Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Malta Sociological Association is established

The Malta Sociological Association has been established as an independent, non-profit and non-commercial voluntary organization (VO/1322).
The Association promotes sociological research and contributes toward facilitating the cooperation of people working within the sociological field. It also aims at understanding and analysing social problems for the improvement of the quality of life. 
As a scientific, independent organisation, MSA has no religious, political or any other kind of affiliation. The Association may decide to affiliate with international sociological associations.

Its functions are: 
  • to encourage the exchange of social research findings by developing a network of individuals working within the field of sociology;  
  • to organise meetings, seminars and workshop sessions with the intention of facilitating the participation of members in the analysis of social research;  
  • to publish a regular newsletter, at least twice annually, e-mailed to all members to keep them informed of ongoing and planned activities; 
  • to promote the study of social research and the dissemination of the results; and
  • to act as a source of sociological outreach within the Maltese society.

The first executive committee of MSA comprises:
Chairperson: Valerie Visanich
Vice-Chairperson: Maria Brown
Secretary: Angele Deguara
Treasurer: Mariella Debono
 Public Relations Officer: Michael Briguglio
Membership Officer: Lina Caruana
                Events Administrator: Noel Agius 
Student Representative: Bridget Borg

Sociologists and/or other social scientists, that is, persons with a recognised qualification in the field of social science, as well as tertiary level students of sociology and/or other social sciences are eligible for membership. 

More information is available at www.maltasociologicalassociation.blogspot.com and at maltasociologicalassociation@gmail.com

Monday, December 19, 2016

Holidays in Aleppo

Appears as 'Holiday Time in Aleppo', Times of Malta 19 December 2016
“Aleppo’s people are being slaughtered. Did we learn nothing from Srebrenica?” This question was recently asked in the Guardian by Nedzad Avdic, a survivor of the latter genocide.
Avdic added that after the horrors in Srebrenica, there were promises of “never again”.
Unfortunately, this never again is happening again, as the world watches the Syrian tragedy. The civil war that began in 2011 has so far resulted in 500,000 deaths and millions of displaced people. Rockets, toxic gas, bombing, torture and summary executions are commonplace.
The United Nations has described the situation in Aleppo, the country’s second largest city, as a “complete meltdown of humanity”. The UN has reported that pro-Assad forces have entered homes and executed dozens of civilians.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke about atrocities on many civilians, and urged all sides, in particular the Syrian regime and its allies, including Russia, to protect civilians. The European Union, through its high representative Federica Mogherini has also spoken about “terrible reports from the ground” and endorsed Ban Ki-moon’s statement.
More importantly, Mogherini referred to international humanitarian and human rights law, saying that those who perpetrate war crimes will be held accountable.
In the meantime, various media outlets and non-governmental organisations are playing an essential role in sensitising the world to the situation in Syria. And in various instances, NGOs are also carrying out humanitarian work which is saving many lives.
One vociferous NGO is Amnesty International. The human rights organisation has been highlighting the Syrian government’s atrocities for quite some time. These include crimes against humanity such as enforced disappearance and torture. The latter was also recently highlighted by legendary cartoonist Ali Ferzat in his recent visit to Malta. His critical cartoons earned him terrible torture, forcing him to flee Syria to save his life.
War protestors who are so quick to organise peace protests against what they deem the ‘imperialist West’ are now conspicuous by their silence on Assad and Putin
Amnesty International is also reminding the world that Aleppo has been “flattened and transformed into a mass grave”, amid global inaction to stop the bombing of the city.
On the humanitarian front, International Medical Corps is providing primary health care, mental health care and psychosocial support, and is distributing critical supplies in Syria and neighbouring countries.
Another NGO, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has not been granted authorisation by Assad to work in Syria, but it is operating six health facilities to the north of the country and is giving active regular support to 70 medical structures within the country.
In the meantime, winter is coming in and millions of people are struggling to survive, without adequate shelter and humanitarian resources.
Needless, to say, many war refugees are forced to take difficult decisions as to where to try their luck to ensure survival. Some try crossing the sea, and not everyone makes it.
Yet once again, humanitarian non-governmental organisations are doing their utmost to assist such people.
This includes Malta’s own MOAS – Migrant Offshore Aid Station – which conducts search and rescue missions. Like other NGOs, MOAS depends on donations from the public.
Amid this tragedy, the Maltese government decided not to allow Russian warships fuel in Malta on their way to Syria. As Foreign Minister George Vella put it in a parliamentary intervention on October 27, Malta will not be party to the obscenities being committed in Aleppo.
Unfortunately, war protestors who are so quick to organise peace protests against what they deem as the ‘imperialist West’ are now conspicuous by their silence on Assad and Putin’s carpet bombing of civilians. And this also includes a veteran high priest of ‘pacifism’, namely Jeremy Corbyn of Britain’s Labour Party.
In the age of global networks we needn’t wait for selective ‘pacifists’ to show solidarity with the people of Syria. Each and every one of us can do his part to assist the millions of people who are witnessing horror on a daily basis by donating to the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) or the various NGOs who are assisting such people. Donations can easily be carried out online through the websites of such organisations.
This Christmas we can all stand up and be counted in our solidarity with the people of Syria.
To donate to UNHCR or humanitarian/human rights NGOs please click here for more information.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Please show your solidarity with migrants facing deportation

