New Internationalist

Letters

Issue 261

new internationalist
issue 261 - November 1994

Letters
The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
They may be edited for purposes of space or clarity.
Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
to the nearest editorial office or e-mail to : ni@newint.org

Ad nauseam
Cover of the NI Issue 259 The NI seems to moan too much about the admittedly repulsive excesses of capitalism but makes few positive proposals for change. I found this particularly true of your issue Filthy rich! (NI 259).

Could you not aim to be more positive (and less cosy for some of your readers) by for instance suggesting how shareholders, if they got together effectively (referendum?) could stop the absurd payments to bosses of ‘their’ companies, as well as political donations? More important, how could investors ensure that their money isn’t being used to exploit Third World producers (Unit Trusts won’t do, and environmentally ‘clean’ is only one part of the jigsaw)? You could for instance encourage your readers to buy from organizations – such as Traid-craft – which ensure that primary producers earn a fair return, instead of having projects excessively creamed off by large foreign firms.

Finally, does NI agree that capitalism, with all its horrid warts – notably the constant stimulation of greed as against decent standards – is with us to stay since the collapse of communism, or have you an alternative? If not, would it not be more constructive to champion the control of excesses, rather than complaining ad nauseam?

David Baron
Ludlow, UK

Beirut
The staff here at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) has appreciated reading the issue on Beirut (NI 258). Good work! We were thrilled to see our name under ‘Worth reading’, but would like to correct the listed address. Our address is 1500 Mass Ave NW, Suite 119, Washington DC 20005. Tel: 202 223 3677, Fax: 202 223 3604.

Esther Merves
MERIP, Washington DC, US

Abortion
Michael Leydon (Letters NI 256) is entitled to his views on abortion but his case is not strengthened by his remarks on the harm such operations cause to women’s health. Half a million women die worldwide each year as a direct result of pregnancy and childbirth. Many of these pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted. Approximately 100,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions. Many are left with a life of ill-health and infertility. Legalized abortion under medical supervision and after proper counselling is extremely safe and has to be part of an effective family planning strategy to improve women’s health.

Chris Lennox
Lanark, Scotland

Resistance
NI is growing on me! After experimenting with many other reputable alternative periodicals, I am coming to appreciate NI’s window on the world – more readable, informative, unpretentious – a peculiar achievement, perhaps due to your more exploratory and thematic approach.

Naturally, it provides a lot of fuel for discussion among kindred spirits, and I have encountered a difficulty to throw back at you: not only is the Western press unable to get a grip on ‘real news’, but Westerners in general seem to have a hard time understanding the process and the paradigm of resistance, persistence and reconstruction. Insofar as we need to learn this paradigm for our own salvation, we may need to discover how much has really been lost of what is commonly still called ‘community’, and why our inertia stems from being securely stuck in an individuated middle-class existence given meaning chiefly by a commercial economy. Do we have to wait for conditions to force us into resistance, or can we learn from others’ experience?

Charley Ice
Aotearoa/New Zealand

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Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Carpet children
I was very pleased to see the article on carpet children in Nepal (NI 258). It reinforced Anti-Slavery International’s message that the exploitation of children in the production of hand-knotted carpets is a problem for the whole industry and not just for India. However, I was rather puzzled by the message that the Nepali carpet industry employs 10 times more children than the Indian industry. Figures for illegal child labour are notoriously inexact, but the best estimates from social action groups suggest up to 150,000 child workers in the Nepali carpet industry, up to 300,000 in India and similar numbers in Pakistan. Readers wanting to know more can obtain a copy of ASI’s 1993 report on child labour in Nepal which included a section on the Kathmandu carpet factories.

David Ould
ASI, The Stableyard, Broomgrove Road,
London SW9 9TL, UK

Nuclear India
Recently the cooling towers’ ceiling at the Kaiga nuclear plant in South India collapsed. India’s nuclear power stations are perhaps the most unsafe in the world, yet no international body demands to inspect them. Nobody does an audit on them either. There is the suspicion that most of the funds destined for them go into the coffers of the ruling party and its bigwigs. Our nuclear plants are nothing more than nuclear sandcastles – good for nothing, producing nothing. The minister in charge of power supplies tells us, after countless billions of rupees have been poured into the non-productive nuclear industry, that if we want an efficient power-supply we should be prepared to pay much more than at present! Unless the international media are more realistic towards India (compare their attitude to Burma, North Korea, Iraq etc), things will only turn worse for the Indian people.

