Languages….what for?

Renata ArchanjoThis post was contributed by Dr Renata Archanjo, an Associate Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication and the Centre for Multilingual and Multicultural ResearchIn her research, she has worked on questions about multilingual education and language policies for the improvement of languages teaching and learning strategies. Dr Archanjo is also an Associate Professor of Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), Brazil.

If Brazil hopes to ensure the success of international educational exchange programmes and boost the internationalisation of economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives, it needs to develop comprehensive programmes to promote multilingualism.

In Europe, the acquisition of one or more foreign languages makes a lot of sense, especially if one considers all of the countries in the European Union (EU), and others in the process of integration. According to EU policy, the promotion of language learning is an objective to be fulfilled. The inclusion of regional, minority and sign languages into society, the promotion of early language learning and bilingual education are some more specific linguistic policies. The aim is to ensure that European citizens will be empowered by those linguistic tools to move, learn, and work freely within the EU, contributing to the region’s development and the improvement of living standards. I regard this as a good strategy.

Interestingly enough, a similar policy to what happens in the EU has recently been adopted in my home country, Brazil. It is just a beginning, but more is expected to happen in the near future. In Brazil, having “one country, one language” is believed to be a mark of national identity. This is a Portuguese-speaking country, surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbouring countries. The setting is that of a poor, third-world country. Perhaps for this reason, for several decades, public policy priorities were centred more on social and economic issues and, with less diversity, mobility and intercultural interactions than in the European context, little attention was given to language policies.

All of this has changed. Today, Brazil is the 7th major economy in the World, one of the BRICS countries, an emergent force in the G20, the leading political and economic group of world nations. The country tries to boost its development in and outwards with economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives in several domains. In the education domain, particularly in the higher education sector, internationalisation is at the forefront. In line with successful initiatives in Europe such as the international mobility programmes like Erasmus, Brazil launched the Science without Borders Programme (SwB), in 2011, targeting the consolidation and expansion of science, technology and innovation. Brazilian students and researchers are awarded grants in order to go to centres of excellence all over the world for a year of exchange study. Accordingly, the programme also grants substantial resources to allow students and researchers from abroad to go to Brazil.

As expected, language competence is here of major importance. Just as European language policies promote multilingualism, Brazil needs to implement policies to ensure a multilingual education. In my current research about the linguistic competencies of Brazilian undergraduate students attending the SwB Program, the first results indicate that a high percentage of students are sent abroad with a low level of proficiency in foreign language. The results also show the improvement in language skills for the majority of students at the end of the mobility programme – which is something to be expected when one is immersed in a foreign language environment. However, language is a means – not the objective – in the SwB programme, and it should be expected that students have a good foundation and language skills beforehand. So far, Brazil is rated very low regarding linguistic capability as perceived and recognized by specialised rankings such as the EF English Proficiency Index. The country appears here in the 38th position, in the range of countries with low proficiency in English. This is something that policy-makers should worry about.

Reacting to that, a good governmental initiative has been recently announced: the Languages without Borders Programme. Developed under the auspices of the Brazilian Ministry of Education, its main goal is to encourage the learning of foreign languages by ensuring an extensive and structural change in the national foreign language teaching system in universities. Like other nations in the world, Brazil appears to understand that the teaching and learning of foreign languages are of major importance, not only for personal achievements, but for the national economic and scientific development. In a country championing social and economic equality, any initiative to improve education, especially in the public system, is to be welcomed. Much more has yet to be done and not only in higher education, as the gap in the domain of languages (both first and foreign languages) starts at an early age.

The answer to the question ‘Languages… What for?’ is not a simple one. A language helps to shape an identity. Through language we give sense to the world. Linguistic knowledge might bring development. At least, it is a condition that must be fulfilled for development to occur. In this case, a multilingual education should be provided. More importantly, extra linguistic knowledge will boost general discernment, the lenses to see the world in a more comprehensive way. Here, again, a multilingual education is critical.

