News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

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July 19, 2009

Sink or swim in modern China

Sink or swim in modern China

Chris Hogg heads to the small Chinese village of Zhushanxia, 200km from Shanghai, to see how lives have been shaped by the economy under communist rule, the recession and the country’s economic recovery.

A farmer sells vegetables at a wholesale market on March 22, 2005 in Hefei of Anhui Province, China

China’s economic roller-coaster has divided communities and villages into those who have sunk financially, and those who managed to swim

Huang Jiao Ling lives at the end of a long dusty road.

Mobile phone numbers are daubed all over the walls of her home and those of her neighbours.

It is like a strange kind of mathematical graffiti, but the numbers are, in fact, advertisements for people offering goods and services.

In modern China, it seems everyone has something to sell.

Huang Jiao Ling, too, is an entrepreneur. She is in her 50s, but she looks younger.

In her front garden, where others might have planted vegetables, she has built a small workshop.

Inside, the walls are unfinished and the floor uneven, but there is just about enough room for a work-bench and a handful of basic machine tools.

Churning out widgets

On the floor are cardboard boxes filled with piles of tiny metal widgets.

They are simple to make – her husband sits at the bench turning them out rapidly by hand.

Fruit seller in China

Many Chinese run their own small businesses in order to get ahead

A few feet away, his bicycle-taxi is parked just inside the front door of the house.

The machine work is a lot less tiring than pedalling passengers around, but he still keeps the bike.

It is useful, he says, to supplement their income in leaner times.

The Huangs sell the boxes of widgets to the factory where Huang Jiao Ling has a full-time job.

For a while this year they had to shut the workshop as demand dropped, but now the machines are humming again.

They have two children, because if you live in the country and your first child is a girl, you are allowed to have another one.

The girls go to very good schools, the best Huang Jiao Ling can afford.

She spends more than half her income on school fees.

“We have to think of their future,” she tells me.

“It’s a Chinese tradition. Parents always think of their children, and when the parents get old, their children will look after them. It’s the same for every generation.”

Yu Feng Guo is Huang Jiao Ling’s brother-in-law.

She is doing well for herself in China’s new modern market economy, but he has been left behind.

He used to work in a state-owned brick factory.

Different lifestyles

When the economic reforms began 30 years ago he watched as some of his co-workers left their jobs to start up their own small businesses, many of them selling prawns or fish by the side of the road.

He decided to do what he thought was the right thing, what the communist party would expect of a loyal worker in a state-owned enterprise – he stayed.

Eventually, the brick factory went bust and he was out of a job.

Rice paddy field

Agriculture provides an income for many rural Chinese

Now, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket, he works as a security guard in an open-air food market.

Those early entrepreneurs who had left his factory to try their luck in the fledgling market economy are now much richer than him and to his family this seems unfair.

“Thirty years ago everyone in the village was poor,” his son tells me.

“Now the difference in lifestyle between the rich and the poor in our village is huge.”

There is an implicit bargain in modern Chinese society between the leaders and the led.

Beijing tells its people “we will give you opportunities” – to earn more, to enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did.

But you, in return, will behave yourself.

Back on track

In Zhushanxia village quite a few cars can be seen bumping along past the fields, something you would not have seen 30 years ago.

If you have got used to having more, whether it’s a car, or a bigger house, or a more expensive school for your child, you have more to lose when times get tough.

That is why it is so important for the government to get the economy back on track.

When it first faltered, when factories started laying off workers, there was a risk that they would start to feel the government was no longer keeping to its side of the deal, so why should they?

So in Beijing, of course, there will be relief that a recovery appears to be under way.

But the next challenge for the government will be to do more to try to ensure that everyone shares the benefits.

Huang Jiao Ling is happy her workshop is busy again, but still nervous about the future.

So she, like most other Chinese, is saving as much of her income as she can.

Her brother-in-law Yu Feng Guo, has no idea how he will be able to save enough to secure a state pension on his meagre wages from his unstable job.

He and others like him will be looking to their leaders for reassurance that they will be cared for as they approach old age.

But that will costly and complicated. Fixing the economy may prove to have been the easy part.

July 17, 2009

US firm averts French explosion

Filed under: Business News, Entertainment News, Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:15 pm

US firm averts French explosion

Gas bottles have been placed around the New Fabris site

A threat to blow up another French factory has not been defused

A US construction equipment firm has agreed to pay extra compensation to French workers who had threatened to explode gas canisters at their plant.

