Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Great Afghan Bailout

It's Time to Change Names, Switch Analogies
By Tom Engelhardt

Let's start by stopping.

It's time, as a start, to stop calling our expanding war in Central and South Asia "the Afghan War" or "the Afghanistan War." If Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke doesn't want to, why should we? Recently, in a BBC interview, he insisted that "the 'number one problem' in stabilizing Afghanistan was Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan, including tribal areas along the Afghan border and cities like Quetta" in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

And isn't he right? After all, the U.S. seems to be in the process of trading in a limited war in a mountainous, poverty-stricken country of 27 million people for one in an advanced nation of 167 million, with a crumbling economy, rising extremism, advancing corruption, and a large military armed with nuclear weapons. Worse yet, the war in Pakistan seems to be expanding inexorably (and in tandem with American war planning) from the tribal borderlands ever closer to the heart of the country.

These days, Washington has even come up with a neologism for the change: "Af-Pak," as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations. So, in the name of realism and accuracy, shouldn't we retire "the Afghan War" and begin talking about the far more disturbing "Af-Pak War"?
And while we're at it, maybe we should retire the word "surge" as well. Right now, as the Obama plan for that Af-Pak War is being "rolled out," newspaper headlines have been surging when it comes to accepting the surge paradigm. Long before the administration's "strategic review" of the war had even been completed, President Obama was reportedly persuaded by former Iraq surge commander, now CentCom commander, General David Petraeus to "surge" another 17,000 troops into Afghanistan, starting this May.

For the last two weeks, news has been filtering out of Washington of an accompanying civilian "surge" into Afghanistan ("Obama's Afghanistan 'surge': diplomats, civilian specialists"). Oh, and then there's to be that opium-eradication surge and a range of other so-called surges. As the headlines have had it: "1,400 Isle Marines to join Afghanistan surge," "U.S. troop surge to aid Afghan police trainers," "Seabees build to house surge," "Afghan Plan Detailed As Iraq Surge 'Lite,'" and so on.

It seems to matter little that even General Petraeus wonders whether the word should be applied. ("The commander of the U.S. Central Command said Friday that an Iraq-style surge cannot be a solution to the problems in Afghanistan.") There are, however, other analogies that might better capture the scope and nature of the new strategic plan for the Af-Pak War. Think bailout. Think A.I.G.

The Costs of an Expanding War

In truth, what we're about to watch should be considered nothing less than the Great Afghan (or Af-Pak) bailout.

On Friday morning, the president officially rolled out his long-awaited "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," a plan without a name. If there was little news in it, that was only because of the furious leaking of prospective parts of it over the previous weeks. So many trial balloons, so little time.

In a recent "60 Minutes" interview (though not in his Friday announcement), the president also emphasized the need for an "exit strategy" from the war. Similarly, American commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has been speaking of a possible "tipping point," three to five years away, that might lead to "eventual departure." Nonetheless, almost every element of the new plan -- both those the president mentioned Friday and the no-less-crucial ones that didn't receive a nod -- seem to involve the word "more"; that is, more U.S. troops, more U.S. diplomats, more civilian advisors, more American and NATO military advisors to train more Afghan troops and police, more base and outpost building, more opium-eradication operations, more aid, more money to the Pakistani military -- and strikingly large-scale as that may be, all of that doesn't even include the "covert war," fought mainly via unmanned aerial vehicles, along the Pakistani tribal borderlands, which is clearly going to intensify.

In the coming year, that CIA-run drone war, according to leaked reports, may be expanded from the tribal areas into Pakistan's more heavily populated Baluchistan province where some of the Taliban leadership is supposedly holed up. In addition, so reports in British papers claim, the U.S. is seriously considering a soft coup-in-place against Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Disillusioned with the widespread corruption in, and inefficiency of, his government, the U.S. would create a new "chief executive" or prime ministerial post not in the Afghan constitution -- and then install some reputedly less corrupt (and perhaps more malleable) figure. Karzai would supposedly be turned into a figurehead "father of the nation." Envoy Holbrooke has officially denied that Washington is planning any such thing, while a spokesman for Karzai denounced the idea (both, of course, just feeding the flames of the Afghan rumor mill).

What this all adds up to is an ambitious doubling down on just about every bet already made by Washington in these last years -- from the counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and the counter-terrorism war against al-Qaeda to the financial love/hate relationship with the Pakistani military and its intelligence services underway since at least the Nixon years of the early 1970s. (Many of the flattering things now being said by U.S. officials about Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, for instance, were also said about the now fallen autocrat Pervez Musharraf when he held the same position.)

Despite that mention of the need for an exit strategy and a presidential assurance that both the Afghan and Pakistani governments will be held to Iraqi-style "benchmarks" of accountability in the period to come, Obama's is clearly a jump-in-with-both-feet strategy and, not surprisingly, is sure to involve a massive infusion of new funds. Unlike with A.I.G., where the financial inputs of the U.S. government are at least announced, we don't even have a ballpark figure for how much is actually involved right now, but it's bound to be staggering. Just supporting those 17,000 new American troops already ordered into Afghanistan, many destined to be dispatched to still-to-be-built bases and outposts in the embattled southern and eastern parts of the country for which all materials must be trucked in, will certainly cost billions.

Recently, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus dug up some of the construction and transportation costs associated with the war in Afghanistan and found that, as an employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes in second only to the Afghan government in that job-desperate country. The Corps is spending about $4 billion this year alone on road-building activities, and has slated another $4-$6 billion for more of the same in 2010; it has, according to Pincus, already spent $2 billion constructing facilities for the expanding Afghan army and police forces, and has another $1.2 billion set aside for more such facilities this year. It is also likely to spend between $400 million and $1.4 billion on as many as six new bases, assorted outposts, and associated air fields American troops will be sent to in the south.

Throw in hardship pay, supplies, housing, and whatever else for the hundreds of diplomats and advisors in that promised "civilian surge"; add in the $1.5 billion a year the president promised in economic aid to Pakistan over the next five years, a tripling of such aid (as urged by Vice President Biden when he was still a senator); add in unknown amounts of aid to the Pakistani and Afghan militaries. Tote it up and you've just scratched the surface of Washington's coming investment in the Af-Pak War. (And lest you imagine that these costs might, at least, be offset by savings from Obama's plan to draw down American forces in Iraq, think again. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office suggests that "Iraq-related expenditures" will actually increase "during the withdrawal and for several years after its completion.")

Put all this together and you can see why the tactical word "surge" hardly covers what's about to happen. The administration's "new" strategy and its "new" thinking -- including its urge to peel off less committed Taliban supporters and reach out for help to regional powers -- should really be re-imagined as but another massive attempted bailout, this time of an Afghan project, now almost 40 years old, that in foreign policy terms is indeed our A.I.G.

Graveyard Thinking

As Obama's economic team overseeing the various financial bailouts is made up of figures long cozy with Wall Street, so his foreign policy team is made up of figures deeply entrenched in Washington's national security state -- former Clintonistas (including the penultimate Clinton herself), military figures like National Security Adviser General James Jones, and that refugee from the H.W. Bush era, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. They are classic custodians of empire. Like the economic team, they represent the ancien régime.

They've now done their "stress tests," which, in the world of foreign policy, are called "strategic reviews." They recognize that unexpected forces are pressing in on them. They grasp that the American global system, as it existed since the truncated American century began, is in danger. They're ready to bite the bullet and bail it out. Their goal is to save what they care about in ways that they know.

Unfortunately, the end result is likely to be that, as with A.I.G., we, the American people, could end up "owning" 80% of the Af-Pak project without ever "nationalizing" it -- without ever, that is, being in actual control. In fact, if things go as badly as they could in the Af-Pak War, A.I.G. might end up looking like a good deal by comparison.

The foreign policy team is no more likely to exhibit genuinely outside-the-box thinking than the team of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers has been. Their clear and desperate urge is to operate in the known zone, the one in which the U.S. is always imagined to be part of the solution to any problem on the planet, never part of the problem itself.

In foreign policy (as in economic policy), it took the Bush team less than eight years to steer the ship of state into the shallows where it ran disastrously aground. And yet, in response, after months of "strategic review," this team of inside-the-Beltway realists has come up with a combination of Af-Pak War moves that are almost blindingly expectable.

In the end, this sort of thinking is likely to leave the Obama administration hostage to its own projects as well as unprepared for the onrush of the unexpected and unknown, whose arrival may be the only thing that can be predicted with assurance right now. Whether as custodians of the imperial economy or the imperial frontier, Obama's people are lashed to the past, to Wall Street and the national security state. They are ill-prepared to take the necessary full measure of our world.

If you really want a "benchmark" for measuring how our world has been shifting on its axis, consider that we have all lived to see a Chinese premier appear at what was, in essence, an international news conference and seriously upbraid Washington for its handling of the global economy. That might have been surprising in itself. Far more startling was the response of Washington. A year ago, the place would have been up in arms. This time around, from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs ("There's no safer investment in the world than in the United States...") to the president himself ("Not just the Chinese government, but every investor can have absolute confidence in the soundness of investments in the United States..."), Washington's response was to mollify and reassure.

Face it, we've entered a new universe. The "homeland" is in turmoil, the planetary frontiers are aboil. Change -- even change we don't want to believe in -- is in the air.

In the end, as with the Obama economic team, so the foreign policy team may be pushed in new directions sooner than anyone imagines and, willy-nilly, into some genuinely new thinking about a collapsing world. But not now. Not yet. Like our present financial bailouts, like that extra $30 billion that went into A.I.G. recently, the new Obama plan is superannuated on arrival. It represents graveyard thinking.

A.I.G...

Af-Pak War...

R.I.P.



Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years

Monday, March 30, 2009

Inconceivable

Swing Ball... now that is stretching my imagination...


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Blagh

Having a break from work = awesome
Going to Sydney to seesome DJs one adores (RPR) = mega the awesome
Staying in a 50th floorapartment in the central city = well cool
Having a themesongfor the Boat Trip with said DJs = fanbloodytastic
Arriving to find DJs have cancelled tour = super depressing



Coming home to find its got cold = par for the course

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Afghanistan Americans Seldom Notice

One Country, Three Futures
By Pratap Chatterjee

Want a billion dollars in development aid? If you happen to live in Afghanistan, the two quickest ways to attract attention and so aid from the U.S. authorities are: Taliban attacks or a flourishing opium trade. For those with neither, the future could be bleak.

In November 2008, during the U.S. presidential elections, I traveled around Afghanistan asking people what they wanted from the United States. From Mazar in the north to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan to the capital city of Kabul, I came away with three very different pictures of the country.

Dragon Valley is a hauntingly beautiful place nestled high up in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains. To get there from Kabul involves a bumpy, nine-hour drive on unpaved roads through Taliban country. In the last couple of years, a small community of ethnic Hazara people has resettled in this arid valley, as well as on other sparse adjoining lands, all near the legendary remains of a fire-breathing dragon reputedly slain by Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed.

A few miles away, hewn from the soaring sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan are the still spectacular ruins of what used to be the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. Two hollow but vast arched, man-made alcoves, which rise higher than most cathedrals, still dominate the view for miles around.

For much of the world, the iconic image of Taliban rule in Afghanistan remains the shaky video footage from March 2001 of the dynamiting of those giant Buddhas that had rested in these alcoves for almost 1,500 years. Months after they were blown up, the Taliban bombed neighboring Hazara towns and villages from the air, burning many to the ground. Tens of thousands of their inhabitants were forced to flee the country, most seeking shelter in Iran.

In the seven years since the Taliban were ousted by the United States, the Hazara villagers of Bamiyan have started to trickle back into places like Dragon Valley in hopes of resuming their former lives. Today, ironically enough, they find themselves in one of the safest, as well as most spectacularly beautiful regions, in the country. Its stark mountains and valleys, turquoise lakes and tranquil vistas might remind Americans of the Grand Canyon region.

Yet the million-dollar views and centuries of history are cold comfort to villagers who have no electricity, running water, or public sanitation systems -- and little in the way of jobs in this hardscrabble area. While some of them live in simple mud homes in places like Dragon Valley, others have, for lack of other housing, moved into the ancient caves below the ruined Buddhas.

No Help Whatsover

Just outside one of the many single-room mud houses that line the floor of Dragon Valley, I met Abdul Karim, an unskilled laborer who has been looking daily for work in the fields or on construction sites since he returned from Iran a year ago. Most days, he comes home empty-handed. "We have nothing, no work, no electricity, no help from the government or aid organizations. Right now our situation is terrible, so of course I have no hope for the future. I'm not happy with my life here, I'm ready to die because we have nothing."

His only source of income is a modest carpet-weaving business he's set up inside his tiny house at which his two children, a boy aged about 10 and a girl of about 15, work. It generates about a dollar a day.

As I went door to door in the small Hazara settlement, I heard the same story over and over. In the mud house next to Karim's, I met "Najiba" (not her real name), a woman of perhaps 70 years, who said that her family had received virtually nothing in aid. "The government hasn't done anything for us. They just say they will. They just came by once, gave us some water, some clothes, but that's it."

Traveling in Bamiyan province, I repeatedly heard the same story with slight variations. In the wheat fields outside the village of Samarra, I met Shawali, a peasant who told us that he and his son had fled south to Ghazni, a neighboring province, to escape the Taliban. "My son and I labored hard pulling big carts full of timber and heavy loads until we could raise enough money to return to Bamiyan." Here he remains a day laborer, eking out a living, and no better off than when he was in internal exile in Ghazni.

The situation has so disintegrated that many say they wish they could simply return to the refugee camps in Iran. In Dragon Valley, for example, I met "Khadija." As the middle-aged woman fanned a small fire fed by wood gathered from nearby, she said, "We were happy in Iran. It was good. The weather was warm. We had a good life there, but it was still someone else's country. When the [Iranian] government told us we had to go back home, we wanted to return to start a new life. But [the Afghan government] hasn't helped us at all. They told us they were going to give us wood, supplies, and doors but they've given us nothing... no help whatsoever."

A recent report from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) offers some context for the kind of desperate poverty I encountered in Bamiyan. The agency's analysts estimate that about 42% of the country's estimated 27 million people now live on less than $1 a day.

Mazar-i-Sharif

Unlike Bamiyan which has almost no paved roads and no electricity, the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif stands out as a relative success story. Mazar was the first place the U.S. and its Afghan allies from the Northern Alliance captured in the 2001 invasion. Some 40 miles from the border of Uzbekistan, it is home to the Blue Mosque, the holiest shrine for Muslims in all of Afghanistan, where Hazrat Ali is said to be buried.

When I first traveled to Mazar in January 2002, only the mosque was lit at night, a comforting beacon of hope in the post-invasion darkness of a shattered city. The sole other source of luminosity: the headlights of the roaming Northern Alliance gunmen who policed the city in Toyota pick-ups packed with men armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers.

During the day, however, the city was brimming with hope and activity, just weeks after the Taliban fled. I met folk musicians like Agha Malang Kohistani performing songs on the street to mock the Taliban and classical musicians like Rahim Takhari playing in public for the first time in years, while weddings were graced with singers like Hassebullah Takdeer who sang classics like Beya Ka Borem Ba Mazar ("Let's Go to Mazar").

The Fatima Balkhi Girls School was among those that were opening their doors to students for the first time in years. Amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings at the Sultan Razya School, for instance, little girls flocked to classrooms with earthen floors and no chairs. They squeezed by the hundreds into tiny rooms, where lessons were sometimes chalked onto the backs of doors.

At Sultan Razya, I spoke to 14-year-old Alina, who bubbled with teenage excitement as she described her adventures studying secretly in teachers' houses during the Taliban era. "One day we went to class at eight o'clock, another day at ten o'clock, and another day four o'clock," she recalled.

Seven years later, I returned to find Mazar now well supplied with electricity (by the Uzbek government) and connected to the capital city of Kabul by a smooth, new, well-paved two-lane highway. Although there had been a couple of suicide bombings in the city, Mazar was almost as safe as Bamiyan. Residents who fled during Taliban rule to places like Tashkent had returned with hard currency to invest in local businesses. While it would be an overstatement to say that Mazar was flourishing, it's certainly decades ahead of Bamiyan in development terms.

I tracked down Alina -- one of very few in her class to have continued her education -- at Balkh University, where she was studying Islamic law. Now a little shy about talking to foreign journalists, she was still happy. "Things have completely changed in every part. All of the women and girl students are studying their lessons in computers and English, and they are happy," she told us.

