Monday, August 29, 2016

Allow Air Malta to fly

There is no other way to put it: Air Malta is in a mess. I am not referring to the service given to its customers, which I think is excellent. I am referring to its current existential crisis.
In the past, the airline carried out some dubious purchases of assets and was (is?) often used by politicians in government to employ party supporters in return for votes. As a result, its workforce became too bloated, leading to persistent heavy losses.
An Air Malta representative recently stated in court that, despite a five-year restructuring programme, it has about €66 million in outstanding debts. During this period, the government paid about €200 million to the airline. To add to the unease, Times of Malta recently reported that the airline’s latest financial results have not been published yet.
Some argue that low-cost airlines are the biggest threat to Air Malta. Though it is true that such airlines are involved in cost-cutting measures at the expense of workers’ rights, one should also keep in mind that they have expanded possibilities for different travellers, including tourists heading Malta’s way. And this also creates jobs.
National airlines must also fulfil social and strategic functions of utmost importance
Yet, low-cost airlines may come and go depending on their financial interests. But, in the absence of other alternatives, national airlines must also fulfil social and strategic functions of utmost importance. And a small island like Malta must ensure that such functions are not lost.
Perhaps this is why the government of Malta has stated that it is willing to absorb Air Malta’s debts in its talks with Alitalia. Maybe this price would be acceptable to taxpayers if Air Malta’s future is guaranteed. Still, it is unclear whether EU state aid rules would allow such an arrangement.
What I think is less acceptable is the news that Alitalia would require Air Malta to forfeit various European destinations and, instead, increase flight frequency to North Africa and the Middle East, thus acting as a feeder airline to Alitalia and its Etihad owners. In the meantime, Alitalia would not inject any capital into Air Malta and the government would absorb all surplus workers in addition to current debts.
Let us assume that this deal takes place and that it is not a decoy by the government’s PR machines to present something that looks ‘better’ and ‘more acceptable’ in the days to come.
How would such a plan guarantee that Malta benefits from routes that are so important to its tourist industry? Wouldn’t Malta become overdependent to the commercial interests of Etihad Airlines, Ryanair and others? And do such interests necessarily reconcile with the interests of Malta’s tourism industry and other strategic objectives?
I would assume that the Minister for Tourism is seriously evaluating such legitimate questions that are being put forward by all and sundry, from the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association to Joe Public.
In this regard, Martin Degiorgio (August 23) put forward some pertinent arguments and proposals on the future of Air Malta. He proposed a ‘third way’ hybrid solution. In short, this involves selling 40 per cent to another airline while floating the rest on the Malta Stock Exchange and leaving 25 to 40 per cent of shares in government ownership.
For this type of strategy to work, the airline has to be free from the short-term partisan interests. At the moment, the low interest rates offered by banks would make such an investment attractive for Maltese people but investors have to be assured that ministers will not use the airline anymore as an employment agency.
I would imagine that, in negotiations on the issue, different stakeholders are also putting forward their own proposals which the government may consider. But here, an immediate question comes to mind: is the government really consulting with different stakeholders? And is the Tourism Minister commissioning studies from experts in the field about possible ways forward? Is it looking beyond the next general election?
The government’s top-down non-transparent way of doing things is only fuelling speculation and disenchantment by various stakeholders.
In the meantime, let’s realise time is running out for Air Malta.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Where is the consultation?

