Can we move beyond the foreign policy of good intentions?

Kim Echlin,
The Disappeared.
Toronto: Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2009. 235 pages

Paul Collier,
Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.
New York: Harper Collins, 2009. 255 pages with index.

A decade ago, we were worrying about the Y2K bug that was going to reset the modern world to the year 1000. We were debating our participation in NATO’s mission to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We were embarrassed that our F-18 fighter-bombers had radios so old they couldn’t communicate with our allies, and we were unsure, when our side accidentally bombed a tractor-pulled convoy of refugees, whether this was the sort of war that Canada should be part of. Afghanistan was a faraway country about which we knew little; coverage of the Taliban government was critical but disengaged. This was a state where war and oppression had glided entwined across the dance floor for a long time; it was indecent to watch too closely. There was nothing we could do. Who in 1999 could have imagined that by 2009 Canada would have been at war in central Asia for eight years? If our combat forces withdraw in 2011, as our politicians promise, our time in Kabul and Kandahar will have equalled the Soviet Union’s war from 1979 to 1989.

Our decisions to allow countries to slide into anarchy or terror, and the tools we can use to stop or arrest that slide, are covered by two very different books that, read together, help us understand Canada’s current attitude toward the world – and what it could be. Toronto writer Kim Echlin has written about Sumerian goddesses and the lives of elephants. In her third novel, The Disappeared, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, she followsthe murky trails of the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath, seeing Cambodia from the perspective of a young Montreal woman who falls in love with a young Khmer man. Her failure to save him symbolizes the world’s inability to intervene positively in disintegrating states. Echlin’s novel also symbolizes Canadians’ inability to understand that good intentions, even love, are not enough.

The second book is Paul Collier’s Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, the sequel to his earlier The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It.1 Collier offers a realistic toolkit for liberal interventionists. His hardheaded idealism stands in contrast to Echlin’s romantic cynicism. Collier places the lessons learned from Tony Blair’s successful intervention in Sierra Leone, and to a lesser extent the NATO intervention in Kosovo, into a practical framework: how to defend, or create, the conditions necessary for genuine democracy to grow. To summarize brutally, Collier is interested in determining when a benevolent dictator is a better bet than a corrupt democrat.

These books tell us something about our failure, and potential, as Canadians to be actors on the world stage. Even as we reached out in the last decade with foreign aid and weapons, blue helmets and second-hand Leopard tanks, we were protected by geography from a cold world we didn’t understand. At the end of World War II Canada mattered, in part because we had one of the world’s largest armies. We had proven our values in action against fascism, and we used that reservoir of cultural goodwill in the standoff against communism.

But that standoff ended two decades ago, and we haven’t moved on. During the Cold War, no matter how bad things were in the poor corners of the world, we knew that no real change was possible. The tension between the Soviet Union and the United States served to limit the scope of international action; the poor, Canadians agreed, would always be with us. We did what we could to ease the roughest edges of human suffering but this had more to do with assuaging our guilt than with changing the world.

Today our standard-bearers, following the withering of our foreign service, are the travelling teenagers with maple leaves sewn to their backpacks. They are sufficiently friendly and polite that most people are ready to give them and by extension all Canadians the validation we crave – acknowledgement that we are not Americans. But because we’re so inward-looking, our gaze doesn’t travel much beyond our fascinating neighbour and nemesis to the south. The few Canadians interested in the world beyond that horizon often give undue respect to anyone who studies faraway places. They should be wary of doing so.

Kim Echlin, with her well-received novel The Disappeared, is to our fiction what Stephen Lewis is to our foreign policy: well-intentioned, overwrought, simplified, superficially respectful but ultimately deeply traditional.

This is a love story told by Anne, a Canadian who falls in love with Serey, a young Cambodian in Montreal exile from Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime that killed a quarter of the population between 1975 and 1978, before being overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion. He goes home when Pol Pot is chased from the capital and eventually she follows him to Phnom Penh; they are reunited but he disappears again, murdered by the new government in the wake of the 1993 elections conducted by the United Nations. After searching for his remains, she returns home to Montreal to mourn, and to pass judgement on a brutal world she does not understand and cannot, in her opinion, change.

Anne accepts without question the stories her lover tells about his country. For her he is Cambodia, although anyone who escaped the Khmer Rouge as he did, by plane to a Western country, was a member of the elite. The corruption and violence of this elite laid the foundation on which the Maoists built their agrarian dystopia.

His folk stories of Khmer life – “Om Theay lived in the palace as a child and was a favourite of the Queen; she taught many hours every day, trying to save the dances” – provide a strange parallel to Saloth Sar, another Cambodian who spent time in the palace as a child, visiting his sister. The young Saloth Sar is better known as Pol Pot. Her lover’s stories are part of the fabric of myth that wove a straitjacket around the majority of poor Khmers. All this is lost on Anne, caught up in her dream of a peaceful world torn apart: to her the Khmers are Rousseau’s noble savages, transplanted from the forests of North America, from the land on which Montreal itself was founded and grew, to the rice paddies of southeast Asia.

When Anne first meets Serey, she is sixteen, and this sort of simplicity defines young love. You’re fascinated by the bright colours of someone’s personality, oblivious to the shadows. But this naiveté persists; it survives Serey himself. Echlin’s prose, consistently flowery and sometimes mesmerizing, often overgrows into a wild weed patch of words (“Our fingers like small wings traced over each other’s whispers all through that first night, the first night of life”). A suitable vehicle for the expression of adolescent emotions untrained by experience, the prose becomes maudlin sentimentality when confronted with Cambodia’s tragedy.

But my criticism is not about style, nor is it about Echlin’s mashing together real events and people; this is a novel, after all. I am not concerned with the alleged crime of “appropriation of voice”: the accusation that only a woman can write about women, only a Cambodian about Khmers. What troubles me about The Disappeared is not that Echlin speaks for Cambodians, but that she does it so poorly. My criticism is her failure to grasp the reality of Cambodia, to make it anything more than a sugar-palm-decorated backdrop to a Canadian story.

A sense of inevitability, of futility, pervades the book. The fatalism common to poor peasants for thousands of years in every corner of the world is deployed as an explanation for why Serey disappeared, why his country nearly disappeared. Anne’s efforts to find him are clearly futile; from the beginning we know through flashbacks that he is dead. As much as a love story, this is a story of fatalism, of building the strength to “accept the things that cannot be changed.”

The idea that real change is impossible; that all quests end in failure, is an ancient and conservative weight around the neck of civilization, and one modern Canada has embraced with strange fervour. I say modern Canada because it is a new idea; this was an aggressive country that warred within and without its borders, from the many chapters of French and English conflict to Riel’s rebellions to bloody strikes in the early 20th century. Defenders of this new Canada say we are now multicultural and respectful. This is another way of saying we are both smug and vacillating: we have seemingly lost the ability to differentiate between open-mindedness and indecision.

We have forgotten our history as immigrants, as subjects and peasants and serfs in Europe, Asia, Africa – and our First Nations governments usually demonstrated similar patterns of oppression, sexism and violence. In just a few generations we have forgotten where we came from as a country and adopted a parochial smugness that looks at the world with quiet amazement, unable to understand why those Rwandans, those Sudanese, treat one another as they do.

The world is a mirror that reflects our virtue back on ourselves: in the novel Anne is one of the few to look for the bodies of their loved ones. In a country with millions of dead, she cares; by implication, the Cambodians do not. She is brave where they are afraid. She risks the lives of herself and her friends in the pursuit of Serey, but once she finds his skull her work is done: the personal is political. I don’t want to overburden Echlin’s fictional character with symbolism, but she illustrates a Canadian weakness and narcissism that extends to our political class.

Let me turn to another piece of Canadian fiction: the chapter on foreign affairs in the New Democratic Party’s 2008 election manifesto. It distilled the Echlin worldview into breathtakingly naïve policy. In Afghanistan, the party wrote, Canada would

withdraw all Canadian forces from the Afghanistan combat mission, with reasonable advance notice and in consultation with our allies. Ensure that Canada delivers on the aid and development assistance commitment made through the Afghanistan Compact. Ensure that women and human rights groups in Afghanistan can access Canadian development dollars, and that corruption at all levels of government is addressed effectively. Ensure that the United Nations, not NATO or the US, becomes the lead organization in the provision of security and development assistance in Afghanistan. Explore and promote opportunities for negotiating peace at the national, regional and international levels, in line with proposals made by the President of Afghanistan and leading security experts.2

Why would those countries still engaged in Afghanistan listen to our helpful suggestions after we withdraw our troops? Since the Taliban have made their position on girls’ education fairly clear, how willing will other countries be to protect our much-expanded CIDA-funded network of girls’ schools from the men with guns?

This is the foreign policy of good intentions: the belief that, underneath, everyone is reasonable. We have degraded history and culture into folk dances and costumes, a belief that the world is filled with not just Canadians, but Pearson-era Canadians: hard-working, sensible, professional people who may sometimes act up but who are as pragmatic and decent as Ed Broadbent. We expect Pearson but we often encounter Mengistu, Mugabe or worse. The conflict between our rose-coloured multicultural expectations and a violent oppressive reality causes us to withdraw, like Anne, back home to a country based on illusions.

In some ways it’s unfair to single out Echlin’s novel, the NDP or Canada. This problem – how to deal with crises, genocide and repression born of political or religious extremism – has gripped and mostly overwhelmed modern liberal democracies. It is understandably tempting for us to look at our domestic successes instead of coming to grips with the complexities, and sometimes the horrors, that much of the world endures.

Admittedly, some have grappled with what Samantha Power, a colleague of Michael Ignatieff’s at Harvard and now foreign policy advisor to President Obama, has called “the problem from hell”: how to confront genocide and, more broadly, any government that oppresses its people.

The focus on genocide, though, misses the point: by the time a genocide or mass killing is under way it is difficult to stop, even with all the political and military will in the world. After the fact, the genocides of the 1990s spawned United Nations concepts like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), another in a long line of empty UN promises, one the then Liberal government helped draft. It states that every government has the responsibility to protect its citizens, with unspecified consequences if it doesn’t, and goes on to emphasize how this responsibility is vested in the supreme authority of each nation-state to govern its own affairs. It is the equivalent of a teacher trying to discourage the school bully by praising the size of his biceps.

A counterpoint to the wishful thinking of R2P is the recent effort led in Canada by a group including Senator Romeo Dallaire.3 It has tried to give teeth to R2P through a doctrine called the Will to Intervene. Looking to Kosovo for inspiration and to Rwanda for a warning, the group spells out the responsibilities of nation-states and the consequences – which include the use of military force – if they fail to live up to their responsibilities. The promoters of the Will to Intervene are brave in making explicit the ultimate consequence for states planning genocide, and in stating that an individual nation or group of nations can act to stop genocide without United Nations approval. But to date the promoters have been vague in defining the criteria to trigger sanctions, blockades and armed intervention.

The vagueness is dangerous; it gives countries an easy excuse to explain their passivity. And the concept doesn’t address what happens if, for example, Britain decides that it has a Will to Intervene in Darfur, and China, with significant economic interests in the region, decides to intervene on the other side. The Will to Intervene could lead, not to a new world of humanitarian foreign policy, but to an old-fashioned war.

The most careful attempt to define a coherent liberal interventionist position is that put forward by the British academic Paul Collier in Wars, Guns, and Votes. As good as Collier’s book is, he still ignores a key problem illustrated by Echlin’s naive view of atrocities and policy. More on that later.

Collier tries to give a framework to the liberal interventionist doctrine that was most notably expressed by the British Labour government after its election in 1997. The successes of the doctrine were the unilateral military intervention in Sierra Leone and leadership in the NATO-led actions against Serbia. As Blair said, “They ask me why I don’t get rid of Mugabe … Why not the Burmese lot? … I don’t because I can’t. But when you can, you should.”4 The doctrine foundered when Britain joined the American invasion of Afghanistan, and sank under the weight of the ineptly executed war in Iraq. Liberal interventionism, if not tied to a set of clearly defined ideological or even procedural benchmarks, starts to look like imperialism, as the American neoconservatives have shown.

In his earlier book The Bottom Billion, Collier argued that foreign aid contributes to and exacerbates poverty in many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In his new book, using extensive data, he provides suggestions for tackling the problems from hell head on: How do we define a bad government? Is democracy necessarily better than dictatorship, military rule or other authoritarian regimes? How and why and when should we help get rid of “bad” governments? What should we expect from a replacement regime we help install?

To ask these questions is to walk into very uncomfortable territory. Collier does it with his eyes open, and talks the reader through every step of the way. He dissects the failures of democracy in impoverished countries of the bottom billion, establishing that poor democracies endure higher levels of political violence than poor dictatorships. “In the typical society of the bottom billion,” he concludes, “electoral competiton, far from disciplining a government into good policies, drives it into worse ones.” Not until a country’s per capita annual income exceeds about $2,700 does democracy typically reduce political violence.

Collier provides many reasons why poor countries and elections don’t mix: ethnic diversity encourages leaders to play off one community against another; bribery works – the list goes on. He does acknowledge that it is elections that are the problem, not democracy in principle. Nonetheless, Collier is guilty of the same sin of which he accuses others, especially well-meaning internationalists: confusing the concept of democracy, popular rule, with ballot boxes.

The theory of elections leading to conflict in the context of poverty makes sense. Even in a prosperous and stable country like Canada, elections are usually as close to conflict as we get. Listen to the language of our politics. We have attack ads and rapid response teams; campaigning politicians talk of the “air war” for control of the media; parties compete in sign wars to demonstrate their dominance over their territory. We may use small plastic signs and not AK-47s or bundles of five-dollar bills, but the intention is the same.

Collier moves on to the responsibilities of wealthy countries, and how their assistance could be made more positive. Rather than pushing for elections, he not surprisingly urges support for measures conducive to economic growth, assistance in combating inflation and other standard tools.

Where he goes beyond the ordinary is in making the connection between economic growth and political stability, and the need for the international community to safeguard the latter as much as the former. No one will invest when their investment is likely to be stolen or destroyed – unless they’re investing in guns or other tools of insecurity.

When I visited Kabul in 2002, just after the overthrow of the Taliban, the hills around the city were dotted with mud-brown houses that blended into the stone; you had to look hard to differentiate between the shadows cast by windows and those by boulders, or between a war-damaged house and a pile of fallen scree. When I visited two years later, those same hills were covered with homes painted bright blue and other colours. There were few damaged buildings, and paths and even roads had been repaired. People had come to believe that things were going to get better, and that it was worth investing in their houses.

