Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Foreign Aid Is A Waste Of Money" - IQ2 Debate review

Article written for Right Now, and appears on the website with other human rights reviews here.

Foreign aid is a waste of money.

That was the proposition put forward at the IQ2 Debate, hosted by the Wheeler Centre, at the Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday 4 July.

Arguing for the proposition were The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, member of the Management Committee of Aid/Watch, James Goodman, and Director of the Intellectual Property and Free Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs, Tim Wilson.

Defending the use of foreign aid were World Vision Australia’s Head of Public Affairs and External Relations, Martin Thomas, National Director of the Global Povety Project, Samah Hadid, and Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewett.

Firstly, a summary of the arguments put forward in support of the proposition.

Greg Sheridan opened by acknowledging the difficulty that lay ahead: “Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you a man in desperate need of aid, foreign or domestic, for I fear I am destined to lose this debate,” he said.

He didn’t know it yet, but a pre-poll of the audience revealed that just ten per cent supported the proposition, while 67 per cent opposed it and 23 per cent were undecided.

While acknowledging that most who enter the aid industry are motivated by “altruism and a desire to better the lot of humanity”, he implored the audience to extend the same sense of goodwill to critics – people who simply believe there are better ways to alleviate poverty that don’t waste billions of dollars.

Sheridan conceded that aid is not entirely unworkable, expressing support in situations such as natural disaster or where a society is attempting to recover from civil or international conflict.

But in general, he believes aid merely takes money from one nation’s taxpayers and puts it into the hands of another’s corrupt officials. After 35 years working as a journalist in the field in many poor nations, his conclusion is that aid is “next to useless in combating poverty, and infinitely less effective than foreign investment or free trade.”

He cited US aid in Afghanistan being paid to members of the Taliban to provide security for aid workers; the US$3.5 trillion the Chinese government holds in international currency reserves while Australian taxpayers still provide it with aid; and the “massive imbalance” of Australia’s foreign affairs and trade budget, where $800 million is spent per year on our diplomatic network and $5.2 billion on aid.

James Goodman may have been a little out of step with Sheridan and Wilson’s free-market ideology, but he outlined many problems with aid, which backed up Sheridan’s claim that foreign aid needs much greater outside scrutiny. He did so through the context of what he says are the three main causes of poverty: debt, the cost of food and climate change.

Goodman believes that aid simply deepens the problem of debt. It is loaned, via agencies like the World Bank, for projects that fit their agenda rather than the developing country’s needs, and when the project fails the developing country is left with the debt.

The developing world produces two-thirds of the world’s food and prices are rising because it cannot keep up with demand. Goodman was critical of free trade moves in agriculture by the World Trade Organisation that have enriched agribusiness while decimating small farms. He argues that this has been compounded by programs like Aid for Trade have, which have locked developing countries into agreements that are not necessarily in their interests, and can leave them more reliant on agribusiness and less able to feed themselves.

Climate change is a problem largely caused by the developed world but felt most severely by the world’s poor – ninety per cent of people displaced by climate change live in developing countries. Goodman said that, in this regard, rich countries owe a debt that is not being repaid. Rather, many continue polluting while using aid to finance projects that produce carbon credits.

While Goodman listed many legitimate problems with aid, he failed to offer solutions or alternatives.

Tim Wilson did, if from a different ideological perspective. He believes that to promote development institutional problems in developing countries need to be fixed – problems perpetuated by foreign aid’s largely top-down approach.

He also acknowledged that aid can play a role, but believes it is mostly a waste of money and misallocation of resources that has “almost universally failed as a policy mechanism to promote development. No country on earth has foreign-aided its way out of poverty, but hundreds of millions of people have traded their way out of poverty,” he said.

After all, the countries with the most economic freedom are also the wealthiest.

Wilson promoted the role migration can play in alleviating poverty, saying that working migrants send home around $440 billion each year. But he thinks the enormous potential of this policy is being missed because unions oppose it, though it would cut out aid agencies, allowing money to go directly to where it’s needed.

We should be giving people opportunities, not foreign aid, Wilson summed up.

But the question is whether these opportunities are available without aid?

The first speaker in support of foreign aid, Martin Thomas, suggested that, having been born in a land of plenty in a world that spends three times more money on diet products and services than it does on foreign aid for the hungry, we have a moral obligation to help those born into extreme poverty.

