WEEKLY NEWS DIGEST (December 26, 2011-January 1, 2012)

INTERNATIONAL

AUSTRALIA

What if public-interest journalism had a white knight: a media start-up is born, packed with pedigree.” By Paddy Manning. Sydney Morning Herald. December 31, 2011. Plenty of people are worried about the future of quality, independent media in the internet age. Not many can do something about it. Enter philanthropist and internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood, who has pledged $15-20 million to a new, non-profit, online media venture, The Global Mail, with one goal in mind: produce public-interest journalism, no strings attached. To be launched in February, The Global Mail will not charge readers, will not sell ads and is not chasing more donors. It was born of a dinner party conversation between Wood and former ABC journalist Monica Attard, the site’s editor-in-chief. The Arab Spring had got Attard, a former foreign correspondent, thinking. ”For years and years the coverage in Egypt was pretty cursory,” she says. ”Everybody assumed that [former president Hosni] Mubarak was a benign leader who was much beloved, and certainly courted by the West. It struck me that the depth of coverage had not been there. Then I started to think about how journalism was being crunched down … and of course the first casualty always is international coverage. ”So I wondered whether there was any prospect of creating a news organisation which was web-based, and app-based ultimately, where you were tapping into great social movements around the world and where you could also speak to Australian affairs as though we were part of a wider world, rather than simply this pimple of an island somewhere near the South Pole.” Attard followed up dinner with a call to Wood’s office, which she was surprised to find returned. Wood, who founded accommodation website Wotif.com and whose fortune is estimated by BRW magazine at $337 million, had been making headlines with a string of high-profile donations, including $1.6 million to the Greens before the latest federal election, the biggest individual political donation in Australian history. He has also given $15 million to establish a think tank, the Global Change Institute, at his Alma Mater, the University of Queensland.

EGYPT

Egypt raids on NGOs hint at wider crackdown; Even charitable work can be a sensitive matter in Arab regimes if it highlights the state’s failure to provide basic services.” By Brian Whitaker. Guardian. December 29, 2011. Arab regimes have always been wary of civil society organisations. A flourishing civil society promotes active citizenship, undermining the idea that the ruling elites know best. Even charitable work, unthreatening and apolitical as it might seem, can be a sensitive matter if it highlights the state’s failure to provide basic services. For that reason, non- governmental organisations (NGOs) in Arab countries – if they are allowed at all – usually need a government permit. In Egypt, a complex legal framework minutely regulates their activities, management and finances, making it easy to harass or close them down on some technicality if the authorities take a dislike to them. One Egyptian NGO, the Nadim centre, which provides medical and other support for victims of torture, was raided a few years ago and threatened with prosecution on a host of charges, including possession of a questionnaire about torture and books about human rights, without a permit. After a public outcry, the list was reduced to just two alleged violations: not having a first-aid kit or a fire extinguisher (both of which were on the premises at the time). Despite the restrictions, NGOs in Egypt – especially those dealing with human rights – were more active than in many other Arab countries in the runup to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and chalked up a number of successes. Though occasional raids cause little surprise, the simultaneous raids on several organisations on Thursday are very unusual and suggest a concerted attempt to crack down on them. Some organisations try to get round the rules by registering as businesses rather than NGOs – a practice several Arab governments have recently been trying to stop. In the poorer Arab countries, such as Egypt, there is not enough funding from local sources for most NGOs to survive, so they often depend on western donors or the UN. This gives the authorities another means to control them, by blocking transfers of money from abroad. Dependence on outside funding also provides a further excuse to crack down by claiming they are part of a foreign plot to destabilise the country.
Related stories:
Egypt unrest: NGO offices raided in Cairo.” BBC News. December 29, 2011.
Egyptian military gambles by raiding pro-democracy groups.” Washington Post. December 30, 2011.
Egypt Raids Worry Targets, Draw U.S. Rebuke.” Wall Street Journal. December 31, 2011.
Egypt Vows to End Crackdown on Nonprofits.” New York Times. December 31, 2011.
Egypt’s Obstructionist Generals.” Editorial. New York Times. December 30, 2011.

