Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Calm down!

I just have to make a further comment on Evo Morales' likely installation as president. For once Bolivia is getting attention on the news in the UK. No doubt this is all due to the uniqueness of his indigenous background as well as the general trend towards the Left in the region. There's vene been some (limited) circulation among Latin American leftists here in the UK commemorating this victory.

But I wouldn't get too carried away. Having an indigenous leader win an election is one thing; seeing them govern in a way that benefits ordinary people is another. History is littered with examples of Latin American politicians who said one thing and did another. Lest we forget: Fujimori (unique in being from the overlooked immigrant Japanese community), Toledo (whose indigenous roots belie his low ratings and ineffectual policies in Peru), Chavez (is he really of the Left or is this just a pitch?), Lula and the Chilean Concertacion (moderates all and following the economic policies of their predecessors).

There: I've vented my spleen. Rather than get excited about this supposed shift to the Left I'm going to wait and see - and deliver my verdict in a year's time when Morales has completed 12 months in office.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Change or no change?

So Evo Marles appears to be cruising to victory in the Bolivian presidential election. It's all shaping up to be an interesting result, especially as he's supposedly promised to legalise coca, the raw product for cocaine. I wonder whether that will land him a terrorist label from the US?

No doubt what will happen is once he's in he'll end up disappointing his voters, a la Lula. Racialness goes down a treat while on the stump, but once they're in office it's amazing how quickly they become 'responsible' reformers. For example, expect some procrastincation over the controversial gas pipeline (which did for the past two presidents) before it's finally given the go-ahead.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Deafening silence

Just a quick observation: there's three Lib Dem MPs who blog, and not one of them has seen to fit to give a 'view from the inside' regarding the Kennedy leadership issue.

The BBC was plugging away the challenge that Kennedy was going to face at the Parliamentary Party meeting yesterday, but not one of the three has given an account of what went on.

So come, on: let's hear how Kennedy made his stand!
Cinematic criticism

Caught the latest Brazilian film to hit these shores the day before yesterday. Down at the Barbican Cidade Baixa was playing and a friend and I went to see it. With less than 20 of us in the cinema, you might be able to tell it wasn't all that popular.

The film's set in Salvador, although the camerawork could have had it set anywhere really. One of the producers is Walter Salles (he of The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station fame) and one of the actors broke through with City of God.

The story's not all that original: two boys, friends since childhood, meet a girl. She's a prostitute and dancer. They offer her a lift on their boat to Salvador in exchange for 'benefits'. A fight breaks out in Cachoeira on the way to the coast, one of the boys nearly dying and bringing the three all closer together. Cue sexual jealousy between the two and a girl who realises she's caught in the middle.

It's a story that's been told before. Yes, there was some tension, but the film really could have done with some more editing. I found myself drifting off at times; it just wasn't engaging enough. Did I care about the characters? Well, maybe a bit, but not enough.

The problem with Brazilian (and Latin American) cinema is that it's becoming harder to live up to the hype. The renaissance in cinema over the past decade means that although more films are being made - and shown here - they aren't necessarily the cream of the crop any more. Whereas films like City of God, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Amores Perros, Central Station, etc have all been acclaimed (and rightly so), they were big productions among a small pool being produced. But as the number of films increases, the law of averages seems to dictate that the quality goes down a little.

Perhaps that's no bad thing though. After all, not everything coming out of Hollywood is worth the money spent. But it does mean a broad range of material, to cater for all tastes. Maybe that's what we're starting to see with contemporary Latin American cinema - although I'm sure there are some who will lament the situation.
Lib Dem spin? Shurely shome mishtake...

Yes, there have been mutterings about Charles Kennedy's performance, stretching back over the past few years. That's nothing new. But what I find ridicuolous is the complete headless chicken routine of those briefing against him. David Cameron has barely been Tory leader for a week and a poll shows that he has jumped into the lead (a temporary blip and probably more reflective of the media attention he's been getting than anything else) and suddenly the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party is circling the wagons.

There have always been those who'll do anything to unseat Kennedy and this is the perfect opportunity. But it doesn't make the party look particularly mature of strong in character if it starts fluttering about because it's been overlooked over the past few weeks.

