Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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How one student makes the most of his 24 hours a day

Samuel Harris, second year BSc Financial Economics student, discusses how combining work with study is furthering his aspirations as part of National Work-Life Week.

Time. It is perhaps the most valuable commodity an individual owns yet we all have 24 hours a day to spend as we see fit. That’s 1440 minutes or 86,400 seconds where we all make individual choices that may or may not have consequences that shape our future with most choices made in the hope it will create a better future. Getting my work-life balance is vital, in my opinion, to avoid burnout in my future career path and aspirations, and will help me be the best I can be as a person, socially and academically.

So, what are my future career aspirations? I’m writing as a member of the Birkbeck Economics and Finance Society and I aspire to, one day, own my own financial investment firm. Financial services and especially investment banking makes the news consistently on the topic of work-life balance for the wrong reasons. You hear the stories of graduates spending 80+ hours a week in the office but to me, I see people chasing a dream – a dream to be the best and to be affluent. To me, work-life balance is about always enjoying what you do, whether at the office or wherever your workspace might be, as well as when you’re out with friends or doing a hobby. If you enjoy what you do, you won’t burn out!

I am starting my second year on the BSc (Hons) Financial Economics course this October and I currently work full-time doing either 7am-5pm, 9am-5pm or during the university summer break, occasionally 9am-9pm. I am always described by my friends who are at traditional universities as crazy and the most frequent comment I get is “how do you do it?”

The answer? Very simply. Whilst they are partying away, I’m studying here in a 6pm-9pm lecture. Whilst they are being lectured to, I’m working gaining practical experience. No amount of reading or memorising will make you successful in life because it is the understanding and application of wise thought that counts – and that is what Birkbeck is all about. I will be job-market-ready. I still have the time to see my friends in London at the weekend after I finish my university work and I make visits to my friends further afield at other universities 3-4 times a year. Whilst sacrifices must be made, and don’t underestimate the sacrifice needed to work full-time and study full-time, I don’t overestimate it either as it is very feasible with a strong work ethic. It’s not for the faint-hearted and I must stress the necessity of a strong work ethic! Working part-time is also an option.

The most important piece of advice I would give to fellow students is not to lose focus on why you do what you do. Whether it is that you are academically inquisitive, or you are hoping to change career, or to become better at your current one, commitment is key. There will be challenges along the way. Being glued to my desk and the library during exam season and using every available term holiday to prepare is just the beginning. You’ll find time goes very quickly and your external commitments will need to be tapered. I manage my time by using a diary on my phone and I put everything in, no matter how small or insignificant.

Life as a Birkbeck student is tough and unforgiving but it could possibly be the best decision you ever make. Everyone who studies here has unique life experiences and you can use one another as a sounding board for great ideas and experiences. Make the most of your time here and you won’t regret it.

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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

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Community: The Mother of Invention

This post was contributed by Matthew Jayes, Business Development, Communication and Enterprise Manager in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

A report into student entrepreneurship compiled by Public and Corporate Economic Consultants (PACEC) identified independence and flexibility of self-employment as the major pull for graduates to seize the opportunity to become their own bosses. But from what or from whom do they gain independence? Does workplace employability restrict flexibility, despite the right to request flexible working?

Most responsible businesses communicate their impact on their respective environment, stakeholders and employees. How, then, should universities frame the concept of student entrepreneurship? Negatively, as the freedom from external restraint on the individual’s actions; or positively, as the ability of an individual to act upon free will, providing the outcome does not harm others?

enterprise-300pxwIn all likelihood, it remains the role of the university to clearly articulate the known options and help students to navigate their chosen path. For this reason, Birkbeck offers unique support to students interested in developing new ideas (Enterprise), and new businesses (Entrepreneurship), in the form of Enterprise Pathways. Many Birkbeck students have commitments beyond their study, in the form of work, care, societies or volunteering. To accommodate these constraints the pathways on offer allow different students to engage in different ways, from a variety of starting points.

Every academic year, we offer the Boot Camp pathway, which brings together students from different organisations to work in small groups to develop new ideas on a given theme. The autumn 2016 Boot Camp will be held at Runway East in partnership with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, Goldsmiths, University of London, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. The theme is Future of Media and will be facilitated by invited guests such as Kirsty Styles, Programme Lead, Talent and Skills, Tech North.

Students interested in a longer path have joined the Birkbeck Enterprise Community, Competitions and Awards (BECCA) course, running from November to July. These students, from various courses at Birkbeck, build networks and develop their ideas as part of a supportive community augmented by external facilitators. The first session in November 2016 featured Damola Timeyin, Strategist, BBH London, leading the Saturday morning meeting on “Creativity”, where he urged the audience to fully embrace diverse opportunities, experiences and communities.

The first BECCA session

The first BECCA session

Birkbeck students hoping to develop ideas independently are encouraged to follow the digital pathways online. Simply Do Ideas offers an online idea testing tool, through which students can directly access support from the Enterprise Pathways team. Enterprise Pathways has also partnered with The Digital Garage from Google – a digital skills training platform assisting students to grow their business, career and confidence.

So –where do these pathways lead? Each has its own distinctive outcome; however by forming a strong community and deep understanding of our students, Enterprise Pathways helps to map a bespoke route to future destinations. At the heart of London, a global creative city, we help our students to identify what could enhance their enterprise journey. Enterprise Pathways empower Birkbeck students to make a positive impact on society by thinking differently.

Notes

  • Places for Birkbeck students at the Future of Media Boot Camp have now been allocated, however please email Enterprise Pathways to join the waiting list.
  • The full BECCA programme is available online. While the course is at capacity, interested students should contact Matthew at the earliest opportunity.
  • Links to Simply Do Ideas and The Digital Garage from Google are for enrolled students only, available on the Enterprise Pathways website.

Further Reading

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National Living Wage: From Classroom to Newsroom

How teaching from a Birkbeck BSc Economics module ended up in the FT

mouse and ftOn 1 April, 2016 The Financial Times reported the results of a survey of UK economists on whether the government’s new national living wage would do Britain “more harm than good” (against) or “more good than harm” (for).

Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, was one of four UK economists whose views were quoted at some length in the article. He has since published his comments in full on his personal web page.

“It was good timing” said Professor Wright. “When I got the email from the FT, a few weeks back, it was the day after I’d delivered a lecture on exactly this topic, so I had all the material to hand”.

The lecture Professor Wright had just given was for the module, “Current Economic Problems”, given to 1st year undergraduates on Birkbeck’s new BSc Economics programme, which admitted its first students in 2015/16. Students receive a lecture on a particular economic problem one week, and then, the following week, are required to give a presentation on some aspect of the problem, speaking on one side of a debate.

As well as helping to improve students’ communications skills, the module is also intended to show students that the economics they learn from textbooks and in lectures can be applied to practical problems faced by policymakers. Other topics covered in the module this year include immigration, “Nudge”, inequality and the gender pay gap – but topics will change every year depending on what is in the news.

Prof. Wright concluded that, on balance, the national living wage could prove harmful – but with the caveat “that the harm may well be as much from muddying the water as from the actual economic damage done.”

Predicting the impact

Working under the premise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, believes the corporate sector (or more precisely, the low wage corporate sector) should share some of the burden of mitigating poverty, Prof. Wright concluded that basic economic analysis suggests it unlikely to work as advertised: that“…ultimately consumers of goods and services produced by the low wage economy will pay.”

He argued that the most optimistic perspective you can put on this outcome is that such consumers are possibly less likely to come from the lower end of the income distribution, thus if there was zero impact on employment in the low wage sector, the policy would be mildly redistributive. However, if unemployment in the low wage/low productivity sector increases, this effect would be offset.

Acknowledging that the evidence for adverse employment effects of minimum wages is “pretty muddy”, Prof. Wright goes on to explain that, on the basis of standard textbook models, the extent of any employment losses in the low wage sectors will depend on the elasticity of demand for their goods and services. Indirectly the evidence seems to be quite strong that in the long term these effects can be quite large (viz, for example, the steady fall in the number of pubs in the UK, as drinking in pubs becomes progressively more expensive relative to competing activities).

“If the existing low wage sector contracts it is not clear where those working in it (who typically have low productivity and skills to match their low wages) will go to work instead. But just as important I believe, is that these policies muddy the water. Wages are a very blunt instrument to tackle poverty.”

Case study: The London Living Wage

To demonstrate this, Prof. Wright cites the Greater London Authority (GLA)’s calculations of the London Living Wage (“A Fairer London: The 2015 Living Wage in London”). When the GLA calculated living wages ‘bottom-up’ by looking at the consumption needs of different household types, they got very different answers for different households. Indeed, the small print of the GLA calculations show that, given the current system of benefits, their calculated living wage for a family of two working parents is actually below the current minimum wage.

