Category Archives: Politics

The Story of Stuff


Here’s something that got me thinking:

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns, with a special focus on the United States. All the stuff in our lives, beginning from the extraction of the resources to make it, through its production, sale, use and disposal, affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues and calls for all of us to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something. It’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

Naturally, the topic is far from new to GlobaLab. I have been looking at the political economy of globalisation for months now. I agree with many of this movie’s positions, and love its simple and entertaining tone. Well done to Annie Leonard and to all those involved for translating into an easily-graspable short film some of the complexities of the global economy, particularly the commodity chains that form the backbone of world trade.

Yet, I can’t help pointing out: it’s not that simple. Describing the problem as one of ever-collapsing natural resources and abused Third World workers fighting the evil and conspiratorial plans of multinational corporations with the help of selfless international NGOs might look good on film, but is it an actual reflection of the real world?

I am not a great admirer of corporations, or a blind believer in the transparency of their CSR policies, but branding them all as Earth-destructors does not do justice to the good many of them do (in terms of job-creation, economic growth, research into innovation – including into clean energy), nor will it help change the way they behave.

And similarly, the omnipresent sanctification of NGOs fails to disclose their deep accountability limits and underlying political interests. According to One World, the NGO sector scores lower than the corporate and intergovernmental sectors when it comes to transparency, so it is legitimate to question many of their claims, especially their Doomsday positions on the environment and development.

But on one point I fully agree: consumerism lies at the centre of this system, so if we want to change it we have to start thinking of creative ways to change people’s attitude towards stuff…

Eppur si muove…

It's alive!!!!!!

Timothy Garton Ash reassures us from the pages of The Guardian about the new-born EU Constitution – sorry, er… Lisbon Reform Treaty:

Now this amending treaty of Lisbon, modest and hedged about with qualifications though it is, should enable the union to work just a little bit better when – assuming all 27 member states ratify it – it comes into force in January 2009. But a noble constitutional document, comparable to that of the United States, it is not. It more nearly resembles the instruction manual for a forklift truck. In itself, it will do nothing to convince Europe’s citizens, or the rest of the world, of what the European Union is good for. But it will help the EU to do things that may convince them. Now that the end of this long, disappointing constitutional debate is at last in sight, it should free us to concentrate on what this union does, rather than what it is, or says it is. In fact, the EU will define what it is by what it does. 

Wonderful. While the US mantra on Iraq appears to be “Don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, just to what we’re saying“, TGA is telling us: “Don’t listen to what the EU is saying, just look at what it’s doing!

Strange world we live in. Call me unsophisticated, but whatever happened to “Turning words into deeds?

ECFR: a tale of premature senescence?

Looking on... Courtesy: bigeyedeer.files.wordpress.com/

The European Council on Foreign Relations organised today its first briefing, presenting the results of a world-wide survey (PDF) conducted by Gallup International on the balance between hard and soft power. The survey covered a range of questions on the global influence of several international actors, including the EU, the US, China and India. Mark Leonard, Executive Director of the ECFR, chaired a somewhat drowsy panel that included Lord Desai, Robert Kagan and Ivan Krastev. The conclusions? Since the EU is the least hated of all the major powers, this should be interpreted as a sign that it should be given greater clout internationally. Alas, the newly-born think-tank gave away a strangely familiar smell of old habits.

A proper debate with the audience, packed with policy wonks and senior civil servants, never really kicked off. The elephants in the corner were carefully left dormant. If the EU has more power, what does this mean for the Member States? Can we realistically expect them to step aside and let go the reigns, especially those that have never really lost the appetite for world domination? And if it develops a stronger role internationally, will this come at the expense of its real (or perceived) soft power? And does all this matter at all, since the Commission has been promoting a stronger global role for the EU long before anyone was asked whether they supported it or not? How does this fit with the idea of a democratic Europe? Or is foreign policy – as Kagan was suggesting – something that should be still dealt with by the old boys in the corridors of power? None of these provocative questions was really raised during the debate.

