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DUTERTE’S WAR ON ISIS

My latest article on Impakter.com about strongman Duterte and what is really going on in the Philippines – his fight against drugs is probably less important than his confrontation with ISIS in Marawi City:

The Battle for Marawi

The battle for Marawi began on 23 May when Islamic terrorists torched Dansalan College, a protestant school known in the region for its religious tolerance, and abducted a Catholic priest and thirteen churchgoers. They killed nine Christians at a checkpoint and set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. Soon an elementary school and the city jail were burning and IS-style black flags were flown on buildings. Government troops immediately put the town under siege.

The news shocked the Philippines: Marawi is the most important Muslim town in Mindanao island, 1400 km (870 miles) south of the capital Manila. Located in Lanao del Sur province, it is on the north coast of Lake Lanao, the largest lake in Mindanao (130 square miles).

Improbably, the terrorists, said to number 500, managed to entrench themselves in the town which has 200,000 residents. Armed to the teeth, flush with foreign fighters from near-by Malaysia and Indonesia, but also from Arab countries, they put up a strong guerilla-style fight and have killed over 100 soldiers. Some say that 800 civilians or more lost their lives, others that only 45 civilians died. Nobody knows exactly how many terrorists died – but by July 22, some 420 terrorists were reported killed.

Predictably, people fled their homes.

According to press reports, notably Vice that made some striking on-the-ground videos (12 July), more than 400,000 were displaced. Most found shelter with relatives in nearby towns and villages, but over 18,000 were still reportedly stuck in 78 overcrowded “evacuation centers” around Marawi.

More recently (16 July), André Vitchek, an investigative journalist and filmmaker, one of the first people able to get inside Marawi since the fighting started, provided a radically different picture. He discovered that only some 200,000 people had escaped the area – and not 400,000 as reported in the press, though, he acknowledges, it may have peaked at 300,000 at some point. I find Vitchek’s finding highly credible and I will go a step further: since Marawi is a town of 200,000, it could hardly have seen more than 200,000 flee. Even that number implies that every single town resident fled – which is highly unlikely and, in any case, goes counter to other reports that at least 2,000 people remained.

The geography of the town explains this. The Agus river with three bridges divides Marawi, with government troops on one side, and rebel snipers on the other, camped on ruined buildings, jumping from one to the next and shooting at everything that moves. Very few people managed to escape and run across the bridges to the other side. With the conflict entering its seventh week, the army is warning that the death toll will rise.

And it’s not over yet. The conflict is winding down as I write (update on July 23), but the government has yet to clear some 500 buildings occupied by the rebels and some 70 terrorists are reportedly still fighting back. According to Vitchek, the fighting is currently circumscribed to a one square kilometer area and the bombing, far from “indiscriminate” as alleged in the press, is limited and very precise, to avoid civilian casualties.

That the battle for Marawi should be time-consuming is no surprise. Like all guerilla warfare, this is a hard fight to win for regular troops, not trained to pursue fast-moving, unpredictable snipers.

What Really Happened in Marawi

A version closer to the truth is that the battle of Marawi is really part of a much longer war that began late last year when President Duterte launched a military offensive in the Southern Philippines against Moro militant groups, targeting in particular the Abu Sayyaf group.

The appearance of Abu Sayyaf militants on the scene is a game changer:  The Abu Sayyaf group, originally funded by al-Qaeda in the 1990s, is now part of ISIS’ global footprint. The group is led by Isnilon Hapilon, a.k.a. Abu Abdullah the Filipino, a dangerous man on the FBI-most wanted terrorist list, with a $5 million bounty on his head. He was indicted in absentia in the United States for the 2000 Palma kidnapping of 17 Filipinos and three Americans that led to the beheading of one of the Americans. A year ago, the Long War Journal, in a blog post (dated 12 June 2016) reported that Hapilon had been appointed “emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines”, grimly noting that this now “means that a formal leadership structure for the Islamic State is in place, exemplifying its expansion in the country.”

The government learned Hapilon was in Marawi, leading a militant group financed by the Maute brothers, the scions of a wealthy local family – the father is an engineer, the mother a real estate mogul and said to be the family’s financial wizard and also a strict Islamist.

So what really happened in Marawi is this:

To read the rest on Impakter, click here. I updated the article today (23 July), with all the latest news. 

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How to Revive the American Dream: The Reeves Solution

My latest article on Impakter, here is the beginning:

HOW TO REVIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM: A CLASS DISPUTE

Book ReviewThe Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It by Richard V. Reeves published by Brookings Institution Press, June 2017

Take the top 20 percent of the American population and remove from it the One Percent, the ultra-rich. What do you get? A new class, roughly the “top” of the middle class, that is changing the way America consumes, thinks, and votes.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument made by several highly respected social scientists, starting with Tyler Cowen, who was the first out with his book, The Complacent Class in February 2017. Unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller, he is a respected economist with a popular blog. Next out in May was Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s excellent, Veblen-inspired The Sum of Small things (reviewed on Impakter), followed in June by two more notable books, Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders  and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism – though the latter has a broader scope, analyzing not just the upper middle class, but the whole system.

