Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why I support the petition for assisted death in Malta

The wife of a man suffering from ALS, a degenerative disease that leads those affected by it to become paralysed, yesterday launched a petition calling on Maltese members of parliament to adopt legislation on assisted death.

Marlene Magro said she was launching the petition on behalf of her husband Joe, when made his case for the introduction of euthanasia to Parliament's Family Affairs committee some days ago.

“Joe always insists with us that should this law not be introduced before he ends up in such a terrible state he will have no choice but to commit suicide…With the introduction of a law on assisted death, Joe will be able to live peacefully for a while longer,” she said.

My view on this matter is that rights, responsibilities and ethics are equivalent for the person's wellbeing. 

I am against an industry of death but I am for a person's dignity and care. I empathize with persons in this situation and agree with the proposal, as long as the person's will is always respected. 

Parliament should discuss in a sober manner. Evidence-based policy making requires proper research, proper consultation, proper dialogue between different views and sensible compromise where possible. 

Dialogic democracy should neither ignore nor trivialize such issues for reasons such as partisan convenience.

The petition can be signed here:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Pokemon? What does it mean to me.... Well I never played it, so my opinion is that of one who interacts with the game as an outsider. An outsider who reads about it, sees lonely wanderers possibly searching for Pikachiu, groups of people enthusiastically involved in Pokemon rituals, and friends telling me how lovely (or useless) the game is. So here's my two pence. 

On the one hand, Pokemon can be seen as  the latest example of the interaction between social media and one's construction of self-identity through fluid communities. This time it takes pace through the playing of a game with nostalgic features and which incorporates physical interaction with other persons. The divide between the digital and the physical is becoming increasingly blurred. 

On the other hand, Pokemon is an other example of how people of different ages sign up to online seduction, seeing it as a fact of life, and jealously defending it against the invaders  who raise questions on matters such as surveillance, time-wasting and distraction from bread-and-butter issues around us. 

An interesting question which can  only be answered in the future is whether pokemon wanderers represent a temporary fad, or whether will they become permanent pedestrians, possibly with the introduction of other such digital-physical gaming possibilities. 

Pokemon is ultimately what we make it out to be in our everyday life. Personally, I think that the most useful usage of its symbols was when Syrian children used Pikachiu to remind us that they (the children) really exist, in a real world of war and migrants dying at sea.

