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Food Alert!

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If nothing changes by the end of 2014 the TAFTA (Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement) will be in force; a catastrophe for those who believe that food and drink are serious issues not to be messed about with so much.

If the agreement comes into force as planned then you will soon be saying hello to genetically modified milk, beef hormones, and chlorinated chicken, not to mention shale gas and oil… And then you will have to say farewell to managed environments, free-range, freedom foods, and a pleasant and green landscape pleasing to the eye as well as our collective conciseness. The influx of products will adversely affect our European food security for what I ask? A populist agenda and cheap shopping!

This project opens the doors to American domination so that they can make by 2029 $0.03 per person with nothing in it for Europeans I venture. The deal will remove trade barriers and tariffs designed to keep safe our own food supply, our own farms and associated businesses. American companies will enjoy commercial equality with our European companies. European jobs will be lost, a new recession is peering at us over the horizon at the end of the decade.

NON

European social structures will be damaged, possibly beyond repair by this agreement. Social standards will be diminished, economic standards will be diminished, industrial, cultural, and personal freedoms will be diminished because this agreement will attack our basic democratic freedoms through an unprecedented level of influence that will be exercised by the American mega-companies vying to control our food supply chains.

What gain for Europe? Well its suggested that Europe will gain 0.5% of total European GDP but its also said that this figure should be treated with scepticism, it might not happen!

There is also the further very thorny issue of energy supply. The agreement allows for free trade across Europe of energy supply but there is no universality of agreement between European states on the status of energy supply. In some countries certain types of energy (shale gas) is illegal. This is without question a massive area of concern not currently addressed by the agreement or the EU. Democratic rights will certainly be trampled under the American free trade boot when it comes to energy supply.

The European project seems to be under threat from our American cousins attempts to sell Europe food and energy that it does not need or want in most cases. Do we honestly need more Americanisms? Our food is currently too fast, more not less McDonald’s cannot surly be a good thing.

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Gender Gaps

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Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, Internat...
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christine Lagarde, Director of the IMF, said recently, “In the long race ahead, it makes no sense to simply eliminate half the contestants before the starting gun is sounded. Letting women participate more fully in economic life can yield enormous economic benefits.”

Its probably fair to say that in the developed west that women get a better deal in terms of equality in the workplace than probably anywhere else on the planet. That’s no to say there is absolute equality, there isn’t, but they do experience a much closer to the male experience than almost anywhere else. Of course Asia is probably the most desperate place to be a woman right now but the Middle East offers some hope.

The Middle East is a key region of interest because although increasing numbers of women are receiving a good standard of education, the region still lags behind on the core issue of economic equality. On a global scale, the latest figures from the World Economic Forum‘s Global Gender Gap Report show that although the gender gap in education is 93% closed, the gap in economic equality has closed by only 60%. A problem!

There is plainly a disconnect from the classroom to the workplace. Education will continue to be vitally important generally but it has to be questioned where the focus for women’s education is. What educational support do women need to prepare them for the world of business and work?

Perhaps the Middle East is swayed by overt sexual discrimination? This might be too simple an explanation but nonetheless probably forms part of the explanation. Women entrepreneurs seeking loan capital may have their ideas and suggestions dismissed on the basis of them being a woman rather than straight forward commercial measure of the likely hood of success of the business being proposed. Women’s enterprise then is choked-off at source! The net result is retarded economic growth with only 50% (at best that is) of economically active people partaking in forwarding the economy.

Youth is the key to forward growth and engagement economically. The youth of today shape the future of tomorrow. This despite the political and military challenges facing the region at the present time, youth hold the key.

I am quite sure that each country will need a unique approach, cultural challenges presented by national identities possibly being the most difficult of challenges to overcome, but not insurmountable over time. My assumption is that the majority of countries of the Middle East will face many common challenges, possibly more so than any other region and this then may prove to be the deciding factory in regional success and therefore the model for the rest of the world to follow. Well we can hope I guess.

The exception to the Middle East rule is Israel with an economy broadly speaking similar to developed European and US economies. Although I’m not suggesting that Israel is not without economic issues to overcome, but they are much closer (and in some respects further on) than the close by European economies in respect to equality of opportunity.

