Tuesday, September 30, 2003

I may have to maintain radio-silence for a few days as we have had a big departmental workshop thing thrown at us that means I will be far away from internet. Luiz & I have to give a presentation (with two days notice) which could actually decide the fate of the Universe. The underlying political situation is at a crisis point regarding the future of the project, and we have discovered that some people we thought were decent chaps are in fact Darth Vader-like scoundrels. So hopefully we can do our little bit to tip the balance in the right direction.

The problem is we have to do it without Darth actually realising we are trying to stop his skullduggery, which could be difficult as he was not exactly born yesterday.

Well, all very cryptic as the terms of my contract prevent me from going into any more detail, but basically by this weekend I will be either in a very good or a very bad mood - I'll let you know.

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Monday, September 29, 2003

Supposedly this is Big Decision Week and we will find out exactly where the project is going. In preparation me and Luiz had a Big Descansar Weekend (descansar = relax), we went swimming, eating, and to a sold-out Miriam Makeba concert. This last was a masterpiece of blagging as we had not bought tickets in advance and when we arrived there was a big queue crushing at the gate waiting to be let in to grab the few that remained. As there was nothing to lose we marched up with supreme confidence and asked the guard to let us in to buy tickets at the desk. While he was deciding whether or not this was OK we managed to slip past him. At this point the ticket-seller realised what was happening and ordered everyone to form a queue, but luckily we were already at the front. This caused consternation among the many french people clamouring at the gate (it was at the Franco-Mozambique Cultural Centre) mais ça c'est la vie mes chers.

Once inside, there was a swanky soiree buffet/art exhibition which only VIPs were allowed into. Luckily one of the guys who works at the venue is in my Judo club so we managed to smooth our way into that too. Luiz made a great impression on certain members of the local fine art community so I'm sure we shall be visiting some studios in future...

Later on I went with the Judo guys to a club they had booked out to fete the visiting Gauteng Judo Association (Gauteng is the South African province which includes Johannesburg). The music was quite good once it got going (although the DJ could not change records to save his life), an eclectic mixture of early 90s commercial dance (Black Box anyone?), modern house and hip-hop, zairean-style beer hall music, all sprinkled with bizarre incursions of heinous nu-metal. I must say that our club weren't very good hosts, as the dancing got more and more bump-n-grindy as the night wore on and the South Africans got less and less comfortable at all the gyrating foxiness, but no-one seemed to care. By the end the bar had run out of water, beer and all soft drinks except Pineapple Fanta so barring the sul-africanos I think a good time was had by everyone.

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Thursday, September 25, 2003

Sorry no blogging for a few days, our office was 'sem internet' on tue and wed. Today I'm at home as its a holiday to celebrate the first day of the 'luta armada contra o colonialismo português'. I tried to get the chief to give us permission to have friday off as well as many of the troops wanted to make it a four-day weekend. I had asked him quietly before but he had avoided giving me answer, so I hazarded the question again at the end of a big meeting.

I think this was a mistake, as he quoted a directive from the Minister that there was no way he could give days off without express written permission yada yada yada. However the sub-chief (AKA special advisor from a well-known Bretton Woods institution) then said 'of course you guys [the international consultants] can take the day off if you want. Me, I'm taking my family on a trip to South Africa.'.

As I don't think it is acceptable to skive off while my team have to work, I made a compromise arrangement when I got back to the office. Everyone has to turn up on friday but late arrivals and early departures will not be looked on unfavourably. This seemed to go down well enough.

Last night we went to a Jazz (great, but no Hungarian influence) concert at the Franco-Mozambican cultural centre. All the beautiful people as well as many hoi polloi were there. Unfortunately we sat next to some guys who seemed to think it was a rap do, and continually shouted out like Tim Westwood.
"Yeah, Ivan"
"Gimme some"
"Uh huh"

We eventually moved but they were very loud, often loud enough to drown out the (somewhat wanky) clarinet solos.

I have added a link to a new (to me) website called OpenDemocracy which has got quite an interesting discussion about Cancun and its aftermath. I am still a bit suspicious that the website might turn out to be a pointless talking shop (rather than a pointful talking shop, such as the BBC's Question Time programme, which I think is very important in a democratic society). But lets give it a try.


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Sunday, September 21, 2003

This weekend had a good mix of weather. Saturday was a scorcher, so we went swimming in the municipal pool for the first time - huge and almost empty. This might be because the entrance price ($2) is pretty steep for most Maputans. So unless you can pay you only get in if you are a friend or relative of the staff. At least that is what I suspect, I have no proof. Lets hope we don't catch anything from the water, anyway.

Afterwards we went to watch an intra-club junior Judo champonship, which was a great family day, lots of 'bate-papo' (chatting) hundreds of kids running around and the occasional judo match. Next saturday is the senior champonship which will be heftier.