I also revisited the Fatima Balkhi School, where the principal took us to meet a new generation of 14-year-olds who told us about their plans for the future. One wanted to be a banker, another dreamed of being a doctor, a third spoke of becoming an engineer. Earthen floors and makeshift chalk boards were a thing of the past. The Sultan Razya School had been completely rebuilt and the girls wore neat school uniforms, although teachers still complained of a lack of proper supplies.

Opportunities for girls were also expanding. Maramar, a 14-year-old Balkhi student, invited us to visit the local TV station where she hosted her own show. Astonished, I took her up on her offer and went to the RZU studios on the outskirts of town where I filmed her reading headlines -- about the U.S. elections! -- on the afternoon news.

Indeed girls' education is one of the real success stories in Afghanistan, where one-third of the six million students in elementary and high schools are now female, probably the highest percentage in Afghan history. The education system, however, starts to skew ever more away from girls the higher you get. By the time high school ends, just a quarter of the students are girls. Only one in 20 Afghan girls makes it to high school in the first place and even fewer make it through.

The Return of the Taliban

Neither rural Bamiyan in central Afghanistan nor urban Mazar in the north has had to worry greatly about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the last few years. For one thing, as Hazaras, an ethnic minority descended from the army of Genghis Khan, most residents of Bamiyan are from Islam's Shia sect, while the Taliban, largely from southern Afghanistan, are Pashtun and Sunni. Indeed, when they ruled most of the country, the Taliban went so far as to brand the Hazara as non-Muslim.

Similarly, Mazar, which has a large Tajik and Uzbek population as well as some Hazara, but relatively few Pashtuns, has also been spared the influence of the Taliban. Unlike rugged and remote Bamiyan, it is situated in a well connected part of the country, close to Russia and the Central Asian republics. (The former Soviet Union used the city as a strategic military base in the early 1980s.)

Yet when one heads south to Kabul and toward the Pakistani border, a third Afghanistan is revealed. Twenty minutes from the center of Kabul, the Taliban control large swathes of the provinces of Logar and Wardak.

In the Pashtun-dominated southern city of Kandahar, the stories of attacks on girls' schools are already legend. In November 2008, while I was visiting Bamiyan and Mazar, three men on a motorcycle attacked a group of girls at the Mirwais School, built with funds from the Japanese government. Each carried containers of acid which they used to horrific effect, scarring 11 girls and 4 teachers. The Taliban have denied involvement, but most local residents assume the attackers were inspired by Taliban posters in local mosques that simply say: "Don't Let Your Daughters Go to School."

Last March, Taliban followers raided the Miyan Abdul Hakim School in Kandahar, which serves both boys and girls, making bonfires out of desks to burn the students' books. At another local school, a caretaker had his ears and nose cut off, and this was but one of dozens of attacks on such schools.

"Yes, there have been improvements in girls' education in Afghanistan. You can see it on the streets when the girls walk home from school in their uniforms, laughing with books in their hands. You can see it in the schools that have been built all over the country, in villages where they have never had schools before," Fariba Nawa, author of Afghanistan, Inc., told us.

"However, in the south there's a different story to be told," she added. "That's the story of girls being afraid to go to school, even the story of newly built schools being burned down, or teachers being beheaded for teaching in them. So it depends on what part of Afghanistan you go to, which story you want to tell."

Seeking Answers in Kabul

Green laser beams darted from the fast-moving military convoy scanning the pedestrians and parked cars along the road from Kabul airport. As I bent over our taxi's stalled engine, the sharp, pencil-thin beams raked across us menacingly, causing me to stumble back in surprise.

Unlike in Bamiyan or Mazar, Kabul teems with vehicles: military convoys from a dozen nations, Ford Ranger pick-ups (supplied by DynCorp, a U.S. contractor), Toyota land cruisers used by United Nations personnel, and thousands of used Toyota Corollas driven by Afghans.

Our first stop was at the home of Mir Ahmed Joyenda, a member of the Afghan parliament. I wondered, I told him, why, all these years after the fall of the Taliban, entire provinces like Bamiyan had no electricity or potable water supply to speak of. As (bad) luck would have it, Joyenda could discuss the problem on a personal basis -- and by the light of a kerosene lamp.

"You see," he responded, "we are in the city of Kabul. As a member of the parliament of Afghanistan I'm sitting in front of you, but I don't have any electricity in my house. What do you think of the rural areas? What about the poor areas of the Kabul city and other parts of the country?" He suggested I ask the ministry of electricity why he had none.

So I arranged to meet Wali Shairzay, the deputy minister for electricity and water. After enduring an hour-long lecture on all the new projects supposedly in the pipeline, I asked him why there was Uzbek-supplied electricity in Mazar, but no Afghan-supplied sources in most of rural Afghanistan. I noted that many countries had emerged from decades of war to successfully provide basic services to their citizens.

Who knows why a man in his position wouldn't have expected such a question, but he looked like a deer caught in the headlights. "Most people call Afghanistan a post-conflict nation," he began hesitantly. "My terminology is a bit different, I call it post-devastation."

As a result, he suggested, battle-weary Afghans weren't able to articulate what they needed. "Like a patient speaking of the problems, where it is hurting, when it started, how bad is the pain, etcetera. Unfortunately, this patient here -- Afghanistan -- could not speak and you have to find out what the problem is, what is the prior diagnosis and medication."

Shairzay claimed that, over the previous seven years, his ministry had focused on the big electricity projects like the importation of power from Uzbekistan, and then he, in essence, passed the buck. When it came to provinces like Bamiyan, he said, his ministry wasn't really in charge at all. That fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, where he was going that very afternoon to discuss matters with his counterparts.

Yet, the deputy minister's words ran counter to what I had heard from the dozens of villagers around Bamiyan who knew exactly what they wanted: electricity, water, health care, a steady food supply, and jobs.

I even found very articulate and well educated Afghans in Bamiyan who were more than happy to describe simple but effective projects that might have gone a long way toward serving the population's desperate needs. For example, Dr Gulam Mohammad Nadir, the chief medical officer of Bamiyan's only hospital, told us that the needs of small rural communities were already well known. For example, he assured me, he could dramatically reduce health problems and save lives with a small grant that would allow him to demonstrate basic sanitation principles in local villages.

"I believe having clean water is the most essential aspect to human health and to prevent diseases. At the very least, we need to educate the people about how important it is to have proper sanitation, a clean water supply, and [knowledge about] how they can protect themselves from water-borne diseases."

Why, in fact, were such simple projects never implemented? The answer proved to be surprising, and it helps, in part, to explain the dismal fate of the Bush administration's version of Afghan "reconstruction." Virtually none of the $5.4 billion in taxpayer money that USAID has disbursed in this country since late 2001 has been invested in Bamiyan Province, where the total aid budget, 2002-2006, was just over $13 million.

While the Japanese government and UNESCO have dedicated some money to Bamiyan province, most of it has been spent on restoring the giant Buddhas, not on basic services for residents.

The bulk of the foreign aid has gone to big cities like Kabul and Mazar, but much has also gone into the coffers of foreign contractors and consultants like the Louis Berger Group, Bearing Point, and DynCorp International in Afghanistan. The rest of the aid money has been poured into "rural development" projects in southern provinces like Kandahar where Canadian and U.S. troops are fighting the Taliban, and into provinces like Helmand where British soldiers, alongside U.S. troops, are struggling against the opium trade.

Most American taxpayer money is actually spent on the troops, not, of course, on poor Afghans. In fact, with Pentagon expenditures in Afghanistan running at about $36 billion a year, the annual aid allocation for the 387,000 people who live in Bamiyan Province is outstripped every single hour by the money spent on 30,000-plus American troops and their weaponry.

It turns out the villagers of Dragon Valley have two problems that can't be overcome. They have neither the Taliban to fight, nor opium crops to eradicate.

Pratap Chatterjee is the author of Halliburton's Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War. He is the managing editor of CorpWatch. He traveled to Afghanistan with cameraman Ronald Nobu Sakamoto. To view three of Sakamoto's videos with Afghan scenes from 2002 and 2008 that vividly capture some of the experiences Chatterjee describes

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

If you think preventing climate change is politically difficult, look at the political problems of adapting to it.


By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 16th March 2009.

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it’s over. The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

This, at any rate, was the repeated whisper at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last week(1). It’s more or less what Bob Watson, the environment department’s chief scientific adviser, has been telling the British government(2). It is the obvious if unspoken conclusion of scores of scientific papers. Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, for example, suggests that even global cuts of 3% a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with four degrees of warming by the end of the century(3,4). At the moment emissions are heading in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this continues, what does it mean? Six? Eight? Ten degrees? Who knows?

