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Cold War to COVAX: New US President rallies allies, but no brave new world in sight

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by Rajan Philips

Six months in office, President Biden took his first foreign trip last week, attending the first in-person G7 summit after the pandemic over the weekend, at Carbis Bay in Cornwall, England, and meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva. In between, he attended a summit gathering of NATO member country leaders on Monday and met with the European Council on Tuesday. The G7, NATO and the EU meetings became occasions for diplomatic China bashing. And China responded in kind and more, through its Embassies in London and in Europe rather than by the mandarins in Beijing. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy might be irksome to old school sensibilities, but China seems to be in no hurry to change its modes of diplomacy to please anybody.

Everything is different now from the geopolitics of Cold War. Russia is no longer the West’s main adversary, and capitalism and socialism are not the same weighty words as they once were. Vladimir Putin is, at best, or worst, mostly a significant spoiler. It is China that looms large from the East, pre-occupying western powers, but the terms of engagement now are more competitive and less conflictual. The world is currently without any serious skirmishes, internal or otherwise. There is a lull even in the Middle East, and there are hopes that it might continue with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump out of power, at least for now. But where violence has receded, the pandemic has taken over. And Cold War politics has given way to vaccine politics.

 

When history fails to turn

Yet, after much haggling and despite promises to do a lot more, G7 leaders were not able to come up with anything more than one billion vaccine doses when 11 billion of them are needed to immunize the world’s population. Gordon Brown, former British Finance Minister and later Prime Minister, has called the G7 summit another missed opportunity in the history of summits, “another turning point where history failed to turn.” He blamed G7 leaders for their failure to honour the pre-summit promise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to vaccinate the entire world.

Besides Johnson, more than 100 former world leaders had called on G7 leaders to pledge $44bn of the $66bn needed to vaccinate the world, or eight billion doses and not one billion. A joint Norway-South Africa plan had worked out that eight billion doses donation would involve 27% contribution from the US and 22% contribution from the EU. The current US promise of 500 million doses amounts to 50%, which is a significant share but of the pathetically scaled down one billion promise of the Group of Seven countries. In early May , President Biden announced America’s support for waiving western vaccine patents to facilitate worldwide production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines. His radical turn surprised many, but found no support in G7 and the summit once again “failed to turn.”

Aid and welfare agencies are palpably disappointed with the poor show of vaccine generosity by the wealthiest of the world’s nations, and these civil societies are not likely to be enthused by President Biden’s clarion call for democracies of the world to unite against its autocrats. Nor are other G7 countries entirely enthusiastic about agreeing with the US policy towards China. A number of them do not want to alienate China which they see has a necessary role to play in the global economic recovery after the pandemic. To non-American observers, Biden’s position on China is not very different from that of Trump; what is different is the absence of Trump’s narcissism and racism. And America’s allies, while relieved at the exit of Trump and the entry of Biden, are also unsure that there will not be another political recession in the US similar to what they have had to unexpectedly encounter over the last five years.

Even though China was the main subject at the summit, the final statement reflected a balance between the pushes and pulls between America and its allies. Perhaps the sharpest note in the 70-point G7 statement could be the reopening of the ‘origin’ controversy involving the coronavirus. The summit’s call to make a “science-based” determination of the origins of COVID-19 may have better served its totally legitimate and objective purpose if the call too could have found a science-based origin rather than adversarial politics. Unfortunately, there is no international mechanism to facilitate such a consensus.

As Secretary General António Guterres rued last September marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, “the pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation — a test we have essentially failed.” The G7 summit, while it was positively different with Biden displacing Trump as America’s President, came nowhere near to rectifying the failure of international cooperation that the Secretary General was alluding to. There are many things about China that are not at all unexceptionable, but isolating a giant of a country and economic powerhouse is not the way to foster international co-operation, or to determine the truth about the origins of COVID-19.

