Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A green fix for the economy

Sorry for not blogging for a while, Progressive Comment is a busy dude. But when I do blog I promise it'll be worthwhile.

A number of environmentalists, economists and international trade unions are now arguing that a 'Green New Deal' is the way to beat the worldwide recession. This is not a fringe demand: a number of governments and environmentalists are grouping themselves around the UN's Environmental Programme advocating massive public expenditure programmes that are sustainable and green in colour (i.e renewable energy and housing insulation, not finance sector jobs and bombs). In the mainstream, President Obama has also paid lip service to this idea. He might not deliver it to the extent that Achim Steiner, the UN's chief environmental economist, envisages. Then again, with market forces as uncertain as they are, who knows?

If Wales had it's own place at the UN I am sure that we would be amongst those forward-thinking and generally left-leaning governments that are advocating a green solution to the global crisis. After all, climate change is part of the cause of the crisis. The global economy as it stands is unsustainable. The recession offers a perfect chance to transform the economy. We have never had the excuse to do it so far (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). We're pretty broke now so a sustainable solution is just what we need.

The Labour-Plaid government has it's own mini, scaled-down 'Green New Deal' based on the Green Jobs Strategy. I haven't seen it so can't comment, but the Welsh Government's biomass strategy is expected to create 'about 1,000 jobs'. There are huge risks with biomass, particularly the huge Prenergy plant at Port Talbot. Once a wood-burning plant comes on stream, it needs wood otherwise the lights go out. Smaller scale, decentralised and localised plants, getting their wood from within a certain geographical radius, are a much safer bet and should be promoted- as long as they do not overwhelm local communities. One such plant is planned in Barry, but locals are very disheartened. Their views should ultimately come first and we have to ensure that biomass plants are sensitive to the communities they are going to serve. Put them out of the way of the views of houses!

So with biomass being a start, what form could a Green New Deal take in Wales? I'm almost certain we don't have the powers or the budget to develop our own response as a society to the downturn. We will have to wait and see what Gordon Brown and his Environment Secretary Hilary Benn come up with. However it's clear that in Wales we have a huge potential for an expansion of renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling and building insulation. This could ultimately form a green employment nucleus of tens of thousands of jobs for the Welsh economy. On both a local, national and global scale it would ensure that the post-recession world is a different one to that of the unregulated free market economy that caused the crash. It's time for unchecked economic growth to be replaced by natural, sustainable and balanced development.

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Environment Minister, said: "there are moments in history when an idea's time has come."

Wales was at the forefront of the industrial revolution- the next one won't begin in any one country, but we have to make sure we don't miss the boat.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

It could be alot worse

In my last post I criticised the way the Welsh Government has not properly narrated or promoted its response to the economic downturn.

But I am reassured, at least people like these are not running Wales. The public sector is not to blame for the economic crisis, they didn't cause it and they should not have to pay the price.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wise move to drop Welsh Medal idea

The Assembly Commission have made a good decision to postpone plans to introduce a Welsh honours/medal system, because of the economic climate. I do think we should have our own honours system, and that it should be run along civilian lines (rather than Empire or monarchy symbolism) that reflect devolution, but I also think that now isn't the right time for misty-eyed gestures, however well-meaning they may be. Launching a new honours system amidst the usual self-congratulating fanfare would send out the wrong kind of signals during the recession. It might work better that a system could raise national morale as we come out of the crisis, if it shows any signs of abating in the next few years.

Turning to the economy, it's become clear to me that the Assembly Government isn't shouting loud enough about it's actions in helping the people of Wales during these difficult times. I am well aware of all the concrete policies that are being implemented and the comments that Ieuan Wyn Jones is a safe pair of hands, but I am not really seeing the Welsh Government's response being given much time in the press. For example, on the Welsh Government's website there is a news item about the Pro Act scheme being deployed in Welshpool to safeguard hundreds of jobs. This really is an innovative scheme that is helping those workers, it reminds me of the system in Cuba where the state guarantees a wage if an enterprise is struggling but might still be able to get back on it's feet eventually. But it's buried on the WAG site that not many people read. Pro-devolutionists should be shouting about this and saying "we are saving jobs", especially if the scheme is used to help even more workers.

The Welsh Government's language also needs to change to give a clearer impression that the labour force and not the bankers are their priority, especially as they don't have powers to go anywhere near the banks- a good start would be condensing the Assembly Government's economic policies into a fag packet-sized narrative and labelling it 'bailout for the workers and families'. Just an idea.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A hope for the world: ten years of progress in Venezuela

We are now marking ten years since the Bolivarian Revolution began in Venezuela with the election of the progressive administration led by Hugo Chávez. Venezuela in 2009 is far from being a paradise. Violent crime is a major problem, the government's control over local police forces is inadequate (allowing local forces to destabilise the country and the Revolution), and corruption is a significant challenge, both within the popular movements that are taking part in change, and within the old state bureacracy that Chávez is seeking to either replace or co-opt.