Of course, there's also the cynical side in me which wonders whether this might actually be a media ploy by the press office to get the party back into public attention. You can talk all you want about policies, but what really turns journalists on is personality - and you can't get more personal than a leadership election. Or at least talk of it. If you don't believe me, have a look at the press at the moment: Cameron's off the pages and the Lib Dems - unbelievably - are getting top billing on the news programmes. Not to mention several spokespeople on the radio and TV than they usually ever get (Lembit Opik, David Rendel and Simon Hughes all in the last two days).

Perhaps we should make talk of Kennedy's leadership skills an issue every three months, but not do anything about it. Seems to me there's more media coverage and mileage there than in anything that we in the Research Centre (when I was working there) ever achieved.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Worth listening to?

OK, it can come out now. Hopefully it's still accessible, but on the Today programme there's a debate entitled Christmas poll in which some of my research contributed to the discussion. Last week I spent quite a bit of time digging around to give Noreena Hertz some material relating to anti-corruption rules in her contribution.

It's a shame she wasn't able to go into more detail (and believe me, I did!), but amazing to think that in one day of work for her I've got my findings onto a broadcast show whereas in two years in Parliament I never got anywhere this close!
The morning after the weekend before

Ah, the bliss that follows the Monday morning after the end of term: no seminars to attend, empty libraries and no distractions - and most importantly, free computers everywhere.

This is the time to get stuck into writing the first chapter of a PhD. If only university life was always this.

No doubt I'll rpocrastinate, but if I fall off the radar over the next few weeks, there's a reason!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mistake of an evening?

Yesterday I attended a Radio 4 debate in the Old Theatre in which James Bartholomew put forward his argument that the welfare state was a mistake. He was challenged by a panel of four, including Professor Nicholas Barr, Ed Davey MP, Professor Pat Thane and the Kings Fund director, Neil Dickson. The BBC's economics correspondent, Evan Davis, chaired it.

It was scrappy and weak, with statistics being the main form of contention. Nicholas Barr did make a few good points criticising Bartholomew's position in terms of the concept and logic of the welfare state, while Pat Thane offered some historical insight into mutual societies in the late nineteenth century and their lack of coverage.

But I'm afraid that the whole critique was lost to me from the outset. Bartholomew started with figures showing the UK's cancer rates and education figures were below those of France and Germany, using this as evidence that the welfare state was a mistake. Last time I checked though, France and Germany had welfare states too.

Then Ed Davey asked the question of how he could account for rising life expectancy in the absence of a welfare state. Bartholomew refused to accept that argument; when challenged to compare Europe with sub-Saharan Africa he lamely said that he was concerned with comparable countries - yes, those with welfare states.

Little wonder then that two-thirds of the audience disagreed with his thesis.
Teaching the parents?

Back in the LSE after two days away at my other weekly - but paid - commitments. Tuesday was the last Latin American research seminar at which Georgraphy's Anita Shrader presented her work with parent education post-war Guatemala. Her argument was to say that abuse in the family is mirrored by abuse by the state on its citizens. Breaking this cycle requires working with families to educate them not to resort to physical discipline when authority is challenged.

This was work she had been doing with World Vision prior to studying here at the LSE (I think - I cam in a little late). The starting point was to state clearly that she and the NGO concerned are opposed to the use of corporal punishment and the purpose of the workshops is to change that behaviour. My query about that though was the extent to which the reported success of this project was due in part to the self-selection of families who were already more inclined towards changing their behaviour. Anita argued that was the case, but there was also a change in the way those who had taken part on the course were now seeking to influence others in their community.

Anite finished off by saying that the project had moved on to the point where the families were now starting to examine the past and the atrocities of the civil war. She admitted feeling uncomfortable about that, but having opened the bottle of community participation, they could hardly expect to limit their deliberations - and they have to take responsibility for that.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Scrutiny and sport...

Well, it wasn't as bad as I feared. The meeting with the supervisor went well and helped clarify a few things - as well as sharpening up my proposed area of investigation. So I'm feeling pleased. Now I just have to rewrite my outline - more for myself than anything else - as well as make a start on a first chapter, which I will be assessed on at the end of the academic year (one of the LSE requirements).

I failed to mention another seminar I attended at the end of last week. Last Thursday, David Goldblatt was presenting one of his chapters from his forthcoming book (next September) on football. In particular he read us a chapter that dealt with the development of Latin American football in the context of contemporary globalisation. He was mainly concerned with the situation in Argentina and Brazil, but reference was made to other parts of the region in the question and answer session. I was quite interested to hear whether there has been any change in Venezuela since Chavez's new government-sponsored TV station; is football being shown more now, in comparison to the national sport of baseball which, I presume, predominates on the private TV stations?

