Sir: Chris Lee (letter, 12 December) is right to point out that China, in its dealings in Africa, has no interest in human rights or freedom; economics is the key. China requires access to the already depleted resources of the planet. It is doing this by providing resource-rich underdeveloped countries with goods and infrastructure at prices that most cannot compete with.
I recently completed a six-week tour of Namibia, on which I planned to use public transport. I knew it was sparse and slow but understood it to be fairly reliable. Not so: trains were regularly retimed without notice three to four hours later than in the timetable. The reason given: "shortage of locomotives". Managers told me the European-built 1960s fleet of locomotives has been been replaced by Chinese-built ones. These were subject to frequent failure and non-availability resulting in large-scale disruption of passenger and freight services.
The new "luxury" diesel train (also Chinese) between the capital, Windhoek, and the north of the country had also failed and was likely to be out of service for up to eight weeks.
One senior official told me the authorities think because the sun rises in the east all good things come from the east. The Namibian tourist board response to complaints about reliability of transport was that they were "targeting the Chinese market".
At the same time, Air Namibia announced that from this January, their direct flights between Gatwick and Windhoek will be reduced from three to two per week.
Apart from its natural beauty, Namibia has vast reserves of uranium and other scarce minerals. No need to guess the objectives of the Chinese; the question is when, if ever, Africa will realise the price it is paying.
N C Walker
Duirinish, Kyle of Lochalsh
Plight of childrenin Sierra Leone
Sir: I am delighted that The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year has focused on Sierra Leone's children. I am a medical student at Cambridge University and this summer I spent six weeks working at the Children's Hospital, Freetown, Sierra Leone. I was devastated that the daily tragedies I witnessed could continue in a world that promises so much to tackle poverty.
I agree with the sentiments in "The unluckiest baby in the world" (front page, 24 December). This is a scandal and a scar on the developed world. What is more of a scandal is that this is not the first time attempts have been made to help Sierra Leone's children. Some charities have been working there since 1999. In this time, Sierra Leone's child mortality rate has barely improved.
Tackling child mortality in Sierra Leone is complex. Ultimately, economic development will be the solution. In the meantime, highly trained doctors and nurses are required to look after the huge number of sick children. I believe that, given the training and resources, Sierra Leonean healthcare professionals are capable of providing this care.
We have established The Sierra Leonean Institute of Child Health. The Sierra Leonean government and local doctors and nurses support the Institute. We have recruited a team of experts from the UK to help. This is a long and costly project, so we plan to establish an endowment, providing long-term financial security.
Sir: The wretched existence of the people of Sierra Leone shames every one of us living in the first world, those who originated in these countries as well as those who have migrated here to better our lives. In our collective wealth, we have failed the people of poor countries.
In your editorial, you rightly praise the role of British troops in ending the civil war, but your main article only briefly mentions the role of Britain as its former colonial master. Freetown has been under British colonial rule since 1808 and the rest of the country was a British Protectorate from 1896 to 1961.
I feel ashamed that a place where we exerted administrative influence for a prolonged period should be so destitute.
Dr Naeem Toosy
Paying the price for lack of grammar
Sir: Masha Bell's assertion that English spelling disadvantages learners seems to be without foundation (letter, 15 December). What is the evidence to support this? It would probably be more accurate to say that, in Britain, children have been disadvantaged since the 1970s by the lack of teaching of any basic concepts of grammar and language structure. That's why they find it hard to learn another language.
English spelling is inconsistent but probably no harder to learn than gender, case and associated inflections that are a feature of other (European) languages; conversely, English grammar is relatively simple. Are German children disadvantaged because they have to cope with three genders, or Russian children because they need to learn six cases? I doubt it.
But the further assertion that this "problem" will be solved by simplifying English spelling also seems contentious. It is the weak link between spelling and pronunciation that has allowed English to develop as a world language, widely understood despite many different accents and dialects.
Sure, we could write British English using the International Phonetic Alphabet. So could the Americans, the Scots, the Australians, the Indians. And the result would be the Balkanisation of English, numerous mutually unintelligible written versions of the same tongue. Where would be the advantage in that?
Southwick, West Sussex
Government wrong on tackling poverty
Sir: Deborah Orr is right about the harrying of the unemployed (18 December) but misses the weakness in the Government's strategy of ending poverty by pressuring the unemployed into work. It is claimed that no one will be expected to work in a job that does not get them 25 a week or more than they would receive on benefits; that does not end poverty even on the Government's own measurements. The unemployment benefit for childless couples between 25 and 60 is 92.80 a week, and the poverty threshold is 183 at 60 per cent of the median, after rent and tax.
The national minimum wage at 5.52 an hour for a 37.5 hour week produces 132 a week after a modest rent and council tax have been paid, a long way below the poverty threshold, and further below for Londoners, for whom City Hall economics have estimated a living wage of 7.20 an hour or 195 a week after rent and council tax. All that is assuming all employers are paying holiday and sick pay and the four agencies that administer the payment of welfare get their calculations right and do not land the recipients in overpayments, the repayment of which pushes them into even deeper poverty. These are fragile assumptions to make.