Extracts of this opinion feature in Malta Today 27 July 2016

Monday, July 25, 2016

Social determinants of Brexit

What will the impacts of Brexit be? At this early stage, one can only guess what is likely to happen given that there are many possibilities.
Britain may end up losing considerable influence at European and global levels and may experience negative economic and social ramifications. It may find itself relatively powerless in delivering what was promised by the Brexiteers before the referendum, especially when other countries like Switzerland and Norway would be jealously watching its negotiations with the EU.
On the other hand, it may find itself relatively flexible to negotiate deals to its economic benefit. The depreciation of the sterling may also lead to improved competitiveness of exports. Certain sectors may benefit from Brexit while others could well face negative impacts. Indeed, impacts are hardly ever monolithic but tend to be uneven, plural and multi-directional.
There may also be unintended consequences of Brexit, such as the break-up of Britain itself, and a change of political fortunes for mainstream political parties. There is also the possibility that Article 50 will never be set in motion, thus postponing Brexit for an indefinite period.
At this stage, I believe it is imperative to analyse what led to Brexit because this may provide important lessons for political parties, policymakers and scholars. A sober analysis of Brexit may also be of benefit for a more sustainable European Union.
Britain was characterised by clear politcal divides. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London were very much in favour of remaining in the EU whereas most of the rest of Britain was against. Older people were generally pro-Brexit and the younger cohorts supported the Remain camp. The educated middle class was more prone to be pro-EU while members of the working class tended to favour Brexit.
An increasingly fragmented and unequal society was the perfect mix for populists who blamed the EU for Britain’s state of affairs
The Brexit camp was symbolised by populist politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who presented clear, simple messages, albeit coloured by post-truth promises that are difficult to fulfil.
The Leave camp was led by a prime minister who seemed to be isolated in holding the European flag and by a Labour leader who was largely absent and uninspiring. Other pro-EU politicians, such as Caroline Lucas, from the Greens, and Tim Farron, from the Liberal Democrats, did not make up for the failings of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet, there were other social determinants that were in place long before the referendum campaign, which should also be taken into account in the analysis of Brexit.
To begin with, Britain was increasingly becoming a nation with two economic realities. On the one hand, it was experiencing relatively strong economic growth compared to other EU member states with a relatively robust labour market.
On the other hand. too many people were experiencing relatively low living standards, with low wages and job precariousness on the increase. The economy was becoming overdependent on financial services and different regions had different living standards.
Poverty rates were on the increase and the days of a job for life for the industrial working class were sealed and buried. In a way, living standards were closer to Italy than Germany.
In the decade preceding the referendum, trust in the EU was in freefall and political fragmentation increased. Labour modernised itself but was out of synch with much of the working class, to the political benefit of Ukip and SNP. The Greens took up much of the liberal left agenda but were penalised by an unfavourable electoral system. And the Liberal Democrats were punished by the electorate for their decision to form part of a governing coalition with the Conservatives. The Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party were the net winners in terms of electoral outcomes.
Yet, the Conservative Party was itself fragmented between pro-EU pragmatists like Cameron and anti-EU ideologues like Michael Gove. Cameron temporarily stopped this implosion by promising a referendum, which, ultimately, led to his own downfall.
An increasingly fragmented and unequal society was the perfect mix for populists who blamed the EU for Britain’s state of affairs. And the perfect storm for a pro-EU camp whose disjointed characteristics only made matters worse.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Assessing social impacts

The surge of proposals for high-rise development in this country provides yet another justification for the need for comprehensive social impact assessments when dealing with large development proposals.
Some social impact assessments have been carried out in Malta, but in my view the existing policymaking process tends to consider such studies as an irritant rather than a tool for holistic management and community participation.
In no way am I suggesting that authors of social impact assessments are incompetent or untrustworthy. Far from it. They are professionals doing their job. The problem lies in lack of political will, incomprehensive terms of reference and lack of critical assessment by authorities.
In a recent document, the International Association for Impact Assessment produced guidelines for social impact assessments which can be very useful in the Maltese context. Here it was suggested that an SIA is the process of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions and any social change processes invoked by those interventions.
The document explains that social impacts under assessment should include all those things relevant to people’s everyday life. This may include one’s culture, community, political context, environment, health, well-being, personal and property rights as well as fears and aspirations.
It is quite common that communities feel like strangers in their own home when development is imposed upon them without taking their social fabric into consideration. This may lead to a lack of trust towards developers, and increased anxiety on the unknowns related to possible changes.
Social impact assessments can help verify the consequences and impacts of development proposals on communities
From my experience as sociologist and local councillor, I have often encountered such realities. Many residents feel that developers want to make a quick buck with little social concern, and that authorities simply rubber-stamp developers’ wants. In turn, this leads to helplessness and lack of trust. At times, it also leads to protest, which sometimes has significant outcomes.
Social impact assessments can help verify the consequences and impacts of development proposals in relation to the communities involved. Hence, a basic starting point for such assessments should be the compilation of a community profile. A social impact assessment that does not understand the society in question is practically worthless.
This can help bring about genuine processes of engagement between communities, developers and authorities as well as identify and implement mitigation measures and compensation mechanisms. As things stand in Malta, various developers do quite the opposite, often causing huge inconvenience to residents and leaving a mess behind in surrounding infrastructure.
Social impact assessments should not be one-off exercises which are rubber-stamped by authorities without any sense of critical engagement. To the contrary, they should be ongoing processes which engage with various stakeholders and which report back so as to ensure effective policy processes. They should also use complementary research methods so as to ensure reliable and valid data.
Such ongoing processes should also take account of changes in the social context in question, such as cumulative impacts of other developments. For example, a social impact assessment that focuses on one development but ignores another development in the region is not realistic.
Some other factors which should be included in social impact assessments include the consideration of reasonable alternatives to development proposals as well as comparative analysis of similar development proposals and related good or bad practices.
Analytic indicators should be provided and the entire process should be subject to peer review by independent experts in the field. In simple terms, the basic foundations for systematic analysis should not be used just at university, but should also be applied in other spheres: such as the one of planning and development.
Indeed, it is very ironic that whilst Malta’s educational system is equipping students to become professionals in their respective fields, this ethic is often not reproduced in certain policymaking processes.
State authorities may choose to ignore the value of social impact assessments, but this will not erase the political dimension of development. Indeed, civil society and local communities are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and of their mobilising potential.
The current high-rise development proposals in Malta will show whether decision-making in Malta is really giving due consideration to social impacts.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Social Exclusion from top

