Category Archives: Good Governance

This is one indicator that I’m fairly confident of in terms of the numbers which are from Transparency International. I’m sure many countries have many and various problems with TI, their methodology, as well as their habit of bringing to light things that others would prefer not be exposed but I believe there is a strong correlation between the fairness and quality of a country’s government, and the level of corruption.

Mrs. MacGregor, Paying My Taxes, and Greed Gone Mad

Helen MacGregor

Helen MacGregor, Wife of Rob Roy, in Conflict at the Pass of Loch Ard by Siegfried Detlev Bendixen.

Good_GovernanceEvery year during tax time, I find myself empathizing with a fearsome ancestress of mine, Helen Mary MacGregor (aka Mrs. Rob Roy MacGregor), for at least a moment. While the male head of the ancient Scottish clan was fiercely protective of his kin and an incorrigible and wily attacker of outsiders, his wife was simply terrifying, at least according to Sir Walter Scott’s account in Rob Roy. His story describes the fate of an English government agent sent to the Highlands in 1715 to deliver monies for the King’s soldiers attempting to subdue the locals. Unfortunately, after being robbed of his gold by Mr. MacGregor, he attempted to find a way to get it back and was captured by highlanders led by Mrs. MacGregor. The “Wife of MacGregor” (described by the fictional Rob Roy as “an incarnate devil when her bluid’s up”) had no sympathy for the man of a government trying to kill her husband and ruin her clan and country, and had the poor agent bound, weighted with a “large heavy stone in a plaid,” and thrown into a nearby loch.

Fortunately for government agents in this day and age, they have much more effective and far less dangerous ways of wringing money out of us.

And we all hate it. It seems horribly unfair that we should have to pay so much after working so hard. We worry that the money is misspent (and much of it is) or going to people who have learned how to “work the system” (and some of it is) or going towards projects that are either useless (the infamous Bridge to Nowhere) or that we don’t agree with (i.e., developing new weapons systems or protecting endangered newts).

It’s just hard to sit down every year and watch all that hard-earned money go right back out of your bank account. So there are millions of people who will try to help you keep as much of it as possible using all the tricks of the trade.

But lately some of those tricks have evolved into a whole new way of avoiding taxes and especially so for the already well off.

It turns out that (gasp!)  many wealthy individuals and companies doing business internationally have been hiding large sums of money (up to $100 billion in missing taxes according the U.N conference on trade and development) in offshore tax havens. One reporter observed that the tax havens which we all suspected are hiding massive amounts of money, really are hiding massive amounts of money!

And because most of us do try to pay our taxes in full and on time, this causes a feeling probably not all that dissimilar to French revolutionaries contemplating displacing the heads of the members of the court of Louis XVI from their bodies. Or Massachusetts residents disguised as Indians dumping boxes of tea into Boston Harbor. Or methods such as Mrs. MacGregor’s (the Highlanders were almost always poor) effective means of gaining and holding gold.

As the heads roll in the current Panama Papers crisis (fortunately metaphorically this time as various government officials have simply stepped down), the rest of us are left to contemplate the consequences of these revelations.The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

One of the major points of contention has been that although these monies were hidden from tax authorities all over the world the people doing the hiding have not done actually done anything illegal. (Note that some countries do have different laws about taking money out of said country (i.e., China), however, and will probably be pursuing a different route. Also, a lot of the money may have been generated using illegal means such as the sale of stolen assets including a lot of fine art apparently.)

However, almost everyone agrees that although it may not be illegal to hide your money in such a way it is definitely immoral and especially so if you are a Third World president/prime minister who is stealing tons of wealth out of a country whose people are starving (especially poor hard-working women who do pay their taxes). And we are not much more sympathetic to those of more modest means but who still dwell in the Realm of the 1% living in wealthy countries but taking money away from developing ones.

Even for those of ordinary means, this is just wrong. Almost every country is currently reviewing their laws on off-shore wealth and I applaud them wholeheartedly. (We may in fact be entering a brave new era not unlike Norway which goes to the extreme of publishing everyone’s income publicly. Yes, everyone. You can check on your neighbors.) We’ve known for a while now that the 1% is growing in a ridiculous manner and the possibility that this growth might be even slightly slowed down deserves a big round of applause.

Women entrepreneurs at The Hunger Project-Uganda's Iganga epicenter in 2008 with their hand-crafted baskets.

