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Worse than Oil? The Geopolitics of the Banana

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Image: Banana Forest. Credit: Pxhere

Attracting encroachments to national sovereignty by rapacious Washington-connected multinational corporations and the meddling attentions of their powerful home country; stunting reform and economic development at every turn; breeding economic dependency; firmly controlled by foreign companies and giving little beneficiation to the country of production; upending and undermining political institutions; and not even sustainable.

These are ringing accusations which bring to mind one natural resource –oil. Certainly not the banana. This is somewhat understandable; oil more readily lends itself to the vilification touted in these bleak and cynical claims, and it has been the subject of visible conflict, with allegedly oil-motivated American interludes into Kuwait, Iraq and Libya being all too well known and well televised.

Nonetheless, it is one of the blights of modern political economic analysis, including those with a bent for “resource curse” theory, that in their discussion of the interaction of forces that have resulted in the paradoxical plights of some resource-rich countries, they tend to overlook one of the most important culprits, or perhaps better understood as a catalyst in a larger political process; the innocuous banana. And yet, perhaps just as much as oil, this energy source has been the fons et origo of many social, political and economic malaise in many underdeveloped countries who possess them.

This inevitable interaction with politics is only more obvious when we consider the economic significance of this product; bananas are the world’s fourth most consumed food crop, after rice, wheat and corn, with some 350 billion bananas consumed every year. Figures of this magnitude rarely rack up by market forces alone and nominally hint at a set of vested political and economic hands at work.

In this brief article, a slice of the long and storied history of the politically-derived banana’s impact on the economies of numerous states which were in possession of it, particularly regarding Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa through the prism of the unholy alliances between big corporations and dictators, as well as the battle for market access.

Unholy Alliances: Dictators and Corporations

United Fruit

The South American country of Ecuador rarely finds itself on the top 3 list of any global rankings. Yet it occupies that very spot when it comes to world production of the banana. Some 18% of the bananas traded worldwide during the 1970s and 1980s originated from Ecuador, and this number expanded to 30% in the 1990s. Banana production and trade in Ecuador gives direct employment to an estimated 380 000 people. This tells something about the history and geography of this fruit on two particular points; why Ecuador and why now? The road to this present-day reality is an interesting and entangled one through which we gain insights into the nature of globalization as a performative process and its structures with implications far beyond Latin America.

In order to flourish, banana plants require rich soil, combined with 9 to 12 months of sunshine along with constant, heavy rains of to 80 to 200 inches a year. This is a demand level unmatchable by artificial irrigation if the given plantation is to compensate for the production costs and still have the ability to sell at the low price for which the banana is known. This gives us an important clue as to the Ecuadorian presence among the top producers in the world. But that is only a partial aspect on a bigger picture.

For one, how did the bananas get to Latin America, when they are said to be native to the tropics of South and Southeast Asia, and are likely to have been first domesticated in Papua New Guinea? And how did one particular variety of this fruit, the Cavendish, conquer the world market when there are thousands all across the world? The answer to these questions are political and are to be found in the early half of the nineteenth century.

The mass production of the banana such as we know today commenced specifically in the year 1834 and saw an explosion in the late 1880s and from the beginning reaped political consequences. Prior to the 1870s most of the land that bananas were grown on in the Caribbean had been previously used to grow sugar, and indeed before then bananas were virtually unknown in the United States. But this quickly changed and just 30 years later, Americans (then totaling at 70 million people) were consuming over 16 million bunches a year. Like all rapid expansions and enormous profits, this came at a high cost, and perhaps none bore it more than the producing populations.

The odyssey started in 1871 and, indicative of those twists of fate with which history is so littered, not with anything to do with agriculture but the construction of a railroad in Costa Rica overseen by an ambitious23 years-old Minor Keith, born in New York. The mega project sees hundreds lose their lives, including the lives of Keith’s two brothers. Bur Mr. Keith is undaunted. While building the railroad in Costa Rica he was also hatching a far grander plan. As construction made progress, he ordered the planting of bananas on the land easements to either side of the tracks. The bananas flourished and once the railroad was brought to completion it was possible to economically transport the bananas to Americans who were beginning to acquire a taste for the exotic fruit. By the next decade, Keith owned three banana companies. Keith then joined up with a Cape Cod sailor, Lorenzo Baker, and a Boston businessman, Andrew Preston. The three raised the necessary capital to establish the Boston Fruit Company. By 1899, the Boston Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company (UFCO) emerged – and in their wake formed the largest banana company in the world, with plantations all over Latin America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Santo Domingo. The company also owned 112 miles of railroad linking the plantations with ports. To complete their Charter company-like set up, and in order to protect their interests, they also owned some eleven steamships, known as the Great White Fleet and an additional 30 other ships under lease.

In 1901, Guatemalan dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera granted to UFCO the exclusive right to transport postal mail between Guatemala and the United States. Thus came UFCO’s first entry into Guatemala in whose wake the country would be held custody to a fruit company. Ruled by a conservative dictator who would be a puppet to the UFCO, Keith judged Guatemala to have “an ideal investment climate”. He formed the Guatemalan Railroad Company as a subsidiary of UFCO and capitalized it at $40-million. Other countries in Central and South America also fell prey to the UFCO, which they called or “El Pulpo” (the Octopus), but no other state felt the weight of the UFCO more than Guatemala.

Why was Guatemala such an ideal investment climate for the UFCO? “Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities,” a former United Fruit executive once explained, “because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.”In Guatemala, United Fruit gained control of virtually all means of transport and communications. United Fruit charged a tariff on every item of freight that moved in and out of the country via Puerto Barrios. As if that were not enough, the company also managed to exempt itself from virtually all taxes in Guatemala for 99 years.

In 1944, the people of Guatemala overthrew the right-wing dictator then in power, Jorge Ubico, and held their first ever true elections. The man they elected president was Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo, a socialist. A new constitution was drawn up, partly based on the American version. At this time, in the highly class-divided Guatemala, only 2.2% of the population owned over 70% of the country’s land. Only 10% of the land was available for 90% of the population, most of whom were native Indians.

Most of the land held by the large landowners was unused. Jacobo Arbenz who succeeded Arevalo in another free election continued the reform process. Arbenz proposed to redistribute some of the unused land and make it available for the 90% to farm. This greatly unsettled the UFCO; the United Fruit was one of the big holders of unused land in Guatemala. The pressure mounted heavily against the UFCO and finally the company made its pleas and called on officials in the US government, including President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (whose former New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, was a representative of the company), saying that Guatemala had turned communist and was susceptible to Soviet Union influence.

Fortunately for the fruit conglomerate, almost every major American official involved had a family or business connection to the company itself(Allen Dulles, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, had served on UFCO’s board of trustees while Ed Whitman, the company’s top public relations officer, was married to Ann Whitman, President Eisenhower’s private secretary). Thus with great zeal, the U.S. State Department and United Fruit, enlisting the talents of the PR genius Edward Bernays (a nephew of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), embarked on a major public relations campaign to convince the American people and the rest of the US government that Guatemala was a Soviet “satellite”.

Upon Bernays’ suggestion, the company also arranged and offered to pay for the expenses of journalists who traveled to Guatemala to learn United Fruit’s side of the story, and some of the biggest outlets (and particularly The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune) published accounts favorable to the UFCO.

The campaign was a resounding success and in 1954, with consent manufactured, the CIA engineered a coup, code-named “Operation PBSUCCESS”. The CIA set up a clandestine radio station to carry propaganda, jammed all Guatemalan stations, and hired skilled American pilots to bomb strategic points in Guatemala City. The U.S. replaced the democratically-elected government of Guatemala with another right-wing dictator that would again bend to UFCO’s will. The propaganda machine, meanwhile, portrayed the operation to the American audience as the removal of an unpopular leader and the ushering in of liberty and democracy; this has an eerily familiarity when looked at through the prism of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Cuyamel Fruit

After his firm, Hubbard-Zemurray, experienced much success importing bananas from Latin and Central America and selling them in in New Orleans, Samuel Zemurray went to the Central American republic of Honduras to expand his company into banana production in the year 1910. Honduras was deemed well-suited for growing bananas due to its proximity to the equator. These were the seeds of what would eventuate into Cuyamel.

But Cuyamel did not enter unchartered territory and the turf was already spoken for. The main player seeking monopoly status in the Honduras banana market besides was Vaccaro Brothers and Company. But both the Vaccaro firm and Cuyamel were eclipsed by the much larger United Fruit Company. Before United Fruit entered Honduras as a direct producer in 1910, the firm participated in the Honduras market by proxy through investments in both Zemurray’s and Vaccaro Brothers’ companies. Before United developed plantations of its own in the cities of Trujillo and Tela, it owned 60% of Cuyamel and 50% of Vaccaro. Even though the three companies were competitive against each other, they maintained some respective distance, and even pursued joint efforts in advertising and increasing banana agricultural outputs in Honduras.

Nevertheless, competitiveness seeps through. Zemurray had played an active role in Honduran politics since he first arrived in the country. In 1910, the administration of President Miguel R. Dávila had given the Vaccaro Brothers’ Company land for railroad construction and prohibited any other companies from building a competing railroad within 12 miles of the Vaccaro line. This had long displeased Zemurray, and he detested the Dávila government, having provided encouragement and money to a failed coup in 1908 against Dávila.

These concessions by the Dávila regime to Vaccaro further enrage Zemurray. He makes a concerted effort now to remove the regime, and has an accomplice in the person of former President Manuel Bonilla. Zemurray supplied weapons and transportation for Bonilla to launch a coup against Dávila. President Dávila fled, and Bonilla once again assumed the presidency of the nation, owing in large part to the direct intervention of Zemurray.

Shortly before Bonilla ascended to the presidency, Zemurray in 1911 transformed his company from Hubbard-Zemurray into Cuyamel Fruit Company. He acquired 5,000 acres of land for agriculture along the Cuyamel River in the northwestern extremity of Honduras, near the Guatemalan border. The firm took its new name either from this river or from the town of Cuyamel nearby. As a repayment for his support, Bonilla also granted Zemurray a concession to build a railroad between the town of Cuyamel, by the coast, and Veracruz, in the interior.

There were no more coups in the country through the end of the decade, but Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit was in fierce competition with Vaccaro and United. Further, Cuyamel’s development of a previously empty strip of land along the Guatemala-Honduras border almost led to an outbreak of war between the two states, but this was halted by US mediation.This incident of near-war strained relations between pro-Honduras Cuyamel and pro-Guatemala United, and this tension would not fully cool off until the two companies became one in 1929, when following the October crash of international financial markets, Zemurray sold Cuyamel to United Fruit in exchange for stock and retired, making UFCO the giant discussed in prior sections.

The Banana Wars: The Battle for the Banana Market

Africa’s banana market is a paradoxical reality. In the lowland of the Congo basin, farmers grow a greater diversity of bananas than anywhere in the world.In countries such as Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda per capita consumption has been estimated at 99 pounds per year, the highest in the world. Uganda itself is the second-largest producer of bananas in the world after India. It is, however, one of the smallest exporters, the crops being used mostly for domestic consumption.

West African countries produce nearly all of Africa’s banana exports. Production in this region has grown rapidly over the past 15 years, now accounting for around 4% of the world banana trade. The vast majority of these bananas are sold in Europe, mainly in France and the UK, where an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of bananas are peeled annually. But the African access raises questions and a myriad of issues about the nature of the international political economy than meets the eye.

Since 1975, African and Caribbean countries had had a quota of bananas to import into the EU market, enabling them to sell to Europe as many as they wanted to support. The official reasoning for this was that the European Union (then known as the European Community) hoped, that this would enable the economies of such developing countries to grow independently, without depending on overseas aid. Some economists, however, question the logic behind this.

To begin with, if the EU is concerned with the development of these countries and to free markets, it makes no economic sense to continue to subsidize their agricultural lobby with up to 50-billion euros per year. Secondly, the EU would remove barriers to a vast array of agricultural products from Africa – as it stands only bananas can be sold into the EU market without barriers to entry, and indeed disincentives are provided as seen in the imposition of 30% tariffs to unprocessed coffee but 60% to processed (that is job-creating) coffee from Africa.

Secondly, banana and pineapple production in Africa are dominated by two American multinational companies Compagnie Fruitière/Dole (a descendent of the Cuyamel company dealt with above) and Del Monte.In any case, US multinationals which control the Latin American banana crop hold 67% of the EU market and the US itself does not export bananas to Europe. This perhaps displays the extent to which the removal of barriers to access are motivated by US-EU alliance and not developmental concerns regarding Africa. The Caribbean is a different story, however.

Despite this, however, the US filed a complaint against the EU for further with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and, in 1997, won. The EU was instructed to alter its rules as a result. The chief outcome of this deal had been to protect banana farmers in the Caribbean from competition from Latin America, whose bananas are cheaper because they are grown on large­scale, mechanised plantations run by giant US­based corporations.

After the WTO ruling, the US government continued to argue that free trade in bananas had not been restored, while the EU argue it has changed its rules. The US has then imposed a retaliatory range of 100% import duties on European products, “encompassing everything from Scottish cashmere to French cheese” as the Guardian then put it.

The US government was allegedly pressurized by powerful US multinational companies which dominate the Latin American banana industry. “The Bill Clinton administration took the “banana wars” to the WTO within 24 hours of Chiquita Brands, a powerful, previously Republican­ supporting banana multinational, making a $500,000 donation to the Democratic Party” according to journalist Patrick Barkham.

The banana wars came to a conclusion only in 2009 with an agreement between the EU and Latin American countries. The December 2009 agreement involved the EU reducing its tariffs on imported bananas from 176 euros ($224; £140) per tonne to 114 euros per tonne within eight years.

The Future and Sustainability of the Banana: A Challenge of Globalization

Like oil, the banana is not only problematic in its production and sale, but it may also not have much of a future; at least not as we know it. Researchers have declared the Cavendish to be potentially unsustainable and at risk of “imminent death.” This threat stems from the Panama disease; a deadly root fungus from the island of Taiwan. And since all Cavendishes are clones, if the fungus can kill one banana shrub, it can kill them all.

Of course the Panama disease is nothing new. It was identified at least as early as the 1950s, when it wiped out the Cavendish’s predecessor, known as the ‘Gros Michel’, or Big Mike. When the Gros Michel banana succumbed to the fungus, the Cavendish was found to be immune, at least until the fungus mutated and started its attack all over again. Starting in the 1990s, the Panama fungus began to work its way across Asia and Africa once again. The oceans have proven effective barriers for now, “but when someone with the fungus on their shoe can cross an ocean in a few hours,” National Geographic magazine warns“oceans provide little protection.”

The history of the banana has been one of deep politicisation, therefore; implicating it in the unfavourable destinies of multitudes. But the banana, and for that matter oil itself, is merely one among many problematic resources to reap these economic histories and contemporary consequences. Indeed its trysts with dictators, lobbyists and tariffs at the behest of seemingly malevolent multinationals says more about the politicised nature of international trade than the resource in question. Indeed very few resources, if at all, could undergo similar examinations and emerge unscathed to some degree or another.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the Research Director at the University of Johannesburg-Nanjing Tech University Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS). His research interests include international economics, security studies, and International Relations methodology and he has taught and written on Africa-China relations, the politics of the Middle East, soft power, and the war on terror among other topics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in the popular press including Business Day, Mail and Guardian, The Sunday Independent and The Mercury among others. His most recent publication is the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations.

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Economy

Why Wealthy Countries Must Step Up Their Contribution to Fight Global Poverty

Ferid Belhaj

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Member countries of the International Development Association (IDA), a part of the World Bank Group, are meeting shortly to discuss the 19th replenishment of IDA, which will set the agenda for assistance to the poorest developing countries for the three-year period starting in July 2020. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia contributed funds for the 18th replenishment for IDA, which covers the period July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020. It is critical that these countries — and others in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region who could potentially contribute — sustain and increase their presence and participation in this important international forum and support a global public good.

This coming IDA replenishment is an opportunity for MENA countries to make their contribution and presence felt. Starting in 2020, MENA will be the epicentre of several global discussions and events: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hosting the G20 members, Egypt is the chair of the African Union, the first World Expo in the region will be held in Dubai, the 2021 World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings will take place in Marrakech, and the region will see its first soccer World Cup in Doha in 2022. While these events are significant in their own right, a substantially higher financial contribution from MENA countries to IDA will demonstrate the region’s capacity to lead on long-term global challenges such as poverty reduction, inclusive growth, and climate change.

IDA was created in 1960 to provide ‘soft-loans’ — grant funding, concessional loans, debt relief — to the poorest developing countries who could not afford to borrow on the terms that could be offered by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). IDA has become one of the largest sources of assistance for the world’s 77 poorest countries and the foremost instrument to channel multilateral funding where it is needed the most and in the quickest and most efficient way possible. There is no bigger source of donor funds for basic services in these countries.

Since 1960, IDA has provided almost $400 billion for investments in over 100 countries. IDA’s support has paved the way toward equality, economic growth, job creation, higher incomes, and better living conditions. IDA’s work covers primary education, basic health services, clean water and sanitation, agriculture, business climate improvements, infrastructure, and institutional reforms. More recently, IDA has intervened in a big way to bring hope to people affected by conflict and violence, including in the MENA region. Of course, IDA is now prioritizing investments to deal with the worst impacts of climate change.

Since 2000, IDA has provided more than $88 billion in financial assistance to Arab and Muslim countries. In IDA18, more than 50% of the resources were allocated to 28-member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali are among the biggest beneficiaries of IDA. In the MENA region, Djibouti, Syria, and Yemen are IDA beneficiaries.

In Yemen, through its many contributions, IDA has played a critical role to provide relief and mitigate the long-lasting impacts of the country’s tragic conflict. Quite literally, IDA has saved lives! It has helped Yemenis fight diseases and famine. IDA helped train nearly 12,000 health personnel and immunize 6.9 million children (five million of them under 5 years old). Through an emergency program, IDA has helped ensure around 9 million vulnerable Yemenis have access to food and other basic necessities.

In Djibouti, from 2014–18, IDA provided essential services to 1.9 million people. Thousands of pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, and children under age 5 benefited from basic nutrition services. During the same period, over 24,000 women gave birth attended by a qualified health practitioner, up from just 1,000. IDA also helped immunize 78% of children before their first birthday in 2018, up from 33% in 2012.

The conflict in Syria, now into its eighth year, continues to take a heavy toll on the life of Syrian people and on the Syrian economy. The death toll in Syria directly related to the conflict as of early 2016 is estimated to be between 400,000 (UN, Apr 2016) and 470,000 (Syrian Center for Policy Research, Feb 2016), with many more injured, and lives upheaved. The conflict has internally displaced about 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children. Over 5.6 million are officially registered as refugees (UNHCR, 2019). In Lebanon, IDA is helping the country enrol 200,000 Syrian children in public schools. In Jordan, IDA assistance is creating 100,000 jobs for Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees.

Beyond the MENA region, from the conflict ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo to the earthquake affected Pakistan, or from Haiti and Nepal to Tajikistan and Myanmar, IDA is a strong development partner for the poorest countries. Building on its experience of supporting Syrian refugees and host communities, IDA has helped reintegrate displaced people in more than 10 countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Niger, and Pakistan.

International institutions, of which IDA is a recognized leader, remain important for some of the most lagging regions and communities in the world. Independent assessments have documented the tremendous benefits of IDA’s support for the development of poor countries. Many people are unaware that countries such as China, India, and South Korea were beneficiaries of IDA assistance in the past, but now they have become donors giving back to the international community.

Institutions like IDA deserve our utmost support because when misfortune strikes countries, the knowledge and financial resources of institutions such as IDA can save, protect, and nurture lives. These institutions can provide ideas for development strategies and funds for critical infrastructure. To eliminate extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity, institutions like IDA are a valuable ally for governments and citizens.

The World Bank Group is grateful for generous financial contributions to IDA from the international donor community. However, I believe that the more fortunate MENA countries can and must enhance their contribution to IDA. Some countries in the MENA region are among the wealthiest in the world. Their good fortune presents an opportunity for the MENA region to take on a leadership role in this important forum. It is also a wonderful opportunity to help those in need, which is fully in line with the region’s rich history of generosity towards the less fortunate.

IDA has a critical global mission — and its successes to date are only possible because of the generosity of its members. More substantial financial contributions to IDA are good for MENA’s standing in the international community. It is also the right thing to do.

 World Bank

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BRICS countries deem a single crypto currency

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Speaking on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, which took place in Brazil in mid-November, President of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev came up with a proposal to create a common crypto currency for servicing a unified payment system of the member countries. According to RBC, the idea of a unified payment system has already received the backing of the BRICS Business Council. The parties concerned held a heated discussion on the possibility of using a single digital currency for conducting payments.

Virtual currencies or crypto currencies, and the blockchain technology that underlies them have been major trends in the information technology market since the early 2010s. Experts deem the blockchain technology as revolutionary: we are talking about a distributed electronic database (a register, ledger), in which each “cell” contains information about all others. Cryptographic methods are used to ensure the functioning and protection of the “register”. Such characteristics of block chain technology as its distributed decentralized nature and the availability of information about all transactions make it useful in those areas of business where many participants are involved who are not able to verify the credibility of counterparties. Resources transferred via a blockchain cannot be blocked (or arrested), even temporarily, by anyone except their owner. Meanwhile, what remains a major problem of all private and corporate crypto currency projects is their credibility.

If a digital currency is issued by the state or a community of states, then most, if not all, problems private crypto currencies are faced with are solvable. In this case, the advantages of Bitcoin and the underlying block chain technology are preserved, while the risks, such as the anonymity and simplicity of uncontrolled cross-border operations, which evoke the anxiety of authorities around the world, are neutralized. The issue of crypto currency would make it possible for the authorities to assume control of the technology that can otherwise reinforce global speculators, and even, according to critics, undermine the very existence of states in their classical format.

Meanwhile, many capitals have been keeping a close eye on the growing concern of the US authorities over the prospect of a global spread of crypto currencies. Washington’s major fears are that the “foes of America,” be it states or non-state entities, will be able to create a financial network independent of the US dollar. In this case, the United States would lose the most important instrument of  non-military pressure that it uses to influence its opponents.

At present, more than 85 percent of all currency exchange transactions are made in dollars. All Washington has to do to block unwanted financial transactions is just  add suspicious individuals, organizations or states to the “black list” which is sent to all banks in the world. For fear of falling under sanctions or losing the ability to make payments in dollars, the overwhelming majority of financial institutions have until now been following the instructions of the American authorities. In May this year, Republican Brad Sherman submitted a bill which proposes to ban US citizens from buying or selling crypto currency. In July, a number of Congressmen from the Democratic Party drafted a bill that prohibits online platforms and social networks with an annual income of at least $ 25 billion from providing financial services and issuing crypto currencies. According to commentators, the authors of both bills make no secret of the fact that their initiatives are motivated by by geopolitical considerations. For one, Congressman Sherman argued during the hearings: “Crypto currencies must be nipped in the bud also because the lion’s share of our international influence is based on the fact that the dollar is the standard of the international financial system. For oil and other transactions, it is vital that they be cleared by the federal reserve … Crypto currencies undermine our international policy … ”.

According to RT columnist Max Keiser, an ever more number of countries are beginning to understand what influence the United States has on other states only because the dollar is the principal currency for commercial and intergovernmental settlements. In addition to gaining profit from the dominant role of the dollar in international trade, Washington possesses levers of influence that affect the policies of most countries through sanctions or threat of sanctions and are beyond the reach of anyone else. Keiser deems sanctions as an “act of aggression,” because, in his opinion, the dollar has long turned into a weapon. Not surprisingly, countries that value their sovereignty are looking for ways to minimize or completely neutralize America’s ability to exert pressure through denial of dollar transactions. Before the arrival of crypto currencies, gold was a major protective shield. Nowadays, national digital currencies are considered  a new powerful tool, devoid of many shortcomings of gold in terms of everyday use.

Given the circumstances, as reported by one of the most authoritative Russian resources in the field of crypto currencies, DeCenter, all BRICS members are either on the point of issuing digital fiat money, “or are looking into such a possibility.”  The BRICS countries are thereby following the global trend as the prospect of issuing digital currencies by central banks, the Central bank digital currency (CBDC), has been attracting the attention of governments in an increasing number of countries. On November 26, Vice President of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis spoke about plans of the European Union to launch a EU digital currency by the end of 2021. One of the problems that could be solved with the help of such a system, according to ECB Board member Benoit Kere, is putting an end to Europe’s dependence on US-based international payment services, such as MasterCard, Visa, Apple, PayPal and Amazon.