When it comes to describing this new class, details are different in each book, but what is remarkable is that all four authors are of one voice to condemn this new class.

For Edward Luce, an Oxford-educated journalist, this new class is “tone deaf” to the demands of the rest of the middle class, particularly the “white trash” left behind by globalization.  For Tyler Cowen, it is “complacent” and static, ensconced in self-contentment, unaware of a coming revolution. For Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, it is “pernicious” in wanting (and achieving) self-perpetuation. Richard Reeves agrees with her and views it as incredibly self-centered, “leaving everyone else in the dust”.

I’d like to spend some time here reviewing Reeves’ book because it is the most propositional of the lot, suggesting how, with some simple political measures, the “American Dream”, now badly damaged, could be restored and made to work for the whole of society.

American Dream PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR – ADRIAN

The Social Impact of Income Inequality

The centerpiece of Reeves’ argument is this:

“Postsecondary education in particular has become an “inequality machine.” As more ordinary people have earned college degrees, upper middle-class families have simply upped the ante. Postgraduate qualifications are now the key to maintaining upper middle-class status. The upper middle class gains most of its status not by exploiting others but by exploiting its own skills.”

He sees this process as resulting in class stratification. The danger is that it “may blunt market dynamism by reducing the upward flow of talent and leaving human capital underutilized among the less fortunate.”

To read the rest, click here. I hope you enjoy the review, let me know how you like it, this is a book I highly recommend, well written, highly readable and with an important message!

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The Soft Power of American Philanthropy

Impakter magazine just published another one of my articles and I’m happy to share it with you – it’s a book review, great read, highly recommended! Here’s the start of my review:

THE REAL ROLE OF THE NEW MEGA-DONORS: SHAPING THE SOCIAL AGENDA

BOOK REVIEW: THE GIVERS BY DAVID CALLAHAN, PUBLISHED BY KNOPF (APRIL 2017) 352 PAGES

Is philanthropy good or bad for society?

With the global explosion of philanthropy, the new forms of giving and volunteering, and the rise of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, the issue is more pressing than ever. Nowadays, the soft power of mega-donors has grown so much that in many areas it has displaced governments – even very large ones like the Federal government.

Philanthropists address critical social problems, they move in where public funds have failed (or are weak). Ultimately, they set the social agenda, not only in the United States but around the world.

Yet, unlike democratic governments and politicians that must face voters, mega-donors are accountable to no one. Their own private views, beliefs and ideologies end up shaping society. They decide what diseases to battle, what kind of schools are needed, what social policies to promote, what research and what artistic trends should be supported.

Is this a fair system in a democracy where all citizens should have a say?

That question is increasingly asked, including in David Callahan’s latest book I am reviewing here. Yet this is not the first time philanthropy arouses suspicion in America. When Rockefeller launched his foundation a hundred years ago, many politicians doubted his good will. As it turned out, the Rockefeller Foundation had a profound impact on the human condition when breakthroughs in the agricultural research programs it had financed in Mexico and India, initiated respectively in 1941 and 1956, laid the foundation for the “green revolution”, so-called because it changed food production for the better, particularly in Asia, helping to solve the recurrent horror of devastating famines.

IN THE PHOTO: FARMER STANDING IN HIS CORN FIELD IN ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA IN 1957 AFTER SCIENTISTS SUCCESSFULLY DEVELOPED HYBRID GRAINS THAT COULD RESIST DISEASE AND INSECTS. PHOTO CREDIT: THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION

Nevertheless, in spite of the successes, countless books and articles continue raising questions, particularly over the past ten years, starting with Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, the work of the Economist’s Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. Published in 2008, based on interviews with mega-donors like Bill Gates, it was perhaps the first modern compilation of what philanthropists living today are really up to. Another milestone was reached last year with Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, edited by Stanford political scientist Rob Reich who sees charitable foundations as an “institutional oddity” in a democracy and is concerned that foundations, in spite of their usefulness in supporting innovation – what Warren Buffett famously termed “society’s risk capital” –  may be the “voice of plutocracy”.

Among the notable essays in that book, a theory of “disruptive philanthropy” developed by Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell, two Stanford sociologists, stood out. Based on the observation that philanthropy often competes with government instead of collaborating with it, it raises deep ethical questions. As Horvath and Powell explained to The Atlantic: “Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand.”

A classic (and controversial) example that often comes up in this connection is charter schools promoted, inter alia, by the Broad and Gates Foundations. Not everyone agrees that they are an improvement over the existing public education system.

David Callahan’s new book The Givers – Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age is the latest arrival on the scene and adds to the debate – philanthropy vs. democracy – carrying it forward with considerable new and updated material. Callahan has done his research for years, he has met many people in the industry, he has uncovered hard-to-find facts about the “opaque” world of philanthropy and the website he has been running, Inside Philanthropy, has been a major source of information ever since it was launched in 2014.

With all this data in hand, Callahan takes us for a roller-coaster ride through the current philanthropy landscape, showing us how living mega-donors wield more power than ever before. And, he warns us, their influence is likely to grow unimpeded as a result of growing income inequality, a trend first magisterially documented by Thomas Piketty in his now famous Capital in the 21st Century.

In short, and to use Callahan’s words, “in many ways, today’s new philanthropy is exciting and inspiring. In other ways, it’s scary and feels profoundly undemocratic.”

WHY TODAY’S NEW PHILANTHROPY IS EXCITING

The book starts off by bringing home two stunning truths about our time that, Callahan argues, amount to a paradigm shift:

The rest on Impakter, click here.

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TWO-SPEED EUROPE: WHY THIS IS THE LIKELY WAY FORWARD

Impakter Magazine has just published my latest article on Europe, here it is:
 
TWO-SPEED EUROPE: THE WAY FORWARD?
 

FROM THE “WHITE PAPER” ON THE FUTURE OF EUROPE TO THE EUROPEAN MINI-SUMMIT IN VERSAILLES

President Hollande did not mince his words. “Europe will explode,” he warned, if the idea of a two-speed Europe is not accepted.

He was referring to what is diplomatically called “multi-speed Europe” where core countries go forward with European integration in areas they agree on, leaving dissenters behind – not a particularly new idea, after all, that was how the Eurozone and the Schengen area (dispensing with border controls) were born in the 1990s.

There has been, over the years, considerable debate and pushback against the idea of a multi-speed Europe, seen as going counter to the “core values of the Union”. But, increasingly, it is viewed as the only realistic way to move forward, abandoning the unattainable ideal (for now) of a United States of Europe and moving instead to a practical “Europe à la carte”, where each EU member gets what he wants at his own pace.

What is different this time is Hollande’s insistence that core countries should not be prevented from moving forward by other EU members. He further elaborated this at the “mini-summit” he hosted in the lavish Versailles palace on March 6, with his three guests, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Italy Paolo Gentiloni, and Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy.

In the Photo: In the Main entrance to the Chateau de Versailles, Grille d’honneur – Photo Credit: Ronaldieya

While the immediate pretext for the Versailles mini-summit was to prepare the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Union to be held in Rome on March 25 with all 27 EU members (with the UK already excluded), there were two other things far more notable about this event:

  • the inclusion of two more countries, Italy and Spain, a suggestion that the famous German-French duo that has historically guided the EU was about to expand, and
  • the message that a “multi-speed” Europe had a backing of all four countries that together form the economic lead of the Union.

Expect this last fact to be reflected in the “Rome Declaration” to be adopted by the 27 EU leaders in Rome on 25 March.

So what did Hollande and his three guests say at the Versailles press conference?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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The Trump Effect: The “Clash” between the Pope and the Order of Malta

Here’s another of my articles, just published on Impakter:

The media has recently reported some eye-popping news about the Pope and the Order of Malta allegedly engaged in a power struggle, with the Grand Master of the Order losing the battle and “forced” to resign.

What we have here is the kind of spectacle the media relishes: On one side, the Pope is depicted as the “anti-Trump Pope” for example, see the New Yorker’s article written by James Carroll, an American Catholic reformer and author of eleven novels and eight works of non-fiction, clearly in search of his next plot. On the other side, the Order of Malta, a millenarian Catholic institution with a global, humanitarian mandate, is presented as helplessly in the grips of Cardinal Edmund Burke, a well-known hardliner. An American, Cardinal Burke is adamant about fighting Islam and he is a darling of the populists. So what do you get? A juicy alt-right picture of a clash between a supposedly rigidly conservative Order and a progressive Pope.

In the photo: Pope Francis receives the Grand Master in audience, in earlier better days (June 2006) Photo credit: Order of Malta website  

To make it more credible, the Order is reported by some as an out-of-step relic of the Catholic Church, with its members parading around in “nutcracker” red uniforms.  Instead, it is, historically, the oldest existing humanitarian organization. It started out nine hundred years ago to assist pilgrims in Jerusalem. Today, its mandate has broadened to cover children, the homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, terminally ill and lepers around the world without distinction of ethnicity or religion.

In the photo: Upholding human dignity and caring for the people in need. PHOTO CREDIT: Order of Malta website

The Order deploys 120,000 people, some 13,500 Knights, Dames and auxiliary members, 25,000 paid medical personnel and 80,000 volunteers. With its world-wide relief agency, Malteser International, it provides emergency aid in natural disasters, epidemics and war.

