"Can drinking ever really be 'heroic'?" asks Terence Blacker (Opinion, 18 September) and suggests that when it comes to booze we are "in a muddled, befuddled state". I couldn't agree more.
During my three years at university I enjoyed more than my fair share of alcohol; on average I drank alcohol four nights a week, and this was the norm among fellow students. At university, socialising takes centre stage, and much of this happens in bars and at parties where the main activity is drinking, or games which challenge participants to drink lots in ludicrously short time-frames.
Now, at the tender age of 23, with university behind me, I have decided to give up alcohol. My reasons include the fact that it gives me headaches, spots and, as the magazines remind me, piles on the pounds. Furthermore, in this economic climate, working as an intern, I can barely afford to eat, never mind enjoy a tipple.
Cutting out alcohol has been a struggle, not because I don't have will-power, but because the majority of my friends make me feel like a leper for doing so.
"But why would you do that?" they ask indignantly, as if I'd just passed up the chance to become Jude Law's new nanny. I've given up trying to explain my motives, and if I'm honest I don't think I should even have to. I don't think anybody needs to talk about my sobriety at all, let alone make it the main topic of conversation.
Compared to drinkers, smokers look like angels to me. Never has a smoker asked if I'd like a cigarette, only to practically shove it down my throat when I refuse. Peer pressure has a profound effect on the youth of today and curbing binge drinking requires a serious look at who teenagers are influenced by... let's pray they admire Floyd for his cooking, not his wine sloshing.
British aid drives progress in Africa
Ian Birrell ("Why are repressive regimes given the succour of British aid?", 17 September) ignores the enormous progress many African countries have made, and the Department for International Development's role in supporting them.
To quote Mo Ibrahim, "effective aid has an important role to play in the quest for sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction." Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, argues that "Africa's turnaround is real, the evidence indisputable... effective aid has played an important role".
Over the past decade, UK aid has lifted 3 million people out of extreme poverty. We are also championing fairer trade with developing countries, removing trade barriers and investing in regional infrastructure.
Tackling corruption in Africa remains absolutely essential; DFID has strict procedures in place to protect taxpayers' money. For example, in Uganda, we helped to root out corruption in the public sector and eliminate 9,000 ghost workers from the government's accounts, saving some £12m. We have championed the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which helped to identify and recover $1bn in oil revenues in Nigeria – money which can now be spent on schools and hospitals.
Birrell claims that UK aid is propping up a corrupt government in Rwanda, but doesn't mention the vital role that British support has played in helping the country recover from the horrors of the 1994 genocide and make dramatic progress in reducing poverty. For example, between 2003 and 2006, 400,000 more children attended primary school.
Africans themselves are responsible for the progress their economies are making, but aid makes a vital contribution. Cutting aid would stall this progress and undermine peace and stability in countries that are struggling to become part of the global economy.
Minister of State for the Department for International Development, London SE1
Ian Birrell's article raises difficult practical as well as moral questions. In fragile states like Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia, it may be necessary to work with authoritarian governments to deliver economic aid to the poor. But improving human rights over the longer term should be a much more central part of the strategy than it is. Since 2005 UK development assistance to Ethiopia has more than doubled, but the human rights situation in Ethiopia has gone downhill. The UK has also been the most generous bilateral donor for Rwanda, at least since the end of the genocide. But rarely have we heard the British Government voice its disapproval as Rwandan authorities continue to exercise tight control over political space, civil society and the media. Past experience has shown that political repression in fragile states tends to lead to political crisis and armed conflict. This in turn threatens development gains. The UK therefore badly needs to find ways of linking its assistance to improvements in human rights.
Human Rights Watch, London N1
Ian Birrell's description of Rwanda "fighting a proxy war in the Congo" is a sign of an anything-goes-when-reporting-on-Africa attitude. The historic summit between Presidents Kabila of DRC and Kagame of Rwanda signalled both the recognition that the cause of instability in the region, i.e. the genocidal elements who fled Rwanda for Congo in 1994, had been mishandled for far too long; and the resolve of the two countries to live in peace and take advantage of common economic opportunities.
Complaints by human-rights groups on restrictions to free speech miss the point. They confuse the call to ethical and professional conduct in the media with censorship; in their view, Rwanda should leave alone publications that name rape victims, disobey court injunctions, and label their opinion fact. As for the BBC being taken off air, the broadcaster itself has acknowledged that more rigour is needed in their local-language programmes.
In the past 15 years, aid has fallen from 90 per cent of the national budget to under 50 per cent, and continues to fall. This can be attributed to strong, corruption-sensitive leadership. The economy has grown, poverty levels have dropped, food security been assured, and health and education boosted.
