The First World-Problem(s)

Rehyphenating the priorities of the developed and developing worlds.

By Arvind Iyer, 8th January 2014

Background : The Three Worlds theories of the early postcolonial era that might have served to usefully map the sharply polar geopolitics of the time, continue to circumscribe policy imagination as well as commentary in a manner that limits the genuine planet-wide globalizing of best-practices discovered in any of the erstwhile ‘worlds’. The narratives of newly liberated nations making their unique trysts with destiny or the ‘nationalizing’ of ideology as in socialism with Chinese characteristics are far from timeless or timely at this juncture when wars for self-determination are receding into history, thus precluding preoccupations with self-definition, or assertion of identity, or characterization of doctrines. This article treats an increasingly dominant strain of middle-class political attitudes and aspirations in emerging India as a case study of sorts to illustrate how policy pragmatism and catholicity rather than policy puritanism and conservatism maybe both enabled and necessitated in a world where the problems India shares with America are as pressing as the problems endemic to ‘Chindia’ or the BRIC bloc.

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Vogue Italia’s ‘Rebranding Africa’ Disaster

In this article Elliot Ross of Africa is a Country dissects the ‘Rebranding Africa’ edition of Vogue Italia.  The author attacks the concept of outside intervention as a defining characteristic of Africa before dealing with some of the more troubling assumptions made by the magazine.  It is a fantastic read.

This article was originally published on June 6th, 2012 on the website Africa is a Country.

By Elliot Ross, 8th June, 2012

Everybody’s trying to rebrand Africa, and it isn’t going so well. Vogue Italia’s latest issue — boosted by great billowing gusts of editorial hot air from both the New York Times and the Guardian — is called “Rebranding Africa”, and as you’d expect the whole thing is an embarrassing and insulting shambles. The images are okay, but otherwise it feels like something a middle-schooler cobbled together for a class project. And then got a “D” for it.

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Three Myths about China and its Relationship with the US

In this article, the author busts three myths about China and its relationship with the United States. 

By Mikael Santelli-Bensouda, 5th March, 2012

Many things have been written regarding the relationship between China and America, most of which is founded upon a sense of speculation that emerges from a state of fear. The general assumption is as follows: China is acting unilaterally and belligerently to undermine and overtake the US, initially through economic means and later through traditional military means. This is not the case. The China threat perception has been, in recent times, blown out of proportion. This can be verified by examining what’s really going on between these two behemoths.

Myth 1

What we are told: China manipulates its currency at a low rate to provide it’s exported goods with an unfair advantage in the international arena. This leads to the assumption that the Chinese are callously stealing American jobs as part of a long-term strategy to control the entire US economy through debt absorption. Akin to a puppet master, China is positioning itself to both dominate and manipulate the American economy.

What’s really going on: Contrary to popular sentiment, $1.175 trillion of America debt in Chinese hands, does not necessarily leave America in a weak position. By holding such an absurd amount of debt, China too is exposed to an enormous risk. The much-sighted scenario’s regarding this toxic wealth largely unfolds like this: The Chinese recall their investment and the US economy crumbles. This will cause a chain reaction that severly impacts the global economy from which China’s export based economy will be hit hard. However, there is also an alternate, and more likely scenario; The US either refuse to pay the debt or default on the amount, leaving Beijing with a financial whole over $1 trillion dollar. Regardless of how cash rich China is, losing $1.175 trillion is a moral blow to any powerful nation. The most reassuring thing is that neither scenario is likely. Largely, this is because both nations understand the necessity of current state of affairs and there is a pragmatic acceptance that they are equally reliant on the other economically.

Talk of a currency war, especially during the republican candidate election is one of the foremost contentious issues in the relationship. The argument put forward is that the Chinese have pegged the Yuan to the Dollar to keep its value low and consequently manage Chinese exported goods uncompetitively low. Without question, this is true. It is also not illegal nor against ‘the rules’ of the international markets. In fact, the reason there has been so much furore regarding the matter is that this policy facilitates continuous Chinese economic growth in a time of American stagnation, much to Washington’s frustration. A simplistic reading of capitalism suggests that production will move to where is cheapest to maximise gains. This naturally will incur casualties and in America there have been plenty. Intriguingly, however, there is a strong argument to be shared that would question why should China readjust its currency at present? Especially given the historical precedent of Japan who did exactly that, allowed the Yen to float against the Dollar after a period of exceptional growth only to be outclassed by the Dollar and end up in perpetual economic stagnation. Beijing is aware that allowing the Yuan to rise will reduce the competitiveness of their exports and ultimately slow economic growth. This not only has a detrimental affect for China but also the US, who, as already explored, is dependent on Chinese cash to sustain it’s debt-laden hypercapitalist system. It borders on farcical to suggest that the argument boils down to expectations for China to ‘play fair’, after all, nobody really believes that capitalism equates to fairness.

So, given the necessity of economic cooperation, it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the two nations are economically symbiotic. They both share (in differing capacities) benefits and risks. Accordingly, greater cooperation and integration has been mooted as a viable option. An increased exchange of foreign direct investment (FDI) and bilateral trade that can form a foundation to increase bilateral economic productivity has been occasionally undermined by incidents that suggest, in fact, China is not the unfair, protectionist player it is so widely claimed to be. The much under publicised case of the UNOCAL incident, wherein a Chinese firm was agonisingly close to acquiring a large US energy company only to be federally overruled at the eleventh hour. The rationale for the move was for the preservation of state interests.

Essentially, this is the same rationale adopted by China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP’s raison d’etre is to ensure continued economic growth in order to sustain the ‘legitimacy’ it fractionally holds in China. This equates to pacification of large sections of the Chinese population (namely the burgeoning middle-classes) through participation in a, politically numbing, consumerist culture. Should the economy falter, it is not only the Chinese bank balance that takes a knock as the very political system is likely to come under intense pressure to reform and largely expected to democratise. The crux of the relationship between China and the US is based on this very fact: the CCP needs continued growth to sustain its fragile monopoly over authority whilst the US needs China to continue to fund its ever extravagant life-style.

Myth 2

What we are told: China is a revisionist player. Beijing has a deep-rooted interest in destabilising the current international system with the desire to supersede American hegemony and establish a new world order with Beijing assuming the helm. This is to be achieved through the establishment of alliance blocs comprising of both ‘rogue nations’ and the developing world.

What’s really going on: It seems illogical to suggest that China would benefit from the demise of the current international system. China, like many other emerging powers, benefits immensely from the systems relative stability. The US is heavily invested in ensuring the prosperity of global markets and undertakes security operations, which includes providing physical protection for energy shipments from the Persian Gulf and combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden. These actions leave Beijing free to pursue its own agenda without the burden of sacrifice and disruption. Restructuring the system would expose Beijing to a number of security and political headaches that, frankly, it is ill equipped to deal with. Additionally, an overhaul would require the CCP to renege on their key guiding principles of international relations. As already examined, China’s political preoccupation is to ensure sustained economic growth and this is evidently achieved under the current paradigm.

Additionally, to consider China as politically expansionist in the international arena (Taiwan and issues pertaining to ‘sovereignty’ should be considered a separate issue) is misguided, as this overlooks the CCP’s preoccupation with consolidating their domestic authority. Questions pertaining to Tibet and Xingjian provide a deep threat to the legitimacy enjoyed by the Chinese political party and cases of social discontent have proven, time and again, that they require immense policy consideration. Thus, this dictates that China is largely unable to divert attention away from its domestic concerns for fear of losing control in the fractious territories and by extension also have the potential inspire nationwide uprisings. In the perspective of Sino-US relations, no political issue is more controversial than Tibet. Constant claims of brutality, censorship and human rights abuses emanating from Washington are perceived from Beijing’s perspective as an attack on the legitimacy of the CCP by externally undermining its authority. This sentiment is exacerbated when American leaders meet with the Dalai Lama, who is considered an existential threat to the Chinese establishment. In America this is seen as a noble defence of human rights but to the Chinese it embodies a rather sinister undertone as it is considered both antagonising and undermining.

By and large, China has attempted to keep a low profile on the international stage. This is in accordance with its key principles, which pedestal mutual issues such as non-interference and respect for sovereignty, for it is these principles, accompanied with the active pursuit of securing state interests, that have directed its international interaction. Recently, China has been much scrutinised for its veto on the Syrian resolution in the UN Security Council (UNSC). As with any political action, it must be analysed within the wider framework of Chinese foreign policy and equally important, not judged alone. If the Chinese choose to exercise their right to veto a resolution based on protecting self-interest or in disagreement with the direction of the plan, it remains their choice. Understanding the motivational factors are a prerequisite for analysis and selective criticism should be avoided at all costs as it serves only to fan the flames of international friction between China, America and the West. Beijing could quite rightly point to the numerous examples of American acts of self-interest in the UNSC in defiance of humanitarian issues (as in the case of the recent veto for the Palestinian state).