Two days after G7, NATO got in on the act of targeting China, for first time in its deliberations, and calling China’s actions as a threat to “rules-based international order.” China responded calling NATO to stop “slandering” and to “devote more of its energy to promoting dialogue”. That NATO’s take on China may have been more a manifestation of bureaucratic overreach and not political consensus became evident from the notes of caution that came from the British and French leaders, among others. Prime Minister Boris Johnson asserted that nobody “around the table wants to descend into a new Cold War with China.” France’s Emmanuel Macron had earlier admonished that “China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” while Germany’s Angela Merkel had apparently emphasized that western alliances are “not about being against something, but for something”.

 

Positive Initiatives

Besides COVID-19, the summit focused on human rights, again targeting China over human rights violations in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. A somewhat positively competitive response to China was the announcement of a new global infrastructure plan. In an obvious counter to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, the G7 group at America’s prompting has come up with an initiative of its own, called “Build Back Better World (B3W).”

The new plan is expected to raise about $40 trillion by 2035, and will focus on improving “climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality” conditions in developing countries. By comparison, China’s Belt and Road initiative launched in 2013 is bankrolled solely by China to the tune of $160 billion and is expected to focus more on hard infrastructure projects. The rest of the world can only applaud the two initiatives while hoping that the two promoters will allow other countries to proportionately benefit from both, and not from one or the other.

An even more far reaching summit outcome is the agreement on global corporate taxation. Already in the run-up to the summit, G7 Finance Ministers had reached a deal on (1) source-taxing corporations (i.e., to tax businesses in the countries where they conduct business and earn income); and (2) a global minimum tax proposal of 15% on businesses. The 15% rate is lower than the business tax rate in every G7 country, so this is not a tax increase in those countries. But what it will do is to expose to taxation multinationals and digital companies that now keep running for tax holidays and tax havens. Netherlands, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Ireland are among the more established tax havens, where “phantom investments” flow but no physical manifestations (as in factories, sales, or jobs) are seen. According to the IMF, “phantom investments” account for 40% of the world’s much coveted FDIs (Foreign Direct Investments). Is Sri Lanka’s Port City meant to be a magnet for its miniscule share of phantom investments?

The G7 agreement over global taxation is really the culmination of a much broader effort involving more than 100 countries working over a number of years. And the estimated revenues from global taxation are quite significant – ranging between $250 billion to $600 billion annually. While the G7 agreements is a big step forward, there are obstacles ahead as nothing can be done without the support of everyone. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen mooted the idea for global taxation long before the G7 summit, but it will have to pass muster in the US congress. There is broad support in the EU, but Ireland could be an outlier. The next forum for the global taxation effort will be the gathering of G20 Finance Ministers in Venice in July. Large countries from every continent including China and India will be at the table. Its outcome will offer clues about the pace of global taxation reform.

 

From Nixon to Biden

The Guardian in one of its editorials last week recalled something that no one in the US or China would seem to have bothered to note so far. It is that next month would be the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China to prepare the path for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972. The visit lasted a week, “the week that changed the world,” as President Nixon famously declared. No one, not even President Biden, is going suggest that the new President’s first week of foreign forays in England and in Europe is going to change the world. But there is no denying the extent to which the world has changed between Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and Biden’s visit to Europe in 2021. It is not that Nixon’s visit changed the world, but only that he seized the opportunity in a world that was already beginning to change.

Henry Kissinger reportedly assured Chinese leaders that “It is the conviction of President Nixon that a strong and developing People’s Republic of China poses no threat to any essential US interest.” Fifty years later, President Biden is calling on democracies to come together against the world’s authoritarian powers, primarily China. In a sense, Biden’s meeting with Russia’s Putin in Geneva last Wednesday caricatures Nixon’s historic visit to China. The summit was a useful necessity even if it was mostly meant for the domestic audiences of the two leaders. Putin wanted to show Russians that under him their country is still a force to reckon with, even though it no longer has the armour of a Soviet Union. For Biden, it yet another demonstration that Trump is gone and America is back. Yet, it was useful that the two leaders have opened a dialogue, which is essential if any headway is to be made, especially in the Middle East.

