The news and images from Afghanistan recently have been painful to watch. I have been in and out of the country for about 15 years now. First time in 2007, as the Belgian head of mission. Pol-mil work, as they call it in diplomatic jargon. I was exhausted after two years and took a career break, which never happened because the country had drawn me in. The UN offered me a consultancy contract to help them spin off all of their information technology projects: I transformed Afghanistan Information Management Services from a UN project into a national NGO. Then I moved on to the Asia Foundation, resourcing and leading programmes such as the Performance-Based Governors Fund. Around 2011-2012, I was probably exhausted, although I did not feel that way. I just thought it was time for me to try to settle somewhere else. I fell in love with an American USAID worker, who had worked in Afghanistan but moved to Nepal. Hence, I went to Nepal and settled there, but still went to Afghanistan for shorter or longer jobs (see my LinkedIn profile for the detail of my career).

About four years back, I divorced my American lady. She went to Africa. I went back to Belgium and reintegrated. New job. Re-connecting with friends and family and, first and foremost, my two wonderful children who had then started university. My daughter is a full medical doctor now, and my son is in his last year of engineering studies. I still need to find a woman here to make my reintegration complete, but that will come when I am ready for it (I had not one but two divorces in my life – expat life is nice, but it does come with unanticipated family sacrifices).

I continued doing consultancies, though. My last consultancy job was a three-month stint – yes, in Afghanistan. It was just before C19 outbreak (end of 2019 and beginning of 2020). I worked with the EU and the Ministry of Finance on a direct budget support program, evaluating whether the criteria for releasing a few hundred million Euro were met. I was invited to the Palace by high officials. There is no way you can just walk in there, like the Taliban did. When I was there, even tanks would not have been able to break through the defenses. I was, therefore, utterly shocked to see the Taliban were able to walk into the Palace just days after they had reached the outskirts of Kabul.

Now I am watching the news and images from Afghanistan. I thought I had no tears left inside of me, but it is not true. My heart bleeds. I think many people like me went to these far-flung places more because of a desire for adventure. Because you want to be some kind of hero doing good. A great professional. You think you want to get involved but, deep inside, that is not what it is about. But Afghanistan is a special country: even if you are not involved, it drags you in. Its sad history but, more importantly, its people. I will not be emotional. This blog is not about emotions, but I do want to share what I have to say about, which I summed up in a brief LinkedIn post on the events. I write this:

“It is tough to watch what is happening in Afghanistan. All people who have worked there probably feel betrayed. Not by Americans. Not by Afghans. But by their leadership and governments. It did not have to be a worse repeat of Vietnam. It is a dishonor to the US veterans and those who have died or were injured there, the very ones Biden talks about in his press briefings.

Those 400,000+ of internally displaced since the fighting started this year, the distress, thousands of Afghans climbing the walls to get on the tarmac of Kabul Airport, and – worst of all – the total dashing of any spark of hope that was left (many Afghans honestly did believe in some kind of national reconciliation). That could have been avoided. That should have been avoided. It will stick with Mr. Biden as his single biggest foreign policy failure forever. And it will stick with worldwide sentiment about the intentions and capabilities of the US Government for decades longer.

US force (tested shock and awe tactics) always wins the war, but is uncapable of winning the peace that should come afterwards. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, just to name a few everyone knows. But there are also smaller troublesome interventions which led to nothing: Uganda, Somalia, Lebanon, etcetera. Perhaps I should label the invasions of Panama and Grenada as successes – just to make it look somewhat more balanced? And the Kosovo wars, of course. There were a few stalemates and returns to the status quo ex ante too. But – when looking at the investment, in terms of casualties and money – the record is all but but impressive.”

I will not say anything more about it (the words do not come easy, this time) except, perhaps, one thing. The longest war that the US has been fighting is the Cold War. And it won that too. But it is very clear it is not winning the Cold Peace that ensued. Further antagonizing China, Russia, Iran, etcetera seems to be both Republican and Democrat long-term policy. There is no difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden there. The US Government is making yet another big long-term mistake here.

Post scriptum: For the fleeing ex-President Ashraf Ghani (whom I met personally only once, but that meeting did reinforce my earlier impressions: he was/is too arrogant to lead a country), I have only these words: “Not only were you an inept leader, but you turned out to be a coward as well!”

Former President Karzai had the decency to stay behind – now, when a heroic President is needed – and, when thinking a bit further back in Afghan history, when Russian forces were rapidly leaving the country (in 1996), President Najibullah also stayed in Kabul – till the (bitter) end (unfortunately, he was effectively killed by the then-equivalent of the Taliban but, while that may have led to Ghani’s flight, Karzai at least shows real courage and ancestry now).

The latest news (Al Jazeera, 18 August, 09:41 GMT) has it that Anas Haqqani, one of the leaders of one of the hard-core factions of the Taliban, has met the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks, together with Abdullah Abdullah, who would probably have been a better President than Ghani (but the 2019 presidential elections did not allow to declare who of the two (Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah) actually won those). This is promising, or something that might be promising. Or, at least, we may think the next Taliban regime may actually be some kind of true national reconciliation government.

Finally, I should also encourage you to read alternative narratives, like this editorial article on Al Jazeera. It does help to, perhaps, think somewhat more positively about the turn of events.

The implosion of the EU

The Russian Foreign Minister pronounced the EU officially dead – as far as Russia is concerned, at least: ““There are no relations with the European Union as an organization. […] Moscow only has relations with individual EU nations now.” Similarly, China finds the EU also increasingly difficult to deal with, and may also decide to just treat the EU for what it has become: a wasteful international bureaucracy. Brexit, the mismanagement of the COVID-crisis, and the increasingly diverging politics and political views within the EU only exposed the deep-rooted rot.

The Russian and Chinese Foreign Minister both want to strengthen the UN Security Council, which is probably a good thing – because the UNSC embodies the kind of nasty but effective realist deal-making our brave new multi-polar world desperately needs – especially now that all trust in the US as a ‘global policeman’ has been eroded. Biden calling Putin a ‘killer’ has not helped matters in this regard.

