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Geldof neo-colonialism

Band Aid is shit. Find the original article here.

It’s that time of year again, and in the festive spirit of giving, the aging Bob Geldof has rallied together another juvenile band of celebrities to raise their sagging profiles and profit from another crisis. Band Aid 30’s re-release of the patronising “Do they know it’s Christmas” reportedly raised more than £1mn in the first five minutes since its release to help tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although this is an important campaign, and a problem that requires a concerted effort to solve, there are serious issues surrounding Band Aid. Primarily, the song is patronising and offensive (yes, I’m fairly certain many people in Africa are aware that it is Christmas, especially those that celebrate it as a religious holiday) and cultivates the archaic image of Africa as ‘backwards’, and of Africans as ‘savages’; unable to fend for themselves and requiring the intervention of ‘white saviours’ to rescue the situation. This neo-colonialist attitude entrenches negative assumptions about Africa, and encourages broad and largely incorrect generalisations about Africans.Ebola-no-Ebola1

Emeli Sande, one of the artists who sang on the record, has criticised the lyrics, acknowledging that they could be perceived as offensive and disrespectful, but highlighting that the intention of the single is to raise money where governments have responded woefully slowly. Rapper Fuse ODG pulled out of the single at the last minute, claiming he felt “awkward” about some of the lyrics, adding that that the track “is quite detrimental to the continent [Africa]” and is a “quick fix” solution to a wider problem. Others have gone further in their criticism. Solome Lemma, who co-founded Africans in the Diaspora as well as the Africa Responds initiative on Ebola, emphasised the lack of inclusiveness of the Band Aid modus operandi, which propagates a “white saviour” narrative. She said: “the song is patronising and negative and it is sad that they haven’t worked with and included African musicians, especially from the countries affected. You have very well-known, mainstream singers, talking about Africa with very little inclusion of Africans.”

Indeed, many African artists have heaped criticism on the song for its negative portrayal of Africa to the rest of the world. Carlos Chirinos, producer of an alternative charity single, “Africa Stop Ebola”, which has been written by African artists in response to the Ebola outbreak, juxtaposed the need for funding to prevent the spread of the disease with the negative outcomes of the Geldof model: “it’s worth doing it for the money and the money is needed, however it comes at a cost and the cost is the way in which Africa is being portrayed to the rest of the world.” Many of these criticisms have been around since the first release of the song in the 1980s – some of these have been humorously conveyed, such as the spoof charity song by ‘Radi-Aid’ to provide Norwegians dying of frostbite with radiators. Methods like this stress the ignorance of many people in developed countries about the inspiring and progressive things going on in Africa following years of negative propaganda, and, even, the most under-emphasised point – that Ebola has afflicted a small number of communities in a small number of countries, and that the majority of Africa is unaffected by the disease.
The notion that a bunch of celebrities devoting their precious time to help ‘poor, needy Africans’ plays up to the ridiculous caricature of starving Ethiopians that the original single spread. Further, it is offensive to the vast number of ordinary people who have donated money to charities like Medicins sans Frontieres, who are on the front line assisting with health care, and the medical professionals who have dropped everything to help looking after Ebola patients, often putting themselves at risk. Those in the UK who donate the largest proportion of their incomes to charity are in fact the poorest, yet Bob, Bono and chums can’t even summon the courage to pay their taxes. Rather than donating some of the $150mn and $600mn they are respectively worth, they would rather guilt trip people into forking out their hard-earned cash on some tuneless drivel that purports to solve all of Africa’s problems. It’s ironic (and not even in an Alanis Morrisette way), given that it’s people like them that are the root of such problems – pompous wealthy white men from developed countries extoling a destructive image of people from developing countries, while contributing to an oppressive, IMF-driven humanitarian aid system that undermines developing countries’ sovereignty, autonomy and dignity.

Electrifying the slums: Renewable Energy in Payatas

Jo_dumpsite and homes


The potential for renewable electrification has been largely overlooked in urban slums. This project therefore aims to evaluate the extent to which new infrastructure could supply a target of 75% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2030 in Payatas, a slum in the Philippines. Primary meteorological and survey data is used to supplement secondary data to estimate demand in 2030 at 11MW, and to calculate the possible contribution to supply of four renewable electricity sources; wind, solar, hydroelectric and landfill biogas generation. A total 12.66±4.91MW could be generated with three renewable technologies: wind energy is an unviable option in Payatas due to low wind speeds, and therefore does not contribute to this figure. Landfill biogas could generate base-load of 0.99±0.06MW, for which the infrastructure is already in place. Distributed solar photovoltaic generation could meet peak demand, supplying 2.59±0.41MW of electricity at the point-of-use, alongside a run-of-river micro-hydroelectric scheme, the potential output of which is the most significant of all technologies analysed, at 9.08±4.89MW. Whether or not 75% of electricity demand (8.3MW) can be supplied renewably in 2030 depends largely on hydroelectric output, which is highly uncertain, and to which the model developed is most sensitive. The significant uncertainty of the study therefore limits its conclusions. Many factors beyond the scope of this study are also influential, thus further research into economic, political, and technical aspects of this study is recommended. 


Development; climate change; energy security; renewable electricity generation; Philippines 

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Congo’s New Gold Rush

This is a feature piece I’ve written for the Global Section of Concrete this edition. I’m not looking forward to having to edit it down to fit in the paper.

Coltan. Tantalum. Cobalt. Sounds like things relevant to nobody except Walter White. Guess again; these precious minerals are in virtually every electronic device you can imagine – tantalum extracted from coltan is used to manufacture the capacitors that have mostly replaced platinum for use in smartphones, and cobalt is widely used in rechargeable lithium batteries. Most people in the UK probably use a device containing one of these minerals 20 times or more every day.

One of the largest deposits of cobalt is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and estimates of the coltan resource range between 64% and 80% of the global total. This has prompted a recent mining boom in DRC which has financed serious ethnic conflict and war.

Fighting in the so-called “coltan belt” dramatically increased at the beginning of the noughties, and metal mining has been linked to the Ituri conflict in 2002, when 3,000 civilians were massacred and virtually no international media outlets even reported on it. The profits from lucrative mines are seized by the militias and local warlords who control them, and the money is then used to finance military exercises, spurring violence and destruction across Congo. The government has been fighting the armed rebels for years, with new groups rising out of the woodwork whenever successful attempts are made to hold off conflict. The M23 rebels surrendered to a government offensive this month, signing a deal that will put an end to insurgency in the East that has continued since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, and has included the widespread perpetration of war crimes. It is unlikely that this will have to be the last such deal.

Children are forcibly assimilated into these armies, becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, and committing horrendous atrocities as a result of their desensitised attitudes towards other human beings. What is perhaps more alarming is that the horrors in Congo go largely unreported; 5.4 million people died during the war from 1998 to 2007, out of a total population of 69 million – that’s nearly 8% of all the people in the country. Fighting also displaces millions of people – 300,000 (equivalent to the population of Venice) fled the M23 army last April, and an estimated 2.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the Lord’s Resistance Army first surfaced in the late 1980s.

Congo is often called the “rape capital of the world”, following reports from NGOs like Human Rights Watch documenting the use of rape as a weapon of war; more recently a 2007 study estimated more than a million Congolese women have been raped once or more during their lifetime. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has seen an increasing number of sexual attacks committed on children between the ages of 8 and 17, with 13.3% under the age of 10 – girls are most at risk, while boys are in danger of recruitment into the ranks of rebel armies.

The situation can be traced back through Congo’s tumultuous colonial past, following Belgium’s land grab during the “scramble for Africa” from the late 1880s up until the outbreak of World War One. Belgian Congo was simply a source of raw materials for Belgium, and the plentiful natural resources there have been rapaciously exploited ever since colonisation. Insurrection following independence in 1960 carved out Congo’s military trajectory – Mobutu seized power by force, ruling for more than 30 years, until he was ousted following the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, and replaced by the puppet of Rwanda and Uganda, Laurent Kabila. The resulting war when they grew tired of their proxy and attempted to remove him is referred to as Africa’s First World War. Since then, the resulting free-for-all has allowed armed groups to seize control of mines in order to facilitate the mayhem with blood money from the sale of diamonds, gold, tin, tantalum and cobalt.