Faced with such figures, I can’t blame anyone for throwing up his hands. But before you succumb to this fatalism, let me talk you through the options.

Yes, it is true that mitigation has so far failed. Sabotaged by Clinton(5), abandoned by Bush, attended half-heartedly by the other rich nations, the global climate talks have so far been a total failure. The targets they have set bear no relationship to the science and are negated anyway by loopholes and false accounting. Nations like the UK which are meeting their obligations under the Kyoto protocol have succeeded only by outsourcing their pollution to other countries(6,7). Nations like Canada, which are flouting their obligations, face no meaningful sanctions.

Lord Stern made it too easy: he appears to have underestimated the costs of mitigation. As the professor of energy policy Dieter Helm has shown, Stern’s assumption that our consumption can continue to grow while our emissions fall is implausible(8). To have any hope of making substantial cuts we have both to reduce our consumption and transfer resources to countries like China to pay for the switch to low-carbon technologies. As Helm notes, “there is not much in the study of human nature—and indeed human biology—to give support to the optimist.”

But we cannot abandon mitigation unless we have a better option. We don’t. If you think our attempts to prevent emissions are futile, take a look at our efforts to adapt.

Where Stern appears to be correct is in proposing that the costs of stopping climate breakdown - great as they would be - are far lower than the costs of living with it. Germany is spending E600m just on a new sea wall for Hamburg(9) - and this money was committed before the news came through that sea level rises this century could be two or three times as great as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted(10). The Netherlands will spend E2.2bn on dykes between now and 2015; again they are likely to be inadequate. The UN suggests that the rich countries should be transferring $50-75bn a year to the poor ones now to help them cope with climate change, with a massive increase later on(11). But nothing like this is happening.

A Guardian investigation reveals that the rich nations have promised $18bn to help the poor nations adapt to climate change over the past seven years, but they have disbursed only 5% of that money(12). Much of it has been transferred from foreign aid budgets anyway: a net gain for the poor of nothing(13). Oxfam has made a compelling case for how adaptation should be funded: nations should pay according to the amount of carbon they produce per capita, coupled with their position on the human development index(14). On this basis, the US should supply over 40% of the money and the European Union over 30%, with Japan, Canada, Australia and Korea making up the balance. But what are the chances of getting them to cough up?

There’s a limit to what this money could buy anyway. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that “global mean temperature changes greater than 4°C above 1990-2000 levels” would “exceed … the adaptive capacity of many systems.”(15) At this point there’s nothing you can do, for example, to prevent the loss of ecosystems, the melting of glaciers and the disintegration of major ice sheets. Elsewhere it spells out the consequences more starkly: global food production, it says, is “very likely to decrease above about 3°C”(16). Buy your way out of that.

And it doesn’t stop there. The IPCC also finds that, above three degrees of warming, the world’s vegetation will become “a net source of carbon”(17). This is just one of the climate feedbacks triggered by a high level of warming. Four degrees might take us inexorably to five or six: the end - for humans - of just about everything.

Until recently, scientists spoke of carbon concentrations - and temperatures - peaking and then falling back. But a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that “climate change … is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”(18) Even if we were to cut carbon emissions to zero today, by the year 3000 our contribution to atmospheric concentrations would decline by just 40%. High temperatures would remain more or less constant until then. If we produce it we’re stuck with it.

In the rich nations we will muddle through, for a few generations, and spend nearly everything we have on coping. But where the money is needed most there will be nothing. The ecological debt the rich world owes to the poor will never be discharged, just as it has never accepted that it should offer reparations for the slave trade and for the pillage of gold, silver, rubber, sugar and all the other commodities taken without due payment from its colonies. Finding the political will for crash cuts in carbon production is improbable. But finding the political will - when the disasters have already begun - to spend adaptation money on poor nations rather than on ourselves will be impossible.

The world won’t adapt and can’t adapt: the only adaptive response to a global shortage of food is starvation. Of the two strategies it is mitigation, not adaptation, which turns out to be the most feasible option, even if this stretches the concept of feasibility to the limits. As Dieter Helm points out, the action required today is unlikely but “not impossible. It is a matter ultimately of human well being and ethics.”(19)

Yes, it might already be too late - even if we reduced emissions to zero tomorrow - to prevent more than two degrees of warming, but we cannot behave as if it is, for in doing so we make the prediction come true. Tough as this fight may be, improbable as success might seem, we cannot afford to surrender.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. Eg David Adam, 13th March 2009. Stern attacks politicians over climate ‘devastation’. The Guardian.

2. James Randerson, 7th August 2008. Climate change: Prepare for global temperature rise of 4C, warns top scientist. The Guardian.

3. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138
http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/publications/journal_papers/fulltext.pdf

4. They are referring to stabilisation at 650 parts per million CO2 equivalent. The IPCC suggests that this would produce something the region of 4C, even before all the likely feedbacks have b een taken into account. See Table SPM6 of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report - Summary for Policymakers. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_spm.pdf

5. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/12/17/hurray-were-going-backwards/

6. http://www.sei.se/index.php?page=newsitem&item=5720

7. http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/publications/Carbon_record_2007.pdf

8. Dieter Helm, 21st February 2009. Environmental challenges in a warming world: consumption, costs and responsibilities. Tanner Lecture, Oxford.
http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/publications/TANNER%20LECTURE%20Feb09.pdf

9. Oxfam, 29th May 2007. Adapting to climate change. Briefing Paper 104. http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/climate_change/downloads/bp104_adapting_to_climate_change.pdf

10. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/11/sea-level-rises-climate-change-copenhagen

11. John Vidal, 20th February 2009. Rich nations failing to meet climate aid pledges. The Guardian.

12. ibid.

13. Oxfam, 29th May 2007, ibid.

14. Oxfam, 29th May 2007, ibid.

15. IPCC, 2007b. Assessing key vulnerabilities and the risk from climate change. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4-wg2-chapter19.pdf

16. ibid, Table 19.1.

17. IPCC, 2007b, ibid.

18. Susan Solomona,1, Gian-Kasper Plattnerb, Reto Knuttic, and Pierre Friedlingstein, 16th December 2008. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/01/28/0812721106.full.pdf+html

19. Dieter Helm, 21st February 2009, ibid.

Friday, March 20, 2009

It has 'day' in it, I best...

Being a creature of habit and prisoner of routine... sites I visit and read every day

NZ Herald
Faith
Tumeke
Public Address
Four Four
DJ History
Biggie
Information Clearing House
Sydney Morning Herald
You Tube
Facebook
Twitter
Amplifier
Stink Finger
Zmag
Daktari's World
Discogs

The internet... its a happening thing

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Living in the new world

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable
by Clay Shirky

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several. One was to partner with companies like America Online, a fast-growing subscription service that was less chaotic than the open
internet. Another plan was to educate the public about the behaviors required of them by copyright law. New payment models such as micropayments were proposed. Alternatively, they could pursue the profit margins enjoyed by radio and TV, if they became purely ad-supported. Still another plan was to convince tech firms to make their hardware and software less capable of
sharing, or to partner with the businesses running data networks to achieve the same goal. Then there was the nuclear option: sue copyright infringers directly, making an example of them.

As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. Would DRM or walled gardens work better? Shouldn’t we try a carrot-and-stick approach, with education and prosecution? And so on. In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were
regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different
effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.


* * *

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

“The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!” (Financial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share.) “Micropayments work for iTunes, so they will work for us!” (Micropayments only work where the provider can avoid competitive business models.) “The New York Times should charge for content!” (They’ve tried, with QPass and later TimesSelect.) “Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Reports are doing fine on ubscriptions!” (Those publications forgo ad revenues; users are paying not just for content but for unimpeachability.) “We’ll form a cartel!” (…and hand a competitive advantage to every ad-supported media firm in the world.)

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

* * *

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became
cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.
Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades
to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

* * *

If you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. This bit of economics, normal since Gutenberg, limits competition while creating positive returns to scale for the press owner, a happy pair of economic effects that feed on each other. In a notional town with two perfectly balanced newspapers, one paper would eventually generate some small advantage — a breaking story, a key interview — at which point both advertisers and readers would come to prefer it, however slightly. That paper would in turn find it easier to capture the next dollar of advertising, at lower expense, than the competition. This would increase its dominance, which would further deepen those preferences, repeat chorus. The end result is either geographic or demographic segmentation among papers, or one paper holding a monopoly on the local mainstream audience.

