Friday, 17 April 2009

Yay - I had a good Liberia briefing

I just finished another 'Liberia briefing.' I am relieved and happy and have a sense of accomplishment. With all the coursework I have to do and can't seem to be able to get done, looming exams and a general sense of frenzy and despair, it was nice to actually get something done and feel good about it. It reminded me that I actually had a real job, doing things, doing DDRR, doing NGO capacity assessments, monitoring visits, donor reports, liaison and coordination and so on. And, it let me talk about Liberia with people who know of it more than just a random country associated with civil war and Charles Taylor. 

How did I get involved in these 'Liberia briefings?' Believe it or not, Facebook! Sometime this year, a girl contacted me on Facebook who had also been in Liberia - Gwen Heaner. Gwen told me that SOAS was going to brief a client - a couple who were going to work in Liberia with some local organisations. As Gwen is doing a Phd on religion in Liberia at SOAS, she was going to brief the client on culture and customs and traditional law. Interface, the department at SOAS, was looking for other people as well. Gwen was kind enough to nominate me. That was quite stupendous. I had not met Gwen in Liberia but as it is such a small place and we had a couple of common friends, she managed to find me. She passed my details onto Interface and, after a CV forward and a brief chat with Dave Harris at Interface, I bagged the first briefing. 

The first briefing went quite well although I had been quite nervous. My job was to talk about the UN, the mission, UNDP, their roles, what the do, local and international NGOs, my experiences. The couple had not been to Liberia before and there, my job was easier because I had to talk about the work and role and functions of the UN on a basic level. I pulled up a copy of the PRS, the Government NGO policy, stuff on the RFTF, I contacted the MSG Steering Group, some miscellaneous facts/figures. Hence I did a little bit of preparation. I tried to make it a narrative in terms of what achievements 'we' had since 2003 and, spoke a lot about my experiences with UNDP. All in all, it went okay and the feedback form said my presentation was pretty good. I believe I got a 3/4. 

This second one was slightly different in the sense that the client has been working/living in Liberia for the past 18 months and, is obviously on a different level. I decided to do the briefing despite all stress I have and, was nervous I wouldn't be able to handle it and cursed myself for taking this on. I kept the old part of the presentation as before. The interesting requirement for this presentation were a a series of questions in the 'blurb' that was sent out related to development: so why is it that development has not worked, why are we not any closer to achieving the MDG targets,  why are we imposing the Western models while we have the Chinese alternative? This part was given to me. 

Big explosive questions. I mean, that is the entire beloved TPP course. In a way it was good because it forced me to a bit of revision and think of the course as a whole and see what it has taught me.

I went back to the meanings of development as defined by Alan Thomas in his Development as Practice in a Liberal Capitalist World which is a stupendous article. 
  1. as a vision, description or measure of the state of being of a desirable society;
  1. as an historical process of social change in which societies are transformed over long periods;
  1. as consisting of deliberate efforts aimed at improvement on the part of various agencies, including governments, all kinds of organizations and social movements. 
I went back to the moments of development (lectures are bloody useful, please take note):
  1. the epochal European transitions to (industrial) capitalism
  2. simultaneous and subsequent colonial encounters
  3. the post-war (1945) global polity shaped by the cold war, the formation of post-colonial states and their projects of ‘national development’, the evolution of specialised development agencies as instruments of Northern foreign policy (bilateral aid agencies), and aspirations or claims to disinterested benevolence by new multilateral international bodies (the UN again; the Bretton Woods institutions)
I did the rounds of the Washington Consensus, the SAPs, the Governance Agenda, the context of capitalism, the withering away of the state in the face of interventions and globalisation, etc. But to really answer the question very simply, we have to realise that development has been reduced to practice, to techniques and targets, that it is depoliticised and decentralised. And because of this, it will never address inequality. 

So all in all, it was a good presentation and I have a nice sense of accomplishment. It put me in a good mood. In general, these briefings have been great because I got to talk with Gwen at length about her ongoing Phd which is on Pentecostal/charismatic churches. It was ridiculously fascinating to hear about her thesis, her depth of knowledge and how she perceived Liberia while she was doing her field work. She's a young girl but pretty amazing. And there is a lot of literature on Liberia which I was not even aware of, not to mention a society specifically devoted to Liberia. In fact she is going to Liberia in May to attend the society's first ever conference in Liberia. 

