Dinyar Godrej has been associated with New Internationalist since 1989, but joined as an editor in 2000. His interest in human rights has led him to focus on subjects like world hunger, torture, landmines, present day slavery and healthcare. His belief in listening to people who seldom get a chance to represent themselves led to unorthodox editions on (and by) street children and people with disabilities from the Majority World. He grew up in India and remains engaged with South Asian affairs.

Dinyar wrote the original No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change (2001) and edited Fire In The Soul (2009).

An early fascination with human creative endeavour endures. He has recently taken to throwing pots in his free time.


Dinyar Godrej has been associated with New Internationalist since 1989, but joined as an editor in 2000. His interest in human rights has led him to focus on subjects like world hunger, torture, landmines, present day slavery and healthcare. His belief in listening to people who seldom get a chance to represent themselves led to unorthodox editions on (and by) street children and people with disabilities from the Majority World. He grew up in India and remains engaged with South Asian affairs.

Dinyar wrote the original No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change (2001) and edited Fire In The Soul (2009).

An early fascination with human creative endeavour endures. He has recently taken to throwing pots in his free time.

Contributor Image: 

The age of disruption

We are always at the threshold of the futureBut whereas in the past, the path beyond seemed like a gradient, with a horizon that one might dimly view, today it seems to resemble a graph of seismic activity. Our threshold is a brink.

The main reason for this altered future landscape is often given as the breakneck acceleration of technology. While previous technological revolutions occurred over millennia (farming) or centuries (industrialization), comparable breakthroughs today happen in a matter of years, with little predictability. And with an engulfing wave of automation rearing up – think not just industrial robots and driverless cars, but also the myriad ways in which computerized and digital technology has colonized our work and personal lives – the stage is set for an age of disruption.

Intractable challenges suddenly yield. Researchers had spent years trying to get computer systems to identify objects, only to be overtaken by a machine-learning approach – computer systems using methodical problem-solving steps (called algorithms) to learn from examples, data and experience. Google’s image recognition technology now produces results that beat average human scores for the same task.

Dentistry, as another example, is considered one of the jobs least at risk from automation. Yet this September in China, a robot dentist successfully implanted two teeth unaided by humans. The teeth themselves had been 3D printed.

Disruption is, of course, an article of faith for the Silicon Valley vanguard of new technology – preferably disruption of entire industries because that swiftly leads to a winner-takes-all monopoly with big money to be made. Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra ‘Move fast and break things’ might have been intended for Facebook’s developers, but it fits perfectly with the techno-capitalists who have ascended the ranks of the new global elite.

This has led to hand-wringing from some unlikely quarters. In an October 2016 speech, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, lamented this ‘new normal’ of disruption in the global economy, saying ‘society is facing the “new unknown”, adding to the general morosity.’ The World Economic Forum is, after all, most famous for its annual gathering of the super-wealthy at Davos, and not particularly regarded as a cradle of progressive concern. But Schwab had put his finger on the technological revolution afoot. He defined it in terms of unprecedented ‘velocity, scope and systems impact’, evolving at an ‘exponential rather than a linear pace’ and ‘disrupting almost every industry in every country’.1

Going, going, gone…?

Schwab’s dismally resonant phrase ‘general morosity’ is most applicable to the work sphere, where precarity is currently the order of the day and dire warnings about the effects of automation abound.

The latest report from Citi and Oxford Martin School announces that 80 per cent of retail jobs are at risk of automation – this is the sector next in line after the losses already sweeping through manufacturing, mining and agriculture. It’s not just the people at the tills being replaced by machines, but, with the rise of internet shopping, also warehouse, transport and logistics workers.

The narrative is always one of inevitability – fit your skills to the needs of the intelligent machines and those who control them – or else

Another paper from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) predicts that in Britain, finance and accounting, transport and distribution, and media marketing and advertising could suffer heavy losses in the next decade. Yet another report claims one in three British jobs are on the chopping block.

As for the Majority World, nothing to whistle about. A study building on World Bank data predicts an even worse situation, with the most populous nations, China, and India having 77 and 69 per cent respectively of jobs deemed ‘high risk’. Uzbekistan leads this dubious ranking at 85 per cent. Such predictions are based on a combination of assumptions. One, that the low-wage labour advantage of Global South manufacturers disappears, with automation allowing purchasing countries to bring production back to their own shores. Two, that increasing automation in poorer countries would displace larger numbers of jobs than in the West.

There are of course opposing views that hold that, given time, new technology will create different kinds of jobs, or usher in an age of plenty where work will matter less. These are incredibly benevolent predictions, when one considers the job-creation record of new technology industries. In the US, just 0.5 per cent of the work force has been able to shift to them from other sectors.

There is also the argument that we are better off automating jobs that are boring, repetitive, dirty or dangerous. No-one would argue against the robots currently being developed to scope out nuclear radiation levels, for example. But what if those are the only jobs left…?

This is not to deny the incredible benefits of technological advances. Algorithm-based artificial intelligence can now identify cancers better than trained pathologists and outperforms doctors in the accurate diagnosis of symptoms. Robots can undertake delicate surgery with absolutely steady hands. Great news of course for patients who may benefit, but not so great if it means the de-skilling of healthcare professionals. Computer programs could likely scan case law much more thoroughly and swiftly in legal situations and propose lines of defence, but would one want them to be the sole recourse? Algorithms can detect fraudulent financial transactions in a millisecond. But they can also accomplish 100,000 high-frequency trades on the stock market, while simultaneously manoeuvring to mislead their electronic competitors in that same split second. It’s brilliant that drones can deliver essential medicines to remote rural areas in Malawi, but less so if that means the areas themselves are consigned to remoteness for the foreseeable future and that’s all the healthcare on offer. And as for China’s robot dentist – well, the country has a shortage of dentists. But would training more humans be a better option?

The bottom line should always be, what is the human impact? And that consideration lags far behind in the tech race.

Consider this: a recent report laid out evidence that US workers who had been exposed to automation in the workplace had had a higher propensity to vote for Donald Trump (also when accounting for a variety of other explanations). Quite possibly they were responding to Trump’s boast of bringing manufacturing back home again and reviving the rust belt. But in 2016, the US had hit a manufacturing record, producing more goods than ever (85 per cent more than in 1987) – with one crucial difference: it did so using 30 per cent fewer workers. Manufacturing was already home, but it was increasingly being done by the machines. Trump might have blamed globalization for job losses but today many commentators insist automation poses far greater challenges.

Meanwhile, citrus growers in California, worried about no longer being able to rely on cheap migrant labour, are investing in the development of an orange-picking robot. And in Brexit-facing Britain, farmers are considering automated strawberry-pickers at $250,000 a pop. Strange days indeed.

Supremely exploitable

Many predictions about work converge on a few cheerless points: that jobs will get increasingly divided into low-paid/low-skilled and high-paid/high-skilled, with the latter reserved for a select few; that worker bargaining power and wages will take a dive; that algorithmic-intense management with a high degree of surveillance will lead to increasingly robotic working conditions for humans; and many could end up doing work that is just the interface between machines.

Such predictions are already conspiring to shape the present. ‘The threat that work could disappear is an excellent way to make us work more cheaply,’ says Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel, and the fear of this threat makes us ‘supremely exploitable’. It’s a kind of capitalism that is ‘benefited by flexible people, by people who work but preferably don’t have jobs’.

This results in a 24/7 connectedness to work, which makes many long for the boring 9-to-5 of yore.

Robotization dangers: Robocop for real, a police robot makes its debut in dubai, May 2017. It will help citizens report crimes and answer parking ticket queries, rather than make arrests. 25 per cent of the dubai police force will be robotic by 2030.
Robocop for real, a police robot makes its debut in Dubai, May 2017. It will help citizens report crimes and answer parking ticket queries, rather than make arrests. Some 25 per cent of the Dubai police force will be robotic by 2030. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Another oft-repeated prescription is that job obsolescence will be regular and recurring. So to be economically valid we must continually relearn skills, continually reinvent ourselves and adjust, continually study – regardless of whether the majority of us are capable or desirous of doing so. The narrative is always one of inevitability, the agency of ordinary humans has little place in it. The message is: fit your skills to the needs of the intelligent machines – and those who control them – or else.

The next prediction is also presented as inevitable, and even those on the Right who are usually squeamish about such things are making it: inequality will get techno-charged and widen ever further. The consequences would be particularly devastating in the Global South where social provision can be scant anyway. At the beginning of this year Oxfam warned that just eight rich men now control as much wealth as the world’s poorest 50 per cent; all 3.6 billion of them. How much further can things go?

