Long Tail Sports

February 19, 2012

Neymar-mania vs. Lin-sanity?

Lin-sanity notwithstanding, this is a time of year when I always find myself wanting more as a sports fan in America. The memories of the Super Bowl and BCS Championship game have already started to fade; March madness remains a long way off; pitchers and catchers have yet to report for Spring Training; and both the NBA and NHL have just passed the midpoint of their respective regular seasons. Add that it’s the middle of Winter (even an historically mild one), and these factors combine to make mid February a less than thrilling few weeks.

Lately, I’ve partially solved my urge for non-stop sports entertainment by turning to leagues that have much less popularity and almost no visibility in mainstream U.S. media coverage.

First, during a brief trip to Brazil for a conference, I enjoyed watching some early round action in the Paulistão, or the elite soccer league of São Paulo state. With historically dominant teams like Corinthians, Santos, and Palmeiras, São Paulo boasts one of the most competitive state-level championships within Brazil and usually includes several young players who will become international superstars with household names within a few years (e.g. if you haven’t heard of Neymar yet, just be patient, the teenage phenom will likely figure prominently in the Brazilian national team’s efforts when the country hosts the World Cup in 2014).

Then, the week after I returned from Brazil, I spent a few afternoons watching the final games of the Serie del Caribe, an international tournament that wraps up the Winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The games were tight, competitive and included a number of Major League players who seemed either to have chosen to return home as triumphant stars or to hone their skills among Latin America’s most competitive leagues.

Despite the fact that you’ll never see your local ESPN network cover either of these events, both have a ton of history behind them and tremendous fan-bases (ESPN’s Brazilian and regional Latin American affiliates cover both). They are also extraordinarily competitive and played at a very high skill level.

Latin American soccer and baseball are not the only options. There are also a whole range of winter sports that never show up on U.S. television schedules until the Olympics. In other words, the only thing preventing you from watching terrific, exciting sporting events in the middle of the annual mid-Winter lull is the fact that you would probably either need to pay an inordinate sum for satellite coverage or seek out unauthorized streams on websites that serve sketchy advertisements and mal-ware along with the game.

At the risk of making a very Ethan Zuckerman-esque point, the Internet makes it theoretically trivial to solve this problem, but that theoretical triviality only underscores a much bigger problem in the way our attention is distributed and canalized by a combination of cultural habits and incumbent media networks. In other words, maybe you’d be more likely to watch Neymar and Santos take on Palmeiras if either your local television network would it or if you could easily find a high quality stream broadcasting in English (I also enjoy watching these things online because I get to listen to Portuguese and Spanish language announcers). Indeed, as long as somebody is streaming a broadcast of any of these games anywhere around the world, there’s no practical reason that it isn’t possible to watch that stream anywhere else. But for a whole variety of reasons that I don’t fully understand, that just doesn’t happen yet.

My point is that American sports fans live in a media ecosystem that has not yet figured out what to do with its (long) tail. There has to be a better, less monopolistic solution than satellite and cable providers charging high rates for access to particular sports packages or leagues. This model ensures that only existing fans who are willing to pay to watch teams they already like will ever subscribe to such services, condemning these sports and teams to continued obscurity. Instead, it would be great to see some affordable way for fans to take advantage of existing Internet streams to experiment with new sports, new leagues, and new cultures by tuning into otherwise less popular or less well-known events when their hometown favorites are not in season.

Development Industry Fail

April 14, 2009

USA Today has a really frustrating story about the UN’s abusive misuse of USAID funds for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Basically, if you can think up a malicious way to screw up a development project, the UN probably did it. They built bridges that weren’t stable; “fixed” banks to make their basements leaky; and even siphoned funds into off-shore accounts.

USA Today includes a handy PDF of the USAID report.

For anyone who’s read James Ferguson’s classic The Anti-Politics Machine, this may all sound eerily familiar. Ferguson is a Cultural Anthropologist who teaches at Stanford. While the book is pretty heavy in the social theory department (if you don’t like Foucault, don’t even go there…), it chronicles how systematic failures occur as a consistent by-product of global governance and development organization interventions in the Global South.

