After the emergency

After remembering that I hold an Italian passport, I like to remember that I live within the Schengen area and the Eurozone.

The “emergency” I am referring to is, of course, the current unrest on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, touching an area stretching from the Atlantic to the Arabic Gulf.

But it should be better defined as a sum of emergencies:
1. today’s unrest, human losses and suffering just across the sea
2. the potential for a war, whatever name we will give to the intervention
3. the ripple-effect on regional stability, with the sudden influx of returning expatriates, and the loss of their contribution to the economy of their country of origin.

As you can see from the title, this article “skips” the emergency (or emergencies): the focus is not on what will happen this month or even this year, but on what could affect the relationship between all the countries involved- including our European countries.

As an article on “Le Monde” said about oil prices- are we observing a structural change?

I will not comment on prior attempts to solve the issue, up to the recent document that, as reported by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung yesterday (EU will Demokratisierung in Mittelmeerländern fördern).

Considering that the meeting that will decide on the EU policy on the subject will be later this week, I will postpone commenting for few days- but I look forward and hope for a unified answer.

I just finished reading and re-reading a book that nominally talks only about immigration (Fred Pearce, Peoplequake).

Why this book and why now? Because I was looking for a reference book that went beyond the usual fence-sitting, and delivered both a 360 view on immigration, data, and specific real-life case studies, something that I could add to a “suggested reading” list.

You can agree or disagree with the author and his thesis- but, at least, the sources are documented, and the discussion is around data on how, what, when, where migration flows develop, and their economic side-effects on developing countries.

Yes, the “why” is missing- because it is still an open issue.

This article is focused on sharing doubts more than ideas- and, as customary, doubts are generated by observations, readings, and shared experiences.

Following the path set by the author of “Peoplequake”, I will share my doubts- and also my experiences and readings, hoping to stimulate your own doubts… or generate alternatives from your own perspective.

But, before continuing with the article- a small digression.

clear out…

… the table: i.e. I will not talk about “now”, but I would like to share a short selection of articles.

Since February, I shared online something that I called TAD- Three Articles a Day, actually three threads, with few keywords and links to articles that represent interesting trends.

Beware: I do not necessarily agree with the content of each article, and I do not expect my readers to agree with me.

I limit myself to three threads a day, as I use twitter, and I cannot add more than 140 characters per posting.

This is a short selection of what I selected but decided not to post online over the last two days just on Libya and the surrounding areas, as I was waiting to see the unified position that I referred to above (and I keep waiting):

Europe Weighs Financial Rewards for Arab World

Jordan Increases Budget to Tamp Unrest

La debilidad de los rebeldes acelera los planes de intervención militar

Les Etats-Unis n’excluent pas d’armer l’opposition libyenne

Israel Considers Military ‘Upgrade’

Debatte über Militärintervention

Obama: “Nato studia opzione militare”

НАТО не планирует вмешиваться в ситуацию в Ливии

Nato-Flugzeuge überwachen Libyen rund um die Uhr

White House: sending ground troops to Libya not top option

U.S. resumes military prosecution of Guantanamo detainees

Avoiding another Iraq

immigrants and immigration

Beside a short professional experience in mid-2000s (on the backoffice, not the frontline), my interest on immigration and cultural differences has a long history.

First, by experience, as, son of immigrants from the South to the North, I discovered in a brief return to the South in the late 1960s/early 1970s that I could be considered “foreign” in the South as much, if not even more, than I was in the North.

Then, through political activity in high school, by comparing stories and experiences with other Italians and Europeans, in Italy and abroad, including meeting and discussing, only Italian in the team, with people from various developing countries who had in common only one point.

They were all living in Italy.

Few were political refugees, others were de-facto refugees (long-term university students), plus economic migrants.

A politically active student has a significant advantage: time isn’t money, and therefore, if willing, (s)he can listen, think, discuss- until hell freezes over, escaping from the jingoism that afflicts way too many experts, who have barely the time to cross-check a pre-cooked list of questions, instead of listening to what immigrants have to say, from their own perspective.

Observation: too many books and articles immigration read more like marketing material to collect evidence of a theory carefully designed to push an agenda, than the result of a fact-finding mission.

And, as many Italian families, I had stories within the family of migrants, returning migrants (adoptive grandfather, from the US), including, thanks to the Internet, distant relatives who contributed their own century-old stories of immigration and integration.

In a typical chicken-and-egg situation, from late 1980s I worked with and managed people from all around the world, often reaping the benefits of my prior unplanned, unintentional, informal interviews and multinational experiences

From the late 1980s, business travels around Europe enabled further observation, exploration, and, of course, interesting exchanges with economic migrants, asylum seekers, and second or third generation migrants that I met either on the job or working around Europe.

Eventually, I spent Summer 1994 as a kind of sabbatical vacation, studying international political economy in London, and intercultural communication and management in Sweden.

