tax

The Trouble with (Mobile) Phones

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As supply chains go we very rarely stop to ask where the materials in our mobiles phones (cell phones for the American readers) come from, what the human cost might be. The use of coltan, (a contraction of columbite and tantalite, and its derivative tantalum), to make capacitors for electronic goods becomes a problem when its sale funds a civil war and the social impact on the local population includes death, violence, rape, poor labor conditions and the breakdown of family units.

The battles in Central Africa have been raging for almost twenty years and are funded, in large part, by the localized militias’ control of natural mineral deposits, whether directly, or through taxing and exploiting artisanal miners and local populations.

Artisanal mining is at best described as basic. Small teams with primitive tools clear some jungle, dig up the ground and extract whatever minerals they find close to the surface. Through an informal market, minerals are then sold on to middlemen and make their way along precarious routes, through multiple palms greased with taxes and bribes.

In Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC – democratic? that has got to be a joke, yeah?), at least 5 million people have died in the recent conflicts, of whom it is estimated around 40% were women and children. Recruitment of children as soldiers has been systematic, along with widespread sexual violence as a weapon of war (that’s rape if you were wondering). The warfare is complex and ever changing, with an intricate web of rebel and government-backed militias in combat with each other. Gender-based violence has become a weapon of choice in these conflicts.

According to most experts, smelters and refiners are the main “bottle neck point” of the conflict mineral supply chain. So, an accurate list of smelters would be extremely useful in determining conflict mineral sourcing.  Many of these smelters are highly mobile operations, often based in difficult to reach locations deep within conflict zones and so its likely to be extremely difficult to capture usable data on the operations. 

But hope is on the horizon (well of sorts anyway).  the US has recognized the exploitation associated with, and trade of conflict minerals originating in the DRC is helping to finance conflict characterized by extreme levels of violence in the Eastern DRC, particularly sexual and gender-based violence.

According to Oren Ben-Zeev, a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers who assists companies to comply with the disclosure process, the chain of custody of conflict minerals is difficult to establish.

Ben-Zeev states, “identifying the ‘chain of custody’ between the origin of the minerals and the finished products into which they are incorporated, compounds in difficulty for every supplier tier between the smelter and the reporting company. At the end of the day, companies that are far downstream cannot conclusively determine the smelters in their supply chain.”

Conflict minerals are made into essential components in all advanced electronic devices. There is little we, as consumers, can do to change this. But we can vote with our wallets to support those tech companies that demonstrate their commitment to implementing comprehensive due diligences processes in their supply chains.

The Fairphone initiative, based in Amsterdam, offers the first conflict mineral free smart phone, and Intel now manufactures a conflict mineral free microprocessor. Raise Hope for Congo, a campaign of NGO the Enough Project, ranks electronics companies based on their actions to contribute to a clean minerals trade in the DRC.

Next time you reach for your smart phone or tablet, perhaps it’s worth considering what your response will be.

Much of the above is based on work by Jude Soundar and Alex Newton

Logic or Loathing, the Scottish question

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There aren’t many things as bitter as a divorce and it very much looks as if Scotland is getting themselves ready to divorce the British Union (England really).

What those Westminster types appear to have missed is the way the arguments are being put; Scottish arguments in favor of independence are all emotion and national pride. The Westminster arguments are all financial logic, well that’s what they’d like you to think at any rate, the manner in which some of them frame their arguments leads me to believe they’ve had a frontal lobotomy.

I have to admit that there are compelling arguments for keeping the union together though, Scottish tax’s may well rise and incomes could be hit. These of course are the logic arguments but when logic, even compelling logic such as this rubs up against loathing of the sort the Scottish Nationalists display there’s no contest.

Bearing in mind I’m not Scottish, I try very hard not to go to Scotland; its on the whole cold, damp and honestly I struggle to understand the version of spoken English used to communicate up there, in short its not the kind of place that suits me, but I have to admit nonetheless that I have a secret respect for what they might just achieve.

They have all manner of energy resources and wide open spaces, and yes it looks very beautiful in the brochures. They also have the British naval base where the nuclear submarines are based and this could prove a bit of a problem for the whole of the union, never mind the suggestion of a Sterling currency union which the English don’t appear to like one bit. But really I think they might just do it regardless the logistical challenges. After all who wants to be part of a dog end of an empire?