For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.

The old difficulties and costs of printing forced everyone doing it into a similar set of organizational models; it was this similarity that made us regard Daily Racing Form and L’Osservatore Romano as being in the same business. That the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.

The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.

* * *

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what
will happen.

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism
instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Securicor Cares

The US and British governments have created a private prison industry which preys on human lives.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 3rd March 2009

It’s a staggering case; more staggering still that it has scarcely been mentioned on this side of the ocean. Last week two judges in Pennsylvania were convicted of jailing some 2000 children in exchange for bribes from private prison companies.

Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan sent children to jail for offences so trivial that some of them weren’t even crimes. A 15 year-old called Hillary Transue got three months for creating a spoof web page ridiculing her school’s assistant principal. Mr Ciavarella sent Shane Bly, then 13, to boot camp for trespassing in a vacant building. He gave a 14 year-old, Jamie Quinn, 11 months in prison for slapping a friend during an argument, after the friend slapped her. The judges were paid $2.6 million by companies belonging to the Mid Atlantic Youth Services Corp for helping to fill its jails(1,2,3). This is what happens when public services are run for profit.

It’s an extreme example, but it hints at the wider consequences of the trade in human lives created by private prisons. In the US and the UK they have a powerful incentive to ensure that the number of prisoners keeps rising.

The United States is more corrupt than the UK, but it is also more transparent. There the lobbyists demanding and receiving changes to judicial policy might be exposed, and corrupt officials identified and prosecuted. The UK, with a strong tradition of official secrecy and a weak tradition of scrutiny and investigative journalism, has no such safeguards.

The corrupt judges were paid by the private prisons not only to increase the number of child convicts but also to shut down a competing prison run by the public sector. Taking bribes to bang up kids might be novel; shutting public facilities to help private companies happens - on both sides of the water - all the time.

The Wall Street Journal has shown how, as a result of lobbying by the operators, private jails in Mississippi and California are being paid for non-existent prisoners(4,5). The prison corporations have been guaranteed a certain number of inmates. If the courts fail to produce enough convicts, they get their money anyway. This outrages taxpayers in both states, which have cut essential public services to raise these funds. But there is a simple means of resolving this problem: you replace ghost inmates with real ones. As the Journal, seldom associated with raging anti-capitalism, observes, “prison expansion [has] spawned a new set of vested interests with stakes in keeping prisons full and in building more. … The result has been a financial and political bazaar, with convicts in stripes as the prize.”(6)

Even as crime declines, law-makers are pressed by their sponsors to increase the rate of imprisonment. The US has, by a very long way, the world’s highest proportion of people behind bars: 756 prisoners per 100,000 people(7), or just over 1% of the adult population(8). Similarly wealthy countries have around one-tenth of this rate of imprisonment.

Like most of its really bad ideas, the last Conservative government imported private jails from the US. As Stephen Nathan, author of a forthcoming book about prison privatisation in the UK, has shown, the notion was promoted by the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which in 1986 visited prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America. When the corporation told them that private provision in the US improved prison standards and delivered good value for money, the committee members failed to check its claims. They recommended that the government should put the construction and management of prisons out to tender “as an experiment”(9).

Encouraged by the committee’s report, the Corrections Corporation of America set up a consortium in Britain with two Conservative party donors, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd and John Mowlem & Co, to promote privately financed prisons over here. The first privately-run prison in the UK, Wolds, was opened by the Danish security company Group 4 in 1992. In 1993, before it had had a chance to evaluate this experiment, the government announced that all new prisons would be built and run by private companies.

The Labour party, then in opposition, was outraged. John Prescott promised that “Labour will take back private prisons into public ownership – it is the only safe way forward.”(10) Jack Straw stated that “it is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration. This is surely one area where a free market certainly does not exist”. He too promised to “bring these prisons into proper public control and run them directly as public services.”(11)

But during his first seven weeks in office, Jack Straw renewed one private prison contract and launched two new ones. A year later he announced that all new prisons in England and Wales would be built and run by private companies, under the private finance initiative (PFI). Today the UK has a higher proportion of prisoners in private institutions than the US(12). This is the only country in Europe whose jails are run on this model.

So has prison privatisation here influenced judicial policy? As we discovered during the recent lobbying scandal in the House of Lords, there’s no way of knowing. Unlike civilised nations, the UK has no register of lobbyists; we are not even entitled to know which lobbyists ministers have met(13). But there are some clues. The former home secretary, John Reid, previously in charge of prison provision, has become a consultant to the private prison operator G4S(14). The government is intending to commission a series of massive Titan jails under PFI. Most experts on prisons expect them to be disastrous, taking inmates further away from their families (which reduces the chances of rehabilitation) and creating vast warrens in which all the social diseases of imprisonment will fester. Only two groups want them built: ministers and the prison companies: they offer excellent opportunities to rack up profits. And the very nature of PFI, which commits the government to paying for services for 25 or 30 years whether or not they are still required creates a major incentive to ensure that prison numbers don’t fall. The beast must be fed.

And there’s another line of possible evidence. In the two countries whose economies most resemble the UK’s - Germany and France - the prison population has risen quite slowly. France has 96 inmates per 100,000 people, an increase of 14% since 1992. Germany has 89 prisoners per 100,000: 25% more than in 1992 but 9% less than in 2001. But the UK now locks up 151 out of every 100,000 inhabitants: 73% more than in 1992 and 20% more than in 2001(15). Yes our politicians have barely come down from the trees, yes we are still governed out of the offices of the Daily Mail, but it would be foolish to dismiss the likely influence of the private prison industry.

This revolting trade in human lives creates a permanent incentive to lock people up; not because prison works; not because it makes us safer, but because it makes money. Privatisation appears to have locked this country into mass imprisonment.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. Amy Goodman, 17th February 2009. How Two Former PA Judges Got Millions in Kickbacks to Send Juveniles to Private Prisons. Democracy Now! http://www.alternet.org/rights/127461/amy_goodman:_how_two_former_pa_judges_got_millions_in_kickbacks_to_send_juveniles_to_private_prisons/

2. The Economist, 26th February 2009. Bad judges: the lowest of the low.

3. Stephanie Chen, 24th February 2009. Pennsylvania rocked by ‘jailing kids for cash’ scandal. CNN.
http://edition.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/02/23/pennsylvania.corrupt.judges/index.html

4. Bryan Gruley, 6th September 2001. Prison Building Spree Creates Glut of Lockups. Wall Street Journal.

5. Joseph T. Hallinan, 6th November 2001. Going Backwards. Wall Street Journal.

6. Bryan Gruley, ibid.

7. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/wpb_country.php?country=190

8. The total prison population at the end of 2007 (see above) was 2,293,157. The most recent figure for the adult population I can find - 217.8 million - was produced by the US Census Bureau in 2004.
http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/001703.html

9. Stephen Nathan, 2003. Prison Privatization in the United Kingdom. Published in
Capitalist Punishment: Prison Privatization & Human Rights. Clarity Press, Inc., Atlanta.

10. John Prescott, 1994, quoted by Stephen Nathan, ibid.

11. Jack Straw, 8th March 1995, quoted by Stephen Nathan, ibid.

12. 7.2% in the US, 11% in the UK. http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/subsection.asp?id=268

13. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, cited by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 5th January 2009. Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall. Volume I, para 187. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/36i.pdf

14. Security Oracle, 18th December 2008. G4S Appoints John Reid As Group Consultant.
http://www.securityoracle.com/news/G4S-Appoints-John-Reid-As-Group-Consultant_14833.html

15. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Top black academic argues western approach is not working for Africa

Comic relief?

By Christopher Hart Daily Mail (UK)

We are accustomed to bizarre outbursts and posturings from multimillionaire celebrities, especially when they spot a chance to portray themselves as concerned philanthropists with almost painfully big hearts.

Their favourite method is to drop in for a few hours at some televised charity event - Comic Relief, Live8 and Live Earth.

Perhaps the best-known, and certainly the loudest among them, is U2's Bono. His efforts have won him an honorary British knighthood, no fewer than three Nobel Prize nominations and the adulation of Tony Blair. Yet one of Bono's most significant outbursts - rude, heckling and laden with expletives - took place away from the world's TV cameras at a small conference it Tanzania recently.