The UNSC might work – especially with Germany playing a more active role now as non-permanent member, probably seeking to reform it so as to achieve permanent member status. Enlargement of the UNSC should not be based on the preferences of the current permanent members, but on real power-projecting capabilities and other assets that may help to stabilize an increasingly volatile world. We may criticize Russia and China but – unlike democracies such as India – these are societies – or social systems – which have managed to define and, more importantly, implement medium- and long-term political and economic objectives. The numbers of 20 years of Putin, and a rapid comparison of China’s growth versus that of India (similarly endowed with natural and human resources) speak for themselves. Measured against Bentham’s utilitarian moral rule (what produces the greatest good for the greatest number?), Russia and China have surely done better than any other (large) society over the past 20 years.

As for Europe, I am not sure it has much future. Even as a name, it does not work very well: Europa was just a consort of Zeus, and she came from a region which is currently referred to as Turkey. So what message were ‘European’ politicians trying to convey with the idea of Europe anyway? :-/

Ursula von der Leyen still has another four years to go, and does much better than inebriated Juncker (but then he was, without any doubt, the weakest EUC President ever), but she faces an uphill (impossible?) housecleaning task. Perhaps she should speak more German than French? With Brexit, a return to either is good. Let’s see what Germany’s voters say in September. Their vote is more important than others’. That is not a racial prejudice, but just fact: some people matter more than others, and some countries matter more than others, too!

[…] So what makes sense, then – in terms of international order? Perhaps the idea of weighted voting in the larger UN system should be re-considered. It may well be the only rational alternative to a return to the 19th-century international system, which was based on rivalry between nation-states. The only difference is that the world population will soon reach the staggering 8 billion mark, up from less than 2 billion in 1900: it more than doubled since I was born (which is 50 years ago). Doomsday thinking is not warranted, however. 🙂 And the nation-states are different. Two of them (China and India) now account for 36% of the world’s population. Asia as a whole will account for about 55% of the total in 2050, Africa 25% share. Europe and North America? Probably about 10% only, but this projection is based on healthy (overoptimistic?) demographics for the US and Canada.

The US alone still accounts for about 40% of the world’s spending on arms and the military. To protect whom against whom? Europe from Russia? The Middle East, Central Asia or Africa from fundamentalists? Democracies against dictatorships? And with what mandate, really? The US bypassing the UN Security Council in 2003 (the invasion of Iraq), as well as on numerous other occasions and related matters (including the first Gulf War) damaged its international credibility beyond repair. I worked for about 10 years in Afghanistan – about half of that time I was paid out of US taxpayers’ money – and I understand the appeal of the Yankee, go home idea very much. I believe that, since Trump, more Americans start to understand it too.

What about NATO? It served two purposes: one was to prevent war between its members, the other was to protect Europe against the Russians. The latter threat is no longer relevant in this interdependent world, so NATO should (also) scale down its xenophobic rhetoric, and focus on the first: reduce tensions between Greece and Turkey, focus on stability in the Balkans, reduce tension in former Eastern Europe (please stop expanding, NATO!), etcetera). Unfortunately, rational decision-making and international institutions are difficult to marry. :-/

Remembering 9/11

11 September. A sad day of remembrance of a historical event on another continent. The world has changed in the meanwhile – and very much so. Unfortunately, it is not a better world now. The refugees who try to reach Europe may be said to be refugees from the great act of vengeance of the US.


I hate Trump, but today I thought US politics are actually none of my business. Worse, if Trump wins, that may be bad news for the US but – if America First would effectively mean the end of US interventionism – that would probably be good news for the world. At the very least, it would force our Old Continent to finally deal with the world as it is, and on its own terms rather than on those dictated by the US military-industrial complex.

Post scriptum: By the way, I do think Trump is going to win. Let me absolutely clear on this: I do not hope so, but I do think so. I follow very few people on Twitter—but Trump and Biden are among them. I usually junk their tweets immediately. Trump’s tweets make no sense. Biden’s tweets − about the shenanigans of the likes of Michael Flynn or other débris from an ill-timed and totally disastrous impeachment attempt − are too complicated to look at.

So, yes, I hope Trump loses the next US elections. I really do. Why? Because another four years of Trump will completely demolish the US as we know it. However, being rational, it looks like Trump will win. Hands down. Like Boris Yeltsin in the UK. […] Sorry. I meant Boris Johnson. Why do I think Trump is going to win? Because the Democrats are too stupid to handle him.

Polls reveal support for Biden is based on an anti-Trump feeling. That’s it: an anti-Trump agenda. Nothing more. The Democrats are making the same mistake: they are putting Trump in the underdog position. Nothing that suits him better: if Biden would admit Trump might win, he would have a chance. But the Democrats will not even consider that, so they will lose. Again.

In terms of personality contests, there is no comparison: it is pretty obvious Trump eats guys like Biden for breakfast. Finally, and most worrisome, public rallies – like these boat parades, the Trumptillas – draw incredible support and basically show the Americans have had it with democracy: they want enlightened dictatorship. Like Germany in the 1930s: the people want change. However bad the change may be. Trump may not be very enlightened but he sure brings the dictatorship part of that scary New American Dream.

I am just trying to rationally think this through here. No emotion.

The new EU Commission

I will be honest: when I first read through the new political program of the new European Commission, which is to be led by Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen, I was quite enthusiastic. It hit all of the right notes. [By the way, the lowercase v in von der Leyen is there fore the right reason: pedigree.] But then I started to read a bit. I thought: I’ve been abroad for too long, so I should check what it’s all about.

I found this: most – if not all – of the Political Guidelines for the 2019-2024 Commission are just copy-paste from Juncker’s Guidelines for the 2014-2019 Commission (‘A New Start for Europe’). Mrs. von der Leyen only re-packaged Juncker’s ‘Forward-Looking Climate Change Policy’ into a new ‘European Green Deal’ and put it first place to please the Greens and other left-wing movements.

These guidelines continue to reflect the federal utopia of the ruling pro-European political parties: the European People’s Party, the Party of European Socialists (PES), and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), which dominate the Commission (85% of Commissioners) and the European Parliament (60% of MEPs). It blatantly undercuts the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality as laid down in the TEU and TFEU treaties. Mrs. von der Leyen’s programme will also continue to feed a sprawling EU bureaucracy (32,000 staff in the European Commission alone, not counting agencies and committees) which EU citizens can no longer identify with.