Signatures are being collected for a letter addressed to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Internal Affairs and National Security asking for the withdrawal of the announced deportation of a number of African migrants, most of whom had to an important extent integrated in Maltese society. 

The letter explains that the people designated for deportation have become members of and contributors to our communities. Deportation will therefore have negative ethical, social and economic effects not only on the deportees, but on Maltese society as a whole.

If you agree with the request please send an email to colin.calleja@um.edu.mt with your name and ID number. Organisations are also being asked to support this appeal.

The text of the letter reads as follows:

We request that the Prime Minister of Malta Hon Dr. Joseph Muscat and the Minister of Home Affairs and National Security Hon. Carmelo Abela withdraw the announced deportation of a number of African migrants, most of whom had to an important extent integrated in Maltese society. The people designated for deportation have become members of and contributors to our communities. Deportation will therefore have negative ethical, social and economic effects not only on the deportees, but on Maltese society as a whole.

We believe that a society that holds strong to democratic principles and inclusive ideals should never consider the deportation of people on the sole basis of legal irregularities. Not holding a permanent permit to reside in Malta did not prevent the people in question from contributing to our society and to establish relationships. To tear them out from the local communities to which they now belong is a violent assault on Maltese society.

The Maltese Government’s claim that a small country like Malta needs urgent help to survive the wave of immigration does not contradict potential efforts of the Maltese Government to offer hospitality to migrants who are already living in Maltese territory. Indeed, doing our best to host and protect people whose human rights are in peril gives credibility to Malta within the EU institutions. In contrast, deporting these individuals will inflict a loss of credibility on both the people and government of Malta.

As concerned people who have at heart both the wellbeing of any human individual and that of Maltese society, we urge the Maltese government to renounce the decision to deport these individuals. We are willing to collaborate with the Maltese authorities in finding more creative and inclusive solutions through which both the migrants and Maltese society will benefit. 

If you agree with the request please send an email to colin.calleja@um.edu.mt with your name and ID number. Organisations are also being asked to support this appeal.

An 'F' for local councils?