INDIA

India Faces Endgame on Anticorruption Bill.” By Paul Beckett. Wall Street Journal. December 27, 2011. The Indian government and activist Anna Hazare are set to enter what may be the endgame in their monthslong battle to win the high moral ground on the issue of fighting corruption. Parliament will meet for an extraordinary three-day session starting on Tuesday to discuss the government’s version of an antigraft bill that sets up an ombudsman’s office to investigate charges of corruption in the bureaucracy, including in the prime minister’s office. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seeking to recover after 12 months during which it has been battered by corruption allegations, slowing economic growth, high inflation, a lack of fresh policy initiatives and some embarrassing gaffes—including the swift reversal of a decision to greatly expand the participation of foreign companies in India’s retail industry. Also starting Tuesday, the septuagenarian Mr. Hazare and his team have organized a three-day fast in Mumbai for the self-styled Gandhian to protest against what he considers weaknesses in the government’s version of the bill. Mr. Hazare has been the government’s chief antagonist since the spring, goading the administration to enact measures he considers key to establishing a strong anticorruption ombudsman, or Lokpal. Mr. Hazare rocked the Congress party-led government in August with a two-week fast to protest what he saw as Congress’s weak record in combating malfeasance. It attracted tens of thousands of sympathizers to a public ground in New Delhi and galvanized countless others around the country to his cause. A key question for Mr. Hazare will be whether, with Parliament set to debate the landmark bill, he can muster the same enthusiasm among his supporters, especially the middle class, that would pile new pressure on the government to make concessions on the differences that remain between them. Among those is the government’s proposal that the nation’s key federal investigative body, the Central Bureau of Investigation, remain under the government’s purview. Mr. Hazare is pressing for it to report to the ombudsman’s office, arguing that if it is overseen by the government, it will be pliable to manipulation on corruption cases.
Related stories:
Delhi to Mumbai: MPs debate, Anna protests Lokpal bill.” Times of India. December 27, 2011.
Lower House of Indian Parliament Passes Anticorruption Measure.” New York Times. December 27, 2011.
Indian Activist Calls Off Fast but Vows to Keep Fighting.” New York Times. December 28, 2011.
Rohtak NGO feeds Anna’s supporters in Mumbai.” Times of India. December 29, 2011.
Indian parliament to debate bill to fight corruption.” Sydney Morning Herald. December 29, 2011.
Anticorruption Bill Fails in India; Government Bid for Watchdog Agency Was Seen as Needed to Calm Investors and Appease Protesters.” Wall Street Journal. December 30, 2011.
Anna Hazare should introspect, says Bal Thackeray.Times of India. December 30, 2011.
Lokpal Bill put to sleep at midnight.” Times of India. December 30, 2011.

Many of India’s Poor Turn to Private Schools.” By Vikas Bajaj and Jim Yardley. New York Times. December 30, 2011. For more than two decades, M. A. Hakeem has arguably done the job of the Indian government. His private Holy Town High School has educated thousands of poor students, squeezing them into cramped classrooms where, when the electricity goes out, the children simply learn in the dark. Parents in Holy Town’s low-income, predominantly Muslim neighborhood do not mind the bare-bones conditions. They like the modest tuition (as low as $2 per month), the English-language curriculum and the success rate on standardized tests. Indeed, low-cost schools like Holy Town are part of an ad hoc network that now dominates education in this south Indian city, where an estimated two-thirds of all students attend private institutions. In India, the choice to live outside the faltering grid of government services is usually reserved for the rich or middle class, who can afford private housing compounds, private hospitals and private schools. But as India’s economy has expanded during the past two decades, an increasing number of India’s poor parents are now scraping together money to send their children to low-cost private schools in hopes of helping them escape poverty. Nationally, a large majority of students still attend government schools, but the expansion of private institutions has created parallel educational systems — systems that are now colliding. Faced with sharp criticism of the woeful state of government schools, Indian policy makers have enacted a sweeping law intended to reverse their decline. But skeptics say the litany of new requirements could also wipe out many of the private schools now educating millions of students. Education is one of India’s most pressing challenges. Half of India’s 1.2 billion people are 25 or younger, and literacy levels, while improving, could cripple the country’s long-term prospects. In many states, government education is in severe disarray, with teachers often failing to show up. Rote drilling still predominates. English, considered a prerequisite for most white-collar employment in India, is usually not the medium of instruction. When it took effect in April 2010, the Right to Education Act enshrined, for the first time, a constitutional right to schooling, promising that every child from 6 to 14 would be provided with it. For a nation that had never properly financed education for the masses, the law was a major milestone.