But it will be paradise lost if America and the West were to fail to open a new dialogue with China without isolating it or ganging up on it. Western leaders made the same mistake after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when they isolated Russia and invited all the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO and gang up on Russia. But there is no comparison between Russia without the Soviet Union and 21st century China that is set to surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy in a matter of decades. Yet, there are also growing backlashes against China even as its economic power grows, not only in the West but also in China’s own backyard and wider Asia. The EU, Lithuania and Hungary have recently blocked or put on hold economic partnership prospects with China. On the other side, Australia, South Korea, India, and South Africa are open to aligning themselves with G7 countries. They were all in sidebar attendance at the G7 summit.

If there is paradise to be regained, it can only be through the working of multilateralism. For all its unanticipated problems, the 21st century is remarkable for growing reality of multilateralism in spite of its serious institutional limitations. Beefing up the world’s multilateral institutions should be the first order of business for world leaders in whatever forums they gather. That was not anyone’s agenda at the G7 summit. Nor is it likely to be uppermost in China when it will celebrate, on July 1, the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.



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They do it differently…

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Michelle and husband Chanitha

Duos are there, aplenty, especially in this pandemic scene, but what Michelle and Chanitha do together, as a husband-and-wife duo, is totally different.

This has, no doubt, paved the way for their success, as entertainers, in the entertainment scene, in the Maldives.

Michelle and Chanitha are from Sri Lanka and have been performing, in the Maldives, for the past two-and-a-half years, and, they say, it has been a very fulfilling experience, especially seeing guests enjoying their music, and complimenting them, as well, for their professionalism.

Right now, they are based in a tourist resort and have been doing that scene for the past two years, as the resort’s house band.

“We had the privilege of entertaining guests at the resort’s Christmas Dinner dance (2019/2020) and also ushered in the New Year at two grand New Year Eve dinner dances (2019/2020), at the same resort,” said Michelle who, incidentally, happens to be the daughter of Melantha Perera.

Michelle went on to say that as their music is wide and varied, they also did the Valentine’s dinner dance (2020/2021), and also functions, connected with Women’s Day, and weddings, as well.

The duo’s repertoire is made up of over 600 songs, and they do pop, jazz, RnB, rock ‘n’ roll, rock, blues, and lots more.

“We both sing, harmonise, and Chanitha plays lead guitar standard solos,” said Michelle, adding that their music has been very much endorsed by guests and the bouquets that have come our way have been very gratifying.

 

 

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Critical thinking and the ‘value’ of university education

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By Harshana Rambukwella

‘Critical thinking’ is a term that has become ubiquitous in both general and higher education discourse. One sees this phrase appear frequently in educational policy statements. Many who speak of education reform see it as a key skill that education needs to foster. Those who see education primarily as a tool of producing a productive workforce or ‘human capital’ also see it as a positive attribute. However, there is little clarity about what ‘critical thinking’ means. For many involved in education policy-making it seems to mean something like problem-solving ability and the ability to make reasoned judgments – a so-called ‘higher order skill’ in Bloom’s Taxonomy (a hierarchical categorisation of skills developed by an educational psychologist in the 1950s and widely utilised worldwide). There is a significant body of scholarly literature on higher education and the need to foster critical thinking. This literature tells us that the ‘industry’ needs critical thinkers and that often our universities and undergraduate programmes are failing to produce such thinkers. Critical thinkers we are told will make better doctors, better engineers, better lawyers and a host of other ‘better’ professionals.

