The horror of Norway

The most important thing after the Oslo bombings and Utoya shootings is our thoughts and prayers for those who lost their loved ones. Any loss is painful, this one is unimaginable, and one can only hope that our condolences provide some strength to those affected by this horror.

And the shock is deepened – if that is at all possible – by the motivation. After the news of the bombings, I too started wondering about Norway’s role in Afghanistan, and what an attack by extremists would do for the horrible political climate in Europe and beyond – we should not forget that we first thought of the outsider as responsible.This was simply unimaginable. We have seen buildings destroyed by those who disagreed with our governments. But we had not seen our children murdered, one by one, for an hour-and-a-half, simply because they were children engaged in a community activity.And previous murders were ‘senseless’ – this one, horrifyingly, was not.

Norway, and Europe, cannot be the same after this. It is our responsibility to the kids that were so horribly massacred, and to our own kids, that we realise the impact of the polarisation over the last ten years, and address this. Of course this was the work of one individual, but his unspeakable acts – as far as we now know – have been driven by the politics of Islamophobia and extremism that has consciously divided us in the west for the last ten years.

We all have a responsibility after this, one that the Norwegian Prime Minister pointed at that we now need ‘more democracy’. None of us understands or will ever understand how this happened, in Norway, or if it happened anywhere else. The leaders of the right wing parties across Europe now have a responsibility to engage, in the same way they have asked Muslim leaders to engage with the extremism in their midst. And those who have accepted – actively or passively – the rise of anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments in our midst have the responsibility to consider where this hateful rhetoric has contributed to and may lead to.

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global inequalities – what politics?

I found Andy Summers’ blog (http://www.globaldashboard.org/2011/07/01/what%E2%80%99s-really-happening-to-inequality/) very inspiring, and it provided an excellent overview on some recent work on inequality. He points out that inequality is ‘back on the agenda’ (though I never fully understand how it can not be on the agenda, and whose agenda this might be). One may be less optimistic about the importance of the inequality agenda than Andy is – in fact I think Ashwani Saith’s recent article in Development and Change rightly highlights that we seem to have gone back to business as usual after the post-2008 optimism – but this in no way ought or need to change our commitment to push it higher up the agenda, and the fact that inequality is coming down in a fair number of countries is reason to celebrate and basis to build on in the international debate.

Andy’s notes end with a thinking on the politics of inequality, and this in my view is also right, and needs much more thought (and include a better understanding of what ‘middle classes’ are, as their place in an income distribution is not necessarily the most important reason why they are a class and have certain political power). Social policies – including those that redistribute – are deeply political (of course, the same goes for economic policies). The creation of the welfare states in OECD countries have been political projects, of nation building, restoration after civil wars (Scandinavia), after wars (UK), responses to threats to stability (of the left, as for Bismarck), and are deeply inter-twined with democratic structures (eg the polder model in the Netherlands, now challenged by populism). As far as I know the best book on the long term history of welfare states (and why this is a ‘free lunch’) is Peter Lindert’s ‘Growing Public’, including the role that democracy (or voice) plays in balancing growth and the expansion of public spending.

Recent progressive politics in the South are equally political projects: Lula managed to redistribute while reassuring investors, NREGA in India was (part of) a the Congress- led Government’s response to perceived failures of the BJP (and of course, the classic employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra was an example of urban middle class support), and China’s leaders’ idea of harmonious society is as much a response to rising unrest as it is to growing inequalities.

Understanding the political nature of inequality is not an academic exercise (or at least not in the negative sense, of academic as practically irrelevant). The development debate needs to pay more attention – in my view – to politics, beyond the numbers and income distributions, so as to strengthen an understanding on how we can galvanize progressive political forces. In the current European climate, at least, this is urgently necessary!

Arjan de Haan

Supporting Inclusive Growth / Croissance pour tous, International Development Research Centre / Centre de recherches pour le développement international

Formerly at ISS The Hague: http://www.iss.nl/iss/profile/BA4592

The new IDRC programme Supporting Inclusive Growth supports research by Southern institutions that helps understand how we can support growth that is inclusive, and promotes job creation and entrepreneurship. http://publicwebsite.idrc.ca/EN/Programs/Social_and_Economic_Policy/Globalization_Growth_and_Poverty/Pages/NewsDetails.aspx?NewsID=275

Moving on, again …..

After two years in the Netherlands, and my city of birth, I am moving on, again, to Canada, the country my partner calls her home, and my kids will call their home very soon. The lines at customs and immigration were as long as anywhere, and the customs official a long way away from your image of the pleasant Canadian – but at the end she did wave us through pleasantly, and in Ottawa the west African taxi driver exclaimed – welcome to Ottawa (as the signs at all airports say, welcome to Canada).

I never thought my moves would be of any interest to anybody except those who are forced to put up with our unpredictable and uncoordinated moves – the friends whose houses we invade while waiting for our new house, and household goods to arrive. But this move has been an extra-ordinary one, as for the first time we felt pushed to move, by the awful anti-immigrant climate that has descended on the Netherlands and Europe more generally since the early 2000s. ‘9/11’, and the ‘two murders’ in the Netherlands, are no longer the leading themes, I feel, but have been superseded by a populism, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam to a sickening degree, of course, but is combined with a drive to re-invent a Dutch-ness that I recognise – having grown up in a village in the flower-growing polders – but never thought would become politicised.

The two years have not been wasted – though our financial investment there was – and I am starting this blog as a way to continue to engage with and share my thoughts about the fundamental global changes that are happening, at increasing speed since the financial crisis (which I witnessed, in awe, from Beijing). Europe’s position in the world is changing at phenomenal speed, and – ‘arguably’, or ‘hypothetically’, as academics would say – the populism that we witness is of course a reaction to this, understandably perhaps, but one which in itself has the potential to aggravate the downturn. Having moved across the Atlantic, I would feel even worse than I already do having left my family behind, if I didn’t at least try to make an effort to support progressive forces, of a Dutch internationalist and progressive tradition.