Archive - August, 2008


This morning I note that CNN has brought into its Sunday morning Late Edition program a commentator from the Christian Broadcast Network to comment about politics and evangelical voters. This is the same CBN owned by Pat Robertson who declaimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for abortions in the U.S. and who, according to the blog Yurica Reports, employed Blitzer as a Middle East correspondent when he was beginning his journalism career.

The watchdog site MinistryWatch describes CBN as follows, Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc. (“CBN”) uses mass media, especially television and visual media, to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the everlasting kingdom of God on earth.”

The religious right continues to shape public perception of Christian faith. In his Sunay column, Frank Rich notes that 5.5 million turned to the Saddleback appearances of John McCain and Barack Obama while 32 million tuned into the time-delayed reports of the Olympics on NBC, suggesting, perhaps that the media attention given to religious conservatives might be a bit much, but never the less, it was a debate whose questions were framed by the evangelical wing of the faith.

However you feel about that, nuance and substance in reporting about religion have long since been abandoned by most U.S. media. And now CNN has decided to give legitimation and voice to an expression of an evangelical enterprise that is, in its most generous description, a fringe on the hem of the mainstream fabric of the faith.

All of which brings me to my on-going concern about the absence of mainline voices in the media and, because you’ve seen it before here, I pledge I’m going to just stop writing about it. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s futile to continue to point it out.

What this means is quite simple. Until some leaders emerge who can express theology in the public square from the Mainline tradition the Mainline will not shape public perception of Christian faith and its social reponsibilities through media as it once did.

We don’t have the likes of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., or Fr. Malcom Boyd, who some readers won’t even know, and there is little value in writing about that which only causes me continuing heartburn. So, I think I’ll swear off.

Ethiopia’s “New” Famine

Ethiopia is enduring famine. USA Today calls it new. In fact, it’s only the most recent and severe. The images of malnourished, exhausted children and adults are, unfortunately, not new. We’ve seen them before and more importantly, Ethiopians have suffered through famines before.

This time the hunger seems more widespread and pervasive. But famine in Ethiopia in 1985 sparked a global reaction and promises to never let it happen again, a promise that was hard to keep.

Oxfam, the international aid organization, says the famine will not result in a repeat of one million deaths as in 1985, but it calls the current situation a “toxic cocktail” resulting from weather, war, inflation and assorted insect plagues. Add population growth to the mix and in the words of one nutritionist, it’s a “ticking time bomb.”

This leads to the current call to end global poverty. It’s not that this is an impossibility, it’s just that doing it will require partnerships and commitment that do not yet approach the scale and mass required.

I hear too many organizations appeal for funds as if they alone were able to effect the necessary change. And, after telling stories of famine and poverty for thirty years, it’s clear to me that no single entity is equipped to meet this challenge on it own. To acknowledge this comes as a challenge to some fundraisers who must tell the success stories of their agencies in order to attract the resources necessary to conduct their work, and to agency leaders who don’t want to acknowledge the valuable work of others. I see and hear this almost daily.

But the truth is, partnerships to achieve scale are essential. The oft-repeated ad for malaria bednets by Exxon during Olympic coverage says it clearly. The day is past when agencies can claim they can go it alone and be effective. In the global environment with its complicated and interrelated causes and effects, we will either resolve problems together or watch them become worse by trying to go it alone.

How Starbucks Lost its Brand

I’ve been thinking about the demise of Starbucks for months, not just the fall in stock prices, nor the recent store closings, nor the ubiquitous shop on both sides of the street. I mean the loss of the brand relationship.

Starbucks is no longer the “third place.” The cachet is long gone, lost–maybe even killed–by erosion of the relationship and the quality of the experience of the brand.

The nail in the coffin for me came at a brand new suburban Atlanta Starbucks about a year and a half ago.

It was the first store I’d seen with a drive-through. A drive-through, I thought to myself. Doesn’t seem like a Starbucks. The whole brand is about a comfortable third place, not a drive-through fast food “experience.”

So I chose to go inside. Loud music played on the stereo. Outside and inside. So loud the cashier couldn’t hear my order, nor the person behind me. It wasn’t a place I’d want to sit and relax. I wanted to get out, but not outside to one of the metal chairs on the sidewalk. The music was intrusive even there.

And the fact the staff didn’t seem to care only added to the sense that the relationship was no longer important. They were dispensing coffee, nothing else. I could have as easily been at a fast food place.

This is not how Starbucks made its name and it’s not what the brand was about at an earlier time. Inattention to the brand relationship is how Starbucks lost its brand.

But the few examples I’ve mentioned are only a part of the whole picture. There’s more to the story. A good overview of all the factors that lead to this conclusion appear in a post by Doug Karr at the Marketing Technology Blog.

Wordle my Blog

WordleI discovered Wordle, an online program that analyzes the words on a site and creates a cloud. Just for fun I ran Wordle on the Perspectives site and got this word cloud. Scroll over and click the image at left for an enlargement.

I don’t think it represents the whole site, just those words available from the first page of the blog. So it doesn’t create a representative cloud, at least the way I ran the program.

But it’s an interesting and instructive visual of the frequency of subjects and their descriptive phrases that reveals emphasis.