Instead, discussion turned quickly to the US – why everyone hates it, why it doesn’t matter, why it should, etc. – while the topic of the EU was pushed aside. Clearly, even for the panelists there were more interesting subjects to discuss. To be fair, the ECFR made an effort to engage the broader public in the debate, for example by posting some interesting throughts on the survey (but receiving only 1 response at the time of writing). However, the briefing was strangely reminiscent of those dull Brusselite luncheons where everyone is too polite to start a proper discussion. The only one who did, Lord Desai, ranted on about a chart in the handouts, only to be gently told that he was reading it upside down, and then made some completely unfounded statements about how the Enlargement and the Single Market have failed (sic!). Everyone else sat silently in their dark suits (even the very few present women appeared dressed for a funeral). This was hardly stuff that gets people excited about the EU in the world.

Now, I know I am being a little harsh, but this is because I really think the ECFR has huge potential, and I want it to succeed. However, if it truly wants to rock the debate on Europe – especially in the UK – it’ll have to be a little more daring and provocative than today. So here are my 3 little suggestions to make the next event more captivating and perhaps memorable:

1. A more diverse panel: less pompous academics (notoriously allergic to criticism) and younger, more unconventional thinkers with strong and sustained views on the subject could have generated a much livelier debate, and perhaps generated 2-3 more challenging ideas about the role of Europe in the world. For example him. Or her.

2. A richer audience: I am not sure who everyone in the audience was, but if my understanding of English fashion doesn’t fail me, most were civil servants, press officers (not journalists) and the odd think-tank refugee. People from more diverse backgrounds (business, media, NGOs, even students) could have thrown in some hard questions at the survey and at the panel. In line with the ECFR’s stated objective of being truly 2.0, why not – for example – invite next time also a sample of some of the most provocative and interesting British Euro-bloggers (them, or him, to begin with)?

3. A cooler venue: the Foreign Press Association felt like one of those old boys’ clubs, where men used to go smoke cigars and discuss politics away from the madding crowds. The ECFR debates should happen instead in exciting new venues, where businessmen, artists, creators, or architects hang out, and where think-tanks rarely set foot. London is awash with exciting places where to hold events. One example for all, the Bloomberg Space:

Bloomberg Space, London

There, I said it all. Now let’s hope I haven’t just secured my banning from all future ECFR events…!

My heart’s with Ethan

 Chris Jordan, Cell Phones, 2007 (courtesy: http://www.chrisjordan.com/)

Ethan Zuckerman remains my No. 1 favourite blogger of all times, and given how much I struggle to update GlobaLab at least 2-3 times a week, while trying to work and retain a decent social life, I am in awe at his amazing prolificacy.

A quick browse at his last few entries would be enough to feed an average person’s brain for 6 months. Over the last few days, he’s been busy reporting from the PopTech conference, which he describes as “the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine“. The event is a catwalk for amazing projects and ideas that are truly transforming the world. If you haven’t followed the event, you can read Ethan’s posts on some of the most interesting presentations, including (but there are more):

It took me good part of the day to read them all, and there are many more celebrity bloggers who reported from the event, including BoingBoing, Next Billion, and a few (but not many) non-English speaking bloggers.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Ethan’s earlier post about a new initiative to fight counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Ghana (hopefully soon the whole of Africa), mPedigree, which will use mobile phones to track drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legitimate product. Or check out the entry in which he takes a good shot at unravelling the complex situation in Somalia, in response to the Onion’s eye-opening video Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex, a must see for all Africanists:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

What can I say? Ethan, you are my personal hero!!!

What will drive change in the next 50 years?

From globalisation to nanotechnology, vote here for the Drivers of Change that you think will influence your area of work.

Coeur of darkness

 Bozize, Chirac, BFFE

The Independent’s Johann Hari writes a long overdue report on France’s secret involvement in the Central African Republic, the most forgotten and under-reported country of Africa.