‘Local councils get an ‘F’ in accounting from NAO’, read a Times of Malta headline on December 5.  Have local councils really hit the pits?
Had this statement been made by certain state authorities that are embroiled in Malta’s governance deficit, I would have ignored them. But the National Audit Office happens to be one of the most upright and credible institutions in Malta, and I know Auditor General Charles Deguara to be a man of integrity.
Indeed, the NAO report on local councils’ performance in 2015 makes various claims which are very difficult to ignore.
For example, it transpires that the Vittoriosa, Kirkop, Mosta and Qrendi local councils accounts lacked documentation, were improperly recorded, missing key components and sometimes contained conflicting figures.  Effectively, this prohibited the NAO from analysing their performance. Surely, this is not something such local councils should be proud of.
Three other local councils – Valletta, Għaxaq and San Lawrenz, and the Gozo and northern regional committees were unable to provide audited financial statements by the original deadline.
The NAO also stated that around one-third of the 66 local councils had negative working capital and registered a deficit, which is similar to the situation in previous years.
The report also questions various expenditure line-items of different local councils.
While I have no doubt that the NAO is justified in making certain queries, I also think that the public should be made aware of pertinent characteristics and changes concerning local council finance.
For example, local councils spend quite some money on professional services for architects, accountants, lawyers, contract managers and the like, which are vital for smooth functioning. Similarly, increases in employees’ salaries are often justified by  statutory increases in the cost of living adjustment or by the engagement of new staff which, in turn is governed by public service procedures.
Councils effectively have no authority over wardens and make very little money from the system
Besides, some councils face costs which often have more to do with lack of civic pride. This includes vandalism and unruly waste disposal which tends to increase during the tourist season as well as damage to infrastructure by some contractors.
On a positive note, the NAO notes that central government has committed itself to follow up the issues raised in the report.
In the meantime, in October 2015 the wardens system was centralised under government control, with 10 per cent worth of contraventions paid at council premises being allocated to the respective councils. In my view, this is hurting councils doubly. Councils effectively have no authority over wardens and make very little money from the system.
At the same time, the total allocation for local councils has now increased to €45 million, an increase of €4 from the previous year. Yet, many councils are still underfunded when one considers their responsibilities; and various new council schemes are subject to government approval. This type of centralisation may increase councils’ accountability, but it can also result in temptations for favouritism and in too much power in the hands of ministers.
Another change concerns the national reform programme, which has national targets that are to be met by 2020. Regional committees and respective local councils are part of the plan in matters relating to economic, social and cultural policy, and plans have to be submitted by March 24, 2017.
I think that a change which is really needed to help improve council financial performance is more subsidiarity and decentralisation. In this regard, why shouldn’t councils be able to generate their own revenue on specific local needs such as non-residential parking and enforcement? A measure which can easily be carried out in this regard concerns the devolution of public car parks and other public properties.
The former remain under the remit of parkers employed by government, some of whom ask car drivers for ‘donations’ when parking. Wouldn’t it be better to have such money collected by councils and used for infrastructure, embellishment and other local needs?
Having increased local council responsibility for their revenue can help make them move away from dependency on ministerial decisions. Some councils might still mismanage their finance, but others may device novel ways of generating much needed funds to cover local needs. The public can then grade local councils and councilors in subsequent local elections.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The self-reflexive university

