South Sudan deserves better

August 26, 2014

As an avid Sudan enthusiast, I have found it extremely disheartening to see South Sudan slide into a cacophony of tribal fighting and political squabbling. So much so that it has been difficult to find the words to write a blog entry about this – and, besides, there have already been so many authoritative voices chiming in with their take on what’s been happening.

I remember travelling around northern and southern Sudan, just before independence, and could not help but be caught up by the euphoria sweeping the country. Here was a real chance to build a bright future – for both the North and the South.

I think that is why the slide into virtual civil war – which some might, with hindsight, say was inevitable – has been so very painful. A dream, a vision torn asunder – by the very men that brought the dream before the people in the first place.

A month or so ago, I was in the offices of the Juba Monitor, talking with its esteemed editor Alfred Taban. I well remember Alfred from my days as a correspondent in Khartoum. This was before independence and at that time Alfred was editor of the now defunct Khartoum Monitor, which gave southerners a voice across the country.

“I didn’t foresee any of this,” Alfred told me. “If I had done, I wouldn’t have been so keen to rush towards independence. I would still have been of the same opinion – [that we needed to separate from the north] – but I would have been in favour of delaying a bit.”

When he lived in Khartoum, Alfred repeatedly ran up against the government censors, who would often turn up at Monitor’s offices and vet the copy before it was published. If they wanted to be really mean – and they often were – they would wait until the newspaper had been printed, at considerable expense, and then seize all the copies, saying that some article or other violated some preposterous screening law.

But in Juba things are no better. Alfred is still repeatedly facing the censors, and often having his papers seized.

“Press censorship was actually better in the north. It was more predictable,” admitted Alfred. “If a journalist wasn’t accredited with the NCP – National Press Council – then you knew you were taking a risk in using them. But here the government just has a list of names, journalists or not, which can’t be used.”

The frustrations that Alfred faces daily point to what is lies at the route of South Sudan’s current problems: South Sudan really isn’t all that different from North Sudan.

I always favoured separation. When I first encountered Sudan, in 2007, the country had already lived through two bloody civil wars – and the south had endured more than forty years of repression at the hands of Khartoum. Bitterness was too entrenched for there ever to be reconciliation.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some think the US-led push for independence – the US wanted the countries to separate at whatever cost – exacerbated tribal divisions across the country. Perhaps. But by the time this was all set in motion, it was too late to do anything else.

I am the eternal Sudan optimist and I like to think things will eventually get better, but few people I speak to seem to think they will.

We are about to publish a new edition of our guidebook to South Sudan, and I have been speaking to a number of knowledgeable tour operators involved in the country. Many have decided not to renew their tour licence, others have done so but don’t know whether they’ll actually be able to make good use of it.

More than one person has suggested that the only thing likely to make things better is for both Salva Kiir – current incumbent president – and Riek Machar – former vice president, summarily sacked by Kiir last December for an alleged coup plot – to bow out of the political scene.

I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but it seems extremely unlikely to happen. Politicians rarely do what’s in the best interest of their people if it conflicts with their own.

When do those that voted in favour of independence start regretting their inky thumbs?

Why free is not always good

August 14, 2014

Does anyone need any proof that paying for a well-edited, well-researched book – rather than going to a free review website – makes sense?

2014-08-14_09h41_57

This guy from Russia, posting on freelancer.com, is looking to pay someone to write 30 positive reviews of a restaurant.

You can’t trust non-edited, free review sites.

Amazon and consumers

August 13, 2014

On a purely emotional level, it is difficult not to get frustrated with Amazon’s corporate arrogance.

The monopolistic company repeatedly say they are good for consumers. This is blatantly untrue. Whilst they are ruthlessly driving down prices, which some book-buyers might appreciate, they are also limiting choice, because both publishers and authors need to be able earn a decent return on their investment in producing and marketing a book.

We sell a large number of our books through Amazon, for which they take a whopping 60% – and we have to pay for postage. This means that we are barely able to earn anything through Amazon, and survive on our agreements elsewhere. By taking such an unfairly large cut, Amazon is ensuring that many very worthwhile projects never actually see the light of day. Would you want to publish a book if most of your money was going to go to Amazon, who effectively do nothing except exist?

Amazon repeatedly say they support small publishers. We are a small publisher, and our success has come in spite of Amazon and not because of Amazon. Amazon does not support the little guys. We would do extremely well if Amazon did not exist and we could market directly to other distributors.

Gardners and Bertrams distribute our book to bookshops in the UK, and do not take nearly as large a cut.

And now this: Amazon are fighting a very public battle with Hachette, a French publisher, over the price of e-books.

Because I don’t follow Amazon on a daily basis, the first I heard of the dispute was when Amazon sent this rather bizarre letter to publishers of Kindle books. I was astonished, yet again, by Amazon’s sheer arrogance – that it was actually claiming to want to drive down the price of ebooks on behalf of the consumer.

This is what is really going on.

All our guidebooks are available on Amazon Kindle, of course. When we publish an e-book, we set a price for it. But Amazon caps the maximum we can charge. In the US, this is set at $9.99. From this, Amazon take either 30% or 70%, depending on what rights we cede.

Right, now go on to Amazon and search for our Kindle book to The Hague. You will not find it for $9.99, which is what we get paid royalties on. Amazon add a good few dollars on to the list price, which they pocket as a tidy profit. At last check, the price was $12.09. It’s often more.

So for Amazon to claim in their pompous letter that they are actually fighting for lower e-book prices – rather than bigger corporate profits – is pretty despicable.

For them to continue to claim that they are good for consumers… well, does anyone really believe that any more?

Consider boycotting Amazon. We do.

(And here, for completeness, is the letter that a group of authors, backed by Hachette, published in the New York Times)

The economics of fracking

June 10, 2014

It’s difficult to ignore the hype surrounding hydraulic fracturing – this, assures the government, is going to help revolutionise the energy industry in much the same way as has happened in the US. Gone will be the dark days of energy dependence on Russia. But do the economics stack up?

On May 23, the government came forwards with new rules that will make it easier for companies to get access for fracking on land. This coincided with a report from the British Geological Survey (BGS) that suggests there is a great deal of shale oil locked away in the southeast of England.

Some think that now might be the time for a dose of American-style frackonomics – understanding the key figures, both in terms of costs and benefits, behind all the rhetoric.

Earlier this year, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Dutch-British oil company Shell, admitted that “some of our exploration bets [on fracking] have simply not worked out”. The company admitted that it had lost a chunk of the $80 billion that it had invested in the industry in the US.

Shell has developed its own actuarial models on the value and risks of fracking, according to company insiders, although it is keeping such models close to its chest.

The problem is that there are so many intangibles when it comes to fracking that it is difficult to put a price on either the costs or the benefits.

Hiscox, one of the largest specialist insurers in the UK, is prepared to underwrite damage from earthquakes – not a particularly common occurrence in Britain – but not if those are caused by fracking, largely because an insufficient amount of data makes the risk difficult to price.

But Ed Dolan, an economist and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga in Latvia, argues that it is important to get a handle on some of the economic costs, as well the benefits in fracking, if only to make sure the public does not end up footing the bill.

“I don’t think a knee-jerk ‘for’ or ‘against’ makes sense,” he said. “You have to look at this from an economic perspective, and it is possible to isolate and study certain criteria.”

He points out that things like water quality before and after fracking, the rise in local pollution and health hazards can all be measured.

Some studies have been attempted in the US, which Dolan argues can help understand the British situation, but there is one important proviso: little research has so far been carried out in places as densely-populated as parts of the UK are.

It is one thing to study the environmental cost in the middle of Texas – a state that is twice as big as the UK, with less than half the population – and quite another to study the impact of a site in Lancashire. Even where fracking has been attempted in more densely-populated places in the US – such as Pennsylvania or New York State – there have been few studies done.

But there are signs of a growing awareness in the UK.

Susan Christopherson, a professor at the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University in the US, says that conversations she has had with people during a recent lecturing tour of the UK, shows that people in government are finally starting to appreciate the need for a clear valuation of the economic costs and benefits of fracking.

A House of Lords Committee is currently looking at the implications of fracking across the UK, with the intention of selling the benefits of shale gas to a sceptical British public. Christopherson says that it won’t be able to do that with more robust economic figures, noting that recent studies show that support for fracking in the country has slipped below 50%.

But the costs involved in fracking may turn out to be a moot point if, as suspected, the hype around fracking turns out to be a speculative bet, fuelled by cheap debt.

“We’ve seen this in the US for the past 200 years,” said Christopherson. “Oil is discovered, industries move in to exploit the natural resource. When they move out, the communities are worse off than they were before – smaller populations, more income inequality and less diversification.”

Low-interest rates could be driving the speculative nature of fracking exploration, since companies can fund new wells relatively cheaply.

Deborah Rogers, head of the Energy Policy Forum, a think tank, and former financial analyst, says that new wells are being drilled to service the debt used to fund previous wells.

When interest rates rise, as they are expected to at some point next year, signalling the end of cheap debt, things could come to an ugly end.

“The important thing is to look at what might be lost, not just what will be gained,” said Christopherson. “If you start fracking in Tunbridge Wells and the area is damaged as a tourist site because of perceived industrial activity, you would lose tourism jobs and, if fracking turns out to be a short-term boom, you will have to rebuild the ‘Tunbridge Wells’ brand. That should not be overlooked.”

Getting that djinn out of the system

May 15, 2014

Think of the tomatoes.

A hosepipe pours a constant stream of water on them, which comes directly from the tap. Then one day an evil djinn clamps his hand around the middle of the hose. Two things happen. Firstly, the water pouring on to the tomatoes suddenly stops. Secondly the pressure at the top of the hose, which is connected to the tap, builds up to such an extent that the hose ruptures and bursts; water all over the place!

Still thinking of the tomatoes?

The tomatoes are getting dry and there’s now no more water that can feed them. The solution? To take a bucket and fill it with the water now gushing out of the ruptured nozzle of the hose, then manually take this to the tomatoes. Empty. Return. Refill. Back to the tomatoes. Empty. Return. Refill. And so on.

At least the tomatoes are getting watered, but is it the best way of doing things? Water splashing everywhere, some getting lost as you jog back and forth to feed the tomatoes, an exhausting manual exercise to bypass a hole in a hose pipe that perhaps you ought to think about fixing.

Oh well, some other day.

This parable was told to me by the CEO of a mid-sized French insurance company as we sipped cappuccinos outside a Parisian café, marvelling at how deserted the city’s streets are on VE Day.

The tomatoes are equities. The tap is the banking system. And the ruptured hose is the line of credit that once flowed so freely from lender to borrower.

In France, the story is no different from the rest of Europe. Banks have slashed lending, stemming the flow of credit upon which many small enterprises depend.

Enter shadow banking – lending by any institution that isn’t a bank. Like life insurers, who not only have a bit of extra cash but have predictable liabilities that are pretty long-term in nature.

Shadow banking is starting to become a big thing in France, as it is in many other European countries.

Until August last year, it wasn’t possible for insurers to engage in shadow banking, but thanks to a highly-successful lobbying effort by industry it now is.

The veteran insurance chief reflected upon this for a moment. With persistently low interest rates – though they may go up in the next year or two – the lure of lending to business for an insurance company is obvious: better returns, which they need to meet policyholder commitments. But the CEO reflect that this was not the best approach for the market in general.

“It’s like those tomatoes,” he said, a little wistfully. “The buckets of water go everywhere, and sometimes you get wet yourself. It would be so much better to get the djinn out of the system instead.”

But of course the temptation for better returns remains, and this particular insurance company is working on its own shadow banking initiative that should be launched in the next few months, despite this particular CEO personally thinking it not a good idea.

This may not be the most efficient way of doing things, and there is concern that it could be transferring additional risk to insurance companies, risk that they are not being adequately regulated for, but as long as they can turn a quick buck by fulfilling an obvious need they will.

The CEO pushed the meringue that came with his coffee towards me. He said he didn’t want it. I took it. I hadn’t had breakfast.

Of course, not everyone agrees that shadow banking is a bad thing. At the airport, waiting for a flight down to Naples, I caught a glimpse of the cover of this month’s Economist. Coincidentally enough it was about shadow banking and can be found here. In the article, the correspondent was trying to show what a wonderful thing shadow banking could be, if only properly regulated – it finally allows businesses to get those loans that the traditional banking system is currently denying to them.

