Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Corruption: bringing down the mighty

A wise man once said, “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.”
Perhaps this was said at least partly in jest, but it is certainly true that corruption lurks in the shadows from the bottom to the very top of politics in many countries all over the world. Portugal’s reputation in this regard is far from the worst, but it is still appalling.
Abuse of power for private gain has long been suspected not only within parliament and local administrations, but also the judiciary, the police, the military, state agencies and nationalised and private businesses. Many if not most culprits get away with it of course.
Transparency International, which calls itself the leading civil society organisation fighting corruption worldwide, will launch its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index on December 3. Portugal is likely to drop a peg or two from its position of 15th in the 28 EU countries and 33rd in the world.
Transparency International has been monitoring citizens’ perceptions annually for the past 20 years. Keeping scores like this is a helpful guide, but it doesn’t profess to tell anything like the whole story because corruption is such a crafty, behind closed doors and under-the-table activity. 
 According to this year’s anti-corruption report produced by the European Commission, 90% of the Portuguese population think corruption is widespread in this country. The average among EU member states is bad enough at 76%.
The same report reveals that more than 70% of those within companies who responded to the EC survey believe that corruption is a problem when doing business in Portugal.
Asked if they considered patronage and nepotism to be a problem for their company when doing business, the ‘yes’ figure was again about 70%. The great majority rated the ‘problems’ in doing business in Portugal as ‘serious’ or ‘very serious.’
Plenty of people also think the medical and health system is ‘corrupt’ or ‘extremely corrupt’ and that backhanders and kickbacks are sometimes involved in awarding public tenders, or the issuing of permits and licences for building works or safety and sanitary arrangements.
Trying to keep control on corruption in Portugal starts with the national anti-corruption unit of the Polícia Judiciária (UNCC). The investigation of misconduct and abuse of power committed by holders of political office is but one of UNCC’s responsibilities.
The prevention, detection and investigation of all kinds of embezzlement, influence peddling, fraud and forgery is up to the UNCC. Big job. Although the unit is said to be under-resourced, the arrest of former prime minister José Sócrates and the unearthing of the Golden Visa scandal suggests that investigators have been working at full throttle.
How these new corruption cases are handled – and if and when they eventually reach trial - will be watched meticulously by the media, bearing in mind that the judicial system itself is perceived by many to be very corrupt. The statute of limitation for corruption offences is 15 years, which is just as well because court processes are often woefully slow.
Front-page news coverage of the Sócrates and Golden Visa cases came hard on the heels of sensational allegations against FIFA officials awarding the staging of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, violent outrage over government corruption in Mexico and shenanigans in China that have resulted in more than 13,000 officials being found guilty of corruption and bribery in the first nine months of this year alone.
So what’s new? Over the years, leaders of all stripes - dictators and pillars of democracy alike - have been unable to resist the temptation to abuse their power for personal gain.
Among the worst in modern history was the president of Zaire from 1965 to 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko. He embezzled somewhere between $5 billion and $15 billion. In addition to chartering supersonic Concorde aircraft for shopping trips to Paris, Mobutu and his family, together with an army of bodyguards, used to enjoy visits to his holiday mansion in the Algarve.
The wise man who said, “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad” was Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and then secretary of state to Richard Nixon who presided over arguably one of the most corrupt administrations in the history of the United States.
The American author John Steinbeck was of the opinion that “power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Mobutu feared being toppled by a military coup and being thrown out of his homeland, which is what happened.  
Richard Nixon’s undoing was his desperate cover-up manoeuvring, fuelled by fear of being exposed by his many political enemies for the 1972 Watergate break-in.
While José Sócrates has little else in common with these two mega-rogues, he must have known that with the worsening of the economic crisis in 2011 an ignominious fall from power was inevitable.
Perhaps the moral of the story lies with a saying attributed to the former Socialist prime minister’s namesake, the classical Greek philosopher Socrates: “He is richest who is content with the least...”