Additionally, condemning China for conducting business with nations such as Iran and Venezuela is hypocritical, especially as it hardly encourages international instability. For Washington, the Saudi regime, both wholly repressive and undemocratic, is an acceptable business partner but democratic Venezuela is a rogue nation. China, as previously mentioned, is driven by the need to secure business opportunities and resources to sustain its hyperbolic growth. Accordingly, Beijing will court any suitable partner to secure their needs regardless of political persuasion. Whether it’s the United States, the European Union, Venezuela or Iran the central issue for the Chinese is based on national gains. China is simply pursuing a pragmatic business engagement that differs little from American policies.

Myth 3

What we are told: China is belligerent. The Chinese army is big, scary and will one day attempt Asian, then later world domination.

What’s really going on: Explicitly, China stands to gain little from starting or partaking in any act of conflict. Although the People’s Liberation Army is the largest standing army in the world, its technological capability remains years behind that of the United States. Again, the much sighted increased military budget, a substantial 12%, still pails in significance to the monumental US military budget. As a direct consequence, the parameters of the China threat are not manifest physically but oscillate around challenges to US strategic interests in the Pacific and Central Asia. What is largely missing in the security debate is Beijing’s perspective and the view from the Middle Kingdom is markedly different.

Beijing sees that permanent American military bases surround the Middle Kingdom, whether by sea or land and allies of Washington, dubbed the ‘democratic axis’, further acts to consolidate the feeling of encirclement; Huge military presences in Korea and Japan, bases throughout bordering Central Asian Republics, Vietnam and Australia’s emergence as vocal allies of Washington and a very powerful nuclear alliance across the Himalayas. It is clear that, with the exception of China’s northern border a tangible American presence can be felt in all directions.

Nonetheless, security tensions between China and the US remain relatively low. Only a couple of key areas, including the external influence in Pakistani-Indian affairs and the North Korean question, threaten to raise tensions. But nothing has the potential to boil the blood of the Chinese more than the issue of Taiwan. The generally accepted discourse on the matter is that Taiwan is an independent nation that needs protection from an aggressive behemoth who constantly espouses bellicose statements and threatens on regular occasion to illegally re-conquer the island. Characteristic of the Sino-American relationship, there is more to the story than just the American angle. For Beijing, Taiwan is an essential part of its territory stolen during its ‘century of humiliation’ and forms the final piece of the One Nation Policy. The completion of this policy, whether justified or not, has become almost insurmountable due to one simple fact: Taiwan has a military capability that is on par with European powers, which originates from the US. Arms sales between Washington and Taipei have increased in recent years culminating in the $6.4 billion deal by the Obama administration, which signals that the US are no longer adhering to the arms sales reduction agreements they agreed to in the 1982 Shanghai Communiqué. Make no mistake, in Beijing this is perceived as an act of both aggression and defiance. Nonetheless, due to rising levels of confidence in China, the CCP have begun exerting pressure on matters of integral importance, such as Taiwan, by leaning on the mutually dependent ties between Beijing and Washington.

The current state of affairs between China and the US is far from troublesome. Granted, they disagree on a number of issues from how to engage Syria to the most effect methods to combat climate change, but that does not mean they are on a course for destruction. After all, no relationship is perfect. It is also the case that China is less belligerent than conventionally assumed and that the US bares responsibility for some of the inconsistencies that are present in the relationship. To this end, both China and America are, at present, partners as much rivals and the general impression of the relationship between the two behemoths is highly misconstrued.

What is Happening in Nigeria? Blood and Oil (Subsidies)

In this article the author looks at the current wave of political and economic turmoil sweeping Nigeria.  With a potential oil shutdown sending waves of panic across Brent Crude prices and terrorism forcing the closure of the borders the state is facing its largest crisis since its return to civilian rule in 1999.


by Jack Hamilton, 14 Jan, 2012

In 2010 the BBC released the controversial docudrama: ‘Blood and Oil’. It depicted a Nigeria crippled by corruption, protests and terrorism and was slammed for the tropes of endemic sleaze and violence. Executions, inhumane oil politics and the collusion of leading politicians in these atrocities were seen to reflect the Nigeria of the past. This is now the Nigeria of the present and it could be about to get a lot worse.