Women in the workplace, women in business… it simply makes no sense to eliminate half the contestants before the starting gun is sounded. Letting women participate more fully in economic life will yield enormous economic benefits.

They were called Gypsies

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A Polish Romani woman
A Polish Romani woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Europe has a long and diverse history so far as the Roma or Gypsy are concerned. The Roma population is not homogeneous in nature, it is divided through the events of history and the passage of time.

The Roma populations right across Europe share common parts of their language and expressions but the stories they tell are very different indeed.

In France the first record of Roma is from the Bohemian populace and dates from the Middle Ages. In Romania, Moldovia and Wallachia there could be found a very high concentration of Roma peoples linked to the often found enslavement of these people. Slavery was abolished in the 1850’s and it was recorded that in Romania they had over 200,000 Roma in a total population of 4.4 million people.

Today there is presently around 10 million Roma right across the European Diaspora and notably about 14 million world-wide, so a European issue really. Roma peoples in Central and Eastern Europe account for anything up to 10% of the populace. In Western Europe the story is very different. In France for example there are 250,000 Roma derived from the group formally known as the ‘nomads’; these were people engaged in itinerant occupations recorded in ‘The Plan of the Nomads’.

Spain and Portugal also have very defined groups with a very strong sense of identity. After the Great Plague of 1347 in the Middle Ages people migrated from Graeci, Albanasi and Cingari to Southern Italy, Spain & Portugal. In Spain the Roman Catholic Monarchs practiced against the Roma in the same way they practiced against the Jews; conversion or death. This policy led to a concentration around Andalucia where the Flamenco culture comes from. Back in France Roma collected in the Catalan towns of Marseille and Montpellier living a sedentary lifestyle.

Today the reason for Roma movement is driven by the factors of economic activity and a place to live freely.

Roma populations are broadly speaking right across Western Europe rejected, but this is nothing new. In France there have been many notable attempts to purge the Kingdom of the Roma. Into the 19th century the Roma had a much better time of it and were tolerated in France. This changed in 1907 when things turned very violent, the policing of the wandering risk , the abject race as they became known. By 1930 most Western States had made legal arrangements to control the Roma, to record who they were, where they were and what they were doing.

In 1940 the French State went further in requiring full assimilation of the Roma. They were no-longer allowed to just drift and to have an independent identity. They were either French of not French. But things relaxed some in 1969 when the Roma with no fixed place of residence were given the name of traveler.

In the modern era life for the Roma is once again becoming difficult through social and cultural mistrust. The political climate is again moving against the Roma. But there is confusion; the Roma from Southern France, Spain, Italy as well as Central Europe share a common identity. The Roma from the UK, Northern France, Switzerland and the Scandinavian Countries are not joined by a common heritage.  The status of these Roma is still and shall remain subject to national identities. The proposed French administrative system of travelers permits is perhaps a way of dealing with the activities, movements and work arrangements but will rely on some level of European integration or assimilation.

One of the central European dreams is freedom of movement of people and the Roma typify freedom of movement, its just that the national administrative systems cannot hope at present to keep up with the movements of the Roma. Non-the-less the total movement of people is near to 15,000 across Europe so nothing like the 250,000 people who made their way into France in the Middle Ages.

Protection of the rights of the Roma is important but the stateless sense of the Roma people has got to be addressed. The Roma bring mistrust among local populations, crime and localized environmental issues to be addressed. The Roma cannot be allowed to become stateless and therefore free from tax liability, free from social accountability and free from cultural inclusion but they must be allowed to maintain their very essence.

Of course the effects of the travelers from Northern Europe are all together a different matter. These Roma are not ethnically identified, they are people who have chosen to adopt a life-style, something short of homeless. They have a home, they have a national identity, they do not need assimilation, they do not form part of a Diaspora, they bring social, cultural and legal difficulties and they contribute little in the way of economic or societal contribution.

To understand the Roma is to understand their history and who they actually are.

Pablo Picasso

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Pablo Picasso born 25 Oct. 1881, died 08 Apr. 1973; its been 40 years almost to the day since PB passed over.  Pablo Picasso was probably, well for a time at least the most famous painter the world has known.  Perhaps even more famous that Michelangelo or Da Vinci some might offer, I’m not sure but he certainly is up there with the greats so far as I’m concerned.

His full name to be accurate is Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Clito Ruiz y Picasso and honors a number of Catholic Saints.

He was a relatively poor student to start, but never-the-less Picasso demonstrated a fantastic talent for drawing from a very early age unhampered by his humble beginnings. According to myth (probably started by Picasso himself) , his first words were “piz, piz,” a childish attempt at lápiz, the Spanish word for pencil.  By the time he had turned 13 years old Picasso was a more accomplished drafts person than his father.

Picasso’s family moved around during his formative years but by the time he was 16 years old he was in Madrid, enrolled at the Royal Academy of St Fernando.  He was not a good student, often skipping class, wandering into the City and drawing whatever he saw and took his fancy, mostly gypsies, beggars and prostitutes.

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At the turn of the 20th Century Picasso was in Paris, the centre of the Art world at the time. At this time he was in his “Blue Period” which lasted till about 1904.  The blue period reflected a time of depression for Picasso but by 1905 he had met and fallen in love with a model;  Fernande Olivier, he was also newly prosperous thanks to the generous patronage of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard  He had every reason to be happy and this was reflected in his artistic output now known as the “Rose Period”.

In 1907, he made a painting unlike anything he or any other artist had ever painted before, a piece that would change for ever the direction of art in the 20th century: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, an awkward depiction of five beige figures, prostitutes, distorted with sharp geometric features and stark blotches of blues, greens and grays. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the precursor and inspiration for Cubism.

Cubism shocked, appalled and fascinated in equal measure.  The French writer and critic Max Jacob reflected, “It was really the harbinger comet of the new century.”  but this was not to last, the outbreak of war saw Picasso return for a short period of sombre realism.  But by 1927 Picasso had moved on to Surrealism and this brought the world Guernica.  Perhaps the greatest painting the world has ever seen.

Completed in 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. The picture deals with the destruction of war; on April 26, 1937, German bombers supporting Franco’s Nationalist forces, carried out a devastating aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica.  Picasso was outraged and horrified painting the picture in mono-tones of black and grey.

Following the war Picasso became politically motivated and joined the communist party and was even twice honored by being awarded the Lenin Peace Prize; firstly in 1950 then again in 1961.  By contrast to his communist sympathies, Picasso was now also an international celebrity, the worlds most famous living artist ever.  His painting took a further turn in his later years becoming simpler, crude almost.  Upon passing a group of school children in his later years Picasso remarked, “when I was as old as these children, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.”

The epitome of his later work is his Self Portrait “Facing Death“, drawn in pencil and wax crayon just a year before he passed away. Its an autobiographical subject, who appears as something between a human and an ape, with a green face and pink hair, its drawn with the crude technique of a child. Yet the expression in the eyes, captures a lifetime of wisdom, fear and uncertainty, it is the unmistakable work of a master at the height of his powers.

Picasso had two wives during his lifetime but he was an incorrigible womanizer who had countless relationships with girlfriends, mistresses, muses and prostitutes over the course of his long life.

His technical mastery, visionary creativity and profound empathy marked Picasso out as a revolutionary artist. Picasso endlessly reinvented himself, switching between styles so radically different that his life’s work seems the product of five or six great artists rather than just one.  The diversity of his work, the result of freshly evaluating for each piece the form and technique best suited to achieve the desired effects. “Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should,” Picasso said. “Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it.”

40 years after Pablo Picasso passed and we still celebrate his life, his contribution.  I grew up longing to be an artist inspired by Pablo Picasso.  One day I may (un)learn to draw as a child.

Stolen Future, Stolen Past

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Right so the Easter Holidays are over and its back to work and the news just gets… well worse actually.

Official figures published by Eurostat Statistics Agency earlier today (Tuesday 02 Apr. 2013) showed the number of unemployed people in the Euro-Zone had risen by 33,000 between January and February 2013, putting unemployment in the Euro-Zone at a staggeringly high 12% or 19.07 million people of working age and able to work.  this is just an average as well.

Among states within the Euro-Zone, (not including the UK), the highest increases in unemployment compared with a year ago were in Cyprus (10.2% to 14.0%), Portugal (14.8% to 17.5%) and Spain (23.9% to 26.3%).  So the bail-outs worked? No!