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Language, identity and a political hot potato

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Blogs do not usually start with quotations from the Bible, but this one epitomizes the link between language, identity and danger that I want to discuss:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB

Applied Linguistics, as distinct from more theoretical branches of the discipline, addresses real-life problems in which language plays an important role. As a linguist, I can attest that no day goes by without such an issue coming up in the press. I have several box files full of cuttings of articles which I use in my teaching, on topics ranging from the apparently inoffensive – e.g. the revival of ‘dead’ languages such as Manx or Cornish, to the highly political, such as the relationship between the use of minority languages, such as Catalan, and political separatism.

All of us are identified – and often judged – on the basis of our language, dialect or accent. The gruesome ‘beheading’ videos recently released by members of Isis were doubly chilling for Londoners, because the executioners in black hoods had unmistakable London accents, and sounded like the young people you hear on the bus on the way to work.

I want to talk about another recent example which has been in the news, and which shows how language interacts with some very practical issues with serious human consequences.

No-one in the UK needs to be told that the issue of immigration has been in the news on a daily basis for the last few weeks or months. Oddly, this is not because of any drastic change in the situation, but principally because the issue has become a populist rallying cry for politicians who, though they might not put it that way, wish to convince British people that they are going to ringfence the country’s wealth for those same British people – and prevent undefined side-effects like ‘overcrowding’ in the process. This ‘promise’ has proved so popular that politicians from all the main parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite clear evidence that immigrants in fact contribute positively to the economy, nothing wins votes like telling people they will get a bigger slice of the cake.

The detailed arguments, and the distinctions between different categories of immigrants, become obscured in this rhetorical assault. This is not the place to rehearse them, but there is one category of (potential) immigrants who deserve some special attention: asylum seekers, i.e. people who come to this country because they claim to be in direct danger, or subject to persecution, in their country of origin. Basic humanity dictates that such cases are dealt with quickly and fairly, and that such people are distinguished from, say, economic migrants, who come for a better life but who are not actually in fear of their life.

But how do we decide whether the asylum seeker is to be believed or not? An important aspect of the decision involves finding out where they actually come from. Do they come from South Somalia, for example, in which case it is beyond question that they should be granted protection, or North Somalia, in which case protection is not automatic? Since such people rarely have any documentation when they arrive, linguistic agencies  are employed by the Government to judge their region of origin on the basis of an analysis of their speech. So far, you may think, all well and good – this could be an effective method.

Unfortunately it has now emerged that these agencies employ people who are not qualified to take these specialized decisions, and who in some cases are totally bogus. Amongst other problems, they ignore Lesson 1 in Sociolinguistics, which is that national and regional frontiers rarely coincide neatly with languages; Lesson 2, that in circumstances where they are being judged, people will speak the way they think they are expected to speak, not the way they speak naturally – so in this case, they may try to use a standard or a national language instead of their own dialect; and Lesson 3, which is that each individual has more than one way of speaking, in fact a ‘repertoire’ which may include different registers, different dialects, and different forms of mixed or intermediate varieties. In such a delicate matter, with life or death consequences hanging on the decision, a very high degree of linguistic expertise is required to do this job properly, and several other factors need to be taken into account apart from the linguistic analysis. Imagine the outcry if we employed food inspectors with bogus or insufficient qualifications to vet the food which we import.

If you would like to read more about these issues, the links below may be of interest. And next time you yourself are in some way judged by the way you speak, think of those who are being sent back to war zones, or to face FGM or worse, because a bogus or under-qualified linguistic ‘expert’ decided they did not come from the region they claimed.

Other blog posts by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros:

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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Need for public enquiry into the death of Peter Connolly

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.

I don’t like the money spent on public enquiries. However, having just watched the documentary on the untold story surrounding the appalling death of Peter Connolly (‘Baby P: The Untold Story’), the public needs to understand just how brutal and manipulative are the attempts to scapegoat social workers for our endemic social problems.

In this case there was an orchestrated campaign by The Sun (under Rebecca Brooke) to target the social workers and locum doctor involved in the case, all quickly themselves becoming the tragic victims of a contemporary witch-hunt. The evil resulting from this is that the strain on all the services involved escapes attention, as those with a huge burden of work in the front-line of patching up society’s ills are punished rather than supported.