As social critic Curtis White pithily put it: ‘Robots are brilliant at supply but they don’t create demand.’ So if the triumph of techno-capitalism would render most of us economically worthless in terms of our labour, the ultimate dystopic conclusion is that we could become disposable to a rich ruling elite.

Reinvented regulators

Currently our policymakers seem to be asleep at the wheel when it comes to the question of regulating new technology and its effects. The changes are coming so fast that regulators are finding themselves unable to cope. Schwab talks in terms of regulators having to ‘reinvent’ themselves and somewhat demurely of the ‘decentralization of power that new technologies make possible’. In effect, we are talking about a Wild West scenario where tech billionaires are gathering decision-making power by stealth because no-one will stop them. (Google’s Larry Page has gone one step further, expressing a desire to set aside a part of the planet for unlimited experimentation completely without regulation.)

This sneaky power grab is most evident in the world of Big Data. A common complaint is that all our digital interactions, the way we are watched over by the web-connected appliances we use (the so-called internet of things), are yielding a rich lode of data that is being mined almost solely by a handful of mainly US-based corporations. This data is being deployed with increasing opacity by systems that can generate individually tailored messages to influence our political behaviour, consumption of products and many other aspects of our lives.

Critics warn that governments are unthinkingly ceding public statistics to the data giants. But at digital trade talks, any moves towards regulation – now or in the future – by Majority World countries that would impede the completely free flow of their citizens’ data across borders, is stamped upon by wealthy nations fronting for big business.

Big data is also being deployed in the service of the dominant socio-political model of technocracy, which installs technical thinking as the supreme discourse and dictates society must be made to fit assumed principles of ‘scientific’ organization. Author Cathy O’Neill has outlined in her book Weapons of Math Destruction how algorithmic assessment is being levelled at almost every level of human interaction from employee effectiveness to credit-worthiness to policing. Viewed as objective and neutral, she demonstrates how algorithms are riddled with human bias, and all too often work against democracy and perpetuate inequality.

Solve everything

If Big Data is all about the asymmetries of power, the zenith is reached in the quest to take AI further and further. This September, Vladimir Putin declared: ‘Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for humankind… Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become ruler of the world.’ Putting aside the desirability or otherwise of one such overlord for the moment, what Putin was talking about was not the AI that already exists – the kind of task-solving AI that has defeated the best human minds in strategic or linguistic games or which can turn out 5,000 soul-stirring chorales in the manner of Bach in a single day.2

He was instead referring to its dreamed-of successor: general artificial intelligence (AGI), a superior AI that could deploy its enhanced capacity across a wide range of activities like humans do. Notionally, it could be capable, in the words of the Future of Life Institute, of ‘outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand’. The race to develop AGI is already on.

Reactions to the idea of AGI among the new tech community vary from ‘it is aeons away, if it will ever happen’, to outright dread, and blissful anticipation. The worriers are urging action now to address potential safety problems so complex that they may take decades to solve.

The enthusiasts have a rather simpler plan. The folks at GoodAI, which attempts to direct machine intelligence to tackle ethical decision-making, has the speedy development of AGI ‘to help humanity and understand the universe’ at the core of its mission. Dennis Hassabis, the founder of Google-owned DeepMind, outlines his company’s mission as ‘Step one, solve intelligence. Step two, use it to solve everything else.’

AI ethicist John C Havens points out the naked emperor: ‘It is tempting to wonder what would happen if we spent more time focusing on helping each other directly, versus relying on machines to essentially grow brains for us.’

Take back the future

The discussion about our tech future must revolve around rescuing our humanity and agency from the corporate narrative of inevitability. The governance questions are complex and unwieldy and we need our would-be regulators to wake up.

David King of the tech discussion group Breaking the Frame believes this requires wide engagement: ‘We need a movement that understands the importance of corporate, military and state control over technology and puts struggles over technology at the heart of radical politics.’

There are calls for ethical frameworks to be put in place to take control of the development of technology and to scrutinize the algorithms that affect so many of our lives, often without us knowing. These are political battles. We need oversight particularly of technology that is capable of acting autonomously. Especially compelling is the need to ban autonomous weapons, which many nations are already developing. The UN is only just establishing a Centre for AI and Robotics at the Hague; action on the burning issues seems remote.

Much needs to be done about the monopoly ownership of entire sections of the new tech economy. If data is publicly generated, it is time it was used for public ends, paid public dividends and was publicly owned. It may seem like a crazy idea now that corporations run the show, but imagine if Big Data had not already happened and we had the chance to consider how it may best suit us; would it be so crazy then?

On the job front, beyond the obvious ask for the strengthening of labour rights and trade unions to improve bargaining power, we need to look deeper. If automation can detach capital from labour, then proposals like basic income will go nowhere near far enough. As writer Ben Tarnoff puts it: ‘Better to own the robots collectively, and allocate the surplus democratically, than leave society’s wealth in the hands of its luckiest members.’

We could embrace and benefit from the disruptions of new tech much more easily if we could focus on the bottom line considerations of public good and the social creation of wealth. These are not things we can leave to the technological elite.

And sometimes we may just need to resort to plain old bias – a computer may generate a multitude of art works of undisputable quality. Choosing one created by a human is expressing what we cherish about ourselves.

Before we part company, gentle reader, a reassurance that this piece was written by a person and not by a narrative language generation programme. (Or was it?)

Explore further

Foundation for Responsible Robotics: responsiblerobotics.org
‘Accountable innovation for  the humans behind the robots’.
Open Roboethics initiative (ORI): openroboethics.org
Has published surveys on a range of ethical issues relating to robots.

Future of Life Institute: futureoflife.org
Future of Humanity Institute: fhi.ox.ac.uk
Centre for the Study of Existential Risk: cser.org

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots: stopkillerrobots.org
International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC): icrac.net

Electronic Frontier Foundation: eff.org
Defends civil liberties in the digital world; has a project measuring the progress of AI.
Oxford Martin School: oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk
Regular reports on automation and jobs.
Breaking the Frame: breakingtheframe.org.uk
Challenging the politics of technology.
OpenAI: openai.com
Non-profit research company with commercial sponsors working on safe general AI.

‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, 14 January 2016, nin.tl/SchwabWEF
The reference is to the Experiments in Musical Intelligence programme developed by composer David Cope.

The will of the people


Paroxysm: Robin Roy, a fervent Donald Trump supporter, eyeballs her idol. This image was clicked during Trump’s presidential campaign, but Roy’s enthusiasm has not wavered now that he holds office. © Brian Snyder/Reuters

Flavia Kleiner (in the magenta jacket) and the Operation Libero team raise a cheer in Bern, Switzerland, when they hear that their campaign against a proposal to expel foreigners, for committing even low-level crimes, has been a success.

Lukas Lehmann/Keystone/Associated Press

I have to be honest. My first reaction is usually groaning disbelief.

As I write it’s the run-up to the general elections in the Netherlands where I live and a certain bleached blond bombshell is impossible to avoid because he has led the polls for much of it.1

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), is an autocratic one-man show – he is the party’s only member. His party manifesto displays the brevity of a Twitter habitué. Nearly half is taken up with his plan to ‘de-Islamize’ the Netherlands, including: ‘Close all mosques and Islamic schools, ban the Qur’an’.2 As satirist Arjen Lubach pointed out, this tidy little injunction drives a battle tank through three constitutional guarantees – the freedoms of religion, assembly and speech.

Then there is this little gem: ‘No public money for development aid, windmills, art, innovation, broadcasting, etc.’ Wilders is clearly not a man of details, but the ‘etc’ is a wink to his followers that implies, ‘You know, all that crap.’

Our democratic institutions and processes are distorted by the muscle of big money, and rarely demonstrate that they can stand up to corporate interests

How can multitudes of my fellow citizens take this guy seriously? Is it the nostalgic and virulent nationalism that appeals?

Fortunately, the Dutch political scene has a large spread of parties which fragments the vote (Wilders polls at around 20 per cent), resulting in coalition governments. The other major parties have said they will not work with him. A significant number of people will vote for him not because they actually believe he is the answer, but to give the political establishment a kicking – a desire reflected in the proliferation of small anti-establishment parties.

Here we touch upon a deep undercurrent that is bringing a paranoid populist politics bubbling up in much of the Western world: the stagnation of the current political consensus around neoliberal economic models which leave little practical difference between parties of the centre-Left and the Right. Labour parties are now labour only in name; their disconnect from the concerns of workers is profound.

The Netherlands is a wealthy creditor nation that has privatized much of its public sphere and shrunk social provision in a series of austerity measures. In 2013 the Dutch king Willem-Alexander officially announced that the welfare state had ended and we were now living in a ‘participation society’ where people must create their own social and financial safety nets, especially in terms of ‘social security and long-term care’.