This particular catastrophe is a totally different kind of failure than Ferguson talks about, but I think there’s a fantastic study to be done looking at how graft has become a systematic by-product of US interventions in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We’ve gotten accustomed to passing off this kind of thing as a symptom or consequence of the Bush administration, but the problem with that explanation is that the phenomenon has replicated across such different bureaucracies and contexts. This is not just a few bad apples, it’s a series of institutions that unintentionally -  but consistently – create opportunities for abuse.

Tony Curzon Price has a thoughtful piece at Open Democracy in which he examines what he calls The G20′s sins of commission.

I’m interested in a whole bunch of angles that Price explores, but the money shot for all you global governance and development geeks out there is a graph Curzon Price recycles from Paul Swartz at Council on Foreign Affairs Geo-Graphics blog:

Curzon Price goes on to use the graph to make an interesting (and important) claim about the implications of China’s newfound romance with the IFI’s and global regulation.

I, on the other hand, thought it would be kind of fun to play with the graph to try to get a better sense of what may have driven these changes in the IMF’s role over time. Since Swartz doesn’t share the data or source for his graphic, I’m reduced to hacking around with the .jpg in the GIMP (which made for a really fun distraction during a meeting the other day). Apologies for the resulting visual clutter, but here’s the same graph with some new knobs and bits. The bigger dots correspond to the events that accompanied the biggest shifts:

My jumbled, colorful dots represent a few of the most relevant political and economic events of the past thirty years. What’s interesting to note is which ones seem to correlate with changes in the IMF’s role as the “lender of last resort” for the Global South. Here’s the key to the dots:

  1. Margaret Thatcher elected: May 1979
  2. Black Monday: Dec 1987
  3. Berlin Wall taken down: November, 1989
  4. Soviet Union Collapses: December 8, 1991
  5. Mexican Peso crisis: Dec 1994
  6. Asian Financial crisis: July 1997
  7. Brazil devalues the Real: Jan 1999
  8. Dot-com bubble bursts: March 10, 2000
  9. September 11, 2001
  10. Argentine debt default: Dec 2001
  11. US invades Iraq: March 20, 2003
  12. Brazil and Argentina pay off IMF debts: Dec. 2005
  13. Global Recession: October 2008

Some of the things I thought might correlate with sudden changes in the global weight of IMF lending – such as Black Monday (2); the Dot-com bubble burst (8); Argentina and Brazil paying off their debts (12) – didn’t seem to matter at all.

Others – such as Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s) election (1); the Mexican Peso crisis (5); and the 1-2 combo of the Asian (6) and Brazilian (7) financial crises – appear magnified when seen through this lens.

Most intriguing to me is the long steep slide that occurs following September 11, 2001 (9). My inclination is to explain that as the result of a perfect storm that combined the eroding credibility of the IMF (Joe Stiglitz, eat your heart out!) and a real estate derivative and petro-dollar fueled explosion of private lending world-wide. No matter how you slice it, though, there’s no denying that the world financial system has gone through some exceptionally dramatic changes in the last ten years.

Other than that, I don’t have a flashy Theory of Everything to explain all the data here. Heck, as I said, I don’t even have the data. Nevertheless, it’s fun to speculate.

Following up on my earlier post in response to this Guardian story that offered an un-attributed claim that Brazil was appealing to the IMF for loans, it now looks like the Guardian wasn’t so much wrong as just a little inaccurate fuzzy on the details. Whereas the original Guardian story had spun the situation as though the wealthy nations of the Global South had come to D.C. with hat in hand, it looks like a totally different situation is in fact unfolding. The new liquidity fund is meant to offer stable “A-list” economies of the South the chance to strengthen their currency reserves in the event that foreign investment flows continue to run dry. According to the WSJ:

The IMF’s new program, called the Short Term Liquidity Facility, would be used largely to pad a country’s reserves, which could help the recipient defend its currency. But the funds could also be used to help recapitalize banks or cover import bills.