Some old Labour nostalgics argue that Joseph Muscat is very different from Dom Mintoff. Their narrative states that Mintoff looked to the political left while Muscat looks to the right. Mintoff gave primacy to social justice, Muscat is in the pockets of big business. And so forth.
I think that things are not so clear-cut. Yes, there are differences between Mintoff’s and Muscat’s respective Labour parties. For example, Muscat has opened up to various middle-class concerns. Gone are the days of the glorification of boiler suits and workerist relics. Though one can also argue that it was Mintoff’s Labour government that constructed the middle class in the first place.
Yet, to say that Mintoff’s Labour had no relationship with big business is far beyond the truth. This narrative is so typical of socialist mythology of some golden age of socialism, which, in reality, never existed. Society is never so simple.
The similarities between Mintoff and Muscat are prominent in their top-down leadership styles. The leader and his team are seen as the enlightened supreme decision-making body. Some members of this team might have disproportionate influence, as was the case with Lorry Sant in the 1970s and 1980s and Konrad Mizzi today.
This Mintoffian hangover is indeed present in Malta today, even though we are living in an age of multilevels of power, ranging from the global to the European, from the national to the local and from the party political to civil society.
I would like to mention some recent examples of the top-down decision-making culture under today’s Labour government.
The similarities between Dom Mintoff and Joseph Muscat are prominent in their top-down leadership styles
Due to lack of space, and for the sake of consistency, all examples involve the Transport Ministry/Transport Malta combination. These cases also involve democratically-elected local councils which, incidentally are made up of different political representations. In all cases, the government practically ignored local councils.
First: Ta’ Xbiex – Transport Malta imposed new traffic arrangements which, in many cases, led to a tight bend bang in the middle of a quiet residential area. The mayor of the locality made it clear that his local council was not involved in this traffic diversion.
Second: Mellieħa – The Transport Ministry wants to establish a floating water fun park at Golden Bay. A tender has been issued by the government and the Mellieħa local council only got to know about it after it was published. The locality’s mayor has expressed his opposition to this and has called for the commissioning of proper studies before the plan proceeds. NGOs have also raised concern on the environmental repercussions of further commercialisation of this blue-flag beach.
Third: Sliema – In the past months I had the opportunity to write about the lack of enforcement against drivers dangerously zig-zagging on the bus lane and on the parking fee situation at the public car park at the Ferries.
It would be much better if such fees are collected by the local council and used for public needs rather than by individual parkers. In both cases, the Transport Ministry acts as if local concerns are inexistent.
Sliema now has to bear the brunt of another unwise decision by the Transport Ministry/Transport Malta: the permanently orange traffic lights at the Ferries. This is confusing drivers and pedestrians alike in what has become a dangerous free-for-all situation on this busy road.
Transport Malta has been alerted to this and its official justification has to do with the Kappara road project. Fair enough but, again, why not consult with the Sliema and Gżira local councils?
Just a few days ago, a 26-year old man was hit by a car on this road and he passed away a few days later. I hope this has nothing to do with the new traffic lights arrangement.
I could go on and on with other examples in other sectors.
It is very unfortunate that subsidiarity and consultation are not being given importance by a government that was supposed to be one that listens.
Well, it might be listening to pre-electoral lobbies and to the people high up the party ladder but it really needs to pay more attention to the proposals, concerns and views of democratically-elected local councils and civil society.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Mid-summer political reflections in Malta

I believe that as things stand, Labour will cruise to victory in the upcoming general elections in Malta. 

Joseph Muscat's government and party is using winning tactics, the economy is doing relatively well, and the opposition is not seducing voters' imagination.

The PN is missing the wood for the trees in basic consistuency issues like Sliema's overdevelopment.  Simon Busuttil is busy doing everything but mobilizing his consistuents. Genuine Nationalist councillors and activists in Sliema who are speaking up for residents are conspicuous by their solitude within the PN ranks. And many Nationalists have already given up on the chances of winning the next election. 

From what I see the PN is attempting to look 'new' by focusing on soft issues like animal welfare and sports, but is not daring to confront established oligarchs. One can say that the PL is doing this too - but the PL is also adopting many liberal (and popular) issues and is governing over good economic results, albeit characterised by social inequalities and questions of sustainability. Electorally, Labour's strategy seems to be paying off. 

The small parties, AD and PD, very often speak truth to power and have no political debts to big business interests. But both have very little chance of parliamentary election, though this could change with pre-election coalitions: something which has its opportunities and risks, yet which nobody seems to want. 

As things stand, the power of AD and PD is based on the 'threat' of winning votes which could go elsewhere. This is no small power, but maybe one should investigate other electoral strategies too. And AD's relative successes in local council elections should be built upon.

Within the social media there are all sorts of opinions about what is to be done in Malta. Some opinions represent widely-shared concerns on different issues or the general political scenario. 

Others are not so representative, despite their vociferous claims. Some critics of the big two parties find it very easy to criticize the small ones, yet somehow shy away from being active themselves in party politics. Some also speak of the need of some radical socialist messiah or some right wing populist to clean Malta up. Let's not go there please, unless we are delving into fiction. Politics takes place within a context. And I see no magical encounter which will suddenly displace the 2 party system. This could produce a nice novel though. 