Times of Malta 5 December 2016
Last Tuesday, a symposium organised at the University of Malta discussed the ‘Post-Humanist University’.  At the risk of over simplifying the concept of post-humanism, I will try to explain its meaning.
It basically challenges the liberal idea of the human as an autonomous coherent individual who is in control through his choices. Instead the human being is conceptualised as being immersed within social contexts and relations.
Applied to the university context, some suggest that the latter are increasingly becoming bureaucratic factories of knowledge that measure output through business-like models.
During the symposium, Ivan Callus provoked the audience by asking whether autonomous ‘scholars’ are being transformed into ‘researchers’ who are subjected to structural requirements.
Here the researcher would need to justify his existence by continuously publishing peer-reviewed papers in reputable scholarly journals, especially those with high scholarly impact.
In turn, such journals may favour certain conventions over others, leaving little space for more creative approaches.
The researcher would also need to attract funding so as not to be considered a burden on taxpayers. Universities in countries such as Britain and the United States are increasingly adopting this model.
Paul Clough suggested that such processes can usurp precious time required for scholars to think and reflect. Quantity takes over at the expense of quality.
A more optimistic interpretation of the post-humanist university suggests that it may be operating in a context of new opportunities that were previously unavailable. For example, information technology can be an empowering tool which connects scholarly communities with other social fora.
Rather than having universities made up of specialists in silos, there may be cross-fertilisation of knowledge and increased social outreach. For example, literature and theatre can often express feelings which are difficult to express otherwise. Isn’t it great when the joys of such disciplines are shared with different communities within academia, the digital world and society at large?
Dogmas, methods and practices which may no longer be relevant need to be questioned and challenged
In this sense, James Corby suggested that the university may become a more accessible ‘multiversity’, thus breaking the barriers between ‘town and gown’.
Such arguments may sound abstract, but I believe that such provocations are vital for any self-respecting scholar.
Universities need to constantly update themselves by adapting to social change and by championing the production of knowledge and research.
Universities should also find a comfortable mix between their autonomy and their accountability to other stakeholders, including funders.  For different stakeholders, universities serve different purposes. For some, universities are champions of free thinking, for others universities need to produce employable workers.
I think that both perspectives are relevant in their own ways. They can also be reconciled. In a runaway world of constant change, being reflective, flexible and systematic in one’s way of thinking is a vital tool in our everyday opportunities, challenges and risks. Such skills are learned at university and can improve students’ employment potential.
I also believe that measurement of academics’ performance is very important to maintain standards, but this needn’t be reduced simply to hours of lecturing and publication of papers, important as they are. Other scholarly contributions such as social outreach could be given more consideration than is the case at present.
The measurement of academics’ performance should also be accompanied by more equitable employment conditions, especially in view of the growing global divide between full-time established academics and part-time researchers.
I think that the major contribution of the debate on the post-humanist university was that it provided an opportunity for self-reflection on the university experience today.
Such debates should really proliferate within the various university structures and disciplines. Dogmas, methods and practices which may no longer be relevant need to be questioned and challenged.
The continuous professional development of academics across the board and the introduction of novel techniques should be encouraged.
The debate also strengthened my view that different disciplines can and should learn from each other. To give one example, the sciences are essential for discoveries in the ‘real’ world. But the same sciences need the humanities to reflect on human principles, experiences and values ranging from ethics to inequality.
Philosophy, sociology, literary criticism are examples of reflective disciplines in this regard. And such disciplines are precisely debating concepts such as the post-humanist university.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Can we still dream of Europe?

(appears as 'Any dreams of Europe?' in Times of Malta 28 November 2016)
Picture by Max Henkell
As if the European Union is not experiencing its own share of crises, Donald Trump’s election as US President is underlining existential questions which have been troubling the European soul in these past recent years.
If Trump stays true to his word on foreign policy and globalisation, the EU has no choice but to alter its transatlantic view, which has been in place since World War II.
Let us keep in mind that Trump has raised questions on Nato’s role in Eastern Europe, has expressed sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin and does not seem much concerned about the catastrophe in Syria.
If Trump does not keep to his word on foreign policy, it is only because he seems to be unpredictable, for better or for worse. We can only wait and see.
Within the EU itself, the spectre of Trump seems to be haunting many electoral campaigns. On December 4, Austria might elect its first far-right President, Norbert Hofer, and on the same day Italy’s Matteo Renzi risks political demise if his proposed constitutional referendum is beaten. His main political adversaries include a mix of populists and far right demagogues, mainly Beppe Grillo of the 5-Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord.
In the near future, Denmark may experience snap elections, to the benefit of the far right People’s Party, and, on March 15, the controversial Geert Wilders may end up kingmaker in the Dutch general election.
The best is yet to come in France and Germany. Marine Le Pen seems increasingly likely to win the first round of French presidential elections next April and might only be kept off power if a grand coalition of other political parties keep her out. Then again, the likely winner, namely the Republican Party, will likely do its utmost to attract voters from Le Pen’s National Front.
Germany will have its general elections on August 27, and once again, the populist right may achieve a historic result through the Alternative for Germany Party. It is highly unlikely that they will be in some governing coalition though and some see Angela Merkel’s decision to contest for the fourth time as a blessing. The more progressive social democrats and greens have less support than Merkel’s Christian Democrats but as things stand at least one of them might well end up in some form of governing coalition.
Do we really want Europe to break apart, to move in a direction of competing nationalisms and populist divisiveness?
Could Merkel be the last (wo)man standing to defend the European dream? Surely, the EU, and Merkel herself, have made their fair share of mistakes in recent years but do we really want Europe to break apart, to move in a direction of competing nationalisms and populist divisiveness?
Let us keep in mind that the EU has made various achievements, including peace within its borders, progressive extension of rights and liberties, as well as relatively high investment in social security compared with other blocs around the world.
There were times when the EU has also worked with the US and also with other blocs from a position of strength and this includes areas such as climate change, competition policy and privacy.
Those forces who believe in the European dream and in realistic reform should move away from defensive defeatism. This includes a broad range of parties from different sides and colours within the political spectrum, which believe in dialogic democracy and who resist the absolutist and populist nationalism of both extremes.
Unless those who believe in the European dream are assertive and speak an evidence-based language, which is closer to people’s aspirations, everyday life, hopes and fears, the language game will keep being won by the populists who bank on simple solutions that are often not backed up by evidence.
In this regard, a political case for Europe should be expressed in concrete terms, and not in abstract language with limited appeal.
The EU should also move away from rigid policymaking and instead decide to adopt more flexibility within shared EU-wide goals. A positive example in this regard concerns the EU climate goals, where different countries have different goals within the general EU framework.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The very best in Europe

