Monday, October 31, 2016

The people and the car

Times of Malta 31 October 2016

A few days ago, the United Nations environment agency spoke about the need to put people before cars. The UN said that governments should invest at least 20 per cent of their transport budgets in infrastructure that promotes walking and cycling, to save lives, curb pollution and cut climate-changing emissions from vehicles.
Incidentally, on the same day I participated in a local councillors’ meeting in Rome on green mobility for healthy cities. The main speakers presented successful and inspirational examples in different European cities. It was clear that policymaking can make a difference if implemented well.
For example, it was shown that congestion charges in Milan have reduced traffic and helped provide funding for a clean transport system. The implementation of the charge was tweaked in agreement with the business community.
There was resistance from certain car park owners, certain political forces and some residents, but the eventual positive results are there for everyone to see. Indeed the local council administration wasreconfirmed in a subsequent election.In the meantime, the vast majority ofworkers have continued using public transport, and various economic sectors are reaping advantages.
Malta’s small size provides an opportunity for a modal shift towards cleaner transport
During the conference, those present also learned about improvements made in the transport system of Naples. A congested southern city with a fair share of crises and a financially challenged poor local council is now investing in pedestrianisation, bicycle lanes, bicycle sharing, car sharing and collective taxis. To top it all, Naples has developed a state-of-the art underground station.
In some other localities across Italy, public transport is more accessible, new tram networks have been created and cycling mobility has increased.
Policies are also being adopted to replace older vehicles for merchandise distribution with smaller, cleaner vehicles. And moves are being made for better usage of smart technology which provides holistic information on buses, bicycle use, parking and other matters which can make life much easier for commuters.
This type of policymaking is also being adopted in French cities such as Paris and Grenoble and Spanish cities such as Valencia. Again, public investment in public transport, bicycle lanes, car sharing and pedestrianisation is on the increase.
A lovely case study which was presented in the conference concerned Brussels. It was explained that car dependency has decreased through the ‘stop’ principle. Here, policymakers give successive priority to walking, riding, usage of public transport and finally, the car. The latter is only addressed in terms of policymaking when other methods are exhausted.
Consequently, Brussels has an abundance of bicycle lanes, a bicycle sharing system, strong investment in pedestrianisation, buses and trams, and a progressive reduction of car speed limits which will eventually cover all local roads.
Studies referred to in the conference show that from 50 per cent car usage in 1999, the usage of this mode of transport decreased to 33 per cent in 2010. Today, 37 per cent of commutes take place on foot, and usage of public transport has increased massively. This has taken place despite an increase in population of 250,000 and 60,000 more jobs during the same timeframe.
It was also explained that had Brussels adopted a business-as-usual approach in transport policy, there would have been a massive increase of cars. Yet, once again, sustainable policymaking is helping bring about a modal shift in transport.
Other positive examples were presented during the conference. Rather than hearing of usual acclaimed success stories such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, participants learned of successful transport policies in other cities which are less known for such approaches. Incidentally, even Amsterdam and Copenhagen were over dependent on cars years ago.
The benefits of such forward-looking policymaking are multifold. Apart from helping improve mobility and accessibility, they also help reduce air pollution and congestion. They help improve people’s well-being and help build a sense of community through open and safe spaces.
Such a sustainable transformation is possible through determined policymaking which is evidence based. Will Malta ever move towards this direction?
Will positive examples such as Valletta’s pedestrianisation be mainstreamed? I believe that Malta’s small size provides an opportunity for a modal shift towards cleaner transport. And before we resort to the Malta’s car-culture narrative, let us keep in mind that other cities were car-dependent too.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Cancer's social dimension

The dedication of October to breast cancer awareness has helped highlight the social dimension of this illness.  Pink October, as it is popularly known, includes philanthropic initiatives aimed at raising awareness and funds on this matter.Of course, there are many other types of cancer, and indeed, one can and should keep this in mind during such campaigns. Yet it is clear that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in Malta, affecting around one out of every eight, and that early detection can help save many lives.
Maltese society therefore should be grateful to voluntary, private and governmental agencies working together in this and similar campaigns.
Illness such as cancer is very often framed in medical terms. Patients are very much dependent on the expertise and assistance of medics and health services, with the hope of being cured or guaranteeing as much longevity as possible.
Important as the medical dimension is – and I would be the first to say that scientific knowledge should not be undermined by superstitious skepticism – one should also note the vital social dimension of illnesses such as cancer.
For example, from a macro-perspective, it is important that policymakers are aware of the demographics of illness. This could include dimensions such as gender, age, class, and ethnicity as well as regional and educational factors.
On an individual level cancer might equally represent a journey of hardship and of hope
Policymaking should be subject to scholarly and public engagement. This would help ensure that the impact of services is properly assessed, and that policies are constantly updated in relation to social needs.
Yet, the social dimension of illness such as cancer can also be analysed from a micro-perspective. On an individual level, for example, cancer might equally represent a journey of hardship and of hope.  One’s character, choices, social background and social encounters can play important roles in this regard.
I recently co-authored a sociological study with Charon Tedesco, which was published in the Malta Medical Journal.
In this qualitative study, it was clear that cancer patients emphasise the importance of family support.  This is hardly surprising, especially when one considers that Malta, as a small-island State, has a relatively high degree of family proximity and social solidarity.  Participants in the study expressed their need to open up about their illness with family members, adding that their experiences brought family members closer together.
What was particularly striking in our findings was that cancer patients do not simply receive support from family members, but also provide it themselves to their relatives. The latter may take place, for example, when a cancer patient has a major caring role in the family set-up. Such two-way support can help strengthen social bonds within families of cancer patients.
Sociologists refer to this as reciprocity, adding that this is characterised by trust and solidarity.
It is however important to note that such reciprocity may not always be in place and that the same cancer patients may be reluctant to share their experiences with non-family members.
Reciprocity could also be lacking in the case of family breakdown, or when a patient has no close family members in the first place.
The latter may also include migrants who are physically distant from their relatives and loved ones.
Such social situations should be given the importance they deserve by policymakers.  In the case of families affected by such experiences, health authorities may increase investment in counselling and other forms of psycho-social support.
This may equip family members to be in a better situation to deal with their respective situations.
Health authorities may also opt to provide a variety of services to cancer patients who do not have close family bonds. This would help ensure accessible support to such persons, irrespective of social background.
Public partnerships with voluntary and private organisations may help personalise and improve the quality of service, but the State should ensure universal access.   Let us not forget that social exclusion, stigma, fear and inequality may be social hurdles in the experiences of cancer sufferers.
Hence the need for health services with a strong social dimension.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Birdlife Malta: A case of one-way institutionalization?

My latest research on environmental NGO Birdlife Malta has been published in the peer reviewed series 'Movements and Institutions' of Bretterblog (Germany).

This article disputes the conceptualization of institutionalization as a one-way process. Instead, it argues that social movement organizations can make use of contentious tactics while being institutionalized. Birdlife Malta provides an example to illustrate this argument.

