Intervention vs. Interference

Peace making. Peace building. Providing a helping hand. On a ‘totally amazing gap yahh’. However you look at it, Western involvement in other areas of the world is increasing. Intentions are good for the most part. At an individual level, when people sign up to go to an African country and build infrastructures, or irrigation systems, or work in a school, they do so because they want to provide any relief they can to a community that has little in the way of resources. At a much larger level, often, Western political forces get involved in conflict zones as a part of their own political agenda.

Liberal peacebuilding is a concept that is being highly contested by scholars as I type. Can liberalism exist alongside a notion of intervention? Debatable. The main foundations of liberalism denote that individual rights and cultures are fundamental creating a harmonious society. Whether or not intervention can even nod towards acknowledging existing traditions and individual rights is a tough one to answer. Creating a democratic environment in which people can flourish individually would be the argument that this is not, in fact, a contradiction of terms. However, I see the paradox as being that the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ are highly Westernised in how they are conceived. Why should local people in less powerful states be indoctrinated by Western values? Is democracy really what is the most effective method of building peace?

Imposing values which are alien to the local people can only cause friction. Often, there is a development of resentment towards those who are intervening, as there is little local understanding of what is important in the society. A rejection of the help is seen in West Africa now, as the Ebola crisis unfolds. Local people who are in small villages are having strangers in white biosuits turn up, with unknown accents, taking away their sick children away, and coming back with their lifeless bodies. Then, to add insult to this injury, the medical professionals are not allowing the grieving family to bury their loved ones in the traditional way that they are used to. Obviously, there is valid reasons for this, as the containment of Ebola needs to be prioritised. However, education is what is important. In order to meet in the middle, the Western intervening forces cannot solely provide a solution with a legitimate local understanding; local people need to have some kind of education in matters such as this, and local understanding should also be utilised. So, in this case, there is a ‘meet in the middle’ solution.

However, whether the notion of liberal peacebuilding is ideal or not is the main issue here. If women are second-class citizens in a village in Nepal, why is democracy considered to be the best solution for that village? Westernising the world is not the be all and end all for the world’s problems. Often as well, Western intervention is done with a hidden agenda of gaining a foothold in a place where potential interests lie. Again, with the Ebola crisis, there was no Western action until the fear of it hitting Europe was close to becoming a reality. Shouldn’t we see the world as a population of human beings, and if someone is in need, that is when to step in and give a helping hand? Although this is unrealistic, it is an attitude that could provide a less politically fuelled plan of action.

The overarching issue I have with the intervention vs. interference debate is the Western, mainly white superiority complex that is felt throughout the main actions that are taken. Why does it seem like a white person will step in to a project in, for example, Kenya, and bring a new hope to the community? Is it purely a selfish act of do-good-feel-good? Or is it genuine delusion that these short-term actions will make a real difference? The fact that there is a market for these sort of projects says a lot. Selling places on a volunteering project for white teenagers to go over and construct a poorly-built school that the villagers will only knock down and re-build with their own skills is evidence of the Western pedestal that we place ourselves on.

We do not know better; we know differently. The sooner we acknowledge this, the greater the improvements will be in our intervention at every level of scale. It is about communication, education and compromise. We cannot force one set of ideals upon an existing society. It simply will not work, and it does not work.

This is something to be continued, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

Stars, Stripes, and Student Unions

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(Source: Flickr, user: houseofstone)

I am lucky enough to currently be in the States, visiting an old friend for a fortnight. I am residing in his apartment (flat) in Washington, D.C., along with his three roomies (flatmates), all of whom are college (uni) students.

D.C. is a hub for students aiming to forge their career on or through Capitol Hill. Politics is what this city thrives upon, and you can only walk a couple of blocks before you are reminded of that with banners, signs in peoples’ yards (gardens) or approached by Party members. However, what has really struck me is the difference in the politics of education.

Chatting to my friend (who does not attend college, but is a budding, and already pretty successful, entrepreneurial type – good job! Awesome!) and his housemates, it seems there are vastly different cultures and expectations surrounding attaining that ever-promising, sometimes-assumptive, degree.

Here in the States, college is not something one can just decide to partake in. Americans save from birth in order to send their child to college. College can cost anything in excess of $40,000, and the living costs are barely supported by student loans. Admittedly, this is similar to British students’ financial predicaments, however, this is heightened by the upfront costs tuition fees present here. The divide between the rich and the poor cannot be healed, unless education is made more accessible. Figures show that only 34% of families who are earning less than $35,000 can afford to save any money towards sending their children to college. This is juxtaposed against over 75% of families earning over $100,000 who have a savings fund. On top of this, college costs are continuing to rise, and vary greatly dependent on the ranking of the college in question. This is foundation enough to make the claim that the cycle is not easily broken. In the UK, however, it is much easier, (though admittedly not overly common) considering the tuition fees are not required up front. There is also a multiplicity of grants and bursaries available for people from less well off, or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Moreover, there is a greater focus upon employability and prospects. Of the students I have gotten to know in D.C., they all have internships and they are ones which provide worthwhile experience and hours. There is little in the way of photocopying and making coffee. My friends here go to work in their suits, commute to Capitol Hill, and come home having reviewed existing policies and researched new ones. The government website describes being a part of an internship as an opportunity to “experience the thrill and rewards” of their programmes. This is a stark contrast against my meeting with government recruitment staff at my university’s careers fair, who told me “apply, but it’s unlikely you’ll even hear back… a lot of people apply to these roles…”. True British encouragement, saturated with the characteristic pessimism that is to be expected… but not what you want to hear from a careers advisor.