What ever the Scottish decide I will wish them well because if they don’t actually get independence I’m certain they’ll get what was termed Devo-Max which basically means they’ll run almost as an independent nation, just with a few Westminster MP’s to pay for. If David Cameron and his cronies hadn’t been quite to pig-headed about not putting the Devo-Max option on the ballot papers he might have had a chance of salvaging some respect in Scotland. Win, Lose or Draw after the vote takes place I would probably bet that he wont be welcome North of the Border any time soon!

From the politics point of view Scotland is broadly speaking a Socialist nation while the rest of the UK isn’t, so you have to have some sympathy for them, they just don’t get the leaders they want. And I can see why the British Labour Party don’t want them to split away either, it’d mean the end of them as an opposition party in the remaining UK with no possibility of taking power for a long time to come. Basically the remaining UK will have a Conservative Government, unchallenged for quite some time to come. On this point alone I selfishly hope the Scottish people remain in the union, but I wouldn’t hold it against them if they didn’t, in fact I’d be quite the jealous one!

So the divorce papers have been served, the marriage is in trouble, the wife wants to leave after years of abuse and feeling like she’s been treated like an idiot. The husband on the other hand cant bring himself to believe she’ll leave, she wont be able to support herself he thinks.

Like most of these sorts of cases, she divorces him and the husband doesn’t see it coming till its actually happened and his suits are cut to ribbons in a bin-bag at the door of his now former home!

The Problem with OXFAM

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The problem with OXFAM is typical of most large NGO’s; the need for cash, and lots of the it. But if you listen to OXFAM you could be forgiven for thinking that the problem with OXFAM is SodaStream & Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson has been an OXFAM Ambassador for around 6-years and so she says, she’s rightly proud to have been associated with the organisation. However, as with many of these organisations there’s a but and big but at that. Scarlette Johansson has a sponsorship deal with a commercial organisation, in this case SodaStream. Nothing unusual in that sort of set-up, famous people are often associated with a brand to promote further brand awareness. Makes perfect sense.

And here in lies the problem for OXFAM; SodaStream are an Israeli company who’s operations are based in Judea & Samaria (Ezor Yehuda VeShomron), what most people would understand as the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Under international law this area is classified as occupied. This is debatable but not the issue at hand. OXFAM actively campaigns against the Israeli occupation.

I wont go into the spoils of war argument here but I could.

150px-Judea_and_Samaria_Area_in_Israel_(all)_(semi-Israel_areas_hatched).svg

But wait a minute, SodaStream who’s employee base is 15% Jewish Israeli and 85% Palestinian Israeli operates an equal pay and conditions policy for those doing the same work. Effectively their policies are colour blind. Scarlett Johansson recognises this and is proud to be linked to SodaStream on this basis.

In many other countries companies foreign owned or not are generally welcomed as wealth promoters and employers and as tax payers. So what does OXFAM say, well their stance is the same as those who support the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement (BDS). OXFAM is a human rights organisation. In their view the company is illegally based on occupied territory and they cannot have an Ambassador who is linked with such a company, its a contradiction that cannot be maintained.

Well they may hold that view but if they honestly do hold that view then they should have sacked her and not allowed her to leave. OXFAM have plainly took the gun, loaded it up, took aim and shot themselves in the foot!

The fact is that most if not all large NGO’s are heavily reliant on sponsorships for their finances. They have huge, almost crippling salary bills to pay and they therefore need the corporate support to survive. The issues of deprivation, human rights and equality become very quickly a secondary thought. In short OXFAM took the view that they needed Scarlett Johansson more than she needed them (she didn’t).

By contrast Ms Johansson has said she is proud to be associated with SodaStream as a company that promotes cooperation and interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestinians. She said the company was committed to “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights. That is what is happening in their Ma’ale Adumim factory every working day.”

The reason, the real reason why OXFAM didn’t tell or even ask Scarlett Johansson to leave; she was no longer welcome as an Ambassador, is that they relied on her for good branding. I have to think that they may live to regret this decision.

As for Scarlett Johansson, well she has handled her self with dignity and has shone a light on the ridiculous BDM movement. Trade is without question a leveller and a conduit for peaceful cooperation.

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.

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.

Live Together not Side-by-Side

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"The Naughty Step": or, Religion ove...
“The Naughty Step”: or, Religion overthrowing Heresy and Hatred III (Photo credit: Nick in exsilio)

In Britain today there’s a celebration which on the face of it is enormous fun, especially for children. Bonfire Night; a night when there’s a bonfire, fireworks and a communal gathering. What’s often (almost always) missed is the underlying reason for the ‘celebration’ – the conviction and death of a Roman Catholic (Guy Fawkes) for trying to overthrow the monarchy in 1604 by blowing-up Parliament.

