Syria’s tragedy

Today’s news from Syria demonstrates what to my probably rather limited understanding of the country, is a serious deterioration. It is also disappointing, almost a betrayal of the hopes so many people had for the country. That clearly includes the Syrians themselves.

Today, and over the past few weeks, the Syrian Ba’ath party regime led by Bashar al-Assad has besieged and attacked towns that had the temerity to stand up and ask for reform. The irony of this all is that when current president Bashar al-Assad began his rule after his father Hafez’s death, it seemed that he was pushing for these very reforms the demonstrators are calling for in their thousands.

Syria is not Libya. It is a cultivated, civilised place. This is no slur on the Libyans, but just an observation of the different histories of the two countries.

Syria has been a focal point for most of the great developments of Euro-Mediterranean culture: semitic peoples, indo-europeans – all passed through this patch of land, partly in that magic region Mesopotamia. The Hellenistic world left its mark, as did the Roman and the Persian. It hosts some of the earliest Christian monuments; the Semitic language Syriac was the medium through which much of the Bible (and, of course, of Greek classics) survived and reached us. Under Islam, Damascus became the seat of the Abbassid Caliphate, a flowering of culture and science.

Through this, Syria has developed a dazzling diversity of peoples and religions. Under the Ottoman Empire, it experienced great tolerance. While a Muslim country, it has been and still is a secular state with little time for extremism, fundamentalism or any other of this particular set of “isms”. Not so, unfortunately, of authoritarianism.

The Ba’ath Party under Hafez al-Assad, ruled with an iron fist. Protest were put down with violence, people died in bloody crackdowns. So when, 10 years ago now, Bashar al-Assad took over the presidency from his father, young, fresh from a career as an opthamologist in the UK, and with fresh new ideals, many saw in him a reformer in the making, battling established elites to introduce greater civil liberties, greater political pluralism, even greater democracy.

We have been cured of that now. The Syrian regime’s reaction to initially limited demonstrations calling for reform to the existing system have been transformed, by the heavy handed response itself, into much more widespread protests calling for the end of the regime. It is ironic that the means chosen to contain should have been the catalyst for the very development al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party feared the most.

The deed, now, has been done. The transformation has happened. The protests are spreading. And each time a town is cut off and invaded by tanks , each time leading protesters have been arrested in their hundreds (including, reportedly, 14-year old boys), the movement is strengthened. However authoritarian a regime is, it cannot survive with ever-decreasing public support, other than through the imposition of terror.

Thus Syria has, against all odds, gone down the path of Libya. The difference is, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that there will be any response from the rest of the world on the same scale or lines as that organised for the North African country. Syria has a much more capable military; the powers with the wherewithal to carry it out are already overstretched, there are not the same economic imperatives (that is, no oil); it is unlikely that the regional powers will want disturbance on their doorstep for a million reasons, not all complimentary.

The sanctions announced yesterday  are, of course, a step in the right direction. How effective they will be is another matter altogether. Even if more robust measures are taken (now that is a euphemism if ever there was one), the effectiveness is also doubtful. In Libya, it is proving difficult not only to protect civilians from the air and to enforce a no-fly zone (Ghaddafi’s forces have reportedly dropped mines into Misrata harbour, dropped bombs and destroyed a fuel dump from small aircraft, according to both Al Jazeera and the BBC).

The Syrians deserve our support. How this can be delivered effectively is a different question, but one which needs to be answered. The Syrians, like the Libyans and the Yemenis, should be disappointed that Bashar al-Assad, apart from failing to live up to his promise, has also resisted the honourable path taken by the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and left before too many people got hurt and too much damage was done.

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Don’t let your attention wander!

