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2.13.2010

The Greek crisis and challenge to the Euro: Why is Europe not rushing to the rescue?

Two days ago, speculators expected the European government summit in Brussels to announce with suitable fireworks the salvaging of Greece from its horrible debt...Then nothing happened. No fireworks. Only a very cool response to the effect that if something really, really went wrong, then Europe might do something - something meaning presumably that it might provide whatever funds would be necessary to stem speculation and restore confidence in the Greek Government's capacity to manage its debt.

Moreover, as Angela Merkel coldly observed, Greece hadn't asked for help. So why should anyone have ever expected it to be forthcoming? Moreover,the European Commission had indicated that it was perfectly happy with the Greek Government's reform programme. People in Greece were a lot less happy, as clearly shown by their street protests and strikes this week. They were not going to accept reforms without a good fight, now, were they? But that's par for the course. No reform is ever liked by those who have to go through them. It's in the nature of things.

It's also in the nature of things to grumble. Grumble about the fact that the Greek only deserved what they got, after having gotten into the Euro zone on false pretences, faking their public accounts and pretending the debt was around 4 percent of GNP when it was four times as high. Grumble about the fact that speculative attacks on sovereign debt were a new, profoundly disturbing facet of our never-ending crisis, and mutter about what country might be hit next: Spain (very likely), Portugal (idem), Ireland (idem), Italy (less so but not out of the woods) etc etc Grumble about the fact that Europe once more was not able to put its act together: here was a crisis among Euro members, the Euro was threatened, no European government wanted the International Monetary Fund to come to the rescue, but neither did they lift a finger to do anything constructive.

We're back to the usual dismal display of European weakness and incompetence on the international scene.

But are we?

I believe there are two good reasons why we have witnessed this bizarre, ho-hum outcome in Brussels. Last night, I was watching Stiglietz on TV (in an interview on France 24) and I half expected him to come up with these very reasons. After all, he is a famous Nobel Prize Columbia U. Professor, probably the top economist of his generation if not of our times, the man who single-handedly managed to slice off the head of the Washington Consensus dragon (remember the Washington Consensus? It was that catastrophic ideology whereby unleashing free Market Forces was the answer to all our ills - just ask the Asians how they felt in the 1990s crisis when the IMF raised interests and tightened belts, thus ensuring the crisis would last twice as long as necessary...) In short, I consider him a very big man and he's just come out with a book on the current crisis with a very apt title: Freefall. A book I've put on top of my list of books to read...He's also an advisor to the Greek Government, so I truly expected him to come out with the goods, and tell us what really happened in Brussels and why Germany and France didn't rush to rescue Greece.

Well, he didn't.

And I think I know why. Curiously - so far - the media has also kept mum on the subject. I don't know why they are so reticent and I suspect that soon what I'm saying here is going to occur to somebody else. Of course, I'm only "nougatizing" and I could be wrong. You tell me after you've heard my reasons.

So here they are. One is broadly political, the other is strictly economic.

The political first.It's very simple: if governments in Brussels had come out announcing a rescue with all the fanfare needed to discourage speculation, that would have cut any chance for the Greek Government to successfully carry out its planned reforms. It would have encouraged protesters in their protests, strikers in their strikes, and made any reform impossible from the start.

The economic next. This is a more touchy issue. And harder to prove. But it is so likely to be true that it is difficult to believe it isn't. This Greek crisis in the Euro zone is exactly what the doctor would recommend to lower the Euro. And a weakened Euro is precisely what the doctor recommends to encourage European Euro-zone exports, particularly the German ones that happen to occupy top-end, high quality and/or luxury niches in the international market. The kind of products you can easily sell more of the very minute prices go down. So any point loss in the Euro is a God-sent for Germans. And for the French too. And the Italians. Ok, I won't go on, you get the picture. But naturally nobody in Brussels could come out and say so, even if they all secretly rejoiced at the weakening of the Euro.

How does all this strike you? Let me know...

1.31.2010

About Tomatoes like Red-skinned Water Balls and Illegal Immigrants...

