‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina is one of the largest cities in the world. Every day its transport system needs to cope with over 13 million people living and moving around its metropolitan area.

Even having one of the largest metros in Latin America, for years, it has failed to provide enough capacity to move all the citizens who depend on it.The subway opened in 1913, in what was the first underground system in our continent.

Today it is a vital artery for a chaotic Buenos Aires, which has traditionally glorified the private car. Besides congested second level freeways, the city also boasts a couple of unusual urban roads: the widest (‘9 de Julio’) and the longest (Rivadavia) in the world.

It is not sufficient to navigate through the traffic jams, which are so characteristic of most great cities of the world, to really understand the mobility challenge there. For the authentic ‘porteño’ commuter experience, you need to take the subway during rush hour.

As the lines of the subway system are connected with several other commuter rail lines and bus stations, carriages soon fill up during the first few stops. One must pray for a miracle to find a space starting from the third or fourth train station. The crowding is acute and the lack of lack of personal space oppressive.

However, the system works well enough. The locals, though blinded by their uncomfortable journeys, still reach their destinations. Now, imagine this great city without the metro – would it continue to function?

Since political fights have no limits in creating disruptions, the great fear of many came about during the first two weeks of August: the subway went on strike and closed down completely for 10 days! The urban mobility system collapsed (obviously).

Fortunately, since the last subway strike, a new mode of transport has been strengthened in Buenos Aires. In recent years they have built around 80 kilometres of protected bike paths (i.e. permanent structures with high kerbs to protect cyclists from traffic). These are part of an initial plan to build 100 interconnected kilometres, mainly aiming at universities and public buildings.

With the strike, many ordinary citizens decided it was the perfect excuse to dust off their bikes, or to rent one of the thousand public bicycles, with which the city complements its network of bike paths. Some local newspapers reported a doubling in demand for these public bikes during the strike; a pleasant surprise.

When the strike finally ended, having plunged the Buenos Aires streets into unprecedented chaos, no politician was left unscathed. According to a survey carried out by Opinión Autenticada, 40.3% of locals held the national government responsible for the subway strike, while 28.2% blamed the city government.

The political fight during the conflict, sustained between President Kirchner and Buenos Aires Mayor Macri (former president of Boca Juniors football club), left no one unscathed. By contrast, it only reminds us of the importance of shielding urban transport systems from the strategic interests of politicians. After all, it is only us – ordinary citizens – who lose out in these kinds of crisis.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 27 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Michele Molinari / Eric Illuminaut. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

Rio+20: An Ecological or Political Crisis?

Ten days ago the most important environmental summit of recent times ended in Rio de Janeiro. This great event was named in honour of the first Earth Summit, also held in that city in 1992.

Twenty years have gone by since the ideas of ‘shared responsibility’ for all countries and ‘sustainable development’ of our planet were firmly put on the table. So many of us expected this meeting to – finally – offer a global framework with specific and detailed agreements to address the rapid environmental destruction of our planet.

However, not only did our leaders fail to agree on clear strategies to address the profound dangers of our unsustainable lifestyle, but it became even clearer that the obstacles to this goal have become greater than ever. The final declaration is little more than 283 paragraphs of formalities: diagnoses are made on past diagnoses; shared concerns about the global environmental crisis are repeated again and again; the urgent need for action is expressed in various ways.

Furthermore, the new text now uses ‘sustained growth’ to refer to what in 1992 was called sustainability. This begs an obvious question: how far can we take sustained growth in a world that depends on non-renewable natural resources? Doesn’t that contradict the basic definition of sustainability?

The work of some delegations deserves to be mentioned. The US was the only one capable of imposing specific desires: it was able to veto (as is now the custom) specific references to patterns of overconsumption and waste, which, unfortunately, are becoming desired lifestyles to people in developing societies. Moreover, they managed to do this without President Obama; who like Britain’s Cameron and Germany’s Merkel, failed to show up at the summit.

Colombia’s participation was equally interesting. While the Colombian delegation was dedicated to promoting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), President Santos made several references to large mining initiatives – the cornerstone of his government’s development agenda.

After a lengthy process which began in early 2011, and which sent the team of deputy minister Londoño around the world several times, paragraphs 245 to 251 of the declaration refer to the SDGs; however, no single idea is developed in detail. Only a promise was made to address them in detail at a later occasion.

Fortunately, the Summit left us one priceless gift: the 10 minutes during which the President of Uruguay, José Mujica, lectured the honourable representatives of 193 countries (see video above). It will be remembered as a speech, or as he calls it “a moment of teeth grinding”, that masterfully sums up the problem, the guilty ones, and the solution(s).

President Mujica, who is also famous for donating 90 per cent of his salary to charity (dear reader: please compare this to your own political representatives), offers us a profound insight into ethics and life. His bombshell, coming 4 minutes 10 seconds into the speech, sums up our global sustainability catastrophe which will no doubt remain the case for the next 20 years: “The great crisis is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one”.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 2 July 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.


Tinpots, Crackpots and BRICS: Whatever happened to the ‘Responsibility to Protect’?

Media focus on the BRICS[1] in February 2012 was anything but flattering. As the Syrian regime increased the campaign of violence against its own people, China and Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution on 4 February (not for the first time).

Days later they were again out of step with the rest of the world, in the company of North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, when they voted against a UN General Assembly resolution on 16 February condemning the human rights violations in Syria.

Just three days earlier Navi Pillay, UN High Flickr / Yunchung LeeCommissioner for Human Rights, outlined to the General Assembly in shocking detail human rights abuses in Syria, including a harrowing report that “Children have not been spared. Children have been killed by beating, sniper fire and shelling from Government security forces … As of the end of January security forces have killed more than 400 children”.

Syria is a fragile (and failed) state – the type of state that has since 9/11 risen to the top of the international development agenda – both for security and development concerns. For as the World Bank states in its 2011 World Development Report, no fragile state is in line to meet a single of the Millennium Development Goals; fragile states cast strong negative economic spillovers onto their neighbours – “Countries lose an estimated 0.7 per cent of their annual GDP for each neighbour involved in civil war”.

The international community therefore has to deal with such states; they cannot be left to themselves to disintegrate into their own murderous chaos. Such intervention can take various forms – from the relatively mild censure to strong forms such as sanctions or even military intervention.

In a recent book on Fragile States that I co-edited (and which will be launched at the University of Oxford on 19 March 2012), Lisa Chauvet, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler estimate the costs of failing states to be around US$276 billion per annum. These costs may justify their national sovereignty to be overridden by international intervention.

As shown by the conflict in Syria, other recent conflicts in fragile states, as well as an increasing number of debates on global public goods (including climate change), the limits to national sovereignty is one of the most difficult and sensitive matters in international development. It is particularly so as the idea of national sovereignty may be outdated.

Somalian mother and child

Jurgen Brauer and Robert Haywood, writing in the UNU-WIDER Angle state bluntly that ‘Problems of local or global governance, including violent conflict within and between states, can be ascribed not merely to the faulty exercise of state sovereignty but to its very existence’. Hence, while the international community may be slow to assist the people of Syria due to the obstructive behaviour of China and Russia, international intervention was important in 2011 to protect civilians in fragile states including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia,  Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire.

In light of this another of the BRICS – South Africa – has not had the most flattering coverage in the media. For some inexplicable reason the country is a haven for crackpots. A tragic example in its recent past was when the country became a favourite of AIDS dissidents whose ideas were supported by then president Thabo Mbeki. The consequences were dire: a “genocide by sloth” that according to Nicoli Nattrass lead to around 343,000 avoidable AIDS deaths and 171,000 infections between 1999 and 2007.

In recent weeks the country entertained another crackpot of sorts. At the country’s Mining Indaba held in Cape Town on 6 February the keynote speech was delivered by a climate change skeptic who has been reported to have described climate change as “nothing but a ruse to create a massive global bureaucracy that will rule the world with impunity” (incidentally the same week that other BRICS – China, India and Russia – objected to the EU’s carbon tax on airlines).

The country’s mining sector had perhaps hoped for more leadership and less conspiracy theorizing from the summit because it is a sector under pressure. On 16 February police had to use rubber bullets and water cannon against thousands of mine workers who protested against the retrenchment of 17,000 co-workers at one of the world’s largest platinum mines.

It may seem on the face of it a puzzle why a country with South Africa’s mineral resources has been able to achieve only mediocre economic growth during the greatest ever commodity boom, not to mention losing thousands of mining jobs. What is going on? The influence of crackpot ideas again? Perhaps: the mining sector has been threatened by nationalization. The handling of mineral rights, regulation of the sector by political interests, and nepotism has strangled investment in this sector.

An irony of the past two weeks is a public speech Mbeki made on 16 February condemning international intervention in fragile states, particularly those in Africa. He is reported to have described these (including NATOs role in Libya and the French intervention that helped arrest Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011) as ‘racism’.

Fortunately Mbeki’s opinions are not necessarily shared by the South African government. Still, it is ironic that they are made in a BRICS country at a time when other BRICS have been instrumental in limiting the world’s intervention in Syria.

The irony is especially rich as it comes almost exactly 10 years after the United Nations’ ‘International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report’. This report laid down the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Its intellectual father was an African – the Sudanese diplomat Frances Deng.

Ideas are clearly important in international development. Hence the question now is: how can the world deal with fragile states in future given that the BRICS seem to prefer the idea of sovereignty to the idea of the Responsibility to Protect?