A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video
Osama Bin Laden, from one of his video releases in 2004. Image via Wikipedia

So the Americans have caught up with Osama bin Laden. No one will grieve too much about that, even if most of the world will not have the public celebrations that started across the US.
It is unlikely that the death of bin Laden will do much in itself to hamper terrorists; it is unclear how deeply involved he has been in planning the various attacks attributed to al-Qaeda. However, while the world’s media attention shifts to his fate, the real danger is that events in Libya, Yemen and now Syria may be ignored, even if only for a while.
The popular calls for a democratic transformation in these Arab nations have met with violent suppression; one has the feeling that the degree of repression would have been all the greater if the eyes of the world were not on events there.
In fact, I seem to remember that when the troubles in Syria began – at a much lower intensity – Col. Ghaddafi to the opportunity afforded him by the media shift of attention to the fledgling Syrian protests to launch an attack on his opponents.
It would be sad if the same thing were to happen again. These “revolutions” are long overdue: the Arab peoples have a long and proud history, and share much of their cultural heritage with Europe (and therefore also with the US and so many other countries around the world).
This means that there is no propensity for the Arabs to revert to despotism, any more than there is that propensity for any average European country. What these revolutions are about (I know, I am going t repeat myself here) is the reclaiming of the public sphere, of the possibility of civil society, political debate and thus influence on the social and political (and also – why not? – economic) direction of their countries. These are things that many of us take for granted.
What shape the new Arab democracies will take is not for us to decide. It is up to us, however, to give all the support we can. At its most basic, this is a simple matter: it does not involve much other than attention. But this is essential.
The rest – involving greater cost and risk, admittedly, is predicated upon this bare essential. Whether it be the use of the military to provide physical protection as in Libya, or the use of diplomatic and economic effort to pressure recalcitrant regimes, or even the care for refugees displaced by the troubles and the provision of resources to interim authorities, any further measures depend totally upon this essential fact of attention.
So this is an appeal: however good having Osama bin Laden out of the way may feel, please please please do not let that distract you from the really important things happening now. And that means the reclamation of public space and debate by Arabs across the Middle East.
Specifically, this means support the fledgling democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt; keep watching developments in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The West has let the Middle East down too often in the recent past to afford to do so again!

Ramping up the pressure?

I would hate to be the commander of the NATO forces providing protection to Libya‘s citizens. The task is close to impossible: bombs, missiles and planes may be very powerful weapons, but if your brief is to use them to protect without killing people, they have their limitations.

The death of Saif al Arab Ghaddafi along with three children yesterday may be counted as an attempt by NATO forces to increase pressure on Col. Ghaddafi. I do not think it was – it raises too many other issues, risking the loss of the broad support for the action being taken and undermining the justification and moral motivation for the what is being done.

That buildings connected to Ghaddafi’s hold on power are being hit does count as ramping up the pressure. It sends a simple message: we are getting closer to you, we can hit things just beside you. We can, if we want to, hit you directly. This threat, however, loses its potency if the “target” is actually hit; Ghaddafi’s son and grandchildren count as close enough for that.

I can only hope that the fall-out on this will not undermine the efforts to help the anti-Ghaddafi revolution, or the relief of Misrata and other beleaguered rebel areas in Western Libya.

Integrity revisited

I had touched upon integrity and ethics in financial services a post or two ago; I believe it bears emphasizing. I may end up boring people by this – even so, I will repeat. It is important.

The rather cursory treatment of ethics in business in the MBA course I did 12 years ago disappointed me; I had expected a little more than a list of ethical positions, beginning with a constructed caveman ethic and ending, via a whole range of different positions including utilitarianism, with a variant on Kant. This took all of 15 minutes to go through (well, maybe half an hour). Quite a condensation of 20,000 years of ethical thought and practice.

The rest of the programme in ethical business shifted to a treatment of organisations like Body Shop, essentially looking at what now gets called “corporate social responsibility”. Don’t get me wrong, these are good and useful initiatives. But they miss the point: ethics at its most essential is how people deal with people. Business, a part of society and a nexus of human interaction, is a part of that. Ethics in business is therefore no different to ethics anywhere else in life.

Thus I would have wanted to see a discussion of the sort of decision making that goes into the way employers treat employees, for example. Similarly, the way employees behave towards their employers. A vast number of other situations will undoubtedly spring to mind. This would fall under the general class of practical ethics – and really would not seek to impart hard and fast rules but the ability to work through the issues, reach a decision and, especially if it turns out to be the wrong one, to learn from that mistake and do better next time round.

Talking to friends still involved in providing business education, including an MBA programme, I recently found that the situation has not really changed much. Hence I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself meeting a man who runs a programme to help people develop integrity.