Yes, tomatoes that look marvellously red and sun-ripened in the middle of winter: those are the wonders of modern agriculture for you!

Last night, I watched a French TV newscast (France 2) reporting on the invasion of Spanish tomatoes in French supermarkets, all the way up to Paris - coming in by the million every month of the year. The TV crew had gone down to the South of Spain to investigate the production area around Almeria. A fantastic landscape of plastic greenhouses, bulging sheets of white plastic endlessly rolling over the hills. And under these sheets (that can be conveniently opened or shut according to temperature), there are rows upon rows of tall tomato plants. They grow on gravel and are fed water by the most sophisticated drip irrigation techniques. And a lot of water is used for each plant: there was mention of 3 liters per day. New tomatoes ripen every morning and are picked by crews of East European and African labourers. Then they are packed in nice looking plastic film boxes and trucked out across Europe.

I think Italy (where I live) must be the only place in Europe that's not getting Spanish tomatoes (and maybe Greece too). The Italians eat their own locally produced tomatoes, and they taste pretty good too - even in winter. They're not about to start eating Spanish tomatoes.

Yes, because the Spanish tomatoes taste like...water! I know because I've eaten them when I was in France. But it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. After all, water is what they are, right? They grow on gravel and water, full stop. Under the circumstances, you can't expect them to taste like tomatoes. Lucky for you that they look nice and red!

The TV crew interviewed some French customers in the supermarkets who were buying those tomatoes and asked them how they liked them. They were met with embarrassed shrugs and one lady complained they tasted of nothing. When asked why they bought them, the answers ranged from "they're here, so why not?" to "they're cheap". And so they are. At €2.50 per kilo, it's barely above the summer price. Not bad.

But this TV crew was determined to scratch underneath the surface: how cheap really and why?

Well, it turned out the farm gate price was around 70 cents. So by the time it hits the supermarkets, the price is multiplied by 3 or 4. Don't be surprised. That's the kind of margins our dear marketing chains and distributors use and live on (and grow fat on). What else?

The next question is an obvious one. How come tomato producers can turn their products out at such low, low prices? Easy: they use cheap labour, people who come from outside the European Union. The TV crew interviewed a couple of them, illegal immigrants from Mali. Nice chaps, really, and obviously eager to work. They lived in a run-down house, clearly the cheapest lodgings they could find. And no wonder: they said they were paid €700 a month, and what with the rent, the cost of food and the electricity bills, that didn't leave much to send back home to their families in Mali. But better than nothing. These guys weren't about to give up their job...

All this makes me very sad. This is the exact reverse of a win-win situation. It's a dramatic lose-lose situation. Think of it:

a. the tomatoes are lousy, there's no gain for the European consumers who're actually paying for water packed in red tomato skins at 3 or 4 times the price of mineral water;

b. the jobs created by this tomato industry go to a kind of labour that is scandalously exploited. And as I write about this I have a hard time containing my indignation. A monthly salary of €700, paid directly to an illegal immigrant who is, by definition, beyond any health care benefits and cannot claim any social protection of any kind, well...it's more than unfair, it's pitiful, it's absurd, it's downright unethical. The situation cries out for revenge!

But it's not something confined to Spain. The same thing regularly happens in Italy. Most recently, it was early January 2010, we watched street fighting in the little town of Rosario in Calabria (reportedly some 15,000 Italians pitted against 3,000 immigrants). At the heart of the problem, there was this particular group of African workers living in an abandoned factory, with apparently the local mafia "protection", giving them a roof and work. The Italian army had to cart them off in buses for their own safety to protect them from the wrath of the local population. Meanwhile all agricultural production in the area came to a stop. There was no one left to pick off the fruits from the trees (the Italians certainly wouldn't) . Who knows where these immigrants are now and what they're doing...

I don't know whether the mafia is always behind every one of these gruesome episodes of Exploitation of Man by Man. Perhaps they are, especially in places where they control much of the economy. And that's not just in Southern Italy by the way - there are lots of places like that, just about everywhere in the developing world, including of course the famous BRIC countries.

