Archive for ‘Ephemera’

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 Information Travels

By , 4 May, 2011, 3 Comments

For the past few days, I’ve been reporting round-the-clock on the Pakistani fallout of the bin Laden assassination. In the process, I’ve been able to play a small part in one of the fascinating side-stories of the assassination: the discovery of Sohaib Athar, an Abbottabad local who live-tweeted the sounds of the raid (helicopters overhead, then a massive explosion when one copter crashed) without knowing what he was hearing.

The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers has done a great piece on how news of Athar traveled, and my role appears to have been, essentially, that I sit at the intersection of two networks: the network of people who follow news on Pakistan, and the network of American journalists, media critics and wonks. From the first network, I picked up early news of an unidentified helicopter crash in Abbottabad, and passed it on to Chris, who was visiting New York and watching the news alongside me. Chris did some clever sleuthing (more on that in a moment) to learn more, and came across Athar’s tweets. We both tweeted about Athar at around 12:38 AM on Sunday.

As Chris describes in his stellar post on the experience, my tweet happened to get traction (despite my having a relatively small follower base) because it went to my second network: American journalists, media critics and policy wonks who were, at precisely that moment, trying to get more information on the raid President Obama had described an hour before.

Chris’ role was different. He had the instinctive knowledge of technology to think of using Google Realtime to pull up tweets about Abbottabad from before Obama’s announcement, he recognized Athar’s tweets for what they were (a live account of the raid) and in describing them as such, provided the narrative frame that others could latch on to.

Here’s Chris’ account of what made Athar’s tweets so compelling:

Given a popular narrative of Bin Laden hiding in caves and the like, to find out he was living in a mansion somewhere so quiet, so genteel and so near to the heart of the establishment came as a surprise. The key thing that made Sohaib’s liveblogging from earlier in the day so compelling was that it was completely unwitting, mirroring our own disbelief that Bin Laden had been quietly residing in the Pakistani equivalent of Tunbridge Wells all these years, without any of us knowing. The story chimed perfectly with our own emotions. And because the story had been unwitting, it was also candid and honest, cutting through the hype and speculation that the 24-hour news stations were resorting to.

I agree with this, but I would add something else. At least for me, the power of Athar’s story was as a reminder that ‘war zones’ are also people’s homes. It brought to life the mundane details of daily life, and the poignant struggle of trying to live daily life–in Athar’s case, just to have a quiet work night–in one of the most dangerous and maddening countries on earth. As Athar told me when I interviewed him for Forbes, he moved to Abbottabad a few years ago from Lahore precisely to shield his family from the violence then engulfing the city.

What we saw in his tweets was a man who had run from the madness only to have it running after him. What we witnessed was the moment he realized it had caught up with him. That tension between what people really care about in Pakistan and the violence that prevents them from moving on with their lives, the bitter irony of life there, is something I’ve written on often. Yet no matter how much reporting I do, it doesn’t cease to affect me emotionally. And when, after the news about bin Laden had broken, Athar realized what had happened, and began to receive an avalanche of requests from journalists, he tweeted, “Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.” For me, that’s an absolute punch to the gut.

Chris’ post makes another really great point about how Athar’s relationship to Twitter and his sudden celebrity progressed during the first 24 hours of the story:

As the story matured and his fame rose, Sohaib took on the role of citizen journalist, becoming a correspondent of sorts (not many other residents of Abbottabad are on Twitter, he remarked, it’s mostly Facebook). He conducted interviews on television, and ventured out into town to take photographs and report back on the mood in the town.This is a far cry from the cynical caricature of Twitter as an echo chamber – a place where nothing new is said and everything is relentlessly retweeted. As the story progressed, Sohaib came to the wider community’s attention and it in turned shaped his role in the affair. His relationship with Twitter evolved – it went from being a place to remark on the events that had taken place, to realising their significance, to realising his own significance, and then finally embracing it with intrepidness, intelligence and good humour. I might have been one small factor that sparked the process off, but I definitely can’t take any credit for the phenomenon he has become – that’s entirely to his own credit, and something that we should celebrate.

I’ve really nothing to add here, except to say that I think this is very much the ideal of how social media and citizen journalism is meant to work. Not everyone can grow into their new status as a one-person-broadcast-network with such speed and grace, which is why I’m so often skeptical of how it will evolve as a model, but Athar’s transformation is nothing short of a triumph.

We’ve Launched, Part 2

By , 25 April, 2011, No Comment

Public Business is now launched in London as well as New York. More video goodies, thanks to Flashboy:

Public Business Launch, London, Part 1 from Maha Atal on Vimeo.

Public Business Launch, London, Part 2 from Maha Atal on Vimeo.

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.

Economic Peace: Some Thoughts from Barcelona

By , 1 March, 2011, No Comment

Returning from a brief (9 days) blogging hiatus with a post at Foreign Exchange. The subject: a panel I was asked to speak on at IESE’s sustainable business conference in Barcelona this weekend. My topic was ‘economic peace and the private sector’s role in fostering political stability.’ An excerpt:

Specifically, the reductive tendency leads us to place emphasis on macroeconomic growth as a cure-all, when as we’ve seen in Obasanjo’s Nigeria or Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Musharraf’s Pakistan, growth can correlate quite easily with increasing political instability and conflict. For one thing, there’s the question of distribution, of how much growth is trickling down the bottom of the economic ladder to those most likely to be embroiled in crime or violence.

But even if ‘economic growth’ is replaced by a genuine focus on job creation and the building of a stable middle class, a critical challenge remains. In a society which has chosen—and this is an ideological choice—to invest its resources in militarism or theocracy but not in education or health care, an angry young man with a steady income still can’t spend it providing for his family: the services he needs aren’t there to be purchased.

Instead, they’re available to him for free from the same crowd of ‘non-state actors’ responsible for his country’s turmoil. In other words, those actors—be they mobsters or terrorists or warlords—aren’t grafting an abstract ideology onto his poverty and rage; they are producing an alternative society, complete with the services the state does not provide. It’s an ideological battle, not an economic one, to transfer a whole society’s focus and collective, public, wealth into building the social structures that make an income valuable. Without those, a little money’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

You can read the rest here.

One postscript: left to my own devices, I’d probably have parachuted into Barcelona for a day; attended the conference and jetted out. With encouragement and company from qwghlm, I took four whole days off work. I didn’t check Twitter and Google Reader every 5 minutes; I missed thousands of tweets and hundreds of news stories; and when we got back and I caught up, I found that nothing had fundamentally changed on the big stories I’d been following. Gaddafi? Still in power. Raymond Davis? Still in legal limbo. Me? Recharged and ready to report on both.

Thanksgiving Book Recommendation

By , 25 November, 2010, 5 Comments

I’m surfacing briefly from my food coma induced nap to type out this post, and then I’ll be climbing right back into bed. Those of you who read this blog regularly (all five of you, that is) will know that I’m preoccupied–some might say obsessed–with the conflict between the communitarian and individualist strains in liberal politics. And I keep returning to the subject in large part because I feel I’m doing a lousy job of articulating what I think–or indeed, understanding myself well enough to be articulate. Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, is helping me work through it, and for that, I recommend it to you.

The best analysis of the novel I’ve read is over at Apostrophe, a lit blog by a former schoolmate of mine, Amelia Atlas. Here’s what she says,

There is a totality to what he writes that extends beyond its visible horizons, a moral universe as well as a visual one.  Whether or not one believes in the fundamental enterprise of realism—a conversation for another time—there are few equal practitioners of it working in America today.

… the entirety of Freedom could be taken as one long performance of everything that Mill, in his utilitarian idealism, got wrong.

…In On Liberty, Mill outlines a vision of freedom wherein the only constraints on the actions of any one person are those which entail harm unto others.  He is not so naïve as to believe in an automatic consensus of what constitutes harm, but he does believe that it’s possible for untempered individuality to exist alongside a sense of the common good

…I make no claim that Freedom is by any stretch a kind of one-to-one test of Mill’s harm principle.  What Franzen does do, however, is capture the difference between a conceptual and an experiential politics.  Like his nineteenth-century progenitors, he checks our moral compass against its reality on the ground (this, not simply mimesis, is the heart of the realist tradition).

Really, there’s not much to do except issue a huge +1 to the above.

What spoke to me most about the book is that it solves a problem I have had in explaining my preference for communitarian over individualist liberalism to friends, colleagues etc. What I find is that EVEN when I can make a legitimate case for why the communitarian approach produces a better policy outcome in some area of public life, I face a lot of skepticism for why anyone, personally, should be drawn to it. It always seems to my listener that I’m asking them to trade IN themselves for the community, when in fact the core of communitarianism is the notion that the self is MOST fulfilled when grounded in relationships to others. Very few people seem to buy that notion of positive freedom anymore. Franzen does a pretty good job of making the case in reverse, by showing not only what hollow social doctrines Millian individualism produces, but also–and more importantly–how soul-crushing it is FOR the individuals who participate in it. It is a book about people who believe that they are acting in the general interest by fulfilling themselves personally, and it is a book about the personal tragedy that comes from this delusion.

This makes for tough reading. The characters are unpleasant people, and get worse as the book–and their individualist experiment–progresses. There are no good guys and no light moments of relief from the ugliness the book sets out to expose. It will upset you. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One of my former colleagues thought it could have been a better novel if it gave us more lovable faces. But my favorite thing about it was its unrelenting tone, an urgency and desperation, as if Franzen were the last sane man in the asylum screaming to be heard before the individualist madness engulfs him too. The fact is, I’ve not read anything that felt so completely of–and in response to–its moment than this book in about ten years.

Read it. And Happy Thanksgiving!

I Fixed the Deficit

By , 14 November, 2010, No Comment

What do econo-wonks do for fun on the weekends? We play interactive deficit-fixing games online. Really. Felix Salmon has a good post explaining why some of the options the game provides–especially the Medicare cap–are unrealistic and why many of them are regressive. But the solution Salmon proposes (gutting the Pentagon budget completely) seems just as unlikely. My version is harsher, in that I take a scalpel to entitlements. But it gives a 60-40 tax increases-spending cuts balance that I’m more comfortable with the 70-30 Salmon has going. You can see my version, and make your own, here.

Updated 11/15 5:20PM: Also worth playing is the CEPR budget deficit calculator. A very different–ie more left-wing–set of choices are in place there. It’s pretty hard to get far on that calculator, for example, without a complete re-do of health care reform and two energy taxes–both at the producer and the consumer levels. That seems ridiculously implausible to me, but still fun to play with.

Blogging the UN MDG Summit

By , 20 September, 2010, No Comment

I’m covering the UN MDG summit this week, because it’s right in my wheelhouse of politics and economics. And I’m blogging it for Forbes, because I just got a blog over there. It’s called Foreign Exchange and it’s going to focus on my foreign policy/international political economy coverage. Other things–culture, domestic politics and policy, technology, media–will stay here at Cappuccino. And I will always let you know when something’s happening at Foreign Exchange that you need to be reading.

A snippet of today’s post: “One reason for the lack of agreed mechanisms is the continued schism in the international aid community over the role that markets are supposed to play in development, and the way that discussions of development often become discussions on the merits of globalization.” Go check out the rest, and stay tuned for more updates.

A Manifesto of Sorts

By , 26 August, 2010, No Comment

Welcome to the new Cappuccino! Like the the old Cappuccino, this is a virtual coffeehouse focused on the relationship between business and the rest of our lives.

When I first started blogging, my focus was mostly on the way that technological and cultural changes are at the core of that relationship. That’s still a dominant theme, but over time, I’ve also come to pay more attention to the role of institutionalized factors like international relations and economic policy. On the new Cappuccino, you should expect to see a healthy dose of all of the above.

The more I’ve worked as a journalist, the closer to the ground, to the granular, this blog has gotten. It’s more of a news blog now, a reaction to specific events with out-takes of my reporting, than the more philosophical project it used to be. I’m ambivalent about that: it feels more appropriate as a reporter-blogger to focus on the news, but at the same time, I have misgivings about getting sucked into the horse race and the he-said-she-said of the newsosphere, and I tend to react to events a few days after they occur, which isn’t really suited to that kind of blogging.

In this new incarnation, I’m going to try to sort out my ambivalence by blogging more frequently. That means there will be more timely news coverage with brief comments (instead of the stream of links I’d been dumping in the old sidebar), at least one more in depth analysis of an issue a week, and at least one more idea-oriented piece a week. I’ll be rolling out a fourth (as yet undisclosed) content category in September.

I’m putting that in writing as much for you as for myself, and I’m hoping that if I start to get lazy on those commitments, one of you takes me to task in the comments.

Flattery Works Wonders

By , 18 June, 2010, No Comment

Yesterday, I was surprised to find that I’m someone’s “most awesome person.” The blogger who’s cited me as such is a former colleague of mine who wants to remain anonymous, but let’s just say, she’s great. Smart, hardworking–often the last person on the floor or the one working a weekend–and most importantly, gracious with eager young things (like me) who had no clue where the coffee machine is or how to use our ID cards to swipe into the office. So an honor to be singled out.

And yes, I AM as completely mad as she makes out.