What could serve as an example for the rest of the BRICS members is the position of Beijing, which has changed its attitude to crypto currencies by “180 degrees” over the past few months. According to Leonid Kovachich of the Moscow-based Carnegie Center, “President Xi Jinping refers to blockchain as a breakthrough technology, while major Chinese media outlets are  talking at length  about the benefits of blockchain and urge the community not to miss the historic opportunity to challenge the global hegemony of the dollar.”

This fall, representatives of the People’s Bank of China said they were “considering the possibility of launching a digital yuan at an early date.” President of the Digital Currency Development Center of the Central Bank of China Mu Changchun has identified the basic criteria for issuing the crypto currency of the PRC. “CryptoYuan will not function only on the basis of blockchain, the issue will proceed in two stages: from the Central Bank to commercial banks and then into further circulation.” The digital yuan will replace the M0 aggregate, while the processing capacity of the payment system will be “up to 300 thousand transactions per second”. As an official currency, the digital yuan will be issued on a centralized basis and regulated by the government. The digital yuan is set to incorporate the best characteristics of crypto currencies, including minimum transaction time, “reliability, invariability and irreversibility”, and fiat money – its sovereignty and liquidity guarantees.

The fact that the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance are considering the possibility of introducing crypto currency in Russia was reported by Kommersant back in 2016. In June 2017, Deputy Chairperson of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation Olga Skorobogatova announced prospects for launching a national digital currency. Skorobogatova said Central Bank specialists had started work on a digital ruble project. Similarly to the digital yuan, it is assumed that the issue of the Russian virtual currency will be strictly regulated, its exchange for rubles and other currencies will be possible only on special electronic platforms and the identity of the crypto currency buyer will have to be established. According to DeCentre, the draft law on digital financial assets (DFA) was adopted by the State Duma in the first reading in 2018. However, amendments have been made and continue to be made since then, also regarding the very definition of crypto currency. 

Russian experts view the digital ruble as one of the options to respond to  the intensifying Western sanctions. As Iran’s disconnection from the SWIFT banking system at the request of the United States demonstrated, the creation of an interbank payment system that can replace SWIFT is “of paramount importance for the BRICS countries”. As an instrument for conducting mutual payments in such a system, the central banks could issue a limited volume of digital currency and all transactions in this currency will be registered in a single register and will be verified by agents appointed by the authorities of the BRICS countries. The use of a common crypto currency would make such a payment system universal and would safeguard payments against foreign sanctions.

In this respect, at the initial stage, the BRICS digital currency may not become a  payment instrument in the full sense of the word. A couple of years ago, Russian venture investor Evgeny Gordeev called for launching a government program to attract investments and ensuring the safety of capital at the blockchain level. Technically, such an investment mechanism would enable Russia’s foreign partners interested in investing in Russian assets to avoid the legal consequences of the sanctions that have been imposed on the Russian Federation in recent years. A member of the State Duma’s expert panel, Nikita Kulikov, believes that a common crypto currency that is currently being considered by BRICS experts could become a means of “fixating obligations”, a conversion tool, and an instrument to ensure the “autonomy of interstate remittances”.

Thus, as experts continue to speculate about the extent to which crypto currencies are capable of revolutionizing the entire system of financial relations, the changes that have occurred in the economic and monetary policies of some of the world’s leading states in recent years demonstrate that they are beginning to take crypto currencies more and more seriously regarding them as a useful tool to strengthen their national economic sovereignty.

From our partner International Affairs

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Is Russia Rich or Wealthy?

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Authors: Apurva Sanghi and Glenn-Marie Lange Vedemosti (Russia)

Which would you rather be: rich or wealthy? And what exactly is the difference?

Being rich is related to your regular paycheck: the monthly income you receive from your employer or your business. The fatter the paycheck, the richer you are. Being wealthy, on the other hand, is the value of all your assets: how much you have in savings in your bank account, your house, your car, and so on. The more of these assets you have, the wealthier you are.

Now you can be rich without being wealthy. But that will not be sustainable if you do not keep adding to your stock of assets. So, your economic well-being is a function of both your income and wealth.

