Thursday, January 28, 2010

Scott Brown, Productivity Gains 2010 Edition, and the State of the Union Address

The victory of Scott Brown over Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat last week sent shockwaves in Massachusetts (MA) and across the country. True local liberals must have wondered how their neighbors could vote for Scott Brown, I suppose the same way they asked how all those rednecks out there voted for Bush – twice!! To add insult to injury the senator-elect is not even a social conservative – what is going to happen to gay marriage and the right for women to choose?

There is some degree of misconception actually that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has always been hard-core liberal and overwhelmingly Democrat. Obama did win the presidential election with a 28-point lead but Massachusetts voted for Reagan both times actually… And Massachusetts was a much more conservative state pre-1970’s than it is today.

Boston is about 85% Democrat but across the state the split is about 60-65% Democrats and 35-40% Republicans. Thus, if about only 10% of the electorate changes its mind and decides to vote Republican instead of Democrat we have a very close race. This is clearly what happened with some Democrats who felt that their votes were taken for granted by Coakley and/or who were unhappy about current unemployment and what they feel is the failure of the Obama administration to do something about it.

And this is not even counting Independents who represent over 2 million people in MA and who heavily favored Brown in pre-election polls (almost 2/3 said they would vote for him according to a Suffolk University poll – similar data was apparently not collected on Election Day). Last year, those same Independents voted 57% for Obama.

Last factor was participation as folks in Republican districts voted more in masses than in Democratic ones. Yes, people, every vote counts…

Another thing that struck me in this election is that voters don’t need to be 100% aligned with candidates to cast their ballots in their favor. Unemployment and healthcare were on most people’s minds and hugely influenced their decisions. And I would bet that a lot of those who voted for Brown did not agree on the more conservative part of his agenda. But they did not care this time.

What people are truly worried about is that they don’t see in the early signs of the economic recovery a decrease in unemployment numbers. There is always a lag between the economic activity and the labor market but this time unemployment figures do not seem to move much if at all.

And I think that a lot of folks who work in Corporate America have been seeing the same thing I’ve been hearing accounts of, i.e. companies have found ways to do the same with fewer people. So, why hire back the folks who got laid off or recruit new people as long as the activity does not pick up significantly? I am afraid that a lot of the jobs lost won’t be coming back, and not only those that were outsourced to developing or emerging countries. The name of the new game is “Productivity Gain – 2010 Edition” - a lot of people out there are not going to protest when they are told they have to take on some of the tasks of someone who just left the company in addition to their regular duties – who would be foolish enough to say “no way, Jose, I don’t like the 2010 Edition and I don’t want to play”?

Obama in his State of the Union Address last night had a clearly different tone than he would have had before the MA election. It is as though his Administration got a shot in the arm and realized they had to come out more strongly to show Americans they are doing something about this crisis. And the situation for the Republicans has also changed radically as they have a totally renewed sense of self-confidence and are dying to take on the Administration and the Democrats...

But frankly, I am not sure there are a ton of things Obama can do to curb unemployment if indeed mentalities have started to change and the “do more with less” approach that bears the fruits of significant future discontent and tensions in the workplace is becoming the new norm in Corporate America.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Some thoughts about the Haiti Earthquake and the 2004 Tsunami

It has been heart-warming to see the outpouring of generosity and support since the disaster hit in Haiti. I even saw a message about earthquake relief yesterday on a highway sign that normally gives live info about traffic congestion…

As the examples of other catastrophes that gathered far less attention (earthquake in Kashmir or Iran a few years ago) show, the extent of the emotional connection that one feels with those who have been struck by a natural disaster is going to determine in a big way the level of people’s generosity. In the US, the proximity to the island and the presence of substantial Haitian communities in many large urban areas (20,000 in Boston for example) can explain the level of mobilization. Also, most Americans – even those who know next to nothing about other countries – are aware that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and thus, seeing the poorest of the poor struck by such a catastrophe is heart-wrenching for everyone.

Man-made disasters often generate far less sympathy for their victims – for instance, a civil war in Haiti would be viewed by most as yet another failure on the part of the different parties in the country to work together and make things right for their people.

