Dr Neville Shepherd: 'Freedom of Religion', March 25, 2014

Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'

Dr Shepherd looked at this at this under three heads. First, is such a freedom appropriate? Second, is Article 18 honoured in practice?  And third, what problems arise in applying it?

So: is it self-evident that freedom of religion should exist?  There are differing attitudes towards religion. First, there is downright hostility; this is shown shown by atheist states which see it as pernicious, and following Marx and Engels, seek to prohibit it.  Others have seen it as causing wars, though it would be at least as true to say that  politics cause war. And the physicalist approach adopted by what we term the “New Atheism” holds that the only reality is physical, and in the case of human beings, the body: there is no scope, as in religion, for “mind” or “spirit”. This view is held dogmatically against what others would regard as evidence.

Then, secondly, there is the attitude which is prepared to tolerate religion, though without enthusiasm, seeing it as a hobby which some people have turned to.  On this view, it is essentially a private matter, which gives some people an emotional prop, and can be permitted as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s liberty or pleasures.

And finally, there is the attitude that religion is, in general, desirable and to be encouraged. It would of course be wrong to assume that that atheism and other forms of rejecting religion necessarily involve an attack on morality.  Many unbelievers are men and women of high principle. It is however relevant that all the major religions have a code of ethics, and that believers are expected to hold themselves accountable to God. Ethics are, so to speak, built in, rather than being an optional extra. To love one’s neighbour is certainly not confined to religious people, but the latter would point to the love they see in God, and accept that as a model. And non-believers may have a problem with the philosophy of ethics. But the Revd Professor Keith Ward is surely right in believing that humanism and religion can be mutually beneficial: ‘To establish and sustain a truly humane religion is a task for our time...'

Is, then, the practice of religion beneficial to the kind of life lived by the believer, and also to the rest of society? The answer would appear to be yes, as measured by figures of charitable giving and concern for the community. It has been known for some time that those who regularly attend a place of worship live longer on average than those who do not, and that they are more likely to find meaning and purpose in life. It is fair to conclude that despite, its all-too evident sins, religion holds the key to moral, happy, and purposeful lives for many people.

The UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has reported that 'Freedom of religion or belief creates and protects the space which enables religious actors to perform the work of peace building', and that 'Faith-based organisations are often heavily involved in economic and social development work, for example as providers of education, health care and rural development services'; by way of contrast, religious intolerance increases the risk of conflict in a country.

So can we proceed to seeing how far states are prepared to provide it? Even in the developed world, compliance has not been fully satisfactory. The UK, US, Germany, and Canada have complied fully, but France has enacted the controversial ban on facial veils in public places. And Russia, which has begun to restrict freedom of expression, particularly of homosexual persons, has never taken independent action toward religious freedom in safety and security.

In our own country, the charities legislation has specifically accepted the advancement of religion as a charitable and therefore desirable purpose; and here it makes no distinction between any religions.

The position here is complicated by the fact that a particular religion may be, or has been, regarded as a bulwark of the state. In 39 countries, governments are formally banning certain religious groups and their activities. This is particularly so in Muslim countries, but we can also look back in our own history here, where Roman Catholicism was prohibited after the Reformation.

It is, unfortunately, the case that almost 75% of the world’s roughly 7 billion people live in countries with high levels of government restriction of religion or belief.  In 39 countries, governments are formally banning certain religious groups and their activities; and in 26, the government has attempted to eradicate an entire religious group’s presence. North Korea holds between 70,000 and 90,000 Christians in horrific labour camps.

But no freedom, whether of religion or the Press, is ever absolute, and must be subject to restraints. Thus religion cannot override the criminal laws, and indeed if it does it is bad religion anyway. Jihadis cannot be allowed to kill people; and we must be very clear here that the word jihad in the Qur’an simply refers to a struggle, and not to warfare or terrorism at all.

Prominent examples of contentious freedoms here are animal slaughtering, for halal and kosher meat, which has been forbidden by Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and male circumcision. Both are long-standing traditions in Judaism and Islam, and a worldwide ban would stir up a hornet’s nest. In France, wearing of the niqab, in which only the woman’s eyes are visible, is prohibited (it is not in fact a requirement of the Qur’an). In Britain, there is no plan to follow suit, but what about the problem of giving evidence in a court of law?

An important issue, of thought as well as religion, is that of conscientious objection in time of war. The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that a right to refuse military service 'can be derived from Article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief'. Similarly, it is thought that veganism is protected.

Is progress being made? Unfortunately not. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom points to a worrying trend of increasing state restrictions and hostilities from non-state actors. The accumulation of these reaches a breaking point in sudden political shifts. ‘This was most visible throughout the historic changes across the Middle East and North Africa over the past ten years, starting with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and continuing today with the so-called Arab Spring.’ In Iraq this has resulted in eradication of historic Christian communities. The All-Party Parliamentary Group [on International Religious Freedom] has therefore concluded that ‘The UK government must not see religious freedom only as a human rights concern that needs to be addressed under its obligations under international law, but as a domestic and foreign-policy priority’.

Alan Howard: 'Practical Action: Simple Technologies for Poor People'

UNA Oxford, 22 October 2013

Practical Action’s guiding principles are that the right idea, however small, can change lives. We believe in technology justice – the right of everyone to have the equipment, skills and knowledge they need to lead a decent quality of life.

Practical Action is a small British charity with income last year of about £30m. It is funded partly by the British Government in the form of overseas aid, partly by other NGOs with whom we work sometimes, partly by local governments in areas where we have projects, and 50% by donations from individuals, groups and legacies.

Dr Schumacher, an economist who was chief economist for the National Coal Board for several years, founded the charity in 1966. The charity was called Intermediate Technology Development Group which was renamed Practical Action a few years ago. Dr Schumacher gained some notoriety when he published his book ‘Small is Beautiful’, a study of economics as if people mattered. He maintained that the pursuit of profit and progress, which promotes giant organisations, has resulted in gross inefficiency, environmental pollution and inhumane working conditions. He proposed a system of Intermediate Technology based on smaller working units, communal ownership, and regional workplaces using local labour and resources. I heard him speak in the mid 70s and have supported the charity ever since.

Practical Action still follows the principles Dr Schumacher laid down and operates worldwide in South America, Central and Eastern Africa, and Asia. We have established local offices in these areas, mainly based on contacts that have developed over time. These offices are staffed by local people who look after the projects Practical Action initiates. The principles are the same everywhere – engage with the local population and use simple but ingenious technology, which can easily be maintained.

I then went on to describe a few example projects that Practical Action has undertaken.


In the Sudan we have been active in the Darfur region. A 5-year project called ‘The Greening of Darfur’ has just ended. This was to regenerate an area laid waste by war, mainly by organising the catchment of what little rain that falls and to plant and irrigate the area. Christian Aid, who appointed Practical Action to manage it on their behalf, funded the project. Practical Action set up community based organisations, something we have a lot of experience of, to work together to establish food security and farming regeneration. As part of our ‘diplomatic’ role we coaxed the local communities to solve the age-old problem of the disputes between farmers and livestock drovers. We got agreement to establish livestock migratory routes, 150m wide and some 100km in length. These are marked by concrete posts, which the locals installed – and painted red!

Another example of simple technology invented by Practical Action is the zeer pot. This consists of two earthenware pots, one fitting inside the other. The space between them is filled with sand, which is kept wet. The resulting evaporation keeps the inside cool allowing vegetables, etc to keep fresh for up to 20 days. Production of these zeer pots spawns small enterprises such as women’s pottery groups, which in turn helps to boost the local economy.

Yet another innovation is the donkey plough. Land tilled by a plough, however simple, holds water better than planting by hand resulting in a much better yield. In the Sudan only rich farmers have a camel to use for ploughing, but everyone has a donkey. Practical Action came up with a design for a single-blade plough and a donkey harness. Once shown to work well this soon catches on and everyone wants one. Again small blacksmiths spring up to make and sell these ploughs.


In this vertiginous country small farmers who farm high above the valleys have a problem getting their produce to market. Markets are usually in the valley below and farmers have to employ porters who can take 2 or 3 days to carry produce down to the markets. Practical Action came up with the gravity ropeway to solve this problem. Two cables are stretched between small towers, one built in the valley and one high up on the hillside. Each cable carries a cage running on a pulley. A further loop of cable, running round large pulley wheels top and bottom, connects the two cages. The farmer then loads the top cage with produce and an operator loads supplies into the bottom cage. Provided the upper cage is heavier, when the brake is released the top cage descends and the bottom cage ascends under the force of gravity. Once installed, the ropeway is low maintenance and uses no power.

A variation is the tuin. This is horizontal rather than vertical and is used to transport people across rivers or gorges. A cage runs on pulleys using two cables stretched between small towers either side of the river. The control cable, again in a loop running on large pulleys, one mounted on each tower, is used by the occupants to pull the cage across. For children going to school, people going to a hospital, etc this often saves an enormous amount of time for the residents of small villages who might otherwise have a very long detour.

