September 26, 2009

تحب البطاطا مع ذلك؟ ( or ) Would you like fries with that?

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This evening I had posted an order with McDonalds on the internet, expecting it to arrive at my door in 30 minutes. Cairo, for all its frustrations, is actually equipped with an incredibly sophisticated website called Otlob.com, which allows one to order food from just about anywhere within the city and have it arrive within an hour for a one or two dollar delivery charge. While it is surprising that such technology is commonly used here, it is also not surprising considering just how much this country LOVES fast food. In fact, if someone were to ask "what is Egyptian food like?" the response would not be a description of lamb with hummus, but perhaps an overview of the menu at Hardees or Pizza Hut. If you don't believe me, here is a picture I shot from inside a pizza hut... immediately next to thepyramids.

A quick look at Google, and Mcdonalds will pop up everywhere (see below).

Strangely, this map doesn't even have half of the McDonalds locations. Add to this Hardees, Pizza Hut, Chilis, Applebees, and KFC, the whole thing would be littered with red dots. By the way, good luck finding a decent restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern Cuisine. I will admit however that Mallory and I once wrote an Email to Taco Bell, requesting that they begin to install a franchise within Pizza Hut locations in Cairo, as the nearest Taco Bell is in Dubai. We also suggested locations.

Anyway,  I place an order with McDonalds, and expect nothing more until the phone rings 5 minutes later. Please be sure to use your best Egyptian accent while reading from this point on.

Otlob: Mr. Mitchell, this is Otlob, there is a problem wid you order.

Me: Yes?

Otlob: What item would you like the "extra chocolate sauce" added to?

Me: The M&M McFlurry (the options include the 1/4 pounder, fries, coke, salad, and strawberry sundae... and no, this was not all for me).

Otlob: Very good Sir. Thank you very much. Bye bye sir. This was all fine, and if anything, I appreciated the commitment of the agency to not make the tragic error of adding chocolate sauce to the wrong dessert. But then the phone rang again...

Otlob: Hello Mr. Mitchell Sir, there is a problem with the chocolate sauce request, McDonalds said they cannot add it to the item you requested because that item does not have chocolate sauce.

Me: Well of course they can. That is why I requested "extra" sauce and am paying "extra" money, because the request is made in addition to the item.

Otlob: Yes sir, I understand, and I tell this to McDonalds, but they say it cannot be done.


This same conversation goes on and on and on, for about 3 rotations. At this point I just start laughing, and I really can't determine if the guy on the phone is laughing either. Maybe he wasn't, but it was so funny and absurd to me, I couldn't imagine him being really serious. So I said...

Me: Okay. Actually, add the chocolate to the sandwich.

Otlob: (Confused) Um, the sandwhich, no chicken, wait, um...

Me: Yes, add the chocolate sauce to the sandwich.

Otlob: You want me to add it to the sandwich sir?

Me: (chuckle) No, I don't want it on the sandwich, I want it on the ice cream. Just tell them to put it on the ice cream, it will be fine.

Otlob: Oh, you are kidding? You make joke? Oh, on the ice cream, not on the sandwich. I can do that sir. Thank you for the joke sir. Have a nice day.

Thirty minutes later an exhausted McDonalds employee was at my door (top floor of the building, no elevator, and all Egyptians smoke half-a-pack per day). I paid the man, opened up the bags and discovered with a grin, a virgin McFlurry, and a strawberry sundae with chocolate sauce.

Could have been worse, but in the end, Egypt won again.  Current Score: Mitch 7, Egypt 3,562

September 23, 2009

New Blog Debut!!!

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I decided recently to start another blog, a "serious" blog that concerns the issues I am generally thinking about, writing about, researching and working on.  These issues concern the stabilization and reconstruction of conflicted territories, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo etc.