Bono had been enraged by a Ugandan writer called Andrew Mwenda, who was presenting a powerful case that international aid, far from helping lift Africa out of poverty, might in fact be the very cause of its troubles.

Even the suggestion that this might be the case sent 'Saint' Bono into a foul-mouthed rant, accusing Mwenda of being a comedian rather than a serious contributor to political debate.

For his own sake, then, one can only hope that the pop star never comes face to face with the author of an incendiary new book. Called Dead Aid, its very title is a bitter mockery of that great institution and celebrity bandwagon, Live Aid.

But what it contains - particularly at a time when people are generously giving time, money and enthusiasm to this week's Comic Relief fundraising events - is even more provocative. It argues that for 50 years the West has been giving aid to Africa - and in so doing has ruined the continent it professes to help. The author of Dead Aid is no lightweight courting controversy for its own sake. She is a highly qualified economist. More importantly, she is herself African - and what she has to say is as unsettling as it is important.

After years of listening to Western 'experts' such as Bono, Bob Geldof or Angelina Jolie pontificating about what Africa needs, here is a refreshing voice from Africa itself.

Dambisa Moyo was born in Zambia, where her family still live. She has a doctorate in economics from Oxford, a masters from Harvard, and for several years worked for the World Bank in Washington DC.

She is now head of research and strategy for sub-Saharan Africa at a leading investment bank. But here, you feel, is one banker who is still worth listening to, not least as she has witnessed the way her home country has become blighted by poverty. At independence in 1964, Zambia was a fresh, optimistic young nation, eager to embrace the future. Its GDP was around a quarter of the UK's.

Today it is one-26th, and the country is mired in corruption, poverty and disease. So what went wrong?

One by one, Moyo examines the usual lame excuses for African backwardness, and dispatches them with ruthless efficiency. Africa has a harsh, intractable climate, with huge natural barriers such as jungle and desert? Well, so does Brazil, or Australia.

Many African countries are landlocked, always an obstacle to economic growth? That hasn't done Switzerland or Austria much harm.

African countries are too ethnically and tribally diverse? So is India, and its economy is booming.

Africa lacks democracy? So do China, Thailand and Indonesia, all Asian tiger economies.


As for any lingering mutterings about Africans simply not being up to it, or inherently lazy, she doesn't even consider them. She herself is eloquent proof of the idiocy of such Victorianera racism. No, the problem can be summed up in one short word - aid.

Aid isn't Africa's cure, she believes. It's the disease.

Let's be clear, though, Moyo is scrupulously fair about distinguishing between three
different types of aid. There is emergency relief for famine, which many of us support through donations or charitable fundraisers, which is not only well-meaning but absolutely necessary at times of international crisis.

Then there is the everyday work of the charities themselves, about which she appears neutral, although she quotes one cutting comment from a senior economist: 'They know it's c**p, but it sells the T-shirts.

' This year, it is Stella McCartney's Comic Relief T-shirts - featuring images of The Beatles and of Morecambe and Wise - that have become the must-have accessory of those who like to wear their conscience on their sleeve.

Despite the cynics, it is worth remembering that since its creation in the mid-Eighties, Comic Relief has generated £600 million - roughly two-thirds of which has gone to fund charities working on the ground in Africa (the other third goes towards charities in the UK).

That is an awesome achievement that has made a genuine difference towards alleviating suffering on a local scale in some of the most deprived nations on Earth. No one should belittle that work.

But charities are 'small beer' compared to what Moyo perceives to be Africa's real problem: the billions of pounds' worth of aid poured into the continent by Western governments.

Consider the figures. In the past 50 years, the West has pumped around £35 trillion into Africa. But far from improving the lives of ordinary Africans, the result of stateadministered charity on such a colossal scale has, argues Moyo, been 'an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster'.

The effects are easy to see, yet always ignored. Over the past 30 years, the economies of the most aiddependent countries have shrunk by 0.2 per cent per annum.

Yes, in the UK we have been in recession for six months or so now, but countries like Malawi and Burkina Faso have been in recession for three decades. How is this disaster related to thoughtless Western aid? Directly.

And Moyo cites a brilliant example of how the whole concept is flawed. Imagine there's an African mosquito-net maker who manufactures 500 nets a week. He employs ten people, and this being Africa, each of those employees supports as many as 15 relatives on his modest but steady salary. Some 150 people therefore depend on this thriving little cottage industry, producing a much-needed, low-cost commodity for local people.

Then, Moyo writes: 'Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who rallies the masses and goads Western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets to the afflicted region, at a cost of a million dollars. The nets arrive and a "good" deed is done.'

The result? The local business promptly goes bust. Why buy one when they're handing them out for free? Ten more people are unemployed, and 150 people are without means of support.

Like all such aid hand-outs, it's an idiotically short-sighted way to treat a complex problem.

And that's not all. In a year or so, those nets will have sustained wear and tear, and will need either mending or replacing. But the local net-maker is no longer around.

So now those previously independent and self-sufficient Africans have to go begging the West for more aid. Intervention has actually destroyed a small part of Africa's economy, as well as its spirit of enterprise. Thus aid reduces its recipients to beggary in two easy moves.

Yet despite this ongoing disaster, we still have the celebrity harangues, the self-applauding rock concerts, 'making poverty history' from the comfort of your private jet.

At some point in the Eighties, as Dambisa Moyo observes, 'Public discourse became a public disco', reaching its eventual nadir, perhaps, with Madonna addressing her audience at Live Earth as 'motherf***** s' and declaring: 'If you wanna save the planet, jump up and down!'

Moyo is blisteringly critical about the 'Western, liberal, guilt-tripped morality' that lies behind these jamborees, about the tax-avoiding Bono lecturing us all on poverty and advising world leaders at summits, and Blair's craven admiration for him. Ordinary Africans do not, on the whole, have much admiration for Western pop culture at its noisiest and most foul-mouthed.

So what do they make of the bizarre spectacle of some ill-qualified Western pop star moralising with such supreme arrogance on 'what Africa really needs'? Africans themselves have ideas about what they really need, if only someone would listen. But as one such African comments: 'My voice can't compete with an electric guitar.'

Another effect of aid, well known in the West and yet consistently and shamefully ignored, is that it props up the most thuggish and kleptomaniac of Africa's leaders.

That parade of grotesques who have filled our TV screens almost since independence, it seems - Idi Amin in Uganda, Mobutu in Zaire, Mengistu in Ethiopia, the 'Emperor' Bokassa in the Central African Republic - were always the greatest beneficiaries.

Bokassa spent a third of his country's annual income on his own preposterous 'coronation.' The genocidal Mengistu benefited hugely, it is said, from the proceeds of Live Aid.

Today we have Mr Robert Mugabe's wife Grace, 40 years his junior, going on £75,000-a-time shopping trips to Europe or the Far East, while her people starve, inflation runs at 230 million per cent, and Zimbabwe's Central Bank issues $100 trillion banknotes.

Such tales echo Mobutu's reign of terror in Zaire. He once asked the West for a reduction of his country's colossal debt. The West, feeling guilty, promptly granted it.

Mobutu's response? He hired Concorde to fly his daughter to her wedding on the Ivory Coast. In all, Mobutu may have looted £3.5billion from his country's coffers. Nigeria's President Sani Abacha stole about the same.

Even the World Bank itself reckons that 85 per cent of aid never gets to where it's meant to. 'When the World Bank thinks its financing an electric power station,' says one jaundiced commentator whom Moyo quotes, 'it's really financing a brothel.'

So the aid industry causes poverty, corruption and war. Yet it continues. Why? Could aid just be something the West indulge in to buy itself an easy conscience - regardless of what effect it has on Africa?

Whatever the case, we should turn the taps off immediately, says Moyo. Would this mean the end to the building of new roads, schools, hospitals? No.They're mainly built by investment, not aid.

Would it be the end to many a kleptomaniac despot? Most certainly. But would millions would die of hunger within weeks? Of course not.

The aid we send doesn't reach them anyway. Life for them would in the short term be no different, but in the longer term immeasurably better.

What makes Dead Aid so powerful is that it's a double-barrelled shotgun of a book. With the first barrel, Moyo demolishes all the most cherished myths about aid being a good thing.

But with the second, crucially, she goes on to explain what the West could be doing instead.

