Hay vs Edinburgh
24th June 2005
Thank you for recognising my reluctance to compare the size of the Hay and Edinburgh literary festivals (Cultural tourist, July), but I must leap to the defence of the Guardian. Hay shifted 130,000-odd tickets this May. Edinburgh estimates 100,000 tickets for 2004. The figure of 207,000 visitors you quote measures the number of times a counter on the front gate of Charlotte Square’s tented city is triggered. As it counts entrances and exits, and most people arrive several times, you need to adjust your analysis. And then perhaps you can recognise the real point: that the most popular literary gatherings in Britain are in Scotland and Wales, not in England. I think, incidentally, that both these events are considerably bigger than our sister gatherings at Toronto, Parati, Mantua and Adelaide.
Less than 10 per cent of the Hay audience have London postcodes. Ninety per cent of the media attendees, however, do come from London. Perhaps that’s why the metrocentricity you describe seems so strong.
Director, Hay festival
Not so rosy in Tanzania
27th June 2005
Jonathan Power (July) suggests that Tony Blair should cross Tanzania off his worry list. He should do no such thing, and thankfully all signs indicate that he is actually very worried.
Power says that Tanzania’s future is bright, provided it can get through the elections in October peacefully. That is a very big “if.” When the opposition CUF declared its intention to stage peaceful demonstrations in the event of another stolen election, President Mkapa warned that he would not hesitate to order the security services to take all steps to deal with troublemakers. Tony Blair sent his Africa minister David Triesman to Zanzibar in June because he is worried that another member of his Africa Commission will crack down on legitimate opposition and leave blood on the streets. He has every reason to be.
Former Lib Dem adviser
How much uranium?
20th June 2005
David Fleming’s article (June) on the global nuclear industry goes beyond all limits of political and scientific decency in its attempt to defend a fallacious anti-nuclear stance. His contention that ores grading 0.01 per cent (or 100g per tonne) require more energy to process than they can yield is hopelessly wrong, as this amount of uranium oxide could produce approximately 40 MWh of energy, while the mining, crushing, grinding and concentration of the same tonne of ore would consume no more than 30 kWh (0.075 per cent of the contained energy). In fact, the average abundance of uranium in the earth’s crust is just 10g/tonne, which, if recovered, would give about 4 MWh of energy for every tonne mined and processed.
Fleming’s belief that no new major discoveries of uranium lie ahead is also hopelessly misguided and clashes head-on with geological logic and experience. Just a few metres of non-mineralised “overburden” are sufficient to mask the signature of a major uranium deposit. In addition, a large part of the world was effectively closed to the uranium exploration that took place from the 1960s to the 1980s, and hence vast tracts have yet to see even the most elementary exploration methods applied to them. Man has been looking for gold and base metals for more than 5,000 years and is still finding world-class deposits. What chance is there that he found all the uranium deposits in just 30 years?
Anglo-social model myth
24th June 2005
Several commentators on the European crisis (July) argued that Britain was developing an “Anglo-social model” relevant to the EU and partly based on Scandinavian examples. But the key difference between Britain and the Nordics, which has not altered since the 19th century, seems to be a British belief in the “working poor.” During my ten years as a trade union official in Brussels, some of the most scathing comments I heard about British policy positions came from Scandinavian EU officials. They simply could not believe their British social democratic colleagues were taking such positions.
Gender differences 1
20th June 2005
Natasha Walter (June) paints a vignette of a hidebound ambassador confounded by a young member of his staff. She missed both our points.
I (Cary) felt she had confused equality with sameness. The one does not require the other. Whether or not there are gender differences in our brains, they clearly exist when it comes to child-bearing and breastfeeding. The challenge is to define equality in a way that allows for differences between men and women.
While I (Potter) commented that feminism was not just for females. I would be glad to have the rights to paternity leave enjoyed by Swedish staff at the British embassy, for example—and this is a “feminist” cause. Yet my gender excluded me from feminist societies at university.
The second point was not intended as a response to the first. For Natasha Walter, the “tension in the room between the old guard and the new desires was plain to see.” We did not detect it. Sharing, as we do, Walter’s broad approach, we would be loath to ascribe that to hard-wired male insensitivity.
Anthony Cary, Damion Potter
HM embassy, Stockholm
Gender differences 2
8th June 2005
Establishing sexual equality in the workplace, or society in general, seems to me to be primarily a political task. Advocating, as Natasha Walter does, that: “In order to revive the momentum of the movement towards equality, we need to challenge the influence of the ‘human nature’ school,” is too much like blaming the study of evolution for empty churches. Such blame, in the case of feminism, is an unnecessary taint given the evidence on differences and similarities between those with XX and those with XY chromosomes. Political projects have to acknowledge and tackle the sources of power, and I suggest that attending more closely to this will be a better recipe for reinvigorating the struggle for equality than fighting “evolutionary theories about human nature.”
Muizenberg, South Africa
Gender differences 3
17th June 2005
Natasha Walker’s attack on research reporting sex differences in various human behaviours reflects the usual fallacies of this position. The main fallacy is that a sex difference is either innate or learned, but cannot be both. The next fallacy is that if the sexes differ on some measures, then one sex is categorically superior to the other. To the contrary, each sex has undergone somewhat different selection pressures, resulting in different aptitudes and motivations but no overall superiority. Each sex is well adapted to its prehistoric environmental demands. Men generally surpass women on spatial tasks, but women have more acute senses, finer dexterity and better memory for location of objects. Researchers in this field are just trying to learn the facts, not to advance a misogynist agenda. They happily report female superiority in some realms, male superiority in others, and no difference in still others. However, polemicists such as Walker urge us to “challenge… the ‘human nature’ school.” Such ideological campaigns undermine the ideal of objective scientific inquiry that I thought we shared.
Women and chess
22nd June 2005
In his article on cold war chess, Daniel Johnson (June) twice refers to sexual equality. Chess, in my experience, is just about the most male-dominated activity there is. While I was living in the north of England, the female presence at my local rugby club was far greater than the number of women attending my local chess club. Of course, I don’t deny that women can—and in some cases do—play chess as well as men, but please let’s be realistic: very few women play chess.
I have to confess, however, that when I was involved in the New York University chess club and we made our yearly application for funds, I advised the club president (a Russian) that we should base our application on the claim that chess is the only major sport in which women and men compete on equal terms. “Americans like that kind of stuff,” I told the president. He gave a knowing wink. We got the money.
Rieff on Ethiopia 1
3rd July 2005
It’s sad to see discredited allegations about 1980s Ethiopian famine relief popping up again in David Rieff’s article (July). His implicit syllogism is this: NGOs, including Live Aid and by implication donor governments, colluded with the Mengistu regime’s “murderous” resettlement programme; the resettlement programme caused between 50,000 and, according to the maverick agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 100,000 deaths; therefore Live Aid and the others contributed to more deaths than the number of lives saved. Since both premises are completely false, the conclusion, which anyway doesn’t follow from them, is not surprisingly rubbish too.
Here are some corrective facts, from my personal experience as British ambassador to Ethiopia at the time, and rigorously documented by, among others, Kurt Jansson, the experienced Finnish UN relief co-ordinator, better informed than anyone else on earth about the famine and relief programme:
1. Resettlement of people from the arid northern highlands to the fertile southwest where the land could support them has been accepted as necessary since a World Bank report in 1971, and remains Ethiopian government policy.
2. What was objectionable about resettlement was not the fact of it but the way it was done—hastily, harshly, sometimes by compulsion.
3. No western NGO, including Live Aid, nor the donor governments, supported or colluded in the assembling and transporting of settlers: indeed, we all protested to the regime about how it was being done.
4. Rieff’s principal (only?) source of information, MSF, was in no position to assess resettlement casualty figures; it never worked anywhere near the affected areas. Other NGOs, and Jansson, with excellent sources of information, all dismissed MSF’s estimate of 100,000 deaths as hugely exaggerated and irresponsible; deaths on such a scale couldn’t possibly have been concealed from all other western observers.