The zombie voter

This is the big con of the Western neoliberal model where the promise of opportunity remains a fiction for most, but meritocracy is still held up as the route for prosperity for all; where the guarantee of social equality is undermined by the monopolization of power by a few. Our democratic institutions and processes are distorted by the muscle of big money, and rarely demonstrate that they can stand up to corporate interests. Unaccountable technocratic bodies serving the interests of the rich have co-opted political institutions. Governments seem powerless to reform the financial sector, whose excesses plunged many countries into crisis. As George Monbiot put it: ‘If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate.’3

Political scientist Chantal Mouffe calls this a ‘post-political situation which has led to the disappearance from political discourse of the idea that there is an alternative to neoliberal globalization’ and which has turned the ‘demos’, the sovereign people, into ‘a zombie category’.4 As the Spanish anti-austerity movement, the Indignados, put it: ‘We have a vote but we do not have a voice.’

Today, surveys reveal an increasing appetite for strong leaders who would disregard the niceties of parliaments and judicial checks and just get on with things. It’s a kind of magical thinking that is tearing up the political establishment and has shot into power populist demagogues all over the world channelling popular rage and fear away from the real causes of discontent and down the usual rift valleys of division, anti-immigrant sentiment, and ethnic and religious prejudice towards triumphalist nativism and nationalism.

Divide and rule

Populism, as a political style, has three distinguishing qualities, according to Benjamin Moffitt, author of The Global Rise of Populism. It features appeals to ‘the people’ versus the ‘the elite’, utilizes an undiplomatic style not normally associated with politicians (the so-called ‘common touch’), and thrives on perpetuating a state of crisis to keep supporters mobilized.5

Recently, this has led to some rather elitist anti-elitism. Take the thin-skinned billionaire in the White House and his cabinet appointees, who jointly hold more wealth than the bottom third of all US households – can one really see them being flagbearers for the ‘left behind’ rather than cranking up crony capitalism to the max?6 Or British Prime Minister Theresa May, married to a hedge fund manager, railing against the elites and claiming to support ‘ordinary’ working people.

Democracy, as it is usually imagined, gives power to the majority while respecting the minority; otherwise, it degenerates into the dictatorship of the majority. But the current crop of rightwing populists want just that, and they encourage their supporters to indulge in ‘the tenacious pleasures of victimhood’ (as author Pankaj Mishra so memorably put it) to justify their bloody-mindedness. In the words of Donald Trump: ‘The only thing that matters is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.’ (It matters little that ‘the other people’ are actually the majority that didn’t vote for him.) Similarly, the perma-smirking architect of Brexit, Nigel Farage, and his claim that the 52 per cent of the turnout that voted to leave the EU were ‘the real people’, which makes the rest conveniently unreal and unworthy of consideration. A notion that the current British administration has taken to heart.

This identification of the chosen people is a dangerous divide and rule strategy. According to Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General: ‘2016 was the year when the cynical use of “us vs them” narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes.’7 And cranking up arms and military spending along with their rhetoric.

‘Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.’7

Mystical gifts

In India we have Narendra Modi shaping this vast land of numerous cultures into a Hindu nation, leading a party that is openly contemptuous of the secularism enshrined in the country’s constitution. This is the man who, while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, did little to quell the rioting that killed 2,000 people, mainly Muslims. And who later pointedly refrained from voicing any regret, instead stating that he had been saddened in the manner that one feels when a puppy comes under the wheels of a car in which one is travelling.

This is where majoritarianism leads. India has rising levels of voter engagement and voters, of late, unfailingly choose authoritarian leaders – across all levels of government. These are people who are viewed as corrupt themselves but with the muscle to get things done. Plus they have learned how to harness the violence of young men who feel excluded from opportunities.8

Turn your gaze to Hungary, where Viktor Orbán, an open advocate of ‘illiberal democracy’, and his hardline Fidesz party, which enjoys a comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament, are fostering a climate of hate – anti-migrant, Islamophobic, where hate crimes against Roma and Jewish people pass without much comment. Government officials have rewritten history curricula and appoint teachers, and a coterie of politicians, academics and journalists openly stoke hostility towards foreigners.

Last year Orbán spent $40 million on an anti-Muslim campaign for a referendum on whether Hungary should take the paltry 1,294 refugees that the EU had assigned to it. The referendum failed because fewer than 50 per cent of voters turned up, but those that did voted overwhelmingly (98 per cent) in line with his position. Orbán promptly declared that the real people had spoken and renewed his tirades against a Brussels establishment of ‘liberal nihilists’ forcing multiculturalism upon European nations.9

Populists thus claim a mystical gift of being able to divine the will of ‘the people’ regardless of the reality that this will is actually a set of varied and often competing interests. They also have a tendency, exemplified by the likes of Putin and Erdog˘an, of trying to accumulate increasing power into their own hands. Since the failed coup against him last summer, Turkey’s Erdog˘an has played the resulting state of emergency for all it’s worth. More than 125,000 people have been dismissed from state jobs; 45,000 are in jail on terrorist charges; 160 media outlets have been shut down.10 The atmosphere of fear is such that those who fall foul of the administration are shunned by employers, and lawyers shy from taking up their cases. On 16 April there will be a referendum to give him even more sweeping powers with an executive presidency replacing the existing parliamentary system of government and with Erdog˘an being able to pick ministers and judges. The opposition, if not in jail, is cowed by intimidation, and the government-friendly press has free rein to urge for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Such examples are the strongest case for checks and balances. How much worse would Donald Trump’s reign be if judges couldn’t rule some of his orders illegal, if his executive power were completely unchecked by Congress, courts and state autonomy; if the Pentagon chief were not able to oppose his support for torture?

All the world’s a stage

The current rise of authoritarian populism that feeds on hate and division is a reminder that democracy is not fixed; it is always in the making. And persuasion is a large part of it. Just as people with a little encouragement can respond in ways that are far-sighted, thoughtful and inclusive, they can also be encouraged to be brutal, xenophobic and exclusionary.

The current distortions of the media landscape in the digital age – both established and social media – play a significant role. It’s ironic that Trump thunders FAKE NEWS (always in capitals) about reporting that is usually fact-based and true, but has himself benefited enormously from a model of digital capitalism that makes it profitable to circulate false click-bait. If populism is about performance and projection rather than representation, then today’s media environment only encourages this tendency.

Spreading across the internet are troll armies and twitter bots, funded by governments and wealthy individuals alike, ready to throw into question the credibility of news that doesn’t fit a particular frame and promote false versions.

‘Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people’

Google offers no filtering for fake news and well-funded rightwing groups have mastered its algorithms by aggressively linking up sites, so that their views come up top. Following an exposé by Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr which showed how searches about the holocaust or Jews returned denialist and vile top results, Google was shamed into correcting this. But key in the words ‘mainstream media is’ and the autocomplete options that come up are ‘dead’, ‘fake news’, ‘dying’, ‘fake’.11

Outright lies are now mistaken for freedom of speech and they spread worldwide in an instant.

Surely it is up to the individual to withstand this onslaught? Perhaps not if the individual is on Facebook, which will filter what you see according to what you have liked and shared just to keep you logged on – but won’t warn you that the news is fake. In the lead-up to the US election, fake stories generated more engagement than real news stories on Facebook (where, incidentally, 44 per cent of US adults get their news).12

There is a further twist: artificial intelligence was employed on a massive scale to sift through and use the personal information freely shared on social media in order for the Right to target swing voters with tailor-made messaging in both the Brexit referendum and the US elections.12

Pulling out all stops

Referenda are a favoured tool of populists, allowing them to claim ‘the people have spoken’ and pose simplistic answers to complex problems. A yes/no choice often invites a gut response and studies have shown that when people feel they are insufficiently informed they often say no.

Herewith, a tale of two referenda. First, the British referendum on continued membership of the EU. Putting aside the preening demagoguery of the Leave populists, let us look at the level of knowledge of the voting public. An Ipsos Mori poll conducted a month before the vote found that on the burning topic of immigration that dominated the latter stages, both Leave and Remain voters overestimated the percentage of EU immigrants in the country. They plumped for 20 and 10 per cent respectively, when the actual figure was about five per cent.13 Leave aside the fact that migrants from the EU actually make a net positive contribution to public funds. Both sides also vastly underestimated how much investment comes from the EU. So much for being informed.

The second tale is inspirational and took place last year in Switzerland, where referenda are commonplace. Here the largest political party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) – rightwing populists with a hatred of immigrants, who had previously got the building of minarets banned – hit on the no-brainer of getting the public to vote on a proposal to expel immigrants with a criminal record.