Worse still youth unemployment (the under-25’s) rose to 23.9%, up from 22.3% a year ago.  But the stark contrast happen when you compare Germany with the others.  German youth unemployment 7.7%, Italy 37.8%, Portugal 38.2%, Spain 55.7 and the winner is… Greece 58.4%.  This is not good, German style austerity is NOT making jobs in those countries that most need them.

That’s the old-style bail outs.

The new Cypriot style bail out, you know the one where the Government is forced to agree to a levy of up to 60% on savings over €100k (this looks like theft to me), well they are going work a treat don’t you think? No, I didn’t think so either.  The Germans have come over all happy that national debt problems, national banking problems are not going to be dealt with at the cost of the German tax payer.  I’m sure they are very happy with this arrangement, they all join a big jolly club, make like they’re all big pals but as soon as the going gets a little tough Oh no, nobody’s wants to help.

So here we have it; Countries in the Euro-Zone that fall foul of banking failure or spiraling national debt who thought they could rely on their partners actually cant.  But not only that what help that is on offer comes with a hefty long term price to pay.  No jobs for the foreseeable, definitely no jobs for the youth and anybody who had a will to save for the future well they gonna take that as well.  Genius idea!  Stop the poor from earning a living and stop the wealthy from enjoying the benefits of their labours.

Can I venture that the actual effects of all this austerity and levy’s and joblessness might actually lead to the long-term deterioration of Germany?

The Germans have enjoyed really low interest rates for a looooooong time, they have a manufacturing industry still in tact and sell to the rest of Europe.  So far so good, good products sold to those who want them.  Trouble is, those customers of the German manufactures were borrowing money from each other to buy these goods and now the Germans want everybody to pay up.  The German success is built on the very shaky foundations of everybody else’ debt.

It just cant be me that can see the flaw in the plan can it?

The Germans are going to have to face up to their dilemma at some point.  Either start playing along a bit and helping those others who’ve got them selves in a bit of spot or go it alone and collapse the European project altogether.

New Model EU

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By the end of Monday this week, The UK FTSE 100 had closed down 0.2%, the German Dax down 0.5% & France’s Cac dropped 1.1%. later in the day New York, the Dow Jones closed 0.5% lower.

Why?

The agreement between Cyprus and EU Finance Ministers, that’s why!

Under the agreement finally made in the early hours of Monday morning, people who have more than €100,000 in Cypriot banks will have to contribute directly to the €10bn rescue package.  The Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said later that the approach could form the basis of a new model for stopping the collapse of European banks, rather than asking taxpayers to bail them out.

The reality of what Mr. Dijsselbloem is saying is that there is apparently no conceivable reason why anybody would want to have more than €100,000 in savings in a European bank.  Not a single reason as far as I can see.  This wont be a problem for the vast majority of European Citizens and especially those in Cyprus because they soon wont have any money anyway if the EU carries out this plan (threat).

Naturally Germany (Ms Merkel) is happy with the deal in the Cyprus case.  They were less than impressed by Cypriot reliance on Tax Haven status, an over-reliance on the banking sector (I wonder what other EU country relies heavily on banking?  The UK perhaps?).

Its not that I disagree that EU countries should have balanced economies, not overly reliant on any one sector but, like all things Austerity speed is of the essence it would seem.  The Cypriot economy may only take 2 or 3 years to bounce back but living standards are likely to be affected for more than 10 years, and that’s a long time to be unhappy at treatment by those who you don’t know.

Balanced economies are a good thing and are a step (probably bigger than we realize) towards integration.  If all economies are acting in the same way then why not integrate?  No reason at all, in fact economies of scale will come into play and off we go.  Balanced economies with a centralized homogenized government will in all likelihood put the EU back into the game on the world stage, maybe.

So, do I think this will happen? No, of course not.

What I think will happen is that local, national priorities will take precedence.  10 years to recover, not improve, just recover living standards is not a winning pitch in my view.  Its a recipe for silo thinking, self pity (I have some sympathy here) and maybe even separatism so defeating what the EU is supposed to be all about.

The Germans are a bit like the Incredible Hulk, you wont like them if they get angry, but they really need to work on some chill-out therapies.  It seems for the time being they are getting their own way but I have fear that they’ll get used to it.  The Greeks and Italians are very unhappy bunnies and only just missed the boiling pot.  Who next I wonder?

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Well it doesn’t take a village idiot to work out that at some point the UK is going to come in for a bit of close financial inspection and when it does who knows how badly they will react.  After all the Brits can hardly be described as fully paid up members of the European project, skeptics at best!  No, I think that the EU should draw back a bit and see if there are any more localized workable alternatives.  They may take a bit longer to work through but will probably get much better buy-in from those directly affected.

Net result: local solutions to local problems and no tears in the European JV.

Coffeeeeeee!

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iFAMINEI’ve been to Africa countless times and there are plenty of reasons that I can see that the Continent should not be in the position it finds itself.  I’ve met a multitude of talented, ambitious, thoughtful and yes entrepreneurial people.  In fact there are parts of Kenya or Tanzania or Uganda I would happy settle and make my life.

The reason Africa is dependent on aid is really a very simple one.   Less than 20% of African exports are manufactured, value added goods, the other 80% are raw materials.  But 65% of the continents imports are manufactured goods.  Africa therefore is a producer of what it does not consume and a consumer of what it does not produce.  The irony of this perverse situation I’m sure isn’t lost.

In Uganda for example coffee is grown in small quantities by about a million households.  In fact Uganda is the 5th largest producer of coffee beans, but it doesn’t have any capacity for processing those beans.  Frankly I was amazed when I read that stat!  This means that less than 1% of the retail value of coffee originated in Uganda is retained by the very farmers who produced the beans.  But here’s the real kick in the proverbials, go to any large hotel in Uganda or Kenya or pretty much any other East African nation and see what brand the coffee is that you get served in a hotel.  My bets are that you get Nescafe and not much else.

Don’t get me wrong here, Africa is blighted by Big Man Politics.  But even this cultural bent is related to how the old colonials left the continent.  For the most part European countries carved-up the continent in search of raw materials, installing a small but well armed band of so called Diplomats & Governors to run the countries they invented (Africa is a continent of nations who do not have socially natural boundaries  check it out there are just too many straight line borders for this to be deniable).  What they didn’t do was educate.  So when the countries found freedom from colonial rule they just didn’t have the educated elite to run the country that was left.  Nett result; a few rose to power and were quickly corrupted.

So we now support Africa with endless aid.  In fact the continent now has a chronic dependence on aid and I don’t see how it actually contributes to or acts to stimulate sustainable economic growth.  The powerful donors have tied the aid to concessions, making the leaders of African nations more accountable to corporate America and EU than to their own people.  In short the structural inequalities generated in the 1950’s & 60’s are perpetuated, promotion of  labour exploitation ensures that the export of primary commodities remains central to the bare survival of those in power.

How to correct this situation?

My suggestion is 3-fold:

  1. Transfer of knowledge, train the people in how to manage their environment to best effect
  2. Provide the technology to do the jobs; this of course is linked intimately to point 1
  3. Build institutional capacity; this is the really difficult one actually.  Good governance, good banks, good savings schemes… the things we probably take for granted

There are without question no shortage of entrepreneurs in Africa, all you have to do is visit Nairobi or Lagos or… you will be accosted with people selling their wares.  No, no shortage here.  The real question is access to funding.  About 3% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa can access funding, the other 97%+ are on their own.

The key to this lock I believe lies with the Western Supermarket Chains.  It wouldn’t take that much effort I’m sure for them to go to Africa, seek out those producers who can make what they need, invest some of their vast wealth in creating capacity and give a listing to those producers who make the grade.  I have no doubt that many will, make the grade that is and I would not complain if I had to pay a penny or two more to get great value, high quality products knowing that a farmer or a producer or co-operative somewhere in Africa is able to feed itself, educates itself, and looks after its own health care.  Now that to me sounds like a win-win all-round.

Its a well used phrase but Trade not Aid is to the point and accurate.  All we have to do is find the will to want to change how Africa is run, how we can economically engage with the vast wealth talented people.  I make but a few suggestions and I’m sure there are people cleverer than me with greater insight than me who can shed much more light on what appears to be a complex problem but actually is quite simple, just immense.