7.02.2015

Why the G-7 and G-20 Cannot Replace the United Nations

This is the continuation of the previous post which asked the question: Does the United Nations Still Matter, considering the rise of the G-7 and G-20 that are summit meetings of the most important countries in the world (if you haven't read it, scroll down or click here).  


Oxfam protesters message to G-7 (source here)

Are G-7 and G-20 meetings nothing but useless talk? 

The G-20, as noted in the last post, copies the model of the G-7 and is organized along the same lines, following the same modus operandi. For our purpose - to determine how important such "summits" are in relation to the United Nations - it will be sufficient to take a close look at the G-7. 

The first and most striking observation is that the G-7 doesn't have, in fact, any “teeth” compared to the UN. It only functions sporadically and doesn't have a permanent work force dedicated to organizing its meetings year after year and carrying out the unanimous decisions arrived at, the so-called "resolutions".  

As pointed out on the G-7/Germany website in the FAQ section
That means that it does not adopt resolutions that have direct legal effect. The G7 has neither its own administrative apparatus with a permanent secretariat nor someone who acts as its members’ permanent representative.That is why the rotating presidency is so important.
Indeed, the rotating presidency is key: every year, a new country takes on itself the task of organizing the meeting. After Germany, the following countries will assume the G-7 presidency: 
  1. Japan in 2016
  2. Italy in 2017
  3. Canada in 2018
  4. France in 2019
  5. The USA in 2020
Thus G-7 meetings are "informal" summits and don't follow UN protocol with a chairman, vice-chairman and rules for speaking (for example, calls to limit speaking times etc). They are simply an occasion for heads of state to meet in person in a secluded, secure environment, informally sitting around a table.

Every G-7 agenda covers current issues arising in the global economy and in foreign, security and development policy with the host country free to add topics it wants addressed. At the June 2015 meeting, preparations for two major UN conferences came under consideration:  (1) the  Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December and (2) the UN Summit to adopt the post-2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development to be held in New York in September. Germany added to the agenda a series of  health and gender issues, concretely: 

  • Protecting the marine environment, marine biodiversity and environmental sustainability/resource protection;
  • Combating antibiotic resistance and effectively fighting neglected and poverty-related diseases (e.g. Ebola);
  • Factoring in labour, health and environmental protection in retail and supplier chains around the world;
  • Promoting women’s self-employment and supporting the vocational training of women in developing countries. 
To adequately cover those issues, three preparatory meetings were held prior to the G-7 meeting for all participating  ministries directly involved in the above themes:

  • A meeting of the G7 foreign ministers in Lübeck on 14/15 April 2015,
  • A meeting of the G7 energy ministers in Hamburg on 11/12 May 2015,
  • A meeting of the G7 finance ministers in Dresden from 27 to 29 May 2015.
The orchestration of a G-7 meeting, since it lacks a secretariat, is in the hands of government negotiators appointed for the occasion, so-called "sherpas", as explained on the website:
The governments’ chief negotiators, known as sherpas, do the preparatory and follow-up work. They establish on which issues agreement can be reached and where there is still need for discussion, and they prepare the final declarations containing the key outcomes of the summit.
Prof. Lars-Hendrick Rolle (source Wkipedia)
In the case of Germany, the chief sherpa was the economic and financial policy advisor to Ms. Merkel, Prof. Lars-Hendrik Rölle, with a stellar cv, starting as a research assistant in the Economics department, Pennsylvania U. in 1983 and ending as President of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin (2006-2011) before becoming advisor to the Chancellor.

How expensive is such an exercise?

Obviously very costly considering that in addition to the German government staff, the travel of all participants and the entertainment expenses, it also involves considerable security police - it was reported by the UK Guardian (here) that 17,000 police dotted the forests around Schloss Elmau where the meeting took place, and that President Obama brought a retinue of 2,000 persons (!).

Yet, the G-7 website is diplomatically silent on the subject, merely saying the cost "won’t become apparent until after the summit is over" and Ms. Merkel has strenuously contested that meeting expenses shot over €200 million. So, at the time of writing this post, the cost is still not apparent and if you have any information that might have surfaced in the German press, please share in the comments...

What can the G-7 achieve? This is the more fundamental question and in this regard, the G-7 website waxes poetic:
The decisions the G7 takes in full view of the world have a huge political impact. Experts refer to this as their binding effect. At home, the heads of state and government are also measured by what they achieve and agree at G7 meetings.
A "binding effect", so the "experts" say? Are heads of states and governments really "measured" at home "by what they achieve and agree at G-7 meetings"? One may be permitted doubt it. The UK Guardian defined it as a "26 hour oompah" and noted that the Bavarian people were considerably upset and protesters viewed the meeting as an elitist club of industrial countries pursuing their own interests at the expense of the rest of the world.