But they hadn’t counted on Flavia Kleiner, then still a student, who decided to take up the fight, founding the campaigning group Operation Libero. The campaigners made a firm decision not to engage in party politics but to focus on the issues, thus reaching out to voters regardless of party affiliations. And they decided they were going to concentrate on bringing their own message across – not merely reacting to SVP propaganda. ‘We said: listen, this is a threat to our democracy. This proposal would allow the legislator to sit in the judge’s chair,’ explains Kleiner. ‘It contradicts the rule of law.’14

Operation Libero also went all out on the media game. ‘They have internet trolls, we have online warriors,’ says Kleiner. When the SVP delivered a pamphlet full of misleading propaganda and dodgy statistics to all Swiss citizens, Operation Libero pulled out the five biggest lies and sent them with the correct facts to all national newspapers. ‘That week the media focused only on the SVP’s fact checking.’ Their tireless campaigning paid off – the proposal was rejected by a 58.9-per-cent majority.

A similar massive civil-society mobilization saved the leadership of Austria from falling into the hands of the far-Right populist Norbert Hofer and brought Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate backed by the Greens, into office at the tail-end of last year. Amazingly the campaign played down Van der Bellen as a figurehead and focused on values, ‘respectful togetherness’ being the main message. A range of NGOs, sports clubs and neighbourhood groups got involved; anyone could volunteer as an activist and thousands did, who then received campaigning training.15 Bottom-up, grassroots: we are not used to seeing electioneering quite like this.

Progressive and populist

Today, many political analysts argue that the populist mode is here to stay and the sooner the political establishment adapts to it, the better. Jonathan Matthew Smucker makes the case for a progressive populism in the US, where the current civil-society resurgence in the wake of Trump needs to connect better with the political process. Run for Something, an organization committed to recruiting young progressives to run for local office, was launched on Trump’s inauguration day and had 3,000 sign-ups in its first two weeks. Richard Swift outlines why this moment of global crisis calls for a genuine populism of the Left.

There are stirrings in the mainstream that the populist field won’t be left open to the hard Right. In the French electoral race Marine Le Pen is being challenged by the centrist charmer (and former investment banker to boot) Emmanuel Macron. Sadly the socialist Benoit Hamon’s star waned as rapidly as it rose. In the more stolid world of German politics the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland has failed to make headway and the current insurgent is the socialist Martin Schulz.

They could take a leaf out of the book of some of Latin America’s progressive populists. For example, Bolivia’s Evo Morales has brought a politics that embraces diversity to bear some fruit – like the increasing inclusion of women, indigenous people and social movements in politics; and a surge in public funding drawing on natural resources which has had a knock-on impact on poverty. But even he is trying to go for another term in office despite a constitutional bar, an attempt to cling to power that is also characteristic of populists.

Direct and deep

Ultimately, whether populist or not, what we need is a more deliberative democracy, not the stunt-ridden song-and-dance routine we have been getting.

A prerequisite is a robust defence of human rights for all and of the rule of law – so that the former don’t become dispensable in the name of fighting terror or protecting the majority and the latter doesn’t just become the instrument of the spurious ‘popular will’.

Much needs to be done to tackle the corruption of politics by powerful private donors and corporate lobbyists. Proportional representation could reflect better the desires of all the people and dampen extreme positions, but sadly remains susceptible to colonization by technocratic neoliberalism.

All methods of deepening democracy involve a stronger civil society and greater citizen participation, not the malleable mob required by demagogues

All methods of deepening democracy involve a stronger civil society and greater citizen participation, not the malleable mob required by demagogues. One route to such participation is through citizens’ juries and conventions. There are over 50 examples of citizens’ juries in Australia alone, involving a random selection of citizens who deliberate a particular policy issue with guidance from experts, and then through discussion and consensus come up with proposals. In Melbourne such a jury of ordinary citizens came up with a 10-year financial plan that was accepted in the main by the city council.

In Iceland a citizens’ convention took on the job of overhauling the country’s constitution, opening up the process on the web and inviting feedback from other citizens every step of the way. When the proposed constitution was put before citizens in a referendum it won two-thirds support.

An Irish group chosen by lots examined many constitutional issues both by drawing on expert advice and receiving input from other citizens. In their deliberations on gay marriage they received more than 1,000 responses. When they recommended that the constitution be changed to allow gay marriage, the citizens of Ireland responded by voting ‘yes’ in a national referendum. This is democracy that is both direct and deep.

The current destructive populist moment that is upon us has come about because of the powerlessness felt by so many people in the face of forces that make all aspects of life more uncertain and unequal. Their rage and fear is being channelled into a politics of exclusion that preys on their hopes for betterment. ‘What’s needed is something more radically democratic,’ says John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, ‘a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy. Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.’16

The volatility we are seeing, where the political skies seem to be darkening, paradoxically also represents a moment of hope. It means people are fed up with business as usual and there is a hunger for change. Progressives have to step up for the hard slog to achieve it.

  1. Held on 15 March 2017.
  2. nin.tl/Wilders-prog
  3. ‘Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies behind Donald Trump’s triumph’, The Guardian, 14 November 2016, nin.tl/neo-triumph
  4. ‘In defence of left-wing populism’, The Conversation, 29 April 2016, nin.tl/pop-defence
  5. ‘Face the facts: populism is here to stay’, The Conversation, 29 August 2016, nin.tl/Moffitt-pop
  6. Jeff Sparrow, ‘Here’s a formula for bursting elitist anti-elitism’, The Guardian, 20 December 2016, nin.tl/Sparrow-formula
  7. Amnesty International Annual Report 2016/17, nin.tl/AIAR-2017
  8. Kanchan Chandra, ‘Authoritarian India’, Foreign Affairs, 16 June 2016, nin.tl/Chandra-India
  9. Jan-Werner Müller, ‘Capitalism in one family’, London Review of Books, 1 December 2016, nin.tl/LRB-Muller
  10. Constanze Letsch, ‘Families live in fear and isolation as Erdoğan leads a witch-hunt’, The Observer, 12 February 2017, nin.tl/CL-Erdo
  11. ‘Google, democracy and the truth about internet search’, 4 Dec 2016, nin.tl/CCfakenews and ‘Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media’, 26 Feb 2017, nin.tl/CCMercer
  12. Pew Research Center, nin.tl/pollPew and Tom Watson, ‘“Fake news” is changing the way we see the world’, The Independent, 22 November 2016, nin.tl/Watson-FN
  13. nin.tl/Euviews
  14. Elja Looiestijn, ‘Hoe Flavia de populisten versloeg’, VPRO gids, 4 February 2016, nin.tl/KleinerOL
  15. Owen Jones, ‘It’s not game over...’, The Guardian, 31 December 2016, nin.tl/JonesAustria
  16. ‘Populism and democracy: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?’, The Conversation, 2 November 2016, nin.tl/popKeane

Two cheers for democracy in the Netherlands


Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party appears before his supporters in The Hague, Netherlands, 15 March 2017. © REUTERS/Yves Herman

The Dutch election result may not be quite the unalloyed victory against the far-right that some have made it out to be, says Dinyar Godrej.

‘This was an evening when... the Netherlands said “Stop” to the wrong kind of populism,’ said a beaming Mark Rutte last night to a crowd of supporters, as it became clear that his centre-right party the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) would remain the largest in Dutch Politics and he would continue for another term as prime minister.

Much international attention had focused on the Dutch elections post-Trump, as there had been for a while the chance that an Islam-hating autocrat in the flamboyantly-coiffed form of Geert Wilders might pull off a surprise victory.

We could now breathe a sigh of relief that the far-right had been kept at bay and, predictably, approbation from European leaders followed for the Dutch populace which had rejected extremism by flinging this particular viper from its bosom.

However, what is being seen as a victory for the middle ground and good sense is a bit more complicated.

That these elections were important was underlined by the strong 80 per cent turnout , with polling hours extended in some cities to allow people to cast their votes.

The campaigning had got dominated by the three Is – Islam, Immigration and Identity. These are issues that are not usually at the top of people’s concerns when choosing which politicians they want to represent them; those tend to be more grounded matters such as social provision and job security. But obsessing on identity creates an emotional charge and the campaigning circus duly went for it.

This highjacking of the issues was a victory for Wilders whose divisive discourse of cultural panic seeped further into the mainstream. Rutte himself pulled a pre-election stunt that many interpreted as an offering to Wilders’ audience of angries by publishing an open letter that ran as full page advertisements in all the major newspapers asking immigrants to ‘behave normally or go away’.

Of course it was couched in high-minded pieties of working together to build society but the constant appeal was to ‘our values’, a pre-decided given of imagined decency that all Dutch people supposedly share which the new Dutch of immigrant origin supposedly don’t.

And what are the kinds of things that the later, according to the letter, get up to? These range from dumping rubbish on the street, hanging around in threatening groups to harassing gay people and women in short skirts and accusing the ordinary Dutch person of being racist. These people need to fit in and not reject Dutch values.