The performance of David Cameron making political capital out of the tragedy (at the time briefed by his ‘political advisor’ Andy Coulson) was hugely significant in this modern tragedy, as were the panicked reactions of Ed Balls and the rushed report of Ofsted on the matter. After this disgraceful farce of wrongful blame (the spokespeople for the police and NHS happy to tolerate if not encourage the misleading targeting of the social workers), still, all the right questions are being ignored.

How better to support our front-line social workers is the issue. Even as the brave and compassionate Sharon Shoesmith kept trying to talk about what was needed to protect children (and damaged mothers) last evening on Newsnight, Evan Davis continued with the lazy routine of personal blame. Given that there was never even an inquest into Peter’s death (despite his father calling for one) a public enquiry might at least make more people aware the evils of these bullying diversions, perhaps as well highlighting how much more vulnerable professional women are to being scapegoated than men in similar positions of responsibility. There are so many social, political and ethical issues here, which a public enquiry might begin to flush out.

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If history repeats itself, it’s time for the battle stations

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Sebastian Haffner book cover

As an applied linguist, multilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration and acculturation are central aspects of my research. This is by nature always political. My mission as an applied linguist is to defend diversity and promote tolerance – through my teaching and in my research. There are things I can observe here in the UK through my “Belgian eyes” that might not seem as immediately obvious for fellow Brits.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s moving autobiography on his childhood and young adulthood in Germany between 1914 and 1933, I was struck by some striking similarities with the present day. In fact, “striking” is not the right word – “chilling” is more accurate.

Adolf Hitler was perceived by most Germans as a clown in the 1920s, and dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Hitler’s favourite public places in that period were beer halls where he gave impassioned speeches against Jews and Marxists: perfect scapegoats.  He presented himself as a “good German” who wanted the best for his country, pretended to value peace, but insisted on more national assertiveness.

Hitler loved to brandish the weakness of German democracy and of his political opponents, who were being forced to accommodate each other, while his own message was clear and uncompromising.

While the National Socialists (NSDAP) did poorly in the elections in 1928 (gaining less than 3% of the vote), they grew steadily, gaining 18% of all votes in 1930.  More importantly, their political agenda strongly influenced the programme of the main democratic parties.

Leaders of democratic parties did not stand up to Hitler, did not organize mass demonstrations against the NSDAP but tried to placate Hitler by offering him prominent positions in the government, which he rejected. He came second in the presidential elections in 1932, with 35% of the vote. Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in 1933.  After the Reichstag fire, Hitler forced Hindenburg to suspend basic rights and allow detention without trial. At new elections in March 1933, the NSDAP obtained 44% of the vote. The boycott of the Jews started in April 1933. No mass protests happened in reaction to this measure.

Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state and head of government and the ‘Hitler myth’ grew.

Now, what was it that David Cameron called UKIP supporters again: “A bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? It does not seem to have done the UKIP any harm. What is Nigel Farage’s favourite posture? Holding a pint of beer in an English pub with a disarming smile, and claiming to represent true Britishness. His message?  Simplistic but unambiguous: no more compromising, more assertiveness, exit the European Union, and stop immigration into the UK. What is the reaction of the Conservatives and Labour? Hardening their stances on immigration and drifting towards more and more Europhobia. Add to that Conservative plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (on the spurious argument that prisoners can’t be allowed to vote) and claiming that a vote for UKIP would benefit the other major party.

Now, just imagine a scenario where UKIP evolves as the NSDAP did in Germany in the 1930s. As they became more powerful, they could become more radical in their agenda – or simply disclose what might still be under wraps. Being outside the EU and outside the reach of the European court in Strasbourg, they could start forcing the other parties in government to implement a more radical anti-immigration policy, and declare a state of emergency (see Sampson’s Dominion for an idea of what this would look like in the streets of London). Having stopped the foreign influx, and gained the political upper hand, they would have to turn on the immigrants inside the UK, using the full force of the law, starting “gently” and turning on the screw: limit and cut their benefits, their salaries, their role in British society. At what point, I wonder, would the British realize that their cherished democracy was being transformed into a fascist state? Because this is the main point of Haffner: why did nobody stand up to the NSDAP? How could they force a whole nation to become complicit in a world war and a genocide?

