Archive for August, 2012

The GCSE grading scandal: the legal challenge begins

August 25, 2012 2 comments

It’s encouraging that several bodies, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), are considering legal action over the GCSE grading scandal.   The ASCL has already set out what aspect of the scandal such action may target

We’re examining whether this is hitting any particular groups of young people that are covered by the equal opportunities legislation.

This is because it is looking increasingly likely that the effects of the late grade boundary changes have been felt most by pupils getting D rather than the Cs they should/would have had, and disproportionate number of these pupils will come from poorer backgrounds and from ethnic minorities.

If this does turn out the be case, the question of precisely what ‘equal opportunities legislation’ has been breached by the government.  Fortunately, and with what now looks like remarkable foresight, legislation passed in the dying days of the last Labour government would seem – at least to this lay observer – to fit the bill pretty well.

Section 96 para 1 of the Equality Act (2010) covers ‘qualification bodies’, and states:

A qualifications body (A) must not discriminate against a person (B)—

(a) in the arrangements A makes for deciding upon whom to confer a relevant qualification;

(b) as to the terms on which it is prepared to confer a relevant qualification on B;

(c) by not conferring a relevant qualification on B.

Which is nice.

Categories: General Politics

How Stephen Twigg must react to the GCSE grading scandal

August 24, 2012 1 comment

Further to last night’s lengthy analysis, a short post on how Stephen Twigg should react to the growing GCSE grading scandal.

At the moment, Twigg is simply calling for an inquiry into what went on by the Commons Select Commitee on Education.  A call for an inquiry is the default response  – trying to look responsive to public concern while playing for time.  As it stands, Twigg looks ineffectual, and the false narrative about the collapse in GCSE English grades in some schools being about ‘rigour’ – as opposed to incompetence/corruption – is gaining ground.

Information emerging during the last 24 hours mean that calling for an inquiry is not an appropriate response.   It is now abundantly clear that the key issue is the changing of grade boundaries between the January and June assessments, and that OfQual were instrumental in this.   Assistant Headteacher Richard Spencer shows this clearly (for the AQA exam board).

Stephens Twigg’s job is obvious.  He should call for am, immediate regrading of all papers which have been subject to the later grade boundaries, so that all students in the 2011/12 cohort are treated fairly. 

An inquiry into why this happened can wait till this has been done, and what the hell OfQual were up to, can wait.  An inquiry will do nothing for all those students who have had their hopes shattered (though even a regrade will be too late for those whose 6th form offers have been rescinded).

A call for a regrade is clearly understandable by the public, in spite of the complexity of GCSE assessment processes.   It’s also the right thing to do.

Over to you, Stephen Twigg.

Categories: General Politics

The GCSE grading scandal: where I think we’ll find the smoking gun

August 23, 2012 13 comments

Sunny from Liberal Conspiracy asked me last night whether I’d be writing up first reactions to the breaking English GCSE scandal, but I declined because, although as a comprehensive school governor with specific responsibility for English I’m reasonably well informed, I didn’t feel I had enough information at that point to make comment on the specifics.

Instead, I recommended James Hargraves’ post for publication at Liberal Conspiracy, as I thought it did a really good job of summarising what we did know at the time, as well as making a pretty reasonable initial case for why it had happened, namely that it’s part of the Gove masterplan to pass over 200+ more schools to the burgeoning academy chains like the Ark schools (most of which also saw grade drops, perversely). 

Having looked at the matter during the day. I think I’m now in more of a more informed position to suggest what I think has been happening. 

Broadly, I think James is right to point the finger at Gove for deliberate political interference, but I think that interference may have been (deliberately) more indirect, and therefore deniable, than first supposed.

First things first, though.  The right is already setting out the argument that this drop in grades comes simply because assessment has become more rigorous under Gove’s watch, that C grade and above no longer comes so easily, and that this marks an important turning point for education in this country. 

This is nonsense.  The issue is not whether grades are harder to achieve, because if they are harder to achieve for everyone, it’s still a level playing field (excepting for the moment that it might be incongruous to raise the 5 A-C grade minimum for schools from 35% to 40%, while at the same time making it more difficult to achieve 40%).

The issue is that, because the grading goalposts have been moved halfway through the year, without anyone being told, there is a massive detrimental effect on many thousands of students. 