The Rev Paul Nicolson
Chairman, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, London SW1
The problems of direct payment
Sir: Barbara Pointon (letter, 24 December) questions whether individualised budgets could be seen as a Trojan horse for more back-door privatisation of healthcare.
Direct payments for home care have been positive for many people, and could be for many more, if its extension were not set against a background of cuts to services and the tightening of eligibility criteria and means-testing thresholds, which suggests that in the longer term, such payments are likely to prove inadequate to meet real need.
In any case, for anyone with modest savings the issue becomes academic because the introduction of "user charges" has replaced public provision altogether. It is a shock to people who have paid tax and national insurance all their lives to find care in their old age has already been privatised.
What's false and what's not
Sir: Bruce Anderson misunderstands Karl Popper's concept of falsifiability (17 December). For a hypothesis to be falsifiable doesn't mean it is likely to turn out to be false. It means one can specify possible empirical circumstances which would show it to be false, even if these circumstances are unlikely. This distinguishes a scientific hypothesis from a metaphysical or religious belief.
Mr Anderson's claim that some environmentalists have a religious rather than a scientific attitude would be supported by Popper's analysis if, for example, they continued to believe CO2 caused global warming even if a rise in CO2 were accompanied by a drop in global temperature. No doubt this is why scientists were warning of an impending ice age a few decades ago, when temperatures were dropping.
George MacDonald Ross
Mysteries of the milk prices
Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith (Opinion, 10 December) refers to my use of the phrase "stuck to the sides" in explaining why only some of the extra revenue promised by supermarkets actually reached the dairy farmers in 2002-03. I used this phrase as a shorthand explanation of a more complex process.
Defra, in its evidence to the House of Commons Environmental and Rural Affairs Committee early in 2004, estimated that an increase of 2p per litre in the supermarket price for liquid milk would result in an increase in the average farm-gate price of around .6p per litre. This was not due to "robbers" making off with part of the loot, or any other lurid explanation.
The Milk Development Council, on which none of the supermarkets is represented, has pointed out more than once that while the big dairies were required by the supermarkets to pass back the increase in full to the farmers, much of this got stuck in the "middle ground" of the supply chain.
That term covers independent and garage retailers and the dairies, bearing in mind that only about half of all liquid milk is supplied to consumers by the big four supermarkets.
In respect of the 2002 increases, both Defra and the MDC told the Committee that the bulk of the retail price increases had, in fact, been transmitted through to the farmers, although some got more than others. By what methodology the OFT came to a different conclusion is for them to explain.
Director General, British Retail Consortium, London SW1
Truth about police sickness toll
Sir: I was astonished at your article, "The police are a law unto themselves" (Comment, 14 December), in which the author appeared to pluck a figure from the air, asserting that a third of all police officers are "... permanently on the sick, due to 'stress', at any one time".
In fact, on average, only just more than 2 per cent of our 31,161 officers are off sick on any given day. This has been achieved in the Metropolitan Police by carefully crafting a package of welfare and occupational health measures to support our officers in what can often be a very unsettling and dangerous job.
Furthermore, only .2 per cent, of this absence and not the sensationalised 30 per cent, is due to psychological or deridingly labelled "stress" reasons. Given the context of officers working shifts and exposed to dangerous situations and personal injury, these figures compare favourably with the private sector.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner, London SW1
Low score for nurses
Sir: I was surprised by Brian Viner's suggestion that top footballers are so over-valued that they can earn as much as a dozen nurses ("Blame it on Rio", 22 December). I don't know how Mr Viner's local hospital is funded, but elsewhere in the country you would probably need the salaries of at least 200 nurses to match what Rio Ferdinand gets for kicking a football around.
Sir: The one key piece of information missing from your front-page article on slave labour in America (19 December) is that these migrant workers are in the US illegally, which is why they have no recourse to unions and are unable to lodge a protest about their wages and working conditions. Many harbouring these illegals are the ones paid by the illegals to smuggle them in, which is why they are in debt to them. If they were in the country legally, they would be in a much better position to achieve better working conditions and wages.
Desert Hills, Arizona, USA
Sir: It may be true that there are more practising Roman Catholics than Anglicans (report, 24 December). That does not mean that there are more practising Roman Catholics than Protestants. There are large numbers of people who attend those Protestant denominations which are not part of the established church. I am a Methodist and know that Baptists, Untied Reformed, Salvationist, Quaker, and numerous other Christians attend their places of worship regularly.
E Merrill Johns
Ban lazy parents
Sir: From January, France is under a smoking ban, also outlawing it in cars where there are young children. I would prefer to see a ban on parents driving their kids
to McDonald's. These lazy parents are firmly to blame for the train wreck we laughingly call a health service as they drain resources from those who have paid into it forever, and watch these kids grow into lumpy teenagers who will never be satisfied with their looks. The people of France know how to tell their government to take a hike. I wish them luck.
London, Ontario, Canada
Sir: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that sea levels might rise by 32ins this century. Now the journal Nature Geoscience doubles the estimate to 64ins. Such a rise would wipe out many major cities of the world, including London. If global warming does not merely continue to accelerate, but occurs with sudden flips, even higher levels will arrive even sooner. Will the Government now inform us what plans have been made for when it happens?
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