In a country where most of the population live less than 10m above sea level, flooding affects about 1m people every year. For poor farmers this means they often lose not only their houses but crops as well, washed away by the flood. The technical people at Practical Action came up with a simple solution to alleviate this problem – floating gardens. You make a raft out of hyacinth roots, which bind together very well. You add soil and cow dung and you can plant pumpkins, ocra and leafy vegetables. Tether the raft and it will just rise with the floodwater and not get washed away. The raft can also be moved around to take advantage of the sun, etc.


Having no electrical power is a major obstacle to the development of very large areas of the rural poor. In Malawi for example, only 1 in every 2000 people have access to electricity. In many countries with fast running streams and rivers micro-hydro can provide a solution, and at a reasonable cost. You just need a hill and a river.

Micro-hydro is defined as systems that produce power in the range of between 5 and 100kW. The cost is approximately £1200 to £4000 per kW and a system typically has a 20-year life. As much material as possible is sourced locally, and construction costs are based on free labour being provided by the local people. A community that works hard to build a system then feels they have ownership, which is what we at Practical Action want to achieve.
I showed a short film where the TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis described a micro-hydro installation in Kenya. Briefly, a dam or weir diverts water from the river into a channel built of stone and concrete into a forebay tank. The water then falls down a large pipe – the penstock – and turns the turbine which drives a generator. Power is then distributed as needed. I showed examples from several installations we have been involved with: long channels built by the people in Zimbabwe in 2009; mechanical drive from a turbine driving a milling machine (also Zimbabwe 2009); a larger system with electrical output in Peru 2010. Electrical power is then used for lighting (children can study after dark), for small businesses (such enterprises helping to raise the economy of the area), for clinics (who can then work after dark and keep vaccines refrigerated), and for battery charging (car batteries for people needing power at some distance away, and for mobile phones).

There are of course many other examples of Practical Action’s work. Those interested can look at our web-site: www.practicalaction.org. In summary Practical Action aims for:

§  Local solutions

§  Local people

§  Simple technology

Mary Russell: 'Happy Memories of an Unhappy Country: travels through Syria by bus and bike

Matthew Jackson: 'Working for the Common Good: Lessons from South Korea'
This was the title of a talk and PowerPoint presentation given on 23 October 2012 by Matthew Jackson, who represents the Korean Spirit and Culture Project, promoting Korean history and culture in the UK.South Korea had emerged from the war with the North in a state of poverty.  But, over fifty years, and without foreign aid, it had grown into a powerful industrial nation, notable for its shipbuilding, cars, and electronics.  The reasons for its success had been education, hard work, respect for parents, and concern for the welfare of others.

Its shipbuilding had grown from scratch from 1970.  The Koreans, with no previous experience, determined to build two 260,000 tonne supertankers in two and a half years.  Most outsiders dismissed their ambition as unattainable, but they went ahead: their labour force worked at least 16 hours a day, seven days a week. They achieved their objective, and in 1983 were awarded the World’s Best Ship Award.

This spirit can also be seen throughout their history.  They were ahead of the West in printing: in the fifteenth century they produced the Tripitaka Koreana, an immense work carved into wood blocks.

At the present day, they are among the world leaders in the application of electronics: they are the first country to have broadband in every school, and nationally there is more than 90% coverage (as against 67% in the UK). They also lead in energy saving, and “e-government” and “e-participation” (the original autocratic government had been replaced by democratisation in the 1980s).

This was the title of a talk by Mary Russell on 9 April, 2013.  Mary is, in origin, Irish, but her story begins in Oxford, where she felt a determination to learn Arabic.  Accordingly, she enrolled at the Oxford College of Further Education; she found Arabic difficult, but was invited by her lecturer to visit Damascus.  It wasn’t easy to obtain a visa, but when she did, she went there with her bike, where she stayed in a one-star backpackers’ hotel.  President Bashar al-Assad was at that time trying to open Syria up, and people waited in hope for change.  They did not expect to experience the catastrophe they are seeing now.

People were surprised to see her, as a woman - a woman on her own - a woman on a bike!  But they took to her readily,  and extended their hospitality.  Syria is a very diverse country.  She met several people who had been to Ireland, and delightedly greeted her with “Top of the morning!”. 

There are Russian settlers there, and historically a lot of contact with France and Britain.  She found Alawite friends, and Sunnis, and Christians (there is a Syrian Orthodox Church).  But Syria cannot be called sectarian; it is very complex, and a lot of Syrians do not want Western intervention because they have so often been subjected to it  (“It is written on every page of our history book”).

After the present struggles, there will be a lot of reconciliation to be done.  Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party must go.

Mary is the author of a book, My Home is Your Home: A Journey Round Syria (Bullstake Press), and sold copies at the meeting.

Texts and summaries from some of our past events

Professor Goldin opened what was to have been the 2014 Evan Luard Lecture but for his summons to a high-profile meeting in New York, by saying that he had written his book Divided Nations because the existing system of world governance was no longer fit for purpose, being unable to cope with the scale of pace and change in the world.  He identified five areas where this was evident.  The first was climate change, reflecting the fact that 5 billion people were using more energy.  The second was pandemics, reflecting the danger of frequent intercontinental movement by people.  The third was financial crises, reflecting the globalisation of the financial system.  The fourth was cyber crime, reflecting the very wide use of the internet.   The fifth was migration between countries.  

Legitimacy and effectiveness did not always go together.  The United Nations was high on legitimacy but low on effectiveness.  The financial system was the opposite, failing to abide by UN rules.  Its top management was attractive to graduates, especially from Oxford and Cambridge, but one had to ask: why do so many people with so much power fail to produce a capable system?  The IMF is dominated by the USA and Europe.  The big powers like to set the rules for others to follow but do not like to abide by the rules.  The growing complexity of the system means that it is also increasingly difficult to understand the implications of actions. When the regulators bankrupted Lehman Brothers, they did not know it would lead to a systemic collapse of the financial system.

The challenges facing the world have evolved much more rapidly than the institutional systems of governance.  Climate, cyber, migration are among the orphans. Climate change poses a major threat to poor countries in particular, but it is the advanced countries which account for the most carbon in the atmosphere.  To get agreements on carbon reductions and in other areas it is important to build coalitions of change.  The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations sought to find new governance solutions.  In climate we cannot rely here on the United Nations.  But some US cities and stateshave already signed up to discipline on greenhouse gases and building coalitions with these groups is productive.

The “responsibility to protect”, is vital as was exemplified by the genocide in Rwanda.  The question of how one intervenes in another country is a crucial question, as this cannot simply be determined by the superpowers.

Cyber crime is an “orphan” of the international system.  Control can be thwarted by the demands of privacy.

 There is no UN organisation to deal with migration.  Among the many failures of immigration governance is the tragedy of the thousands of people who have drowned in the Mediterranean.  The UK has taken no more than a few dozenrefugees from Syria, and no international body can force us to recognise our global obligations. Indeed most global governance and virtually all treaties require voluntary adherence and implementation.

The risk of pandemics has greatly increased because of the growth of connectiveness.  Many more people are living near major airports.  We feel menaced by ebola, but although it is a catastrophe for the regions where it is occurring, it is not as great a global threat as an airborne pandemic would be.

We urgently need radical reform of global governance. This requires giving up some sovereignty to supra national bodies. However, as nations, we are not prepared to sacrifice our powers to a supranatural authority.  Indeed, politics grows more and more localised as people increasingly support parties who aim to become more national and less global.  We are disempowering the global institutions by allowing them to appoint leaders who are not competitively selected and starving the institutions of the necessary resources to be effective.   So. although we live more and more in a connected world, we are less and less able to manage it.  It is important that we look outwards and assist in the management of globalization through a commitment to the reform and strengthening of global governance and the United Nations  system.

Anne Clayton works for Friends of Sabeel UK.  Sabeel is an Arabic word meaning 'the way', but it can also mean 'a spring or channel of living water'.  Mrs Clayton stressed that Sabeel was working on behalf of all Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, and that its approach was entirely non-violent.  She believed that all  religions were capable of working together. The problem is political not religious.

She showed maps of Palestine from 1947 onwards, with the steady annexation of Palestinian land by the Israeli government.

In Palestine and Israel everyone is born into a religious identity - Jewish, Muslim, or Christian - and not a civil identity, even though there are many secular people in Israel.  Hence all marriages for example, need to be religious ones. Mixed marriages have to take place outside the country often in Cyprus.

Palestinians are a mixed community, being Christian as well as (predominately) Muslim.  Those Muslims are Sunnis, and the Christians are Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, numbering about 400,000 in the three territories of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan; there are also some Israeli  Messianic Christians.  All Palestinians see themselves as part of the Arab world.

The Palestinian community lives in a state of military occupation.  85% of the separation wall has been built on Palestinian territory.  Houses can be demolished at very short notice, often on the ground that they were built without permission (which can in any case be very hard to get, and cost a great deal of money.  Administrative detention (that is, without trial) is common, though it is only fair to say that Israel does have some  good laws e.g. their Employment law is well developed.  Palestinians need permits to travel, even to Jerusalem, their olive trees may be uprooted, control of water favours Jewish settlers, so that Palestinians only get a quarter as much and the checkpoints are very difficult to get through.

The Israeli government, looking 10-15 years ahead, is annexing land for settlements, of which there are already 250 in the West Bank, some of which have city status.

The Family Unification Policy of 2003 denies the right of Palestinians to live together in an area different from that in which they were registered.

The principle should be followed that “the occupation is an injustice; reconciliation is the aim; all are equal in dignity before God, so no-one in the name of religion should be subjugated”. 
Anne Clayton: 'Can Palestinians and Jews co-exist in present-day Israel?', October 14, 2014

Professor Ian Goldin: 'Why global governance is failing, and what we can do about it', November 28, 2014 (This was to have been The Evan Luard Lecture for 2014)

Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833. Over 180 years ago.
Slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865.
Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

There are, shockingly, more people in slavery today than at any time in human history.

Slavery is not an issue confined to history or an issue that only exists in certain countries - it is something that is still happening today. It is a global problem and the UK is no exception.

Human trafficking is to be deceived or taken against your will, bought, sold and exploited.
People are bought and sold for sexual exploitation, forced labour, street crime, domestic servitude or even the sale of organs and human sacrifice.
Men, women and children are trafficked within their own countries and across international borders. Trafficking affects every continent and every country. It’s a growing issue, affecting men, women and children.
1,746 cases reported in the UK in 2013 - a 47% increase on the number of cases reported in 2012.
But these are just the victims we know about. Slavery’s hidden nature means actual numbers are likely to be far, far higher.

Poverty, limited opportunities at home, lack of education, unstable social and political conditions, economic imbalances and war are the key driving forces that contribute to the trafficking of victims into and through the UK.

Many countries are making progress. The EU has led the way and I worked hard to pressure the government to sign up to the human trafficking directive when the coalition came into power.

The UK’s response is the Modern Slavery Bill which should come into law very soon.
The UK Government should be praised for their efforts to stamp out this abhorrent crime.
The new Modern Slavery Bill will be amongst the first Acts in the world specifically tackling modern slavery. It also contains many of the provisions in the Human Trafficking Directive.
To enable law enforcement to more effectively fight this crime, the Bill will
• Consolidate and simplify existing modern slavery offences into one Act to provide clarity and focus when prosecuting traffickers and slave masters.
• Increase the maximum sentence available for offenders to life imprisonment.
• Create an independent Anti-slavery Commissioner to drive improvements and a better coordinated law enforcement response, working in the interests of victims.
• Strengthen powers to recover the sizeable profits that traffickers and slave masters make from this appalling crime.
• Introduce vital new tools to restrict the activity of criminals who have been convicted of modern slavery offences.
• Provide powers to enable police and Border Force to act where it is suspected that human trafficking or forced labour is taking place on board vessels at sea.

To enhance protection for victims, the Bill will.
• Create a statutory defence for victims of modern slavery so that those forced to commit an offence as a direct consequence of their slavery are not treated as criminals by the justice system.
• Empower courts, where the convicted trafficker or slave master has assets, to order that victims receive reparations
• Provide statutory guidance that sets out how victims of modern slavery can be identified and supported effectively
• Extend special measures so that all victims of modern slavery can be supported through the criminal justice process
• Place a legal duty on public bodies, including the police, local authorities and borders and immigration, to notify the National Crime Agency about potential victims of modern slavery
• Ensure that where the age of a victim of modern slavery is uncertain and there are reasons to believe that the person is a child, they are presumed to be one.

However… By its very nature, trafficking is an international crime. It can only be tackled with countries agreeing to work together.
That is why the UN and the EU need to continue to lead on this.  

Catherine Bearder, MEP: 'Slavery isn't dead', September 26, 2014

After Britain and North Korea established diplomatic relations in 2000, Dr Hoare was appointed British Chargé d'affaires in Pyongyang, and his work laid the foundation for the establishment of a full embassy in the North Korean capital.  He is now an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs.  He kindly stepped in to give the 2014 Evan Luard Lecture at short notice when the original speaker, Professor Ian Goldin, was called away to New York on urgent, high-level business.

The position at the end on 2000 looked hopeful, said Dr Hoare.  North Korea had agreed to a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missiles.  Unfortunately, President George W. Bush was not interested: he branded North Korea as part of an ‘axis of evil’, and by 2009, the hopes of 2000 had faded.