At night we tried to watch 'O Batedor' at the cinema (Tommy Lee Jones & Benicio del Toro - think 'The Fugitive' meets the first 'Rambo' film). This was slightly ruined by them having a 30-minute interval a third of the way through, just as it was getting exciting. It isn't that long a film but if the rules say there must be an interval then an interval there must be.

Today was overcast and so cool, even cold, without actually managing to rain. So I could go for a run again, stopping occasionally to clean sand out of my eyes from the whirling sand-devils that blow down the main roads. I have never been to Chicago so I don't know how much it really lives up to its nickname but here is certainly 'the windy city' of southern africa.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Nothing much to report today, things are (still) in a kind of limbo waiting for high heejins to make up their minds, so in the meantime I am trying to do some Quality Assurance since after all the panic last month, it doesn't look like we'll be going live anytime soon.

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Monday, September 15, 2003

Hooray! They done it.

Here is a quick summary of the happy faces after the battle was won
G20+: We are stronger now

Meanwhile I will be writing an email to my Euro-MP asking him to ask Franz Fischler (Commissioner for Agriculture) to explain why he spent so much time slurring and slagging off developing country representatives when they were merely expressing the legitimate interests of their electorates. For an unelected bureaucrat such as Mr. Fischler to cast aspersions on elected Ministers, in the name of the European electorate, is not ideal.

Over here the sun has returned, now that we are back in the office.

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Sunday, September 14, 2003

Today was very grey all day, a very very Glasgow day.

Calloo Callay I had a pretty grim hangover too. But at least the rain stopped, so I could go for a run, again down past the beach and out north along the shore to the abandoned tower block which the Portuguese apparently ruined as they went home after independence by putting cement down all the lift shafts. At the 'furthest point' (perihelion?) of my run I turned away from the sea and went uphill through the shanty towns again. For a kilometre I had some cheerful running companions - an overweight guy in a football shirt and some scraggedy kids - who seemed to have been inspired by my apparent lunacy (hardly anyone runs here except at the designated 'running park' near Maputo Gymnasium which I mentioned a few weeks ago).

I got back before it started raining again, and rushed to read the news about Cancun on the internet - however it seems that all the online journalists were taking a normal weekend break on Sunday. However Martin Khor, head of the trusty Third World Network (a really quality campaigning organisation based in the developing world - it isn't just middle class white people who are worried about this stuff) filed an update:
Fate of Ministerial hangs on a thread today

I am still trying not to actually hold my breath, but it does look this time as if the developing countries are standing up and being counted, and no amount of back-room deals and personal threats (western negotiators have in the past resorted to threatening the careers of rival trade negotiators if they don't "toe the line") is going to stop them.

Only a few more hours to go now - and if they manage to make it, and stop the rancid piece of self-interested hypocrisy which is the current 'Draft Declaration' becoming the 'Actual Declaration', then they will not only have stopped this round but set the stage for a fundamental, and long-overdue, reform of the WTO itself. A fundamental shift in the balance of power.

However if this happens and the WTO actually becomes remotely accountable to its membership we can rely on President Snatch to do what he did with the UN - simply bypass it, and stop paying the bills too. After all, this is what the US Congress did 50 years ago when the Allies at the end of WWII tried to set up the ill-fated predecessor to the WTO, the ITO (International Trade Organisation). The elected representatives of the US people rightly balked at handing over so much power over their economic policy to an unelected global body over which they had little direct control, and the ITO was finished.

The developing countries are in large part saying the same thing - that they have a tough enough time already looking after their economies in today's viciously competitive and financially volatile world, without the WTO being biased against them as well. For the 8 years since the WTO was created, the rich countries didn't listen - now they have to.

Anyway, one mustn't get too excited, all shall be revealed on Monday...

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Saturday, September 13, 2003

Yesterday's heatwave ended with another night of crackling storms and sheeting rain. We unplugged everything from the wall to be on the safe side. I was hoping that the cooler weather would let me go for a run without heating up to 1,000,000°C, but the rain started again today.

In Cancun it looks like the G21 are holding firm. The US and EU are moaning that the poor countries are being 'unhelpful' and 'inflexible' but they should not be acting so surprised. You can only take the rich countries seriously if you think it is reasonable for their career civil servants to have spent the last 7 years with their heads in the sand, ignoring the enormous volume of research, statements, and above all formal documents submitted to the WTO by poor countries, saying "you are not being fair - listen to us".

Joseph Stiglitz, formerly Chief Economist at the World Bank and a Nobel Prize Winner, puts it very well in this recent letter to the Guardian:
where he illustrates the terrible impact of the WTO on people in rural Africa.