This is classical, old-fashioned war-reporting and political journalism, an uncompromising indictment of France’s foreign policy in Central Africa (and Africa more generally), and a very uncomfortable read for those who still think *we* are the good ones, and *they* are the underdeveloped ones. Francewatcher will be pleased…

Stuffed and Starved

Patel's Stuffed and Starved book-cover

You know a book is good when not one, but three different friends write to you unprompted to recommend it. And you know it’s a masterpiece when it spawns a Facebook fanclub group! So today I bought Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel’s new study on the absurdities and political interests lying behind the current global food system, which leaves millions fighting obesity while millions more struggle to get a meal a day.

Felicity Lawrence on The Guardian sings its praise:

Unless you are a corporate food executive, the food system isn’t working for you. If you are one of the world’s rural poor dependent on agriculture for your livelihood – and roughly half the global population of 6 billion fall into this category – you are likely to be one of the starved. If you are an urban consumer, whether an affluent metropolitan or slum-dwelling industrial labourer, you are likely to be one of the stuffed, suffering from obesity or other diet-related ills.

Raj Patel’s fascinating first book examines this apparent paradox. His thesis is that the simultaneous existence of nearly 1 billion who are malnourished and nearly 1 billion who are overweight is in fact the inevitable corollary of a system in which a handful of corporations have been allowed to capture the value of the food chain. Moreover, government policies through history have been designed to control our food. Their aim has been to provide cheap food for the urban masses and so prevent dissent at home. The instruments of colonial command may have been replaced with newer mechanisms that give a greater role to the private sector, but control our food they still do with disastrous social consequences, despite all the neo-liberal rhetoric of free trade and choice.

Another book joining my awful backlog of to-do reading…

Knowledge Politics Quarterly journal launched

Here come the big, bad ICT4D guys...

With the launch of the first issue of its quarterly journal, Knowledge Politics – the think-tank dedicated to exploring the implications and possibilities of the development of an ‘information society’ – has entered the arena of online academic journals, offering an innovative and open space for reflection and dialogue on how technology (and in particular Information Communication Technologies – ICTs) is affecting the social, political and economic universes. In addition to the journal, KP’s site also offers a number of thematic portals, ranging from Internet Governance and Information Society Theory, to Knowledge Economy and Digital Rights.

Apart from the fact that the journal and the other publications by KP are exploring some truly interesting issues, this post is actually about shameless self-promotion, since one of the published papers (PDF) was written by me. It’s about Web 2.0 and international NGOs, and the political implications of the changes in online knowledge management practices for the operational and advocacy activities of non-governmental agencies. The vignette above neatly summarises the prevailing attitude of NGOs towards Web 2.0 (and ICTs more generally) and their role in development. My position is, of course, rather different…

In true Web 2.0 spirit, comments and feedback – especially from NGO staff – are most welcome!

A new Euro-star is born

Europe at night - Copyright: Planetary Visions Ltd.; Courtesy: Kevin M. Tildsley

No, I am not talking about a new train (although the London-Paris Eurostar is about to be moved from Waterloo to King’s Cross, which is very exciting for me, since I live within walking distance of the station), but about a new pan-European initiative, headed by Mark Leonard, and staffed with lots of young bright things: the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Its purpose? Amongst others, to develop a more coherent and vigorous European foreign policy, in order to tackle an increasing number of global challenges, including climate change, world poverty, nuclear proliferation and the surge of violent extremism.

There haven’t been many interesting reactions to the birth of the ECFR within the blogosphere so far. Mark Leonard set the tone a few days ago as a guest-blogger on the Economist, while others – including the Dubliner Magazine, the Cult of the Dead Fish and Infowars – simply followed his lead, reproducing the press-release from the launch. Personally, I think the blogosphere should be more about opinion-making than info-replication, so here is my personal take on the new initiative.

Three things excite me about the ECFR. First: its young leadership and unreserved Europhilia, which brings a breath of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to a political debate about the future of Europe that has recently been – to say the least – soporific. Second: its decision to base its headquarters at the heart of the eurosceptic London and its satellite offices in Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Warsaw and Sofia. This will bring a truly pan-European perspective to the debates, allowing in particular the voices of the South and East to be heard, as opposed to the claustrophobic and incestuous rants of most Brussels-based think-tanks. Third, its very interactive website, blog-inspired, simple to access and to navigate, a sign that the ECFR is serious about taking to people, and is generally a modern, forward-looking organisation.

