Monthly Archives: March 2002

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Changed world

At a guess, for most people over 40 the signal instance of our changed world is that Russia doesn’t seem to matter very much anymore. Growing up in the US in the ’60s, Russia was the great competitor, even if it wasn’t in my household the evil empire. In the ’70s and into the ’80s, concern about nuclear armaggedon still loomed large. My early years in Britain, the introduction of US cruise missiles (targeted at the dangerous Russians) was one of the two major political issues of the day.

Who talks about Russia now? Fortunately, some people are still paying attention. After all, Russia remains a nuclear power, and it is in all of our interests that it remains both stable and on a continuing path of reform. Quentin Peel has an interesting analysis of how Vladimir Putin has cleverly played his rather sparse hand in today’s changed geopolitical world. “In spite of having weak cards, Mr Putin has every intention of playing a mean game of poker.”

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New conflict

Renewed conflict between the largely white north and the largely black south looks like one of the more depressing results of the Zimbabwean election. The north has universally condemned the result as unfair and a mockery of democracy (president Bush made a particularly clear statement). African leaders have largely accepted the result as a fair reflection of the popular will. (It may make a difference that the Commonwealth observers have condemned the result.)

In addition to the diplomatic tussles, the split could be fatally damaging for the promising New Partnership for African Development (Nepad). Nepad is spearheaded by South African president Thabo Mbeki (who has yet to pronounce on Zimbabwe) and Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. A basic premise of Nepad is a commitment to good governance, which looks fairly pallid unless Mugabe is excoriated by his fellow African leaders.

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Power of metaphors

I take a fairly jaundiced view of most management writing. But Michael Skapinker, who is usually reliable but dull in the Financial Times, has been reading his George Lakoff. He looks at the reigning metaphors in pre-collapse Enron and finds nothing but confusion. His conclusion? “Find the metaphorical anomalies and you have identified the companies where something dreadful is about to happen.”

The paper which provoked Skapinker’s column has the wonderful title Idea Hamsters on the Bleeding Edge. Title apart, tt has all the literary qualities one expects from contemporary academic writing.

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Krugman on Tobin

Paul Krugman’s tribute to James Tobin, the Yale economist who died yesterday, is exemplary in its explanation of significant economic concepts. As Krugman remarks, Tobin’s ideas have been misappropriated and misinterpreted on both left and right. Krugman mention’s Tobin’s “faith in the power of ideas”. “That’s a faith that grows ever harder to maintain, as bad ideas with powerful political backing dominate our discourse.”

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Defying the courts

The high court decision to allow an extra day of voting seemed a ray of hope in Zimbabwe. But listen to Chris McGreal’s report (Real Audio stream) and the heart sinks again. Despite the order, polling stations haven’t been opened. And the evidence of government stuffing of the ballot boxes looks clear. Still, the sight of people queuing for hours (McGreal reports some people queued for 30 hours to vote) is an extraordinary affirmation of the thirst for democracy. It should make people in countries like the US and the UK, where the percentage of the electorate that bother to vote is steadily dropping, feel shame. Except, of course, the people who don’t vote on the whole don’t read news from “obscure” places like Zimbabwe.

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What works

There may be no more important debate today than the one about the effectiveness of development aid. As he said during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, US Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill believes more proof of effectiveness is needed before more money is made available. As I and many others have pointed out, this looks like dissembling to avoid confronting the US’s woeful record on aid (the lowest as a share of national income in the industrialised world) and the administration’s general suspicion of development.

Today’s Financial Times has an excellent summary of the debate It accurately reports the consensus of most economists: “Aid can help, but it should be concentrated on countries with good macroeconomic policy and governments genuinely committed to improving public services and infrastructure, and stamping out corruption.” This thinking is slowly infusing its way into the actions of donor countries and, to a limited extent, the World Bank and the IMF.

But, as the article points out, focusing on what is termed capacity building doesn’t produce swift gains — which is what O’Neill claims he wants to see. It’s no surprise that there are people in the development community now talking about “multilateralism minus one”. In other words, perhaps the entire world can go in one direction, without the US. It’s a sad prospect, and difficult to construct both practically and politically, but how long can the desperately impoverished people of the world wait.

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What’s happening the wider world

I think it’s dangerous to draw broad conclusions from a single example. Joe Davidson’s complaint about how American media ignores the rest of the world does just that, using the ammunition depot explosion in Nigeria in January to make his point. But his perception is certainly correct. And (despite the fine words about how the US would no longer neglect the rest of the world after 11 September) I think the tendency is becoming more pronounced.

There is, of course, unprecedented access to alternative news sources, particularly through the Web. I linked above to The Guardian’s comprehensive coverage of what happened in Nigeria, and I could have linked to another Guardian, based in Lagos, but its search facility seems restricted to the last week only. Weblogs, too, provide an alternative, often offering profound personal insight, well beyond conventional journalism.

But that doesn’t compensate, in my mind, for the failure of mainstream news sources to keep up with the rest of the world. If one takes the medieval virtue of dulce et utile (delight and instruct), too many news providers are concentrating on dulce to the virtual exclusion of utile. My problem with concepts like The Daily Me is that such a construct tacitly accepts that people needn’t bother themselves with things they wouldn’t necessarily choose for themselves. Many people might have ignored a front page article in The Chicago Tribune about the Ikeja blast, but many others would have read it either by chance or because they attribute some kind of authority to the editors’ choices.

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All politics are local

“How will the world look when the global policies of the world’s most powerful economy are set in the mountains of West Virginia? The world will look increasingly dangerous and unstable.” Jeff Sachs tries to explain the politics of steel tariffs and Kyoto treaty rejection. Against his better judgement (I suspect), Jeff ends on a slightly optimistic note.

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Novelist’s eye

If you want insight into today’s Zimbabwe, Christopher Hope’s reportage tops anything I’ve read. Hope is an excellent South African novelist, and his writing combines a novelist’s eye with the hard work of a reporter. Since the heyday of Granta magazine, British papers have made an artform of this kind of work (I know some American magazines do it, but it lacks the immediacy of a newspaper report).

Tim Garton Ash is a historian who combines his deep knowledge and perspective with the best journalistic impulses. His analysis of the state of Serbia makes the important case for both the International Criminal Court (stymied by US opposition) and for a truth and reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia. “The problem for enlightened Serbs is that the Milosevic trial is currently reinforcing that denial, and syndrome of victimhood, rather than breaking it open.”

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Since when is bigness goodness?

Bill Safire‘s value is that he can be unpredictable. Doesn’t this sound more Naomi Klein than paid-up Republican: “Why should we supinely go along with the seizure of economic power by today’s triopolies and duopolies on their march to becoming tomorrow’s monopolies?”

I also appreciated him being right on the mark about where innovation takes place. “Only the monster conglomerate can afford to invest in new technologies, complaisant Washington regulators tell us — as if innovation and invention were not also found in small laboratories and the brains of creative loners.”