The chapter is from a book that Goldblatt is publishing on world football, but it's going to miss the World Cup fever period. Not that he's fussed. Over a beer afterwards he told me that he's still got some work to do on it and he wants the volume to last, rather than have it only half-finished by the time the World Cup opens next summer.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Three visits

Today will be the third time I've caught up with my supervisor this term. We're going to be discussing my thesis outline I sent through to him last week. I'm a little bit worried about it - I'm sure that there are plenty of holes in it and issues that I haven't thought about in enough detail; perhaps it may even be overly ambitious or not insightful or challenging enough?

Anyway, this time tomorrow at least I'll have had some input and I'll be preparing myself for a Christmas spent trying to put a first chapter together. I'll be presenting that to colleagues at the end of January.

Lucky me.
Two films

Caught two films this weekend: one good, the other not so good.

The latter was Kingdom of Heaven, which was a slightly overly long, tedious account of a blacksmith-turned-knight who finds himself amid the battles around the walls of Crusader Jerusalem. I found the angle taken a little dubious to say the least: tolerant Europeans managing a multicultural Jersalem in which all three faiths - Islam, Christianity and Judaism - could be freely practiced. Perhaps someone will point out to me that there was a period when this happened, although I seem to recall it was under Muslim rule that Christianity was allowed to be practiced rather than the other way around. And that's before I get started on the secular message that the main character (Orlando Bloom) seemed to be propagating.

But apart from that the battle scenes were alright; which was the main reason I wanted to watch it, since the director, Ridley Scott had done quite a good job with Gladiator a few years ago.

Crash was different in tone, but very stimulating. There was some uncomfortable laughter at some of the scenes and others that were excruciating to watch. It was extremely thoughtful, but did it challenge my prejudices? OK, some of the characters I was surprised by, but others you felt were being presented in a rather sledgehammer fashion. Still, it's well worth catching and definitely one of the more thoughtful films I've watched in the last few months.
Two paths

John Gray was the last of the permanent teaching staff to present at our first year Government department seminar. Rather than outline a political project of his own (which I was told afterwards he probably wouldn't agree with), he outlined the two main approaches that liberal theory can be studied: either in a historical context (whereby each contribution to the liberal cannon must be understood within the specific context of the time) or in an ahitsorical, analytical way (i.e. looking at the theory on its own merits). There are challenges presented through both and reflect a trade-off between the two.

Although I'm no political theorist, I'd say that these tensions exist in political science as well. You can have the most perfect theory imaginable, but it needs to be tested against historical cases. Likewise, history on its own is descriptive, but doesn't offer any theory or pattern; instead it's just a story.

Not that this observation, either by me or Gray, is profound. But it's worth reminding ourselves about this from time to time.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Seminar round-ups

There's been a few seminars this week that I've been attending. On Monday our regular first year seminar concerned research that's going on in the Department regarding the establishment of core executives in Eastern European countries after transition. The emphasis was placed on identifying the independent variables, holding them constant and seeing what the outcome (dependent variable) was.

It was pointed out that in taking this approach the team had followed the 'Golden Rule' of choosing the independent variable as opposed to the dependent variable. This made for uncomfortable listening, as I had just submitted a thesis outline (that I spent all weekend writing) to my supervisor which was the complete opposite. Bugger. Not happy about that. I'm almost dreading my meeting with him next week...

Tuesday's Latin American seminar was on the development of the Brazilian economy between the 1940s and 1980s by one of the Economic History Department students, Nicholas Grinberg. 'm afraid I didn't follow a lot of it, partly because I didn't have time to read his paper, but also because of the highly technical nature and use of economic terms which I didn't follow. So I'm afraid I can't add anything useful to it. Sorry.

Finally, I've just come out of Mario Arriagada's presentation on spending by Catholic NGOs. This was interesting, with some quantitative work done concerning an Irish NGO's expenditure in Africa. Mario pointed out that apparently Catholic NGOs don't spend according to proportion of souls in a country, but rather for secular concerns, including whether their bishops have a strong role in the country and are active in political development (he was looking at Africa in particular). John Siedel, the convenor, raised some interesting questions, including whether it would make a difference if Jesuits run the spending show and whether Protestant NGOs operate in a different way to Catholic ones - i.e. in a more religious way, and whether the small denominations have a more market-oriented approach than the established Anglican and relatively monopolistic Catholic churches.