Yes, it does sound like much ado about nothing. Yet, there is a linkage with the UN, and a lively one, as highlighted at the G-7 when an "outreach meeting" on the last day of the G-7 in Germany, with major UN organizations invited to participate, notably the UN Secretary General.

The Linkage with the United Nations. This kind of meeting serves to flag the intentions of the big powers (G-7) and important economies (G-20). And that helps UN member countries to jockey in position and decide whether to "follow" the G-7 or G-20 when they next meet at the UN.

This is the point:  membership with the United Nations overlaps and that is what makes those meetings useful and worth following - especially for UN delegates. 

But not only them. 

UN staff is also deeply interested because when Big Powers (G-7) and Big Economies (G-20) indicate priorities in development aid - as the G-7 just did, for example calling for investment in health and  women's education, UN staff working in the technical agencies concerned with women, education and health perk up, hoping that the leaders' good intentions will translate in donor contributions for their own organizations and development projects.

This said, the G-7 and G-20 meetings do not achieve anything more than just that: indicate what official positions will be in any other future UN meetings where “real” decisions are eventually made – meaning decisions with consequences on the ground in terms of action taken. 

To argue that "real decisions" are taken within the United Nations might strike some as absurd - one hears too much in the media about UN failures to take action to believe that somehow the UN is stronger than the G-7 or G-20.

Ebola Challenges the World Health Organization (see Impakter)
Yet this is the case.

Take one recent example: Ebola.

This was uppermost on Ms.Merkel's mind in 2015, along with the other issues, the empowerment of women,  marine pollution, energy efficiency and retail and supply chain standards. Quite a list - but Ebola is high up there. And Germany wants to ensure that there is no repeat in future, that the world is ready to tackle the next epidemic.

In the weeks leading up to the G-7,  Ms. Merkel reportedly had long talks with Sars and Ebola experts handpicked for her by Bill Gates. So UN specialized agencies, when reading the G-7 summit report will take due note of the fact that Germany is strongly behind measures to strengthen the World Health Organization - we all remember how it was notoriously ill-equipped to address the Ebola emergency when it broke out (see my article about the WHO on Impakter, here).

I only have one closing comment, a footnote really: it is a pity the "outreach meeting" at the G-7 included so many heads of the UN, with the IMF, the World Bank and the ILO participating, but left out the World Health Organization...An oversight?

Now that we have established that the G-7 and G-20 cannot replace the United Nations, leaving it the only international organization with the task of addressing global issues, we shall explore in the next series of posts how the UN does it.





6.30.2015

The United Nations vs. the G-7 and the G-20: Does the UN Still Matter?

This is my first post about the UN and my upcoming non-fiction book about it - if you missed the "turn" my blog recently took, read the post explaining my approach to "blogging my book" here. What I want to do is share with you some of the major findings that will be presented in the book (tentative title: "Soft Power, How Politics Work at the United Nations").
UN Member States

In a globalized world where traditional states are losing sovereignty to new actors like transnational corporations,  the question arises whether the United Nations, originally conceived as a “club of governments”, still plays a role in international politics. 

In fact, transnationals have been larger and moved more capital than many UN member states; a 2007 UNCTAD report provided an arresting snapshot of the "universe of the largest transnational corporations", pointing out that transnational corporations have been driving growth in global trade and foreign direct investment in all sectors since the late 20th century. The Gross National Product and total population of the smaller UN member states are but a fraction of the assets and staff of transnational corporations.
 
Château de Rambouillet 2013.JPG
Chateau de Rambouillet
Worse, the founding members of the United Nations started giving signs of wanting to walk out on the UN just thirty years after its creation. 

The heads of  advanced, industrialized nations had their first yearly meeting in France at the Chateau de Rambouillet, hosted by Valérie Giscard d'Estaing in November 1975. For three days, the heads of  France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States met as friends and got to know each other on a personal basis, a first in international politics and a sea change in diplomacy. The G-7 relegated forever to the past the modus operandi of the Congress of Vienna, with star diplomats like Talleyrand.

The following year, Canada joined and the G-6 became the G-7. 

Over the next forty years, the G-7 became institutionalized outside the UN system. With Russia it became briefly the G-8; when Putin invaded Crimea, the group "punished" him and returned to its G-7 level.

On the face of it, the G-7 appeared to be set to displace the main UN political pillar, in particular the Security Council. Consider that the Security Council is in fact often weakened by its five permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - who can use their veto power to stop the UN as a whole from taking any action. The Soviet Union notoriously blocked the UN throughout the Cold War and the world knew a strong UN Security Council only for a short period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now we are back to the familiar blocking pattern, with Russia, China and the US threatening vetoes whenever their friends come under attack, like Syria for the former two and Israel for the latter.