But while there are many reasons to celebrate, two aspects at least concerns me. The ECFR is heavily-backed by Soros, and while I personally like the man and his ideas, he has certainly made quite a few enemies across the European Neighbourhood. His involvement in the initiative is welcome, for it gives it financial viability, but the ECFR should also ensure it maintains a degree of separation between the issues it’s trying to tackle and the political interests of those who are backing it, lest it be quickly dismissed as Soros’ Council on Foreign Relations.

In addition, it is supported by a string of European politicians and analysts who are all-too-keen to see a stronger Europe in the world. While a more vigorous foreign policy might be the right answer to many of today’s global challenges, it should never come at the expense of Europe’s aimed neutrality, and of the recognition of its responsibilities towards the developing world, which call for caution every time we are tempted to undermine their sovereignty. Preventing genocide is of course admirable, but the last thing we need is another baton-wielding US, bullying nations into doing what we think is right (more often for us than for them). A respect for diversity should, above all, remain at the core of Europe’s foreign policy.

Having said that, I very much look forward to seeing the new star rise high above the other European constellations and I wish good luck to Mark and to all this team!

Italy’s buffoon

Beppe Grillo

To the outside observers, Italy is a country of majestic artworks, stunning landscapes, beautiful cities and delicious food. But to the insiders, all these appear trivial amenities compared to the ever-present decay of the country’s public and private sectors. Corruption is still rampant, despite the bout of inquiries and arrests that characterized the 1990s. Politicians and businessmen are often embroiled in obscure dealings surrounding company takeovers, sales or mergers. No one is ever found guilty, and even if someone is, the likes of him (for it is always a man) ending up in prison are pretty slim.

Given this picture, you would expect most media-savvy journalists to be up in arms, ready to seize the opportunity given by a political or commercial scandal to uncover some dirt, clean up the nation, and become rich and famous along the way. Instead, the tightly controlled Italian media (either in the hands of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, or under the watchful eye of the major political parties in power) appear generally more interested in the sexual habits of the country’s many showgirls, or in the latest fashion trends. Scandals gain complexity over time, like in the case of Parmalat’s collapse, and slowly become incomprehensible to the layman. People end up loosing interest in the matter. Eventually the spotlight turns to another scandal and a dark fog of silence descends on the entire affair. This way, the show can go on.

Not many people dare speak the truth, but one such man is Beppe Grillo. A comedian by profession, Grillo has long ago embarked on a crusade to do what other journalists don’t do: point an angry finger at those who are responsible for the ruinous state of the country. Banned for obvious reasons from performing on television, he has turned to the internet – and in particular to his blog, which Technorati ranks among the world’s 20 most visited blogs – to reach an even wider and more politically-motivated audience. Bloomberg’s Flavia Krause-Jackson and Chiara Remondini have written an excellent piece about his efforts to uncover bad management practices in Italy’s major companies.

“There are signs the public backlash against the excesses of public officials has started to effect change in Italy. Prime Minister Prodi, who met with Grillo shortly after winning the 2006 election, cut his own annual pay by 30 percent to 86,102 euros ($115,575), and extended the reductions to 102 ministers, deputies and undersecretaries. Italy’s ruling classes will need more than lower salaries to restore their reputations. That may explain why many of the 81 shows Grillo has scheduled for concert halls and small-town football stadiums this year have sold out.”

While in today’s colloquial language a buffoon denotes a ridiculous yet amusing person, in the Middle Ages the court jester performed an important political role, that of using irony and humorous metaphors to reprimand the king on his errors and advise him on policy matters. It was accepted norm that the buffoon should not be punished for his statements, for no one else was in a position to speak so bluntly to the ruler, lest he be charged with treason. Grillo is in every sense a modern buffoon, whose jests and mocking accusations should be heard more often by the Italian ruling and ruled classes alike.