Sunday, July 16, 2006

The meaning of money

There is something about money I do not get. I understand bartering. Two people exchange things that have roughly equal value. But modern money as a concept makes little sense. Milton Friedman, in Money Mischief, writes that money, as we know it, has no intrinsic value and what gives it value is that it is used for exchange. He goes on to say that the value is what we attribute to it, and all money is ‘credit’ money, a contractual IOU for an incomplete exchange. As Aristotle said, the value of money is “derived not from nature, but from law”.

So money is made by the meaning we give it yet, at the same time, it apparently makes the world go around. If you do not have it, your life can be miserable. Nevertheless, money or, to be precise, currency, which is the physical embodiment of the idea of money, cannot buy happiness – only a new iPod or a fridge. But the more money one is talking about the less concrete the notion gets. Bill Gates, for example, is apparently worth $27-billion, but he does not have $27-billion dollars in the same way a person has 1 000 cattle.

He is a rich man with jets and houses but, mainly, he has more IOUs than the rest of us. His bank does not have a vault with $27- billion crisp $100 bills in it, ready for Bill to dive into whenever the urge takes him.

Governments have enormous amounts of unseen money. At a government level, finance is based on promises and IOUs. It is about shuffling budgets of virtual money and meeting obligations. These obligations boil down to where they want to commit make- believe dosh. These choices can have tragic and visible consequences.

Money means different things to different people. I recall working with a community group in South Africa and discussing a grant to support people around the truth commission. One community member commented: “We have been thinking that we don’t want to use the money for that – rather, we want to share the grant out between us.” The group would have preferred an instant R500 each rather than a long-term, less tangible benefit. Money as a thing, or at least the objects R500 could buy when you are poor, was more important. The man had a point, but the donor would have seen it differently. Donor and grantee had conflicting desired outcomes. But what determines these outcomes? Who controls these fantasy purse strings? A recent report in the UK claimed that lack of resources in the security services led to the London bombings last year. But at the same time the country spends £3-billion a year on the occupation of Iraq. The US government finds $100-billion a year for its Iraq folly. When the amounts of money get this astronomical, the meaning of the money becomes even more ephemeral. The only way to make sense of it is to break figures down into numbers we think we can compute. My calculations go like this: the UK and US governments are spending roughly $110-billion a year in Iraq. This is five times the gross domestic product (GDP) of Mozambique and is the equivalent of about 20% of the annual GDP of South Africa.

But even more staggering is that the money invested in making this war is more than the Iraqi GDP, estimated at $97-billion in 2005. Does this incredible statistic make sense to anyone? I once met a businessperson who told me he owed his bank half a million pounds, or R5-million. I remember thinking he was the only person I knew who was rich enough to be half a million pounds in debt. Does that make sense to anyone? Answers on a postcard, please.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 May 2006.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Toolkit: Gender, Conflict Transformation & the Psychosocial Approach

In May 2006 David Becker and Barbara Weyermann from the Office of Psychosocial Issues or OPSI, a group I helped co-found and am a consultant to, completed the Toolkit: Gender, Conflict Transformation & the Psychosocial Approach. This was a major project undertaken for the Swiss Development Corporation. In developing the toolkit it was acknowledged that the literature on the issue of trauma is extensive, but at the same time is confusing and contradictory, and that a brief introduction into the subject matter of psychosocial work in the context of international cooperation does not yet exist. This toolkit aims to bridge that gap. It explains to both the staff of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) at the central office and the co-ordination offices and to the partner organisations how relevant the psychosocial way of thinking is for work in conflict and post-conflict areas. It also shows how regular development and relief activities can be adjusted in order to support the emotional and social recovery of the population. The toolkit does not, however, intend to replace psychological textbooks or manuals on gender and conflict transformation, or different areas and sectors of intervention, from HIV/AIDS to water and sanitation, but aims to convey a way of thinking and make suggestions as to how it can be put into practice. To read more about the toolkit and download it either in German or English, click here.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Ideas for a Museum to the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland

WANTED: IDEAS ON A MUSEUM TO THE CONFLICT IN AND ABOUT NORTHERN IRELAND

Healing Through Remembering (HTR) has issued an Open Call for Ideas on what form a Living Memorial Museum to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland should take – and as part of the project there will be a 7 public art-based workshops across Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.

The LMM sub group are looking for a range of imaginative ideas and want to hear from adults and children alike.

There are plenty of options to think about. Should a museum be in a new building or an existing one? Should it be in one building or should it tour a number of places and sites? Maybe it shouldn’t be a building at all - maybe a virtual space on the internet or something organic like a forest.

Submissions to the Open Call for Ideas can be written, be a photograph, a drawing, a sketch or a painting. Photographs of models are also welcome, but at this stage not models themselves because of a limit on display space. Multi-media submissions such as DVDs or CD-ROMs are also welcome.

The public workshops will include information about HTR and its work, and artists will be there to help people create their vision of the museum – this can include various art forms, visual and written.

