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Airlines as Geopolitical Agents of Power

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Airlines are agents of geopolitical power. They are agents of geopolitical power, because they have the power to become the bridge between the core and peripheries of the world.

For example, in spite of the current civil strife in Mogadishu, Somalia, Turkish Airlines, during March, 2012, was the first and only internationally-acclaimed airline that began flying (via Khartoum at the time) to Somalia. Flying into Somalia, for Turkish Airlines, meant: We back Somalia. And let this flight herald our trust in Somalia and our Somali partners.

Geopolitically what does this mean? Since 2011 it was President (former prime-minister at the time) Recep Tayyip Erdogan that first visited Mogadishu (the highest non-African ranking official that Somalia has ever received after years of internal strife). Despite of the fact that Turkey initially began its bilateral relation with Somalia based on humanitarian aid, the Turco-Somali relationship would evolve into that of a political and commercial interest, particularly in Turkey’s interest of supporting vital infrastructure—i.e. ports—programs in Somalia by investing approximately over $500M. Yet, going back to the main topic of this article (airlines and geopolitics), what does it mean when an airline goes to another poorly served, connected country? It means one thing and one thing only: geopolitical trust (country stability) and geopolitical territorial linkage (exertion of state power from the airline’s country of origin. Think of Netherlands and Suriname).

Before studying and working in geopolitics and investment projects, I, myself, lived some kind of a hybrid life. Let’s say somewhere between business and aviation. From 2007—2011, I studied business administration at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (which actually has a huge military culture and values, and which also taught me, generally speaking, how many of my American colleagues in the military perceive the world), focused in the geographies of air transportation; in other words, commercial geographies and mobilities, combined with business administration critical thinking. Yet, throughout those years I became a pilot and even did an internship in Panama City, Panama, in Copa Airlines headquarters (Panama’s main airline).

Now, fast forwarding time, by combining both geopolitics and aviation studies, I have undoubtedly learned that airline routes are one of the prime indicators when a country’s socioeconomic status is improving, heading in the wrong direction, or a sign of the geopolitical influence one state exerts into another; airlines are the first geopolitical agents that have the power to suspend or completely terminate a destination, consequently, eliminating the bridge between one space and another, isolating an entire country, for example (e.g. Google: Yemen Sana’a airport).

Take for example Bangui, in the Central African Republic. What if I tell you that if you were to fly to the CAR, it is Air France (as the former—and still—colonial power) the only European airline that serves Bangui only once a week? What if I tell you that though Royal Air Maroc serves Bangui as well, it does so in the same degree—once a week—as Air France? And the same can be said for the relatively internationally known TAAG Angola airlines, which operates from Luanda. Regardless of how you look at it, if you were to fly to Bangui M’Poko International airport, in a trustworthy international airline (those that fly into Europe and the US are considered safe, trustworthy and high-standard airlines, because of both the FAA and EASA high-standard requirements on aircraft safety), most likely, you would have a really hard time in securing the correct flight schedule, price and, most importantly, the time and date you’d like to fly into the CAR. In the commercial aviation network and planning parlance, the CAR would be technically isolated. If Air France is the only European airline serving the CAR, can this mean that there are still some colonial, pastoralist-type of linkages? Or that an ex-colonial power controls the mobility and connectivity to its former colonies? I’ll let you be the judge of that question.

But, also, did you know that Air France has, from Europe, a complete monopoly on Cayenne, French Guiana, and to a certain extent to Papeete, French Polynesia? (Air Tahiti Nui—Air France’s only competitor—is supported by the French Government in the form of +$300M in subsidies, in spite of the fact that its main shareholder is the French Polynesian government, and though I am indeed generalizing, I am suspecting that the same French Government’s subsidies are the ones that are partially supporting Air Tahiti Nui vis-à-vis the Government in Tahiti). And, lastly, the same can be said about West Africa and the Sahel air travel network—until Turkish Airlines has come into play.

From a geopolitical point of view, Air France’s destination network is one of the most interesting to research as well as the rapid expansion of both Emirates and Turkish airlines’ networks (e.g. from Tajikistan to Eritrea). For example, Turkish airlines currently competes with Air France’s extensive West Africa network. Turkish airlines flies into the same cities were Air France’ airline empire once had a complete monopoly, including cities like Nouakchott (Mauritania), Niamey (Niger), Ouagadougou, (Burkina Faso), Conakry (Guinea), N’Djamena (Chad), and Libreville (Gabon). Therefore, as a result, one could generally conclude that Turkish Airlines is challenging many airline networks that aroused during colonial times (e.g. Turkish is challenging Aeroflot’s network in Central Asia; Air France and Brussels’s airlines West African network; and Turkish Airlines will eventually challenge US-based airlines hegemony in the Latin America-Europe-and-Asia controlled transit passengers market). Also, many of the gulf airlines (Etihad, Emirates, Qatar, particularly) have been gradually catching up by flying to cities like Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, while continuing their expansion on US airspace (e.g. Emirates will fly into Orlando, Qatar is flying into Miami, Etihad is serving Los Angeles), which is why I am not surprised that many of the US legacy carriers’ CEOs are accusing the Gulf airlines from being heavily subsided, claiming unfair competition. Yet, I will leave that question to the legal experts.

What is the main lesson here? That airlines compete for power and influence as much as a state would.

An airline’s main geopolitical power is manifested as: 1) the power in controlling mobilities; 2) the power of transporting cargo, reducing the time, compared to shipping vessels and railway transportation; and 3) the power of being part of the propaganda and media machine of an hegemonic and/or rising power. For instance, in my country (Guatemala), which, unfortunately, due to high criminal violence and corruption, has been part of America’s illegal migration problem for a while. In spite of this migration problem, Guatemala is currently served by four US legacy airlines (Delta, American, United and Spirit), with 9 non-stop flights to United States, and with +50 frequencies of flights between America and Guatemala in a week. In turn, there are only five Latin American—and one European, Iberia—airlines legacy carriers that serve Guatemala, one of them is from Panama (Copa); three from Mexico (Aeromexico, Interjet and Volaris); and one is from Colombia (Avianca). Henceforth, and compared with the Latin American airlines, US-based carriers at least control 44% of the Guatemalan market; additionally controlling European and Asian mobility into Guatemala and the rest of Central America, except for Panama City—which is rapidly growing and served by major European legacy carriers (Iberia, KLM, Air-France, TAP, and Lufthansa this coming march 2016).

Last but not least, airline’s propaganda can dwell in our geographic imagination and induce our hearts and pockets. How? Well, they capture the essence of curiosity. The curiosity of traveling into their countries of origin. The curiosity of using them as linkages into another unknown, untraveled destination. The Curiosity of imagining what is life like in the airlines’ countries of origin. And, the curiosity of having the ‘experience’ of traveling with them. At least, from a Guatemalan standpoint, many of the US-legacy carriers advertise American hallmarks of touristic and geopolitical power, such as photos of the White House, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the giant Hollywood emblem in the hills of Los Angeles.

With that kind of propaganda, no wonder why many of my countrymen must imagine that as soon as you step in the US, your life will become great, suddenly change, and why not, you will be part of the American dream—and from a business and marketing standpoint, of course, that I congratulate the American airlines. They are making a fine job in serving and connecting Guatemala with the rest of the world.

Yes, airlines can provide many things for our self-esteem (the joy of looking forward to relax in a nice, sunny beach) and our egos (the joy of telling your family and friends that you will travel to a destination they are eager to go but can’t). But, the airlines are also part of the geopolitical architecture of a state’s power: connecting, uniting or burning the bridge between one space and another. The core and the periphery. The served and unserved.

So, my dear reader: are airlines agents of geopolitical power?

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Economy

The phenomenon of land grabbing by multinationals

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Since 2012 the United Nations has adopted voluntary guidelines for land and forest management to combat land grabbing. But only a few people know about the guidelines, which aim to protect small farmers particularly in Third World countries.

When multinational investors buy up fields for their huge plantations, the residents lose their livelihood and means of support and will soon only be sleeping in their villages. If they are lucky, they might find work with relatives in another village. Many also try their luck in the city, but poverty and unemployment are high. What remains are depopulated villages and the huge palm oil plantations that have devoured farmland. People can no longer go there to hunt and grow plants or get firewood. The land no longer belongs to them!

Land grabbingis the process whereby mostly foreign investors deprive local farmers or fishermen of their fields, lakes and rivers. Although it has been widely used throughout history, land grabbing – as used in the 21st century – mainly refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the global food price crisis of 2007-2008.

From 2000 until 2019 one hundred million hectares of land have been sold or leased to foreign investors and the list of the most affected countries can be found here below:

Such investment may also make sense for the development of a country, but it must not deprive people of their rights: local people are starving while food is being produced and turned into biofuels for export right before their eyes.

In 2012, after three years of discussion, the UN created an instrument to prevent such land grabbing: the VGGTs (Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security:

Detailed minimum standards for investment are established, e.g. the participation of affected people or how to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples and prevent corruption. Formally, the document provides a significant contribution to all people fighting for their rights.

The document, however, is quite cryptic. The guidelines should be simplified and explained. Only in this way can activists, but also farmers and fishermen, become aware of their rights.

Others doubt that much can be achieved through these guidelines because they are voluntary. After all, the UN has little or no say in the matter and can do no more than that. If governments implemented them, they would apply them as they will.

In Bolivia, for example, there are already laws that are supposed to prevent land grabbing. In the Amazon, however, Brazilian and Argentinian companies are buying up forests to grow soya and sugar cane, often with the approval and agreement of corrupt government officials. Further guidelines would probably be of little use.

At most, activists already use the guidelines to lobby their governments. Together with other environmental and human rights activists, they set up networks: through local radio stations and village meetings, they inform people of the fact that they right to their land.

Nevertheless, in many countries in Africa and elsewhere, there is a lack of documentation proving land ownership. Originally, tribal leaders vocally distributed rights of use. But today’s leaders are manipulated to pressure villagers to sell their land.

The biggest investors are Indians and Europeans: they are buying up the land to grow sugar cane and palm oil plantations. This phenomenon has been going on since 2008: at that time – as noted above – the world food crisis drove up food prices and foreign investors, but also governments, started to invest in food and biofuels.

Investment inland, which has been regarded as safe since the well-known financial crisis, must also be taken into account. Recently Chinese companies have also been buying up thousands of hectares of land.

In some parts of Africa, only about 6% of land is cultivated for food purposes, while on the remaining areas there are palm oil plantations. Once the plantations grow two or three metres high, they have a devastating effect on monocultures that rely on biodiversity, because of the huge areas they occupy. There is also environmental pollution due to fertilisers: in a village, near a plantation run by a Luxembourg company, many people have suffered from diarrhoea and some elderly villagers even died.

Consequently, the implementation of the VGGTs must be made binding as soon as possible. But with an organisation like the United Nations, how could this happen?

It is not only the indigenous peoples or the local groups of small farmers that are being deprived of everything. The common land used is also being lost, as well as many ecosystems that are still intact: wetlands are being drained, forests cleared and savannas turned into agricultural deserts. New landowners fence off their areas and deny access to the original owners. In practice, this is the 21st century equivalent of the containment of monastery land in Europe that began in the Middle Ages.

The vast majority of contracts are concentrated in poorer countries with weak institutions and land rights, where many people are starving. There, investors compete with local farmers. The argument to which the advocates of land grabbing hold -i.e. that it is mainly uncultivated land that needs to be reclaimed – is refuted. On the contrary, investors prefer well-developed and cultivated areas that promise high returns. However, they do not improve the supply of local population.

Foreign agricultural enterprises prefer to develop the so-called flexible crops, i.e. plants such as the aforementioned oil palm, soya and sugar cane, which, depending on the market situation, can be sold as biofuel or food.

But there is more! If company X of State Y buys food/fuel producing areas, it is the company that sells to its State Y and not the host State Z that, instead, assigns its future profits derived from international State-to-State trade to the aforementioned multinational or state-owned company of State Y.

Furthermore, there is almost no evidence of land investment creating jobs, as most projects were export-oriented. The British aid organisation Oxfam confirms that many land acquisitions took place in areas where food was being grown for the local population. Since local smallholders are generally weak and poorly educated, they can hardly defend themselves against the grabbing of the land they use. Government officials sell or lease it, often without even paying compensation.

Land grabbing is also present in ‘passive’ Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Lithuania and Bulgaria are affected, but also the territories of Eastern Germany. Funds and agricultural enterprises from “active” and democratic Europe, i.e. the West, and the Arab Gulf States are the main investors.

We might think that the governments of the affected countries would have the duty to protect their own people from such expropriations. Quite the reverse. They often support land grabbing. Obviously, corruption is often involved. In many countries, however, the agricultural sector has been criminally neglected in the past and multinationals are taking advantage of this under the pretext of remedying this situation.

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Economy

No let-up in Indian farmers’ protest due to subconscious fear of “crony capitalism”

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The writer has analysed why the farmers `now or never’ protest has persisted despite heavy odds. He is of the view that the farmers have the subconscious fear that the “crony capitalism” would eliminate traditional markets, abolish market support price and grab their landholdings. Already the farmers have been committing suicides owing to debt burden, poor monthly income (Rs. 1666 a month) and so on.”Crony capitalism” implies nexus between government and businesses that thrives on sweetheart deals, licences and permits eked through tweaking rules and regulations.

Stalemate between the government and the farmers’ unions is unchanged despite 11 rounds of talks. The farmers view the new farm laws as a ploy to dispossess them of their land holdings and give a free hand to tycoons to grab farmers’ holdings, though small.

Protesters allege the new laws were framed in secret understanding with tycoons. The farmers have a reason to abhor the rich businesses. According to an  a  January 2020 Oxfam India’s richest one  per cent hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent  of the country’s population. India’s top nine billionaires’ Inc one is equivalent to wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The opposition has accused the government of “crony capitalism’.

Government has tried every tactic in its tool- kit to becloud the movement (sponsored y separatist Sikhs, desecrated Republic Day by hoisting religious flags at the Red ford, and so on). The government even shrugged off the protest by calling it miniscule and unrepresentative of 16.6 million farmers and 131,000 traders registered until May 2020. The government claims that it has planned to build 22,000 additional mandis (markets) 2021-22 in addition to already-available over 1,000 mandis.

Unruffled by government’s arguments, the opposition continues to accuse the government of being “suit-boot ki sarkar” and an ardent supporter of “crony capitalism” (Ambani and Adani). Modi did many favours to the duo. For instance they were facilitated to join hands with foreign companies to set up defence-equipment projects in India. BJP-ruled state governments facilitated the operation of mines in collaboration with the Ambani group  just years after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks for captive mining (MS Nileema, `Coalgate 2.0’, The Caravan March 1, 2018). Modi used Adani’s aircraft in March, April and May 2014 for election campaigning across the country.

“Crony capitalism” is well defined in the English oxford Living Dictionaries, Cambridge and Merriam –Webster. Merriam-Webster defines “crony capitalism” as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants, and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market

If there’s one”.

Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “ an economic system in which family members and friends of government officials and business leaders are given unfair advantages in the form of jobs, loans, etc.:government-owned firms engaged in crony capitalism”.

A common point in all the definitions is undue favours (sweetheart contracts, licences, etc) to select businesses. It is worse than nepotism as the nepotism has a limited scope and life cycle. But, “crony capitalism” becomes institutionalized.

Modi earned the title “suit-boot ki sarkar” when a non-resident Indian, Rameshkumar Bhikabhai virani gifted him a Rs. 10 lac suit. To save his face, Modi later auctioned the suit on February 20, 2015. The suit fetched price of Rs, 4, 31, 31311 or nearly four hundred times the original price. Modi donated the proceeds of auction to a fund meant for cleaning the River Ganges. `It was subsequently alleged that the Surat-based trader Laljibhai Patel who bought the suit had been favoured by being allotted government land for building  a private sports club (BJP returns ‘favour’, Modi suit buyer to get back land, Tribune June21, 2015).

Miffed by opposition’s vitriolic opposition, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Categorically denied collusion with Modi’s government earlier this month. Reliance clarified that it had never done any contract farming or acquired farm land, and harboured no plans to do so in future. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group also had clarified last month that it did not buy food grains from farmers or influence their prices.

Modi-Ambani-Adani nexus

Like Modi, both Adani and Ambani hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat, just, who served as the state’s chief for over a decade. Both the tycoons are reputed to be Modi’s henchmen. Their industry quickly aligns its business strategies to Modi’s nation-building initiatives. For instance, Adani created a rival regional industry lobby and helped kick off a biannual global investment summit in Gujarat in 2003 that boosted Modi’s pro-business credentials. During 2020, Ambani raised record US$27 billion in equity investments for his technology and retail businesses from investors including Google and Face book Inc. He wants to convert these units into a powerful local e-commerce rival to Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Inc. The Adani group, which humbly started off as a commodities trader in 1988, has grown rapidly to become India’s top private-sector port operator and power generator.

Parallel with the USA

Ambani and Adani are like America’s Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s in the USA’s Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century (James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India’s New Gilded Age).

Modi government’s tutelage of Ambanis and Adanis is an open secret. Kerala challenged Adani’s bid for an airport lease is. A state minister said last year that Adani winning the bid was “an act of brazen cronyism.”

Threat of elimination of traditional markets

Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including the big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.

The farmers fear the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.

Is farmers’ fear genuine?

The farmers have a logical point. Agriculture yield less profit than industry. As such, even the USA heavily subsidies its agriculture. US farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019, the highest level of farm subsidies in the last 14 years, and the corporate sector paid for it. The Indian government is reluctant to give a permanent legal guarantee for the MSP. In contrast, the US and Western Europe buy directly from the farmers and build their butter and cheese mountains. Even the prices of farm products at the retail and wholesale levels are controlled by the capitalist government. In short, not the principles of capitalization but well-worked-out welfare measures are adopted to sustain the farm sector in the advanced West.

Threat of monopsonic exploitation

The farmers would suffer double exploitation under a monopsony (more sellers less buyers) at the hands of corporate sharks.  They would pay less than the minimum support price to the producers. Likewise, consumers will have to pay more because the public distribution system is likely to be undermined as mandi (regulated wholesale market) procurement is would eventually cease to exist.

Plight of the Indian farmer

The heavily indebted Indian farmer has average income of only about Rs. 20000 a year (about Rs. 1666 a month). Thousands of farmers commit suicide by eating pesticides to get rid of their financial difficulties.

A study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 people involved in the farming sector died by suicide from 2018-2019, with several studies suggesting that being in debt was a key factor.

More than 86 per cent of India’s cultivated farmland is owned by small farmers who own less than two hectares of land each (about two sports fields). These farmers lack acumen to bargain with bigger companies. Farmers fear the Market Support Price will disappear as corporations start buying their produce.

Concluding remarks

Modi sarkar is unwilling to yield to the farmers’ demand for fear of losing his strongman image and Domino Effect’. If he yields on say, the matter of the farm laws, he may have to give in on the Citizenship Amendment Act also. Fund collection in some foreign countries has started to sustain the movement. As such, the movement may not end anytime soon. Unless Modi yields early, he would suffer voter backlash in coming elections. The farm sector contributes only about 15 per cent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy. But, it employs around half its 1.3 billion people. 

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Economy

Brighter Future Waits Ahead

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Our footprints on the sands of time are about to be washed up by the next wave. We need to set out new paths, urgently, after all, the real power of wisdom not hidden in knowing it all; but in not knowing enough. Because whatever we may think of our mastery of our own crafts is in reality achieving ‘mastery’ as an acknowledgment of arriving at a point of not knowing enough therefore continuous hunger and craving to search for bigger answers. Otherwise, just a few experts would have been enough for the world. Observe how after two millennia passed, we still have not figured out achieving grassroots prosperity, diversity, tolerance and equalities.

Only if our new wisdom understood will we advance or else stay lost at the beaches. Our new world of today needs new words, new vocabulary, and new narratives to allow correctly knitting the tapestries of our miseries and equally weaving strong and fit enough sails for the coming stormy winds of tomorrow. Muffled in the old-fashioned terms of the past, the double-sided, agenda-centric language used today, already lost its authenticity. Today’s language mummified in bandages of political correctness, already tombed intellectualism and spoken words into deprivations, while whatever enunciated as rehearsed acts via teleprompters is still  undecipherable by the global populace. Realities now demand change to honest words to assemble new narratives, to calm restless citizenry to deliver its truthful meaning in bold progressions.

Loudly enunciated are our acceptances of our victory and defeats or we stay silent to our deceptions. There is a brighter future ahead, indeed, but firstly, if we only accept for a moment that our previous attempts on grassroots prosperity creation were failures of sorts, suddenly pandemic recovery appears meaningful. If we also accept our previous trajectory of economic development spanning the last decade was somewhat hit or miss on targets, suddenly, new horizons appear.  If we accept also that all our power-skills and rich-knowledge almost maxed out, suddenly brighter futures start to appear. Because, only when we discover a window, find some empty spaces tumble into voids, and chasms new things start to pour in, new ideas flourish, the processes start as enlightenment for new discoveries to commence. No matter where we stand on this earth, a new world has once again brought us on crossroads to face new transformation for brand new adventures

Our limitations on our performance are true measurements to qualify us to enter the cockpits.  Historians will recognize this pandemic recovery as a very special moment; declare this era as a small blip in the course of human endeavor and a glitch that ‘possibly’ corrected the role of government administration to allow far more talented and upskilled citizenry at helm to advance.  One: The corporate leaderships of technology companies acquired extraordinary smarts many times more powerful over what their own top national political leadership team displays and thus unable to tackle any technology sides of the economy.  Two: Digitized and technologically advanced vertical sectors across 200 nations and 10,000 cities shut out national political leaderships and local institutional administrators as obsolete and unprepared to deal with the required speed of response and execution and therefore losing future control of the national economic drivers of national economy in global jurisdictions. Frequent flyers know a lot about flying city to city but definitely are not certified and qualified pilots to fly jumbos around the world. The power play of the digital economy once enters the ocean of platform economies of the world will become extremely specialized, therefore, unless prepared, nation-by-nation, top political leadership and government agencies will lose grip on all such technology advancement games and become simply spectators. Study crypto-currency deployments, Space travel and satellite transportation, AI and trading games, Jack Ma and China over ruling financial sectors as a start.   

Our mobilization of hidden resources and talents are proof of what we just learned coming out of fog. For the first time in 100 years, globally speaking, a new world emerges; The pandemic has already prepared the humankind to rediscover “the meaning of life” the purpose of “co-existence” while to the poor of the world “re-learn to survive” and to the rich “re learn to create common good”.  Is pandemic germinating our entrepreneurial intellectualism? Is this the kind of transformation humankind has been waiting for over a century? Why is futurism calling for futuristic literacy?

Our billion hungry every night despite two millennia past, we must show our resolve or our negligence will destroy us. The poor of the world; in neglect, misery and almost buried alive, Millionaires anxiously digging their own graves,  now exhausted, Billionaires digging deeper to find their own legacy if any and Trillionaires buying up heavens in the clouds to block other voices.  The Towers of Babylon going half empty, displaying signs of ‘vacancy’ fires of hell at the base only provide gentle warmth to the upper celestial floors of luxury living. Where sweetness is missing in the bitter medicine of our times ignored but candies alone will never cure; the message in the bottle found on the bloody beaches tossed but the noise of fakery drowns us all. Imagine, if we compressed the last two millennia in two minutes. We just evaporated at the last second. Universe did not even notice.

Wondering, what was the possible message in that bottle, if any? 

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