The organisation is the UK’s Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment (you can find them at http://www.cisi.org), with their Integrity Matters. Simon Culhane, their CEO, was in Malta to introduce the Integrity Matters programme to Maltese practitioners. He set out a few difficult situations, then got his audience to discuss the options. Finally, he asked participants, in groups of two, to reach a decision and vote jointly.

This is the sort of education/training that really can help people move towards a more ethical pattern of behaviour, one that involves thought, commitment and the exercise of choice.

I was unfortunately unable to attend myself. However, friends of mine did go – too few, sadly. The reaction of those that made it was very good: this was, they told me, a very useful (and enjoyable) exercise.

The regulation puzzle

If nothing else, the financial travails of the past couple of years have demonstrated the central necessity of effective regulation – that is, regulation that encourages integrity in business. Nowhere is this more important than in financial services!

If nothing else, the financial travails of the past couple of years have demonstrated the central necessity of effective regulation – that is, regulation that encourages integrity in business. Nowhere is this more important than in financial services!

The world’s governments have reacted fast to this message, without a doubt. Both in the US and in Europe, new regulations followed hard on the heels of massive bank rescues. All in all, what started as the fall out from imprudent bankers’ and mortgage lenders’ bad practices managed to depress the world economy to a devastating extent.

It could be argued that even the European debt crisis is a result of this. The debt crisis is at its worst in Greece, though Ireland and now Portugal are suffering as well; the national finances in Greece were shaky, admittedly, but it could be argued that the problems with credit and the costs of rescuing the international financial industry are what finally pushed it over the edge.

The cost has been enormous. Europe has come together to protect its own, a good thing. This does mean, however, that the costs are that much more widely spread and the potential damage even wider. More than ever before, it has become clear that no country is an island (even little ones like Malta, a real, physical island which has contributed its fair share to the rescue pot).

So what has the response been? New regulation – needed, beyond a doubt. It became clear that deregulation had gone too far. Worse, it had left space for a very dangerous misalignment of incentives masquerading (ironically) as a reduction in risk. As Joseph Steiglitz (in Freefall) and others have pointed out, some of the multilayered securitization of mis-sold mortgages actually managed to amplify risk.

Clearly, this needed to be put right. I have only a vague idea of the way the US went about this, but in Europe the drive was relentless. The first thing the EU did was propose, discuss, agree and put into place a new, multi-level regulatory structure. First, a layer of three pan-European bodies which oversee and coordinate the actions of the national regulators. Second, a top layer that watches out for emerging systemic risk.

This approach is definitely a step in the right direction. As financial services become more internationalized, more complex and more intertwined, the risk that emerging problems may get lost in the cracks between different national regulators becomes ever larger. This new structure addresses that.

The EU has taken action in other areas as well. Revised capital requirement rules for banks (under Basle III) are one; the new Alternative Investment Fund Managers (AIFM) Directive is another. On the face of it, there is nothing to disagree with in this. Looking at the detail, you may begin to have misgivings.

I will not go into the day-to-day issues of specific national interests, though there could be a lot of intriguing stories there. No, what I do begin to worry about is the general picture that emerges. Start by asking yourself: what is it we need from regulation? Foremost, quite clearly, is the protection of clients from unethical practices by financial services providers. This means we need regulation to encourage integrity, to incentivize ethical behaviour if you will.

Note this is the opposite of what happened in the years up to 2008. The gut reaction has been to reduce the freedom of action enjoyed by a variety of actors in the financial field. The question to be asked here is: will this incentivize ethical behaviour? Will this foster integrity?

My fear is that it will not. Ethical behaviour is a result of a value judgement translated into a choice, which is then put into action – the experience of which then feed back to the value judgement/choice nexus and develops integrity and a strong ethical sense. Restrict the scope of action too far, and you remove the possibility of choice; in so doing, the entire cycle is short circuited and paradoxically, the basis of ethics disappears.

This is worrying. The only long-term protection against abuse in a changing environment is a sense of integrity. This may sound like a boast, but I’ll say it anyway: Malta’s banks sailed through the crisis almost unscathed, because they stuck to prudent core banking principles despite the temptation to go after the same skewed profits that sent so many banks into a tailspin.

