On computers, terror and Brexit

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March for Europe, London, 2 July 2016. Gustavo Ferlizi under a Creative Commons Licence

Travelling can sometimes help put things into perspective, writes James Rowland.

We have just returned from a week in Amsterdam, doing the round of family and friends. As usual there is a lot of interest in goings on in the UK, with Brexit the main topic of conversation.

The starting position of most people we know has been complete astonishment that Brits would want to leave Europe, reform it yes, but to actually want to leave! Gradually this position has shifted as people take in the US elections and the rise of politicians like Geert Wilders, founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Marine Le Pen, President of France’s National Front party.

To try and increase their understanding lots of friends have been to see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and at least one reported that the film had, for the first time, helped her to understand why so many supported Brexit.

Indeed it is entirely possible that in a year from now us Brits will have reclaimed our position of being Europe's witty entertainers rather than being seen as the vanguard of the resurgence of the right.

As insulting as they may be, our far right now seems really quite lightweight. On the Eurostar from London we found ourselves two carriages away from Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party who campaigned for Brexit; he travelled alone and on arrival rang his contacts (presumably) and scurried off to the parking garage, no minders, no spads.

Even at this early stage in Brexit I can see Nigel and Boris Johnson, Britain’s current Secretary of State, providing a lot of laughs for our European friends as we all watch the headless UK government lurch from one failed negotiation to another.

And speaking of Daniel Blake, the thing that most disturbed me in the film was the power of the computer. The Little Britain ’computer says no’ culture is on the march. No matter how sympathetic the employees of the bureaucracy might be, their hands are completely tied by what their computer tells them.

Those most affected by these unfeeling decisions are usually those who need the help of society most; the sick, the elderly etc. It is also starting to affect people going about their daily lives.

In Holland there are now lots of places where you cannot pay with cash; this includes transport where everyone carries a little plastic card to check in and out of buses, trains, etc.

In general it works well but then complications set in: you have to pay extra for a bike, the elderly get a discount, those travelling with the elderly also get a discount, some stations are serviced by three rival train companies, all with different cards. At some point on each visit we seem to find ourselves at a station help desk asking them to unravel our travel cards.

My biggest recent problem with computers was dealing with Canadian immigration. For years the US have required those arriving by air to first obtain an electronic permit. This is not required if you enter by train and so the US has forced Canada to insist on visitors obtaining a similar permit. This was introduced in March 2016 but visitors were given dispensation until the end of September.

We were travelling in September but the permit was cheap and by all accounts easy to obtain and so we applied. I then received an e-mail to say that there were further questions. I wasn't told what these were, to find out this I had to set up two separate online accounts with the Canadian government, I then had to link these accounts to be told what the problem was.

I set up the accounts but their system wouldn't link them. I then tried to check the status of my application but their system didn't recognise GBR as a legitimate passport, despite it being on their drop down menu. There then followed various fruitless enquiries on their website, all were answered by computer generated replies that failed to address my problems, and couldn't be replied to.

Eventually I discovered that the problem was that I had admitted to a motoring offence in France about 20 years ago. As a result Canada required a full transcript of the ruling from the French court together with a police statement from every country that I had lived in since the age of 18 to say that I hadn't got a criminal record.

My pleas produced more computerised responses and so I realised I had to scan and send the documents. This caused more nightmarish back and forths and so we left for Canada with a pile of documentation prepared for some strict questioning.

In the event the border police were as friendly as one might expect Canadians to be, enquiring only whether the Marmite I was carrying contained any meat.

Whilst we were away I received two further e-mails to say that they were expecting documentation from me and a few days after we returned another e-mail to say that my visa request had been denied. As usual this came from an address which couldn't be replied to and whilst it said ‘I have declined your request ...’ there was no indication who it was from.

Sadly, I guess I will have to pursue this as there must be a fair chance that I would be refused entry to Canada in the future, and possibly the US as well as I expect their computers talk to each other.

Our increasingly unequal world, aided and abetted by 9/11, seems to have brought us to a place where no-one is to be trusted and where judgements at an increasing pace are being made by computers and not people.

If even the friendly people of Canada have fallen to this level it does not bode well for the rest of us. At least the European Economic Community gave us less bureaucracy; imagine the online form filling we will all have to do in a few years’ time as we travel and trade across borders. But maybe this will help save the planet as we adjust our lives to ones with less growth, less international trade, less travelling, etc.

New Internationalist fair-trade supplier hit by Nepal earthquake

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© Pachamama

My colleagues and I at the New Internationalist editorial office in Oxford are sometimes asked if we can make a donation to various causes.

With limited resources, in terms of both time and money, this isn’t often possible.

However, our growing ethical trading ventures (see our online shop) have meant a steady increase in our purchasing of fairly traded goods over the past few years.

In turn, this has brought us into direct contact with small communities around the world. A couple of years ago we started asking our shop customers to top up their orders with a donation to a ‘Fair Trade Fund’, which would enable us to support fair-trade producers beyond simply buying their wares.  

Last week, we were approached by Pachamama, a fair-trade company which supplies us with knitted goods from small communities in Peru and Nepal. First reports from the devastating earthquake in Nepal on 25 April indicated that no members of their small producer groups had been hurt, although many of their homes had suffered structural damage and, afraid to return to them, people were sleeping outside.

Pachamama pledged to send substantial additional funds to Nepal and decided to give this money to the Nepal Earthquake Recovery Appeal 2015, set up by the Bulldog Trust.

Alison Marston, who works for the Trust, was born in Nepal, where her family has lived for 40 years; she speaks Nepali as her first language.

For the past 15 years, she has worked on various charitable and humanitarian projects in Nepal and has now returned there to collaborate with local NGOs, charities and government to assess the areas of highest need and organize the rapid dispersal of funds.

Her immediate aim is to provide funds for small, grassroots organizations that are unable to access major international funding streams.

The New Internationalist has decided that this small-scale approach deserves our support, so we have donated £500 ($785) from the Fair Trade Fund to the Appeal.

Staff at Pachamama have now been shocked to discover that at least seven of their knitters were killed in the earthquake; this figure may grow.

Those who died were in a small town not far from Kathmandu called Bhakatpur.

We have already placed all our catalogue orders for this year, but we will shortly contact all our suppliers of Nepalese goods to see what more we can do to help.

If you would like to help this small-scale humanitarian work, you can donate via Pachamama here.

Or you can send money direct to the Bulldog Trust via bank transfer or cheque to The Bulldog Trust – Sort Code 15 99 00, Account number 10048750 (Reference: Nepal 2015).

If you would like to keep up to date with recovery efforts, please follow Alison Marston on Twitter: @QuakeNepal.

A massive win for all the Scottish people

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kay222 under a Creative Commons Licence

Last week, in my home town of Oxford, the City Council managed to get their former leader back on the Council in a by-election that attracted a turnout of less than nine per cent.

With that in mind, I’ve come to Glasgow to see what a healthy democracy looks like.  

We arrive on the eve of polling day and, by chance, the bus dumps us in George Square, the beating heart of the ‘Yes’ campaign in Glasgow. There are a couple of hundred ‘Yes’ people milling around, with the main interest focused on the ‘Catalonia Is Not Spanish’ supporters, who have clearly taken this campaign to their hearts.

A banner proclaiming that ‘the only banks we’ll lose will be the food banks’ shows that activism is alive and well – still, it’s mid-afternoon and probably not the best time to find much passion. We decide to move west, to the intellectual part of the city, around the University.

Unfortunately, it’s Freshers Week, so probably not the best time to gauge student interest. We find an excited cheering group, but closer inspection shows that they are watching a busker singing Oasis songs. A nearby radical bookshop is plastered with ‘Yes’ votes, as is the parked Ford Mondeo next to it, although the surrounding BMWs aren’t committing.

With polls opening the next day, we decide to get an early night. Next morning, a quick walk around downtown Glasgow finds lots of people carrying cappuccinos and scurrying off to work at Lloyds Bank, Direct Line and Unison. There is little evidence that an election is about to happen.

It is overcast, the Clyde is grey, and a single swan lightens the mood. Glasgow looks like a typical hard-working city, where everyone has a lot on their mind, and politics are pretty low on the agenda. The TV offers nothing, and on news channels voters are being advised to put a single cross against their choice, which I guess is fair advice as most people have never voted before.

We spend most of the day walking around, finding fascinating buildings, but little in the way of politics. Crossing the Clyde, we find ourselves in the Gorbals [neighbourhood], which is now a mixture of new flats and houses. It might look a bit boring, but it’s an amazing transformation from the tenements of not-so-long ago.

There’s a polling station there, but it’s much like those back home, a smattering of voters being courted by a couple of people with stickers. In a final effort to unearth some passionate campaigners, we head back to George Square to be there when the polls close at 10pm. There are a few hundred people waving Scottish flags, singing and chanting, but it’s still pretty low key. Today’s best poster was ‘bairns, not bombs’.

We don’t wake up to the sound of blaring car horns, just the steady drone of the city traffic as people get back to work. The result is as expected, 55 per cent for ‘No’, 45 per cent for ‘Yes’ and a turnout of 85 per cent.

It’s a massive win for the Scottish people.  From my admittedly limited observations, they just got on with their lives, while creating a massive amount of sound and fury, as if fermenting a revolution.
They forced the three main Westminster parties to offer them powers they really didn’t want to concede. By simply placing a cross on a piece of paper (‘Yes’ or ‘No’, it didn’t really matter) they confirmed their insistence that they be heard.

Specifically, it was a great result for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party (SNP). They have brought Scotland to the attention of the world, demonstrating that if you engage with people in a democratic process, they will turn out and vote.

The SNP cut the massive lead of the ‘No’ campaign and scared Westminster into making their extra promises. Just think what a ‘Yes’ vote would have meant for the SNP. Two years of hell, negotiating the near impossible and alienating everyone.  Then they achieve their objective and everyone looks for some other parties to vote for.

The ‘No’ vote means that Scotland now has to do some hard negotiations with the Westminster parties to gain the promised extra benefits. The SNP looks like the only party capable of representing Scotland in these negotiations, so why would a Scot vote for anyone else?

The other main winners were the other regions of Britain. This vote has surely put a stop to the increasing powers that Westminster was taking for itself, with other regions now able to demand that more power be devolved to them. And with a ‘No’ vote, the British electorate no longer faces the prospect of an everlasting Tory government.

The losers? Clearly some Scots will be deeply disappointed that they have got so close to gaining their independence; still, they should take heart in the fact that they have completely outmaneuvered all the major British parties.

It is they who are the real losers. Also, spare a thought for those regions around the world, like Catalonia, which saw Scotland as a possible trail-blazer and which are now back on their own again.

As for democracy, back in Oxford I don’t expect that much will change – there, the primary rule still applies, that those who own all the land also have all the  power.

My life at the New Internationalist co-op

Earlier this year I suddenly realized that I was the longest serving member in the New Internationalist co-operative. Colleagues have been encouraging me to blog about my experiences here for a long time now, so here’s my first effort.

I joined New Internationalist in 1983 but my working life had begun 16 years earlier when, having failed to get into university, I decided to utilize my adding-up skills and become a chartered accountant. It was hard; within a few years Monty Python had turned the profession into a laughing stock.

It was clear I had to get out and find an alternative career. My new qualification gave me breathing space and a route into university, where I discovered that academics had decreed that the sole purpose of companies was to earn as big a profit as possible. This wasn’t the mantra that I wanted to dedicate my life to so commerce was also ruled out as a career.

Instead, I joined a large NGO. This was a good move; I had a varied and interesting career for a number of years. Eventually though, the friendly atmosphere started to fray: the Director was rebadged as Director General and was soon dictating that the main purpose of an NGO was to raise as much money as possible. It seemed like a good  time for me to move on and I was flattered to be ‘headhunted’ by the New Internationalist. I told myself I would give it five years but here I am, 28 years later, with no chance of a reprieve.

New Internationalist started life in 1973, but not as a co-op. Originally, it was a grant-funded organization controlled by those holding the purse strings – and those who had created the purse. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long before the workers agitated that New Internationalist should practice what it preached, and the organization became a co-operative.

In the first decade, before I joined, the trick was to demonstrate to the funders that the New Internationalist had a business future worth investing in. Those were also the years that many of the critical business decisions were taken, such as to sell the magazine on subscription, to rely on direct debit as the payment method, and to get involved with the international One World Calendar group.

In 1986, we became an equal-pay co-operative. It was a difficult decision, as the higher-paid had their pay frozen so that others could catch up. But we have stuck to the principle of equal pay and have not regretted it.

At New Internationalist we have a collective approach to decision-making. I am sure that collective thoughts, or, more accurately, individual thoughts processed collectively, have led us to make better decisions than if we had been a hierarchy. And even though we still rely on the expertise of individuals in their various areas of work, we don’t always go along with them. In the end, it’s the collective opinion that wins.

Of course, a few people find that co-operative working is not for them, and leave quite quickly. But for the majority of us, co-operative working is such a rewarding experience that finding a satisfactory career after leaving New Internationalist is not easy. It’s hard to get used again to a hierarchical system, in which one’s voice is too often not listened to.

We have found a couple of ways of helping people who are feeling a bit jaded in their job. On several occasions we have been able to offer someone an alternative role so they get a chance to use other professional skills they have. I, for example, have spent half my time at New Internationalist as an accountant, and half in sales and marketing; another person started by looking after our warehousing and has since joined the editorial team. And when people finally leave, they often stay connected to us in various ways – they write No-Nonsense Guides, undertake freelance work, join our Trustee body, or simply visit our Oxford office when they’re in town.

As I write this, I’m thinking that the International Day of Co-operatives is spot-on: it comes at a time when a growing number of people around the world are appalled by the ethics and behaviour of the corporate world and are looking at co-operatives as an alternative way of working.

Slogans that New Internationalist has championed over the years – such as ‘You cannot eat money’, ‘Bite back’ and ‘People before profit’ – are resonating with a mass audience as never before. All we need is to take power into our own hands.

Find out more at Co-operatives UK.