Camel greeting

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Going Against the Grain – in Bolivia and elsewhere

Re-engineered clock, Congress Bldg, La Paz, Bolivia
Anti-clockwise running clocks have appealed to me since I first saw one years ago on the wall of a colleague’s restaurant back in New Zealand. A year or two later I found the source – a shop in London’s West End specializing in scissors, pens, corkscrews and other equipment designed for perhaps the world’s last unrepresented minority, left-handers.

Maybe there is something about being left-handed that makes one sympathetic to misfits and rebels in general. Possibly that’s why some societies, overtly or covertly, have attempted to discourage left-handedness in children, and why the English word sinister derives from the Latin word for left-handed.

I have to tell you, this awareness dawned upon me slowly. Learning to write in the days of fountain pens, I developed a characteristic ‘left-hander’s hook’ to avoid producing lines of smudged ink. At an early age I must have made the pragmatic decision to use scissors with my right hand, just as, after coming to Turkey, I learnt to make Turkish coffee with the standard cezve[1]. Since, however, I took the decision to ‘come out’ as a left-hander, I find myself applauding every small victory for my cack-handed brothers and sisters.

So, I felt a sense of camaraderie when I read a news item reporting that the government of Bolivia has made the bold decision to re-engineer the nation’s clocks so they run counter-clockwise. I’m quoting from an article that appeared in The Guardian last week:

“Bolivia turns back the clock in bid to rediscover identity and 'southernness'

“In the latest – and by far the most literal – sign that times are changing in Bolivia, the numerals on the clock that adorns the congress building in La Paz have been reversed and the hands set to run anticlockwise in proud affirmation of the Andean nation's "southernness". According to Bolivia's foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, the horological initiative is intended to help Bolivians rediscover their indigenous roots.

" ’We're in the south and, as we're trying to recover our identity, the Bolivian government is also recovering its sarawi, which means 'way' in Aymara," he said. "In keeping with our sarawi – or Nan, in Quechua – our clocks should turn to the left.’

“Clocks are an evolution of the sundial, and in the northern hemisphere a sundial's shadow runs clockwise, while in the southern hemisphere it moves counter clockwise – making the modern clock a representation of light in the northern hemisphere.

“The clock face volte-face is not the first time a left-wing Latin American nation has played with time in recent years. In 2007, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez put Venezuela's clocks back half an hour in an attempt to get Venezuelans biologically more in tune with the sun. The previous year, Chávez decided that the white horse on the country's coat of arms ought to gallop to the left instead of the right to better express the aspirations of his Bolivarian revolution.”

Well, I have documented previously my appreciation of Chavez and his Ecuadorean brother-in-arms, Rafael Correa. It’s pleasing to see Chavez’s successor carrying on the good work. One of the new President’s first acts was to establish a Ministry of Happiness charged with boosting programs for alleviating poverty, disability and social inequality. The article I read reported that Venezuela was ranked the happiest country in Latin America (according to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report for 2013), and 20th happiest in the world, placing ahead of the UK, France and Germany. Such news items make me happy too, and I am happier still to have occasion to learn a little more South American history.
Christchurch wizard avoids census, 1981

Before delving into that subject, however, I would like to pay brief tribute to another revolutionary figure. Not many countries have an official wizard these days – at least not in the developed world – so I take some pride in the fact that we in New Zealand do. Our wizard, born in England as Ian Brackenbury Channell, has filled the role since 1990, having been promoted by the Prime Minister of the day from his previous position as Wizard of the South Island city of Christchurch which he had held since 1974. Prior to that he had served as Official Wizard at Sydney’s University of New South Wales since 1967. Well, that’s quite a career, isn’t it! Check the link above if you want to learn more, but one of his early feats of wizardry was producing a world map using the Hobo-Dyer Projection which placed the South Pole at the top. The purpose was, amongst other things, to illustrate the point that much of our received knowledge is arbitrary, and based on assumptions forced upon us by Western/Americo-European predominantly Northern Hemisphere political and economic systems.