If Wilders was accused of creating ‘us versus them’ division, here was an oh-so-decent form of it. The us here were the presumed indigenous white Dutch populace who have a monopoly on decency and behave normally at all times (which sometimes extends to abusing women wearing headscarves but let’s not mention that).

The them were these foreigners (incidentally also citizens) who just refuse to assimilate and get up to all kinds of illiberal behaviour. It seemed to escape Rutte, the sitting prime minister, that unacceptable behaviour of all kinds needed condemnation and, where applicable, the enforcement of existing laws against it, not this kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink ‘we know who the decent people are’ kind of approach. But maybe this is what Rutte considers the right kind of populism where a dominant social majority lays claim to the high ground of values.

That this discourse also works against the desired social integration by reinforcing a ‘we know best’ mentality in the dominant social group should be apparent to Rutte. A far cry from the embrace of diversity needed for truly open societies. Minority groups, particularly Muslims, already suffer from well-documented discrimination in one of the areas where it hurts most – the jobs market .

But the ploy of creating a sense of victimhood within a group that has social power is an old one to try and get the more economically disadvantaged members of it onside, and thus disrupt any class solidarity that could break social boundaries.

So now we have another coalition with a predominantly centre-right make up waiting to be formed. The previous one delivered a series of cuts to public provision which is likely one of the reasons that the Dutch labour party (PvdA) got decimated in this election for being part of it. In the run up to the election Rutte suddenly pulled a bunny out of a hat by announcing that his party would allot two billion euro for care homes on the basis of the country’s economic growth. So after presiding over the filleting of care, here was a promise to graft some meat back on in the future.

Still, populism got defeated, right?

Sure, in terms of Wilders not being in the lead in a political landscape with proportional representation where many parties are in contention not just two. Yet it still says something that his party is now the second largest in the country, gaining five extra seats since the last election. And his continued role as provocateur is assured.

Rutte’s VVD actually lost more seats which could be seen as being fairly typical of a party already in power. And they actually got a late boost by a diplomatic spat with Recep Erdoğan, Turkey’s dictator in the making.

If there is a ray of unalloyed hope, it’s in the Greens (GroenLinks) registering the largest gains of any political party, a sign that the debate is not just about spurious identity politics. Though what kind of part they could play in a mainly rightwing coalition if they were in it remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, a real challenge both politically and socially will be to start washing off some of the contagion that has spread through the mainstreaming of Wilders’ hateful messages during this election.

Look out for our April edition on the theme of Populism.

Before you go…

It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

On 1 March, we launched an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit factsandheart.org.

Switched on

Man holding mobile phone

© Srdjan Zivulovic/ Reuters

Only connect

Many refugees experience the painful scattering of families – often with no means of being able to track down family members. Now REFUNITE, an online platform that mainly works through mobile texts, is offering help. Those searching can register their details for free, which are added to a database of 400,000 individuals. Available in Amharic, English, French, Somali, Sudanese, Arabic and Swahili, and easy to use, it is bringing about some joyful reunions.

Fruits of the forest

Plucking coffee, protecting the forest. Peruvian farmers use agroforestry practices by integrating cash crops – such as banana, coffee and yucca – with local trees, which help protect the plants and prevent soil erosion. A far cry from the slash-and-burn farming previously practised for coffee which led to mountainside destruction here. Using organic manure and pest management, farmers increased production by 33 per cent within a year.

Hole in the wall

Alfred Birkegaard/networkaffect.org

Minimally Invasive Education, that’s the driving idea behind an Indian organization which installs computer terminals with internet access in a hole in a specially constructed wall in areas where disadvantaged children live. The kids (who have little formal education) discover through trial and error how to use the thing, and help each other out. Their pride in teaching themselves is matched only by their new-found skills.

New life for ancient tech

Large parts of India are entirely dependent on seasonal monsoon rains for water – if the rains fail, things get desperate. That is why Indian organizations, chief among them Tarun Bharat Sangh, are reviving ancient rainwater harvesting structures, which unite communities in their construction. The principle is usually to build reservoirs on higher ground which collect rain when it falls and then let it percolate slowly into the water table, so that wells don’t run dry. Other structures just store rainwater (as in our image) but with a covered top to prevent evaporation.

To market – using gravity

Practical Action

The monsoon season used to pose a challenge to hillside farmers in Nepal. The slopes would get treacherously slippery – carrying goods to market meant risking their lives, or watching the excess produce go to waste. However an ingenious trolley system on steel wires has made all the difference. As the full trolley goes down, pulled by the weight of its load, the empty one is pulled up ready for loading. It’s purely mechanical, requiring no electricity.

Citizen monitors

South Africa, which is suffering the worst drought in 23 years, has embarked on a citizen science project to monitor the quality of its water resources. The miniSASS (South African Scoring System) relies on citizens, ranging from schoolchildren to pensioners, to measure indicators of river health, including sediments and pollutants. No science background is required.

Solar for water

In northern Kenya solar-powered pumps mean access to clean water at last. Previously, families were forced to get dirty water from deep holes dug into dry river beds; now they can tap huge underground reservoirs. Clean water dramatically reduces child sickness and mortality, saves women time, enables old farm land to be reused and animals to be easily watered.

Growing power

Off-grid renewable energy in action. In Himalaya, a rural village in the Zimbabwean Highlands, an 80-kilowatt micro-hydro generator provides electricity for 100 homes and two energy centres. At the centres, lanterns and mobile phones can be recharged. In addition, the plant powers the local health clinic so it can store vaccines and have reliable light at night, water-pumps to irrigate farmland, cold storage for crops, a saw mill and a grinding mill.

Mind the technology gap - the facts

Technology as if people mattered*

Kenyan selling sockets

Charge your phones here: this man displays the board of sockets which helps him earn his livelihood in Nigeria’s Katsina city. Many vendors invest in small solar units to generate the power. © Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

In 2002, a group of Indian farmers arrived in Britain to protest about aid for farming projects. They weren’t demanding more of it; instead they were insisting on the withdrawal of up to $92 million worth of earmarked aid.

Surprised? Perhaps you won’t be when you read that the aid package was designed by consultants and advisers who were pushing a model focused completely on export that would have clubbed together land holdings and brought in corporate agriculture.

PV Satheesh, the activist leading the delegation, was firm: ‘If aid can be given on terms that genuinely improve the livelihoods of the people it’s meant to reach, so be it. Otherwise, we’d rather not have it.’

It was a small strike in the ongoing battle against the ‘technology push’ by corporate agribusiness usually disguised in development garments. The eventual goal is ‘market capture’, making farmers completely dependent on the agribusiness giants.

This vision of agriculture, essentially a corporate and anti-social vision, has for too long been viewed in terms of a technological fix. But what it reveals, more than anything else, is that such technology has a deep social and political bias – in favour of elites and to the detriment of the poor.

Today some 80 per cent of the world’s food is still produced on 500 million family farms, accounting for between 70 and 80 per cent of agricultural land. Of these family farms, only one per cent are larger than 50 hectares; 72 per cent are on plots of under a hectare.1 The gigantist follies of Western agriculture would ruin livelihoods that are often already precarious.

Satheesh has been pursuing a different kind of agricultural technology. As founder of the Deccan Development Society, he has been working with mainly women farmers (who usually lose out on outreach programmes) promoting local biodiversity, sharing seeds, developing traditional knowledge such as biofertilization, helping them grow crops that will be better resistant to climate change, and organizing them to take control of the market end.

Over the past century, 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of crops has been lost to future generations as farmers have switched to a small group of high-yielding varieties. The farmers with whom Satheesh works are the true pioneers.

Appropriate behaviour

The satisfaction of our most basic needs (food, water, energy, health) is usually dependent on some form of tech, but a recent report by the sustainable technology charity Practical Action puts it plainly: ‘Technology is cruelly polarized. The rich world enjoys more than its fair share. And, for the poor, the lack of technology is the defining feature of their poverty… The injustice is not an absence of technology, but the unfair exclusion of certain groups to access technology that already exists.’2 This is not new and, short of ‘come the revolution’, neither is the best way to address it – the concept of appropriate technology. Appropriate to resource scarcity, appropriate to local conditions, appropriately in the hands of communities rather than elites, easy to repair locally. As Amber Meikle, who wrote the Practical Action report, puts it: ‘Silver bullet high-tech innovations generally don’t affect the lives of poor people.’