Secondly, Dave Harris at Interface has extensive knowledge of Liberia and Sierra Leone's political history which will be great once I start on the dissertation.

There are a couple of funny stories to go with today's briefing though. I knew that the briefing was supposed to start 1:30 as per the draft programme. I was up at 5 am this morning to do a bit of work on it, went to sleep, got up again and was at the university by 10:30. I was in the bar, having a cup of tea, typing up my presentation when for some reason I looked at the draft programme again and, thought for some reason that my briefing was at 11:00. It was 11:30 at that time - I rushed to the briefing room, barged in and startled Gwen and the fellow. They clarified that my briefing was supposed to start at 1:30. Embarassed, I left and proceeded to complete my presentation. I made it back at 1:30 and apologised for the blunder I had committed earlier. 

I was a bit nervous at the start of the presentation talking about the UN in general and its mission and work, the PRS, the DDRR Programme, the inside scoop, etc. However, I managed to hide my cover it up by repeating the points and asking the fellow whether or not he wanted to know about something in particular in more detail. Thankfully, he asked about the DDRR Programme and I was able to talk at length about it, the controversies, the politics, etc. Asking the audience questions is a good way to make it a natural presentation. When I started addressing The Big Development Question, I started by asking him what development meant to him. He said that he had always thought of it as the 'you give a guy he a fish, he eats for one day, you teach him to fish, he eats for life.' Aha - very good. So went on from there, covering everything from the moment/origin of development to the invention of development, from the developmental state to SAPs, from the Washington Consensus to the Good Governance Agenda. 

Oh yes, another embarassing anecdote for the day. I was sitting with Hillary and Helka in the bar afterwards, regaling them with my blunder-full stories, the Wallet, the presentation, not getting essays done on time, etc. At one point, I hear a 'poing poing' and I ask Hillary, hey, do you hear that 'poing poing'? She said it must be a ring tone. Turns out it was coming from my own freaking pocket and my father was calling me. Who programmed the 'poing poing' ringtone for my father's mobile?? 

The final story of the day is that I was to meet Haseeb and a few of his colleagues for dinner near Charing Cross. I was looking forward to a nice relaxed dinner and meeting some nice Afghanis. Haseeb tells me to take the 91 bus instead of taking the tube. Absent-mindedly, I take the 91 bus in the wrong direction altogether. He's phoning me every few minutes to see if I am near or not. After 30 minutes, he rings me up to say, where are you? I tell him, dunno, middle of nowhere. Then he realised I was in the wrong direction. I get off, take a bus back to King's Cross, take the tube to Bank and change and take the district line to Embankment. What should have taken me less than half an hour to get to my destination took me close to two hours. I was in a really shitty mood however thankfully his friends were very nice and we had a nice time. 

Here's to the weekend and writing the 5,000-word War to Peace essay. I have only come up with a bogus title so far but it sounds cool. 

'Peace may or may not be a 'modern invention' but it is certainly a far more complex affair than war.' Discuss with reference to peace and security in South Asia vis a vis Pakistan and India.

Monday, 13 April 2009

I wish I could write

I Wish I Could Write

I wish I could write, I wish I could write
I wish my thoughts would flow out of my head,
down my neck,
through my arms and hands,
and out of my finger tips...

I wish I could climb intellectual mountains, 
breathe in delicate scents in gardens of emotional maturity
confidently walk down the right and courageous street
and exist on a higher plane.

I wish these words will take me there,
Noble aspirations will inspire me, 
And, faith will save me.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs
The G-20 Summit and the World Crisis
1 April 2009
Chair: David Held

Before I write about this lecture, I should probably tell you what I used to think about Jeffrey Sachs. I went around calling Sachs a bit of a dodo. Why? Well, his End of Poverty is a bit annoying. He blows his own trumpet quite a bit about what great work he has done in East Europe and South America and his noble, selfless trips to visit the poor Africans and Asians. His shock therapies came into criticism - I read that in Wikipedia. Then there is his love for Adam Smith the fellow he quotes every two seconds. He believes the free market, the 'invisible hand,'  self interest, division of labour, diversity and all that wonderful stuff is going to lead to progress and wealth. At the time I was reading it I just found it pretty irritating that Adam Smith is his only guide in his plans to save the world. What does Adam Smith have to do with ending severe poverty, disease and inequality? Will Adam Smith as his guide address historical legacies of slavery and imperialism? I don't think Adam Smith will help get those unfortunate masses hop onto the friggin ladder that he is on and on about. * 

To state the obvious, he is really speaking to a Western audience: how it is an outrage that a significant portion of the world's population lives in abject poverty while there there is so much plenty. He wants to wake up the conscience of the West. 