His example is rather contrived, and I don't agree with his conclusions that 'no agreement at Cancun' would be a failure for 'global democracy' but I think he puts very well the link between the complex, dry, legalistic and Machiavellian negotiations which go on at the WTO, and the lives of real people.

Well, lets see. If the G21 manage to get to the end of Sunday without being tricked, arm-twisted or otherwise shafted, it will give me some hope that the world has a chance of recovering from the terrible blow to sensible international relations that was the Iraq episode.

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Friday, September 12, 2003

A very hot day today. Meanwhile it looks like the developing countries are managing to hold together in Cancun, with the formation of the G21 coalition of over 20 countries determined to see real action by rich countries on their crippling agricultural subsidies.

This is despite the fact that the big boys (EU, US, Canada, Japan) are using every dirty trick in the book, and that they have twice as many delegates present as the rest of the world combined. When negotiations go on into the small hours human exhaustion is a real factor, so this disparity of person-power is important.

You can read more in these BBC articles:

And this press releases from WDM (the main organization I campaign with):

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Thursday, September 11, 2003

More taxi fun. I took a ride from the rank yesterday with a rather feckless driver, something always goes wrong with him and I felt sorry. Today we set off smartly enough, but two blocks down the rush-hour-clogged 25 de Setembro he muttered something about the lights and pulled into the side of the road.

"What's up?"
"Its getting dark now so I have to switch on the lights. But the car is knackered so I have to fiddle under the bonnet to switch them on".

Sure enough he popped the 'hood' and 30 secs later the headlights came on. The traffic was moving so slowly and randomly (kind of Brownian motion across the lanes) that he easily managed to force his way back into the stream and we made it home minutes later. Still, I think I will give his bangermobile a miss today.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Tomorrow starts what I consider the most important event for the future wellbeing of the developing world since we opened the Pandora's Box of Iraq. It might not receive as much press coverage as the Joburg Summit or Bush's 'Plan for Africa' but in the medium and long-term it will make far more of a difference.

It is the 5th Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico.

The BBC has a good overview article here:

The Ministerials are held every 2 years. The first three were stitch-up jobs in which the rich countries tore open the fragile economies of poorer countries but kept a huge wall of protectionism around their own industrial might. This culminated, at Seattle in 1999, put the WTO into the headlines because for the first time developing countries managed to put their foot down on some issues and the negotiations simply collapsed.

At the fourth Ministerial (held in the repressive state of Qatar to avoid a repeat of all the protests that surrounded Seattle) a kind of bargain was struck. After a lot of arm-twisting by rich countries, developing countries accepted a set changes in seven areas to weaken their control over their own economic policy, in return for changes by the west in three other areas: the most famous of which was access to cheap generic versions of medicines to deal with public health crises such as AIDS and Malaria.

Two years on, progress has been made in all seven of the 'rich country' areas but funly enough almost none in the three 'poor-country' areas. This is almost all because of US and European Union attempts to renege on the deal struck in Qatar even before the ink was dry. Therefore many observers now see the 'Doha Ministerial' as little more than a PR stunt by the rich countries.

So now the day of reckoning has arrived. Cancun is a resort town so despite the steel wall that has been built around the conference area, there will be protests. China is a member of the WTO for the first time and has a lot of expertise in this kind of negotiation. Brazil has a new president who has said that developing countries have to stick together in these talks. So there is some hope that developing countries might actually be able to win some changes in the world trading system which would allow them the space and the chance to develop their own way out of poverty.

Rant over, but if I wasn't here just now I'd be in Cancun...

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Saturday, September 06, 2003

The best-laid plans....

We hadn't count on the mental weather here, during friday afternoon the clouds build up and suddenly at night they burst. Thunder, lightning, diagonal water sheeting in through the grille on the verandah, through the missing window in the kitchen door, on to the floor. The dirt track from the ferry point to Macaneta would have been a sea of mud and (due, I think, to stubborness and a desire to once again play Colin MacRae) Luiz had chosen the Corolla again, i.e. we would have got stuck for definite.

I have put up a few pictures of the rain drops caught by the flash. Also one of my foot, which took me drunken ages to take as the camera wouldn't pick up the reflection. The main point of this one is that its strange how we get used to seeing feet always shaped by shoes, when the rest of our fashion is more or less for clothes which follow the lines of the body. In contrast, you can't really say that a trainer looks like a foot.

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Friday, September 05, 2003

Well this is the life. At work all was calm – the calm before the storm. Monday is a holiday to celebrate the Lusaka accords which paved the way for Mozambican Independence, but in our neck of the woods the big guns have been rolled out from the shelter of the trees and their barrels are shining in the sun. Next week is going to be a massive punch-up but things could actually end up better after it.

