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.