Invective

April 19, 2016

I listened last week to two important people extol the many virtues of Hong Kong, and insist how the future success of this semi-autonomous enclave of China was guaranteed because of the tenacity and entrepreneurship of the people that live here, plus of course the robustness of the legal and financial system.

One of these people was John Tsang, Hong Kong’s financial secretary. The other was Stuart Gulliver, chief executive officer of HSBC.

They used phases such as “the highly-developed legal system and a heavy concentration of skilled professionals means that Hong Kong will be too far advanced… to be displaced [by China]” (Gulliver) and “Hong Kong’s success is built upon the rule of law [and] the persistence in upholding economic freedom, an extensive business network, sound financial infrastructure, a robust regulatory regime, [and] a well educated and resourceful workforce” (Tsang).

The problem was that such comments – which was what you would expect both of the parties to say – were overshadowed by the most eloquent speaker that went before them: Tsim Tak Luk, chairman of the Project Citizens Foundation, writer and intellectual.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that, to be honest, neither Tsang nor Gulliver proved to be particularly good speakers. Okay, I’ll accept that for Tsang English isn’t his first language. And, with the Sunday Times preparing to publish a story on Sunday about how Gulliver was for the chop in two years time, the HSBC CEO may have had other things on his mind.

But still they could have given a more robust defence against Luk’s invective.

Luk used such confrontational rhetoric as “Hong Kong is a city of broken promises, and the Hong Kong people is a people misruled” and “We have seen instead plenty of examples of mediocre people making dumb decisions for I don’t know whose benefit”.

Not perhaps the best choice of words when you are trying to introduce a member of the government that, in none too subtle a way, you are hell bent on criticising.

Luk pulled no punches when he spoke about Beijing: “Before 1997, the then sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen of England & the United Kingdom, was affectionately referred to as The Proprietress. After 1997, the new sovereign in Beijing is referred to, also affectionately, as The Grandfather. And the difference is this – the Proprietress left you alone to go about your business provided you made money for her, whereas the Grandfather loves to give orders and broaches no arguments.”

Grandfather does not always know best, said Luk, especially not high finance (the thought of making a reference about what happened to markets in China cannot have been far away from his mind).

The fear in Hong Kong is palpable – and Luk’s comments embodied perfectly the sentiments that I am hearing an increasing number of local Hong Kongers express: China needs to move carefully for the future success of Hong Kong to be guaranteed.

This fear didn’t go away as Hong Kong protestors closed their umbrellas at the end of 2014. It is still very much there, and with this being an election year, expect it to resurface in some form or another. Joshua Wong, the poster boy from the 2014 protests, has just launched his own political party.

I tend to see Beijing as largely pragmatic. I think many in the West do. If they’re making money they are happy, and they don’t want to derail Hong Kong’s success just for the sake of doing so.

But there is a danger here that many are increasingly sensing.

Luk concluded: “As we survey the current political landscape in Hong Kong, it is obvious that the politicization, polarization and radicalization of Hong Kong politics – and their relentless escalation – is the number one cause for concern… As Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of NPC said, the intelligent Hong Kong people will be able to find their own solution. If this is true, Hong Kong’s political risk goes down several notches, and our Financial Secretary Mr John Tsang’s bullish scenario may come to pass. But if the reverse is true, and Beijing chooses outright confrontation – the sledgehammer approach – then we are only one riot away from Hong Kong’s own June 4th  moment.”

This last was a reference to the terrible Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Which sounds bad to me. To be avoided at all costs.

Beijing has more sense these days.

One hopes.

Defending colonialism

April 7, 2016

Defending colonialism is a difficult thing to do. But no matter where I travel in the world it seems that people want to extol the virtues of the legacy that we – meaning us noble Europeans – left behind.

As a Brit whose forefathers helped conquer much of the world, any defence of what we might have achieved sounds painfully shrill against the historical memories of all that blood that was spilled.

And yet still people – mainly the natives of these countries that we conquered – are prepared to justify what we did in the name of progress.

We gave these uncivilised barbarians human rights, the rule of law, capitalism, electricity. And on the list goes.

Nowhere does the defence of European colonialism seem more obvious than in Hong Kong.

My Cantonese teacher – a flamboyant fellow with a deep dislike of the mainland Chinese – likes to thank and blame the British, in equal measure, for what they have done for the territory.

He thinks that colonialism was the best thing that could have happened to the country, and helped propel the region forwards from a collection of sleepy fishing hamlets to what you see today. I see skyscrapers and an unhealthy worship of money. But he probably sees more.