Labour - bad governance and all - is winning the strategic game. It has so far managed to survive the Panama Papers scandal and other bad governance issues ranging from the new power station to social networks in politics and big business. 

Maybe most voters in Mediterranean Malta do not really give prime importance to such issues. Or maybe Simon Busuttil's opposition is not credible.

In the meantime, Labour is hinting at some progressive social measures in the upcoming budget. And I wouldn't be surprised if the Government finds reasons to stop some controversial development projects. This would be a political masterstroke which once again would outdo the current PN's slow, bland and unimaginative way of things.

Of course, a week is a long time in politics, and many things can happen before 2018. We will wait and see. 

Before someone rushes to conclusions, I am not a Labourite and I have no intention of contesting the upcoming general elections.  I  leave front-line party politics to others who are specialized in the field, and I am saying this out of respect. I prefer being active the way I am: as a Green local councillor, a progressive civil society activist and a public sociologist.

Happy summer to everyone!

(Appears in Malta Today as Labour – bad governance and all – is winning the strategic game18 August 2016)

More info on Malta election results:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I support Hillary Clinton's Presidential Campaign

I believe that progressives worldwide have a historic responsibility to support Hillary Clinton's US presidential campaign. The global risk of having Donald Trump as US president is too high. 

I therefore hereby declare my support for Clinton's campaign. 

As a Green Local Councillor in Sliema, Malta, and former leader of Malta's Green Party, I fully endorse the position of Prof Peter Singer, Australian Green and former parliamentary candidate, who states:

"I call on Green party leaders all over the world to ask Stein to take her name off the ballot in states where the contest is likely to be close. If she won’t do it, they should take their appeal to voters, and ask them, in this election only, not to vote Green. The stakes are too high".

Peter Singer's column can be read on Project Syndicate  

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Europe that lies ahead

Times of Malta 15 August 2016
The long-term ramifications of Brexit are difficult to predict. In a way they represent the existential theme of being condemned to be free, which, in turn is a leap in the dark with no pre-established outcomes.
As a believer in a more federalist Europe characterised by pluralism but united by common basic values, I hope that Brexit will not have a ripple effect on other member states where anti-Europeanist rhetoric is gaining ground.
Having said that, there is no such thing as one monolithic populism. This would vary from left to right and from cultural to ultra-nationalist.
Brexit could be seen as an example of the movement towards a less uniform EU, in this case through the most radical measure, namely exit from EU itself.
Within today’s EU, some member states and regions are struggling, while others are notably richer. There are big divergences between northern and southern Europe. For example, median incomes in Sweden and Austria are much higher than those in Portugal and Greece. Employment opportunities vary widely across north and south, with Malta being a southern exception, and a relatively good performer at that.
Yet, even in countries which have achieved relatively high economic growth, social inequalities have increased. In this regard, progressive analysts Patrick Diamond, Roger Liddle and Daniel Sage say that “the uneven impact of austerity has increased a horizontal line across a new, economically divided, post-crisis Europe”.
Populist parties have gained ground in this context. Some, like the leftist Syriza in Greece, have found themselves in government through democratic election and consequently adopted a more mainstream approach through reforms, which though being austere, have equality in mind at the end of the tunnel.
The progressive vision for Europe argues for increased political integration, increased compromise and more tailor-made prescriptions
Other left populists, like Podemos in Spain, seem to prefer to remain in Opposition than forming progressive coalitions in government. On the right, populist parties, such as the UKIP in Britain, have been instrumental in the Brexit referendum, whilst Front National in France is being kept out of power even due to broad alliances of convenience across the mainstream political spectrum.
Nationalistic populists on the right and left in Hungary and Slovakia respectively are showing little support to the European project, and some right-wing populist parties, such as those in Sweden and Austria, use nationalistic rhetoric in ‘defence’ of their respective nations’ achievements at the expense of migrants.
Within such a context, what can be done to defend and strengthen the Europeanist dream shared by different parties and movements across the political spectrum?
Progressive scholars and also analysts embracing different political orientations are putting forward various proposals on this urgent matter.
Diamond, Liddle and Sage call for a European reorientation towards country-specific recommendations for reforms and accompanying mechanisms to facilitate respective financing.
Joseph Stiglitz calls for a ‘flexible euro’ system within which different countries (or even groups of countries) can have a Euro currency having fluctuating values but remaining within the policies and boundaries of the eurozone.
Mario Monti calls for give-and-take policies between Europe’s north and south. In his view, the south should be more supportive of fiscal discipline, but the north should be more supportive of public-investment policies aimed towards growth.
Jurgen Habermas calls for deepened European cooperation as well as for compromise within the eurozone. However, in his words “Germany will have to give up its resistance against closer fiscal, economic and social policy co-operation and France be ready to renounce sovereignty in these corresponding areas”.
Similarly, Joschka Fischer calls for a grand compromise between Germany and other eurozone countries through deeper political integration and less political nationalism. And Yannis Varoufakis calls for a Europe-wide political alliance of democrats so as to avoid history repeating itself when the ugly face of totalitarianism gripped much of Europe last century.
There are differences among such progressive proposals. However, I also note a common thread within this discourse. Basically, and at the risk of simplifying a very complex challenge, the progressive vision for Europe argues for increased political integration, increased compromise, and more tailor-made prescriptions for different parts of Europe.
This might be very difficult to achieve, but the alternative increasingly seems to be characterised by confrontational nationalism, populist rhetoric devoid of sustainable solutions, and a weaker Europe.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Walking out of the Mintoffian shadow

