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The Dominance of Right-Wing Think-Tanks Over Disability Welfare Reform in Britain

Published: 2017/04/29 - Updated: 2018/03/15
Author: Paul Dodenhoff - Contact: Contact Details
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Synopsis: Article by Paul Dodenhoff examines the dominance of right-wing think-tanks over disability welfare reform in the United Kingdom.

In February 2016, the Reform research group released a report called Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits. The 55 page report argued that the existing employment and support allowance (ESA) had "failed to encourage sick and disabled people to work", and that the government should radically overhaul the welfare system (again) for sick and disabled people by slashing weekly benefits by nearly half.


Main Digest

In February 2016, the Reform research group released a report called Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits. The 55 page report argued that the existing employment and support allowance (ESA) had "failed to encourage sick and disabled people to work", and that the government should radically overhaul the welfare system (again) for sick and disabled people by slashing weekly benefits by nearly half.

Reform wanted the British Government to cut the welfare benefit paid to over 1 million sick and disabled people from £131 a week to just £73 - the same amount that 'unemployed' claimants receive. The group argued that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for sick and disabled people only "encourages people to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work". A mantra we have witnessed being rolled out by the Government's Department of Works and Pension for the past number of years. While Reform states that it is not linked to any political party, the group arguably has a great deal of support as well as influence amongst Britain's right-wing and centre-right politician's - including Lords, Ministers and MP's connected to the British Conservative Government.

A Broken System?

The Reform argument is primarily one that the out-of-work benefits system for people with a health condition and disabled people is "broken". The reasons why the system is broken is argued to be because of two things. Firstly, there is a huge discrepancy between the employment rates of disabled people and the able-bodied - 48% to 81%. The blame of this variation is not attributed to any possible discrimination over employment that disabled people may actually face, something which gets very little mention in the document, but on a system that neither gives disabled people enough support to find employment nor "requires" disabled people to gain access to the support that already exists.

Therefore, the problem is presented, partly at least, to a lack of personal motivation by the disabled in seeking existing employment services and advice. Secondly, the system is perceived as broken because welfare benefits for disabled people are argued to be set far too high compared to unemployment benefits. Cutting disability welfare to the level of the unemployed is therefore argued to have positive "behavioural effects". Reform wants us to focus on what the disabled "can-do" with the appropriate support, rather than being "inadvertently encouraged" to demonstrate how sick they are under the current Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Ironically, the WCA, which was set up to police the immoral behaviour of the sick or disabled not in regular paid employment, and which has been criticised by experts as well as disabled people themselves for humiliating disabled people, now comes under attack from the right-wing for actually "encouraging" sick and disabled people to exaggerate their condition!. Ironic or what?

However, what this report is trying to do, is eliminate a health condition or a disability as ever being a reason for not being employed, by focusing on what people can still do and not what they can't. Therefore, sickness and disability do not exist anymore for these not-so-deep thinkers. People are now to be classified as being either employed or not employed - in this black and white, simple bi-polar construct of the world. Philosophical and ideological thinking about employment and social welfare taken to its most logical conclusion, but completely ignoring the reality for many disabled people of employment discrimination, as well as the debilitating effects of pain or ill-health, lack of mobility or dexterity. And not to mention the whims and foibles of employers.

But it clearly highlights the authoritarian tendencies that is inherent in many of the policies pushed by many such 'think-tanks', that we can actually witness in welfare practice today. One where welfare payments are taken off people dying from cancer, simply because they are too ill to turn up for employment advice or a job interview. You couldn't really make this stuff up? Therefore, what we really have in this report is the usual stuff and nonsense surrounding the immorality of sick and disabled people. Chiefly, that the sick and disabled can do more than they say, and that over-generous welfare payments only encourage this inherent lack of motivation - and in some cases, even fraud.

Even Britain's doctors (i.e. the general practitioner) are perceived by these self-designated brains of welfare, as not being trustworthy enough or capable enough of distinguishing between somebody genuinely unfit for work and the scroungers. Therefore, sick and disabled people are ordered to "collaborate" with a "caseworker" (an employment advisor/occupational therapist hybrid) who provides the government support often argued to be lacking. A caseworker who we currently see within the WCA system itself, who is motivated by targets and financial rewards for processing as many sick and disabled people through the system as quickly as possible. And as we would imagine, falsely classifying people as 'fit for work' either intentionally or not.