But he is also angry with the British – angry for leaving in 1997, and angry for not doing more to keep the territory out of the clutches of Beijing.

“You guys should never have left,” he complained to me over dinner.

Which sparked an intense debate as to the virtues or otherwise of colonialism – with me saying that the so-called “progress” the British heralded in could in no way justify the suppression of the natives (although I am aware that Hong Kong, important mostly as port for trading with China rather than anything grander, had a far less bloody history than other colonial outposts) and him claiming that the rewards future generations would enjoy more than made up for the grim history of colonialism.

But I could not see it like that. For me, colonialism was a self-serving evil that sought only to benefit the colonialists and not the colonised – and we got far more out of it than our colonies ever did.

Our conversation ended as the dessert arrived, with him summising that my views are founded upon some kind of colonial guilt that is forced upon us Europeans from birth. I certainly don’t feel guilty, but he’s probably right in some way: we Europeans do collectively believe that we bear some responsibility for the sorry state that many countries are in, which is why we are so keen to try and put things right (queue a brief discussion about the immigration dilemma Europe). Just as, of course, his background and regional context has shaped his positive view of British presence over here.

It reminded me of a scene out of George Orwell’s Burmese Days.

In this stunningly good book, the main protagonist John Flory, the only member of the colonialist elite that feels in some way embarrassed with what Britain is doing to the country, is forever trying to convince his Indian doctor friend, Veraswami, about the evils of empire. He consistently fails, with Veraswami’s rose-tinted eyes constantly admiring the culture, progress and refinement that Her Majesty’s subjects were bringing the Asian outpost.

I was playing John Florry, my Cantonese teacher the good doctor. Two people from different backgrounds and different cultures whose very different view of the world was coloured by their upbringing.

I am now reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which charts the development of humankind through the ages. Whilst Harari certainly is not an apologist for colonialism, there is a very fine subtext running through the chapters where he talks about imperialism: and that is, despite all the horrific bloodshed and evil-doing, the benefits of colonialism to future generations have always been significant.

It happened with the expansion of the Romans. It happened with the expansion of the Arabs. And it happened with the Europeans, too.

Bath tubs, numbers, human rights. These people all left something valuable behind.

But I still feel squeamish when I hear, a mere half a century after our empire unravelled, people speaking favourably about what we did.

Poverty

March 9, 2016

mumbai

In some ways, India can be a much crueller society than those of Africa.

On Sunday, I was in Mumbai visiting the Haji Ali Dargah mosque, located on an island just off the coast in the south of the city.

As I walked along the causeway linking the islet to the mainland, I must have passed nearly 50 beggars, many with various deformities and almost all in a desperate state of poverty. There was an even space between each of them, in the same manner that market stalls would be laid out.

Thirty minutes later I walked back along the same causeway and they were all gone.

At the start of my journey back, I saw two policeman – a man and a woman. The woman was looking fierce and determined. The man was kicking newspaper and cardboard, which the beggars had been using as makeshift seats, into the sea; this is what is pictured above.

The beggars had all been successfully removed from their perches, to a place where they wouldn’t offend the sensitivity of any passing tourists.

This must happen on a regular basis.

During my five days in Mumbai, this is the scene that stuck most in my head and deeply saddened me – but it was so upsetting mostly because it was emblematic of India’s wider poverty problem.

It seems that, if you are disabled, deformed or desperately poor, you are all but forgotten by society. The cast system, something about India I’ve never been able to properly appreciate, simply makes things worse: if you are at the bottom of the pecking order, then you simply have to live with that. Everyone has their own place in society. But somehow this just doesn’t seem right.

I love India. But the poverty, desperation and unhappiness is deeply troubling.

Of course, Africa has many of the same problems. But through the poverty and hardship, you’re never really alone in Africa. At least not in the same way.

The dangerous game of regime change

June 29, 2015

There can be little rationale behind the decision not to throw Greece a lifeline other than a clumsy bid for change of government. Tsipras is a difficult man to deal with: let’s try and get someone new. We have been here before.

Remember that irascible Italian clown Silvio Berlusoni, who “acquiesced” to step aside in favour of the dour though competent Mario Monti? He had little choice when borrowing costs shot up to dizzying levels, on the back of ebbing enthusiasm for government bonds. Even the great cavallo couldn’t survive this.

A decision by the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank (ECB) not to continue purchasing Italian government debt directly contributed to this sudden hike – and spelled the end of Berlusconi. Which may not, of course, have been a bad thing – depending on your political inclination. Some Italians I know think he did a lousy job for the country.