It is widely documented that corrupt government officials profit from the illegal spoils alongside the warring factions with de facto control over the mines. The slow progress in cleaning them up is having an effect on this illicit trade agreement, whereby government and rebel armies alike fund horrific brutality with appropriated minerals, growing fat off the profits while ordinary Congolese people die. The situation is perpetuated by underhand government funding to the rebels, providing them with weapons whilst visibly fighting them in the anarchic eastern provinces.

Recent attempts to disconnect the supply of essential minerals from warfare, such as the “no blood on my cell phone” campaign, leg by NGOs and religious institutions, called for a trade embargo on “blood tantalum”, drawing parallels with the successful campaign to raise awareness about blood diamonds. The phrase refers to diamonds mined in conflict areas and often used to finance the activities of warlords or insurgency, as was seen in the late 90s and early 00s in countries in West Africa, like Sierra Leone and Angola. So successful was the campaign to eradicate the sale of blood diamonds in the West that it prompted the creation of the film by the same name about the Sierra Leonian civil war from 1996 to 2001. However, the glamour of diamonds is not easily transferrable to a campaign about the sale of component materials present in items that are so extensively used in industrialised countries. Trying to get people to give up items which have become so firmly entrenched in our everyday lives as to make it unthinkable to live without them is going to be a hard-sell.

The corporations that benefit from the production of cheap blood tantalum know this only too well. Although some companies, like Motorola, HP and Intel, which manufacture everything from phones to computer microchips, have started to wean themselves off the habit, there are many who still profit from it, relying on our addiction to technology and our unwillingness to pay more for it.

New regulations to certify non-conflict minerals cost companies a significant amount above what it costs to buy whatever raw materials they can, at the lowest price. Intel employee Chuck Mulloy recently outlined in the National Geographic why the company has sacrificed some of their profits in the name of clean minerals: “we don’t want to support people who are raping, pillaging, and killing. It’s as simple as that”.

However, what seems simple on the surface may involve a much more complex array of factors – a six-month ban on mining and trading activities in Eastern Congo, imposed by the government towards the end of 2010, had devastating effects on the livelihoods of miners in the region. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, signed by Obama in summer 2010, was criticised for the same reasons – that it would force companies like Intel to boycott all mines and smelters that could not prove their conflict-free, or “green” credentials, thereby removing the livelihoods of tens of thousands of poor miners. This was the case for some time, although the growth of certified green mines and smelters, with a rubber-stamping guarantee system, has led to a resurgence in the mining of precious minerals, this time without the bloodstains.

Heightened awareness and some degree of consumer pressure has obviously led to some companies developing a conscience with regards to precious metals. The Fairphone is the first smartphone in which every component in the supply chain is guaranteed to be conflict-free, and aims to be environmentally and socially responsible in every aspect of its manufacture. 25,000 have already been sold, indicative of a growing concern among citizens of developed countries about atrocities committed in the name of technological progress in countries like Congo. Hopefully it will be soon that every phone you buy will be untainted with the blood and pain of Congo’s war.

7107 Islands – Part II


I guess I must declare from the outset of this post that I am an atheist. Of course this doesn’t mean anything for anyone else – in fact I think religion is a great thing if it works for a person, it just doesn’t for me, thanks to my ruthlessly logical and scientific mind. Being able to find solace, or courage, or meaning in religion is wonderful, and I have seen that it can do amazing things for people. My problem therefore is not so much with spirituality, but with organised religion. I encountered a lot of both in the Philippines, some of which made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and some of which I didn’t mind at all. It is a very Catholic country (something that is a relic of Spanish colonialism, with which I have a whole other set of issues entirely), which is sometimes overt, for instance in the case of the insular Iglesia ni Christo churches, but often it is not. Nevertheless, I was not bothered by the presence of religion in most places I went.

During my stay, we spent some time with a priest, Father Paul, who is amazing, and deservedly well respected in Payatas for the incredible things he has done. Because Filipinos are so religious, he has been able to achieve some very positive things because he is a priest, and people are generally more receptive to what he has to say, which at times can be fairly radical. In such an environment, an enlightened and respected individual like him can make a far greater difference than anyone else, particularly western ‘experts’ or researchers who haven’t got a clue what’s going on (myself included). However, because priests have so much authority, it matters what they have to say, and who they are – everyone has a worldview, and everyone has an agenda. My concern is more that the church impedes development in the Philippines, while those doing truly good work are in the minority.

At the moment, there is a bill going through Parliament called the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill. As could probably be predicted it refers to universal access to information about things like abortion, family planning and contraception. As could also be predicted, the Catholic Church is vehemently against it, and implementation of the law has been delayed as a result of opposition. On the side of one church we saw a sign that proclaimed the government should be opposing the RH bill because it would a) create terrorism, b) (I paraphrase) turn children into sexualised monsters and c) create poverty. The ridiculousness of this sign is most scary because people are taken in by it. In what world does being able to choose whether or not to have a child create more poverty? Surely, it does the exact opposite. The imposition of the Church’s fearful remonstrations and opinions is what I find disgusting – taking away from people who often lack access to basic sex education the right to think for themselves and take control of their own bodies, families and lives.

Of course, I found the expectation to sing hymns and say grace a strain too, but those are the kinds of things I can deal with out of respect for the people I am with. Besides, I find the expectation to sing karaoke a strain too, even at the best of times (i.e. two bottles of Red Horse down). It is only when I see the flagrant abuse and institutionalised, systemic undermining of progress by the Catholic church that I have a problem with it. It is under these circumstances that one can really see where Marx was coming from when he spoke about religion being the “opiate of the masses”. The Catholic Church is bad enough, but the cultish Iglesia ni Christo is far worse. The stories I heard about the links to big money and organised crime are enough to turn your stomach, even before you consider the positions it takes and the way it tries to place its ministers into promising government positions.

My experience with the particular Filipino brand of religion was thus pretty mixed. On the one hand it felt incredibly overbearing, and a hindrance on the personal development of people, and on the development of the nation as whole. Meanwhile, on the other, I felt that on an individual level it gave people hope and purpose – which can’t be derided. I feel that the problem is when religion is used imperialistically, much as it is elsewhere in the developing world. Spirituality supersedes borders, whereas organised religion is often needlessly used to realise ulterior ambitions – and therein lies the problem.


Electric Highwaymen


Jumping the meter wall in Phase 3

 During my trips to Payatas I learned a lot about something which is at best a sideline in my research, but which goes far deeper than it superficially appears. Illegal electricity abstraction is fairly common in certain areas of Payatas, particularly closest to the dumpsite, and in Phase 3. ‘Jumpers’ who connect wires to the grid cables to extract electricity run the risk of electrocution, house fires and death – the month before we were there someone died from fixing a dodgy connection. The need to connect to an electricity supply in order to be a part of the modern world is just that – a need, albeit produced by globalisation (which is extremely visible in the Philippines). It is not exactly like the appliances people use are decadent – a single light bulb to illuminate what are often dark houses because they are all built so close together; an electric fan to move the sweltering air and keep the mosquitoes away; a TV to feed the desire to consume and reinforce the inequality that is already so huge; a fridge to reduce the drudgery of living literally hour-to-hour, day-by-day. All of this of course if they can afford it. The electric company that supplies Payatas, Meralco, already has most expensive rates in the country, and there are no alternatives in the area except home-generation, which precious few people can afford in the city, let alone in Payatas. Furthermore, they have specific conditions about what type of buildings they will connect to the grid; namely that a dwelling must have a discernible kitchen and C.R. (bathroom). However, the poorest people often live in poor-quality housing that does not satisfy these conditions, making them ineligible for a legal, metered electricity supply. To access the modern world in even the most minor of ways these people must therefore obtain their electricity via a profiteering intermediary, who charges extra for an illegal sub-metered connection to a legal mother-meter, held under a Meralco account. Of course these intermediaries may also be victims of the system of poverty themselves – not racketeering but merely scraping a subsistence wage – but their existence simultaneously perpetuates the system whereby the poorest are charged the most for electricity, and is a symptom of it. It is a clear expression of what Oscar Wilde and Robert Tressell called “altruism” and “philanthropy”, respectively, describing the wage-slavery of the British working classes at the turn of the last century. The poorest people are charged the most money for energy, their money lining the pockets of fossil fuel magnates and corporations in a country that still has an ongoing problem with corruption. This, while the richest ex-pats and elites in their gated sub-divisions and third homes avoid fully paying taxes and electricity rates via creative accounting, reporting and golden hand-shaking. The system that allows companies to enforce poverty by only providing energy to those who are considered to be living in ‘proper’ dwellings, while depriving those very people of such decent housing is itself corrupt, and moribund. The ‘jumpers’ and the middlemen may be doing something illegal in ‘stealing’ electricity in the eyes of the legislature that upholds the status quo, but they are truly victims of an immoral and deformed system; a system that is stealing from them.