You might think at this point, “this can’t happen to us, we’re a civilized people”, and this is the 21st century after all. Haffner points out that this was exactly what the Germans had been thinking of themselves in the 1920s, watching the rise of fascism with “calm, superior indifference”. And what happened to the majority who had not voted for the NSDAP in the 1933 elections? Once the Nazis had grabbed the power, it became nigh impossible to voice dissent without risking one’s life.

We cannot let history repeat itself. Urgent mobilization is needed against the gangrene that UKIP ideology represents. As Haffner says: “Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals”. We need to urge politicians from mainstream parties not be infected by UKIP’s isolationist and anti-immigration agenda. They need to stand up for our human rights, our European union, our democracy. It’s time for the battle stations – or at least the ballot box – to keep UKIP out of power. Nationalism leads to war, and we want peace!

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

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The lessons of Clacton and Heywood: why UKIP will damage the Tories in 2015 but may ultimately harm Labour

EricKaufmann400This article was contributed by Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

National attention focused on the Clacton and Heywood and Middleton byelections because UKIP support rose substantially in both contests over its level in 2010. The media and some commentators have spun the story as a tale of dispossessed voters from forgotten constituencies striking a blow against the political elite. On this view, both the main parties will suffer at the hands of the Faragists.

Yet the data does not support the contention that the economically and politically disadvantaged of all political stripes are in revolt. Instead, the by-elections, and the rise of UKIP more broadly, reflects cultural anxieties and status resentments which loom largest among middle income people who lack degrees. UKIP damages the Conservatives more than other parties and is set to tilt the electoral terrain in Labour’s favour in 2015 and beyond. This means we need to entertain the possibility the Tories may enter the political wilderness, much as the Canadian Tories did between 1993 and 2006 when the populist Reform Party split the right-wing vote.

In Clacton, Douglas Carswell, a high-profile defector from the Tories, carried the seat easily, winning 60% of the vote in a constituency UKIP did not contest in 2010. Popular in Clacton, Carswell carried wide support across a range of social and voter groups. In Heywood and Middleton, UKIP candidate John Bickley won 39%, increasing UKIP’s share by a whopping 36 points over 2010. It was an impressive UKIP tally, but the seat was held by Labour, winning 41% of the poll. Here we have two strong UKIP performances, resulting in a Tory loss in one instance, and a Labour win, albeit narrow, in the other. The constituencies are not typical of the country, but the results are indicative of what may happen in 2015. Why?

First, consider that in both by-elections, Ashcroft polls show the Tories lost a larger share of their vote to UKIP than Labour. These results are corroborated in the admittedly small sample of some 70 British Election Study (BES) internet panel respondents from these seats interviewed in early and mid-2014 about their 2015 voting intentions.

The British Election Study provides data on over 34,000 people, interviewed in both early and mid 2014. Looking at the second wave reveals a stunning pattern: 47 percent of those who voted UKIP in the 2014 European elections said they voted Tory in 2010 compared to just 13 percent from Labour. When it comes to intended vote in the General Election, it’s much the same story: 44 percent of those intending to support UKIP are ex-Tories while just 10 percent said they voted in Labour in 2010.

Kaufmann image

In terms of current party identification, while 38 percent of those intending to vote UKIP in 2015 identify their party as UKIP, 24 percent say they identify as Conservative, compared to just 10 percent of UKIP vote intenders who currently identify with the Labour party. These data rely on respondents reported retrospective vote. However, the Understanding Society longitudinal survey just compares what people said in the previous wave with what they say in the current wave. These actual results, between 2009 and 2012, confirm the self-reported results from the BES: between 2 and 5 times as many people switched allegiance from Conservative to UKIP as moved from Labour to UKIP.

Some suggest Tory defections are in safe Conservative constituencies where they are unlikely to affect the Cameron-Miliband contest. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, there is no evidence for this. The figure below shows the predicted probability that an individual in the BES will vote UKIP in 2015, on the vertical axis, against the Labour share of the vote in his or her constituency in 2010, on the horizontal. The blue line represents those who voted Tory in 2010, the red line those who voted for parties other than the Conservatives in 2010. This is a multivariate model where we also control for a host of other predictors of UKIP voting, such as age, education, ethnicity and so forth. The cross-hatch lines represent confidence intervals, which are longer at the extremes of Labour share because sample sizes are smaller there.