Occupy Nigeria

Naija Rising

This week the country closed its borders following counter-terrorism advice from the UN and a popular strike threatens to entirely shut down oil and gas production (accounting for over 90% of the export market) on Tuesday if demands are not met. There have been two crucial ultimatums:

1. Boko Haram has threatened to kill all Southerners (read: Christians) in the north if their demands of religious reform are not met. The attacks have already begun.

2. Occupy Nigeria has threatened to grind Nigeria’s export economy to a halt if their demands to maintain the fuel subsidy are not met. The deadline has been extended until Tuesday.

Facing a potential civil war and economic collapse, the Federal Government of Nigeria must act decisively.  There is no quick-fix.

There Might Be Blood – Subsidy Strikes

Who is Drinking Nigeria's Milkshake?

Nigerian oil and gas workers have threatened to shut down the Nigerian oil market, deepening the strikes against the withdrawal of petrol subsidies.  The government and unions are locked in talks which have been extended by two days as of today.  This leaves the government until Tuesday to find a solution or face economic meltdown.

The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (Pengassan) have put all production platforms on red alert in anticipation of a shutdown. This demonstrates the lack of optimism in resolution being reached in time.

The crisis in Africa’s largest oil exporter has already had an international impact. Oil prices have already risen in anticipation of the shutdown and Nigeria’s export reserves would only last for six weeks.

Brent Crude prices have risen by $1 per barrel in a single day and in a global crude market already shaken by conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, a shutdown in Nigeria could have expansive ramifications. In an election year the last thing a US incumbent would like to see is a pinch at the pumps.

While the true international impact of the crisis is yet to be fully realised, it has already had a devastating impact domestically. The price of fuel has already more than doubled and the prices of other goods, including food, are skyrocketing. People are struggling to get to work, to put food on the table and to run their electricity generators. If the strike turns violent it is these people who will suffer.

Subsidies are seen to be the only benefit most Nigerians receive from the vast oil riches of the country. The argument for their removal is that they cost the state $8 billion per year in funds that could be better used on infrastructure and development. In a country in which government corruption is rife and the trust in the state is dangerously low it is clear that the people would like to see the money conferred through subsidies rather than pilfered by the ‘1%’.

The subsidy involved a huge amount of corruption but its removal does not equate to the removal of the corruption. It is merely a relocation.

Spreading Terror

The north of Nigeria is ‘sliding towards a full-blown guerrilla war’ according to The Economist. Boko Haram bombing campaigns have intensified since the Christmas Day attacks and acts of retribution have been carried out in the Christian south. The burning of a mosque in Benin City, southern Nigeria, demonstrates the dangerous roadmap the northern insurgency could instigate.

Fears abound over the potential links between Boko Haram, a small cult whose primary objective is the removal of secular education, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  Assertions of a broader terrorist network were originally purported by sources in the American military (AFRICOM) and the Algerian Government but on Tuesday this fear was also echoed by the United Nations.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has stated that ‘concerns will increase’ as the popularity of Boko Haram grows. The alleged sophistication of the attacks, especially the bombing of the UN in Abuja, has provided some substance for these assertions but the most recent activities reflect burgeoning brutality, not capability.

Goodluck Jonathan has responded to the fears of a vast terrorist network by closing the borders of the country. Nigeria’s international borders are now operating on high alert as the latest measures demonstrate the degree of force the Federal Government is willing to use to achieve peace and stability across the country.

Elevated force does not necessarily provide a solution for the state.  They are fighting a guerrilla organisation, galvanised by support from those who fear the encroachment of an over-zealous central government.  Memories of egregious state violence mean that heavy state mobilisation is likely to increase rather than diminish the allure of the Boko Haram message to those who feel alienated from the state.

Will Things Fall Apart?

The Occupy Nigeria protests and Boko Haram attacks are entirely separate movements with the common theme of opposing the Federal Government of the country. With opposition to government threatening the security and the economy of the nation questions abound over the future of Nigeria.