The purpose of this post is not a lesson in English history but to point out the divisions in society.

400 years ago Roman Catholics were in the minority in England and were treated in most cases worse than the Protestant owned farm animals, so not even second class citizens. In fact even today it isn’t constitutionally possible for a Catholic to be the Monarch! Yup, that’s right 2013 and a Catholic cant sit on the crown thrown!

The point is that communities live side-by-side and not generally speaking together. The present day situation often revolves around immigrant communities, large and rapid in-fluxes of peoples who’s sole aim is a better life. The Protestant/Catholic question has largely been resolved, well in England any-way, Northern Ireland and Scotland may be peaceful places but I’m quite sure the tensions remain even today.

Its probably true to say that ‘birds of a feather, flock together’ and its to be expected that new immigrants will naturally coalesce into mini-communities centred on the familiarity with those from the home-land, and traditional customs. This is to be expected and initially at least accepted. However, the behavior of the native ‘do-gooders’ does seem to encourage difference, it encourages the whole-scale preservation of cultural practices from far away places. It might even be that these ‘do-gooders’ have a sense of neo-colonial social condescension flowing through their thoughts and ideas. Of course if this is the case then they are guilty of prejudice of an intellectual nature; I’m not sure which is more damaging the thug on the street practicing violence or the intellectual who constructs social barriers to progress.

The politically far-right has begun to take a-hold over some sections of society and intellectually they have been clever in claiming secularism for themselves.  They use the cloak of secularism to hide their ‘hate talk’. Yet it is also true to say they pick their causes, they will often march shoulder to shoulder with religious fundamentalists against causes such as same sex marriage or gay rights. Non-the-less when it comes to some religions the message is in no way complex; The Jewish and Muslim faiths come-in for some very pointed accusations from the far-right.

The realities of every-day life in a multi-cultural society play into the hands of these people, communities living side-by-side in mistrust fueled by the hate speak of the far-right lead inevitably to these divisions being exploited for the benefit of hate. Cultural symbols become a metaphor for religious and cultural intolerance. Those of hate who hide in the Churches and Mosques openly accuse and attack those who do not practice as they do. The phobias become pervasive, leaching into everyday society, the press, the media and yes even into everyday conversation. Difference becomes a topic of conversation, it becomes a main event, a reason to hate, to mistrust, not to live together.

The issue really isn’t the head scarf or whatever symbol is chosen, its the definition imposed by those who might wear and use it as a justification of their personal being and by those who do not wear it and point to their own justifications for its removal. The head scarf, the golden crucifix, the yarmulke… these become the very things that generate hate, the ideas become something obscured.

The dominance of a Protestant culture remains in the British legal system and it could possibly be argued that strengthening of this could actually lead to greater harmony. Those with conflicting views would have a firm rule to live by and if they cannot may seek out less difficult places to dwell. The cultural gaps that have been allowed to develop are where those who hate have come to exist, to thrive, to push out from. The cultural gaps are often defended as the places that freedom exists but is this so? Well, yes actually, but its the freedom to practice hate that gives them a bad name.

The current situation is difficult and set to become even more difficult with further removal of barriers to migration. The far-right I’m sure will gain more favor over the coming year after the in-flux of Romanians & Bulgarians. It seems inconceivable that the bonds of kinship will be broken on arrival in Britain (or France or Italy or anywhere else for that matter) and I’m sure it will provide food for the far-right that these people fail to integrate with immediate effect. I’m sure that they will fall prey to the emphasis on skin-colour, on religious difference, on cultural practices but most importantly that they are just plain different.

In my mind, equality, emancipation and universalism should be the goals of society applied evenly to all, the immigrants, the far-right, the far-left and those in the centre. Assimilation should be the aim of all peoples, to live together not side-by-side.

US Debt Crisis Oct. 2013

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English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Prot...
English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House Español: Barack Obama firmando la Ley de Protección al Paciente y Cuidado de Salud Asequible en la Casa Blanca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a shade more than 2 weeks (16 days to be precise) the US debt crisis appears to be coming to a close, well for now at least. America came within a whisper of default on its national debt because the Republicans and the Democrats couldnt see eye-to-eye on a solution.

