Category Archives: governance & politics

what in the world?

In the past three days I have two attended conferences.(Dont tell, next week I head to a third – LIFT ). The end of day conference on Tuesday was at the Portcullis House, a part of the House of Commons, but being the clueless Canadian wonder that I am, I made my way to Westminster with very little idea of what would come. The regular security strip-down occured and I made my way to the Population and Sustainability Network and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine hosted conference on “Population: the Unfinished Agenda”.

Catherine McCafferty the MP and Chair of the APPG on Population, Development and Reproductive Health introduced the event, as well as her fellow panelists which included Gareth Thomas, Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Dr. Nafis Sadik, Special Adviser to the UN-Secretary-General, and Professor Rapley, the Director of the British Antarctic Survey. I was struck by the tone of the conversation which openly veered towards anti-American sentiments and criticism due to the United States lack of involvement and refusal to put sexual reproductive rights on the table. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to realize that when it comes right down to it HIV/AIDS is very much an issue of empowerment and sexual reproductive rights control. Often the media glides around the issue, and I don’t think in my research I have ever heard it discussed as openly as Dr. Sadik did.

I have to also commend the director of the British Antarctic Survey for openly stating that the most inexpensive way of reducing carbon emissions and reversing climate change would be to reduce population growth. It would cost us 1.3 trillion to invest in nuclear energy, 10 trillion for wind-energy and virtually nothing to slow down our growth, which yet again raises the issue of sexual reproduction and sexual contraception.

Yesterday, I attended a conference on the challenges of assistive technology for an ageing population. It was quite amazing to hear of the developments both in research and technology, as it seems to be quite a happy marriage. This led some to question the motivation of innovation as being private-sector driven as opposed to being driven by social need. I was particularly impressed by an innovation that Dr. Arelene Astell from Scotland introduced; a software product she developed for dementia patients. It is an interactive interface which allows patients to freely reminesce by choosing between a selection of songs and photos. Often progressive states of dementia lead to silence and a period of non-communication, and these memory boxes act as a trigger for patients and their relatives, as well as their caregivers. They also lessen the burden of care on overworked and understaffed residences.

The jury is still out on what is driving us into the future, and who and what will drive change, but an interesting think tank for democracy called Demos definitely peaked my curiosity. Web 2.0 and Humanity 2.0 are finally really merging.

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Blame USA

Sorry but as a Canadian I couldn’t not blog about this latest piece of legal history in the FT. Canada has launched a WTO case on US agricultural subsidies condemned as “trade-distorting”. The case was filed in Geneva on Monday and is apparently the most significant legal challenge to the structure of US agricultural subsidies since a landmark WTO ruling in 2005 condemned “trade-distorting” help to American cotton farmers to the detriment of Brazilian cotton farmers. The Canadian agricultural minister Chuck Strahl has said that “Canada is concerned that these US subsidies continue to cause economic harm to our corn farmers”. This is one time that you just can’t blame Canada.

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Religious Revivalism vs Secularism: Is God Winning?

“Through the lens of secularism, negotiations and compromises are possible in a way denied by religious separatism.”

“It is the transmutation of religion into politics that is key.”

“When God is seen as winning, Humanity loses.”

Bruce Mazlish

In an article Bruce Mazlish challenges the media assertion that religious fervor is gaining ground. He argues that what we are actually witnessing is a “rearguard reaction to the threat of modernity and globalization.” As evidence he points out the lack of religion in such places as China, Russia, Japan and even secular Europe. He points to Pope Benedict’s less cited quote (not the Islam reference); his admission that the Catholic Church’s real enemy in the West is an increasingly secularized society. And he differentiates between religion, and what he describes as religiosity, the “excessive ritualistic expression of sentiment, on one side and substitute nationalism on the other”. Mazlish goes on to add that religious revivalism is in fact a sign of failed secularism, authoritarian rulers who have nothing more to provide to their people in the absence of stability and economic development. He points out the fact that disgruntled religious leaders, at seeing their flock exposed to western culture via television and the internet, are often relying on the very same mediums to denounce the Western culprit.