Kaufmann fig 3

Two things jump out of this chart. First, UKIP will hit the Tories harder than other parties by 6-8 points across all types of constituency. There is no reluctance among 2010 Tory voters to desert the party for UKIP in marginal seats. Nor are UKIP defectors concentrated among Tory voters in Labour strongholds. Where votes averaged 30% Labour in 2010, often indicating a tight contest, a 2010 Conservative voter has a 21 percent chance of voting UKIP, which falls to just 15 percent among their Labour counterparts. UKIP support is holding steady in the polls, and if this continues, UKIP will pose a threat to Cameron.

Instead of fixating on the Clactons and Heywoods where UKIP is strong, pundits should focus on marginals where even a small shift to UKIP could tilt things Miliband’s way. We could see upsets not only in UKIP strongholds like Thurrock, but in middle class spots such as Cambridge or Hendon, often in  the South of England, where Miliband may pull off an upset. The plot below shows seats the Tories won in 2010 with less than a six percent margin over Labour. These, and more, may be vulnerable.

kaufmann fig 4

If UKIP hands victory to Labour, this raises a whole series of important questions. Can the Conservatives strike a deal with UKIP, as with the ‘unite the right’ initiative between the populist Reform party and more elite Progressive Conservatives in Canada?  Should Labour rejoice, or should they look to the reinvigorated Canadian Conservatives as a warning that the rise of the populist right can shift a nation’s political culture against them in the long run? Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford’s excellent book on UKIP warns that the party, with its working-class support base, threatens Labour as well as the Tories. My work suggests working-class Tories rather than Labour traditionalists are most likely to defect to UKIP, but their overall point holds: this is not a movement Labour can afford to ignore.

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What the **** is linguistics?

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

Excuse the *rude* title of this blog – I shall have more to say about why it is rude – even though it actually only contains a few stars – in subsequent blogs.

To begin, though:

If, like me, you are a teacher of linguistics, there are two questions which people will invariably ask you:

1. What IS linguistics?
and
2. What languages do you speak?

Those are the questions I want to write about today.

In answer to the first, linguistics is the study of language, no more, no less. Since language is (almost) as fundamental to the human race as breathing, it is probably quite important to know something about it. Linguistics is actually a whole collection of subjects, from the highly scientific – like whereabouts in the brain is the language faculty located? – to the philosophical – like why does a sentence mean what it means? – to the strictly structural – like what is the difference between a noun and a verb, and does the difference exist in all languages? – to the sociological and politically relevant – e.g., in what way are women linguistically at a disadvantage in our society, and in others, compared with men?

The answer to the second question is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Even if I only speak one language, my ‘mother tongue’, I am perfectly able to study the various issues mentioned above. Chomsky, considered the originator of modern linguistics, thought that the ideal way to study language was by analysing the productions of ‘ the ideal speaker in a homogeneous community’. Studying such an ideal speaker would allow us to uncover principles of language which underlie all languages, the basic principles of the human language faculty.

However, more recently, more and more linguists have started to realize that what is most ‘universal’ about language is actually its diversity. The fact that people speak different languages, and within languages different dialects, and speak in different ways depending on their circumstances, their topic, their interlocutor, etc. is by far the most striking fact about human language, more so than the fact that all languages have something like a verb/noun distinction.

In coming blogs I will discuss the relevance of diversity and variation in language through examples mainly taken from the news and current affairs. I will try to show that linguistic questions concern us all, and hopefully convince you that there are rational and irrational ways of finding the answers to linguistic questions. Just as the fact that we all breathe does not make us experts in respiratory medicine, so the fact that we all communicate through language does not qualify us to pronounce on linguistics – though if you read the letter pages of any major newspaper it is stunning how many self-appointed experts on language/ grammar/spelling/usage there seem to be!

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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Paisley’s life testament to a deeply painful social history in Northern Ireland

Dr Sean BradyThis article was contributed by Dr Sean Brady, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The death of the Reverend Ian Paisley is occasion for reflection upon the United Kingdom’s most famous religious firebrand, and certainly one of the most memorable and divisive political figures of modern times.