The European Union does not need a new start. It needs to get back to basics, and that is to promote free enterprise, liberty, democracy and security – internally and externally. The EU needs to stay away from redistributing hard-earned taxpayer money and dictating the economic and political choices of its member states. Countries with lower productivity growth, for example, should not be forced into a monetary union. They should, instead, be encouraged to fully unleash the potential of free-market policies, and the benefits of deregulation, lower taxation, and effective governance. The EU should stop gradually increasing its power in each and every area: power should, instead, be given back to the lowest level possible.

Instead of proposing another European Democracy Action Plan, or launching another Conference aimed at expanding the powers of the EU, Mrs. von der Leyen should initiate an honest reflection on why a majority of the British people voted to get out of the European Union while – back in 1975 – almost 70% of the UK’s population was in favor of the then Conservative government’s choice to accede.

While Mrs. von der Leyen refers to the May 2019 elections in her mission letters to all of the Commissioners-designate, she fails to accept European voters voted overwhelmingly right-wing: the EPP and S&D fractions no longer have a majority in European Parliament: only by co-opting the ALDE MEPs who, unfortunately, subscribe to the same federalist utopia, will they be able to propose and adopt more of the same. By refusing to acknowledge the need for a Euro-realist reform of the EU’s institutions and policies, these three status-quo parties pave the way for Euro-skepticism and worse: increased support for extremism, authoritarianism and racism is already evident now. Burying one’s head in the sand is not an option.

While climate change, the economy, big data,  social inclusion and the return of extremist political views are, obviously, very real concerns, the solutions that the likes of Mr. Juncker and Mrs. von der Leyen have been pushing at the European level are not working. On the contrary, they are making things worse by further alienating citizens from politics and government. Most citizens in EU member want less regulation, lower taxation and smaller government: not more !

The EU’s migration policies and its tentative Common European Asylum Policy are not working. Political leaders simply need to accept European countries cannot accommodate all people fleeing from war or poverty. If it does not want to radicalize populations in Czechia, Poland and Hungary, then the EU should stop imposing quota. Uncontrolled migration and abuse of the right to political asylum are to be stopped by a strong defense of the external borders of the European Union and by moving forward on full integration of the Western Balkans.

The EU should pursue solid agreements with the countries of origin ensuring a safe return. Such agreements, and the EU’s external action in general, should also address the root causes of the problems that make people flee. Such external action should not be pursued in splendid isolation: if Mrs. von der Leyen’s call for a ‘genuine European Defense Union’ leads Mr. Macron to proclaim NATO’s ‘brain death’, then we should not pursue this union – because it is clear to all that NATO, and NATO only, has enabled the new democracies in Eastern Europe to resist Russia’s attempts to re-establish the Cold War border between democratic and authoritarian states.

Mrs. von der Leyen wants her incoming Commission to be a ‘geopolitical Commission.’ If that is her true objective, she made a very poor start in laying out its vision and foundations. The citizens of Europe’s nation-states voted for another platform just a few months ago. :-/

International laborers

I am in Dubai airport, waiting to catch a plane en route from Kabul to Kathmandu. Dubai airport was built and is serviced by foreigners. All of the hubs in this sheikhy region are. I’ve seen most of them. They all look more or less the same-and surely the people who work in them. Poor Nepali, Indians or Bangladeshi clean the toilets and the public areas. Philippinos, or others who happen to speak somewhat better English that the others, run the shops and eateries. Africans are making inroads into this job market as well. The fanciest jobs – airline staff, for example – are reserved for pretty ladies from all over the world, just like anywhere in the world. Asian or Eurasian, it doesn’t matter: a stewardess has to be pretty, smile and look smart. The diversity of stewardesses matches the diversity of travelers. Wherever they are in the pecking order, they’re international laborers. Just like most people who are transiting through here.

The South Asian laborers working outside, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun, sip from their bottle of water as they take a rest. The Russian, British and Singaporean stewardesses at the table next to mine sip Costa coffee, just like me. [I am actually not sure about the last girl’s nationality but she sure looks like the ‘Singaporean girl’ of the publicity.] We are lucky.

Am I an international laborer? My consultancy job in Afghanistan pays more than what I could earn in my home country with my experience and degrees. I chose to go abroad. So… No. I am not an international laborer. But then people servicing this airport-including the pretty stewardesses over there-think they made a choice as well, don’t they? [Did I choose to go abroad? Perhaps not-but that’s another story: I am where I am and I am happy with that. It’s no use complaining anyway, is it? In fact, when I see a pretty stewardess, I always think about that Belgian ambassador who married one. Both of them were lucky people (she was beautiful and he was rich and powerful), but they never seemed to be happy together, and so I always wondered why they chose to be together.]

In any case, let’s go back to the stewardesses and me. How are we different? Job-wise that is. Both our salaries are determined not in national labor markets but by global demand and supply: Dubai has to keep up with Doha, or vice versa, or with Brussels or London, and USAID-approved salary scales in Kabul can’t be too out of whack with USAID’s in Baghdad. So are we a global commodity?

If we are, then we’re obviously less of a commodity than the South Asian crew outside, digging up God knows what. They really are a commodity, I would think. They’re probably as bad off as the Belgian laborers, whose sight led Marx to re-write the theory of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps they’re even worse off. Surely if they’d be working on some sheikhy construction yard outside of the airport. It was on the news that, in the past year, since construction started for the UEFA Cup in Qatar, a few thousand Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi construction workers have died there from ‘accidents’ building stadiums and other infrastructure. Let’s try to put that number in perspective.

As a percentage of the trade in ‘voluntary slaves’, it may not be an awful lot. Probably about the same percentage of the US and other foreign soldiers – as part of the total presence – who died on Afghan soil for a cause that no one really understands. [As for the term ‘voluntary slaves’, I don’t have a better one. What else should we call them? Upon arrival, their passport is taken away, and they can’t switch employers, even if they’re not being paid. That qualifies as ‘slave’, I think.] In comparison to the number who dies from heart attack in an average European country, a few thousand is also a rather relative number. And madmen machine-gunning innocent men, women and children in a US school or shopping mall kill as much, it seems. Conflicts or natural disasters also easily claim a few thousand victims. So what’s a few thousand?

