Friday, 9 December 2011

Savings revolution - a new form of microfinance for the very poor is spreading like wildfire

Microcredit - providing credit to the poor (who can usually offer little or no collateral in return) -   was introduced and popularised by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in the 1970s as a way to lift poor people in the developing world out of poverty and help them start small businesses.  It has been very successful in Bangladesh, for example. 

But recently the practice has attracted mounting criticism. Behind success stories are disturbing reports of debts dependency and microcredit institutions hounding their debtors.

When I was in Ghana recently, Plan International took me to see a very exciting new model of microfinance in action in a poor suburb of Accra.  The system, called Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA), is based on savings rather than debts and is managed in the community by the people themselves rather than by professionals. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Women in the media – who is running the show?

I belong to a group called Women in Journalism  (WiJ). We work across all the written media, from newspapers and magazines to the new media. We network, campaign, train and party. It is fun and it is needed.

I am often asked – especially by male colleagues - why do we need such an organization in this day and age. Well…Where do I start!

Kira Cochrane, a WiJ member and Guardian feature writer, trawled newspapers, radio and TV shows looking at the gender of writers, presenters and guests over several weeks. The results, published in a Guardian article this week, are even worse than I suspected and it is so depressing.

From Monday 13th June to Friday 8th July – before the school summer holidays started, to avoid any skewing effect – Kira and a group of researchers carried out a simple count of newspaper bylines. They went through seven daily newspapers in their entirety each day, counting and recording the number of male and female writers, and then calculating the percentage values.

They found that in a typical month, women journalists accounted for just 22.6 per cent, as opposed to 77.4 per cent for male reporters, and there wasn't a single day, on a single newspaper, when the number of female bylines outstripped or equalled the number of male bylines.

During that four-week period, they also logged the gender of reporters and guests on the BBC radio 4 agenda-setting Today programme and the BBC TV political show Question Time.
72% of the BBC political show Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today show are men.

Where are all the women?

Does it matter who reports the news and appears on current affairs programmes?

According to the most recent survey by the Global Media Monitoring Project (March 2010), women feature in only about a fifth of the world’s news headlines and just ten percent of all news stories.

“Literally thousands of stories about, by and for women are never told.  This sends a message that women’s experiences and opinions are just not as important or as valid as those of men,” says Alison Clarke, who created Women’s Views on News, a women’s daily online news and current affairs service, to redress the imbalance in women’s favour. (The site is down at the moment because of technical difficulties).

Monday, 21 November 2011

Write for Rights 2011

I am writing this short post to urge everyone to participate in Amnesty International's Write for Rights 2011 campaign in celebration of the organization's 50th anniversary and to mark International Human Rights Day on Saturday 10 December.

Millions of people around the globe take all forms of action for Amnesty’s campaigns, from online petitions and other methods of digital communication to public rallies and demonstrations. But in the organisation’s 50th year, the humble hand-written letter is being championed once again, in a “penaissance”.

Sending a card with a simple, personal greeting is a powerful way to show support for someone facing human rights abuse.

Every card matters. For prisoners of conscience, for families whose relatives have disappeared, for people in danger for defending human rights, the cards bring comfort and hope; they offer encouragement and support, and raise spirits. Above all they are a sign that people care.

The cards can also make an impression on police officers, prison staff and political authorities - and that can help to improve the way they treat individuals at risk.
AI hopes that more people than ever before will write a letter demanding action on one of the ten cases in the Write for Rights campaign. The cases illustrate the diversity of Amnesty’s work; from people facing the death penalty to communities facing forced eviction and women who are challenging the impunity which allows soldiers in Mexico to avoid justice for rape.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:
“In 1961, when Amnesty was started, our founding members had no idea whether ordinary people writing letters to Heads of State and other people in power would make any difference. It turns out that it did, and it still does.
“These days, we Tweet the President of Azerbaijan, or e-mail the head of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles – and we will continue to deploy every weapon in our arsenal - but the humble, classic letter is a uniquely formidable tool.
“A letter has the power to embarrass, persuade, protect, coerce and force people to alter their behaviour, and ultimately to change the world. If you want to right the wrongs, write about them.”
The ten individuals and groups who feature in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, include; Jabbar Savalan, a 20 year old history student in Azerbaijan who is serving a prison sentence for anti-government comments he posted on Facebook; 75 year old Hakamada Iwao, believed to be the world's longest serving death row inmate who has spent the last 43 years awaiting execution in Japan and Inés Ferndández Ortega and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, two rape survivors in Mexico who have tirelessly campaigned to have the perpetrators of the attack brought to justice.
It is simple to take part.  Just follow the advice given with each case and you can be sure that your message of warmth, care and support will make a real difference.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Slavery past and present - different name, same exploitation