He will rightly be remembered for his hardline and extreme unionist stance throughout his political and religious career, for his extreme brand of Loyalism and premillenial Protestantism, which informed all of his political career – and also for the mystery of why, in 2006, he agreed to power sharing in Northern Ireland, given his rejection of the Belfast Peace Agreement in 1998.

But Paisley’s life was testament to a deeply painful social history. Northern Ireland’s society and politics have been synonymous with deep and bitter religiously orientated sectarianism, violence, conflict, militarism, and seemingly intractable community schisms since the late 1960s. And for much of that time, Paisley was one of the most vocal and most recognisable forces behind its continued division.

And yet the seemly intractable oppositions within Northern Ireland appeared to come together in remarkable unanimity on one particular issue, which Paisley almost made his own: the question of male homosexuality, and of sexual minorities in general.

No, no, no!

The Northern Irish parliament stoutly resisted any attempt to impose the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which had partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. Even after the imposition of direct rule and the ending of devolved government in 1972, opposition to any attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to introduce this legislation was voluble and intense.

A high-profile case brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Dudgeon v United Kingdom, eventually forced the United Kingdom government to impose the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982. Indeed, it was a landmark case at the ECHR itself. It was the court’s first case to be decided in favour of LGBT rights, and it now forms the basis in European law for all member states, in particular new states joining the EU.

Opposition to decriminalising male homosexuality appealed to many across the sectarian divide, but the real impetus to keep gay sex criminal came from the evangelically inspired and highly popular “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” campaign, headed by Paisley, Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party in the 1970s and the 1980s and targeted at lesbians and gay men.

Out of Ireland

In Paisley’s worldview, Ulster, the hallowed province, had to be made fit for the second coming of Christ, and therefore needed “saving” from sodomy. In a society riven by male-dominated violence and religious conflict, LGBT people would at the very least be wary about exploring their sexuality, and certainly emotions of guilt shaped and directed their lives. And for most Irish LGBT people, the only way to lead normal lives has long been to leave Northern Ireland.

It’s remarkable to recall the extent to which the Roman Catholic hierarchy gave its tacit support to this campaign, and the ways in which paramilitary organisations on both sides of the conflict came to view LGBT people as “natural betrayers” in their midst. More than anything else, religion and sectarianism shaped the lives of LGBT people in Northern Ireland until the peace process of the late 1990s.

And yet still, Paisley’s legacy of continuing homophobia in Northern Ireland is palpable to this day. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the DUP-dominated Stormont parliament has vetoed the gay marriage bill multiple times; evangelically motivated politicians of all stripes feel free to make outright homophobic comments on a regular basis.

Northern Ireland’s society is also unique in Western Europe in the intensity and the extent of its homophobic attitudes. In a huge research project into bigotry in Western countries conducted in 2007, Northern Ireland was the most homophobic of 23 territories surveyed, topping the list along with Greece.

Paisley’s legacy for the Northern Irish sectarian conflict is hugely complicated in itself – but his broader impact on Northern Ireland’s society also endures.

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Used or abused? 10 serious issues raised by FoI requests

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy. It was originally published on The Conversation.

A Freedom of Information request lodged on a quiet news day by a journalist has revealed that more than 800 police officers in England and Wales have been investigated for breaching social media guidelines over the past five years.

Quite apart from showing us that the police, like many other public bodies, find it difficult to control what its members do on Twitter, the story raises the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, which comes under regular fire for, according to the prime minister, David Cameron: “furring up the arteries” of government.

The Local Government Association recently published a list of ten “silly” FoI requests. While not arguing that all such requests are like this, the implied point is that FoI is being “abused”.

This complaint mirrors the comments of Tony Blair in his memoirs:

The truth is that the FoI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick: ‘Hey, try this instead’ and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

It also fits with concerns from a stream of other ministers and officials that FoI stops records being created and hampers decision-making. It is likely to feed into the recent government announcement of a consultation on whether the act is, indeed, being abused.