I think the number is an indicator of the state of our over-populated world, and it’s a horrendous statistic, just as horrendous as the number of women who end up as sex slaves, or the children that get sold, in the poorest of the poor countries, to pay off a debt, or because the parents can’t afford to feed them. Trafficking in human beings – national and international – is a gray zone, but there’s gray that’s almost black, as opposed to gray that’s close to white. Those Nepali workers dying in ‘accidents’ in Qatar surely qualify for the very dark grey zone as far as I am concerned.

But let me go back to where I am – Dubai airport – and the human beings who are working here, i.e. the men and women I can see as I am typing these words: the lady serving Costa coffee, the stewardesses chatting away, and those poor guys working just next to the runway, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun scorching the earth.

A benign view is that this ‘recycling’ – direct or indirect – of petrodollars serves at least two purposes. First, infrastructure gets built in what would, otherwise, just be desert, worth only as much as the market price of the oil beneath it. We can’t blame the sheikh countries to try to diversify their economy, can we? The second argument is also economic: labor has become an internationally tradable community, and the theory of comparative advantages tells us the world should indeed take advantage of that, because – when you add everything up – taking advantage of it will increase the world’s GDP more than when not taking advantage of it. An even more fundamental argument, perhaps, is that if sheikh A doesn’t take advantage of it, sheikh B and C will, and so then we have unfair competition, and that’s, surely, a no-no for any economist, isn’t it?

Perhaps. That all makes sense. I actually am an economist. However, I can’t think of many countries that have become rich by exporting their labor. None actually, including mine: Belgium’s brainy people work abroad, like me. So if a country suffers from exporting its labor (usually the best and brightest leave indeed), there might be some conflict between national and global interest here. That’s one. [Strangely enough, I find myself saying here something that Comrade Prachanda in Nepal regularly says in his speeches. So I am not in good company.]

My second point is more subtle. I’ve detailed the micro- or meso-economic logic behind the gross macro-economic simplifications underlying the comparative advantages theory in one of my other posts, and it’s a mixed story. When you walk about a bit in the Himalayan mountains, you see entire villages becoming dependent on remittances, with grandparents taking care of children, and no one taking care of the fields. The parents that should care about the kids and/or the fields are all gone: they work in Kathmandu or abroad. Comparative advantages: cheap labor goes where it’s better paid-or where it’s being paid at all. And then those fields don’t matter anymore: the remittances pay for cheap food stuff coming along the new bulldozer road that some crazy politician ordered built – often at the cost of great environmental degradation – to win a few more votes and, hence, why should we care about those unproductive fields? The road changes comparative and, in this case, even absolute advantage: growing your own barley in the high mountains instead of buying cheap rice from the over-populated Terai plains is stupid, isn’t? And then those parents are not there to raise their kids, but then they can pay for boarding school in Kathmandu as soon as they’re like ten or twelve years old. Indeed, there are not many teenagers in those villagers either: just old people and small kids.

You’ll say I sound like one of those old people. Well… 45 years is a pretty decent age in Nepal and so I should probably admit that I actually am an old man, still struggling to come to terms with a ‘revolution’ that started some 300 years ago. Indeed, the communications revolution that helped triggered the industrial revolution – railways and steam ships connecting huge factories with markets across the world – is still unfolding. It’s also spreading production and, hence, wealth. You may look at your iPhone as a product ‘made in USA’, but it actually comes from everywhere and nowhere. It’s a ‘world product’, literally: it was designed where it’s cheapest to do design (the US is still awesome for that), its components were built where it’s cheapest to build them (China), and it was assembled where it was cheapest to do so (China and Taiwan). It’s also stocked everywhere and nowhere really. Wherever it’s cheapest.

So why am I complaining? Frankly, I don’t know. We’re all part of what’s going on. I should kneel and thank God I am not one of those South Asians digging outside. The War in Afghanistan was – and still is – crazy but I cannot, and will not, complain about it because it pays my bills as a development consultant. In fact, if I should say anything at all about my job, I should only note that guys like me are increasingly following the mess: South Sudan, Syria, and now Iraq once again… I am at the forefront of globalization really.

Indeed, we’re not doing any development there. We’re just following the money. Aid agencies are now all formally or de facto extensions of their political counterpart: the State Department, or the Foreign Office, or le Ministère des Affaires Etrangères. The communications revolution has also shortened planning and implementation horizons: money gets re-directed – in a matter of months, or even weeks – to wherever there’s a ‘problem’ that needs ‘fixing’. There’s no sequencing anymore: war; humanitarian aid; negotiation, reconciliation and peace-building; reconstruction; development; whatever-all needs to happen simultaneously. Why? Because we can. In our globalized world, we can be everywhere and we can do everything.

Can we? No. Of course the international community is now in a position to re-direct billions of dollars to wherever the international media directs its gaze, but one can’t fight and reconstruct simultaneously. Worse, pouring in resources while the conflict is still raging usually worsens the fight-because now there’s even more to fight for: international resources (not only money but also international credibility or other assets-civilian or military). So we come and meddle with good intentions, but the first impact is usually negative: we deepen the conflict.

Obama is right to look inwards again: he needs to fix the problems of Americans first. The rest of the world used to take care of itself, until the myth of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ made the white men think they had a moral responsibility to do so. I am one of those white men. My problem is that I don’t feel any moral responsibility anymore. I am just doing a job for which there’s demand, and for which I’m qualified and smart enough apparently. Just like the stewardesses. A job in an inter-connected world. So I am an international laborer too. I feel for those guys outside. When everything is said and done, I actually am one of them. What could I do to help them?    