7107 islands

After my month doing research (and having fun) in the Philippines, I thought it was only fitting to write down some of my experiences. Mostly I have put things into sections, but some of it is a splurge. Here’s the first instalment (more when I have time to type):


yellow head



I went to the Philippines primarily to do research for my final year of university. Admittedly it was also a very good excuse for a wicked holiday, but as I got funding for it, it was decidedly more research-orientated. I spent a solid 2 weeks meeting shiny bureaucrats and engineers and took wind measurements twice every day, all for jokes, obviously. I was well angry because I dragged a HUGE water flow meter all the way from Norwich (on my bike) to London, to the Philippines, and then got it to the river, where it was way too dangerous to use because it was rainy season. I couldn’t have been more miffed, honestly, but I can’t say I didn’t expect it. In all, my research went swimmingly – mostly because I had a lot of help in the way of things like Tagalog translation, introductions, moral support, and anemometer readings – thanks Josh. Going in person to meet all of the people that mattered is obviously the way to get things done – as I suspected. Well, it shows you mean business, and sadly in the developing world a well-dressed white girl with a mean look on her face can go a longer way than nameless emails can.


If there’s one thing the Philippines does well, it’s bureaucracy; as I found out to my detriment. I got more annoyed than I probably should have done by the amount of red tape surrounding everything, which would be enough to hang an elephant with room to spare. I should have known from the outset when my emails to various government bureaucrats got repeatedly bounced between different offices in a bizarre kind of secretarial ping-pong match. Some Department of Energy officials have something nuts like seven secretaries – that’s the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the PA of the secretary to the officer in charge of their specific section, and there are a helluva lot of those… Well, it’s one way of filling an office I guess. To visit the DOE, I had attempted to get in contact for weeks, but to no avail. The department seems to have enveloped itself in an impenetrable thicket of red tape to ensnare all but the most well connected or determined. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I was the former – it took a phone call from a rich Christian bigwig in the PNA who I happened to encounter through Josh’s connections with the charity to a school friend of his to get me a meeting. I was expecting a five-minute splurge, so it seemed odd after all that to see how eager and willing to help these guys were. The man I intended to meet seized a passing colleague, who had more answers than I had questions – he was still going long after my list had been exhausted. They then proceeded to take us on a tour of the whole renewables department, introducing me to (and I don’t mean this lightly) literally everyone he knew in each office. He picked up his friend from a basement office and the two of them – both funny little old men – gibbered away unintelligibly in English (not either of their first language), holding hands and taking us to every office to meet various workers. We only didn’t meet Big Boss Mario, who curtly replied to my emails by palming me off to his underlings, because “he doesn’t have the time for the likes of us”. Josh and I exchanged incredulous looks and suppressed the giggles rising in our throats while we were paraded around through the shiny hallways, cramped offices, and cafeteria.