In both cases, I had interesting exchanges with my classmates- including, in Sweden, classmates who were actually working or living in developing countries outside Europe.

I kept hearing the “immigration flood” argument- but I am still unconvinced- probably, because I travelled in Europe also outside the towns that attract most economic migrants.

Until the early 1980s, the only non-European immigrants that I had met were from former Italian colonies, a guy from Madagascar who talked about their colonial past, and Muslim Indians living in UK, relatives of an Italian family friend.

Also in Italy, beside local minorities from past immigration waves and invasions, immigrants were few and scattered- and the main immigration known was from rural areas to Turin, Milan, Rome, and few other towns.

the empty lands of Europe

Once in a while, I went trekking in the Alps in Piedmont with high school friends.

Almost everywhere, over the last 20 years I saw empty villages, and old villagers described how was their life in the past, before people started working in town- in factories, or delivering services to those working and living in towns.

Sometimes, nobody is left behind to keep track of who owns what.

But I both saw and was reported stories of abandoned villages around Europe- after their inhabitants, following the post-WWII massive urbanization and re-industrialization.

Thanks also to the Marshall Plan, and the related access not only to equipment and credit, but also to intellectual property, ranging from production processes to logistics (do not forget that the first attempt to land in Africa during WWII wasn’t really a logistical success- but helped to build the knowledge required to have a better chance later on, including in Normandy, and our “lean” production methods).

Another country, another time, same results. I was in Germany in the early 1990s, right after the Berlin Wall went down.

My travels were between the Schwarzwald, Swabia, and up to the North.

At the time, as my girlfriend was an urban planner, we discussed also an unexpected side-effect of the peace dividend: the dismantling of military bases, including some self-contained town used by American troops.

And, of course, the side-effects on the businesses that lived delivering services.

Compounded by the costs of the integrating the former DDR, as its economy folded as a castle of cards after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Again from a Stadtplannerin perspective: we take for granted towns, but we forget that, below a certain population size, businesses and their supply chain are not affordable- and dissolve.

What is the point of having a shopping mall, if all the customers who can afford to shop moved elsewhere?

Fast forward to mid-1990s: I saw the side-effect also in the Baltics, with all those now empty and decaying apartment blocks.

While working in Paris and London, I collected stories from around Europe and heard immigrants from all around the World, describing the conditions in their own countries.

A somewhat different picture from what you can usually read in books and articles published in our countries- and this is also another reason why I found interesting “Peoplequake”, and few books written not by Westerners, but by locals, from Korea to Africa to the Caribbeans, about what means living in a developing or recently de-colonized country, post-WWII.

Finally, few years ago, at least in Northern Italy, I started observing small villages and towns resurrecting thanks to the insertion of whole communities of foreign-born economic migrants.

I heard of lines of Indians running in the Alps to collect herbs, Chinese working in caves and repopulating a small town, Egyptians working as cooks in pizzerias, people from the Philippines and Bangladesh…

Sometimes, I heard them telling their story- of how they have been in Italy for almost double the time of their legal permit.

Before, they were illegal immigrants, learned the customs and a little bit of the language, worked around… until they found somebody willing to hire them legally.

Temporary migrants? No. Not really, at least not where they can build their own community.

In few cases, they were talking about living in Italy, but living behind in Italy their children, and retiring to their country, where they were planning to buy or build houses, or a shop, restaurant, hotel that could support their retirement.

And if they can… they start creating a “niche” market for their own ethnic shops, clubs, and so on.

Marshall Plan? Where?

Whenever there is a crisis somewhere, the spirit of the Marshall Plan is evoked.

Quite often, the solutions presented amount to a “more aid, more infrastructure, and nobody will leave”.

I read development data first in the early 1980s, when we European had few agreements with former colonies (mainly in Africa), building up on decades of special trade relationships, e.g. the CFA Franc, and the Lomé Convention.

Then, I started subscribing to the IMF World Economic Outlook (incidentally: update), after spending my vacations in 1994 studying in UK and Sweden related subjects.

The interesting part? Check how many developing countries actually depend on the Euros, USD, etc. sent by their emigrants.

The original Marshall Plan was delivered to countries that had a reason to stick together (the Cold War), as proved by the refusal of Eastern Bloc countries to accept the Marshall Plan, upon suggestion of the USSR.

And based on a simple assumption: most of the recipient countries has already an industrial base and sophisticated supply chain, albeit limited in size or scope pre-WWII, or severely damaged by WWII.

Therefore, the Marshall Plan was closer to an electric shock to the heart of the recipient economies, than a transplant.

Also, when I talked with immigrants from some of the countries currently in turmoil, quite often I heard the same issue- that their countries tried to mimic our industrial revolution, by introducing heavy industries where none were before, instead of shifting directly toward more modern production schemes.

There is no need to remember some of the previous aid cycles, e.g. providing trucks built for our network of repair shops were introduced in countries lacking the appropriate supply chain.