Staff at JLG Industries in Tonneins, south-western France, made the threat in order to get better redundancy terms for 53 workers.

It is the third such incident in which workers have threatened violence against employers.

Elsewhere, French workers have taken managers hostage in “boss-nappings”.

The French Employment Minister, Laurent Wauquiez, described the tactics as “blackmail”.

In the JLG deal, the 53 affected workers were each guaranteed 30,000 euros (£26,000; $42,000) in severance pay.

JLG Industries is a subsidiary of the US company Oshkosh, which makes cranes and work platforms.

Meanwhile, a tense stand-off continues at the bankrupt New Fabris car plant in Chatellerault, south-west of Paris, where workers have also made a threat to blow up the factory.

They have given a 31 July deadline for Renault and Peugeot, which provided 90% of the plant’s work, to pay them 30,000 euros each.

Renault and PSA Peugeot said it was not their responsibility to pay workers.

The BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby in Paris says there is an acute sense of injustice in France at the moment, with many workers complaining that while their bosses continue to reap company benefits and bonuses, they are paying for this economic crisis with their jobs.

July 12, 2009

A return to the heart of Mumbai

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 4:58 am

A return to the heart of Mumbai

Despite India’s economic success, it is still home to millions of the world’s poorest people. Martin Buckley lived in Bombay, as it was known, in the 1980s. He recently went back and found, as he walked about after sunset, that the essential character of the city remains unchanged.

Mumbai at night

Mumbai: Twenty million people live in India’s most populated city

Bombay by night. It is hard to think of three words more expressive of history, exoticism, and empire.

And I do not begrudge the “new” name, Mumbai (the city was renamed in 1995).

The city’s presiding goddess is Mumba-Ai, and I spent a chunk of the 1980s living close to her temple in the heart of the city.

It was my first job after university, working on a magazine called Business India. Very few foreigners worked in Bombay then.

Pre-boom India was still locked into its Soviet-style command economy.

Paid local rates, I lived in a succession of seedy rooms in downtown Bombay.

We sometimes put the magazine to bed at 0300 local time, and I would walk home.

On the pavements were string beds, where men lay, totally abandoned in sleep.

I never felt threatened for an instant.

Slum living

We have heard a lot lately about Mumbai’s slums, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit my old haunts.

Dharavi slum

Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum spanning more than 500 acres

Mumbai is a long, thin city, and on its northern fringes, residential suburbs are mushrooming.

I went to visit Dharavi, the slum made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire, which is nearer the city centre on land the developers would love to get their hands on.

This “slum” has electricity, workplaces, temples and mosques.

I asked a street trader selling school exercise books if he had heard of Slumdog Millionaire.

“Of course,” he said, adding that tourists had been turning up in droves to see where the film was shot.

But he said they should go home, as no-one wanted them there.

I felt no danger in Dharavi, at least, not from people.

Stepping on a sleeping dog – an actual “slum-dog” – was far more of a worry.

‘Light beatings’

The next night, a hot, sticky evening, my first stop was at a downtown police station in central Mumbai, to interview a police inspector.

Child actor Azharuddin Ismail in his Mumbai slum

The Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire highlighted the city’s slums

He was a sleek character, with manicured nails, dyed hair and an expensive-looking Swiss watch.

Sipping sweet tea from an improbably refined china cup, I sheepishly asked about the brutal police torture shown in Slumdog Millionaire.

“Ridiculous,” he replied, though he did admit that what he called “light beatings” were routine. And no, I could not visit the cells.

He moved hastily on to more comfortable territory, showing me his CCTV screens, and declaring how modern forensics had transformed criminal investigation.

His biggest task, he stressed, was managing tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

Doggedly, I asked about police corruption and drugs mafia, but received peremptory replies.

Prostitution he claimed, was sharply down, but not through policing. Rather, he claimed it was because people were terrified of catching Aids.

Decomposing facades

Physically, central Mumbai has changed far less than I expected.

There are some elevated highways from which, I am told, motorcyclists periodically plunge.

A market in Mumbai

The markets and dockyards of Mumbai are still thriving

But the great tenements still rise in terraces draped with washing, their Victorian or art deco facades slowly decomposing.

Few of the 1960s-style Fiat taxis have been replaced by newer cars.

There are bullock carts toting jute bales, tiny shops with colonial interiors, hawkers selling fruit from trolleys, men sitting cross-legged in the street selling shoes, basket-weavers working and living on the pavements.

Markets sell everything from metal ware to fresh fish, and as 2200 approached, I could still see live mullet writhing in baskets.