Collier goes on to elaborate on how the international community could help a country at risk of a coup, a stolen election or a foreign invasion: offer it a contract, with set conditions that it promises to enforce. This is somewhat akin to the strategy covered by the Will to Intervene. Instead of a response to a burgeoning catastrophe, however, these compacts between states or groups of states could be signed long before a crisis bubbles to the surface. Aid would be conditional on human rights abuses being curtailed and minority groups being protected, and the consequences for stealing an election would be the same as for staging a coup: intervention in some form, including military.

At first this idea sounds hopelessly naive, but it was given effect recently with the Kerry-Lugar aid package negotiated between the United States and Pakistan. In addition to a massive increase in assistance, enough according to some experts to buy the Taliban out of the war, the aid comes with a thick string attached: if the army intervenes in politics, the money stops.

But that’s still stopping short of the ultimate sanction: military intervention. And we have to accept that in some cases some armies, some politicians, will not be stopped by anything except their forcible removal from power. Look at Mugabe, who has endured sanctions and isolation; he only agreed to a power-sharing government when his own courtiers started to grow worried that the old man was losing his grip, and pushed him into a deal.

Collier is primarily motivated by a lifetime of work in sub-Saharan Africa where, for the last two decades, most violence has been the result of internal groups contending for power. By focusing on the relationships between mostly small states involved in a security contract, he ignores the larger picture of regional or global powers unhappy or unwilling to accept humanitarian military intervention in their spheres of influence by a country such as the United States, Britain or France. Collier hopes that states will rationally accept the benefits of increased security, but this ignores the role of emotion in international affairs.

A test for Collier is to apply his prescriptions to the country of Echlin’s novel, Cambodia, a country he never mentions. What would you do if you had been in the shoes of Hun Sen, the Khmer Prime Minister installed by the Vietnamese after their invasion? He has run the country more or less uninterrupted since 1985, and is named as the man responsible for the murder of Serey in The Disappeared.

Don’t answer this question as a comfortable Canadian, with the privilege to do the best thing under the best circumstances. Imagine yourself surrounded by literal enemies on all sides, your country filled with armed groups ranging from old monarchists (the class Serey’s family belonged to), backed by the United States, to the Khmer Rouge, backed by China and then by the United States and Britain5 and helped by Thailand. You know the Vietnamese can depose you whenever they want, and you know your people hate the Vietnamese.

You have no money, no infrastructure, a traumatized and illiterate population, a country littered with mass graves and minefields. An election has been imposed by the international community, in which the armed groups participate, except the Khmer Rouge, who won’t allow the vote to take place in the third of the country they control. You lose the election. Citing the probable truth that your monarchist opponents are not capable of running the country, would you do as Hun Sen did: refuse to cede power and, under pressure, form a coalition government with the rightful winners and lead an unstable cohabitation for three years?

Your first focus is on security, on winning the war against the Khmer Rouge. When your monarchist opponents appear set on allying themselves – not for the first time – with Pol Pot, you move against them in a short and bloody civil war. In the years that follow, from time to time you kill political opponents, disrupt opposition rallies and generally fit the model of a soft authoritarian.

But at the same time you allow elections, one the year after the civil war, and then coinciding with the final defeat of the Khmer Rouge. In each successive vote the environment is acknowledged to be freer and more peaceful by international observers, many of whom can’t stand your government and squirm when your seat total increases election after election. The country develops rapidly but unequally; big businesses generate massive wealth that doesn’t reach many towns and villages. Massive improvements in infrastructure occur; life expectancy rises (from 57.9 in 2003 to 62.1 in 20096), as does per capita GDP (from $743 in 1998 to $2,082 in 2008).7

Is Hun Sen a dictator, a democrat or some mixture of the two? Beyond that, is he what the country needed, or was his tight control sufficient justification for the sanctions and condemnations that some countries, notably the United States, heaped on Cambodia for nearly 20 years?

It is hard to imagine anyone having done a better job than Hun Sen at leading his country from devastation to the threshold of prosperity. As an efficient “soft autoritarian,” Hun Sen would presumably pass Collier’s tests and should not be subject to international sanction. Furthermore, he has been sensitive to pressure applied by donor countries, in precisely the way that Collier predicts. Far from the traumatized and alien landscape pictured in The Disappeared, Cambodia has risen beyond its traumas in a way that few can imagine.

But while Cambodia’s rulers have shown themselves to be, well, sensitive, things today are regressing. Even though Cambodia has reached a per capita income where Collier suggests democracy should be beneficial, show trials for blameless opposition leaders are continuing, people are being forced from their land to make way for Chinese-backed industries, and the country’s natural resources are being stripped.

For critics, this is proof that Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party are as bad as their critics had always maintained. Collier would see inadequately drafted contracts that failed to envision new events. Until a few years ago Cambodia was supported by foreign aid from Western donors; now, the booming Chinese economy has pushed across the borders. Suddenly the soft contracts, aid money in exchange for human rights protection, are not binding.

Because they weren’t backed by hard threats, and the Chinese are not known for imposing moral strictures on their trading partners, Hun Sen is free, if he wants, to make Cambodia into another Burma, another Sudan. The chances are he won’t, because he benefited politically and economically from his strategically improved behaviour, but there are no guarantees, and neither the Cambodian people nor the donors who have given millions of dollars to the country over the course of nearly 20 years have any recourse.

Here is the flaw in Dallaire and Collier: they never raise the obvious, central point: why should we in the West care? Echlin at least is honest with her central character. Anne cares only for Serey and herself; the world’s traumas are a backdrop to her own middle-class Canadian existence. Echlin’s honesty lets her off the hook, but the question remains. Yes, there are economic and security consequences arising from the misery of the bottom billion. But in our advanced democracies it’s hard to convince people to vote to protect their own pension schemes, let alone to launch foreign wars to preserve the integrity of an election in some far-off minor country.

Ultimately, Echlin’s novel and Collier’s analysis pose a moral question. We need to remember that it was not simple self-interest or economic necessity that allowed the evolution of our admittedly flawed modern democracies. We chose to be more inclusive, to be more tolerant, to be angered by oppression to the point that sometimes we would do something about it, including spilling blood. The hard question is the one Peter Stoffer, an NDP MP from Nova Scotia, asked Dallaire: how do we get the Chinese and Indians to buy into this? Until we are ready to answer that question by saying that we are ready to sign contracts regardless of what the Chinese think, then liberal interventionism will always fail.

Collier’s statistics and Dallaire’s arguments are both pillars for a sound and moral foreign policy based on the principles of internationalism that informed the left for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. As a developed democracy, we have to recapture the spirit that led us to know that democracy is ultimately something worth fighting for. We have to convince Echlin’s Anne that it would have been better for her to stay in Cambodia, to fight for what she believed in. And our political class has to talk to Canadians about how globalization has brought us immense benefits and power, but for too long we have ignored the accompanying responsibilities.

Without a rebirth of Enlightenment values in an ideological vessel suited for the 21st century, the bottom billion will remain prey for powerful states. In the 19th century imperial powers included France and Britain. In the 20th century, the United States and Soviet Union exercised that role. Now it is the turn of China and India. Neither Collier’s nor Dallaire’s solution can block a great power from doing damage to the bottom billion if so inclined.

Continue reading “Canada on the World Stage”

Tony Blair’s legacy is a redefinition of what it means to be of the left

In the May 6 British general election, David Cameron’s Tories took 306 seats – 48 more than Labour, which had been in power for more than a decade, but 20 short of an outright majority. For five days, both Labour and the Tories courted the third-place Liberal Democrats in the hope of assembling a parliamentary majority. The prospect of Labour staying in office via a “coalition of losers” was not a popular option – even among many Labour MPs. After five days, the Tories and Lib Dems crafted a formal coalition. Gordon Brown resigned, both as Prime Minister and as Labour leader; he announced his intention to leave Parliament. This marks the end of a political movement that began in 1983. That year, in an election that resulted in a disastrous loss for Labour, among the new MPs in the Labour caucus were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Over the next decade and a half they overturned traditional Labour Party policies, and from 1997 to 2010 they governed Britain. Now is a good time to assess the successes and failures of their “New Labour” project.

A good place to begin this assessment is with two books by Anthony Seldon, a school headmaster and a prolific writer of “contemporary history”: books about currents in modern British politics. He has written about Margaret Thatcher and two massive tomes on Tony Blair, Blair (2004) and Blair Unbound (2007). Seldon’s exercises in “contemporary history” entail interviews with a vast number of players; this produces a great deal of chaff that other historians will in time blow away. His books are, for the moment, the best accounts available of Blair’s political career and influence. Blair is a controversial political figure, nowhere more so than on the intellectual left – in Canada as in Britain – where he is often damned as a usurper who manipulated the Labour Party into an embrace of Thatcher’s libertarian economic ideas and George W. Bush’s messianic imperial overreach.

In his review of Blair Unbound for the London Times, Simon Jenkins concluded that “Seldon does not place Blair in any political or historical tradition.” Jenkins, a prominent British journalist, succinctly stated the conventional left-wing dismissal:

Blair’s heart was always in Washington and his head in the clouds … The truth is that Blair was good at being Blair, but not prime minister. He never mastered the art of government. The list of his achievements (Ulster, tax credits, a minimum wage) is meagre compared with what he left undone, notably in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan and in his incoherent upheavals of the health, education, police and local government services.1

Blair made profound mistakes, an excessive faith in U.S. military competence to wage war in Iraq being the most dramatic. A more nuanced review of Seldon’s book, and of Blair, came from the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer:

Seldon doesn’t spare on Iraq, nor on foreign policy in general. He is more grudging on Ireland than he is understanding on Iraq, but he does realise that, here more than anywhere, judgment must be reserved … Seldon also understands that the second term was when Blair really found a method for reform of the public sector. It was when the spending restrictions were lifted that he found the policy to meet his instinct that extra money alone was not enough … The third term was, in many ways, the most fruitful: school reform, the NHS into surplus, pensions reform, energy, Northern Ireland … Looked at by a historian, rather than a participant with a column, Blair gets a good report.2

Whether the Telegraph’s reviewer had Jenkins in mind as the “participant with a column,” I have no idea. But Seldon’s books are important. They oblige an honest reader to recognize the substance of Blair’s effort to renew the “old” social democratic discourse that, by the time of Thatcher’s election in 1979, had become a set of ideological blinkers rendering the left in Britain a menace, unfit to govern. Better than anyone else, Blair understood that until the left addressed that which was legitimate in Thatcherism, it deserved to be out of office.

While parties rise and fall, the ideas that underlie them persist. No one disputes the influence of Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional ideas on Canada, regardless whether one agrees with them. In terms of ideas, the New Labour project represented the most successful and controversial social democratic movement in the Western world since the 1970s. It deserves inspection.

Blair through a Canadian lens

An interesting Canadian parallel is with J.S. Woodsworth, first leader of Canada’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (predecessor of the New Democratic Party), and one of many who claimed that socialism was “Christianity in practice.” In many ways Tony Blair differs from Woodsworth: Woodsworth never came near to governing while Blair was Prime Minister for ten years; Woodsworth was a pacifist – he even opposed Canadian participation in World War II – whereas Blair was among the most eloquent advocates of war in Iraq. But the two are similar inasmuch as both are deeply religious leaders. We know that Woodsworth bequeathed his legacy to Tommy Douglas. What is Blair’s legacy? What lessons can be drawn from his successes and failures for Canadian social democrats?

There are also parallels between Blair’s marriage of convenience with his Chancellor, rival and ultimate successor, Gordon Brown, and Jean Chrétien’s similar partnership with Paul Martin. First the positive. Even more than Martin under Chrétien, Brown’s fiscal priorities prevailed from Labour’s first victory in 1997 until the end. Martin’s tough budgets in the mid-1990s enabled Canada to end two decades of deficit spending, and to undertake recent fiscal stimulus without undue financial jitters. Brown’s determined opposition to Blair, who wanted Britain to join the euro, was right. Not being in the euro-zone, Britain is not adding to its fiscal woes by lending to Greece and potentially to other fragile euro-zone economies. Brown insisted on big spending increases in health and education, as did Martin once the deficit had been conquered. In retrospect, Brown placed too much faith on stable economic growth and loosely regulated financial markets. The post-2008 recession has hit Britain hard; it now has one of the largest defict/GDP ratios among OECD member countries. Brown spent too much, but spending increases were required to rectify Thatcher’s stinginess with respect to health and education budgets.

The negatives in the two political marriages are obvious. As a campaigner, leader and Prime Minister, Brown was to Blair as Martin was to Chrétien. But just as New Labour’s 1997 election did not mean repudiation of Margaret Thatcher’s moves to constrain trade unions and liberalize the economy, just as the election of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives did not mean Canadians had turned against the social liberalism practised by the Liberals, it would be wrong to view the rejection of Gordon Brown as a repudiation of New Labour.

Discussions around Blair and his legacy are coloured in Canada by our obsession with the United States and the deeply conservative nature of the Canadian left. Blair’s unyielding support for the American-led invasion of Iraq confirmed for the Canadian left that Blair was a usurper. It has ignored everything that Blair and Brown did to modernize the British welfare state.

Formerly close links between the British and Canadian left have atrophied, in part because the Canadian left never experienced an equivalent to the collapse of Labour self-confidence that occurred following the 1983 electoral debacle. Labour campaignd that year on an uncompromising left-wing platform, summarized as the “world’s longest sucide note.” The collapse of NDP support in the 1993 election might have produced an equivalent rethinking of left-wing orthodoxy, but it didn’t. In the 1990s many on the centre-left – Bob Rae the most prominent – simply abandoned the NDP and turned to the Liberals. The Liberals were happy to align with Blair’s ill-defined “Third Way,” a strategy that tried to combine the efficiency of the market with the social solidarity of social democracy, but most of this was opportunism, not ideology. If we leave aside the short-lived “green shift” led by Stéphane Dion, the Canadian Liberals have retreated to a postideological bunker: policies are a distraction from day-to-day partisan jousting.

With Jack Layton’s focus on organization and communications, the federal NDP learned the basics of New Labour’s modernization of electoral tactics. But the NDP has demonstrated no interest in the big ideas that obsess Blair – and major Canadian politicians from Woodsworth to Douglas to Trudeau. While Blair wanted to transform society, the NDP has carved out a niche as a parliamentary watchdog, fighting for lower credit card fees and parliamentary openness. There is no longer anything about the NDP that defines it as radical, other than its heritage and self-image.