In 2008, he ruler, Kim Jong Il,  appeared to have had a stroke, and in 2010 began to go around accompanied by a young man who bore a remarkable resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and was eventually recognised as Kim Jong Il’s son.  We now know him as Kim Jong Un.  In 2006 North Korea had exploded ’some kind of nuclear device‘.  Agreements for limitation were reached, but soon fall apart.  In 2010 a South Korean ship was blown up in South Korean waters; the matter went to the United Nations.  Then the North shelled South Korean islands.  There were, inevitably, disputes over fishing rights; and relations with the USA and South Korea deteriorated.

Kim Jong Un studied, like his siblings, in Switzerland, but is thought to be ’not particularly bright‘.  His father’s sushi chef, who is the source of most of what we know about him, describes him as very different from his father, whom he mourned for less than the usual time.  Some of his generals were purged (though not necessarily killed).

New building projects started in Pyongyang, which is now clogged with traffic.  A new agreement with the USA was announced in 2012, but was breached by a new rocket launch, and there was yet another so-called ’declaration of war‘.  In the same year there was a genuine space-satellite launch.

These moves led to further UN sanctions and indeed, North Korea has become the most sanctioned country in the world, to limited effect.  to the combination of sanctions and South Korean-US military exercises led in the Spring 0f 2013 to  much invective, and measures like camouflaging the buses in Pyongyang.  South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was subject to sexist taunts and President Obama to racist comments.  South Korean workers at the border town of Kaesong, the one remaining North-South project were expelled and the project seemed at an end. Eventually, however, the North backed off and the Kaesong industrial park continues.  

At the end of 20123, Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Sang Taek was executed, in a sudden display of brutality. Various reasons were given but he may have become too close to China and he seems not to have shown insufficient regard to his nephew?

The market economy has now replaced the Communist system, though this is not overt, and there are no identifiable shops.  The regime has certainly not collapsed, nor are there signs that it will.  The South makes noises about reunification, and both sides from time to time put forward proposals which they know are unacceptable.

Energy historically came from the Soviet Union, but more now is coming from China.  Food, likewise, comes from China, which is therefore an important player.

John Miles and Hilde Bartlett, Population Matters(March 24, 2015)

On 24 March 2015 John Miles and Hilde Bartlett, both members of the Guildford Branch of Population Matters, gave this illustrated talk outlining the stresses and strains which ever increasing human population numbers are putting on an already unsustainable planet.

We are living in an overcrowded world which is consuming its renewable and non-renewable resources.  Air, water,  and land are becoming increasingly polluted and unproductive.  The effect of a reduction in its bio-diversity is to put the whole eco-system out of balance.  Too many people are expecting scientists to perpetually provide the solution, but the problem lies in our own consumption, which will increase as we prosper; 40% of the world’s population at present lives below the poverty line.  When we add in the factor of global warming, the future is gloomy indeed.  We also need to reduce our carbon footprint.

Such overconsumption is running at 40-50%, and we shall soon reach equilibrium - then what?  Few organisations are prepared to mention “the elephant in the room” - as population increases, resources become inadequate.  Fossil fuels must, in any case, be phased out.

“Going green” is not enough.  The world’s population reached 7 billion in 2011, and is projected to rise a further 35% by 2050 (but in Africa by 115%).  One solution is to reduce the fertility rate: the United Nations is doing a lot to reduce the 85 million unintended pregnancies each year.

The planet’s  natural resources are being consumed 50% faster than they can be replenished.  There are 12 billion hectares of bio-productive resources; the capacity is 1.8, but we demand 2.7 hectares.  So our footprint exceeds the world’s bio-capacity.

At the same time, the extinction of species increases, and we must decide whether we are going to protect them.

There is environmental destruction, with drained aquifers, over-harvesting, and so on.

We make every effort, but do not face the problem of population growth.  There is no longer the need for large families, as there was when infant mortality was high.  We must restrict our current lifestyle, and use education to bring about a decrease in fertility (Angola being a prime example of excess fertility).  Perhaps international aid could be linked to birth control.

What, then, are our priorities?  We must:
Articulate our predicament.
Explain the solution to the problem and look outwards.
Give people more information.
Draw up an action plan.
Attract new members to Population Matters.
Engage in cross-party lobbying.
Urge legislation.
Spell out the cost (2% of global GDP, or $200 per person per annum will be enough to implement the programme).

Population Matters is working on this programme, and would welcome UN co-operation.  It has a local Oxford group.

Walter Armbrust: The resurgence of authoritarianism in Sisi’s Egypt

Walter Armbrust is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. He was living in Cairo from August 2010 to August 2012, and therefore able to observe and experience the January 25 Revolution from close range. He is currently nearing completion of A Symbolic Revolution: Culture and Politics in Post-Mubarak Egypt.  What follows is a summary of his talk. 