5. Live Aid and other NGOs bore no responsibility for the brutalities and casualties of resettlement: but even if they had, the allegation that the relief effort did “more harm than good” would still be absurd.
6. It’s generally agreed, including by Jansson, that the relief programme saved around 7m Ethiopians from starvation. Even MSF’s discredited figure of 100,000 deaths from resettlement doesn’t approach that.
Rieff’s article shamefully traduces those who made the relief effort an extraordinary success, from the young Ethiopian and western relief workers in the field to Geldof, Buerk, the RAF and the taxpayers and charitable donors who paid the bills.
Rieff on Ethiopia 2
9th July 2005
As the person quoted anonymously (and without his knowledge) by David Rieff as saying “Mengistu was a sick bastard,” could I put one or two things into perspective? Firstly, Rieff seems to be very poor at simple things like addition. Although he concludes that as many lives were lost in Mengistu’s resettlement campaign as were saved by aid agencies, he backs this contention up with figures which suggest a wholly different story. He does not contest that Mengistu’s resettlement programme killed, by act or omission, between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Nor does he contest that the aid agencies saved at least 600,000 lives. By his reckoning alone it would appear that the aid agencies saved 500,000 lives in Ethiopia.
I therefore continue to thank Bob Geldof and others for ensuring that the resources were there to facilitate this massive humanitarian effort. What would have happened had everyone followed Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to the sidelines like so many political sheep? Oxfam stayed through thick and thin, while always being critical of resettlement. We did not, as Rieff implies, stay silent. We voiced our concerns and, after a particularly foul incident witnessed by Oxfam staff, we, with Band Aid and many others, added one more stone to the weight of international criticism and internal Ethiopian dissent that ended the resettlement programme before its 600,000 target was reached.
Why, with all of his apparent concern for the politics of social engineering, has Rieff not asked what MSF is doing in Ethiopia under today’s resettlement programme, which aims to move not 600,000 but 2.3m people? Why does Rieff not mention the horrors of Zimbabwe or Darfur, where international inaction, of the sought he says he would have advocated in Ethiopia, appears to be complicit in a ghastly series of tragedies?
Does Rieff really think that aid agencies can only be expected to save lives under the regimes of the good guys? If he does, he’s going to find it very hard to produce rules that define when an agency can and when it cannot save a life. Until he comes up with something that makes sense, I will continue to take the real compassion of Bob Geldof over Rieff’s sour scribblings. And, as Rieff implicitly acknowledges, there are at least 600,000 Ethiopians likely to agree with me.
Oxfam Ethiopia representative 1986-89
Rieff and Ethiopia 3
30th June 2005
David Rieff has gone over the record of Live Aid’s work during the Ethiopian famine and accused it of having “cost as many lives” as it saved. Rieff argues that Geldof and Live Aid were party to Ethiopia’s Stalinist resettlement policy when President Mengitsu Haile Mariam attempted to forcibly remove 600,000 people from one part of the country to another.
There is a case to be made against the sometimes simplicity of aid-giving, as William Shawcross did so well in The Quality of Mercy, showing that the great relief operation mounted from Thailand on its border with war-ravaged Cambodia ended up feeding the displaced army of Pol Pot, giving it strength to fight another day. Likewise, Michela Wrong, in In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, her stunningly effective recreation of the Congo under Mobutu, showed how western relief built up the strength of the Hutu militias driven out of Rwanda and given refuge in the eastern Congo.
On another level we can also fairly criticise the naiveté of both Jeffrey Sachs and Geldof with their call for aid to Africa to be quickly doubled. But this attack by Rieff is none of these things. It is a malicious distortion of the facts. There is no good evidence that Live Aid was party to the forced removals. Moreover, according to an evaluation made by the UN’s Emergency Office for Africa, if it hadn’t been for Live Aid breaking the stalemate of providing trucks to transport the largely American-donated grain across Ethiopia from the Red sea ports where it was languishing, the famine’s death toll would have been many times worse.