Blair’s rise to power

Whether Blair and his New Labour project were or are left-wing is up for debate, but they were unquestionably radical. New Labour ideas dominated British political life for more than a decade. Building on its traditional commitment to well-funded public health and social programs, New Labour came to be trusted on crime and, finally, on tax and fiscal policy. The Conservatives were crushed in 1997 and again in 2001, and in 2005 Labour won an unprecedented third majority.

The party’s first term in office was marked by fiscal prudence, as Labour had to prove that intense and enduring public fears about its tax-and-spend tradition were unfounded. It is easy to downplay those concerns now, but Labour’s previous periods in office, and its “longest suicide note” campaign against Thatcher’s early reforms, had scarred the party’s reputation among the majority. An American pollster, astonished by the visceral dislike of many voters for Labour in the early 1990s, asked rhetorically, “What did you do, to make these people hate you so much?”3 In this context the prudence of 1997–2001 made sense. But it means that an understanding of Blair as Prime Minister, and a fuller exposition of his political beliefs, has to focus on his second and (incomplete) third term in office.

Blair rose to power in a divided Labour Party. First elected in 1983, Blair initially shared an office in the overcrowded Commons with David Nellist, an MP backed by the Trotskyist “Militant Tendency.” The Labour establishment, a coalition of trade unionists and middle-class intellectuals still smarting from their loss of government in 1979, was severely weakened by the 1982 defection of many moderate Labour supporters to found the Social Democratic Party, which soon joined in alliance and eventual union with the old Liberal Party.

At the time, Labour’s radical left was ascendant. Sectarian groups seized control of weakened Labour constituencies; they ran city governments – most notably Liverpool – with spectacular incompetence. Labour appeared to be in a death spiral, driving away moderate supporters and alienating millions of voters who preferred Thatcher’s Tories to incompetent Marxists. For the four million unemployed at the worst of the early 1980s recession, Labour militants offered the finer points of Lenin’s April Theses. The party’s extremism made it impotent, allowing Thatcher to reshape the political landscape.

The Labour establishment began to fight back with the election of Neil Kinnock to replace Michael Foot as leader following the 1983 rout. Kinnock began to reclaim the party, expelling the Militant Tendency after a full-frontal attack. He began to reshape the party’s organization, determined to avoid recent disasters that had seen multiple conflicting election campaigns waged by factions supposedly within the Labour fold.

The necessary price of victory over the ultra-left was an end to the cozy relationship between Labour and trade union leaders. Thatcher’s aggressive, and widely popular, anti-union legislation of the 1980s generated bitter strikes, the most dramatic being that of the coal miners, led by Arthur Scargill. Under Kinnock, Labour refused to serve as backup to leaders such as Scargill. Where decisions had been decided by former Labour prime ministers and union leaders over “beer and sandwiches” in Number 10, it was clear to Kinnock, himself elected with union support, that future Labour governments would have to maintain a critical distance from organized labour. Not surprisingly, for Labour leaders to define and accept such a critical distance took many years. Trade unions were not just related to Labour; the Trades Union Congress was Labour’s parent, creating the party through a resolution in 1900 – just as the Canadian Labour Congress united with the CCF to give birth to the NDP six decades later.

Ironically, Labour adopted many of the ultra-left demands for change in the party’s culture and procedures, and these changes contributed to the rise of Blair. Incumbent MPs now had to secure renomination by party members before each election; the party’s governing bodies opened to include more grassroots members; and space was made for women, young people and minority communities. Union influence was reduced: the “block vote” that allowed union leaders to cast several million votes at party conferences was curbed. This allowed a new generation of activists to feel welcome in the party. The party grew. In the 1987 election Labour outperformed Thatcher’s Conservatives, then at the peak of their power. But a slick campaign was not enough to conceal the fact that beneath the new logo – a stylized rose, combining an old socialist symbol with an English icon – the old policies of nationalization, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Union were still in place. Thatcher won; Kinnock lost.

Kinnock won his big battles with his party in open combat, a lesson Blair, moving up the ranks of the Shadow Cabinet in the late 1980s, learned well. Appeasement is the enemy of democracy, which relies on open conflict between clearly articulated positions. He was frustrated by the slow pace of change under Kinnock, and sensed that much more clarity about its policy changes was required before “middle England” would again trust Labour.

Here, around 1990, the paths of the NDP and Labour diverged. It is worth recalling that between Brian Mulroney’s initial victory in 1984 and the subsequent free trade election in 1988, the federal NDP was a major force in Canadian politics. Realistically, party leaders hoped to replace the Liberals as official opposition; some speculated about assuming power. As in Britain, union leaders overplayed their hand. Accusing Ed Broadbent of insufficient vigour in opposing Canada–United States free trade in the 1988 election, union leaders forced the party to the left, which led to an ignominious rout in the 1993 election. The party remained on the critical list for the next decade.

In 2003, Judy Rebick, Buzz Hargrove and Svend Robinson led the New Politics Initiative, a less potent equivalent of the Trotskyist Militants within Labour. The NPI advocated an incoherent mash of New Left social policies and economic protectionism. After dispatching the NPI, the NDP’s new leader, Jack Layton, did as Kinnock had, moving away from the unions. Layton championed fashionable left-wing reforms but, rather than collecting his commitment to bicycles, communities and recycling into a coherent whole, the party promoted boutique programs aimed at small constituencies, coupled with a pragmatic approach to working with other parties in Parliament. While this strategy has restored the party to levels of popular support obtained in the 1970s, it also represents the politics of low expectations. The party refused to bury old myths: NDP events continue to use the language of mid-20th-century trade union conventions. The red rhetoric clashes with the pale pink policies on offer.

The NDP has a base of old activists and new voters to maintain in uneasy balance; confronting either with its intellectual limits could lead to electoral oblivion. British Labour in the 1980s, the Canadian Tories in the 1990s and Ignatieff’s Liberals right now showed us that voters don’t take kindly to a party engaged in civil war. But a cautious approach that avoids all the major political tradeoffs is equally unlikely to yield electoral dividends. There were many moments in Blair’s leadership when his pushing the party towards the mainstream could have been rejected, notably his campaign to dump Clause IV in the party constitution. This was the clause stating that the party’s goal was to nationalize the economy. In 1995 he succeeded in replacing it with the reassuring communitarian statement that “We achieve more together than we can apart.”

In the 1992 election, John Major, Thatcher’s successor, defeated Neil Kinnock in a campaign that exploited the public fear of Labour tax increases. Kinnock promptly resigned and was replaced by the conciliatory John Smith, who galvanized Blair and the modernizers – although not Gordon Brown: Blair urged Brown to stand against Smith for the leadership, but Brown refused. In 1994, upon Smith’s premature death, Brown ceded his aspirations to Blair, who ran successfully to be leader.

Blair’s election as Labour leader was the first to be based on a partial “one member one vote” system that gave the party membership a large say. Blair’s personal biography was middle-class with aspirations; his parents worked hard to send him to private school, despite his father’s suffering a serious stroke and, a few years later, the death of his mother. He went on to Oxford, where he became first a Christian, then a socialist. He briefly practised law in London before being selected, at the last minute, for a safe Labour seat in the northeast for the 1983 election.

Blair’s connection to the Christian- or ethical-socialist tradition, which emphasizes community cooperation over state control, could have led to strong links with the Canadian social gospel tradition (had that tradition survived). Unlike Labour in Britain and Labor in Australia, both trade union parties, the CCF was at the outset a party in the Blairist mould: community-based, emphasizing financial restraint and voluntary cooperation in place of grand statist visions. The nationalizing rhetoric of the Regina Manifesto was a sop to the Marxian wing of the party, much as was Clause IV for most Labour leaders. However, transformation of the CCF into the NDP directed Canadian social democracy away from the ethical-socialist tradition and, as we have seen, the NDP has now comfortably settled into its niche, far removed from power.

Instead, Blair drew on Scottish and Australian philosophers, coupled with strong connections to party organizers who emphasized the electoral advantages to be gained. From the outset Blair hoped to reunite the Liberal and Labour traditions that had separated at the dawn of the 20th century. Long forgotten is that Blair’s natural pessimism as to Labour’s electoral chances led him to offer the Liberal Democrats a role in his first government, a promise ironically broken by Labour’s massive majority in the 1997 election. The victory denied Blair any tactical reason to persuade the Labour Party’s base to dilute its own control over the government.

Reform at home and trouble abroad

Seldon’s Blair Unbound takes Blair from his second general election victory in May 2001 through to his departure from Downing Street in June 2007. Seldon portrays a Prime Minister who grew steadily into his job, pushing ever more radical programs as the end of his career drew closer. Despite the distractions of Brown’s endless campaign for the party leadership, and the dissent caused by Blair’s support for the invasion of Iraq, the Blair of Unbound is not the poodle of Bush; above all he is a domestic reformer who pushes transformation in health care and education, who oversees a successful peace process in Northern Ireland and devolution for Scotland and Wales, who greatly expands protections from discrimination and who presides over the country’s longest period of economic growth.

Georges W. Bush and Tony Blair in the Blue Room

Not all is positive. Under Blair came a mild but pervasive authoritarianism, a faith in government regulation and intervention in citizens’ everyday lives. This area of Blair’s leadership has been little examined. The sympathies of the old left, keen on regulation, and of the right, keen to be “tough on crime” and to revive the spirit of the Blitz through laws relating to the post-9/11 war on terror, coincided to downplay erosion of British liberties, including habeas corpus and the right to satirize religious beliefs. Blair’s communitarian instinct led him to empathize with middle-class abhorrence of what crime and lawlessness wreaked on poor communities and communal spaces. The result has been a massive increase in public and private surveillance. Britain set a benchmark for closed-circuit television sales that the Chinese did not match. “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders” attempted to contain bad behaviour, but at the cost of semicriminalizing behaviour that had been dealt with by community standards, the old-fashioned tools of public shame and ostracism. Blair the communitarian made the authoritarian mistake of thinking public morals could be changed through legislation, not education.

On the world scene Blair’s liberal internationalism received widespread recognition when applied with military force to Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and to leadership on debt relief to poor countries and aid to sub-Saharan Africa. This was a consistent theme, and no one should have been surprised by his decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair’s decision to join George Bush in the invasion of Iraq consumed much of the political oxygen in British and world politics between 2002 and 2007, and takes up much of Unbound.

The caricature of Blair as Bush’s lapdog is nonsense. Independent of the United States, Blair wanted to remove Saddam Hussein and he stated repeatedly that the only reason he didn’t pursue other dictators such as Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta was that the geopolitical environment and Britain’s limited resources didn’t allow it.4 Blair insisted that Bush seek a second United Nations Security Council resolution to spell out conditions under which Saddam could prevent the invasion. France’s announcement that it would veto any resolution that included the threatened use of force ended the diplomatic track. Blair hoped that British support would moderate U.S. policy and influence conduct of the war. That proved naive. From 2003 to 2007, the United States attempted to prevail by brute military force. It required the internal U.S. army dissension associated with General David Petraeus to reorient U.S. military and diplomatic strategy.

The government’s obsession with “political spin,” the presentation of public information in a favourable manner, should not mask the fact that Blair was actually revealing information to the public. The so-called “Dodgy Dossier” included what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence information about Iraqi weapons systems. Few governments would have released such information in the first place, and likely few will in the future given the multi-year media flogging Blair and his entourage received for allegedly “sexing up” the intelligence. For many, especially on the left, it was easier to imagine that politicians were lying than to entertain the more worrying thesis that Saddam’s tyrannical regime was superbly efficient at misinforming the world, including Western intelligence agencies, as to its intentions.

Transforming the beloved but creaking National Health Service was a high priority of the Labour government. During the first and early second terms the focus was simple: a massive injection of cash. In a January 2000 interview Blair committed to increasing health spending from 5.7 per cent of GDP to the European average of 8.0 per cent.5 It became clear that money could not resolve structural and management defects, and Blair began an increasingly aggressive campaign to introduce private-sector incentives into the health system, based around the idea of foundation hospitals, state-supported but managed by nonprofit or private foundations, an innovation that had met with considerable success in Spain.

A similar approach was tried in education, where foundation schools or academies were introduced, cautiously and in the face of stiff teachers’ union opposition. The results spoke for themselves, and the program spread, coupled with a renewed focus on teacher training standards. Brown, who resisted many of Blair’s plans to introduce incentives into provision of public services, eventually became a convert to foundation schools.

Blair was an effective leader but he had little understanding of how large organizations worked and little interest in finding out. Brown was similarly handicapped. Blair often approached policymaking with blunt analytical tools. First, he would spend money. If that did not succeed, he would look for private-sector solutions. Significant reviews intended to make the bureaucracy more efficient within the context of ongoing exclusive public ownership and public supply were rare.

“Your problem is that neither you nor anyone in Number 10 has ever managed anything,” said a senior civil servant to Blair, in a comment that applied to most senior Labour politicians. An aide told Seldon that Blair “was very concerned that the 2001 election should give him a personal mandate for radical reform, but he was uncertain exactly what the radical reform should be,” and Seldon adds, “It took him time to realize that attending ‘third way’ jamborees, or announcing policy initiatives in speeches, did not automatically translate into hard policy.”6 This blind spot contributed to Blair’s tendency to move quickly toward private solutions, which worsened relations with public-sector workers who felt reforms threatened not just the way they worked, but survival of their jobs. In this conundrum Blair’s instinct was healthy inasmuch as the public service exists to provide the public with services, not public servants with jobs. But his lack of attention to public administration meant missed opportunities to engage with genuine reformers within government.

This failure to recognize the importance of organizational structures left the government prey to rapid policy reversals, often provoked by a Treasury keen to use the power of the purse to support the position of the Chancellor and his political allies instead of delivering on government promises. Seldon addresses this point repeatedly, but never draws the obvious conclusion that a failure of management requires a focus on management. He highlights the impact of personalities in Blair’s entourage – notably Peter Mandelson, the political organizer turned cabinet minister turned European Commissioner, Alastair Campbell, Number 10’s famously pugnacious communications director, and Anji Hunter, Blair’s assistant from the early days of his political career – and notes when each outlived his or her usefulness. He chronicles the rise of Andrew Adonis, the policy wizard who gave Blair’s later reforms their intellectual weight. Seldon’s conclusion: Blair was not a policy expert, but he could evaluate which policies would drive his agenda forward.