The article may be read by clicking on this link

Monday, October 17, 2016

The tanker goes pop

It is not the first marine vessel to do so. Titanic, Bismarck, Costa Concordia and Enterprise are well-known around the world. Yellow Submarine is a song gone global, and Love Boat was a popular TV series in the 1980s. In Malta, Ark Royal, the Santa Maria Convoy, the Erika and Um el Farud are familiar to many. And we have our very own Lanċa ġejja u oħra sejra song.
What’s so special about the Armada LNG Mediterrana?
The 31-year-old, 300-metre long ship has been leased to Electrogas for 18 years and will be used as a storage facility for liquefied natural gas (LNG) for Malta’s new gas power plant. It belongs to a Malaysian company and before its Maltese makeover it was known as Bumi Armada.
Its celebrity status has so far proven to be as polarised as Maltese politics. For Labour, it is part of the flagship electoral pledge to shift Malta’s main energy source to gas. For the Nationalists, it is a monument of corruption and can be an accident waiting to happen.
The fact that this ship is part of Konrad Mizzi’s portfolio (despite being a minister without portfolio) adds much baggage to its identity. Let us not forget that Mizzi is embroiled in the Panama Papers scandal – itself stuff for resignation. And during the 2013 electoral campaign, the same Mizzi had promised that Malta will have two onshore gas tanks by March 2015.
Incidentally, at the time, I had publicly pronounced my scepticism of this promise, as it seemed technically impossible.
The Mediterrana has also to be seen within the context of a €360 million guarantee by the government of Malta, the part-privatisation of Enemalta to Shangai Electric, and a fixed-price agreement with Electrogas for five years for the provision of 50 per cent of Malta’s energy.
The Armada LNG Mediterrana has assumed celebrity status
It is unclear what will happen if the price of such energy shoots up after this period. It is also unclear whether Malta’s interconnector could have provided cheaper energy and whether Malta will reach its renewable energy targets to help combat climate change.
This lack of clarity is very much fed by a lack of transparency with regard to requests for information by the media, civil society and the Opposition.
Hence it is not surprising at all that Maltese society has to rely on party-political slogans on the country’s energy policy.
The Nationalist Party is highlighting the governance, aesthetic and safety ramifications of the tanker. It is insisting that Mediterrana should not be allowed to anchor in Marsaxlokk Bay until risk assessment reports are published. Simon Busuttil has quoted the Seveso III Directive, which Malta has signed, and which states that sufficient measures to prevent and mitigate risks should be in place.
On his part, Mizzi is insisting that the IPCC procedure for the granting of an operations permit for the new power station will be fully transparent. He is also flaunting the shift from heavy fuel oil to gas and cheaper electricity tariffs.
The government is also stating that the ship will ‘only’ be there until a gas pipeline between Malta and Sicily is constructed. Yet, again, there is a lack of information on this project, apart from a Times of Malta report that it is still in embryonic stage.
It is very unfortunate that the government’s obstinacy to conceal studies and other relevant data has rendered the tanker issue into a circus. Instead of an evidence-based rational dialogic process on Malta’s energy policy, we have a partisan shouting game.
In such a context, it is imperative that risk assessment studies are immediately available to the public. Yet, these should be accompanied by scientific explanation from credible experts so as to counter partisan exaggeration from all sides.
Here, it should be explained that there is no such thing as a risk-free energy-project, but that not all risks are equal to others. Some can be properly managed, whilst others are simply unacceptable. It should also be explained that management of risks also includes mitigation measures to ensure as much safety as possible.
In the absence of full transparency and evidence-based information, the Armada LNG Mediterrana is being guaranteed celebrity status for the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Social Interaction of Cancer Survivors in Malta. A sociological analysis

Social Interaction of Cancer Survivors in Malta. A sociological analysis,  which I co-authored with Charon Tedesco, has been published in the Malta Medical Journal .

This research analyzes social interaction of cancer patients in Malta. In particular it applies a qualitative sociological approach to verify how cancer patients interact with family members and society. The research concludes that social interaction of cancer survivors in Malta is characterized by mixed experiences, but at the same time, all cancer patients emphasize the importance of family support. A major finding is that cancer patients do not simply receive support from family members, but also provide it themselves to their relatives. This is not an intended effect of cancer survivorship, but nevertheless it helps strengthen social bonds within families of cancer patients.

Click here to read/download the paper.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A master plan in reverse

When it comes to big development projects, the Labour government is gambling excessively on the big developers’ card.
Rather than relying on evidence-based policymaking, the government assumes that big developers have some magic power to cater for Malta’s social, economic and environmental needs.
This is a far cry from having a national master plan which would verify opportunities, risks and alternatives. Instead, Malta is experiencing a series of development proposals which simply ignore the respective cumulative impacts on Maltese society.
Gasan’s Townsquare project in Sliema is a case in point. One of Malta’s most congested areas will have a 38-storey high-rise, 159 residential units and various commercial outlets, unless the approved project is reversed in the upcoming appeal process.
Townsquare has a shortfall of 234 parking spaces and will result in an estimated increase of 3,500 cars daily in the area. The Sliema local council has been left in the dark about a required ‘green transport plan’ and waste management, and there is no sewage impact assessment.
The project’s social impact assessment is incomplete, outdated (it was carried out almost a decade ago) and says nothing on mitigation measures.
Save for some exceptions, the assessment of the project practically ignored the 40-storey development proposal at Fort Cambridge, just a few metres up the road. Not to mention new high-rise development at The Point in Tignè.
The Planning Authority approval of high-rise at Mrieħel also has clear shortcomings. This joint project by the Gasan and Tumas groups was approved without a master plan for the area. It comprises a lack of 498 parking spaces, and will result in an estimated daily increase of 2,700 cars in the vicinity. As in the case of Townsquare, the PA decision on this project could be reversed through an upcoming appeal process.
The government assumes that big developers have some magic power to cater for Malta’s social, economic and environmental needs
In the past days Maltese society learned of further proposed mega-projects, including land reclamation and high-rise at the ex-Jerma site in Marsascala and the government-sponsored Paceville plan.
The latter is currently undergoing a public consultation process. Here, new high-rise development is being proposed in what seems to be a wish list of certain big developers.
Perhaps the most controversial project in the Paceville plan is the land reclamation project by and for the Tumas group. When the original Portomaso development was proposed, residents and other stakeholders were promised that no further development will take place, but this condition was already broken once through the approval of further development, so what the hell?
Now, what is being proposed is the reclamation of land next to a marine special area for conservation, which, incidentally, was already damaged by Portomaso development some years ago. The land reclamation will mostly comprise residential and hotel development, and a 15-storey building height of Preluna dimensions.
The Planning Authority has said the Paceville plan will be subject to a strategic environmental assessment. But this inevitably raises a question. How come strategic environmental assessments are not being carried out elsewhere? And this, in turn, raises a more pertinent question which the government refuses to reply: why is the government not carrying out a national master plan on high-rise, land reclamation and other mega projects?
Given Malta’s small size, it is only reasonable to have national studies on ecological, social, economic, traffic, waste and other impacts before accelerating the auction of development proposals.
Such studies could estimate Malta’s carrying capacity for such projects, the economic risks and opportunities of relying on such a development model, and the impact on our road arteries, which, in many instances, are already clogged.
Such studies could also show how necessary financing of public infrastructure is going to be carried out, and whether such financing is really a priority compared to other infrastructural needs in the country.
What is stopping the government from commissioning a national master plan?

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown

Published by Miller Distributors

Date of publication: October 2016 [The book is available at leading bookshops and at]

ISBN: 9789995752590 

Sociology of the Maltese Islands, edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown and published by Miller, was officially launched at the University of Malta.. 

News feature (in Maltese, on TVM) about the book launch - click here

Book review by Edward Zammit in Sunday Times of Malta - click here

Book review by Angele Deguara in Malta Independent on Sunday - click here

During the launch Minister Evarist Bartolo referred to the text as a breakthrough for evidence-based study of Maltese society. Journalist James Debono, who chaired the debate, said that the book is an accessible reader which shows the intersection between continuity and change in Maltese society. Sociologist Angele Deguara explained the important role of sociology to help inform policy making in a context of progressive change and recurrent inequalities and contradictions.

In reply to questions from the floor, Michael Briguglio explained diverse methods used by sociologists in their evidence-based research, and spoke about the commonalities and differences in the Maltese identity. Maria Brown highlighted the need for multidisciplinary approaches in the study of Maltese society and explained that all sociological methods have their strengths and weaknesses. 

Sociology of the Maltese Islands provides a broad sociological introduction to various areas of Maltese society currently featuring in public and scholarly debate and research. 

The book may be of interest to a wide range of students, including undergraduates, students at post-secondary level, as well those carrying out research at post-graduate level.

Researchers, policy makers, politicians, journalists, activists and the general public may find this book useful for the provision and scholarly review of data and debates on key issues, areas and concepts relevant to contemporary Maltese society.

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown. Includes contributions by Godfrey Baldacchino. Angela Abela, Katya DeGiovanni, Joanne Cassar, Marvin Formosa, Maja Miljanic Brinkworth, Nathalie Grima, Maria Brown, Ruth Baldacchino, JosAnn Cutajar, Brenda Murphy, Marceline Naudi, Peter Mayo, Manwel Debono, Saviour Rizzo, George Cassar, Valerie Visanich, Noel Agius, Michael Briguglio, Mary Grace Vella, Silvan Agius, Helena Dalli, Ian Bugeja, Jacqueline Azzopardi, Mario Vassallo, Carmen Sammut.

Chapters: Prologue, Introduction, Family Life, Childhood, Youth, Ageing, Demography, Race & Ethnicity, Class, Gender & Sexuality, Education, Work, Tourism, The Arts, Consumption & Leisure, Development, Environment, Political Parties & Social Movements, Elections, Governance & Leadership, Social Policy Poverty & Social Exclusion, Social Control Crime & Deviance, Religion, Media

(L-R Maria Brown, Evarist Bartolo, James Debono, Angele Deguara, Michael Briguglio)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Post-truth statements

This is how author Ralph Keyes defines a key aspect of contemporary society: “In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.” Coining this term in 2004, Keyes argued that post-truth can ultimately lead to an erosion of social trust, which is a key foundation of a healthy society.
In 2010, blogger David Roberts applied this term to politics, saying that this takes place when public opinion and media narratives – irrespective of their factual grounding – become almost totally disconnected from the substance of policy and legislation.
Keyes and Roberts echo what social theorist Jean Baudrillard hypothesised in the 1980s, when he believed that we are living in an age of simulation. Here we are seduced by what we see in themedia, irrespective of whether it is true or false. In a hyperreal context, therefore, Pikachiu and the Kardashians can cause more excitement and concern than climate change.
Populisms of the right and left excel in creating narratives which excite voters, yet which can ultimately result in a political hangover
The concept of post-truth politics is being used as a tool of analysis of various political campaigns today. For example, some argue that the pro-Brexit campaign successfully depicted a post-EU and post-migration Britain while ignoring the complexities, opportunities and risks of today’s global political economy.
In the heat of the pro-Brexit campaign, one of its chief architects Michael Gove, famously asked: “Who needs experts?”
Well, perhaps experts are needed as they can engage with vague promises, unfounded claims and sensational statements thrown out to the public by populists. And perhaps this is why post-truthers feel so queasy about evidence-based research and recommendations.
Indeed, populisms of the right and left excel in creating narratives which excite voters, yet which can ultimately result in a political hangover once the populists are in power. Venezuela knows something about this.
Needless to say, a vociferous exponent of post-truth politics today is Donald Trump. An excellent communicator, Trump frequently gets away with narratives which are hardly based on a shred of accuracy.  He often makes explosive claims which immediately gain media attention.
For example, he had once said that Barack Obama founded Islamic State and that he was not born in the US. Trump believes that climate change is a hoax, and that Hillary Clinton actually founded the anti-Obama ‘Birther’ movement.  Not to mention the numbers he splashes out irrespective of their truthfulness.
I notice that Trump also frequently gets away with a tactic that is also used by populists of our times. He refers to ‘reports’ that he read without substantiating. If he really read these ‘reports’, who wrote them? Are they scientific?
Of course, there are various media outlets which are putting Trump to task. Fact-checkers, truthometers and other tools are being used to verify his claims and count his false statements. Yet, the social media and the public sphere is not only made up of readers of credible newspapers.
Indeed, today’s media ecology has two sides. On the one hand, the social media is enabling decentralisation and the flourishing of different voices. On the other hand, however, one also encounters media narratives which are dubious to say the least. For every newspaper which ensures that reporting is grounded in research and credible evidence, one finds all sorts of outlets which put forward seductive claims devoid of systematic analysis.
In such a context, the mediasphere is pushed towards competing through sensationalism. Yet, credible press agencies which systematically engage with what they are reporting on are vital for self-respecting democracies. Here, statements are taken to task, and not simply reproduced.
In this regard, I want to emphasise that post-truth statements are not only the prerogative of certain politicians. This populist strategy may also be used by ‘big’ and ‘small’ crusaders of different stripes and colours. And Malta is no exception.
Politicians, policymakers, journalists, academics and activists who simply brush away the influence of post-truth tactics are doing so at their own peril. The unintended consequence of a lack of engagement may well be stronger post-truth politics.