Times of Malta, 7 August 2016 
Red may have vanished from Labour’s imagery and blue may have become hip as the PL tried walking out of Dom Mintoff’s shadow. On the centenary of the former prime minister’s birth, Kurt Sansone asks if his legacy lives on, with Aaron Farrugia and Michael Briguglio.
It is pure coincidence that Dom Mintoff was born on the feast day of Christ the Saviour – but not for his followers.
Detractors would have a different story to tell, but for those born in the poverty stricken area of Tal-Bastjun in Cospicua like Mr Mintoff, the former Prime Minister was indeed a saviour.
Veterans who remember the Second World War and its aftermath describe themselves as “socialist Mintoffians” rather than Labourites. The label has a deep-rooted meaning for those who feel Mr Mintoff lifted them out of poverty and gave their children a chance to prosper.
Especially for them, this was a man who rose to the highest echelons of power, which culminated with the social revolution of the 1970s and laid the groundwork for a new middle class.
Dom Mintoff was born on August 6, 1916 and died on August 20, 2012. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat paying tribute to him in Cospicua. Photo: Reuben Piscopo/DOIDom Mintoff was born on August 6, 1916 and died on August 20, 2012. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat paying tribute to him in Cospicua. Photo: Reuben Piscopo/DOI
Even when they were faced with the prospect of eternal damnation as a result of Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s interdiction of Labour officials and sympathisers in the 1960s, Mr Mintoff’s followers stood behind him.
The architect from Cospicua was larger than life, and his aura continues to be the subject of debate 100 years after his birth.
For some within the Labour Party, Mr Mintoff’s legacy continues to be the yardstick against which today’s policy decisions are measured.
Aaron Farrugia, a young Labour candidate, says he does get this comparison thrown at him by some of the party’s veterans. Some of it is nostalgia, but some of it is ideologically motivated.
He feels Mintoff’s legacy is an integral part of the chain that leads up to today’s Labour Party, which is rooted in Joseph Muscat’s broad voter appeal.
“Dom Mintoff built the idea of a progressive movement for change but his jargon was confrontational and at times classist. It is this confrontational attitude that the veterans feel is missing,” he says.
However, Mr Farrugia is reluctant to draw comparisons between Mr Mintoff and Dr Muscat. “The circumstances are completely different. The concerns and aspirations people have today are different from those in Mintoff’s time, and so even the remedies have to be different.”
He says Dr Muscat broadened the Labour Party’s appeal by addressing the aspirations of those occupying the middle ground. “Joseph Muscat has allowed the common men and women to dream again and believe their aspirations could be met.”
The tolerance of bad governance today is as bad as the corruption he allowed to fester
In the Eddie Fenech Adami tradition, he adds, Dr Muscat also opened up to business people, in the belief that if they did well, the country would prosper.
“The government should act as regulator while allowing the private sector the space to prosper,” Mr Farrugia says.
During a commemorative ceremony last week, Dr Muscat described the all-time high employment figures and record low unemployment as the best gifts Labour could give Mr Mintoff.
Dr Muscat has often flaunted his pro-business approach as the recipe for success, something that makes some within the Labour Party cringe.
But do not expect open dissent on this approach, which has delivered good economic headlines, prosperity for many, and left others on the sidelines.
Muscat’s Labour has upheld the tradition of a strong leader who is revered, according to sociologist Michael Briguglio.
“This characteristic was introduced by Dom Mintoff after the post-war split with Paul Boffa and consolidated in the 1970s when he clashed with intellectuals within the party,” Dr Briguglio says. This top-down dynamic, he adds, manifests itself in the likes of Glenn Bedingfield, the Prime Minister’s aide, who on his blog lashes out at all government critics.
Dr Briguglio hits another raw nerve for many within Labour wanting to put the not-so-glorious moments of the past behind them. He says the tolerance of bad governance and cronyism today is as bad as the corruption Mr Mintoff allowed to fester around him in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“There is no violence, but corruption is done in a more polished manner,” Dr Briguglio says, with certain ministers being afforded untouchable status.
He says that Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi embodies the description of “super saints” coined by the late Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain in describing the system of patronage in Malta.
Dr Mizzi, who was embroiled in the Panama Papers affair, continued on as minister after a cosmetic Cabinet reshuffle. Others, like Manuel Mallia, were rehabilitated after 18 months, and former parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon was immediately given a government job after resigning in the wake of the Gaffarena scandal.
“There were untouchable ministers in Mintoff’s time, despite the power he commanded,” Dr Briguglio says, “and the situation in this respect remains unchanged today”. However, he believes this may have little to do with a Labour tradition and more to do with society’s attitude towards corruption and bad governance.
Indeed, the 1987 election, which saw the Nationalist Party win after 16 years in Opposition, was only clinched by 4,000 votes, despite the violence and rampant corruption that preceded it.
“Although many are sour because of bad governance, it does not seem to be an electoral determinant, especially because the economy is doing well and the alternative is not credible.”
He notes that Dr Muscat continues to benefit from the wide alliance built over the past eight years, something that sets him apart from Mr Mintoff. “Mintoff’s Labour was more socialist and workerist in attitude, which at times clashed with other sections of the middle class,” he notes.
This bridging with different sectors of the middle and business classes started by Alfred Sant in the 1990s was transformed by Dr Muscat into a winning strategy, Dr Briguglio says.
This broad coalition does not come without its contradictions, he adds, but Dr Muscat’s charisma ensures that it sticks together.
For the time being, a ‘socialist Mintoffian’ can still vote for the same party as a millionaire businessman enamoured with Labour’s can-do attitude.
Published in The Sunday Times of Malta. 