Large questions, incomplete answers

The 2008–09 recession slammed Britain and shredded Labour’s policies. The damage was made more severe because Blair and Brown’s liberalizing policies had dismantled the harbour wall of regulation that surrounded the finance and banking sector, making the sector more competitive when the financial seas were calm but vulnerable to the perfect storm that swept the world in 2008. The scandals that stain most aging governments also multiplied. Voters remembered Blair’s long-ago promise to run a “purer than pure” government, and contrasted the promise with a torrent of ministerial resignations, corruption and sex scandals.

The optimism of late-nineties “Cool Britannia,” with London the world’s capital of finance and with Brit-pop, artist Damien Hirst and British writers and thinkers ascendant, dissolved into “Broken Britain.” The country’s self-image crumbled under the crimes of a new underclass resistant to every government program, ethnic ghettos infected with Islamic fundamentalism and a parliamentary expenses scandal that exposed politicians from all parties as white collar thieves. Faith in institutions is at a nadir, and the idea of community at the heart of Blair’s philosophy has been eroded by fear, individualism and consumerism. Many of Blair’s goals from 1997, such as being “at the heart of Europe,” are further from realization now than then. If Blair’s goal was to transform first Labour and then Britain, it is easy to conclude – as a shattered party examines its electoral entrails in a divided country – that he failed.

But that easy conclusion is too harsh. Blair transformed Labour, just as Thatcher had transformed the Conservatives, and in the process he forced the Conservatives to change once more. Leader after leader attempted to reincarnate the spirit of Thatcher and foundered on the rocks of public disapproval. The Tories finally acknowledged that success lay in reincarnating Tony Blair; hence the rise of David Cameron. Labour forced the Conservatives to abandon libertarian excess; that has to count as a victory for progressive politics.

In social policies Blair advocated new paths to success, but failed to sustain them. For the British left, much now depends on how the transition from Brown to a new Labour leader is handled. Will the party embrace internal democracy and have an open leadership race that encourages ideas, or will it conduct a quick contest? A quick contest will probably eliminate the chance for appealing modernizers such as David Miliband and James Purnell. The danger exists that, in reaction to its defeat, Labour will return to being a champion of “old Labour” verities.

Blair stood against his party on many issues, and against the public – most notably on Iraq. The accusation that he adjusted his rhetoric to remain popular is wrong. Like Thatcher, he was a “conviction politician,” but undeniably he often seemed to be in search of convictions. He had principles, based on his religious and political evolution, but he struggled to transform them into a coherent ideology. He famously said that Labour should pursue “principles without specific policy prescriptions,” but he failed to realize that it is the elevation of policy prescriptions into political struggles that motivates people to engage in democratic politics. In this failure Blair is not unique. He was an ambitious failure: the modern democratic left is still struggling to motivate people with a battle cry that focuses less on the workers losing their chains and more on making sure every home has a white picket fence and that children achieve higher school grades.

A post-Blair left will have to return to basic questions, the most important being “What is government for?” In the face of a century of evidence, the answer is that we want government to take the lead in the sectors of health, education, welfare, infrastructure, environment and justice. In those areas we need to make the public service excel; beyond them government must step aside, and serve as the defender of individual liberty, creativity and market competition.

Tony Blair started to redefine what it means to be of the left, not just in Britain but in the wider Western world. That is his legacy. That Blair, in government, incompletely answered the questions he posed – about liberal international interventionism, communitarianism, consumer-oriented public services – is testament to a seriousness of purpose, not to failure.

Continue reading “New Labour: A Retrospective”

Kevin Little defends Red Tories but offers little hope. On the plus side, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservatives won a landslide this September on a platform of lavish and often superficially egalitarian promises – for example, the PCs were the only major party that promised to reverse tax cuts for the wealthy. Next door a very Red Tory, Jamie Baillie, became leader of the Nova Scotia PCs. But rearranging furniture in the bunker will not slow the extinction of an outdated ideology.

The Red Tory conceit is that social democratic policies and economic protectionism can be deployed to support more traditional social relationships. Old elites maintain their place while giving everyone else enough money and services to keep them quiet. Lip service is paid to hard work and fiscal restraint. The core contradiction in the Red Tory idea, that old societies can harness modern economies, is exposed in the record of profligacy and debt that marks Red Tories in government, at both the federal and the provincial level.

Little posits that Atlantic Canada, the last bastion of a Red Tory idea now expunged from the federal and most provincial Conservative parties, struck some sort of economic bargain with Upper Canada at Confederation, giving the region the right to take transfer payments in exchange for the destruction of our manufacturing sector and subsequent declines in productivity. The reality is more prosaic, as old cultural and commercial elites traded the risks and promise of a modern society for a quiet and well subsidized decline.

As a result, economic development in Atlantic Canada took on characteristics of underdevelopment usually seen in poor countries, with transfer payments taking the place of international assistance. Local elites have benefited, in cash and influence, from kowtowing to policies enjoying popularity in Ottawa or in “have” provinces, and have been rewarded by voters benefiting from jobs or job-creation programs.

Red Toryism, like all ideologies that look nostalgically to an imagined past, inflicts economic and social costs on the majority. New Brunswick has lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on preserving increasingly unprofitable resource-based industries, and disguised its inattention to health and education programs through comfortable accommodation with public-sector unions. The costs of these actions have been borne by the 56 per cent of the province’s residents who have low literacy skills and find themselves trapped in a cycle of underemployment. The opportunities of the modern world are largely closed to them.

Red Tories use the welfare state to fend off upstart entrepreneurs and political reformers who challenge their comfortable inefficiency. Patronage is warmed over and described as egalitarianism – as if a snowplough operator does not realize that his job depends on which politician he supports come election time. Economic development agencies distort the business environment, making the politically well connected competitive regardless of whether their goods or services appeal to buyers. Many ambitious Atlantic Canadians, without the restrictions on mobility that limit the citizens of poor countries or the connections needed to do well at home, vote with their feet and move away.

Trying to revive the brand in the face of its failure in practice, Little, Baillie and others look for salvation in etymology: conservatism’s shared root with conservation. British Prime Minister David Cameron is praised for his green-friendly talk of the “big society” and for replacing his party’s Thatcher-era logo with a green tree. But even Little notes that the Cameron lifeline is fraying. Cameron is governing as a deep-Blue Tory, as the environment takes a back seat to swingeing government spending cuts.

Red Tories have been reluctant to enter battle in another area, tradition, which could offer political purchase. There has been no coherent, mainstream Red Tory defence of the core Enlightenment values of freedom, responsibility and tolerance. This may be because the cultural vein those freedoms mine is not compatible with the Red Tory mindset, which favours more limited freedoms.

The Red Tory model can survive only when other governments, quicker to accept the costs and benefits of economic and social openness, stand ready to share their wealth. Just as the self-image of British Toryism – the country squire who treats his peasants right, thus earning the doffing of the cloth cap – was a fiction invented by the elite to conceal a rigid class structure, so too do Red Tories deny the reality of modern Canada. Like it or not, our successful governments have followed a more neoconservative (British Columbia, Alberta) or social democratic (Saskatchewan, Manitoba) path.

The way ahead seems depressing for Atlantic provinces emerging from the cocoon of Red Tory stasis. Britain fell into stagnation after 30 years of postwar consensus before being overtaken by the Thatcher revolution. So the Red Tory consensus that has dominated Atlantic politics will likely be washed away by a neoconservative wave brought in by a tide of debt and deficits and an aging, shrinking population. As with all such waves, there will be needless destruction.

A possible alternative can be seen in the region’s largest economy where a New Democratic government, led by a self-described “conservative progressive,” was elected in 2009 and has taken steps – including a hike to the HST and cuts to spending – to address the looming crisis. The NDP did not campaign on many of the reforms now being introduced and they have provoked dissent inside and outside the party. Darrell Dexter’s option may yet fail, but it does provide a realistic alternative to the Red Tories’ weak traditional medicine and the “starve the beast” prescription of the neocons.

The Red Tory Little defends is kinder than Stephen Harper or Mike Harris, but less honest. The offer of a free lunch in exchange for economic dependency and elite control, made more palatable by warm words about culture, community and collectivity, is unsustainable. The future will be decided the day the transfer payments stop. On that day, the Red Tories will die. Then the poorest region of our country can set about deciding what sort of future it wants.

Canada can make a difference

Afghanistan’s so-called marriage law, much discussed in recent months, is a disgrace. It leads us to ask why Canadian and other soldiers are dying to support a government that denies women the freedom to control their own bodies. Reports about warlords in President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, prosperous opium farms and graft cracking the foundation of an economy our aid dollars are supposed to be reinforcing raise similar questions.

But the debate should not be about who is better, Karzai or the Taliban; the debate should be about Canada. What do we stand for, a country of 32 million in a world of more than six billion? Why did we send soldiers to this faraway point on the planet? And if we can answer those questions, and they lead us to see an obligation in Afghanistan, what should we be doing there?

Accidents of old empires favoured Canada with borders that allow us to be small-minded. We pretend the world’s problems are far away, and enjoy the protection of our oceans and the Americans. Our self-image as humanitarians and peacekeepers is sentimentality, not internationalism. The reality is that our development programs are modest, our diplomatic footprint is small and our military suffers from erratic support and direction. We have benefited from good luck, but are now reluctant to share it with others.

Where we are blessed, Afghanistan is cursed. It lies in a tidal zone of struggle between world powers: Persian, British, Soviet, American. Waves of conflict have scoured the country, stripping it of everything except the most hardened political organisms. Afghan villages are fortified barnacles that have survived. They are led by conservatives because most people who are repeatedly attacked tend to become conservative, wary for good reasons of strangers and new ideas. Where we benefited from the Enlightenment, from the struggles between religion and secularism, left and right, Afghanistan has seen the modern world as a legacy of weapons left behind by foreign armies.

Are the rights we enjoy universally relevant?

Great powers are forced by their range of global interests to be hypocrites, doing one thing in one country while advocating the opposite somewhere else. The United States has to justify engagement with Iran, isolation for Cuba and free trade for all unless it threatens U.S. markets. As a small country, Canada has the option of being consistent, of reflecting its principles in its foreign policy. We have a power born of our small size and the protection the Americans are forced to offer us, more or less regardless of our specific policies.

To start, we need to choose between pacifism – with its unavoidable twin, isolationism – and, on the other hand, engagement with an often violent world. Many Canadians deny there is a choice to make. They want Canada’s military restricted to unambiguous peacekeeping and our engagement to consist of worthy development programs. The first of several contradictions in this denial is that our development programs often require protection by someone else’s army.

If principled pacifism and isolationism are rejected, we need to define the terms of our engagement. It is not easy. There is a consensus on what we mean when we talk about good government in Canada: a commitment to rights and freedoms, obligations and the adequate provision of collective goods such as health care and education. Most of all, we mean a commitment to the rule of law, to the ideal that everyone will be subject to the same rules and the same punishments if they break those rules. We never reach that ideal but it serves as a goal and inspiration.

We would show little tolerance for any group in Canada that argued on cultural grounds for the execution of couples who married against their parents’ wishes (as in Afghanistan) or the right of aggrieved cultural majorities to practise genocide on ethnically defined minorities (as in Rwanda). But do we agree that the rights we enjoy are rights that everyone should enjoy? On the left, many insist on accommodating traditional culture; on the right, on leaving people alone. Why should our concern for human rights end for people living on the wrong side of arbitrary borders drawn long ago in Washington, Paris and London? Sometimes foreign intervention works, as did British intervention in Sierra Leone or Vietnamese intervention to overthrow the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.

That doesn’t mean Canada and other states should seek to intervene in every country where substantial human rights abuses exist. There is generally no stomach for such imperial overreach among Western citizens (the Taliban were left in peace until the 9/11 attacks), and in many cases the intervention does not work as intended (think U.S. interventions in Haiti). Opportunities for effective intervention are unusual but, when they are presented, we have no moral justification for refusing to take them on.

It is racist to say, as many on both left and right frequently do, that Afghans are inherently violent, or that democracy can never take root because of the country’s “culture” or “values.” These are excuses for leaving corrupt, extreme or violent elites in charge and letting them run a country in a way we would never recognize as legitimate in Canada. The essence of democracy is that the people choose their leaders and, in Helmand as in Halifax, this is a principle worth defending. We Canadians may collectively not be prepared to sustain the protracted costs, financial and human, of our Afghan mission. But we should not confuse a limited willingness to engage with the world with the self-justifying notion that the majority of Afghans want to be governed by drug-dealing warlords and the Taliban.

Clearly most Afghans today would not vote for legalizing gay marriage or separating religious authority from the state, and many oppose giving women fully equal rights. Today’s Afghan democracy would not be today’s Canadian democracy. But Afghans have shown support for voting by actually going to the polls; they have shown support for the education of girls by enrolling them in schools. In the face of rocks, threats and the ominous click of cell-phone cameras used to aid later abductions and murders, some men and women protested the recent marriage law on the streets of Kabul.

Because we entered this Afghan mission without a sense of ourselves and without a plan for military victory or for reconstruction, we are eroding our chances of reaching any goal. Most Canadians, and nearly all Afghans, agree that Afghanistan could use some of our peace, order and good government. Without peace there can be no order, and without order, no good government. These are not abstractions. There is no point building hospitals when armed groups are free to attack them, or registering girls for school only to make them an easier, concentrated target for suicide bombers.

If we Canadians decide that the rights we enjoy are universally relevant, and that circumstance has provided a reasonable prospect of their export to Afghanistan – in a way sadly absent from Burma, North Korea or much of sub-Saharan Africa – we must think carefully about where we are going, and exactly what we will do.

Making our mission work

To make our mission work: first define it, then commit to it. Defining our mission means accepting that the village and village leaders are the basis of Afghan society, and working to co-opt these men, one by one. This is the only way to reach military and, later, development goals. Our troops have done this, winning support through military protection and public works, but too often they have then been forced to leave, abandoning people who had risked their lives to side with us. Every time this happens we create an image of weakness, of being just another army passing through.

Defining our mission also means remembering an ancient military lesson. Only George W. Bush’s incompetence could have made this lesson seem revolutionary. After years of losing the Iraq war because he didn’t commit enough troops, the success of the “surge” is now mythical and its creator, General Petraeus, has become a latter-day incarnation of the legendary Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. But it’s just common sense: in a counterinsurgency more troops are the first necessary ingredient.