For now the entries are somewhat general, but each entry is created using a basic structure:
  • Each entry is concerned with a particular conflict 
  • Each entry synthesizes information from a variety of online journalistic and academic sources
  • Each entry attempts to look at a particular problem or asset for each conflict
  • The overall goal is to address untapped strengths and resources with the reconstruction process
I intend to update the blog on a biweekly basis. At the moment it contains 2 posts, one concerning Somalia, and one concerning Afghanistan.  Feel free to write constructive comments on posts.
Dialogue is encouraged.  Enjoy!



Somalia: Land of Lost Opportunity

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Somalia

Somalia

One of the longest inhabited regions within the world, Somalia is home to a longstanding history of trade and independence.  Never successfully colonized by a European power, yet always a major component within Arab trades systems, Somalia has the geographic proximity and definitive character necessary to become a vital actor within the global economy.  Yet entrenched within a prolonged history of regional and internal conflict, the burden of extreme poverty has forced this failed state into a precarious position.  With a population of over 8 million, the nation contains 1,277,200 displaced individuals, while 561,154 others have fled to other nations for refugee.  Within only the last 4 months, over 300,000 others have had to flee their homes in Mogadishu.  According to the BBC, within the last two years alone, 18,000 people have been killed.  After an extensive web search, I have been unable to locate a single estimate of the death toll within the last 18 years of its civil war.

America briefly involved itself within Somali during the Clinton administration as part of the UNISOM task force, wherein the UN and the US worked side by side to stabilize the nation and push it toward prosperity.  Yet as the lessons of contemporary asymmetrical warfare continue to repeat, the United States was unable to utilize its advanced technologies and formal combat interface against the flexible resistance of criminal war lords and Islamic fighters.  Evacuating with great haste, the US left Somalia in a state of greater despair than prior to its arrival. As America's internal allies were left behind, new targets for violence by local militants.  I have several friends, and have met many others, who were victims of this abandonment, as their American affiliation left them subject to torture and persecution.

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[caption id="attachment_13" align="aligncenter" width="523" caption="Woman walking across Somali desert"]Woman walking through Somali desert[/caption]

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Today the most popular headlines pointing toward Somalia are concerned with the fleeting acts of piracy on its coastline.  Sexy and adventurous, America and Europe have embraced the romantic notion of piracy as a subject of pegged legs and black flags rather than a tragic externality of poverty.  Piracy has been approached as problem to be solved with coast guards, naval fleets, and armed escorts.  I suppose that at least some degree of international interest has been directed towards Somalia and the struggling efforts of its president, Sherif Sheik Ahmed, to bring stability to this nation.  Thus far, this approach has been severely misguided, as piracy is not the problem, it is simply a consequence of greater issues.

A brief review of the CIA World Fact Book should illuminate many of the complications facing this struggling state.

[caption id="attachment_16" align="alignright" width="151" caption="Woman at Water Tap"]Somali woman at water tap[/caption]

• Population median age: 17.5           (U.S. 36.7 years)

• Life expectancy at birth: 49.3         (U.S. 78.11)

• Total population literacy: 37.8        (U.S. 99%)

• GDP per capita: $600                    (U.S. $49, 900)

• Exports: $300 million                    (U.S. $1.291 trillion)

• Telephone Landlines: 100,000        (U.S. 163 million)

• Mobile phones: 600,000                 (U.S. 255 million)

• Internet host: 1                              (U.S. 316 million)

• Airports with paved runway: 7        (U.S. 5,146)

• Roadways: 22,100 km                    (U.S. 6,465,799 km)

• Paved roads: 2,608 km                    (U.S. 4,209,835 km)

• Merchant marine: 1                         (U.S. 422)

• No national military

• 1.1 million internally displaced people

• Exchange rate of 1438.3 Somali Schillings (SOS) per 1 US Dollar

_


Such strong indicators of poverty do not stand in isolation, but operate in conjunction with an array of human rights, public health, and social complications including: gender based violence, ongoing conflict, absence of codified law, and humanitarian accessibility.  Furthermore, in recent years, aid workers have become targets within conflict, reducing the capability for aid delivery.  Today, Somalia has become the worlds greatest humanitarian struggle, with the highest concentration of famine.