Bottomline, one thing is certain: all these illegal immigrants are an easy prey to ruthless entrepreneurs. And these modern agricultural producers who exploit them have nothing to do with your vision of the good old peasants close to the earth, the righteous defenders of traditions and values.

No, these guys are out there to make money. And if there's a bunch of foreigners who have no friends locally, can't speak the language and in fact have no rights to be there but they are willing (nay, they need) to work, then why not let them? It's to everyone's advantage, right?

That's good old Adam Smith's Invisible Hand at work for you! And what damage it does, untold damage in terms of human suffering.

This is why I really get mad when I see piles of tasteless red tomatoes in supermarkets. It's not just a matter of taste...It's a matter of ethics!

And can't we do something more constructive with all these poor guys who flock to the coasts of Europe in the hope of finding work? There really are two kinds of illegal immigrants. I think those who want to work deserve our respect and support. Those who don't should be kicked out.

One should make the distinction. Don't you agree?

And if we are to show respect and support for those willing to work, then we have to be ready to do something constructive about it. In particular, European governments should put in place institutional arrangements whereby low-skilled jobs are systematically identified and put in a database made available to immigrant applicants with the appropriate profile. Actually there are lots of jobs like that, and not just housemaid jobs. I remember talking to a baker in Rome who was desperate - his bread was fabulous, mainly because he did it the old-fashioned way, getting up in the middle of the night to knead the dough. But he couldn't find anybody - I mean a strong young Italian - willing to come in the middle of the night and learn the tricks of bread-making. At the time, I investigated the question a little further and discovered there were some 4,000 jobs of the kind just in the Lazio region, that weren't covered. Nobody wants to get up in the middle of the night to bake bread...but if an immigrant is willing, why not give it to him?

Politically, it might be hard to swing, what with trade unions always preventing any changes to the labour market structures. But the unions should be told that they are defending jobs that no West European citizen wants. They've all attended school - many even the university - and low-skilled jobs are below their dignity, right?

So why stop the immigrants who are willing to take them? Granted, you need to have a system in place to separate the grain from the chaff - the immigrant willing to work from the one who isn't -. But once you do, it seems to me you shouldn't be so afraid of those hordes of foreigners knocking at the door. And the guy who works is a lot less likely to become a petty street criminal than the one who doesn't.

This would be a real win-win situation. Wouldn't it?

1.25.2010

How about a nice ARTICHOKE RECIPE to comfort us a bit?

News are so bad and so sad these days, especially the ones coming out of Haiti...That's when I run to my kitchen for a little comfort. How about a nice "tortino" Florentine-style made with some tender spring artichokes?

There are lots of recipes for this on Internet but, as far as I can see, most of them are wrong. The objective of this recipe is to produce a fluffy omelette that rises in the oven like a soufflé and is filled with crisp, flavourful pieces of artichoke. I've had this only a couple of times in Florence, in one of those old-fashioned trattoria where you just know that you're eating traditional food of the best kind, and it's taken me several tries before I could perfect the recipe.

I could refer you of course to Artusi, the author of the definitive treatise on Tuscan cuisine, but I'll share with you the little secrets that I have discovered that ensure your tortino will come out just right. It's very easy to do but it requires some care. AND good ingredients. Of course, that's a general rule: if you want to prepare good food you just can't skimp on the quality of the ingredients. For example, for frying, I ALWAYS use olive oil. Not necessarily the best most expensive quality, but it's got to be real olive oil: it has a great advantage over all other types of oil on the market. Because of the way it withstands heat, it fries a lot better. AND it's the least bad for your health. AND the best tasting.

Now, back to the artichoke tortino. Turn your oven on (especially if it takes time to heat up like mine does): set it at 180° or mark 6 or whatever heat you normally use to roast a chicken. In other words, hot but not too hot.