Nearby were the entrepots of Mumbai’s thriving dockyards, with the seedy, raffish air of a Conrad novel. And it is much easier to buy a beer in contemporary Mumbai than it was in my day.

Religious tensions have worsened, but I passed Hindu and Muslim traders working side by side.

Decay and ambition

In Bhuleshwar, in the old heart of Mumbai, I visited the city’s presiding Hindu goddess.

The pillars of Mumba-Ai’s tiny temple were entwined with flowers to resemble an indoor forest, and people urgently jostled for a glimpse of the deity.

By midnight I had reached Falkland Road, Mumbai’s infamous red light district.

Women stood around gloomily, their faces showing none of the flirtation that is supposed to be their profession’s stock in trade.

Mumbai’s sex industry caters to millions of poor men, and its squalor and joylessness are all too evident.

A pimp was hanging onto my arm. I asked him if it was true that client numbers were down. He became aggressive. Was I there to spend money or ask nosy questions?

I flagged down a taxi, and slid on to the back seat. Through the open window, the air was now pleasantly cool.

The essential character of the great city I had known and loved 25 years ago, seemed to me unchanged, and it was still a Dickensian canvas of decay, ambition, and exploitation.

But Mumbai is pragmatic. It looks chaotic, but it works.

July 11, 2009

Obama speaks of hopes for Africa

Obama speaks of hopes for Africa

US President Barack Obama, on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, has said Africa must take charge of its own destiny in the world.

Mr Obama told parliament in Ghana during his one-day stay that good governance was vital for development.

Major challenges awaited Africans in the new century, he said, but vowed that the US would help the continent.

The US president’s trip comes at the end of a summit of eight of the world’s most powerful nations, held in Italy.

Ghana was chosen as the destination for the president’s visit because of its strong democratic record.

Mr Obama headed from parliament to Cape Coast Castle, a seaside fortress converted to the slave trade by the British in the 17th Century. He was accompanied by his wife, Michelle, a descendant of African slaves, and both of his young daughters.

People crowded into a public area outside the fort to greet Mr Obama, with those unable to get a place in the throng climbing onto nearby roofs and filling balconies just to catch a glimpse of the US leader.

Africa’s choice

Mr Obama spoke to parliament shortly after a breakfast meeting with Ghanaian President John Atta Mills.

He wore a broad grin as he was greeted at the podium by a series of rousing horn blasts from within the chamber.

US President Barack Obama speaks to the Ghanaian parliament
Development depends upon good governance. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans
US President Barack Obama

“Congress needs one of them,” Mr Obama joked, before turning to more serious matters.

“I have come here to Ghana for a simple reason,” the US president said: “The 21st Century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Ghana as well.”

Delivering a message that “Africa’s future is up to Africans”, Mr Obama conceded that the legacy of colonialism had helped breed conflict on the continent.

“But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants,” he added.

He praised Ghana’s own progress, governance and economic growth, saying Ghana’s achievements were less dramatic than the liberation struggles of the 20th Century but would ultimately be more significant.

“Development depends upon good governance,” Mr Obama told legislators. “That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long.

“And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.”

‘Yes you can’

Expanding on his message, Mr Obama said four key areas were critical to the future of Africa and of the entire developing world, citing democracy, opportunity, health and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

ANALYSIS
Andrew Harding, BBC News, Accra
Andrew Harding, BBC News, Accra

The speech has gone down extremely well. This is a country that has been enormously proud to play host to Mr Obama and referred to him as a brother. People say endlessly that he is part of the family and they are expecting a great deal of him.

It was a very broad-ranging speech but Mr Obama has an ability because of his heritage, his Kenyan father, to reach out and speak to Africans in a way that I think most foreign leaders would find very difficult.

There are very few barriers for Mr Obama in this conversation that he is trying to initiate with Africans and I think that this speech will have ticked many, many boxes.

This is Mr Obama trying to link Africa into the international community.

He hailed Ghana’s democratic society, calling for strong parliaments, honest police, independent judges and a free press across Africa.

However, there were some blunt words directed at other countries, many of which have been undermined by despotic leaders and corrupt politicians.

“Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,” Mr Obama told his audience.

“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny.”

He pledged to continue strong US support for public healthcare initiatives in Africa, and called for sensible use of natural resources such as oil in the face of the threat of climate change.

“Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at war,” Mr Obama added. “But for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. He described wars as a “millstone around Africa’s neck”.