Monday, August 08, 2016

Public Health Through Privatization

The government’s new ventures in public-private healthcare seem to have escaped the degree of public attention that was given to other issues. This is rather paradoxical, when healthcare is a basic need in modern welfare states.
Malta’s healthcare system has made huge advances in the past decades, even though it has its fair share of problems related to sustainability, equity and management. I think that current Minister for Health Chris Fearne is well-intentioned and has a professional disposition to tackle such matters.
But new public-private ventures seem to be under Konrad Mizzi’s sphere of influence. In this regard, I am hereby referring to the government’s partnership with Vitals, a company owned by Bluestone Special Situation 4 Ltd, erstwhile registered in the British Virgin Islands and quite unknown in the health industry. Maybe Malta will be their trampoline to success? Vitals will be developing and managing the Gozo, Karen Grech and St Luke’s hospitals through a public-private partnership with the government. In theory, such arrangements can benefit from the efficient private management of public resources.
The ELC consortium in Malta is an example of such an arrangement. Public workers and private management are paid through government and local council funds for the upkeep of soft areas around the island, with the aim of making Malta a ‘garden city’, as former prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami put it when this consortium was launched.
In the case of the Vitals deal, the Times of Malta has revealed that Gozo’s hospital has been effectively privatised for 99 years, at the cost of €2.15 per square metre in ground rent per year. If after 30 years Vitals chooses to retain the property for a further 69 years, the ground rent will rise by 0.64 cents per square metre, and go up again by five per cent every other five years.
The theory is that the government will save money by using private management instead of the usual public services for an expanding sector
At the same time, Vitals will be investing around €220 million to build a new 450-bed hospital in Gozo and will be creating 320 beds in Karin Grech and 350 at St Luke’s, while refurbishing the site. Some may call this a smart way of attracting foreign investment. Others will say that Maltese public property is effectively being given to big business at dirt cheap prices.
Vitals will be making money through medical tourism and through government’s purchase of its services for Maltese patients. So the theory behind this arrangement is that the government will effectively save money by using private management instead of the usual public services for an expanding sector. The impact of this on services to patientsand workers’ conditions is as yet unclear, especially since to date there is a lackof information.
Indeed, other aspects of this partnership are not so clear. The government has promised to publish the contract in November, so one can only speculate at this stage.
Why should all this concern Maltese society, when the government is promising more sustainable services while attracting foreign investment? Wouldn’t taxpayers benefit if public resources are used more efficiently?
At this stage, and judging by similar experiments in other countries, one can identify some possible opportunities and risks in this process.
Opportunities, apart from those mentioned above, would include access to health care for foreign patients who, for one reason or another, cannot pursue their medical needs where they reside. Such medical services can become more personalised. From a business perspective, medical tourists can thus provide valuable source of revenue which can help finance other less lucrative services.