However, it is very evident that over the past ten years a dramatic change has taken place in Venezuela, that has inspired millions of poor people across the world. The political face of Latin America has been transformed. That continent has always been polarised by a tragic battle between the left and the right, with civil wars, CIA subterfuge, organised crime and insurrections being a feature of much of the continent's development (or lack of) over the past fifty to sixty years. The left in the Americas had previously resisted the neo-liberal Washington Consensus through paramilitary groups and factions advocating armed struggle, in response to the mainly military regimes of the time. In recent years the playing field has shifted and the current swing to the left in the Americas is taking place at the ballot box. During it's ten year tenure, the Bolivarian process in Venezuela has gone to the polls 13 times, with victory in 12 of those.

There remains much to be done in Venezuela, to enable truly participatory democracy to spread, to unite the country and to diversify the economy beyond oil and natural gas. But the achievements of the past ten years should be noted:

* The current economic expansion began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, real (inflationadjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 percent annually.
Most of this growth has been in the nonoil sector of the economy, and the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.

* The poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash income, and does take into account increased access to health care or education.

* Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.

* From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than onethird. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.

* The labour market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.

* Over the decade, the government's total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3 percent of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8 percent of GDP.

* Venezuela has become illteracy free, with 1.6million people taught to read by the social missions.

* Subsidised food for the poorest people through the Mercal system.

* A new constitution for the people, enshrining their rights.

* A system of co-operatives alliances and mutual aid between the progressive regimes in the Americas.

The next elections in Venezuela are a referendum on February 15th over whether the President can continue to stand for office beyond 2012. The result will be interesting as the vote comes at a time of significant economic challenge for the democratic regime.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Talk about inspiring

Just got back in from the snow. I attended a public meeting in Cardiff tonight featuring Moazzam Begg, Omar (didn't get his surname) and Chris Arendt. Two of them are former Guantanamo Bay detainees and one of them is a former Guantanamo Bay guard, with the US Army's National Guard Reserve. Firstly, the eBlogger: Progressive Comment - Create Postvent was a huge success and the three men addressed a massive crowd about their experiences. The Great Hall was full with maybe a thousand in the seats and hundreds on the floor. The first time i've seen Assembly Members sat on the floor amongst the people! All free admission and non-profit.

Torture exists all around the world, in vile and stubborn defiance of international law and countless international agreements. Civilised and democratic people should oppose torture in whatever context it is being practiced, whether in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom or the United States. It is only through the vagaries of British military planning that we can claim that torture does not take place in Wales. That does not absolve us of our collective responsibility as humans to oppose the torture of other human beings.

This particular event talked about experiences from Guantanamo Bay. Chris Arendt, the ex-solider, spoke of his upbringing in a typical small rural town, with few employment prospects. The army was a stable job, a source of income, and for those stuck in small towns a chance to 'see the world' (the card they still play in our own communities in Wales). So join up he did, to one of the US army's reserve formations, who were eventually assigned to Guantanamo Bay. There he became disillusioned with his government's inhumane and illegal policies- and began to defy his training and see the detainees as human beings. After trying to be a positive and humane influence in the camp he later left the army and formed a Veterans Against the War group.

Omar spoke of the torture itself and the brutal and graphic nature of this concentration camp. He talked of Detainee 725 (all Guantanamo detainees are dehumanised and given numbers as names), who was so brutally beaten that interrogators removed one of his eyes. After his harrowing account it was revealed that Omar himself was Detainee 725. A completely innocent man who has never been charged for any crime.

The charismatic Moazzam Begg is no stranger to Wales, of course. He co-ordinated the speaking and gave his own account. He is an intelligent, humorous and astute man, showing no signs of anger or bitterness at his former captors, but instead exhibiting a desire simply to tell the world the truth of what went on at Guantanamo in our names. Moazzam spoke of the hopelessness and despair that he felt after being taken from his house in Pakistan at gunpoint, and flown via secret CIA flights to the torture camp. Moazzam said that one day, a former Vietnam veteran beckoned him over and said, knowing Moazzam was originally from Britain, that a million people had marched on the streets of the UK against the war. It was only from that moment that Moazzam knew there was hope and that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

I personally was one of those marchers, in London and then in Cardiff. They remain the biggest demonstrations I have ever been involved in. Knowing that we lifted the spirits of one innocent man behind bars is enough for me to think that it was all worth it. Let's use the same spirit to move towards a world without torture.

(Credit must go to Cardiff Stop the War for accomodating this speaking tour)