But allowing a supposedly independent European body to overthrow a leader of a sovereign nation simply because they might not like his economic policy – or for that matter his sexist jokes – is quite clearly undemocratic.

And now we have Greece.

With fairy shoddy conditions attached to the latest bail out aid from the EU – “blackmail”, I think was how Tsipras described it – the Greek leader chose, quite rightly, to take the latest demands from creditors to the people that he serves. After all, it was the Greeks that invented democracy.

But in response did the ECB throw the Greek banks a badly-needed lifeline. Hell no. Instead, the ECB imposed a cap on the amount of money that banks can borrow from the country’s central bank, forcing Tsipras to announce capital controls on the banks from today.

It was a poor decision from Greece’s creditors, and could well push Greece towards – and out of – the exit door.

But to my mind this move is reminiscent of the cat-and-mouse game that the EU has been playing all along. Having to impose capital controls is frustrating and worrying for the Greeks, ominous for the eurozone – and a clear affront to Tsipras’ capability of charting a passage for Greece through this crisis.

Ah! – and therein lies the rub.

Should the majority of Greeks deem Tsipras to be responsible for this mess, they may very well seize the opportunity that he has provided them with and take control for negotiations. They may side with the creditors and agree (albeit reluctantly) to the terms of the bail-out – and then boot Tsipras from office.

That may very well be the thinking behind refusing to extend credit to the banks, at least until the referendum is done away with it.

But it is a dangerous game to be playing.

True, Tsipras has certainly made some mistakes since taking office earlier this year. He was perhaps a little clumsy with his negotiations at the start, and has earned something of a reputation as a double-dealer by telling the EU one thing and then the national parliament another.

But these mistakes pale into insignificance when it comes to the litany of cock-ups that the EU / ECB mafia have made. Things needn’t have got this bad, but they have – and things are pushing perilously close to a Grexit.

Which would be a good thing for Greece. Perhaps less so for the rest of Europe. But we’ll survive.

If I was Greek, I know where I’d put that ‘X’. It might be followed by a ‘V’ sign, too.

Greece Part II

June 25, 2015

Ok, so Greece should leave the euro. My position on that has not changed in the five years. My love of German sausages and my dislike of Angela Merkel also remains the same.

What has changed is that Europe’s leaders now don’t have any time to sort out this impending crisis. Five years ago they did, and could have rationally – as I argued then – allowed Greece to leave the euro-block in an orderly fashion, with the view to bringing it back in at some later date. Like when Greek politicians were mature and honest enough to play the euro game (let us not forget, in case anyone has, that Greece should not have been allowed in in the first place because they deliberately and not very elegantly massaged their figures to comply with the Maastricht criteria – both Athens and Brussels should be slapped on the wrist for that).

The panic-stricken cry to counter this argument has always been one of: “contagion!” If Greece is allowed to leave, then Spain and Portugal would shortly follow, possibly even Italy.

That’s quite possibly the case now. It wasn’t five years ago. Five years ago, European leaders could have chosen to draw up a firm plan that would allow Greece to structure an exit from the euro, get its house in order and – should conditions so permit – return. The banking union that European leaders were so hell-bent on creating could then have been applied to the remaining members of the Eurozone, including Spain and Portugal, and thus prevented contagion spreading. Greece was too far gone.

The case for leaving the euro is clear in its simplisticity: the Greek currency – which will become the drachma – will devalue and competitiveness will return to the country. Because the euro-tragedy isn’t simply one of dodgy Greeks and tax-dodging. That’s only half the story. It is one of a country robbed off its competiveness by being tied to a ludicrous half-baked financial experiment.

People may argue that, should it leave the euro-zone, Greece would become a pariah state, shunned by investors and shut out of the world’s financial markets. But investors have short-term memories and, once Greece’s house was in order, they would return. Probably in droves. The pain would be short-lived.

There is of course a precedent for this. Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001 and was forced to abandon its peg with the dollar (the separate 2014 default of Argentinian debt is quite different and doesn’t have a place in this blog entry). True, the short-term pain was acute: businesses went bankrupt and there was widespread capital flight. But quite soon competitiveness returned and the country actually started to do rather well, growing at enviable levels (an average of 9% a year between 2003 and 2008).

Of course, I don’t think Greece will leave the Eurozone. It’s going to be touch and go, but eventually Angela Merkel and her counterpart Alexis Tsipras will trump their respective finance ministers, who have been spitting venom at one another. What did IMF boss Christine Lagarde say a few days ago – the talks needed “the adults in the room”?

From a very early age, one starts to understand that the adults don’t always know best.

