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8.08.2010

Whatever Happened in Haiti?

The Haitian National Palace (Presidential Pala...
Image via Wikipedia


Have you been wondering what's been happening in Haiti since the earthquake? I certainly have. It seems like a century has passed, yet it was only some six months ago, on 12 January 2010. Recently the press has been mum on the subject and focusses on the latest,  the floods in Pakistan - serious stuff, with 4 million displaced and 1500 killed - and the fires in Russia...

Well, almost mum except for an excellent comment in the International Herald Tribune (August 6) made by Joel Brinkley, a journalism professor at Stanford University with a long experience as foreign correspondent for the New York Times. The title is arresting: "Don't let Haitians help themselves" ! He argues rather convincingly that the Haitian authorities are hopeless and that nothing will ever be done if one waits for them to take things in hand. Not to mention endemic corruption. So he calls for donors to forge ahead without waiting for President Préval to make decisions. Otherwise nothing will change and Haiti will never be lifted out of poverty. Probably good advice considering that Mr. Préval's major concern seems to be to clear the presidential palace from the sea of ragged tents that surround it.

There is little doubt the problems were all there before the earthquake hit.  Haiti has been the basket case of America since its independence from the French in 1804. And the US occupation from 1919 to 1934 has solved none of the problems and never installed the basis for a democracy.  It's hard to bring help to a country that is suffering from everything in the book.  A continuously weak and corrupt government, often degenerating in dictatorship, like the Duvaliers', with Papa Doc and Baby Doc and their bands of Tonton Macoutes who terrorized the population. Extreme poverty with over seventy percent of the people surviving on less than US$ 2 a day. And land erosion, deforestation, pollution, poor health, lack of education and jobs,overcrowded and ill-serviced towns, buildings collapsing with the slightest tremor.Cité Soleil, with some 400,000 people squatting in it, is one of the largest and most dangerous slums in the Western hemisphere. Haiti has suffered more from HIV/AIDS than any other island in the Caribbean, with 6 percent of the population affected in 2001and had just managed to bring that down to 2 percent when the earthquake hit. Bad luck!

Haiti has been hit by bad luck continuously over the last 200 years. If it's not an earthquake, it's a hurricane. There's always something going wrong every year, the last major emergency (caused by hurricanes) dates back to 2008.

But there's a silver lining to every black cloud. In Haiti's case, it is the huge diaspora, proportionately one of the largest in the world. Some 9.7 million live - eke a living - on the island and another 3 million have fled abroad and send annual remittances that come close to 20% of GDP, a hefty sum. Without the Haitians living in the United States and elsewhere, the plight of the poor Haitians would be much, much worse.

The January earthquake was no picnic. Just a reminder of the stark numbers: 200,000 dead, 300,000 wounded and one million displaced. Since then, we've been treated, at least in the first three months, to the gratifying spectacle of the international community generously mobilizing all the help it could muster. Within days, the 20,000 troops dispatched by President Obama had restored operations at Port-au-Prince Airport , allowing in 150 flights daily, a key measure considering that the main port in Port-au-Prince had collapsed. There was just a small hitch when a cargo filled with medical supplies from Médecins Sans Frontières was turned back and had to land next door in Santo Domingo. But that was quickly righted, some say thanks to a Twitter avalanche of protest messages, and the US Air Force let the plane land an hour or two later. The explanation given was that security rather than aid was the priority, which I suppose is to be expected from the military.

In short, the aid channels were opened and functioned. More or less. One Red Cross official noted that the volume of goods imported was so large that "they cannot be used for months; meanwhile critical goods have no space to be imported". Celebrities vied with each other to get in and bring help that was or was not wanted - we all heard of the problems scientologists ran into when John Travolta led a mission in February.

So now, six months later, can we tell what really happened in Haiti? Have the flows of aid done any good? It's still too early to say , but an interesting report has just come out from ALNAP, an organization bringing together the best evaluation specialists from major aid organizations, such as the British DFID, Irish Aid, the Netherlands etc. as well as United Nations Agencies involved in emergency aid (the World Food Programme, UNICEF, FAO, UNHCR etc) and the International Red Cross. ALNAP stands for Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. You get the idea, these are serious people. The report is not a final evaluation, it's too soon for that. It's daintily labeled "a context analysis". What they've done is try to figure out what are the constraints to delivering aid and what data is important to keep track of in order to produce a definitive study on the results of aid. On the way, they've picked out some interesting tidbits of info that give some idea of where Haiti might be going.

To synthesize. First the good things. There was a generous rush to cancel Haiti's debt among the G-7 countries (Canada, US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Japan), the Inter-American Development Bank and Venezuela. And the response to financial appeals has been unprecedented, generally reported to have reached US$ 10 billion, a huge sum for Haiti.

Yes and no. Not that simple. It's true that the first call for funds was enormously successful. The original "flash appeal" of US$ 575 million within 3 days of the earthquake was entirely funded within a month.  Private donations have been remarkable, especially American charities that by March 16 had raised US$ 1 billion, with reportedly half of American households having donated something. On 31 March, at the International Donor Conference in New York, a total of US$ 9.9 billion was pledged in support of the Haitian Government's Action Plan for National Recovery, and following the conference, a multi-donor trust fund was established, co-chaired by Bill Clinton (as UN Special Envoy to Haiti) and the Haitian Prime Minister and administered by the World Bank.

But - there's always a but - much of the funds are simply PLEDGES, and they may never materialize. Just to give you an idea of what it means. So far, according to the OCHA Financial Tracking Service, as of June 20, a total of US$ 1.4 billion had been received by aid organizations, another 1.8 billion was in process and 1.2 billion pledged. That 1.2 billion might never turn up. Why? All that's needed is for another emergency to hit somewhere else and political attention on Haiti will evaporate like morning mist...

Now, how about the actual aid, how efficiently was it delivered? Mmmm, probably par for the course. The United Nations relied on its so-called "cluster" approach to ensure coordination between the various agencies and partner NGOs. This was the second time the cluster approach was used in Haiti, with specific domains of intervention entrusted to the most appropriate technical agency designated as "leader". For example, the logistics cluster is led by the World Food Programme, Agriculture by FAO and so on.

Did the cluster approach work? More or less. There was, according to the ALNAP report, a tendency to have lots and lots of coordination meetings - fine and good if everyone can come but apparently the smaller NGOs don't have the staff or logistics to attend and therefore find themselves excluded. This means coordination is confined to the UN system of technical agencies and the larger NGOs such as CARE and OXFAM. And, still according to ALNAP, not all clusters were able to respond at the same level of efficiency. Some were found to "lack capacity" to assess needs and develop coherent response strategies. Coordination was further impeded by "flag-raising among humanitarian organizations and donors wanting to highlight their individual contributions" (p.21). That, of course, is a classic scourge in the humanitarian aid community. For NGOs it's a matter of survival: they always raise a flag to keep donations coming in.

However, the most serious shortcoming in the cluster approach is the lack of accountability. Sure, a cluster "leader" is appointed - that's a nice title - but no mechanism has been set up to enable said leader to ensure his/her decisions are actually implemented. In the end, there's no one in charge and responsible for what's done in the field...and everyone works according to their own ideas, independently from each other. The only good thing is that, thanks to the cluster, each one is more aware than before of what the others are doing. Coordination meetings are actually no more than information meetings. 

Information and communication seem to have been a big success in the Haitian response. A new communication cluster was set up, termed "One Response" and for the first time every available Internet function was used: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype, i.e. used to inform and to raise funds. However, the good old-fashioned radio still covered half the communication needs and there were difficulties raised in connection with language: too much in English and French, not enough in Creole.

All this doesn't tell us whether anything useful was achieved on the ground. It is clear that the response was immensely successful in preventing the spread of major diseases, like cholera and diarrhea. But what about economic recovery and return to normalcy? Immediate major issues are managing debris, clearing canals and settlements. Some strategies seem to be particularly effective, for example the cash-for-work initiatives launched by UNDP, the Haitian Ministry for Water and Sanitation and a couple of muncipalities (Jacmel and Leogane). They have succeded in putting thousands of Haitians to work to clear the debris and, as noted by ALNAP, injected "much needed cash in the economy" (p.32). Also claims of violence and looting in the aftermath of the earthquake seem to have been exaggerated in the media, and the national police quickly reported back to work, benefitting from UN support. However, all is not well and concerns about child protection and trafficking are now emerging: more than 100,000 children are recorded "without protection" according to UNICEF.