On climate change and global warming

The flash floods in Uttarakhand (and in other areas of the Himalayas – but the burst of a glacial lake made things worse in Uttarakhand) and the increasing number of freak weather phenomena in Europe and the US (such as Europe’s extraordinary cold spell this year, or this year’s record number of hurricanes in the US) have given the issue of global warming a prominence which it did not enjoy before. While that is good in itself, I do not expect it to have any real impact on international and national policies. As one expert puts it: “At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings.” While this expert (his name is Anthony Leiserowitz), after having stated this obvious fact, then passionately makes the case for some kind of New World Order, I think it is entirely unrealistic to expect these decisions and behavior to change over the next decades.

While I was travelling from Nepal to Belgium a few days ago (do politicians sincerely believe that a tax on aviation emissions – the IPCC has estimated that aviation is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change – will change the travel plans of people like me – or you?), I had a pleasant conversation with a representative of a major European lamp producer (yes, lamps: the bulbs you are using to light your house). He just came back from a visit to a factory in Chandigarh, India, to which his company had outsourced the production of their energy-saving light bulbs. The man obviously liked his job – a quality which I greatly admire: because a job is so important in one’s life, I think one should really be passionate about it. That being said, the economist in me quickly grasped the irony: we, in Europe, are now saving energy by using energy-saving light bulbs produced in an Indian sweatshop. What’s the energy saved here – if we’re looking at it from a global perspective?

This is obviously only possible because the costs of international transportation have come down so much, and because markets have effectively become world markets. Even labor has become an international commodity now, as anyone who has traveled through a Middle Eastern airport will have noticed: these airports would not be there if it weren’t for the cheap Asian workers they are exploiting – people who are separated for their country and family for at least a year or even more.

I should write a separate post on this but it is clear there are societal costs to the increased international mobility of labor at both ends: domestically we lose jobs and suffer high unemployment – a key ingredient of social malaise – while the temporary or permanent immigrants do earn good money but struggle with integration and other psychological issues and – in the majority of cases – also leave a gap in the social fabric back home (as I live in Nepal, I could tell more than one story about this – but then this post would be way too long). But, again, humanity – despite all of the forms of collective action it is capable of – will not reverse globalization: it does not want to – and even if wanted to, it can’t.

Indeed, the trends we have observed since the end of the second World War will not change. The costs of international transportation will continue to decrease (and, if they would increase – because of rising energy prices or because of some kind of international tax (no, don’t think about it) – they will not increase significantly) and markets – for products, for capital and, importantly, for labor – will become more, not less, integrated. More importantly, no international deliberations will be able to request or force developing countries to not become developed: cities like Mumbai or Kathmandu (or Kabul, if you want a more outlandish example of a burgeoning urban area) will continue to grow, and the ‘middle class’ in all of Asia’s and Africa’s countries will continue to grow and want what they want: a refrigerator, a TV, and a motorbike (or, better, a little car). That will continue to fuel global warming.

European or American politicians are utterly unable to do anything about this. So, yes, the ice sheets covering the Antarctic and Greenland, and the Arctic sea ice, will continue to melt. And, yes, many island nations (the Maldives, the Kiribati islands, the Seychelles,…) and even some nations (Bangladesh – and large parts of Holland!) are under threat. And, yes, there will be more disasters like the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ of June this year (which killed thousands), or like the tornadoes in the US (which killed dozens), or like the floods in Central Europe – which damaged thousands of homes.

Global warming and its consequences are here already – and it’s only going to get worse. As usual, some will be more affected than others. But history has never been equitable – and humanity has never been able to change its course. We will soon be 7 billion. It will only get worse.

Afghanistan: another post-mortem analysis

The row between President Karzai and the US which accompanied the much-delayed opening of a ‘political office’ by the Taliban in Doha a few days ago, the continued attacks on Afghan and international security forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s immediate focus on an exchange of prisoners as talks between the US and the Taliban seem to be getting underway (five Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for one US ‘prisoner of war’ held who knows where) all show that the Taliban have no intention of yielding any concessions: not to the US, and surely not to the current Afghan regime.

That is not much of a concern for the current US administration as Barack Obama had made it clear, even before his first term as US President, that he just wanted the US to cut the losses – in lives and in treasure – and disengage as soon as the Taliban could offer reasonable assurances that they would not abet international terrorism. Hence, as soon as they’ll do that (and, of course, we’ll trust their word – even if there’s no ground whatsoever for doing so), the US will be happy to cut a deal.

As for national terrorism, well… Who cares? It is obvious for all those who want to see (but then many do not) that since the worldwide War on Terrorism started, US interventionism – or international interventionism in general – has not much to show for in this regard. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are hardly stable, with hard-line Islamic groups threatening whatever improvement was made in terms of political and civil rights as the Arab Spring fanned out. As for Syria, well… As much as I deplore the bloodshed there (the conflict in Afghanistan looks pretty insignificant in comparison), Barack Obama is right in not committing to a military intervention. [If the EU thinks it can help by arming the rebels, let them do so – even if it is not a wise move in my view.] The fight in Syria is a full-blown Islamic war between Sunni and Shia Muslims – and Syria’s minorities, Christian or other, are being crushed in the event. Nevertheless, Barack Obama’s gut feeling about the conflict is correct: stay out! If the West would truly care about human rights and democracy, it should intervene in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, the Taliban’s ambivalence about negotiations – or its outright inflexibility I should say – should obviously worry Karzai, as well as his family and friends and supporters. Let me be straight: I have some sympathy for him. In fact, I admire him – but to some extent only. We should all admire him, if only because Afghan kings and presidents usually end up murdered. More importantly, Hamid Karzai’s personal history is full of bravery and sacrifices – although I do agree that does not justify his erratic behavior.

So what is my prognosis as to Afghanistan’s future? I doubt Afghanistan will hold presidential elections next year. I think President Karzai – who cannot be elected for yet another term according to Afghanistan’s Constitution – will just say it’s too costly and too dangerous for people to vote, and so he will just call it a Loya Jirga – as he did before – and ask the carefully selected ‘elders’ to confirm he can continue without going through the trouble of national elections. And then he’ll preside over another phase of gradual disintegration – one of the many which have marked Afghanistan’s history. Or he might be murdered. Or, else, perhaps I am wrong and there will actually be some kind of elections through which Afghanistan would get another leader – an outcome which the US would surely like to see. Would it make any difference? I don’t think so. Under Afghanistan’s constitutional system, the President is both Head of State as well as Head of Government – which is just one of the many flaws in the current set-up which ensures its non-sustainability – and so that’s a sure recipe for disaster in my view.