I understand that successful nations see little reason to address these problems.  Western States wrongly perceive international development as a zero-sum game, while not recognizing the advantages of equitably distributed wealth.  The location of Somalia however places it directly within the heart of all oceanic shipping and traffic, making it a primary point for penetrating the underdeveloped markets of Africa from either Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.  Its globally distributed population provides immediate financial and economic linkages for the transfer of wealth, ideas, and education.  With investment within its agriculture and animal husbandry resources, North African and the Middle East can access a new food source, as their own water supplies continue to deplete.

If nations want safer waters, the last thing they need to do is approach the problem by means of military solutions.  The problems are better solved by engineers.  With only 2, 608 km of paved roads, governments could easily facilitate the growth of supply chains and resource networks by means of simply pouring more concrete.  With only one merchant marine vessel, governments could create a "rent-to-own" or large scale government micro-finance industry to prompt the growth of regional sea trade.  There is no need to invest in speed boats to further piracy, but instead to supply large shipping vessels that will ignite and industry for the current "pirates" who have no income, no resources, and no opportunities for self advancement.  Expanding the mobile phone networks will further distribute a form of flexible infrastructure for trade and business creation.


Nonetheless, at the root of all these ideas remains the demand for security.  How does that happen?  Although the answer will continue to be explored herein, one thing is certain.  The solution is not found within isolation, by ignoring the problem, and by only treating symptoms.  Remedies can only be achieved through direct engagement, communication, and an active approach to problem solving.  Until then, Somalia will always remain in chaos.




[caption id="attachment_14" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Somali Child in Market Place"]Somali Child in Market Place[/caption]

September 7, 2009

The Big Initiative

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I had my interview at a local ngo few hours ago.  It was... interesting.  The agency was founded about 3 years ago with the interest of facilitating UN development goals.  However the agency seems to be a little unorganized.  They have a nice office, a few a handful of staff, and have been working primarily on two projects for the last three years.

The primary project is banking and finance oriented, with the intent of further educating the general public of various nations about the value of Islamic banking, and working to establish these institutions.  While I only have marginal experience with Islamic banking, limited only to money exchange, I believe it has been mostly untouched by the global banking crisis of the last 2 years.  Although such banks exist in America, they are not very well known or understood by the public and yet there might be significant value to further diversify American banking systems by investing in these institutions.

The other major project consists of working to facilitate secular cross cultural dialogues, so that people may better overcome their popular East/West misconceptions.  This is process is very much the product of institutional networking, lectures, workshops etc.

Well I considered these projects all quite fine and good, although I will admit, only of marginal interest.  Nonetheless, a part time job that pays a little money is better than no job and no income, so I was interested in going along with things anyway.

I was then introduced to the founder of the organization, and our discussion brought about a different direction altogether.  Apparently his interest in hiring me is founded on my experience of working with African populations, most notably Sudanese and Somalis.  It turns out that the government of Somalia has contacted his organization on multiple occasions, asking for project assistance to work with vulnerable youth and economic development.  Supposedly there is UN funding available for this projects, I received the impression that he has been simply uncertain how to go about doing this.

Fortunately, these sort of problems are perfectly consistent with my own expertise.  So over the next few days I'm going to sketch out a rough outline of what this  organization could do.  If it is of interest to them, then I guess I can go about designing projects from the ground up.  As for getting them implemented, well that will have to fall onto the shoulders of someone else.   This NGO does not appear to have any of the resources that one would have working for the US gov, the UN, or major agencies like Care or NRC.  This is of course rather unfortunate, as designing programing and not overseeing its implementation greatly retards the feasibility of the project and relegates the process to little more than an academic exercise.   Of course, I could show up next week with a slew of ideas, none of which would be of interest to this agency.

So the final question is, did I get the job? Yeah, it looks that way.  But do I want it? Well... we'll see.  If anything, its something to do for a few weeks or months while I continue to apply for something more embracing.

September 6, 2009

Afghanistan: Communication & Development

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Earlier today I was reading a blog entry by Peter Bergan, the CNN Security Analyst, about the improvements Afghanistan has experienced within the last couple years.  He highlighted various improvements in security, mine clearance, education, economic development, and refugee repatriation.  There was also a great deal of applause for the construction of a large, modern airport.

Reading this column initially made me cringe, as it brought to mind a story I once heard from my grandfather about an experience he had in Vietnam in the early 60's.  In short, the Americans had constructed a massive modern airport while the Russians provided instruction to the local population about better ways to fatten and breed chickens.  It doesn't take much thought to recognize why the general public, who could never see themselves ever riding in airplane, were more receptive to the Soviets.

However one additional point mentioned by Bergan was that "One in six Afghans now have a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system."  With a population of over 32 million people, this means that nearly 5.5 million people have access to cellular communication within this generally rural province.  While its likely that most Afghans remain uninterested in the new airport, with 5.5 million users in about 5 years, mobile phones are clearly a winner.

Certainly the expansion of cellular networks posits significant social benefits for the Afghan population. Prior to 2003, it was common for many villagers to have never once used a telephone. Now it is possible for this family-centric culture to maintain ties over greater distances. In addition, this cellular network may be a key component with the ongoing stabilization and development of the nation.

Cell phones and Security
One of the major benefits to arise from the establishment of mobile technology within Afghanistan was the capability for armed forced to locate Taliban insurgents by tracking phone signals within the countryside.  And lately, as mobile phones became more prominent throughout the public, individuals have been more willing to provide authorities with information regarding insurgent activity because this information can be provided anonymously.  Although Taliban fighters have made efforts to destroy cell towers, the general public has been frustrated as such destruction now interferes with their own lives.

Lessons from Grameen Phone
Established in 1996 by Iqbal Quadir, the founder and Director of the Lagatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, the Grameen Phone company has served as the primary cellular phone provider within Bangledesh for the last 13 years.  In addition to standard phone services, Grameen Phone was further created with the intention of utilizing mobile technology as a tool for economic development.  Most notably, Grammeen established the program Village Phone,  assisting interested entrepreneurs in rural villages to sell telephone services to villagers.  Additionally, phones had been made available by means of micro-finance projects, while internet access could be acquired by means of community information centers.  With enhanced connectivity, individuals could better operate their own businesses, such as by determining the going market price in advance of goods delivery, or by knowing the upcoming weather conditions.  Individuals may also start businesses selling phone credit, mobile phones, or providing battery charging services

Capitalizing on Remittances
Nearly all migratory populations are dependent upon, or in some way participate within, the ongoing international flow of financial remittances.  As displaced families, unable to obtain sustainable incomes, remain dependent upon relatives and friends for financial assistance, it is obvious that cellular communications serve an important role within the stabilization of the Afghan economy.  With over 3.3 million displaced individuals within and outside of Afghanistan, the ability for these individuals to access  cellular technology now provides financial services well beyond the use of traditional money wiring services.

In the near future Afghans could utilize this technology to buy goods, pay bills, and move cash in the same manner found throughout the African continent.   By establishing bank accounts via mobile providers, Afghans will have the ability to secure their finances and easily transfer funds for the purpose of remittances by uploading purchased phone credit, transferring it to another account, and then exchanging that credit for cash or goods.

SWOT
Although increased cellular connectivity strengthens family ties, improves security, and could provide a means for future economic development, there are nonetheless major obstacles.  The prominence of low incomes and illiteracy greatly undermines the distribution and use of cell phones, yet with innovative programming by international agencies these problems may be mitigated.  Through the distribution of cell phones via micro-finance and entrepreneurial services, and in coordination with the further development of the nationwide education system - which has been noted as improving - the role of mobile communications may continue to serve an important role within the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: Development & Communication Technology

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[caption id="attachment_41" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Afghanistan"]Afghanistan[/caption]

Earlier today I was reading a blog entry by Peter Bergan, the CNN Security Analyst, about the improvements Afghanistan has experienced within the last couple years.  He highlighted various improvements in security, mine clearance, education, economic development, and refugee repatriation. There was also a great deal of applause for the construction of a large, modern airport.

Reading this column initially made me cringe, as it brought to mind a story I once heard from my grandfather about an experience he had in Vietnam in the early 60's.  In short, the Americans had constructed a massive modern airport while the Russians provided instruction to the local population about better ways to fatten and breed chickens.  It doesn't take much thought to recognize why the general public, who could never see themselves ever riding in airplane, were more receptive to the Soviets.

However one additional point mentioned by Bergan was that "One in six Afghans now have a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system."  With a population of over 32 million people, this means that nearly 5.5 million people have access to cellular communication within this generally rural province.  While its likely that most Afghans remain uninterested in the new airport, with 5.5 million users in about 5 years, mobile phones are clearly a winner.

Certainly the expansion of cellular networks posits significant social benefits for the Afghan population. Prior to 2003, it was common for many villagers to have never once used a telephone. Now it is possible for this family-centric culture to maintain ties over greater distances. In addition, this cellular network may be a key component with the ongoing stabilization and development of the nation.

Cell phones and Security
One of the major benefits to arise from the establishment of mobile technology within Afghanistan was the capability for armed forced to locate Taliban insurgents by tracking phone signals within the countryside.  And lately, as mobile phones became more prominent throughout the public, individuals have been more willing to provide authorities with information regarding insurgent activity because this information can be provided anonymously.  Although Taliban fighters have made efforts to destroy cell towers, the general public has been frustrated as such destruction now interferes with their own lives.

Lessons from Grameen Phone
Established in 1996 by Iqbal Quadir, the founder and Director of the Lagatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, the Grameen Phone company has served as the primary cellular phone provider within Bangledesh for the last 13 years.  In addition to standard phone services, Grameen Phone was further created with the intention of utilizing mobile technology as a tool for economic development.  Most notably, Grammeen established the program Village Phone,  assisting interested entrepreneurs in rural villages to sell telephone services to villagers.  Additionally, phones had been made available by means of micro-finance projects, while internet access could be acquired by means of community information centers.  With enhanced connectivity, individuals could better operate their own businesses, such as by determining the going market price in advance of goods delivery, or by knowing the upcoming weather conditions.  Individuals may also start businesses selling phone credit, mobile phones, or providing battery charging services

Capitalizing on Remittances
Nearly all migratory populations are dependent upon, or in some way participate within, the ongoing international flow of financial remittances.  As displaced families, unable to obtain sustainable incomes, remain dependent upon relatives and friends for financial assistance, it is obvious that cellular communications serve an important role within the stabilization of the Afghan economy.  With over 3.3 million displaced individuals within and outside of Afghanistan, the ability for these individuals to access  cellular technology now provides financial services well beyond the use of traditional money wiring services.

In the near future Afghans could utilize this technology to buy goods, pay bills, and move cash in the same manner found throughout the African continent.   By establishing bank accounts via mobile providers, Afghans will have the ability to secure their finances and easily transfer funds for the purpose of remittances by uploading purchased phone credit, transferring it to another account, and then exchanging that credit for cash or goods.

SWOT
Although increased cellular connectivity strengthens family ties, improves security, and could provide a means for future economic development, there are nonetheless major obstacles.  The prominence of low incomes and illiteracy greatly undermines the distribution and use of cell phones, yet with innovative programming by international agencies these problems may be mitigated.  Through the distribution of cell phones via micro-finance and entrepreneurial services, and in coordination with the further development of the nationwide education system - which has been noted as improving - the role of mobile communications may continue to serve an important role within the reconstruction of Afghanistan.