Then start with the artichokes. You need 2 small ones per person (or a big one/person - but better small). I use the small variety you find in Italy, the ones with leaves tinged with a lovely violet colour. Actually you can use any type of artichoke, provided you prepare them correctly: you have to peel the stem (to get rid of the thick, string-like fibers) and take out all the external leaves that are tough. Then cut off the artichoke tips, leaving only about half the leaves on, or even less. Be vicious about it! Once you overcome the impression that you're throwing everything away, it is in fact very satisfying to get rid of all those dark green leaves! What you should have left in your hand is just a tiny, tender, yellow-leaf artichoke, maybe half or less of what it looked like before you started hacking at it.

Then cut it in 4 or even 6 pieces lengthwise. And scrape the inside to get rid of that hair which is in the centre and is obviously inedible. At that point, quickly throw the pieces in cold water to which you've added the juice of 1/2 lemon: the purpose of this is to prevent the artichokes of turning black on you.

Next, lay all the pieces on kitchen paper and pat them dry. Then throw them in a bowl and flour them.

Heat olive oil in a deep pan (at least a couple of inches) and when it's close to smoking (but NOT smoking!) throw your floured artichoke pieces in. You should shake off the extra flour and throw them in ONE by ONE. Let them fry until they're a nice golden colour and crisp. Take them out with a perforated spoon and set them to dry on paper.

Now prepare the omelette in the usual way, beating together one or two eggs per person (but never make a tortino with less than 3 eggs: it won't work!). Salt and pepper to taste, a little grated parmigiano (optional) and throw in the fried artichokes.

Oil (or butter) a pyrex dish, pour the egg-artichoke mixture in it, sprinkle with a little grated Parmigiano cheese and put the whole thing in your (now hot) oven.

It takes about 20 minutes to bake (or more depending on the size of your tortino). Watch it rise and turn golden. Check for doneness with a toothpick, but then it's a matter of taste: some people like it real done, others prefer it moist. In any case, don't be disappointed when it starts to come down after you've taken it out of the oven. That's normal: after all, it isn't a French soufflé! It's just an oven-baked omelette...

Ma che buono!

Have a nice glass of red wine ready and warm crusty bread and let me know how you like it!

It's a guaranteed comfort food...

1.20.2010

The Haiti Tragedy: another Ghastly Tale of Missed Opportunities ?

Last night, TVs around the world showed a huge American military helicopter land on the vast grounds of the collapsed presidential palace in Haiti, bringing in the first soldiers to re-establish order after the situation had (as expected) degenerated into uncontrollable looting and violence.

Then a terrible thought hit me.

Yes, a terrible thought: why haven't these nice empty lawns been used BEFORE as a HELIPORT to bring in the needed aid? And when I say before, I mean immediately following the earthquake when all other entry routes were blocked or clogged up with traffic? Why not create a heliport to fly in water, medecines, doctors, nurses, tents, electric generators etc and set up a field hospital right there on the presidential grounds? Why not a heliport to bring in additional support and fly out the worst cases of wounded victims to other hospitals in the region (Santo Domingo is near, but so is Cuba)?

WHY NOT?

Yes, WHY NOT A HELIPORT FIVE OR SIX DAYS AGO? When we were perhaps in time to prevent the situation from sliding into the chaos we are now witnessing?

Ok, I can hear you grumbling in the background. A heliport might not have made that much difference. Perhaps not, but it was better than nothing.

Still grumbling? Are you saying that it is easy to criticize with hindsight and that I should desist?

Well, I won't. I admit it is easy to criticize with hindsight, and ok, I'm not there in Haiti, but here in my studio in Rome, in front of my computer. Yes, I hear you: you're going to tell me that is precisely the point. You're going to say I know nothing of the ins and outs of the situation, that it is a uniquely complex disaster, that all the structures of the State have collapsed (the police, justice, army etc). In short, it is a humongous challenge, and who am I to pass judgment?

Sure it is humongous and I'm not saying it ain't. And who am I? Well, I think I've earned the right after working 25 years in development and humanitarian assistance to sit back, watch the world and say what I think. And I think that what we have here, amidst all the horror and tragedy, is probably one more ghastly tale of missed opportunities.