Jonathan has announced palliative measures the mass production of buses to ease the transport issues in the country as well as reducing government salaries by a quarter (although they remain obscenely high in such an impoverished nation).

The most recent response to Boko Haram has been a change in language. Jonathan has acknowledged that the support base may be more than purely criminal. In his speech on Monday he admitted that there may even be members of his government that identify with the organisation.

Talks with Occupy Nigeria have been extended by two days but there is a general lack of optimism for a rapid resolution. Boko Haram are intensifying their attacks and flickers of retribution have begun in the south. At present neither crisis shows signs of abating and the Federal Government is floundering.

Nigeria is being plunged into a future which looks ominously similar to its past. In this scenario ‘Blood and Oil’ appears rosy.


For more on the recent crises in Nigeria and terrorism across West Africa see these articles on InPEC:

The State of Terrorism in Nigeria: The Rising Threat of Boko Haram

Photo Essay: 6 Reasons Terrorism is Gaining Momentum in Northern Nigeria

Securing Emptiness: The Sahara Desert and the Global War on Terror

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Africa’s Statistical Tragedy

In this article the author assesses how flawed statistics may be exacerbating poverty in Africa.

By Jack Hamilton, 3 Nov, 2011

This week the UN has declared that there are 7 billion people in the world. It is impossible to verify this statistic but the reasoning behind the declaration is clear. It raises awareness of population growth and draws attention to future development issues. But what of the more dangerous statistics that have been exacerbating poverty? In Africa especially poverty estimates have been based upon flawed data with potentially disastrous consequences. With so much being written now about African growth, the data behind it must be questioned to reveal the statistical tragedy of Africa.

‘The Century of Africa’?

In the past decade Africa has surged forward. Its economy is growing faster than that of any other continent. Foreign investment has hit an all time high and the middle class is absorbing consumer goods at rates comparable to China and India. Articles on African optimism abound, normally at the turn of the year when it will inevitably declared that this is to be the ‘Year of Africa’, the ‘Decade of Africa’ or in the new book by Michel Severino and Olivier Ray, the ‘Century of Africa’. That is not to say that it will not be true. Rather the statistics behind this must be evaluated as well as the capacity to harness resources for development.

Africa Rising

Around one third of African growth over the last decade has come from a rise in commodity prices. These have been combined with increased investment from China as a low cost builder. Further investment has come from around the globe from Brazil to Iran, Turkey to South Korea leading to the defensive rhetoric of Hillary Clinton in declaring a ‘neo-colonial’ era on the continent. This is an unfair overestimation of external influence for Africa’s best friend has been Africa itself.

Regional economic cooperation has increased dramatically on the continent. Borders are becoming easier to cross and technology is advancing rapidly. Africa has more mobile phone users than the Americas and mobile financial transfers on a single phone network in Kenya are greater than the annual global transfers of Western Union. At the start of the year there were 17m Facebook users in Africa and this figure is expected to be 28m by the end of the year. As mobiles and data become more affordable the numbers will continue to surge. The political implications of this connectivity have been in the news due to the revolutions in the North but the economic impact on Sub-Sahara could have even greater consequences. The rapid distribution of agricultural information alone has been revolutionary.

While the rest of the world struggles through the economic meltdown Africa is growing and political violence, so long the cancer of growth, is declining. Tensions still simmer in Sudan, Congo and Angola but pale in comparison to their previous intensity and the talk of ‘new wars’ is receding and the markets are opening. This is not to overstate the case as Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray have done in calling the 21st century ‘the century of Africa’. Africa’s rise is impressive but how many Africans are moving to China to set up factories?

The problem with the optimistic projections is that they are supported by figures which cannot be verified. Data is immensely unreliable to the point that we don’t know how many people are living in poverty or how quickly most of the continent is growing. In the words of the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, Shanta Devarajan, Africa has a statistical tragedy.

Statistical Tragedy

The use of the term ‘tragedy’ is a reference to Bill Easterly and Ross Levine’s ‘African Growth Tragedy’ in their 1997 paper of the same name. This outlined the destructive link between economic growth and poverty in increasingly open markets. The financial gap is seen to be widening with the ‘Growth Tragedy’ placing the exacerbation of poverty at 2-3% per year. This has been placed as high as 6% more recently. World Bank estimates claim that overall poverty in Africa is declining at a rate of around 1% every year but Easterly and Levine demonstrate that this poverty is becoming more acute. The tale of the rising African middle classes does not include the plight of those at the bottom.