Does the future look glum? It rather does. The response effort has been constrained by the lack of coordination and communication with the local authorities. Haiti is a notorious "failed state", and has always been. Consequently, there is a tendency among humanitarian agents to replace government authorities rather than try to rebuild and restore the government's authority - replacing local authorities is always what one does in so-called "complex emergencies" when a disaster has swept away the affected country's government. It is completely justified when it means saving human lives. Here, in Haiti, that first stage is over. So there ought to be a real concern for strengthening Haiti's system of government, and nudge it away from corruption and banditry into something more democratically responsible. To install a real democracy can't be done overnight, but helping to choose an effective Haitian political leader might be possible.

But I don't get the impression that anyone is worried about that or ready to do something constructive...Politics in Haiti? They stink...

And as long as they do, Haiti will never climb out of the hole it has fallen in. You do realize what I'm saying, don't you?  I'm not suggesting that we should introduce democratic reforms in Haiti - that would be ingenuous. Democracy the way we understand it doesn't work in that kind of country. What's needed is what the 18th century French called a "despote éclairé" - a strongman with enlightened ideas, someone able to change over the country and modernize it. Just like Kemal Atatürk did for Turkey.

What Haiti needs is its own Ataturk!


Here is the link to the report I mentioned:
ALNAP, Haiti Earthquake Response, July 2010
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8.01.2010

Tricks in Cooking - for a superb Melanzane alla Parmigiana

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm convinced that cooking METHODS are far more important than actual recipes if you want to be known among your friends as a "good cook". And unfortunately, most cookbooks don't give you the tricks of the trade. No, that's not quite right: some cookbooks do, but they rarely tell you everything. There are cooking secrets so well kept that they never, ever surface anywhere!

That's the case with melanzane alla parmigiana, a cheese and eggplant dish that is a classic of Italian cuisine. In most restaurants, it's a disaster. Lukewarm, oily, swimming in old tomato sauce with gooey cheese that gets stuck in your teeth. Actually the cheese - usually slices of mozarella - tastes of nothing at all. And that yellow and black stuff in the middle, that feels like a greasy sponge, is (presumably) eggplant. Poor eggplant...

Once, a long time ago, in a small trattoria in the countryside near Naples, I had a superb melanzane alla parmigiana. Nothing was oily or tasteless about it, the eggplant had an amazingly light texture, almost like a soufflé, the cheese was flavourful, the tomato fresh. It was made in heaven!

It took me all of twenty years to figure out how that was done. I've asked Italian friends, I've tried every possible variant. And I kept running into the same problems: too much oil was absorbed by the eggplant when I fried it, too much water oozed out of the mozzarella while it cooked in the oven, the tomato sauce was either flat-tasting or overwhelming. I tried grilling the eggplant instead of frying it, on the theory that it wouldn't - by definition - absorb any oil and that it would be good for you. A light diet and all that. Well, let me tell you, using grilled eggplant slices is a sorry substitute. The slices go dry on you as they grill away,and there's not a chance you'll ever get that fluffy wonder that makes all the difference.

So here is how to do it and get super results (in my humble opinion):

Ingredients for 4 persons:

One very large eggplant or 2 medium
A cupful of tomatoes very red and ripe
150 g mozzarella cheese
150 g grated parmigiano cheese or more - to taste
basil leaves
salt and pepper as needed

Olive oil to fry the eggplants - enough for deep-frying, exactly as for French fries


Method

Turn the oven high - on 6 or whatever heat you use to roast a chicken.

Get your ingredients ready:
1. To prepare the eggplant: peal away most of the skin leaving only a few strips then cut it in thick slices and lay on a reclining dish; sprinkle with salt and let it ooze out for about 30 minutes (this serves to get rid of the bitter taste some eggplants may have);

2. To prepare the tomatoes: the tastiest are the cherry tomatoes which you can cut up in very small pieces (at least 4 pieces out of each cherry tomato); alternatively, drop very red, ripened tomatoes in boiling water for one minute, pull out once the skin has broken, cool under cold water and peel them, breaking them up in pieces; in both cases, set the tomatoes aside in a bowl with salt, pepper and basil leaves to flavour them;

3.To prepare the mozzarella cheese, slice it and squeeze it to get most of the water out; don't worry if it breaks up, it doesn't matter; set it to drip dry in a colander;

4. Now for the most difficult part of the recipe. Heat olive oil in a big pot; make sure there's enough oil to cover the eggplant slices abundantly. I always use olive oil for frying, it's better for your health, it doesn't burn so easily and you can use it again at least once (if you haven't allowed it to burn!), AND it leaves a nice taste in your mouth - indispensable for Italian food.
Dry the eggplant with a paper towel and quickly roll the slices in flour: the flouring will create a thin protective crust once the eggplant hits the boiling oil and thus prevent it from absorbing too much oil (if you ever try to fry eggplant without flouring first, you'll see what happens, they become soggy with oil). So, once the oil is really hot (but not smoking!), shake off any extra flour and drop the eggplant slices one by one. Now you have to stay over your boiling oil with a spatula or some such to turn the slices and make sure they cook evenly to a golden colour; lift them out to dry on a paper towel.

5. Last step in the recipe but the most important one: putting it all together in a pyrex dish to go in the oven. This is where it is easy to make mistakes: it has to be done in a certain way and that's what makes the difference. Let me be very clear:
a. Start with a layer of eggplant slices and set some tomatoes around them, making sure you're lifting the tomatoes out of the juice they've spewed out, and if needed, squeezing them as dry as you can (you don't want extra liquid here!).
b. Over the slices sprinkle generously grated parmigiano cheese - because, remember, it's in the name: even though you have mozzarella in the recipe, it's the parmigiano that does it!
c. Then slices (or pieces) of mozzarella equally wrung out dry and make sure to top them with parmigiano cheese; add pepper to taste (no salt is needed because the parmigiano is salty);
d. Start again with a, b, c - you  need at least two layers like this and better still if you can make three. Top it off with the remaining tomatoes and basil leaves. If they fall on the side, it doesn't matter.

Put 20 minutes in the oven (middle rack), until the cheese is soft and the parmigiano on top has turned slightly golden. Wait for it to cool down before serving. It tastes better when it's not too hot.

Do let me know how it worked for you!

7.25.2010

China? A Planet within our Planet

National emblem of the People's Republic of ChinaImage via Wikipedia
Lately there's been an avalanche of news about China, ranging from the best to the worst. Fantastic skyscrapers and olympic shows to floods, strikes and police massacres of Tibetans and Uyghurs. Not to mention tussles with neighbours, in particular Taiwan (the "special relations") and Vietnam (over the Paracels islands).
 
But China is also a trade giant, credited by some with saving the world from the Great Recession. 

A Gentle Giant.

Really?


I'ts becoming increasingly evident that China doesn't need the rest of the world. It grows fast - exponentially fast with little help from outside. And whatever technology it needs, it can buy. Chinese used to go abroad to get it - no more. Now they import from the West whatever brainpower they need. And unlike the Western Capitalist Model, the key agent for change is not business but the government.


It's in the process of becoming a planet within our planet.


Just one example among many: in 2009, sales of digital content in China reached $1bn and they are growing at an estimated 40% annually. Predictably, the Chinese authorities are paying attention: in 2010, the largest state-sponsored publishing conglomerate, China Publishing Group, launched Digital Media Co. Ltd., a new digital media subsidiary. To understand just how amazing this is, imagine the US Federal Government moving into the new roaring e-book market and setting out to compete with Amazon.com!


Where does that leave us? Are we going to be overrun by the Chinese? Their goods flood our markets and in some areas, like solar energy, they are holding (literally) the winning chips, because the needed material is mined almost exclusively in China. By end 2010, China is expected to produce two-third's of the world's solar panels. And, although not as good, they're half the price of the Germans. It's a price war - not a technical one, and the Chinese tend to win every time, here and elsewhere. The world is awash with shoddy Chinese stuff...


Should we worry? There is a sense of déjà vu - when Japan surged forward after World War II, they flooded us with cheap goods and kept their own market closed. Just like China today. But, remember, nothing disastrous resulted from the Japanese Tsunami. We got used to it, they improved quality, and a new equilibrium was reached.


China however is a HUGE market and every businessman worth his salt is salivating to get in. Some do, but it's difficult. Google famously clashed with the authorites and  has learned its lesson. Today it's way behind the Chinese-owned search engine Baidu. And eBay has been driven out by Dangdang and Zhuoyue. It would seem that Western businesses who wish to enter the Chinese market need a Chinese partner. And must learn to toe the political line. That's how GM has managed to sell more cars in China than in the US. It has a dormant partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry. Unfortunately, dormant partners have a way of waking up as soon as they learn the ropes. They become rivals, and Shanghai Automotive plans to enter the Indian market alone...


