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African ethics
NI magazine issue 289 In ‘Lofty ideas’ (How are we to live? NI 289) there was only one thing which struck a jarring note. Apart from being (necessarily) broad and superficial it did not include a single reference to African ethical stances. At first I thought I had just missed it and I looked through the headings again and again. But not a word. Signs of African marginalization? Or just a case of ignorance?

The African ‘ethical stance’ of ubuntu surely merits a place along with the other great ethical traditions.

This philosophy emphasises respect for the non-material order that exists in and among us and fosters respect for oneself, for others and for the environment.

Maxi van Aardt
Auckland Park, South Africa

Banks and mines
I am writing with reference to the ‘Update’ (NI 289) by Paul Donovan. He mentions the deal that involved the Italian company Valsella and an Italian bank for the manufacturing of nine million mines sold to the Iraqi Government.

I would like to point out that the institution is the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) and not the Banco Nacional de Lavoro. It should be clear that the responsibility rests with BNL and the Italian authorities who investigated the institution and did nothing.

Giuseppe Atzori
Woking, England

Microcredit Summit
The interview with Mohammed Yunus in your State of the World (NI 287) issue highlighted how microcredit empowers the poorest and most disenfranchised people to transform their lives and their communities. This has also been shown by Bancosol in Bolivia, Working Capital in Florida, US and other microfinance initiatives.

The Microcredit Summit held in early February launched a world movement to reach 100 million of the world’s poorest families and especially women with credit for self employment and other financial and business services by 2005. Uniquely the Summit brought together politicians, bankers, borrowers, donors and charities – 26,000 delegates from over 100 nations. Each person developed an Action Plan for the part their organization would play in achieving the Summit’s goal.

We can all play a role in this new movement by looking at the opportunities for microfinance projects to end the consequences of poverty in our own societies. We can also call on our governments to support policies to promote the Microcredit Summit goal as a major step towards ending hunger and poverty within the next decade and so create a more stable and prosperous world.

Rachel Strachan
Oxford, England

Slippery slope
Your report on Project Tiger (Endangered Species NI 288) highlighted the sad fact that where politics rule, other life must give way (and not always animal).

The fate of much of the world's wildlife seems to be sealed. Despite the optimistic note of many of your reporters those who remain will be the survivors, the curios, the lucky. The first because they are of some value to humans. The curios because we will always be fascinated by some animals (these include those animals who will have genetic material stored for future repopulation). The lucky because they are either so adaptable or too remote to be disturbed. Finally the extinct: many of the world's species will fall into this category in the next 100 years. For future generations picture books and documentaries will remain.

The slide down this seemingly slippery slope will only be halted by a sudden change of heart or a more enlightened younger generation. Our prime resource therefore is the hearts and minds of the children today and through them the interest and involvement of their parents.

V J Gnanapragasam
Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Free trade
In his keynote article in the (State of the World NI 287) Chris Brazier enters a scathing attack on free trade but offers no specific measure to counter it. Free trade does not favour rich countries per se. It is the rich people at both ends of the free trade who are benefiting in an increasingly laissez-faire economic environment while gaps between rich and poor are widening.

Is protectionism the answer to counter the intrinsically unjust free trade system? In many cases governments jealously protect their domestic industry in order to benefit ruling élites. Trade barriers may be useful to deter transnational corporations from exploiting the poor in a Third World country, but do not prevent domestic exploitation.

Only a truly democratic government committed to redistribution of wealth is the answer. It is also the only answer on a global level.

Yutaka Kawasaki-Urabe
Padbury, Australia

I question the utility of NI publishing such an anti-male diatribe as Dale Spender’s in your issue on technology (NI 286). I would like to direct attention to the writings of Katha Pollitt as well as those of other feminists who have transcended the stage of ‘male as congenital demon’.

It should be self-evident, but I shall point out anyway that although men do dominate the information superhighway bandwidths, the APC (of which NI is a part and many of whose original techies were women) has had a number of very useful conferences where women have taken a lead role.

I confess that I, who have been on the Net since 1986, avoid most of the chatrooms, BBSs and Websites because of the unfriendly culture which predominates. I find the difference to be generational rather than gender. Women in their twenties have ‘flamed’ me as have many young men. I wish I had a digital non-violence tactic, a kind of techno-judo. Otherwise the option is simple. There is no gender to an off-button.

D Pablo Stanfield
Seattle, US

Bridging the gap
Assistive technology has won its status as an enabler for people with disabilities by providing them with a means to overcome communication barriers and neutralize the effects of disablement. I was disappointed to see that Seduced by Technology (NI 286) failed to mention this.

