Archive for ‘Business’

An Announcement

By , 30 September, 2013, No Comment

As you may have noticed, blogging has been light-to-non-existent for a while around here. That’s because I’ve been preparing to make a big life change. Beginning next week, I’ll be working towards a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, which, with luck and coffee, I should finish by 2017.

My research, in its current vaguely defined state, looks at the way multinational corporations function as governing authorities when their business operations take them to places where the writ of the local state is weak.

I’m especially interested in the way corporate land acquisition – a prerequisite of doing business in resource-heavy industries like oil & gas, mining or agribusiness  – shapes the political relations between firms and local communities, placing firms in a position of territorial authority with control over many elements of basic infrastructure that would otherwise be the purview of the state. I’m also interested in the way land use laws in many developing countries reflect colonial legacies, and through this, the structural parallels and differences between the company towns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the colonial corporate fiefdoms of the 18th and 19th centuries.

(Aside: One Day I am going to write an essay entitled, “The British Raj was the First Corporate Bailout.”)

This project grew directly out of my time as a reporter, writing about Chinese mining companies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Scandinavian agribusinesses in East Africa. Sometime last year, I decided that this was a topic I needed to pursue in more depth than journalism allows for. Around the same time, I discovered that some of my ‘news’ articles were veering off into academic territory, and thought, “Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think that’s actually where I want to be.”

I’ve begun by reaching out to sources – activists, corporate strategists, and lawyers who have worked on land use cases – building a rough list of potential cases which I’ll start exploring this year, hoping to combine land and legal records, correspondence, interviews where possible and some data collection on local social and economic development. Because I’m tracking change over time, I’m looking for resource-industry companies with long histories in a particular area and a willingness to let a young researcher inside their archives. Geographically, I’m confining my search to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for linguistic reasons and because it’s where I have prior experience looking at these issues.

Methodologically, I’m aware that everything about this is a bit unorthodox. The analysis I do once I have my data and documents is going to be academic, but because so much of this material isn’t in the public domain yet, much of my initial research is going to rely on my journalistic skills. I’m also planning to put as much of my material online as I can, and to build some interactive historical maps of corporate land holdings in the regions I wind up studying.

There has been much chatter about social science research methods since the dustup over NSF funding in the spring – whether political science is too quantitative, not quantitative enough, whether scholars can or should engage in matters of public policy. My small contribution to that debate is to try to do some research that is empirical but not primarily quantitative, policy-relevant while still being theoretically valuable, and critically, as open and transparent as possible.

For the next four years, I’ll be living in Cambridge, but I’m planning to be in London frequently, where I’ll be continuing to oversee my nonprofit Public Business from our U.K. office. I’ll also be writing occasionally, primarily on topics related to my research, and blogging here when I can. But for now, my main hat is going to be an academic one.

Wish me luck!

How Unilever Got Caught Discriminating Against Women (And My Part in Getting Them To Change)

By , 10 February, 2013, No Comment

It’s been a very good week for journalism and feminism.

It actually started a few weeks ago, when my friend Kate wrote a piece about a contest she’d entered to win a commercial space flight. The contest was sponsored by Axe (or Lynx as it’s known in the UK), the men’s deodorant brand, and Kate was disturbed by the sexism of the contest’s marketing. Ads feature damsels-in-distress saved by handsome men (lifeguards, firemen) who subsequently ditch these men for other, less Hollywood-looking men in astronaut suits. The tagline: “Leave a man. Return a hero.” The campaign gives the impression only men can be astronauts, and that only men can enter the contest, and Kate was right to kick up a fuss about it.

On Sunday, one of these ads aired during the Super Bowl, and I noted the sexism of it to the friends I was watching with. To my amusement, not one person had picked up that there was a contest being advertised at all. And when I told them, everyone was convinced that it had to be for men only even though I told them I knew of at least one woman, Kate, who had already entered. So I wrote my own post about the campaign, noting that in addition to being sexist, it appeared to be thoroughly counter-productive.

That’s when things started to get interesting. Late on Monday, both Kate and I got word via our blog comments that in other countries, the contest was open to men only. Countries such as Russia, Mexico, the Ukraine, Indonesia, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That was despite the fact that Axe spokespeople had told both of us that the contest was open to women when we’d asked.

I was angry that Axe had lied to us, and that they had confined the contest to men in the markets where they thought they could get away with it. But equally, I wondered if they had misjudged which markets those might be. At least *some* of those countries had to have anti-discrimination laws.

So I did some digging. A Russian lawyer pointed me to clauses in the Russian Constitution and Criminal Code that barred “abasement of dignity” on the basis of gender “in mass media.” A Mexican lawyer sent me to the country’s advertising regulator, whose code of ethics bars sexism in marketing materials. And a quick scan of the Unilever website (Unilever is the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate which owns Axe) found that the firm’s own code of ethics bans gender discrimination. I wrote up the relevant laws and codes in a second post and asked Axe to clarify how it was going to square the contest rules against them. That was Thursday.

Meanwhile, the sexism of the advertising was beginning to get press coverage elsewhere, at Discovery magazine and the BBC and the #astrogrrls hashtag on Twitter was busy.

Late on Thursday night, Axe came back to me with the following statement:

Unilever has communicated to all markets in all regions, that the contest is open to both men and women. Upon review, certain markets are currently revising their terms & conditions to reflect this directive.

Wow.

I write a lot about sexism and a lot about companies behaving badly, but as much as I advocate for the significance of journalism, it’s really quite rare when it leads so quickly to this kind of change.

What made it work was the fact that we – myself, Kate, Remco Timmermans, Carmen Victoria, reporters in Russia and around the world, and space geeks on Twitter – were able to coordinate with each other and eager to share information instead of jealously guarding our own scoops. One of the big surprises for me about Unilever’s mishandling of this was their assumption that it would be possible to have different contest terms in different countries, and to tell reporters and activists in different countries different things about the contest, without any of us comparing notes. Discrimination and false PR statements are always wrong, but in a digital age, they are also stupid. You will get caught.

I rail a lot against the state of contemporary feminism and in particular at the disappointing vitriol-to-substance ratio of online feminist discourse. If you’re following me on Twitter, or have the (mis)fortune to know me offline, you probably hear enough about this in one day to last you a lifetime. This week was a much-needed reminder of all the good the web can do for feminist organizing, when we’re using it to make each other stronger and not to tear each other down.

Has the Business Press Failed the Public Trust?

By , 14 March, 2012, No Comment

That’s the title of a panel I recently moderated on behalf of Public Business, featuring New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia, Reuters finance blogger Felix Salmon, Wall Street Journal reporter Suzanne Kapner, American Banker reporter Jeff Horwitz, and Columbia Journalism Review business media critic Dean Starkman. Here’s some video of the discussion:

I’ve also archived some tweets from the night, and written up a few highlights for the Public Business blog.

We’ve Launched

By , 17 April, 2011, No Comment

Wednesday night was the launch of the nonprofit I’ve mentioned before, Public Business. There were some short planned speeches from myself and our board co-chair Anya Schiffrin, but the highlight for me was the discussion that followed, in which audience members got up, open mic style, and riffed on the idea of public interest business reporting. I was gratified, stimulated and moved and would like to see that style of free discussion as a regular feature of our events. Check it out yourself. H/t Mike for the video.

Public Business Launch Event, New York from Maha Atal on Vimeo.

In India, Size Does Matter

By , 11 December, 2010, No Comment

More ambiguous, waffly writing at Foreign Exchange. Promise to write something rich and conclusive this coming week. But for now, a slightly different take on the Indian microfinance mess:

First, a brief summary of the situation: In October, the government of Andhra Pradesh (AP), a state in the south of the country and home to A. all those call centers B. 30% of the country’s microloan industry, decided to blame microfinance institutions (MFIs) for a series of debtors’ suicides. [The relationship between poverty and suicide is not a new political subject in India: the left-wing newspaper The Hindu has made a business of chronicling in harrowing and tragic detail the suicides of bankrupt farmers in the last few years.] The suicides pointed to a growing trend, in AP and elsewhere, of over-indebted borrowers, many of whom had loans from multiple sources, a sign of the intense pressure that these mega-lenders put on loan officers to grow their portfolios. As others have noted, the ban also reflected the fact that the government oversees its own lending scheme, the Self-Help Groups (SHGs), and that the suicides presented a great opportunity to shut down competitors.

But the ‘pox on both their houses’ critique that has emerged from these facts is not helpful, not least because it doesn’t engage particular closely with what either MFIs or SHGs actually do.

Rather it seems to me that the whole sector got into trouble because it was insufficiently localized. As practiced in India, both the MFI and the SHG model have neglected the key piece that made microlending in Bangladesh work so well.

More here.

Thinking About Food

By , 17 November, 2010, No Comment

Latest at Foreign Exchange:

Lately, I’ve been perusing some new research into the global food crisis: the dramatic spike in prices in 2007 and 2008 and the price volatility, inflation, and hunger that has followed it in search of some cases to probe in longer-form.

It’s an issue whose significance did not come home to me until I was reporting on sugar shortages in Pakistan. It was clear that the shortages were a political risk for the government, and that they were indicative of a much wider spectrum of economic mismanagement. But at a more basic level, I got the sense that hunger, even more than poverty, was the index against which people measured their suffering. That’s when I started reading up food and water in earnest.

Here’s the thing: we in the business press have a tendency to cover commodities like these in two ways, first as fodder for this-or-that futures market, and secondly, as raw materials for biofuels. We don’t spend nearly enough time on food and water as the nuts and bolts of subsistence. And yet, to me, the most exciting thing about following wheat prices or sugar prices or water management is that these are data points that cut vertically and geographically across the global economy. It is one of the few things I’ve covered that feels like I’m scratching at the edge of something universal. I’m still looking for the story that will let me communicate that. But in the meantime, here’s the picture of the crisis I have so far:

For the details, read the whole thing.

Apocalypse 39: Merger-land

By , 15 October, 2010, 1 Comment

As readers will know (and be bored of hearing by now), I believe the future of media is in intelligent aggregation of niche offerings within larger cross-platform organizations. I have always  assumed that we would get to this model if big old media bought up smaller new media, or if small new media sites merged with one another to become big new media, of if big old media diversified by launching smaller new media platforms.

I had not considered however, the possibility that small new media might buy up big old media. That appears to be happening now, as Newsweek–just recently purchased by Sidney Harman–considers an offer from Tina Brown’s Daily Beast.

I am not a fan of the Daily Beast. There are one or two very smart people I know who write for them, but for the most part, I find the site tabloid-y. Its better writers are people whose work already had a platform at Slate or Salon or elsewhere. It’s unclear to me, more than a year after its launch, what the Daily Beast has added to the digital mediaverse that wasn’t there already. Given that I feel rather similarly about weekly news magazines, one would think I would be down on this merger.

But I’m not, entirely, because I still have a great deal of confidence in Tina Brown as an editor. As editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992, then as editor of the New Yorker from 1992 to 1998, her mark on American journalism is undeniable. She gave Vanity Fair the combination of high fashion photography and deeply reported narrative that make it suo generis. She gave the New Yorker a batch of new writers–Jeffrey Toobin, Lawrence Wright and Adam Gopnik stand out–who made it fun to read again.  And through their voices, their combination of rich narrative, beautiful prose and rigorous reporting, she had a tremendous impact on me and the kind of journalism I aspire to produce. If that Tina Brown–magazine editor Brown–is taking over Newsweek, only good things can come of it. But if Newsweek is going to become a print version of the Daily Beast, I’ll pass.

Updated, 10/18/2010: The merger talks have fallen apart, because Brown, Harman and Barry Diller (who owns a piece of the Beast) couldn’t agree on how to share control. Says Brown in today’s WSJ: “The engagement was fun, but the pre-nup got too complex.”

Updated, 11/12/2010: The merger is back on. Read the announcement here. And note, it’s clear what Newsweek gets from the deal (Tina and her readers!), but it’s not clear to me what the Beast is getting, or what its future is.

