The UN University wants to be anarchy

The United Nations University Office in New York sends us an invite:

The United Nations University Office at the UN, New York(UNU-ONY) is organizing a panel discussion entitled “Sexed Pistols: The Gendered Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons”. Every day, small arms and light weapons (SALW) kill and maim, wound and threaten millions of adults and children. The impacts of these weapons can be vastly different for women and men, girls and boys. A careful consideration of gender and age is rare in the formulation of small arms policy, of planning small arms collection or control, or even in small arms research.

We look forward to forthcoming UNU events including “I am the Anti-Christ: Secular Movements in Conflict Scenarios”; “I Wanna Destroy: The Dynamics of Violence in Small Wars”; and “Who Killed Bambi? Analyzing Threats to Fauna in Civil Wars”…

What to make of Gordon Brown’s conversion to the Tobin Tax?

“Very substantial drawbacks.” “Big problems attached to it.” “It is very difficult to advocate a tax that has been, in a sense, rejected by the person who put the proposal forward.”

Just three of the observations that Gordon Brown has made in the past about the Tobin Tax. All the more surprising, then, that the Prime Minister should have come out in favour of it in a surprise speech at this weekend’s G20 Finance Ministers – at least until fierce opposition from Tim Geithner forced the UK to back off. (No mention of the idea in Gordon Brown’s FT op-ed on financial institutions this morning, you’ll notice.)

Now that the dust is settling, two questions stand out. First, why the Damascene conversion? And second, how – if at all – does this alter prospects for implementation of the tax?

Start with the reasons why.  Of course, some argue that Brown’s endorsement of the idea is no more than ‘tough on banks’ political positioning. Fraser Nelson, for instance, sees it as “the desperate vote-seeking move of a Prime Minister who knows he’s going down”. Beating up on the banks may be part of the story, but it doesn’t sound convincing enough on its own: you have to wonder whether anything as nerdy as an international currency transaction tax is really going to resonate with the public at large.

John Hilary, the Executive Director of War on Want – the UK NGO that, more than any other, has led the charge on the Tobin Tax – argues that to understand the move, you have to look further back than FSA head Adair Turner’s advocacy of the idea in August: back, in fact, over the last two years, during which several European governments (in particular Norway and latterly France) have been analysing the Tobin tax in detail.

Two weeks ago, John told me this morning, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hosted the first meeting of a new Task Force on international financial transactions (terms of reference here), which Financial Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Timms attended for the UK. When John met Stephen Timms after that meeting,  Timms told him that the UK’s previous resistance to the tax had been misplaced – and the UK was now on board.

Now, you might think that Timms’s reversal of long-standing HM Treasury policy was probably the result of prodding from Downing Street, and you’d probably be right.  But that’s not at odds with the proposition that Brown’s reversal is primarily because he’s become persuaded of the idea’s merits and feasibility. After all, Brown has more form on global Marshall Plan ideas than most: whatever reservations people have about his International Finance Facility (and I have a few), you can’t doubt the seriousness of his personal commitment to the idea.

As to the style of the announcement (of which Chris Giles justly observes, “just imagine if Tony Blair had arrived uninvited when Gordon Brown was chairing a G7 finance ministers’ meeting and upstaged the agenda by talking about things that had been kicked into the long grass. Brown would have exploded”): well, since when did Gordon Brown ever unveil radical new global proposals in a consultative way?

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More climate debate frenzy

Wow, who says democracy is dead? The nay-sayers should check out this incredible debate on the crucial issue of the day – climate change – which happened on November 5 in 2009. And like that famous day 404 years ago, the debate threatened to blow the roof off parliament!

Well, er, not quite. In fact, the video which the BBC’s Democracy Live website has helpfully put up begins with a surreal three minutes of mind-crushing banality, in which the Speaker goes through a list of 20 questions and asks of each one, ‘Debate to be resumed on which day?’, at which a grey-haired lady stands up and says ‘Thursday week, Mr Speaker’, and so on, and on, and on.

Finally, Ed Miliband stands up and we get the big debate on what the UK is going to do to help developing countries cope with climate change, and the combined members of the House – all fifteen of them – engage in half an hour or so of completely dismal and uninterested debate. Electrifying.

Dubai…believing is seeing

‘Call it the power of inevitability’, scroll the white letters on a black background, as a woman wails in Islamic fervour. ‘You know you have to be here.’ Cut to a speedboat racing across the bay towards a mighty skyscraper. ‘Believing is seeing’, flash the white letters.  A sports car approaches the skyscraper, and a dapper figure climbs out. It’s…it’s Tyler Brûlé!

No, it’s the latest advert for the Trump Tower in Dubai, one of the many vanity real estate projects announced in the boom years, that have now hit the rocks. ‘The thrill that every whim will soon become a reality’, the advert coos. Well, maybe not that soon. Local developer Nakheel, owned by the Dubai emirate, is struggling to pay back its $10bn in debt, and may have to be bailed out by the UAE government. Its Palm Deira and Waterfront projects, once planned to be bigger than Hong Kong, have also been delayed.

So too has the Pad, a high-tech residential complex built by Omniyat, in which each apartment would be ‘intelligent’, which means, apparently, it would monitor residents’ body temperatures and their taste in entertainment, so your apartment would know when you bring back a girl, and would intelligently turn up the temperature, dim the lights, and play Barry Manilow. Alas, the developers proved slightly less intelligent than the apartments, and the project has been delayed.

So many new properties are coming onto the market in the next two years, that Nomura estimates 150,000 jobs would need to be created to fill all the new office space. Alas, the trend is going the other way – Jones Lang La Salle estimates the population of Dubai will fall 10% this year.

Still, analysts are optimistic that Dubai will remain the main financial and trading hub for the Middle East, despite the best efforts of Riyadh, Doha, Beirut and Manama to challenge it. There’s no booze in Riyadh, Doha is incredibly boring, Manama is even less financially transparent, and Beirut is constantly being dragged to war by Hesbollah.

So the Biblical prophecies of the collapse of Dubai are unlikely to come true in the near future, much to the disappointment of Simon Jenkins, who started foaming at the mouth at the prospect earlier this year:

This off-the-shelf city state has been built on laundering the profits of oil, drugs, arms and western aid, he raved [western aid? shurely not]..the towers of Dubai will become casualties not of human greed but of architectural folly. Their lifts and services, expensive to maintain, will collapse. Their colossal facades will shed glass. Sand will drift round their trunkless legs. Animals will inhabit their basements.

Thousands of residential properties, if occupied at all, will be squatted by a migratory poor, like the hotel towers of the Spanish littoral or Corbusier’s blockhouses of Chandigarh in India. Refugees will colonise the camps where Indian workers have lived as they built Dubai. Gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards.

If it is lucky Dubai will at least be a refuge from the political cataclysms that could engulf countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But mostly the dunes will reclaim the place. In centuries to come, tourists will share with Ozymandias the message: “Look on my works ye mighty and despair.’” With Shelley they will see how, “round the decay /Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare /The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Not a big traveller, are you Simon? 

On the web: grumbling about world politics, Europe, the US economy, and Palin’s speeches…

– The former British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, explains why he’s not grumpy about the current state of international politics – perhaps an outside candidate for the role of EU Foreign Minister? Le Monde diplomatique, meanwhile, suggests that the path to Lisbon has emphasised the gap between European governments and their citizens.

– John Gapper takes a look at Warren Buffett’s $27 billion deal to buy the railroad company BNSF, and explores what the “Sage of Omaha’s” latest move says about the basis of US economic recovery. Harold James, meanwhile, assesses the current state of monetary policy following the financial crisis, suggesting that we may be heading towards “international monetary chaos”.

– Elsewhere, the Daily Beast reproduces the “lost” victory and concession speeches that Sarah Palin never gave on election night one year ago – making for interesting reading indeed.

– Finally, over at Oxfam, Duncan Green laments the familiar refrain of NGOs, international institutions and governments alike to the need for “political will” and “good governance” when trying to achieve reform. Greater investment in “political literacy” and deeper “power analysis” instead, he suggests, should underpin attempts to bring about such change.

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