Thursday, September 18, 2008

Let's run the banks like e-Bay and Wikipedia

Let’s not despair that human nature always causes ruin just because the banks are collapsing. Individuals can make a fantastic difference, and together, given a leap of imagination, can find a solution to global financial inequality in an unexpected place.

In a week when capitalism's Goliaths have fallen so swiftly, not by the action of many Davids, but because they were made rotten to the core by their own rapacity, I have been gleaning potential solutions to some of the world's most pressing economic problems from a quite different quarter.

I am researching a book on links between individual and communities in Africa and Wales. This means I am travelling around Wales talking to people who are changing the lives of others thousands of miles away, and whose lives themselves are being transformed in the process. Individuals like Angela Gorman, who, just because she saw a BBC documentary in 2005 about women dying in Chad during childbirth for want of a simple and cheap compound, has given up her job to raise money to help them, and as a result slashed the mortality rate from 17% to under 2.5%, exceeding a Millennium Development Goal. These drugs cost just 60p a pop, and a woman would need five to seven of them. Yet they had, until her straightforward intervention, been dying by the hundred. In short she has achieved in a year what the United Nations failed to, so much so that they have asked her to repeat her success in neighbouring Liberia. []

On Wednesday I met Denise Lord from Pen-y-Craig, in the Rhondda, an ex-coal-mining area classed as 'deprived' in the lexicon of EU or government grant-dispersing bodies, and which has had millions poured into it in an attempt to help its children. Although Denise says the kids she runs workshops for are "materially rich, with their mobile phones and Sky boxes" compared to those she has visited in the slums of Cape Town, the problem is that compared to the Cape Town kids they are "spiritually poor, while the Cape Town kids are spiritually rich and materially poor". []

I asked her to explain. "We have so much to learn from these people," she replied, "And I think among the most important is humility. The kids there have to struggle to get to school so they value it. The kids here take it for granted, so they don't. They bunk off and think it's cool to drop out and get into trouble."

'We have so much to learn from these people' is a phrase I've heard from every one of these extraordinary-yet-ordinary individuals I have talked to so far. But Martha Musonza Holman is one apart. She left her two sons, aged 9 and 12, behind when she fled Zimbabwe in 2001 to come to Wales, where she now resides running a fair trade business called, appropriately, I Love Zimbabwe []. She and her partner David struggle to import crafts made by people from her community back there to sell here, so she can send the profit back.

It might be easier to trade in hedge funds. To start with she has to contend with officials in Zimbabwe who demand a cut which puts the price up. "You may think they're corrupt," she says, "like some financial traders. But they're just trying to survive themselves in the worst of economic conditions. However we have a consignment of ceramics that has been sitting in a port for three months and we can't bring it here to sell."

The bankers on Wall Street and in the City, who paid themselves billions of dollars in bonuses, don't have the excuse that they were just trying to survive.

"The last consignment we received cost us £1130 to bring here, but I can only sell it for £1200," she complains. Furthermore, sometimes she sits in the Abergavenny market all day and sells nothing. "People in Zimbabwe think it's simple. We are all rich in the West, they believe, so it's easy for me to sell their crafts. But it is not!" The market decides what sells. If no one buys, or if the profit is miserable, her people back home will starve, fair trade or not.

Here is a clear case where the market needs intervention, to help the poorest. That is exactly why the Welsh Assembly Government has commissioned me to write this book and help Martha and all the others to find a bigger market.

Fair Trade is about transparency. Those who pay can see, should they choose, that their money benefits the community where the producers live, and that the producers receive a fair wage. Should not all trade be fair? Should not all banks be transparent? Why do we expect one system to apply to one type of financial transaction, and another, of supposedly far greater import, to be shrouded in secrecy and occluded by hopelessly obscure rules?

The few exceptional people I am meeting are passionate, inspirational, hard-working and often unpaid, as they try in every way they can to help people so far away. Why do they do it? Because their own spirits are enriched and their lives gain meaning by doing so - without the need for religion.

I struggle to understand human nature when I compare their generosity to the insatiable greed of the equally exceptional few bankers who have sucked dry the trough that millions, also far away, are now unable to feed from.

So what is the solution I am advocating, besides transparency, fairness and humility? I believe that it is glaringly obvious. It's a solution dreamed up by ordinary people and millions use it every day. It is a model which others have proselytised for other spheres of human endeavour but few have dared suggest could equally apply to the financial world. When I suggest it you will doubtless laugh. You will snort. But after you've done that, consider it further with me.

We all know that a lack of regulation has brought the crisis upon us. We all know that this has encouraged human greed. I believe that particular aspects of human nature, multifarious as it is, are manifested in different environments purely as a result of what is acceptable in that environment. If you approve excess, excess is what you get. If you reward honesty, then that is what you get.

Every day, millions of people use e-Bay and Amazon and other online marketplaces, buying and selling to other invisible individuals whom they will never meet. They do so with trust and faith because they can clearly see their trading history. Bad deals get bad feedback, and we can all read it. Yes, sometimes scams occur, and sometimes people get ripped off because they don't bother to check the trader's history. But compared to the majority of transactions these are rare.

If, thirty years ago, I had told you that in the future people would trade to this extent with others whom they would never meet and, by and large, have faith that they would not be defrauded, you would have called me hopelessly idealistic. You would have said that such a thing was only possible in a small community where everyone knew everyone else and the high probability of repercussions for bad behaviour would help to curb it. Yet here we are, and, thanks to simple rules, effective monitoring, and modern technology, it happens all the time and millions of dollars change hands every day.

Furthermore, Credit Unions [] and community banks trade cash and help individuals and communities bootstrap themselves up without recourse to high interest rates or rapacious moneylenders. In these constituted environments individuals or groups invest money, and other individuals or enterprises borrow it, in a transparent way. They are owned and controlled by their members. The average U.S. credit union has $93 million in assets versus $1.53 billion in assets for the average U.S. bank, so they are commonly smaller - not a bad thing, since if one fails it is not the end of the world.

So here is my horribly naive, simplistic and obvious solution, in outline, to the problem of global financial ineqality and the dark side of capitalism. Here is my mad plan to render these monstrous predatory dinosaurs of banking and insurance extinct once and for all. Here is the route to allow small and medium sized traders - everyone in the world, eventually - access to capital fairly and in confidence: use modern technology, e-Bay type rules and checks and balances, transparency and fairness, to apply a credit union style model to mutual one-to-one exchanges.

Even if those traders be large concerns, they must still follow the same rules of transparency. Everyone's credit history will be visible to all. And if you can see your own history so plainly, would you not be more prudent yourself?

The same rules would apply to everyone, not one set of rules for us and another for the bankers. As with peer-to-peer networking, file-sharing, and indeed Wikipedia-style collaborations of any sort, we would all be bankers, whether lenders or borrowers. If millions of otherwise unconnected people working together can build something as essential and huge as Wikipedia or e-Bay, why can't they build lending institutions, independent of banks? I am not an accountant, or a banker. I can't work out the nitty-gritty of how it would work. i don't need to. I believe in human nature - someone else will, or a crowd of people working together.

If this were done then maybe, just maybe, we might learn some spiritual wealth and humility; by doing things the slightly harder way - and following some simple rules that we collaborate on to make up.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Campaign for the book Charter 2008

A few days ago i mentioned this campaign, described by Alan Gibbons at the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors conference last month. It is about to be formally launched and already has 245 signatories including Michael Rosen, Philip Pullman, Anne Fine, Sue Palmer, Beverley Naidoo. Malorie Blackman and David Almond.

But why have such a campaign? The 2008 Year of Reading has been a great success. There have been many exciting initiatives such as the Boys into Books campaign. In many ways, reading has never been more popular. Millions of books are bought and devoured by a huge reading public. Many authors are major figures in public life.

These successes can disguise very serious problems, however which are undermining the place of the book and reading for pleasure in national life. Here are some of the challenges we face:
  • public library closures- sixty last year and more planned
  • a loss of professional library staff- down 13% between 1995 and 2005
  • more untrained volunteers instead of qualified library staff
  • fewer books in schools, (according to one report, a 15% reduction while there has been 28% rise in spending on education)
  • a shift from books to computer services
  • the closure of school libraries to make way for ICT suites
  • the sacking or down grading of both public and school librarians
  • the closure of school libraries
  • the marginalisation of reading for pleasure and the reading of whole books in many schools as teaching to the test replaces the pleasure of acquiring knowledge for its own sake

Given the present economic difficulties, many of these challenges are likely to become more pressing.
We, the signatories of this Charter commit ourselves to campaigning for the following:
  1. The central place of reading for pleasure in society
  2. A proper balance of book provision and Information Technology in public and school libraries. We welcome the integration of new technologies but believe that they must not erode the key place of books and the need for a healthy and expanding book stock
  3. The defence of public libraries and librarians from attempts to cut spending in a ‘soft’ area
  4. An extension of the role of the school librarian and a recognition of the school library as a key engine of learning. All staff employed in school libraries to have access to appropriate and adequate support and training
  5. The recruitment of more school librarians. It is a national scandal that less than a third of secondary schools has a trained librarian
  6. The defence of the professional status of the public and school librarian. We oppose downgrading. In some places this has reduced librarians’ salaries by up to half
  7. The promotion of reading whole books in school rather than excerpts
  8. A higher profile for reading for pleasure in schools, including shadowing book awards, inviting authors and illustrators to visit, developing school creative writing magazines
  9. To support the sustainability and future development of Schools Library Service provision nationally.

Supporters of the Campaign for the Book do not see themselves as competitors with professional associations, trade unions and existing library or school campaigns. We seek to create a national network to help coordinate the efforts of all who want to protect the status of the book and reading for pleasure. We will offer our support to local campaigns and initiatives.

It is time to stand up for reading.

It is time to campaign for the book.