The IMF plan is its clearest recognition that its insistence on tough conditions is driving away potential borrowers that might need its help. But the new plan also puts the IMF in the position of deciding who can have money with few strings attached, and who can’t.

The attempt to draw a bright clear line between “responsible” and “irresponsible” borrowers is certainly new. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

Back to Brazil, though.

Reuters (via the Economic Times of India) actually found someone in Brasilia to do some reporting and added the following:

Brazil welcomes a new liquidity fund proposed by the International Monetary Fund to help emerging markets but does not see a need to draw on the funds for now, a source close to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Wednesday.

“I don’t know if we will draw (on the fund) in the future. But we don’t need the money now,” the source said on condition of anonymity. The IMF board is considering a proposal for the Fund on Wednesday and an announcement is expected later in the day.

The Folha de São Paulo added even more critical details in its coverage, also noting that the IMF actions came in conjunction with an announcement that the US Federal Reserve will begin offering Brazil currency swaps at no cost in an effort to help the Lula government pump liquidity into the national economy:

The Central Bank [of Brazil] noted that, “these central banks of emerging economies with responsible fiscal policies and systemic importance,” will now be included in the global network of currency swaps.

The central banks of Australia, Canada, the Euro Zone, Denmark, the U.K., Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S. Federal Reserve are currently part of that network. (my translation).

The Folha’s account was reiterated by Bloomberg as well, although the New York-based financial news agency did see fit to print at least one offensive, infantilizing quote that portrayed the poor countries of the world as naughty elementary school students:

“The Fed is there to support large emerging markets that have done their homework over the past several years like South Korea, Brazil, Singapore and Mexico,” said Alonso Cervera, a Latin America economist with Credit Suisse Group in New York.

If the central bankers of the world just needed to do their homework in order to build stable economic systems, I’d like to think that Alan Greenspan wouldn’t have had such a hard time.

Anyhow, if I understand this correctly, the actions taken by the IMF and the Fed signal an effort to treat these four middle income countries with an unprecedented level of parity in response to a crisis that has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The implications for the post-election day Global Financial Summit are intriguing: will the members of the G22 now have a more substantive place at the bargaining table with an embattled Europe and U.S.? If so, will the Southern super-powers use their authority to defend the interests of their less well-off neighbors or will they merely seek a bigger slice of the pie?

Reinventing the IMF?

October 26, 2008

With the continued decline of financial markets and the threat of radical destablization throughout the Global South, I suspect that a consensus view that the IMF must step in to ensure the solvency of developing countries is already spreading quickly among the punditocracy and major news outlets.

The IMF (photo by Kyrion cc-by-nc-nd)

The IMF (photo by Kyrion cc-by-nc-nd)

Given the weakened condition of wealthy states and corporations, the IMF will play a major role in any sort of multilateral bailout. Indeed the crisis presents an opportunity for the Fund to resurrect itself after a number of very, very bad decisions made in the Neoliberal 1980′s and 90′s finally came home to roost, bringing shame upon the organization and its ideas.

The question is what kind of an IMF will we get this time around? The critical work of Joseph Stiglitz, Ngaire Woods, and others has provided ample evidence that the Fund’s proclivities for anti-poor policies were not an accident, but a systematic result of the organization’s structure and culture.

Since 2002 (when such positions first gained widespread traction), there has been much talk of reform – a trend which will no doubt continue well past November’s Global Financial Summit – but precious little action.

The U.S. and Europe still retain a ridiculous share of the voting power within the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, virtually guaranteeing that they will strong arm through whatever solutions they deem fit. While Ambassadors, Trade Representatives, and their ilk may talk a good game about promoting equality through increased multilateral liberalization, the bottom line is that truly equitable trade will not come about without a substantial sacrifice by the traditional “Great Powers” of the West. The recent trend of the U.S. and E.U. pursuing absurd schemes to evade accountability and transparency by undermining global forums also belies any rhetoric of good will.

Does the IMF have what it takes to bring about a true shift in the underlying structures of the global financial system? I doubt it, but it will be revealing to see just how hard Dominique Strauss-Khan (if he holds onto his job now that he has officially held onto his job despite a sex scandal) and his colleagues will try.

The Mt. Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, NH, site of the creation of the current global economic governance arrangement (photo by robdebsgreen cc-by-nc-nd)

The Mt. Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, NH, site of the creation of the current global economic governance arrangement (photo by robdebsgreen cc-by-nc-nd)

We have now seen first full week of trading since last weekend’s Euro-American attempt to stop the bleeding in the world’s financial markets. From any perspective, the results have been sobering.

Among the economic punditosphere, some consensus seems to be emerging (sweetheart bailouts = bad); however economists of various ideological stripes still offer competing explanations of the causes and effects of the crisis (for examples, see Tyler Cowen #1 and #2, Daniel Davies, and Arnold King), as well as a whole range of propositions about how to fix it.

Meanwhile, Mssrs. Bush and Sarkozy have announced plans to initiate a sort of Bretton Woods Redux at Camp David after the U.S. elections.

Taken together, these signs suggest that the captains of the global political economy may attempt to plot a bold new course in the coming months. Nevertheless, I remain suspicious that we’re really witnessing little more than a noisy shuffling of deck-chairs on a badly listing ship.

Certainly, the deluge of analogies linking the present era to the time when the Bretton Woods Conference was held are incomplete at best. The original conference did not happen at the first signs of global financial collapse (circa 1930-something), but rather in the midst of the resulting violence and global destruction of World War II (1944).

That era was one in which the U.S. and U.K. could quasi-legitimately claim to represent the core of the global financial system. The result was a naked demonstration of military and economic power thinly disguised as diplomacy. Richard Peet describes in his (richly detailed, but theoretically unsatisfying) book, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO how the outcomes of the New Hampshire meetings reflected their origins in back-room deals between U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White and his counterparts working under Lord John Maynard Keynes. It was no coincidence that the resulting institutional arrangements so blatantly favored European and American interests. The event had been carefully engineered to ensure such an outcome.

What will the upcoming round of global economic talks look like? In a somewhat non-analytical, but nonetheless provocative piece published yesterday morning, DailyKos editor Devilstower gets to the heart of the matter. Here are three key quotes (emphasis added):

“While we are fretting about our plans to restore the broken economy, there’s one point that isn’t making the debates, and only rarely making the news. In many ways, we will no longer be the masters of our own economic ship. The factors that will most affect us in the future may no longer be under our control, or in the hands of those inclined to place our needs very high on their list of concerns.”

“After sixty years of Bretton Woods, the world is looking for a less dollar-centric alternative to our current fiscal system. And they’re not begging for our permission.”

“As the world meets in global summit to “rebuild capitalism,” the United States may host the event, but don’t expect the rest of the world to turn to America for ideas. Instead, they will try and sort out if we are AIG — salvageable, and possibly too large to fail — or Lehman Brothers — a former titan allowed to crash on the rocks.”

I agree with this assessment, although Devilstower’s claim that Europe will play a bigger role this time around ignores a more profound shift in the balance of global economic power. Given their current over-leveraged positions, the U.S. and the E.U. will be forced to cede some authority to the big players and creditors of the Global South (China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. etc.). Thus, the analogy between the U.S. and AIG or Lehman is appropriate, but mis-specified: it will not be Europe that decides whether or not to make the call on this nation’s accumulated fiscal warrants.

My intuition is that these summits will look a lot more like the recently collapsed Doha round of negotiations at the WTO. In the foreground, the U.S. and European leaders will carry on a great shadow-play of magnanimity and cooperation. The opening gambit has already been made in the World Bank, where the U.S. has recently surrendered its long-cherished “right” to appoint the organization’s President.