Introducing Public Business

By , 8 October, 2010, No Comment

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been swamped with a very exciting new project, and it’s now ready to introduce to you. Along with a Columbia classmate and BBC journalist, Damian Kahya, I’m launching a nonprofit dedicated to filling in a key gap in the emerging media model: in-depth, original, public interest reporting about business. That means reporting about how the decisions made at companies affect the rest of us: about the wider economic, environmental, and social implications of business activity. Once upon a time, this kind of journalism was a core part of every business newsroom, and indeed in some high profile examples, like Fortune’s big Enron scoop or the BBC’s documentary about Nike sweatshops, it has helped change the course of events and sparked public debate about important issues. There are still great reporters doing this work, but they are fewer in number and have less resources at their disposal. Our goal is to partner with news organizations to put more funds and more people behind this kind of reporting. To do that, we need support. We’re looking for donations large and small and we’re hoping to build a membership community around our work. To learn more about what kind of work we support, how we intend to do it, and what it will mean to be a member, visit our website.

There, you’ll find a blog post I wrote about the troubles in journalism and why we’re doing this. Here’s what it says:

Apocalypse 37: AOL buys TechCrunch

By , 30 September, 2010, 1 Comment

a.o.l. has moved to acquire technology and business blog TechCrunch, as part of new CEO Tim Armstrong’s strategy to turn the company from an internet service provider into a stable of content sites, a digital version of a magazine holding company. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington on his reasons for selling:

They run the largest blogging network in the world and if we sold to them we’d never have to worry about tech issues again. We could focus our engineering resources on higher end things and I, for one, could spend more of my day writing and a lot less time dealing with other stuff.

They already own many of the top technology blogs. They already have a huge sales team in place (although our own sales team kicks ass and is staying on). And they have an internal events group that we will be able to leverage.

From a product and business standpoint, it’s a perfect fit.

…AOL was very aggressive about one last important issue that really sealed the deal – editorial.

Tim told me that he doesn’t want whatever makes TechCrunch special to go away. He also said it was important that we feel free to criticize AOL when we think they deserve it. And the agreement we signed with AOL fully reflects this. In particular, we used the Twitter document scandal as a test. If the same thing happens with AOL in the future, we should feel comfortable posting those documents. And in that unlikely event, we will.

More information on the deal here.

I’ve been saying for some time that the future model is a kind of aggregation of niche sites under big name banners, including a.o.l.’s. And TechCrunch is one of the best niche sites out there. I disagree with much of what they write, because they get over-excited about each and every startup they cover. But the fact is, they also break more big tech stories than anyone, and I find that the site is pretty indispensible as a result. All in all, Armstrong has made a smart acquisition.

Why BlackBerry Got Banned

By , 10 September, 2010, 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a journo friend about the moves by several governments–first the UAE, then Saudi Arabia, then India–to ban BlackBerry because its maker (Canadian company Research in Motion) would not grant these states unencrypted access to users’ correspondence. Citing the locations of BlackBerry servers (in Canada and the UK) they alleged that Western powers could use the technology to spy on the East. Both privacy hawks and businesspeople cried foul, even more so when RIM agreed to open one server center Saudi Arabia and prepared to negotiate a deal with India to keep its business alive.

My friend wanted to know what the story was really ‘about.’ Was it–as the bans’ promoters insisted–about how much data our governments in the West already have? Was it about the fact that BlackBerry IS encrypted in the first place when so much other data is not (something many consumers seemed not to know)? Was it about the fact that democratic India was following the pattern set by more draconian regimes? Or, he was asking me, was it about something else entirely? Here’s what I told him:

“To my mind, these bans represent a kind of clash between the technology community’s perception of itself as being essentially above governments and the reality that all international business is subject to and inextricable from international politics. What is especially remarkable about this is the degree to which tech firms–which are still heavily consolidated in the U.S.–gladly do business with the U.S. government, while maintaining the idea of being essentially above regulation. In particular, there is a cozy symbiosis between the Valley and the defense establishment, and it leads some in the developing world to think of all tech firms as proxies for the U.S. government. Given that, it is also a story about developing country governments demonstrating the regulatory muscle not to be talked down to by the West, about showing–mostly to their own public–that globalization does not mean colonization. It’s also important to keep in mind that while BlackBerry messaging IS encrypted, it’s not that governments elsewhere in the world are necessarily more comfortable with that than the countries issuing these bans. Rather is is that here in the West, governments can often subpoena for access to specific correspondence if it is necessary for a court case. In countries where that kind of subpoena power doesn’t exist, governments might try to hack systems extrajudicially, and then if that fails, proceed to shut down what they cannot penetrate.”

One thing this story is NOT about, however, as the above should indicate, is privacy: we lost that a long time ago.