Austerity, security and conflict

policia-bogotaIn today’s post Alke Jenss reflects on the synergies between austerity, security and conflict in the Latin American context.

In the Americas austerity programmes are nothing new. Neither is the loss of sovereignty concerning economic and social policies. Think of Mexico’s debt crisis in 1982 which set off a range of structural adjustment plans focusing on spending cuts and privatization in the region, or think of Argentina in 2001, and the similarities to European crises and “crisis management” will jump to your eye. Or think of Chile, where the Pinochet dictatorship was representative of a liberalization laboratory deeply dependent on austerity measures and its repressive framing. Its imagery of necessities has carried on until today.

Now, there is talk of “intelligent austerity” supposedly needed to confront the structural reduction of growth in the region, based on the “end of the super cycle of raw commodities” (CEPAL). “Intelligent austerity” is supposed to avoid excessive cuts that would affect growth and thus taxes. The UN Economic Commission on Latin America (CEPAL) has warned that the cuts in (public) investment could lead to exactly that. So, austerity is once again on the table in Latin America.

One interesting example for renewed budgetary restraints on the national and the municipal level, considering the fall of commodity prices, is Colombia where one must ask what implications austerity politics has for the current peace process between the government and guerrillas. Three points can be made:

Firstly, the peace process hasn’t affected austerity measures even though original causes of the conflict have likely been exacerbated by cuts to public spending (extreme inequality, rural isolation, violent appropriation of land, missing life perspectives). Because of the fall of commodity prices of raw materials so central to Colombian the export structure, the cabinet has agreed to reduce the investment side of the national budget by 10 %. To combat the fiscal deficit is its central concern, especially since a fiscal balance-regulation was introduced in 2011; the Banco de la República’s high interest rates focus on inflation control. In 2016, the Santos government also tried to cut running costs by introducing an “Austerity Plan” for its own public administration personnel.

Secondly, austerity measures have not seriously undermined the exorbitant security budget. The armed conflict, interestingly enough, has never been presented as the costly undertaking it is, even though the expansion of the military budget between 2002 and 2015 in absolute terms is diametrically opposed to austerity – if you took the latter literally. The internal defence budget alone has revolved around 9 billion Euros since 2012 which are fed into the military fighting of guerrillas annually. Additionally one might consider costs of infrastructure damage. This makes it far more costly to maintain the war than to end it, even though the allegedly high payments to demobilized guerrillas were one point used by those opposing the peace deal subjected to referendum in October 2016. With this and other arguments focusing on the threats that FARC fighters represent to parts of society, the campaign for a ‘no’ vote succeeded . However the campaign leader, Álvaro Uribe, never mentioned that during his government term demobilized paramilitaries formerly involved in illegal economy were awarded ample support for setting up legal businesses.

Third, the politics of austerity deeply embedded in Colombian politics affect the chances for what we might call “sustainable” peace entwined with social justice. A transformative idea of peace which by definition encompasses social justice is hardly possible with an economic austerity policies, with so many people earning only minimum wage or being in long-term displacement with no realistic perspective to return to their villages. It is remarkable enough that the FARC guerrilla agreed to the peace process on the terms that the economic model as such would not be put under scrutiny. The agreements on agrarian reform might be far reaching but in a context favouring large-scale export focussed agrarian industries, where smaller producers under pressure and public investment is cut, reality will rather cement the extreme rural inequality co-produced by decades of forced displacement and violence directed at grassroots campesino movements.

The fourth point is relevant beyond the context of the Colombian conflict. It’s the punitive take on poverty that represents austerity policies’ flip side in Latin America. It will likely persist even if the peace deal is realized with some modifications due to the referendum: prison populations have grown excessively in the Americas (see the World Prison Brief), i.e. from 126/100.000 inhabitants in 2003 to 231 in 2014 in Colombia or from 156/100.000 inhabitants in 2003 to 214/100.000 inhabitants in 2014 in Mexico. Mexico is another fundamental example where the narratives of security and austerity feed into each other in simbiosis, yet affect only parts of the highly stratified society, while some, close enough to transnational capital flows and political, boast their cars and mansions on social media. It seems quite ironic that often, the latter have been union leaders on the one hand and sons and daughters of those entrepreneurs at least bordering on illegal economy with their negocios.