The technology they most urgently need is often at the level of water hand-pumps, or evaporation-based cooling systems that don’t depend on electricity, or halfway decent sanitation. Or clean cook stoves to help the 2.9 billion people still cooking over open fires; and to change the horrible statistic of the resulting four million deaths every year from indoor air pollution.2 Or take the multifunctional brick toilet units built in Nepal that are the brainchild of architect Paul Pholeros of Healthabitat: apart from providing sanitation (in structures that withstood last year’s earthquake), they capture rainwater for hand-washing, make it easier to use human waste for biogas and bring communities together in their construction. They are being championed by the Bangladeshi government as well.

‘Innovation’ is the current donor obsession, regardless of whether the needs of the recipients may actually be better served by non-trendy low- and old-tech

But development channels are prone to fashions. We’ve had years of report funding – grants being given to grassroots groups to write the umpteenth report rather than to fund action. In terms of technology, ‘innovation’ is the current donor obsession, regardless of whether the needs of the recipients may actually be better served by non-trendy low- and old-tech.

Meikle recalls a not-so-bright idea of a football that needed to be kicked around for three hours in order to store kinetic energy to power a lightbulb. Sound fun and funky? – try kicking a football for three hours every day.

There is also the issue of enclave technology. Take the world’s first 3D lab for printing prosthetics – Project Daniel. It’s located in South Sudan, a country where just five per cent of citizens can access electricity.

The future of work

An essential aspect of appropriate technology is that while it may save labour, it defeats its purpose if it diminishes employment – if anything, it should help generate it. The prevailing technology worldview shaped by the corporate technocrats considers this an immensely retrograde idea.

For years now, the rich West has been peddled the notion of the end of work with a harvest of leisure. It’s a rosy view, of well-provided-for citizens benefiting from labour-saving workplace innovation, enjoying more creative free time.

Well, the end of work is looming for many, but in a world with the concentration of wealth and power in increasingly fewer hands, this spells destitution rather than gilded leisure.

Here’s how the UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2015 views what’s coming round the corner: ‘Now is the time to be a worker with special skills and the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. But there has never been a worse time to be a worker with only ordinary skills and abilities, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these at an extraordinary speed.’1

Drawing clean well water using muscle power at the community hand pump, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia.

Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock Photo

Not only have workers been getting a smaller share of total corporate income over the last 15 years, but now here come the industrial robots – all 200,000 of them, newly added each year.1 With a projected 47 per cent of all US jobs threatened by computerization, those special skills better come via fairy godmother.3

So, if previously we got angry about the appalling working conditions for Foxconn workers in China, who built the fortunes of digital giants like Apple and Nokia, what will we think when they begin to be replaced by Foxbots?

The Human Development Report fears that for the poorest countries, the pressures on manufacturing jobs would result in ‘premature de-industrialization’.

This is more than just ‘disruption’ (another tech buzzword), this is technology designed to rip the fabric of society.

Socially blind technology based solely on the profit imperative has an enormous fallout – from completely destructive areas of production such as the highly innovative arms industry to environmental scars of rich world overconsumption (just call it growth).

Global dump

Witness the meteoric streak of digital technologies and one can get very excited. Such evolution, nay, transformation, in such a short space of time; such an ability to get connected and plug into a limitless universe of data. Such an almighty pile of discarded digital trash. ‘Built to last’ is so yesterday.

With a projected 47 per cent of all US jobs threatened by computer-ization, those special skills better come via fairy godmother

Consequently, digital technologies are among the most environmentally unsustainable in the world. The global volume of digital waste increases by a third every two years. We produce 75 million tons of the stuff – or 10 kilograms per person, but chucked out mainly by the relatively small wealthy population that can afford such a rate of churn.4

And we dump most of it illegally in the Majority World – one in three containers from the EU contains illegal waste under false pretences.

But this garbage pile is as nothing compared to the damage done at the mining sites, also mainly in the Majority World, to procure the metal and mineral raw materials required to produce the latest version. Bloodshed, widespread child labour, the increasing scarcity of the materials themselves, the huge and unsustainable environmental harm – none of this deters the production of the next must-have thing with amounts of functionality that no consumer really needs (or uses).

Much of this technology is actively designed to be thrown away at the first sign of trouble rather than be repaired. So smartphones are glued together in ways that ruin them when they are opened up; their batteries are similarly glued in. ‘We do a very bad job of preserving the raw materials that go into the products that we use,’ laments Matthias Huiskens of iFixit, a commercial company that sells repair parts, but also advocates a culture of repair by publishing free internet guides to repairing everything from digital gizmos to tractors. ‘Repair is always about creating independence, economic value and jobs,’ he adds.5

And there are always different ways of doing things – for example the social enterprise Fairphone which has developed a smartphone designed for durability and ease of repair, with attention to ethical values in the procurement of raw materials and production.6

SMS stretch

While the Fairphone may be beyond most personal budgets in the Majority World, mobile phone penetration in the poorest areas of the world has been something of a success story. An instance of leapfrogging, say advocates, where people who never had landlines now have telephony.

People who may not have electricity in their homes have mobiles. Obviously, most of these will not be smartphones and the digital divide as far as internet access goes is large, with only 40 per cent of the world’s people online, and just a third of this group tapping into broadband. As far as web content goes, wealthy countries account for 80 per cent of domain names registered in 2013; Africa for less than one per cent.1

No bum rap: activists from ONGAWA, Engineering for Human Development, pretend to defecate in front of Spain’s foreign ministry in Madrid, 2014. The placard reads: ‘2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation’.

Juan Medina/Reuters

Still, the way ICTs (information and communications technologies) can extend human agency is remarkable. Take offline simple sms messaging: it has been used successfully for everything from health promotion (alerts for diabetics in Chile) to independent monitoring of elections, starting with the 2007 Sierra Leone elections. Farmers and fishers are using it in many parts of the world to gauge prices at local markets and arrive at more uniform prices for their produce.

Mobile money accounts have reached those ignored by the banks – the greatest take-up is in sub-Saharan Africa. Forty per cent of adults in East Africa pay utility bills using their mobiles.

Telemedicine helps in many African countries where distances are great and access to doctors and hospitals severely limited. Today there are apps that help monitor pregnancies and diagnose cataracts. But for every pregnancy that needs special care or cataract that needs removal, there must also be the wherewithal to provide that assistance.

A price point too far

Even the vision of basic primary healthcare for all is still a dream – many poor countries were forced to gut what little public provision they could offer during the further immiserating years of structural adjustment that began in the 1980s. Under the whip of the IMF and the World Bank, private provision of healthcare (always an option for enclaves of the rich) was encouraged and payment extracted from those in direst need. The very idea of public health as a public good is still to recover from this onslaught.

In this context, one-off preventive treatments become most attractive as tech solutions to the development community. Vaccines are seen as the low-hanging fruit. Vaccinate large segments of the population against some of the worst preventable diseases and you save costs down the line. The wider context of adequate nutrition, clean water and sanitation, and access to decent basic healthcare are much messier targets.

But the cost of the basic package of vaccines that the UN recommends for all children has risen 68 times since 2015, even at the lowest available prices.7 Nearly half of this jump is due to the cost of the pneumonia vaccine currently in the tight grasp of drug giants Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The development of this vaccine was encouraged through advanced market commitments – advance promises to buy enough to guarantee the makers a profit – and it is an adapted version of what was already being produced. Pfizer and GSK have already made $28 billion from sales.

Yet, largely due to their pricing, 75 per cent of the world’s children remain unprotected against a disease which is the leading infectious cause of childhood death. Nearly a million children succumb to pneumonia each year – one every 35 seconds.

Today the lowest available price for this three-shot vaccine is $10 for the very poorest countries, negotiated by Gavi, the public-private global vaccine alliance, started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is a stalwart defender of patents (he couldn’t have amassed his mountains of loot were it not for them), so you won’t find Gavi arguing for compulsory licensing of this essential vaccine, which would be the most logical option; instead, it appeals to the drug corporations to be charitable towards the poor. An Indian producer is developing an alternative that it promises to sell at $6, but it will not be available until 2019 at the earliest. Meanwhile, medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is campaigning for the current producers to drop the price to $5.

So a vital medical advance remains captive in private hands, and access for all remains a distant dream.

Push sustain

Much could be said about the deficiencies of current intellectual property rights regimes where companies are allowed to privatize the fruits of what is often public research.

But perhaps more important in the context of technology justice for the poorest is to realize that the invisible hand of the market invariably fails them. They ‘cannot express demand in a way that allows a commercial solution’.2 To get workable ground-up technology that they can own and manage, the state (aided by international development bodies) must play a greater role. An old-fashioned idea but there may be an opening for it.

In September last year the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals following on from the Millennium Development Goals. The key word seems to be ‘sustainability’ in a wishlist of targets ranging from ending poverty and hunger and reducing inequality, to numerous conservation and development goals. Technology, how it is developed, shared and deployed, will play a crucial role, but ‘sustainability’ will be out of reach if only market options are on offer.