We all share the well-meaning belief that 'the rich should help the poor, and the form of this help should be aid'. The first part of this is plain morality. But the second part, as she so forcefully demonstrates, is false - lethally false.

We shouldn't be giving aid to Africa. That's not what Africa wants. We should be trading with it, and idle chatter of 'economic imperialism' be damned. She has no time for such Left-liberal pieties. Of course we should be using Africa's vast pool of cheap labour to make our clothes, assemble our cars, grow our foodstuffs. In fact, one country already is - it's called China.

China is building roads in Ethiopia, pipelines in Sudan, railways in Nigeria. It's buying iron ore and platinum from South Africa, timber from Gabon and Cameroon, oil from Angola and Equatorial Guinea. China is pouring vast sums of capital investment into the continent, enriching both itself and Africa in the process.

Dambisa Moyo is not much bothered by Western concerns that China does nothing to further democracy in Africa. An villager with six children doesn't lose sleep over not having the vote, she loses sleep over what she will feed her children tomorrow.

Address poverty first, says Moyo, and democracy later.

The greatest example for Africa today, she believes, could be the Grameen Bank, which means, 'The Bank Of The Village', in Bangladesh. Moyo hopes that, in time, the nations of Africa can develop such a bank for themselves. For it is an extraordinary and heart-warming success story.

It was devised by Muhammad Yunus, who quite rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his efforts. Yunus's inspiration was to ask: 'Where lies the wealth of the typical Bangladeshi village?'

A village may not have money, goods or assets. Yet it is a wonderfully tight-knit, loyal little community, where nobody locks their doors at night, nobody steals, everyone knows each other. This is a tremendous kind of wealth - but how to translate it into money for these impoverished, decent, hard-working people?

Yunus realised you could lend money to such a community and be sure of getting it back if you worked according to a plan - a plan with the simplicity of genius.

You lend not to an individual but to a group, but only one member at a time. So you might lend one woman £20 (and an amazing 97 per cent of the Grameen Bank's customers are women. That's enough for her to buy a new sewing machine, and so start a thriving little tailoring business.

A year later, she repays the amount, with interest. At which point, the original £20 is passed on to the next person in the group.

But if she doesn't repay the loan - and here Yunus saw how to turn the village's 'social capital', its trustworthiness and deep-rooted sense of community, into economic value - then the next person in the group, quite possibly her next-door neighbour, her sister or cousin, doesn't get it either.

The result? This humbly named Bank Of The Village now has 2.3 million customers, and a portfolio worth a colossal £170 million- in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

There is something deeply moving about it, especially when you learn that the reliability of the Grameen Bank's customers has proved to be virtually 100 per cent.

No greater contrast between our own inept but limitlessly greedy banks and Bangladesh's Bank Of The Village could be imagined.

The failed fat-cat Cityboy still awards himself a £500,000 bonus for his own incompetence, while these trustworthy women care for every single cent of their precious £20 loan.

More than that, though, it is a humbling example of the way that trade - not aid - can help Africa lift itself out of poverty. Certainly, there is still much that we can do to help Africa help itself. We should act, and fast. But pouring billions more in aid won't change a thing.

Moyo concludes her book with a wise old African proverb. 'The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.'

By all means give to Comic Relief when the fun gets under way this Friday. It is a worthwhile humanitarian cause that makes a real difference to people in desperate circumstances.

But as for a long-term solution to Africa's immense problems - that may require a new way of thinking.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Younger and Hungrier in America - coming to a town near you soon?

The revised and upgraded unemployment figures released on Friday were nothing short of staggering: almost two million jobs lost in the past three months as the official unemployment rate rose to a quarter-century high of 8.1%. Nearly three million Americans are now officially unemployed for six months or more, while another 8.6 million are "working part time because they cannot find full-time employment." Just the previous day, the government released figures showing, not surprisingly, that food stamp recipients had also soared by another 700,000 in February -- 651,000 jobs had been lost that same month -- to a record total of 31.8 million.

Food stamps may be the major government bailout program against hunger, but most bailout efforts by the Obama administration and its predecessor have been focused on pouring multi-billions repeatedly into ever more failing financial institutions, which, as economist Joseph Stiglitz writes, "years of reckless behavior, including bad lending and gambling with derivatives, have left [them], in effect, bankrupt." This includes, of course, $45 billion siphoned into Citigroup, whose stock hit the one-dollar mark just days ago, and into that black-hole-of-a-disaster, the global insurance company A.I.G., which got another $30 billion last week, bringing its grand bailout total (to date) to $163 billion.

Money-mad bankers, who helped put millions out of work and start a cascading global financial crisis that seems without end, evidently feel no shame as they receive millions in bonuses while milking their banks and the government for everything they're worth. On the other hand, increasing numbers of Americans feel deep shame, when they shouldn't, because they have to resort to the nation's private system of food banks and other free food outlets once they find they can't stock their refrigerators and cupboards adequately enough to feed themselves and their children.

This is a nightmare that Nick Turse -- in the fourth installment of his Tough Times series for TomDispatch on American economic hardship -- captures as he reports on what's happening to food banks nationwide. It's worth keeping in mind that, under the pressure of massive need and desperation, banks like Citigroup and Wells Fargo aren't the only ones that could fail and that it's ordinary Americans who really need, and deserve, the bailing out. Tom


Breaking the Banks
The Struggle to Feed America's Nouveau Needy
By Nick Turse

The message is simple. Ever more Americans need food they can't afford. As tough economic times take their toll, increasing numbers of Americans are on tightened budgets and, in some cases, facing outright hunger. As a result, they may be learning a lot more about food banks and soup kitchens than most of them ever wanted to know.

In recent interviews with TomDispatch.com, representatives from food banks -- the non-profit organizations that distribute groceries to those in need via food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens -- expressed alarm at the recent surge in need all across the country. At the same time, most stated that, however counterintuitive it might seem, financial contributions to their organizations are actually on the rise. So, too, are food prices, however -- and donations, unfortunately, are not keeping up with demand.

Food bank representatives agree on one thing: the need for their services is spiking in a way none of them can recall. Again and again, they emphasize that lines at food pantries are growing longer, seemingly by the month, and that those in line are younger and often more middle class than ever before.

Families who just months ago didn't even know what a food bank was and would never have considered visiting a food pantry now have far more intimate knowledge of both. Embarrassed to approach institutions that they previously identified with the poor and indigent, many, say food bank officials, are also waiting far too long to seek aid. Other formerly middle class Americans who have never dealt with, or even thought about, food insecurity before simply don't know whom to call or where to turn.

These points echo a December 2008 survey conducted by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity. Its network of more than 200 food banks in all 50 states distributes more than two billion pounds of donated groceries annually to 63,000 local charitable agencies. Its survey found that, of 160 food banks, 99.4% of them reported seeing more first-time users in 2008.

For America's food banks this has meant one thing: that they, too, are needier. They need ever more fresh food, non-perishable food, and non-food items like cleaning products and toiletries from wholesalers, retailers, food distributors, corporations, charities, government agencies, local farms, and individual donors. They need ever more storage and freezer space. They need ever more volunteers. They need ever more food that can be made available on appointed distribution days at food pantries. And they need ever more emergency food supplies, available on demand for people who suddenly realize that they are hungry and out of options, possibly for the first time in their lives.

The Face of Hunger Today

"Hunger does not discriminate, but the face of the hungry is growing younger," says Stanley Bray of the St. Louis Area Foodbank, which distributes food to more than 500 agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and emergency food programs in 14 counties in eastern Missouri and 12 counties in southwestern Illinois. Bray's organization has seen a 15% increase in need just since October 2008. Thirty to forty percent of that 15%, he says, are first-time clients. "Typically, those who would have volunteered at the Foodbank are now recipients of food at local pantries," he notes.

Even as Americans who once might have donated food or money now find themselves in need, people still have the urge to help as best they can. At one West Coast food bank, a representative told me of a man who recently came in with a proposition. He needed six weeks of food assistance while he was putting together the money to travel across country and move back in with his parents. Until then, he suggested, he would work for the food bank to pay his way.

"I must say that we are amazed and touched by the attitude of our community. From large local financial services [wealth management] companies, to the local Rotaries, schools, small businesses, and countless individuals -- everybody seems to be sharing what they can," notes Iris Valanti of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "Unlike the squabbling going on in Washington, people out here in real life are trying to pull together and do what they can."