As UNDP reports for the region confirm, most inmates however, complemented meagre income with what is now called narcomenudeo (small scale selling of drugs) or committed crimes such as theft or robbery. They, as the clients consuming the by-products of the drug economy, seem to sit on the lowest steps of the social classification ladder. What role do these segments of population play for society in countries such as Colombia or Mexico? They fill in the large segment of low-skilled, informal and badly paid jobs whose access to social policies is worse than ever after historical structural adjustment has conflated already selective social security programs. The gruesome numbers of police killings and disappearances underline that these social sectors are denied the most basic rights based on class and racial classifications. Austerity and punitive measures are closely linked and reinforce each other. Arguments against a raise in minimum wage are usually based on austerity and the competitive advantages narrative. But as increases in minimum wage would mostly go into consumption this might even have positive effects on domestic demand. It would break the assumed linkage between reduced spending and more growth. As things stand, they provide a growing social base for illegal economy.

Security discourses in turn legitimize policies which leave out social questions or subsume them under a theme of threat. How this relation of austerity and the production of insecurity for parts of society plays out can be observed in contemporary Latin American.

Alke Jenss is a researcher and lecturer at Bielefeld University, Germany and has worked on insecurity and the state in Latin America.

Heathrow expansion: Six reasons why it should be seen as a failure of government

2000px-heathrow_airport_map_with_third_runway-svgIn today’s post Steven Griggs and David Howarth outline six reasons why the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport represents a failure of government, that will be hotly contested and continue to generate controversy well into the future.

In his statement announcing the UK government’s decision to support a third runway at Heathrow, the transport secretary Chris Grayling said that the decision was ‘good for Britain’ and that the new proposals were ‘best for our future, and best for the whole country and its regions.’ The ‘truly momentous’ decision to expand Heathrow, it is claimed, will improve the UK’s connections with the rest of the world, while increasing international trade and creating jobs.

Most business leaders and unions welcomed the long-anticipated decision, stressing its vital role in stimulating economic growth, especially in a post-Brexit world. Politicians across the divide, apart from the Greens and Liberal Democrats, rallied to support the government. Ominously though, Zac Goldsmith resigned his Richmond Park seat and collective cabinet responsibility has been loosened to accommodate dissenting voices, most notably Boris Johnson and Justine Greening. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell remain firmly opposed to expansion, though once again they stand opposed to most of their parliamentary party.

There is no question that more airport capacity at Heathrow and Gatwick is demanded by powerful forces and vested interests. The airports are running at 98% of their capacity, and the demand for more flights shows little sign of waning. For many commentators, economic growth and global connectivity will no doubt be fuelled by the expansion of the UK’s only hub airport, though precise levels are disputed.

But once the dust has settled, and the flag-waving and trumpeting ended, what are we to make of the decision? Is this truly a triumph of strong leadership, an end to ‘dithering’ and the confident action of a government of ‘builders’ committed to ensuring Britain’s future? Perhaps a little less spin and a little more caution would not go amiss. In reality, the May government’s support for Heathrow expansion is the outcome of a series of government failures and policy reversals, which is likely to end in tears. Here are six reasons why.