So far so good. But what if such revenue becomes increasingly vital for the company’s profits? Will services to medical tourists be given priority over services purchased by the government for public services? Will this result in unequal health services? Can this result in resentment by taxpayers, many of whom already have to pay for private insurances to get a better service in Malta?
Given Konrad Mizzi’s lack of good-governance, lack of accountability and lack of transparency, it is not easy to be optimistic about the whole process. Maybe I am wrong, and I hope I am.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Post-Townsquare Reflections

Malta Today 5 August 2016

Yesterday was a sad day for my hometown Sliema: The Townsquare 38-storey highrise project was approved by the Planning Authority.  

It was a close call, as 6 board members (out of 13 who were present) voted against. And this included PA Chairman Vince Cassar, who I know as a  man of integrity. Victor Axiak, the representative of the Environment and Resources Authority was absent due to illness.  The Nationalist Party representative Ryan Callus also voted against, unlike Labour's representative Joe Sammut. 

Again, I know Callus to be an upright and honest politician, and from what I saw and sensed, he showed alot of courage in voting the way he did. 

The Sliema Local Council - of which I am a member on behalf of the Greens - objected to this proposal, through its PN-led majority, and notwithstanding the total silence from Labour councillors. Needless to say, environmental NGOs, AD and the newly-formed PD were also objecting to this proposal.

But environmental campaigns are never simply characterized by the final PA meeting. And neither are they simply decided on the grounds of lack or insufficient analysis, though Townsquare had a surplus of this.

Empirical sociological, anthropological and political research and analyses on environmental campaigns in Malta show that there are a plurality of factors which have an effect on environmental outcomes. 

These include lobbying, mobilization through protest and media sensitization, official and unofficial meetings, and political/social movement alliances. When alliances involve ENGOs, local councils and at least 2 political parties (big+big or big+small), these are usually more predisposed to have an impact. Impacts can vary from victories (e.g. Front Kontra l-Golf Kors; Munxar, Cement Plant; Wied Ghomor and many others in between) to huge mobilization and partial impacts (e.g. Save Zonqor). When both major parties do not support a campaign, it becomes very difficult to obtain victory (the referendum on hunting being a case in point).

In the case of Townsquare, what struck me most was the PN strategy, which worked in the hands of the Gasan developers and the Labour Government. 

Indeed, the PN leadership was conspicuous by its silence on this issue - and here we are speaking of Tigne', a PN stronghold  in blue Sliema.  Whether the silence was intentional or cynical is something that can never be proven.

If it really paid heed to Sliema residents above developers' proposals, and if it really wanted the project to be defeated, the PN leadership could and should have mobilized its supporters in the run up to the PA meeting, in support of the local council and emvironmentalists. But it did not. 

My hunch is that Simon Busuttil will try to bank on residents' anger during excavation and construction. If this is the case, we will have a clear case of poor judgement, cynical politics, and of speaking too late in the day. 