India – right to be cautious

February 18, 2015

DSCN5118Narendra Modi came to power on a business-friendly ticket, determined to market India to the rest of the world as the Asian country to do business in. Well, he needed to do something after his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, instigated a number of perplexing moves that seemed to thwart foreign business interests in the country – the retrospective Vodafone tax is perhaps the best known example.

And it seems to be working – with the bulls singing India’s praises, and foreign investment in the country definitely on the up.

india-1-ar-0215-270x270

But Modi’s government has a tricky balancing act to follow.

The country badly needs foreign cash to flow in – “this is an investment-starved country”, Ananth Narayan, head of financial markets at Standard Chartered, told me, citing a 2012 government report that said infrastructure alone needed an extra 1 trillion USD by 2017.

But, on the other hand, too much cash could upset the rupee’s exchange rate, which for the time-being is faring pretty well in what are pretty turbulent FX markets. When former US Fed chairman Ben Bernanke hinted at a possible end to quantitative easing, Indian currency markets went haywire, forcing the then-Indian government to slam on the brakes to foreign investment. Modi’s government certainly don’t want a repeat of this.

india-2-ar-0215-270x270

Which is why the regulators are trying to make it easier for foreigners to invest in the country – but only up to a point.

To a large extent, the country’s central bank, the RBI, has reversed some of the curbs on foreign exchange derivatives that were imposed under the previous regime. FX derivatives are necessary for companies on the Indian market that have both rupee and foreign – usually US dollar – exposure, as many foreign entrants do.

Many players currently hedge their currency exposure in the offshore market and, despite the easing of restrictions by the RBI, may continue to do so, simply because the cost of onshore hedging is prohibitively high.

The RBI is visibly frustrated by the lack of foreign participation in the onshore FX derivatives market, and has been forced to admit that, despite its best efforts, market participants are still hedging their exposure via Singapore, London or New York. This isn’t good for developing the market and bringing costs down; but then the RBI is being cautious about the incentives it could give. It could for example, reduce the risk weight for foreigners using derivatives to (safely) hedge their currency exposure. But it doesn’t look as though it is about to do this.

The next big change is likely to be allowing foreigners to use commodity derivatives, which is imporant for import/export companies who want to limit the fluctuation of the price of the commodity that they are trading in. But it is determined that this will only be a tool of risk mitigation – the possibility to speculate will most definitely be out. Some might welcome such caution, though detractors say that this will also limit participation and thus the development of an efficient market (making it, of course, more expensive).

But Modi and his henchmen are doing the right thing.

Macro stability – which the RBI is sworn to uphold – is crucial to the success of India as an investment destination. and allowing foreigners to meddle too much in Indian affairs will not achieve this.

A recent report from Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, says: “The stable outlook for the next 24 months reflects our view that the new government has both the willingness and capacity to implement reforms necessary to restore some of India’s lost growth potential, consolidate its fiscal accounts and permit the Reserve Bank of India to carry out effective monetary policy.”

But it cautions: “We may lower the rating if the government’s structural reform agenda stalls such that economic growth does not accelerate, or fiscal and debt ratios fail to improve.”

A lower rating from the world’s leading rating agencies could see capital suddenly take flight, particular as many institutional investors (e.g., pension funds) are not allowed to invest in sub-investment grade debt.

“Given the backdrop of what has been happening in global markets over the last few years – specifically the run on the currency we saw in 2013, with the movement in the rupee from 60 to 68 – some regulatory caution is warranted, particularly as the macro situation is improving right now,” Tushar Mahajan, head of derivatives at Nomura India, told me. “But what is the right amount of caution? It is tough to say where you draw the line.”

The right amount of caution is probably where we are now.

I wrote a feature piece for Asia Risk on this last month – but you can only access it if you have a subscription.

You can see me briefly talk about the piece here:

Is the ICC really needed?

January 31, 2015

It is a good question and one that I have spent the past five years thinking about. This will probably be the last blog post that I write about international justice for awhile. I am now in Hong Kong investigating tyranny of another kind. I am penning this from the 25th floor of our tower block apartment, with eagles circling below.

The court that I first came to write about – back in 2007 – was in far worse shape than it is today.

The prosecutor, of Argentinean stock, was dangerously incompetent and seemed to lack the fundamental judicial mores that keep most in the legal profession from saying outrageously daft things, verging on contempt.

The registrar, hailing from southern Italy, was a poor communicator and displayed, whenever I interviewed her, an arrogant disregard for victims which was not in line with the mandate of the court. (The ‘victims participation’ element of the court has always been controversial, but the fact remains that it is there and, in my opinion, rightly so. Those that don’t like it can, as with a lot of things, blame the French. It was them that bought it in.)