But that communal spirit can only take food banks so far, given the troubling trends on the horizon. According to Valanti, large foundations are reviewing their "decimated portfolios" and trimming donations, leaving organizations like hers wondering what the future will bring. In fact, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's subsidiaries are already struggling to obtain needed grants to secure new freezers to store food for the increasing number of nouveau needy. At the same time, she points out, food donations are actually down in her area, while the organization's food purchases have increased by an astonishing 560% in the last two years.

Valanti spelled out the enormity of the problem: "Fall quarter 2008 saw a 44% decrease in donated product we get through our national network partner Feeding America… The other trend was skyrocketing food prices. Our wholesale cost for a case of pasta, for instance, has risen 88% since 2006."

According to Cindy Stevens of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, demand for assistance began its current upswing after a major ice storm knocked out power in much of the area in December 2007. Food in refrigerators spoiled and many Oklahomans in the area were prevented from working, and thus from receiving paychecks. That led to the first "slight increase" in need, followed by a major jump when gas prices soared in the summer of 2008. Even though gas prices have fallen since, the economy has melted down with them.

"Our agencies report as much as a 40% increase in the number of people coming to them for assistance," she notes. Like other food assistance providers nationwide, her food bank has observed a clear shift in demographics. "Our agencies are reporting a change in clientele. Many of the people who are coming to them have never had to seek assistance before. Many of them have jobs or have just lost a job."

West Coast Woes

The San Diego Food Bank, which distributes groceries to 300 soup kitchens, senior centers, food pantries, churches, and other allied nonprofits in sprawling San Diego County, is facing similar marked increases in need. From December 2007 to December 2008, the number of people served by its USDA-funded Emergency Food Assistance Program, which aids low income people via 91 distribution sites, jumped from 37,302 to 65,663 -- a 76% increase. "It's unprecedented," says the Food Bank's Chris Carter. "We're seeing many more middle-class families coming in. I met a couple at one of our distributions, they have a mortgage and two car payments. They've both been laid off. The first thing to go is the food budget."

It can take several months for food stamps to kick in after they've been applied for, and, as Carter points out, "a lot of people don't have a couple of months. They need food immediately, so they're coming directly to us. We're seeing a dramatic increase in demand for food assistance across the board."

In some places, people need to wait for specific distribution days to get help from a food pantry. In San Diego, the needy don't have that worry; neither do people in Oakland, California, where the Alameda County Community Food Bank operates an Emergency Food Helpline. With just a phone call, those in dire need can receive food at a local pantry on the very day they dial. In 13 years, the Bank's help line had received more than 1,500 calls a month only twice. In 2008, every month topped the 1,500 mark. For the last six months, the average has been more than 2,000 a month and is soon expected to break the 2,500-call barrier.

In the last three months of 2008, according to Brian Higgins, the Food Bank's Communications Manager, "We saw a 45% spike over the exact same period in 2007, which was, in itself, a record breaking year." Add those numbers to the 40,000 people fed each week by the organization which distributes about 15 million pounds of food per year, while keeping in mind that we're only talking about one small city, and you begin to get a sense of the enormity of the crisis bearing down on the country.

Oakland is a poor city and many there have long experienced privation. Not surprisingly, the current economic crisis has hit its population hard. In East Oakland, the city's neediest area, people line up each Friday at the Columbian Gardens food pantry in anticipation of a regular delivery of groceries from the county food bank. "Those lines have gotten longer and longer and longer," says Higgins. Phone calls for emergency food are increasing exponentially as well. Two years ago, the staff at Columbian Gardens used to distribute four to five emergency bags of staples, including canned goods and pasta, each day. Now, on a normal day, it's 25 to 30 bags.

Nor is the pain confined to perennially hard-hit East Oakland. The whole city is suffering. Next door to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, for example, a brand new $35 million Toyota dealership -- the largest in all of Northern California -- was built from scratch on an empty lot. "It was open about eight weeks before it closed," comments Higgins -- and it's just one of numerous local businesses shutting down.

As a result, Oakland, historically saddled with the most impoverished senior population in all of California, is seeing new trends that the Food Bank's workers find chilling. Higgins notes that the population they serve now includes "more and more young people and working families. We're seeing people who made really decent money a couple years ago in real estate and other commission fields, who are down to nothing. They're having to make that call for first time."

Unfortunately, many put off calling for assistance for as long as possible. "People who work on our emergency food help-lines," he continues, "say there's a universal embarrassment about the calls they're getting now." Phone operators reassure clients that the food bank is there for that very reason, but shame and stigma have led to increased privation. "It really delays people calling."

At the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, California, Lisa Sherrill has noted the same kind of spike in need. "Overall, we are serving 20% more people over two years ago," she wrote in a recent email. At some of its 29 Food Assistance Program sites, where boxes of fresh produce, bread, and other staples are handed out, demand is increasing by 5-10% a month.

Donated funds are on the rise, but they can't fully compensate for the surge in new assistance seekers. "There are many people in our Food Assistance lines that have never had to ask for food before," notes Sherrill. "Last week at a site in Antioch, we spoke with a man who has a master's [degree] in engineering, lost his job, and is having a hard time finding work because there aren't many opportunities, and what he can find he is being told he is overqualified for."

Alaska has fared better than many states. Lacking massive waves of home foreclosures and a startlingly high unemployment rate, it has been buffered from the worst of the hardships seen elsewhere. Still, the arrival of tough economic times was plainly visible last fall at "Thanksgiving Blessing," an annual holiday grocery distribution program spearheaded by the Food Bank of Alaska and held at eight locations in Anchorage.

In 2008, according to Marleah LaBelle, communications manager for the food bank, 5,900 families turned out for Thanksgiving Blessing, a 42.7% increase over the previous year. "If you factor the 5,900 families, with an average family size of four, and the total population of Anchorage 260,283 -- that is roughly 10% of the population or one in ten families," LaBelle notes. A similar December program, "Neighborhood GIFT" (which also includes toy distribution) saw a 30% spike in turnout compared to 2007. "I saw people that I knew personally at both of the holiday food distributions, and they are people I had not previously considered to be 'low income,'" she adds.

Unfortunately, the holiday season spike proved no aberration in Anchorage. The food bank's affiliates have been reporting, across the board, 30-50% increases in people visiting their soup kitchens and food pantries. For instance, the number of clients at the Valley Open Bible Fellowship food pantry in Big Lake, Alaska, has doubled recently.

As elsewhere, monetary donations have also increased for the Food Bank of Alaska, but ever less retail food is now being donated -- a worrisome trend nationally in light of increased need. "Something that has been striking to nearly everyone at Food Bank of Alaska is how quickly the food comes off the shelves in the warehouse. As soon as donated food gets sorted, it almost instantly gets picked up," LeBelle wrote in a recent email.

What's Ahead for the Nouveau Needy?

Tens of millions of Americans were already suffering from hunger and food insecurity before the current depression. In fact, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 35.5 million Americans were "food insecure." Now, however, those numbers are bound to swell, thanks to the growing ranks of America's nouveau needy. "It's the new face of hunger for us. Before we primarily served the low-income population, the working poor, as people call them," says the San Diego Food Bank's Chris Carter. "Now middle class families who were in retail jobs, construction, the real estate industry… are finding themselves in our lines. Some of these people are those who would have donated food to us before, who would never dream they'd be in one of our food lines, and now they need help."

From his conversations with clients at the food bank's distribution sites, Carter sees bleak times ahead, especially for the staggering number of people who have, as a last resort, been maxing out their credit cards. "We've seen the credit crunch on Wall Street and the ripple effect that it's had on more vulnerable industries across the country. I think there's going to be a credit tightening at the consumer level. When that happens we're going to see a huge surge in demand," he said recently. "This is going to get worse before it gets better."

Such prospects will spell trouble in the years ahead. The Federal government is now pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into bailing out broken banks. If hunger and need continue to skyrocket, food banks may be the next banks to break. Who will bail them out?

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. A paperback edition of his book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books), an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, has just been published. His website is Nick Turse.com.

[Note: The three previous pieces in Nick Turse's ongoing Tough Times series of reports on American economic hardship are: "The Rising Body Count on Main Street, The Human Fallout from the Financial Crisis," "Meltdown Madness, The Human Costs of the Economic Crisis," and "Tough Times in Troubled Towns, America's Municipal Meltdowns."]