But to be ‘critical’ can and does have many other meanings. If we move from the adjective ‘critical’ to the noun ‘criticality’ things begin to become fuzzier. The dictionary definition suggests that criticality is something of great importance, that it is a point at which a physical material like a chemical becomes unstable, that it is an orientation to life which promotes questioning and criticising what you observe in the world and so on. It is this fuzzier meaning of the word ‘critical’ that interests me. Critical thinking, unfortunately, like many other concepts which have a long, complicated and radical intellectual history have been tamed and domesticated when they enter mainstream education discourse.I have been personally puzzled when educators talk glibly about ‘critical thinking’ when all their actions mark the very absence of such a critical spirit or orientation. For instance, within the University system I have been at many forums where we discuss the ever-increasing student load with little or no matching investment or expansion of human or physical infrastructure. On many occasions these discussions veer toward how we can use innovative teaching methods, alternative assessment strategies and other innovations to bridge the gap between increasing student numbers and the inadequacy of resources. It is very rarely that our faculty boards or senates take this question to the next level. Why are we getting increasingly larger numbers? Why is the state investing less and less in higher education? Why is an institution’s contribution to education measured in terms of student output? Clearly there is a larger fundamental set of questions about the nature and purpose of education that need to be asked. However, these questions often become marked as ‘political’ or ‘ideological’ and many educators see their role as one of avoiding such ‘politics’ or ‘ideologies’ and instead focus on the ‘practical’ aspects of education.

My submission is that a similar evacuation of the political and ideological aspects of critical thinking happens when we bring it into the curriculum and the classroom. The notion of criticality dominant in mainstream education is heavily appropriated by neoliberal thinking. In this version of criticality students are trained to practice a form of emotional self-surveillance that passes as critical thinking. It ultimately leads students to be conformist and feel guilty about their inability to be ‘productive’ members of society. Take for instance, the practice of ‘reflective thinking’ that has gained much currency in teacher education. To be a reflective practitioner in this understanding is to constantly think about how to be a ‘better teacher’. Are my methods adequate? Am I practicing learner-centered approaches? How good are my lesson plans? The casualty of such thinking is often politics and ideology. Very rarely do we compel our students or teachers/lecturers in training (student teachers), to think about how unequal and classed out education systems are. It is rarely that we speak openly or think about the sexism, classism and even racism of what passes as educational content. By reducing the notion of ‘criticality’ to a ‘skill’ (one among many other ‘productive’ skills that are supposed to be given to students to make them employable) ,a delusion is created that critical thinking is being promoted.

As opposed to this commodified and toothless notion of criticality are the meanings of ‘critical’ that lie on the fuzzier margins of the word. In western philosophical thought ‘critical’ is a term that can be traced from the thinking Socrates, for whom it meant a radical questioning of what appears normal and normative, extending through thinkers such as Erasmus, Thomas Moore, Bacon, Descartes, Russell extending into figures like John Dewey whose thinking has also played a major role in contemporary education philosophy. While the names I have invoked cover a vast range of philosophical orientations and what I am doing here is a kind of gross glossing over of different philosophical traditions, one thing in common here is a radical spirit of questioning the normative. This does not mean that all these thinkers rejected the normative or what was accepted in their societies but their understanding of norms was always tempered by a critical spirit that questioned before acceptance.

This brings me to the notion of ‘value’ in the title of this essay. In his 1997 book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings observes that ‘value’ in the new ‘corporate University is determined by accountants rather than philosophers. This pithy statement captures the dilemma of critical thinking I have been outlining above. Appropriated by a mainstream discourse of education, which in turn is heavily informed by neoliberal values, critical thinking has lost it philosophical edge – its value today lies in its ability as a skill that will provide a competitive advantage in the employment market. Reading’s book as a whole is about this neoliberal transformation of the higher education sector. What he outlined in the 1990s was a process that was gathering pace in Euro-America where modern Universities were increasingly turning both in terms of their administrative structure and in what they taught and how they defined themselves. The ‘ruins’ the title refers to is the notion of a classical university as a site of critical philosophical thought – a site from which to question the normative. In Sri Lanka what we see today is a particularly intense form of this emasculation of the notion of the classical university. Sri Lanka is fast becoming what I would call a ‘frontier market’ of higher education. State policy is guided by a highly impoverished vision about producing ‘employable graduates’ and deregulating the higher education sector so that more and more profit-making entities that offer degrees can be established. Value in this new university culture lies in the numbers of graduates that are produced and their prospective employability. Critical thinking, as I have explored in this essay as a whole, is understood in equally impoverished terms. I offer no ‘practical’ solutions to this dilemma but make these observations in a somewhat polemical style to provoke discussion and debate.