Elmina slave castle in Ghana

Former BBC war reporter Rageh Omaar has spent a year making a documentary series about 21st century slavery for Al Jazeera English.

He said he wanted to do the programme after a friend mentioned that there are 27 million people in slavery worldwide. “Most people think slavery is a thing of the past, but it’s a crime that is happening in plain sight, not just in poor developing countries but also here and in the US, in many different guises,” he told The Observer.

Omaar said he was shocked to see how common and everyday the practice was. “Modern slavery is now a fundamental part of the globalized economy….Every country on Earth has a law banning slavery, but enforcing that law, especially in today’s deregulated economic system, is very difficult."

Forced labour, bonded labour, human trafficking… millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves. It is often not called slavery, but the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their 'employers'.

According to research accepted by the US government, it is cheaper to purchase a slave today than is was at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade.

I recently visited the infamous Elmina Castle on the west coast of Ghana (or Gold Coast as the country was called at the time). It is one of the most important stops on the route of the Transatlantic slave trade and the horror of this terrible place still sticks to my skin.  It is hard to believe that slavery is still going strong today.  For, when seeing a place like Elmina which reeks of terror and violence, one has to  scream:  “How could we?” and “Never again.”   But when do we learn?

Built by Portugal in 1482, Elmina was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea, so is the oldest European building in existence below the Sahara.

First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the biggest slave fortresses in Africa.  In 1637, it served the Dutch slave trade with Brazil and the Caribbean, then in 1800s, become property of the British Empire. Today, it is a popular historical site, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Door of No Return in Elmina Castle/ Dominique Chadwick

 Elmina, like other West African slave fortresses, housed luxury suites for the Europeans in the upper levels. The slave dungeons below were cramped and filthy, each cell often housing as many as 150 to 500 people at a time, without enough space to even lie down. Men and women routinely stayed there for three months until a ship was ready to take them away. The floor of the dungeons, as result of centuries of impacted filth and human excrement, is now several inches higher than when the place was built.

A special staircase with a trap door led directly from the women’s dungeon to the governor’s bedroom.

One of the castle’s two churches stands just above the women’s dungeon. I wonder if the European soldiers, administrators and priests who were posted there found it incongruous to be  praying while hundreds of chained, frightened and desperate women wailed underneath their feet…But then, we are all so good at justifying our actions, at not questioning things that are part of our culture, practices or environment. Would we have been different?

The most poignant sight at Elmina is the Door of No Return, the infamous portal through which slaves boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage.  Our guide estimated that, over the castle’s 300 years as a slave fortress, some 12 to 15 million captives must have passed through the Door of No Return.

Omaar’s Slavery: A 21st Century Evil is on Al Jazeera English on Monday nights.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Crime Kills More Than War - Global Patterns in Lethal Violence

Nine out of ten violent deaths occur outside conflict zones, and crime is the single largest contributor to violent killing.

These startling findings of this year’s report on the Global Burden of Armed Violence, enlarges the context of lethal violence:  it is not necessary linked to war, armed conflict and terrorism, but encompasses crime, gang-related violence and gender-related violence, as well.

Violent murders occur in both developed and developing countries where poverty, inequality, social and political exclusion, and governance challenges are both causes and consequences of armed violence.  In fact, more people per capita were killed in El Salvador than in Iraq, reveals the report by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, released last week in Geneva.

