If the Euro Crashes, so will the European Union!

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the EurozoneImage via Wikipedia
The British and other European Union members who don't belong to the Euro-zone are gloating these days: they've escaped the fate of the silly Euro! Little do they realize that if the Euro crashes, so will the European Union, including Britain and all the other gloaters...

The Euro is the end product of the European Union dream: if it goes down, so will the rest. And Britain will find itself belonging to a Europe that is likely to be run-down and depressed for a very long time: hardly a good platform to work from on the international scene!

If you don't believe me, read Krugman's major magazine article in the New York Times on the subject: he's just come out with an extraordinarily clear and pointed analysis of the Euro - a must read! Here's the link:

He makes several major points (many of which for those of us who live in Europe are quite familiar):

- the Eurozone is an INCOMPLETE monetary union (read: no fiscal integration, no over-riding Federal structures like those that govern the dollar zone: the Federal Reserve system and the US Treasury); as a consequence, there is NO TRANSFER of shock waves across the union. To put it more clearly as Krugman did in his example comparing Nevada and Ireland (two states with similar problems): Nevada will recover sooner and with less trauma than Ireland precisely because it doesn't have to save its banking system like the Irish do, or cut back on its pensions. Washington will see to that. As to labour moving out in search of jobs elsewhere in the union, that is the one thing the two states have in common. And a lot of Irish are emigrating while many of those who had come to Ireland during the good times have already left.

- internal deflation is the only way Euro zone members can tackle their deficit: that is the policy currently pursued in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. And it is something that entails tremendous sacrifices and costs to the citizens.

- currency devaluation is not an option for Euro-zone members; but as the amount of the public debt cannot be devalued/deflated, it means that the deficit problem remains whole, no matter how much you tighten your belt.

Krugman offers four possible scenarios for the future: toughing it out; debt restructuring; full Argentina; and revived Europeanism.  Here they are in his own words (in italics):

(1) Toughing it out: Troubled European economies could, conceivably, reassure creditors by showing sufficient willingness to endure pain and thereby avoid either default or devaluation. The role models here are the Baltic nations: Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. These countries are small and poor by European standards; they want very badly to gain the long-term advantages they believe will accrue from joining the euro and becoming part of a greater Europe. And so they have been willing to endure very harsh fiscal austerity while wages gradually come down in the hope of restoring competitiveness — a process known in Eurospeak as “internal devaluation.” 

Does it work? Yes, but at a very high cost, both economic and political. I don't think other European countries, such as Greece, will endure it.

(2) Debt restructuring: At the time of writing, Irish 10-year bonds were yielding about 9 percent, while Greek 10-years were yielding 12½ percent. At the same time, German 10-years — which, like Irish and Greek bonds, are denominated in euros — were yielding less than 3 percent. The message from the markets was clear: investors don’t expect Greece and Ireland to pay their debts in full. They are, in other words, expecting some kind of debt restructuring, like the restructuring that reduced Argentina’s debt by two-thirds.
In Krugman's view, this would work - and is probably inevitable in the case of Greece and Ireland - but it wouldn't avoid the pains of deflation but, as he put it:  debt restructuring could bring the vicious circle of falling confidence and rising interest costs to an end, potentially making internal devaluation a workable if brutal strategy. 

(3) Full Argentina: Argentina didn’t simply default on its foreign debt; it also abandoned its link to the dollar, allowing the peso’s value to fall by more than two-thirds. And this devaluation worked: from 2003 onward, Argentina experienced a rapid export-led economic rebound. 

As Krugman points out, the one European country that was able to pull it off successfully was Iceland - but then, it could devalue since it isn't part of the Euro-zone. Can a Euro-zone member do it? No. As Krugman put it: any euro-zone country that even hinted at leaving the currency would trigger a devastating run on its banks, as depositors rushed to move their funds to safer locales. In short, in the words of Professor Eichengreen,  this “procedural” obstacle to exit made the euro irreversible. But, argues Krugman, Argentina's link to the dollar was also supposed to be irreversible, yet it did it.