Harshana Rambukwella is Professor in English and Director of the Postgraduate Institute of English, the Open University of Sri Lanka.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies. 

 

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Teachers’ pay hikes: An unjust call

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By K. L.L. Wijeratne

The current teachers’ protests and trade action jeopardising the education and future of our younger generation need an objective analysis as to whether there are genuine anomalies in relation to respective salaries of principals and reachers.

Let us examine the origin of the purported salary issue affecting the teachers, principals and the members of the Education Administrative Service. Prior to the establishment of the teachers’ service on 06 October, 1994, teachers’ salaries were based on their qualifications as trained teachers, non-trained teachers, honours graduates, general degree holders and diploma holders. As such, there were nearly 25 categories of teachers with five salary scales as follows:

This salary structure did not provide a grading system, or promotional scheme for teachers. Therefore, the need for a Teachers’ Service with a grading system and promotional scheme was deemed reasonable and justifiable.

On September 27, 1994 then Minister of Education and Higher Education, Richard Pathirana in a note to the Cabinet sought approval for issuing a statement on World Teachers’ Day (October 6, 1994) announcing the establishment of the Teachers’ Service with effect from 6/10/1994. The structure and the salary scales of the proposed Teachers’ Service were also included in this note to the Cabinet.

The observations of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Minister of Finance, Planning, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration, dated October 4, 1994, while accepting, in principle, the establishment of a Teacher Service, noted that the proposed salary scales for the principals and teacher educators, if given, would create anomalies in the Public Service Salary Structure. She further emphasised the need for such proposed salary scales to be examined, in depth, and in comparison to other sectors of the Public Service depending on work norms and other conditions of service.

Teachers work 180 five-hour-days (around 900 hrs) a year. Whereas other public servants work 240 eight-hour-days (around 1900 hrs) a year. In view of the complexity of creating new designations and assigning of new salary scales, the task was to be referred to the Salaries and Cadres Commission for examination and report before decisions were made.

However, irrespective of these observations, the Cabinet Paper 94/14/13 was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on 28 September 1994, for the establishment of the Sri Lanka Teachers’ Service with effect from 06 October 1994, and for the implementation of the salary scales proposed for the Sri Lanka teachers service with effect from 01 January, 1995.

In response to the above Cabinet Decision, in her Note to Cabinet No: BD/356/86/34(K) dated October 1994, Minister of Finance Chandrika Kumaratunga further sought Cabinet approval for amending the Cabinet decision of 28/9/94 (item 40) by including the words, “it was decided to refer the proposals to the Salaries and Cadres Committee for a comprehensive examination and report before implementing the proposals” as the last sentence after removing the words, “and implement the salary scales proposed for the Sri Lanka Teachers’ Service with effect from 01.01.1995.”

It is significant to note that despite the well considered observations submitted by Kumaratunga as Minister of Finance, on the issues of Teacher Service salaries, the situation changed due to the presidential election held on 06 November 1994. UNP Presidential Candidate Srima Dissanayake issued a full-page notice (ref. Divaina Newspaper of 31 October 1994) promising to implement the proposed salary scale for teachers and re-structure the Principals’ Service, Teacher Educators’ Service and Education Administrative Service.

The other presidential candidate, Kumaratunga, not to be out done, got the Government to issue Gazette Notification 843/4 of 31/10/94 on the same date as the Press Notice on the subject issued by her rival presidential candidate Dissanayake detailing the following:

This was the only instance where a salary scale was gazetted before establishing a Service! Significantly enough, this was the same as that which was proposed to the Cabinet and Kumaratunga had submitted her reservations and observations on previously.

It was only on 03 April, 1995 that a gazette Notice 855/3 was issued establishing the Teachers Service duly giving the above salary scales.