Committing to our mission means that if we are in Kandahar, we should stay in Kandahar. Build support, one village at a time, with consistent occupation, followed by development. That will earn us respect and give the Afghan public concrete reasons to support our presence. Let us be honest about what we are doing, and why.

Committing to our mission also means accepting the deaths that are an inevitable part of war, and forging an understanding of why they are worth incurring. Starting this discussion is the government’s responsibility and both the former Liberal and present Conservative governments deserve harsh criticism for dodging it. What’s the point of democracy if there’s no discussion about something as critical as sending soldiers to die?

Canada can make a difference in Afghanistan. We do not need to spend our time worrying about why the Americans are there; we need to know why we are there, and to plan a mission we can support with confidence. That means an ongoing Canadian presence in whatever part of the country we can afford to occupy, based first on providing security and then on providing for political and physical infrastructure.

Cambodia and Nepal are harbingers of Beijing’s emerging influence

For the last eight years I have lived in South and Southeast Asia – in Bangladesh, Cambodia and now Nepal. I have yet to visit China, but China has come to me. From being invisible to those of us living beyond its borders, a large but not imposing presence, it has become a rival to the United States across the region.

Has this been organized in Beijing? Or was it the organic consequence of China’s rapid economic growth and vast size? Today the inevitability of Chinese political power is accepted, even as Western politicians point out that Beijing, at least before the current economic crisis took hold, controls only the world’s fourth largest economy, and armed forces not yet capable of projecting even regional power.

When I lived in Bangladesh early in the decade, China was another poor, overpopulated country. China’s economic growth was a source of envy to Bangladeshis, but so was India’s. Talk of a highway linking China to the Bay of Bengal was taken in the same spirit as proposals from Burma – opportunities for diplomats and politicians to justify good dinners in fine hotels. Chinese businessmen appeared here and there in Dhaka, but they were lost in the mix of South Koreans, Americans, Indians and others looking to take advantage of a low-wage economy.

Cambodia: Chinese influence explodes

In 2002 I arrived in Cambodia. The local Chinese population was economically significant but politically marginalized. During the Khmer Rouge regime they were targeted for their wealth; during the Vietnamese occupation that followed they were persecuted for being Chinese – Beijing had supported Pol Pot, and invaded Vietnam as punishment for the displacement of their pet Maoist in Phnom Penh. But the community survived.

By 2003, Chinese influence was detectable but subtle, and natural given the links between the two countries. In 2004 that influence exploded. This is not something you can document, because Cambodia keeps poor records of immigration and emigration: a business visa is available on arrival at the airport in Phnom Penh, for just $5 more than a tourist visa. Some estimates are that as many as 300,000 Chinese arrived in the country that year, going to work on timber concessions and construction, adding financial and human resources to every sector of the economy.

The United States, despite its “secret bombing” (not secret to the Cambodians) and invasion of large swaths of rural Cambodia during the Vietnam War, was viewed in a positive light by most Khmers. In 2003, I watched the first days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on a television in a restaurant in a provincial town. The people who were watching cheered. “Iraq is lucky,” one older man said. “Where were the Americans when Pol Pot was here?”

U.S. policy in Cambodia was dominated by the old anti-Communist line, making it hard to establish good relations with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The CPP evolved from the puppet regime installed by Hanoi in the early 1980s, and it leads Cambodia’s coalition government. Maybe China saw a diplomatic opportunity, or maybe its business people simply recognized that Cambodians’ laissez-faire attitude meant opportunities for the Chinese.

Whatever the explanation, the Chinese have filled a void. As longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen colourfully put it, “If 1.3 billion Chinese were all to urinate at the same time, it would unleash a major flood in Cambodia. But China’s leaders are doing good things with their partners … When China gives, there are no strings attached. You can do what you want with the money” – unlike Western donors, with their concerns over human rights, labour standards and so on.

Beijing now has a reliable ally in Cambodia, a profound change from the days when Hun Sen described China as his country’s worst enemy. Beyond access to the country’s unregulated economy, the payoff to China has not been huge, but payoff there is – expulsion of Falun Gong activists, Cambodian support in the United Nations for China’s positions on a range of issues. As a small country with a history of being batted between greater powers, Cambodia recognizes its subservient role, and is particularly sensitive to shifts in regional influence. It is a canary in the diplomatic mineshaft. Its decision to nestle under China’s wing may be an important indicator of what’s to come in the region. The American eagle is now playing catch-up but, with its economy teetering and its ability to project military power eroded by the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has lost the advantage.

Nepal: The shifting balance

Nepalese sometimes describe their country as a soft mango squeezed between the hard coconuts of India to the south and China to the north. There is a long tradition in Kathmandu of playing off the northern against the southern neighbour. However, the Himalayas to the north form a natural border, and the mountains, along with closer cultural ties to India, have kept Kathmandu’s eyes focused southward. Historically India has treated Nepal as a satellite state, in somewhat the same way the United States treats Canada. “Equidistance” is official Nepali policy, but until recently working with Beijing was a pose to irritate the Indians, and not a genuine policy alternative.

Now the balance is shifting. Like Cambodia, Nepal has undergone a recent increase in Chinese influence. While China’s aid contributions have remained small compared to those of Western donors or India, Nepal now considers Beijing to be Delhi’s equal.

From the mid-1990s to 2006, Nepal was wracked by a civil war.1 The guerrillas called themselves Maoists, although that is a misnomer inasmuch as their leaders are largely upper-caste Brahmins with few links to the Chinese. Ex-guerrilla leader Prachanda (a nom de guerre meaning “The Fierce One”) came out on top in an election in the spring of 2008. Now Prime Minister, he took his first foreign trip to Beijing, for the closing of the Olympic Games. This trip had the same impact on India’s elite as George W. Bush’s first foreign trip in 2001 had on Canada’s elite – Bush visited Mexico City, not Ottawa.

China was embarrassed by Nepal’s Maoists, who took up arms in the name of the Great Helmsman decades after he went out of favour back home. But the Chinese now seem happy to encourage closer ties with Kathmandu. The Nepali habit of appeasing Chinese interests predates Prachanda’s rise to power, and crosses the ideological spectrum. Nepal’s now-dethroned absolute monarch closed the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Welfare Office in 2004, and throughout 2008 all major Nepali parties supported the brutal crackdown on Free Tibet protesters in Kathmandu. In an unusual display, the Chinese ambassador repeatedly called for Nepal to be even more aggressive in stopping the protests, a contrast to the policy of “non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states” that Beijing purports to place at the centre of its foreign policy. In recent weeks Nepal’s Home Minister has talked of deporting Tibetan refugees who lack proper papers.

There is irony in this, as the police have refrained from using force against political demonstrations, or criminals, since the King was overthrown in 2006. Similarly, while Kathmandu regularly criticized the government of Bhutan for its expulsion of ethnic Nepalese in the early 1990s, there was no comment when Nepalese living along the China-Nepal border, who rely on access to Chinese goods, starved this year when the frontier was sealed by a Chinese regime afraid of pro-Tibetan infiltrators.

In contrast with Cambodia, Nepal has a poor investment environment, a congealed bureaucracy not yet convinced that feudalism is over and the legacy of a ten-year civil war capped by ongoing political uncertainty. And unlike Cambodia, Nepal already has a strong patron state in India. There are fewer economic opportunities for Chinese business, and a much smaller Chinese community with which to build links. Kathmandu’s resident Tibetans seem unlikely to embrace Chinese advances. And Nepal has little that China needs: the new Himalayan republic’s main export is young men, who travel to India or the Gulf in search of work.

Nonetheless, China has clearly grown in influence. Discussions are underway to link China’s railways with Nepal, a project that makes sense only if India agrees: a railway that stopped in Nepal would make Sarah Palin’s Bridge to Nowhere look like a sound investment.

Will China’s political model spread?

So far, China’s expansion into its near-abroad seems driven by economic interest, with political concessions extracted as an afterthought. As Hun Sen put it, Chinese money comes with no strings attached. When rumours spread of an American naval base to be built in Cambodia, China did not object: it kept buying up more Cambodian forests, hotels and gem mines. Nepal’s government is desperate for any support for its ambitious development plans, and bashing a generally disliked Tibetan minority costs little in political capital.

The concern for liberal democrats – in Cambodia, Nepal or Canada – should not be China’s investment model but the spread of its political model. For the first time, a country outside of the petrostates is credibly claiming that Western-level economic growth can be achieved without Western political freedoms. For governing elites with autocratic tendencies – and that describes most regimes in the world – it is tempting to imagine your country stable and wealthy, while you and your friends govern it forever. And in a country like Nepal, acknowledged even by its own elites as having been badly misgoverned, there is a strong temptation to embrace one-party development in exchange for the promise of economic growth. The limitation of much of this growth to a minority of the population and the widespread social unrest and corruption that continue to infest the Chinese countryside are easy to ignore, thanks to strict media controls and the displays of ostentatious wealth seen in China’s cities and in coverage of the recent Olympics.

Cambodia and Nepal are two small countries in China’s growing orbit of economic and political influence. They are small but potentially important harbingers of a future in which a free press and individual liberty are dispensable, exchanged for basic economic security. As I write in October 2008, the developed world is falling into an economic crisis that may develop into the worst since the 1930s. Now, as then, there is a hunger for new models of governance. Watch this space.

Continue reading “China’s Growing Orbit”

For a few weeks in the spring of 2006, the world paid attention to Nepal, when a coalition of nominally democratic political parties and Maoist rebels united to overthrow King Gyanendra. Then, as talks between the parties and the rebels dragged on, Nepal faded back into its accustomed obscurity.

Gyanendra had seized absolute power in 2005, claiming that the elected government had been unable to deal with the Maoists’ decade-long insurgency. With a long history of power-hungry aristocrats, the Nepalese have reason to worry that the king may yet attempt a comeback. But the rebels, who are consolidating their control over the country, present an even more serious threat to the future of democracy. Able negotiators, the Maoists have backed the political parties into a corner, forcing them to choose between allowing an armed force to enter a government and quickly dominate it or refusing a coalition and taking the blame for the collapse of a peace process. The last general election took place seven years ago and the legitimacy of the democratic party leaders is dubious. Nepal may soon join a very short list of countries – China under Mao Zedong himself, Albania under Enver Hoxha, Cambodia under Pol Pot – that have experienced the dubious benefits of a Maoist regime. How it got to this point is a long story.

Dubious democracy

Half of Nepal’s 28 million people live on hills and mountains, often accessible only after days of walking. The villages that dot its cliffs are as remote as islands in the middle of a huge and hostile ocean. In such terrain, the Maoists had little difficulty over the last decade in evading the Nepali army. A Chinese military man once told me, “A vertical metre is as hard to occupy and defend as a full kilometre of open plain.” In area Nepal is roughly the size of the three Maritime provinces. Bearing in mind that eight of the world’s ten highest mountains (including Everest at 8,860 metres) are within its borders, and multiplying by 1,000 as suggested by my Chinese observer, this quintessential mountain kingdom is a very big country to defend against guerrilla activity.

8 IMG2261_adj

Nepal’s northern border is defined by the Tibetan Plateau; its southern frontier has shifted with the political tides. It generates the bulk of its agricultural and industrial wealth from the Terai, the flatlands that occupy the southernmost one sixth of the country adjacent to India. In addition to the Terai, the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys, protected from the heat and diseases of the plains by a range of mountains and sheltered from the worst of the Himalayan winter, are regions of relative prosperity.

At the end of World War II, Nepal was ruled, as it had been for a century, by the Ranas, a prominent Nepali family that had seized control from the king and established a government of hereditary prime ministers. Monarchs, reduced to virtual house arrest, continued as heads of state but without real power. The Ranas imported European fashions and inventions, but ideas such as national liberation, liberalism and modernity failed to make it across the mountains. A further consequence of Nepal’s geography was its fragmented demographics. Dozens of ethnic groups and languages, further divided by a caste system, rendered nearly impossible the rise of effective popular leaders able to pose an alternative to the Ranas. Peasant rebellions were quickly and ruthlessly suppressed; often the Ranas allowed hunger to do to the work of soldiers as rebellious villages were starved into submission.

Still, Nepal did not entirely escape the upheavals marking the end of European empire in the mid-20th century. Newly independent India, unhappy at the anachronism perched on its border, supported Nepali dissidents gathered under the banner of the Nepali Congress (NC) Party, modelled on the Indian National Congress. A guerrilla war launched in 1950 led to a New Delhi–negotiated ceasefire one year later that restored the monarchy and established a multiparty democracy.

The seeds that have led Nepal to the brink of a Maoist takeover in 2006 were sown in 1951. Eager young Nepali Congress cadres spread the rhetoric of socialism and nationalism and the panacea of a constituent assembly to remote corners of the country, creating expectations for progress and development and introducing a new awareness of Nepal as a state. But the new government entered years of negotiations with the palace, steadily losing ground in several rounds of constitutional negotiations. In opposition, the NC had made calls for a popular assembly to draft a new constitution the centrepiece of its program, but once it was in power the promise was forgotten.

Elections were finally held in 1959, but when an NC majority was returned to office King Mahendra, backed by Ranas who continued to dominate the armed forces and bureaucracy, responded by seizing power, banning political parties and establishing an absolute monarchy. Reformers had promised everything, but changed nothing. Compromising with defeated enemies had allowed the ancien régime to return in greater strength. Democracy had not led to development, or tangible progress. These lessons were not lost on a new generation of young Nepalese.

The next three decades saw the country open to the world even as the monarchy maintained its hold on power. Exotic landscapes and relaxed drug laws made Kathmandu a favoured haunt for hippies, while endemic poverty and an elite quick to adapt to new opportunities made the country a magnet for foreign aid. New money created the kernel of a new middle class, and taxes on a limited manufacturing industry, concentrated in the Terai and Kathmandu, helped fund a broader-based education system.