I met him in Liberia - it was more of a bump, actually. This was sometime last year I think. There had been quite a buzz at UNDP about him coming to town to inaugurate the Millenium Village. I had not read his book at that book but was quite intrigued as I had heard his name quite a bit. A few of us planned to go next door in the HICS building during lunch time to hear him speak although I was a bit annoyed that the UN had not organised a bigger gathering for the benefit of the UN and Liberians to hear a famous intellectual. When we got there, we realised it was a $ 25 per head lunch organised by UNMIL (damn UNMIL). Two of us just left at that point and on our way out we met Sachs entering the building with our Country Director and some other biggies. We said hello to him and left. I also heard that he came to Liberia on a private jet. And, the entire Millennium Village that the Earth Institute has come up with was so odd in my head. I could not believe that projects were now going to be at a single village level, like a bizarre human experiment at a micro micro level. Ha, now that I am at SOAS, I understand this falls under decentralisation and de-politicisation of development. 

After this lecture, I would hesitate to call him a dodo. I can see why he is so well respected and known especially among younger people. It boils down to his passion and sincerity. It was actually a pleasure to him speak. And he was not waxing lyrical about the greatness of the global capitalist system either. 

For Samir Amin, this financial crisis was the first of the eventual meltdown of capitalism (yay!). He concluded his talk with probably the coolest line I have heard all year - 'Marx is back!' 

Sachs did not make such a thunderous statement - nevertheless he still got me with his sincerity. 

The talk 

Prof Sachs was given a very distinguished introduction by David Held. 

The financial crisis is being described as a 'bad business cycle,' the 'Great Depression,' a 'watershed'. The Prof said that we have to understand the deeper trends at work. The crisis is being hailed as a time for opportunities too but, he he said that we must not be too 'flippant' about it and recognise it is a crisis. 

The Prof said he was going to diagnose this crisis as a 'drama in four acts:'

1) Roots

The roots of the financial crisis are monetary. Greenspan got quite the whiplash here. The man was in for too long. The 1990's? He was there. The dot com boom and burst? He was there. Post 9-11? He was there. The man did a hat trick in the bubbles he created: i) East Asia ii) Dot Com iii) Sub Prime. 

-An expansionary monetary policy was followed and the economy was put on accelerator
-This was the 'basic logic of the political terms' as well
-Financial regulation was lax
-There was heavy competition between New York and London 
-An unregulated banking system
-Short-term borrowing for longer-term finance
-Two-hundred years of lessons were ignored (e.g. lender of last resort)
-Shadow banking

2) Dynamics

There's the "China made us do it" syndrome going around. They were saving so much that we had to borrow so much. This thinking is prevailing in the Fed even today. The Prof said that the 'China-glut' theory does not explain the US borrowing which was already a large borrower in the 1990s. Therefore, empirically this claim does not hold. 

The sub prime is a narrow analysis, 'part of the mischief' but fails to explain the financial crisis on a global level. 

Why did it happen sociologically? The US went through an 'unpleasant shift' over the past 25 years: Wall Street, oil and the the military. There was an 'imbalance in politics.' Wall Street and oil companies funded both political parties. 

A 'boom' was created worldwide. 

Rise of paper wealth 2000 - 2005. Capitalisation of $ 30 trillion of the stock market. Of which $ 10 - 15 is housing wealth. This increased to $ 40 - 50 trillion before the financial crisis. 

Massive consumption boom which could not be just be the housing market. It also affected oil and food/grains. Oil went up to $ 147/barrel last year. 

2006 onwards, prices peaked and then started to decline.

The stock market increases were wiped out in the last 24 months. $ 30 trillion and $ 10 trillion of housing was lost leading to a loss in aggregate demand. This had 'accelerator effects on investment.' 

Reduction in bank lending.  After Lehman went down there was 'pure financial panic.' Massive run on the money markets. 

