Letters: Africa and us

Aid, trade and cheap decking from Africa
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Your leader of 11 July about aid to Africa is incomplete. Studies indicate that some $5 leaves Africa for every $1 of aid that reaches it. This is due to repayment of debts, illegal flows, repayments on royalties and copyrights, terms of trade that forbid African countries to add value to their products, and the enormous sale of arms that has been roughly equivalent, in the last 10 years, to the aid the North has given to Africa.

Aid dispensed by rich countries is to that extent an extension of welfare, a poor compensation for the failure of existing systems of economic globalisation and trade that continue to impoverish the African continent.

We have not provided for the massive development of education and for the provision of a basic legal framework that would enable the poorest to escape poverty. Traditional forms of aid have continued the deeply feudal systems that the poorest in most of Africa suffer from. It is not international trade that will attack poverty – it is the availability of more food. This requires development from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Benny Dembitzer

London SE24

As I find myself agreeing with Barack Obama that Africa does have the energy to turn itself around, I recall a house-warming party I attended recently where the owners were showing off the decking that they had laid. They kept saying how cheap the wood was, how they had ordered it on the internet and that the only problem was that they had had to wait for delivery from Africa. If that wood needed to be treated and stored and transported to Europe and various dealers and freighting companies needed to be paid, then how much was left for the Africans whose labour had cut and processed those trees and who had had a valuable asset removed from their land?

Is it better for those Africans to devote their labour to producing food for their families, or wood for our decking? Is it better for those trees to remain in Africa providing shade and wood for local use and oxygen for the planet? Or do we absolutely need that wood for our barbecues and cocktail parties?

We need to reconsider the assumption that the world needs global trade at any price, and that the cash earned from exporting is always better than the use of local labour to provide for local needs.

Alan Searle

Cologne, germany

War exposes a failed policy

Britain's foreign and defence policy has changed little since the reappraisal following the Suez blunder in 1956. It is astonishing how little debate there is about Britain's role in the world, when the consequences of fifty years of atrophied thinking are playing out with such harrowing effects; not only by the loss of young British lives in Afghanistan but the serious implications for Britain's future role in the world.

The Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World (2003) provided the final touches to a long-established policy of subordination: defence policy is effectively set in Washington. Even in the 1970s we were not so mesmerised by the "'Special Relationship" that we allowed ourselves to fall into the Vietnam trap. To the British the Special Relationship is reciprocal: if the USA is our closest ally, then we must be the USA's closest ally. This is palpably false; the closest ally of the USA is Israel.

No finger of blame is pointed at the generals, staff and intelligence for a British defeat in Iraq and we yet know not what outcome in Afghanistan. Suddenly we see old generals galvanised as the union representatives of "the troops" in the press or House of Lords, but the Army leadership cannot stand aside from the failures. Presumably the generals were involved in sanctioning the numbers of troops deployed, the strategy and tactics on the ground. Perhaps I am naive to assume that they knew what the objectives were and in some way deemed them achievable? I do not know what the objectives are, or indeed how we would know if or when they were achieved.

The Russians did not prevail in Afghanistan with 300,000 troops. If Britain cannot even hold Basra or Helmand with a 100,000-strong professional army (8,000 in theatre) then we are ill-equipped for the role we have assigned ourselves. We require either a much larger army or a new defence strategy.

John S Warren

Callander, Perthshire

I do not believe in the war in Afghanistan. But if we have to fight there, why are only we and the US there in numbers? Once more we are electing to become the idiots of Europe, desperate to show the Yanks we will do their bidding and punch above our weight, while the rest of Europe must be laughing at our stupidity and willingness to sacrifice our young men, while they do the minimum.

Peter Day

Doncaster

It is deeply regrettable that British soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan. It is hard to see how this can be avoided, no matter what equipment they have. We are, after all, invaders trying to impose our ideas on another culture.

I find equally depressing the lack of any sadness expressed by anyone, the Government, media or general public, for the hundreds of innocent Afghan women and children slaughtered by our bombs and rockets. They are human beings too.

Eddie Johnson

Long Melford, Suffolk

Bruce Anderson (13 July) can only think of two reasons to advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan: cowardice, and hatred of the West. I think we should stay in Afghanistan, but I can think of more than two reasons to withdraw: diplomacy, tactical considerations, effectiveness, and cost.

Richard Marr

London SW15

Harmful drugs must be legalised

If one consequence of the current economic downturn is a rethink on the disastrous "war on drugs" some good will have come from it ("Smoke dope and save the state of California, dude", 10 July). It would be a mistake though to believe this change could only apply to cannabis because it is less harmful than other drugs. It is precisely because drugs can cause harm that their supply and use should be controlled through the legal system and not by criminals.

Yet in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the failure of prohibition to achieve its primary objective, and the massive damage it is doing to whole countries and communities, the Government still refuses to abandon its empty posturing and begin the serious debate on drug control that is so sorely needed.

