Europe and the financial mafia – a love affair

About a year ago I wrote about how US measures on curbing tax evasion had unnecessary repercussions on innocent citizens worldwide. Meanwhile I got used to be ripped off by dubious financial institutions that started controlling all sorts of money transactions in Europe.

No doubt, the majority of European citizens must support measures that stop the unethical practices of the rich to evade taxes by moving their assets to some dubious offshore financial institutions while fattening their bellies thanks to our state support. Recent observations however make me believe that European states are doing the opposite: financial transactions are increasingly becoming a source for unjustified rents by a number of strange organizations. One example is a flight ticket that I bought online from Iberia, the Spanish national Airline. Not long ago, one bought an Iberia ticket from ‘the company’ through either cash, debit card or credit card payment. Nowadays, Iberia is split into three different companies and one must first decide whether to fly Iberia, Iberiaexpress or Vueling. It’s all the same flight, only the revenues go into different pots. Once the ticket is booked and one proceeds to the online payment, a (to me unknown) third party provider pops up: SOFORT GmbH. Asked to enter my private bank user name and password to SOFORTs website I was a bit reluctant but did so eventually as I needed the ticket urgently and believed that Iberia knew what it was doing. Indeed, all went well and I was sent my e-ticket soon after.

Two days later I received an email from SOFORT GmbH telling me that the transaction for my ticket had failed and that I needed to follow-up on the payment if I did not want to risk losing my seat. Alerted I logged into my online bank account[2] and saw that the transaction was on hold. I could click on it but not do anything more. Eventually, I decided to follow the instructions of SOFORT and make a manual bank transfer. Done, I contacted SOFORT and they confirmed that all was good now. Another two days later I figured that I was deducted the full amount twice, both on the same day. Again, I contacted SOFORT, but immediately got a reply that they could not help me. Rather, I should contact the merchant/provider/PSP where I had placed the order. Fxxx! So what the heck is a PSP? After some more emails back and forth I figured that the PSP might be Loviiit. However, Loviiit, ‘DOCOMO Digital’s e-commerce and m-commerce payments enabler’, which ‘provides international and multi-currency payment processing services, including e-money and mobile payment wallets for sellers and buyers, fraud and risk prevention as well as consumer financing solutions’ is a company that does not even publish an email address or any other contact information on their website. All you can do is submit an inquiry, wait and hope.

While I’m still waiting to get my Euro 400 back, I’m thinking about my purchase and the parties involved. SOFORT as I learn from their website is ‘Germany’s leading direct payment system’. And my transfer went to Loviit with seat in Lichtenstein. Why do I need a German payment system to transfer my money to a Lichtenstein company that facilitates the purchase of my online ticket from a Spanish airline? Is that what the European Union stands for: united we steal (better and more efficient)? Once a proud European I start to disrespect this place where all sorts of mafia groups have gained so much power and status that we take them for granted. Are SOFORT and Loviiit even a partner company of the current Spanish government that has taught us how to transfer millions of tax money into the pockets of its party leaders without even fearing an election loss?

I wouldn’t be so angry if that was the first time such a thing happened to me but the reality is that I was involved in all sort of bank fraud over the past few months. There was this ATM withdrawal from Euronet over the amount of 600 EUR from a EUR-account in Switzerland that they charged me in CHF regardless of me denying to have the amount converted into CHF. It costs me 60 EUR in exchange loss due to the really bad exchange rate they applied. 10% of commission for an ATM withdrawal in Europe – who would call that ethic? I also got charged EUR 21 for an inward transaction to the above mentioned online account of BBVA regardless of European law providing that SEPA payments should be free of charge between member states[1]. Europe has become a virtual nightmare with companies stealing wherever they can and nobody being around to answer our inquiries. Meanwhile as a self-employed entrepreneur working in different European countries I spend more time doing paper work and filing tax declarations for a variety of member states than I can dedicate to my actual work from which I gain my income. In the majority of cases I have to deal with highly incompetent state officials that do nothing but count the minutes until their work time ends. Or maybe, they watch the values of their Panama accounts increasing.

To sum up, it appears that Europe has degenerated into a financial Mafia land. All our bureaucrats have achieved in recent years is the private sector copying their practices and stealing time and money from citizens without providing any services in return. Truly a lovely (banking) Union.

 

[1] When such transaction are free of charge for domestic transactions, what they are in the case of my account.

[2] An online bank account by BBVA without support whatsoever that does all but cause me headaches.

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Donald Trump is not a joke!

Although he might appear as an antidote to my values and political views, I believe that Donald Trump is not the worst president that we have to deal with. In fact, he might be something like a new hope.