Out of the 526,000 people who die as a result of armed violence every year, only 55,000 of them lose their lives in conflict or as a result of terrorism.  Instead, 396,000 people - including 66,000 women - are victims of murder, 54,000 die as a result of manslaughter  and 21,000 violent deaths occur during law enforcement actions.  High levels of ‘femicide’ are frequently accompanied—and in some cases generated by—a high level of tolerance for violence against women, the report notes.
“The boundaries between political, criminal, and interpersonal violence have become increasingly blurred, as revealed in cases of killings associated with drug trafficking in Central America or of pirates engaging in economically-motivated violence in Somalia,” said Keith Krause, one of the editors and authors of the report.
One-quarter of all violent deaths occur in just 14 countries (average annual violent death rates above 30.0 per 100,000) -  half of which are in the Americas. Although wars dominate media headlines, the levels of armed violence in some non-conflict countries resemble those of conflict zones. El Salvador was the country with the most per capita lethal violence in an average year between 2004 and 2009, followed by Iraq, then Jamaica, according to the report.
Not surprisingly, the report also links lethal violence to underdevelopment.
“States with high levels of lethal violence almost always struggle to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” said Krause. “And we also know that when a country makes progress in terms of development, it is likely to exhibit decreasing levels of lethal violence.”
Echoing the results of a growing body of research, the report also confirms that countries with low levels of income inequality and unemployment experience lower levels of homicide.
The Global Burden of Armed Violence is produced by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, a diplomatic initiative aimed at addressing the interrelations between armed violence and development. The Declaration was adopted on 7 June 2006 and is now endorsed by over 100 states.

Monday, 31 October 2011

First Universal Human Rights Logo - by the people, for the people

Do you know that we now have an internationally recognized symbol for human rights? It is a dove-like hand – a simple logo, elegant and easy to understand everywhere in the world.

The first universal human rights logo was designed by Predrag Stakic in the largest ever crowdsourcing event in the world. The 32-year-old Serb said he was inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that human rights are the foundation for creating a free, just and peaceful world.  

“I’ve put that in the design, using two universal symbols – a hand and a dove – to make something new," explained Stakic at the unveiling ceremony alongside the UN General Assembly in New York in late September. 

Stakic unveiling his winning logo
 While there are widely recognized symbols or logos for almost anything from companies like Nike and McDonald’s to peace and the anti-nuclear movement, until now there were none for human rights.

A non-profit initiative, backed by governments in Europe, North and South America, and Asia, and prominent activists, launched a massive online campaign in May to find a logo that would overcome "language barriers to communicate this universal bond symbolically."   The organizers allowed entrants to design their logos with computer technology, a simple pen and paper, paints, or even just a stick in the sand.

In the course of three months, 15,396 logo designs were submitted from participants in 190 countries. From these, a jury of international design experts an prominent human rights activists selected the ten best. They included designer Erik Spiekermann, the Chinese activist and artists Ai Weiwei, Nobel Peace Prize winners former US president Jimmy Carter, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, economist Muhammad Yunus and former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev - to name just a few.

Here are the shortlisted logos:

The list was put online, so people from all over the world could vote and select their favourite  logo, sparking some heated debate on the initiative's website.

Stakic's entry won the most votes in the public online ballot. The graphic designer from Belgrade, who received €5,000 ($6,745) said: "No single logo can change the world - including this one. But a logo is a symbol that people can rally around - and they can change the world.”

The logo was produced by the bigger ever exercise in crowdsourcing - a process where  large, unspecified groups of people can contribute to a common goal.  The scheme attracted criticism, but the organizers said it was the best way to create a logo "by the people, for the people." 

The logo is now free to use by everyone, everywhere without restrictions - for the purpose of promoting human rights. You can download it here.


Monday, 17 October 2011

Behind Magnum Ghana ice cream

Cocoa pods harvest/Fjona Hill
Apparently last week was National Chocolate Week, so I am a bit late with this post, but hey!

I went to Ghana a few weeks ago to look at Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa farms where Magnum sources the cocoa beans for its new Magnum Ghana ice cream
-->We were an all-woman team: a filmmaker, a photographer, a representative from Magnum and myself. Our brief was to make a film, write an article and shoot pictures describing the cocoa cycle from “beans to bite” and looking at the impact of the certification process on the farmers and their families, the environment and the quality of the cocoa beans.  A fascinating assignment for a chocolate-lover like me!   

The knowledgeable Rainforest Alliance’s representative Christian Mensah facilitated our three-day stay at Gold Coast and Agave camps, two of several farming communities in the Assin Fosu district of Ghana’s central region, producing cocoa beans for Magnum ice cream.  

Road leading to Gold Coast camp in Assin Fosu/Fjona Hill
The farming villages are nested in dense, lush vegetation, off a red-dirt road, some 4 hours north-west of Accra, the capital.

When we arrived, we were greeted with drums and dancing women as it is often custom in Africa. The chiefs and elders from all the neighbouring farming communities made us the honour of welcoming us into their communities.  The head chief usually speaks publicly only through an intermediary - his linguist in traditional robes and golden staff - but he made an exception as we were foreigners.  He said the Rainforest Alliance certification process has transformed the lives of villagers here.  In fact, everyone we spoke with – men, women and children - said that.  I wondered whether people had been briefed to be so positive. Apparently no – their enthusiasm was genuine.

The chiefs of neighbouring villages came to greet us/Fjona Hill
Farming communities in the region have grown cocoa beans for generations. Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world after Ivory Coast and cocoa is Ghana’s largest cash crop.  In 2011, Unilever’s Magnum ice cream joined forces with global conservation NGO Rainforest Alliance to bring sustainable agriculture practices to cocoa farmers in the region, promote nature conservation and increase the quality of life of farming communities. 

After just one year, 450 farmers in the Assin Fosu region have already achieved Rainforest Alliance (RA) Certification - a rigorous process that covers social, economic and environmental factors, including soil management and biodiversity protection.  It also means better conditions and higher income for workers.  Magnum’s goal is to source the entirety of its global cocoa supply from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms by 2015.

One of the most important things farmers said they have learned through the programme is how to identify and deal with pests and diseases, which attack cocoa pods and trees. If untreated, these fungus and bugs can spread to the whole tree and even contaminate the entire cocoa farm.  In the past, they all have lost harvests and trees to these pests. The training also covers preservation of wildlife and the eco-system around their farms, health and safety issues and the importance of sending their children to school, among other topics.
Bi-monthly training session during which farmers learn best farming practices/Fjona Hill

In addition, the programme has enhanced the status of women, says Fatima Ali, the chief of a neighbouring village.  “As a woman, I feel empowered by this programme.   I’ve applied the skills I’ve learned through the training and my farm’s yield has increased significantly. I am now training other farmers in the community. Traditionally, farming decisions were taken by men, but now I am training them.”

Farmer Rabiatu Abubakar says her family has “benefited enormously” from the programme.  “Our production has increased and we have now more money. This has strengthened my relationship with my husband. We are now able to send our children to school and feed them well. We are all happier.”  

Find out more about the cocoa process and RA certification programme in Assin Fosu by reading my guest post on RA’s Frog Blog here.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Afghanistan: what about the women?

credit: Women for Women International 
Ten years ago this week, the US and allies including the UK invaded Afghanistan - a move they justified in part with promises to defend women’s rights. A decade on, Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to be a woman.

Now, the countries that led the invasion back in 2001 are attempting to sit down at the negotiating table with the Taliban. And Afghan women fear that Western governments will sacrifice their rights and safety to reach an elusive deal with the Taliban.

In December, Foreign Secretary William Hague will represent the UK at discussions about the Afghanistan peace process. Organisations, such as  Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, Oxfam GB and Women for Women International UK,  are urging the Foreign Secretary to ensure that Afghan women’s hard won but fragile rights do not become a bargaining chip to be traded away in the name of peace and that Afghan women are included in peace negotiations.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK said "The peace process in Afghanistan mustn’t mean putting a price on women’s rights. These are non-negotiable. They’re the ‘red lines’ that the Afghan community, Nato and countries like the UK must insist on."

Millions of Afghan women and girls have seen progress in their lives since 2001: two and a half million girls are enrolled in school, women can work outside their homes, while the constitution grants women and men equal rights.

Yet Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Their rights are weakly enforced, most women still have limited access to basic services such as healthcare and education, and they face risks from violence and conflict. This is particularly true for the brave women who are active in public life; they face intimidation and the threat of violence on a daily basis.

In addition, women’s voices have been largely silenced in the search for a peace deal.

Shaheen Chugtai, Humanitarian Policy Advisor, Oxfam GB said: “A just and lasting peace is necessary in order to improve the lives of all Afghans. We have to remind William Hague and the international community that the best way of achieving such as peace is by making sure that Afghan women are meaningfully involved at all levels of negotiation and that explicit guarantees of their constitutional rights are built into any peace deal.” 

Amnesty is urging all of us to take action and tell our government not to trade away women’s rights. You can do this here.

 Besides Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, Oxfam GB and Women for Women International UK, the coalition of organisations are members of Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS). They also include ActionAid UK, International Action Network on Small Arms, Northern Ireland Women’s European Coalition, Saferworld, Soroptimist International UK, United Nations Association UK, UN Women UK, Womankind Worldwide and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. GAPS campaigns under No women, no peace and is petitioning the UK to honour commitments to women’s rights in Afghanistan. 

Supporters will wear green scarves and participate in candlelit vigils on 31st October in solidarity with women in Afghanistan. Click here for more details.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Troy Davis’s execution – Abolish Death Penalty

I haven’t posted anything on my blog for a while because I was away in Ghana on a reporting trip. I’ll write about it later.  While I was away, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia and this is what I want to write about. 

Davis was put to death by lethal injection on Wednesday September 21 for the killing of off-duty policeman Mark MacPhail in 1989, despite serious doubts about his guilt. He became the 34th person executed in the US in 2011 – eight more death-row prisoners are scheduled to be executed this year.

Davis, 42, was sent to his death despite a mass of evidence casting his 1991 conviction in doubt, including recantations from seven of the nine key witnesses at his trial. No DNA evidence conclusively linked him to the murder.  His death was delayed for hours while the US Supreme Court considered an eleventh-hour appeal for clemency and his execution date had already been changed three times.

Outside the prison, hundreds of people gathered chanting: "They say, death row; we say, hell no".

Davis counted Pope Benedict XVI and former US President Jimmy Carter among his supporters, as well as US conservative figures like former member of the House of Representatives Bob Barr and former FBI director William Sessions. 

While on death row, he received up to 100 cards and letters a day from Amnesty International supporters. It helps to think he knew that people all around the world believed in his innocence and fought against his execution.

Davis maintained his innocence to the end, saying: “I did not have a gun. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.”

As he lay strapped on the gurney, he told the family of MacPhail lined up behind a glass screen in front of him:  "I did not personally kill your son, father, brother.” 

After the Georgia pardons board denied clemency, Davis’ supporters – including  Amnesty International – began a public, viral campaign to encourage the local prosecutor and local judge to withdraw the execution order.

But it was in vain: it usually takes extraordinary circumstances and new evidence that decisively rules out the person convicted to change the legal presumption that the jurors made the correct decision and the defence lawyers and prosecutors did their jobs honestly and to the best of their abilities.

Davis’s execution has provoked an extraordinary outpouring of protest in the US and around the world, refocusing the debate on death penalty and the American south. 

Death penalty supporters are mostly from the southern or midwestern states. While the calls for Davis's reprieve poured into Georgia from all over the country and the world, few were likely to come from Georgia.   And that probably mattered more for the local prosecutor, judge and state-selected board than calls from more famous people out of state and abroad. 

Though 34 of the 50 states still have the death penalty, only 12 states carried out executions last year, and 80% of all executions take place in the south - and black people are over-represented.  Black males make up 15% of the population of Georgia, but they fill almost half the cells on its death row.

Davis’s execution has now created a groundswell in America of people "who are tired of a justice system that is inhumane and inflexible and allows executions where there is clear doubts about guilt,” says Brian Evans of Amnesty, which led the campaign to spare Davis's life. He predicted the debate would now be conducted with renewed energy.

Amnesty is urging people to re-double their commitment to abolish the death penalty worldwide.  Please sign their "Not IN MY Name Petition"  here.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Ten years after 9/11 – Journalism and the war on terror

As the world prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington, I am thinking of its impact on my profession and my colleagues.
These strikes have been followed by the so-called “war on terror” and its legacy on journalism is enormous.

On the plus side, coverage of foreign policy and global conflicts has increased significantly, but the new terror laws have also deeply affected freedom of speech and the way journalists can report events.  Journalists and media staff have also been among some of the war on terror most prominent victims.