One reason for this is a fundamental misunderstanding, or misrepresentation, of the case for legalisation. It does not equate to liberalisation. What it offers a far more effective way of controlling and regulating drug use, as well as of reducing crime, creating safer communities and improving economic and community wellbeing. If ever there was a "win-win" policy option, this must be it.

Kate Francis

Bristol

MPs' freedom to write books

Denis MacShane writes that new legislation will hamstring MPs' freedoms (Opinion, 9 July). Possibly "Jack of all trades, master of none" applies here. The electorate would have more faith in MPs if they spent more time worrying about voters' freedoms rather than their own freedom to supplement their income by writing a bestseller.

Having been a secondary school teacher for 34 years, surprisingly I haven't had any time to write my book. Maybe when I retire.

Nigel Bray

Tamworth, Staffordshire

As Denis MacShane must know, most MPs are already poodles to their party whips, and many to lobbyists, be they for big money such as the arms industry or for foreign governments.

Dr CJ Burns-Cox

Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire



Alan Thorpe (Letters, 10 July) says that to be effective MPs need to "be able to ask searching questions, and not be fobbed off with complex answers". To that I would add that they also need to be willing to answer searching questions from the public without fobbing them off with apparently complex but meaningless answers.

Lesley Docksey

Buckland Newton, Dorset

Indian women fall under the burqa

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown makes a rational and dispassionate plea against the burqa (13 July).

I was in India recently and found that the number of burqa-clad women in the cities has increased noticeably. In my own city, Hyderabad, the number of burqa-clad Muslim women has increased from about 4 per cent to 30 per cent in the last decade or so, according to a local newspaper. The paper also reported that women in the poorer parts of the city are being paid huge amounts to switch over to the burqa by local mosques, and the money is coming from countries in the Middle East.

M Riaz Hasan

Pinner, Middlesex

Birds hit by loss of plant diversity

The cause of the "sudden, shocking decline of swifts", commented upon by several correspondents, is not the disappearance of nesting sites.

Along with martins, swallows, the majority of small birds and bats, swifts depend upon insects for food. One step down the food-chain, insects depend on plants. The average county in southern and eastern England has lost 30 species of wild flowering plant in the past 50 years.

It is the catastrophic loss of plant and insect diversity that has done for birds. This problem is especially acute in a small, overcrowded country such as Britain. The causes are clear: agricultural chemicals and too many mouths to feed.

David Smith

Clyro, Powys

These gamblers are not bankers

Your front-page story of 6 July says that "bankers are typically paid a basic salary and in the past earned" – although I prefer "received" – huge amounts of money from underwriting deals. This is of course nonsense. At least 90 per cent of "bankers" work in high-street banks and none receive bonuses of the magnitude that you imply.

The people to whom you refer are not employed in banking as such but usually are gambling the assets which the banks have received from customers as deposits, from shareholders, or now, in many cases, the Government; that is, us the taxpayer.

This way of working, a perversion of banking, succeeded for many years and increased the size of the banks concerned artificially, but can anyone say that what is happening to us now as a result can be anything but a net disaster?

Peter Croggon

Fellow of The Chartered Institute of Bankers

London SW16

Welcome the Stasi

Now that the Germans have become unsettled about what to do with their former Stasi operatives (report, 11 July) perhaps they should simply send them to the UK. I am sure these repellent individuals will find employment and a warm welcome in the increasingly sinister surveillance society the present government is quietly inflicting on us here.

Martin Kennedy

London W1

German efficiency

Simon Calder could find only one private railway service to praise among the many that were supposed to make British railways more efficient ("Wrong kind of railway?", 8 July). What he did not mention is that Chiltern railways is owned by Deutsche Bahn – the state-owned German railway. So much for the belief that state-run is less efficient.

Caroline White

LONDON W2

Human drama

Having both trained as an actor and taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama, I was appalled to read John Fox's letter (8 July) in which he reported not merely that payment for his and a colleague's services was dependent on their providing passport copies for the school's database, but that a once humane institution had a "work experience section of human resources".

Charles Lewsen

Bristol

Royal descent

Richard Ingrams's criticism of Prince Charles as "notoriously ignorant about historical and cultural matters" (11 July) might have carried more weight if he had not made the mistake of describing Henry VIII as Prince Charles's ancestor. Henry was survived by three children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, each of whom died childless. Prince Charles's ancestor is not Henry, but Henry's sister, Margaret Tudor, wife of James IV of Scotland.

Donald MacCallum

Milton Keynes

Hated but useful

In his column about most-hated words (13 July), Philip Hensher admits that he is not very keen on the word "exquisite". Used in the right circumstances, it can provide a very large score in a game of Scrabble.

David McNickle

St Albans, hertfordshire

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