Despite many grim statistics, he believes “we are winning the war on poverty.” For example, 12,000 less children under five die each day compared to 1990 thanks to the provision of vaccinations, vitamin supplements and mosquito nets.

Thomas said that aid should not take the place of improved trade and other policy measures, but that it “has a role in reaching the very poorest.”

Samah Hadid picked up on this theme, saying: “Aid is a crucial part of a set of measures that help people escape poverty … so that they don’t need aid in the future.” Combined with things like trade, good governance and debt forgiveness, it can offer people born into broken systems the opportunity to escape extreme poverty.

Without basic literacy and numeracy skills, for example, a person’s ability to work and participate in the market is limited. Aid can foster trade by facilitating a better-educated, healthier population, and help guard against corruption by educating citizens, allowing them to hold government to account.

“Aid helps create the crucial pre-conditions for communities escaping poverty,” Hadid said, “it is not a silver bullet, but there is no simple solution to such a complex issue.”

Andrew Hewett was a fitting final speaker, summing up the issues through a discussion of good and bad aid.

“Essentially, bad aid is that aid which is motivated by the interests of the donor, rather than that of people living in poverty,” he said.

Good programs are accountable and owned by the people they are directed at. They strengthen the capacity of individuals and organisations, locally and nationally, as well as the capacity for communities to hold their governments accountable for delivery of basic services and the impacts of their decisions.

Hewett agreed that foreign investment and fair trade are important but, like bad aid, bad quality foreign investment and bad trade policies hurt people. What really makes a difference, he argued, is good quality investment and trade, side-by-side with aid policies.

The result of the vote after the debate was, predictably, a resounding defeat of the proposition. Though there was a small, but not insignificant, shift in voting, with 27 per cent now supporting the proposition (up 17 per cent), 60 per cent opposing it (down seven per cent) and 13 per cent still undecided (down ten per cent).

In the end the numbers matter little, and don’t offer much insight into the general view of the audience. Such a complex issue cannot be easily framed around a simple, and absolute, proposition, but that is the nature of debates.

Andrew Hewett perhaps summed it up best: “Aid is important, but it’s not sufficient.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Song - 'Blackburn'

Housesitting and dog-sitting in Blackburn. My brother left me a guitar, a keyboard, beer and a Mac with GarageBand. So I mucked around with them.

Inspired by late nights in warm houses with cold beers and good friends, and thoughts of the moon over Blackburn Lake.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's more harmful - Xanax or Channel 7's coverage of mental health?

I'm angry with you, Channel 7. Yesterday I ran my first half-marathon and was on a high. I wanted to write about it - the pain, the achievement, the music, the reasons for and against doing it again. But then I watched Sunday Night's alarmist story on the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. A drug I take.

I don't like being angry, so I'm furious that this trash tabloid journalism made me mad.

I knew as soon as I saw the promo it would rile me and I'd tweet frustratedly, but I couldn't ignore it. I guess Channel 7 will count that as a win.

The premise was, basically, Xanax is more addictive than Heroin, it destroys lives and should be banned. Oh, and traces of it were found in the blood of Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson when they died! (Well yes, among various other things, but let's not mention that)

It was an irresistable hook and seemed to shock a few people judging by responses on Twitter. Fear-based outrage sells almost as well as sex. The more - dare I say - irrational responses to the show's question of whether Xanax should be banned were comments like: "yep! aniety (sic) can be helped if people were allowed to relax and people showed care and concern more.", "Xanax is scary! Doctors should be held responsible for giving out a drug that is known to be more addictive that heroin", and my favourite "yes! We lost Michael Jackson from it".

Fortunately, just as many tweeters defended rational consideration of the issue, many of whom had actually dealt with anxiety. It was a pleasant irony for us to be the (at least relatively) rational ones.

The misleading emotional use of dead celebrities, was just the first giveaway of a rubbish story. At no point did it address the dangers of mixing drugs without medical advice, which happened in each of those cases. I suppose truthful (respectful?) representation of those tragic deaths, rather than insinuating one drug's responsibility, would lessen the emotional affect of mentioning them.

They also spoke of side-effects like blackouts in absolute terms as though they happen to everyone who takes it. I've never had a blackout in four years on a relatively high dosage. Maybe I'm on the placebo.

Not only was there no test of the premise (just run with it), there was no acknowledement of the many lives Xanax has undoubtedly saved from suicide, or helped get back on track from various levels of anxiety. Nope, not even considered. Has that actually happened ever? You wouldn't have thought so.