To understand this, you have to understand that – unlike the old days when children were sent into an exam and told just to do the best they can, often with only a hazy idea whether they were B, C or D material – ALL students now work towards an individualised target (indeed they do this from Key Stage 1 in primary school onwards).  In year 11, this target becomes closely associated with the controlled assessments they undertake, and come exams at the end of the year all students have a pretty good idea what their ‘prediction’ is, and what they might achieve if they really perform well in the last months at school.  

It is this individual ‘tracking’ of students, associated often with individual learning support approaches worked out carefully by teachers with Heads of Department (and in some cases actually implemented by well-trained Teaching Assistants under qualified teacher supervision).  The system, backed by quite refined IT systems, works well, and is a key factor behind rising grades in  recent years (though it has impossible to disaggregate its effect wholly from artificial exam board-driven grade inflation, of which more below). 

Put simply, teaching methods and systems have improved, because students can be set realistic but challenging targets, and students has responded by learning more, and getting better grades.

In 2012, all this has gone wrong because the goalposts have been moved. Students who, till yesterday, could be confident at least of a C, based on their performance to date and their teacher’s professional assessment suddenly find themselves with a potentially life-worsening D (nor enough, for example, to enter nursing), for no other reason than a late change of grade boundary announced to no-one.

No wonder teachers up and down the country, left to pick up the pieces this morning, are steaming. Here’s one personal experience of just that, replicated all over the country. Read it and weep.

Information is still emerging on exactly what goalposts have been moved where, but it looks like English has been badly affected, and within that it looks like the grade boundaries to achieve a C are the ones that have been increased the most.  Further, it now looks certain that when in the school year students undertook their controlled assessments (CAs) has been a key factor, because ofQual said so in May (the same month as these students finished!).

Thus one informed commenter at TES Online says:

Why is nobody just admitting that it is only grade boundary changes that have made the difference? For the first year our CA [controlled assessment] marks are worse than exams – like others, if we had submitted in January we would be around 8% better off due to CA grade boundary shift of 6 marks. Exam boards need to find adequate answer – as it is same task, just different submission date. I should have realised that just like holidays, UMS points are more expensive in the peak season!

And as Chris Cook reports, there seems there is an emerging pattern:

Schools also said that the fall in results was concentrated on children taking exams in the summer, rather than the winter. The exam boards acknowledged that grade boundaries in English qualifications had risen between January and July.

Brian Crosby, head of the Manor Church of England Academy in York, told the BBC that in his city, “every school where they had taken the summer examination had had a 10 to 12 per cent drop in performance”. Those that took exams in the winter “were either happy or had an increase in performance”.

The reports of such marked falls in grades are simply too many to write off as a coincidence, but the question still to be answered is why this boundary regrading has taken place within 2012. As importantly, why do they appear to have had such huge effects in some schools, but not in others?  Gove himself has denied any direct responsibility, as has OfQual (though they have given mixed messages), and in the narrow sense they are probably correct.

The answer lies, I suspect, with the six different examination boards, and their ‘market pressures’ and I think it is here where we will, in the near future, find the smoking gun.  .

Let me explain.

In June, the Commons Select Committee set out its views on why grade inflation may have taken place:

It is implicit in a number of the pieces of evidence we have received that such competition is one of the contributory factors to the grade inflation that is widely acknowledged. Put simply, in a world where schools are under pressure to achieve ever-better exam grades, and exam boards measure their own performance by market share, there is an obvious inbuilt incentive for competing exam boards to provide syllabuses which make lesser demands of students (para.59)

 But the rules of the game have now changed, and the exam boards know that. 

Gove is known to favour the establishment of a single examination board to stop what he calls “competitive dumbing down” (although the Select Committee says it is too risky).  Because Gove is also known to favour grade deflation, it is highly likely that the race is now on between the six exam boards to reverse their market-driven upgrading as quickly as possible, in order to position themselves for the tender exercise which, in all probability, may take place before next year’s GCSE results come out.

This, I suggest, may well explain the mid-year change of grade boundaries.  The fact that Gove went public on the single exam body idea in the Spring (though the Select Committee knew his views in December 2011) and that the grade boundaries were changed immediately afterwards is not quite the smoking gun we’re looking for, but I’d bet good money that it’s no coincidence.

I’d also be tempted to bet on one other thing.  

I think we’ll find, as the data emerges, that not only do different levels of grade deflation correlate very closely with the different exam boards, but that the leader of the deflation pack will turn out to be Edexcel, the exam board owned by multinational publisher Pearson (there’s already a hint of that in Chris Cook’s post at the FT, although Chris may be treading carefully given that Pearson own the FT).

I’m fingering Pearson because of this little exchange between the aforementioned Select Committee and Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK:

Pat Glass MP:……..  If the Secretary of State decides after all this-there is an issue of public confidence here-that we are going to have one exam body, which will be in-house, where we will have a separation of examinations from publications, would that not give the public, parents, employers and young people themselves greater confidence in the integrity of the system?

Rod Bristow: I would say that it is worth looking back 10 years to see what the exam system was like then, when there was huge disarray in the system, with students routinely not getting their results on time or getting incorrect grades. A tremendous amount of progress has been made since then and that is worth bearing in mind. In fact, that was the time that Pearson became involved and Edexcel became part of Pearson. We made a significant investment at that time of £35 million into an awarding body where profitability was extremely low……… It is absolutely right that we review all of the available options and whether there are ways that the system can be improved. The Secretary of State recently put a suggestion on the table and I would say that no suggestions that can be made to improve the system should be off the table.

This smacks of a corporate schmoozer who knows where the future profit is going to be – not in competing for market share with five other boards, but in running the whole shebang – and who knows how to go about getting the contract.  The approach differs markedly from other exam board representatives questioned on that day by the Select Committee, who express reservations about the idea of a single exam board. 

It may come as no surprise, in this context, that the publishing arm of Pearson UK is very nicely placed indeed as a supplier, on a restricted list, of the phonics publications and equipment in which all primary schools now need to invest as a result of Michael Gove’s instruction that all children must learn to read through phonics, and will be tested at age 6.  It would appear that, in this respect at least,  the freemarket doesn’t apply to Gove’s education revolution.

So where does this leave us? 

Certainly, I accept that some of the above is circumstantial, rather than evidence-based, for the simple reason that the evidence is still emerging.  Time will tell if I’ve added 2 and 2 to make 4, but if I’m anything like right (and if so, the whistleblowers will blow) it may be that James Hargraves’ supposition – that grades have been deliberately manipulated as a convenient route to the hiving off of even more schools as academies, whatever the cost to thousands of 16 year olds – may actually look tame in comparison with the truth. 

That truth may turn out to be one of corporate/government corruption of the highest order, in which Gove is able to offer up plausible deniability about today’s events because he just didn’t need to intervene directly, confident in the knowledge that his chosen corporates would do the dirty work for him. 

Watch this space.

Categories: General Politics

Amartya Sen and the exchange rate conundrum

August 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Amartya Sen has an entertaining enough essay at The New Republic, based on a recent speech at the Bank for International Settlements, looking in broad terms at what’s gone wrong with Europe. 

It reads very much like an after-dinner speech: nothing too weighty in terms of facts and figures, some pleasing-on-the-ear intellectual history references for the bankers to peddle as their own at thier next dinner party (including a welcome reminder of Keynes’ grounded adversary, AC Pigou), and a gentle-enough pre-Cognac conclusion along the lines  that someone, really ought to get a proper grip on the “policy challenges” facing Europe, though probably not tonight in a big hotel in Switzerland, as it would upset the ambience.

Nevertheless, there is a good deal of sense in the central part of the speech, in which Sen focuses on the seemingly intractable economic imbalance between North and South within Europe (my emphasis throughout):

There is nothing particularly surprising about the problems of balance of payments and other economic adversities that many of the European countries––Greece, Spain, Portugal—have faced, given the inflexibility of the euro zone restrictions on exchange rate adjustment and monetary policies. The consequent crises and rescues involving demands for draconian cuts in public services have also frayed people’s tempers on both sides of the divide…..

[M]ost of the attention has tended to be concentrated on the shortrun survival of the euro, through providing liquidity to the troubled countries, by one means or another. Many alternative rescue efforts are being considered right now, such as new bailout packages helped by the financially stronger countries, or the floating of guaranteed euro bonds, or the purchase of Greek, Spanish, and other high-interest bonds from troubled countries by Germany (thereby earning high interest, without much risk, so long as the euro survives in its present form).

Many of these “rescue” proposals are certainly worth considering and may prove useful, but none of the proposals address—or are meant to address—the long-run viability problem arising from the inflexibility of the exchange rate through the shared euro, even as countries with relatively lower productivity growth (such as Greece and Spain and Italy) fall behind other countries in the euro zone in terms of competitiveness in trade. A country such as Greece may find that it has increasingly less it can sell abroad at the fixed exchange rate of the euro, unless what is not done by exchange rate adjustment is brought about by the brutal process of cutting wage rates—even in terms of the national currency—to an extent that would not be otherwise necessary.