Workshop dates and venues as follows:

18 Jul, The Clinton Centre, Enniskillen 2-5pm
28 Jul, The Border Arts Centre, Dundalk 11am-2pm
8 Aug, Imperial War Museum, London 2-5pm
12 Aug, St. Patrick's Trian, Armagh 11am-2pm
24 Aug, Irish Film Institute,Dublin 2-5pm
7 Sept, Waterfront Hall, Belfast 2-5pm
16Sept, The Junction, Derry/LondonDerry 11am-2pm

As spaces at the workshops are limited early booking is advised. Places can be reserved by emailing callforideas@healingthroughremembering.org or calling +44 (0)28 9023 8844. Full information on the Open Call for Ideas may be obtained from the project organiser, Emma McClintock, at Healing Through Remembering, Alexander House, 17A Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HD. T: 028 9023 8844.

HTR has been supported in the project by The Border Arts Centre, the Imperial War Museum London, the University of Ulster and Interface, the university’s Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design.

The closing date for receipt of submissions is 30 September 2006.

A selection of the submissions received will be chosen to form an exhibition in late 2006/early 2007.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

And now for the good news...

I am not one to complain (well, not too much), but writing this column can be depressing. This is because it demands a constant vigilance of the news, and newspapers are gloomy. The adage that bad news sells is true. So I was delighted to stumble across the website South Africa: The Good News. The site is dedicated to highlighting good-news stories and is littered with helpful headings, such as ‘Good-news crime stories’. This section, which cheered me up by its mere paradoxical title, highlights areas in which crime has decreased. Overall, the site features stories written from a positive perspective. For example, one article, in the spirit of seeing the glass half-full, points out that South Africa is considered the third-least corrupt country in Africa. Now, is that not a better way of talking about corruption than saying that South Africa is 46th in the world on a corruption-perception index, or asking why we are not the least-corrupt country in Africa? The site also got me thinking about statistics and how they have become little tools of terror rather than ways of quelling fears. We have all become accustomed to hearing statistics being used to highlight things to worry about, even though most of the time we have no idea what statistics really mean. The media, food manufacturers and scientists bombard us with them all the time, usually to scare us into buying something.

For example, according to the National Safety Council, you have a 1 in 22-million chance of dying from the melting of your nightwear, but only a 1 in 95-million chance of dying of a snake bite in the US. So, realistically, the chances of being fried alive in your pyjamas are slim and the chances of being bitten by a deadly snake even more remote. Even so, I suspect that someone in the world is rushing out to buy flame-retardant pyjamas and knee-high snake-proof boots just to be sure.

Sadly, pessimism is everywhere. Psychologist Martin Seligman has criticised academia by noting that, in the last three decades, journals published 46 000 psychological papers on depression and only 400 on joy. Optimism has little hope of flourishing in a world where disasters are the lifeblood of the media. This is exemplified by the BBC’s recent decision to describe headline news items each day as their ‘top stories’. The ‘top stories’ caption appears in red letters at the bottom of the screen, lest there be any doubt that bombings, starvation, civil unrest and political repression are anything less than ‘top’. Peter Ustinov said that the point of living and of being an optimist is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come. This discouraging view of optimism dominates the planet, even though, according to some experts, optimism is good for you. Vatche Bertekian, a stress-management specialist, notes that optimism increases your immune system’s ability to fight off diseases.

If you need help, you can even hire, through feedyouroptimism.com, speakers referred to as ‘professional optimists’ to cheer you up and show you the optimistic way to health and happiness.

Then again, optimists, according to some psychologists, are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, as they always expect things to work out for the better. In other words, you might be so carefree and unfazed by the consequences of your actions that you end up driving too fast, wrapping your car around a tree, thereby bringing your happy little world to a premature end.

It seems you just can’t win. Pessimism is too depressing, and optimism’s apparent health benefits are offset by its tendency to make us a little too laid back about danger. So remember the words of British comedian Bill Bailey next time someone asks you if you are an optimist – just answer: “I hope so!”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 May 2006.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Toolkit: The Psychosocial Approach

In May 2006 OPSI completed the Toolkit: Gender, Conflict Transformation & the Psychosocial Approach. This was a major project undertaken for the Swiss Development Corporation. In developing the toolkit it was acknowledged that the literature on the issue of trauma is extensive, but at the same time is confusing and contradictory, and that a brief introduction into the subject matter of psychosocial work in the context of international cooperation does not yet exist. This toolkit aims to bridge that gap. It explains to both the staff of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) at the central office and the co-ordination offices and to the partner organisations how relevant the psychosocial way of thinking is for work in conflict and post-conflict areas. It also shows how regular development and relief activities can be adjusted in order to support the emotional and social recovery of the population. The toolkit does not, however, intend to replace psychological textbooks or manuals on gender and conflict transformation, or different areas and sectors of intervention, from HIV/AIDS to water and sanitation, but aims to convey a way of thinking and make suggestions as to how it can be put into practice. To read more about the toolkit and download it either in German or English, click here.