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Re-food ramps up its no-hunger effort

With the approach of Christmas comes the prospect of feasting on roast turkey and traditional Portuguese favourites such as marzipan cakes and bolo del rei. Sadly, not for everyone.
There are many people in cities, towns and villages across this country living in poverty, dependent on handouts from food banks and soup kitchens. The full extent of the problem is unclear, but it was probably greater this year than last and it may be worse again in 2015.
Only a few generations ago, food in Portugal was homegrown, seasonally plentiful and cherished for its wholesomeness.
With population growth and urban expansion, foodstuffs have become processed commodities, mass-produced and transported across continents for sale in supermarkets in vast quantities.
Abundance has given rise to immense wastage.
Amid today’s economic inequality and severe austerity, extravagance and gluttony co-exist with poverty and hunger. 
Since the founding of the world’s first food bank in Arizona in 1967, food collection and distribution systems for the hungry have been set up all over North America and in other developed countries around the globe.
The need for such systems increased in Portugal and throughout Europe with the global credit crunch in 2007-2008. It accelerated as the economic crisis developed from 2010.
Co-ordinating the collection of food from a wide range of suppliers and distributing it fairly to all ages of needy people all over the country became a complex task for members of the Portuguese Federation of Food Banks.
Unfortunately there will always be spongers keen to take advantage of anything going for free, and scroungers who see benefits or assistance as a way of life. But a great many people genuinely living in poverty through no real fault of their own feel cloaked in shame.
The prevalence of both waste and hunger moved American altruist Hunter Halder to found his so-called Re-food project in 2011 in Lisbon where he has been living for 23 years.
His idea was to complement national food bank services, as well as private charities running soup kitchens within or outside the food bank system.
Re-food’s somewhat different approach was to organise neighbourhood teams of unpaid volunteers to collect unused food from a variety of retail and catering outlets, and to repackage and deliver it to the homes of those in need.
The formula was designed to be replicated in neighbourhoods throughout the capital and eventually throughout the country.
In May of this year, when we last reported on this, most of Lisbon’s 24 parishes had Re-Food teams in action or being formed. The system had been introduced to Oporto and plans had been ‘seeded’ in the Algarve.
Halder updated us this week saying that the Re-food project was now growing exponentially and that the 1st Annual Re-food National Encounter meeting will be held on 8th December at the ISCTE-IUL campus in central Lisbon.
Around 500 senior volunteers from all over the country will gather to absorb lessons from the original Re-Food cells established in Lisbon and prepare for setting up more elsewhere.  
Thirty-three teams of volunteers have already been formed or are progressing towards full operational status. They include groups in Algoz-Tunes, Albufeira, Almancil, Quarteira and most recently Faro.
Also attending the December 8 meeting will be representatives of more than 40‘pioneer’ groups hoping to introduce Re-food in their home areas in 2015.
“Our accelerated growth will bring the benefits of the project to many more people in many more communities,” said Halder.
“At the same time we realise that our growth cannot be only quantitative. We understand that we must also grow qualitatively to insure that we always deliver the best possible service to insure that Re-food is properly replicated in each new community.”
The costs of holding the national meeting are being kept to a minimum with support from ISCTE-IUL, which has drastically reduced their fees for the use of their premises. Several major hotel groups are going to offer rooms to defer the costs of those travelling from afar. Some of the project’s food source partners will deliver lunch at no cost.
Concurrent to the meeting, Re-food is launching a central office dedicated to managing communication and information, assembling and training teams and delivering the tools and know-how necessary to enable others to replicate operations in their own communities.
On whether food wastage in Portugal is being brought under control, Halder was circumspect, but optimistic.
“There is clearly an emerging consciousness that good food is indeed precious and I suspect that all food service enterprises will very quickly re-align their practices to help stop unnecessary food waste - to burnish their public image if for no other reason.
 “I would suggest that we are at a tipping point and food waste will be reduced on multiple fronts due to the changing consciousness - and this will bolster efforts to fight hunger.”