When a single veto-wielding country can condition the world, we are getting perilously close to hell. 

Is the G-7 an attempt at a solution? Hardly. It does upgrade  Germany Italy and Japan to the level of "Big Powers" - something that has never happened at the UN Security Council though it is much talked about .  But it misses out on China and Russia.

Yet, in spite of the shortcomings, the example set by this select group of Big Powers was eventually imitated. 

There was, starting in 1997, and in quick succession, the G-22 and the G-33. Finally, in 1999, an early form of the G-20 was set up to focus on financial issues with the aim of promoting international financial stability; it pulled together all the major developed and developing countries, 19 individual countries plus the European Union (with Spain as a permanent guest):

Dark blue: G-20 member countries; Light blue: EU countries not individually represented (Source: "G20" by Marcin )

As you can see in this map, the G-20 does have Russia and China as members. But it leaves out most of Africa and a good chunk of Latin America and Asia (four countries that had been part of the G-22 have now fallen out, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand). Yet the G-20 accounts for 85% of the world gross national product, 80% of world trade and two thirds of the world population.  And the G-20, being a club of big nations, neatly by-passes the annoying problem of UN member states that are smaller than transnational corporations.

In 2008, the G-20 started to include heads of state and expanded its mandate, claiming to be the "main economic council of wealthy nations." In short, the G-20 appeared to be trying to displace one of the two big pillars of the United Nations, ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council.

Can the G-20 hope to replace the United Nations in its economic and social mission? Can the G-7 do politically what the Security Council can't?

So far, neither the G-20 or the G-7 have achieved anything memorable. When they meet, protesters activate themselves far more than they do with the United Nations - but they need not worry. The  announcements resulting from G-20 and G-7 meetings always correspond to the lowest common denominator, those rare issues on which nobody can disagree or dares to publicly disagree. 

Schloss Elmau, Germany
The latest G-7 meeting that took place in Germany on 7-8 June 2015 at Schloss Elmau is a case in point. The subjects under discussion? On day one: trade; on day two: climate, energy and development.

Broad subjects, something for everyone around the table. 

Trade this time was about the transatlantic free trade agreement and everyone nodded assent without giving specifics. 

Climate, energy and development was about preparations for the UN Climate Change Conference due to take place in Paris at the end of the year and about development cooperation, opportunities for women and health - subjects that were discussed in an open session with representatives of African states and international organizations. 

This is known as an "outreach" meeting and in this case, it connected the G-7 with 6 African heads of state (Ethiopia, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia) and the chiefs of the OECD, the IMF, the World Bank, the UN (Secretary General), the International Labour Organization  and the African Union Commission




Was all this useless talk? 

The answer in the next post.




6.28.2015

Last Euro Days for Greece? A Silver Lining

Will the Cyprus bank run be repeated in Greece?  (photo source)
Grexit is fast becoming a reality and the blame game has exploded.

The Eurogroup of Ministers of finance were quick to push the Greeks out of their last-minute Saturday meeting that was supposed to wind up the bailout negotiations.

What happened? They reportedly slammed the door after a tweet announced that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had called for a referendum on the proposals of the "troika" - the  European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

A tweet? I am amazed. It seems that Euro-zone Finance Ministers when they meet to discuss a serious matter like what to do with the Greek bailout are actually following Twitter on their phones. Not only that, but they immediately react by saying that if the Greeks go to a referendum, then they have nothing to discuss.

Exit the Greeks.

Perhaps finance ministers are obtuse and don't understand that at this point in the game, Grexit has stopped being a financial or economic matter, it is a political one. Tsipras's party won elections back in January on a promise to renegotiate the Greek debt and stop the austerity measures imposed by the troika. But European leaders, foremost the Germans, won't hear of it. More than that, as Ms Merkel pointed out, they've been "generous" in their offers, it's all the Greeks' fault.

A "generosity" that forces Tsipras to go back to the urns, because he knows he can't win the assent he needs from the Greek Parliament, half his party is against the troika's proposals. He has no other political choice than go back to the people. Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister, was crystal clear in his statement to the Eurogroup, telling them it both made sense and was democratic:
"Colleagues, the referendum solution is optimal for all, given the constraints we face.
  • If our government were to accept the institutions’ offer today, promising to push it through Parliament tomorrow, we would be defeated in Parliament with the result of a new election being called within a very long month – then, the delay, the uncertainty and the prospects of a successful resolution would be much, much diminished.
  • But even if we managed to pass the institutions’ proposal through Parliament, we would be facing a major problem of ownership and implementation. Put simply, just as in the past the governments that pushed through policies dictated by the institutions could not carry the people with them, we too would fail to do so."
And this is what the European leaders don't seem to understand. The Eurogroup took the unusual position that if there's a referendum in Greece about the troika proposals, then all proposals are off the table, implying that there was no need for a referendum.  According to the New York Times (here), Greece's fate is now in the hands of the European Central Bank. The ECB is currently keeping the Greek banking system on life support with ELA emergency funds, but the Chairman of the Bundesbank (yes, always Germany!) wants the ECB to turn off the spigot as soon as this coming Tuesday - when Greece defaults on its payment to the IMF.