For further information contact Alan Gibbons at:
Alan took paprt in a debate on the writers' and publishers' podcast show Litopia. You can listen to it by accessing:

Friday, September 05, 2008

A gathering of authors

I don't know if there is a collective noun for a gathering of authors, but last weekend I went to the Society of Authors conference for children's writers and illustrators in Cambridge. There were certainly a lot of them.

I enjoyed meeting a lot of people I had only either read or chatted to online, as well as some old friends.

Highlights were:

- William Nicholson's extremely funny account of his life and writing career -- how he started off wanting to be Proust, and ended up writing Gladiators and Shadowlands

- Philip Pullman's tub thumping, a barnstorming speech against age banding in which he said that if we allow it to go ahead all of civilisation will grind to a halt and the earth will turn to a desert. This won riotous applause. We all then felt terribly sorry for the publisher from Scholastic who had to get up and follow him and speak in defence of age banding. At the end of it most of us were still against age banding, and the publisher apologised that they never consulted all the writers before going ahead with it, and promised that no writers will have to suffer age banding on their book covers without consultation. Of course this does not necessarily mean that it will not go ahead....

- Alan Gibbons launched his campaign in support of reading, as lots of libraries are being closed by local authorities and schools seeking cutbacks, and they are also not appointing qualified chartered librarians to fill vacancies. Writers who sign up to the campaign -- and I will post the website later -- as well as teachers, local authority staff, librarians themselves, and anybody else, will be asked to sign petitions against specific closures that we find out about, and perhaps speak at a public meetings.

- Michael Rosen, who lamented the fact that kids nowadays can go through the whole of their school years without reading a whole book, just extracts, and are not taught to enjoy reading for pleasure merely reading functionally and to help them fit into the job-centred world.

- Malorie Blackman, who is lovely and immensely approachable.

- David Almond, ditto. He spoke with Polly Dunbar about his collaboration with her on My Dad's a Birdman

Thank you to everybody who organised it, in particular Enid Stephenson.

An interview in Brazil

The Brazilian version of Hybrid Nation has just published an interview with me. For those of you who can't speak Portuguese, here it is in English:

1- How Hybrids was born? Does your work as an environmental journalist influenced your writing in this book?
Hybrids was born alive and kicking in a nest made from all my obsessions! Some of its roots lie in an earlier work, Doc Chaos, some in a postcard I picked up on holiday in Barcelona in 1984, while others are to do with my disability -- I have mild cerebral palsy -- and my interest in comics and the work of Philip Pullman. I try to keep out most of my environmental knowledge, except in my description of the landscape around the Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation, and the swollen snake of the River Thames which has flooded part of London due to global warming. Hybrids is about our obsession with technology and the human, emotional and political repercussions of fear of plague. Some of this comes from a work by Susan Sontag called Illness as Metaphor. In an earlier version of the story set in the Hybrids story world, it was a comics script called the Gene Police, and Major Winter was the main character if you can believe that! I sold options to Marvel comics and to Eclipse comics but neither actually published it. That was in the 1990s. There is much more in some 2007 posts on my Sympathy For The Moon blog. I talk about the difference between a hybrid, a mutant, an android and so on.

2- Some people say that great novel transports the reader and it's like watching a movie. Hybrids can evoke that same experience and maybe one of the reasons is the book's structure that seems wrote to be easily adapted to the silver screen. Do you agree with this and if so, was it something intentional?

Yes this is completely intentional. The turning point for me as a writer was when I did a course in scriptwriting for film and television. I have written TV and film scripts, and plenty of comics which I have also edited. I see things in my mind's eye and write them down. I try to keep the suspense going. However I am not too specific -- it's best to let the reader make their own images in their minds.

3- I'm curious in how exactly Creep works. In Hybrids we have people with guns and musical instruments attached to their bodies. How low the technology can be to "merge" in a human body?

Creep can only work in connection with a gadget that works on electricity. Some guns have electronic parts, at least they do in my future, and this is what Thom Gunn has. The musical instruments are electric guitar and electric bass. Later on in the projected Hybrids series, as scientists discover more about how Creep works, this is related in the narrative. We already know from volume 1 that it is to do with nanotechnology.

4- What was your reaction when you knew that Hybrids would have a Portuguese translation and be published in Brazil?

Absolutely delighted! I have just received a package with the book in and all the publicity material and it looks fantastic. I can use my English and Portuguese editions side by side now to try and learn Portuguese! I think Brazil is a fantastic country of many contrasts and a vibrant culture, and I love much of the films and television that I've seen from your country.

5- Do you have plans to visit Brazil someday?

I can't wait to visit you. It's also an amazing coincidence that the artist I have been working with on adapting Hybrids to comics, Felipe Cunha, lives near Sao Paulo and I will take the opportunity to meet him for the first time as well. I would also like to go and see some rainforest and visit Curitiba.

6- What can you tell us about the sequel?

Books two and three are plotted out. The climax is amazing. Something happens to Johnny and Kestrella that as far as I know has never been put in a book for teenagers before! The journey is full of surprises. The plot thickens and gets much darker with much more at stake. I can't give any details away however.