Drawing from this, the FT quoted Prof. Wright’s key conclusion, that “…a single Living Wage, built up from consumption needs, is not a logical construct: if it had any basis at all it should be a set of living wages, for different household types (but with the bizarre implication that, in the current benefit regime, having children would result in a reduction in the relevant Living Wage).”

“My personal view is that poverty reduction for those in work can be, should be, and already is carried out by government benefit policies. The tax credit system was one of the great unacknowledged success stories of Gordon Brown, and I’m pretty sure that it has been the primary factor behind our sustained low unemployment rate, and the resilience of employment during the recession. It seems a shame to start to throw this away just as it has really proved its value.”

Birkbeck is known to provide the highest quality teaching, which can be applied to the workplace. For BSc Economics students on this occasion, what Prof. Stephen Wright was teaching them went from their classroom to a highly respected media publication.

All enrolled students in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London can subscribe to FT.com for free through the Birkbeck e-Library.

Further Links:

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Business and Corporate Responsibility in Russia

Book coverThis post was contributed by Bill Bowring, Professor of Law in Birkbeck’s School of Law; and a practising barrister at Field Court Chambers, Gray’s Inn. His latest book is Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power (Routledge, 2013). This article was originally published on Who’s Who Legal.

 

“Despite privatisation policies and programmes since 1991, the Russian state still owns two-thirds of the market capitalisation in the Russian stock market.”

 

On 22 August 2012, after 18 years of negotiations, Russia became the 156th member of the World Trade Organization. As a BBC report pointed out, Russia is the EU’s third biggest trading partner, with member countries exporting €108 billion euros of goods to Russia, including €7 billion worth of cars and €6 billion of medicines. Russia also exports enormous quantities of oil and gas around the world. Despite complications arising from Russia’s actions in Ukraine – including EU and US sanctions on Russian financial and other interests, and Russian sanctions on imports from the EU – the Russian economy and its governance are of great importance to the rest of the world.

Does this important step mean that the Russian economy can be compared with those of Western Europe or North America?

There is one particularly striking difference. Despite privatisation policies and programmes since 1991, the Russian state still owns two-thirds of the market capitalisation in the Russian stock market. The state’s ownership is concentrated in four strategic sectors: energy (oil, gas and electricity), banks, defence industries and transport. There is little state ownership in most other sectors in the Russian economy, including consumer goods, non-defence manufacturing, agriculture, insurance and services. But it is precisely in the two-thirds of the economy which has remained in state hands, or been seized by the state (as in the expropriation of Yukos, according to the Hague Court of International Arbitration, and the arrest and imprisonment from 2003 to 2013 of its owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky) that the most senior government officials are in control. This includes Igor Sechin, head of the state oil company, Rosneft, which took over the former assets of Yukos. Many of these officials have become incredibly rich.

Accession to the WTO was not the first marker of Russia’s participation in the global economic order, especially where corporate social responsibility was concerned. On 10 April 2008 the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke at a Moscow meeting of more than 30 Russian business leaders, preparing to establish the Russian network of the UN’s Global Compact. Kofi Annan launched the Compact, which carries ten principles, on 26 July 2000. With over 12,000 corporate participants and other stakeholders from over 145 countries, it is the largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative in the world. On 17 December 2008 the Russian network adopted its statutes.

In 2009 a Report on Corporate Social Responsibility Practices in Russia was published by, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), together with the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) and the UN Global Compact Network in Russia. It highlighted the corporate social responsibility commitments of some of the largest Russian enterprises: Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group of Companies, employing more than 100,000 people in Russia; Oleg Deripaska’s UC Rusal, the world’s largest aluminium manufacturer; and Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s Sistema investment group. Ironically, Sistema has recently lost its investment in the oil producer Bashneft through court proceedings that have been seen by many as part of the Russian state’s strategy to consolidate its dominance of oil production. Mr Yevtushenkov himself was arrested.

The RSPP is headed by Vladimir Shokhin, formerly Russia’s deputy prime minister and minister of economics. It was founded in 1991 following the collapse of the former USSR, and is based on the foundations of the Scientific and Industrial Union (which launched in 1990). It has a membership base of over 120 regional alliances and industry associations representing key industries, including the fuel and energy, machine-building, investment banking, military industrial, construction, chemical and food industries. It has more than 328,000 members representing industrial, scientific, financial and commercial organisations and individual members in all Russian regions.