What applies to you as an individual applies to a nation as well. Focusing only on national income, i.e. GDP, can be misleading. Wars or disasters increase GDP because reconstruction counts towards GDP, but this is in an accounting sense. Common-sense tell us they do not improve welfare of those affected. Yet policymakers and economists are obsessed with GDP. Perhaps it is because GDP is a relatively easy thing to measure. In our latest semi-annual report, we upgrade Russia’s growth numbers (1.2% for 2019, 1.6% and 1.8% for 2020 and 2021), which no doubt will generate much public attention but as mentioned above, can be misleading. Changes in income need to be complemented with a measure that captures changes in wealth. But how do you measure the wealth of a nation – especially one as large and diverse as Russia?

Our report aims to answer the question: “How wealthy is Russia” by measuring, for the first time, the country’s wealth from 2000–2017.  The analysis comprehensively measures four types of assets:

  • Produced capital: Russia’s buildings, bridges and infrastructure;
  • Human capital: the cumulative experience, knowledge and skills of Russians;
  • Natural capital: the lakes, forests, soil, air, water, oil and gas from which Russians derive a range of services;
  • Foreign capital: the net value of overseas assets owned by Russia.

The good news is that the typical Russian citizen was 1.8 times wealthier in 2017 than in 2000, with accumulated wealth of about 9 million rubles (or approximately US$ 153,000). The bad news is that this is only about a quarter of the wealth of a typical resident in member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Here is another question: which of the above four wealth components do you think comprises the largest share of overall wealth in Russia? It is not foreign capital; Russia simply does not own that many assets overseas. Is it natural capital? After all, Russia is blessed with abundant natural resources appropriately captured by the song in the famous 1936 Soviet film Circus: “Wide is my Motherland, Of her many forests, fields, and rivers!… From Moscow to the borders, From the southern mountains to the northern sea.” Or is it physical capital? From the shiny skyscrapers of Moscow to all the infrastructure spread around the world’s largest country — this surely must add up to a lot?

Well, the answer is neither of the above: rather, it is human capital – the cumulative experience, knowledge and skills of Russians – that comprises almost half of all Russia’s wealth, only then followed by physical capital (about a third), and natural capital (about a fifth). However, in comparison, the wealth composition of OECD countries on average is 70 percent human capital, 28 percent produced capital, 3 percent natural capital, and minus 1 percent net foreign assets (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Human capital comprises the largest share of wealth in Russia, but this is much lower than the OECD average

Here again, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that during 2000–2017, Russia’s per capita human capital grew massively at 80 percent, dwarfing growth in OECD countries and other commodity exporters. The bad news is that average annual growth has slowed from 4.7 percent in the 2000–2010 period to 1.8 percent during 2010–2017. Indeed, at this slower rate of 1.8 percent, it would take Russia almost 100 years to catch up with the OECD average. For Russia to grow wealthier, the policy focus is clear: increase both the returns to and share of human capital wealth.

Increasing returns to human capital, especially in education, ranges from improving the quality of vocational and college education throughout Russia’s regions to improving the 3 Cs of softer skills of Russian students: creativity, collaboration, and communication. One puzzle is why Russia’s human capital proportion of its total wealth (46 percent), is significantly lower than OECD’s (70 percent). After all, Russia’s education performance appears to be even better than the OECD’s in certain areas. For example, the proportion of the labor force with university degrees is higher in Russia than the OECD. And the quality of education as measured by certain global standardized tests is on par with the OECD. One possible explanation is that Russians are simply not earning adequate returns on their education.

Increasing the share of human capital would require a decrease in the share of something else. A good candidate for Russia would be natural capital; specifically, oil and gas related assets, which remain a significant part of Russia’s wealth. Russia’s large share of carbon-based wealth faces increased risk due to future price uncertainty and large-scale attempts at global decarbonization. Additionally, better managing Russia’s forests is an immediate priority and can also enhance Russia’s role as an “ecological donor” to the planet. As a rough estimate, Russia’s forests provide annual absorption of about 640 million tons of CO2 equivalent or around 30,000 billion rubles (over US$ 500 billion) over their lifetime.

After all, nothing lasts forever, so this abundance needs to be sustainably managed if Russia is indeed to be more than just a rich tale. Otherwise pursuing riches without building wealth would be a bit like building mansions on a foundation of sand.

World Bank

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