In short, the Germans are determined to squash Greece.

And, as usual, the poor will pay. The bank run has been on for days now, and you can rest assured that the rich have already transferred their bank accounts out of Greece.

A monetary union implies collaboration, the strong should help the weak. That's the way it's done in America for the US dollar. Go tell the Germans. In fact, according to a recent poll, a majority of them (51%) want Greece out of the Euro and fully 70% rejected further concessions by EU partners to Greece.

The mainstream media is exceptionally meek in its reporting and quick to assign blame to Greece (for example, here). Only the Economist has done a fair job of analyzing the situation objectively, for example, "Greeks caught between Scylla and Charybdis" in Buttonwood's notebook, making the point that Tsipras played too close to the Charybdis whirlpool with his referendum and could sink. As a Greek Reporter article pointed out, Greece and Europe are both facing "unchartered waters", there can be "no winners in the Grexit game" (see here).

Greece is not Iceland, Greece is not Argentina, and the Euro is not the dollar. There are really no pointers as to what might happen next, even if contagion to the rest of debt-laden Southern Europe is (perhaps) unlikely now that the ECB can (supposedly) resort to QE (Quantitative Easing).

The Greek referendum on the Euro, scheduled for 5 July, is meant to answer the question whether Greeks can accept more creditor-imposed austerity as the price of staying in the euro, yes or no.
“Greek people are hereby asked to decide whether they accept a draft agreement document submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, at the Eurogroup meeting held on June 25. - See more at: http://greece.greekreporter.com/2015/06/28/greece-referendum-polls-greeks-favor-agreement-yes/#sthash.jTtnPEzW.dpuf

As I write this post, the IMF has come forward with its own proposal, reported here in the UK Guardian's live stream, it came in at 16:33 on Sunday June 28.  Fascinating position, worth a close read, here it is, reproduced for you exactly as I read it:

Lagarde: IMF stands ready to help




International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde arrives for a Eurogroup meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ JOHN THYSJOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
JUST IN: A statement from Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, just landed in our inboxes.
Lagarde is reiterating that the IMF believes Greece’s debt sustainability needs to be addressed -- code for saying that the eurozone must put more money up. And the Fund is still prepared to work with both sides.
Lagarde says:
“I have briefed the IMF Executive Board on the inconclusive outcome of recent discussions on Greece in Brussels. I shared my disappointment and underscored our commitment to continue to engage with the Greek authorities.
“The coming days will clearly be important. I welcome the statements of the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank to make full use of all available instruments to preserve the integrity and stability of the euro area. These statements underscore that the euro area today is in a strong position to respond to developments in a timely and effective manner, as needed.
“The IMF also will continue to carefully monitor developments in Greece and other countries in the vicinity and stands ready to provide assistance as needed.
“I continue to believe that a balanced approach is required to help restore economic stability and growth in Greece, with appropriate structural and fiscal reforms supported by appropriate financing and debt sustainability measures. The IMF is prepared to continue to pursue that approach with the Greek authorities and our European partners.”

The key sentence is this one: "a balanced approach is required to help restore economic stability and growth in Greece, with appropriate structural and fiscal reforms supported by appropriate financing and debt sustainability measures." The Guardian says that this means the Euro-zone "must put more money up."

Of course that's what it means! Can anyone seriously think that the situation in Greece can be fixed without putting more money up?? It would be more important to focus on what the IMF is really saying: that reforms should be carried out, yes, but supported by appropriate financing measures that will ultimately result in a sustainable debt, i.e. a debt level that the Greek economy can live with.

It's the only reasonable, rational solution. And I am happy to see that the IMF is standing by it, ready to pursue that approach with all stakeholders.

This is yet another example of the excellence of our international institutions, something we tend to forget all too often, as we see the United Nations failing here and there, and being snubbed and ignored (as is the case for the ICC, the International Criminal Court). Remember, the IMF, along with the World Bank, were created in the same wave of generosity and vision that saw the birth of the United Nations.

Where is that generosity and vision now? Certainly not in the Euro-group!

So what happens next? My guess is that the IMF will extend the deadline on the payments Greece must make to it. Since the referendum is next Sunday 5 July, expect at least a 2-week reprival. But of course I could be wrong...And of course, all the usual things are likely to happen: bank holidays and capital controls.