Frankly, I think that is Krugman's weakest argument. The fact that it is theoretically possible - anything is - doesn't mean it will happen. There is simpy NO WAY Euro-zone members can pull out and return to their national currencies: the disruption to the national banking and commercial system would be so catastrophic that it is unthinkable. And this is an important point: Germany, Europe's locomotive, the one that has seen its GDP grow last year and a recovery in employment thanks to stellar exports, would be the nation that would suffer the most: after all, the Euro was modelled after the Deutsche Mark and Germany gained from the Euro more than anyone else. It also stands to lose more than anyone else.

(4) Revived Europeanism: The preceding three scenarios were grim. Is there any hope of an outcome less grim? To the extent that there is, it would have to involve taking further major steps toward that “European federation” Robert Schuman wanted 60 years ago.

And Krugman recalls here the suggestion made last month by Juncker and Tremonti to float Euro-bonds. It would indeed be a "step in the right direction" but Germany is having none of it. As Krugman put it: the Germans are adamant that Europe must not become a “transfer union,” in which stronger governments and nations routinely provide aid to weaker. Indeed, Germany, of late, has gone into a Deutschland Uber Alles mode and they don't want to give up any bit of their fiscal and other sovereignty in the name of Europe. Of course, joint European bonds would require a management structure and that would mean coming too close for comfort to the concept of a federal treasury.

The way out? None for the moment. Scenario n. 1 is the on-going one, and moving to scenario n.4 seems, for the time being, highly unlikely.

But let's try to gaze into the future using Krugman's plotlines. Scenario n. 2 - debt restructuring - is in the cards: it is the natural outcome of scenatio n. 1 - toughing it out -. Sooner or later, countries living through bouts of high social tension as disgruntled citizens take to the streets, will have to bend back and restructure their debt.

Once that happens, will anybody move out of the Euro? No, too disruptive.

So what will happen? I would bet on devaluation. There is no escaping it: if the sovereign debt of several Euro-zone members is restructured, then the Euro will necessarily lose value. Not perhaps a lot, particularly if the stronger Euro-zone members pull their act together (read: France and Germany) and realize that it is in their interest to guide the Euro towards a soft landing.

But a devalued Euro it will be. In spite of what anyone says about the joys of having a strong currency, in this case it would be a manna: it would help exports and revive employment. Germany would of course stand to gain most since it is the biggest exporter (50 percent of its exports go outside the Euro-zone). And surely it could afford the "transfer" aspects of a full monetary union.

But when will the Germans ever understand that it is in their interest? Soon, I hope... 

Enhanced by Zemanta


HAITI: A Year Later and Still So Much to Do...But One Clever Project is Completed!

Port-au-Prince's old Iron Market in ruinsOld Iron Market in ruins after earthquakeImage by NewsHour via Flickr
A year later, after the terrible earthquake that killed 220,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless, over 700,000 people are still living in tents, many with no access to clean water - which means they have little or no defense against the on-going cholera epidemic which has already claimed 3600 lives. And women living in tents find themselves the constant target of sexual assaults. Every day, at least two women report being raped but the victims are probably many more as this is the kind of crime that is classically under-reported.

Only five percent of the rubble has been removed...You read that right: FIVE percent! You'd think that was the first thing that would have been done with the billions of aid pouring in. $500 billions were pledged and so far only some $6 billion have turned up. Where has the money gone? But it should come as no surprise in a situation where there is a continuing political vacuum and corruption is rampant.

International NGOs present on the ground, from Médecins sans Frontières to the Order of Malta, are doing their best to contain cholera while the United Nations is fighting an image of the Big Bad Boy who has brought cholera to Haiti (apparently the doing of Nepali soldiers - an investigation is on-going).

But not all is dire and catastrophic. An Irish billionaire, Denis O'Brien,  has managed one extraordinary project in less than a year with the help of famous British architect John McAslan: the restoration of Port-au-Prince's historic "marché en fer" or iron market. A bizarre but enchanting iron contraption - a little like the Eiffel tower - built in France and meant as a train station for Cairo, it unaccountably ended up in Haiti. It was a lively trade centre in spite of its horrendous run-down condition, but the earthquake brought it down flat. That did not discourage Mr. O'Brien who spent $12 million of his own money on the renovation (he has deep pockets: his company, Digicel, dominates the Haitian cell phone market).

The result is astonishing: rebuilt to the latest specifications, with solar panels and earthquake-resistant structures, it is not just a simple restoration of a landmark meant to please Bill Clinton, who, as the UN's special envoy in Haiti, would  like to see Haiti "built back better". It is a working project meant to allow vendors and small traders (mostly women) to push their wares and make a living, reviving at the same time agriculture and artisanal activities. In short, it has multiplier effects or, if you prefer the term, back links to other economic sectors, precisely the sort of thing you need to revive an economy.

But it has one more thing that makes it a truly interesting and innovative project: Mr. O'Brien has also signed on to help the management of the market for the next 50 years. That's very important because that's precisely where most projects - however excellent and useful - come crashing down. While they're on-going, there's always a management structure of some sort (the World Bank loves to set them up to ensure their projects are successfully brought to completion). But after a few years - at most, two or three - the project is "handed over" to the locals and the management structure is dismantled. With usually disastrous results, as corruption and laxness kick in. The idea of setting up a management structure for 50 years to ensure the project's sustainability is a truly bold initiative, and to be highly commended.

Hopefully, Mr. O'Brien's management model for the iron market will be self-perpetuating beyond the 50 years he envisages - and for that to happen, he should make sure that the management structure he's setting up will draw in some locals: if Haitians are not directly involved in the management of their market, then it will collapse again. Ok, it'll happen 50 years later, and that's a gain on run-of-the-mill projects, but it will still collapse...

Enhanced by Zemanta


Gun Control in America: an almost Taboo Subject in spite of Rep. Giffords Tragic Shooting!

National Rifle AssociationImage via Wikipedia

Three days after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Dem) was shot, and six innocent bystanders along with her, including a Federal judge and a 9 year old girl, the reactions in America have all been about the "terrible" political climate that has supposedly promoted this kind of violence.

A climate in which Ms. Palin played no small role with her map of 20 House politicians adverse to the Tea Party and that needed to be targetted - the map, published on her Facebook page, unfortunately bearing crosshairs like gun sights.

Does it all come down to a climate of hate and one unbalanced young man?

May be.

What is absolutely astounding is that virtually no one in the media is raising the issue of gun control. With one notable exception: New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins  Click the link and read it: a very courageous bid for more gun control. You'll see however that even Ms. Collins is careful about where she treads. She'd like to see Glocks banned - because they're not for hunting or self-defense: they're deadly weapons for straight out killing and nothing else - . But there's not a word about banning regular pistols... True, there are a few lone voices in the blogosphere, especially in politico.com. And maybe one House member is ready to introduce some new gun legislation. Let's see how serious Capitol Hill is about gun control... The fact remains that the NRA remains the strongest lobby in the land and no one dares stand up to it.

Carrying a gun around remains one fundamental, untouchable right of every American citizen worth his salt.

So, in future, expect many more political killings with lots of Glock-murdered innocent bystanders...And forget all that self-righteous talk about a "climate of hate": that's just icing on the cake.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Violence in America: Why its Political Class Bears the Brunt

Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic nominee and gen...Image via Wikipedia
Everything in the USA tends to be bigger than elsewhere in the developed world, from skyscrapers to violence. The recent shooting in Arizona of  Democrat Rep, Gabrielle Giffords, that left her clinging to life - the bullet travelled through her brain - and killed six people, including a child (9 years old) and a Federal judge, is a case in point.

The blogosphere and the media immediately went a-twitter: this was so much better than Wikileaks! Of course, Arizona is a state awash with anti-immigrant and anti-government passions, so assigning the blame to the political right was a no-brainer. The fact that she's a pretty, 40 year-old woman, wife of an astronaut and Navy captain, added to the unholy glitter of the news.

Politicians jumped on the bandwagon of comments: starting with the local county sherif (a Democrat) raging about "the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country", a direct result, as he saw it, of Republican Tea Party rants against the government, all the way to President Obama who immediately condemned the shooting and said "we're going to get to the bottom of this and we're going to get through with this".

The bottom seems to be rather shallow: for the moment, the culprit, already arrested, is an unbalanced young man who'd been putting threatening messages on YouTube. But he might have had an accomplice and things could get more complicated. Local law enforcement authoricities believe Giffords was specifically targetted.

Reactions in the political world in Washington have been fairly uniform. Beyond expressions of sorrow, Democrats have fairly uniformly pointed the finger to "inflammatory rethoric that incites political violence". Republicans have vigorously denied the accusation but some among them have admitted that it amounts to a "cautionary tale".

Cautionaury? Indeed! We're back to the usual formula: violence + politics= social unrest. By the way, that's a formula you can read both ways: from left to right and from right to left. Definitely America is going through a very, very difficult period. The Great Recession is hardly over, unemployment has given no sign of improvement for the last 19 months. Even the news that unemployment went from 9.8% to 9.4% last month didn't bring smiles on anyone's lips, since it was clearly not near enough to solve the problem. Economists and various other pundits had hoped for the creation of 200,000 new jobs when in fact (depending on how you crunch the statistics) probably some 50,000 were created - way below what's needed just to mop up the people who've been laid off in the past 6 months. And let's not talk about the chances of the thousands of new, young college graduates out there, trying to land their first job...

From our standpoint in Europe, it is always surprising to see how violent America gets. One can sympathize with the glum climate in the US - things are not any better on this side of the Atlantic: indeed, on the unemployment front, especially in Southern Europe, they are much worse. Unemployment can reach 40, even 50 percent among certain segments of the population, particularly the young. And the kind of job on offer, mostly in services (like for example, call centres or washing dishes) are definite downers, especially for the hopeful young with a university degree.

But political violence in Europe tends to be expressed in street protests and near-riots, burning cars and breaking up shop windows, rather than political killings like in the US.We all remember the ghastly and spectacular shooting of President Kennedy in 1963. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that only Democrats get shot. President Reagan was also subject to attack. It's just that America is a trigger-happy country, all the more so that it is the only democracy in the world with such liberal gun laws.

How about considering a tightening of gun laws? I'd love to know how my American readers feel about this. That issue so far, in the first hours and days following the shooting, remarkably, has hardly come up, either in official comments, the media or the blogosphere. With a rare exception, like Keith Olbermann who aired a special session on TV to condemn "violence in democracy" and called on Americans to "put their guns down". While a highly commendable stand, it is still clearly rethorical. What is needed is a call to legislative action to curb the reach of the gun laws. If anyone has made that call, I haven't seen it. Please tell me I'm wrong and that the issue IS coming up!

Interestingly enough, Gabrielle Giffords, like most Americans, was not in favour of cutting back on the gun laws. For some unfathomable reason, Americans see toting a gun around as part of their fundamental citizen rights. If she ever recovers from her wounds and makes it back in political life (something I fervently wish for her sake), I wonder how she'll feel about her country's gun laws...
Enhanced by Zemanta


Christians Crucified Everywhere in the Muslim World...Except in Turkey!

Logo Muslim BrotherhoodLogo Muslim BrotherhoodImage via Wikipedia

A powerful bomb exploded in front of a Christian Coptic Church in Egypt, killing 21 and wounding nearly 100 of the faithful who were attending New Year's mass. When, on the following day, the Pope in Rome called for world leaders to protect Christians, he immediately drew criticism from the Great Imam of Egypt. The Pope's call, he said, was tantamout to interference in internal Egyptian affairs...

Internal affairs? Since when killing religious minorities is an "internal affair"? Of course, killing people from other faiths has been a regular activity in the Middle East since earliest times - starting with the Hashashin sect in the 11th and 12th century, that fought other Muslims for political power and Christians for religious reasons.

In case you're wondering why all this hatred was exploding back then... remember? That was the time of the first Crusade. Christ's teaching of tolerance and forgiveness had already been forgotten by Christians then, and now it is ignored by everybody!

In other words, religion and politics was intimately meshed in the Middle East back then, and it still is today, a thousand years later. So, indeed, one may speak of "internal affairs" insofar as the killings are political.

Who's behind these killings? The biggest fundamentalist group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has condemned the bombing. So the mostly likely culprit is, as always, Al Qaeda. The Hashashins pale by comparison. We all remember the ruthless killing of Christians in Baghdad on 31 October 2010. The virtual cancellation of Christian observances in Iraq has been an immediate result. More than 50 innocent lives were sacrificed to the altar of Religious Hatred - undoubtedly one of the strongest and deadliest of human emotions.

More and more Christians are fleeing Muslim countries. Because it's not just Iraq that is "bleeding" Christians, but also Pakistan and even India. Things are getting really bad of late in Pakistan, with the assassination of Mr. Taseer, Punjab's governor, by one of his bodyguards while the others looked on without lifting a finger (in fact four of them are in custody in addition to the murderer). Here was a man with liberal ideas, in favour of pardoning a Christian woman condemned to death under Pakistan's infamous "blasphemy law". He was killed by a religious fanatic precisely because he showed religious tolerance. His funeral was shunned by top Pakistani politicians, including President Zardari who was Taseer's friend. And of course, Muslim leaders all over Pakistan (who are all supporting the blasphemy law) have told their followers not to attend the funeral nor pray for Mr. Taseer. Religious fury knows no bounds...

And, alas, it is not certain that Christian refugees in the West can fully escape Al Qaeda. There have been reports that Al Qaeda has made a list of Christian Copts they want to eliminate: 200 in Canada and 15 in Austria and in other countries too: Germany, the Netherlands... What is remarkable is that some people on this list are Copts who have become Canadian or Austrian citizens and have left Egypt many decades ago! That's how far religious hatred will go...

So what about human rights? Where does the humanitarian community stand on this? Well...at least, it always makes the right sounds. Following the killing in Egypt, President Obama has condemned it as a "heinous and barbaric act" and asked that the culprits be brought to justice. The Pope has called for all religious leaders in the world to meet together at Assisi next October in a "summit to discuss how they can promote "world peace"  - a repeat of the event Pope John Paul II held 25 years ago (with unfortunately, precious little results as the current outburst in religious violence seems to indicate). The press on both sides of the Atlantic, from the New York Times to La Stampa in Italy have loudly and rightfully condemned it and mused on about how religious minorities are increasingly "pushed out" and the Muslim world is becoming "homogenized". That's a nice way of saying that religious intolerance is exploding...

Against this sombre backdrop of religious violence, Turkey stands out as a haven of tolerance. On Monday 3 January, There was an official visit to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul by the number two man in the Erdogan government, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Mr. Arinc’s visit reportedly coincided with government promises to consider reopening an Orthodox seminary and returning properties confiscated by the state to Christian and Jewish minorities. Consider that no Turkish government official had ever paid such a visit in the past five decades, even when the government was in the hands of a secular party. Yet Mr. Erdogan is notoriously known as a non-secular, Muslim leader with a wife who always keeps a head scarf.  

This heralds a sea change in that big country on the doorstep of Europe (77 million people), a country with a huge Muslim majority (97% of the population) in spite of its Ata-Turk induced secular tendencies. But I believe Ata-Turk, the father of the Turkish Republic established in 1923, may have had less to do with this than older memories - those of the Ottoman Empire that was famously tolerant of the religious minorities within its borders, when the Empire was one of the biggest in the world, covering three continents. Indeed, Turkey seems to follow in the footsteps of this glorious past in its expanding presence in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, and more precisely in Northern Iraq where it has established good commercial relations with the local Kurds. Of the 700 foreign businesses established there, more than half are Turkish...And the Turks are busy building roads to Iraq and opening Turkish schools.

Yes, there does seem to be a silver lining on the horizon, and, surprisingly, it is Turkish!  

Enhanced by Zemanta


WikiLeaks Drip, Drip, Drip...For How Long?

Julian AssangeJulian Assange Image by Poster Boy NYC via Flickr
WikiLeaks is like a dripping faucet on the international political scene, creating puddles and craters everwhere, much to the dismay of most politicians and the glee of a few, like Putin. He'd like to see Mr. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, get the Nobel Prize! And the French newspaper Le Monde has named him Man of the Year.

That's pushing it a bit, and it doesn't recognize the damage done - and the numerous people who are losing their job or seeing their career collapse. There is no question that WikiLeaks should have redacted names more carefully. Most unprofessional. There is a rising tide against Assange and he knows it. The US government is trying to build up a case against him and they may get him yet.

There's also been an over-reaction in the financial world - from PayPal to Switzerland - closing down the avenues to support Assange in his self-appointed "crusade". On the other hand, the publishing industry, eager to publish his memoirs, thinks differently. Actually, there'll always be somebody who thinks differently and who'll support Assange. There are even people in America supporting Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who copied the diplomatic cables, passed them on to Assange and got arrested (so far with $ 100,000 for his legal expenses).

Assange's first counter move has been to sell his memoirs (quite a coup considering he's only 39) for the remarkable sum of $1.3 million or 1.5 million (it's not clear how much, but quite a lot anyway) to, inter aliaAlfred A. Knopf, the American publisher. The memoirs are set to come out in March 2011. Before they do, one of his former colleagues, Daniel Domscheit-Berg is coming out with his own version of what it's like to work at WikiLeaks. Since he's left WikiLeaks and is disenchanted with Assange, we're in for some interesting "memoirs" next year...

Incidentally, what Assange got is the kind of advance any debut writer would dream of! To think that the publishing industry, pretexting the onslought of e-readers and digital books, speaks of reducing advances to all writers, especially start-ups. Of course, Assange is no start-up and he's built for himself quite a "platform" - that's the publishing industry jargon for a person's following, guaranteeing that his book will be sold. And he's going to need the money to defend himself once the Justice Department gets ready to attack.

That they will attack is understandable: the biggest victims are the Americans. Nobody in his right mind will ever want to talk again to an American diplomat, and that diffidence around the world is likely to last a very long time...

How long? Probably a generation. Take note Mrs. Clinton!

What is truly astounding is how silly the State Department - Foggy Bottom as American diplomats affectionately call it - has been over the matter of protecting the privacy of its diplomatic communications. To entrust all their cables to Pentagon protection is surprising - since when do diplomats trust the military? Worse, to send confidential stuff over the Internet when everybody knows that it's next to impossible to keep things secret out there, in the ether, is an astonishing display of ingenuity. Leaks just had to happen sooner or later, WikiLeaks notwithstanding.

In the past, diplomats used to entrust their confidential reports to the good old diplomatic pouch that travelled back to the capital with one or two bodyguards to ensure safety. Over the centuries, that's what diplomats have always done. In this day and age of media, technology and instant news around the world, there is NO single diplomatic communication that needs to be sent over in "real time".There's no rush, and why should there be?

Think of the nature of diplomatic work. Diplomatic reports are the careful distillation of what diplomats learn of a situation over time, from local journalists, politicians and businessmen, in short all kinds of people they meet in the course of their diplomatic activities (read: round of national day receptions, official celebrations, dinner parties with the locals etc). A diplomatic report is rarely if ever "front-line news": that's the job of reporters working for Reuters, AP and the like. What a good diplomatic report adds to the news that you and I read is the man's experience of the local situation and his knowledge of international relations. That's the diplomat's comparative advantage with respect to reporters and journalists. An ambassador is a man, with the help of his team (from young attachés to counsellors and ministers), who can ponder the situation, distinguish between the good, the bad and the irrelevant and give his government a balanced, well thought-out view that helps in shaping foreign policy.

So there's absolutely no need to cable. Most reports could be sent via the diplomatic pouch and reach the State Department in 12 hours from just about anywhere in the world. For the few urgent communications, there's always the telephone with a good encrypted programme to discourage unwanted listeners...

But even if American diplomacy returns to using well-tried tools like the diplomatic pouch, it's obviously too late and the damage is done. From now on, a new dimension is added to World News: the WikiLeaked article. How does it differ from an Op Ed piece? Go to the WikiLeaks site, you'll see how it differs. There is a telling line right up front which reveals how the WikiLeaks people view their mission:
"We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact."
Enhanced by Zemanta


The Art of Giving in this Holiday Season

Roundel of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
For everyone on the face of this earth, the end of the year is a blessed time for giving  - whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Budhist, a Jew, a Hinduist, an atheist or whatever else you call yourself.

This is a time for thinking of others, especially the poor, the emarginated, the sick and the dying.

We are all rushing to buy presents for family and friends - why not set aside a little something for someone whose only claim on you is that she or he belongs to the human race but was not born lucky the way you were...

It is heartwarming to see how the media and the blogosphere have woken up to the need to give.

In one instance, Christians and atheists, quickly joined by Muslims, have engaged online in what they call the "overall battle for goodness" and in a few days had raised some $50,000 for a hospital (see the article below).  Then Nicholas Kristof, a columnist on the New York Times, lists eleven worthy American charities and I urge you to look it up (click here for his article The Gifts of Hope). Popular bloggers such as Nathan Bransford and First Person Irregular have jumped in offering Heifer International one dollar for every comment they receive on their blog, thus increasing traffic on their site for a good cause.

I have never done this before but I'd like to do the same: for every comment I'll receive for this post on my blog, I'll offer one Euro to the Order of Malta. Please join me in offering support to this worthwhile humanitarian organization, one of the oldest in the world: imagine, it has been in operation for over 900 years!

Today it can count on the services of some 12,000 members (knights and dames), another 11,000 paid personnel (mainly doctors and nurses) and about 80,000 volunteers spread in dozens of countries. The Order's humanitarian work cuts across all religions and puts the sick and the needy before every political, ideological and religious consideration.

Its main job is medical assistance and it runs dozens of hospitals and dispensaries across the world, many in Africa, and has always operated leprosies (in India). It has some special programmes like assisting children bon from mothers affected by AIDS, a particularly complex and demanding type of assistance as both mother and child require to be looked after for several years (before birth and two years afterwards). It also looks after the elderly and the poor in developed countries (remember, in Europe alone, there are some 50 million people living below the poverty line).  But, in spite of the dedication of its members, the Order is always in need of additional funds: the demands of the sick and the poor are, alas, never ending...

One of the most emblematic of its charities is the maternity hospital in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, where all the children are born without regard to whether they are of Christian, Muslim or Jewish parents. Since 1990, when the Order of Malta reopened the hospital (it had been shut due to violence), some 50,000 births have taken place there (the 50,000th one, a baby girl named Aicha, on October 18), without ever having a mother dying in childbirth - something of a miracle! But they need support to pay for equipment and help, so all contributions are welcome! Here is the address to make payments: 
    Bank account : Holy Family Hospital
    Account No. 3890000/0
    Bank of Palestine PLC  PO Box 765 Bethlehem West Bank via Israel
    Swift Code: PALSPS 22
    Bank No. 89/BANKBRANCH No. 450

The Order of Malta, with its relief agency Malteser International, is also engaged in emergency assistance around the world and is present in every crisis with its doctors and nurses - most recently in Haiti where it was one of the first on the scene. Click here for its activity report for 2010.

Why does the Order work so well? Simple: it is almost always there with its own medical facilities BEFORE
the disaster hits. Indeed, this continous world-wide presence is a plus in making the Order's relief efforts particularly effective. And the Order will stay on after the worst of the crisis is over, as needed, to cater to additional needs as communities recover - for example providing them with agricultural tools to work the fields or digging the wells needed for clean water. For contributions, please click the following Malteser International link and you will find a form making it easy to pay in.

Please contribute yourself or, if its easier for you, make comments on this blog and I'll be as good as my word!

I'll take a few days off to celebrate the Holidays with my family and let me wish the same for you, my dear readers, for those of you who are not Christians: a Happy Holiday and for the others: Merry Christmas!

Enhanced by Zemanta


2010: the Year Democracy is on its Way Out?

_DSC0660Down with the poor! Image by Stephen Kosloff via Flickr
We are nearing year end and the time to take stock of what has happened in 2010. A tough year with austerity programmes and belt-tightening promised everywhere!

Some newspapers have already started. For its "Person of the Year", Time Magazine has decided to go digital and after  reportedly discarding Julian Assange, responsible for the Wikileaks mess, it has gone for a safer choice: Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. Quite frankly, I would not have chosen either, but I suppose Zuckerberg makes sense given the incredible success of The Social Network movie. This said, I think that Mr. Zuckerberg should start to worry: the implication of the Time selection is that he's fast becoming a "Man of the Past" (at least starting next year!). Facebook indeed has changed lately - much more publicity on it than before, leaving little space for the facebookers on their walls. And I'm not sure that many people appreciate having "their" social network highjacked by business...

I don't know what 2010 major events the media is going to go for (and the year isn't quite finished yet) but  - I'll stick my head out! - what really struck me are the repeated beatings Democracy has taken. Yes, I know you were expecting me to mention the sovereign debt crisis, the bailouts of Ireland and Greece and the threats to the Euro. There is that too, but the retreat of democracy is fundamental and visible everywhere! Think of it. In what developing country is democracy on the rise? When I say democracy I mean it in its broadest sense: government for the people and by the people. There are all sorts of democracies, some forms are better and more effective than others, but let's not quibble about it.

Just look at what happened after the recent elections that took place in the Ivory Coast: the president who's been in power for the past ten years, Laurent Gbagbo has no intentions of bowing to election results and letting his rival, Alassane Ouattara, take over. France and the United Nations' support for Mr. Ouattara notwithstanding. And the stale mate is on going, giving no signs of resolving itself, except probably at the expense of the United Nations and France and/or at the cost of a civil war. And Haiti? After protests in the streets, they're recounting the votes and we'll see what happens - not much good I'm afraid. Especially if you consider that the best liked candidate was - I mean is - a singer. What does he know about running a country? But of course, ever since Reagan and Berlusconi came into power, singers and actors are regarded as perfectly capable politicians and I should shut up and keep my doubts to myself. And Burma with its elections perennially rigged by the military? And Egypt with the Eternal Mubarak looking more and more like a Pharaoh? And Venezuela in the hands of wily Hugo Chavez?And Belarus in the hands of Lukashenko, the man who has never lost an election in 16 years and has just had 600 persons in the opposition arrested?

Perhaps not all is bleak and there are reports that Kirghystan may be moving towards a more democratic government, but for one Central Asian nation that has moved, the other four haven't.

And what about Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries where the United States has supposedly brought democracy? Afghanistan, awash in corruption, is a lost cause but even Iraq is not doing much better: we're still waiting for a government to be formed. We're holding our breath but the trouble is, we've been holding it now for ten months and I'm suffocating!

I'm sure there are more countries of the kind that I can't remember now, and please make comments and add them to the list! And of course I'm not mentioning the countries that do not try to be democracies like China, Cuba, Vietnam or North Korea. I'm not mentioning either the countries where corruption has become so widespread that the workings of democracy are threatened like India (the recent telecommunications scandal).

Actually there are lots of things I'm not mentioning: like the countries where democracy is falling in the hands of Big Government (Russia) or  Big Money (The United States). In the US, the power of the lobbies and the media in the hands of billionaires (starting with Rupert Murdoch) has managed to reverse in two years the results of the elections that brought Obama to the presidency (I'm referring to the mid-term elections here). The Republicans, and especially the Tea party, are determined to make sure that the poor and the emarginated  remain out in the cold, unattended by social security.

But it's not just democracy in the United States that is creaking, it's showing signs of fatigue in the United Kingdom too, the very the cradle of democracy! For a short moment after the elections this spring, it looked like the UK had managed to express a third party and was moving closer to a more balanced government - not always completely to the right (Tory) or the left (Labour) as in the past. But no, it didn't work out that way: contrary to his campaign claims, Clegg clung to Cameron (try to say that fast: it's a real tongue twister!) and whatever was left of the Welfare State is being dismantled, starting with education. The poor be damned (and the middle classes too)!

All this makes one wonder whether democracy is a realistic model of government, given human nature... 

Yes, 2011 promises to be a very cold year (notwithstanding Climate Warming)...

And before I forget, Happy New Year!

Post-scriptum: Good news: after 9 months, a new Iraqi government is seated in... For how long? How stable? Let's hope for the best...
Enhanced by Zemanta