UN member states have also agreed, overcoming strong opposition from rich countries led by the US, Britain and Japan, to a UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism to address issues in technology development, sharing and diffusion.8 The leaders of the opposition don’t want this task team to bring up any issues of intellectual property rights in a UN forum, nor do they want the UN to be poking its nose into the socioeconomic and environmental implications of new technologies. It’s the old corporate agenda.

Will it gain the upper hand in the context of goals that have sustainability and greater equality at their core? Must the common good submit to the relentless machine of corporate profit? The battle lines are clear.

*With thanks to EF Schumacher, whose 1973 classic Small is Beautiful had the subtitle ‘Economics as if people mattered’. Schumacher’s vision of intermediate technology later came to be known as appropriate technology.

  1. UNDP, Human Development Report 2015, nin.tl/hdr2015UNDP

  2. Practical Action, Technology Justice: A call to action, 2016, nin.tl/practical-action-info.

  3. CB Frey and MA Osbourne, The Future of Employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization?, 2013, Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford, nin.tl/job-sacrifice.

  4. Presentation by Ben R amalingam, Institute of Development Studies, Technology Justice Forum 2016, nin.tl/tech-justice-2016.

  5. Presentation by Huiskens at Technology Justice Forum 2016, see 4 above.

  6. nin.tl/Fairphone-facts.

  7. All information on vaccines from MSF’s A Fair Shot campaign, afairshot.org.

  8. ETC Group news release 16 July 2015, nin.tl/UN-tech .

Myth 6: Fossil fuels are more economically viable than renewables

Belle Mellor

Fossil fuels have reached an emperor’s new clothes moment – the reflection in the mirror is not looking good and there’s nary a fig leaf to hand. For years the industry has played up the high costs of renewables and painted a gloomy picture of the technological advancements required. But the technology has caught up – and both installation and generation costs of renewables have dived.

So even with oil prices at a historic low and coal still plentiful, renewables are giving fossil fuels a run for their money. In 2013 in Australia, the price of energy from wind power had fallen below that from new build coal- and gas-fired power stations. This is comparing like with like – energy from Australia’s old coal-fired power stations dating from the 1970s and 80s is cheaper, but only because their construction costs have been recouped.

Michael Liebrich of Bloomberg, the financial data giant, observed: ‘The fact that wind power is now cheaper than coal and gas in a country with some of the best fossil fuel resources shows that clean energy is a game changer which promises to turn the economics of power systems on its head.’1

Visit our #NICOP21 alternative media Paris hub.

It’s a similar picture elsewhere. In 2014 in the US, both wind- and solar-generated energy came in lower – and even went one better. Emily Williams of the American Wind Energy Association told The New York Times: ‘We’re finding that in certain regions with certain wind projects, these are competing or coming in below the cost of even existing generation sources.’2 And this year onshore wind power in Britain also beat its competitors. According to Bloomberg: ‘The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas and oil combined.’3

It’s blindingly obvious – with improved technology pushing costs down, there is no escaping the fact that the fuels concerned, wind and air, are absolutely free. Even water resources for wave power do not need to get ‘used up’.

Myth Six graph

All the more reason to call for greater govern­ment subsidies and investment in technologies to crack the problems that so far can’t be dealt with by renewables – such as fuelling heavy transport – and upscaling output. Because the news on the oil front is not as rosy as the low prices at the pump suggest. The US, currently producing the world’s largest oil surplus, is going for bust. But large parts of the industry are in trouble trying to maintain the low prices. Around 75,000 jobs have already been lost.4

Meanwhile, the frackers are deep in debt – they have spent faster than they made money, even when oil prices were high. In the first quarter of this year they were spending $4.15 for every dollar earned selling oil and gas.5 It’s anyone’s guess how much longer this situation will continue.

But what is truly unsustainable is the environmental damage of fossil fuels. If one were to try and monetize it, as the IMF did earlier this year, then not asking fossil-fuel producers to pay up amounts to an eye-watering subsidy. The IMF calculated it as a global subsidy to fossil-fuel companies of $5.3 trillion a year – or $10 million every single minute – equivalent to 6.5 per cent of the world’s GDP. Of this just six per cent was direct subsidies on fuel; the rest was the estimated cost of environmental damage (including the health bill caused by air pollution) paid for by all of us. This the IMF terms ‘post-tax subsidies’ and refers to their ‘perverse environmental, fiscal, macroeconomic and social consequences’.6

Of course, such calculations cannot cover everything. It would be obscene, for example, to put a monetary cost on a life cut short due to fossil fuel-related air pollution.

See our recent publication NoNonsense – Renewable Energy by Danny Chivers for a practical blueprint for fairer, cleaner energy for all. nin.tl/renewablesbook

  1. Bloomberg, ‘Renewable energy now cheaper than new fossil fuels in Australia’, 7 February 2013, nin.tl/ozrenewables

  2. nin.tl/renewables-win

  3. Tom Randall, ‘Fossil fuels just lost the race against renewables’, 14 April 2015, nin.tl/lost-race

  4. Richard Heinberg, ‘Goldilocks zone for oil prices is gone for good’, Reuters, 24 March 2015, nin.tl/gone-for-good

  5. Asjylyn Loder, ‘The shale industry could be swallowed by its own debt’, Bloomberg, 19 June 2015, nin.tl/shale-debt

  6. IMF Working Paper, How large are global energy subsidies?, 2015, nin.tl/IMF-subsidies

Myth 5: The private sector is more efficient than the public sector

The abiding myth of mainstream economics is that governments should minimize their role in the economy – or, put another way, get out of the way of the accumulative drive of the rich. It’s an ideological position that suits governing elites and has led, among other things, to a fire sale of public assets and the increasing privatization of what were once public goods and services. The magic of the market and the vigour of private enterprise will make the cream of cost-effectiveness and efficiency rise to the top. At least, that’s how it’s spun.

Increasingly also, sell-offs are seen as a way for governments to ‘cut debt and plug budget deficits’, regardless of common-sense doubts that this may not be for the best as, usually, you can’t sell the same thing twice. Thus The Wall Street Journal applauded Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa’s record privatizations in 2013, by gushing: ‘Their privatization sprees have injected needed cash into government coffers and freed the governments to focus on their core missions while injecting life into both markets.’1

It’s a view probably shared by George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who complained, in a 2010 budget speech, of the public sector ‘crowding out’ the private sector, pinning his hopes on the private sector providing ‘a genuine and long-lasting economic recovery’.

But what does privatization in its varied forms – outright sales of companies, public-private partnerships, outsourcing – deliver? Does it lead to greater technical efficiency or effectiveness in providing a service? That privatized businesses will aim for cost efficiencies is a given, but that usually means a lower level of service or pay cuts for workers, job insecurity and job losses, which all have their deadening effects on the wider economy if one is willing to look that far.

By now privatization has been thoroughly scrutinized – there are numerous studies, surveys and, indeed, surveys of surveys of its effects. The consistent conclusion: there is no evidence of greater efficiency.2 So, the best outcome one can hope for is that private-sector ownership or involvement is no worse than what the public sector provides – hardly a turn-up for the books. The largest study of the efficiency of privatized companies looked at all European companies privatized during 1980-2009. It compared their performance with companies that remained public and with their own past performance as public companies. The result? The privatized companies performed worse than those that remained public and continued to do so for up to 10 years after privatization.2

Even in the super-competitive telecoms sector, where customers have benefited from lower costs and increasing variety of services over the years, this result holds. A global survey found that ‘privatized sectors perform significantly worse’ than telecom companies remaining in state hands.2

Healthcare is where this myth is really given the lie. In the US, where healthcare spending is at its peak, with private spending on healthcare exceeding public spending, basic health outcomes are worse than in Cuba – which spends a fraction of the US amount per person in a totally public healthcare system (see table).

Myth 5 table

A 2012 report by the US Institute of Medicine was damning:

‘30 cents of every medical dollar goes to unnecessary healthcare, deceitful paperwork, fraud and other waste. The $750 billion in annual waste is more than the Pentagon budget and more than enough to care for every American who lacks health insurance… Most of the waste came from unnecessary services ($210 billion annually), excess administrative costs ($190 billion) and inefficient delivery of care ($130 billion).’2

That same year government had to step in with the Affordable Care Act (also known as ObamaCare) to try to rectify a bloated system that was clearly failing poor citizens.