The truth is that the Bonn settlement did not integrate the losers of the US-led War in Afghanistan – and now that this War is obviously over (the US got tired of fighting it) – these losers are back with a vengeance. So we’re in for another decade of trouble there. But, again, I think it’s clear to all now that Washington does not look at that as much of a concern anymore: it’s of concern to the Afghans only.

So what went wrong? Well… Washington finally got it: Afghanistan requires a political solution. The problem is: Washington’s decision-makers understood this way too late and so, yes, Washington’s negotiators are basically negotiating the terms of retreat now – if not surrender – and there’s nothing honorable about it.

As I spent more than four years in that country, I pity my Afghan friends. They do have the right to feel betrayed. I also pity those families who have lost relatives there, and those who lost limbs or got permanent trauma – physical or psychological. We all fought an impossible battle there (I myself spent more than four years there)… And that’s the only thing we can be proud of. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

As for Karzai, perhaps he can find himself some safe place to go to. His family got rich enough and so money is not an issue. But perhaps he’ll prefer harakiri. Or perhaps he’ll get murdered. Or perhaps he’ll clear the way for a successor. All of that would be honorable – or, at the very least, more honorable than what the West is currently trying to do – and that is to just get out – regardless of the loss of face and lack of morality it implies. […] But then honor is not something that matters in the post-modern world we’re living in, is it?

What to think of Edward Snowden?

When the outcry over the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program broke out as a result of yet another whistle-blower (Edward Snowden) going public with classified information, I had just finished reading a book which, among other related topics, discusses the inevitability of such programs: ‘The New Digital Age’, written by Eric Schmidt, who leads Google, and Jared Cohen, a former adviser of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After extolling the increased efficiency, innovation, opportunities and better quality of life which comes with this ‘new digital age’, they also write that the “impact of the data revolution will strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information in virtual space, and that will have significant consequences in the physical world.”

They then discuss the phenomenon of whistle-blowing in the new information age, focusing in particular on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and the fate of Bradley Manning, the source of much of the classified material which WikiLeaks made public. While they make it clear that they do not agree with Assange’s approach, and while they clearly do not have any sympathy for Manning either, noting that “lack of judgment around sensitive materials might well get people killed”, they also write the following: “How different would the reaction have been, from Western governments in particular, if WikiLeaks had published stolen classified documents from the regimes in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran?” Schmidt and Cohen then conclude that they “expect that future Western governments would ultimately adopt a dissonant position toward digital disclosures, encouraging them abroad in adversarial countries, but prosecuting them ferociously at home.”

This is obviously happening already today. Schmidt and Cohen are optimistic as to the impact of all of this for the future of our democracies. Indeed, they write the following: “While of this digital chaos will be a nuisance to democratic societies, it will not destroy the democratic system. Institutions and policies will be left intact, if slightly battered. And once democracies determine the appropriate laws to regulate and control new trends, the result may even be an improvement, with a strengthened social contract and greater efficiency and transparency in society.”

However, they also note that “This will take time, because norms are not quick to change, and each democracy will move at its own pace.”

I must admit that I am not so sure that ‘our democracies’ will actually move at all and, if they do, that they will move in the right direction. That’s why, for the first time, I actually reacted positively to the Avaaz petition which is currently circulating. I think the ‘lack of judgment’ of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange might indeed have endangered lives. However, for some reason, I feel that this Snowden guy is a different case. For starters, he’s incredibly naive – which is another reason why I think he deserves more sympathy.

On the death penalty

Gruesome murders, such as the recent brutal killing of a serving soldier in Woolwich by Islamic radicals (followed by an equally senseless attempt to kill a French soldier in Paris) or, worse, the 2011 massacre in Norway perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik (who was diagnosed to be ‘criminally insane’), usually reignite the debate on the death penalty. I find it interesting, because the debate involves an aspect of justice which is usually not being discussed openly: its retributive aspect.

Indeed, abolitionists neglect this aspect of justice completely. They argue – ad nauseam one might say – that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and, hence, that imposing or re-imposing it has no impact on crime rates. Most studies confirm that. In fact, public execution was generally known to increase (rather than decrease) violent criminality, especially at the time and place of executions – which is why executions were moved inside prisons and away from public view hundreds of years ago.

While such reasoning is essentially correct, it does not address the public call for social justice because the argument behind is that deterrence, rather than retribution, should be the main justification for punishment (hence, the death penalty should be done away with, because its aggressive application did not seem to reduce crime in the past). In addition, despite the introduction of advanced techniques in forensic science (such as DNA profiling), there is always the fear of a mistake. In the 12th century already, Maimonides – a famous Jewish philosopher – wrote that “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.” So this line of reasoning – which amounts to stating that errors of commission are much more threatening than errors of omission – also leads abolitionists to argue that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty should not be tolerated. Of course, because absolute certainty is obviously not of this world, it is equivalent to stating that the death penalty should be outlawed – which was done in most democratic countries, albeit it very recently in most of them.

I can see the point, even if I do not subscribe to the view that societies should eliminate all risk of errors of commission, because this will, inevitably, come at the cost of too many errors of omission. More fundamentally, however, I believe one cannot neglect the aspect of retribution in justice. In fact, one of the main reasons why some say that individuals such as Breivik or the Woolwich suspects should be executed is actually because these individuals do not seem to be afraid of any punishment – including the death penalty. Hence, the deterrence aspect of the death penalty – or of any alternative punishments, including the maximum sentence of life imprisonment (which, as we all know, is seldom fully implemented) – becomes irrelevant in such cases. In fact, this is what probably irks the public instinct most: the abolitionists’ argument, which focuses on the (non-)deterrence aspect only, misses the point. The death penalty is all about retribution indeed – and that’s why anyone debating it should address it. In fact, I think the emotional center of the debate revolves around it – even if few would dare to admit that because of reasons related to political correctness (which I will set aside for the moment).