At the bargaining table, however, these same U.S. and E.U. negotiators will flatly refuse to accept the fact that they are no longer the masters of the universe. Instead, they will bully, threaten, and backstab their way to a total impasse – or at best a watered-down statement of “principles” with no real institutional teeth to back it up (sound familiar?). This has been the pattern for a few years now, and I would be pleasantly surprised if it were to suddenly disappear when big issues made their way onto the table.

Wow.

The Guardian has the story.

This may be too little too late to mean anything in the context of the current financial crisis, but it is a very important step that was long overdue.

h/t Bretton Woods Project

the markets response to the G7 and G20 meetings.... (photo by JB, cc-by)

the markets' likely response to the G7 and G20 meetings.... (photo by JB, cc-by)

The inability of the G7 and the G20 to offer anything beyond a meek, palliative response to the Global Financial Crisis this weekend reflects the sorry state of political globalism.

The Washington Post hit the nail on the head with its frontpage headline yesterday: “World Leaders Offer Unity But No Steps to Ease Crisis.” The story details how efforts to utilize the G7 and G20 framework to develop a coordinated policy solution to the crisis have, not surprisingly, failed:

The challenge of developing a coordinated approach is made all the more difficult because diplomats lack a viable forum in which to hold talks, analysts say. Calls are rising to disband, or expand, the G-7, created at a time when the United States, Europe and Japan monopolized economic power and when countries such as China were not as relevant economically as they are today. The broader group meeting this weekend, known as the Group of 20, also includes Brazil, Mexico and other emerging economies. But its authority and the scope of its mission are limited.

Yesterday, Guido Mantega, Brazil’s finance minister and chairman of the G-20, said it was time for the organization to be rethought, calling it ill-suited to respond to a crisis. The group meets infrequently, mainly to talk about broad, long-term matters.

“The G-20 was not created to deal with this sort of situation,” Mantega said. “Its makeup does not really allow it to act in a decisive fashion. There is no real structure to deal with an emerging economic problem. We have to turn the G-20 into a tool of some kind that can provide action better.”

In theory, the IMF was designed with precisely this kind of crisis in mind; however the Fund has been shunted aside during the past 5 years, a victim of its own radical free marketeering in the 1990′s and the power politics that made it a woefully undemocratic institution in the first place. The WP piece continues:

The International Monetary Fund, an institution long charged with global economic stability, has meanwhile been relegated to the sidelines. Although it played the leading role in emerging market crises in 1990s, which spread through Latin America and Asia, the current worldwide crisis dwarfs the fund’s ability to manage it.

The IMF has instead been largely left to offer gentle advice to U.S. and European officials, while entering talks on possible assistance to deeply troubled Iceland and preparing to contain the crisis at the margins as it spreads to the developing world.

Lacking the political authority to lead the G7 and moral authorirty to exert influence over the rest of the G20, the IMF can do little to affect policy outcomes where they are needed most.

By the end of today, it will become clear whether investors find solace in the world’s political leaders’ weekend promises. In the meantime, I am inclined to join the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens in wondering about the geo-political implications of the crisis. Looking back to the Asian financial crisis in order to understand the roots of the current situation, Stephens argues that Europe and the United States must face facts:

A decade ago, after the crisis of 1997-98 wrought devastation on some of its most vibrant economies, Asia said never again. There would be no more going cap in hand when the going got rough. To avoid the IMF’s ruinous rules, governments would build their own defences against adversity by accumulating reserves of foreign currency.

Those reserves – more than $4,000bn-worth at the present count – financed credit in the US and Europe. There were other sources of liquidity, of course, notably the Fed and the reserves accumulated by energy producers. It also took financial chicanery to turn reckless mortgage lending in to triple A rated securities. But as a Chinese official told my FT colleague David Pilling the other day: “America drowned itself in Asian liquidity.”

Owning up to the geopolitical implications will be as painful for the rich nations as paying the domestic price for the profligacy. The erosion of the west’s moral authority that began with the Iraq war has been greatly accelerated. The west’s debtors cannot any longer expect their creditors to listen to their lectures. Here lies the broader lesson. The shift eastwards in global economic power has become a commonplace of political discourse. Almost everyone in the west now speaks with awe of the pace of China’s rise, of India’s emergence as a geopolitical player, of the growing roles in international relations of Brazil and South Africa.