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.

[1] BRICS is the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The Year 2011

Not the most imaginative title in journalistic history, but who can argue with BBC News Magazine‘s headline of 19 December 2011:

‘2011: The year when a lot happened’

The Year 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring and the European Winter. A year marked by protest, revolution, and conflict; a year that saw the toppling of dictators – from Ben Ali to Mubarak to Ghadaffi. And the toppling, ideologically, of big banking and the idea that unfettered and global finance can only be a good thing (at least in some quarters…).

If any single moment can be identified when the Arab Spring started it has to be when the young man Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. His death on 4 January 2011 sparked within two weeks a ‘Jasmine’ Revolution that overthrew Tunisian despot Ben Ali.

Quick on its heels followed similar protests – driven by passionate young men and women utilizing in an unprecedented manner the technology of the social media – in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Oman, and more recently in Russia.

The Year 2011 will also be remembered as the European Winter – perhaps the European and US winters – a year wherein growing unemployment, troubling government debts and fiscal austerity measures and heralded (exaggerated) announcements of the imminent collapse of the Euro; A year wherein rightwing parties moved into the political ascendency amidst greater intolerance and xenophobia – even in traditionally more liberal and tolerant societies. As in Arab countries, protests led by predominantly youthful men and women took place across Europe as well as in the US – including a walk-out by the University of Harvard’s economics 10 class.

Yes, 2011 was a year when a lot happened. Many have asked whether it will be in retrospect as a historically decisive year as was for instance 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Will the Arab Spring, like the protests in the former DDR and Soviet Union that ended the Cold War eventually contribute towards global socio-political stability?

As I write this on Sunday 22January 2012 I cannot but think that comparison with an earlier ‘historical’ year may perhaps be more apt – and more ominous: The Year 1905.  Sunday 22 January 1905 was a Black Sunday. On that day the Imperial Guard in Tsarist Russia opened fire on peaceful protesters in St. Petersburg. It was to be a fateful day, one that eventually sealed the fate of the Tsar and the Russian ruling class as it paved the way to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union.

Amongst those who were amongst the protesters in 1917 were the 11 year old Dimitry Shostakovich, who was witness to the brutal hacking to death of an unknown young man, who was accused of having stolen, out of hunger, an apple. Like the Arab Spring in the year 2011, the Russian Revolution of 1905/1917 was kindled in the poverty, desperation and  the blood of the youth.

The eventual Russian Revolution of 1917 was with the benefit of hindsight one of the most significant events shaping the rest of the 20th century. It led to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the  nuclear arms race, proliferation of nuclear weapons (see Pakistan and Iran), and the conflict in Afghanistan (of which the consequences are still shaping geo-political affairs).

How different would the developing world have been if these countries had gained their independence in a world where there was no Cold War? In many of these countries communism and the backing of the Soviet Union contributed to  large scale predation of human and natural resources – often accompanied by ‘leaders for life’ through the cult of the ‘big personality’ – as exemplified by Stalin. The latter cult of the personality became almost de rigueur in many poor countries, and continues to this day in ‘strongmen’ such as Al-Assad, Mugabe, Museveni, Castro, Chavez, Obiang and others.

So how will we judge the Year 2011 in a century’s time?  Will the protests ignited by the Arab Spring and European Winter eventually lead to a more equal and prosperous global society, the type of society that many expected to follow in 1989 but did not happen? Or will it in unimaginable ways lead to even more terrible horrors than we witnessed in the 20th century?

Humans have throughout history far underestimated the sweeping power of demography. And what we are witnessing now is nothing but momentous demographic changes in the form of a growing, and largely youthful and much more mobile and connected world population. Many of whom are unemployed and marginalized.

What is different this time around – compared to 1905 – is the availability of vastly superior technologies than before; technologies that have already left their mark on the planet’s climate; technologies than can cause incredible destruction and enable new forms of slavery and control. As Luc Soete stressed in his 2011 Tans Lecture not all innovation is successful or socially desirable.

For some historians The Year 1905 was actually an annus mirabilis. This is because on 27 September 1905 Albert Einstein published one of the most significant single scientific articles ever – an article in the journal Annalen der Physik (under the title “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?”).  The article laid the foundations of the theory of relativity which led to quantum mechanics. It facilitated some of the most powerful technologies humans have ever encountered – from lasers, CDs to nuclear power.

It is interesting and ironic then that on 22 September 2011 scientists reported that they had recorded sub-atomic particles travelling faster than the speed of light. If confirmed, this would be overthrowing, in a year when a lot of overthrowing happened, an important cornerstone of modern science. And perhaps open a Pandora’s Box of unimaginable future technologies. The demography-technology cycle continues.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow, UNU-Maastricht