The great charity robbery

It’s official.  With little time left to donate, Children in Need 2011 has raised a record breaking total of £26.3m; undoubtedly a worthy achievement.  The impact this money will have on some lives, families and organisations is immeasurable, although when compared with the UK foreign aid budget the money raised appears almost paltry in comparison.  Alarmingly, the impact of much of the UK’s 2011 £8bn foreign aid budget is measurable, often in terms of what it fails to achieve – a recent House of Commons report stated that with regards to British aid spending in Malawi, ‘evidence of the value for money of its spending… is hard to find.’  Even the United Nations has recently begun to question whether foreign aid is the best way to help countries.

Two of the biggest receivers of UK foreign aid are India and Pakistan.  In both countries severe poverty affects vast tracts of the population; although despite this both countries in 2011 were able to afford to research, build and maintain vast armies and large nuclear forces.  For example, Pakistan has just announced the purchase of two squadrons of J-10 fighters from China, at an estimated cost of $1.4bn.  Likewise, India has signed a $10.5bn fighter jet contract, allegedly one of the world’s largest on offer.

If India and Pakistan can afford to lavish money on capabilities which almost all Western donor nations have either cut or are considering cutting at a time of global economic uncertainty, how is it that they are unable to feed their own population and release millions from the clutches of desperate poverty?  Some respected academics such as the Zambian-born and Harvard-educated Dambisa Moyo have speculated that it is because there are often no caveats attached to foreign aid donations.  Often, these donations simply provide freely usable cash.

According to the hype that encourages the public to donate to Children in Need, many British charities owe their existence solely to the generosity of the public during the annual Children in Need money raising drive.  One of these charities is the Leeds Spiders Wheelchair Basketball Club whose aim is to promote inclusion in sport for disabled people in Yorkshire.  In an interview with the One Show, Paralympic basketball star and TV presenter Ade Adepitan discovered that were it not for Children in Need and the donations of the taxpaying public, the vital service that the Leeds Spiders provides to disabled people would have ceased to exist long ago. As of today, Leeds Spiders is a charity which receives virtually no public funding despite the tremendous work that they do.

The Air Ambulance. Often unknown by many that this vital service is totally reliant on charitable donations from members of the public.

Alas, it is not just the Leeds Spiders who do not receive public funding – there are countless numbers of other charities around the UK who provide a fantastic service to that are in need yet rely solely on public goodwill.  The British Heart Foundation, Marie Curie Cancer Care and regional Air Ambulances are just a few of the names that can be found on the high street, relying almost exclusively on public donations.  Such lack of support creates the question; instead of hosing down ungrateful and uncooperative foreign governments with increasing amounts of increasingly scarce cash, why does the UK not do more to help domestic charities?

In comparison, the £26.3m that Children in Need 2011 raised is a mere 2% of the £11.4bn the UK expects to donate annually as foreign aid in 2015.  There is even evidence that in some instances foreign aid harms countries more than it helps because it gives dictators a free, untraceable supply of money and therefore the means to remain in power and dominate their populations.  The same cannot be said for those British based charities lucky enough to receive donations from a well-intentioned public; even a charity which could be accused of ‘wasting’ money must still file their annual financial information with the Charity Commission so as to aid public trust and show transparency.

My point is this.  Whilst much of the mammoth UK foreign aid budget is designed to fund noble projects and eliminate severe poverty around the globe, why does the UK government instead choose to rely virtually solely on the generosity of the British public to pay to help people of Britain who are also in need of charitable help?  Why is Her Majesty’s Government unable to provide these charities with some of the capital they need to help domestic citizens?

After reading this article one could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that I am promoting the abolishment of foreign aid.  However, this assumption would be incorrect.  When used responsibly and fairly, UK foreign aid has the potential to help millions of people around the world.  Likewise, if a fraction of this money were to be used to help British charities in the UK, such aid would also have the potential to help millions of British people.

After all, in a rational world providing partial funding to an award winning Paralympic basketball team is surely fairer than funding the military expansion of a nuclear armed country…


Has the USA achieved anything in Iraq?

Short answer, yes.  With the United States set to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2011 opponents to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and various hard-line militant factions both within Iraq and the wider global arena are claiming victory; some are even going further by insisting that the United States is leaving hastily with a vastly damaged ego and reputation in the face of dwindling international and public support.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the United States won few friends through their bypassing of the United Nations Security Council resolution, extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists and heavy-handed tactics in dealing with insurgents it would be unfair to say that the eight long years the United States spent in Iraq has been a complete failure.