The Order is not just another charitable organization: it maintains diplomatic relations with 106 countries, the European Union and the United Nations (the latter as permanent observer), thus effectively linking diplomacy with aid. In short, it has a status similar to that of a government-in-exile, having surrendered its territory – the island of Malta – to Napoleon in 1798 and never recovered it, in spite of a resolution of the 1802 Amiens Treaty and the 1815 Congress of Vienna (it was never applied, the English refused to give it back).

In fact, in this complicated story which we can only glean through partial and even fake news (!), the American Cardinal seems to play a key role. And, as I show below, this is not, contrary to stories in the press, a clash between the Pope and the Order of Malta: They are, and never stopped being together on the same side of human values.

THE ORDER’S GOVERNMENT CRISIS, THE FIRST IN OUR TIME

On 6 December 2016, the unthinkable happened: The Prince and Grand Master, Frà Robert Matthew Festing, the third Englishman to serve as Grand Master, suspended the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, a German national and moved to expel him from the Order. The Grand Chancellor, who had been faithfully serving the Order for 40 years (since 1976), immediately denied all allegations of wrong-doing, refused to resign or leave the Order and reportedly contacted Cardinal Parolin, close to the Pope, to obtain guidance.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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SILICON VALLEY: WHAT IT TAKES TO DO STARTUPS – Book Review

Here’s another one of my articles published today on Impakter:



SILICON VALLEY: WHAT IT TAKES TO DO STARTUPS

Book Review: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcìa Martinez (HarperCollins, 2016, 528 pages)

Chaos Monkeys Book Cover

Silicon Valley continues to be hot news in the age of Trump and anti-globalization and it should come as no surprise that a clever book about it by someone in the know, loaded with revelatory insights on how it really works, was going to be a sure-fire hit. And that is exactly what happened when Antonio García Martinez’s half memoir-half prescriptive tech guidebook came out last year on 28 June 2016, becoming an instant “New York Times bestseller”. Considered an “irreverent exposé of life inside the tech bubble”, all the major book reviewers rushed in with praise, from the New York Times’ Jonathan E. Knee (“an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment”) to Bloomberg’s Ellen Huet (“dives into the unburnished, day-to-day realities: the frantic pivots, the enthusiastic ass-kissing, the excruciating internal politics”).

In short, in just six months, “Chaos Monkeys” has become the most popular and widely read book about Silicon Valley. I was curious to find out whether it merited its sudden glory. I uploaded it to my Kindle (disclosure: living far from bookstores, I am a fan of e-books) and I spent a couple of pleasant days enjoying the read. And I soon discovered that the best passages, literally pearls in the text, had been highlighted hundreds of time by enthusiastic fans. In fact, Amazon in its “about the book” section informs you that (at the time of my reading) 3,769 passages had been highlighted 122,000 times (ah, the joys of Big Data).

It is a clever book with a clever title, and a great read. In case you’re wondering about the title, it comes from the name given to the software procedure used to test the stability and resilience of online services/websites – and this neatly expresses the main message of the book: That tech entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, out to disrupt the way we live, from photo-sharing (Instagram), dating (Tinder) and movie viewing (Netflix) to transport (Uber), lodging (AirBnB) and space travel (SpaceX).

Unquestionably, the author’s persona was as much part of the excitement as his bracing writing style. Described as an “industry provocateur” on his Amazon book description page, he has lived up to his reputation and become something of an industry guru: today, whenever big news or scandals roil Silicon Valley, journalists rush to ask him his opinion.

 

Garcìa Martinez started his working life as a strategist for Goldman Sachs, survived three years and surprised everyone by abandoning New York for the West Coast. After learning the ropes at an IT advertising outfit called Adchemy, he launched his own start-up AdGrok with a couple of engineering pals (called “the boys” in his book). Ten months later, after raising some venture capital and before even making AdGrok operational, he sold it to Twitter for $5 million. However, it was not an unmitigated success; his team broke up, “the boys” went to work for Twitter to develop AdGrok while he accepted a more lucrative position at Facebook as product manager. Tasked with leveraging Facebook’s user data to make its advertising more effective and fix its monetization problem, he was outcompeted by a colleague and fired – the circumstances of his firing make for fascinating reading.

The description of what Facebook is like, what happened there and why he eventually left and landed an advisory position at Twitter is certainly one of the more interesting parts of the book – anyone thinking of joining Facebook should read it very carefully, drawing lessons from it.

The rest on Impakter, to read it, click here.

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WHY 2017 COULD BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK

I just had my latest piece published on Impakter magazine, the fast-growing magazine for millennials where I am Senior Editor – and this is also my way to wish you all a very Happy, Hyggelig …

Source: WHY 2017 COULD BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK

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