On Wednesday 15 Oct. 2013 the Democratic leader Harry Reid said that Senate leaders had found an agreement, with non-essential government services to be reopened; but only until a new deadline of January 15, 2014. America’s borrowing authority will be increased until February 07, 2014. Reid said: “The compromise we reached will provide our economy with the stability it desperately needs.”

Yet to outside observers, the past three weeks have been totally baffling; a perplexing cocktail of Tea Party, Ted Cruz, Obamacare and debt.

So how and why did the Washington Administration came so close to pushing the world back into financial chaos.

  1. From the beginning, what was the Default? The US government nearly defaulted on its debt because the two main parties (yes there are only two choices and neither of them are particularly attractive from my European perspective), the Republicans and the Democrats struggled to reach a deal to increase the country’s debt limit (of course this simply means they are allowing themselves to borrow even more, as if the debt isn’t already at eye-watering levels!).
  2. What does that mean? The debt limit set is the total allowable $ value of government borrowing. The limit, set by Congress is usually issued in the form of treasury bonds and securities. If the debt limit isn’t increased, then America can’t honor its debts to foreign countries. We all get to pay for America’s spending!
  3. And why is that so bad? The US $ is the world’s reserve currency (travel almost anywhere and you can get by with US $). If the US can’t pay its debts, the stock markets would react swiftly and badly, plunging the US and the rest of the world back into recession (as if we ever really got out of recession in the first place).
  4. So why didn’t they just raise it without all the argument? This deal was so difficult to reach because the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, was facing massive pressure from within his own party not to compromise with the Democrats. Amounting to, it would seem a ‘screw the economy’ attitude to get what they wanted or to those of us with a little more maturity, plain childishness!
  5. Right then, got that bit; but what did it all have to do with Obamacare? The Affordable Care Act, was passed into law in 2010 (that’s by both Democrats and Republicans), but is despised by the Republican Party, who see it as a violation of free market principles and an expansion of the state, a bit too socialist for them. It’s also President Obama’s signature achievement, making it a high value target for his opponents.
  6. And the Government Shut-down? The shutdown came about because Congress couldn’t (wouldn’t) agree on a debt budget for the country. The Republicans tried to tie the dismantling of Obamacare to the passing of a national debt budget deal. When the Democrats refused to cave-in on the healthcare law, the government closed. The Republicans then tried the same hostage taking tactic over the debt ceiling. Same result.
  7. Go on then explain why they threatened the debt ceiling? Breaching the debt ceiling would be a catastrophe; the US came to the brink of default because a small group of Tea Party-backed politicians (the lunatic-right) who just didn’t care if the government defaulted on its debts. They despise the Democratic government and they despise Obama even more. Had the US have defaulted, it would have happened on Obama’s watch, which would have been a victory of sorts for the Republicans after their failure to dismantle Obamacare. But screw the world!
  8. Right so we know why, now who? Led by Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, this extreme right-wing (wrong-wing) of the Republican Party amounts to only 18% of the elected GOP, however it is hugely powerful thanks to the support of the Tea Party, who have threatened to challenge any Republican who voted in favor of a compromise with the Democrats.
  9. Okay, this takes money, where from? The Tea Party was able to threaten established GOP politicians because they have a lot of financial backing from wealthy businessmen such as the Koch Brothers. So any Republican politician that compromised would face a well-funded opposition campaign the next time voters went to the polls. Its all really about self interest.
  10. Got that, what do they stand for though? Even the Koch brothers didn’t want the US to default on its debt, that’s just bad for business. Meaning something else was driving the Tea Party; IDEOLOGY. The Tea Party came to prominence in 2008 after the global financial meltdown and the subsequent bailouts. They wanted less government regulation, less national debt and more fiscal responsibility! Not particularly bad when you say it like that but hang on just a second…
  11. Just tell me about the reality please? …2008 also saw the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first Black President (some people call him The Kenyan and some believe him to be Muslim, not that either is a bad thing as such but in some peoples eyes either one or both statements if true would be seen as a PR disaster). The Tea Party didn’t like this as they saw it representing a shift away from their view of “traditional America” (traditional America = Christian Right-Wing; the KKK is probably a good example of a Christian Right-Wing organisation in America). As such, they set about challenging everything Obama did, even if that meant bringing the US and the world to the brink of financial disaster. Great idea.

 

So, the Americans have pulled-back but honestly is anybody fooled? This situation is set for a repeat January/February next year. In short; situation normal, round two set for after Christmas!

 

Ye-Haaa welcome to the wild west!