Madiva Patil and others
Bombay, India

Cuba
A worrying aspect of most of the general media reporting of the Cuban tragedy is the unquestioning characterization of it as the inevitable triumph of Western capitalism and democracy over a socialist command economy and a communist dictator. In pursuing this line such reporting largely ignores the sustained campaign of military invasion, assassination plots and economic isolation by the US, supported by much of the ‘free world’ to destroy one alternative to capitalism. It also ignores the real progress made by the Cuban revolution in education, health care and the living standards of its people despite its own shortcomings and the attacks of its powerful neighbour. Compare this with the attitudes to the ‘achievements’ of the murderous right-wing dictatorships in the same region of the world in reducing the living standards of the poor to the benefit of their own élites and the ‘democratic’ nations of the West.

If Cuba falls it will not be a victory for democracy and freedom but a further step towards the total dominance of a world economy and polity that holds within it the seeds of unrestrained environmental destruction and social conflict across the globe.

Ian Taylor
Nottingham, UK

Ed: Thanks to all those who have written in with ideas for future issues. We had a fascinating range of proposals, all of which will be discussed at our November meeting.

We have another request following the success of this one: NI is working on an issue on ageing. Nikki van der Gaag would be interested to hear from readers of all ages a) about their definitions of ‘age’ and b) what they feel about growing older. Write now – thoughts needed by November 16th. Thanks!

The Spice of Life
We are currently working on an NI food book on spices. If you’ve a favourite spicy recipe for a starter, main course or dessert, or even a drink or a chutney, please send it in to Troth Wells, together with a couple of lines about the spices used and where
you discovered it.

All recipes will be fully acknowledged!

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from Lagos

Phoning for democracy
Mobile cell-phones in Nigeria are the playboy’s toy.
But, as Elizabeth Obadina found out, they have other uses as well...

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY The ragged youth stood centre-stage on a traffic island in the middle of the Lagos morning ‘go-slow’ – elsewhere known as the ‘rush-hour’ – and held an animated conversation on his mobile telephone. He chuckled. He struck aggressive business poses. He whispered and laughed and slapped his thighs. His left hand traced expansive projects in the sky. His whole being was concentrated on his never-ending telephone conversation.

Would you dare interrupt such intense conversation? He’d be delighted. For with acting skills which would do a national drama company credit – if Nigeria had one – this young boy, straight from the village, is avoiding destitution by selling the latest hot item to be sold through the Lagos traffic jams – a fake cellular phone.

Telephony in general is still strictly for those with money. Mobile phones are for businesses and for the super-rich, but for a fraction of the price you can now fool your friends and pose as one of the élite.

In many ways mobile telephone technology is the ideal means of providing a telephone service for Nigeria’s 90 million people. They live scattered in towns and villages which spread from the vast desert expanse of the Sahara’s southern fringe, southwards through savannah and the virgin rainforests across the mountains of the Cameroon borderlands. Nigeria meets the Atlantic ocean in a morass of inaccessible mangrove swamps and deltaic lagoons.

Nowhere is very suitable for the laying of telephone land lines. The latest colonists of the southern swamplands, the oil companies, use radio communication. How wonderful cellular telephone networks would be for reaching the villages that few other services can reach. As it is mobile phones are merely the ultimate fashion accessory in the few major Nigerian cities covered by cellular phone networks. The phones lie concealed in the voluminous starched gowns worn by both men and women without ruining the fashionable cut of the cloth.

In recent months the mobile telephone has begun to rehabilitate its playboy, drug-dealer image and carve for itself an heroic role as a key tool in the pro-democracy movement. The mobile phone shot to prominence when we listened, rapt, one evening to the blow-by-blow account of the arrest of a former state governor recorded live by the BBC’s Focus on Africa radio news programme – via the politician’s mobile phone. The ex-governor, Chief Segun Osoba, a one-time BBC correspondent, knew the value of international news media broadcasting in a country where local media are severely restricted. He had phoned the BBC as soon as he was arrested. The military Government chafed at Western media imperialism but there were few Nigerians that evening who remained unaware of the arrest of one of the country’s leading pro-democracy activists. After that incident the security police learned to search the robes of political detainees for their mobile phones.

The mobile phone was also the glue which held the pro-democracy oil workers’ strike together from June to September. The strike leaders played cat-and-mouse with Nigerian security operatives and co-ordinated the strike by phone. They weren’t a natural tool for the cash-strapped trade unionists. Journalists phoning one prominent strike leader would have to have their questions well-prepared and brief, as he would only allow two minutes for each interview. The union couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant charges for receiving calls charged by the telephone parastatal.

It is unfortunate, but trifling, that one by-product of the end of the pro-democracy strike is that mobile phone-users in Nigeria will once again run the risk of being identified as fraudsters and drug-barons instead of men and women of political principles. Those involved in the political struggle have had their bank balances drained by months of activism. They can’t afford to use mobile phones even if they had them. Sad really that such a useful technology may once again become identified with the affluence that accompanies such dubious life-styles.

Elizabeth Obadina is a freelance writer and journalist living in Lagos.

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