Is there an alternative model? Probably. But, first, I will get back to the basics: data.

Getting ready, getting used

In 1945, the year the first baby boomers were born, each retired person in the US was supported by 42 workers. Now that figure is down to three, and will be just two by the time the boomers are all past retirement. (page 278)

Today an average woman has 2.6 children and the fraction of the world’s population under five is below 10 per cent. (page 292)

By 2100, on current fertility trends, Germany could have fewer natives than today’s Berlin, and Italy’s population could crash from 58 million to just eight million. (page 294)

from “Peoplequake”

Of course, the first two are data items- the third one is an assumption, projecting on current trends.

But, as reported by a recent article, the current economic crisis and the declining benefits produced by a degree resulted in a significant reduction in new university enrolments in Italy: 9.2% less in 4 years.

I laureati travolti dalla crisi – E in Ateneo crollano le nuove iscrizioni

But Italy is not the only country that, while pushing to develop a knowledge economy, risks lacking the human resources required.

Also Northern European countries reported being unable to attract qualified ICT experts from Asia, who prefer to get less benefits but more opportunities to rise up through the social ladder.

While over the last weeks I read articles from Belgium, Germany, Italy reporting a single message from the employers: a significant quota of knowledge-intensive jobs are either unfulfilled or withdrawn, due to the lack of qualified candidates, in one case, up to 25%.

Risks? A recent article from WSJE reported key data from a study published by Citicorp on the economy in 2050- I will let you read the article

At the same time, as I wrote months ago, a recent Italian report showed that immigrants created 29,000 new businesses in 2009- while Italians closed 31,000 businesses.

Most of the new businesses are labour-intensive, but often the new foreign-born entrepreneurs create businesses as a stepping stone toward creating something bigger.

As an old Italian shopkeeper told me (almost verbatim): we started our shop right after WWII, and were used to do everything by ourselves, while new Italian shopkeepers after the Economic Boom (i.e. 1960s) are used to start also a simple shop with few “servants”; it is so inspiring to see these immigrants opening shops in areas where everything was closing down, and working as we did, getting on employees only when they can afford to pay them.

So, should we really fear the immigrants? Or should we instead consider that, in the future, immigrant or native would not make a difference, and the only difference will be a willingness to share into an economic and social model, to keep creating opportunities?

What’s left to do

Yes, conclusions- in a twisted, verbose way.

When I completed the course at the Gothenburg University in 1994, we were supposed to write a paper on policies to improve the chance of immigrants to become full members of society.

Instead of writing the usual “I-show-you-how-much-lingo-I-learned” short essay (it was a live exam, so we had to improvise), I decided to write a speech for a wannabe politician.

Aim: assume that the interaction between cultures changes all those involved.

If you are curious- I got 94/100 (the -6 was due to my lingo-avoidance: but, if you worked with me, you know that I try to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler).

Since the unrest in Maghreb and the Middle East started, most articles sound “reactive”: they comment and try to explain how it happened (often while keeping silent on why this wonderful hindsight wasn’t available before actually events happened).

Almost all the changes started under regimes where the incumbents (individuals or groups) have been there for about 30 years or more- and were about to prepare their own “controlled transition”.

Few dare to forecast what could happen next- and you can read everything and the opposite.

But something is missing: an idea about the endgame- where we want to be.

As I wrote in other articles, we Europeans have an applied-science cooperation with Maghreb countries, built around energy- both fossil fuels and renewable (mainly solar) energy production, all underlined by infrastructure.

When I was working for the Italian branch of a French company, a senior manager had been working in oil before shifting to administrative IT- and once in a while he shared some practical jokes about the industry.

Oil without pipelines can be kept safe in large quantities only… in the original oilfields.

Once drilled, you talk in days, weeks, not in years, of capacity.

And this applies to any form of energy: we need transport infrastructure in the originating locations, infrastructure that is increasingly becoming complex and requires not just well-trained engineers, but also what I call the “supply chain of knowledge”: from research centres, to universities, to small companies evolving technologies through trial-and-error.

Therefore, training engineers and shipping them in a knowledge desert is a waste of resources, as they would lose the day-by-day contacts that would allow to get the best opportunities, and we would miss their field experience.

My humble, long-term opinion?

If we really want to build infrastructure that ensures long-term sustainability, we need to involve within our “supply chain of knowledge” all the parties involved.

And get used to have permanent communities- thinking therefore on how to merge not two, but ten, twenty, thirty social models.

With a two-way revolving door between the Northern and Southern shore of the Mediterranean- enabling a de-facto integration, using probably a system similar to that adopted between Switzerland and EU.

Maybe operating a EU Sovereign Wealth Fund (with few lessons learned from experience, as shown in a couple of articles published on the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, Public Footprints in Private Markets and Global Corporate Citizenship), i.e. working more like a business partner sharing risks and benefits, than a donor or financial partner.

As, in the end- we are all in the same long-term boat.


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