Yet the rich nations have yet to face up properly to the implications. They can imagine sharing power, but they assume the bargain will be struck on their terms: that the emerging nations will be absorbed – at a pace, mind you, of the west’s choosing – into familiar international forums and institutions.

From the look of things this weekend, these familiar international forums and institutions are simply not up to the job. It is unclear as to whether or not enhanced regulation from a global institution would help resolve this situation or not, but the point is that this was an exceptional opportunity to advance the project of global integration – an effective means of enhancing global equality and acountability. That opportunity is rapidly slipping away.

This is a shameless cross-posting of my contribution to the Berkman Center’s Publius Project. In the essay, I respond to a piece published by Ken Banks last week (“One Missed Call,” see link below). If you have time, I highly recommend reading Ken’s piece first. I also recommend checking out the other excellent contributions to the project, which enjoys the expert guidance of Caroline Nolan at Berkman (thanks, Caroline!).

Ken Banks’ provocative contribution to the Publius Project, “One Missed Call” boldly urges the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community to look beyond bureaucracy-heavy, top-down solutions to global poverty and inequality. In a similar spirit, my response to Ken’s piece will take the form of a question, critique, and complementary challenge to the ICT4D community that runs somewhat afoul of the Easterly-Schumacher-inspired vision he offered.

Ken echoes William Easterly’s disdain for bureaucratic, large-scale approaches to global poverty, calling instead for the adoption of small techno-centric solutions based on principles of Human-Driven Design and deployment by “grassroots” NGO’s. Like Easterly, he encourages us to bet on the ingenuity of small-time entrepreneurs to break the world’s persistent cycles of poverty. If we identify these entrepreneurs, the theory goes, we can eliminate poverty without the immense waste and inefficiency that plague so-called “Big-D” development projects.

While both Easterly and Banks present compelling, attractive claims, they leave a key question unanswered: how can ICT4D advocates effectively confront the systemic and structural aspects of poverty or inequality within this framework?

Easterly’s argument takes for granted that well-positioned innovators can overcome institutional constraints at the regional, national and global levels. Indeed, his arguments in The White Man’s Burden closely resemble the work of free-market ideologues Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek insofar as he objects to all forms of developmental “planning” as fundamentally misguided. Empirical research in Development Studies contradicts this position, suggesting that the ability of grassroots NGO’s and others to deploy technological solutions effectively is overdetermined by the institutional environment within which they act (for a recent example, see Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans – The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism). Of course, to adapt Margaret Mead’s much abused phrase, I do not doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. And yet, such changes are bound to be fleeting in the absence of broader interventions.

The problem, as I see it, stems from the fact that Easterly’s proposition is free-market economics with a friendly face – compassionate conservatism in the truest sense of the phrase. Embracing Easterly’s vision entails a radical denial that broad political, economic, and cultural structures determine developmental outcomes in any way. The history of global development since World War II offers numerous grounds on which to reject this claim. First of all, the emergence of the United States as a superpower influenced the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the primary institutional frameworks within which development projects took place (until recently). Secondly, the concomitant dissemination of U.S. culture, values, and products has also shaped the ideals and aspirations through which people across the world understand what it means to be “developed.”

As a result, we cannot talk about “development” without referring to the broad political, economic and cultural currents that defined the late 20th century and the processes of globalization. All contemporary development projects operate in the institutional space defined by this history – and in many cases it is the space itself, rather than the any individual bureaucracy or top-down vision of change that determines what is and what is not possible for the poor and middle income populations of the Global South.