In the absence of exchange rate adjustments, competitiveness for the countries falling behind can indeed be recovered through sharp wage cuts and other ways of cutting earnings, thereby reducing living standards more drastically than would be otherwise necessary. This would yield much extra suffering and an understandable resistance. There would also be political resistance to the other “solution” through increased migration of the population—for example, from Greece to Germany. A unified currency in a politically united federal country (such as in the United States of America) survives through means (such as substantial population movements and significant transfers) that are not available to a politically disunited Europe. Sooner or later the difficult question of the longrun viability of the euro would have to be addressed, even if the rescue plans are completely successful in preventing a breakdown of the euro in the short run.

All of this, it seems to me, circles the key point nicely, but without addressing it.  

If, as Sen tells us three times, the major problem is exchange rate inflexibility, then perhaps we should do something about it, rather than fannying about with measures to counteract its effects – measures which in any event Sen concedes politically and socially unacceptable.

Now, keeping the euro AND creating exchange rate flexibility doesn’t exactly work, as two or more euro rates simply mean we get two currencies which happend to be called the same thing.

But there is an alternative: the ‘artificial’ devaluation of economies within the euro through the introduction of mutually agreed export subsidies and import tariffs, which allows those countries with relatively poor trade balances to improve them through increased exports (including via limited inward investment based on these export advantages) and through import substitution processes.

Of course the immediate reaction will be that such an arrangement would breach the free trade tenets of the Single Market, and effectively negate the value the European Union/EEA as a trading bloc. 

As I set out here, however, that’s not actually the case; Article 32 of the Lisbon Treaty allows wiggle room on the ”prohibition” of “duties on imports and exports and charges having equivalent effect” in cases where there is a need to:

avoid serious disturbances in the economies of Member States and to ensure rational development of production and an expansion of consumption within the Union.

If events we’re witnessing now in Europe aren’t serious disturbances in need of a whole lot of rational development, then I don’t what events are.

The unthinkable about the Single Market needs to become the thinkable.  (After all, restriction of  movement within the EU, the other key principle underlying the Single Market, has suddenly become thinkable again.)

Amartya Sen at least pointed out main obstacle to euro viability in his recent speech.  Now we just need to move that obstacle.

Categories: General Politics

If you’re going to be a Nazi sympathiser, a basic grasp of German helps

August 13, 2012 3 comments

There’s been the expected reaction and hashtag to Dominique Jackson’s (now edited) not-altogether-intelligent commentary in the Mail:

The German slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, “work sets you free” still has something serious to commend it.

Well, it was probably just linkbait……

What interests me, though, is not so much the Mail’s continuing desire to offend, but the fact that “Arbeit Macht Frei” doesn’t actually mean “work sets you free”. 

 “Arbeit Macht Frei” means, literally, “Work renders free(dom)”.  There is no easy English translation. The lack of the ‘you’ in the German is significant.  Dating from the early 1930s and coined in response to the Marxist notion of the ‘alienating’ power of labout under capitalism, the phrase is wholly redolent on the totalitarian state, in which the liberty of the individual is subsumed for the greater ‘freedom’ of the all-powerful state.  There’s simply no need for a ‘you’ in that state. 

For the author therefore to suggest that the phrase has “something serious to commend it” on the basis that individuals gain from working is not just offensive in the obvious way. It also betrays a deep ignorance of what Nazism actually was. 

When Nicolas Sarkozy offered himself up to the far-right with his infamous “Le travail, c’est la liberté” utterance, the deeper significance was well understood by the French left (perhaps because the French translation ‘le travail rend libre’ is more direct):

Le slogan sarkozien n’est donc pas destiné à glorifier les travailleurs, mais à leur faire admettre à la fois l’ordre capitaliste et l’ordre autoritaire. Qu’aucun des candidats adverses se réclamant du camp de la défense des travailleurs, n’ait « décrypté » ce slogan en dit long sur la décomposition de la pensée de la gauche, incapable même de percevoir l’outrance d’un propos si lourdement connoté historiquement.

Perhaps the British left also needs to up it’s game when it comes to casual Nazism from the Daily Mail.