Friday, November 7, 2014

The great drugs debate is on a high

For those of us without the benefit of deeper understanding through some form of mind-enhancing substance, it is hard to get the head around all the latest talk about drug control. But let’s try.
Broadly speaking it is all about the prohibition, decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs such as cannabis, heroin and cocaine.
Thirteen years ago, Portugal pioneered the decriminalisation route. It is not without its critics, but it has been generally acclaimed a success.
Just to get it straight, Portugal did not legalise, it decriminalised drug use.
This meant a switch from jailing to treating. Using any illegal drug came to be regarded as an issue for the health authorities rather than the justice department.
While drug use is no longer a criminal offence in Portugal, trafficking and dealing still are - and they consumes a lot of police and court time.
A major new study commissioned by the British Home Office included a comparison between the UK’s conventional efforts to control users and Portugal’s decriminalised approach.
It concluded, inter alia, that the tough punishments dished out in the UK do nothing to dissuade people from using drugs.
The Home Office report also stated: ‘‘It is clear that there has not been a lasting and significant increase in drug use in Portugal since 2001.”
The study’s findings were welcomed by the UK coalition government’s Liberal Democrats who are in favour of reform. The Conservatives were not impressed. A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We have no intention of decriminalising drugs.”
Kathy Gyngell, a research fellow for a right-leaning British think tank, commented: “First the great Portuguese drug decriminalisation fallacy was fostered; now a British liberalisation myth has been strapped on the back of it by a ruthless and conscienceless pro-drugs lobby.”
Harsh words, but then acrimony and recriminations are normal on the highly contentious subject of drug control.
The subject is hazy and much misunderstood because it is complex. It evokes strong emotions, especially among parents. Statistics do not always tell the whole story and can be slanted or used selectively to support squiffy ideas on one side or the other.
Pope Francis told delegates attending a drug conference in Rome that attempts to legalise recreational drugs “are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but fail to produce the desired effects.”
Anti-prohibitionists point to the irony in Britain where children find it easy to get hold of illegal marijuana but cannot buy legally regulated alcohol until they are 18.
Reform campaigners claim that far from providing the best protection against drug abuse, locking up ‘soft’ drug users is likely to push them into ‘hard’ drugs. What they need – and what they get in Portugal – is counselling.
Whatever one thinks of decriminalisation, Portugal has prompted other countries to take note. While Britain and countries such as France and Sweden are sticking to their guns in the ‘war on drugs,’ Holland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany have all steered away from strict prohibition.
Last December, Uruguay became the first country to make it legal to grow, consume and sell cannabis. This summer Jamaica announced it would decriminalise the possession of small amounts of ‘ganja’ as cannabis is known there.
Washington and Colorado in the US are the first states to permit the recreational use of cannabis despite a continuing federal ban. Florida, Oregon and Alaska could be next in line. Californians are expected to approve legalisation of marijuana when the matter is put to the vote there in 2016.
These developments seem to be building towards a fundamental global shift in attitude, guided not only by social concerns but also by also hard economic realities.
“Criminalising users of heroin, cocaine and cannabis has handed global criminal gangs and terrorists a market worth at least $300 billion a year,” says Baroness Meacher, leader of Britain’s All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform.
All eyes will now be on Uruguay and the states of Washington and Colorado to see if the legalisation of cannabis, from cultivation to retail outlets, puts the illegal dealers there out of business.
If cannabis follows the pattern of the wine and spirits industry, trade will be taken from the criminals and placed in the hands of law-abiding business people who, in the words of the Economist, “pay their taxes and obey rules on where, when and to whom they can sell their products. Money saved on policing weed can be spent on chasing real criminals, or on treatment for addicts.
In time,  Portugal may consider it wise to cut off the flow of money to the crooks by moving from decriminalising drug use to legalising it in some qualified way.
The next opportunity for making real progress on a globally coordinated alternative to the hugely costly and hopelessly failing ‘war on drugs’ will come in 2016 at a United Nations General Assembly Special Sessions gathering in New York.
The last such summit was in 2009. The next was scheduled for 2019 but has been brought forward, so there is more than a hint of urgency in seeking some pragmatic form of global ‘peace.’