Why is International Aid the “punching bag” of Austerity Britain?

As the debate on International Aid trundles on, and reports of its inefficiency fuel the fire, George Hopkin explains why foreign aid is a budget we cannot afford to cut.

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In Britain, international outlooks are not very popular. The common theme seems to be that we British should fight for our independence from the EU, battle against the stifling lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights, and make sure our borders – and trading regulations – are working harder for hardworking British people. With this kind of attitude, it is only natural that international aid is going to take a punch or two.

So, there it is. International Aid acts as the punching bag of Austerity Britain. But, as the sceptics try to pull the drawbridge up between the UK and the rest of the world, I wonder if they really know what aid is or why our government gives it.

Let’s investigate. 0.7% of the UK’s national income goes towards aid. £12 billion is a huge amount of money but, in current government spending terms, an amount that is fractional. This money goes to charitable organisations such as UNICEF, and the governments of countries that suffer from deep poverty—having many who struggle as part of what most people will only ever see as a statistic: the 1.4 billion impoverished worldwide.

Our government works hard to make sure that each and every pound we give is sent to the right organisations, with 4 out of 43 groups cut due to ill-performance. Nations that no longer need aid do not receive it—the Russias, Chinas, and South Africas of this planet with developed national governments and rising economies. Efficiency is at the heart of this process.

Looking at root causes of poverty, the aid does not just provide a temporary relief. International funding helps with infrastructure; it teaches better farming techniques; it makes sure that clean water is more of a constant, and not just a luxury.

And this is not just an issue of compassion. This is about humane, economic support of the kind that we should be expected to give in an increasingly globalised world. It is about advanced nations holding out a hand to bring others up with them—modern Britain with the old colonies is a good example of a duty-bound leader supporting those with fairly young systems.

We are lucky, in Britain, to have had two consecutive prime ministers who understand this, sometimes, difficult reality. First, Gordon Brown wisely ring-fenced our international aid budget, then David Cameron delivered upon that same promise by leaving it unharmed.

Cameron earlier this year stated his government’s position, declaring: “To those who are sceptical, I would say it is not only a moral obligation that the better-off countries have to tackle poverty in our world when we still have over a billion people living on less than a dollar a day, but it’s also in our interests that we build a more prosperous world.

“If we don’t, the problems of conflict, the problems of mass migration, the problems of uncontrollable climate change are problems that will come and visit us at home.”

In these words, there is caution enough for those whose minds are drawn to inward problems and who forget that there are people elsewhere that are struggling harder than us, with our way out one of the only ways available.

If we do not give what little we can, then the consequences of our actions will come back to haunt us in politics, economics, and social justice. We need to move away from the view that charity starts at home and realise that the ladder of prosperity must not be pulled up behind us.

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Evil media? It’s not a conspiracy. It’s our own short-sightedness

How and why has the international media ignored protests in Bulgaria, Brazil and, even EgyptJem Collins sheds light on the reason so many journalists leave important stories on the shelf.

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Bulgarian protests have mainly been ignored by the international press

Being a well-informed world citizen is simple. Newspapers, radio, rolling 24-hour news channels, live twitter feeds and websites are all just a tiny part of the sprawling international offering that makes news consumption effortless.

It is also extremely important. Without a good grounding in news and current affairs we become isolated, whether on a local, national or international scale. And if we isolate ourselves from other cultures we lose the ability to empathise with their problems, resolve conflicts or even simply understand the world around us.

Keeping ourselves informed of new developments is also empowering; it gives us the tools and knowledge to help us change things that we believe are fundamentally wrong. After all, how can you successfully oppose something if you do not know that it is happening or the context surrounding it?

So, we ask ourselves, how is it, that in this massive global network of information it can feel like we know less than ever before? Just this week reports came in of mass protests in Bulgaria, with thousands of people on the streets in the cities of Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas in anger at an allegedly undemocratic government.

But it is a story that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media – you will not find this news on your Sky TV sets or BBC twitter feed.  It is also a story that is just one of countless others, not worth even a passing mention on the inside page of your quality broadsheet. How many people have heard of the Icelandic protests of the early 2000s that led to country’s financial reform for example? Or what of the horrific rape of countless young men and women in the US army?

From a few scattered examples alone it is clear that there is an inherent bias in the way we report the world, but why? Is it, as some suggest, a conspiracy perpetuated by our governments to keep us from rioting against the traditional power norms? Perhaps we should be looking a little closer to home.

In 1965 two media researchers, Johan Galtung and Marie Ruge, attempted to discover exactly what makes ‘news’. After detailed analysis of scores of international news stories they came up with a list of things all the stories had in common; what they called news values. Ranging from continuity to meaningfulness, their final list of 12 ingredients to a “good news story” still says a lot about our society’s effect on the media.