Back in the 1990s, when sociologist Anthony Giddens proposed the influential ‘third way’ social-democratic approach, he warned about different types of social exclusion.
As he put it, social exclusion may take place due to policies which exclude persons from everyday social interaction because of their identity or social background. But he added that persons may also decide themselves to be excluded from mainstream society.
And these do not simply include those who, for some reason or another, voluntarily decide not to participate in the world of employment in order to become welfare dependent.
Voluntary exclusion may also take place by elites who exclude themselves from social communities within their own privatised high-class ghettos.
Giddens suggested that social policy should prioritise social inclusion by acting as a trampoline, empowering people to be skilled for the opportunities and the risks of our times. His proposed social investment state would incorporate rights with responsibilities, public-private collaboration, voluntary associations and the strengthening of communities
The third way had its ups and downs and its supporters included statesmen such as Bill Clinton, Gerard Schroeder and Tony Blair. In today’s context, the adherents of this ideology include Matteo Renzi and Joseph Muscat.
As the narrative goes, persons having different identities are seen as meriting social inclusion whether in terms of civil rights or education and employment opportunities.
Which is why I was surprised, not to say shocked, when I read the latest proposal of Joseph Muscat’s government: the one referring to homeschooling.
This proposal forms part of other proposed amendments to the Education Act, proposed by the Ministry of Education, one of the government’s best performers.
In a nutshell, the homeschooling section allows parents to apply to the Commission for General Education to provide homeschooling for their children. If the application is approved by the commission, schooling would be carried out by ‘suitably qualified home educators’.
This proposal says that three categories of persons may apply for this facility: students in poor health, students whose parents are temporarily in Malta, and students whose family have diverse philosophies from those taught in schools.
Homeschooling for students in poor health could be of great benefit to such persons. But that is as far as my agreement with the government’s proposal goes.
Schools have a vital social function for the social integration of persons with different backgrounds
My position is based on the premise that schools do not only exist for the transmission of skills which are valuable for future employment, important as these are. Schools also have a vital social function for the social integration of persons with different backgrounds.
Granted, if integration is taken too far, it could result in authoritarian conformism that mortifies individuality and creativity. But education needn’t be like this, and in actual fact, Malta’s education system has actually been moving away from this direction.
When students integrate with other students and educators, they learn essential social skills. Such skills are not only learned in formal lessons, but also during breaks, games, outings, sports, and other activities. Students learn to live in society, as the school itself is a society in miniature.
In short, schooling is an investment in social capital, networks and community.
Government’s homeschooling proposal seems to offer the very opposite of this. Two groups came to mind as soon as I read the text.
First, ultra-rich business persons who do not want to mix with ‘common people’. Maybe this includes faceless purchasers of citizenship for cash. Or the ‘high worth’ individuals which Muscat’s government wants to attract to Malta through the exclusive projects by the rich for the rich. Maybe this complements the government’s fetish for high-rise development and similar investments.
Second, persons whose values and ideologies are totally out of synch with the spectrum of ideas found in everyday life. Rather than representing a multiculturalism of integration and mutual respect, Malta would risk encouraging multiculturalism of parallel isolationist ghettos that do not communicate with each other. Would this be beneficial to a democratic society? I think not.
Maybe Muscat’s adherence to the narrative of social inclusion exists only when it does not interfere with certain interests. And if he promised homeschooling to lobbyists before the 2013 general election, then the proposed education act is delivering the goods.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Tough for Britain's Labour