There's no doubt we need to monitor the use of medications. And I don't doubt the genuine suffering those interviewed have experienced. Some drugs are addictive and can have serious side-effects, which is why you need to take them responsibly under professional advice (and I'm not suggesting these people didn't).

But if you are going to call for a ban on a product that manages the suffereing of severe anxiety, you should at least explore some alternative treatments. The report didn't even look properly at why people are prescribed Xanax, other than bandying about the word anxiety.

How many people today will be fearful of the drug and consider stopping usage (a very dangerous course of action)? How many will resist advice from doctors to take it as a result of this unbalanced reporting, possibly preventing recovery? How many unqualified people will advise family or friends to stop taking this "horrendous drug", out of concern but based on ill-informed fear? That could be dangerous.

This was not a story for public interest or information, but a grab for ratings.This kind of sensationalist reporting just fuels hysteria or makes thinking people dismissive, it serves no real purpose. Which is sad, whether or not there is any validity in the concerns raised.

I am not here to defend Xanax. It's worked for me, but I had a period of trial-and-error with other anti-depressants first. I value how it helped me recover from a pretty dark period and start to manage severe anxiety, but feel like cognitive therapies and activities like yoga and running have been the things that really changed the way I think. So I'm hopeful of coming off it sooner than later. I never really liked the idea of a drug that affected my brain, though it hasn't stopped me consuming alcohol.

We should look at the role of medication in various areas. I personally tend to agree that we live in an age of over-prescription, but I'm not an expert, and many people need these drugs to live a normal life.

As a comsumer, I want the media and government to hold the pharmaceutical industry to account. Just as much as I want to see responsible reporting on mental health that doesn't induce irrational fear or reinforce stigma. I don't want to see reporting that prevents people getting the help they need.

Xanax is potent. It works fast. Am I addicted? Well I've never craved it (like I crave yoga after a few days) and I'd deal better going without it for a day than Facebook or Twitter, but if I miss a few doses I do experience physiological side-effects that are not fun, as well as an increase in anxiety. Is it more addictive than Heroin? I don't know, I've never had reason to take Heroin. I do know that when I come off Xanax, it will be very slowly and under the supervision of my GP and psychologist.

I'd rather see Channels 7 and 9 banned from covering mental health issues until they can drag themselves from reporting on extremes and cover them in a fair, considered way, than have Xanax banned. They've demonstrated that they either do not care or do not understand the serious and complex nature of mental illness.

Nobody will avoid depression or anxiety as a result of last night's shameful current affairs story. Hopefully not too many are thrown into mental chaos by it.

But well done Sunday Night, you have set us back some way. I hope you made some money from it.

The best advice is: be sensible. That goes for people taking Xanax as well as media talking about it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Marriage is so gay

Marriage is so gay.

It's interesting that we struggle so much to bring the words 'gay' and 'marriage' together, given how much the word 'gay' and concept of marriage have both changed over time.

So many words have already been spent on this topic, but still the debate goes round in circles. It's damn frustrating because there doesn't seem to be a single argument against equal marriage that isn't misguided, prejudicial and/or fear-based.

Marriage has changed significantly over thousands of years as society evolved, and it ought to reflect our social values and human rights. Currently, it does not.

Why do I, as a heterosexual. care so much? Not just because many of the far-fetched arguments are an abuse of creativity, but also because of my interest in mental health.

By denying equal marriage we are essentially saying non-heterosexual relationships are inferior, less legitimate and/or less natural, which reinforces prejudice. Young people, in particular, are vulnerable to mental health consequences, including suicide. And it is completely unnecessary.

By embracing equal marriage we would embrace tolerance and maybe encourage greater acceptance and understanding across the community. Rather than being a threat to impressionable children, legalising same-sex marriage may just help some of them feel accepted and comfortable in who they are - possibly saving lives.
I like equal marriage and Jen Hawkins

Like many other issues of progress (such as Australia becoming a republic) that are bogged down in the irrational fear of change, equal marriage will happen eventually and already has popular support, so we're wasting time by getting bogged down in a nonsense debate.

Let's just do it and move on, as a more tolerant nation, to other issues. Even the angry bigots left behind can enjoy relief, no longer having to hear about it.

Taking just a quick look at the most common arguments highlights that it is fear, rather than values, that underpin them:

Marriage is about starting a family
That may partly explain why the ritual originated thousands of years ago, but it's clearly not a key criteria any longer, given the number - and our acceptance - of married heterosexual couples who cannot have, or do not want, children.

A child needs a mother and a father
To my mind this is the only argument that deserves to be taken seriously; and I think it does, because as shit as it is to tell a gay couple they are an inferior parenting option, I can see the flicker of logic through the dense fog of bigotry.

In fact, I agree that ideally a child has a mother and a father - in circumstances where all else was exactly equal - simply because men and women are different and I think it's a good thing to be exposed to life lessons from both sides of the human race. 

But all things are rarely, if ever, equal. Not all  fathers are 'manly men', not all mothers are 'traditionally effeminate'. We're all different, but that's a strength. The parents will not be the only influences in the child's life. And there are too many other variables that could indicate how good a parent someone will be - health, education, wealth, ability to care for the child and spend time with them, etc - to discriminate on sexuality. Many children have only one parent - surely a second is beneficial regardless of gender?

Anyone who saw Penny Wong speak about her family on QandA would be hard pressed to credibly argue that her child will have an inferior upbringing to the children of Joe Hockey, who had just insinuated as such in his defence of the 'traditional' family - whatever that is. 

It's a moot point anyway when discussing same-sex marriage because same-sex couples, such as Senator Wong and her partner, can already adopt and raise children. Although perhaps not for much longer in Queensland.

The definition of marriage is between a man and a woman, that's just what it is
Well, unless you believe Adam and Eve were the first married couple, you would probably accept the anthropological view that marriage has been around in some form for at least 4000 years.

It has changed dramatically over the centuries, as it should as we as a society change. Initially it was about protecting blood lines and had nothing to do with love. Ancient Hebrew law required a widow to marry her deceased husband's brother.

In fact, we wouldn't even be breaking new ground by allowing same-sex marriage - the Romans were doing it in the 4th century. So who's definition exactly are we going by?

This argument is nothing more than a cop-out from a fearful, closed mind, refusing to have their view of the world challenged.

They can have a Civil Union, why isn't that good enough?
Because it is condescending and says reinforces negative perceptions of homosexuality.

The Bible says...
Ok, no. 

The Bible says a lot of shit. It advocates stoning a woman to death if she falsely claims to be a virgin when she marries. Few Christians - hopefully none - would hold this view now because society has progressed.

Also, we live in a secular society where marriage is presided over primarily by government. 

Jesus never condemned homosexuality, but did preach tolerance and love. 

The Church are welcome to hold onto prejudice, but in secular society we have to champion non-discrimination.

If we legalise marriage between homosexuals, what's to stop people wanting to marry their daughters, brothers or pets? Or all of them!

Now the conservative is just yelling gibberish while blocking their ears to stop the infectious truth.

The slippery slope. Letting homosexuals marry will open the door to the all sorts of unions and the breakdown of society. Au contraire. By legalising same-sex marriage we continue to put misguided injustices behind us.

This argument is the true measure of fear. The fanciful, irrelevant 'what if's. It's not even an argument against same-sex marriage itself anymore. I'm familiar with the anxiety-inducing effect of baseless 'what if's; letting them go is liberating experience.

And, not that it really needs addressing, but the fear is baseless. Not only is there no actual push for the right to marry within family, including the pet, but there are sound reasons not to allow it. Simply, the illegality of incest and bestiality is firmly grounded in biological and ethical reasoning. So no, that won't be happening.

As for polygamy, that's more of a grey area but there's no reason to believe group marriages would be legalised in our lifetime. It's an entirely different situation. Maybe someday it will be legal, who knows what society will be like in a few hundred years (if we make it that long), but massive shifts would need to take place first, and it would need popular support, so who cares if that happens one day? Hell, we can't even get legal same-sex marriage with majority community support.

From the first marriages thousands of years ago, the purpose and meaning of the ritual has changed dramatically. We should define for what marriage means for us as Australians in 2012. I think most people would say it's primarily about the love and commitment between a couple. That's good progress from the original purpose, I think, so embrace it. Although, we can't really stop people who don't love each other from doing it too.

Same-sex couples are fighting to have their love recognised equally. Jesus taught love and tolerance, yet supposed followers of his, like the Australian Christian Lobby are fighting against both. I know which side I want to be on, and which side Jesus would probably support.

Heterosexuals haven't been doing a great job of respecting marriage in recent decades, so who are we to deny homosexuals a chance?

It's a chance to celebrate more love, and God knows we need as much in the world as we can get these days.