Update: I note from twitter comments that the author of the piece has expressed pretty genuine embarassment and remorse at the way she used the Nazi phrase.  That’s a good thing, and I wish her well.  While some on twitter suggest that the hashtag furore of earlier amounted to bullying, I hope the author will  recognise that a rapid, overwhelmingly negative reaction to the use of such a slogan in the context of domestic employmenet, however inadvertant, is actually a good thing too.  What the French commentary above suggest, after all, is that we need to be on guard against any insidious encroachment towards acceptability of totalitarian narratives.

Categories: General Politics

Requiem for a Blog

August 8, 2012 32 comments

I began blogging on Labour Members’ Net in the spring of 2007. At first it was a way for me to relieve the interminable boredom of writing and researching essays for my postgrad degree. I hadn’t yet discovered the value of going outside and it brought me into contact with others from the political party I had just joined – the Labour Party. It was a more erudite attempt at the same engagement which came from the OULC events I attended that year.

A year or so later, I moved to this site, picked up some co-contributors and went my merry way. Everything annoyed me, so everything was fair game for comment. I had been known as Mr. Angry on Members’ Net and this soubriquet continues to be applicable, I suspect, but through my blogging the anger was directed at the hypocrisy of our ruling class, the political and moral ineptitude of Labour and no few other bloggers, for one reason or another.

Quite quickly it became apparent that there were limits to blogging. Put simply, it didn’t change anything. Liberal Conspiracy and other agglomerating sites occasionally gathered in commentary from people who organised protests and meetings, though even here there was a tendency for this to be either London-centric (i.e. in a location readily accessible to the disparate network of people who blog and read blogs) or run by and for the commentariat.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I loathe this commentariat. The hallmark of the commentariat aristocracy, the Toynbees of the world, were recycled truisms, easily disproved but never admitted. Fashionable writers below this level made do with saying nothing in a stylish manner. Still further into the Stygian depths were the political opportunists, endlessly attempting to cobble together bandwagons of the outright reactionary and the pitiably naive.

The “campaigns” on civil liberties by various media luvvies are foremost in my mind here, though there is hardly a lack of such opportunism, each exponent hiding beneath the exclamation, “Something must be done!”

The great advantage of Marxism is that it prevents naive illusions in the leaders of the Labour movement or the capitalist class. Lenin’s beautifully succinct article, “Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism”:

“People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realise that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes. And there is only one way of smashing the resistance of those classes, and that is to find, in the very society which surrounds us, the forces which can—and, owing to their social position, must—constitute the power capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new, and to enlighten and organise those forces for the struggle.”

No doubt everyone involved found it edifying to listen to so many speeches by so many luminaries, but what did their approach change? The answer was absolutely nothing, and it had the added disadvantage of providing some fig leaves to people I regard as lower than vermin. With respect to Our Nye, one doesn’t have to be descended from the lower nobility or mired in the subjective stink of class privilege to objectively be a poor-bashing Tory lackwit.

If anything stopped me from being absorbed into the commentariat, it was probably less my political views and more my oppositional, anti-social and basely cynical nature. Objectively, whilst I sat idle behind my keyboard, I was little different from them. My equivalent of their dithering-while-Rome-burns was the volume of he-said-she-said articles and daily bemoanings of Westminster events I wrote, and look back on with no little embarrassment.

Hobbies, I suppose, are intrinsically embarrassing because they are personal or milieu-based. Whether it’s building and maintaining train sets, collecting stamps or bird-watching, outside of the groups of people thus involved, these things can look silly. And since what I wrote had no practical purpose, it was nothing more than a hobby. That said, there’s one area which is not so easily dismissed, and which I believe have continuing relevance for the blogosphere.

That is writing which is essentially agitational propaganda. I like to think I did a good job striking down manure Labour and Tory politicians liked to heap on workers. Accounts of industrial disputes, defences of union actions and reports of the meetings I was involved with strike me as being the most salvageable articles, because they provide a socialist response to practical issues of the day and point the way towards actual, physical engagement.

I don’t believe there is any substitute for this. I value the writing of numerous authors active on the internet. Duncan Weldon and Chris Dillow, for example, regularly produce food for thought on matters economic. I find these useful as they help me to process information I acquire elsewhere into a useable format that can inform my political judgment and which then has further practical uses, in discussing with and recruiting people to the Socialist Party.

It was this emphasis which led me from Labour to the Socialist Party in the first place. There are 17 constituency Labour Parties in Kent and two branches of the Socialist Party, and I’m pretty much certain that the campaigning capacity of the SP massively outweighs the much larger Labour Party in this county. The reason is quite simple; Labour is turned in on itself, or else it is focused exclusively on certain institutions such as the press or local councils.