Women entrepreneurs at The Hunger Project-Uganda’s Iganga epicenter in 2008 with their hand-crafted baskets.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that capitalism is fueled by greed but it’s not. Ensuring your family/clan’s financial future in a fair monetary system is not greed. Hoarding gobs of wealth far beyond what you actually need in a corrupt and opaque system that only protects the rich and powerful is greed gone mad. Greed is not good.

Rampant greed is also not going to help make a better world. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that as the stories of the Panama Papers are told over the coming years, and some of that wealth is recovered by tax and law enforcement authorities, that those authorities think to designate a portion to those who need it most, namely those at the bottom of the 99% who dutifully, legally, and painstakingly pay their taxes every year. I think Mrs. MacGregor would agree.

Now back to my regularly scheduled program of filing my own taxes….

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

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Hacking for a Better Government

Have you ever stood in line at the DMV or any other government office, and just thought, why can we land a man on the moon but we can’t have efficient government services? I’m not talking corruption. Just plain basic efficiency. With all those trillions of dollars/pounds/euros/yen/yuan going into all those coffers worldwide, and with the marvels and wonders of modern tech, why do we still have traffic congestion, urban blight, and potholes?

Well, believe it or not, help may be on the way. And not just here in the U.S., but worldwide.  In fact, grass-roots tech-enabled activism might have started in Kenya, where Ushahidi was born out of the need to map incidents of violence and peace efforts in the 2008 post-election unrest.

There is a catch, though. That catch is You. In order to make our governments work better, the citizens of those governments need to voice their concerns. Fortunately, that is becoming as easy as typing a text message.

Here are a few of the organizations making it happen:

  • Code for America – Where’s My School Bus?, Adopt-A-Hydrant, and Textizen are just a few of the apps created to help people communicate with and better use government services.
  • Random Hacks of Kindness has volunteers all over the world taking on a wide variety of issues. They’ve created Person Finder which was used in the Haiti, Chile and New Zealand earthquakes, and Ad Hawk, which identifies the sponsor of political ads. RHOK has recently teamed up with Transparency International to work on new ways of using technology to fight corruption.
  • Neighborland – This is a fun way to make a difference by sharing ideas about what’s needed in your neck of the woods; gathering support; and then making your project happen. Some of the ideas that have taken off include a Food Truck Festival and Bikeway Signage. Neighborland has also partnered with Code for America fellows in Austin to generate ideas for the Code Across Austin Civic Hackathon.

I can’t wait for the app that solves the Los Angeles traffic problem.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather

Breaking Slavery’s Mental and Emotional Chains

Sometimes in all of our modern angst about our modern-type 21st century problems and issues, we forget that some of the world is still dealing with problems which most Western countries confronted a couple of centuries ago.

For over a year now, CNN has been running an ongoing series of articles and reports on modern-day slavery including trafficking, labor extortion, and other forms of enslavement. It’s called The CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern Day Slavery.

They have produced some groundbreaking work, and probably helped many people gain freedom by shining a light into some very dark places.

But I think even the CNN staffers were probably shocked after producing a new set of articles and reports on the apparently thriving, traditional and old form of slavery still an accepted and integral part of daily life in Mauritania.

I know I was shocked at the physical conditions slaves there were subjected to.

But far and away the most unbelievable part of the whole report was the fact that the slaves themselves were mentally and emotionally almost completely bound to the masters. There was almost no need for physical restraint. These people
believed they were destined to be slaves, were not worthy of freedom, and even when set free, some, unable to cope in a world without job skills, would return to their former masters.

As former slave and founder of the Mauritanian abolitionist non-profit, SOS Slaves, Boubacar Messaoud, said in the article, “Chains are for the slave who has just become a slave, who has . . . just been brought across the Atlantic. But the multigeneration slave, the slave descending from many generations, he is a slave even in his own head. And he is totally submissive. He is ready to sacrifice himself, even, for his master. And, unfortunately, it’s this type of slavery that we have today — the slavery American plantation owners dreamed of.”

Part of me is still just simply stunned at that statement. (Part of me also  is noticing that in some ways, this is the starkest example I’ve ever come across of how we all enslave ourselves somehow.)

The articles and reports certainly seem to have had an impact, but whether the sudden focus of the world’s attention on Mauritania will actually help free these people is as yet unclear. I am hopeful, though, after listening and reading about some of those who escaped the physical entrapment and even more importantly, the mental enslavement.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Note: SOS Slaves didn’t have a website to refer to but the Anti-Slavery International website seems to be partnering with them — thus my link to their page on SOS Slaves.