So IS God winning? It would appear that in an increasing globalized and secularized world where time-space compression is accelerated, religion is losing its sway with the people. At the end of the day, are we dreaming of Gucci or of God?

What I find most intriguing about the article is that Mazlish does not deny the importance of religion, he is trying to contextualize it and reveal the political intent lurking underneath its solemn façade, which proves to be religion’s greatest weakness against surging secularism.

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16th International HIV/AIDS Conference

“Abstinence is often not an option for poor women and girls who have no choice but to marry at an early age. Being faithful will not protect a woman whose partner is not faithful. And using condoms is not a decision that a woman can make by herself; it depends on a man.

Another promising approach is male circumcision. One new study found that it could significantly reduce the spread of HIV. This is exciting — and if male circumcision truly is effective, we should make it widely available.

But, like using condoms, circumcision is a procedure that depends on a man.

That isn’t good enough.

We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women.

We need tools that will allow women to protect themselves. This is true whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children — or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is, or what she does — a woman should never need her partner’s permission to save her own life.” Bill Gates

Why aren’t we getting these life-saving tools to the people who need them?

There are many reasons — financial, logistical, political, social. But there is one reason I want to emphasize today, and that is stigma.

The simple fact is that HIV is transmitted through activities that society finds difficult to discuss — activities that are infused with stigma — and that stigma has made AIDS much harder to fight..

Stigma is cruel. It is also irrational.

Stigma makes it easier for political leaders to stand in the way of saving lives. In some countries with widespread AIDS epidemics, leaders have declared the distribution of condoms immoral, ineffective, or both. Some have argued that condoms do not protect against HIV, but in fact help spread it.

This is a serious obstacle to ending AIDS. In the fight against AIDS, condoms save lives. If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives.

Melinda Gates

This week there has been a lot of media talk surrounding the the 16th International HIV/AIDS 2006 conference going on in Toronto from the 13th thru the 18th. Major headliners such as Bill Clinton, Stephen Lewis, and the formidable power duo of Bill and Melinda Gates have lent their influential presence in order to raise awareness around the epidemic and to co-chair the event. Bill and Melinda gates have a foundation dedicated to bringing innovations in health to global communities, within that is the search for better preventative HIV measures.

One key message that emerged from Mr and Mrs. Gates has been preventative; the need to empower women by giving them access to sexual contraceptive devices. Currently the worse group affected by HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa are women between the ages of 16 to 24. And marriage is not a sure protection against the disease, as many women protract the disease while in long-term commitments. Mrs. Gates also addressed the key issue of stigma, which was something I was told about during my spring trip to South Africa this past year. One of the greatest challenges and what is doing severe damage within communities already affected by the epidemic is the simultaneous but more silent attack of stigma. It is just as cruel, as Melinda points out, as the virulent disease and leaves people on their own to fight the physical and emotional trauma. I for one am glad Mrs Gates brought up this significant issue.

Bill Clinton criticized abstinence-only AIDS programs and call for a more realistic approach to the epidemic. As usual he created a little bit of controversy by telling the audience that politicans need to overcome their squeamishness and self-righteousness act. He also called on public-health officials to act on the evidence that male circumcision can help reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. He went on to critique pharmaceutical companies over the high cost of AIDS drugs for children and even demanded that politicians who pilfer AIDS dollars for their own personal gain be sentenced to jail. In what could be considered a culturally and religiously risky statement Clinton invoked God and announced to delegates that HIV/AIDS was a “gift from God” and humanity’s biggest test in modern times.

