Daily Archives: December 12, 2008

Something good that began under the Howard government…

Never thought you’d see me say that, eh! But it must be the case*, and it is ongoing, which is even better. I hadn’t known about it until I saw The 7.30 Report last night: Australian Govt gives Indonesian schools funding boost.

KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: The three Bali bombers executed last month had one thing in common: growing up, they all attended jihad preaching boarding schools. There are many security experts who believe these schools present a real danger to Indonesia and Australia. The question is: what can be done to promote education in Indonesia without funding extremists? As it happens, the Australian Government has quietly been investing millions of dollars in schools across Indonesia, training teachers and buying schoolbooks. It’s one of the most ambitious aid programs of its type anywhere in the world, and as the ABC’s Indonesian correspondent Geoff Thompson reports, it could pay a remarkable dividend.
BRIAN SPICER, AUSAID: Not only, perhaps, the biggest program that Australia is operating in education anywhere, but it’s also one of the biggest education programs anywhere in the world.
ROBIN BUSH, THE ASIA FOUNDATION: For the Australian Government to be providing low cost schools, good schools that follow the national curriculum in these communities is an incredible contribution because it does provide options.
GEOFF THOMPSON, REPORTER: Over the last few years, a quiet revolution has been unfolding within Indonesia’s education system and Australia has been leading the charge. This country of almost 240 million people has some gaping holes in the education prospects of its children. Almost 40 per cent of Indonesia’s kids never make it past primary school simply because there aren’t enough secondary schools spread across the sprawling archipelago…

GEOFF THOMPSON: The 1,000th school was opened in August in Sulawesi. Australian aid goes only to schools which teach the national curriculum, whether they are government schools or Islamic madrasas run by Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.
SIDNEY JONES, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: About 20 per cent or 25 per cent of children get educated in Islamic schools here. And if you completely ignore that, you’re ignore a critical part of the education system. And it’s a lousy educational system. It’s something that’s in dire need of improvement.
GEOFF THOMPSON: Australia’s decision to fund madrasas did raise a few eyebrows when first announced because of fears they would be like the single sex Koranic rote learning centres seen in countries like Pakistan.
ROBIN BUSH: And in fact it’s interesting in Indonesia, it’s very different from other countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh where the madrasa is the institution for Islamic learning and primarily teaches religious subjects. In Indonesia, it’s the pasantran that are primarily teaching religious subjects. But within the pasantran, there’s usually a madrasa. And it’s the madrasa that teaches the secular subjects. So, it’s sort of counter-intuitive. It’s a bit different than the way it is in some other Muslim countries…


* I subsequently checked, and this particular program does indeed date from 2006. See About AusAID in Indonesia. See also the AusAID general site for other projects and information. Wikipedia gives some background back to Whitlam. There have been criticisms:

AusAID’s most vocal critic is the left-wing NGO Aid/Watch. Aid/Watch argue that "The flow of aid can be constructive particularly in programs of emergency relief and health. However, development projects can have detrimental effects on local communities when the donor country imposes decisions without the appropriate assessment of social, cultural and environmental needs.". Specific criticisms of AusAID include allegations that it services Australian commercial interests through its procurement policies; promotes particular economic and trade policies that Aid/Watch regards as detrimental to the poor; lacks transparency; and has seen aid been misused to support foreign policy, such as promotion of the so-called Pacific Solution for processing people seeking asylum in Australia.

Aid/Watch critiques of AusAID’s procurement policy have not been updated to reflect the untying of most aid procurement from April 2006.

AusAID has also been criticised from the right-wing, particularly the Centre for Independent Studies. Helen Hughes of the CIS has argued that "aid has failed PNG and the Pacific" – a criticism of the broad policy and approach of aid rather than the specific administration of AusAID.

The emphasis there is mine. Check Aid/Watch for yourself.

Am I just being elderly and having a senior moment, or am I right in thinking little was made of AusAID in the 2007 election? There was an Australian Wheat Board scandal connection, was there not?

And before I get too nice about John Howard, note this, also from Wikipedia:

It has also seen repeated cuts to aid contributions during its lifetime, as the level of 0.47% of gross domestic product during the Whitlam years was slashed to 0.33% under the Hawke and Keating governments, and has at times been even lower under the Howard government. Cuts have not been limited to aid levels either; in mid-1996, the Howard government slashed the agency’s running costs budget by 24% amidst a round of cost-cutting measures.

In 2005 John Howard committed Australia to double Australian aid to about $4 billion a year by 2010. At the time of the 2007-08 budget, the Government announced total aid of $3.2 billion and an expectation "to continue increasing development assistance, to $3.5 billion in 2008-09, $3.8 billion in 2009-10 and $4.3 billion in 2010-11."

