Saturday, June 30, 2007

Magical TED Moment 

One of the best things about the way Emeka produced TED was the variety among the sessions, even though there was an underlying theme, namely turning a new chapter for Africa. One of my favourite sessions was the campfire, to celebrate the continent's glorious story-telling tradition. My favourite speaker at the session was Chris Abani who is a raconteur par excellence. He ended his beautiful, self-deprecatory talk, which covered everything from being in Nigerian prisons to tribal tensions, with this amazing poem by Yusef Komunyakaa called Ode to a Drum, and I reproduce it here in full.
Gazelle, I killed you
for your skin's exquisite
touch, for how easy it is
to be nailed to a board
weathered raw as white
butcher paper. Last night
I heard my daughter praying
for the meat here at my feet.
You know it wasn't anger
that made me stop my heart
till the hammer fell. Weeks
ago, I broke you as a woman
once shattered me into a song
beneath her weight, before
you slouched into that
grassy hush. But now
I'm tightening lashes,
shaping hide as if around
a ribcage, stretched
like five bowstrings.
Ghosts cannot slip back
inside the body's drum.
You've been seasoned
by wind, dusk & sunlight.
Pressure can make everything
whole again, brass nails
tacked into the ebony wood
your face has been carved
five times. I have to drive
trouble from the valley.
Trouble in the hills.
Trouble on the river
too. There's no kola nut,
palm wine, fish, salt,
or calabash. Kadoom.
Kadoom. Kadoom. Ka-
doooom. Kadoom. Now
I have beaten a song back into you,
rise & walk away like a panther.
This poem really needs to be heard, not read, so try and give it a listen.

As Chris Anderson later said, this was a TED moment.

Bono should be listening to George Ayittey more 

There is a voice in the wilderness that speaks to what the real problems of Africa might be, namely George Ayittey, prominent economist, head of the Free Africa Foundation and author of Africa Unchained. You would imagine that the most prominent voice on Africa would be an African one with experience on the ground and a real understanding of how these countries function. The very fact that it is instead an American economist with previous experience in Bolivia, Poland and Russia that everyone listens to is reflective of the paternalism that's built into the international aid business. For more fun and games, have a look at this PBS debate between Jeff Sachs and George. Anyways, to Bono's credit, he did spend some time talking to George (evidence below), but whether he will listen is a whole other question.

(pic courtesy: White African)

TED Global: An Update 

Of course, I am late as ever in posting the update from TED Global. At the very outset, let me say that it was the finest conference I have ever been to, and that is quite something coming from a conference-skeptic like me. Kudos go out to my buddy and IPEG compadre, Emeka Okafor who produced the conference with Chris Anderson. Like at every TED, there were a fair amount of big names sprinkled across the conference, from Bono to Larry Page to Jay Walker to President Kikwete himself.

For me, the highlight of the conference was clearly the redefining of the aid issue, which started with Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda's forceful attack on Bono, Sachs etc and on international aid in general. He dared anyone in the audience to point to a country that developed thanks to aid, which led to some pointless heckling by Bono who jumped up and said something about the potato famine in Ireland. Bono later tried to defend his point of view by referring to the Marshall Plan. Now, Bono seems incapable of understanding a fundamental difference: the Marshall Plan rebuilt countries like Germany which were among the richest countries on the planet before the great war. What was destroyed during the war was physical infrastructure, not human infrastructure. The presence of the latter meant that there was a great absorptive capacity in place for the large amounts of money flowing in. To compare post-war Germany with Uganda is really quite bizarre.

I think Mwenda really began to tear apart the aid scenario when he unpacked the Ugandan budget (which is largely dependent on aid) and showed how large a percentage of the budget went to paying salaries of government officials. Obviously, in such a scenario, the government officials (who are the types that Bono etc hobnob with) have every incentive to keep the status quo going.

Now, don't get me wrong. This blog is named after a U2 song, after all. I actually think Bono has his heart in the right place, but his understanding is too one-sided and since he lives in a bubble chamber, he does not hear/listen to other opinions. So, when so many Africans launched a ferocious attack on aid, he was clearly taken aback since he thinks what he does is universally good and the only people opposing it are unkind right-wingers in the west. Of course, the irony in all of this is that Bono was responsible for TED coming to Africa after an impassioned speech he gave at an earlier TED.

I think Bono, Jeff Sachs etc do not understand the damage they cause. They do not seem to understand that perception is reality and if the only reality people hear of Africa is disease, poverty and hunger, soon enough, that will be the only Africa there is. In fact, every place in East Africa I visited was the exact opposite of the public image of Africa. It reminded me of the press India used to get in the foreign media in the late 80's. Compare that with today and you understand why perception matters.

Else you could look at some hard facts: Botswana has an A+ bond rating and Egypt's stock market delivered 145% returns in the last financial year. The question then is why doesn't the money follow? Obviously, it's because it has become impossible to separate Botswana from Somalia and Africa is treated as a country, not a continent of 53 countries, each with its own problems AND investment opportunities. This perception problem clearly affects capital flows which are desperately needed for investment, and that's something Bono, Sachs, Nick Kristof etc don't seem to understand. It's the perception of India that has changed globally which had led to huge capital inflows. Similarly, the perception of African countries need to change and I'd advice anyone who has doubts to actually visit Africa, and not just the refugee camps. Nairobi, for instance, is one of the most vibrant cities I have seen and there is no reason to believe there aren't real investment opportunities there.

There was also some talk about Chinese imperialism, made by some American member of the audience. This stuff is damn rich coming from the citizen of a country that kept Mobutu in power for 32 years, and that's the tip of what happened on the continent during the Cold War. As Trevor Manuel said at a World Bank meeting, the Chinese never sent in an army into Africa to do business, and that ended all talk about the yellow peril.

It's true though that you can feel the Chinese presence everywhere in Africa, from a business and strategic standpoint. One obviously has to wonder then where on earth the Indians are. India has had long standing relations with most African countries and the Indian diaspora is everywhere on the continent, so why the Indian government doesn't play a much larger role in Africa is a bit strange. Africa will be the last frontier for investments, and the largest source of natural resources, so why would we simply let the Chinese have a free run of the place, especially when it's India that has the historical ties to leverage.

Okay, so this post has rambled much longer than I intended. Just wanted to post some nuggets from TED. I will follow up with any other thoughts I may have missed and pictures from my safari in Seringeti, which was really the best thing I've done to date. Truly magnificent. In the meanwhile, if you're interested in learning more about what happened at TED Global, tune in to Ethan Zuckerman's excellent coverage of the events. And if you want shallow and superficial coverage, there's always the Economist, which has almost nothing to say about the debate that dominated the conference.

Queen Hatshepsut: A Big Win for Egyptology 

In between all the news about U.K. terror bombings etc, there was an extraordinary piece of news that was almost completely buried. In what is being called the find of the century, Egyptologists claim to have identified the mummified remains (pic below) of Queen Hatshepsut, fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt and possibly the first great female ruler in human history (she preceded Nefertiti and Cleopatra). If proven to be true (more testing to be done), this discovery probably rivals that of Tutankhamun's tomb. Interestingly enough, the mummy was discovered way back in 1903 by Howard Carter himself. Amazing really how the main newspapers seem to have passed up this story completely.

(pic: BBC News)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Name 'em. Fly 'em. 

Virgin Atlantic has a fab way of naming its airliners, none better than Tubular Belle, to recognize Branson's and Virgin's indebtedness to Mike Oldfield's record, which kept Virgin afloat for years. Now that Virgin America has been given permission to operate, they have opened the naming of VA's planes to the public. Fittingly enough, they offered the first name to Grace Slick and sure enough, Virgin America's first plane will be called "Jefferson Airplane", which is appropriate on so many levels.

In the meanwhile, I flew Virgin Upper Class from Nairobi to New York and I cannot recommend it enough (a masseuse and a bar on board..what more could you ask for). I would choose it over BA anyday. However, I also do think Jet Airways is on the verge of rewriting the rules on upper class flying once it opens up its New York service (advertised in a full-page colour ad in the NYT day before yesterday).

Anyway, good luck with trying to name a virgin or two. Seriously.

Mossberg Interview with Jobs and Gates 

I presume most of you have heard of this interview, but here are some excerpts anyway.

Walt Mossberg and the iPhone 

Walt Mossberg and Katie Boehret like the iPhone. 'Nuff said. As for me, I am still wary of Ver 1.0 of anything I have to pay $500 bucks for. So, I think I will hang on to my Treo just a while longer.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Away in Tanzania 

I am currently in Tanzania, attending TED Global 2007 as a fellow. This has been a fascinating summit with a terrific exchange of ideas between the proponents of aid-based development like Bono, and most Africans in the room. I will write up a full dispatch once I have a little more time on my hands. In the meanwhile, let me recommend Tanzania and Kenya to everyone who has not been here. There are few places I know that are more beautiful and attending TED at the foothills of Mount Meru with Mount Killimanjaro in the distance has been a surreal experience.