Note that this is not an argument against regulation. It is an argument for the right sort of regulation.This means regulations that encourage ethical choices. I do not believe that proscriptive regulation will manage to achieve this.

Yes, there are dangers in this approach. Inevitably, this will lead to a number of wrong choices being made, some inadvertently and others willfully. The issues need not  always be clear-cut, and there will always be room for debate about which course of action was the correct one; the answer may at times be “none, absolutely”. But at least, the process of ethical thought was there, leading to a stronger base of integrity which will protect customers and the economy (and society) so much better.

The Arab Spring

The Arabs are now, in 2011, reclaiming their public sphere. This should come as no surprise: Arab culture shares the roots of European civilisation.

The most surprising thing about the Arab Spring of 2011 is not that, at long last and pushed to the limit, Arabs across the Middle East have had enough of inept, authoritarian rulers. Nor is it that they took so long to get there: Islamophobes in particular should note that quite obviously, the Arabs are a rather peaceable people. They are not all Muslims, either, and even those that are, come in a variety of flavours.

No, what is surprising is that so many of us in Europe and the Americas were surprised.

We had no reason to be. First, look at the history of Western thought and follow the trail back through the philosophers and political thinkers we look to for direction. While we assume that the particular development path that led up to contemporary European culture and society started with the ancient Greeks, there is no direct trajectory. It is a path mediated pretty comprehensively through Arab thinkers – and not just Arabs, but Muslims.

Scientific and intellectual leadership may have eluded the Arabs for a while now, but in seeking to understand the roots of the uprisings of 2011 it is good to remember that the basis of Arab civilisation is in many ways identical to the underpinnings of Western society.

There is nothing in the Arab world view that runs counter to the ideal of democracy; there is no aspect of Arab culture that requires Arabs to want no part in an open debate on the shape and direction their societies will be taking. On the contrary, the instances where this aspiration to public engagement and freedom is thwarted are in fact aberrations and not the norm.

Look if you will at the great Arab Caliphates of the early Muslim world. We are going back a thousand years, but the Ottoman Empire (Turkish, this time, not Arab) continued the trend. These hugely diverse, multi-racial, multi-cultural states were a beacon of tolerance, particularly by the standards of their day. They were also enormously fertile cultures, producing groundbreaking developments in science, in medicine and of course in the arts and philosophical thought.

So now that the Arabs have decided to tell their rulers that enough is enough, that it is now time for them to reclaim their shattered public spheres, we should not be surprised.

Dockland strife

So Malta’s General Workers Union, in seeking to obtain recognition from Malta Freeport that it represents the majority of the terminal’s workers, has ordered industrial action, been hit by a demand from the Freeport for damages, and is now threatening to get its sister unions in other countries to boycott CGM CMA (the Freeport operator) and to blockade the port.
It all sounds like someone’s good idea gone bad. Recognition is not a dispute with the employer: it is the result of a mundane headcount run by the Registrar of Unions based upon verified, reported membership lists. If there is any scope for a dispute, it is with the Registrar or, at a stretch, with any other union seeking recognition.
This is the basis for the Freeport’s action against the GWU. It is not an attack on trade unionism: it is defence against misdirected union action.
Unions and collective negotiation are good for employees and good for employers. Yes, there are sometimes disputes – but imagine any HR department having to renegotiate the same contract three, four, five hundred times with each individual employee. Tedious, time wasting, boring – and unlikely to create good will.
From the employee’s point of view, joining in a collective imparts the necessary counterbalance to the employers’ power, putting the negotiations on a reasonably balanced foundation. But when collective power is misdirected it erodes this balance.
Much of the reporting on the issue in Malta has focussed on the economic damage a blockade or extended strike would cause. Yes, it would, but if the dispute were justified then so be it. The end point would be a better, stronger and more equitable situation.
But if the action is in support of a non-dispute, if it is seriously misdirected as in this case, then the damage done is to the whole concept of collective action and organised labour. It is damaging to trade unionism itself – and this is probably much more long-term damage.
And the damage is being done by the union – not by the Freeport, which in one sense is trying to save trade unionism by calling the GWU back from the brink.