Exploring the retribution aspect of the death penalty may well look like trying to walk down a very slippery slope. Let me therefore bring the discussion more down to earth: how would an abolitionist feel if his or her minor daughter was brutally raped, and then slaughtered afterwards (this amounts to committing a double or triple capital offence in those countries which still apply the death penalty)? I know, for sure, that I would like to see the perpetrator dead. Worse, I actually think I would be capable of killing the perpetrator myself – and probably rather slowly and in full consciousness of what’s going on, just like his or her victim. However, I also know I would rather see the offender punished through some kind of collective action – i.e. through a  case in court with, preferably, the involvement of a grand jury. Such thoughts have nothing to do with deterrence. They are all about retribution: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The real question is whether or not the individual is authorized to follow this principle. That is obviously not the case in most of today’s societies: it is generally agreed that such decisions should go through a justice system.

The ‘eye for an eye’ principle obviously sounds primitive and medieval. However, one should not forget that it was the foundation of the so-called lex talionis which is very much part of all Abrahamic traditions – Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Indeed, one forgets easily that Jesus only warned against excessive vengeance, not so much against the principle of retribution (call it vengeance if you want) as such. In fact, doing my usual superficial research on the Web, I was surprised to learn that the Vatican City only abolished its capital punishment statute in 1969 – so the Catholic Church is certainly not holier than Islamic traditions in this regard.

We all too easily forget that an important function of the state is to carry out justice on our behalf. As Hobbes pointed out: life without a government – the state of nature – would be a state in which each person would have a license to everything in the world, including the right to take revenge on someone else. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a bellum omnium contra omnes: a war of all against all. And so that’s why it makes sense to create a proper state – led by a government and governed through laws and regulations, including a justice system which, until very recently, usually included a capital punishment statute.

We should have a closer look at the very recent (and very particular one might say) context in which countries abolished the death penalty: most countries did so as part of a process of rather radical political change, when they shifted from authoritarianism to democracy. As such, the death penalty was often portrayed as being incompatible with human rights. Indeed, Amnesty International considers the death penalty to be “the ultimate denial of human rights.” It is equally often associated with political oppression. Such lack of nuance – especially the ‘denial of human rights’ claim – is totally out of place in my view, and it surely does not convince the crowd. Of course, abolitionists – elitists as they are – will argue that the opinion of the crowd should not matter. Well… Let me just note that a number of very democratic and very well-respected countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have integrated its clauses in their constitution and their laws while retaining the right to execute criminals: the US and Japan are probably the two most significant examples.

Of course, the case of China is also there, and I acknowledge it (even if most, if not all, executions do involve criminals there, not human rights offenders). That being said, I think it is extremely simplistic to suggest that the European Union would not be true to its democratic history and character if, one of these days, it would decide to do away with article 2 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights – which prohibits the use of capital punishment. Besides from reassuring Europeans that the EU is not there to eat into their rights as voters in sovereign countries (which, as we all know, is currently a rather big issue indeed), it would also make it easier for the EU to truly engage with its development partners. On the other hand, it is true that EU countries, if they would reinstate the death penalty (which, I know, they will not do any time soon) would also have a lot more difficulty trying to convince other countries not to apply the death penalty when the case involves one or more of their citizens: when everything is said and done, it would be difficult for, let’s say, the UK to convince Egypt or Indonesia to not execute British drugs smugglers caught red-handed over there if the UK would still have the death penalty in place. In fact, I am using the UK as an example, because the UK only formally abolished the death penalty in 1998, and it did so as part of its EU membership obligations only. Frankly, I find it hard to not see some degree of international opportunism here.

Let me be clear: I am a very staunch defender of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, I think its adoption was probably the most uplifting event in that eventful 20th century – and, of course, of its fundamental clause which states that everyone has a right to life – which should come with all that modern life involves: political, economic, social and cultural rights. I also need to state here that I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of having non-democratic governments and justice systems decide on who is to live and/or die in their jurisdiction. That being said, no right or freedom is or can be absolute. Individuals live in societies, and my freedom may end where the freedom of someone else begins: we all agree that we do not have the right to just go and kill someone else (let alone torture him or her before the murder). If they do, such individuals become criminals and, hence, some kind of collective body – representing what we refer to as society – may well decide to take some of their rights away: first and foremost their right to freedom (to ensure no further harm to the freedom of others is done) but, perhaps, also their right to live.

Of course, this assumes due consideration and due process – which ought to be guaranteed in a democracy. Indeed, criticizing China because of its capital punishment statue is fairly easy: China is not a democracy and, hence, as mentioned above, there is obviously more of a risk of a miscarriage of justice. However, criticizing the US or Japan for retaining the ultimate penalty in their legal code is a rather different matter. Executing criminals for the gravest of crimes, such as murder or sexual assault of minors (or the combination of both in one single heinous act), has nothing to do with deterrence: it is about addressing the public’s sense of social justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states that “every human being has the inherent right to life” and that “this right shall be protected by law: no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Applying the death penalty does not arbitrarily deprive someone of his life. It is a legal decision made after much deliberation and – in democracies – only in very rare cases. Indeed, when it comes to specific cases, it would seem that most citizens in our democracies are able to unambiguously answer the most obvious of all of the difficult questions involved: does the criminal involved deserve to be executed, or should he be put behind bars instead? Make the question specific: what if your daughter or son would be one of the victims of an insane criminal? What if he or she would be the only victim? Would it matter?

If it does, you should probably adjust your opinion on the death penalty in order to be consistent.

Roads and development in Nepal

Much of the donor money which was spent in Nepal after the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was spent on infrastructure. For tourists, the effort to build roads stands out, as many classic trekking routes have lost their charm because of the road-building drive. Indeed, it is not so nice to trek along a dirt road, or to see jeeps on dirt roads nearby bring the locals to the same place as the ancient trail you’re following – but in an hour or so, while you will be walking all day. According to the third Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS-III), which was carried out last year, not less than 94% of the Nepali population in rural areas now has access to a dirt road within 30 minutes. Access to basic health care centers, primary schools and other facilities also confirm a huge improvement since 2005/2006 (i.e. when the second survey (NLSS-II) took place).