I admit it's not easy to think outside the box, to ask yourself: ok, the harbour is blocked, the airport is insufficient and overloaded with traffic, all incoming roads are jammed. Yet the solution is not something way-out. It is a military classic: the helicopter. Why wasn't it used? Why didn't the UN ask for it? Why has the solution finally come up only to bring in soldiers?

Why, why, WHY?

There may be political reasons. Perhaps the Americans didn't dare land in on the presidential grounds without the official OK from the Haitian President, or, for that matter, from the French. Or perhaps there was no request coming from the UN because of the Big Boys that won't allow the UN to bring its act together (assuming it ever thought of a heliport). Who knows...

And let me tell you, the American soldiers now coming in aren't going to have an easy task of it. No sirree, they won't.

How hard it's going to be, you can easily guess from the extraordinarily frank reaction of a Haitian policeman I also saw on TV last night, on the same news which showed the helicopter (it was on TV 5 Monde). This policeman was standing guard in front of a collapsed store on one of Port-au-Prince's biggest commercial streets. The store owner was in there trying to salvage his belongings and had asked the policeman for protection, as he explained to the TV cameraman. Presumably he was paid extra to do so - but of course, he didn't say that, nor did the cameraman ask him. Instead, he asked him why he didn't go and help to control the looting that was on-going in the supermarket next door.

I shall never forget his reply.

He said, and I repeat textually because his words are very important - they go right to the heart of the matter - , he said in his wonderful Haitian accent in French:
"Je n'ai pas le courage de leur tirer dessus!" I haven't the courage to shoot them down.

Yes, that's right: he hasn't the courage to shoot. COURAGE is the word he used. And you can understand him. These are his conationals - perhaps even cousins or brothers. People like him - only a little less lucky than he is. He's got a gun and a policeman's status, it's always something when everybody else has nothing. So he can't shoot them down, can he? Not his own blood and flesh, can he?

And how else are you going to establish order?

There are no prisons to lock the looters up, no judges to take them to be judged. I tell you it won't be an easy task for the Americans. It will take courage, that's the point, the COURAGE of professional soldiers. At least the Americans won't be dealing with their conationals as was the case for the haitian policeman. That's the only difference. But I'm not sure it will be an advantage. It won't make their task any easier. Nobody likes foreigners, especially not the threatening kind. They're bound to hit into walls of diffidence, anger and distrust.

Yet there is NO alternative. Order must be re-established to allow humanitarian aid to continue.

And that is yet another tragedy of a different order, when the HELPING HAND is turned into a FIST...

1.18.2010

Is Haiti going to be the next humanitarian circus?

I am scared.

And horrified.

When I see the images on TV, I am horrified. Human tragedy is unbearable. I have never liked the way journalists dramatize a situation, yet this is a truly dramatic situation and we can only let them get on with it and try to ignore their banal comments and cheap attempts at dramatizing. Like everybody else who is watching TV these days, I wish I could be there to help. Don't we all?

But most of all, I am scared. Yes, I am afraid that much of the help that is going out to Haiti is arriving either too late or is doing little good as aid convoys clog up the few incoming routes. It's like having a lot of people rushing together to get through a narrow door with the result that they all jam up and no one gets through, or few do, and those who do get there late, when most of the tragedy has been consumed...

The images speak for themselves.

What on earth is going to happen next in Haiti? This is a fundamental question and it was drawn to my attention by a follower of this blog. He evoked Haiti as a new Alcatraz - a striking image if there ever was one, of a whole island emprisoned in its own tragedy. And he mentioned some of the calamities that has befallen Haiti in the past two hundred years since it became independant, from Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Cedras, Aristide, Voodoo to floods and now this earthquake.

Yes, it is the first country in Latin America to have proudly achieved independance from its colonial masters, but at what price! And unfortunately what has shaped its past is bound to determine its future. Of all the calamities that have befallen Haiti, surely one of the worst is the phenomenon known as the "Tonton Macoutes" - the local mafia -. And the Tonton Macoutes are bound to influence what is going to happen next. Over the medium-long run, i.e. one or two years from now, we may very well find Haiti has turned into another Somalia, a "non-state" lost in a turmoil of violence with no end in sight - instead of an integralist islamic nightmare like in Somalia, we will have a Voodoo hypnotized population in the hands of the Tonton Macoutes .

