Dec 29, 2008

Columnists - Bill Kirkman;It's the season of cheer

As Christmas approaches the financial news on all sides remains almost unremittingly bad. We read of a greatly reduced level of business in many of the retail chains. In the past few days, we have had the news that Woolworths, for generations one of the iconic names on the high street selling cheap goods, is going out of business altogether. Unemployment is rising. It is difficult to obtain a mortgage, and difficult, therefore, to buy a house. Inevitably, all this casts a pall of gloom over what is traditionally a festive season.

These comments are just from a parochial United Kingdom perspective, but of course it is not realistic to look at things with that narrow focus. Both the problems, and the attempted solutions, are international. For example, in the U.S. and the U.K. governments are considering whether, and how, to rescue major corporations (notably in the motor industry).

Knock-on effect

If the capitalist system is a reality, it could be argued that government intervention to save failing corporations surely makes no sense. Yet clearly, it is not as simple as that; the knock-on effect of corporate failure, on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, is far too big to ignore, and governments, therefore, quite understandably are not ignoring it.

Bad news is continuous and universal. Each day brings fresh examples, and as it has continued over many weeks, we tend to react with a kind of fatalistic detachment. The bad news has in a sense virtually lost the power to affect us.

Against the background of this kind of pervasive mood, it is salutary to look for examples of good news: and, believe it or not, they are to be found.

This week I experienced just such a good example. I spent a couple of hours on duty as a volunteer collector outside one of the major supermarkets in Cambridge. This supermarket chain regularly allows charities to hold “flag days” outside their premises, and this one was for a Cambridge-based charity with which I am associated, which provides a reading service for blind people. This particular supermarket branch is located just outside Cambridge, in an area which is not in the prosperous heart of the city. The response, nevertheless, was positive, and people gave generously. No doubt many of them are facing anxious times, including uncertainty about employment, but that did not prevent them from thinking of others, and doing something to help them. At a time when we are looking critically at the greed of many in the financial world, it is encouraging to be reminded that there are plenty of people who are not greedy, and who concern themselves with the welfare of people less fortunate than themselves.

The bad news that is presently filling our consciousness is not of course limited to the world of international finance. Every day brings more evidence of the disaster that is facing the people of Zimbabwe. As I write, it is increasingly clear that the hope of a political settlement in that unhappy country, that seemed at least possible a few months ago, has all but vanished. President Robert Mugabe remains impervious to external pressure, and seems determined to bring his country and its people to their knees.

It is easy to take a pessimistic view, and see that as in some way symptomatic of Africa as a whole — and then we are reminded of an African story that has not been hitting the headlines, but which offers a different take on the continent.


I am referring to the presidential election in Ghana. President Kufuor, having reached the end of his second five-year term in office, and being therefore ineligible to stand again, has left office without controversy, and proclaimed himself fully committed to ensuring that the choice of his successor goes smoothly. In fact, the provisional results of the election, held early in December, showed a near tie between the two main candidates. The electoral commission has arranged a run-off election, which is taking place on the day this article appears.

“Election takes place as planned. Government accepts the result” ought not to be newsworthy, but for those of us who are interested in Africa, and are only too conscious of the depressing situation in Zimbabwe, it sadly is.

Similarly, “all affected by financial crisis, but people continue to support charities” is not something that makes the headlines but it is certainly newsworthy, and certainly encouraging when the news is so depressing.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at:

No comments: