Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Does the Church have the tools to address social actioo challenge

The Catholic Church has taken a most welcome initiative since the Pope’s visit to engage more on the question of social action drawin?g on Catholic Social Teaching.
This process was set in train at a meeting of the Bishops Conference in November. A conference followed in Liverpool in February titled Common Endeavour with a brief to underline both the relevance of CST and the practical contribution of the Church to define and build a new culture of social responsibility.
A seminar followed on 9 February at Archbishops House looking at Catholic Social Teaching and the philosophy behind the” Big Society.” The most recent event saw delegates from organisations involved in the area of social action, politicians and commentators drawn together to discuss Building a New Culture of Social Responsibility.
At the latest conference Archbishop Vincent Nichols Archbishop Nichols compared the implementation of Catholic Social teaching across the country to a vast number of corner shops. “We want to find a way of knitting them together,” said Archbishop Nichols, who urged developments that would see the Church speak with more authority based on its social justice work. He also indicated the Church would be prepared to take bold political stands on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
These are all encouraging developments. Concerns about the process so far have been the skewing toward the government’s Big Society agenda. Archbishop Nichols though recently made it clear that the Big Society must not be a cover for cuts or people volunteering for work that would otherwise be paid.
The organisation being charged with carrying this work through for the Bishops Conference is Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN). The CSAN was founded to great fanfare in 2003. As part of the international Caritas family it was to carry out the work of social justice in the domestic sphere. The overseas role had been done by CAFOD for many years.
CSAN has had a somewhat disconnected evolution over the years. It is an umbrella organisation, representing 37 bodies working on social welfare issues. There has been some good work done in the areas like mental health and the elderly but the scope has been very much restricted.
There has been little liaison it seems with the National Justice and Peace Network, despite that body having originally put forward the idea of CSAN in the first place. Indeed, there was something of a spat between the organisations last July, at the time when the last chief executive of CSAN, Philippa Gitlin left.
How these two organisations co-operate together in the future when it comes to realising the Church’s overall aim for greater impact on social action could be significant.
If the NJPN want to receive future funding they are going to have to establish a stronger link with CSAN. It is clear that the Church is going to channel any money it has for this project of social action through CSAN. NJPN’s main funder over recent years, CAFOD, is increasingly reluctant to fund its work.
NJPN is also the one organisation to make links with the world of work and the trade unions. The organisation was one of a number on the recent TUC march against the cuts and for an alternative. It’s annual conference this year also focuses on justice at work. TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady together with former Labour MP John Battle and Labour MP Jon Cruddas will address the conference. Mr Cruddas and Mr Battle are also closely involved with the Bishops Conference in moulding the response to the call for social action from the Pope.
One criticism of the CSAN process is that it is incredibly top down. Lords, MPs and Church organisations officially involved in social work. There has been little from the grass roots in parishes, diocese and beyond.
The whole area of the world of work used to be a department of the Bishops Conference, this function clearly needs to be restored within CSAN. This must include links with unions and employers. There must be grass root input.
The aim of the Bishops Conference is clearly to beef up CSAN to become the domestic equivalent of CAFOD, with representation at parish and diocesan level. Indeed, Archbishop Nichols admitted as much when he said the bones of such a development represent the next step.
From CSAN’s point of view it needs a clear mandate as to what its role is to be. It will be difficult to become the domestic CAFOD for an organisation with such an umbrella structure. It will also have to build some important bridges, not least with justice and peace and other grass root networks. There also needs to be some confidence built up in its own ability to deliver.
The importance of grass root input will be crucial to the final outcome of this bold initiative from the Bishops Conference. At present the view of unions and others being directly effected by the cuts are not being represented in the CSAN forum. This could result in an unbalanced view in favour of the Big Society agenda being presented. If the debate is balanced up then the outcome is likely to be more representative.
Archbishop Nichols has been at pains to stress the importance of what is happening to the poor and most vulnerable in our society, so he would definitely want such a balance of viewpoints. CSAN need to move this debate forward in a more bottom up way, as well as developing its own organisation to take in functions like life and work. Only then can a proper analysis be conducted that will result in a decent response to the challenge to engage with the social action agenda.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Immigration story is good news