And the outcome of the referendum? According to recent Greek polls, the Greeks are likely to vote yes. But the betting firm Ladbrokes has slashed the odds of Greece voting yes to just 1/3, in contrast to the 2/1 is was offering when it opened the books. So expect the Greeks to vote no!

That the Greeks are fed up with this charade should come as a surprise to no one. But the rest of the world should beware: the Greek economy may amount to only 2% of the European Union, but it could very well be a case of the tail wagging the dog. One thing it will do for sure, is to nip in the bud Europe's fragile recovery.

And when that happens, we can thank Ms. Merkel and her buddies for that. 

Update: Sunday night (June 28), Tsipras announced in a speech on TV that banks would be closed the whole week prior to the referendum and that capital controls would be put in place. My guess is that he is trying to "freeze" the financial situation and hoping to get support for the "no": that would give him a stronger hand if and when bailout negotiations resume.

With a "no" at the urns, Tsipras would be able to point out to the Troika that he is bound by his political pledge to reduce austerity. Perhaps that might help them to undestand that this was never an economic issue but a political one. But I suspect the IMF has understood that - it is just as technocratic as the other two (ECB and EU Commission) but appears to have a greater political sensitivity.

Related articles:

6.26.2015

About Chicha Dancing, Empty Streets and Women Equality

This is the continuation of the previous blog post that introduced you to Vicky, a tall and elegant American woman in her mid-thirties, a UN official on a project evaluation mission to Peru - the time is the early 1990s. 


She goes to a chicha dancing place in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazon, accompanied by Ben Khedara, the project manager. He is a middle-aged widower of Arab origin, as his name suggests. ( to read the previous post click here). 


Here then is what happens to Khedara and Vicky as they sit down in front of two pisco drinks:  

They made an unlikely couple, thought Vicky, in a chicha dancing place lost in the jungle, far away from the tourist circuits. She knew she was the kind of woman you’d never expect to see sitting next to a mature, almost elderly man, with thick glasses and a balding head. Her Parisian chic was a stark contrast to his no-nonsense, middle-class attire of plain cotton shirt and jeans. She was uncomfortably aware that she looked like the kind of wealthy women who dressed for a chic safari in Kenya or a South Seas vacation – all of a sudden, she wished she hadn’t changed out of her working clothes, plain jeans and a cotton shirt.
She could see they were gradually drawing attention and creating a sensation with the clients of the chicha place. She knew they were such an ill-assorted couple that it wouldn't be long before one of the brash young men would ask her to dance.  One got up, and with a bouncing step and rolling shoulders, he approached her. He stared at her a long time and slowly gave her a self-assured, winning smile that promised nothing but trouble. She turned to Khadari and quickly asked him to invite her to dance before that dangerous looking macho did.
They moved on to the center of the room, Khadari leading her in a rollicking jig, and looking shamelessly happy about it. Then he unexpectedly pushed his face close to hers, and she caught the gold flash of a capped tooth and the whiff of garlic on his breath. She closed her eyes and stepped back, hitting someone behind her.
Out! She needed to get out right away. "Let’s leave, now!" she whispered in Khadari’s hairy ear.He complied instantly, much to Vicky’s relief.  He paid the two piscos and lemonade that they hadn't finished, and, taking her arm, he steered her out into the night. It was still very hot, in spite of the late hour - not a whiff of breeze, just heavy, damp clinging air, like moist cotton on the face. "Thanks," she said, "I could tell gringas aren't supposed to remain sitting in that kind of place."
They walked in silence back to the hotel through the dark, empty streets. Vicky was reassured by Khedara’s presence next to her; at moments like this, she realized that being a woman was a distinct disadvantage. You couldn’t go to a dancing place, you couldn’t walk alone in the streets of an unknown town all by yourself. Too dangerous. An insect hit her cheek, another brushed her lips. Was it a mosquito? She couldn’t tell. They were walking through swarms of undefinable insects hanging immobile in the air, like thick clouds. She was afraid of swallowing one and was careful to breathe through her nose. They had to be mosquitoes; she felt them stinging her naked ankles, in spite of the brisk pace of their walk. She increased her speed, hit a pebble and stumbled.
"Let me hold your arm," said Khadara gallantly, "the streets are treacherous, no asphalt, no sidewalk."
Much to Vicky's distaste, he firmly grabbed her elbow and steered her forward at a maddeningly slow and cautious pace. When they finally reached the hotel, he talked of having a nightcap. She tried to think of a good reason to refuse, but couldn't think of any.

This scene takes place in the 1990's - and in fact, it is inspired by events that I lived through in that period and wrote about when I returned home from my travels. 


What is interesting (to me at least) is the observation that a woman who is doing a man's job as Vicky does still suffers from limitations in what she can actually do. Going to a local dance place somewhere in a developing country, walking alone at night in the streets of an unknown town are things she cannot safely do.