That same emotional connection we are seeing now explained the big-time generosity in early 2005 after the Tsunami hit Southeast Asia and caused over 300,000 deaths. The disaster struck a day after Christmas (which made the catastrophe even more “unfair” to most though it was a totally irrational reaction) in places that were known by a lot of Westerners who had vacationed there or at least heard about them. The fact that a number of foreign tourists – mainly from English-speaking countries – were among the victims helped spread the word and the emotion. And finally that part of the world is considered “non-hostile” to the West unlike Iran for instance. Although most of us can make the difference between a country’s politics and its civilian population’s plight, this is about emotional connection that by definition is subjective.

A major difference with the 2004 Tsunami aftermath is the role that social networks are playing this time. It has been amazing to see how the likes of Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook have helped people stay connected with loved ones or share or ask for information about family members they had not heard about. CNN was counting on its viewers in the first 48 hours following the catastrophe for images. All phone lines were down but I heard about folks who were able to communicate by skype – incredible.

The 2004 Tsunami turned out to be a bonanza for NGOs that got involved in the relief efforts. Amounts raised worldwide went through the roof compared to whatever those organizations had achieved in the past, even for relief assistance. Arguably, those entities provided a service in the affected areas and thus, the money raised enabled them to do that work on the ground. However, a percentage of the funds that were collected paid for those NGOs’ administrative infrastructure and sometimes for other projects as well. I am under the impression that most of those organizations, even the bigger ones, did not communicate on the way the money was spent.

Now, having experienced how hard it is even for good organizations to raise money, especially in times of economic crisis (see what happened after the burst of the internet bubble in 01-02 and since the Lehman meltdown in the fall of 08), I don’t have a problem knowing that some of the Haiti Earthquake money will serve to fund those nonprofits’ “backbones” and maybe less publicized but equally important projects as well – however, if that is the case, people should be informed before making their donations and every NGO receiving money for the relief efforts should report on its use.

I wonder about the way relief efforts can be coordinated. Obviously, in an area nearly 100% destroyed, the order of business is just to scramble and do as much as possible. Every bit counts, every dollar counts, every pair of arms counts. But given the state of Haiti’s infrastructure before the disaster and knowing the extent of destruction, it is no surprise however that aid relief has a hard time getting to the people right now. In 2004, a week after the Tsunami, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stopped accepting donations arguing that aid could not arrive where it was supposed to go and thus additional money was not going to help. Let’s hope that those involved in the relief efforts won’t have to get to that extreme. NPR just had a story about possible relief gridlock.

I feel like CNN and other news networks are having a bowl right now – not literally because I know they care about the suffering and the pain of the Haitian people but this Earthquake is such good business for them. I was in Puerto Rico when the disaster hit and I watched CNN (and Fox News) in my hotel room quite a bit. As I already wrote, I am not a fan of media-bashing and I recognize the value of the CNNs of the world, namely informing us and bringing us live news coverage – but you can tell that catastrophes are the bread and butter of those folks. Natural disasters make for such compelling images and so much emotion also that viewers will stay stuck to their screens for days on end. And CNN has the resources to send a bunch of its people down who know virtually nothing about the country (based on the comments I heard) - but hey, there are journalists and even the good Doctor Gupta who are reporting on the ground, so I guess we are all covered...

I don’t want to finish on a cynical note, so here is some information again about how you can get involved in the relief efforts: Network for Good’s web site / blog and Google’s Crisis Response page.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

We did not have to wait long for this decade’s first calamity… I was wondering in my previous piece what was in store for all of us and boom, the Haiti earthquake hit that poor country so hard!! I lived there for a year in 1995-96, which was probably the best period the country enjoyed in a very long time, i.e. shortly after former President Aristide came back from exile and when there was a high level of optimism about the country’s future. But the increasingly seemingly undemocratic way Aristide ruled the country, his reluctance to leave power, his eventual “exile”, and a continued political instability and economic hardship made the last 10 years tough on the country and left it even less prepared to deal with today’s disaster.

It is just terribly sad to see the pictures of places and neighborhoods I knew well that look all but totally destroyed – it is all the more chilling to have been in these areas and see now that what’s left of them is rubbles and chaos.

