Friday, 7 March 2014

Can we combine the best from rich and poor countries?

While I was in Africa, and during my talks with Sandy, I became increasingly interested in the idea of marrying the best - most useful and most sustainable - skills and technologies from wealthy, high technology, capital intensive societies such as Australia, with the best (ditto) skills from poor, low technology, labour intensive societies such as Kenya. I was tempted to call Australia a 'highly skilled' country and Kenya a 'low skilled' one, but I would say on reflection that although that may be a common useage of terms, it's wrong. People in poor countries actually have a lot of skills - they can build houses, grow food, make clothes and household goods and maintain simple technologies, probably better than I could (and for an Australian, I think I'm relatively skilled in several of those areas). In countries like Australia, people have more specialised skills which they cultivate to a higher level. (By the same token I think people in pre-literate societies may have better aural and visual memory than people in literate societies).

It's generally been taught - at least in the progressive view of history - that the development of farming, individual land ownership, and urbanisation, were associated with specialisation, and that that was a good thing. But with the rethinking of modern industrial society that is going on (due to issues around environmental sustainability in particular, and the issues of chronic disease, obesity and health inequalities more specifically in public health) this might now be questioned. We can think about societies that have a broad skill base but simple lives (hunter gatherer, poor countries) or countries that have highly specialised skills and a complex array of technologies and material goods.

In part this line of thought was also suggested because I recently read Paul Collier 'Wars, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places', which Sandy recommended. I'm not usually taken with conservative economists, but this book is based on wide ranging social research and analysis (rather than just economic theory and modelling), and I accept that there is something in what he says, even if I sometimes question his conceptual frameworks and assumptions. One of the points he makes (pp 94-95) is that violence, and particularly civil war, de-skills societies. He points to the construction industry as a key example and suggests we need "Bricklayers without Borders" to teach young men construction skills (he focuses particularly on young men, to encourage not only rebuilding and reskilling,  but alternative occupations to violence and warfare).

Sandy and I usually had our discussions about what needs to be done (or "if I were the Queen of Kenya") in terms of issues such as conservation (we agreed on banning plastic bags, which has been done I think in Rwanda, stopping poaching [although not sure how], and planting trees), ending corruption, providing basic services such as free education and primary healthcare, and raising living standards, particularly nutrition and housing. (We didn't talk much about jobs and private sector). I was more inclined to look at living standards (eg subsidised solar panels and water tanks for all houses and shambas, and possibly floor tiles instead of dirt floors) while Sandy tended to emphasise education and healthcare more (eg she would increase access to primary health care rather than subsidising floor tiles). Both of us  agreed on nutrition, and I think we would both tend to support local self-sufficiency (eg increasing the reliability and productivity of shambas and communal land) rather than increasing cash crops. Reading Collier has also made me think about this question from the perspective of skills as well.

So returning to the question - marrying the best of wealthy societies with the best of poor societies, to create sustainable ways of living - is it possible? How would you do it? What are the priorities? Critics of greenies, in Australia, sometimes say we want to take wealthy societies back to the 'Stone Age'. I don't agree - but if that's not the plan, what is? Off the top of my head I would say we could have

- at household level, technologies such as tablets (eg iPads), mobile phones, solar panels and bikes, combined with skills such as being able to build your own house (from local materials, not highly processed, and preferably not using much cement), grow and cook your own food, and make your own furniture, clothes and soft furnishings (again from local, not highly processed materials)
- combined with government provision of services such as education, health care (with emphasis on quality primary health care) telecommunications and public transport, and
- international provision of peace-keeping and justice services.

Growing and making food and goods, is pleasurable, if it's not associated with monotony and hardship, or lower status and less leisure (as in women's traditional roles). To me there is some idea of the good life in there. Some people might think it sounds awful, but I put it out there for discussion.

(Clearly I haven't specified the role of the private commercial sector. I'm not against it, but it's not my focus here. In a society and economy such as I'm imagining, it would have a smaller role, though it could still be significant. There would still be a role for specialised skills, and for markets and exchange, as well as commercial production of smart and sustainable technologies.)

Wilkinson and Pickett in 'The Spirit Level' (2009) showed that in poor countries, there was a close association between increased life expectancy and increased average income up to about $10,000 per annum (US dollars, pre-2009 statistics). After that, there was no clear relationship, and life expectancy was more clearly associated with income equality. For example, the USA (average income over $40,000, but with very high income inequality) had a slightly lower life expectancy than Cuba (average income slightly less than $10,000, but more equally distributed).

I should note that the evidence on subjective wellbeing and happiness is much more complicated (will look at this in detail at a later time). There appears to be evidence that people's happiness does rise with income (at least up to a point), but that this occurs in both rich and poor countries. The question seems to be (across countries), how much money do I need to live a good life according to the current standards of my society? My question is really a different one: if we accept that we need to reduce consumption and the movement of goods in order to create sustainable societies, what could constitute a good life?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Beautiful world

I'm now in Germany, with my youngest daughter, who had her first child a few weeks ago. I'm officially on leave until mid-April, but I will be keeping in touch through the blog, and thinking through a lot of issues.

For now I just want to share the best of my Kenya photos.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Habari from Kenya

So here I am at last in Kenya. I had planned to come here last year, but the visit had to be postponed when I broke my ankle. I am staying with Sandy (whom some research participants will remember from Port Phillip Community Group). Kenya is marvellous, and we had a close encounter with elephants in Samburu Reserve last week.

Apart from enjoying the wonderful hospitality, scenery and wildlife, I have also been finding out about some of the voluntary work Sandy does here. Kenya is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with huge divisions of wealth and poverty. It also has much corruption, often linked with ethnic affiliation. I love the people I have met here, they are friendly, vital and hard working, but they face many challenges.

In partnership with Chris Ellard in Melbourne, Sandy has set up a breakfast program in two local schools. Not all families are able to give their children enough food, particularly at this time of year, which is the dry season, when there is not much growing in the shambas (the gardens or subsistence plots for growing fruit and vegetables). Providing breakfast not only helps the children's nutrition, but encourages them to come to school and ensures they are not too hungry to learn. Primary education for all children is a key national priority in Kenya.

I had the pleasure to visit one of the schools. Below I am showing some of the children and their teacher photos of Australia. The children particularly loved the photo of a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch.

Yesterday, Sandy and I went to visit the widow and three children of a local man who recently died, at only 46 years old. He was a mountain guide of many years' experience, and was dedicated to conservation and wildlife. With help from his former employer and workmates, his widow is managing to feed and care for her children, but it is clear that that she (and the children) have to work very hard to achieve this.

The two younger children, both boys, are still at primary school. The oldest, a girl, has recently completed secondary school. Like her father, she is passionately committed to conservation and wildlife, and her ambition is to train in wildlife management with Kenya Wildlife Service. The diploma course costs about $3000 AUD however, and without her father's income it is unlikely that she will be able to do so. She is a bright and impressive young woman, and we felt it would be good if we could assist her in some way. It would be great to support a woman entering this field in Kenya. One  of Kenya's most famous environmental and political activists was a woman, Wangari Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Sadly, however, Kenya's environment and wildlife are under great threat, from climate change,  forest clearing and poaching, in particular

If anyone would like to know more, or offer support, please contact me on for further information. Please also feel free to disseminate this information to friends and contacts. Kenya is a beautiful and vivid country with beautiful and vivid people. From an Australian project dedicated to promoting equity and environment, to support people in a poor country who are working towards the same goals seems a very worthwhile aim.

I recognise that in a way the connection I am seeking to make with Kenya is a chance one, arising from the fact that I visited this country at this time. Yet I believe in building on chance connections. There are huge differences between Kenya and Australia. But if you look deeper, there are also profound similarities, such as our love of nature and wildlife, our desire to see children thrive and learn, and the quest for women's participation and empowerment.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Unfinished business - sexism in left wing politics

So according to John Quiggin, my concerns about sexism on his blog are unfounded and arise simply because I can't tolerate any criticism of Julia Gillard:

"OK Val, I think we’ve established that your only concern about sexism on this site relates to your view that criticism of Gillard, even on policies which you are unwilling to defend, was automatically sexist"

Well I guess I'm just a silly emotional woman, probably unrealistic to expect anything better of me ...

For some time now I've been trying to write a post about the way certain left wing or "progressive" male bloggers reacted to the prime ministership of Julia Gillard. I've trawled through the blogs and I've engaged in on-line discussions with the bloggers and with people who comment on the blogs. I've done some background reading on the issues.

Nevertheless I can't write a definitive post at this time. What I can say is this: there are general themes and tendencies in the way anti-Gillard left bloggers and their supporters reacted to Gillard, and there are also general themes in the way they responded to critics like me.

These are:
  • Their criticisms of Gillard were immoderate and often personal
  • They saw moral failures (eg being dishonest) or being on the wrong side of politics (eg being right wing or neo-liberal) as the cause of her mistakes
  • They blamed her personally for government failures or mistakes, but they did not give her personal credit for government successes
  • They reacted to feminist criticism by refusing to address the substance of the criticism or by denigrating the critic.
  • Where the critic was a woman, a very common response was to say that she was incapable of accepting any criticism of Gillard (as per John Quiggin's comment above - I don't think I ever saw any of them suggest this when the critic was male)
  • Another common response was to say that the feminist critics were participating in a Rudd-Gillard "stoush" or similar
I'm not trying to do commentary in this post, but I find the last two points so interesting that I will make a quick comment. In my view, what the anti-Gillard bloggers and their supporters were doing was trying to reconstruct feminist criticism in terms of a patriarchal discourse of competing individuals. More on this later ...

Certain relevant points about the bloggers: they are male, they are Queensland based and they supported Kevin Rudd. In my view, these bloggers and their supporters contributed to the election of the Abbott government. One of the key reasons swinging voters gave for voting against the previous ALP government, as I've noted in a previous post, was that they saw it as chaotic and unstable. These bloggers contributed to that instability.

I'm setting up a work-in-progress page on this subject, where I will keep my notes, evidence and analysis. Anyone who is interested to know more about this is welcome to trawl through that page when I set it up (soon) but I warn you it will be pretty random for a while, even though there will be a a lot there.

The reason I haven't tried to write a definitive post on this at present is that it's a huge task, and trying to get the perfect post done is blocking me from writing about other things that are interesting or important. So I will keep pursuing this issue, and ultimately I will tie it in to my thesis, but yep, it's a work in progress and will be for some time.