2012 in review: The New Statesman . . . Abroad

From a portrait of Ai Weiwei to fascist rallies in Athens, the best foreign reporting, analysis and interviews of the year from the New Statesman.

Tidings of comfort and joy! With a bumper double issue of the magazine - guest-edited by Brian Cox and Robin Ince - sent to press, it's time to reflect on the year. 

Over the Christmas and New Year period, the NewStatesman.com team will be bringing you the 12 Days of Blog-mas, with links to some of the best content of 2012 that you might have missed the first time round. (Please forgive the fact that there are actually only 11 days of Blog-mas, and that they have started too early).

Today's theme is The New Statesman Abroad. Foreign reporting is - compared with domestic news and opinion - difficult, expensive and sometimes dangerous. It's also vital. 

In some of the places we've covered this year, the country's own media are unable to report honestly because of corruption or censorship. In others, the stories which usually reach Britain are simplistic and one-dimensional. Here are six stories which we hope get close to uncovering the truth about some fascinating parts of the world.

 

The cold choice - jobs or jihad

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the NS has commissioned Olivier Roy, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence, to write a series of essays on the uprising. His first piece of 2012, The Cold Choice, looks at the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt in the wake of the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. 

His most recent piece for the NS, The Myth of the Islamist winter, was published this month.

Greece: The austerity laboratory

The NS assistant editor, Daniel Trilling, has written several longform pieces for the magazine this year after completing his book on the British National Party. In a recent dispatch from Greece, he considers the rise of Golden Dawn and the social effects of austerity. In a final coda, he visits a food bank near his house in London and asks: what can Greece's example tell us about Britain's austere future?

India after the blackout

William Dalrymple considers the contradiction at the heart of India: that its seemingly meteoric rise has divided the country even more sharply between the haves and have-nots.

For, even at the height of India’s boom, amid talk of space missions to Mars and fleets of nuclear submarines, and as the country tripled its defence budget to become one of the world’s top ten military spenders, it has also been home to one-third of the world’s poor. A full quarter of its population – about 310 million people – live in poverty.

Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Malcolm Beith, author of the book Narco, reveals the incredible toll of drug violence in Mexico and wonders why the one solution the US won't consider to the "war on drugs" is decriminalisation.

In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football.

Israel's endless war

In November, the New Statesman's editor Jason Cowley visited Israel, just as it began a renewed assault on Gaza. He found a country unwilling to question its actions.

The message from inside Israel was one of profound and unyielding unity. “There can be no peace,” it is said, “until Hamas stops trying to kill us,” irrespective of the context in which Hamas acts or the suffering of the Palestinians inside Gaza.

Earlier in the year, the NS had looked at the fading possibility of a peaceful two-state solution, with Jonathan Freeland's essay Yearning For the Same Land, and Ali Abunimah's response

Ai Weiwei: If someone is not free, I am not free

In October, the NS was guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who wanted to draw attention to the routine censorship of dissenting voices by the Chinese state. 

Features editor Sophie Elmhirst visited him in his studio, just outside Beijing, and wrote a long profile of a complex man: 

Ai lives like a king, though not in the clichéd sense. It’s more that he lives like an embattled medieval monarch, trapped in a palace that is half power base, half prison. Every day, visitors pass through to pay their respects or in the hope of finding favour. In the week I’m there, journalists, fans, gallerists, film-makers, photographers, artists, old friends and new all make their pilgrimage to the studio, and Ai patiently entertains them, having his picture taken or answering the same questions he has answered in the scores of other interviews he has done this year. One asks him to play “Water” in an experimental art film; Ai shrugs and agrees.

If Ai’s studio is his court, then Twitter is his kingdom. He might not be able to leave China, and rarely leaves his neighbourhood, but he can encounter his population directly through the social media site. He tweets to his 170,000 followers continuously; commenting on the latest political twists, retweeting support from followers and championing the causes of fellow dissidents. In 2005, he was invited to set up a blog by the internet company Sina Weibo, to which he contributed regularly until it was shut down four years later. Since then Twitter has been his platform of choice.

In his guest-edited issue, Ai used his leader column to issue a call to China to "recognise itself". "Right now, in China, we are living in conditions that no other generation has ever experienced – of great economic growth and expansion, but also great oppression of freedom of speech and human rights," he wrote. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.