Contemporary global development paradigms (ICT4D among them) bear the traits of organizational and philosophical predecessors. The Millenium Development Goals represent a continuation of the Big-D development schemes of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where gigantic multilateral institutions like the United Nations dictated the terms on which the world’s poor would modernize. Similarly, the small-d development ideal proferred by Easterly and others places great faith in the ability of unregulated markets and small-scale entrepreneurs to bring widespread economic growth “from the bottom up.” This represents a scaled-down version of the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980’s and 90’s that saw the dismantling of social welfare systems and the deregulation of financial markets around the world. The results of such “structural adjustment” were catastrophic for the poor, as local elites and multinational corporations extracted spectacular profits at the expense of less-empowered populations.

Both approaches – the big-D and the small-d – are stained by fundamental shortcomings that no amount of revisionism can wash away. On their own, neither will bring about sustainable widespread enhancements in the quality of life for the chronically poor and unstable regions of the world.

As a result, I challenge the ICT4D community to confront the contradictions of these competing paradigms of poverty and inequality alleviation.

At a practical level, we cannot simply abandon participation in (or engagement with) large national and multilateral political institutions. Access to fantastic gadgets and services will mean little in the long-run without a corresponding framework to support sustainable improvements in “human capabilities.” Likewise (and here I agree completely with Ken), the best intentioned multilateral efforts will fail unless they are grounded in the sort of modular, experimental approach embodied in Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” ideal.

Therefore, the ICT4D community (along with fellow travelers like myself) must find ways to split the distance between the Big-D and the small-d. We must reach out to the small grassroots NGO’s and innovators at the same time as we pursue less glamorous forms of political transformation and institution-building. We must design brilliant, appropriate gadgets and cultivate strong, accountable institutions. Together, these digital and social technologies will enable more people around the world to thrive, facilitating access to knowledge, networks, sanitation, water, and healthcare.

The need for broad political engagement has rarely been more apparent than in the present context. The collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of negotiations and the current global financial crisis provide textbook examples of institutional failures that grassroots intervention alone will not resolve. The lack of consensus at Doha reveals the extent to which existing global governance institutions have failed to meet the needs of low and middle income countries. Meanwhile, the implosion of the housing and credit markets in the United States has illustrated the risks of insufficient coordination between government and the private sector in the face of an obvious, long-standing threat to the collective interests of society. In the absence of sustainable solutions to these overlapping problems, rampant inequalities will likely reproduce and spread, leading to further financial and political instabilities.

In this setting, ICT4D advocates cannot afford to turn their backs on global institutions as critical mechanisms for achieving lasting techno-social change. Of course, analyzing and participating in big bureaucracies such as national states, multilateral governance forums, and international standards committees entails a distasteful degree of compliance with abusive forms of power. In this regard, Easterly’s claim that we must be wary of the tendency for these organizations to deliver corruption and inappropriate technologies is on target.

Nevertheless, if we want to avoid “missing the call” for technologies that have the potential to facilitate enhanced access, equality, and prosperity, such political and institutional engagement is more necessary than ever.

From Sunday’s FT opinion pages:

The current global policy debate is a cacophony. It is all very well to advocate increased US saving and a cut in the US current account deficit but the process for bringing it about will mean less US demand for foreign products. That will put pressure on jobs and output growth in other countries if no countervailing measures are put in place. Conversely, the return of a stronger dollar without other policy changes will raise US demand for exports but at the price of cutting demand for domestically produced goods and compounding the recession.

These problems will be with us for some time. They may not be at the top of anyone’s agenda right now. But the success of the next administration could depend on its ability to engage with a wider range of global economic stakeholders, on a broader agenda, at a time when disagreements are increasing not just about means but also about ultimate ends.

Are the governmental institutions of the United States up to this challenge? Europe? China?

The collapse of consensus at the global level appears more imminent than ever these days – Doha’s failure and the appearance of ACTA (a proposed trade agreement that would effectively undermine WIPO and the TRIPS agreement) are part of a broader current that may sweep the Bretton Woods institutions into the dustbin of history.

Intentionally or not, the Bush administration has furthered this process quite effectively.

In the midst of a (likely) recession and the ongoing erosion of its diplomatic and military authority, what steps will the next U.S. administration take?

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