So, work is better for your health than sitting around on your bum, these Svengali's of British politics are arguing. Which is fine in itself, but arguably cutting welfare payments in half for disabled people already in poverty doesn't quite seem a logical step in the right direction. However, what these charlatans are trying to do is force sick and disabled people into a corner where they have absolutely no other option but to find and maintain employment, no matter what the circumstances are. And if you don't manage to find work through discrimination, tough luck I suppose?

But Reform are not the only right-wing 'think-tank' that determine and influence Conservative Party ideology concerning disability welfare. Once we delve into the murky work of these political organisations, the sheer numbers of these groups and the influence that these people have, become staggering. All sporting at the very least, the ideology of self-responsibility, the wonders of the free market and privatisation, and that (poor) people are inherently lazy. Here are another two such organisations for you, in the shape of the Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice.

Policy Exchange

Policy Exchange likes to think of itself as Britain's leading 'think-tank' and in the past has produced a range of papers also focusing on welfare reform. Often arguing that the main block to employment is the concept of the welfare state itself, a welfare state where people see themselves as being 'entitled' to welfare. This line of argument therefore seeks to put an increasing list of 'conditions' attached to welfare payments in which claimants have to adhere to. The Policy Exchange also proposed the capping of welfare benefits and the outsourcing of welfare services to private enterprise. In short, the Policy Exchange advocates the wholescale slashing of welfare payments in order to defeat an imagined dependency culture. Much of which has also appeared in government thinking at one stage or another.

The Centre for Social Justice

The Centre for Social Justice ironically, was founded by the serially dreadful, Iain Duncan Smith in 2004, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2010 to 2016. Duncan Smith is argued by many disabled people to have overseen the deaths of thousands of sick and disabled people, by the indiscriminate use of benefit sanctions that deliberately and unfairly remove people from the welfare system in order to meet government targets for reducing the numbers of people claiming welfare. Unsurprisingly, the Centre for Social Justice is argued to have had great influence upon David Cameron's Governance from 2010 to 2016, also pushing forward amongst others, the idea that people have a "dependency" upon welfare. Hence the culture of "economic dependency" and "wordlessness" that Iain Duncan Smith himself was somewhat obsessed with during his role as chief Obergruppenführer for the Department of Works and Pensions. And arguably his other fear that non-working people were not taking enough 'responsibility' for themselves nor their families.

A Broken System or Just Broken Ideology?

These are just three organisations that can be seen to have had an enormous influence upon political thinking and Government policy with Britain in the past and in the present, particularly over disability welfare reform. But these aren't the only ones. Take a look at these others:

All of these groups not only influence government ideology and policy but public opinion too, with many appearing regularly upon British news programmes and within our newspapers as 'experts' - or promoting their latest 'research' findings Groups that sound fairly innocuous in title, being all about policy studies, social justice or economic affairs, carrying an air of objective, academic research and authoritative presence about them. In reality, if we look at the Bow Group for example, one of the oldest think-tanks within the UK, we find many prominent Conservative Party names having held the lofty position of chair-person over the years - politicians that include Sir Geoffrey Howe, Leon Brittan, Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Objective and unbiased?

So, what are we actually being told by these 'experts' in their wisdom? Primarily, notions connected to the free-market economy and social responsibility. That the British welfare system is broken, that it only encourages dependency by paying welfare payments that are far too generous, and paid to inherently lazy people. A situation that is unsustainable because it costs the taxpayer £billions, ultimately eroding the political holy-grail of self-responsibility and work ethic. Do you ever get the feeling that you are being stitched up?

What these people are ultimately selling us is the ideology of the 1700's that some want to see continuing to dominate or re-dominate (depending on your perspective) the social and political world. In order to roll-back the UK to an era when the welfare state didn't exist, it needs to be torpedoed by half-truths and lies, and then completely abandoned like a sinking ship. Where life-boats may be provided for the absolutely desperate (and I mean the absolutely desperate) but where the rest of us are pushed into the water in order to motivate us to swim ashore - including the sick and disabled. All in the desire for people be more self-reliant and more self-responsible. A lot of thinking gone into that one, eh?

But it is also a very serious political con. The majority of British welfare spending does not go to the sick, the disabled nor the unemployed, as these 'think tanks' often make out to the general public - but go primarily to working families and pensioners. According to the House of Commons Library, during 2016-17 around £218 billion would have been spent on state welfare, with unemployment making up just 2.2% of that total and the sick or disabled making up 6.8%. The state pension takes 42% of the rest, while housing benefit takes 11% and working families take 13% in tax credits. Although, we can guarantee that once the sick, the lame and the lazy have all been dealt with by the welfare Gestapo, a knock on the door will be coming for the rest of us reliant upon state welfare.

Unemployment, sickness and disability are easy targets, that's how they can get away with it. Nobody likes a scrounger and nobody will like those designated as deviating from the rest of society and unintentionally or deliberately working against it. But if this much political fuss can be make over sickness, disability and unemployment, something that makes up only a tiny minority of overall welfare spending, it doesn't take a genius to work out what is coming next? Of course, much of the motivation behind welfare reform is the deep-rooted ideological concern that poor people are inherently lazy. However, we now see similar ideological attacks upon the state pension, that pensions are far too generous, that pensioners are generally living the high-life off the back of the younger generation. We also have seen the introduction of the work-place pension in 2012, something which automatically enrols workers onto a private pension scheme, and something arguably aimed at completely replacing the state pension in the long-term.

So, let's take a look at some of Britain's leading politician's today, forgetting the political has-beens, the likes of the David Cameron's and the Iain Duncan Smith's, and let's focus on its 'newer' star's. Let's see if this lot can really be independent thinkers, without falling into line behind the extremely dodgy 'think-tanks'.

Theresa May

Britain's beloved Prime Minister (for now, at least). Somebody already infamous from her time as Home Secretary, with the dubious distinction of introducing to Britain, the most authoritarian intelligence and security legislation ever seen in the western world. This same authoritarian-style of governance has also been witnessed during her current approach to 'Brexit'. However, how does this new Margaret Thatcher figure fare when confronted with the sick, the lame and the lazy?

In February this year, The head of Theresa May's policy unit, George Freeman, signalled which way the wind is blowing when claiming that disability benefits should go to "really disabled people" rather than those who are "taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety". Not a good start. Once again we see the immorality, deviancy and inherent laziness of those who are not working, being targeted yet again by the policy makers. As for Mrs May herself, since becoming Prime Minister she has largely refrained from directly mentioning the unemployed, the sick or disabled by name, although we can usually guarantee to be serenaded during her speeches and TV interviews with a mantra about wanting to help "hard working families". Something which presumably carries the underlying assumption, that if you are not working you are therefore the opposite of 'hard working'.

However, around about the same time as Mr Freeman was putting his foot firmly in his mouth, another policy announcement came to the fore that nearly provoked a mutiny amongst the Government's own MP's. That Theresa May's Treasury and the DWP were planning yet another £3.7 billion raid upon disability payments, including those paid to people with mental health problems. Legalised acts of privacy surely not conducted without Mrs May's knowledge or input, and this particular fight is certainly still on-going. Even during her first conference speech as Prime Minister, Mrs May set out a strategy that was clearly chasing the support of the 'working classes' and the 'hard working families', people argued to be feeling that previous Governments have forgotten about them and had left them behind. Without showing any real sympathy for the plight of those not in work, Theresa stated that she wants to create a society that works for everyone and where everybody is given a fair chance - but arguably only if you are actually in work to begin with? Sadly, the disabled, the sick and the unemployed were generally ignored in her first key-note conference speech - although they are clearly noticeable in spirit for being the elephant in the room.

"An economy that works for everyone", so the mantra goes, but a mantra that comes with terms and conditions hidden within the uplifting rhetoric. "It's about restoring fairness - something that must be at the heart of everything we do. Supporting those who do the right thing, who make a contribution. Helping those who give something back. And that's at the heart of my plan for our economy too. An economy that's fair and where everyone plays by the same rules."

If we hark back to the days of Prime Minister Cameron, we pretty much got the same spiel, practically word for word. "Blah blah blah, fairness" "blah blah blah, making a contribution" and "blah blah blah, doing the right thing". Its words that present a consistent political message of being the "party of the workers" and of everybody having to play by the rules, both rich and poor. The party of 'work' would probably be a more accurate description, as opposed to being a party for the non-workers, and one that encourages idleness, immorality and deviancy by spending money upon the welfare state.

"We are the party of workers. Of those who put in the effort. Those who contribute and give of their best" states Theresa. Of course, as we see with the 'think-tanks' that firmly pull the strings of British politics, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled are generally perceived as not putting in that effort nor of giving their best. As far as these social groups are concerned, and they are not directly mentioned by Mrs May, she is firmly on the side of the worker. Although she is not actually "writing off people who can't work and consigning them to a life on benefits" and "for those who can't work, we must offer our full support", any support must always be paid back, and only by finding employment and staying employed.

Phillip Hammond

Phillip Hammond is Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we already seen him attempt a bold smash and grab raid upon disability benefits, in order to balance the Treasury's black-hole caused by the extra-spending needed for 'Brexit'. Mr Hammond is apparently so obsessed by balancing the books, that one imagines him almost to be getting some kind of sexual thrill from simply loading-up Excel spread-sheets on his lap-top. But is there anything else we can pin upon Mr Hammond? Frankly yes.

In an interview to the Telegraph in March 2013 as Defence Secretary, Mr Hammond argued that rather than planned cuts to the defence budget going ahead, welfare spending should be cut instead - in order to reflect the "rising level of employment". Clearly then, we can easily detect a whiff of attitude emanating from Mr Hammond that indeed would write off those who can't work nor offer valuable support - in order to syphon off money that could be put to better use elsewhere?

Damian Green

Mr Green was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on 14 July 2016. Considering that Damian has arguably direct influence over policy concerning employment, sickness and disability, it is only fair to include him here. So, is he a man who would simply say no to the heartless think-tanks? Unfortunately no. Damian Green in fact gave this keynote speech at Reform's welfare conference in November 2016. Here are excerpts from that speech.

"...the purpose of the welfare system is to help them get into work, stay in work, and progress in work. We should offer work for those who can, and help for those who could"

" is the best route out of poverty, and is a much more stable and long-lasting route out of poverty than simply providing benefits"

"...if we want a welfare system that works for the whole country we need to be creative about the needs of disabled people."

" takes time because this is about changing behaviours and expectations, but it shows what is possible. It shows that the principle of conditionality, alongside the right targeted support, is the right one."

"Look at sanctions. We need sanctions, and I don't agree with those who would abolish them."

"My ambition is for a welfare system that works for the whole country. For those who need it and for those who fund it - the taxpayers."

Without saying anything really outlandish and indeed this speech was not totally devoid of sympathy for the sick or disabled, Mr Green firmly set out his stall and it was still pretty much in line with policy set out by organisations such as Reform. It is highly significant that this speech was also given at a conference organised by a right-wing think-tank who espouse similar notions on welfare provision to Damian Green. Primarily, that the welfare system is broken and needs fixing, and that the perennial faulty behaviour of welfare claimants can be changed using conditions and sanctions placed upon welfare payments. And all in order to create a fairer welfare system for the taxpayer - even if that particular spend is less than 10% of the overall welfare budget.

But is it a fairer system to either the taxpayer or the claimant? The monetary costs of changing the system is argued to be greater than any actual saving to the welfare budget. Additionally, a Westminster audit of welfare reform carried out by the Work and Pensions Select Committee in 2016, revealed a further catalogue of failure. Firstly, employment is not the route out of poverty that the DWP has always claimed it is, with former claimants in work but still struggling to make ends meet. With people moving out of low paid benefits and into low paid employment, in addition to cuts to in-work benefits and tax credits that the low paid depended upon, little difference was made to living standards. Secondly, the move towards universal credit was also found to be flawed, with the previous system argued to be a much better incentive in getting people into employment than the current reforms. Finally, the concept of 'conditionality' on welfare payments was found to be creating an almost industrial scale level of injustice, particularly to the sick, the disabled and to those with mental health issues.

However, Mr Green is quite clear that the welfare system is set up entirely to get people into work, not just to make sure people are financially supported when falling upon hard times. Therefore, the underlying principle of the welfare state that people like Mr Green are trying to introduce into the public consciousness, is one where unemployment is to be perceived as a temporary situation, not a long term option. That philosophy is also aimed at the sick and the disabled. Work is good for you says Mr Green, therefore get off your sick-bed and hobble or wobble your way to work.

Who is Pulling Whose Strings?

When we look at these think-tanks, many of whom carry 'charity' status and therefore are ironically immune to the British tax system that many also influence policy over. We find organisations set up by politicians themselves, politicians who address these organisations on a regular basis and politicians who will happily regurgitate the 'research' findings that these groups produce. Damian Green is certainly not the only key Conservative politician to have addressed think-tanks such as Reform at policy events, but people like Theresa May too and former Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair, John Major and David Cameron. Likewise, Iain Duncan Smith is certainly not the only one to have set up such a think-tank, but Margaret Thatcher also getting in on the act in 1974 with the Centre of Policy Studies.

So, who really is behind these think tanks? Who are the figure heads and who really funds these somewhat dubious organisations? Because this is where things get particularly interesting. Unfortunately, in terms of funding, who actually funds these right-wing organisations is not as transparent as they should undoubtedly be, where money changes hands primarily behind closed doors. And what these donors may get back in return is also not transparent. However, it is clear that many of these think-tanks are not the innocent organisations many people may be conned into believing, nor can they be assumed to be generating unbiased, objective research on social policy, economic policy or things like housing and welfare. But are arguably mere conduits for promoting the principals of the free-market, the private sector and of profit making. In other words, they produce propaganda to push through the vested interests of their members, supporters and donors, and who exist on a continuum from the centre-right to the far-right of the political spectrum.

Some organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute also have different wings to their operation, dealing not only with research but offering commercial consultancy that is worth £millions per year. The Adam Smith Institute is also not averse to conducting media campaigns that ridicule any research that they perceive as being a threat to their free-marketing ideology. For example, recently disparaging the charity Oxfam, after Oxfam conducted research on how the world's eight richest people hold the same wealth as the poorer half of its total population.

Another example of how these organisations are not exactly unbiased establishments, can be highlighted by the Institute of Economic Affairs, who in the past has regularly received substantial amounts of money from tobacco companies. Ditto goes for the Centre for Policy Studies. Both of whom are argued to have influenced Government policy on... cigarettes, no less. But this problem goes much deeper than influencing Government policy on tobacco sales. The Adam Smith institute is argued to have promoted the whole-scale privatisation of state-owned industries during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher herself, and has had policies adopted by both the governments of John Major and Labour's Tony Blair. Similarly, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Centre for Policy Studies are also widely considered to have seriously influenced various administrations.

So, let's see what information about funding these 'think-tank's are willing to disclose?

Reform - Receives funding from the likes of private health care companies, financial organisations, private equity firms and even Age Concern, surprisingly.

Policy Exchange - Refuses to release funding information

The Centre for Social Justice - Refuses to release funding information

Adam Smith Institute - Refuses to release funding information, but known to have also received money from tobacco companies, and has criticised Government plans in the past to force retailers to sell cigarettes in unbranded cartons.

Bow Group - A member's organisation funded by subscriptions, donations and advertising.

Demos - Funded by a variety of organisations, including the European Commission, City of London, Channel 4, British Gas and Human Rights Watch. Quite transparent about its funding and awards.

The Legatum Institute - Names the Legatum Institute as a major donor, but releases no other information about donors.

ResPublica - Receives funding from various organisations including Councils, Health Care organisations, Universities, Age UK and British Gas.

Clearly, some organisations are more transparent than others, while some receive part of their funding in order to conduct research for a variety of interested parties. Not all of which may fall into the un-objective category, I may add, for the sake of fairness. However, there are a number of others who are quite shadowy and are certainly little more than lobbying groups for the vested interests of the wealthy and those chasing their fortune. These are a concern, particularly when considering welfare reform and where politicians who have great influence over such reform, have much too close a connection to organisations that are not independent nor unbiased institutions.