Little is known about FoI requesters. The pattern appears to be broadly that a variety of people and groups use it for a whole variety of reasons. Most FoI requests go to local government, the largest user group (contrary to Blair’s claim) are the public and, high-profile cases aside, many use FoI for “micro-political” issues, such as dealing with a pothole or planning application.

As a response to the list, I’d like to offer my own list of ten serious issues revealed by FOI requests.

  1. Extraordinary rendition – the UK’s involvement was revealed by FoI requests from the All-Party Group.
  2. Details of the Universal Credit welfare reforms.
  3. The Libor banking scandal and knowledge of it.
  4. Lists of visitors to the prime ministerial residence at Chequers (and ministerial meetings and diaries now proactively released).
  5. The use (and, it turned out, abuse) of passes to parliament.
  6. Creation of the famous “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dossier.
  7. The monarch’s involvement in vetoing legislation.
  8. The results of local restaurant hygiene inspections that helped create http://www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/.
  9. The salaries of senior academics and NHS officials.
  10. The planned closure of local libraries up and down the country.

Keeping them honest

Underneath these high-profile cases, our research found a steady stream of accountability stories over planning, car parking and many other issues – just see David Higgerson’s FOI Friday.

The act also helped create IPSA, which regulate MPs’ expenses, led to a change in the law so all members of the House of Lords pay tax in the UK and drove the regular publishing of local government salaries.

This not to say there aren’t “silly” requests, from dragons to zombie attacks (though “silly” is subjective as Jonathan Baines explains, many corruption scandals have been triggered by apparently pointless questions or the piecing together of small bits of information).

Nor is it to claim the act is not taken advantage of – in the UK, and even more in the US, FoI has led to heavy use by business – see this particularly controversial case in Scotland with Phillip Morris seeking access to details of a study of underage smoking.

Yet such requests represent only a minority of the estimated 253,000 requests per year (my own estimates based on the most recent figures for numbers of local government requests in 2010 (192,000) plus the number of requests to central government in 2013 (53,000). On the whole, research indicates that FoI is composed of all sorts of questions, on all sorts of topics, sent in by all sorts of people and groups.

It is this unpredictability that helps make it effective. One local politician told me: “you never know what you will get asked”. The presence of FoI, the possibility of a question, can make someone think twice and even deter them from corrupt or inappropriate behaviour.

There is also an issue of democratic principle. The right to information, championed by radicals such as the Levellers and Diggers centuries ago, means the right to ask questions (to misquote Orwell on liberty) that the powerful may not want you to ask.

It is a democratic right to ask and this may mean some silliness – just as voting may mean non-voting or “silly” voting. Like all parts of a democracy, it is messy and unpredictable and can occasionally go wrong. But in its messiness and unpredictability lies its power.

The Conversation

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World Bank watch out, the BRICS Bank is a game-changer

Ali Burak GuvenThis post was written by Dr Ali Burak Güven, Lecturer in International Relations & International Political Economy in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The top news from this year’s BRICS summit was the announcement of a New Development Bank. Headquartered in Shanghai, the bank will become operational in 2016 with an initial capital of US$50 billion. Its core mandate is to finance infrastructure projects in the developing world.

The bank, announced at the summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, will also have a monetary twin to provide short-term emergency loans, the Contingency Reserve Arrangement. While the bank will be open to all UN members, the reserve will lend only to the contributing BRICS countries in times of crisis.

This combination of timing, actors, and institutions is noteworthy. It was in July 1944 that the Allied nations gathered at Bretton Woods to form two of the most vital institutions of the post-war era: the International Monetary Fund and what would become the World Bank. Now, 70 years later and only a few years on from the global financial crisis, the leading developing nations of our time have joined forces to forge new institutions of international economic cooperation with mandates identical to the World Bank and the IMF.

This move is born out of a belief that the Bretton Woods twins, despite numerous governance reform initiatives over the past decade, remain set to reflect the policy preferences of their original creators. In creating complementary institutions, the BRICS will be hoping to use these alternative platforms of international economic governance and as leverage to accelerate the reform of existing arrangements.

