Reflections for a New Year

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Jan 3 2020 – In a world shaken by so many problems, it is difficult to look at 2020 and not make some kind of holistic analysis. While enormous progress has been made on many fronts, it is clear that the tide has turned, and we are now entering – or have already entered – a new low point in the history of humankind..

Roberto Savio

Today, we face an unprecedented existential threat brought about by the climate crisis. According to scientists, we have until 2030 to stop climate change, after which human conditions will be under several threats. Yet, we have just had a world conference in Madrid on climate change, which ended in nothing. Not only that, but since the beginning of the last decade, there has been a singular change of the relations of politicians with climate. Climate has become not a scientific but a political issue, with a number of politicians of not minor weight, like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini and Vladimir Putin arguing that there is no climate crisis. Some of them, like Australia prime minister Scott Morrison, take holidays in Hawaii even as fires have destroyed an area large as Belgium.

Since the end of the last decade, we have seen also another change in a vital environment: democracy. With the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, everybody was told that the threat of communism had now gone. As Francis Fukuyama famously wrote, it was the end of history. Capitalism and market would unify the world, and lift all boats, it was said at the time.

Then came the big financial crisis of 2008-2009 which cost governments (and therefore people) 12 trillion dollars and it became clear that only some boats were being lifted. Budget trimmings affected especially welfare, education and health, while at the same time some people were becoming fabulously rich. World debt doubled, (it now stands at 325 trillion dollars), and suddenly nationalistic, xenophobic and right-wing parties sprouted everywhere. Before the crisis of 2009, there was only one, in France. Even Nordic countries, long-time symbol of civism and tolerance saw the arrival of extreme right-wing governments.

The thirty years between the fall of Berlin Wall and the financial crisis, left a culture of competition, individualism and loss of values – a culture of greed. And the ten years between that crisis of and our incoming decade saw the rise of a culture of fear. Immigration became the catalyst We were being invaded, Islam was not compatible with our society, our jobs were being stolen, crime and drugs were coming in and the same leaders who do not believe in climate change became the guardians of Christianity, enacting restrictive laws to the applause of citizens, regardless of human rights. In the last two decades, trade unions have become irrelevant, and laws have been introduced that support the making of jobs precarious and reductions in social protection. People started having fear, looking at the uncertain future of their children.

Historians affirm that the two main engines of change in history are greed and fear. We enter the decade of the 2020s with both. Worse, many analysts believe we do so with hate.

The fact is that two flags that we thought had been discarded by history are making a comeback.

One is the flag ‘in the name of God’. We think of ISIS and Al Qaeda, but this is the basis of the image of Putin, Orban, Trump, Bolsonaro and Salvini. The use of religion by the right wing has been able to rally the poor. Theologian Juan Josè Tamayo has called politicians with bible in hand the Christo-neo-fascist alliance. In the last elections in Costa Rica, evangelical pastor Fabricio Alvarado won with a campaign based on the defence of Christian values and neoliberalism, against abortion and the paganism coming from Europe. This is precisely the electoral theme of Orban in Hungary, Kacynsky in Poland and Putin in Russia.

In Brazil, the evangelical church was vital in getting Bolsonaro elected. In El Salvador, the new president Nayib Bukele asked an extreme right-wing evangelical pastor to offer a prayer during his inaugural ceremony, and there is a draft law that would make the Bible compulsory reading in all schools. You will all remember how, after the overthrow of Eva Morales by the army, the new president of Bolivia Jeanine Áñez and her supporters went around with a bible in their hands at all ceremonies.

And let us not forget that Trump was elected because of the support of the evangelical church, which has 40 million faithful. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem to get their support. Evangelicals believe that when Israel will recover all the territory of the biblical time, Christ will come to earth for a second time, and they will be the only ones that will be rewarded. The other country which moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Guatemala, was also the result of the move of an evangelical president.

Theologian Tamayo speaks of an international of hate: hate against gender equality, against LGTBs, against abortion, against immigrants. Those who propagate hate defend reinforcement of the patriarchal family, the submission of women, they despise what is not traditional, they mistrust science and statistics, they deny climate change, and they hate Muslims, Jews and blacks. What is being totally ignored in all this is the problem of social inequalities, the growing economic gap for reasons of ethnicity, culture, gender, social class, sexual identity, and so on.

Tamayo observes that this is becoming a new international movement, which is now coming to Europe, as the recent Spanish elections show. Vox, the extreme right-wing party, created just four years ago, now has 52 seats in the Parliament, and is the third largest party, like AFD in Germany. The party of Italy’s Salvini, with his rosary beads, has become the number one party, and he could become prime minister at any moment. And we know well of the very large conservative front against the Pope in the Catholic Church which also wants to save traditions, is against LGBTs, is for a patriarchal family, etc., etc. All this is about using religion, fear and hate for political gains.

And what about the flag ‘in the name of the nation’? Well, the best example is Benjamin Netanyahu who has passed a law which makes being a Jew the requisite for Israeli citizenship. This is how Narendra Modi in India is trying to deprive Muslims (170 million) of Indian citizenship; it is how the government in Myanmar is treating over one million Rohingyas. Those cases join religion with the fight against minorities and different religions in the name of the nation. China has now launched a campaign for a Chinese dream (also persecuting Uighur Muslim minorities). This is exactly the same strategy as that of Trump, who calls for the American dream. The United States has no allies, and anybody who makes money in trade with the United States is an adversary, be it Canada or Germany. “America First”, which in fact means “America Alone”.

So, the flags “in the name of God” and “in the name of the Nation” frequently overlap. Italian political scientist and economist Riccardo Petrella observes that in recent decades, a third flag has appeared with a large audience: ‘in the name of money”, and also that in the last two decades corruption has become another universal countervalue.

In its last report, Transparency International, the organisation which fights and denounces corruption, analyses how corruption is weakening democracy. Freedom House, a conservative US foundation, found that since 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline in their freedom score, while only 62 have seen some improvement. The Economist says that democracy was stagnating in 2018, after three consecutive years of deterioration. Of the 62 countries which transitioned from authoritarian rule to some form of democracy, in the last quarter of the 20th century, half of them have seen their level of democracy stagnate or even falter. Transparency international highlights that while fight against corruption is high on the populists’ platform, when in power they tend to weaken democratic institutions, and engage into corruption like their predecessors. It cites the cases of various country, from Guatemala to Turkey, from the United States to Poland and Hungary. When corruption seeps into the democratic system it corrupts leaders. Economic corruption has increased in the last forty years, after the “greed is good” campaign, as the market has substituted man as the centre of society. It reaches the entire public sector, besides obviously the private sector.

Two-thirds of humankind now have no trust in police and other public services, because they are considered corrupt, and they believe that corruption is so diffuse that it cannot be eliminated.

We have become accustomed to hearing about corruption in the last two decades, because it is in the news every day. We have slowly become trained to look as natural things that are at all no natural: a good sign of the extent to which we have lost a moral compass.

If you ask children today if wars and poverty are natural, they will probably answer yes. And, as adolescents, they will also probably consider corruption as natural.

It is therefore evident that two fundamental environments for humankind are in danger. One in the short term is the natural environment. The conditions of life on the planet can worsen dramatically, and we have all the forecasts. We have only the coming decade to try to reverse the trend of climate change, be it natural (some say) or man-made (all scientists). But then the question is: how long do we have to protect our political environment, which runs our economic, social and cultural life, before that also goes into an irreversible decline?

Of course, a bloody dictatorship is less dramatic than seas rising seven metres, temperatures 3 degrees, or l0osing all our glaciers, and many rivers and water sources. Now that we have all the data, why do citizens not act for the survival of their environment?

On the other hand, 2019 will remain in history the year of mass demonstrations. In 21 countries, in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, millions of people went out on the street to protest against corruption, social injustice, the gap between political institutions and citizens, the fear and decline of social welfare as a political priority, Young people, who have deserted political parties and elections, have been frequently at the forefront. They are at the head of the campaign for a sustainable world, where an adolescent, Greta Thunberg, has brought together young people from all over the world. But the system does not appear to be really listening to them, unless they become violent as in Chile, Paris, Baghdad or Hong Kong.

These reflections bring us to three conclusions.

The first is that, not by accident, the enemies of the fight to defend our natural environment are also the enemies of our political environment. they do not care if the first is destroyed, because they are intertwined with corporations, gas and oil companies, farmers who want to take over land (like the case of Brazil and Amazonia), or coal companies, like in Poland and Australia. But they want to twist the political environment in their favour, for their power. Orban of Hungary has campaigned for am illiberal democracy. Bolsonaro has gone further, talking about the good old days of the military dictatorship. And all of them, from Trump to Salvini, look on international cooperation, multilateral agreements and any initiative that reduces the freedom of a country for peace and justice (like the United Nations or the European Union) as enemies. They are all in favour of building walls, forgetting that the Second World War taught us to abolish them.

The second is that democracy is in danger, for the same reasons that the environment is also in danger. There is no ability and will among populists to reach any internal agreement. Would it be possible today to create the United Nations, or sign the Declaration on Human Rights? Certainly not just as there is no will to fight climate change.

The third, therefore, is what is going to happen in the new decade we are now entering. It looks like it will be a decisive decade. In just a few years, we must take action on how we will deal with two existential issues: how to remain in our present environment, and how we will live together.

All this will be decided by voters. And this raises an issue: is it legitimate to believe that fascism, xenophobia and nationalism are the answer to our problems? Humans should learn from their mistakes (like all other animals do). And we should have learnt from the two world wars that those beliefs are not an answer but the roots of war and confrontation.

So, here a final reflection. According to Steven Pinker, the Canadian cognitive scientist, writing in The Economist, in the last seven years humans have become healthier, live longer, are more secure, richer, freer, more intelligent and educated. This trend should continue. But humans have evolved, because they have dedicated themselves mainly to the advantages of reproduction, survival and material growth not because of wisdom or happiness.

The first urgent step is to reconcile progress with human nature. We have cognitive abilities, and also the ability to cooperate and be emphatic, unlike other animals. Between the Age of Enlightenment and the Second World War, we made important progress on science, democracy, human rights, free information, market rules and the creation of institutions for international cooperation. This trend cannot be stopped, argues Pinker; it is now in our genes.

Well, in ten years we will know if all this is in the human genes or is just one of the many passages of history. Also, because in 2022, Bolsonaro and Orban should leave office: Erdogan in 2023; Netanyahu, Modi, Putin and Trump in 2024. So, in just four years (a microsecond in human history), we will know how the world is, and what damages are irreversible or not, and if we have made any progress in halting the climate crisis. But Trump, etc, have been elected…

Child Marriages Unlikely to End by UN’s 2030 Deadline

Credit: United Nations

By Nayema Nusrat
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 3 2020 – “Right now, I don’t want to get married. I have a long life and a dream in front of me”, a 14-year-old young girl from Bangladesh told her parents as she was just not ready to get married.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5.3) has targeted to end child marriage by 2030. According to a report published last June by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, 12 million girls are married before they turn 18 every year, 650 million girls and women alive today were married before they were 18.

Nankali Maksud, Senior Advisor and Coordinator, Prevention of Harmful Cultural Practices at UNICEF, told IPS that evidence shows child marriage is not limited to particular groups or cultural norms, rather a broad combination of structural and socio-cultural drivers.

“These include poverty, lack of educational and economic opportunities, social expectations, discrimination against girls and women and restrictive gender roles, beliefs about protection of girls and low awareness of and access to alternatives”.

He also added, “In many settings, girls are perceived as a burden on household expenses, with child marriage often viewed as the best option out of a menu of poor choices.”

“In some contexts, child marriage is viewed as a path that unburdens the family and preserves its honor while protecting girls. Evidence suggests that when such structural and socio-cultural underlying causes—the drivers of child marriage—are eliminated, the practice will decline and, ultimately end”.

A spokesperson for UN Women (UNW), the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, told IPS, child marriages may be further exacerbated by increased insecurity in settings where there is a humanitarian crisis.

“For example, the prevalence of child marriage in the Middle East and North Africa region is near the global average, with around one in five young women married before they turn 18 years of age. This marks progress in the last 25 years, though the rate of decline appears to have stalled within the past decade”.

And in certain conflict areas, progress has reversed, “such as in Syria and Yemen, (where it has) been reversed substantially as conflict often produces negative coping mechanisms particularly in dire economic situations that can increase the rate of child marriage”.

Credit: United Nations

UNICEF saw worldwide progress in child marriage reduction rates in recent years, while South Asia has witnessed the largest decline, from nearly 50 per cent to 30 per cent, in large part due to progress in India.

UNICEF’s Maksud said: “The proportion of women who were married as children decreased by 15 per cent, from one in four to one in five, in the last decade”.

Globally, “The total number of girls married in childhood is now estimated at 12 million a year. This points to an accumulated global reduction of 25 million fewer marriages than would have been anticipated under global levels 10 years ago” UNICEF and UN Women pointed out.

While talking about the progress in child bride rate in Africa, Maksud noted “Data also points to the possibility of progress on the African continent. For example, in Ethiopia – once among the top five countries for child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa – the prevalence has dropped by a third in the last 10 years”.

Countries with such harmful practices like child marriage need to prioritize their responsibilities in order to be aligned with SDG target (SDG 5.3) to end child marriage by 2030.

According to Maksud, “the accountability for achieving the SDGs lies with countries and their responsibility to prioritize ending harmful practices such as child marriage. With the right investments and accelerated progress, the SDG target is achievable”.

On the contrary, Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS that it’s probably unlikely that the UN goal of ending all child marriages by 2030 can be achieved.

She said, “I think this target has already contributed significantly to reducing child marriage and will continue to do so. But it’s goal of ending all child marriages by 2030 probably will not be fully achieved. There is just too far to go and too many countries that continue to—legally or illegally—tolerate child marriage”.

The spokesperson from UN Women told IPS about their view on the feasibility of reaching SDG goal- despite a significant progress seen in the past decade, no region seems to be on track to eliminate the practice by 2030.

“A substantial acceleration is needed because the current rate of decline in child marriage is insufficient to meet the ambitious SDG target”.

“The annual rate of decline in child marriage has been 1.9 per cent over the past 10 years but would have to be 23 per cent to achieve the SDG target on ending child marriage by 2030. If the rate of progress since 1990 does not improve, it will take nearly a century to eliminate child marriage worldwide, and more than 150 million more girls will marry by 2030”.

“Even at the faster rate of decline in the past decade, it would take 50 years to end child marriage. Therefore, progress must be accelerated significantly”.

Maksud also pointed out, “However, to end the practice by 2030 – the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals – progress must be accelerated 12 times faster than in the past decade. Without acceleration of progress, more than 150 million additional girls will marry before their 18th birthday by 2030 due to population growth”.

UN Women lays emphasis on the importance of improving gender equality which is one of the biggest drives according to various research. “Among the main challenges that remain is the lack of a gender-transformative approach in tackling this harmful practice. Evidence shows that delaying the age of marriage alone is insufficient.”

“Gender equality needs to be promoted holistically, including by placing stronger emphasis on promoting girls and women’s agency, addressing the inherit power dynamics in marriages and society, and shifting attitudes, norms and behaviors around gender roles”.

Barr concurs about the importance of promoting gender equality. “Our research on child marriage, in countries around the world, has left us convinced that the main cause of child marriage is simply gender inequality”.

UN Women spokesperson pointed out additional important factors “there are increasing changing marriage patterns that show that peer marriages, cohabitation and adolescent pregnancy leading to marriages exist alongside the traditional understanding of child marriage or forced marriage.”

“A proper gender approach requires that we recognize that early marriages and voluntary marriages also constitute harmful practices given the disproportionate impact it has on girls and the barriers it creates to their educational and economic opportunities”.

According to UNW, itis crucial to integrate women’s economic empowerment approaches to educational interventions responding to child marriage. Although poverty is not the only driver, poverty remains a key driver of child, early and forced marriage, which disproportionately impacts girls and young women and continues to be a deeply gendered practice.

“In order to empower girls and young women to use their voice, make their own choices and exercise their agency, it is crucial to ensure that a whole system and life-cycle approach is implemented to support the broadening of economic opportunities for young women by promoting skills and social protection for girls and young women who are at risk of child, early and forced marriages”.

UNICEF found strong correlation between the length of time a girl stays in school and the biggest reductions in child marriage. “And for adolescent girls, emerging evidence indicates that having a secondary education is much more beneficial for ending child marriage than having just a primary education”.

It is estimated that there would be 14 per cent fewer marriages if all girls had just a primary education, compared with 64 per cent fewer if girls also had secondary education.

“While just being in school can protect against child marriage, evidence shows that the quality of education has important implications. Adolescent girls who do poorly in school, do not learn well and fall behind are sometimes pulled out of school by their parents to marry”.

Ending child marriage will only be a reality if we address it through a comprehensive gender-transformative approach that tackles the root causes of gender inequality.

UNICEF’s Maksud sees potential in achieving SDG goal by 2030 if certain key steps are taken to accelerate the progress, which include “increasing girls’ access to education and particularly secondary education, proactive government investments in adolescent girls’ protection programmes as well as strong public messaging around the illegality of child marriage and the harm it causes”.