The blogosphere, in large part, provides an easy analogy and is equally ineffective. More worryingly, the blogosphere also seems to have become a method of choice for personal advancement, rather than a means for informing collective struggle. All the internet-based venom in the world won’t actually fix these  problems, and that’s why I don’t blog anymore. I leave it to others, whether they are part of that collective struggle or just more hamsters in a particularly public wheel.

How yesterday’s agreement on oil could lead to war between the Sudans

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

This is a guest post from Tim Flatman (@tim_flatman), writing from Juba, South Sudan.

The “international community”, a nebulous concept at the best of times, achieved rare unity in its desire for and welcoming of yesterday’s agreement between South Sudan and Sudan on oil transportation fees, disguising its self-interest by arguing the agreement will stop the two countries from returning to war. But will it really?

From the outset, most governments patronisingly lectured South Sudan as to why halting the export of oil was not in its interests, rather than trying to understand the logic behind a decision which achieved near-unanimous support within the country. It should not be difficult to understand why Southerners, knowing that their oil is a finite resource, would balk at paying over the odds to a hostile government with a track record of using oil money to wage war against South Sudan and other marginalised areas, and prefer to leave the oil in the ground until a more reasonable deal is achieved. I am also wary of a Western-centric mindset that assumes, informed by the post-war European experience, that economic integration inevitably promotes peaceful relations. Sudan and South Sudan are not France and Germany.

While oil is exported through Sudan, it will always be subject to day-to-day political machinations between Sudan and South Sudan, with potential for Sudan to confiscate oil without payment or South Sudan to threaten to halt production to gain leverage on other issues. Nonetheless, I admit that outside South Sudan, I am very lonely in arguing this case.

Hilary Clinton’s remarks in South Sudan two day ago gave a wink and a nod to a Southern perspective on the dispute, acknowledging that the Republic of South Sudan Government’s actions “brought Khartoum to thenegotiating table”. But when she argued simplistically that “a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing”, she either did not understand or chose to ignore the position outlined above that the oil is not going anywhere, and better for it to be used to develop South Sudan in the future than to pay for bombs to be dropped from Antonovs in the present, whether on Southerners in Northern Bahr-Ghazal or their brothers and sisters in the Nuba Mountains.

It is always dangerous to write about specifics when, as at the timeof writing, there appears to be much disagreement on what the details of any agreement actually are. Transportation fees of $9.48, $11, $15 and $24/25 dollars have been variously and confidently reported bydifferent media. But there is already a feeling within South Sudan that the South Sudanese Government gave away too much in its draft proposal, the Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation between the Republics of South Sudan and Sudan. The assumption that any agreement on oil transportation fees came about because the US threatened South Sudan in the knowledge that it had more leverage over South Sudan than over Sudan, prioritising a more immediate resumption of oil exports over a fair agreement, is giving rise to an anti-Americanism within South Sudan that has previously been reserved for specific individuals like Scott Gration and John Kerry. The higher the figure, the more considerable grassroots resentment towards the US is likely to be.

If it was undoubtedly true that a deal on oil will help the two countries avoid war, it would be easier to forgive the US and other sections of the international community, for acting in its interest. But this is not clear. Unhelpfully, international media has so far reported that implementation of any deal on oil is subject to Khartoum’s security concerns being resolved. But it must also be subject to other outstanding CPA issues being resolved, notably border demarcation and the final status of Abyei. If a deal on oil is de-linked from resolution of these issues, they will never be resolved. Khartoum has little interest in reaching agreement on them. Once the flow of oil resumes and appears to be guaranteed into the future, the international community will lose interest in promoting agreement on other outstanding issues. But without resolving them, the question of the border, and particularly of Abyei’s status, will at some point drag the two countries back to war. In demanding that oil exports do not resume before these issues are resolved, the Republic of South Sudan Government is not being unreasonable. It is effectively saying it wants to avoid a return to war at all costs. No-one understands the cost of war more than the South Sudanese. Can they be blamed for adopting this position?