Fundraising has been quick to get organized. In particular, the option offered by the Red Cross to send a $10 donation by SMS ($10 is then added to your next phone bill) is very smart and has worked extremely well in the US. Yahoo has a direct link to Network for Good’s web site / blog that has sorted out and listed the NGOs active in Haiti and Google has set up a Crisis Response page featuring a number of organizations that are involved in the relief efforts as well making it possible to post messages (searching for missing folks or providing information) and to use Google Voice for free for 2 weeks for calls to Haiti.

I will be back later with more thoughts on the aftermath of the Earthquake.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I am no psychic…

I celebrated the end of the decade by falling asleep at 11pm watching a movie and my wife woke me up at midnight… Makes me wonder how I am going to finish this decade - if I am still around then…

I have to say that the past decade started pretty well since I was on the Washington Mall near the Lincoln Memorial all jazzed up about the fireworks and the new Millennium (where did the collective excitement go by the way?). And then came September 11 and the burst of the internet bubble and in an interesting symmetry, those ten years ended with a global financial crisis that put our whole system on the edge of the precipice and with a failed terrorism attempt on a flight bound to the US from Amsterdam last Christmas Day.

I have certainly no psychic talents, so why should I be any good at foreseeing what History has in store for us? But yes, strangely enough, every decade I am just surprised by what happens – stuff that seems to come from left field… In the 70s there was that terrorism in Europe (I lived in Paris as a kid) - but friends and readers, I am not that old, I was not pondering in December 1969 about what might happen in the 70s… Rather I did not want to go to school and I was puking every day, but that’s another story.

If I had been told at the end of the 70s that the Soviet Giant would crumble and collapse and the Berlin Wall would fall, I would have laughed. If ten years later someone had told me that there would be two massive genocides in the 90s, in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia and the international community would be sitting idle (including myself) doing nothing, I would not have laughed but probably banged my head against the wall, wondering how that could be possible after the Holocaust in WWII – my generation grew up with this “Never Again” thing in mind. Did not have much of an effect, did it?

Same tune – end of the 90s, I probably would have disagreed with the assertion that Islamic fundamentalism was going to become the major threat to the Western world – probably out of idealism and naïveté and also because I did not share the political agenda of those who were saying so at the time (because there were some). As to the global crisis, there had been those big systemic crises in Southeast Asia, Russia, and Mexico in the 90s but Western countries seemed far from those excesses – we believed we knew better I guess. Yeah right!!

So, what now? Don’t ask me, I have no idea. But let’s all try to have fun, be happy, and continue whatever little things we all do to make this world a better place.

Happy 2010 - and some cool work in Madagascar

Happy New Year to everyone and all the best for 2010!! I was fortunate to be away for about 2 ½ weeks in December, escaping the cold weather that came to Boston suddenly and with a vengeance to work in Madagascar of all places on the evaluation of an organization called FAPBM (full name is in French) whose objective is to finance the country’s national park system over the long term. They set up a fund a few years ago that is invested on the financial markets (following a rather conservative investment strategy actually) and that will hopefully produce enough income to pay for part of those parks’ operating costs consistently in the future.

That financial mechanism has been quite effective in Latin America in particular (check the web site of the regional organization RedLAC), so the folks in Madagascar are not reinventing the wheel certainly. But 1) there is no similar success story in the Africa / Indian Ocean region (the Fund in Madagascar has been around since early 2005), and 2) some may have discovered Madagascar only when the cartoon was released (I did not see any lemurs by the way but I did see 2 crocodiles…) but you guys know that Madagascar is off the charts with respect to the biodiversity value of its environment. 80% of all species on the island are endemic, i.e. they are only found in Madagascar.

The thing is that the country was that close to just selling half of its forests to Korean humongous conglomerate Daewoo, is still very poor, and has been stuck in a political crisis for over a year now. So, you can imagine how high the stakes around FAPBM’s work are.

Most folks there - in government, the international community, the NGO sector, and the corporate world - realize that a compromise has to be found between a sustainable use of resources (which means that some extractive activity, i.e. mining and oil drilling, is going to be done within the boundaries of those parks) and the preservation of that amazing nature, all the more that whatever is lost will be mostly lost for good and forever – no other place where you can go find it…

These huge tensions are not unique to Madagascar – they are actually common in poor countries. But the country’s iconic nature and the people’s poverty just make those challenges even more pressing and complex.

I will write more about my impressions of that beautiful and interesting country. First time in that part of the world, I have to give you more than my (boring?) spiel on sustainable development…