Wizardly world map - rightside up
But to return to South America. Evo Morales has been President of Bolivia since 2006 when he won an absolute majority (53.7%) in a democratic election – two events which have been pretty rare in that country since it gained independence from Spain in 1809. As with most post-colonial states, government seems to have remained in the hands of the economic and social elite, with little of the country’s mineral wealth trickling down to the indigenous poor, until a widely supported revolution in 1952 brought the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement to power. Their policies of universal suffrage, land reform, rural education and nationalisation of the lucrative tin mines kept them there until, surprise, surprise, they were ousted by a military coup in 1964 – with, if we can believe Wikipedia, the assistance of America’s very own CIA, who were also instrumental soon after in the killing of legendary Bolivian revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967.

The remaining years of the 20th century seem to have been filled with a procession of military juntas and weak coalition governments characterized by corruption charges, violent suppression of opposition, free-market economic policies and privatization of state assets. Large-scale protest action increased from 1999, prompted especially by the transfer of water supply to private ownership and the consequent doubling of prices. Another key issue was the development of Bolivia’s huge reserves of natural gas – who would do it, where they would do it and who would benefit?

Street protests and general chaos continued for the first years of the new century, possibly explaining in part why a majority of Bolivian voters gave their support to Morales. His identity as a cocalero supporter, footballer, trade union activist, and his indigenous Aymara family background are perhaps also relevant. According to 2010 figures, 55 percent of Bolivia’s ten million people are Amerindian, and a further 30 percent Mestizo[2]. The Wikipedia entry claims that the country has 34 official languages – which may account for some of the difficulty in electing a representative government, and certainly adds lustre to Morales’s achievement in gaining a clear majority of votes.

One of Morales’s first acts as President was to reduce his own salary and those of his ministers by 57%. Undoubtedly, his government’s leftist policies of agrarian reform, combatting the influence of United States and trans-national corporations, increasing taxation on the hydrocarbons industry, and aligning the country with other ‘rebellious’ South American states like Ecuador and Venezuela, have provoked serious opposition from conservative groups within Bolivia, as well as upsetting those influential foreign corporations. At the same time, their attempts to compromise a little with the opposition have led to accusations from the left that they are forsaking their socialist agenda. Hard to please everyone.

Still, Morales’s football skills help to offset some of the criticism in a football-mad country – he is said to be the world’s oldest active professional soccer player! And the cocalero label is an interesting one too. Coca is a plant native to western South America whose leaves have been used for millennia by indigenous peoples. When chewed, they act as a mild stimulant while also suppressing hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. ‘Addiction or other deleterious effects from the consumption of the leaf in its natural form have not been documented in over a 5,000 year time span, thus leading to the logical conclusion that coca left in its natural form causes no addictive properties at all.’

Interestingly, when I googled coca, I got 360 million results – all ten on the first page and 7 out of 10 on the second page referring to Coca Cola! The big problem with coca, of course, is that its active ingredient can be extracted and sold, as cocaine, to serious drug-users, especially in the United States. Isolation of the crucial molecule in 1898 is attributed to a German scientist, Richard Willstatter, who was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. While having some limited medical value as an anaesthetic, cocaine’s major use in those early years was apparently to increase the productivity of African American workers, giving them increased stamina and a resistance to extremes of heat and cold.

These days, however, usage has spread to wealthier sectors of Western societies. It is the second most popular illegal recreational substance in the USA, having acquired a reputation as a rich man’s drug – the business is said to have a street value exceeding the revenue of Starbucks. Understandably, then, the United States government is keen to cut off the trade at its source. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Bolivian economy in the 1980s and the consequent rise in unemployment, profits to be made in exporting the product led to the establishment of coca as an important cash crop. Another example of unintended consequences resulting from meddling in the affairs of foreign states.