Transparent Apples

Apple Inc. has been in the news recently as, among other efforts to pressure the company on ensuring a “clean” supply chain, an internet petition for the company to ensure protection for its Chinese suppliers’ employees has been circulating. This is a great idea and one which I hope will be implemented (actually, Apple already seems to be doing quite a fair amount) but a lot of people seem to be missing some amazing and positive aspects of this story:

  1. Westerners (mostly American) are protesting working conditions in China, which, just a few years ago, was almost as opaque as North Korea. Now we are getting news on what’s going on and workers in China are even able to protest their own working conditions. With China’s drive towards economic power, and the West’s insatiable desire for cool gadgets, a nice side-effect seems to be improved working conditions in China.
  2. Because of the increasing interdependence of the global economy, consumers now have an interesting new source of political leverage. Although lots of people lament the flight of American manufacturing jobs overseas, this paradoxically seems to have given us more ability to influence a country’s treatment of its own citizens, even helping to stop child labor.
  3. We can actually trace the supply chain. This isn’t an easy thing to do. Supply chains, sometimes because of corrupt practices, but also due to incredibly complicated logistics (multiple vendors, countries, regions, transportation issues, thousands of humans involved, tracking mistakes) are not easy to track back. It’s a lot of work but with new technologies in supply chain management (and with the help I’m sure of some of those iProducts) this is now becoming possible.
  4. Apple’s step in releasing supply chain information is nothing short of world-shifting. If other companies follow this path, a level of transparency will exist in the global economy that is breathtaking to contemplate.

And it’s not just the technology industry that is being affected. (Although it does make some sense that, given that the technology industry is by definition on the cutting edge of technology, they would also be the first to implement new processes.) Blood diamonds, timber tracking, fair trade practices, all of these point to a global drive towards transparency which I am watching with a mixture of both awe at the speed this is taking place, and increasing hope that this heralds a better future for not just factory workers but for all of us across the planet.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Good Governance

This is the last of my indicators and also one of the ones which, happily, seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention. It’s again not an easy one to quantify but I do think there is a pretty strong correlation between the fairness and quality of a country’s government, and the level of corruption. (An interesting although admittedly rough correlation can be drawn between two countries, Chile and Haiti, and the different courses recovery after a large earthquake has taken. Chile, rated the less corrupt of the two, was better prepared and recovered far more quickly than Haiti, which is still in the process of recovery.)

This is one indicator that I’m also pretty confident of in terms of the numbers which I am getting from Transparency International. I’m sure many countries have many and various problems with TI, their methodology, as well as their habit of bringing to light things that others would prefer not be exposed.

But, on balance, the world seems to be discovering that more transparency equals more social justice, and most people think that that is a pretty good idea and the direction they would like their leaders and governments to go, willingly or not.

Aiding in this global drive towards shining bright lights into dark places is the explosion of handheld technologies, including smart phones and their ability to transmit live feeds of government action, inaction, or just plain idiocy. (Sometimes, this seems to backfire rather badly for instance when Taliban clerics dispense “justice” in the badlands of Afghanistan, these instance are occasionally filmed to demonstrate their virtuousness. Most of the viewers, however, don’t quite get the same message.)

Other great examples of technology in action must include mention of the Ushahidi project which brought unprecedented transparency to post-election violence in Kenya. (Ushahidi was also one of the first to effectively implement crowd-sourcing technology.) Another of my favorite recent efforts is the very aptly named and bluntly effective, Indian website, I PAID A BRIBE. (I love the fact that the creators put the name in all-caps — literally screaming for attention! I’m guessing that was deliberate but either way, nice touch.) I would be remiss also, if I didn’t mention that both of these websites are home-grown affairs, an encouraging thought, and indicative that these worldwide movements are not being driven by Western governments (although this is a consistent accusation from many corruption governments to try to distract attention from their own failings) but by the citizens themselves.

I’ve just updated the numbers for corruption so you can check out the shift here. It’s encouraging that my Number went up by almost a full percent to 59.1610856162698 (up from 58.569457499862) and some of this is definitely due to increased transparency. (Lots of countries went up in their ratings this year.) However, I have to be clear , I’ve added in data to countries which didn’t have it before (TI added a few more countries this year.) so that has probably driven the number up as well. Still, nice to see it go up!

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC