Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Essay - determining who will live or die

These poems come to me from Helen Dale aka skepticlawyer. The first is from Marya Mannes, a US author that I had not heard of.

Borders are scratched across the
hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial
And when the borders bleed we
watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map
turn red.

It's just so true.

The second poem comes from W.H Auden. It, too, is just so true.

Unbiased at least he was
when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this
land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically
at odds,
With their different diets and
incompatible gods.
"Time," they had briefed him in
London, "is short. It's too late
For mutual reconciliation or
rational debate:
The only solution now lies in
separation ..."

"The Viceroy thinks, as you will
see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his
company the better,
So we've arranged to provide you
with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two
Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final
decision must rest with you."

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with
police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep
the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task
of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his
disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost
certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check
them, no time to inspect.

I don't share the views expressed in the current attacks on the British Empire and Commonwealth. They are, to my mind, simplistic and stereotyped. On balance, the Empire was a good thing that shaped the modern world.

I could wish that the British Government had fought harder to preserve the Indian Empire, to buy time, to give time, to the Indian factions to work out their differences in a new world that had been progressively evolving over so many decades. It was a tired Government, a broke Government, that just wanted out. Give them want they want now, clean up, we must move on.

An uncle of mine was in India at the time and saw the bodies piled in the river beds. A true Indiaphile with a deep knowledge of Indian history and culture, he loved the place, he understood the religious divisions. Running for Liberal party pre-selections in Sydney in the late 1960s, he told the bemused branch members that the Muslim challenge would become a dominant theme in global politics. He wasn't anti-Muslim, although he was (I think) pro-Hindu. Rather, he saw a clash of irreconcilables. I just filed it away, something for later use.

There is something cold and sad in that Auden poem. Here you have a person who must do his job regardless of poor evidence, who must deliver. Don't think it doesn't happen today. It does. Policy is about people, policy analysis is about statistics. 

This is something I wrote in a seminar paper a few years back:  

By the 1970s, country was losing favour, in part because of the growth of urban centres whose residents did not identify with the term. In its place came the word regional. This fragmented in turn. By 2000, there was something of a crazy patchwork quilt of words – country, regional, rural, remote, coastal – that overlapped and were used in different combinations. This growing confusion in terms reflected in part the increasing use of ARIA.

ARIA, the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia, was developed by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care and the National Key Centre for Social Applications of GIS. ARIA measures remoteness based on the physical road distance between a settlement and four classes of service centre[1]. In 1999 a further revision of ARIA called ARIA+ was developed that incorporated more information on the location of service centres.

While ARIA was a simple geographic descriptor intended to measure remoteness from services, its widespread use by the Commonwealth Government for statistical purposes and to guide service delivery affected the use of words. In 1950, the Australian states still retained a substantial degree of independence. By 2000, the Australian Government was involved in every aspect of policy once the preserve of the states. To the officials in Canberra seeking mechanisms to allow for national uniformity in service delivery while also taking geography into account, the ARIA classifications seemed a useful device; very remote, remote, outer regional, inner regional and major city were now firmly added to the semantic mix.

The difficulty from a New England perspective lay in the way that these various terms cut across the area’s natural geography, further fragmenting the sense of New England or Northern identity, while creating problems for integrated service delivery based on geography. We can see this if we look at New England’s Kamilaroi or Gamilaraay Aboriginal language group who occupied the Western Slopes and Plains. Their traditional territory was variously classified from very remote to inner regional, a classification that affected the services provided. People with a common culture sharing common problems received different benefits depending on just where they lived.

In the global scheme of things, this is a minor example. Yet the decisions made based on statistical constructs, on evidence that is old or uncertain, determines what happens. The question of whether or not an Aboriginal family has a house or not depending on their ARIA classification is a minor thing compared with those who lost their lived during the partition of the Indian Empire, yet the principles are the same.

I really shuddered when I read the Aulden poem. It captures stark reality. Everyday, international civil servants and others make decisions that affect who will live or die.  That's a dreadful burden often confused in the statistics.     

[1] History and definitions of ARIA drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Glossary of Statistical Geography Terminology 2011,, accessed on-line 15 March 2011.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget those who don't care who dies so long as they make a quick buck. They're now running rampant, opposed only by those too powerless to matter.

Rummuser said...

On balance, I think that your civil servants do a much better job than ours and most certainly than those in the UK. Having said that, civil servants everywhere somehow become uncivil over time. Let me add that I have not experienced this in Australia but most certainly have in the UK and in the USA.

Politicians sitting over civil servants and capable of using one weapon at their disposal, transfers, are more responsible for most of our problems than civil servants.

That does not stoo me from being allergic to both.

Jim Belshaw said...

having worked both inside and outside the system, I think that Australia's public servants are pretty good. They struggle with the system they have.

In terms of minsters, while there have been some paybacks via sackings or forced transfers, the Australian public services have been able to preserve some, not all, of their independence.

The fish rots from the head. I don't think that I or others like me would try so hard to reform the system if we thought that the head had rotted beyond the point of redemption.

I think that's a very important point about the Australian system. It still works, more or less. The aim is to make it better, to protect key principles, to bring about structural and process change. Perhaps because we have compulsory voting, the electorate tends to bring extremes back to the middle. That's no bad thing.

Jim Belshaw said...

Continuing my comment, take this story -

A critical thing is that the information came out, that Mr Morrison was forced to defend, that Mr Abbott was forced to come to his defence. This may reinforce my point about the way that refugee policy is draining political and policy oxygen from the Government, but it (release of information) still happens.That's important.

Evan said...

I think the families of those massacred at Amritsar (and other places) might disagree with you charitable assessment of the British (and other) empires.

Were the British less thuggish than others? Perhaps. This is hardly a boast - we only killed tens of thousands of innocent people; those people killed hundreds of thousands.

My favourite acronym I haven't heard for a while 'rara land' - for "regional and remote areas".

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. I suspect that we are talking at cross-purposes. I said Indian, not British. Some 1,000 died at Amritsar. Partition displaced 14.5 or so million people with up to a million dead. Add to this those who have lost their lives in subsequent conflicts, including the war between East and West Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

By the Second World War, full independence for India (the Indian Empire)was well on its way. War intervened. I have always wondered if, with or without the war, it would have been possible to manage things better. In human terms, the result could hardly have been worse.

I really need to revisit my history here. I am forgetting the details!

Rummuser said...

Jim, an important factor most observers overlook about the independence is the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy -

I have been told on excellent authority that the top brass of the combined forces got quite rattled and wondered what would happen if 1857 was to happen again with overwhelming Indian troops with a depleted English officer cadre.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's very interesting, Ramana. I hadn't heard of that mutiny. I really must write something on Indian history!