It must be election time because the Tories are rolling out immigration as a subject for public debate once again. So the public were recently treated to another diatribe from Prime Minister David Cameron on the need to control migration.The Prime Minister quoted a number of instances of the abuse from sham marriages, to undocumented workers and abuse of student visas.
While the PM paid a short tribute to the contribution of migrants to the NHS and education the overall tone was negative. Immigration was something to be confronted and repelled.
It was one of the most depressing elements of the last general election campaign that not one party had the integrity or confidence to talk positively about the benefits of immigration. All pretty much took the same line that there were too many people coming into the country and it had to be stopped. The subject came up in all three televised leadership debates.
Instead of stopping migrants coming in the government should be celebrating those already here and looking to the needs of the future.
There is never any mention of the ageing population of the UK with the ratio between young and old closing all of the time. Only recently the number of over 60s outnumbered those under 16 for the first time. The economy today is not sustainable without new younger workers coming in.
The simplistic answer from government seems to be there are lots of people around the country on benefit, who should be forced into work.
Migrants have contributed positively to this country. A government study in 2007 estimated that migrants had contributed £6 billion to the growth in the previous year
Where would the NHS and care sector be without the migrant workers coming in from countries like the Philippines?
One in 10 students at the universities come from countries outside the EU, providing fees of on average £20,000 a year. The overseas students to a degree help keep the universities going. Some of the heavy handed moves from government have already threatened parts of the education system by cutting off the supply of students from overseas.
All of these factors are positive outcomes from immigration. What we have had over recent years is a debate hyped by the right wing media to the effect that immigration is a bad thing. It is only to be viewed in terms of being a problem in need of confronting and reducing, ideally to either no immigration or one person coming in and one person going out. It's absurd.
The interesting thing about the Cameron's speech was how it once again exposed the illogicality of the Coalition Government. So he speaks of the need for migrants coming to this country to be able to speak English, whilst cutting the budget for ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes. There is talk of enforcing border controls, while cutting the staff of the Border Agency.
Immigration is another area where policy really should not be being made on the back of headlines that pander to racial prejudice in a population more than ever looking for scapegoats in these difficult times.
There are issues to be raised such as the use of migrant labour to undercut and keep wages down. Also the question of providing the public services in the requisite areas to meet need.
What is needed on the question of immigration is a more balanced look at the issue. A look that considers benefits as well as drawbacks. An examination that sees the massive benefits brought to our culture and economy by people coming into multicultural Britain. These positive elements need to be recognised not ignored amid a desire to win votes by appealing to insecurities across the nation.

Monday, 4 April 2011

"Allies" have no credibility as liberators of Libya

The ease with which the military intervention in Libya was enacted shows how battle hardened the world has become to war. Few lessons seem to have been learned from the adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, regarding how violence begets violence and that the best way to resolve a dispute is not to rush to conflict at the first available opportunity. It has been extraordinary to witness in this country, having been relentlessly told for the past 18 months how money is short, that an open ended conflict in Libya can apparently be so easily entered into. The devaluation of life in these conflicts is frightening to behold. Journalists and media commentators loosely talk about “taking out Colonel Gaddaffi.” The effects of firing cruise missiles into a country or bombing an area are reduced to the level of computer game contemplation. A building is blown to bits,yet the ugly site of the true results - human body parts strewn around the area are not part of the fare served up for popular consumption. Those in the media never seem to learn anything from past conflicts. As soon as the military intervention was declared, the mainstream media switched to selling the war mode. This always involves clinical lectures from assorted journalists, drooling over the power and lethal nature of the weaponry at hand. The pinpoint accuracy of various weapons is emphasised, this despite the repeated cases in the past of it being proven to be most unreliable. In the event, there is always damage to unintended targets like civilians. Indeed, in past conflicts some of the weaponry has been so accurate that it hasn’t even hit the country intended in the first place. This time, when civilians were killed, feverish reporters assured the watching audience that the rebels regretted the loss of life but still the onslaught must go on. Supporters of the intervention would argue that Colonel Gadaffi had to be stopped from killing his own people. This is valid claim. The intervention is also backed by a UN resolution this time, rather than the illegal approach adopted by the British and Americans to attacking Iraq in 2003. The concern though has to be that it is Britain, the United States and France carrying out the intervention. To put it bluntly all have form in the region. Britain used to run Libya and was the big imperial power in the Middle East until the Americans took over. After the Iraq adventure, no one in the region will see Britain and America, even when backed by UN resolution, as liberators. This incredulity will be rightly stoked by the fact that many of the weapons Colonel Gadaffi has been turning on his own people were supplied by the British and Americans. Indeed, David Cameron was only recently on a tour of the Middle East, with a number of arms dealers as part of his delegation. The concern must be that the invading countries will be seeking to make Libya safe not for its people but for their own economic interests. They will be seeking to ensure a new leader who can be relied upon to deliver oil and other commodities for western corporations. Were Colonel Gadaffi to stay in place the prospects for such companies would not look very rosy. It has also been alarming to see some who so fervently opposed the war in Iraq seemingly using the same arguments that they opposed in relations to invading Iraq to justify the Libya action. There is a real lack of intellectual rigour going on, if not historical amnesia. The criticism made by supporters of the intervention will be: what would you do then sit by and let Colonel Gadaffi kill his own people? No, that obviously shouldn’t be the case but the reality is that Western nations do not act for humanitarian purposes, only economic ones. Otherwise, why did they not intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide. What of Burma? Indeed, looking to the future will the military action be expanded to take in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia as they turn against the people revolting against their tyrannous regimes. It would be nice to think that this intervention in Libya is for purely virtuous humanitarian reasons but history tells a different story. There is also every danger that the action will further destabilise and already unstable region. Learning the lessons of history should include looking to just how the US/British action in Afghanistan over the past decade has destabilised not only that country but Pakistan as well. Violence is not the way to win change or create democracy. Leopards do not change their spots and neither do imperial powers.