In Britain, creeping part-privatization of the National Health Service through outsourcing has led to similar ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ outcomes. One example: in Cornwall, the private contractor Serco, which provided call-centre cover for out-of-hours GP services, decided to economize by replacing clinicians with call-handlers without medical training, who followed a set of computerized cues to make decisions about ambulance call-outs. This resulted in a very expensive four-fold increase in ambulance call-outs with the cost to be borne, of course, by the taxpayer.3

Public healthcare systems are more efficient partly because they provide universal coverage and can benefit from economies of scale. They require proper funding. The very opposite was proposed by the IMF and World Bank for many Majority World countries during the devastating structural-adjustment programmes of the 1980s. Then the mantra was that the state must withdraw, and let patients pay at the point of use. The result has been: the poorest people have been effectively stripped of healthcare while superior services are available, but only to those who can afford them.

To say that the public sector can perform just as well as, and often better than, the private sector is not to argue that it does not need reform in many instances. The public sector can be equally blighted with problems of corruption at the higher levels of management. But active unions and engaged service users can provide a check, and public consultation has a democratic advantage, as in the case of South Africa, where municipal unions have formed alliances with communities in order both to fight the privatization of water and sanitation services and to get greater accountability within the organizations they work for.4

  1. New Zealand/Aotearoa ranked first globally in privatization via share offers that year, raising $3.7 billion, and Australia was second in direct asset sales, $9.65 billion. ‘Privatization raises billions in Australia, New Zealand’, The Wall Street Journal, 5 November 2015, nin.tl/Aus-and-NZ-privatization

  2. PSIRU, Public and private sector efficiency, May 2014, nin.tl/PSIRU-efficiency

  3. Andrew Simms, ‘“The private sector is more efficient than the public sector”’, Mythbusters series from nef and Tax Justice Network, April 2013, nin.tl/nef-report

  4. For a detailed discussion see, Hilary Wainwright, The tragedy of the private, the potential of the public, PSI and TNI, 2014, nin.tl/alternatives-to-privatization

Myth 4: Economic migrants are a drain on rich world economies

There’s a special opprobrium reserved for those who move to a wealthier country to work and try to improve their lot. They are ‘undeserving’, unlike refugees fleeing violence who can gain a certain grudging acceptance if they have been victimized enough (although usually accompanied with cries of ‘but we have our own problems’ and ‘we can’t cope’).

In the Netherlands, where I live, economic migrants are often referred to pejoratively as gelukszoekers or chancers. One literal translation of the word – ‘happiness seekers’ – is supremely ironic considering the disgust with which it is deployed. A recent poll of 2,000 people found 75 per cent agreeing that there should be fewer immigrants in this category as opposed to a much smaller 26 per cent who wanted fewer war refugees.1

In the public mind, inflamed by the rhetoric of both mainstream media and politicians seeking to distract the electorate from the ravages of austerity, economic migrants are perceived as guzzling public services when not stealing jobs and lowering wages.

But looked at more soberly, in the light of research, such imagined impacts are wide of the mark.

Economic migrants are perceived as guzzling public services when not stealing jobs and lowering wages

On average across the 34 wealthy nations of the OECD, immigrant households made a net annual contribution of €2,500 ($2,800) each – that’s how much more they contributed in taxes than they received in public provision.2

In a 2014 study, researchers at University College London found that non-European immigrants to Britain (the most maligned group) were less likely to be on state benefits than natives and had contributed a net £5 billion in taxes between 2000 and 2011.3 Rather than draining public services, they were providing a much needed infusion that would benefit the rest of the population. As for social housing, new migrants made up less than two per cent of users.4 That battle lies elsewhere – in a government that sells off social housing while doing nothing to ease housing shortages in an overheated property market that benefits only the well-to-do.

The evident truth is that migration follows a demand for labour. And while politicians may talk tough, immigration policies have actually become somewhat less restrictive for high-skilled migrants and, sometimes, even for low-wage earners.5 Meanwhile, a double standard persists – when individuals from wealthy countries set off to more lucrative jobs in foreign lands this is viewed as entirely normal or ‘following a dream’.

Economic migrants tend to be young, enterprising and often bring skills that are in demand in recipient countries. They can ease pressures on an ageing workforce, pay into the pension pot and bring a dynamism to the economy. Over the longer term, as they themselves age, this positive impact evens out. Nonetheless, in Britain, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that if the country were to follow a high net-migration trajectory, government debt could be halved over 50 years through the input of working migrants.

A curious extreme is worth noting. Libertarian economists – the kind who worship market forces and demand the removal of all trade barriers – are avid advocates of mass economic migration, believing that this influx of labour would make world GDP shoot sky high.6 They see the imposition of immigration restrictions as a missed opportunity equivalent to leaving trillion-dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the scale of immigration that would be required to achieve the ‘results’ suggested by their models would depopulate the Global South and is not going to happen.

Meanwhile, back in the real world and sticking to the evidence at hand, the more pressing issues are whether economic migrants take jobs and depress wages. Studies in this area show that if anyone is crowded out of the jobs market it tends to be the most recent former migrants. Where migrants have depressed wages in lower-income groups, it is on a very small scale and is usually temporary – one survey of OECD countries found it to be in the region of 0.12 per cent for a one-per-cent increase in immigrants.4

And there are studies that demonstrate the opposite. One study by economists Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri covered every single worker in Denmark from 1991 to 2008 and tracked how they responded to immigration, including large influxes of refugees from Somalia and Afghanistan. People who lived in communities which received the migrants saw their wages grow more rapidly than communities without migrants.7

The battle against low wages is also elsewhere – to be waged against political policies that favour the rich and create job insecurity. The ILO proposes that the way to strengthen growth and employment is to address inequality (the declining labour income share), minimum wages, collective labour bargaining and better social protections.

According to migration economist Michael Clemens: ‘Low-skill immigrants end up both taking jobs and creating jobs. The balance has been positive even in places where politicians and activists say that it must be negative. Communicating that fact will be a permanent challenge, because the ways that immigrants fill jobs are direct and visible; the ways they create jobs are indirect and invisible.’8

Finally, a splash of cold water. Whereas migration can bring positive economic results in the short term, in the long term the fiscal impact of migration over the last 50 years to the wealthy OECD countries has been, on average, close to zero – rarely going beyond 0.5 per cent of GDP either in the positive or negative direction.2 Migrants over this longer time frame can no longer be distinguished from other citizens. So why all the fuss and bother?

  1. I&O Research poll published in De Volkskrant, 15 August 2015..

  2. OECD, International Migration Outlook 2013.

  3. As reported in Debora MacKenzie, ‘Refugees welcome: the numbers add up’, New Scientist, 12 September 2015.

  4. nef, Why the cap won’t fit: Global migration realities 2010-2050, 2010.

  5. Hein de Haas, ‘Human migration: Myths, hysteria and facts’, 24 July 2014, nin.tl/migration-myths

  6. The website Open Borders: The Case offers a good collection of the arguments: openborders.info

  7. Immigrants and native workers: New analysis using longitudinal employer-employee data, 27 February 2014, nin.tl/immigrant-native-workers

  8. Interview on vice.com, 29 April 2015.

'I predict...'

Magician with magic ball

© Studio-Annika/Thinkstock

Irving Fisher, the most influential US economist of his time, said in October 1929 that the stock market had reached a ‘permanently high plateau’. Less than two weeks later the stock market crashed – and didn’t recover for the next 25 years.

‘Commentators quote economic studies alleging that market downturns predicted four out of the last five recessions. That is an understatement. Wall Street indexes predicted nine out of the last five recessions!’
Paul Samuelson, writing in 1966. His Economics, first published in 1948, remains the best-selling economic textbook of all time.

Alan Greenspan, former boss of the US Federal Reserve, in his 2007 book The Age of Turbulence predicted that double-digit interest rates would soon be needed to control inflation. Interest rates, and inflation, fell lower and for longer than in recorded economic history.

‘There is going to be, I predict, in the weeks and months ahead, a very painful tug of war between our monetary policy and our fiscal policy... That will drive up interest rates.’
Niall Ferguson, neoliberal economic historian, 2009.

‘The cost of forecasting a recession that does not materialize may be perceived as higher than that of having wrongly predicted a boom.’
International Monetary Fund, Independent Evaluation Office, 2014, trying to account for the failure of its own forecasts to predict the Great Recession.

‘Around this time last year, Stephen Poloz and the Bank of Canada were confidently predicting a pretty decent 2015 for the Canadian economy. Gross domestic product would grow at an annual rate of 2.5 per cent in the first three months of the year... Statistics Canada reported in late May that the economy actually shrank by 0.6 per cent.’
The Globe and Mail, 21 June 2015.

But there were others who noted that economists’ predictions were not all they were cut out to be…

‘The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.’
Joan Robinson, author of The Accumulation of Capital in 1956.

‘The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.’
John Kenneth Galbraith, author of The Affluent Society in 1958.


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