Is this student employability heightened in America by the fact that they know these kids are coming out of “well-to-do” families? There are none of these disadvantaged kids running into roles at Capitol Hill, that could be coming into work at the House of Commons internship roles, purely because of the inaccessibility of the colleges here stops the ‘scallywags’ from breaking ranks. I know House of Cards is highly dramatised, but the mention of a “dead disadvantaged kid” being in the pocket of Frank Underwood just depicts the way that the poor in America are used as political tools – not as cogs in the machine.

Yeah, I know there is the No Child Left Behind programme in place, set up by good ole’ George W. Bush; it has however been argued that after 7 years of working on it, it has failed and should have the “plug pulled” on it. Plus, the programme is an educational based one – not a financial aid. Money is what makes America what it is today; however, owing to this, there are a lot of big holes in the net for people to slip through. The rejection of anything which can be construed as “Communist”, reminiscent of the Cold War fears in USA, is where America fails to help the needy. Obamacare was a potential breakthrough, but it was strongly battled against and was never absorbed into society like , for example, the NHS is and was. However, the difference is, the NHS was formed out of an era which demanded such a plan to be put in place after the suffering of the Second World War. Obamacare was forced into a society which strongly advocates each man for himself.

So, education in America is only really an available option to those whose bank balances can stretch to it. In the Land of the Free, you’re only really as free as Capitalism allows you to be. So, whilst there are benefits to being at an American college, such as the potential to get a decent internship which could actually lead into your career, your parents have to have made the money first, and in the case of Harvard and Yale, for example, made a fair few donations too, to butter up the admissions officers. An intelligent child from the back end of nowhere really has only got community college to fall back onto. The British university system has greatly reduced this from being an issue; student loans and bursaries are available, and there is a much greater acceptance in society of taxes going towards funds such as these. Equality of opportunity is a reality; or at least a developing one, anyway.

So, is the Land of Opportunity really all it sells itself to be?

Britain: A-pathetic level of political interest

As a self-proclaimed nerd,  follower of current affairs, and newspaper trawler, I like to think I have a high level of interest in the world around me and the politics that comes with that. I definitely couldn’t name all the ministers in the paper, like one girl could in my A-Level politics class – she knew Alex Salmond’s birthday even. I’m not that keen, although I probably should be with my degree. I simply like to understand why things are the way they are, and then in turn, I feel I can moan about them without feeling like a moron, making blind statements like “I think the BNP should be the Prime Minister because of them Polish people getting our jobs”. Okay – a slight overstretch of the extent of apathy. Or is it?

I attended a family party a few weeks ago, and my cousin brought his girlfriend along for us all to meet (and my overly protective grandmother to judge – I digress). She asked me what degree I was taking, and my cousin then jumped at this chance to highlight how little his girlfriend knew of British politics. “Go on, who’s the PM?”, he smugly asked her. “Err.. Labour?”, she asked me, bemused. “See! She knows nothing!” he gloated gleefully. This led me to feel extremely disheartened that our future governments would be voted in by people who don’t know the difference between a Party and a Prime Minister; it also upset me that my cousin found it not distressing, but amusing, that his girlfriend was so blissfully ignorant, and unashamedly clueless about how this country is run.

You’d be surprised at how little people tend to know about the British government. Often, people who state regularly “don’t like them politicians, I hate them, I don’t trust none of ’em” could tell you no more than David Cameron’s name, and not actually name a policy that caused such distrust.

Worryingly, I found out that whilst at Sixth Form, the level of political awareness rose when people were let down by the government. Nick Clegg’s terrible mistake re:university fees made all of us much more aware of what the Coalition were planning, and not achieving. My school pushed for a mock election throughout all the year groups to try and get people interested in what each of the three parties could offer voters; people bunked from any assembly to do it, and even the politics students who were running for this campaign dreaded doing it because it was so difficult to stir up any enthusiasm from anyone. The problem was brought to my attention more so, however, when everyone seemed to jump at the opportunity to attend the protests organised by NUS when our headmaster permitted everyone the day off to attend. Nobody seemed interested in the positives beforehand, or even the prospect of free education at university; the real interest grew when that wretched fellow in the Lib Dems had lied to us!!