Game-changing potential

The New Development Bank is currently the more interesting of the “Fortaleza twins”, for it is designed as a freestanding organisation that’s open to all. Yet it has not received a warm welcome in business columns. While the political symbolism of the new institution is widely acknowledged, its immediate economic utility has been challenged – why do the BRICS need a development bank of their own when infrastructure projects are already easily financed through private as well as official channels, especially through the World Bank?

This is a narrow criticism. In the long run, the New Development Bank has the potential to become a game-changer in development financing. In fact, if its evolution even remotely parallels that of the World Bank, it might end up having a formative impact on economic policy-making and overall development strategy in the Global South.

To begin, while there is no shortage of national and regional development banks as well as private financiers of infrastructure projects, there is still a massive gap in development finance, estimated to be as high as US$1 trillion per year. Many developing countries encountered significant financing problems during the global crisis of the late 2000s. This shortfall necessitated a surge in World Bank commitments, from an annual US$25 billion in 2007 to about US$60 billion in 2010.

But commitments declined just as swiftly over the past few years, and as of 2013 stood at about $30 billion. Given these figures, the New Development Bank’s readily available $10 billion in paid-up capital and the extra $40 billion available upon request are not exactly pocket money for development financing.

Yet just as the World Bank was never simply a money lender, so too will the new bank represent far more than a mere pool of funds. The existing geostrategic and policy inclinations of its founding stakeholders imply a bigger role to play for the institution. In the process, it is bound to offer a formidable challenge to the World Bank’s financial prominence and so influence policy in the developing world.

Client-side

The new bank has been long in the making. It is the culmination of nearly two decades of intense South-South cooperation and engagement. In recent years especially, the BRICS and other emerging nations have become donors and investors in both their immediate regions and in less developed areas of the world – with Chinese and Brazilian involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America representing the prime examples.

They have made an effort to establish more equal relationships with their lower-income developing peers and emphasised an attractive narrative of partnership, non-intervention and knowledge transfer, instead of smug, superior Western notions of top-down aid and restrictive conditionality. To the extent that it could keep its rates competitive, the New Development Bank is unlikely to suffer from a dearth of clients from among its fellow developing nations.

Paradoxically, BRICS and other large middle-income countries still remain the most valuable clients of the World Bank. Since the financial crisis, India has been the largest borrower of the World Bank, and has been closely followed by Brazil, China and a few other near-BRICS such as Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico. But, once the new bank fully kicks off, it is possible the World Bank will lose a lot more business from this traditionally lucrative market of large middle-income borrowers who now have a serious alternative.

Political implications

A reduced loan portfolio will ultimately translate into declining policy influence for the World Bank, which has held near-monopoly of development wisdom over the past 70 years. Perhaps in recognition of their waning power, there has already been a slight but steady decline in World Bank loans that emphasise policy and institutional reforms.

Also, a larger portion of the Bank’s resources have been allocated to conventional development projects, such as environment and natural resource management, private sector development, human development, and social protection. These are precisely the types of projects the Bank will encounter fierce competition from the new BRICS-led bank.

Knowledge and power

Consider also that the World Bank has labelled itself as a “knowledge bank” in recent years. Employing thousands of policy specialists, it doubles as one of the biggest think tanks in the world. Yet if it loses considerable financial ground to initiatives such as the New Development Bank, this threatens a decline in the power it has through knowledge.

Crucially, none of the BRICS adhere to the Bank’s standard policy prescriptions, nor do they advocate a different common strategy either. Brazil’s social democratic neo-developmentalism is quite different from China’s state neoliberalism, which in turn differs from established policy paths in others in the group. The only common denominator is a substantially broader role given to the state. But beyond this there is much flexibility and experimentation and little in the way of templates and blueprints like there is with the Western institutions. This policy diversity itself dismisses any idea of superiority of knowledge and expertise.

None of this suggests that the World Bank, as the dominant, Northern-led development agency, is now on an ineluctable path of decline. Cumbersome as they may appear, large organisations often accumulate considerable resilience and adaptive capacity over generations. Yet the World Bank does have a serious contender in the New Development Bank.

While it may not overtake the World Bank in financial prowess and policy influence any time soon, at a minimum it should be able to exert significant pressure over the World Bank to respond more sincerely and effectively to the new balance of power in the global economy.

The Conversation

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The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

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This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

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