Monday, June 11, 2012

A passing resemblance

Every now and again, people tell me that I look like somebody famous. I usually prefer to turn this around, and so agree with them that the somebody famous does indeed look a bit like me. Here are a couple of the more complimentary examples.

Much as comparisons to Edward Norton and Franco Nero are most welcome, I think all this really goes to show is that middle-aged men with receding hairlines and sporting goatees all look pretty much of a muchness.

Here's another less flattering likeness. Noel Edmonds hosting the game show "Deal or No Deal". Cut his hair short and he's a dead ringer for me. When this likeness was made, yesterday, it was suggested that not only did Noel look like me, but that his mannerisms and general way of speaking was also just like me.

It's nice to know that there are still a few career options open.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Diverse perspectives, shared objective

Pearl Capital Partners' latest fund, African Agricultural Capital Fund, has recently been the subject of a case study published by the Global Impact Investing Network. It can be downloaded by visiting

We are very proud to be featured in this case study, which reflects the considerable effort that went into the design and implementation of an investment fund with explicit financial and social goals. Too often, social and developmental objectives are dressed up in a mixture of florid language and random indicators, rather than being defined in detail and, crucially, built into the governance mechanisms of the fund.

We recently made our first investment through the AACF in a family-owned and managed Kenyan floriculture business, Wilmar Flowers. Wilmar is unusual among floriculture business in that it uses groups of smallholder farmers for flower production, as opposed to the industry "factory farming" standard of acre upon acre of plastic greenhouses where the chief factors of production - irrigation, temperature, nutrition and pest control - are controlled with the utmost precision. As a result of our investment, Wilmar will increase its number of smallholder producers, further develop its product range, and become a leader in an alternative method of flower production.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Slavery is alive and well and living somewhere near you

In the excellent Bury The Chains, Adam Hochschild chronicles the beginning - and ultimate success - of the 19th century abolitionists. Led by the tireless Thomas Clarkson, this tiny group challenged the powers of the day and, ultimately, achieved their goal - the abolition of the slave trade in the UK. Hochschild ends his history with a quote from the charismatic American anthropologist Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The legacy of this small group lives on in what is the oldest UK NGO, Anti-Slavery International. But did they really change the world? The truth is that there are countless people around the world who live in slavery, almost certainly more now than at the height of the translantic slave trade. We might call it something different now, but the reality is that these people have been deprived of their freedom. I quote from the Anti-Slavery International website:
Millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves. Although this exploitation is often not called slavery, the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their 'employers'.

Slavery exists today despite the fact that it is banned in most of the countries where it is practised...... .....Women from eastern Europe are bonded into prostitution, children are trafficked between West African countries and men are forced to work as slaves on Brazilian agricultural estates. Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race.

 Common characteristics distinguish slavery from other human rights violations. A slave is: 
  • forced to work -- through mental or physical threat;
  • owned or controlled by an 'employer', usually through mental or physical abuse or threatened abuse;
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property';
  • physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.

As ever, poor countries provide fertile ground for this most hideous of trades. A few weeks ago, the columnist Joachim Buwembo, writing in the East African, deplored the increasing number of young Ugandan women who were being recruited to take up jobs in the Middle East and Asia - many of whom were, in fact, being trafficked into, at best, bonded labour or, at worst, into sexual slavery. He asked why there was no control over people engaged in this trade, no effort being made through public information campaigns to educate society of the risks entailed in accepting job offers in other countries.

He might also have commented on the desperately sad stories published about a week ago in many Ugandan newspapers that identified 23 Ugandan citizens who are currently on death row in China after being convicted of drug trafficking. It is a widely-quoted statistic that more people are executed annually in China than in the rest of the world put together. The Chinese government refuses to disclose precise numbers of executions, but they are generally believed to exceed 2,000 per year.

Quite apart from one's opinions on capital punishment (which should be universally abolished) and the international trade in drugs (which should be immediately liberalised and brought within the scope of public regulation), where are the public information campaigns in Uganda informing Ugandan citizens of the risks presented through acting as mules for drug traffickers? In Uganda, which has remarkably soft penalties for drug trafficking (I stand to be corrected, but I believe the penalties for conviction are either a short prison sentence or a fine equivalent to about $1,200), I suspect that people are generally completely unaware of the risks they are taking by transporting packages on behalf of others, and will do so willingly in exchange for a free air ticket and an opportunity to make a little bit of money and maybe, just maybe, offer some hope for the future.

Poverty is a terrible thing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A good education

I was recently invited to speak at the Kisubi Seminary, close to Entebbe, on the importance of studying Latin. The whys and wherefores of the invitation are another story: suffice it to say that I managed to find the correct left-hand turn off the Entebbe Road and found myself heading for the seminary, tucked away on a wonderful site bordering Lake Victoria.

Kisubi is generally considered to be the heart of the Catholic church in Uganda. It was here that in 1880 Fr Lourdel and Br Amans arrived in a canoe from the Tanzanian side of the lake and pitched camp. Legend has it that one of their tent pegs took root and grew into the Mapeera tree that still stands on the shores of the lake close to the seminary. (The word Mapeera is, incidentally, a corruption of the French "mon pere", and was the name given to Fr Lourdel by the Baganda. )

On arrival at the Seminary, I was first shown into the staff room for a cup of tea, before being taken upstairs to the refectory (Latin - reficere), where I was greeted by the entire senior school, numbering about 250 boys, and introduced as the man who was a living example of the continuing relevance of Latin in the modern world. I wasn't quite sure how to take this introduction - was it intended to present me as a living relic, a throwback to the past? - nor was I able to dredge up too many specific reasons for studying Latin. So I decided that I would try to build a connection with the boys by telling them about my journey from a Catholic education at the Salesian College in Farnborough, Hampshire, to managing East African investment funds from a base in Uganda, and then reflect upon the nature of education as both a process and an outcome rather than as a set of outputs.
To start off, I quoted from Einstein "Education (Latin - e + ducare) is what's left behind when one has forgotten what one learned at school". After a moment or two there was a pleasing ripple of laughter and chatter. I illustrated this by asking the boys whether they thought I could still solve complex trigonometric problems, or describe the lifecycle of a fern, or define the meaning of "valency". Of course I couldn't, I told them. I then went on to tell them about Wittgenstein's final remarks in the Tractatus, where he uses the metaphor of the ladder to express the its function. It is to be used in order to climb on it, in order to “see the world rightly”. But then, it can be discarded having served its purpose of developing our brains to a level at which we can deal with complex propositions and uncertainties and think independently. I also quoted from Cicero - with the priceless benefit of being in classical latin - Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum, and asked them whether there was anyone who could translate it. One bold boy stood up and, to his great credit, got the gist of it. Loosely translated, it means to know nothing of what happened before one was born is to be always a child - which admittedly is really more about the study of History than of Latin. And I talked about the particular importance of classical Latin to the Catholic church, being the medium of transmission for Christian teaching from the early days of the church some 2,000 years ago.

After a few more stories and anecdotes, and some questions from the floor, I took my leave. I don't think the boys were particularly convinced or impressed, but they were well-mannered enough to give me a short round of applause and a considerably longer prayer of thanks. I was then treated to dinner in the staff room, before being presented with some gifts and escorted to my car. I felt rather wistful, leaving this delightful little cloistered world of education, of ideals, and the future and re-entering the fray of the present on the Entebbe Road into Kampala......

Speaking of delightful little cloistered worlds, I was glad to receive an Old Member's invitation to the Eights Week lunch at Corpus Christi College, to be held at the end of May. An opportunity to re-live the days of cheering on the Corpus boat while consuming gallons of Pimms, before stumbling back to a bed-and-breakfast somewhere on the Iffley Road and waking distinctly crapulous (Latin - crapulosus) the next day. In the 30 years that has passed since my university days, I'm sure the traditions of Trinity term remain largely unchanged: May morning beside Magdalen bridge; cricket in the University parks; croquet and student drama in college gardens; eights week; and end-of-term college balls. Traditions die hard, and the world is all the better for it.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Two tribes

Every weekend, I try to fit in a couple of exercise sessions at the American Recreation Association gym in Kampala. It's a quiet gym, often unoccupied, which gives me the opportunity to listen to BBC World Service while cross-country skiing or walking briskly on an inclined treadmill. And, during one such session earlier this month, I was lucky enough to listen into an interesting 30-minute BBC documentary covering the annual Royal Economic Society meeting, focusing on the future for the dismal science.

As an exercise in pontification and speculation, there was much to admire: in particular the chutzpah of the speakers in their rebuttals of the suggestion that economists (if not to blame for the financial sector meltdown) ought to have detected warning signs in advance. Yet the most interesting features of the discussion were the omissions. There was, for example, little mention of the unrelenting growth of the financial sector, especially in terms of its ever-increasing share of total profits derived from business activity at the expense of employees dependent on salaries and wages. Or the incorporation - through globalisation and the increasing economic power of China and India  - of a huge amount of cheap labour into the global economy. Taken together, these facts can only lead to one conclusion: namely that the exploitation of the global workforce by the owners of the global capital markets is accelerating at a rapid rate. Yet, Marx was absent from the discussion.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire 20 years ago, the stealthy march of capitalism now dominates the entire globe. Its leaders - whether by design or by accident - have discovered the power of the media to colonise and dominate the mind. They have muzzled alternative political views through the marginalisation of the "loony left" and the rubbishing of Marx. They have poured scorn on the study of the liberal arts, and replaced education with the training of workplace skills, once the responsibility of the employer to deliver. We are now engaged in a race to the bottom where the losers are the poor. There are now some signs, especially in south-east Asia and continental Europe, that growing inequity is leading to social unrest (see the pictures in this BBC link ) but the strangle hold over the media and the systems for political command and control is becoming ever-stronger.

And what are the implications for Africa?  Well, despite the good news being peddled by many African governments which focus on economic growth rates, little is being said about the distribution of wealth. I suspect that the GINI co-efficient (which measures the unevenness of distribution of wealth) is rising in most countries. And, of course, Africa's abundant natural resources are up for sale to both old and new sources of capital....... It's hard to see how inefficient African economies can compete in global markets, except by reducing the only cost under their control: the cost of labour. Add an ever-increasing supply of school-leavers to the supply of labour, and the message becomes clearer: either accept a very low-paid job, or don't enter the labour market and go back to the land.

Received wisdom suggests that George Orwell's timeless satire, Animal Farm, is a satire on the corruption of the communist state in Russia - and the parallels are easy to draw. But Orwell himself refused to endorse this conclusion. I re-read this great book recently, and was struck by its simple treatment of the triumph of greed over innocence and idealism, and of the corruption that power brings, and of the sameness of people in power. Its immortal final sentence reads: the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. A couple of years ago, Lucy Oriang wrote a thoughtful column in Kenya's Daily Nation. "There are" she wrote "only two tribes in Kenya: the rich and the poor." She might as well have been writing about the whole world.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Glowinkowsi on leadership

The qualities that create a good leader are hard to define. We bandy about words like "charisma" and "vision" and "gravitas", but, when pressed, we find the definition of these qualities both elusive and highly subjective.

I was fortunate last week to attend a fascinating presentation by the highly experienced UK-based human resource consultant Steve Glowinkowski (pictured) on leadership. Glowinkowski was visiting Kampala to train and accredit a new East Africa-focused HR consultancy firm, The Leadership Team, in the use of a proprietary diagnostic tool for the assessment of the organisational climate within organisations.

Over many years, Glowinkowski has focused his attention on researching and understanding the factors that drive high-performance organisations, and to condense his theories into a few paragraphs would do them a great disservice. Suffice it to say that leader behaviour is a key element of determining organisational climate, and that the most effective organisational leaders are those who demonstrate behaviour which is at the same time "directive" (ie communicating a clear vision and set of priorities) and "concerned" (ie focused on understanding how best to motivate and reward staff at all levels of the organisation). In turn, this behaviour would help in the development of a organisational climate in which staff, inter alia, felt empowered to take responsibility and in which recognition and rewards were closely linked to performance

While listening to Glowinkowski's presentation, I was struck by how interesting it would be to apply this thesis to entire countries, rather to discrete organisations. I often read articles in the East African press lamenting failures in political leadership. These articles have often seemed to me to be craven efforts by the writers to attribute poor economic and social performance to deficiencies in political leadership, when actually many issues could be massively improved through individuals taking more direct responsibility for action, but, applying Glowinkowski's theories, it suggests that leader behaviour will disproportionately affect the national climate. Certainly, when looking at East Africa as a whole, it is clear that high-level corruption has a corrosive effect on national climate, and that tolerance of (and indeed participation in) corruption by political leaders has broken the links between individual effort, performance and reward which are so essential to a positive climate.

I recently heard the likely Republican presidential candidate in the USA, Mitt Romney, talking about his political values. He spoke powerfully, contrasting his belief in what he called the "culture of opportunity" with what he represented as President Obama's sympathy for the European "culture of entitlement". Sadly, in many countries which are substantial recipients of foreign aid, the sense of entitlement to assistance further corrodes the establishment of a climate in which performance and reward (ie opportunity) are strongly correlated.

Another of the key variables that Glowinkowski aims to measure is the individual tendency towards "incremental behaviour" (ie building on what has been done before) and "radical behaviour" (ie seeking new ways of doing things). To drive change and create Romney's culture of opportunity, we all need a healthy dose of radicalism.

Monday, March 26, 2012

20 years too late

Uganda's in the news again, due to the extraordinary reaction to Invisible Children's You Tube video, Kony 2012. Most of the people I know in Uganda are bewildered. Northern Uganda has been more or less peaceful for the last 10 years, since Joseph Kony's rag-tag band of thugs disappeared into across the Ugandan borders into central Africa, so why now?

I thought Kony 2012 was pretty awful. Voyeuristic and mawkish by turns, tasteless in its use of Jason Russell's son as a holy innocent, and, quite frankly, another patronising example of the way in which Europe and America love to portray Africa as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, except with black Kony replacing white Kurtz as "the worst". Let's be honest here. To elevate Kony to the evil stature of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot is absurd. Kony was a failed local political leader who, unwilling to admit defeat, took to the bush with a group of poorly-educated supporters (which, in an insult to armies everywhere, he called the Lord's Resistance Army). He then began a lengthy sequence of violent crimes in Northern Uganda, including murder, rape, and child abduction. His activities destabilized and impoverished the region. A terrorist without any coherent agenda, yes. A thug, yes. A pyschopath, probably. But a systematic mass murderer like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, definitely not.

Having said all that, if this video accelerates the capture and trial of criminal Kony, then it will have achieved something that, to their enduring shame, the international community, the African Union and national governments have failed to do for the past 20 years or more. 20 years too late for a lost generation in Northern Uganda.