The upshot? The Chinese are big and getting bigger. Are they going to be tempted to control the world? I know a lot of people worry. My mother who's 96 is convinced the the 21st Century will be Chinese. She has this old-fashioned vision of yellow hordes galloping across Europe, Genghis Khan-style.


Not quite. The Chinese are busy at home growing and don't need anybody. Again, one example among many, going back to the one reported in Publishing Perspectives (July 22, 2010). The consensus in the industry is that few if any Chinese publishers would ever think of going abroad because of the immense opportunities at home. Essentially because there's no need to venture outside to become a success.


It's like saying China is so big it doesn't need anybody. We can all agree it's not like Queen Victoria's England that needed Trade (and War) to build the British Empire, giving us the unique spectacle of a tiny island that "ruled the waves". China is not a bit like that. It's a continent and has no interest in ruling the waves. And never had. This is the country that invented the compass in the 4th century BC but never used it to sail any further than the China South Seas. 


Mmmmm...maybe. Do you agree? I have to admit I'm only half-convinced myself. Actually, I'm constantly on the look-out for signs of Chinese...imperialism. By that I mean a political desire to impose their own ideology on the rest of the world. For the time being, the Chinese Brand of communism sounds pretty bland. I just hope it stays that way...


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7.12.2010

The World Cup 2010 - Political fallouts

So the suspense is over, SPAIN won, the NETHERLANDS lost and it all happened at the very tail end of the game - the 116th minute to be precise. Spain won with just one goal. Big deal! I'm no expert in soccer, but it seems to me that a game that has to drag fully 16 minutes beyond the "normal" 90 minutes had to be pretty close to a draw. I bet people who watched wondered whether anybody would ever score!

But what really drew my attention was not the game in itself - and I'll readily admit soccer watching is a lot of fun, it's a spectacular game - no, what drew my attention were the comments made by everybody, CNN, BBC, France 24, the big papers like the New York Times and Herald Tribune etc. You'd think this was all about sport and nothing else, but no, it's serious stuff, it's about POLITICS and NATION-BUILDING!

There is an enduring notion that Sport can bring Good to the world. Mandela 15 years ago, during the African Nations Cup soccer event, said "sport has the power to change the world...It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair." That of course echoes the philosophy of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic Games.

Bringing The World Cup to South Africa was seen by FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter as a special mission. "Football for hope", he called it and the South African President, Jacob Zuma, called business leaders for "billions of dollars to these shores for investment". At the opening, "we are all Africans!" screamed Tutu. While the South African team lost right away, Ghana saved the honour of African soccer and sowed the promise of future victories for Africans. But above all, South Africa came out as the political winner: now always invited to G8 meetings, it belongs to the restricted club of BIG Emergers ( the original BRICs plus a dozen others). South Africa is the Next Big Country and the hope is that sport will help heal the rift between the poor and the rich.

I have my doubts but then who's got a crystal ball? I don't and I'd be more than willing to hope that such an event - terribly expensive for the home country who has to foot the bill - does go towards something more useful than just kicking a ball around. The last Olympic Games certainly didn't help Greece and indeed, contributed to making its debt crisis well-nigh intractable...But let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that South Africa will not run into the same kind of problems.

But the hype doesn't stop there. Yesterday we were awash on all TV channels with the spectacle of hundreds of thousands Spaniards chanting in the streets of Madrid all night long, waving the red and yellow Spanish flag like a trophy. Their happiness was a Tsunami. While the Dutch sadly walked home in silence - it was nothing less than a national funeral.

Doesn't that strike you as extraordinary in this day and age? We are all Europeans, aren't we? Spain and the Netherlands both belong to the European Union - yet, when one scores a victory against the other in a GAME, for goodness'sake, people in the street turn it into a national victory as if a war had been won.

Can you imagine the same spectacle in America? Suppose a Florida team (that's a little like Spain, the Sunshine State) beats Rhode Island (a little like the Netherlands with its maritime past) , what do you think would happen?

Nothing? Yes, nothing.

Ah, poor Europeans - when will they ever grow up?
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