Saving the world one luxury product at a time

(Not everyone will be able to see this video – will depend where you live, I’m afraid)

I want to help the people of South Sudan. But it looks so very complicated. You know all that business of a new country, a haven for a population that has suffered for years at the hands of Omar al-Bashir. Wasn’t it supposed to be a land of milk and honey on the banks of the White Nile, ending years of hunger and oppression? Weren’t we all hoping for independence as the solution? Why didn’t it work out?

For a while I thought maybe an arms embargo might help. After all, the crisis today seems to be entirely human-made, as two leaders wrestle for control of their new land, spending money they can’t afford.

How is a chap supposed to help? Thankfully it seems I simply have to drink premium coffee. Thank you George Clooney and Nespresso.

Nestle, of course, has a near perfect record in the developing world.

And we all know that coffee is the perfect vehicle for local populations to shrug off whatever colonial bonds might have been holding them back, ahem.

This is how Clooney – noted for his work on Sudan and South Sudan – brought it up a couple of years ago:

“Yesterday we got to drink coffee of South Sudan, and this is the only export to have come out of South Sudan besides oil since the war. The problem with oil being of course that a company takes the oil from beneath the feet of the people living there via a pipeline, back of a truck and a dock in Khartoum. Oftentimes the government gets a small proportion and it doesn’t seem to trickle down.”

Ultimately, of course anything that promotes investment in South Sudan has to be a good thing. But I’ll be very keen to know how much of money is trickling down to South Sudanese farmers. After all, at the equivalent of $51 a pound, Nespresso is some of the most expensive coffee you can buy – produced from a raw material that costs less than $2 a pound.

My fear is that when you have a multimillion dollar deal to advertise a coffee brand, then every problem looks like a coffee bean. Or something.

UPDATE (forgot to mention that I wrote this because video appeared in my inbox on Saturday morning)

Breaking the ice with Osama Bin Laden


So Osama bin Laden’s spin doctor has been sentenced to life in prison. Khalid al-Fawwaz operated from a semi-detached house in Dollis Hill, London, and was well known to journalists. He was completely open as he went about his business until being arrested after al-Qaeda declared itself on the global stage with the East Africa embassy bombings.

One of his jobs was to help foreign correspondents meet Bin Laden in his Afghan lair. John Miller describes his trip to interview the al-Qaeda for ABC with no small amount of humour…

Looking to break the ice, I said to the translator, “Tell Mr. bin Laden that for a guy who comes from a family known for building roads, he could sure use a better driveway up this mountain.” Okay, so admittedly it wasn’t much of a joke, but bin Laden’s interpreter appeared stricken. “No, no, no,” I said, “don’t translate, never mind,” waving off the remark. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to prevent an international incident. Not funny. Sorry. Jesus.

Billionaires and art


NY Times does an interesting bit of number crunching on the sale of Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version O), which fetched $179m – a new world record at auction.

Why are art prices rocketing? It is to do with a limited pool of artefacts, and a growing pool of wealth at the top. For its analysis, the NY Times says why not assume that a buyer might comfortably spend 1% of net worth on a painting, in which case…

After adjusting for inflation and using our 1 percent of net worth premise, a person would have needed $12.3 billion of wealth in 1997 dollars to afford the painting. Look to the Forbes list for that year, and only a dozen families worldwide cleared that bar.

“Mr Ambassador…. I didn’t wake you did I…”

OBL-abbott 018

Osama bin Laden’s bath

This is by far my favourite tale from the OBL raid. It gives the sense of utter shock running through the Pakistani government as it realised what had just happened on its soil…

The American ambassador’s phone rang shortly after 3am.

It was Salman Bashir, the civil servant who heads Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Mr Ambassador, we have reports of a helicopter crashing in Abbottabad. All our helicopters are accounted for.

“Do you know anything about it?”

Cameron Munter, who had already got used to dealing with crises since being sent to Islamabad six months earlier, kept his reply diplomatically short: “We’ll look into it.”

A note of dawning realisation crept into Mr Bashir’s voice. “Mr Ambassador, I didn’t wake you did I?”

The phone conversation – described by an official familiar with the exchange – reveals how Pakistan was kept in the dark even after the raid had ended, and the rapid sense of shock that gripped the country.

I have 100% faith that the conversation unfolded in that way. And once more, it provides a level of detail that Seymour Hersh’s dubious account simply cannot match, offering a clear example of how Pakistan simply had no idea what was happening that night.

I simply don’t want to get into the weeds with Hersh. His claims are deliberately vague. There is no explanation of how a walk-in could ever get close to the US embassy, for example. He has left much of it simply unverifiable.

But the stuff I have – the Alexander Otte testimony, for example – and the above anecdote, are solid. It doesn’t rely on hearsay. I know what I believe.

The Abbottabad papers and Seymour Hersh


Abid Naseer (on right) in surveillance picture

It was moment of high drama in the trial of Abid Naseer, the Pakistani man accused of masterminding a plot to blow up a shopping centre in Manchester. Alexander Otte, an FBI legal attache, was giving evidence for the prosecution. Zainab Ahmad, Assistant US Attorney, wanted to wring maximum dramatic effect

So on February 25, after he described being at the helicopter door as Seal Team 6 disembarked at Jalalabad airfield, and after he recounted the fact they were carrying electronic media – including SD cards, pen drives, hard drives, computers and hand-written documents – it still wasn’t quite enough for Miss Ahmad.

“Did they have a body with them?


“Whose body was it?”

“It was the body of Osama bin Laden.”

He went on to describe how he had documented and packaged all the media for transfer to the US and analysis by forensic computer experts. Mr Otte carried them back on the 17-hour flight to Andrews Air Force Base.

At another point in the trial, we were shown 17 documents – some in Arabic and some in translation – which we were told came from Osama bin Laden’s compound. They were part of several terabytes of data collected, just a small fraction of which had been declassified for the trial.

But if Seymour Hersh is to be believed, we have all been duped. The papers were forged and fabricated as part of a US cover story, to suggest that bin Laden retained influence right up until his death – when in fact he was a prisoner of Pakistan’s ISI.

‘Why create the treasure trove story?’ the retired official said. ‘The White House had to give the impression that bin Laden was still operationally important. Otherwise, why kill him? A cover story was created – that there was a network of couriers coming and going with memory sticks and instructions. All to show that bin Laden remained important.’

It is one of many details in the Hersh’s incredible account that simply doesn’t add up.

Conspiracy theories are tedious. I’m sure many people will want to point out that by forging these documents, the US was able to lock up Abid Naseer – double bonus.

But they didn’t sit in court and watch Mr Otte describe the computer gear arriving off the helicopter alongside Bin Laden’s body. I did and I believe him.

Here’s what I wrote about Seymour Hersh’s single source yesterday.

I read Seymour Hersh’s OBL theory so you don’t have to

Tiles and bricks from Osama bin Laden's

Tiles and bricks from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideaway

Seymour Hersh has an incredible story in the London Review of Books that purports to reveal the truth about Osama bin Laden’s life and death in Abbottabad. The crucial details are contained in a single paragraph:

This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.

What follows is a masterclass in pieces of this type. It starts with an unusual tale and a difficult-to-answer question: How on earth was it that bin Laden was able to live right under the noses of the Pakistani military establishment, hiding in plain sight? From there it weaves conspiracy theory, anonymous quotes and just enough truth to concoct an utterly plausible story – but one utterly devoid of facts.

The main source is anonymous. He is described as a “retired senior intelligence official”, which could mean pretty much anything.  And most damning of all, he is described as “knowledgeable” about the early intelligence to find and kill bin Laden – which again, when you stop to actually weigh the words, means absolutely zilch. (Interestingly, he also turns out to be an authority on Saudi-Pak relations, the Pakistani military, the US aid programme, Barack Obama’s media briefing strategy, Jimmy Carter and a whole bunch of other things on which he is quoted at length.)

So what are we left with? The only corroboration offered in the story comes from other unnamed officials – and even then only tangential stuff that doesn’t support the thesis – and a retired ISI officer. None offers any verifiable facts. Just vague suggestions that the new account sounds about right, or that the ISI was accused by US officials of working with AQ or the Taliban (hardly surprising).

And there are details that Hersh gets wrong along the way. The US did not say there was a network of couriers keeping bin Laden in touch with AQ – just two brothers – for example.

But for the soft minded it will all ring true.

Which is exactly what conspiracy theories set out to do: Take something odd and weave a plausible explanation. And just because it is plausible doesn’t make it true.

Reconstruction in Afghanistan

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has done a good job of uncovering corruption in US spending. And his speech to Cornell University on Tuesday also does a solid job of cutting through the bluster of US press releases and claims made for more than $100 billion in aid spent in Afghanistan. It also raises broader points that should be of concern to anyone working in development.

SIGAR has seen too many reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan that entail dubious, unverifiable, misleadingly precise, or irrelevant data and metrics. Placing more credence and confidence in them than they deserve, or misreading their implications, creates an enormous risk of wasted work and money, and of failure to achieve our reconstruction objectives.

The late guru of total-quality management, Doctor W. Edwards Deming, warned about this tendency. He was writing about “deadly diseases [that] afflict most companies in the Western world,” but the applicability is broader. One of the top five deadly diseases, Deming said, is “running a company on visible figures alone (counting the money). . . . the most important figures one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.”9 His point was that some empirical measures may mislead, and some vital elements of success, like leadership, morale, and pride, may be difficult or impossible to measure.

Three dubious claims are then put under the microscope.

  • life expectancy (at birth) has increased from 42 to 62 – there’s probably not enough data to know
  • the country has 8.35 million students – but what about fake schools and the fact that children are only removed from roll after three years absent?
  • Afghan national security forces number 328,805 personnel – in one spot check 23% of individuals could not be verified by official ID info

In short, in raises questions that all development agencies struggle with – notably the relationships between inputs and outputs.

The full speech is here