The quality of these dirt roads is abominable. I biked along such roads between Trisuli and Gorkha, thereby avoiding the main highway Kathmandu to Pokhara (which I find too dangerous for biking), and then I also cycled further west of Beni and Baglung, in an attempt to cycle to Dhorpatan and then on to Dolpo. In the Indian Himalayas (I’ve biked through Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Ladakh and Kashmir), I would easily cover 100 to 150 km per day. Not here: 50 km per day is a very good average. It’s not the gradient of the slopes: the Manali-Leh road has, most probably, the longest and steepest climbs in the world and, while they’re tough, I don’t mind. It’s the poor quality of the roads. Nepal’s dirt roads are extremely badly constructed: bulldozer roads really – extremely rocky, extremely muddy, or extremely sandy: it is difficult to move on them (the Census reveals that the population qualifies about a third of the roads as vehicle-impassable) and, if you do, it is at the expense of a lot of material wear and tear. Only jeeps, trucks and 4WD buses can go on them, and they break down too. As for me, I had to replace the whole drivetrain after the ride.

But so the roads are there, and they do bring cheap rice and other consumables from the plains. They also bring satellite dishes and TVs, along with other household investment items – but I am mentioning the satellite dishes and TVs in particular because of their cultural impacts. These cultural impacts are not very different from what happened in my home country forty or fifty years ago. My father was the first to buy a black-and-white TV, and the whole neighborhood came to gape at what they presumed to be the American lifestyle. They saw it in color later, which led them to buy their own TV. So that is happening here too (but the black-and-white phase is skipped of course). However, as an economist, I am more interested in the economic effect of these roads – i.e. the effect of the cheap rice and other consumables. What does it do to a village?

Economists tell us that better connectivity – i.e. not only roads but also mobile telephony – integrates markets and reduces transaction costs: roads make it cheaper to ‘export’ or ‘import’ goods and services from one region to another, and the phone makes sure you are not taking too much risk when doing so because price differentials (the price of a bag of rice in the nearest town for example) can be ascertained instantly. There are no surprises any more. Hence, farmers in the hills and mountains can sell their surpluses of rice, wheat or barley – or whatever they are able to sell – and buy cheaper… well… cheaper rice and wheat basically. Huh? How does that work?

It doesn’t. Cheap imports do reduce the incentive to produce food stuffs locally. It is a well-known fact that cheap food imports (e.g. cheap wheat flour) have a negative impact on local food production, changing consumption patterns (who eats manioc in Kinshasa nowadays?) and introducing dependency in the process. Economists do not look at that as a problem. On the contrary, it is part of a process of economic specialization during which countries or regions exploit their comparative or relative advantages vis-à-vis each other. Let me recall the basics of that theory: comparative advantage refers to the ability to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost over another. There is no need to have an absolute production advantage. Even if one country (or region) is more efficient in the production of all goods than the other (i.e. if it has an absolute advantage in all goods – which is probably the case in Nepal: whatever product we are considering, it is cheaper to produce it in the plains than in the mountains), both countries or regions will still gain by trading with each other, as long as they have different relative efficiencies. For example, if, using machinery, a worker in one country can produce both shoes and shirts at 6 per hour, and a worker in a country with less machinery can produce either 2 shoes or 4 shirts in an hour, each country can gain from trade because their internal trade-offs between shoes and shirts are different. The less-efficient country has a comparative advantage in shirts, so it finds it more efficient to produce shirts and trade them to the more-efficient country for shoes.

That’s the theory. So what products or services should be produced in the hills and mountain zones? What is their comparative advantage? In practice, the theory of comparative advantages and/or specialization does not work. If anything, it is labor which is being exported. Indeed, most people in the more remote areas are happy to stop cultivating their land, and families push their men and sons (and their able young women as well) to seek some kind of employment in Kathmandu or, even better, somewhere abroad. Yes, the equivalent of the American Dream in Nepal is to become a dish-washer in Dubai, a security guard in Kabul or a nanny in London (of course, women are also being offered more sinister possibilities for employment abroad: trafficking of women is a huge issue in Nepal).

The roads make it easy: your beloved ones can use them to visit you during the weekend when in Kathmandu (it only takes a dreadful journey on bus and/or by jeep), or once or twice a year when abroad.

The statistics don’t lie. The Census data shows that, over the past decade, Nepal’s population has grown from 23.1 to 26.5 million people but that, at the same time, not less than 27 districts (out of a total of 75 districts) recorded negative population growth during the last decade. [The Census uses the same nice economic euphemism: negative growth. Decrease doesn’t sound right I guess.] These 27 districts are all hill and/or mountain districts and, hence, the conclusion is quite straightforward: the newly built roads in the hills and mountain zone make it easy to leave. There are 17 districts with a population of less than 150,000 now, and they account for 6% of the population only (1.6 out of 26.5 million). All of the districts in the mountain zone (except for Sindhupalchok north of Kathmandu valley) have a population of less than 200,000 people. A quarter of the population now lives in a town (defined as a village of more than 20,000 people) or one of the larger municipalities.

The Census also took stock of the above-mentioned phenomenon of seeking employment abroad or in the capital: in one into four households, one or more members of the household are absent or working abroad indeed. The total number of such absentee family members adds up to close to 2 million people, as opposed to about 760,000 only a decade ago (i.e. in 2001). These people are currently the main breadwinners of Nepal – even if they’re not present in the country.

It is an inconvenient fact that economic development is, more often than not, disruptive and, hence, comes at the expensive of huge social-economic costs. Some win, some lose: one can only hope there are more winners than losers. In Nepal, however, the social costs of development seem to be enormous. Grandmothers or uncles and aunts take care of kids, as their father or mother is trying to earn some money for the whole family in Kathmandu or abroad. As they grow older, they will be sent to a private boarding school – if the family can afford it – because that’s the gateway to a job in Kathmandu or abroad. In the worst case, they will only make the army of the unemployed swell even larger. While Nepal’s social fabric has not broken down – as yet – the current political quagmire would seem to indicate that the system may be close to it.

But so what do the locals think of it all? That question is easy to answer. All of the people I met think the new roads are good: they bring development. So who am I to criticize?