The tragedy is this assumption that growth is rising while poverty is declining. The statistical tragedy is that we don’t even know the real poverty rates. World Bank growth rates are based upon the imprecise science of GDP which is itself based upon national accounts. We need to take into account that only 11 Sub-Saharan African states currently use the World Bank GDP system. Most of the countries use older GDP measuring systems with some dating back as far as the 1960s.

In Ghana the system of national accounts was updated by the World Bank leading to a GDP figure that was 62% higher than previously thought. The World Bank took credit for the leap but failed to take account of the fact that it was their system which had systematically undervalued the Ghanaian GDP for the previous twenty years thus hampering long-term economic growth.

Only 39 countries in Africa use GDP systems which can be used to provide comparable estimates. National poverty estimates taken over a long period of time in a single nation are difficult to generalise beyond individual borders and the impact of conflict further limits them. How can one talk about continental poverty with only a single statistical point of reference? Furthermore the estimates are not comparable over time as the methodologies frequently change between estimations. An estimate on Kenya in the late 1980s would incorporate 235 items in the consumption basket whereas the early 1990s model had more than 600. Today this figure is in the 900s and rising.

While economists have been congratulating themselves for the declining poverty rate they have not been looking at the limitations of the data. It is not up to date. There is no uniform 2011 estimate. Of the 39 African countries that use GDP only 11 have comparable data for the same year. For the rest of the continent there is a need to extrapolate back to 2005. In the case of Botswana we need to go back to 1993.

Africa is given as the recurring example as the continent is an especially bad case when it comes to statistical tragedies. There are on average 3.8 poverty estimates from each country to the World Bank. Taking the African continent in isolation this drops to 1.5. In Africa the national estimates for 2005 have just been collated.

Why has this happened?

Statistics are fundamentally political. A poverty estimate involves the government declaring whether or not their people are better off today than they were five years ago. If a government is standing for election it would be in their interests that a negative report is not published. The consequence of this is a delay in the financing of such projects until after the election meaning that much of the raw data is not published or at least withheld until it is anachronistic.

The trope of condescending economic optimism for Africa is often checked with the accusation of poor governance. In this capacity progress can be verified. In Zambia defeated President Rupiah Banda, leader for the last twenty years, bowed out gracefully last month. From 1960 until 1991 no African leader was voted peacefully out of power with the exception of Mauritius. Since 1991 this has occurred in 30 of the 54 nations on the continent. The one party state is no longer the norm. Vast amounts of money are now spent on elections with Nigeria setting the world record earlier this year in spending $580m in an attempt to have a free and fair election, a figure which may be surpassed in Congo later this month. The figures in this case demonstrate the desire for change but also the scale of the problem. Only today it was revealed that a one month old baby is on the government payroll in Nigeria. He is also said to have a diploma.

It remains to be seen whether the winds of democratic change in the North and increased transparency south of the Sahara will see a rise in independent judges and neutral civil services but there is a clear case for optimism in African politics despite the verisimilitude of economic statistics.

Transparent Solutions

If the problem with statistics is the politics then the solution must come through transparency. Kenya’s open data initiative is a shining example of this, especially after the recent electoral violence. Secondly the behaviour of donors should also be evaluated and made public. This would stop organisations taking credit for aiding a negative situation which they helped to create. Thirdly, those found manipulating or withholding statistics must be named and shamed. Unfortunately this most important of factors is entirely dependent on the success of the first two. Much talk remains over neo-colonialism and foreign investment in Africa but it is the African politicians who need to open up, not the markets.

The Revolution is Being Televised

In this article, the author explores the role of the media in reporting the protests seen around the world in the past few months.

By Mikael Santelli-Bensouda, 31 Oct, 2011

We live in exceptional times. The seemingly endless reach of the media brings popular movements and struggles of all persuasions into the public domain. From protests against educations cuts and austerity measures to pro-democracy revolutions, in one way or another, they are all accessible. But in what capacity are they being presented to us? There are huge inconsistencies in the manner in which societies’ information distribution mechanisms reflect upon the mobilisation of the masses.