“You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” Mr Obama said, describing freedom as Africa’s “inheritance” and urging the continent to beat disease, end conflict and bring long-lasting change.

In an echo of his presidential election campaign, he drew his speech to a close with a version of his trademark slogan: “Yes you can,” he told the gathered legislators.

Tight security

On the streets of Accra, many billboards welcoming Barack Obama have been erected, including one showing an image of the president and wife with the words: “Ghana loves you”.

A young supporter listens to Barack Obama's speech

Barack Obama’s speech was welcomed by Ghanaians of all ages

People have poured into Accra for a glimpse of the president during his 24-hour stay in Ghana.

But security is tight for the president’s visit, and few ordinary Ghanaians will have the chance to glimpse the first African-American President of the United States.

Mr Obama arrived in the capital late on Friday, fresh from the G8 summit in Italy where heads of state agreed on a $20bn (£12.3bn) fund to bolster agriculture – the main source of income for many sub-Saharan Africans.

July 2, 2009

Student maintenance cash frozen

Filed under: Business News, Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:30 am

Student maintenance cash frozen

Graduation ceremony

The system of student finance is different around the UK

Student maintenance grants and loans in England will be frozen for the academic year 2010-2011, the government has announced.

However, loans to cover tuition fees will be raised in line with the increase in the fees themselves.

Tuition fees will increase by 2.04% from September 2010, higher education minister David Lammy said.

He insisted that “difficult decisions” had to be made in the current economic climate.

The full maintenance grant, payable to students whose family income does not exceed £25,000, will remain at £2,906.

Maintenance loans and thresholds will also remain at 2009/10 levels.

Grants available for trainee teachers will also be reduced to be brought into line with amounts available to other students, Mr Lammy said in a written ministerial statement.

He said: “In these difficult economic times, we are continuing to take difficult decisions in the interests of students, universities and taxpayers alike.

“We have therefore decided to maintain the current package of maintenance support for full-time students, reflecting the current low inflationary environment.”

Recession

The Russell Group of 20 leading universities said it was “vital” that income from tuition fees kept pace with inflation.

“The introduction of fees has managed to halt a long-term decline in funding per student but funding for higher education in Britain is still significantly lower than in most other OECD countries,” said its director general, Wendy Piatt.

“The system of student support in England remains one of the most generous – and expensive – in the world.”

But the National Union of Students President, Wes Streeting, said: “Students are already racking up thousands of pounds of debt, and in a recession every penny counts.

“It appears that the inflation rate is being applied where it suits universities, but not where it will improve student support.

“In the context of the current recession, these real terms cuts in student support will be felt in students’ pockets.”

And the General Secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said ministers had “failed” to ensure higher education was not a victim of the recession.

Loans

Students in England can apply for a means-tested grant to cover living costs – the value of this depends on their family income.

They can make up any shortfall by applying for a maintenance loan.

In addition, a tuition fee loan to cover fees is paid by the government on behalf of every student directly to the institution they attend.

These are repayable after graduation once annual income reaches £15,000.

Students in Northern Ireland are charged the same fees as in England.

The situation in Scotland and Wales differs – both countries charge higher fees to students from elsewhere in the UK coming to study there.

In Scotland, home students do not pay any fees.

March 29, 2009

Biden appeals to G20 protesters

Biden appeals to G20 protesters

Prime Minister Gordon Brown meets US Vice-President Joe Biden (R) in Chile on Saturday 28 March 2009

Joe Biden (right) asked protesters to give G20 leaders a fair hearing

US Vice-President Joe Biden has called for G20 protesters to give governments a chance to tackle the economic crisis.

At a G20 warm-up meeting in Chile, Mr Biden said heads of state would agree proposals to remedy the crisis at next week’s meeting in London.

As they spoke, tens of thousands of protesters marched in the UK capital and in Germany, France and Italy.

US billionaire George Soros told the news the G20 meeting was “make or break” for the world economy.

“Unless they do something for developing world there will be serious collapse in that part of the world,” Mr Soros said.

Massive security operation

At a news conference in Vina del Mar, Mr Biden said he hoped the protesters would give the politicians a chance.

“Hopefully we can make it clear to them that we’re going to walk away from this G20 meeting with some concrete proposals,” he said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he understood why people were demonstrating in the UK.

“We will respond to [the protest] at the G20 with measures that will help create jobs, stimulate business and get the economy moving,” he said.

But Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the Chile meeting that everyone was suffering from the recklessness of those who had turned the world economy into “a gigantic casino”.