3) Short Term Policy

Liquidity, liquidity, liquidity

Obama has inherited a particularly dire situation - including a deficit of $ 1.2 trillion. It is quite significant given that the US economy is $ 14 trillion. Obama started with a big bang - announcements and fiscal overtures. However, we have gone into confusion. 

The banking clean up - it was 'Wall Street for Wall Street.' Ethically, economically, emotionally the bail out of the bankers was wrong. 

The emerging markets are squeezed. The g-20 is re-capitalising the IMF and this is not giving out any good signals. We will see if the IMF does any better. 

It was at this point where Sachs really got me. He spoke very solemnly and with a lot of feeling. He said that until now there has been 'zero attention' to the 2 billion poor. Re-capitalising the IMF does not mean that is for the poor as the IMF gives out loans. I liked the way he spelled it out! We have heard nothing about the plight of the chronic poor. India is represented at the g-20 which has 250 million poor however what about the rest? 

Sachs has been trying to raise some money. The word he used was 'salivating.' He was salivating at the $ 4.5 trillion committed to banks. He has not even got any crumbs. 

This is especially painful considering that Merrill Lynch 'stole' $ 4 billion in bonuses which was not even noticed. AIG is being made to return a couple hundred million just now.

Sachs' indignation and anger was pretty impressive and very sincere. The entire hall went absolutely quiet and still. I was watching through the video link but even on 'our' side it went pretty quiet. 'Pin-drop silence.'

4) Long Term Policy

With reference to Keynesian economics, he said that given the decline in consumption demand had to be stimulated again.

However stimulation of demand could be done with investments in areas such as alternative energy, environment or infrastructure in Africa. China has massive savings. 

There are 'wonderful investment opportunities.' Some of it has to be aid but the rest can be investment. 

We also need monetary reform. The US cannot be the 'fulcrum anymore.' There has to be a fundamental re-think of global institutions. 


By the way I did not get to see the lecture 'live' as I had not managed to get a ticket. I came early looking for a chance to get a seat nevertheless by joining the 'returns queue' however there were no empty seats. We in the returns queue got to see the lecture via a live video link in a theatre next to the one where Sachs was delivering his lecture. It was just like being there. 

Sachs received a lot of questions and he had only 10 minutes or so to take them and answer them as he had gone way over his allotted time. 

So all in all, I was very impressed by his sincerity and passion.

I met up with a SOAS friend, Umo, afterwards. She was in queue to get Sachs' new book signed. I joined her in the queue and took a picture for her with Sachs. 

Nice guy.

* I just went back to Wikipedia and I just picked this up: "Noam Chomsky has argued that several aspects of Smith's thought have been misrepresented and falsified by contemporary ideology, including Smith's reasons for supporting markets and Smith's views on corporations. Chomsky argues that Smith supported markets in the belief that they would lead to equality." Well, I can't disagree with the great Chomsky if that is indeed true. 

Indonesia's Prez

Indonesia: Global Reach, Regional Role
HE Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Howard Davies, Chair

And the Story of the Wallet

31 March 2009

I am really happy I went to see the Prez of Indonesia at the LSE and got my wallet back - again.

He was in town with all the other leaders for the g-20. I was lucky enough to get a ticket (I requested one by e-mail and was posted a ticket, which I thought was pretty cool).

I was hanging out at Hot Gossip* which is a cafe near LSE doing some reading while waiting for the lecture which was to start at 3:30. I had tried to go to the George Soros lecture earlier but arrived too late and the hall was already full. I hung out at this cafe and fell asleep at one point sitting on the cozy sofa's - I woke up with a start because my heavy TPP Term 2 study pack had fallen with a thud on the floor. Thud! I felt kind of embarassed but what the heck. I realised it was nearly 3:30 and got up with a start, collected my things and rushed out. The lecture was to be at the Sheikh Zayed Lecture Theatre in the New Academic Building. I was walking to the theatre when I see this really distinguished gentleman who looks just like my Mamoon. I am like, what is Sani Mamoon doing at LSE? He was speaking on the mobile phone standing next to his BMW (there was a chauffeur sitting at the front). I realised, then, it was Shaukat Aziz (Musharraf's crony). I think he was looking for the lecture theatre and was probably telephoning Howard Davies asking where it was in his polite manner. I said salaam and engaged in a tw0-minute chit chat with him. Man, he is so elegant. It would have been funny if I told him, hey, you just look like my Mamoon! He got into his BMW and drove off while I walked/ran to the theatre in my usual clumsy style.