According to many newspapers, Donald Trump’s victory is a surprise, a shock – even a dark day. Is that true? While some observed that a possible win was troubling worldwide stock exchanges in the hours leading to his election, the opposite was true shortly after. And all those celebrities who threatened to leave the US when Trump would become president are now more silent than their empty promises. Rather than being shocked, media should ask themselves what they have failed to foresee.

First and foremost, the people have voted – emphasis on people and voted. Whereas in Europe, we love to talk principles, the US is still a place made of people. People voted, not their principles. And yes, they voted, they didn’t simply talk. In Europe, we talk. We protest. We suffer. Yet, we repeat the same mistakes over and over again, without eventually understanding that something needs to change if we want to improve a worsening situation. All those US citizens that gave their vote to Donald Trump did not vote for the principles or values of Trump. They are not more racists than we Europeans are. They are not more ignorant than the average Spanish is. Maybe they are not that different from us at all. Only, they decided to say ‘No’. No, finish, over. US citizens have not voted for Trump, they have voted against Hillary. They have voted against status quo. The US people are tired of the system. They had enough of all the big-mouth elites controlling their country.

In contrast to all the celebrities and multi-millionaires controlling media, average US citizens have to swallow all the big-mouth shit that the system and its supporters produce. Do you think that Samuel L. Jackson will now move to South Africa or that Cher will fly to Jupiter? Do you think that Hillary Clinton will still share her income with poor males as she promised during the campaign? For them, a vote is just a vote, like all the empty words they create out of badly-put-together letters. That’s why they love to talk big shit. In Europe, we keep talking about principles and values such as sustainable development and equity without realising that all we stand for are just empty shells. We create dogmas such as gender equity, fight for higher salaries for women but watch away when women among us are beaten to death. We manage eucalyptus mono-culture forests in very fragile Mediterranean ecosystems with the principle to create renewable energy while deforesting Asia thanks to international development programs supported by our tax-evading financial magnates. We talk shit and swallow it on a daily basis, yet we try not to suffocate rather than stop talking.

It’s true enough that Trump may likely disappoint a big majority of his voters in the near future. Yet, they gave him the benefit of the doubt. This latter point might be what has made America different from Europe ever since: Americans are more risky than we Europeans are. ‘Who risks, wins’ as the saying goes. Trump is a risk, but at least he is a hope. Even as a nihilist I believe that hope is still better than lingering in vain and holding on to empty principles while observing how a rotten system drags us all deeper and deeper into abyss. Hope is part of what makes us human and that’s why humans have made Trump their president.

 

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Game of Thrones in Europe

Apart from beautiful filming, Game of Thrones has also educational character. Its political content can help immature citizens understand why we need more integration, not isolation as postulated by Brexit.

Looking at recent developments, one might expect that Europe is falling apart. Shaken by terror, economic struggles, political instability and separatism, the institution EU has been questioned on the grounds that it was too bureaucratic. As repeatedly in history, populists seek cheap answers to complex problems by blaming larger cooperation for individual loss without seeing that governing shared resources asks most of all answers to distributional questions. It is this failure that has brought us to where we stand, and, tackling it is thus the key to finding a way out of the worldwide social impasse in which we are trapped. Seeking an answer in isolation is repeating history and thus a step back in time.

Backwards thinking might be attractive, but it is not a cure. Although plundering resources and enslaving entire populations in Latin America, Asia and Africa has given us Europeans power, it is not a medication with long-term effects, particularly not now that global resources are getting scarce. As many other world citizens demand their share in global benefits, many among us feel that it might be safer to restrict their access to our accumulated wealth by their exclusion. The UK, a world-leader in exploiting resources and oppressing peoples, has recently decided that while it was OK to take from European partners, sharing with them was not really what they want. Apart from the political value, what made me really sick about the whole Brexit debate were all these stupid voices desiring to have back achievements such as the ‘Great Empire’ or the freedom to ‘spoil oneself in luxury’. While slavery is sadly enough still practised in Europe, even the dumbest among us should realize that stronger light bulbs will not make even the littlest brain of whatever actress brighter.

Above all the entire Brexit debate has shown that Europe is governed by immature citizens. While we believe in democracy as the core to justice, we Europeans fail to understand that complex problems need solutions that might be unconventional and difficult to understand for non-experts. However, while we don’t bring our children to the bakery when their teeth ache, we all want to have a say in politics as we believe to have expert-knowledge in everything. Endless referendum and cyclic movements are the result. Democracy as understood by us Europeans is most of all inefficient, since it keeps us focussed on the process rather than providing solutions to our real problems. The re-merging power of populist parties in Europe can consequently be seen as a failure of citizens to understand the causes of our current problems and avoiding to provide solutions to them. Instead of overcoming well-established customs and habits, we claim democracy and more power to the peoples as the solution to economic problems.

In times of economic difficulties, we find the panacea of better performance by asking for local control and exclusion of everything ‘not from here’.  This racism in its purest form prevents us from seeing the distributional deficiencies within (the system). In Spain, a country that has become a democracy as late as the early 1980s and which has ever since been manipulated by elites and their corrupt practises, young citizens fail to see that it is the rotten system that needs to change not the countries’ relation to Europe. While the EU is probably the best tool to overthrow the establishment they have, many citizens that have been politically passive for most of their life all of a sudden stand up against the EU in order to express their frustration over lack of perspectives. Of course, it is easier to receive many ‘likes’ by re-tweeting or posting anti-German paroles than questioning some domestic deficiencies. Change means also confronting oneself with risk and requires skills and capacities that one first needs to develop. Throwing ones wife from the balcony and blaming emancipation for lack of bread is easier than becoming a noble man and an educated citizen that abides from stupid customs such as torturing animals for public amusement. Improvement within a critically sick system often requires significant change and mandates that one needs to leave their comfort zone, not something cowards really seek.

Maybe the most disturbing element of European politics is the failure to account for distributional factors. As an expat returning to Europe I am year by year more shocked by the arrogance that our pensioners expose. While their rude, selfish and ignorant behaviour resembles that of hordes of uncontrolled punks, the comparison might not be too far-fetched as these proud ‘68er revolutionists’ have mostly thought about self-fulfillment all their life long. Rhetorically rebelling against established institutions in the late 1960s they have turned their back on important environmental and social issues that became apparent in the early 1970s[1] and instead, successively in-filtered politics and bureaucracy to take over key positions that allowed them to exploit wherever they could. Negating pressing issues such as climate change and social injustice for decades, they grabbed what was within reach and waited until their retirement to ask for policies that protect the wealth of the wealthy while the poor in the developing world and future generations should pay the bill for all the environmental damage that their life-long resource exploitation has caused. It is these 68er punks that manipulate the entire political agenda across Europe in their own favour and at the expense of better outcomes. This is all the more disturbing as they don’t have to account for the long-term effects of their current votes.

Achieving sustainable development, the main target of the global development agenda, means working on inter-generational as much as intra-generational justice.  It means speaking out against politics that further skew distribution in favour of those who already have. It also means putting our fingers at our parents and might cost a bit more courage than closing the door in light of some stranger in need. How much easier is it to ignore the thousands of drowning refugees in the Mediterranean Sea while enjoying the comfort of our parent’s home – funded on stolen resources and built by the sweat of migrants? True, Game of Thrones showed us that justice is a fragile concept. While we Europeans believe in democracy as a means to justice, in reality justice not only needs to address questions around access to vote, but also distributional issues. From an equity perspective there is no doubt that Europe will never see justice as long as actresses demand privileges that have made queens untouchable. From a resource perspective, it is evident that we need more cooperation in face of increased scarcity. Put two and two together, we need more integration, not less. The EU was a good start to cooperation, now we only need to upscale it.

While the UK has taken the path of isolation, in reality the answer to its problems lies in more integration. Rather than distancing itself from Europe, it should reach out to the world and embrace nations such as China, which it forced to centuries of political isolation from Europe by starting an economic motivated war in the 19th century. Indeed, the EU and its apparent bureaucracy are not UK’s true problems, nor those of any other country. What we European need is seeing the full picture rather than following mainstream politics. Maybe the best way forward would be less democracy, not only less bureaucracy.

[1] Notably during the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment

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Europe – a bureaucratic oxymoron?

Last year I wrote about the bureaucratic struggles involved in a marriage with a foreign national in Vietnam. One year later, my wife and I are getting acquainted with the devastating bureaucracy that is sickening humans in Europe.

Having lived in Southeast Asia for a couple of years, an extended travel to my home place Europe sounded like a nice alternative to some idyllic beach honey-moon following our marriage in November last year. Given some work mandates in Europe and our consideration to moving to Europe, it eventually became more than a thought. However, as much as Schengen provides free movement for member countries, it can be a hindrance for their spouses. When sharing our travel ideas with the Swiss authorities in Vietnam, we were provided with two solutions: a) get a tourist visa valid for 3 months or b) apply for a temporary residence with the option to stay longer. Latter sounds more attractive, if one doesn’t consider a waiting time of 3 to 6 months and provided that the applicant knows where he/she is going to live[1]. Having to act on some immediate calls and intending to travel around Europe rather than sitting in some random apartment, we eventually left on a temporary visa that cost us a lot of money and effort despite an EU rule that makes Schengen-Visas for partners of European citizens free of charge[2].

Visiting Switzerland after a couple of weeks traveling and thinking we might overstay the 90 days in total, we decided to apply for a residence permit for my wife. Therefore we first needed to have a home – luckily we could register with the address of a close relative. By chance (one would think) this relative of mine lives in the municipality where our marriage application from Vietnam was processed a year back – a very important detail considering Swiss federalism[3]. To our surprise—and regardless of the three months waiting period[4] and the 700 USD that I had to pay for a paper stating that I was allowed to marry—the municipality had no clue about our marriage and we first needed to prove it. Our confusion got bigger when we showed them an email from the Swiss Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, dating 23 October 2015 and confirming that our marriage had been registered in the Swiss civil registers. Unfortunately, marriage registration ends at province (canton) level and although the municipality has full authority over citizens’ rights, it has no responsibility to access information at higher levels [sic!]. Therefore, we were required to get written proof from the authority at province level – something that in Switzerland non-surprisingly comes at a cost!

It took the authorities at province level (now, don’t get confused, I know it’s not easy) an entire month to reflect over our application, and then, ten days before the tourist visa was about to expire, we received a not-so-friendly letter asking us to provide answers and evidence of our relationship that are simply beyond human rights, regardless of whether our marriage was officially registered or not. Answers to questions such as ‘how often do you see your wife?’, ‘in what language to you communicate?’, ‘where has she [sic!] acquired those language skills?’ apart from an extract from the Vietnamese criminal records, photos showing us together etc. were simply too much. Fed-up with the racism and discrimination in this Nazi-friendly country and already having left for The Netherlands two weeks earlier, we decided to give it a go here, although we knew that one week was short. Yet, here in the Netherlands, things were way easier, straight to the point and nobody questioned a marriage that was prominently featured in the Vietnamese press[5]. From one of the competent immigration officers we also learned that the residence permit application was much smoother because being non-Dutch we enjoyed EU law. It looks much different for Dutch citizens applying for a residence visa for their spouse from a non-EU country and filing their application in The Netherlands.

Although it is often claimed that the EU made everything bureaucratic and complicated, from above experience we must acknowledge that the opposite is true. Unlike certain national policies, EU law respects human rights and tries to put citizens in the centre. That is very different in Switzerland, where an ever stronger mass of right-wing voters support even the abolition of the European Human Rights Convention. The reasons for that should be clear to us now: Swiss federalism has no room for humane policies. In 1965, Swiss writer Max Frisch famously wrote ‘We called for a workforce, but we got humans[6]’ – a quote in the foreword to a book about Italian migrants to Switzerland that brought it to the point. However, what should have been a warning to Switzerland is still unheard of 50 years later. Regardless of a very arrogant rhetoric about its role in human rights, Switzerland is nothing but a country with totally wicked values and rules that are only guided by money and greed. Humans don’t count, only their wealth does.

To conclude, while there are forces in Europe that criticize the EU for its bureaucracy or ask for a distance from the Union, one should ask why that is. Getting to the core of the issue we might discover that it is not displeasure for paper-power but rather a fear of losing control that governs these naysayers. This planet more than ever needs some humane instance which limits the power of evil, and the EU has been a good example for doing so since its birth.

 

[1] Unless you have a place where you can register your residence (e.g. an apartment that you rent), there is no way to apply for a long-term stay.

[2]  Like many other embassies in Vietnam, Switzerland has made joint-ventures with so called service providers. Latter charge a fee that we can’t avoid. The money is then shared between the service provider and those giving them access to this form of rent generation (yep, think twice and you’ll get it – communism is wonderful, given you have the right uncle!).

[3] A very unique feature of the Helvetic Alpen-state is the fact that the country has 26 provinces and something in the order of 2400 municipalities. All of them have distinct laws. While this might be a surprise for most readers, I suggest you read some articles about what made the country rich in the first hand. Democracy means different rights for different people!

[4] For processing my ‘marriage certificate’ application in the same municipality of origin that we were going to apply for the residence visa.

[5] My wife being a singer and celebrity, our marriage was well-documented in Vietnam’s media – a fact that has no relevance in light of Swiss authorities’ arrogance and their stupid little ‘follow-procedure-brains’. Remember Oprah Winfrey’s incidence in Zurich?

[6] Origin: ‚Wir riefen Arbeitskräfte, und es kamen Menschen.‘

 

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Is international development doing the right thing?

‘Working in international development is often associated with ‘doing good’. A closer look at what international cooperation has achieved in Vietnam suggests that doing good requires more than simply working in a developing country.

Although I was aware of the perversion of international cooperation due to literature that I have read since I was a teenager, my insights and understanding of the dimensions of this perversion have particularly grown over the past six years while working and living in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, a country that is mostly known for the Vietnam War[0], the contradiction of international cooperation couldn’t be any more grotesque. Contrary to what some might think, Vietnam is and has always been a rich country and therefore the political interests in Vietnam have ever since been in exploiting its resources. The Chinese have tried to occupy the country for more than thousand years, while the French did so for roughly sixty. Not surprisingly, when Ho Chi Minh asked for international cooperation in the 1940s, he did so with the idea to liberate the country from foreign occupants. However, what he got in return was two different groups of allies fighting a cold war in his own country.