But are we – as this CEO suggested – perhaps missing the point. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on why the system is broken in the first place? Even if it means that everyone only has one meringue.

The politics of ‘hello’

May 7, 2014

Travellers in the Arabic world will be familiar with the traditional Islamic greeting ‘as-salam al-aykum’ (literally: ‘peace be upon you’), followed by the equally traditional Islamic response ‘wa al-aykum as-salam’ (lit: ‘and upon you be peace’).

Until recently I had considered such an expression to be universally-accepted throughout the Arabic world. But not so. The expression is subtly different in Juba Arabic.

In Juba Arabic, if you are greeting a single person – as opposed to a group – the common usage of this oft-espoused phrase is, “salam taki”.

Why the difference?

Well, first of all, speakers of Juba Arabic – which is a curious melange of Khartoum Arabic and tribal languages – tend to be fairly cavalier with the use of articles. Out goes the ‘as’ before ‘salam’ and the ‘al’ before ‘taki’.

But the really interesting thing is that the Juba Arabic, when said to a single person, is in the singular, whilst the Khartoum Arabic – and I admit to never having noticed this before – is in the plural.

The reason for the greeting being in the plural in most Arabic countries is that the greeting is also being extended to the angels that, according to Islamic belief, permanently accompany a person.

But in Juba, the plural has been dropped, I am informed, because the predominantly Christian and animist southerners do not hold to such believes.

Just one example of how political dynamics have influenced the development of Juba Arabic.

Supporting armed groups and the contentious issue of specific direction

January 23, 2014

Just under a year ago, Momčilo Perišić, chief of staff of the Yugoslav army until 1998, walked out of a Hague-based court a free man. Judging from a separate ruling in another case, which was delivered today, that decision may have been wrong.

Lawyers for Perišić argued before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that he shouldn’t be held accountable for alleged atrocities, since the aid that Perišić gave to the Bosnian Serbs was not specifically directed towards commission of war crimes. In other words, although these crimes were committed, and Perišić did provide support for the Bosnian Serbs, it could not be proved that this aid was specifically targeted towards the perpetrated crimes. ICTY judges agreed – and Perišić won his freedom.

Some months later, lawyers for Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, used the same argument in his appeal hearing before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Here, though, judges rejected the argument, insisting that ICTY judges erred in the Perišić ruling. Taylor’s 50-year conviction stood. It would have been astonishing, given the intractable politics surrounding the Taylor case, had Taylor been able to walk away.

And now today. Lawyers for former Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Šainović had been arguing that his conviction should be overturned, on the grounds that specific direction could not be proven in the aid he had provided the Serbs. Judges rejected this argument, asserting quite strongly that the Perišić ruling was invalid.

So, greater clarity, perhaps, on this highly-contentious element of international law: the link between aiding an armed struggle and that aid being directly targeted towards criminal activities does not have to be firmly established.

Warlords, take note.

What is a book?

January 4, 2014

2014 was the year that we planned to update our guidebook to South Sudan. Our timing may leave something to be desired, since much of the country seems to be erupting in violence at the moment, but I remain the eternal Sudanese optimist.

In doing our preliminary research into what needs updating, with a view to returning to South Sudan a little later this year, I have been somewhat dismayed with the media coverage that our competitor’s guidebook to the country has been receiving.

Here’s a case in point.

On the way back from the UK the other week, I picked up a copy of Wanderlust to entertain me on the 45 minute flight. It’s a magazine I have great regard for and I have been an occasional reader of it since it was first established 20 years ago.

I was quite surprised to see that one of the first articles was on South Sudan. Such surprise quickly turned to dismay and frustration as I skimmed over the article, which wasn’t so much about the country but about the fact that our competitor had been bold enough to publish the “first ever guidebook to the country”.

But hang on. We published our guidebook to South Sudan six months before they did.

Upon my return home, I flicked through other media. The Telegraph was positively salivating over their foresight to publish such a guide.

Which, I repeat, we had done six months before.

The thing is.

The thing is.

Well, the thing is.