The general consensus is that all the Parties are the same. When my age group got our first vote, we mostly opted for the Green Party, because they’re the only ones who seemed to stand out and you can’t bash ’em for wanting to save the planet, really, can ya?! Maybe what needs to be done is not a lame promotion attempt by the government, of ‘DJ Dave and Nick the Nuttah’ rapping their policies and slating ‘that Ed Ball(sack) LOL!’ in an awful attempt to get today’s youth onside with the use of hoodies and talk from the ‘hood. No. What is needed is a genuine appeal from the MPs to not only the younger generation, but people who maybe find politics dull and overwhelming, to create bitesize nuggets of information, digestible by the masses. Question and Answer sessions where politicians don’t claim to listen to views, but instead actually listen, and then take these suggestions through to the Commons where people can see evidence that their voice is heard – an adjusted Question Time even!

Enough rambling and avoiding of questions – people hate you more than parking attendants when you’re a politician. Get to the point, accept that actually, sometimes, the masses (or ‘plebs’ – no names mentioned) can actually have some ideas worth listening to. Politicians are representatives – not paternal carers for the nation as a whole. Yes, they’re elected because they are more in the know than most about the workings of government. However, they are there to put across the wants of the people: henceforth, low and behold, democracy (another issue in itself… maybe another time).

Maybe apathy could be avoided, if the Government and Opposition approached the people more readily; doing a meet’n’greet in Asda in New Malden isn’t enough nowadays. People shine to Boris Johnson because, despite his Oxbridge background, he seems accessible and a ‘great guy’. No lofty, unapproachable air about him – just him, his mop of hair, and a zipwire. Conclusively, I reach the point that British interest in politics is waning, and in a big way. Let’s just stick Boris Johnson into Downing Street, and maybe we will recapture a little interest. Either that, or actually get Mr You-Can-Call-Me-Dave and his spineless henchman, Clegg, to re-think how the people should be listened to, and how their mishaps tarnish all other politicians reputations, putting them out of, to use a Ben Stiller related concept, ‘The Circle of Trust’. Actually, maybe we should just forget Stiller, and link it to De Niro.

Ebacc-k off, Gove..!

Taking note from a typical Conservative ideological notion of not fixing it if it ain’t broken, it seems obvious that it shouldn’t be GCSEs which are attacked by further Tory adjustments. The shambolic Coalition which is balancing in place as I type seems adamant that skirting around true issues is the best way to go. Gove’s insistence that the GCSEs need to be scrapped are a fine example of this. Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely it should be the teaching and the curriculum which should be changed rather than the way in which measuring a school’s success; that is, the examination process.

When initially speaking of the benefits of the Ebacc, Gove said they would “dramatically strengthen the position of core academic subjects in our schools, and stop the shift to less challenging courses driven by the current perverse accountability system”. This in itself raises the question, I am sure the Lib Dems should be asking themselves, as to whether the government has any place pushing academic choices rather forcefully out of the private sphere of a pupil’s life, and into the public sphere, being tampered with through the skewering of the measure of academic success. However, that is whole other kettle of fish, which I am sure I’ll end up rambling about at a later date. The true issue that lies with the change to a purely exam-based style with the Ebacc from GCSE, which currently operate using both examination and coursework, is the positive spin the Government is placing on the art of ‘cramming’.

As a student at university, and a previous, self-confessed fair-weather A-Leveller, I am no stranger to cramming. It really is an art form. One loads their bags full of energy drinks/caffeinated products/alcoholic beverages according to their work style, and spends around forty-eight hours minimum with match sticks propping their eyelids open, camped up in the library. However, this work style is not beneficial if the skills necessary for the exam which is being crammed for are also necessary for further education. If a pupil has taken their GCSEs in accordance to the A-Levels or Degree they wish to study later on, an Ebacc only encourages short-term study techniques, in that, it’ll float around their brains until the minute the exam invigilator says those immortal words: “Pens down, the exam is over”. As soon as they toddle out of the exam hall, nattering about the exam questions they “just didn’t get”, that is it! The knowledge has seeped out their pores and is left behind with only the evidence on their exam paper.

My point boils down to this: the only ones who are going to suffer are the pupils who are at a true disadvantage. This is what has rattled my cage. The Conservative shepherds have led astray (once again!) the Lib Dem flock, and there really is seemingly no concern for those at the Labour set-up Academy schools, or at schools near the bottom of the league table. The only pupils and schools which will flourish from the introduction of the Ebacc, are the private schools, where intensive tuition to prepare for examinations is provided, and pupils are hot-housed into getting consistent A* and A results with little, or no knowledge outside of what they need for passing the exam.

Henceforth, finally, we arrive back at my initial point. Apologies for the waffle in between. Basically, what I am getting at is that it should not be the measuring technique that changes. That’s like making a cake, and saying “I don’t have 4oz of butter, but I DO have 4g… Perfect!”. You’ll have the right numbers but the cake will be shite. What Michael Gove is missing (of many things) is the understanding that GCSEs aren’t the issue – the teaching standards and the curriculum are, and if the Government keeps the measurement of success consistent, then we, the masses, will be able to see improvements gradually, and the teachers will be working with what they already know. The cake will be a progressively better cake, and maybe, just maybe, one day, we can hope for a better Secretary of State for Education; wouldn’t that just be the icing on the overmentioned, metaphorical cake!?