While many other researchers have suggested additions or modifications to Galtung and Ruge’s initial points over the past five decades, they still all broadly fit within three categories; audience identification, pragmatics of media coverage and impact. Note the first grouping in particular. Put simply, if a story does not conform to what an audience relates to, media organisations will not cover it.

In the society of today we are only really interested in ourselves; stories from far-flung destinations do not sell and neither do those from countries with vast cultural differences. If the audience does not see how the story is relevant to them, it just will not work. Whatever our high minded expectations of the press to hold power to account, media organisations still need to pay the bills and ultimately exist to make money. Papers, broadcasters and online organisations alike select the stories their audiences are interested in reading – which is not necessarily the same as the ones they should be reading.

And what of the internet, heralded as the arrival of infinite knowledge for all? Surely we now know more than we ever did before? Not so, argues Professor James Curran of Goldsmiths. The internet may well be filled with limitless ideas and information, but that does not mean the traditional giants do not hold the most sway.  In the UK, for example, the top ten list of most visited news websites does not contain any surprises with the BBC, MailOnline and the Guardian heading up the top.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, the internet gives us an opportunity to ignore what we do not want to see. Don’t want to read about the protests in Bulgaria? No worries, there are thousands of cat videos waiting for you instead.

Obama can’t shut Guantanomo, even if he wants to

As the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikes continue, Chris Walker wonders what Obama’s options really are.

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“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe, it is expensive, it is inefficient… It is a recruitment tool for extremists; it needs to be closed.”
President Obama’s view has not changed since 2008. He wanted to close Guantanamo then and he wants to close it now. The only question is whether he can.
Tuesday marked the end of a presidential silence on the subject of Gitmo. The 100-strong prisoner hunger strike, the most drawn-out strike the controversial detention centre has seen, currently has the eyes of the world back on the southeastern coast of Cuba.
Some of those on strike are being force fed via a tube through the nose to keep them alive, and extra medical staff have been flown in to cope with the numbers.

Obama was quick to remind reporters on Tuesday that, in large part, the blame for inaction should lie with Congress.
In truth, Washington doesn’t seem to know what it would do with the detainees even if it were able, and that’s not to say that there isn’t anything that could be done.

Congress blocked the White House when it tried to put detainees up for trial in the U.S and did so again when the government planned to appropriate a facility in Illinois and move prisoners there.
Sending prisoners abroad would only be an option if it was satisfied that safeguards would exist to protect the them and, in turn, the U.S. This has not been easy to ensure given some of the countries from which the detainees originate.

£7m rehabilitation facility reportedly in development in Yemen could be a possibility in future, but in recent times the risks of transferring to Yemen have been too great in the eyes of the U.S. The White House announced on Wednesday that this policy has not changed.

Setting them free isn’t much of an option either, despite 86 of the imprisoned being clear for transfer or release. It is unlikely that many other countries are rushing to offer themselves as host.

Certain prohibitions on deporting prisoners can be waived in the name of national security. This would take place under the assurance that the prisoner would not take up, or in some cases return to, extremism. It is not hard to imagine why Obama has not been prepared to stick his neck out into such a politically risky territory.

Options remain, though. In January the envoy who had been assigned to oversee the closure of Guantanamo was reassigned and his position was not replaced. This was, in effect, the administration giving up on Guantanamo. Daniel Fried should at least be replaced; Reuter’s Daphine Eviatar suggests replacing him at a senior level in the White House.

The periodic reviews, promised in 2011, were supposed to scrutinise the legality of continuing to hold detainees without trial.  They are yet to start.

Congress will need plenty of work if it is to be moved on this issue. Any perceived increase in attention being paid to Guantanamo could be enough to encourage Obama to seriously reconsider this issue. Hopefully it will be enough.

The death of “fair trials”: What is the true cost of cuts to legal aid?

The British government wants to cut legal aid by over a third, but Maya Esslemont asks: “can we afford to?”

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It is argued that the Conservatives won over the public with its case for cuts. It’s clear in every Yougov poll that, even now, the public stands behind a perceived need to lower funding in certain areas.
Yet, in 2011, the government proposed a type of cut which shocked members of the public and professionals alike. They began the process of cutting legal aid by nearly £350 million.

This was shocking for a lot of reasons.
For a start, the legal aid system had already been brought to its knees by a funding crisis.  Professionals in Not For Profit organisations, advice bureaus, and law centres have already been getting by on what little funding they receive, with a startling amount struggling to do more than break even in the past ten years. Coupled with the expected increase in convicted persons during the recession, these organisations which exist to fulfil a basic civil liberty would struggle on their existing budget alone.

It’s shocking, secondly, because of the ramifications this has on values we take for granted.
If I were to be arrested tomorrow, an unlikely but plausible scenario, I would feel safe in the hands of the legal system, knowing that I can apply for legal aid and be represented in some form.
If I were to be arrested after these cuts, it is much more likely that I would be either representing myself or represented by a lawyer juggling more cases than they have the time to deal with.
Jeanette Miller, head of J S Miller Solicitors, told the Guardian: “[Currently] Lawyers will not prepare a legal aid case in the same way as if you were funded privately.” Even in murder defences, she says, “it will be a case of the bare minimum being done”.

These cuts threaten to add yet another burden to the shoulders of already strained professionals and turn Britain’s wrongly or rightly accused into two-bit Erin Brockoviches, desperately trying to seek legal advice from other sources without the help of the system, potentially with catastrophic effects. As it is, poorer boroughs are notorious for their lack of available small-court support, with family lawyer Andrew Newsbury  calling it “virtually impossible” to find a family lawyer in Manchester who can provide legal aid.

Those who argue for cuts to legal aid say we spend much more on legal aid than other countries in Europe. And they aren’t wrong; the Telegraph recently reported that we spend five times more than the average EU country.
However, this argument fails to take into account how  much higher Britain’s rate of arrest is compared to other nations. We have the second highest rate of crime in the world, it becomes clear that necessity is the driving factor behind our current legal aid commitments, not governmental generosity.

Without a supported legal aid system, the chances of a fair trial are based on a lottery. “Benefits”, with all their contentious scope for individual spending, are picked over by various newspapers and members of the public to within an inch of their lives. And so they should be, many benefits are debatable. But legal aid? By Britain’s own self-proclaimed standing as a bastion for Western Liberalism, the right to fair trial is not debatable.
It is for these reasons Legal professionals have come out in droves to prevent the further erosion of legal aid, including one of the party’s own MPs, ex-lawyer Helen Grant.

Cuts will always be subject to political prioritisation; however, legal aid is not a service which hangs on either side of the political spectrum. It is apolitical, judicially necessary, and a mandatory component for the kind of basic morality we have subscribed to, without issue, since 1949.

Legal aid acts as protection for every civilian, ensuring that nobody is above or beneath the law. When it comes to cuts, the government can argue many things. They can try to argue that we need to decrease funding for certain schools, shut down hospital wards, and withdraw help for the elderly.  But, there is no economic argument powerful enough to justify the erosion of a civil liberty as basic as a fair trial.

What does UKIP really stand for?

Alaina Willis wonders why the public has such high hopes for a party which has yet to prove itself.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage during local election season

Despite only making a name for itself relevantly recently, UKIP is not a party formed overnight out of mistrust and anger towards the three main contenders. It was founded over 20 years ago and, during this time, has focused on one core issue: EU immigration.

Unlike the main three parties who are forced to have an array of policies, UKIP relies on this main topic. Through lack of scrutiny, it has become their bread and butter. Over the years they have slowly been rising to power and we have been foolish to not address this, as well as the concerns of the voters.

So, what does a UKIP manifesto look like? Transport: leave the EU and suddenly the tubes won’t be crowded. Health care: leave the EU and suddenly the NHS won’t have any issues. Nigel Farage has even been bold enough to claim during various Question Time appearances that the real way of fixing the housing crisis is not the proven method of capping rent but, much more conveniently, leaving the EU to stop immigration. Their own party website says nothing about the environment, the criminal justice system, or education, which are all fundamental issues in need of discussion. A serious party running for incumbency would never be able to bypass these issues completely.

Although some argue their manifesto has taken this shape due to their short political life-span, the Green Party has continually managed to offer a variety of policies despite forming three years later than UKIP.

Voters are feeling disenfranchised by the current mundanity of the three parties and, mainly out of frustration, voted for something they saw as different. Some even believe that UKIP’s single policy priority will fix most of our problems and this is, in part, due to the way politicians have continually brushed off UKIP as a non-threat. Some Labour MPs have even become reluctant to combat a party which is helping to defeat their main opposition. All the while, this attitude of anti-immigration is allowed to fester despite evidence that, since EU border laws loosened, immigrants have offered much more in taxes than they have received in benefits.

However, we should be consoled by the fact that UKIP’s recent success was at a local level, which only offers the role of a Councillor. I am not discrediting the hard work Councillors do but, in local elections, immigration is not a fundamental problem nor can Councillors do much about it. Those newly elected UKIP members will add very little to the post due to their very narrow policy base. What their role entitles them to do vs. what they would like to do (shut and lock the door to Britain) does not equate. In reality, people will be disappointed with their actions, or lack thereof, by the time voters take to the ballot box in 2015.

The public can be excused. They are picking UKIP due to a lack of alternative. For those in power, however, it is important that they learn we can no longer brush UKIP, or any other party, aside when it comes to immigration. Otherwise, we could be dealing with something much more sinister very soon.