The Panama Papers scandal is the mother of all scandals. This is the opinion of Mark Anthony Sammut, a former Labour candidate who has just published L-Aqwa fl-Ewropa, a must-read for all those analysing Malta’s current political context.
Sammut, who also happens to be the son of one of Malta’s foremost novelists, the late Frans Sammut, writes in a very accessible way, with exceptional mastery in his use of the Maltese language.
He says the aim of the book is not to damage the current Labour government, but to provide a panoramic view of the Panama Papers in relation to Malta, to present facts and to interpret them.
The text gives concise explanations of terms which have featured prominently in the discussion on this scandal during the past months. These include offshore accounts, shell companies, intermediaries, nominee directors, trusts, and so forth.
As one would expect, the focus is on Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi and on the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri. Both are implied in Panama Papers and both have remained central figures in the Labour government’s power structure.
Sammut explains how Mizzi did his best to play with words on his involvement in the Panama Papers and on implications on his role as minister involved in various deals in the energy and health sectors. For example, Mizzi’s attempt to duck questions was very much the case in an interview with the Times of Malta journalist Jacob Borg.
Joseph Muscat is depicted as a magician who “grabs your attention through his left hand while performing a magic trick with his right”
As regards Schembri, Sammut interprets various potential and actual conflicts of interest, stating that these would be unacceptable in European democracies where good governance is taken seriously.
Indeed, Sammut refers to coincidences, deals, resignations and various facts which make it very difficult to ignore the political implications of Panama Papers. His text also reminds us how an audit – as promised by the Prime Minister and Mizzi - depends on an audit trail.  So far so good, save for the fact that the audit was never delivered. Not to mention that an audit trail becomes problematic when one is dealing with secretive jurisdictions and transactions.
The book features many quotes from public figures – including from the Labour camp – which are very revealing. Among those quoted, one finds Jason Micallef, Evarist Bartolo, Glenn Bedingfield, Leo Brincat, Godfrey Farrugia, Alfred Sant, Edward Scicluna and Desmond Zammit Marmarà.
‘New’ Labour stalwarts such as Alfred Sant and Evarist Bartolo were pretty clear in their negative opinion of Mizzi’s situation. Some others were less straightforward, but nevertheless very pertinent.
For example, in his article in the Times of Malta of October 11, Zammit Marmarà wrote that “it is more than obvious that when your primary aim as a politician is to attain high public office and become rich at the same time, you are bound to start from day one with a conflict of interest”.
It would be very difficult to believe that Zammit Marmara was excluding Malta from the equation.
The final chapter of Sammut’s book is less factual and more speculative. Here, Sammut presents a philosophical argument that the Labour government has taken a neoliberal direction away from its social democratic roots. Joseph Muscat is depicted as a magician who “grabs your attention through his left hand while performing a magic trick with his right”.
Consequently, Sammut argues that post-liberalism is the way forward for socialism. The book’s appendix then includes a short essay by Adrian Pabst who advocates “a politics committed to family, decent work, a fair return for workers, contribution, duties linked to rights, and love of one’s country”, which “can be a majoritarian politics of the left”.
Perhaps the last chapter is the least convincing chapter in what otherwise is an excellent read. Not because of the Labour government’s deficit in good governance, but because in actual fact, good or bad governance are not monopolised by one political ideology.
For example Sweden, Germany and Britain are three European countries that have different political traditions, but all  three currently receive high scores in governance indicators.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dissecting Trump's victory