More young Nepalese travelled abroad for higher education; India’s universities were a popular destination – particularly the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. JNU was dominated by Marxists and Maoists, looking for scapegoats to blame for India’s post-independence failures. For Nepali students, the lectures on imperialism resonated even more strongly than with their Indian hosts – Baburam Bhattarai, chief ideologue of the Maoist rebels, holds a doctorate from JNU. Marx may have known nothing of Nepal, but his description of the bourgeois impact on feudal societies fit well enough:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.1

The Himalayan kingdom had yet to develop a strong bourgeois class, and the “ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’” and “ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm” were accurate descriptors of their homeland. However, the implications from Marx were that Nepalese communists needed to encourage capitalism as the next step on the road to socialism. This progression has never appealed to revolutionaries: calling workers to the barricades is more exciting than encouraging peasants to take jobs in urban sweatshops. Hence the draw of Maoism, the doctrine cobbled together by Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party: “It can therefore be said that politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”2

Mao Zedong Thought holds that the peasantry can serve as the engine for revolution, as long as it is led by a properly disciplined communist party. In the emphasis on a “vanguard party,” Maoism is not unlike Leninism, with the added appeal to Third World revolutionaries of a framework to justify any means – rhetoric, compromise or atrocity – in furthering the revolution. This, along with insightful writings on guerrilla war, has been enough to ensure Mao Zedong Thought’s life past its creator’s death in 1975 and disavowal by China’s post-Maoist leadership.

Nepal’s royal government responded to the post-1960 challenges with token reforms. Members of banned parties were allowed to hold seats in the rubber-stamp parliament, and active suppression waxed and waned. The NC had long since lost its monopoly on dissidence, and was now joined by a range of fractious communist parties, each calling for more radical solutions than the others. Armed uprisings were sometimes backed by India and sometimes opposed, as New Delhi’s strategic interests evolved in a volatile region. In 1989 Indian displeasure with the increasingly autocratic regime of King Birendra, who had succeeded his father in 1972, reached such a level that sanctions were imposed, crippling Nepal’s economy. The rift coincided with the global liberation movement that swept away the regimes of eastern Europe, and in April 1990 bloody protests in Kathmandu forced the King to cede power to the political parties under a deal brokered, as usual, by India. A new constitution was promulgated, drafted by party leaders, legal experts and representatives of the palace, who once again played their hand as a stabilizing symbol to great advantage. The mistakes of 1951 were repeated. Democracy was restored but the palace was left with significant power, and the constitution gave more power to political parties than to the citizens of Nepal.

In 1991 the NC won an absolute majority of seats in the first national election in more than 30 years. While the democratic communists regrouped and won the midterm elections called in 1994, many on the left were alarmed by the parallels with the failed democratic experiment of the 1950s. With an increasingly free press revealing outrageous examples of government corruption, it appeared to many that the country’s leaders were using Orwell’s Animal Farm as a guidebook for governance. There were tangible and significant increases in living standards in Nepal throughout the 1990s, something often forgotten today, but the government obscured its achievements through a combination of obvious failures, unrealistic promises and endless partisan attacks. In the five years between 1996 and 2001 six men served as prime minister, two of them more than once. Each new government promised to transform Nepal into Asia’s Switzerland. Every new road was dismissed as a money-laundering scheme, every village development project as a pretext for hiring party cadres.

Faced with the messy compromises of an emerging democracy and the extra dirt added to the body politic by corruption, some leaders looked for a cleaner path and, following a common if depressing pattern of human behaviour, decided blood was the best cleanser of all. Less than five years after Nepal’s democracy had been reborn, and two years after democratic communists won power through the polls, the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPN-M) launched its Peoples’ War on February 13, 1996.

At first the rebels, armed with knives and homemade weapons, were a distraction. But over time they became better organized, better armed and more powerful. Their success owed less to the strength of their popular appeal than to the failings of the government. As the Maoists gained ground, development work was affected and casualties mounted. Village councils in regions under Maoist influence made “contributions” to the Maoists from infrastructure contracts; teachers and others receiving public salaries were subject to tithes. State security forces took often indiscriminate revenge for rebel attacks, increasing public resentment. In an essentially feudal country the opinions of individual Nepalese remained irrelevant, but whatever support had existed for the political parties and their government eroded.

Support for the parties ebbed, but the Maoists’ attacks on infrastructure – including village schools and health clinics – did not endear their cause to the majority. By the time of the ceasefire in early 2006, an estimated US$1 billion in infrastructure had been destroyed. Teachers, civil servants, unarmed police and activists from the mainstream political parties were abducted, often beaten, sometimes tortured or killed. “Social criminals,” including those who were engaged in extramarital sex or conducted funerals without the Maoists’ approval, were punished with sentences ranging from public humiliation to death.

The crumbling foundations of the kingdom

On June 1, 2001, the political foundations of the Hindu Kingdom crumbled when most of the royal family was gunned down in the royal palace, apparently at the hands of a drunken Crown Prince Dipendra. King Birendra, the political survivor and architect of the compromise of 1990, died in the fusillade. His assassin, the crown prince, lived long enough to be crowned king, but he appears to have shot himself and he spent his three-day reign on life support before he too succumbed.

Prince Gyanendra, a businessmen and friend of Britain’s Prince Charles whose hobbies included a cigarette factory and environmental issues, had been out of town on the evening of the massacre. He had touched the crown before when, as a child, the Ranas installed him as king in a last-ditch effort to protect their government just prior to its final collapse. Nepal is rife with conspiracy theories as to who committed the massacre and why, and some believe Gyanendra orchestrated it himself. Nonetheless, on his coronation in 2001, Nepalese treated him with customary reverence.

The new King promised to take an “active” role. Taking a step his late brother had long resisted, he authorized the government’s request to deploy the Royal Nepali Army in the fight with the Maoists. Then he approved a request to dissolve parliament, in preparation for elections that never took place. Next he dismantled Nepal’s elected local governments, among the few democratic institutions to have delivered real results. With effective checks on his power removed, King Gyanendra used a questionable interpretation of the constitution to seize power over Nepal in stages, starting in October 2002 with his dissolution of the elected government and appointment of a replacement cabinet. Over the next two years he sacked a series of prime ministers and presided over a second round of failed peace talks with the CPN-M. Gyanendra’s slow-motion coup reached its logical conclusion in February 2005 when he assumed direct rule over the country. Claiming he needed three years to deal with the Maoists and prepare for elections, he unleashed the army and security forces on both the rebels and the mainstream political parties.

In the aftermath of the April 2006 uprising that swept the King from power, it has been forgotten that these moves were broadly welcomed. There were no protests, and many, especially among the urban elite, hoped Gyanendra could deliver peace where the political parties had failed. Claiming a mantle of Hindu divinity, he cloaked himself in every national myth. Initially there were some successes as the Maoists were driven from the Kathmandu Valley. But through increasingly bloody confrontations with an increasingly well-armed and seasoned enemy, it became clear that a purely military solution to the insurgency was an illusion, and the King’s strategy, which had cost the country its hard-won democracy, had led to another stalemate. Gyanendra further soured elite opinion by engaging in flagrant corruption and nepotism, appointing men instrumental in crushing previous pro-democracy movements to positions as senior advisors while turning the national coffers into an automatic teller machine for the unlimited use of his family and friends.

Alarmed by Gyenandra’s incompetence, India, which had turned a blind eye to his seizure of power, urged the mainstream political parties and the Maoists to join hands. Earlier in the year seven non-Maoist parties, including the NC and Communist Party Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the largest democratic communist party, had come together in an anti-Gyanendra alliance. In Delhi in November 2005, the Seven Party Alliance and the CPN-M signed an agreement that committed them to cooperate in putting an end to the royal regime. But the King’s government refused to compromise, and when the rebels declared a four-month ceasefire in late 2005, he would not reciprocate. Instead, in February 2006 the government conducted local elections, which all the major parties boycotted.

In one year Gyanendra dissipated his personal political capital and much of the traditional authority enjoyed by the monarchy. Excesses by the armed forces – including well-publicized murders of civilians after arguments with soldiers – led not to a reshaping of security tactics but to royal proclamations restricting media freedom and banning criticism of the royal family.

When the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) announced plans for a mass protest in early April 2006, few thought that much would come of it. While the public was increasingly unhappy with the King’s failure to address the country’s problems, the political parties had little credibility. The first two days of demonstrations were better attended than expected, but most of the protesters were young boys.

The security forces’ behaviour during the demonstrations destroyed what was left of the foundations of royal prerogative. Across the country, relatively peaceful protests were broken up with baton charges and tear gas; houses were raided, and people who had nothing to do with the protests were hauled from their homes, beaten and taken into custody. Popular anger was coupled with fear as the security forces had a reputation for brutality – of the estimated 13,000 deaths in the ten-year civil war, more than 8,000 are attributed to government forces.3 Reports of beatings and killings circulated; when one of the first victims of the protests was cremated without his family’s consent in violation of fundamental Hindu tradition, numbers on the street swelled and demonstrations spread across the country. The government instituted shoot-to-kill curfews, lifted them, then imposed them again. The protests built steadily, fuelled by an average of one killing per day. Party leaders, content to leave the streets to teenagers in the early days, began to coordinate activities as the protests grew, helping to maintain order and, belatedly, talking with security forces to prevent misunderstandings that could have led to further bloodshed. In Maoist-controlled regions, the rebels transported whole villages to attend rallies in district capitals in commandeered buses and cars.

On Friday, April 21, the King offered a vague compromise, quickly dismissed by both the SPA and the Maoists. A rally on Saturday attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the Ring Road surrounding Kathmandu. Defying the curfew, protesters streamed past security forces, finally stopping at a police barricade less than two kilometres from a royal palace that had become a fort. Then an unseasonal hailstorm pelted the city, breaking up the demonstration. But Gyanendra could not rely on such acts of God; with pressure mounting from foreign governments and a “decisive” protest looming on Tuesday, Gyanendra went on national television just before midnight on Monday to announce restoration of the 1999 parliament and passage of power to the SPA. Street celebrations broke out across Kathmandu and in other cities. The Maoists called for protests to continue until the King abdicated, but the public was ready to give the new government a chance.

Rapid change followed: the SPA appointed the ailing 83-year-old NC leader, Girija Koirala, as Prime Minister. Within days, the Maoists announced a three-month ceasefire and the government declared an indefinite halt to hostilities. Maoist prisoners were released from detention, the CPN-M was removed from Nepal’s list of terrorist organizations and the rebels opened an office in Kathmandu and began to organize openly in the capital for the first time since 1996. The Royal Nepali Army, still answerable to the King, returned to barracks, followed by the police. The Maoists responded by moving armed cadres into the city in large numbers and redeploying units of the People’s Army from their base areas toward the capital.

An October revolution?

The new government faced a monarch with constitutional control of the army and a Maoist army whose intentions were far from clear. Civilian administration of the countryside had been eroded first by the insurgency and then by the militarization that accompanied the royal regime. Nominally the country’s rulers, the SPA were in fact only one of three sources of power – and the only one without an army. The SPA took power without any structure, leadership or common political platform beyond opposition to Gyanendra. The two major parties, the NC and UML, had spent the previous 16 years at each other’s throats, while the third largest, the Nepali Congress – Democratic (NC-D), had split from the NC in 2002. The four smaller parties had little influence, and included groups with ideologies closer to the Maoists than to the centrist NC.

As peace talks began, the lack of cohesion among the seven parties quickly presented problems. Nepali traditions favour top-down and often unaccountable leadership, which would admittedly have made difficult a broader and more consultative process prior to negotiations with the Maoists. The absence of cohesion among the SPA made it natural for the Prime Minister to act alone, or on the advice of a close circle of family and party advisors. Other party leaders had few confidential avenues for addressing their grievances, resulting in public recriminations between Koirala and other SPA leaders.

The dynamic that weakened the SPA gave strength to the Maoists, who delegated clear authority to their negotiating team, maintained strict confidentiality, and stayed on message. A high-level split in 2005 between Chairman Prachanda and chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai had been resolved.4 The Maoists entered the peace process with a unified army and political structure, and with an intelligent and sophisticated leadership team operating with a clear mandate.

The Maoists’ demands were clear: the creation of an interim government and constitution that would prepare for constituent assembly elections, and the immediate abolition of the monarchy. The government, internally divided on these key issues, responded with a series of parliamentary proclamations, passed with little or no debate, which acceded to most of the CPN-M’s longstanding political demands. These included placing the military under civilian control, making Nepal a secular state and reserving one third of all government positions for women. Beyond these gestures, the SPA appeared to have no plan to govern, and no strategy to counter the Maoists, who quickly realized that the parties would make nearly any concession to preserve the peace process. By implementing much of the Maoists’ agenda, the SPA gave up valuable negotiating cards. It was clear over the summer that the CPN-M was dictating events. The SPA prepared and presented a budget, and carried on with the routines of running a government, but this just reminded the public that the parties’ words had little in common with their actions.

In May a 25-point ceasefire agreement was signed. While the Maoists routinely violated 15 of the points, criticism was muted as the parties feared alienating the rebels. The CPN-M condemned any government complaint as a violation of the ceasefire, while refusing to acknowledge the violations that had triggered the complaint. Throughout the summer Maoist control of the country solidified. The rebels collected taxes, staffed border and customs posts, and coordinated law-and-order patrols with the police. Reports of extortion skyrocketed, and “Peoples’ Courts,” using the Maoists’ own legal code, expanded to nearly every district, including Kathmandu, in defiance of the rebels’ commitment to dismantle their parallel government. The elites in Kathmandu debate how and when the rebels should disarm, with everyone ignoring the inconvenient fact that the CPN-M has little to gain from giving up its weapons and has shown no inclination to do so.

One of Nepal’s greatest flaws is the disconnect between the capital and the countryside. NGO and political activists living in the countryside are less naive than those in Kathmandu; they know first hand the cost of living under the CPN-M, and have been witnesses and often victims of Maoist harassment, which intensified after the King’s abdication. On the other hand, the Maoists have received uncritical support from many Kathmandu-based human rights and civil society organizations, as well as many in the media and political parties. Kathmandu elites have remained hopeful that the Maoists’ comforting rhetoric is a good guide to their future actions. Because the Maoists had been unable to win a military victory, many argued, they were desperate for peace, looking for a “soft landing.” But in a July 2006 interview, Prachanda did not sound like a leader suing for peace:

We are not taking recourse to this new strategy due to some weakness … People should understand that we have changed our policy not because of some sort of setback but due to the strength derived from the People’s War … Even Lenin was forced to enter into Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany at the time of October Revolution. At that time, many in Lenin’s party said that it was like an act of surrender but it was not that. Rather, it was the result of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, the result of their gaining strength.5

As Maoist excesses increased in the fall, press coverage and urban public opinion became more critical, but this has had little effect on Maoist activities that rely for their legitimacy on the force of arms, not opinion polls. In September, a rumour circulated that the government was moving arms into Kathmandu. In response, the CPN-M implemented a nationwide blockade. In less than one hour they stopped all traffic and brought the capital to a standstill. Barricades of burning tires were lit outside embassies and hotels, guarded by Maoist cadres often joined by the police. When it became clear the rumour was false and no arms were being delivered, the blockade was lifted as quickly as it had been imposed. Three hours later the country was back to normal, but the rebels had made their point.