By and large, the Vietnamese people have been victims of decades of international cooperation, without benefiting much from it. The only international supports that deserve respect are some private initiatives working with and helping Vietnamese citizens. For example, although it is understandable that Ho Chi Minh and others wanted to liberate their country from foreign powers, it must be acknowledged that the South of Vietnam had prospered due to the support of the French. In fact, when the South eventually capitulated in light of the bloody and barbaric killings of the communist North in 1975, Saigon[1] was a city that reflected the wealth of the country and its citizens, as can be witnessed watching footage in the documentary “Last Days in Vietnam. Forty years later, the city is a mess dominated by air and noise pollution, cramped with people and marked by inequality. One can’t help asking: ‘So what exactly has gone wrong in Vietnam over the past forty years?’

Well, first of all it was surely an internal affair when the communists destroyed most of the wealth and made many of the most competent individuals flee the country[2]. Once the new regime had taken whatever they could and had changed the rules that govern resources distribution, they linked themselves back into global markets. This was a masterpiece of manipulation and the West promptly fell for it. The Doi Moi, which came into effect in 1986 was not only the opening of the country to a market economy, but it was at the same time an instrument that would in continuation allow the elites to cash in all on transactions based on the communist rule that “all property belongs to the peoples”, which in practice was translated as “we, the party and friends, will take whatever we can, because it is our right to do so.” The communist elite had introduced what for them resulted in the most perfect market economy. It was efficient to the point that they combined the power of global market dynamics to magnify the country’s profits with abusing the power of communist rule to constantly adapt national conditions such as to channel all benefits into their own hands.

In other words, Vietnam is the best example of how wealth and development are being influenced by the outcomes of rent-seeking processes and rent distribution. The communist regime has had a decade to set up the rules that would control the rent outcomes of foreign investments, before such investments were possible. Under this light it is easy understandable why there are so many examples of Vietnamese citizens who have made it from ‘apparent poor farmers’ or ‘street sellers’ to multimillionaires in less than two decades. The many tales talking of such sudden wealth and adored by many in Vietnam as the hope to one day stand atop of it all in reality are not that much miracle based on individual capacity. Critical Vietnamese know that for example the wealth of multimillionaire Doan Nguyen Duc, head of the HAGL group, is not based on his brilliant business instincts. Instead, his wealth started with the illegal deforestation of the most precious forests in Vietnam, while access was granted by officials. The accumulated wealth was quickly expanded into other sectors such as mining, rubber, real estate and energy – all sectors that require most of all access to land. That is not a problem in Vietnam given you have the right “uncle”. Under communist rule, land belongs to the peoples and henceforth, the government can take from parties B to Z and assign the same plot of land to party A, without properly compensating parties B to Z. Land expropriation is a daily practice that seldom results in protests[3]. Another common source of quick and huge profits is “overpricing of large infrastructure developments”. Experts working in the infrastructure sector report that in bigger projects it is common practice to overestimate the project costs by factor three with the idea to split the 200% benefits equal between the developer and representatives from the competent authorities signing the deal. This practice together with the one mentioned above might explain why the only Vietnamese billionaire on the Forbes’ billionaires list Pham Nhat Vuong plus two more among the five richest persons in Vietnam are all shareholders of the same company and members of one family.

Particularly disturbing in light of the present discussion is that foreign investors and governments never really seemed to care about such practices. Although the land grabs of HAGL group and others have long become public, IFC and Deutsche Bank nevertheless supported the company to expand their illegal practices from Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos, as a report by Global Witness in 2013 revealed[4]. Within the timber sector—Vietnam being the sixth largest exporter worldwide, the sector employs over 300’000 workers— it is an open secret that today, FSC-labelled furniture from Vietnam is mostly made out of (il)legally logged timber from Cambodia, Laos and elsewhere. Reason is another loophole in the Vietnamese system. Vietnam disposes of large areas of FSC certified plantations, as WWF explains. What the dubious NGO backing the FSC doesn’t tell us is that with an accordant FSC certificate from timber products destined for the paper industries coming out of short-circle rotation plantations, illegally logged tropical timber can be ‘green-washed’ to FSC grade by simply swapping the licenses between similar volumes of timber and maybe facilitating the transfer with a small bribe to the auditor – deal done. It has also been pointed out that initiatives such as REDD have significant potential to marginalize traditional land owners and landless peoples. However, regardless of such observations and in spite of the enormous risks of land grabs and other externalities, Vietnam’s forests and the timber sector keep being subject to huge foreign investments from governments and the private sector abroad. Vietnam is also participating as one of the pilot countries for REDD. Not that timber is the only sector benefiting from ‘wrought’ certification. In Vietnam everything can be certified at almost no cost. Therefore, rather than paying experts and truly improve practices and conditions, foreign corporations producing their goods in Vietnam such as Nike, Adidas, IKEA & Co. hire unqualified local staff who ‘develop’ the health, safety and environmental conditions of their Vietnamese contractors. It is much cheaper for them to pay local staff and bribe an auditor than having a real expert in place. No one here needs expert knowledge, if a bribe can do. Innovation in a market driven society means economic efficiency and latter can only be achieved by obtaining what is needed—namely the certificate and ‘clean hands in light of a potential future catastrophe’—at the least possible cost.