Times of Malta 14 November 2016
Most social-scientific polls were predicting a victory for Hillary Clinton. Yet Donald Trump won and will now be the 45th president of the United States.
This is not the first time that such polls went wrong or that historic moments were not predicted. It was not a survey that explained the collapse of the Soviet Union, and few would have predicted that Libya and Tunisia would witness dramatic changes in the recent past.
Along the lines of the rising narrative of the insular populist right, the Brexit referendum was another case in point.
This is not to say that surveys or predictions should be confined to the dustbin of analysis. The subject matter of social science comprises the complexities of possibilities of human behaviour which can be analysed through various research methods, yet which are very difficult to reduce to simple predictions. Rationality, reflexivity, social influence and emotions are all entangled in the web of society. And various analyses are wiser ‘after the event’.
Society also comprises patterns. In the case of Donald Trump’s victory, it was clear that he was the preferred choice of white working-class voters, especially if they formed part of the older age cohorts. On the other hand, Clinton underperformed among respective middle-class, black and Hispanic voters especially in key battleground states. Clinton was favoured among voters under 40 years of age, but a considerable amount of such voters (around eight/nine per cent) chose small parties.
Various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself
Trump’s victory seems to follow the wave of populist successes around the world. Social theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have written volumes about this type of strategy. It comprises a charismatic form of leadership which speaks an accessible language that has broad appeal across the social spectrum.  This discourse attempts to unite a broad ‘us’ against a ‘them’, thus constructing a strong sense of identity. A diverse spectrum of politicians including Chavez, Tsipras, Orban and Farage exemplified such strategies in different electoral campaigns.
In the case of Trump, the ‘them’ comprised of his views on Mexicans, Muslims, the ‘establishment’, the climate change ‘Chinese conspiracy’, the ‘rigged’ media, and others who were depicted as a ‘threat’ to the ‘American’ way of life. His language and behaviour were politically incorrect, yet he was seen by many as being more authentic than his challenger in tackling issues dividing the nation such as economic inequality and migration. Within this strategy, Clinton’s depiction as ‘the establishment’ was more appealing than her own narrative of experience, safe hands and liberal values.
Yet, electoral victories represent just one dimension of successful statesmanship. It has to be seen whether Trump will actually carry out what he promised. This includes the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, the vetting or temporary banning of Muslims from entering the country, the deporting of undocumented migrants, and the removal of the Obamacare reforms. He has also promised a range of other changes as from his first days in office.
I would suggest that the real world of policymaking cannot be reduced to one person’s rhetoric, even if he happens to be President of the United States. Proposals interact with a complex web of networks, interests, influence, personalities, ideas, resources, force majeures and unpredicted consequences. And the United States happens to have one of the most established systems of checks and balances in the world, thus often resulting in a long process of negotiations before policies are implemented.
Will fellow Republicans simply rubberstamp all his proposals within his cabinet, senate and congress? I am not so sure. Indeed, various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Democrats are likely to their best to defend the Obama legacy. They might even move to the left by exploiting a window of opportunity for left populism à la Bernie Sanders.
As the US is entering unchartered territory, the world is watching. From a European cosmopolitan perspective, I feel that the EU has a massive responsibility to defend and promote the values of pluralism, tolerance, solidarity and sustainability.