Hence we see that Chandrika Kumaratunga, as a presidential candidate rivalling the promises of her opponent Srima Dissanayake, reneged on her earlier well considered position on the issue of teachers’ salary structure.

Anomalies arose due to this arbitrary manner of fixing teachers’ salaries without giving due consideration to those services in the education sector and other parallel services.

The new salary scales of teachers created serious anomalies with the Principals Service salaries. For example, Principal Grade I was placed on a much lower salary scale than a teacher Cl.2 Gr.II Subsequent legal action initiated by Principals in the Supreme Court (Supreme Court Cases Nos. 453/97, 454/97, 390/99, and 362/99) resulted in the Supreme Court decision to rectify the anomaly by increasing the salaries of the Principals.

This created anomalies between the salaries of Teacher Educators Service and the Sri Lanka Education Administrative Service (SLEAS) with the latter filing their plaint in the Supreme court (Supreme Court Cases No: 305-307/03)

In 2006, the government issued a new National Wage Policy with a salary structure and promotional scheme considering all the grades of the Public Service i.e. from Labour Grade to Senior Executive (Public Administration Circular 6/2006 of 25/4/2006.) This removed the anomalies between the Principals Service and the SLEAS and therefore the Supreme Court proceedings were terminated. It is evident, therefore, that there are no anomalies between the Principals Service, the SLEAS and other Services due to the overall, overarching comprehensive new salary structure and promotional scheme adopted across the entire Public Service. With the active consultation and participation of all trade union representatives, the government decided to maintain a salary ratio between the labour grades and the senior executive grades.

It is significant that the formulation of the new Public Sector Salary Structure introduced through the Public Administration 6/2006 Circular was a mammoth task and hitherto unprecedented achievement.

Prior to 2006 there were 126 salary scales for public servants in Sri Lanka. This was reduced to 37 salary scales with the policy decision of the government to establish an agreed salary ratio of 1:4.2 between the lowest grade in the public service and the highest grade of Secretary to a Cabinet Ministry. This new and revised salary structure was accompanied by various other important benefits for all public servants such as grade-to-grade promotions without any cadre restrictions and nonstagnation in reaching maximum salary point.

Therefore, it is clear that any other Salary Reports such as the B.C. Perera recommendations 1995 (quoted by the teachers), have now been nullified by the new salary structure for all public service categories established in 2006. Any attempt to tamper with the present salary structure for all public servants in favour of a particular group/category of Teachers, Principals, will inevitably open a Pandora’s Box.

In fact, it has been mentioned by the Supreme Court FR No:362 /99 that “it is not only legitimate, but sometimes essential to compare the salary scales of different services in order to determine salary scales (having regard to the required qualifications, knowledge, experience, skills, functions and responsibilities) and salary differentials.”

Moreover, the pensionable salary of all public servants has been increased by more than 100 percent between 2016 to 2020. Currently, these public servants are enjoying the benefits of such salary increases which were given in five instalments. For example, a teacher’s initial pensionable salary in Grade One, which was Rs. 21,750 in 2015 has now been increased to Rs. 44,950 as at 2020. Similarly, it is vital to realise that currently teachers, principals along with other public servants are obtaining more than 100 percent salary increases given by the government. As a result, there will be a tremendous increase in the total pension bill.

Another demand of the teacher unions is that their salaries be increased by declaring theirs as a ‘Closed Service’. It is already a closed service in that teachers cannot be transferred to any other departments or ministries. If the government declares it a closed service with salary increases for such services being granted, that will lead to similar demands from other so-called closed services like the Health Sector, Postal Services, Railway, Customs and Inland Revenue.

The hitherto balanced national salary structure across the public service will be upended with multiple demands being made in all sectors for salary increases.

 

(The writer, K.L.L. Wijeratne, Retd. Sri Lanka Administrative Service, was the Secretary, Salaries and Cadres Commission of Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009 and Chairman of the Salaries and Cadres Commission from 2016 to 2019)

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