The whole ‘certification business’ brings another weakness of international development into spotlight: corruption. In light of corruption, certification is probably one of the weakest instruments of development, although it is often chosen as a tool for improvement. In Vietnam, where money can buy everything from police officers to members of courts, certification is nothing more but a piece of paper. It is established knowledge that corruption hinders fair development or more equal access for all. Corruption is the enemy of development[5]. The consequence of corruption for international trade is that fair play by market actors in other countries will be punished by lower prices due to lower production costs by the wrong-player. The result of such distortions is that market mechanisms initiate a race to the bottom. In Vietnam, where according to Transparency International corruption is omnipresent, everyone is confronted with bribery sooner or later. While tourists might get away without recognizing it, no person working here can deny or neglect corruption. Nevertheless, the c-word is not something that governments or representatives from NGOs like to talk about. Corruption contradicts with our understanding of doing the right thing and it also reads very badly in official reports. When in 2007 a bridge in Can Tho collapsed most likely due to corruption, no official source discussed it nor was there any independent investigation, regardless of all the Vietnamese peoples being convinced that some misconduct had led to the tragedy. Eventually, proof was buried together with the 52 workers who had lost their lives. Today, Western representatives cross the bridge in a rush to strike business deals in the Mekong Delta knowing that bribery promises fast and clean business while the costs of corruption will be paid by others. Knowing that corruption is the biggest hindrance to development[5] and considering that in Vietnam it is omnipresent, why has international development never addressed it?

Probably the most obvious explanation is that ‘development’ often requires significant innovation. However, skills for innovation is not something we receive together with academic credentials. As Prof. Mustaq Khan has shown[6], development trajectories are largely influenced by the outcomes of rent-seeking processes. In Vietnam, where key positions in the public sector are generally ‘bought’ and not assigned due to personal merits, officials tend to be rather under-skilled for the positions they hold, while rents are generated by the abuse of power. When Vietnam was linked back into global markets in the early 1990s, western nations had less of a problem with the policies of a communist regime than an urge to find new employment for their own workforce. Vietnam, which has always been rich in resources was a real paradise for plunderers and pseudo-innovators, while international development has often served itself by copy-pasting worn-out ideas rather than coming up with innovative solutions that are adequate for the respective situation. The recovery of Vietnam—praised by institutions such as the World Bank as a development success story—was mainly due to cheap labor and abundant resources that could be exploited at almost no cost due to access rights which were controlled by elites. Rather than a success story, Vietnam’s recent development trajectory is a disaster, fostered by poor copy-paste practices of international plunderers together with even poorer public governance.

International development has hardly ever been innovative. Nor has it been free from national interests. In fact, international development as Vietnam has experienced it until today is a prolongation of the Cold War. It is the fight between foreign nations over access to resources in a resource rich county. Reflecting on whether this can be right, one statement by a gentleman in the documentary mentioned above comes to my mind. “Doing the right thing”, he said, “often requires a judgement between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing wrong’ and not whether one follows protocol or not”. It is this judgement that people working in international development all too often struggle with, particularly when they grew up in an elitist environment, generally a prerequisite for an employment in one of the UN bodies or in the diplomatic corps of many countries. An elitist treatment such as business-class airfare and accommodation in exquisite hotels in the best places of town separates these international experts from the peoples in the country they work and their realities. Doing good in the experts eyes might thus not reflect the necessities of the peoples for whom they elaborate their projects and policies. ‘Doing good’ can also mean that one has to oppose established institutions, particularly in light of corruption. However, opposing elites is not something that comes easy, less so, if one is used to talk sweet words.

Furthermore, corruption is hardly mentioned by foreign parties, because it is a practice that facilitates a lot of work. Corruption can serve as a substitute for lack of skills and it can bring huge benefits for foreign investors. Another reason, why some prefer to work in countries reigned by corruption and absolute regimes is that it is much harder for dirty deals to come alight. In Vietnam, where websites such as those by Human Rights Watch and BBC are banned, where citizens regularly get jailed for expressing their views, and where judges are simply a longer arm of corruption, scandals as the recent ones under the former Spanish government or those within the Swiss SECO[7] would never be punished, no matter how hard idealists try. At the same time, such discoveries also confirm that at least some representatives from our governments are inclined to engage in corrupt practices if what they can gain is promising. Where the risks of being caught are low, this tendency will be stronger.

‘Doing right’ or ‘doing wrong’ cannot be measured by simplified and poor indicators such as the GDP or GDP per capita postulated by the World Bank. However, such indicators help to blur the actual impacts of international development, which in case of Vietnam is not as heroic as foreign governments and the UN generally claim. Doing the right thing in a developing context requires much more toughness than simply contributing to development. International support as Vietnam has received it over the past two decades certainly doesn’t reflect the ideals of people like Ho Chi Minh who were fighting for independence and justice in their country. International development in Vietnam has achieved the opposite: today, the majority of Vietnamese citizens are the slaves of their country’s wealth. In a country such as Vietnam where rents are controlled by a small elite, foreign investment without first addressing corruption does not only come at huge social and environmental costs, it also discriminates against workers and tax payers in the countries investing, who struggle with employment due to the austerity politics of our governments back home.

With respect to the Vietnamese peoples and all those Vietnamese who had to abandon their beautiful and loved country due to the terrors of a communist regime that only survives thanks to the support of foreign governments, we must conclude that international development in Vietnam has not done the right thing .

[0] Or American War, depending on which side you ask.

[1] Today officially called ‘Ho Chi Minh City’, although the name persists with citizens in the South of Vietnam.

[2] In other times this is often called ‘brain drain‘, but in times of terror nobody thinks about the consequences of the mass-exodus of the intellectual and professionally skilled elite.

[3] Because people are aware of their consequences.

[4] To read the report click here. To watch the documentary, click here.

[5] An established fact also recognized by then World Bank country director of Sri Lanka, Peter Harrold who in an interview with the media in 2006 said that “corruption is the biggest enemy of the poor.”

[6] Khan M (2000a) Rent-seeking as process. In: Khan M, Jomo K (eds) Rents, Rent-Seeking and Economic Development: Theory and Evidence in Asia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 89–104.

[7] SECO = State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the “Confederation’s competence centre for all core issues relating to economic policy”, which is the body representing Switzerland in development issues and facilitating trade related support and payments.

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2016 – an outlook into a fragile future.

2015 has been a year heavily laden with major global events. According to how one of the most recent ones—the climate conference in Paris—has been celebrated, 2016 promises either the best or worst to come.

True, the past year didn’t start as prosperous as one might have wished. Considering all the killings and murders around the planet, USToday seems to have found the right words describing it as “horrific, disheartening and brutal” news that reached us during the year. Together with the ISIS terror, a further Paris terror attack, and ongoing crimes in Mexico social threats such as terror, war, epidemic outbreaks (e.g. Ebola) and massive migration seem to have reached dimensions that shake society as we would still be living in Middle Ages. Although some claim that never in history have as many people enjoyed such a high level of living quality, I prefer to stress here that never before in history have so many people on this planet suffered under physical harm, terror, prosecution, poverty or stress in whatever form.

Apart from a major social crisis, the planet is also suffering under an ever more evident abuse and over-exploitation of natural resources. Climate change has reached a dimension that can’t be denied any longer, not even by the most extreme fundamentalists among us. In Ho Chi Minh City we currently enjoy mid-summer conditions (without the usual rain that has been absent all-year), while in southern Germany cherry trees started to blossom at the beginning of December – four months early and skipping an entire season. While those among us who still trust in governments after all the NSA, FIFA corruption and other affairs can look forward to an early cherry season, realists and scientist know that such signs are not really indicators of a second Green Revolution.

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Early cherry tree blossom in southern Germany. Foto: Mittelbayerische.

I’m not sure if it is that everyone can feel the need for a change or simply prove of blind trust that made the world celebrate the outcome of COP21 of the UNFCCC in Paris as they usually only celebrate Coldplay or Roger Federer. Fact is that the thirty-two page document that world leaders added to the cultural heritage is nothing new nor does it replace a fraction of the entire world heritage that has been lost or willingly destroyed in 2015. While it is only a paper full of words, citizens shouldn’t forget that words and commitments alone will not change the planet, as decades of talk and empty words have shown.

In Vietnam I witness on a daily basis how climate change adaptation is being implemented with the help of foreign governments, whereas the national government plays a double-role cheating the international community and Vietnamese citizens alike while filling the pockets by stealing from both. The real estate boom is experiencing a revival thanks to a new law that permits even more foreign investment and ownership. While none of these dwellings come with insulation or other environmental safeguards, nobody cares about energy and pollution in a country where people (and companies) still burn their waste in the home-garden.