How do we interpret the removal of Mohammad Morsy by the military following a massive demonstration against Brotherhood rule on June 30, 2013?   Was what happened a coup, or was it a revolution, as Sisi’s supporters claim?  The short answer is that it was a coup; a coup which had taken place on July 26th, when Sisi asked the public to grant him a “mandate” to wage what he described as a "War against Terrorism."    Revulsion against Muslim Brotherhood rule was widespread, genuine, and deep.

Morsy of course was removed from office by the military on July 3rd.  In the next three weeks the Brotherhood and its supporters initiated sit-ins in two public squares in Cairo, and attacked churches across the country;  some police stations were also attacked.  A huge demonstration was then orchestrated in favour of Sisi and was seen as evidence for formalizing military rule.  That paved the way for the unnecessarily violent dispersal of the sit-ins on August 14.

While there was an indisputable mass spasm of rejecting Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013, we need to recognise that the Brotherhood in fact had no control of government, and no political platform. However, Morsy's Constitutional Declaration of November 2013 arrogated all powers of government—presidential, legislative and judicial—to himself, temporarily, in order to ram through the passage of a constitution authored primarily by the Brotherhood.  And unquestionably the Brotherhood had fomented sectarianism, primarily violence against Egyptian Christians.  Consequently a large proportion of the population turned its back on Morsy and supported or at least tolerated Sisi’s coup.

What about Sisi?  After he removed Morsy from power and imprisoned him, for a while he was very popular.  But from then on it has been all downhill for both him  and the country.  Those who were poor or struggling are poorer and struggling harder. The rich got richer. The wealth of Egyptian billionaires may have increased by 80% since the Revolution, and mainly from domestic sources, as opposed to investments internationally. The proportion of the public living below £1.17 (in our terms) per day is now 49 percent. The state is virtually bankrupt, sustained only through infusions of Gulf money; their Arab creditors, who show increasing willingness to use their leverage on the Egyptian state and press for a military role in support of Saudi Arabia’s murderous campaign to suppress Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

While Sisi may pose as “the new Nasser”, this comes with expectations that he will respond to revolutionary demands for improved housing, medical services, education, and income redistribution. A bankrupt state can hardly bring about dramatic improvements in the lives of its citizenry.  Sisi has shown no clear public signs of allegiance to either public-sector or private-sector-led economics. He has, however, repeatedly shown that he is attentive to his Gulf patrons, Saudi Arabia being the nearest and most significant of these, and to their neoliberal economic agendas in the region.   He is ramming through austerity policies that the public would never agree to if it could vote on them, and his rise equates to a stunning defeat for revolutionary aspirations in the economic sphere. 

And the situation by mid-2015 with respect to human rights was even worse than the economic outlook. Egypt’s prisons are full. Worse, tens of thousands of citizens have been arrested and “disappeared” without trials. Torture in Egyptian prisons is savage, and prominent non-Islamist activists have received shockingly long prison sentences.

Given the appalling current conditions of Egypt, what can we say about Sisi?  All indications are that he isn’t really interested in politics; he rules through a kind of pretend politics.  A professor at Cairo University has suggested that  he has “no political body,” in other words, no political party or political machine.  Elections are continually pushed back. Some now say he is afraid to have a parliament, or that he has simply found he can rule the way he wants to without one. 

So how do we characterize Sisi’s rule? What has happened is two-pronged.  One prong is to use far more naked violence than the Mubarak regime had, particularly against the Muslim Brotherhood.  As of a few months ago credible estimates of the number of those incarcerated on political grounds were as high as 40,000.  The second prong can only be described as political tricks, those tricks being consistent with the violence. The Trickster is a universal figure: you find them in all cultures, and there is a great deal of academic writing about them in anthropology, literary studies, and the academic discipline of folklore studies.  In revolutionary or highly unstable times Tricksters can become dangerous, acquiring a following, and ending up potentially as a Hitler or a Stalin. 

In my opinion Sisi is indeed a “Trickster president”.  But the rather bizarre sight of a head of state visiting Europe with a gaggle of aging actors and talk-show hosts in tow isn’t actually out of character at all. It’s part of Sisi’s pretend politics.  This was instanced by a press conference, attended by Sisi himself, in which an Egyptian military doctor announced that he had invented a cure for the stubborn Hepatitis C infection, which plagues Egypt more than any other country in the world. Moreover, the same device could cure Aids. The inventions were quickly debunked.  The “Complete Cure for Aids” turned out to be a giant hoax, though the military never admitted so publicly.