So, what is a Bolivian President to do? Clearly the chewing of coca leaf is a relatively innocuous cultural tradition of many of his voters. Equally clearly, imposing a total ban on growing the stuff will have undesirable economic and political consequences. The only long-term solution would seem to be controlling the local market, and developing the country’s economy to improve the conditions of the 53 percent of the population currently subsisting below the poverty line. Probably we should all be wishing him luck – but I suspect not everyone is. Nevertheless, from what I’ve been reading, Bolivia has a longish history of producing nationalist leaders capable of giving foreign interests a run for their money.

Original Tupac Amaru
Rap music arrived in the world too late to get much of a hold on my musical taste buds – but as a teacher of young adults I’ve had some very peripheral contact – at least enough to have heard of Tupac Shakur, if only as a bad boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996. I was surprised to learn, then, that he is one of the best-selling music artists of all time – and that he took his name from the 18th century leader of an indigenous uprising against Spanish rule in what later became Bolivia. At that time, the rebellion was unsuccessful, and the Spanish took their revenge in the brutal manner popular with colonial powers.

That original Tupac, however, undoubtedly paved the way for the successful struggle, a few years later, of Simon Bolivar, whose triumph over Spanish forces led to the first union of independent nations in South America. At that time most of the present Latin American countries did not exist as separate entities, so Bolivar is seen as a key figure in the emergence of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, as well as Bolivia itself.

I wrote a previous post on the subject of benevolent dictators where I examined the legacy of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A key theme of that post was the esteem bordering on idolatry that citizens of modern Turkey hold for the founder of their republic – leading to the question of what other leaders occupy a comparable place in the hearts of their people. Well, according to Wikipedia, busts or statues of Simon Bolivar are about as preponderant in towns and cities of Latin America as are those of Atatürk in Turkey. Bolivia, of course, and, news to me, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are named after him, as are the currencies of both countries. More surprisingly, there are also statues to be found in Paris, New York City, Ottawa and two small towns in Missouri and Italy. At least four towns in the United States are apparently named for Bolivar, as was a ballistic missile submarine of the US Navy. Ankara, New Delhi and Cairo have, respectively, a street, a road and a square named after him. Even Spain, despite losing the jewels in their imperial crown as a result of his activities, boasts a couple of monuments in his honour – and an extra-terrestrial rock in the asteroid belt is officially known as 712 Boliviana.

So go for it, Señor Morales. Left-handers of the world are with you!

[1] These coffee pots are now available in a left-handed version
[2] of mixed native American and European descent – not highly thought of by the 15% white minority

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Queuing for One Scoop of Food

The following brief article appeared in our local Turkish newspaper today. I couldn’t find it in Hürriyet's English edition, so I’m supplying a translation:

Izmir’s Basmane  neighbourhood has long been a sanctuary for fugitives from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia seeking refuge from civil war. They have now been joined by Syrians hoping to escape from poverty in their own land.

Living in unsanitary conditions, the only hope for these Syrians desperate to put food in their stomachs is aid from humanitarian organisations operating in the area. Women with children, and men, wait in separate lines with empty yoghurt containers for the arrival, every day at 12.00, of a minibus with İnsan Der[1] written on the side. Every day the numbers of people waiting for food increases and the amount available for each is less. The food distributed with a little bread is their sole hope of sustenance. Families of five or six return home with one ladleful of food and a portion of bread.

[1] A voluntary group offering food, clothing, education opportunities to destitute people

Monday 16 June 2014

YouTube’s back in Turkey!

Well, I’m not a big YouTube user – to my shame I have never actually uploaded any video content – but I did miss it while it was unavailable. It had happened once before, some years ago, and a younger, more technologically savvy colleague gave me directions to a site that was able to bypass the blockage. As one might have expected, the government was on to that this time around, so the bypass no longer worked. Still, I’m guessing the younger generation in Turkey weren’t unduly disturbed by the ban, except as a matter of democratic principle.

Anyway, I’m delighted to see YouTube up and running again. It’s a marvellous resource, and a further indication of how the Internet and social media have changed our lives in ways that we could scarcely have imagined in that distant 20th century.

The blocking of YouTube (and, I understand, Twitter, though to my greater shame, I haven’t got into that at all) did, however, get me thinking about larger issues to do with social media, the Internet and the big question of censorship.

Much was made in Western news media of the role played by social media in events collectively referred to as The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread rapidly to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and other Islamic states. The anarchy of the Internet was credited with empowering a switched-on younger generation to achieve greater political awareness and organize themselves in numbers sufficient to overthrow despotic regimes.

Sad to say, a return to military rule in Egypt and the disastrous ongoing civil war in Syria have taken the gloss somewhat off that brave new vernal world of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ – and as for ‘brotherhood’, that seems to have become a dirty word rendering further analysis unnecessary. Those much-vaunted social media, it seems, have their limitations when it comes to producing meaningful long-term political change.

Nevertheless, it’s disturbing when governments use their powers to censor our activities. We have come to depend on the Internet and social media so much in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a time when people lived in relative contentment without them. It was natural for people in Turkey to feel angry when their government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter. Some are also complaining that the same government is taking measures to control the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places, and to limit the display of naked female flesh on roadside advertising.

Now I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about these issues. I confess I enjoy the occasional tipple of fermented and even spirituous liquors for relaxation and social purposes. I can appreciate the sight of a well-turned ankle as much as the next red-blooded male. On the other hand, I am well aware that my own homeland, New Zealand, and our near neighbor, Australia, not renowned either of them for alcoholic moderation, impose quite tight restrictions on the sale and consumption of such beverages. As an example, in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I went to Federation Square with my daughter and her partner to watch Australian Open tennis on the giant screen. One would expect a typical Aussie to enjoy a frosty VB or Fosters on such an occasion – but eagle-eyed private security boys were circulating to ensure that they did not.

I can also say that, despite the importance given to eye-catching advertising in subways and other public places in Auckland, Sydney, London and New York, I don’t recall seeing large-size posters of fetching young lasses clad in skimpy underwear or bikinis, of the kind that are commonplace on the streets of Istanbul. Not sure if there’s a law against it – it just doesn’t seem to be the done thing.

Which brings me to the question of censorship – and I have to tell you, I’m against it, as a matter of principle, as, I suspect, are most modern, broad-minded, right-thinking adults in Western societies. At the same time, I can understand why some people feel there should be some control over the dissemination of child pornography, and material depicting actual physical abuse. I have some sympathy for the argument that says children under a certain age should not be exposed to visual material deemed to be ‘adult’ in nature. Google and YouTube actually include such restrictions as part of company policy.

So we have a paradoxical situation here: a conflict between theory and practice which is not easy to resolve. If we accept that some measure of censorship is socially desirable, the question shifts to one of where we will draw the line – and who will have authority to draw it. Again, few of us have confidence in the willingness of private enterprise to regulate its own activities, so in the end, most of us would reluctantly accept that governments have a necessary role to play.

But now, of course, we have given a dangerous power to politicians who, as we suspect, are not always driven by an altruistic concern for the welfare of their people. In the end, those of us fortunate enough to live in democracies have the power of the ballot box where we can call elected governments to account. Between elections, we have the responsibility of participating in the democratic process by joining pressure groups, working for social change though NGOs, even taking to the streets in protest.

I have written elsewhere on the complex nature of democracy. Most writers on the subject agree that there is a continuum from one extreme of absolute slavery to the other of absolute individual freedom – and most countries lie somewhere on the line between. In fact there may even be several components of democracy, such as press freedom, representative electoral systems, separation of church and state, limitations on corporate power, for example, and countries may be ahead in some while lagging behind in others.

The United States and Europe, for example, place, as far as I am aware, no restrictions on the use of social media such as Twitter and YouTube, and some of their political leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the Turkish Government for doing so.

On the other hand, they seem to see no contradiction between their position on this matter, and what some might see as a greater danger – their willingness to persecute individuals who use the power of the Internet to question the activities of governments and corporations. I’m thinking here of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – still, as far as I know, holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, threatened with deportation if he emerges; Edward Snowden, epic whistleblower stripped of his US passport and similarly unable to leave Russia; Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking information many of us think we had a right, even a need, to know. I wouldn’t put New Zealand’s very own Kim Dotcom in the same league as those guys, but nevertheless, I appreciate the light he is shining on the shenanigans of politicians downunder.

What is important, in my opinion, is the responsibility we all have to speak out against corruption and injustice wherever we see it, although doing so will not necessarily win us friends and public acclaim. Our voice of protest, however, will possess greater credibility if we nail our colours to the mast, rather than maintain a safe electronic distance via social media on the Internet. For me, the greatest figures of history are those who were willing to sacrifice personal comfort, even life itself, to achieve a greater social goal:

Not everyone will thank you
for wanting to change the world
Mahatma Gandhi in India, whose 32-year struggle brought no personal wealth, ending in his own assassination – but resulted in independence for his people.

Jesus of Nazareth, who challenged the establishment of his time in unacceptable ways, knowing that they would kill him for it in a most unpleasant way.

Even Turkey’s own Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Despite widespread public adulation, he assuredly faced opposition from vested interests in his own lifetime – and denied himself the important Turkish dreams of family and dynastic succession for the greater goal of building a nation.

And to be fair, that’s why I don’t rank Mr ‘Megaupload’ Dotcom with that other triumvirate of Internet heroes. I’m not convinced there is quite the same spirit of self-sacrifice underlying his actions.

Well, YouTube is back, and I’m happy. I would, however, make a plea to armchair political activists wishing to bring down the Turkish Government. By all means express your views, but at the same time show a little consideration for your fellow citizens who enjoy using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for less controversial purposes.

Friday 13 June 2014

Positive Signs for Turkey’s Economy

‘Turkey Plunges Down in Ultra-Rich Ranks Amid Growing Global Wealth’

The headline introduced an article I came across in the English version of our local newspaper Hürriyet:

‘With the number of millionaire households in Turkey remaining at around 22,000, showing no significant change from the previous year, Turkey dropped three places in the global rank to 42nd[1], according to the BCG study, “Riding a Wave of Growth: Global Wealth 2014.”

‘Turkey is also left out of the top 10 countries with the highest number of ultra-net-high-worth households, (households that have private financial wealth of more than $100 million), retreating from 9th to 12th place.

‘While there were 357 people worth more than $100 million in 2012, this number fell to 288 in 2013, according to the study.’

Syrian refugees in Turkey - Let them drive Lamborghinis
Well, sympathetic as I am trying to feel for those 69 citizens whose worth dipped below $100 million last year, I have to tell you, I’m not convinced that they (or the other 288 who are still in the club) are actually doing the country’s economy a whole lot of good. Another news item I chanced on the other day announced that German luxury car manufacturer Mercedes Benz was awarding Turkey the prize for being ‘Europe’s Most Successful Market’ in 2013. The Lamborghini people reportedly expect to sell seventy of their ludicrously over-powered and over-priced boyztoyz to Turkish boy-racers this year. Prices in the USA range from $200-550 thousand – double that for Turkish Liras and add another fifty percent to find the local price. Then there are the Ferrari buyers who will pay 550,000 (around 1.5 million TL) for a ride that’ll do 350 km/h and 0-100 km/h in 3 seconds flat. Tell me where you can actually do either of those things.

Getting back to that Hürriyet article, how do you read the tone? It seems to me that words like ‘no significant change’, ‘dropped’, ‘left out’, 'retreating' and ‘fell’ suggest that the writer implies there is something Turkey should feel ashamed of here. Interestingly, the article goes on to note: the report also draws attention to the substantial overall wealth boost that Turkish households have recorded over five years. The total assets of individuals in Turkey amounted to around 840 billion Turkish Liras in 2013, up from around 500 billion liras in 2008.’

What should we make of that? The ranks of the super-rich in Turkey have declined by nearly twenty percent since 2012 while average household wealth has increased nearly seventy percent in the five years since the 2008 global financial crisis. And these figures are not doctored stats released by the Turkish Government – they are published in a report presented by an outfit styling themselves the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Check them out. If you thought the Trickle-down Theory of wealth redistribution was dead and buried, there’s a gang of corporate whizz kids who will put you straight.

I wasn’t able to read the full report on their website because you have to be a member of the club to do that. However, I did check out a couple of other items. One that particularly interested me was entitled: For Mining Companies, Productivity is the Key to Value Creation’. It grabbed my attention, of course, because of the tragedy in Soma, Turkey last month where 301 coal-miners died in a dreadful accident.

Read the BCG article, however, and you may come to feel that 'accident’ is the wrong word to use. In addition to BCG, I have now learned another useful acronym: TSR (Total Shareholder Return). The guys at BCG apparently analysed mining companies' profits over the previous decade, and found that they averaged sixteen percent per annum with the top ten companies averaging 35 percent. I’ll say that again in case you missed it – those mining companies made 35 percent profit on shareholder investment in a single year! Nevertheless, the Bostonian Consultants insist that there is a ‘profitability pinch’ in the sector with ‘the economics of mining under pressure’, and go on to suggest ways to ‘enhance productivity’. Well, you have to wade through a good deal of economists’ jargon here, which they use generally to avoid facing up to the reality that they are actually screwing real people by reducing wages, cutting back on work-force numbers and skimping on safety measures.

How about one of these? Click for a price
Another delightful press release you can read on the BCG site deals with the ‘Daunting Challenges facing Wealth Managers’ in the next few years. The text begins with the good news that ‘the growth of private wealth surpassed expectations in 2013’, but goes on to warn that ‘wealth managers nonetheless need to take action on multiple fronts if they hope to gain market share and increase profits over the next few years.’

“The key challenge in developed economies is how to make the most of a large existing asset base amid volatile growth patterns,” said Brent Beardsley, a BCG senior partner and a coauthor of the report. “The task in the developing economies is to attract a sizable share of the new wealth being created there. Overall, the battle for assets and market share will become increasingly intense in the run-up to 2020.”

I suspect that Brent B is not seeking ways to ‘attract’ the new wealth being created in those developing economies to the impoverished citizens of those countries whose children are dying of malnutrition and easily preventable diseases caused by lack of access to uncontaminated drinking water . . . but I could be wrong.

I am currently reading a history of Byzantium[2], the eastern Roman Empire centred on Constantinople back in medieval days. In the early chapters, the author, Cyril Mango, examines reasons for the decline of the Empire up to the 7th century CE. Let me share a quote or two.

‘Service in the army was a lifelong occupation and was meant to be well-rewarded. Even so, there was little enthusiasm for it in the more civilized parts of the Empire and evasion was widespread. By Justinian’s time recruitment had become voluntary and depended very largely on some of the ruder provinces.’

‘It is a commonplace of late Roman history that the municipal gentry was in a state of decline . . . [They] made increasing efforts to avoid their responsibilities which were openly regarded as a servitude . . . [T]he rich ones grew richer at the expense of their neighbours. They became magnates who bullied their fellow-citizens and usually had enough leverage at court to win for themselves posts in the imperial administration that exempted them from municipal duties . . . there was a staggering disparity between the rich and the poor . . . government service normally led to considerable riches . . . there must have been a very large number of people living on the subsistence level.’

Does any of that sound familiar? By good luck or good management (who knows?) Turkey managed to escape the worst of that 2008 global downturn. It seems to me that if a few local oligarchs have to make do with a little less than $100 million in personal wealth so that some others can get off subsistence level, it may not be altogether a bad thing.

[1] There’s that ‘42’ again!
[2] Byzantium, the Empire of the New Rome, Cyril Mango (Phoenix, 2005)