But in the immediate, there is something else that worries me. I'm convinced we are going to be treated to an absolute circus of human error as every humanitarian agency runs to the spot, in a perverse race to outdo the others in trying to be the first and best in offering aid.

And human error can be tragic.

We had an inkling of what's coming on CNN a couple of days ago. Something astonishing happened to one of their journalists, the famous field doctor Gupta. Remember him? He was offered the job of "Surgeon General" in the Obama government and turned it down, preferring no doubt his life as a reporter. He suddenly found himself in an impossible situation, alone with his crew in a field hospital in Port au Prince as the UN withdrew its doctor and nurses for "security reasons". Yet ambulances kept coming in, bringing the wounded to the deserted hospital! Gupta asked CNN for permission to stop transmitting and to be allowed to help as best he could with rapidly dwindling supplies of medecine left behind. I don't know what happened next to Gupta and I shall try to follow up on him today. But it does show the incredible stupidity of a bureaucratic set-up such as that of the UN.

So is the UN to blame? Unfortunately, Non-Governmental Organizations are hardly any better: they always try to attract media attention (a must for them if they are to survive because that is the only way they can obtain funding) - and attracting media attention is not really the objective of humanitarian aid, is it?

Some UN high official on TV (I don't remember who)ponderously announced that this would be the hardest humanitarian emergency to deal with - the hardest ever in UN history because all government structures had collapsed and entry routes were either blocked or hopelessly inadequate. That is surely a correct description of the situation but just about EVERY humanitarian emergency is like that! Local government structures collapse and help corridors are notoriously fragile and narrow...So why should Haiti be any different or harder to help than, say, the island of Aceh after the Tsunami? Was Aceh helped by the fact that it belonged to Indonesia? Hardly. It was politically a rebel, runaway area...Yet help did come, thanks in large part to international efforts, and today things in Aceh are looking up.

Why can't the same thing happen in Haiti?

There are basically two rather unrelated reasons why I fear things may turn out very different in Haiti and much more tragic.

First, the issue of AID COORDINATION. The image that comes to mind is the one I mentioned above: a narrow door jammed with people of good will, with the result that few get through. We all know Hell is paved with good intentions... Everyone is running to Haiti, Official Agencies and Non Governmentals of all sorts, and from all countries, primarily America and France, presumably for geo-political and historical reasons (Haiti was a French colony two hundred years ago).

WHY? WHY WASN'T THERE ANY INTERNATIONAL EFFORT AT COODINATING AID? Ok, the UN can lament the fact that this is a particularly difficult, confused situation but instead of lamentations, we would prefer to hear from the UN that it is ready to coordinate aid. What is needed desperately now is leadership to coordinate aid and avoid delays, overlaps and inefficient delivery of aid - not to mention the risk of running into ethical problems of giving too much to some while ignoring others.

I recall all the recent hype within the international community about "ONE United Nations", a series of ambitious overarching programmes and protocols to deliver support as one agency, in coordination with all UN agencies and their partners in civil society etc etc Fine, rousing words but where is the reality?

The reality is that when big countries like the USA or France loudly proclaim they are running to provide aid, the UN suddenly becomes MUTE!

Why?

When are we ever going to work together?

And now I'm coming to the second reason. In this mess, it is clear that Haiti has nowhere to go but collapse into violence. The Tonton Macoutes that had been (maybe) slowly coming under government control in recent years, are now ready to act again. The political void created by the earthquake is a golden opportunity for them.

So, as I said in opening this post, what we are going to witness next in Haiti is bound to be a most painful humanitarian circus...unless...

Unless the international community can PULL ITS ACT TOGETHER and provide well-coordinated aid in a stabilized environment. That ought to be the UN's job, but will America and France let it?
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