To blame Jeremy Corbyn for the victory of the Brexiteers might be taking things too far. But he did not do much to help the Remain campaign emerge victorious in Britain’s EU referendum.
Indeed, after the referendum result, Corbyn faced a barrage of criticism and resignations. Corbynites would say that all his critics were stooges of Tony Blair, but I think that this would be a tad too simplistic.
Surely, Blair is one of the main critics of Corbyn. But Corbyn has also faced a rebellion from over 80 per cent of Labour members of Parliament, his deputy leader as well as former leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Are all these remote-controlled by Blair?
Various opinionists in progressive press such as The Guardian and Huffington Post have also been highly critical of Corbyn. Again, I do not think that they are all Blairite dupes. Nor do I agree that those who support Corbyn are the sole guardians of progressive truth, whatever this may be.
Progressive critics of Corbyn have emphasised that he was too dull and detached in the referendum campaign. He seemed half-hearted and unconvinced of his own words. He gave mixed messages on what the EU is about, and for some reason he decided to emphasise his support of free migration precisely when the Leave campaign was capitalising on this issue. Honest? Maybe. Strategic? Definitely not. Maybe his Eurosceptic past and allies haunted his conscience?
Corbyn’s Labour Party could easily have assumed leadership of the Remain campaign. But it did not. Apparently, Corbyn’s team did not participate in meetings of the ‘Labour In’ campaign. At the same time Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and others were articulating their ‘leave’ position as the fight of a lifetime.
Corbyn’s Labour Party could easily have assumed leadership of the Remain campaign
We will never know what Corbyn’s intended aims were and, to be fair,he might have found himself caught in the middle of conflicting argumentsand interests.
But politics is also very much about unintended consequences. The failure of the Remain campaign resulted in the likes of Johnson and Farage emerging as victors. Britain will now possibly move more to the right wing of policymaking, and it might face increased calls to break-up.
But perhaps something positive might come out of this. Some are touting the need for a grand coalition of pro-EU parties, comprising Labour, Greens, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, among others.
Of course, this has its own complications, such as Britain’s electoral system. And the Labour Party must first come to terms with the crisis of social democracy not only in Britain, but also in so many parts of Europe.
In Britain, a main challenge for Labour is to find a way out of two antagonistic camps which are equally problematic.
The first is the Third Way camp. It won three elections under Tony Blair – a historic feat in itself - and also opened up to new realities in family life, social identity and economics. But it also was too much focused on neo-liberal reforms that increased inequality. And Blair ultimately lost legitimacy due to the invasion of Iraq.
The second camp is what currently characterises Corbyn and his team. It revolves around a social democracy that seems anchored in 1945, and attracts hard leftists of different stripes. What unites this coalition is the assumption that the State can solve most problems within a nation State, and that society is a simplistic structure of class-conscious workers and bosses.
In reality, however, society is definitely more complex than this. Social class remains a main marker of everyday life, but it crisscrosses with reflexivity, other identities, cultures and situations. Besides, even with the best of intentions, top-down statism can sometimes manufacture risks such as crowding out of investment and fiscal unsustainability.
It is clear that Britain’s Labour needs a leader who conveys charisma and has respect from both wings. He or she needs to be forward-looking and bold enough to tread upon ground beyond the comfort zones of the Third Way and Old Labour.
Otherwise, the progressive mass party of Britain risks becoming a permanent party of opposition, safely conserving ideas that are increasingly out of touch with today’s contexts.