The Beauty of Blogging

debate clip artOne of the best things about blogging is that you get to interact with your readers, unlike most other forms of writing. A good friend, and one of my favorite Devil’s Advocates, had some great perspectives on my last post about the Land Grab in South Sudan, and I thought it was worth sharing our conversation here since many people don’t make it to the comments section.

I love being around people who don’t agree with me. I think it is dangerous to always be surrounded by like-minded people that never force you to stretch your view of the world. Mike is one of those friends that I love hanging out with because he makes me think.

If there are others of you out there who ever disagree with what I write, don’t hold back – I love it! And feel free to dive in on this conversation, too (especially if you disagree with Mike ;-)).

Here it is:

Mike Bradysays:

Therefore what? Emailing the investment fund or Nile Trading will accomplish pretty much nothing.

Since the article doesn’t mention anything about payoffs to officials (in defiance of US laws), we can’t project that the US firms did anything illegal. If there is proof or even allegations to the contrary, I can’t find anything.

Therefore, I’m left with the thought that the outrage should be the bad deals the South Sudanese government officials entered into. Whether the company is in Texas or not is irrelevant.

If I’m a gov’t official and I took a bribe, that’s bad and the company (US or otherwise) is wrong to pay. But, assuming that’s not the case, then I as a gov’t official want the maximum amount because why wouldn’t I? It’s not in my interest to take anything less (assuming no bribe and they never mention one) unless I just want to unload it and go home early. Therefore, I put the land out to bid on the open market for firms or governments from many countries to compete for.

Let’s say everyone emails Nile and the investment company and are successful in restricting their and any other evil US corporation from buying land rights in South Sudan. Does that mean the selling stops? Of course not, it just means the Chinese (or other large buying interest in Africa) get it and at probably a lower price because there are less potential buyers at the auction. By removing the US buyers without putting the pressure where it appropriately should be placed (South Sudanese officials), how did this change anything?

MB

  • Mark D. Jordahl says:

    I think “illegal” is murky in this case given the instability in southern Sudan when these deals were brokered, and I agree that probably none of these firms are doing anything technically illegal. I just think “legal” is a low bar in situations like this. Unethical is more the issue, and since money has no ethics, the only way to get many corporations to act in an ethical way is to make sure that the public is watching what they are doing. Many legal things are still wrong.

    It isn’t the government officials selling the land, so saying they “want the maximum amount” doesn’t really apply here, unless they are accepting bribes (which you know as well as I do that they probably are, even though there is no “proof” or mention of it in the articles). In the case of NTD, it is the Cooperative selling the lease and, if they don’t actually exist in the form they say they do, it is the Cooperative, not the US company, breaking the law. If this is the case, do you honestly believe that NTD doesn’t know about it? Also, if it is true that 26 out of 28 land deals did not do a consultation with the local people, that does seem like the law is, at least, being skirted.

    You are very right to mention China, and that is a big issue globally, not just in Sudan. How do we hold our corporations or our government to a higher standard when China is happy to step in wherever we step out? If our government tells Uganda, for instance, that we will only give aid dollars if they improve their human rights, of course they will just look to China for investment dollars instead since they don’t care. How do we deal with this?

    And do we drop our own standards to make sure we are on par with China just to keep them out? If our corporations knowingly enter into deals with warlords, are we a “better” option? Maybe it’s better to have China in there, since they are more up-front about their motives and aren’t quite as sneaky in their dealings. It might be easier to monitor.

    And you are right that it would be good to put pressure on (or give support to) the South Sudan government to think about their long-term interests in land deals and tighten their laws, but I honestly don’t know how to do that.

    You are also right that the issue is the deals more than the fact that the deals are with American corporations. However, I am here in the U.S., as are most of the people reading this, and I think it is often difficult for people to see why they should care about Africa since it is so far away and we don’t realize how much involvement our country actually has there on many levels. Norway sounded the trumpet on this, and I hope there are people in other countries that are buying up land there who are also shining a spotlight on it.

    Thanks, as always, for thinking deeply about these issues!

    • Mike Brady says:

      Interesting points as usual.

      I guess my ultimate point is that there are unintended consequences of barring or shaming NTD to the exclusion of South Sudanese pressure to change the system (not just 1 player).

      You bring up an interesting question, which would make a good expanded blog post, which is “enter into deals with warlords, are we a “better” option?”. My answer is yes. While I emphatically disagree with your assertion that China is more transparent than the US and our multi-national corporations (another good blog topic), the fact remains that you have to have a seat at the table in order to have any influence at all.

      For now, let’s assume there are warlords and someone is going to do business with them. If you say “no one should”, then you’re being unrealistic as it’s the same as saying “no one should visit prostitutes, buy illegal drugs, or make war”. So, assuming at least 1 party in the world is going to deal with them, I have to rank who I trust more and who I, as an American, will be able to influence the most to change the interaction between the 2 parties.
      1.China
      2. South America
      3. Europe
      4. Japan
      5 US
      Your rankings might be different than mine, and that’s fine, but as an American citizen my levers of change are much higher (even if it’s still low) on the US than on the first 4. Even if my trust in the ethical dealings is near zero in the US, it’s still frankly higher than my other choices. If you believe Europe is higher in ethical standards and transparency (gov’t and private), I’ll share with you sometime my European business experience in 2004/2005–it was not pretty and not the “Europe is wonderful” marketing campaign. Beautiful to visit, I want to retire there probably, but I trust their gov’t and private less than the US. But, I’m off on a tangent.

      Your other questions about how to effectuate systematic change, etc. are good ones. That, in my humble opinion, is where the discussion should be and the article should have highlighted.

      That’s it for now. As usual, thought provoking.

      MB

      • Mark D. Jordahl says:

        But what’s the point of having a lever if you choose not to use it? You say that your ability to effect change is greater in the US, but you say not to bother trying to influence a US corporation and instead to focus on trying to influence the South Sudan government. I think we should pull as many levers as possible, and one of the main things that has changed corporate actions in the past is public pressure (think the Nike sweatshop campaign).

        As far as “being at the table,” you might notice that in no place did I say that NTD or Jarch should get out of Sudan. I said that NTD should be encouraged to be fair to the people of Sudan in their dealings there, and that Jarch should work through the legitimate government of South Sudan now that there is one.

        And I have to say that while I agree that if one person refuses to work with a warlord another will likely move in, I don’t agree that that justifies doing business with (and therefore funding) warlords. Southern Sudanese have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of warlords, and I wouldn’t want my money to be supporting those activities, even if the end result is that they get the money from somewhere else. There are certain things in this world that I just don’t want to be a part of, and saying that “if I don’t do it someone else will” just isn’t a good enough excuse for me.

        I don’t think China is more transparent overall, just that their motives are on the table more than ours.

        And regarding where the conversation should be focused, systemic change certainly needs to be part of it. However, awareness is the first step, and I see my job as awareness and opinion more than answers since most of these things are way over my head.

        This is fun – we should figure out a joint blog post to write sometime!

        • Mike Brady says:

          Yes legitimate gov’t versus warlords, if possible. Regarding your money with warlords instead of someone else’s? I probably don’t agree,but I’d have to think about it a little more. My first inclination is that you feel better (your money not involved) but the overall goal of effecting change is hurt because you’re not there to effect change from within or with engagement. This boils down to a belief I have that change for system is best accomplished by those involved in it (like from within a corporation, NGO, gov’t, etc.) not from without or detached engagement. But I have to admit I’d have to noodle that a little more.

          MB

        • Mark D. Jordahl says:

          Ahhh…I think I see where our basic assumptions differ. If I am reading you correctly, you seem to be coming from the assumption that companies at the table will WANT to affect positive change, and therefore it is beneficial to have them at the table. I’m not sure I accept that. I come from the assumption that without outside public or legal pressure, most companies will want to set up the deals that will make them the most money.

          So yes, I agree that change from within is better, as long as there is some motivation for positive change.

Mike Brady says:

I appreciate you clarifying. Close, but not exact, but since our conversation morphed in many directions, it’s my fault as my points were getting swallowed up but sub-points.

It’s a hierarchy of choices.

If the choice is between
1. Irritation and pressure on a US company vs. Sudanese cooperative, I choose the latter (although the first might make you feel better which I’m not interested in)
2. Having a US Company deal with Sudan vs. a non-US company, I choose the first, although not having the US Company deal at all might make someone feel morally superior, I think the unintended consequences are greater and I’m not interested in how someone feels. It’s not about you it’s about the ultimate action you want and the world is a dirty place

I think you’re just more negative on companies than I am. For every example of a misdeed in a private company filled with imperfect people, I can give an example of a misdeed of a government entity filled with equally imperfect people. But, that is definitely another conversation.

MB

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About Mark D. Jordahl

Mark Jordahl is a writer, trip leader and naturalist who has lived much of the last 7 years in Uganda and currently calls Colorado home.
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