As Derrida sensibly wrote, “nothing exits outside a context”. As such, any specific event is ascribed meaning through its contextualisation. Much like blinkers, context frames a given reality within a discourse that permits understanding. These blinkers are (consciously or not) constructed through an amalgamation of cultural norms and values, national history and worldviews. It is thus pertinent to understand that, from sender to receiver, information will have been contextualised in accordance to the sender’s worldview that is formulated by the media. In essence, the exchange of information between official outlets – whether the media, police or politicians – and the general public is pre-framed to influence the receiver.

The Fires of London

The disturbances that took place in August in London seemed to appear out of nowhere and spiraled out of control to a level on par with the social unrest in the 1980’s. Those events were widely condemned by the national media, political leadership and the majority of the British public alike. Whilst not wishing to dispute the validity of specific incidents, the virtually unanimous description of the incidents as riots and looting established a deep seeded negative connotation. In fact, the lexicon used to report the events seemed to oscillate around terms including thugs, opportunism and youth culture. The consequence of this is the establishment of a generalised and disconnected group, in this instance young people of a certain political class and ethnicity, and their separation from the main public body. By doing so, there emerges the establishment of a them, the maladapted and disruptive elements of the society, which, by extension reinforces an us. It is through this process that we can explain why blame derived from almost every angle (unruly attitudes, the decadence of education, computer games, rap music and even according to one (un)credible commentator, Patois) except the very societal factors that may have contributed to such disconnectedness.

The overwhelming drive to establish this group as a deviant societal sub-category suffocates deeper analysis especially one that attempts to understand their rationale, even if it is found that, by and large, there was none. Such condemnation transcended all levels of society, from the Prime Minister to the local cabby, and was especially prevalent within the media. The latter subtly reinforced the dividing lines between the deviant hooligans and the bastions of authority the police, who were interestingly described as the force in a bid to restore their legitimacy in the epically over-hyped battle to reclaim the streets. So, we ignored what may have been a nation-wide cry of dissatisfaction with society, swept it under the rug, and occupied our time by demanding a return to social order and punishment for troublemakers. Perhaps most worryingly is the unintended consequence of this affair. Whilst creating an other may foster a sense of unity amongst us, it risks sewing the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein this disconnected group begins to believe what society thinks of them by accepting its deviant status and even embraces it.

Qualms with Capitalism

The recent protests aimed at the corrupt and immoral financial system that has severely affected virtually ninety nine per cent of us. It is epitomised by the ‘Occupy campaigns’ that have sprouted across the west from its original formation in New York to sympathetic permutations in London, the Republic of Korea and Jamaica to name but a few. These parallel movements showcase their frustration against the corrupt and unjust banking and financial systems that have been able to get away with the biggest economic injustice since colonialism. It is not a sentiment that is held by a mere minority. Anger and disbelief are global phenomena.

Intriguingly, a substantial amount of the reporting on these protests empathise little with the causes. There is little or no media support for the protests whatsoever; little or no glorification, no accounts of brave people who dare to speak on behalf of a disgruntled society. Instead, they are confronted with headlines like The Siege of St Paul’s, and their cause is belittled by generalization and the callous infusion of negatively connoted terminology including: anarchists, anti-capitalism, communism, disgruntled students and even Marxist revolutionaries.

The information that is espoused intends to devalue the efforts that are being showcased as they are portrayed as disturbing the order. By doing so, there emerges the establishment of a socially constructed and generalised group that is detached from society through a process of association and differentiation. Once a group has been identified as deviant it generally perturbs the general public and deters affiliation. Much like the consequences of the London riots, rather than engaging in debate about the true nature of discontentedness; which in this instance is the demand for greater accountability, transparency and judicial equality (after all these ideals are the foundation of our society), there is a manipulation of the movement to reduce its impact. Its very essence is intentionally distorted to evoke a separation between those who want to overthrow the capitalist system and every one else; who will remain pacified.

Another Day, Another Struggle

Moving beyond manipulation of social unrest within the west, we are confronted with seemingly endless stories of struggles in distant lands. It seems that there is an increasing sense of inevitability of events that originate in the global south and its redistribution. Education protests in Chile, religious solidarity in Nepal and democratic revolutions in Syria are, more often than one would like to think, contextualised through a veil of western superiority. As those people strive to attain a societal standard on par with what we have in the west, we hold the power to confer legitimacy upon such incidents (or not). Yet, needless to say, unless action in a foreign place threatens our interests, it remains out of our sphere of interest.