But since we have a long weekend, who gives a m*tical? Thanks to the wonder of cable modem + MP3 + DVD Player, we have decent music at high volume for the first time since we got here. Our fridge has gone on the blink so we have to drink all the beer in it quickly before it gets warm. And tomorrow a sojourn to the beach, with better-arranged (by moi, obviously) company this time.

On Sunday there is to the FACIM Trade Fair, which seems to be all the rage for the happening (and even not so happening) crowd in Maputo. Someone I know knows someone who got us some free tickets (thus saving us $2 each – yee haw!). Seriously though, if we have to set up something on the side in case work goes “funny” this is the place to be. Luckily it is near the Escola Nautica (aka the swimming pool) so if it gets too hot we can give up and splash out etc.

On Monday I am going to try and go to Xipamanine Market (pronounced “Shpamneen” by the taxi touts) which is a famous “buy everything and anything” place on the outskirts of Maputsu.

Finally, thanks to Neill I have moved my Shona site to a new location at: www.shonalanguage.info – or see link on left-hand side. I wish Shangaan was as straightforward as Shona!

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One thing that is tiresome here (even in comparison to other developing countries I have been in) is the generally terrible standard of customer service in any shop or place of entertainment. The customer is simply a hassle to be sullenly got rid of as soon as possible.

Restaurants are awful - with a few notable exceptions, such as Cristal on 24 de Julho or Kitos Chinese Restaurant on Vladimir Lenine.
The best yet was a newly-opened Thai restaurant (run by a Thai family) with delicious food. However every time you eat there, at least one of you will miss out when the main course is served.
The unlucky person will instead be told that the dish they ordered is not available - remember this is about 45 mins after you have ordered.

Shops are even worse - I haven't found one yet where anyone except the boss is actually genuinely interested in making a sale. Someone like Wal-Mart could clean up here, if the GDP of the country was big enough to appear on their radar.

Today I worked at home in the morning to keep an eye on the plumbers who were fixing our sink (and also because trying to fix code in the shouting oven that our office has become is next to impossible). Just before lunchtime I finally set off to the office on foot, and decided to stop off at the Video Store at the unaptly named "Tiger Shopping Centre" on the way.

We have been having a bit of a Pierce Brosnan mini-season here: first the abysmal "World is not Enough", then the much better but very different "Tailor of Panama". This time, by popular request, I was hoping to get "Die Another Day", or "Dienutherdei" as it is pronounced here.

The last two times I had tried to get this (in two different shops), the shop assistant happily took me to the 'crap action movies' section and handed me the DVD case.

"Here it is, sir"
"Oh good, I'd like to take this one out then"
"Oh no sir, its not /available/ - someone else already has it out"
"So why didn't you just tell me that in the first place?"
"?" [no response but a look that says "are you f*cking stupid or something?"

This time I had even worse luck - despite the fact that there were 15 staff still hanging around, they all rushed to tell me, with a disdainful look on their faces, that they were already closed for lunch (it was 11.58).

I went to ask the manager-type if he couldn't just rent me one video...

"I'm working during the day so its really hard to come here when you're open"
"But we have to close"
"Would you ever consider opening on lunchtime?"
"We have to close, there's nothing I can do." [Look that says "get out of here you crazy man who wants to give me money" ]

All this said, it is often easy to see why staff are so lackadaisical. Pay is poor, training is nonexistent, and the most common management style is to shout across a room at your subordinate across a busy shopfloor and humiliate them in front of everyone. I suspect race often comes into it too, as the vast majority of owner-managers are of Asian descent, while the vast majority of shop and restaurant staff are black or mixed-race.

Furthermore, many of the staff have educational qualifications which in the UK would get them an office job - but here they are condemned to sell videos, cheap electrical goods and nylon clothing.

Its a tough one. Perhaps the oddest thing is that even foreign-owned chains, such as the South African "Mimmos Restaurants" don't seem to manage to look after their staff any better - with predictable results.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2003

We had a big soap-opera-style showdown with our landlady today about the water - "fix it or move out".

So it looks like she is going to fix it.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Here are some pictures of a demonstration which passed our house the other weekend. Note the American flag – as far as I could see some of the protestors were hoping the US of A would come and save the country from penury. Hmmm, backing the wrong horse I think.

In fact poor Moz is more likely to get blamed for the attack which killed Vieira de Mello. He was sadly missed here actually: apart from the fact that half my colleagues are Brazilian, he was boss of the UNHCR operation here for three years when huge amounts of refugees were streaming back into the country after the end of the civil war, and seemed to have made a good impression.

I have been sporadically teaching myself to swim front crawl better, as its something I have always been crap at, and on Sunday I had a lightbulb moment thanks to the advice of Luiz and Andres (a late addition to our team, from Cuba), so I can now swim for 4 times longer without getting out of breath. Soon I will be swimming across the bay to Catembe.

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