Oil exports must not, therefore, resume before these issues have been resolved. That means actually resolving them, not signing a further agreement and putting in place a framework for resolving them. The permanent residents of Abyei know too well that agreement on a future date for exercising their self-determination is not a guarantee of it happening. In this context, the date proposed for an Abyei Referendumin the draft Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation makes good sense. According to the Minister of Information in the Government of South Sudan, the process for resuming oil exports will takeapproximately three months. Abyei is the next item on the agenda fordiscussion between Presidents Kiir and Bashir in September. If – and this is a big if – agreement was reached on a 30 November 2012 referendum date, the process of exporting oil could be restarted on the proviso that it would only be completed, in mid-December, if an Abyei Referendum had successfully taken place.

There are other arguments for a 30 November 2012 Abyei Referendum date. It avoids the complications and insecurity likely to arise if a referendum date coincides with annual migrations. While migrations last year were relatively peaceful (notwithstanding a large amount of cattle raiding, with more Dinka Ngok cattle stolen than in any previous year), it is unlikely that this will be the case in a further year, especially if Misseriya are seen to be holding up an Abyei Referendum. Experience from last year also showed that Misseriya migrations were easily infiltrated by PDF (Popular Defence Force) elements. PDF elements attempted to cause insecurity and division between other Misseriya and Dinka Ngok returnees on numerous occasions. In one case in February 2012 they were successful, and killed a Southerner despite local people warning UNISFA a day beforehand about suspicious movements.

Holding a referendum well before migrations are due to take place is the only way of preventing insecurity during an Abyei Referendum. UNISFA are widely and rightly praised for their actions in defending civilians and forestalling conflict, but there are growing concerns at their tendency to assume a governmental role, taking on decisions thatshould rightly be left to Abyei Administration. The divvying up of plots within Abyei market, granting them to Arab “traders” universally recognised amongst the Dinka Ngok community as former soldiers, will continue to provoke rather than relieve tension, and the sensible local proposal to relocate the market to an area near Todac, away from  residential areas, has been ignored.

UNISFA have failed to deal satisfactorily with cattle raiding, reluctant to assume a role not within their mandate and rightly the responsibility of a desperately-needed local police force. They have come under criticism for spending too long interviewing the victims of cattle raiding, while the cattle themselves are moved far away from their owners and become more difficult to trace. There are also concerns that they have been misled as to how certain water-points have been used, by the very elements that previously rendered these water-points unusable. Raising these points should not be misinterpreted as criticism of UNISFA, who are doing the best they can in an incredibly challenging environment.

UNISFA cannot be expected to be have the historical and contextual understanding to deal with these problems as effectively as local civil servants under an Abyei Administration could. With proposals for a temporary Joint Administration perceived by the local community as a way of setting a precedent as to who resides in the Area, the only certain way of enabling functions UNISFA has swallowed to be taken on by more appropriate authorities with proper experience, is to finally resolve the status of the area. Otherwise, as UNISFA continues to take on civil affairs, it will find itself increasingly out of its depth, and the prospects of localised conflict more likely. Again, this demands a referendum date that is sooner rather than later.

A 30 November 2012 date will of course require agreement on other issues, including voter eligibility and the formation of an Abyei Referendum Commission. But there are sensible proposals within the Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation on these points too, which at the very least could serve as a starting point for negotiations. The international community must insist, as it did on oil transportation fees, on a specific response from Khartoum as to how voter eligibility should be determined and verified, rather than an argument in principle which is unimplementable in practice. Registration should not be seen as a barrier – the target population nis relatively small and very concentrated: registration can be completed quickly compared to the experience of South Sudan’sreferendum. However, assistance to Ngok returnees North of the River Kiir will need to be upscaled. More will seek to return and sooner, if a referendum date is scheduled. Already the numbers have outstretched predictions, with an estimated 17,000 (5,000 in Abyei town, and 12,000 in the villages North of the Kiir around Abyei town) reported yesterday by local sources. INGOs are not ready to provide the necessary assistance and it will take a political decision by the international community for sufficient assistance to be provided should the entire community return. Returning to our original premise, will yesterday’s agreement on oil make war more or less likely?

The truth is that it could do either. If the international community continues to engage at the level it has done over oil; if it adopts and aggressively promotes the proposals in the RSS Government’s AFRC on border demarcation and Abyei, and ensures these issues are resolved before oil exports resume, today’s agreement will have been a step along the road to sustainable peace. If it pats itself on the back, congratulating itself on a job well-done and insisting that oil exports now resume as soon as possible regardless of agreements on other outstanding issues being reached and implemented, it will in the medium-term have furthered the prospects of war in the name of its own short-term economic interests.

Categories: General Politics

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