It is interesting to note that different geographical examples of social mobilisation, despite similar intentional goals, often receive a distinctly varied reception dependent on its location and its relation to the reporting press. For example; education protests in the UK were troublesome but in Chile they are conceived as a sign of progress in society. Similarly, protests against oppressive rule in Palestine are constructed within a negative frame and often ignored while those occurring in Iran are encouraged. Although it may be unfashionable to refer to orientalism in this day and age, it is hard to overlook the fact that the western media conveys a post-colonial hierarchy among states by granting selective support to its government’s clients.

Double Standards

The Arab Spring exemplified a media and political phenomenon across the world. Looking back to the initial outbreak of mass popular protest across North Africa it is interesting to notice that the media and politicians seemed to adopt no real stance. Perhaps for the first time in modern Arab history (excluding events in Palestine) the west abstained from publicly passing judgment, if only temporarily. A waiting game ensued.

In fact, a delicate balancing of interests was underway. Whilst initially not wishing to alienate authoritarian allies, whom for so long they had propped up and abused as geopolitical tools, the West could not jump on its archetypal bandwagon of backing democratic demands. However, it could not condemn such popular power in the event that the movement was successful. It is for that reason that, only once the dice of history had been firmly cast on the side of the people, did the west find its position. The discourse machine then went into overdrive; pro-democracy revolutionaries, heroes of the Arab world and lovers of freedom invaded the headlines and framed perceptions.

What was occurring was an attempt to overcome distance and difference by removing the sense of otherness by creating unity; people who share the values of democracy. So, unlike the discourse constructed on protests within the West, the context of the Arab Spring was intended to unify groups and extend legitimacy upon the events. Surely then it is no surprise to see how the events unfolded in Libya. Images of distress and asymmetric warfare resonated deep across peoples, as we had grown attached to these like-minded freedom lovers and, consequently, military intervention to assist the march of democracy against tyranny received widespread and unquestioning acceptance.

As history has proven, the West only conducts military operations when there is just cause, usually established through the construction of a narrative and on the odd occasion has been a matter of ‘self-interest’. The narrative constructed prior to the Libyan intervention emphasised shared values. It surely had nothing to do with oil, not this time. The connection of values/interests established through cross-societal bonding via image bombardment and discourse assimilation ultimately produced general acceptance for the ‘need to act’. Yet what about the uprisings in Syria?  A similar process to create empathy occurred but commitments were only made to economic sanctions. Perhaps, it was assumed that they are capable of fighting for themselves against a regime far more oppressive and evidently trigger happy than Ghaddafi’s. What about the protests in Bahrain? That is a story that should only be whispered. Limited reporting on attempts to overturn the constitutional monarchy stems directly from the fact that it threatens the Saudi Royal Family’s monopoly on authority and has taken painful steps to crush what is framed as a Shia rebellion. Due to the world’s insatiable appetite for oil, the Saudi’s prerogative ensures that the events either follow their own narrative construction or are lost in an informational void. Blinding self-interest is the driving force behind the way the West has viewed, acted upon and has constructed the narrative for the Arab Spring.

Revolutionary Inflections

These differing examples highlight how discourses surrounding certain events emerge from its initial contextualisation prior to dissemination. It helps to explain why certain acts are perceived in differing ways, even if they share the same principles. Such contextualisation derives from the desire to understand the reason for certain events by viewing it through a familiar lens (i.e., a British worldview). Through this process it reinforces cultural norms by creating dividing lines between what is acceptable in society and what is perceived as deviant even if there remains huge inconsistencies in its implementation. Essentially, if a certain movement challenges or questions the societal structure, and the position of a privileged elite, they are likely to be perceived negatively regardless of whether the country observes the universal values of democracy.

Revolutions all over the world are being televised. Over the past few months there have been constant updates on the progress being made by NATO and the NTC in Libya, how Basher Al-Asad continues to brutalise the people of Syria and the spread of the Occupy campaigns throughout the world like wildfire. However, their intended messages are often distorted or manipulated to serve a greater purpose, one that continues to sustain the hierarchical cross-societal structure that has dominated the world for centuries. The revolution is being televised with the intention of preserving the class structure within the UK, the West or the world.