When the over-hyped ‘they invaded Iraq for its oil’ and the more legitimate legalities of the war arguments are put to one side, the USA can show a number of successes for the amount of blood spilt within Iraq.

So what are these successes?

Removal of a tyrant from power

Well, by invading Iraq, the US and its allies removed from power one of the most dangerous tyrants in living memory from power.  Infamous for his brutal repression of Kurdish populations in northern Iraq and Shia minorities in the south, Saddam Hussein often used nerve gas and chemical weapons on his own population to retain control – a recent report in the New York Times estimated that he murdered more than a million people through repressive tactics alone.

Victims of Saddam Hussein

Also, since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and stabilisation of Iraq, America and other allies have been able to provide healthcare, education and easy access to food for all – something which was previously denied to millions under Saddam’s rule.

Furthermore, although it has since been proven that Saddam Hussein did not have links with Al-Qaeda nor sponsor terrorism, it is proven that he was a reliable friend and supporter of similar rogue states around the globe.

Planted the seed of democracy in the Middle East

Prior to the invasion and liberation of Iraq, Israel was the only true democracy in the Middle East; and even they were at the periphery of the region.  Since the US-led liberation, the Iraqi people have formed a fragile and fledgling democracy – for all the teething problems, corruption and failures to act collectively and decisively Iraq is still a functioning democracy where women and all those of voting age are in theory equal.

At this stage it is also questionable whether the events in Iraq helped to encourage the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011.

Kept a lid on Iran

Owing to Iraq’s strategic central location at the heart of the Middle East and sharing of a large land border with Iran, the United States has been able to counter Iranian influence for the last eight years.  Through the sheer threat of having almost 200 000 well trained combat troops, a permanent American outpost and a strong Air Force within striking distance, Iran has had little choice but to limit their foreign policy to little more than rhetoric and occasional shows of force and defiance.

With the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, is it a coincidence that Iran is now stepping up their efforts into nuclear technology to possibly create a nuclear bomb?

Shown American commitment to fighting terrorism

Along with President Obama’s decision to authorise a Navy Seal strike force to capture or kill Bin Laden and ‘ramp up’ the war in Afghanistan, the continued US action in Iraq has shown an American commitment to fighting terrorism on a global scale; this being despite the most severe economic crisis in living memory and a spiralling American national debt.

Whilst these achievements may pale somewhat when the number of lives lost, money spent and long-term results of the invasion are taken into account it is clear that it can no longer just be simply said that the US-led actions in Iraq were disastrous.

Please note that these achievements are not intended to show complete support for the actions of the United States and her Allies in Iraq from 2003 onwards.  They merely intend to show that despite a plethora of negative press, some significant achievements have been reached although they are not often or widely reported.

A leap of faith

The advent of social media and dominance of the internet since the millennium has transformed the way many people gather and view information.  The term ‘Google it’ has entered the Oxford Dictionary.  YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google are household names for many as either a first port of call for breaking news or as an avenue for further research; these sites combined with dedicated blogging servers have enabled the internet to develop into a hotbed of truths and mistruths.

Whilst the benefits of social media and the internet to modern society cannot be overlooked, a recent study by the think-tank Demos has shown an alarming number of people to be almost completely reliant upon information gathered from the first page of search results on Google, shunning traditional trusted news and academic mediums.  In a modern society where the dominance of the internet is assured, this is a worrying trend and one that needs to be confronted early so as to avoid future problems in a more politically diverse and internet driven world.

During their research, Demos interviewed a large number of students from different backgrounds.  Disturbingly, they found that around 25% of students did not validate the information they found by cross-referencing it with other more reliable sources.  Additionally, around 30% of the students believed that if listed on Google, the search results must be true – often it was not realised that such a complex search engine operates merely on algorithms which do not and cannot separate truth from mistruth without significant human intervention.

This ignorance and laziness in accepting as gospel the first search result on Google and YouTube has given conspiracy theorists a new platform from which to preach their often hateful and harmful beliefs.  For example, if you were to type ‘9/11, what happened’ into Google then on the first page of the search results there are many links to opinions and conspiracy theories surrounding the events that day; factual websites are present but they need to be identified using prior knowledge of what constitutes a trustworthy source.  The same is also true if you were to search for information about the death of Osama Bin Laden or the recent summer riots in Britain, for instance.

The presence of opinions and unverified information on the internet has its place in modern society; that is not in doubt.  To avoid being hypocritical this blog itself should be regarded as opinion only and not treated with reverence – that privilege should be reserved for trustworthy and verified sources.  For many it is a basic democratic right to speak and think freely within reason and without fear of prosecution.  Without Twitter and other social media the ‘Arab Spring’ and attempts to spread democracy in far-flung corners of the globe would have been severely hampered.  Likewise, politicians would have to find different ways in which to easily interact with the electorate, and vice versa.