Source of image here
And yet, the UN system is probably one of the most equitable and advanced in the world in the way it treats women staff: there is, by definition, no discrimination against women. Salary scales and perks like health insurance are exactly the same for men and women, there's no gender distinction, no "glass ceiling". Yet, there are certain places, certain activities that cannot be open to women.

For example, I was a project evaluation officer for 20 years, but there are countries where I was never sent to evaluate projects, like Yemen or Nigeria - a decision my Evaluation Service Chief took for my own protection - and also because, on a cultural level, women cannot "function" as effectively as men. No doubt, in the two countries I mention, a woman who comes to inspect a project and has to weigh the efficiency and effectiveness of the project's staff (men included) will find it difficult to do her job...

Culture is not yet globalized and probably never will be.



6.24.2015

Peru's Wild Chicha Music

This is my first installment in this new life for my blog and I thought I'd start with music - if you missed the "turn" my blog just took, read the previous post here.

It so happens that in an early chapter of This Day's Madness, the novel I mentioned in my last post, Peru's unique chicha music plays an unexpected role. Chicha is of course also a drink (usually made from corn, often fermented) and the music is sometimes called "cumbia", a term used in Colombia. But the Peruvians prefer to call it "chicha".

While I had heard chicha when I traveled to Peru in the early 1990's, I didn't bring back any records. So I checked it out on YouTube - ah, the wonders of the digital age, it certainly makes our writer's job of researching a lot easier! And here is what I found:





Do you like it? Yes, a very lively beat, great to dance to. Though it really sounds better if you're actually there, for example, in a Lima club such as this one:

Source of photo: here
And here is the scene in the novel where the music comes in.

Two people are involved: Vicky, the main character, a tall, elegant woman working for the United Nations and Ben Khedara, a middle-aged UN project manager, an Algerian.

You have met Vicky before: she features in the short story Wildfire (published on Impakter, here; that episode is based on a true story - Vicky may be fictional, but she is a really strong, determined character).

http://impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/5246386427_d7f5173149_b.jpg
When the savanna grass burns at the end of the dry season, it causes wildfires that redden the whole sky, as here.

Wildfire is in fact a prologue to the novel.

A couple of chapters down, Vicky has come to Peru flying in from Paris (that's where the UN agency she works for is headquartered). She's on a three-week evaluation mission to inspect Khedara's project and formulate a follow-up proposal.

From Lima and Cusco, they fly out to the distant, tropical region of Madre de Dios, on the border with Brazil:


Puerto Maldonado is the region's chief town, with some 75,000 inhabitants, and boasts a curious pagoda-style clock tower at its center:

Puerto Maldonado, the Plaza de Armas with its characteristic clock tower: this is the center of town (photo source)

But Puerto Maldonado, in spite of the clock tower, is a God-forsaken place on the river Madre de Dios:

Puerto Maldonado on the river  (photo source)
And here Vicky and Khedara spend their first day meeting the local authorities before setting out the next day to meet Indians in a village aptly named "El Infierno" on the Rio Tampopata:

Tambopata river - now luxurious accomodations exist for tourists (see source of photo, Cayman Lodge) - but not when Vicky traveled to Peru in the early 1990s 
Vicky plans to spend the day talking to El Infierno villagers, trying to find out how they live, what they want, what their needs are - her plan is to include them as beneficiaries of a follow-up project she has been tasked to formulate. So here is how she spends the night before going out to the jungle:
They went to the Sabor Tropical, reputed to be the plushiest restaurant in Puerto Maldonado, famous for its exotic decor. The walls were covered with
garish paintings à la Douanier Rousseau, depicting jungle animals in a naïve dream-like setting, plumed macaws chattering away on tree tops, crouching jaguars behind acrylic bright green ferns, and leering tapirs drinking the still water of an excessively blue lake.  
The food was a letdown compared to the theatrical wall paintings. After a tough and stringy estofado de venado made from wild pig, Khadari, sensing Vicky's disappointment, suggested they go to a place nearby where they played chicha music. “Your experience of the jungle would not be complete without it,” he assured her. “It is the locals' greatest pleasure. They love it, they listen to chicha all the time. It's loud, fun and easy to dance to, wonderful beat."
"Ah, but I don't dance." Vicky was appalled at the idea of dancing with Khedara.
"No hay problema, you don't need to. Just listen to it, looking at the others dancing. Quite a fiesta - you can't miss it. I won't allow it." 
When she saw his boyish grin, she felt she couldn't turn dowdy on him. She acquiesced and grabbed her shawl. They walked in the dark, humid night to a large, neon lit pavilion, led to it by the wild, explosive sound of an electric bass guitar. 
At first glance, Vicky couldn't see where the music came from: she was confronted with a moving wall of dancing people. She resolutely walked around them, to the far side of the room, picking a table against the back wall, in a relatively shaded area. She crossed her legs and looked grimly around. The band played frenetically and the people, sweating heavily, moved about in a savage frenzy. Vicky felt she had no part in it.
She lit a cigarette and settled back in the hard wooden chair, thinking she rather enjoyed sitting on the side, looking on, ignored by everyone. She was determined to dance with no one, and least of all with Ben Khadari. What a strange man! He'd told her some days back, with a tearful voice, of the loss of his wife the year before, in a stupid car accident in Lima  - but weren't such accidents always "stupid"?