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Development boom in Vietnam: culture and habits can’t cope with the rapid change. Foto: author.

Foreign ownership will bring enough dollars to cool down heated rooms and heads. Meanwhile representatives from the Swiss embassy attended the celebration of the first Vietnamese vessel under Swiss flag, while Japanese, Belgian and other governments are proud investors of a new mega-port to be established right next to the UNESCO world heritage site Ha Long Bay which mainly serves as an access point to one of the most important illegal trade routes into China. Despite of this obvious loss in tax money, rather than fighting corruption the Swiss government assists with training for the banking sector. Maybe it’s best if we help with what we are good at given the incapacity to address corruption  back home. As a whole, international development and trade assistance have never been more practical and outcome-focused!

Considering that sustainable development, which is often characterized as the trinity of environmental, social and economic aspects, would be the best and probably only way forward to a better future, we might also explain the horrors of 2015 as a consequence of an ever increasing alienation from these ideals. Development as it has been practiced , development solely focused on financial gains, has led to ever further environmental and social exploitation even in 2015. The social crisis that we have witnessed in 2015 can thus also be understood as a logic outcome of an increasing inequality that has reached perverse levels. Furthermore it is the reaction to a failure of integrating citizens into decision making or, even worse, a complete denial of participation for the vast majority of world citizens.

To sum up, while I was shocked by the brutality by which society has been shaken in 2015, I felt equally speechless in light of the wave of applause that ‘our’ leaders earned at the climate talks in Paris. It only proves that we either prefer to believe in Santa Clause or hope for another Messiah. Even if we all see the shit coming, we can’t do better than believing in miracles until the shit ultimately hits the fan.

 

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Spain: a lesson on democracy for all of us?

While everyone in Spain is tensely waiting for the outcome of today’s election, it is clear that regardless of the outcome, Spanish citizens have eventually learned what the most important element of democracy is.

Being Swiss and at that time politically limited from my ‘Alpentrauma’ (i.e. a limited view on the world), what most impressed me when I moved to Spain back in 2003 was the very limited number of political parties. Apart from Catalonia other provinces seemed to only know the parties PP (Partido Popular) and PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español). Accordingly, the political interest of citizens was very much limited and people voted either ‘right’ or ‘left’. Some of my friends preferred to say that there were no right-ish parties in Spain and PP was only a bit ‘less left’ than PSOE.

Although it has been shown that a two-party landscape can be a logical outcome of a democratic system and while some praise bipartisan states for their stability, I always had my difficulties to accept that view. There are many reasons for my position. One of the least political is maybe the observation that humans are lazy. In politics this leads to a situation in which politicians start to sit back and relax once they have achieved the peak of their careers, usually expressed in claiming government of that country. Once in power, they feel absolute and forget that they are only appointed by the peoples to lead their country, not to impose their view on them. I wonder what can be democratic about a government that–as Mariano Rajoy did in 2013–tells its citizens that it won’t step down even after found guilty in a huge corruption case? What difference is there between such government and a monarch?

Even less democratic than an absolute prime minister is the fact that people don’t have a choice for a political alternative when exercising their rights to vote. When before the last elections in 2011 my Spanish friends told me that they would vote again for PSOE “since it was the lesser of two evils” while others decided to “vote for PP in order for PSOE to pay the bill for a very bad economic situation in which Spain was at that time” despite of feeling politically pro-PSOE, I felt confirmed in my belief that two-party states are only slightly better compared to one-party states but had absolutely nothing in common with democracy. In both systems citizens lack the option of choice, a lack that is anti-democratic in itself, not to mention its absurdity. Just imagine how you would feel about a country that had one party for women and one party for men. Or another that had a party for meat-lover and one for vegetarian, while everyone else had to choose between the two of them. Is it possible to represent the peoples of any country in only two parties?

What makes a country democratic is neither the fact that it is listed as democracy in Wikipedia nor the observation that citizens have the right to vote. Democracy is a process and it can only exist where existing institutions allow or–even better–facilitate this process. In a country with only two parties this is most unlikely, because similar to one-party states, there is always one party dictating the course of inaction. Of course it can be questioned whether newcomers such as Cuidadanos or Podemos will do a better job than the established ones. However, in contrast to Rajoy I believe that what matters is having new ideas and also the necessity to discuss, negotiate and make compromises. A government that imposes itself on its citizens in the way PP did under Rajoy is not any more democratic than Italy under Berlusconi or Russia under Putin. However, Spanish citizens deserve better than that, as we all do!

The most important lesson of today’s election is that today, the Spanish people will put an end to 40 years of heteronomy disguised under a pseudo-democratic veil. Citizens have decided to taking ownership of democracy and the process that determines it. I hope that others will follow.

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