Our guidebook is currently available only on Kindle. At the time, we didn’t have resources to publish a printed version, since we were focusing all our efforts on our Hague guidebook.

So what is a book? Wanderlust, The Telegraph and a host of other media have categorically defined a book as being non-electronic.

I beg to differ.

We published the first ever guidebook to an independent South Sudan. And that’s exactly what it will state on our next edition.

The case for out

December 17, 2013

You’d have thought that bashing the EU these days was a pretty easy thing to do and yet eurosceptics still manage to cock it up.

Over the past 40 years of die-hard eurosceptism, surely those making the case for pulling the UK out of this project would have learnt to say the right things. But it appears sometimes as though really they don’t realise that a) membership of the EU is a rather emotive subject, b) Brits aren’t as daft as the oft-espoused propaganda seems to suggest and c) that it’s a good idea to engage brain before activating voice.

I don’t feel it fair to name drop here. There are some very rational eurosceptics, and there are some pretty daft ones. Unfortunately, I feel that it is the daft ones that get most of the air waves.

Not long ago, I heard a prominent eurosceptic praise the “bravery” of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was of course using this argument to dispel the nonsensical notion that the EU was in some way responsible for this. But even before his words had stopped ricocheting around the auditorium, the come-back was obvious: Really? It was the bravery of Thatcher and Reagan? How about the bravery and tenacity of the East German people?

Of course, it was the europhile making this point that got all the cheers and the eurosceptic, whilst the logic underpinning his poorly-made comment was sound, looked rather foolish.

If this is the strength of eurosceptic argument, then Brussels has nothing to worry about. Hell, we’re definitely going to be staying in the EU.

There is a conspiracy theory that suggests that the reason the UK Independence Party is enjoying so much air time on the BBC, and so many column inches in pro-European papers, is because if this is all the British people hear, then they’re going to certainly vote with the stay-in-the-EU crowd. Listening to some of the eurosceptic viewpoints at the moment, this theory doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Just for the record, I am of the view that the UK should leave the EU. I used to be of the opinion that we should try and reshape the EU into something more democratic and less autocratic. But having closely followed European politics for the past 13 years, including five years in Brussels, I’ve come to the conclusion that this simply won’t work.

But it’s totally crazy to entertain the notion that nothing comes after Brussels. This is a point that eurosceptics must be making far more loudly than they are, and not allow the pro-European camp to falsely imply that we could be leaping into some sort of void with catastrophic consequences.

Thank God that we never subscribed to the euro, otherwise things could be far messier. (It’s true that many contracts by European companies are now written in euros, but that’s not going to change whether we’re a member of the bloc of not).

It’s crazy to suggest that, should we leave the EU, our European partners, are going to storm off in a hissy fit and not want to speak to us. We have a population of nearly 65 million. That’s a mighty lot of BMWs that the Germans can sell to us.

Nor do I think leaving the EU means that we have to close our doors to immigrants, which, despite what UKIP might tell you, have done us the world of good. It just means that we can let them come on our terms. Which is: come here, work, contribute to our GDP. Don’t live in the woods hunting our swans.

The UK may be a mere shadow of its former self, but it is still a formidable economy and the ridiculous idea that we suddenly couldn’t survive without Brussels, that we would suddenly be ostracised and treated as a leper, is laughable and should be countered, with all the might of the eurosceptic lobby.

Ten years ago, europhiles were insisting quite strongly that we should join the euro, even though some fairly prominent economists, both pro- and anti-EU, were pointing out some of the fundamental flaws in the project, which have still not been overcome (largely because politics and economics do not see eye-to-eye).

Over the past few years, sterling has done remarkably well in a sea of euro turbulence. It has fallen significantly over the 10 years, but that is only because Gordon Brown allowed it to over-inflate in the first place.

The British pound is one of the most-traded currencies in the world, largely thanks incidentally to our global financial services industry, which Brussels actually wants to curtail (as an aside, the socialist in me does still have reservations about how the British financial services industry is regulated, but that’s a separate issue and should be up for us to decide anyway). So, whilst Denmark, who also managed to keep its currency, has had to peg it to the euro to ensure stability, we haven’t had to. Doesn’t that suggest our comparative strength?