OK, I stop here. For the moment, I leave to your imagination what happens next. How important is Khedara for Vicky?  Hint: Vicky is a major character in the novel and Peru is just one of the many countries she visits every year on her project inspection tours (incidentally, that's a job I had for 20 years - I must have evaluated over 50 projects over that period...)

The rest of the story in my next post...


6.22.2015

Blogging for a Cause


The child and the factory (pollution)- painting by Claude 
This follows on my blog post last week highlighting the gap that exists between the United Nations and the political world as it really is  - the gap between ideals humanity strives for and the stark reality it has to live in, battered by war, pollution, inequality, and I gave the example of the President of Sudan's shameful escape from justice (he was indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, see here).  

Dear reader, that insufferable gap is what is pushing me to write about the United Nations.

Of course, I realize that a modest blog and my writing can't change the world. And I don't expect to be able to move many of you (if anyone) to start doing something (anything!) to improve mankind's lot. But if I can bring a little support to the many who work hard every day for a better world, that would be enough for me. That would make me happy.

That's why I've decided to consecrate my blog to the United Nations - fiction and non-fiction.

Now I'm working on two fronts:
  • non-fiction: a book about the United Nations tentatively called "Soft Power" subtitle: How Politics Play Out at the United Nations - Status: the proposal is written, I am working on the synopsis of the chapters and still gathering data; as to the sub-title, I'm still working on it, and it could change, and change many times, as the book approaches its final stage (not there yet!);
  • fiction: a new novel in an unusual setting, one of the United Nations specialized agencies; it is based on my 25 years of experience working for FAO (Food and Agriculture, one of the UN specialized agencies) but no, the novel doesn't take place in FAO but in a UN agency called UN-EHRD (Education and Human Resources Development Organization of the United Nations). Sounds good? Are you wondering where it is? It's headquartered in Paris, but no, it doesn't exist! The location and the name are both fictional!  Status:  The first draft is written - a lot of it was done while I was still working for the UN - and I am currently into the (harrowing) work of finalizing it, editing, double-checking on my sources and updating where needed. 
Tomb of Omar Khayyam by Jay Hambidge
In a way, this novel is a fiction pendant to the non-fiction book - so much of my reflections in the non-fiction book are echoed by the characters who people the novel. It is tentatively called This Day's Madness, a title derived from a couple of lines of the 12th century Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam that seems to describe the political situation the world lives in today:
Yesterday this day's madness did prepare;
To-morrow's silence, triumph, or despair
My plan for this blog is to take you on trips with me as I write This Day's Madness and share with you what I discover in my research as I go along.  

And I plan to do the same with the non-fiction book, whenever some news about the United Nations comes up or when I come across something particularly interesting in my research - thought I've already started doing this many times with  articles I have written for Impakter that were published in their special section on the United Nations; it's nestled under their philanthropy section, see here, and for a  list of my contributions, click here (a partial list! I still have to bring it up to date).

Last week was really full of news related to the work of the United Nations: there was the Pope's ground-breaking encyclical about climate change - a fantastic boost for the upcoming United Nations Conference in Paris, COP21 - and the World Refugee Day that enabled UNHCR to draw attention to the plight of refugees, 60 million today, the highest number yet in History, a dismal record indeed.

Pope Francis with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Where did I get this idea for blogging? From Nina Amir, a writer who has developed the technique of “blogging a book” - I read about her on Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog. Nina Amir is the bestselling author of How to Blog a Book and The Author Training Manual and reportedly some of her clients have sold 300,000+ copies of their books, landed deals with major publishing houses and created thriving businesses around their books. I wrote a blog post about her (here) and reviewed her book on Amazon (here).

My next blog post is coming up soon and it will deal with my novel...and take you to Peru! 

Any comments about the new turn this blog is taking? Do you like the idea? Have your ever tried to blog a book? Please share, I'd love to hear your experience!

6.20.2015

Grexit: Europe's Darkest Hour



Every day, Europe is moving closer to the brink. And the rest of the world - America and China included - will feel the tsunami when the Euro sinks.