The mainstream politicians and the national elite appear to have made a fundamental error: they cannot differentiate between democratic politicians and revolutionaries. For any group to take up Maoism as ideology in the 1990s indicates a devotion to ideas divorced from their reputation in the broader world. With Mao’s China and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge serving as successful precedents, and the bloody Peruvian Shining Path as their avowed inspiration, Prachanda and his colleagues are unlikely to strike a conventional compromise, take up plush ministerial offices and drive around Kathmandu in SUVs. Rather than rely on Maoist blandishments, better to take Prachanda at his word. As recently as last August, he described his current tactics this way: “We will have to take a diversion. That’s why our moving forward after reaching an understanding with the liberal faction of the bourgeoisie is being called a transitionary phase by us.”6 There is no reason not to believe him.

The roadmap of this revolution has been laid out in the writings of Mao and expanded in numerous books, articles and interviews with the CPN-M principals. While it is hard to reconcile the roadmap with recent pronouncements of the rebels aimed at an elite and international audience -– they now praise multiparty democracy and claim to have learned that the time is not right to impose a communist state – their actions are consistent with a straightforward progression through the stages of Maoist revolution.

What makes the Nepali revolution unique is that the ruling elite has followed the Maoist script so closely. Far from looking for a soft landing, the Maoists view Nepal in 2006 as a vindication of 70 years of theory: bourgeois parties fail to defend their class interests and fight among themselves, while the unity of the communist party enables it simultaneously to expand its military and political bases. The Maoists are preparing to assume the leadership of the so-called New Democratic revolution, a stepping-stone on the road to socialism that will include peasants, the proletariat, the petite bourgeoisie and capitalist classes. The pragmatism of Maoist tactics does not mean any change to the final goal.

As long as the political parties and civil society organizations contribute to their united front and progress towards the Maoist New Democracy continues, the Maoists will be cooperative. But it is worth reading what Prachanda has prescribed for parties other than his own:

After the Chinese revolution there existed eight political parties in China which did not support feudalism and imperialism. Mao allowed them to continue to work because he wanted them to support the Communist Party … We feel that in order to make a society lively, the proletarian party should also take up the task of organizing competition. It does not mean that we are moving towards bourgeois democracy.”7

Throughout the summer of 2006 the Maoists talked about an October revolution. Historical parallels are often forced and unconvincing, but this one is not. The similarities between Aleksandr Kerensky’s regime that emerged in Russia after the Tsar’s abdication in February 1917 and Koirala’s unstable post-Gyanendra government are simply too striking to be dismissed.

Russians, like Nepalese today, yearned for peace. The spring revolutions in both countries unleashed a wave of optimism that raised the expectations of long-oppressed peoples. Such expectations could not be met by the parliamentary leaders, hobbled by inexperience, hubris and – perhaps most importantly – an underestimation of the ruthlessness of their revolutionary opponents.

Like the Maoists, the Bolsheviks had pressed for a constituent assembly. When the election produced an assembly they did not control, they quickly ensured its dissolution. Prachanda and his cadres are sophisticated politicians and doubtless realize that they would not win a transparent election. But winning elections has never been their goal.

In October, a new round of peace talks began in Kathmandu, focusing on disarmament, the role of the King and other contentious issues. The parties, dismayed at their lack of preparation before previous talks, took greater care in preparing their agenda. But the stakes are now incredibly high. Will the Maoists make real concessions? Will the parties give way and allow the CPN-M to enter the government with its army intact?

If the talks fail, the Maoists are unlikely to walk away. Even failed talks take time and allow them to strengthen the grip of their “People’s Government” on Nepal. If the preparations for the constituent assembly fail completely, they are confident that the SPA will share the bulk of the blame. And if public sentiment turns against the Maoists, they can continue to press their demands with the aid of an army estimated to be 15,000 to 20,000 strong, and a lightly armed militia of another 100,000.

The Maoists have repeatedly said that they do not plan to return to the jungle; if this round of talks does not succeed, they propose to launch an “urban movement” to make sure their demands are met. Again to quote Prachanda: “In case the talks fail, we feel that we will have to take certain steps to address the people’s desperation. You will know about these steps after a week. Let’s keep it a secret for now!”8

If the Maoists launch street protests after a failure of peace talks, the government will be faced with a difficult choice. If it fails to act and anarchy prevails, the Maoists win. If the army intervenes and suppresses the protests, the SPA’s legitimacy will be destroyed and any who oppose the military, and by extension the King, will side with the CPN-M. Again the Maoists win. The fundamental question in Kathmandu, the question no one asks openly, is “What is the price of peace?” For many, any price is worth paying in hopes of ending the civil war. For others, looking at the toll of the Cultural Revolution or the one in five Cambodians killed during three years of Maoist rule, there is worse than war. n

Continue reading “Nepal’s Kerensky Interlude”

Through my work for an American-based democracy-building institute, principally in South and Southeast Asia, I have dealt with corruption in different forms. But I acquired the tools of my trade earlier, as a political activist in Nova Scotia. And sadly, to this point, there is no type of corruption I did not first encounter back home.

Federal transfer payments to have-not regions offer Canadians a close-to-home example of how aid dollars, in their billions, can disappear into flawed megaprojects or the pockets of provincial elites. Donors are left frustrated by the failure of interventions to achieve desired goals and by the growth in affected regions of a dependency culture that saps economic and cultural strength. Corruption takes root when donors expect failure and recipients know that dismal performance will bring no adverse consequences. Examining the roots of corruption and insisting on its eradication are essential to Canada’s domestic and international development programs.

The police in Phnom Penh

13 IMGP0217

Corruption has many faces. Living in Phnom Penh, I cannot get used to driving during the day with my headlights off. The Cambodian police officer who pulls me over explains, “Driving with your lights on in the day is the practice in Canada because it is dark all the time, because of the snow.” In Cambodia, it is the practice to drive with your lights off during the day – and often at night – and it is also the practice, the officer tells me, to give policemen who stop you, whatever the pretext, twenty U.S. dollars. Sensing my reluctance, he bargains down to ten dollars, then five, then one. Eventually, we’re down to a can of Angkor beer and a pack of twelve-cent cigarettes, but still I won’t pay.

Cambodian police earn about $20 a month, so unless they supplement their income with bribes they can’t feed their families. But I’m not offering a good return on this officer’s time investment. Cambodian traffic police are a fairly benign species, and I know he’ll soon move on to easier prey, leaving me with a feeling of self-righteousness that, as an honest Canadian, I value greatly.

For Cambodians, corruption is part of daily life. As in 19th-century New York, firefighters battle to be first at a blaze but do not start the water until the homeowner pays, or offers the pick of salvaged possessions. You can get a driver’s licence by taking an exam, or you can pay US$25 and it magically appears. Teachers in government schools teach only those children who pay an extra fee.

For Canadians, corruption is our tax dollars diverted to buy that second Lear jet for a sub-Saharan dictator; it’s money for a dam project misappropriated before the dam is finished, but after towns downstream have been bulldozed. The amounts involved are small – less than $100 annually for each Canadian – and the people involved are far away. All this makes it easy for the citizens of a donor country to ignore the issue or assign it to the corrosive effect, depending on one’s prejudices, of left-wing autarkists or mercenary free traders.

This lack of interest suits donor governments. Close public scrutiny of corruption in foreign aid delivery might lead the public to pay more attention to similar problems at home: money diverted to friends of government ministers, contracts unfairly tendered, paid work uncompleted and so on. To readers of the Auditor General’s reports or viewers of the Gomery Commission’s hearings, this problem is starting to sound familiar.

13 James Steidle max res

The 2005 federal budget promises to double Canadian foreign aid by 2010, relative to 2001. Deep in the budget is a passing reference to the problem of “poor governance” in developing countries:

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals requires mobilizing the private sector – and the contributions it can make to economic growth, job creation and incomes of the poor. Entrepreneurs are emerging throughout the developing world, but many of them are locked into informal micro and small enterprises. They must cope with weak policy and regulatory environments, poor governance, and inadequate infrastructure.

As Canada expands its international development programs, more than a cautiously worded paragraph is required. Without an honest reevaluation of past naiveté, Ottawa will squander tax dollars internationally as it has domestically, and add to cynicism at home and abroad about the ability of donor governments to address social and economic problems positively.

From the Mira to the Mekong

Corruption is a universal human behaviour, and any examination of the issue must begin with a look at the people involved. A crisis, be it famine in Malawi or the collapse of Canada’s East Coast fishery, creates pressure for government action. Programs are quickly designed, often by people without direct knowledge of the region or problem in question, or by large committees with conflicting interests and agendas. If locals are consulted, they are rarely from the affected groups – be they Malawian farmers or Newfoundland fishers – as donors prefer to draw on local elites who understand the politics and language of aid diplomacy. This tendency is understandable but dangerous, and often ignores the leading role those groups played in causing the problems they are now, with outside funding, supposed to address. Expecting any group to behave responsibly with other people’s money when they have cheerfully squandered their own is optimistic.

13 IMGP0234Bangladesh, which means “land of people who speak Bengali,” became a sovereign country in two stages: in 1947, it became part of Pakistan after the departure of the British and the partition of India; in 1971, after a bitter war, Bangladeshis liberated themselves from Urdu-speaking West Pakistan. The legacy of “anti-imperialist” pro-Bengali education policies post-1971 created an acute shortage of English speakers. Those few with higher education and English fluency come largely from the traditional elite, a group with a high tolerance of corruption that bears singular responsibility for the myriad problems that afflict the country. In Cambodia, most English speakers are part of the exile community that fled following the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. They tend to oppose the party Hanoi put in power, making it difficult for English-speaking foreigners to obtain a balanced picture of political life.

In a domestic context, consider Atlantic Canada. The dominant influence of the Liberal Party over the Canadian civil service, especially in the Atlantic provinces, creates similar difficulties for outsiders. Few Canadians outside the region understand the intimate links between local Liberals and officials. Accustomed to adjusting their work to justify changing political needs, the bureaucracy becomes a part of the problem when politicians cross the line into corrupt practice. While not as straightforward as the Cambodian policeman’s pyramid scheme, the moral underpinning is the same: it’s easy to justify bad behaviour when the system within which you work encourages it.

The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy (TAGS) provides a recent example of a misbegotten program. Having extended Canadian sovereignty over coastal waters to 200 miles in the 1970s, Ottawa then acceded to local pressures to subsidize overfishing, and in the 1990s fish stocks collapsed. TAGS did a poor job helping displaced fishers but helped launch many “training centres” operated by friends of the governing party. “I’d like to work in a call centre, but my fingers are too mashed for the computer and even my wife don’t understand my accent,” was how a Cape Breton fisherman summed up his TAGS-funded training experience. Development aid is too often a story of inappropriate solutions to ill-understood problems, reflecting the latest fad to grip donor governments.

From the Mira River in Cape Breton to countries bordering the Mekong in Southeast Asia, governments seeking development money learn a complex dance. They accommodate the latest development fashion because they know requests cast in fashionable language mean more cash. But recipient governments must also play to the local audience, emphasize their independence and show that the aid money is tribute, not charity. Present problems are treated as being entirely due to past injustices: Atlantic provincial poverty is due to ill-conceived trade policies imposed by Ontario that destroyed access to traditional U.S. markets; poverty in Kenya is due to colonial rulers who pitted tribe against tribe. Historical disasters are dusted off and propped up as totems, distracting donors and recipients alike from examining the actual impact of aid money.

Communities already isolated by poverty lose the moral right to object to the conditions that determine their lives, and fall victim to a cycle of paternalism familiar to students of welfare dependency. Aid money perversely weakens the hand of indigenous reformers. As communities come to identify with the bad behaviour of their entrenched leaders, it becomes harder for those who would stand against them to speak with authority; it is nearly impossible for any individual to remain untainted by a corrupt environment.

Only in the last decade have donor countries imposed serious monitoring of foreign assistance; before, it was considered an infringement of sovereignty to ask if aid dollars were reaching their intended destination. With such weak oversight, it is unsurprising that most projects failed; what is surprising is that it took so long for donors to address the problem of governance. Poor program design, incompetence and corruption all played their part, but there is another problem to face squarely. For developing-world elites whose prestige derives in part from their control of donor money, it is safer to extrapolate past failures than to do things differently. After all, doing more of the same keeps aid flowing.

The revolution that wasn’t

You can’t turn off the Big Red Machine; you just shut it down for maintenance.
– Liberal party activist, Cape Breton, 1997

Nova Scotia, as my Upper Canadian friends point out, is a have-not province, long a recipient of transfer payments paid by the generous people of Alberta and Ontario. But the money spent has not had the desired effect. It has spawned impressive levels of corruption and welfare dependency, while failing to resolve problems of low economic growth, inadequate health services, underperforming schools and – the ultimate sign of political failure – continuing out-migration.

The pattern is simple. Desperate communities are plied with development projects. Voters are bought with promises of jobs, a paved road, a favourable review of a disability pension application. Voters apply rational choice, and vote for the party that offers the most tangible short-term incentive. Sometimes the price of a vote is depressingly small. I recall a group of old men staggering from a minivan into a polling station in North Sydney, too drunk to walk a straight line. A young man called from the van, “Don’t forget – vote for the Premier!”

13 IMGP0123The effects of generous transfer payments from Ottawa were devastating to Cape Breton. In the 19th century, the island contained vibrant communities, filled with immigrants who came to work hard at often-dangerous jobs. Its towns were centres of community activism and radical politics. Today they have degenerated into depopulated semirural slums, ridden with substance abuse, crime and neglect and abandoned by those with sufficient ambition and ability to escape.

Working for the Nova Scotia NDP I believed, as recently as the 1997 federal election, that this situation was about to turn around. Paul Martin’s 1995 budget appeared to have ended the addictive relationship between Nova Scotians and the Liberals. Post-1995, access to unemployment insurance required more work; make-work income replacement programs for the fishery were wound down and the long-threatened closure of the Cape Breton coal industry loomed. As unemployment rose, confusion and despair spread in the poor communities that fringe the Atlantic coast. In northern New Brunswick, riots broke out against reductions in seasonal benefits.