Sisi employs a consistent strategy of using high-profile gimmicks to divert attention from a steady imposition of presidential decrees that position the economy for new rounds of neoliberal reform, and make the lives of poor and middling income citizens much harder. The gimmicks are mega-projects that are as pretend as the Complete Cure for Aids.  One of these is the new Suez Canal, a parallel channel that will supposedly increase the capacity of the canal and greatly augment income derived from it—one of the major sources of foreign currency for Egypt. The idea goes back as far as the Sadat era, but it had never been built, supposedly for lack of funds. Sisi raised money for it by starting a national “long-live-Egypt” fund, which attracted investment from ordinary people by promising a 12 percent return on bond purchases. The new channel is scheduled to open this August.   However, the projected increase in canal revenue from about $5 billion a year to $13 billion by 2023 is highly questionable, which makes one wonder where the funds will come from to pay back those loans.

Another megaproject announced by Sisi was the announcement in March 2015 of plans to build a new capital city in the desert between Ayn Sukhna on the Red Sea and the “old” city of Cairo. The city is supposed to be built in seven years, would have an airport larger than Heathrow, and would house seven million inhabitants transferred from the “old” Cairo.  One questions whether it will ever be built in anything like the form imagined in publicity videos.  

There are three possibilities going forward from here. One is the confirmation of Sisi’s Trickster regime—the “permanentization” of what was monstrous by previous standards of political and social practice. 

The second possibility is social explosion. The insistence by Sisi’s supporters that he remains popular sounds increasingly hollow. Only billionaires are prospering in Sisi’s Egypt. However, a social explosion will be a scream of rage, essentially bread riots that will be blamed on the Brotherhood, and not be very much like the January 25th Revolution. There will be blood and violence. If this happens the menacing creep of Saddam-Hussein-like oppression of the present could start to look more like North Korea.

The third possibility is that the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces will remove Sisi. This is actually the best scenario for a re-emergence of a more positive and progressive politics.  If Sisi is replaced with a different army officer or a quasi-civilian ruler backed by the SCAF, then the brief magic Sisi enjoyed will be gone. The presidency will become a revolving door. If that happens there may be at least a modicum of space within which political forces can operate. One can always hope.


Joy Hendry, Indigenous Science (July 11, 2015)

Our Midsummer Party was addressed by Joy Hendry, Professor Emerita of Social Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, who gathered a wealth of materials during post-retirement visits to Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands, allowing her to discover how limited our Western understanding of science actually is.

During these visits she had met Aboriginals and Maoris, and their researchers (she had also previously lived for six months with a Mohawk/Seneca family in Canada). Her aim had been to gather examples of work that uses indigenous knowledge for its own value and in its own terms, though without necessarily checking that it meets criteria presently understood in mainstream science, and also to demonstrate a gradually increasing global understanding of that value for mainstream concerns (such as climate change/ environment/ health).

Aboriginal people have burned country for tens of thousands of years.  The ancestors gave them a cultural obligation to look after and clean up country, a duty handed down from generation to generation.  Signs in nature told them of the time to burn, a time when minimal harm would be done to country but huge benefits would be gained.

Balanda (non-Aboriginal people) are now starting to realise the value of this age-old Aboriginal knowledge.  In some areas where no burning took place, noticeable harm was done.  Now where the traditional burning is back, the landscape is once again abundant with native flora and fauna.  These days, conservation managers across the top of Australia are using traditional patch burning in the cooler weather to prevent wildfires, to repair country and to encourage biodiversity to recover.

Maori scientific knowledge extends to which areas are suitable for building on.  Instances were to avoid land that was liable to flooding or subsidence, or previously susceptible to earthquake damage. A Maori theory about health encourages family, community and cultural factors to be taken into account in seeking a balanced life, and this information is acknowledged on the website of the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

In the Cook Islands where Maori is still the first language for many people, Prof. Hendry had been invited to help some local school teachers put together research projects, for example using traditional navigational skills to teach mathematics, and the methods of making bark cloth for understanding chemistry. One person talked of the importance of no fewer than 32 phases of the moon for planting and fishing, and she said that the taste and size of the fresh food she ate there attested to the value of these methods.

Finally, Prof. Hendry summarised our need to recognise the value of indigenous science in ensuring sustainability in the world we inhabit, and rejoiced that at least some education systems are recognising the advantages of teaching the next generations to learn about their ancient methods alongside the developments of the mainstream science that are sometimes responsible for destroying it.

Dr James Hoare: 'North Korea', The Evan Luard Lecture for 2014 (November 4, 2014)