I am of course still extremely impressed with last night’s 7.30 Report story.

But we have not had the best of records comparatively in the amount we devote to foreign aid. There was a famous confrontation over that between Rev Tim Costello of World Vision and his then Treasurer brother, Peter Costello, in 2006: Costello brothers argue over Australia’s aid record.

niar Jim Belshaw has posted on this latest news of Australia-Indonesia relations, as he has on matters Indonesian quite often: Encouraging Indonesia-Australia involvement. Jim has attracted an Indonesian readership too in recent times. I have noticed when I have occasionally checked his Sitemeter that between 5 and 10% of his visits often come from there. One 18-year-old Indonesian, Niar, commented on Jim’s latest post: “I have a planning to join Australian scholarship for 2009. the sort of scholarship that I take is ADS (Australian Development Scholarship). It is provide as much as 300 scholarship for public servant, NGO worker, or post graduate student.”

Check her blog: the most recent post is Human Rights for All. That’s her on the right.


My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

0801-Grayling My reading these days comes from two main sources: Surry Hills Library or the bargain basement bookshops. I am after all a pensioner. Naturally, this does impact on my “Top Read” choices, but has not prevented my finding quite a few in the past twelve months. I will be listing them in another post later on, but you can also check the tag.

So the latest came via the bargain bookshop, $12.95 instead of $35 for the hardback.

I recommend Counterknowledge with two reservations.

The first is encapsulated in this otherwise very favourable review by British philosopher A C Grayling (no relation to a blogger some of us know) in New Humanist.

…The sentences that need to be added to this otherwise superb crusade against despoliation of truth and reason concern what harsh critics would, I am sure wrongly and unfairly, call a sleight-of-hand by Thomson, given that when he is not debunking counterknowledge he is none-too-indirectly associated with one of its most egregious forms by being the editor of the Catholic Herald. Early in his book he says that religion “does not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge” because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. And he leaves it there; protected, you might say, behind the wholly admirable pyrotechnics of his assault on “misinformation masquerading as fact” to be found elsewhere.

This, I am afraid, will not do. As already suggested, the most persistent and influential forms of counterknowledge, including many false claims about the origin and nature of the universe, what it contains and what it is influenced by, which heavenly bodies go round which, what can be effected by prayer or the laying on of hands, and so vastly on, are the religions. Thomson rightly criticises the fact that the British state supports five homeopathic hospitals and pays for six degree courses in homeopathy, but says nothing about tax-funding of faith-based schools – not a few teaching creationism. He quotes Popper on falsifiability as the test of a genuine knowledge claim, but does not mention Popper’s correlative stricture, that “a theory which explains everything explains nothing”, as a direct refutation of the meaningfulness of religious claims.

He grants that religion becomes counterknowledge when it is controverted by the evidence of our senses, but does not admit that all religion is therefore so. He does not address the point that when factual information is lacking with respect to some claim – as is standardly the case with the major tenets of religion – constraints of rationality come into play…

Even so, Grayling says: “This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence – a draft of which I offer below – should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate…”

The second reservation I have is that there are times Thompson seems to me to be too Eurocentric, or a little too quick to label something as “counterknowledge” simply because it does not quite fit with his version of Enlightenment philosophy. I am sure you will see something paradoxical there in my two reservations!

I would go further than Thompson by quite happily regarding the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke as pseudohistory, in which I am no different from many mainstream theologians. (You may get a post on that before Yuletide!) On the other hand, I would not be quite as dismissive as he is about Chinese Traditional Medicine.

I would also express some reservation about the use to which his generally perfectly correct criticisms of much thought in the Muslim world might be put by the likes of Daniel Pipes or Melanie Phillips, but then I am rather more of a cultural relativist than Thompson is.

That aside, the book is very stimulating and very useful. The chapter on Intelligent Design/Creationism is quite brilliant.

You don’t even need the book, really, though I do recommend it, partly out of a continuing belief that the reading of actual words on paper does have some advantages over absorbing matter from a screen – some of the disadvantages of which are actually made clear in the book! Nonetheless, the book was simultaneously published with its website, which is very comprehensive and also stimulating. Most of the people it will infuriate are people you really wouldn’t want to know anyway!


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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, challenge, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, historiography, History, Top read


Cholera? What cholera?

Crazy quote of the year?

President Robert Mugabe has declared that the crisis is over and that there is no cholera in Zimbabwe.

"I am happy we are being assisted by others and we have arrested cholera," Mr Mugabe said in a speech in which he also attacked what he described as Western plans to invade Zimbabwe and topple his government.

"Now that there is no cholera there is no case for war."

ABC News Australia


See There is nothing for Zimbabweans to celebrate on Human Rights Day.

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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Africa, health, human rights, humanity