I get there and realise I do not have my wallet when I had to pull out my ID. I frantically look for it. I ran back to Hot Gossip which thankfully had kept it for me. The fact I lost my wallet that day would seem insignificant but if you knew that I had lost it on the tube the weekend before and had it returned to me via Facebook would make you realise what a huge blunder I had made. And, I lost it again the other day in the library - I forgot it among the shelves and thankfully, found it. Wait wait wait, I lost it yet another time in the same week. I forgot it in the computer lab, went to dinner with a friend in Brunswick Square, had dinner, paid for it too (oh yeah I paid for it by with some cash I had in a pocket), went to have dessert somewhere else and suddenly realise I don't have my wallet. I tell my friend to wait - this is at 11:15 pm and the building closes at 11:30 - ran back like a madwoman, go to the computer lab, go to the library where the security guard pretends a hideous purple wallet was not handed in, as I was told by the security at the main entrance, then says to me, 'be more careful!' I told him, I know, I know. I lost it once already! On the tube! And I got it back! And I am obviously not grateful enough! I ran back to my friend and treat myself to an ice-cream. So I have lost my wallet four times now. Of course, no one reads my blog so no one can scold me. Thank God no one reads my blog.

Anyway - so I get to the lecture theatre with my ticket and ID. There was quite a bit of security and we were checked a couple of times before entering the building. There was a separate queue for LSE staff and students and all others. So I was in the others queue. As I made my way to the theatre, I found myself getting very excited as there was such a buzz. I love that.

Everyone stood up when the Prez entered the theatre and welcomed him with a thunderous applause. He was introduced by Howard Davies in the usual flattering and distinguished manner. There was a bit of banter and joking around. That the Prez was in town for some small meeting. And his major flaw was that he had got one of his degrees from the United States.

The Prez takes the podium and engaged in the banter as well telling us that his spokesman (who got up with a big smile on his face from the front of the audience) had a degree from the LSE, that his Minister of Defense too had a degree from the LSE. He was very pleasant I must say.

So what did he say?

- Indonesia was thought of as the 'messy' state, too large to fail, very misunderstood. It has proved to be a resilient state which had a 6% growth rate and maybe a 4.5% growth after this 'financial tsunami.'
- Through a 'quiet revolution,' Indonesia is now the world's third largest democracy with a free press, stability, tolerance. It is united and has resolved Aceh. The Prez was the first to complete a 5-year term.
-Indonesia's year elections this year will be very symbolic and represent the fact that the country has achieved a point of no return. That it can marry democracy, Islam and modernity.
-Indonesia 'seeks a million friends and zero enemies.'
-His country is a force for democracy and stability and harmony in south east asia which was once divided by cold war politics. Today it is ASEAN. The last ASEAN summit included India, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, it is not just a geographical or cultural area but inclusive. He said that it would probably not become an EU clone with a supra government as ASEAN was still too diverse but in dynamic ways it was coming together. It will be a free trade area hopefully by 2012 or 2015. Economic integration will be achieved first.
-As for political integration, ASEAN was also committed to that. With reference to Myanmar he said that it was bound to the ASEAN charter and it was in their interest that it emerges as a democratic country. It was time for greater engagement.
- The g-20 was created in 1999 and the first meeting was in November 2008. He said it was the 'steering committee' of 90% of the world's trade.
- Developed countries should give priority to cleaning up the toxic in the financial system. And, also to developing/emerging countries who should not be punished and allowed to suffer. A Fund should be set up as a buffer so that developing countries can sustain their development goals. IMF/World Bank should rise up to the challenge. A recovery of the 'real' economy was needed without restrictions on either trade or people.

It was overall an optimistic talk. Very positive.

In response to questions, the Prez's answers were brief and diplomatic. He was asked about what he hoped to get out of the g-20, Obama's relationship with the Muslim world, Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, recognition of Kosovo as the only Muslim country in Europe, Pakistan and climate change. Come to think of it, he did not really answer any of these questions. He was extremely careful. Consummate politician.

* That place is not really that hot. It's not even cute. It's just a regular cafe. Someone should tell them.