The 9/11 attacks unleashed a decade of conflict and tragedy across the globe. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; terrorist strikes in Great Britain, Spain, Indonesia and Turkey; state-sanctioned torture in the name of democracy; and a range of unprecedented laws and policies that have enfeebled civil liberties and human rights protection everywhere.

The International Federation of Journalists ( IFJ) - the world's largest organisation of journalists - and its regional organisation the European Federation of Journalists, are holding a two-day conference in Brussels on September 10th and 11th to examine the legacy of 9/11 and the terror laws on journalism.

The conference entitled "10 years after 9/11: Journalism in the shadow of terror laws", will bring together journalists, human rights advocates and campaigners, trade unionists, academics and politicians to discuss this crisis for free speech and for press freedom, and the risks for journalists covering conflicts.

Says IFJ: “In every corner of the world, journalism has been diminished by the shadow of terrorism. Unscrupulous politicians have taken advantage of public anxiety and, in the name of counter-terrorism, governments have introduced laws, forms of surveillance and monitoring of peoples' lives that increase the power of the state. Journalists have been subject to restrictions on their freedom of movement. Spies have infiltrated newsrooms. Telephones have been tapped. Prosecutions have been launched to discover sources of information.
At the same time there have been numerous incidents of secret governmental co-operation to increase covert surveillance of citizens travelling from country to country and, worse, to sanction and condone the detention and torture of people alleged to be implicated in terrorist activities.”

Speakers include:
Mary Robinson, Chairperson of Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Martin Scheinin, former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism
Sami Al Haj, Al Jazeera journalist imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for six years
• Moaiad Al Lami, President Iraqi Journalists’ Union
• Jason Parkinson, UK photographers’ campaign “I’m a photographer, not a terrorist”
The IFJ Federation represents around 600.000 members in more than 100 countries.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

London riots – UK cannot just "arrest its way" out of the social breakdown.

The Government maintains that the riots, which spread through London and other cities two weeks ago,  “were not about poverty” – just mindless thugery.  But analysis of court-case data by the Guardian shows that most of the rioters were young, poor and unemployed.

A Liverpool University urban planning lecturer analyzed the Guardian’s data and found that the majority of the 1,300 people who have appeared in court so far live in poor neighbourhoods, with 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. 

The findings are backed up the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which looked at the relationship between different indicators of poverty and deprivation and the boroughs where violence and looting took place.

Researchers found that in almost all of the worst-affected areas, youth unemployment and child poverty were significantly higher than the national average while education attainment was significantly lower.

The report states: "While poverty is no excuse for criminality, it places additional pressure on families not only to make ends meet but also to spend time together … The political debate is likely to rage on for some time but there is also an urgent need to understand what is happening in communities where violence flared."

The country cannot just "arrest its way" out of the social breakdown.

But so far, all we have seen from the Government is a very punitive response.  Convicted rioters are being handed sentences that are on the average 25 per cent longer than normal ones – an average of 5 months for those charged with theft and handling stolen goods.  A mother of two was jailed for five months for receiving clothes stolen by a looter (she appealed) and kids posting messages inciting disorders of Facebook were handed a four-year sentence.  Have judges lost their minds?  

The Government instructed them to go hard on the rioters to set an example and deter further violence, and also because looting and similar offences are seen as more serious in the context of the riots.  This last argument is strange, considering that is it well known that people in groups do things they would never have done on their own.

I am not condoning the riots and I agree that rioters need to be punished, but these harsh, longer sentences will backfire. They will send hundreds of youngsters to already overcrowded prisons, where they’ll meet hardened criminals.  They will reinforce their views of a society that is unjust, biased, uncaring and punitive, and exacerbate heir feelings of alienation and resentment. 

Instead of handing them long prison sentences, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask the young people to clean up, repair and improve the neighborhoods they have trashed? 

And as a society, we need to address the causes of the riots; otherwise they will flare up again. 

 Ian Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, is advocating just that.  Taking an opposite view from the “zero tolerance” of No 10, he declared that the country cannot just "arrest its way" out of the social breakdown.

Young people needed support to help them leave gangs in equal measure to the tough sanctions they should face if they refuse to give up a life of crime, he said in an article for the Guardian.