UK

UK charities set to get extra £1bn a year through tax relief scheme; ‘C-volunteering initiative’ designed to encourage business donations could raise charities’ income by 10% annually.” By Nicholas Watt. Guardian. December 25, 2011. Charities are set to receive an extra £1bn a year – nearly 10% of their total receipts – under a proposed new tax relief scheme designed to encourage business donations. Treasury ministers are taking a close interest in the “C-Volunteering initiative” which increases incentives for businesses and their employees to donate time and resources to charity. The idea is outlined in a report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), the thinktank founded by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. Its work is highly influential in Whitehall. Charities, which receive £11bn in donations a year, would see gifts rise by £1bn under a new tax relief scheme in the initiative. This helps in two ways, by encouraging: Individual employees to give up a set amount of hours each month to do voluntary work, giving charities free labour. Businesses would be able to offset the costs against tax under a scheme similar to the research and development (R&D) tax relief system. The report, drawn up by the CSJ in conjunction with the “C” social enterprise established last year by the social media entrepreneur Ab Banerjee, cites a hypothetical example of a female city lawyer, Kate, to illustrate the scheme. Kate gives up 19 hours a month – one half day, one Saturday and two weeknights – to help in a charity’s office and to visit elderly people. “The C-Volunteering scheme would leverage the great work of our volunteers by providing much needed cash donations to those charities. “Government’s support for such a programme will help charities and businesses invest in volunteer schemes that can truly make a difference.”

Before we build Cameron’s big society, we’ll need to know what it is; Royal Society of Arts offers its advice as the prime minister’s team tries to bring his elusive concept into focus and into action.” By Allegra Stratton Guardian. December 30, 2011. The government needs to set up “big society adult education” courses if the prime minister’s cherished but much derided idea is to take off, according to the Royal Society of Arts. In advance of an attempt by some of David Cameron’s staff to return to his guiding philosophy, the society today calls for the big society to be “refashioned” as a longer term project, but warns that some people will have to have a change in mindset if the idea is to work, a change which can be achieved through formal and informal adult education. Cameron has pushed his concept for the six years he has been Conservative leaderbut since he entering office it has had to relaunched four times, with even the minister responsible, Francis Maude, conceding that the government mght have failed to explain what exactly is the big society and what it might entail to realise it. The insight claims that the development of social justice by the centralised state has been exhausted, and that instead social aims may be as well improved by individuals and their friends taking on greater responsibility. Critics of such a platform say that it was too abstract to have been placed so centrally in the Conservatives’ 2010 election victory. Cameron’s close adviser Steve Hilton, deputy chief of staff Kate Fall, director of strategy Andrew Cooper, and his head of communications Craig Oliver, have now been asked to draw up a creative strategy for the second half of this parliament which raises the Conservative agenda beyond merely the economics of deficit reduction. They are expected to try once again to knit the myriad of Cameron’s various other initiatives back into the single rubric of the big society. The Royal Society of Arts welcomes this news, but it wants the big society’s time horizon and pitch to be amended. It writes: “The idea of the big society is at its weakest when it is presented as a partisan technical solution to acute socio-economic problems, and at its strongest when viewed as a non-partisan long-term adaptive challenge to enrich our social and human capital. “From this perspective, the big society should be viewed as a process of long-term cultural change, driven by social participation for social productivity and social solidarity.”

Art Fund membership up 15% despite downturn; Charity that helps museums and galleries acquire artworks has seen record gain in membership over past year.” By Vanessa Thorpe. Guardian. December 31, 2011. Museum and gallery goers have been backing British culture, despite the economic downturn. Record numbers have joined the national fundraising charity, the Art Fund, boosting its membership by 15% last year. The fund allows regional and national institutions to acquire important works for their collections. “It might look surprising when set next to some of the more urgent charitable causes,” said Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund. “Yet there has been a quickening of the philanthropic pulse which means that more people, not just the upper echelons, are doing more to support galleries and museums. There seems to be a greater understanding that the quality of British life is bound up with the quality of these things.” Deuchar puts the trend down to an urge to improve communities and the reinvention last spring of the fund’s National Art Pass, allowing holders to gain discounts and free admission to arts venues. “When this organisation started, it was about large-scale philanthropy and the good of the nation. Now it has been replaced by the feeling that it is about the individual and the world they want to live in,” he said. In 2011, the Art Fund supported or pledged to support the acquisition of almost 150 works of art. Items acquired with its help included Alex Katz’s portrait of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery and currently its most popular picture and bestselling postcard.

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