However, whilst no one can yet say for certain that we are not part of the alleged ‘New World Order,’ trusted news and academic sources such as the BBC, New York Times and Reuters amongst others should be the first port of call for many people when looking for information and their daily news fix.  Social media and the first search results on Google should be treated with suspicion and regarded as opinion – not fact – until otherwise verified.  Left unchecked and uncontested, these often extreme opinions only serve to draw in more radical followers and create further mistrust of the government and traditional news sources.  In short, the increased development and use of the internet should be welcomed into modern society, but used only with the responsibility it needs.

Phone hacking scandals and bribery accusations aside, Western media and academia has a proven track record of being factually accurate, reliable and generally responsible – their reputations alone should be able to deflect the type of criticism they draw from conspiracy theorists and mistrusting activists.  Any talk of Western media being in the pocket of politicians should be viewed with contempt.  Whilst there will always be a certain marriage of convenience between politicians and the media recent critical coverage of the phone hacking scandal, fraudulent MP expenses claims and Western foreign military interventions shows that the media is largely free and does seek out the truth.

The same cannot yet be said with any guarantees for social media and search engines.  And until it is, complete trust should not be placed in what is freely available on Twitter or what appears on the first page of Google.


‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’

And on the 2nd May, 2011 the people of the United States finally got their wish – the death of Osama Bin Laden, leader of the Taliban and orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Whilst few people are likely to have shed tears over his death, the ‘kill or capture’ orders from President Obama were presumed by many to have only had one outcome in mind from the start, that being the death of Bin Laden.  Now the fallout from the daring raid by the US Navy Seals has settled the question can be asked; should the United States have issued orders to kill Bin Laden if he resisted, or should orders to capture and bring to trial have been further encouraged instead?

If Osama Bin Laden had been captured, the United States would have entered into a legal and political minefield.  The problems associated with detaining and extracting someone from a sovereign state without prior permission would have no doubt given the United States a headache, although legal fears that Bin Laden would have had to be handed over to the International Criminal Court remain unfounded due to the absence of a US signature at the time of the September 11th attacks.

Additionally, security and impartiality at the trial would have been another troublesome issue.  The desire to not only prevent Bin Laden from escaping but also protect him would have required security on a monumental scale.  Likewise, all those involved would have needed to ensure that the trial did not descend into a farce similar to that of Saddam Hussein where the trial was seen as an extension of American influence and where sound coverage of Saddam’s rants was often edited.

Finally, when the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion had been reached, would the United States have pursued the death penalty and potentially martyred him to Islamic extremists, or would several life sentences ensuring that Bin Laden was never able to apply for parole have been handed out?

Whilst these questions can never be answered, it is clear that as a result of killing Osama Bin Laden instantly and not bringing him to trial the United States pre-empted the above problems and prevented a costly, problematic and potentially drawn-out trial through the eyes of the international media, organisations and governments.

Overcoming these problems through Bin Laden’s quick death does not however mean that the United States has been vindicated in not taking greater risks to bring the world’s most wanted terrorist to trial.  Obviously, events that took place during the operation cannot be trivialised and may never be fully known, although by issuing the order to capture only if there was no threat to the American assault team the Obama administration had effectively ordered his execution due to the likelihood of concealed weapons and explosives.  No doubt in an ideal world where morals reign supreme and the desire for revenge was not so profound, capturing and then placing Bin Laden on trial would have been the ideal response.

Assuming that Bin Laden would not offer any substantial information on the Taliban network if captured, by putting him on trial the United States would have had nothing to lose as his ideology and beliefs would have been laid bare for all to see.  By allowing him to be properly tried in an open court of law, the myth and legend of the man would have been debunked; he would have been seen as a fragile man who encouraged the killing of innocent civilians through his twisted interpretation of Islam.  Such a process has been done before; at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 – 46 the remaining twenty four high ranking Nazis were placed on trial, their corrupt and racist beliefs being seen by all.

This is not how Bin Laden would have wanted to have been remembered.  He no doubt died with a smile on his face as he was killed by a Western ‘infidel’ bullet, not through old age and rotting in an American jail, kept alive in a country which he had frequently referred to as the Great Satan.

After all, had Bin Laden been placed on trial and convicted, what better way for the American public to get ‘justice,’ ‘revenge’ and ‘closure’ than by having Osama Bin Laden locked away in a New York high security jail – the very city his followers attacked in an attempt to bring about the demise of America fittingly being the location of his perpetual detention and demise?