Paying the earth with nuclear power

The news of the explosions and leakages of radiation from nuclear plants in Japan has caused growing concern around the world. The devastation caused by the earthquake and Tsunami was bad enough without the whole thing being compounded by a man made disaster in the form of nuclear fallout. The leak of radiation offered once again a glimpse of how deadly dangerous the products of the nuclear industry are, no matter what justifications are made for their use. The events in Japan reminded me of a meeting some 15 years ago with a campaign group called the Stop Thorp Alliance Dundalk. At the meeting in Dundalk on St Patricks Day I heard about the devastation being caused in the Irish Sea by emissions from Sellafield in England. There were the stories of deformed fish being caught and Dundalk having five times the still birth rate of any other town in the EU. The protesters were taking a case against the Irish Government for not protecting their citizens from dangers posed by the plant. They were also pursuing the plant owners British Nuclear Fuels. Later, agreement was reached that emissions into the sea by the plant would be reduced. The Irish Government took up the call in 2001 for Sellafield to be shut down. It did not succeed in this aim but the clear anti-nuclear feeling among the Irish public was being reflected by the actions of the government. The nuclear industry has always been a precarious one. It has spent inordinate amounts of money on public relations in order to portray the industry as safe and efficient. The need for the PR offensive arose due to a growing lack of trust in the industry, due to accidents at home and abroad. At home, Windscale, which had a major fire in 1957, was renamed as Sellafield. The image though of nuclear power took its biggest hits from tragedies overseas, most notably Three Mile Island (1979) in the US and Chernobyl (1986). The effect of Three Mile Island was to see a real decline in the building of nuclear reactors in the US. Chernobyl represented the worst nuclear accident thus far, causing many countries to think again on the advisability of nuclear power. There is still a 35 kilometre uninhabited zone around the area to this day. After these accidents the nuclear industry was in decline, yet somewhat ironically it was the threat of global warming that revived the technology in the eyes of governments. Having been discredited as too dangerous and expensive to use as an energy source, nuclear came back when governments were looking for technologies that did not produce excessive carbon emissions. So it was that nuclear energy was reborn. The industry has also ofcourse always been umbilicaly linked with the military use of nuclear technology, namely in the bomb. As the Cold War thawed so the threat of destruction caused by nuclear war seemed to decline, though many argue today with more countries now members of the nuclear club – including India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – that the world is a more dangerous place than when the US and USSR stood toe to toe. It is ironic that nuclear technology should have suddenly managed to reinvent itself in the form of a carbon free energy source as a way to save rather than destroy the world. Successive British governments have certainly been quick to argue for escalation, committing to a new generation of nuclear power stations as part of an overall strategy to cut carbon emissions. Ireland has not been so foolhardy, having seen from their side of the Irish Sea just how dangerous the technology can be. Dublin based environmental writer Father Sean McDonagh has argued against the use of nuclear power on green grounds. He questions whether nuclear energy really is a green alternative to fossil fuels. “Whilst it is true that very little fossil fuel is used to produce electricity in nuclear plants, an enormous quantity is needed at almost every phase of the nuclear process which begins with uranium mining,” says Father McDonagh. “Nuclear waste is carcinogenic and toxic and fossil fuels will be needed to transport and store nuclear waste for umpteen generations. At the end of their 30 or 40 years life-span, vast amounts of fossil fuel will be needed to decommission nuclear plants.” Britain and Ireland are surrounded by wind and seas, the reservoir for renewable technologies is immense, so why any government in these islands should be looking to nuclear options seems a total mystery. “If the money and research which has been poured into nuclear energy for the past 60 years was diverted to renewable forms of energy the human community would not be dependent on this dangerous technology,” said Father McDonagh, who speaks from experience having been part of a campaign in the Philippines in the mid 1980s to stop President Marcos building a nuclear plant on a fault line surrounded by four volcanoes. The campaign was successful which was fortunate given that one of the volcanoes Pinatubo erupted with devastating effects in 1992. The lessons to be drawn from the Japanese nuclear disaster are that this technology does not represent the answer to global warming. The potential damage of a nuclear accident of the type seen in Japan, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island far outweigh any benefit there may be in reducing carbon emissions. The residue of nuclear power will already be with us for centuries to come. The challenge for today is not only to rid the world of nuclear weapons but also decommission all nuclear technologies - the risks are too much for the earth to stand