First, the belated decision to expand Heathrow is a failure of political leadership. It represents the inability of the Coalition government to keep to the line agreed in May 2010, when it declared a moratorium on Heathrow expansion. But the Conservative government has chosen not to stick with David Cameron’s ‘No ifs, no buts’ promise that there would be no new runway at Heathrow. Instead, appearing to buckle against an intense pro-expansion campaign led by business, supporters of Heathrow and London First, the Coalition agreed in 2012 to set up the Airports Commission and thus to reopen the case for more expansion. Indeed, the terms of reference of the Commission directed Sir Howard Davies to examine where the new expansion should be – Gatwick, Heathrow or even “Boris Island” – and not whether there should be expansion in the South-East of England at all. Finally, the aviation industry’s demand for hub capacity made it difficult to advance any serious consideration of spreading expansion across all London airports; not just Heathrow, but Gatwick and Stansted, as well as regional airports.

But, secondly, the Davies Commission failed to deliver ‘an evidence-based consensus’, which it was hoped would take the politics out of this controversial decision. If anything, the conflicts between different airports, between airports and their surrounding communities, amongst politicians (within and across parties, and between tiers of government), and between many environmental groups and business representatives, has intensified and looks certain to continue.

And, thirdly, seen in a longer historical perspective, it is the failure to recognise that the wrong decision was made to build Heathrow in the 1940s. Because it’s in the wrong geographical location, causing untold misery and suffering of noise pollution for all those residents and households languishing under its flightpaths, further expansion can only exacerbate such detrimental effects. In fact, the decision might be seen as a failure of path dependency and institutional inertia, which goes to the heart of the British state and system of government.

Here one only has to think of the Roskill Commission inquiry into the third airport at London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the delays surrounding the inquiry into Heathrow’s planned fifth terminal. Roskill’s findings were ignored by government in favour of a new airport at Maplin, only for government to abandon this plan, when the 1973 oil crisis hit the aviation industry and local MPs threatened to rebel. The upshot has been a reliance on the production and dissemination of a ‘fantasmatic’, have-your-cake-and-eat-it narrative – we can have airport expansion and environmental protection – in which the horrific threat of not acting, and thus falling behind our foreign competitors, is bolstered by the beatific prospect of adding billions to the British economy, if and when the new runway is actually built.

A fourth failure of the new scheme relates to the problem of air quality, which is the cause of major respiratory problems and premature deaths. The problem of meeting legally binding air quality targets in London (and surrounding areas) was not properly addressed by the Davies Commission and government plans to meet its 2030 air quality targets are highly contested, as the recent court case by legal campaigners, Client-Earth, goes to show. The idea that a reduction of car emissions in and around the airport, for example, will enable the expansion plans to meet the required air pollution targets looks wildly optimistic.

Fifthly, and crucially, the plans constitute a failure to tackle the problem of climate change. The anti-expansion coalition that successfully challenged New Labour’s 2003 Air Transport White Paper, which promised major airport expansion, put the problem of aircraft emissions and our international commitments to curb climate change at the centre of their campaign. Indeed, in setting out a broad consultation exercise about airport capacity in March 2011, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, dismissed the previous thinking as ‘out of date because it fails to give sufficient weight to the challenge of climate change’. The previous Labour government had ‘got the balance [between environmental protection and expansion] wrong.’ Yet once again environmental considerations have been shoved into the background, both by the Airports commission and the wider public debate that has ensued.

A final and equally telling problem is that in all likelihood the plans will end in another disappointing failure to deliver a mega infrastructure project on time and within costs. Legal challenges by councils and other affected parties, the precise financing of the airport proposals – who, for example, will pay for the required surface infrastructures needed to ensure its feasibility? – coupled, of course, with the inevitable political challenges will invariably delay the implementation of plans – if it happens at all.

Already local councils are preparing to review the decisions and planning procedures in the courts, while local resident groups and direct action campaigners such as Plane Stupid are sharpening their preferred tools of protest. Indeed, we can expect the third runway at Heathrow to become a symbolic battle for environmental campaigners. Heathrow could well up being the next Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the proposed new international airport outside Nantes which continues to attract widespread criticism and protest across the whole of France and Europe.

Steven Griggs is Professor of Public Policy at De Montfort University and a core member of CURA. David Howarth is Professor in Social and Political Theory at the University of Essex