The winds of recession are blowing, and their source is Europe and the incompetence of its political leaders. 

Grexit, the possibility that Greece would move out of the Eurozone, was always there of course. It is  at the heart of the Euro crisis, but it was only just that: a possibility. Now it is fast becoming a certainty.

The Greeks themselves have given up in spite of their long-held conviction  that Greece should remain in the Euro - a conviction they have bravely  demonstrated  by their willingness to endure huge sacrifices to stay in, losing 25% of their GDP over the past five years, an enormous amount, not to mention galloping unemployment.

Since Monday, in just one week, Greek citizens have withdrawn €4 billion from their own banks.

A massive run  on banks, the classic scenario before economic collapse.

If the Greek banking system hasn't collapsed yet as I write, it's because the European Central Bank is keeping it on life support, providing it with just enough €€€ (the rumor is that it's €1.8 billion) so that banks won't close their doors.

How did we ever get to this dire end? How could a whole continent - Europe, over 500 million people - whose values are based on human rights, human dignity, justice and equality and who are proud of those values, who have built the world's most advanced economic community, the European Union,  come to this?

What happened?

Ask Germany.  In particular Ms. Merkel who lives by schoolmarm slogans  and her advisers, Mr. Schäuble, her Finance Minister, totally clueless about economics, and Mr. Weidmann, the President of the Bundesbank, in the grip of a demonstrably wrong monetary ideology (that requires, inter alia, a State to balance its budget on a yearly basis when government spending programs necessarily last many years - small wonder Germany has an infrastructure problem, it hasn't invested in it for decades).

These are the people who want to impose their views on Europe.

When the Eurogroup  meeting ended in a debacle this week, all Ms. Merkel could think of saying was that the deal with Greece was "still possible" only if Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, would "move". She hammered it in: “Greece has received unprecedented solidarity over the last five years. The basic principle still applies: help in return for reforms.”

Help in return for reforms? Is that what she calls solidarity?

It is clear that politically Greece cannot implement any more reforms, especially NOT to its pension system. Politically impossible: the vote that brought Tsipras to power was a vote against austerity. Mr. Tsipras is bound to respond to his electors, that's the way democracy works.

But, to make matters worse, there is an insidious notion creeping around Germany (and Northern Europe), the idea that the Eurozone cannot become a "transfer union". The famous German Spiegel Magazine aired the notion four years ago, in 2011 (see here), claiming "There are a number of options for the institutionalized shift of resources from richer to poorer member states -- and Germany would end up as the biggest net contributor in every scenario."

Why anyone should be surprised that this is the case astounds me: Germany is, or is it not, the wealthiest, strongest  economy in Europe? It has, or has it not, benefited the most from the creation of the Euro?

It is therefore normal and natural that it should pay and should pay more than the others. And as Sebastian Mallaby commented in the Financial Times that same year, Germany would be the "real winner in a transfer union". Germany will realize this is the case only, as he put it, when Germans finally  "discard the myth, widely cherished in northern Europe, that peripheral southern countries are the undeserving beneficiaries of a charitable transfer union".

Unfortunately, since 2011, that myth has grown stronger. And more dangerous.

Bottom line, any monetary union of any kind is necessarily a "transfer union". It's a nice technical term that simply means that when one of the member states is in trouble and running a budget deficit, the others help out so that the currency is defended.

That's the financial aspect, and that's the way the American dollar is run. There are many American states in trouble but none is threatened the way Greece is because the American dollar is defended by the Federal Reserve underpinned by the US Treasury. For example, in 2010, the news came out (here) that 32 American states were declared officially bankrupt, with California, Michigan and New York heading the list, and that the US Treasury has been conducting a shadow bailout worth $37.8 billion.

On a moral level, "transfer" is at the heart of cooperation, it is the act of helping out: the strong gives a hand to the weak, the rich to the poor.

But cooperation and solidarity no longer seem to be in the European DNA. Ask the right-wing populist party that have overrun elections everywhere, from Ms Le Pen's Front National (partly financed with Russian money - some €40 million cash - and small wonder) to the Italian Lega Nord. They all want out of the European Union, they all want to retreat to a pre-World War II situation.

Yes, nostalgia for the past is rising, we are going back to square one, as if World War I and World War II never happened. Erase the European Union! Bring down the United Nations! Let's go back to our nationalistic passions! Let's kick out immigrants and close our doors! Let's live among ourselves in absolute autarchy and economic self-sufficiency! Damn the rest of the world!

Germany nearly destroyed Europe in World War I, it tried again in World War II, and this time it might make it. With the enthusiastic consent of its northern European neighbors and all right-wing nationalistic parties across Europe.

Grexit would indeed mark Europe's darkest hour.

Is that the Europe we want? I don't recognize it. Do you?