Why should Pakistan trust us?

Distrust lies at the heart of the west’s relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan -- but this is n

For western governments to lecture the likes of Pakistan about democracy and stability, as David Cameron did this morning, must seem a cruel joke to many in that country. Our part of the world has a long history of generously lending money to fuel violence, prop up undemocratic, often brutal regimes and exacerbate poverty.

Pakistan is a country with only 54 per cent literacy, and where 38 per cent of small children are underweight, yet it spends nearly $3bn a year servicing debts -- almost three times what the government spends on health.

Loans have flowed freely into Pakistan in order to keep favoured military governments in power, most recently that General Pervez Musharraf, when Pakistan's debt increased from $32bn to $49bn.

A recent $7.6bn International Monetary Fund loan, needed so that the country can keep paying off its old debts, is conditioned on reducing budget deficits, eliminating electricity subsidies and increasing indirect taxation. As usual, ordinary people will pay for the west's "largesse" that kept in power governments subservient to western interests.

Such injustice doesn't stop at Pakistan. Consider Indonesia, where 61 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day. Like with India, as David Cameron reminded us this morning, fighting poverty in Indonesia will be central to the success of the Millennium Development Goals. But just like India, this seems a second-order priority compared to selling scores of Hawk fighter jets to the country.

Indonesia still owes the UK over $500m for Hawk jets and other military equipment sold to the brutal General Suharto. Suharto was guilty of crimes against humanity by any standard, killing up to a million political activists in his first year in office.

Today, Indonesia pays over $2.5m every hour to service its $150bn debts -- much run up by Suharto. Is it surprising if Indonesians think their lives matter less than the financial and strategic interests of the west?

Afghanistan has been rushed through the debt cancellation process to prevent any embarrassing examination of past lending, but has been forced to privatise its banks and will doubtless return to the same state of heavy indebtedness in years to come -- it serves the government, which needs the finances to hold on to power, and it serves the west, which needs the debts to keep control after the soldiers leave.

Control of these countries can be maintained through this same, deeply unjust economic system, through playing one faction off against another, through fighting when everything else fails to work. Democracy, stability and trust, however, require something far bolder, but not impossible.

It is possible to stop lending in such deeply unjust ways. It is possible to cancel debts based on loans that should never have been lent. It is possible to stop forcing countries to pay what they are unable to afford, or to force them to make their economies work in our interests simply because we can.

As repayments on deeply toxic debts continue to drain Muslim countries of their wealth, we need to realise that the debts, or reparations, if you prefer, that our governments owe the Muslim world are vast and rising. Trust will not be possible until they are paid.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign's "Fuelling Injustice: the Impact of Third World Debt on Muslim Countries" is available at jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage