Saturday, August 30, 2014

An anthem of hope

Peter Seeger, activist and musician died on the 27th of January this year. A fine musician, he composed in the genre of folk music.

His band (the Weavers) was named after a German play that depicted the uprising of Silesian weavers. One of the lines in the play is "I'll stand it no more, come what may".

The political message in some of his songs resulted in the band being blacklisted in the 1950's and Seeger being hauled up before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. He reportedly told the committee:

"I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."   

One of his songs was a Freedom Song of the American Civil Rights movement. Wikileaks chose the song as its "Wikileaks song". The song?

If I had a Hammer.

It speaks of a bell of warning, a bell of freedom and of a hammer of justice. A beautiful, poetic song, it became a top 10 hit for the band Peter, Paul and Mary. (Watch the performance here) and read the lyrics below. Does it carry a message for us?

If I had a hammer,
I'd hammer in the morning,
I'd hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

If I had a bell,
I'd ring it in the morning,
I'd ring it in the evening,
All over this land,
I'd ring out danger,
I'd ring out a warning,
I'd ring out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

If I had a song
I'd sing it in the morning
I'd sing it in the evening
all over this land
I'd sing out danger
I'd sing out a warning
I'd sing out love between
my brothers and my sisters
all over this land

Well, I've got a hammer
and I've got a bell
and I've got a song to sing
all over this land
It's the hammer of justice
It's the bell of freedom
It's a song about love between my
brothers and my sisters
all over this land
It's the hammer of justice
It's the bell of freedom
It's a song about love between my brothers and my
All over this la-a-and

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Urban regeneration in Colombo

There have been a number of articles on the urban redevelopment that is taking place at break-neck speed in Colombo. Many of these have focused on the human aspects: the plight of evicted residents, the loss of a certain way of life or the change in the character of the city.

There are many positive things that can come from urban renewal, depending on what drives the programme. The earliest ones were apparently carried out in Victorian London to provide social housing to the poor, replacing the terrible slums that they lived in. A similar justification is being used in the case of some of Colombo's new projects but one must note two critical points: the terrible conditions in London at the time, and the underlying purpose of the exercise : to improve the lives of the poor by providing cheap housing for the poor.

Here the impetus seems to be more modern, one of stimulating economic growth through urban regeneration. This is something that has also worked (with varying degrees of success) in many different places. This can certainly work, but only with the right policy and governance framework.

In the case of our fair city I fear it may be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

If the economy booms, consistently over a few years people will have money to spend and there will be demand for land: for shops, for business premises, for entertainment.

When the demand materialises it makes sense to redevelop older or decaying parts of the city, to improve land usage or relieve congestion. If the economy were booming then the Town and Urban Councils would be flush with cash (from trade based taxes) and there would be less need to borrow money to redevelop. It would also be possible to get the private sector involved in the redevelopment process, minimising the need for debt funding.

Urban regeneration needs to go hand in hand with the right policy and good governance because this is what really drives growth. Ideally these should precede the regeneration effort and will help overall growth and the building of confidence. Getting this right policy costs little money but requires enlightened leadership. Once in place, growth will take place overall and attention may be turned towards the more neglected or  decaying parts of the city.

Unfortunately what appears to be happening is debt funded beautification for which there is scant demand and is likely to remain underutilised - because the fundamental drivers are not in place.

What is this business of governance? What does it take to create an economic boom? Restore the rule of law, simplify regulation, minimise the need for permits and licenses (eliminate altogether where possible, simplify where essential) have clear transparent rules that people can simply read and follow. A simple, consistent tax code, simple exchange control regulations and so forth.

What I see now is a maze of ever more complex regulations that appear to keep getting added to at an alarming rate and in a thoroughly haphazard manner. Worse, there are so many ambiguities that no one is sure what they mean so one must go from one public official to another seeking clarifications and approvals.

Bottom line: if this is to work, cut the red tape that is strangling the economy.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Reviewing positions with the benefit of hindsight

I spend quite a lot of my time analysing events, a process that sometimes ends with a prediction or forecast. Something else that I often do is to review some of my predictions or positions with the benefit of hindsight. I don't do it all the time, just whenever something catches my attention.

Hindsight is a great thing and spending some time contemplating one's previous positions or opinion can be very enlightening. Often it can reveal flaws in reasoning; biases or facts that should have been taken into account. Even when we find ourselves on the wrong side of history we can learn something from our mistakes. It is part of process of refining ones thinking and ideas; an essential part of learning. 

Less frequently, when one is proved right, there is a certain satisfaction that is derived, something that will drive one to be more forthcoming in one's opinions.

After years of rejecting the need for any inquiry, the Government has made an unexpected U-turn and announced its own international panel to establish if war crimes took place.

Following the (seemingly incredible) war victory five years ago many an educational institute or university held seminars and workshops on the subject of management lessons to be learnt from the war victory; a few examples are here, here, and here.

I don't know if the results of the seminars or workshops were published in full but five years on, may we revisit the question again?

What management lessons did we believe we learnt? Do these need to be reviewed further in the light of recent events ? Were there real lessons to be learnt or were these bodies simply trying to cash in on some cheap publicity?

On the bigger question of the economy, many expected a post war boom. There was a boom but it only lasted a couple of years before ending in a bust in 2012.  Despite the rosy statistics there is now no serious question that things have been in decline since then. What went wrong? More seriously where will it end?