The RSPP is itself responsible for a series of initiatives in the field of social responsibility, including the Global Compact. It has its own Charter of Corporate and Business Ethics, established in 2002, and a Social Charter of Russian Business, adopted at its Congress in 2004 and amended in 2008. It covers 254 businesses and NGOs, and more than 6 million workers. On 20 September 2012, in Sochi, the RSPP promulgated its Anti-Corruption Charter of Russian Business in the presence of the current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Some highly influential Western companies promote corporate responsibility in Russia. For example, the Russian website of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) includes glossy report on the firm’s corporate responsibility programme. It is the market leader in professional services in Russia, with eight offices and over 2,000 staff. Its client base of 2,000 companies includes: every single on of the 10 largest financial services companies and banks; nine of the 10 largest oil and gas companies; seven of the 10 largest power industry companies; six of the 10 largest retail companies; five of the six largest telecommunications companies; four of the 10 largest mining companies; and five of the 10 largest ferrous metallurgy companies. The report states that PwC is a signatory to the UN Global Compact, and in 2009 signed the RSPP’s Social Charter of Russian Business: “a set of principles for businesses to follow that are the foundations of responsible business practices”.

PwC’s competitor Ernst & Young also publishes a report on corporate responsibility. It began work in Russia in 1989 and employs 3,000 staff in eight offices. Since 2012 it has had a corporate responsibility expert panel, which brings clients together with representatives of the educational and ecological sectors.

Baker & McKenzie was the first international law firm to open an office in Moscow in 1989, and employs more than 120 qualified lawyers in Moscow and St Petersburg combined, including 27 partners. This year it was voted Law Firm of the Year in Russia. Its report, “Doing Business in Russia (2014)”, describes the country’s legal and judicial systems in detail and presents a picture of a properly and normally functioning rule of law.

Yet a different perspective comes from Medvedev’s initiative, announced on 27 April 2012: the creation of a new business ombudsman. Mr Medvedev’s last day in office as Russia’s president was 7 May 2012 (he was sworn in as prime minister the following day). 7 May also marked the introduction by Vladimir Putin (who had just been elected president, after serving as prime minister for four years) of a national business ombudsman’s office by December 2012.

On 21 June 2012, in advance of the law, Putin appointed business lobby leader Boris Titov as the Ombudsman for Entrepreneurs’ Rights. According to a BBC report published in July 2012, Mr Titov claimed that in the last 10 years Russia has imprisoned nearly 3 million entrepreneurs, many unjustly. He added, “It is hard to find another social group persecuted on such a large scale.” How has this come about?

The answer is to be found in two of the most insidious problems of doing business in Russia. These are “criminal prosecutions to order” and “criminal corporate raiding”. In short, there have been complaints for many years that private and state businesses, and powerful individuals, have been able to frame commercial rivals by paying corrupt police officers and prosecutors to plant evidence and make arrests to order. The judicial system itself has been a willing participant in such activities.

Another reason for creation of the Ombudsman was the $84 billion in capital that left Russia in 2011: a record amount. Russians were investing overseas because they feared for the safety of their businesses at home. Indeed, many Russian entrepreneurs have fled the country for their own safety. London has even been dubbed “Londongrad” because of the many Russians who have taken up residence and carried out business in the city.

The author of this article, who first travelled to Russia in 1983 in the days of the USSR, has since 2003 been employed as an expert witness on Russian law and politics in several cases in the London and Cyprus courts. The cases fall into three categories.

First, there have been requests by the Russian Federation for the extradition of Russian citizens resident in the UK, on the basis of criminal charges. Many of these were activities connected with Yukos and Mr Khodorkovsky. In almost all of these cases the English judge found that the requests were politically motivated. In none of these cases has Russia been successful. Second, expert evidence has been given in appeals against refusal of refuge status. Third, there have been commercial disputes in which an important preliminary issue has been the potential for a fair trial in Russian courts, given the continued prevalence of “telephone justice” and the possibility of political interference or pressure from highly placed and wealthy individuals and interests.

In fact, prior to his arrest in late 2003 and the destruction of Yukos, Mr Khodorkovsky was the leading Russian exponent of good corporate governance and corporate social responsibility. After two trials and 10 years in prison (he was released in December 2013), he now leads a global campaign to transform Russia into a democracy with an independent judiciary, a viable opposition and free and fair elections.

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