These are the kinds of arguments that the eurosceptics should be shouting from the rooftops.

So why am I only hearing them whispered in the shadows? Why are they being crowded out by all the other nonsensical eurosceptic rhetoric that crosses the air waves?

Battling with Trading Standards

December 11, 2013

I know that the received wisdom of business management is that one shouldn’t speak ill of one’s competitors. But at times the frustration at the disdain with which smaller players are treated becomes too much. This is one of those times.

For the past five years, we have worked tirelessly to establish a publishing company that provides quality guidebooks for expats. Our first guidebook to Sudan was written for two reasons. Firstly, because we didn’t believe that Bradt – our only competitor for guidebooks to the country – had done a good job. And we still don’t. Secondly, we couldn’t understand how people living in Khartoum could not fall in love with the place. And we still don’t.

Our Sudan guidebook has done astonishingly well, and we have exceeded our own expectations with both editions.

But Bradt still seems to be in denial about our existence. This is despite the fact that we have repeatedly told them about our guidebook, and that the researcher for their last edition knew of our guide. He may even have got a copy.

I’m not saying that Bradt should have sent us flowers or anything – although, if they are listening and do consider doing so, pink carnations would be nice – but when they continue to insist, despite repeated warnings, that they are the only guidebook to Sudan… well, then I take issue.

Shortly after we published the first edition of our guidebook to Sudan, Bradt published a new edition of their own guide, maintaining that theirs was “the only standalone guidebook to this unique edition”. Despite the fact that the researcher of the guidebook was aware of our guide.

I promptly responded to say that it was no longer true and, quite reasonably I felt, requested that they change this claim.

This was the polite email I got back from Janet Mears:

“Thank you for your letter of 4th December 2010 and your follow-up telephone call of 7th January 2011.  I apologise for the delay in responding.

I confirm that the next printing of Bradt’s Sudan will have the words ‘This is the only standalone guide to this unique destination’ removed from the back cover.”

Sorted. Or so I thought.

But, when they republished their guide in November 2012, they repeated their assertion, this time claiming theirs was “the only guidebook to post-partition Sudan”. Again a totally false statement that they should have been fully aware of.

Incidentally, it is worth pointing out at this point that the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld the complaint against Bradt’s misleading claim, and requested websites remove the wording. Unfortunately, they do not have the mandate to take action against “product packaging” – or in other words the blurb on the back of a book.

Enter Trading Standards.

I have spent the past year toing and froing with Trading Standards. At first, thanks to a wonderfully helpful official from the organisation, I thought that they would be able to help. But my complaint appears to have got caught up in labyrinthine bureaucracy.

I’ll spare you the rather tortuous emails that I have been exchanging with Trading Standards, save to quote from their last significant correspondence: “Despite the complaint appearing to reveal some potential CPR offences, it seems to be more of a civil copyright issue between two publishing companies.”

I’m not sure where the person quoted studied law, but this is wrong on so many levels. We are not claiming that Bradt infringed copyright. We are asserting, quite strongly, that the company is in breach of Trading Standards by openly (and perhaps deliberately) lying on their product packaging. It seems a fairly open-and-closed case. But, even if there are grey areas I am not fully appreciating, at least someone should look seriously at our complaint. After all, as a British taxpayer, I’m funding Trading Standards.

Yet still Trading Standards refuse to take any action. Their mandate says that they can become involved if a product does not “match the description on packaging”?

So why are they not at least considering our case, when the Advertising Standards Authority agree that the wording Bradt is using is invalid?

It’s a point I have put to them and I am yet to hear back, simply being passed from one person to the next. It strikes me as faintly ironic that I read Franz Kafka for the first time, when updating our guidebook to the country.

I am still pursuing the matter, with dwinling optimism, since Trading Standards’ justification for turning our case down appears extremely watery, and I would welcome any views on the matter.

But, in the meantime, remember that Bradt’s claim that theirs is “the only guidebook to post-partition Sudan” is a blatant lie. And one that has probably cost us sales. We were the first publishing company to produce a guidebook to Sudan after independence. And no one can ever take that claim away from us.

And buy our guidebook – not theirs.


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