However the two main messages that seem to keep cropping up in the Canadian national papers are: keep it simple, and empower women. Part of the challenge for governments, well intentioned NGOs and volunteers is to ensure that the money and the resources are going to the right places. HIV/AIDS has many groups that lobby on its behalf but if the current HIV/AIDS stats are any indication, the epidemic shows no strains or signs of slowing down. Sometimes even hearing or reading the quotes of intelligent world leaders shows a gap between their culturally-biased good intentions and the people on the other side they are trying to help. How will Sub-Saharan Africa respond to a call to empower women? Will husbands and wives ambrace the initiative? And what about circumcision? Is this something African men are aware of and if so, are they interested in undergoing the surgery? And if neither party is interested in our “solutions” where do we go from here? And what are we going to do to address the destructive effects of social stigma?

While more solutions are being helpfully suggested by world leaders, it also inevitably raises more questions that need to be discussed and resolved, if we are to make real progress against this epidemic.

Some Facts:

The Global Fund is active in 131 countries. It gets HIV drugs to more than half a million people. It provides access to testing and counseling to nearly 6 million people. It offers basic care to more than half a million orphans.

For each new person who got treatment for HIV, more than 10 people became infected.

Right now, nearly 40 million people are living with HIV.

The lowest price for first-line treatment drugs is about $130 per person per year; in many cases the cost is much higher. And the cost of personnel, lab work, and other expenses easily exceeds another $200 per person per year.

The annual cost of getting treatment to everyone in the world who is HIV positive would be more than $13 billion a year, every year.

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NASA Challenger

space ship.jpg

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A Note From Our Future

“Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality. Armstrong describes it as a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit, ‘always…seeking to know more and to extend…areas of competence and control of the environment,’ to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.

A fortress of fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world.

Jolts from inside and outside are not basically different. What is lost from Jared Diamond’s (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) erstwhile science of human history when we factor in human decisions in the aim we had in creating a genuinely hard science. Bringing in human decisions, as he did and as we must, changes the science itself, from a hard science to a soft one.

Some people think optimistically that if things get bad enough, they will get better because of the reaction of beneficient pendulums. When a culture is working wholesomely, beneficient pendulum swings – effective feedback – do occur. Corrective stabilization is one of the great services of democracy, with its feedback to rulers from the protesting and voting public. But powerful persons and groups that find it in their interest to prevent adaptive corrections have many ways of thwarting self-organizing stabilizers – through deliberately contrived subsidies and monopolies, for example.

The human causes of Rome’s collapse have been studied minutely, and one thing that can be learned is that everything is connected with everything else, not only in its consequences but also in its causes”.

Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

Jacobs is one of my favorite critical writers. Reading her book I am struck by references she makes and parallels she draws between collapsed former empires, and what I take to be a warning to the United States and to some extent Western culture (this includes Canada and Western Europe). It is hard not to see the relevance and connections between her critique of fundamentalist tendencies, the dangers of such isolationism and the impact it can have on a culture and a society.

In my studies of demographics, I am sometimes stumped and at a loss to explain certain numbers. At the end of the day sometimes statistics prove very unsatisfying explanations. The fact is a statistic is more of a end result than an explanation of the circumstances that lead up to the outcome. And for someone who is deeply interested in human behaviour and the causes that create certain dynamics, statistics can prove very unreliable sources of explanation. Demography is a science of human history that sometimes omits what Jacobs describes as the behavior of human beings. In her eyes such an omission is absurd. For her it is a limited description of what is going on within a culture, and I tend to agree with her.

Her words serve as a bell toll. Much in the same way that the film An Inconvenient Truth, and Why We Fight , try to alert us to the breakdown in a culture that denies the truth of what is going on, that takes liberties for granted, and that thwarts the truth by shifting focus to a very narrow view of the world. I am afraid for our culture. I don’t see us doing enough to reverse what appears to be the crumbling of our most significant pillars; family, community, higher education, science and “self policing by the learned professions”, as Jacobs lists them in her book. I am reminded of the Challenger mission back in the eighties. I am also reminded of Enron. People within NASA were so intent on getting the shuttle up into space that they disregarded clear signs of trouble in the mechanics of the ship. I can’t help but wonder given all the tell-tale signs whether we are not doing the same.

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