General developments in technologies have served to reduce traditional perceptions held by society that people with impairments are passive recipients of social interaction. Laptop computers, notetakers and personal organizers have mobilized communication for those with and without disabilities. Dial-up data communications have reduced physical and social barriers, permitting individuals with speech and/or hearing impairments to express themselves freely to the outside world.

I am well aware of the disadvantages projected by information technology but it has undoubtedly enhanced my independence in many walks of life and has contributed to the liberation of many other people with disabilities in today’s society.

Sonali Shah
Loughborough, England

[image, unknown] Sead prize
Sead (Scottish Action and Education for Development) wants to award its annual prize this year to someone from a ‘Third World’ country who is working to change their community for the better. This person should be someone who has not so far achieved international public acclaim.

For details or to nominate someone, contact Sead,
23 Castle Street, Edinburgh EH2 3DN, Scotland.
email: [email protected]


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

[image, unknown]
L E T T E R [image, unknown] F R O M [image, unknown] L A T V I A

The end of history
Olivia Ward visits a country recovering from collective amnesia.

In a dilapidated classroom not far from the centre of the pretty, tranquil city of Riga, a group of teachers are sifting through the bones of the past. ‘Here’s something on the deportations,’ says one, picking up a neatly-typed essay folder. ‘And there’s another on the independence period. And, oh yes, somebody has written about their teacher’s experiences in the Afghan war.’

This chaotic mass of compositions, written by Latvian- and Russian-speaking students in Riga high schools is part of the senior-school history program.

Its seeming disorganization doesn’t signal lax discipline but a determination that nothing discovered or recollected should be missed. Nothing found should be lost again.

For Latvia – invaded, conquered, battered and free for less than three decades of its remembered past – the end of history came a long time ago. With each successive conqueror, the past was reinterpreted and rewritten until Latvians themselves began to doubt their memories.

‘We don’t have any real heroes to look back on,’ said one professor with a wry smile. ‘We only have our favourite colonizers.’

Russia, which ruled Latvia for much of this century, is not high on most people’s lists. The brutal Soviet grab of the country during World War Two, ending two decades of independence, killed Latvia’s hopes for its hard-won freedom.

More brutality followed when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941 and three years later Stalin sank his teeth into Latvia again. By the early 1950s, the pre-war population had been reduced by a third.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

These are not pleasant memories for Latvians and many were content to let them lie. They were encouraged in their mass amnesia by Soviet repression, which made it a crime to educate children in non-sanctioned versions of history. Parents kept quiet about their own experiences for fear that their children would dangerously blurt them out.

‘I was married for years before I discovered that my father-in-law had been sent to Siberia in one of the purges,’ says Aya Klavian, who heads Latvia’s History Teachers’ Association. ‘I suppose it was known in the family, but nobody talked about it.’

As I stood looking at the innocently white sheets of paper I wondered how many horrors were hidden away in the minds of people who are ageing and will soon have disappeared. Vanishing human pages of history.

‘It isn’t just suffering we’re burying,’ said an elderly Riga academic. ‘It’s sometimes worse. Some people collaborated with the communists, others with the Nazis. They may be a minority, but it’s still a truth that must be confronted.’

Some of the wounds of history are fresh – daily humiliation at the hands of the Russians who occupied the country for nearly five decades. And resentment that was understood but not acknowledged.

‘One day I went to buy a railway ticket and I spoke to the clerk in Latvian,’ said a university teacher. ‘She reprimanded me in Russian and said if I wanted a ticket I should ask her in the proper language.’

The burden of all these memories falls on the teachers, who have only a few texts written by expatriates to help reconstruct history for their students and for posterity. Some feel responsible for preventing bitterness and civil strife by playing down Russia’s negative role. A third of the population is, after all, still Russian – and Moscow casts a long shadow.

The most difficult part, Aya Klavian told me, was to shape all this diffuse information into a cohesive whole, something objective and reliable, above all factual.

But how much of history is fact and how much fiction? Even today’s photographed, videoed, computerized events can be manipulated, I knew all too well. Is history fact, or a consensus of what we want to believe about ourselves? And what we want others to believe.

In the sparsely equipped classroom, the teachers were putting the graded essays in piles. Their hands flipped through the pages again, taking last looks, their fingerprints lingering invisibly on the paper.

‘It used to be so boring teaching those old lessons,’ said Aya, her blue eyes crinkling in a smile. ‘Students were never allowed to ask questions, just sit and listen. Now they question, they learn and we learn. Every day is a new day.’

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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New Internationalist issue 291 magazine cover This article is from the June 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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