When the Liberals called the 1997 election, they anticipated an easy win in Atlantic Canada. In 1993, they had won 31 of 32 seats in the region. The Tammany Hall style was much in evidence. Doug Young, Liberal minister for New Brunswick, gained infamy with his threat of military base closures if voters failed to vote correctly. David Dingwall, patronage king at the Department of Public Works and the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency, had spent nearly 20 years building a power base from his Cape Breton constituency. Infamous for spending tax dollars on a stone wall surrounding the University College of Cape Breton (a folly dubbed the Ding Wall) and for hiring well-connected construction companies to build boardwalks along stretches of deserted coast, the minister lived up to the traditions of crony politics by marrying into the family of Prime Minister Chrétien. But when he told an angry crowd of demonstrators that there were “no more bags of money,” voters stopped and asked themselves: if there weren’t any bags of money, why vote “correctly”?

I watched this wave of anger build and break from an abandoned storefront in a decrepit rooming house, a building with no electricity and a failing furnace that couldn’t keep out the raw winds blowing across offshore icebergs. Considered desirable office space in Glace Bay, this was my base and the campaign HQ for New Democrat Michelle Dockrill. She worked in a local hospital and was nominated less than four weeks before election day. In 1993, the NDP had won 6 per cent of the vote, against Dingwall’s 78 per cent.

The office was warmed on election night by dozens of supporters who, despite my “mainlander” insistence on peace and quiet, crowded in to listen to results. We didn’t wait long: minutes after the polls closed, the CBC declared that Dockrill had won. Not only did the NDP defeat Dingwall; the party also defeated Young in New Brunswick. Across Atlantic Canada, the Liberals’ hegemony appeared to be broken; their regional caucus collapsed to 11. The NDP, with no Atlantic MPs in 1993, elected eight in 1997.

There are few things as intense as the joy that comes with an unexpected political victory. Despite the efforts of the local police, who descended on our campaign office to distribute retaliatory parking tickets, that night offered hope to a part of Canada long bereft. I moved to Glace Bay and began work in Dockrill’s office, hoping to be part of what could have been the Canadian equivalent of a revolution.

It was soon clear that there would be no revolution. Even though the patronage machine had been starved of cash by Martin’s austerity programs, the Liberals still controlled federal spending, and in Cape Breton that meant control over everything.

Had the NDP been able to offer an alternative to the status quo, events might have evolved differently after 1997. But the New Democrats could not or would not address the role of corruption in the region’s decline. Having personalized the problem as the fault of specific Liberal politicians, and then having dislodged several of them, the party faced the realities of an entrenched patronage system. I saw this first hand as Liberal influence over the bureaucracy exerted itself and elected officials were marginalized. Senator Al Graham was appointed as the face of the federal government in Nova Scotia; NDP MPs were “accidentally” left off invitations to the opening of federal projects, including ones they had initiated. Government agencies forwarded only the signature pages of grant applications to our office. We had no tools to influence the bureaucracy.

With its close ties to public sector unions, the NDP was reluctant to address the corrupting nature of transfer payments administered by the civil service. When specific program abuses were uncovered, New Democrat MPs were paralyzed. The Liberals branded criticism of corrupt spending as attacks on impoverished communities. Believers in an active government, New Democrats were reluctant to argue that government handouts per se were flawed, and eager to muffle any sentiment that could be seen as anti-union. Before the 2000 election, the Liberals rescinded some of the 1995 reforms and boosted spending. Both Cape Breton seats returned to the government fold, while in Atlantic Canada overall, the Liberals recouped half their 1997 losses. Better the devil you know.

Meanwhile, on the Mekong

13 AlexPictures 100In Cambodia, in 1993, the United Nations administered the most expensive election in history, ending decades of revolution and occupation. Voters chose FUNCINPEC, the royalist party founded by then-King Norodom Sihanouk, over the Communist Cambodian Peoples’ Party (CPP) that had governed since the Vietnamese overthrow of the autogenocidal Khmer Rouge. But the royalists could not compete against a state bureaucracy created and staffed by the CPP since 1979. Unable to present a viable alternative, the royalists were outmanoeuvred, sidelined and, in 1998, defeated.

Similar problems have befallen the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Born in 1995 from anger over corruption, the party captured the imagination of Cambodians who wanted their country to emerge as a modern liberal democracy. In 2003 it won a fifth of the vote. But, in a system where dissent is frowned on and corruption and nepotism are culturally entrenched, the SRP found it hard to develop a coherent policy to address government failures, and harder to ignore internal pressures to distribute positions and gifts to party cadres. When the SRP speaks out against alleged misuse of government funds it is criticized for being unpatriotic, for putting partisan interests ahead of the national good by jeopardizing aid-financed projects that bring services and jobs.

Foreign aid allocation is often based more on the political considerations of donors than on the actual needs of recipient governments. Just as Atlantic Canadian politicians adjust to changing federal patronage interests – from nationalizations and megaprojects in the 1960s and 1970s to call centres in the 1990s – the governments of developing countries are attuned to donor rhetoric.

There is fierce competition for money. Only Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden – to be joined by 2013 by Ireland, Belgium, Finland, Spain, France and Britain – meet the UN goal of 0.7 per cent of a donor country’s GDP being dedicated to international aid. Despite the promised increases in the 2005 budget, Canada’s expenditures have declined throughout the last decade to just 0.3 percent of GDP, and a large percentage of our aid is “tied,” forcing Canadian-sponsored programs to purchase Canadian-made goods. Assistance for an agriculture project in Bangladesh may be primarily benefiting Canadians through the subsidized purchase of domestically manufactured tractors or other equipment, a neat example of the confluence of national and international patronage.

Turf battles between aid agencies are endemic. In Cambodia, more than 1,000 NGOs are conducting work in a country of 14 million. In Bangladesh, a legislative support project provided hundreds of computers to government officials. All of them promptly disappeared, except for three converted into a makeshift coffee table in one office. Despite this obvious failure, another European aid agency relaunched the project, with predictable results. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the story is the same: local beneficiaries play off one donor against another, seeking to gain funds for the same project from multiple sources or to continue funding a failed project by moving from one donor to the next, confident that the lack of coordination will make detection unlikely. I am reminded of the Sydney Tar Ponds, a project “solved” by more than half a dozen separate programs, though these solutions have yet to clear the tar from the ponds.

Come from Aways

I hope the government doesn’t push too quickly; at this rate I’ll be back in France within a year.
– NGO worker in Pakistan, concerned about anticorruption reforms, 2002

The perverse incentives created by aid money are rarely discussed. Those working in the field have a vested interest in maintaining their positions, which means having projects funded. It is the rare aid organization that adopts the motto: our job is to make ourselves redundant.

13 IMGP0218Just as the creators of the welfare state in the early 20th century did not imagine the crisis of state capture by interest groups, development theorists did not conceive that similar problems of rent seeking and dependency would be replicated at a global level.

Most donor states have reformed their domestic economic policies in the last 20 years. There are few career avenues open for those who espouse bigger government as the solution to domestic problems in developed countries. Marginalized at home, those who favour public spending as a catch-all solution have often ended up working overseas, inflicting outdated ideas on poor countries likely to accept the most empty-headed advisors when they arrive with full wallets. As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen once said, “Too many people who cannot find work in their own country come and tell us what to do.” The tendency of aid organizations to serve as repositories for worn-out ideologies, and sometimes worn-out people, remains a serious impediment to development. I acknowledge the irony of these words coming from a New Democrat.

“Come from Aways,” as they’re called in Atlantic Canada, are a well-known phenomenon: experts who visit a region to change some aspect of local life they don’t like, the “Quiet Americans” of the development world. Local resistance to new ideas may stem from an aversion to change, or from the geographic isolation that corruption encourages. But sometimes there are sound grounds for hostility. While principles of political organizing and management are identical from place to place, the subtleties of culture mean that an idea presented in one way in one village has to be presented differently down the road. This applies to neighbourhoods in Toronto, Cape Breton or Pakistan. A donor’s lack of respect for local practice abets corruption: if reform is seen as undermining indigenous culture, it is easier for transparency initiatives to be dismissed as alien, or incompatible with existing social structures. When corrupt behaviour is rewarded with more aid targeting corruption, and that aid is in turn stolen, cynicism is hard to escape.

Aid-receiving nations adjust publicly stated priorities to maximize international assistance. Bangladesh responded to donor pressure for “gender equality” by creating 30 parliamentary seats reserved for women, and received praise for the initiative. The women MPs are appointed, not elected; in effect the governing party gives itself 30 additional members. Without the veil of women’s participation in politics being drawn across it, this move would have been roundly and rightly condemned.

Drawing conclusions

For all the above reasons, many have given up on international aid as a tool to address poverty and bad governance. Isolationists point to the long list of failures and call for an end to the enterprise, while neoconservatives say the way forward is to concentrate on economic liberalization and free trade. Both point out, correctly, that most developing-world success stories began with open markets and domestic anticorruption efforts. Think Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and, most important, China.

In these countries, local elites decided, usually at a clearly defined point in time and with clear leadership, to address the major political issues facing their peoples. They embarked on reforms that had an impact on all areas of life including the elite itself, which was often undermined by the process. But there are many countries that have made the choice not to embrace reform, and that tolerate corruption and failure while enriching themselves and those around them.

These countries are the usual targets for foreign aid, but the nature of their past failures means that too often development money keeps the wheels of corruption greased. As public resources are stripped, more outside assistance is required, opening new avenues for graft. Those new veins of corruption then require excavation by more development specialists, who bring with them yet more money.

To address these issues, Canadians need to decide what we can hope to gain from our development programs, and stop using them as a sop for our collective conscience. Aid as charity, given without question, demeans the recipient and endangers Canada’s investment. We invest in schools and hospitals and training centres in developing countries and hope it will lead to – what?

As a small country, Canada is limited in what it can achieve. Our failure to address poverty and corruption at home speak to those boundaries. But while Canadian Liberals gain some political advantage from tolerating domestic corruption and bad governance, there are no such incentives on the global level. The key to successful development projects are clear goals and strategies, aimed at creating the political will among a country’s leaders to effect change. The following are steps Canada can take to help make that happen:

  • Foreign aid needs to focus on countries. Targeting isolated sectors ignores the pervasive nature of corruption; pumping assistance into children’s health programs will simply make those programs the target for corrupt and powerful people who will absorb a new source of illicit revenue. Recent moves by Canada to focus aid on a smaller number of countries and provide more comprehensive assistance make sense.
  • Criteria for the receipt of Canadian aid should be clear and detailed, and conditions for its continuation must be equally transparent. Following a request from a government for assistance, thorough assessments need to be undertaken of existing structures, past efforts to address problems and possible solutions. Too many development programs are based on reports written by consultants who spend one week in a country before moving on, and too many donors are unwilling to spend the time and money to study an issue before proposing prescriptions.
  • Aid programs should be comprehensive. If civil servants supplement their salaries through bribery because there is no tax system to generate their wages, foreign interventions should touch on all areas of the civil service salary system. Increase wages, create a tax system to pay the civil servants in the future and educate the public and authorities about the changes. Interested politicians and party leaders can work with Canadian counterparts (preferably not Nova Scotia Liberals) on designing anticorruption programs and increasing ethical standards within parties, while bureaucrats and bankers create similar links.
  • Programs need to be sustained for five, ten or more years, allowing long-term education and training projects to bear fruit. Assistance programs traditionally operate under one- or two-year funding cycles, which encourage short-term thinking and generate often-illusory results used to ensure continued funding. Much of the important work in development consists of passing information and skills to those who need them; the simple process of identifying such people can easily take a year. At the other end, aid programs should include a “sell-by date,” at which point they will be closed down. While flexibility should be maintained to address changing circumstances, recipient governments must not see programs as neverending.
  • Aid must focus on developing public institutions. Too much effort has been dedicated to the creation of “civil society” organizations that come to serve as parallel governments in countries with corrupt public sectors. This distorts the development of a genuine civil society, as local groups attune themselves to the needs of donors instead of local communities, and creates hostility between governments and nongovernmental organizations. NGOs play a critical role in all countries, but well-meaning donors should not use them to create neocolonial power structures while they seek short cuts around unresponsive governments.
  • Canada must follow Britain’s example and ban “tied” aid. Similarly, we cannot preach the virtues of open markets when our trade relationships with many underdeveloped countries remain restricted. Part of being a partner in a more focused and intensive Canadian aid program should be free trade and a greater economic, cultural, educational and political exchange. This will also help rebuild an international diplomatic power base for Canada, a goal abandoned by our government in recent decades.

If the corruption that exists in many corners of the world continues unaddressed, the poor and the desperate will seek other answers for their misery, and other avenues for their liberation from misrule. If wealthy nations do not offer concrete measures to improve living conditions, we should not be surprised if more of the world falls into the camp of those opposed to liberal democracy, and if more of the human fallout from the resulting conflicts lands on our doorsteps.

On the left, discussion around corruption and development needs to move away from sterile arguments over neocolonialism. Asking recipients to account for how they spend our money is not an act of condescension. Opposition to accountability is understandably put forward by recipient governments, eager for the flow of money to continue. But it is also advanced by many in donor countries concerned that greater conditionality will exacerbate the distorted relationship between rich and poor, North and South.

This argument ignores the fact that aid money is not going to poor people in poor countries; it is going to the governments of poor countries, which is not the same thing. It is precisely to ensure that our money reaches its intended targets, the poor and oppressed, that we must impose stricter standards on aid-recipient governments. In so doing, we will help the poor and give hope to local reformers, who exist in all states and political parties. We need to strengthen their hand because they must do the real work of developing their countries as their citizens see fit. The present situation of unaccountable aid, channelled through local elites, is more appropriately labelled neocolonialism. It has entailed foreigners setting the agenda for indefinite periods, based on their changing and often mercantile policy priorities.

Efforts to fight corruption must hold to the idea that individuals have the power to change their environment. In too many communities, in Canada and far away, that belief is stillborn or has yet to be conceived. Until aid programs contribute to the expansion of that idea, our development money will continue to disappear and our worst suspicions about others will be confirmed. We will ourselves start sliding away from a belief in a more liberal and humane world toward a narrow place that denies the possibility of one person helping another, for the benefit of both.