The Trust Fund for Victims – now one of the most worthwhile endeavours of the court (if only it could get any money!) – was a shambles, paralised by a particularly unpleasant form of infighting.

Like now, the ICC was badly strapped for cash. But even worse – it’s paymasters, the 100+ countries that had signed up to the Rome Statute – were not prepared to lend it a dime more, until it stopped squandering money and came clean about exactly where all this money was going.

The whole place stank of an unpleasant arrogance that spelt failure for the court and failure for ending injustice around the world.

And yet it was hard to argue against the validity of having a universal court (insofar as universality can be claimed when Russia, China and the US steadfastly refuse to join). For too long, the powerful and the rich had managed to escape justice, whilst the poor and voiceless have suffered. Now, with this shiny new court, the wrong-doers would be punished and the voiceless could at last shout out that they were being listened to.

At least, that was the theory.

But, the more that I wrote about it, the more that I started to realise that things didn’t seem to work as the idealists thought they should.

I was once told by a journalist friend of mine, who had been covering international justice for five years or so, that there was no way the court could ever work. At the time, still in the grips of a misplaced ideology, I scoffed at this and countered by enumerating all the wonderful things that the court could achieve if only certainly people that were running it would go. Now, three years on and with a whole new set of people at the helm of the ICC, I no no longer believe that the ICC is a good body to have in the world.

The criticism of the court is well known – and often valid – but I’ll include a few key examples here.

The ICC is beholden to too much political influence. Why did it go after members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group, rather than also investigate the national military? (A: they needed government help to carry out their investigations) Why is President Bashir of Sudan a wanted man, whilst that other Bashir – he of Syrian colours – has not yet been indicted? (A: Look who’s on the UN’s security council)

Investigations at the ICC are flawed. Investigators get their too late, fail to use proper forensics (their budget for this is disappointing, though this may change), rely too much on witness testimony and tip-toe around situations because they are afraid of nasty men doing nasty things (er, conclusion, get another job; one UN investigator once told me that “ICC investigators should have more balls” and he’s right, if ICC investigations are actually to mean anything). There is a new investigation strategy, but implementing its recommendations is likely to be fraught with difficulties.

The ICC is a Western institution based on European civil law (mostly thanks to French influence again). It is often in conflict with the laws or procedures that operate in the countries that it investigates, and makes no mention of local traditional justice in its mandate, which in some circumstances is a perfectly valid way of conducting business. Whilst I don’t hold with the argument often made by African leaders that the ICC is an imperialist venture out to get the blackman, I do agree that the West isn’t always right and is often very wrong.

And on the list goes.

But, for all these criticisms, the fact that what the ICC is trying to achieve – and what the likes of the much-admired Ben Ferencz, the last prosecutor of Nuremburg, have spent all their lives fighting for – is a noble goal indeed.

But the dilemma remains: how do you achieve that?

And that brings me to what I see as the fundamental flaw of the ICC as it stands at the moment: why is it that, in order to justify their existence, those behind the ICC insist that war criminals must be tried in The Hague at the hands of a judicial body that was set up by former European colonialst powers under the legal system that has governed those colonialist powers for centuries and which, for centuries, they have tried – with varying degrees of success – to impose on their vanquished colonies.

The answer reveals itself in the many conversations that I have had with American lawyers about Libya. America and the UK never wanted Libya’s wrong-doers hauled before the ICC, largely because they knew that this would be a terrific platform for Saif al-Islam – the Gadaffi heir – to strut his stuff, and also undoubtedly reveal one or two rather inconvenient secrets. They always wanted – and they still want – Libya to hush things up.

But there’s a big movement among American lawyers to lend legal assistance to the country, and help bolster its rather weak judicial institutions, so that it can try these heinous crimes in a fair and impartial way.

That is exactly what an organisation like the ICC should be doing. It is true that complimentarity (the idea that a sovereign state should try its own criminals if it has the capacity and the willingness to do so) exists. But exactly what is the ICC doing to make sure that justice can be done in these situation countries? The people of Uganda, of Sudan, of Kenya, of the Congo, of Mali aren’t stupid. They want peace and justice just as much as – and perhaps than – we want it for them. So why shouldn’t they be given the chance to make this happen.

The world doesn’t need an ICC, hewn from European law and weighed down by bureacracy, mediocrity and a strong hint of arrogance.

The world needs a very different type of organisation. An organisation that has at its heart the concerns of the victims that have suffered these terrible crimes, and who helps the people of these countries work together to see justice done.

The ICC just gets in the way.

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?

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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)


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