Discrimination, Welfare Reform and Hate crime

I originally developed an interest in researching discrimination towards disabled people, as well as Government welfare reform that seemed to be targeting disabled people under the guise of 'austerity' measures, more than any other social group. All of this via the research I have been conducting concerning disability hate crime. While each area is an area of separate research in its own right, it has become increasingly clear to me that all three topics are somewhat interconnected. They are interconnected because they all work to dominate and oppress disabled people, working to marginalise and push disabled people back into the margins of society.

"Can't get a job because 'the man' won't employ me" "Can't get welfare because the state says I'm lazy" "And can't get from A to B without getting abuse thrown at me for just stepping outside of my own front door" Sounds like they might be the lyrics to an old Bob Dylan song? But these completely made-up comments are there just to illustrate the point that can we really be so sure that such issues have no real similarities nor the same underlying root-cause? Are they not a product of the same poisoned well?

Clearly, there are more people involved in disability welfare reform than the David Cameron's, the Theresa May's, the Iain Duncan Smith's and the Damian Green's. There is a whole army of organisations out there who are also pushing such reform, and these so called 'think-tanks' are themselves funded by an even greater army of supporters, donators and well-wishes. The politicians are merely the tip of this particular sinister iceberg.

But the 'macro' world of these political machinations cannot really be seen as completely separate from the 'micro' world of human interaction between the disabled and the abled-bodied themselves. Such interactions are arguably influenced to some degree by the rhetoric generated within the political world, feeding into the public consciousness via research and via the ideas or ideology contained within these highly public 'messages'. Messages disseminated by the both the traditional mainstream media and the not so mainstream.

If they are not, from where else does the idea come that the disabled are radically different from the abled-bodied? And to the point that a whole person's identity becomes subsumed by the attachment of the label of disability, sickness or even mental illness. Where does the notion come from that the disabled are not 'normal' or not 'productive' or not even human? How come the sick and disabled are automatically treated within Westminster with suspicion? The answer to those questions can surely be found at the bottom of the poisoned well I mentioned earlier, if only we care to delve deep enough into its murky depths?

But these questions should not simply be directed at the British Conservative Party alone and its think-tanks, but at all political parties within the UK. The 'left' also has more than its fair share of think-tanks. Although, if we look at the premiership of Labour's Tony Blair from 1997 to 2007, we find that disabled people were similarly targeted for benefit cuts and for the same reasons of 'benefit abuse' that we see bandied about today. Mr Blair was not averse to listening to 'research' coming out of The Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Bow group. It was also Blair's own reforms that eventually led to the introduction of the hated WCA.

According to research published from the University of Bristol in 2014, public attitudes toward Britain's non-workers actually started to harden under Tony Blair's watch. Researchers claim that during the 1980's and most of the 1990's the majority of people believed that benefit payments were too low, causing severe hardship among the poorest in society and should be increased. However, from 1999 onwards, a growing number of people started to adopt the view, with Mr Blair's sleight of hand, that benefits were far too generous and should be cut. It was around this time that the derogatory 'scrounger' rhetoric also started to be taken up by the mainstream media. And no prizes for guessing which think-tanks were behind the stirring up of this particular pot?

Clearly, each and every one of us as a duty not to simply absorb information willy-nilly, but to challenge that information and to ask where that particular 'fact' has originated from. The role of think-tanks are primarily to promote the interests of its members, sponsors and donors. Unfortunately, the post powerful ones also seem to be firmly positioned upon the right of the political spectrum. Until that changes, the sick and disabled will continue to bear the brunt, not just of welfare change, but of the continuing domination and oppression of those seen as not-in-work, for whatever reason.

Author Credentials:

British born Paul Dodenhoff, is a regular contributor of UK disability related news and content. Paul has always taken an interest in disability issues, and writes for Disabled-World trying to highlight issues that don't always get a great deal of attention from Britain's popular media. Paul Dodenhoff completed a part-time Open University Bachelor of Science degree in Social Problems, Health and Social Welfare; graduating at the Guild Hall, Preston, United Kingdom. He also gained a part-time Master of Arts degree in Research Methodology in 2003 with the Open University; graduating at the UNESCO headquarters, Paris.

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