Somaliland Democracy

Would you vacation in Somalia? Given Somalia’s image (and reality) as an ungovernable failed state locked in perpetual violence, the answer is obvious.

But last week Peter Buttitigieg and Nathaniel Meyers  report they walked through the market (it sounds like Berbera) and drove around in a battered pickup truck to see rock paintings in the desert in the Republic of Somaliland.

It’s a unique and provocative report from the unrecognized, autonomous, self-governing territory north of Somalia, a place few people have heard of.

Buttitigieg says a democratically elected government is functioning despite desperate poverty and lack of recognition by the U.S., Europe and the African Union. Paradoxically, it’s what the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, needs.

But, to call it a paradox is deep understatement. The Republic of Somaliland has been functioning as a democracy since 1991 without recognition, not because it’s unknown but because it’s the policy of the AU, US and EU. There are many reasons, not the least of which is that the Republic constituted itself and has gone about its business without acceding to requests by the international community for it to dissolve and merge with the rest of the anarchic territory to the south.

Therefore, even with its record of success, it presents all kinds of problems to Africa and the world community. Tenuous borders were drawn by colonial administrators who disregarded land use patterns by various tribes. These are still an inflammatory issue.

The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a recent reminder. Competing claims on the Ogaden within the borders of Ethiopia but used by ethnic Somalis is another.

In addition, tenuous elections have put people in charge who hold on through coercion, finesse and, sometimes, force.

Many feel that self-constituted autonomy opens a Pandora’s box that could lead to more problems than solutions. So the Republic remains incognito.

Never the less, Buttitigieg and Meyers provoke interesting reflection on the Republic of Somaliland and whether it should be ignored by the rest of the world. I have a T-shirt that says, “I vacationed in Mogadishu and lived to tell about it.” Buttitigieg and Meyers don’t claim the Republic is a tourist destination, but given the instability to the south they ask if the world should take a second look at the Republic of Somaliland and re-consider its invisible status.

Fuel Costs in West Africa and the Global Food Crisis

I wrote from Ivory Coast last week of the public strike against higher fuel costs. Abidjan, the country’s economic center, was shut down. Young people set up roadblocks and had to be dispersed by police.

An article this morning from Reuters offers a glimpse of the social impact of higher fuel prices. They are economically oppressive and socially destabilizing.

We experienced the chaos in a milder form. When we went to check out of our rooms preparing to leave for the airport we were told airport workers were on strike and no planes were flying. Hotel guests gathered in the lobby swapping bits of information and offering advice to each other.

We reserved rooms for the night and began a frantic search for alternatives, calling travel agents, local people who might know more, and conferring with others in the hotel. Prospects looked bleak. We might be stranded for the duration of the strike. We called home to break the news. Not a happy task.

Then a call came from a local contact who said he learned the plane we were booked on would be allowed to land and take off. Go to the airport.

We gathered our bags and rushed off, to the chagrin of the hotel staff who smiled and said they’d see us soon, assuming we would be back shortly.

At the airport, however, people stood at the arrival gates awaiting debarking passengers and we skimmed through security, ticketing and passport control in record time. No waiting because the rumor had kept everyone away.

To our surprise the airport was operating normally. Planes were landing and taking off. Our plane sat at the gate and at the appointed time we were boarded and we departed. I still don’t know if the strike was quashed, fell apart or was a rumor.

However, cost of living is an issue. Fuel costs have driven up prices not only for fuel but for food and other goods and services, including public buses and taxis. Pocketbooks already stretched are now being emptied. Many lucky enough to have a  job can’t earn enough to get to work and buy food. As one taxi driver told the Reuters reporter, he is working to pay for fuel.

In a developing economy price increases don’t ripple through and eventually get absorbed, they rip through tearing a hole in the pockets of people who are already barely able to survive. And that’s a much more significant reality than the inconvenience of travel for folks like me. Per capita income in Côte d’Ivoire is $587 U.S.

Yesterday Exxon announced record profits, earning $1,500 a second, $11.7 billion for the quarter, record profit for a corporation. And still, it wasn’t enough for Wall Street. Exxon shares dropped and the LA Times actually opined we in the U.S. should be grateful for the company’s staggering profits because the pain of higher gasoline prices is driving the search for alternatives, and, of course, the editors think it’s bad policy to tax excessive profits. Bad for the corporation.

A more useful discussion of food and trade policy is here.

However, I wonder if that means it’s good policy to let the poorest of Africa and elsewhere walk and eat dirt, because that’s what’s happening. The global food crisis is, in part, borne by global fuel costs and for some it’s not a mere inconvenience.

Lighting Africa

New technology could bring light to off-the-grid Africa according to Jonathan Marks at Critical Distance weblog.

Marks reports on a joint venture by the Dutch electronics multinational, Philips, the Netherlands Ministry of Overseas Development and selected African partners.

Marks says the effort will produce solar lighting kits for Sub-Saharan Africa.

He writes, “The aim of the agreement called ‘Sustainable Energy Solutions Africa’, is quite simply to create ten million LED lights, giving people in the rural areas of 14 countries access to sustainable light before the year 2015.”