Townsquare and Mriehel are just the beginning in a series of highrise developments in Malta. And this takes us to the political economy of the environment. As Portomaso had shown us back in 1998, and as has been confirmed so many times since then, a symbiotic relationship exists between the state and big developers.

Developers provide economic growth and other incentives; The State provides policy and operational support. This is done at the expense of the environment and people's quality of life. 

Who said the environment is not political? 

Picture: Pre-Townsquare Sliema

Monday, August 01, 2016

Profile of an ISIS recruit

Picture: The Laacharoui brothers

What motivates ISIS terrorists? This was the question asked by Jeff Goodwin, a global sociological authority on the study of social movements, during the recent International Sociological Association forum in Vienna, in which I participated.
I was very curious to see what Goodwin had to say about ISIS, both as a sociologist but also as a father who, like many people, feels an eerie sense of anxiety with the terrorism phenomenon.
It is as if terrorism is now a fact of life, a lottery of death for persons busy living their lives in different continents. And if the terrorist imagery is now so present in public discourse, it is very important to understand what it is and what it is not.
I am very wary of quick-fix replies and rock-solid certainties which come so easy to various populists of our times. Such rhetoric can, of course, offer nice sound bites but this is not often reflected in informed and evidence-based policy formulation. Indeed, I believe that if we need answers that can help policymaking, we should give more importance to asking questions that matter.
In this regard, some of the findings of Goodwin’s research on ISIS were very different from what we are accustomed to hear in public discourse.
If the terrorist imagery is now so present in public discourse, it is very important to understand what it is and what it is not
For example, he reported that even though Tunisia provides the largest number of ISIS recruits in absolute terms, a more accurate quantitative analysis reveals a different story.
A look at recruits’ nationality per capita shows that fighters are more likely to come from democratic, affluent countries. They are also more likely to come from relatively ethnically homogeneous societies where Muslims are a minority. Examples in this regard include Finland, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Belgium.
Goodwin then delved into a real-life micro-example of two Belgian brothers with radically different life outcomes, namely Najim and Mourad Laachraoui. They came from the same family and had similar upbringing. Yet, Najim became a bomb maker and suicide bomber. Mourad, on the other hand, became a medal-winning sportsman who proudly waves the Belgian flag. So why did one integrate in Belgian society and the other one not? “We don’t know” is what Goodwin could humbly reply, before deconstructing popular opinions on terrorists.
For example, the ‘Muslims are terrorists’ hypothesis is incredibly simplistic. Indeed, how can we explain one terrorist out of, say, 30,000 Muslims sociologically? And what about terrorists who are not Muslims?
The ‘youth’ rebellion hypothesis is not necessarily useful. Sure, some young people join ISIS but others join national armies to fight ISIS, and many many others have motivations which have nothing to do with this issue.
The ‘social media’ hypothesis has gaps too. It is not only ISIS which uses the internet but practically society in general.
Some people do opt for psychological terrorism but others would seek Pokemon and songs on YouTube. Or chatting with their grandmother. Besides, more and more social movements of different stripes and colours are using Facebook and Twitter nowadays.
The ‘radicalisation’ hypothesis is problematic too, according to Goodwin. Again, yes there are Muslim radicals in ISIS’ ranks. There are also recent converts but there are also ISIS fighters who don’t really know or understand what Islam is about. And there are many, many Muslims who oppose ISIS tooth and nail.
Therefore, more data is needed to understand the motivation of such persons, unless we are content with crass generalisations. And this presents us with a huge research dilemma.
To study the motivations of such individuals, a biographical approach could be most useful. Here, the focus is on qualitative and long face-to-face interviews, in line with established research methods and ethical procedures.
Yet, this is easier said than done.
One main quandary is the lack of access to such persons. In the case of Najim Laachraoui, he is dead, as is the case with other suicide bombers or fighters. Others are active in inaccessible places like ISIS territory. And others are in prison, which are not likely to be very accessible to sociologists and other researchers.
Perhaps the biggest quandary of all is that there are many other potential or actual ISIS recruits who we don’t know about and who might hit the news headlines in the future.

Vienna, July 2016: World-famous sociologist Jeff Goodwin discussing ISIS at #ISA16 #RC47. Reminded me of Max Weber's concept of verstehen. Trying to understand motivations of ISIS recruits. A fascinating presentation.