“We are rejecting blind faith in the markets,” he said.

In London on Saturday, demonstrators demanding action on poverty, jobs and climate change called on G20 leaders to pursue a new kind of global justice.

Police estimated 35,000 marchers took part in the event.

A series of rallies are planned for Wednesday and Thursday by a variety of coalitions and groups campaigning on a range of issues from poverty, inequality and jobs, to war, climate change and capitalism.

There have been reports that banks and other financial institutions could be targeted in violent protests.

British officials have put a huge security operation in place.

‘We won’t pay’

Before the London summit, Mr Brown has been visiting a number of countries trying to rally support for his economic plans.

In Chile on Friday he said people should not be “cynical” about what could be achieved at the summit, saying he was optimistic about the likely outcome.

But in an interview, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dampened expectations of a significant breakthrough.

She said one meeting would not be enough to solve the economic crisis and finish building a new structure for global markets.

In Berlin, thousands of protesters took to the streets on Saturday with a message to the G20 leaders: “We won’t pay for your crisis.”

Another march took place in the city of Frankfurt. The demonstrations attracted as many as 20,000 people.

In the Italian capital, Rome, several thousand protesters took to the streets.

In Paris, around 400 demonstrators dumped sand outside the stock exchange to mock supposed island tax havens.

February 24, 2009

US recession ‘may last into 2010’

US recession ‘may last into 2010’

US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke has warned Congress that without the right policies from the government, the US recession could last into 2010.

But he said if the Obama administration and the central bank can restore some measure of financial stability, 2010 could be a year of recovery.

Mr Bernanke made the comments to the Senate Banking Committee.

He also warned that the global nature of the downturn was a threat because exports would be hit.

In its attempts to revive the economy, the Federal Reserve has cut its key interest rate to nearly zero, while the Obama administration has recently signed a $787bn (£546bn) economic stimulus package.

Mr Bernanke said that the potential economic turnaround would hinge on the success of such measures in getting credit and financial markets to operate more normally again.

“Only if that is the case, in my view there is a reasonable prospect that the current recession will end in 2009 and that 2010 will be a year of recovery,” he said.

Vicious circle

Mr Bernanke reassured legislators that he was, “committed to using all available tools to stimulate economic activity and to improve financial market functioning”.

But he also outlined long-run predictions for the economy, which he said reflected “the view of policymakers that a full recovery of the economy from the current recession is likely to take more than two or three years”.

He described a vicious circle of rising unemployment and shrinking house prices and savings forcing consumers to cut back, which would in turn increase unemployment.

“To break that adverse feedback loop, it is essential that we continue to complement fiscal stimulus with strong government action to stabilise financial institutions and financial markets,” he said.

Speaking of the concern about bankers benefiting from bail-outs, he added that the country “ought not abstain from saving the financial system just because it rewards people who erred”.

Sliding confidence

Mr Bernanke’s testimony came shortly after data showed that consumer confidence in February had fallen to the lowest level since the Conference Board began reporting the figures in 1967.

Its sentiment index fell to a much worse-than-expected 25.0 in February from January’s figure of 37.4.

“We just got the worst consumer confidence number ever on record,” said Matt Esteve, a foreign exchange trader at Tempus Consulting in Washington.

“Following yesterday’s awful sell-off in the stock market, it just highlights the risk that there is right now.”

House prices

There were also figures showing that the decline in US house prices had accelerated.

The S&P Case Shiller house price index showed the price of a single-family home had fallen 18.5% in December, compared with the same month of 2007.

It was the biggest drop since the index began being calculated 21 years ago.

“There are very few, if any, pockets of turnaround that one can see in the data,” said David Blitzer, chairman of S&P’s index committee.

“Most of the nation appears to remain on a downward path.”

January 31, 2009

Merkel proposes UN economic body

Merkel proposes UN economic body

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (in red) arriving to speak in Davos, 30 January

Mrs Merkel leads one of the world’s most important economies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed the creation of a United Nations Economic Council modelled on the UN Security Council.

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she called for the adoption of a post-crisis global economic charter.

The charter would be based on sustainable economics and the Economic Council would oversee markets.

It is an idea that Mrs Merkel has advocated previously.

“All of these issues… need to be enshrined in a charter for the global economic order,” she said.

“This may even lead to a UN Economic Council, just as the Security Council was created after World War II.”

The idea of creating a UN Economic Council was proposed by Mrs Merkel when she met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris earlier this month.

January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


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