which should be required reading by all the military and civilian policy-makers with any involvement in that increasingly unpopular war. Grey’s article is not another knee-jerk “bring our boys home tomorrow” piece such as I and others might have written: indeed he argues that a precipitate and total withdrawal now would be disastrous and unjustified. But he makes a subtle case for claiming that the generals must share some of the blame with the Ministry of Defence and British ministers for sending our troops into action with inadequate equipment and transport, and for embarking on operations with inadequate numbers of soldiers. It’s a must-read piece. (Declaration of interest: Stephen Grey is a friend of mine. But I don’t think that has affected my view of his remarkable work, which I hope will continue for many years to come.)