Finally, thanks to the accountability mechanisms built in to the partnership between their country and Rwanda, UK citizens can rest assured that their tax pounds are doing exactly what they were intended for – building viable institutions and supporting the elimination of poverty in Rwanda, and ensuring that at some point in the future, this aid should no longer be necessary.
Ambassador, Embassy of Rwanda,
Give support to small businesses
While there are promising signs that there may be light at the end of the economic tunnel, Labour has sadly failed on their promise to end "boom and bust". However, there are two policy reforms that could strengthen good, sustainable, business practice. Red tape is the bane of start-up and smaller businesses, which don't have the legal and accountancy facilities of the major players.
In 1995, Microsoft launched Windows 95. One feature it introduced was the "wizard". This provided a simple route for novice users; by limiting the choices available to common options, many people could achieve instant but usable results with almost no training.
Imagine if the government provided "business wizards" in the form of government advisers who took care of all the bureaucracy for the smaller enterprise, providing a free audit of issues such as health and safety, tax, trading standards, equal opportunities and insurance requirements. Feedback from these advisers would help County Hall, Westminster and Brussels pass simplified, more business-friendly laws.
Second, would it not be a good idea to change the voting system of public limited company meetings from one share per vote to an "electoral college" system, consisting of one vote per share plus one vote per shareholder? This would shift the balance of power in favour of long-term investors such as company staff, and those with an interest in the running of business. The involvement of more minds is always going to mean more brainpower.
A R Wainwright
Earth's burgeoning population
It is interesting that the correspondence on the issue of whether self-interest can save the planet has coincided with Rupert Cornwell's obituary of Professor Norman Borlaug (17 September).
After buying time for humanity by increasing crop yields, Borlaug admitted 20 years ago that the human species would destroy itself if the population continued to increase at its then rate. Well it has, and goes on doing so. Every environmental problem we face is made worse and harder to solve by rising populations; and this applies locally, nationally and worldwide. And what do governments and international organisations do about it? Almost nothing.
The EU has banned the production of tungsten filament lamps, but apparently not considered an EU-wide tax on aviation fuel which, at a stroke, would do far more to reduce carbon emissions. Self-interest of individual states has prevented the EU from forming a sensible fishing policy, and such limits as are enacted apply to the quantities of fish landed rather than what is caught. So one despairs of a major international initiative on anything to do with conservation; the human species, after destroying the fabulous cod stocks of the Grand Banks, is itself set on a course of self-destruction.
With a general election coming soon in this country, is it too much to expect one of the major parties to espouse the cause of population reduction and perhaps inform the electorate that continual economic growth must one day end?
Bill Linton (letter, 17 September) is right that we must all drastically cut our carbon emissions. However this is still only treating the symptom. The cause of climate change is the vast number of people in the world clamouring for finite resources. Unless we address population growth seriously, water and food shortages will inevitably lead to armed conflict.
Bringing people out of poverty is only one solution. Universal, free, easy access to birth control and abortion, banning fertility treatments and real encouragement to foster and adopt children are others.
Middle Handley, Sheffield
Bill Linton thinks that bringing people out of poverty will lead to a reduction in world population. My next-door neighbours certainly don't live in poverty and they have four children. The reason? Religion.
Gordon Brown has promised to cut "unnecessary programmes". Why, after he has been in power for 12 years, are there any unnecessary programmes left to cut?
P J Johnston
Ending the inequality over City bonus payments is easy ("Sexism in the city", 7 September). Reducing those paid to men down to the same level as those being paid to women would eliminate both the unfairness between the sexes and with the rest of society.
So Jon Cruddas is a militant (You ask the questions, 14 September). That definition has certainly changed a lot since my politically active days in the 1970s. A sign of how far to the right the so-called Labour Party has drifted.
Trouble at the top
Some of your correspondents (10 September) seem to believe that things will get better if we can just control the behaviour of the little people, discourage them from drinking alcohol at home, compel them to carry ID cards etc. What would really make a difference is if we could control the actions of the big people, and stop them taking the country into illegal wars, stop them gambling with the nation's wealth, or at the very least hold them to account once they have done so.
Mary Dejevsky worries about the jingoistic nature of Sarah Connolly dressing as Nelson to sing "Rule Britannia" on the Last Night of the Proms ("A diva in dangerous territory", 18 September). She fears that it might be part of a "malign shift in the national mood" as the irony and fun are lost from the occasion. She shouldn't. When Ms Connolly unleashed the Union Jack from her sword, as every schoolchild from the era of Empire would have noted, it was upside down. I suspect Britain won't be reclaiming the colonies any time soon.
All your correspondents are mistaken about time. I stand still, and time flows past me, whether I face forward or backward.
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