They are building an airport city in Manchester

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Someone please remind me again why I live in this city

Most readers will probably not know that Manchester is quite an experimental city. The first free electric intercity metroshuttle buses in the UK began operating in Manchester. Manchester is set to have a 100MBps fibre optic network corridor interconnecting homes, businesses and universities along the famous Oxford Road. Manchester is home to one of a handful of Fablabs [small-scale workshop offering (personal) digital fabrication] across the world, complete with 3-D printers and such kit, an outfit that helps innovators seamlessly bring their ideas to life. Manchester is now home to Media City, the home of the BBC, a futuristic Media installation that is undeniably as state of the art as it gets. It was in Manchester that Graphene was first successfully isolated in 2004, at the University of Manchester, (and the scientists who discovered it won the Nobel Prize in Physics), and the invention (touted a ‘miracle material‘ and the next big thing) is set to transform technology in ways never imagined before. Beetham Tower, which is home to the Hilton hotel, restaurants and apartments was the tallest building in the UK outside London when it was completed in 2006, and is currently the tallest residential building in the UK. Manchester was the first city in the UK to get a modern light rail tram system when the Manchester Metrolink opened in 1992. Manchester will introduce a water taxi service between Manchester city centre and MediaCityUK at Salford Quays, the only one of its type in the UK. And now, they are building an Airport city, right next to the airport:

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If you want to do something new and fresh to your town and city, or if you want to push the boundaries, you should look to Manchester, because the chances are, if it’s not been done around here before, it’s either not worth doing, or is about to be done.

At this point I must state the obvious. Yes, you saw it coming, here it goes: Manchester is also home to two of football’s greatest clubs (and recently a National Football Museum), although we can probably argue about the ‘greatest’ bit forever, since curiously enough, despite my unashamed infatuation with this city, I happen to be an Arsenal fan :-).

Oh, and Manchester is the third-most visited city in the UK by foreign visitors, after London and Edinburgh.

But that’s not even half of what makes this city great…

As with most things, it didn’t just start yesterday. Anthony Burgess, Manchester born writer and composer (best known for  A Clockwork Orange), recalled in his autobiography published in 1986 how London “was an exercise in condescension. London was a day behind Manchester in the arts, in commercial cunning, in economic philosophy” For Burgess, Manchester was the real deal. And I think he had a point. This city, in the somewhat narrow frame of liberty in which its officials have been allowed to operate has been a pioneer for many years. During the industrial revolution, German writers and scientists came to Manchester, to observe first hand what these things called ‘factories’ were. With cotton mills springing up everywhere across Manchester, the city’s economy boomed, and created wealth for the industrialists. Manchester became the world first industrialised city, not least because of the textile factories and the Port of Manchester. During this time, it was dubbed ‘Cottonpolis’. Despite the city’s reliance on cotton, and the ‘pro-slavery spirit of America‘ which Sarah Redmond, a free African American Activist and Abolishionist talked about in 1859 when she visited to raise awareness about slavery, the pioneering spirit of Manchester soon had a welcome outcome: In 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal sacrifice,took a principled stand by refusing to touch raw cotton picked by US slaves.

With the cotton industry on its knees, [President] Lincoln acknowledged the self-sacrifice of the ‘working men of Manchester’ in a letter he sent them in 1863. Lincoln’s words – later inscribed on the pedestal of his statue that can still be found in Lincoln Square, Manchester – praised the workers for their selfless act of “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.

P1050639The dynamism didn’t stop there, in 1821 the Manchester Guardian was founded.

It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy. – Prospectus outlining  the aims of the Guardian [Spartacus]

In 1878 the GPO (which became British Telecom, the telecommunications giant BT) provided its first telephones to a firm in Manchester. The world’s first stored program-computer was built in Manchester, at the Victoria University of Manchester by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

And it’s not just inventions and infrastructure that defined the city’s dynamism. Manchester has also been home to some great minds including the Chemist and Physicist John Dalton, Physicist J. J. Thompson, Engineer and Philanthropist Joseph Whitworth, and the Textile Merchant and philanthropist John Rylands.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to write the Communist Manifesto at Chetham Library (the oldest public library in the English-speaking world) in Manchester. As Luke Bainbridge of the Guardian puts it:

This is the home of the industrial revolution and the city that split the atom, the birthplace of the computer and the Guardian, the suffragette movement, the free trade movement, the co-operative movement, the anti-corn law league, vegetarianism, the nation’s first free library, the world’s first intercity railway and the engine room of rock’n’roll that has produced the country’s best bands of the past 30 years, from Joy Division to Take That. 

Basically, without Manchester, and a lot of its creativity, innovation and history, it’s quite likely that much of the world as we know it wouldn’t be where it is today. Certainly not in the shape that we know. We’d probably still be in the dark ages. Or worse. 😉

And that thought alone, whether you agree with it or think it is far-fetched, is enough reason to learn from what this city has achieved, and continues to achieve.

Links

Flipping the Corruption Myth

Flipping the Corruption Myth by Dr Jason Hickel, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and an adviser to /The Rules
– Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.  Original article via Al Jazeera here

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Transparency International recently published their latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), laid out in an eye-catching map of the world with the least corrupt nations coded in happy yellow and the most corrupt nations smeared in stigmatising red. The CPI defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, and draws its data from 12 different institutions including the World Bank, Freedom House, and the World Economic Forum.

When I first saw this map I was struck by the fact that most of the yellow areas happen to be rich Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, whereas red covers almost the entirety of the global South, with countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia daubed especially dark.

This geographical division fits squarely with mainstream views, which see corruption as the scourge of the developing world (cue cliche images of dictators in Africa and bribery in India). But is this storyline accurate?

Many international development organisations hold that persistent poverty in the Global South is caused largely by corruption among local public officials. In 2003 these concerns led to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which asserts that, while corruption exists in all countries, this “evil phenomenon” is “most destructive” in the global South, where it is a “key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development”.

There’s only one problem with this theory: It’s just not true.

Corruption, superpower style

According to the World Bank, corruption in the form of bribery and theft by government officials, the main target of the UN Convention, costs developing countries between $20bn and $40bn each year. That’s a lot of money. But it’s an extremely small proportion – only about 3 percent – of the total illicit flows that leak out of public coffers. Tax avoidance, on the other hand, accounts for more than $900bn each year, money that multinational corporations steal from developing countries through practices such as trade mispricing.

This enormous outflow of wealth is facilitated by a shadowy financial system that includes tax havens, paper companies, anonymous accounts, and fake foundations, with the City of London at the very heart of it. Over 30 percent of global foreign direct investment is booked through tax havens, which now collectively hide one-sixth of the world’s total private wealth.

This is a massive – indeed, fundamental – cause of poverty in the developing world, yet it does not register in the mainstream definition of corruption, absent from the UN Convention, and rarely, if ever, appears on the agenda of international development organisations.

With the City of London at the centre of the global tax haven web, how does the UK end up with a clean CPI?

The question is all the more baffling given that the city is immune from many of the nation’s democratic laws and free of all parliamentary oversight. As a result of this special status, London has maintained a number of quaint plutocratic traditions. Take its electoral process, for instance: More than 70 percent of the votes cast during council elections are cast not by residents, but by corporations – mostly banks and financial firms. And the bigger the corporation, the more votes they get, with the largest firms getting 79 votes each. This takes US-style corporate personhood to another level.

To be fair, this kind of corruption is not entirely out-of-place in a country where a feudalistic royal family owns 120,000 hectares of the nation’s land and sucks up around £40m ($65.7m) of public funds each year. Then there’s the parliament, where the House of Lords is filled not by-election but by appointment, with 92 seats inherited by aristocratic families, 26 set aside for the leaders of the country’s largest religious sect, and dozens of others divvied up for sale to multi-millionaires.

Corruption in US is only slightly less blatant. Whereas congressional seats are not yet available for outright purchase, the Citizens United vs FEC ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns to ensure that their preferred candidates get elected, a practice justified under the Orwellian banner of “free speech”.

The poverty factor

The UN Convention is correct to say that poverty in developing countries is caused by corruption. But the corruption we ought to be most concerned about has its root in the countries that are coloured yellow on the CPI map, not red.

The tax haven system is not the only culprit. We know that the global financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by systemic corruption among public officials in the US who were intimately tied to the interests of Wall Street firms. In addition to shifting trillions of dollars from public coffers into private pockets through bailouts, the crisis wiped out a huge chunk of the global economy and had a devastating effect on developing countries when demand for exports dried up, causing massive waves of unemployment.

A similar story can be told about the Libor scandal in the UK, when major London banks colluded to rig interest rates so as to suck around $100bn of free money from people even well beyond Britain’s shores. How could either of these scandals be defined as anything but the misuse of public power for private benefit? The global reach of this kind of corruption makes petty bribery and theft in the developing world seem parochial by comparison.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we really want to understand how corruption drives poverty in developing countries, we need to start by looking at the institutions that control the global economy, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the policies that these institutions foisted on the Global South, following the Washington Consensus, caused per capita income growth rates to collapse by almost 50 percent. Economist Robert Pollin has estimated that during this period developing countries lost around $480bn per year in potential GDP. It would be difficult to overstate the human devastation that these numbers represent. Yet Western corporations have benefitted tremendously from this process, gaining access to new markets, cheaper labour and raw materials, and fresh avenues for capital flight.

These international institutions masquerade as mechanisms for public governance, but they are deeply anti-democratic; this is why they can get away with imposing policies that so directly violate public interest. Voting power in the IMF and World Bank is apportioned so that developing countries – the vast majority of the world’s population – together hold less than 50 percent of the vote, while the US Treasury wields de facto veto power. The leaders of these institutions are not elected, but appointed by the US and Europe, with not a few military bosses and Wall Street executives among them.

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, has publicly denounced these institutions as among the least transparent he has ever encountered. They also suffer from a shocking lack of accountability, as they enjoy special “sovereign immunity” status that protects them against public lawsuit when their policies fail, regardless of how much harm they cause.

Shifting the blame

If these patterns of governance were true of any given nation in the global South, the West would cry corruption. Yet such corruption is normalised in the command centres of the global economy, perpetuating poverty in the developing world while Transparency International directs our attention elsewhere.

Even if we do decide to focus on localised corruption in developing countries, we have to accept that it does not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. Many of history’s most famous dictators – like Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Hosni Mubarak – were supported by a steady flow of Western aid. Today, not a few of the world’s most corrupt regimes have been installed or bolstered by the US, among them Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the warlords of Somalia – three of the darkest states on the CPI map.

This raises an interesting question: Which is more corrupt, the petty dictatorship or the superpower that installs it? Unfortunately, the UN Convention conveniently ignores these dynamics, and the CPI map leads us to believe, incorrectly, that each country’s corruption is neatly bounded by national borders.

Corruption is a major driver of poverty, to be sure. But if we are to be serious about tackling this problem, the CPI map will not be much help. The biggest cause of poverty in developing countries is not localised bribery and theft, but the corruption that is endemic to the global governance system, the tax haven network, and the banking sectors of New York and London. It’s time to flip the corruption myth on its head and start demanding transparency where it counts.

Dr Jason Hickel lectures at the London School of Economics and serves as an adviser to /The Rules. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jasonhickel