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01/25 – Older and wiser

Matthew Sweet

Author and broadcaster

Preface:

Politicians wring their hands about our ageing populations but we should be celebrating the richness that this will add to our world – and the connections across time that will help illuminate all of our histories.

Youth, like oil, is a shrinking natural ­resource. Not just for individual human subjects, but for the planet as a whole. In the media, this idea is usually accompanied by high-temperature expressions such as “healthcare crisis” and “pensions deficit” and “agequake”. The population of the developed world is getting older. We are on the road to senility, and one day soon, the number of people who have forgotten where they put their spectacles will be greater than the number of people capable of rediscovering them.

These are not my anxieties. I have learned to stop worrying and love the population time bomb. I achieved this state of grace by listening to the words of Professor Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, and by hanging out with some cool nonagenarians.

Let me tell you about Prof Harper. She is Oxford University’s first appointed Professor of Gerontology. In two decades, she predicts, 50 per cent of Europeans will be over 50. That old pyramidal model of the age of a population – with a thick stratum of babies at the bottom and a tiny number of ancients at the top – will be replaced by something built more like an apartment block. Roughly 10 per cent of the population will occupy each floor, with the under-tens on the ground level and centenarians in the penthouse. “But we shouldn’t fear this future,” she argues. “We should celebrate it as one of the great achievements of human civilisation.”

What the more pessimistic legislators and commentators forget is that the length of the average lifespan is index-linked to the age at which we feel ourselves to be old. The septuagenarians of the next century will not be considered elderly. And if five generations can live alongside each other in Harper’s apartment block, then our ageing society will not generate poverty and anxiety, but new kinds of plenitude.

In the last few years, I have known a number of people who reached their ninth decade. Joan Morgan was an actress who remembered her father making a film of The Mayor of Casterbridge, for which Thomas Hardy came on location. Writer Ernest Dudley showed me the spot from which he had watched flapper-girls snort cocaine from an illuminated glass dance floor on the bank of the Thames. Last year I went to see a retired sound engineer named Gilbert Bradley, who revealed that he had once slept with an elderly military gentleman who had been in Moscow in the 1880s, where he in turn had gone to bed with an elderly military gentleman who remembered the day that Napoleon marched into the city. To me, these are instances of shivery rarity: moments that seem to break the laws of time. But in the future, the lengthening reach of living memory will increase the proximity of the past.

My eldest daughter, born in 2004, played football in the park with Dudley. He was 96 years her senior and her friend. In 100 years, such kick-arounds may be commonplace. Some demographers predict that half of the girls born now in western Europe will live to the 22nd century. It would be a shame if they had to reveal our generation saw their longevity as a social problem, and not a gift.

Monocle comment:

As we live longer, so our urban environments will needto change and adapt. And not to cope with frailty, but older people who are leading active urban lives and becoming more vocal about what they want.

02/25 – Census sensibility

James Burnett

Writer

Preface:

Conducting a national census, you’d have thought, is the fairly straightforward, albeit huge, task of finding out about the social make-up of a country. But the way it’s carried out can be as revealing as the data itself.

In 2010 and 2011, more than 110 countries will deploy civil servants to tally what, according to the UN’s figures, amounts to more than 70 per cent of the planet’s population. And because of the way the world has evolved since the last round of censuses, as well as changes some capitals have made to their surveys, it should finally be apparent that census takers, rather than just being dull stats-wranglers, are central players in a drama with global ramifications.

Sound census data is invaluable; trying to govern a country without it, says Kenneth Prewitt, a former head of the United States Census Bureau, “is like trying to run a country without a geographic map”. But gathering that information has never been harder: counting people requires that you first find them, and in the 21st century, people tend not to sit still. And once you’ve counted people, you have to decide how to sort them by race and ethnicity, a process that raises questions about identity and ideals.

In the US there’s heated debate over whether respondents should be asked to declare citizenship status. There are separate doubts about whether the 2010 Census results will truly reflect the diverse American population (among other things, US census forms don’t provide the option of defining yourself as Arab). But just asking about race at all puts America itself in the minority. In France such a query would be illegal. At least it is at the moment: the last time it conducted a census, in 2006, a proposal to incorporate a racial breakdown, which could provide a basis for better anti-discrimination measures, became a campaign flashpoint for then-candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. Sarkozy, who backed a switch, now has an advisor pushing to get it enacted for France’s count in 2011.

It’s not surprising that politics finds its way into what is on its own a scientific pursuit, given the way censuses yield winners and losers. That’s why the Indian government, which plans to use its 2011 census to facilitate the rollout of a plan to assign every resident a 16-digit Unique Identification Number, has had to make assurances its new national registry won’t be a backdoor to citizenship for undocumented Bangladeshis. It’s also true between nations. When China announces the findings of its 2010 national census, the population total it reports will for the first time be newsworthy not just for its sheer dizzying size, but also for how it serves as a measure of China’s clout as an emerging superpower.

Russia, by contrast, sent the opposite message when it postponed its next census by three years, rescheduling it for 2013. While the Kremlin cited the financial crisis as the cause of the delay, sceptics wonder if the real reason is a reluctance to verify that Russia’s declining population has fallen under 140 million. If census results can teach a country about itself, and census methods can reveal national anxieties, then not conducting a census speaks loudest of all.

Monocle comment:

Fun fact: it took six million Chinese census workers to count all their countrymen in 2000.

03/25 – Come all ye faithless

Alain de Botton

Philosopher and broadcaster

Preface:

There’s a place between atheism and religion for a new secular faith. Because we have a yearning for cathedrals to nourish our souls and could do with a moral compass in our pockets.

The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up. We can recognise that the needs which led people to do so must still in some way be alive, albeit dormant, in modern secular man. God may be dead, but the bit of us that made God continues to stir.

My guess is that humanity is slowly rediscovering what it lost when the ­developed world (the US-aside) went secular in the 20th century. It seems evident that what we now need is not a choice between atheism and religion – but a new secular religion: a religion for atheists. What would such a peculiar idea involve? For a start, lots of new buildings akin to churches, temples and cathedrals. Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us. It isn’t surprising that secular people continue to be interested in cathedrals. These great works of ecclesiastical architecture perform the very clever and eternally useful function of relativising those who walk inside them. We feel small inside a cathedral and recognise the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.

In addition, a secular religion would use all the tools of art in order to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue. Rather than seeing art as a tool to shock and surprise (the two great emotions promoted by most contemporary works), a secular ­religion would return to an earlier view that art should improve us. It should be a form of propaganda for a better, nobler life.

A secular religion would deeply challenge liberal ideology. Most contemporary governments and even private bodies are devoted to a rather content-less conception of help, they want to help people to be more prosperous and yet they make no suggestions about what these people might do with their lives. This is the opposite of what religions have traditionally done, which is to teach people about good ways of imagining the human condition and about what to strive for and to esteem. Modern charities and governments seek to provide opportunities – but are not very thoughtful about, or excited by, what people might do with those opportunities.

There is a long philosophical and cultural history which explains why we’ve reached the condition known as modern secular society. Yet it seems there’s no compelling argument to stay here much longer in 2010.

Monocle comment:

Is the museum the new cathedral? Crowds flock to them on Sundays to stare at the altar of art. Entering the turbine hall of Tate Modern in London echoes the experience of walking into St Paul’s just across the river.

04/25 – Secrets and lies

Sam Leith

Writer

Preface:

In the future the truly privileged will be those who we know nothing about. But as information leaks across the internet from every source, they will be a very small band.

What we have to look forward to in the near future is the end of privacy, probably, for good and all. The notion – nourished by Puritan theology and the literature of the Renaissance – of an inner life that differs from the outer one has been a central fact of western civilisation for centuries. Now, all bets are off. Whatever Chinese walls there were are collapsing. No piece of information of any sort, stored electronically, can be relied on to be secure indefinitely.

Not all these changes are, on the face of it, differences in kind. People have long had medical records and private documents and covert associations. These could be discovered and shared. But the ease and speed with which information can now be reduplicated, indexed, searched and cross-associated is on a different scale. Two things are happening. One is that no national or international authority has the power to restrain the flow of information. This looks, on one level, appealing. The more anyone tries to shut things down, the more they get out of hand. In Britain, oil-traders Trafigura recently sought to suppress reports about its dumping toxic waste on the Côte d’Ivoire by serving a super-injunction on the British newspaper The Guardian. Within hours, social networking sites made the injunction unsustainable by ignoring it, and millions who had never before heard of Trafigura now associate it with bullying and toxic waste.

This is an instance of what’s called the Streisand Effect, after an attempt by the songstress to suppress publication of an aerial photograph of her home saw it spread across the internet. All this seems superficially like people-power. But do we necessarily want a world in which, thanks to the internet, it is literally ­impossible to serve an injunction? Think of, for instance, the home addresses of vivisectionists or abortion doctors, the identities of people in witness protection schemes, the identities of suspects in rape trials. Long term, the law has as much hope of protecting them as you have of shooting a swarm of gnats with a .22 rifle. To borrow an image from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, trying to remove information from the internet is like trying to unstir the jam from semolina. And that’s the second thing. Not just that information can’t be removed but that, corporate and personal alike, it’s being gathered as never before – and to gather information is so close to distributing it as to make no difference. This is the age of the leaky database. The only defence against intrusion, in the long run, will be to be sufficiently uninteresting that nobody will bother to find out what there is to know about you.

Back in the 1970s, Andy Warhol titillated us by promising that everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. If only he had known what was to come. The aristocracy of the next decade will be the deservedly anonymous.

Monocle comment:

As our privacy is worn away, it’s fascinating – and odd – how people help in accelerating the process, posting pictures of their most intimate moments on social network sites and tweeting about their every thought.

05/25 – Marching orders

Andrew Salmon

Writer

Preface:

Kim Jong-il may look dangerous from afar, but in any war his ill-resourced army would stand little chance against South Korea’s forces. Is it time for us to call his bluff?

Though routinely considered one of the most menacing militaries on earth, recent events suggest the capabilities of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) are being blown out of proportion by James Bondian fantasists.

With 1.2 million men under arms and the world’s largest artillery force dug in and ranged on Seoul, chairman of the National Defence Commission Kim Jong-il commands – on paper – a formidable force. Yet if war breaks out, the NKPA faces mobility impotence. Seoul’s 655,000 superbly equipped soldiers are backed by 28,000 swiftly reinforceable US troops in South Korea. Kim’s outdated and fuel-famished air and naval forces leave his half of the peninsula ­exposed to marine landings on both coasts, and his skies vulnerable to heliborne envelopment – tactics that invalidate his underground artillery belt.

This disadvantage may explain Kim’s enthusiastic sponsorship of asymmetric threats. His missile and nuclear programmes are widely publicised; he is believed to have chemical weapons; and according to globalsecurity.org, he fields the world’s largest special force equipped with such exotica as throwing knives and semi-submersible power boats. However, Kim’s current missiles lack range, and his fissile stockpile is sufficient for only six to nine warheads, experts believe. The only surviving commando from a bloody 1968 raid on the South’s presidential ­residence claims that the failure of that mission – designed to kick-start a revolution – proves the country’s special forces are not war-winners.

Recently, fears of more creative threats have risen. Do NKPA cyber saboteurs stalk the internet? Could North Korea use its hydroelectric facilities and dams to unleash a “water bomb” into the South? In July, an online attack crashed US and South Korean websites. Then, in September, a mass of water was released from a North Korean dam on the Imjin River; downstream in the South, the flash flood killed six.

Yet the flood now appears to reflect – like the shooting of a South Korean tourist at the inter-Korea resort of Mount Kumgang in 2008 – the dilapidated systems of a decrepit nation. “The flood was either an accident or gross negligence; the same was true of the tourist shooting,” says Michael Breen, a Kim Jong-il biographer. “Far from reflecting a sophisticated threat, these show North Korea as a ragamuffin state.”

Pundits immediately pointed the finger at Pyongyang’s online ninjas for the July attack, but no evidence has surfaced of NKPA involvement. “I have spoken to different organisations and there is nothing to indicate that North Korea was behind it,” says Jeremy Kirk, a reporter for tech-specialist newswire International Data Group which traced the hack across the globe. “Everyone jumped the gun and blamed North Korea, but it was mere speculation.”

Yet even if the NKPA’s unconventional capabilities are magnified by over-active imaginations, there is a real threat – albeit an indirect one. “The idea of North Korea as an active threat is a reflection of a different fear that has not been clearly articulated,” Breen believes. “You have a country with thousands of nuclear warheads talking about a country that is ­developing half a dozen. What North Korea threatens is the Pax Nucleana – the non-proliferation regime.”

Monocle comment:

Perhaps the most interesting danger on the horizon is what will happen when Kim Jong-il dies. Although one of his son’s succession seems assured, others wonder if this could be a time of turbulence.

06/25 – Sock it to us

Andreas Tzortzis

Writer

Preface:

The Germans do sustainability better than anyone. Britain and many other nations could learn a lot from teutonic craftsmanship. Now, if only they could grasp customer service and how to wear their sandals with style.

Every morning, I turn the tap in the shower and then I watch water dribble down the hose like some infant struggling with a sippy cup. This, I’m told by the landlord, has something to do with the fact the pipes are made of lead; gravity, apparently, is involved as well. I no longer screw up my eyebrows at this ­explanation. After all, I live in the basement of a converted Victorian house in London (with a lovely garden). These buildings are temperamental and stubborn in their old age. But it did make me yearn, briefly, for the Berlin flat I worked and lived in for more than five years and left 12 months ago.

Germans do sustainability very well. They build structures that last, and get it right the first time. Germany’s government has shown how the public sector can promote a green agenda. Their craftsmanship is celebrated and the reason Mittelstand firms (small- and medium-sized businesses) are export leaders.

I’m reminded of the latter every time I drive the Wüsthof knife I bought years ago through an ­unassuming carrot, its blade still sharp, its handle well-balanced. I’m reminded of the former on trips back to Germany; from the red-tiled roofs covered in government-subsidised solar panels in Freiburg, to the palette of recycling bins crowding Berlin courtyards.

Does it mean that we should all be a bit more German? Not exactly. Keep in mind, this is a country that continues to struggle with the concept of ­customer service and insists on ruining the look of a perfectly good pair of sandals by wearing socks.

But a value system that includes impeccable quality standards and sustainable practices is one to borrow from; maybe even worth bringing up with the landlord next time we have a chat.

07/25 – Logo motive

Ignacio Vasallo

Tourism director

Preface:

Nearly 30 years ago, a single meeting with Joan Miró was enough to revolutionise Spain’s tourism brand. These days, it’s even simpler as the web means nations can promote themselves with just a few choice words.

In 1982, seven years after General Franco died, Spain was just getting going as a modern democracy. All that people outside had heard about us as a country was to do with violence, death and repression. They thought we were backward and damaged. I was made junior minister for tourism and, basically, my job was to get people to think of Spain as a tourist destination. We were creating something from scratch. People in high places were open to new ideas and passionately needed to send out a really powerful message. We came up with a simple one – “Spain, diversity under the sun.” And then we started working out how to illustrate that. The in-house artists played with images of oranges and sombreros and that stuff. But nothing felt strong enough.

So I dropped that approach and went to see Joan Miró, one of our greatest artists alive at the time. He was ill and we talked as he ate his soup in bed. And he completely got it. He gave us the red, black and yellow sun that is still our tourism logo to this day. He refused to take any money – he said he wanted it to be a gift “for the King and the government”. Some people thought the logo looked like a fried egg. But the country’s leaders understood.When we launched our campaign with this logo in 1984, it was a huge success. In the space of less than a year, perhaps because of timing and personalities and a bit of luck, we had created a symbol of Spain that is still strong today.

It was the first time any country had created an abstract logo to brand itself but today everybody thinks that all you need to do to rebrand a country is make a logo. I think that’s out of date. Logos are old fashioned. These days, you can communicate almost instantly with the world. And the internet means that message has got to be verbal. How many logos do you ever notice when you’re surfing online? If I were in charge of making a new image for Spain now, or a new nation such as Montenegro for that matter, I would not be thinking about a logo. All you need is to be clear about what you’ve got to say. In this age of mass communication in English all you need are a few carefully chosen words.

Monocle comment:

There are some Pacific island nations who would be wise to place a call with Señor Vasallo. Because although words may be enough, they need to be the right ones. And “Fiji Me” are definitely not the right ones.

08/25 – Right thinking

Ben Page

Chief executive, Ipsos Mori

Preface:

Europe’s increasingly ageing and conservative-thinking population is likely to help secure electoral victories across the continent for right-wing parties. Can the left learn to do more to senior citizens?

In 2010, Europe will be older than ever. Every year for the last decade, humanity has defeated the best predictions of the actuaries. In Britain alone the proportion of people over 65 will rise by 2.5 million over the next few years as the post-war “baby boomer” generation hits retirement age.

This will have serious implications for politics. In Britain, the general election of 2010 is likely to have a similar pattern to the last in 2005 – for example, only 35 per cent of women under 24 voted compared to 75 per cent of those over 75. Their views have far more impact on who wins than those of younger people: in fact one could argue that politicians can sometimes ignore younger people because so few vote. As Ralf Ganzumuller, a pollster in Germany puts it, “No one in Germany will be able to win an election again without the support of the 60-plus generation.”

This could be left-wing parties that pay special attention to the needs of the elderly but they will be fighting an uphill battle since in most of Europe, older voters tend to be more conservative. Retired people were behind Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in France in 2007: 68 per cent of retirees voted for him compared to only 53 per cent of voters as a whole.

Because older people are often living on relatively low incomes, they are often conservative with a small “c” on moral issues and are more concerned about crime and immigration than young people. Therefore across Europe, parties that are tough on law and order, (or at least perceived to be) will do best. For all these reasons, the centre-right looks highly likely to dominate European politics in the coming years. Across the region it is now the left who need to redefine themselves, especially for older voters.

Monocle comment:

How age will impact on Britain’s impending shift to the right is shown by these simple facts: among those aged 18-24 only 33 per cent support the Conservatives, among the over 75s the figure is 58 per cent.

09/25 – Top noodle

Mark Robinson

Writer and cook book author

Preface:

Tokyo noodle bar Namiki Yabu’s efficient service and simple menu has created a blueprint that restaurants in the West would do well to copy: concentrate on doing one thing, and do it perfectly.

My favourite table is any of the seven small counters at Namiki Yabu soba, the austere noodle shop established in 1913, minutes away from the centre of Tokyo’s working-class-cum-tourist-heart of Asakusa. On balmy evenings the Yabu master leaves his sliding door open and the semi-tropical, palm-like fronds at the entrance wave in the breeze as diners queue and passersby peek in under the noren shop curtain.

Soba at Yabu is less a meal than a pause, or come early evening (it closes at 19:30), the final brushstroke that completes a painting. It will never fill you to bursting, and it’s not supposed to. In any case, lingering at Yabu is difficult, as the menu extends to little more than a dozen variations on the buckwheat noodles that are kneaded and cut at the back of the store.

At relatively low prices per dish, there’s not much of a margin, but with a floor staff of four or five mature women in white smocks and nurse-like head-dresses, whose pursuit of efficient service is unimpeachable, customer turnover is high. There is also no standing on ceremony: tables are communal.

Could Yabu be a model for progress in food service? Yes, if moving forward means first taking a step back. Yabu, like many Japanese specialist restaurants, is an artisanal place, with no daily specials, no surprises. Yabu does just one thing, over and over, and does it well. The noodles are of optimum diameter for pleasurable slurping, and cooked to the perfect bite. The dipping sauce, though said by some to be too sweet and salty because of its working-class roots, is to Yabu loyalists deep and rich. But the real appeal lies in the unaffected service. It is efficient and attentive while never brusque or careless. The West could take a leaf from the same book. But would it translate?

Monocle comment:

Communal tables have become a signature for a kind of dining – and customer. From bills in Sydney to Ottolenghi in London, they bring together people who are happy to pass the salt – and time of day.

10/25 – Bombs away

Queen Noor of Jordan

Monarch

New states – and terrorists – want to join the nuclear club. But there could be a different path ahead: one that leads to a nuclear-free world. Over to you presidents Obama and Medvedev.In August 1959, President Dwight D Eisenhower of the United States and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan met in London. In a discussion about peace carried live on BBC Radio, President Eisenhower delivered his famous epigram, “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

Yet governments did not get out of the way and for 50 years nuclear weapons were an integral part of the Cold War mindset. After the end of the war, there were great hopes for nuclear disarmament. Yet despite substantial reductions by both Russia and the United States and across Europe – and despite several countries disarming, such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and South Africa – there remain huge stockpiles, enough to destroy the world several times over, and often poorly controlled. Moreover, new powers have acquired nuclear weapons – India, Pakistan and Israel, and others may be on that path. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries with less robust security dramatically increases the likelihood of nuclear terrorism. Last year alone saw more than 200 cases of missing or trafficked nuclear materials.

Immediately following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, US President Harry S Truman called the prospect of the atom bomb’s elimination “the hope of civilisation” and proposed the first official non-proliferation plan to the United Nations. Today, revitalised calls for nuclear disarmament from leaders and citizens alike have created new momentum for unprecedented action. President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev committed their countries to “achieving a nuclear-free world” in April 2009. And in September, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution unanimously calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Believing that we need a new comprehensive disarmament approach, I helped found Global Zero in 2008 which developed a strategy that provides the multi-lateral framework for the phased, binding, verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons. Nothing would do more to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

For me, as a mother, and as a Muslim, whose faith prohibits the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians and other natural life forms, the only answer is the relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons’ total elimination.

The coming year already promises to build on 2009’s historic progress in this direction. Global Zero will convene its second summit in February, ahead of President Obama’s summit on nuclear security in March, and in May there is the NPT review conference. We may be nearing a nuclear proliferation tipping point. To do nothing is to promote the spread of nuclear arms by states and, increasingly, potentially by non-state groups and terrorists. The international community now has its best opportunity to unite in the common interest of global security.

Yet this will require the involvement of leaders and citizens around the world. Above all, we have to change the confrontational Cold War mindset that has been imitated by a number of emerging powers. Albert Einstein said: “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.” It is up to people to change the way of thinking of governments.

Monocle comment:

Also see our Expo (page 195) where we meet the young mayor of Nagasaki, a city that knows the true consequences of nuclear warfare and wants to highlight the need for peace by hosting the 2020 Olympics.

11/25 – Get your clogs on

Andrew Mueller

Writer

Preface:

Does a dirndl do it for you? What about a kilt? Or kimono? Or are you from a place that has no national dress? Shared national wardrobes may be declining but it’s time to celebrate their added swagger.

There are two reasons why people wear the traditional dress of whatever homeland spawned them. The most common reason is the less interesting, for example, for the amusement of tourists. For the people who do this, whether they’re waiters, museum guides or belly dancers, ­traditional dress is no more a reflection of what they feel about their country or its culture than the rig anyone wears to work – by and large, it is something they tolerate or resent before slinging it back in the locker at knock-off time.

The less observed and much more intriguing reason why people sport traditional dress is that, as far as they’re ­concerned, it’s not traditional dress at all – it’s their clothes. Given the near-total worldwide ubiquity of western sartorial mores, any decision to opt out of suits and ties and casual leisurewear, or their slightly less restrictive feminine equivalents, is clearly a statement – of identity, of pride, of confidence (the prime minister of Bhutan in issue 28 is a fine example). There is no mistaking the cheerful swagger with which embroidered robes are worn in the Mongolian countryside, ­dazzling fabrics on the streets of West African cities, even kilts on formally dressed Scots (although any man who has kilted up for a Scottish wedding, especially in the winter months, will have been agonisingly baffled as to how the Scots, given their climate, settled upon something so prone to drafts).

A wholesale global revival of traditional costume is neither likely nor ­desirable – the Dutch will not be persuaded back into wooden shoes, nor the Norwegians into metal hats adorned with horns. Beyond that, it could be correctly noted that the increasing adoption of some traditional costume – that for which its wearers claim divine sanction – is already a tiresome and divisive issue for many western countries, whose institutions seem curiously willing to make ­allowances for stroppy schoolchildren rather than just telling them to wear the damn uniform or face detention. There are also cultures whose relationship with their national costume is famously ambivalent – in 1925, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the still-worshipped founder of modern Turkey, abolished the fez on the grounds that he believed it a symbol of Ottoman backwardness.

However, while there is nobody more tiresome than a chauvinistic nationalist who shoves his flag into your face at every opportunity, there is little more depressing than the homogenisation that has accompanied globalisation. Next time you’re abroad, try wearing a – small, subtle – something from home.

Monocle comment:

The Bhutanese take national dress very seriously, by law it must be worn during daylight hours. Thankfully it’s a fetching get-up (knee-length socks and a wrap-around gown for the men). We’d wear it.

12/25 – Meal deals

Steve Bloomfield

Nairobi correspondent

Preface:

South Korea’s plan to lease land in Tanzania for food production is the latest in a controversial series of deals between Gulf and Asian states and African nations desperate for cash. But is it good business for the host countries?

The last time South Korea tried to lease land to grow food in Africa it helped start a revolution. Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, will hope he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Madagascar’s Marc Ravalomanana who was ousted last March following public anger over his 1.3m hectare deal with Daewoo. The agreement being negotiated between Tanzania and South Korea is for just 100,000 hectares but it is merely the latest in a long line of deals between Asian and Gulf states out to feed their populations and African countries in need of money.

A dozen African countries have sold or leased land to the new agri-colonialists (Asian and Gulf states bought or leased 2.5m hectares of African farmland in the past five years). On a continent where the World Food Programme (WFP) operates in 42 out of 53 countries, is this sensible? Kenya, where the WFP estimates 3.8 million people are in need of food aid, talked of handing over 40,000 hectares to Qatar in return for a $3.9bn investment. Ethiopia, which has an impending famine, has deals with India and the UAE. Many of these deals will ­undoubtedly be bad for Africa but in some well-governed countries they may, just may, provide a cash lifeline.

Monocle comment:

The buying-up of Africa’s land is also a sign of changing tastes in the Gulf and South Korea – for example the passion for bread, cakes and croissants. It’s not easy being a wheat farmer in Doha.

13/25 – Storm brewing

Andrew Tuck

Editor

Preface:

For some it’s the price of gold, for others it’s hemlines but if you really want to know where the economy is headed, you should just look at what people are drinking in the morning. The latte index is born.

In 2009 the storm was in the coffee cup. Staring into your brew could, it seemed, reveal not only the bottom of your mug but a wealth of data about the global economy and where we were all heading (to hell in a handcart seemed to be the most common answer). “Don’t buy that latte!”, screamed innumerable financial pundits keen to keep their followers from penury. Forgoing the cost of your morning fix was apparently going to leave you with enough money for the impending rainy day, your pension and a holiday in the Caribbean.

While this should have been all silly steam and froth, it’s been intriguing to see how coffee has become a gauge of how we feel. For those who have continued to buy their latte, the trend has been towards smaller offerings of stronger blends, as though we need the extra jolt of caffeine to keep us aware in dangerous times. And even if 2010 proves a warmer economic time, few predict the renewed rise of the venti, a coffee diversion akin to fashion’s 1980s shoulder pad flirtation – a piece of excess best quietly forgotten.

Monocle comment:

It was ever thus: by the 1700s there were 500 coffee shops in London and they reflected the wealth and global connections of the capital. They were also a hotbed of new ideas and debate. Sadly no muffins were on offer.

14/25 – A spy in my room

Mark Lawrence

Writer

Preface:

In Russia, foreign diplomats and journalists are finding that Cold War surveillance techniques – such as phone tapping and tailing – are very much still in use, as well as blackmail plots involving sex and videotape.

Bugged apartments, secret service tails and honeytraps may seem like relics from Cold War films but all are very much alive in Russia today and employed with relish against western journalists and diplomats. My own run-in with such practices came the night before a planned trip to Dagestan, in Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region – a place where reporting is not encouraged. I came back to my apartment late the night before my departure, to find my passport had disappeared from the drawer it’s kept in. I ransacked the house but it was nowhere to be found. I cancelled the trip and spent the next day queuing at the police station for a piece of paper that would be stage one of the torturous process required to replace the Russian visa in my passport. Then, two days later, I walked into my bedroom and there was the passport sticking ostentatiously out between two books on a bookshelf in my bedroom. Someone had been into my room and ­replaced it.

It quickly became apparent that this story was not unusual. Most western journalists have a story of some sort, ranging from the absurd to the sinister. Sometimes people come home to find their things have been rearranged. A married journalist found a collection of obscene pornography scattered around his apartment, presumably for his wife to find. Others are approached in the street by people who casually mention details of their personal lives before sauntering off. The approach in the street is also reported by diplomats who, like journalists, assume that all their correspondence is read and that their apartments and cars could well be bugged.

“People will often stop me and ask for directions to a bar or an address that is miles away from where I am, but which I visited the previous day,” says one diplomat at a western embassy. Those who are now in Moscow on return postings, and lived here during the 1970s and 1980s, say that the level of surveillance is many times higher than in the Soviet era.

The most notable recent casualty was an employee of the British Consulate in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg, who fell victim to what appeared to be a classic honeytrap. The internet release of a hardcore video of the hapless diplomat frolicking with two prostitutes is believed to have followed a failed blackmail attempt.

“They assess your vulnerabilities, whether they be gambling, women, drink or drugs,” says a diplomat. “And they play the long game, so they can be looking for people who could be useful to them in 10 or 20 years.” Western diplomats are given briefings to avoid such scenarios before being posted to Russia.

If anything, the Ekaterinburg incident reminded the diplomatic community that the classic Russian honeytrap is still in use, and also left them with an uneasy feeling – in this case the blackmail was ­rejected and the video came out, but how many cases might there have been where the victim, out of embarrassment, agreed to cooperate?

As for me, these days I never let my passport out of my sight. And when that attractive woman on the other side of the bar makes eye contact, I look steadfastly the other way. Well, mostly.

Monocle comment:

It’s not just in Moscow this happens. During a recent meeting in Berlin with diplomats we were warned that the charming blond from one of the ’Stans, who asked to join us, was a spy.

15/25 – Antoinette Obama

Sasha Issenberg

Washington correspondent

Preface:

The First Lady’s vegetable patch on the White House lawn represents a great photo op, but does she really expect poor, inner-city families to follow suit? A more practical food education strategy is required.

American elites were cheered by the summertime sight of their First Lady, a lawyer and former hospital administrator, taking repeatedly to the White House lawn with shovel and hoe to forage her own dinner. “Nothing could be more exciting,” California chef Alice Waters exulted to The Washington Post after Michelle Obama announced she would start a vegetable garden at her new home. The project, the White House said, would sprout an ongoing campaign by Obama imploring Americans to eat better.

The Washington school groups that her staff brought in to help with planting made it clear who the primary audience for such an appeal were: African-Americans from urban neighbourhoods plagued by poor nutrition thanks to a shortage of healthy shopping options. They are also the citizens most likely to lack the arable land or free time to cultivate their own gardens. The escapism of the First Lady playing farmhand – and handing the harvested bounty over to the White House chef – seemed to underscore that Michelle Obama is sending Americans home with few practical lessons for their own diets.

The culinary left may be disgusted with commerce and prefer to make the case for an improved food system with the romantic imagery of pastoral life. But most citizens make their food choices in less evocative locales, in the Wal-Mart freezer aisle or supermarket fish counter or before the sad shelves of an anonymous cornershop. Beginning a responsible eating campaign in the garden would make as much sense as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy erecting windmills at the Elysée to advocate sensible energy use. Indeed, the images of the First Lady trudging out for an exhibitionistic hour of manual labour evoked nothing more than Marie Antoinette’s ersatz “hamlet” at Versailles.

Michelle has gone on to deliver serious speeches about a wide range of food issues but keeps coming back to her own farming experiment. “You know, when we decided to plant the White House garden, we thought it would be a great way to educate kids about eating more healthily,” she said while unveiling a new farmer’s market near the White House.

Such talk of playtime in the tomato patch reinforces the suspicion that small-scale urban gardening works best as a hobbyist’s affectation, bonsai-pruning for the kitchen set. There is, after all, no evidence that the Obamas had any interest in practising agriculture when they were just an upper-middle class professional couple living in a Chicago condo. It’s amazing how inheriting a staff, private chef and public budget can re-inspire the joys of agrarian life. On one of his first trips to Iowa as a candidate, Barack Obama asked farmers, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” The comment was mocked as evidence of Obama’s bourgeois, citified tastes, but it was encouraging evidence of the fact that Americans were about to elect a conscientious consumer alert to the shifting economics of the produce aisle.

That seems the best place for the next White House food-politics photo op. It’s time for Michelle to pave over the garden and send Barack to the market with a shopping list.

Monocle comment:

Also see page 123 for the story of a US business that could change the way ordinary Americans eat. It seems that perhaps you don’t have to have fries with that.

16/25 – Pyramid scheme

Joris Luyendijk

Journalist

Preface:

If Egypt’s elderly president, Hosni Mubarak, were to die this year, how would the West report the story? The usual way when an Arab dictator dies: forget the cruelty and corruption and focus on the funeral flowers.

Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, may look OK on TV but he is 81 and very ill. For years he has been grooming his son, Gamal, for power and this may be the year of the most important Arab succession in decades – Egypt is by far the most populous Arab country, it has peace with Israel and its Al-Azhar Mosque is a leading authority for a billion Sunni Muslims worldwide. And the country has been ruled by the same man since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was killed in 1981.

But Mubarak’s death would also be a massive media story. What might coverage in mainstream western media be like? There have been three precedents in the past 10 years, when the dictators of Morocco, Jordan and Syria were succeeded by their sons. Each time the storyline that developed was similar. There was an extraordinary amount of attention paid to safe facts. When the funeral will take place. Who will attend. Which Israeli leader will come, whose hands he will shake. Then there was some talk about the brutality of the regime, the corruption, waste and cruelty. But not much.

The main story line was dominated by suave and articulate government spokespeople who portrayed this succession as the beginning of a new era. Yes, they conceded, the past was marked by authoritarianism, “a strong hand in this volatile region”. The people in their country were grateful for that “stability”, and now they expected their new leader to take them “into the 21st century”. None of this panned out in the years to come, as it couldn’t have. A dictatorship is like a mafia family. If the godfather dies, a new one moves in. Not to dismantle the crime family but to consolidate it. When Hafez Al Assad died in Syria in 2000 there was endless talk about a “Damascene spring”, planted by clever PR-people.

So if Mubarak dies, expect lots of talk about an “Egyptian spring”. Expect lots of police during the funeral, because the underground opposition will know this is their chance, with so many cameras around. And expect western TV to make the most of this funeral. News is entertainment and if you are going to go on air and state honestly that this is probably a matter of one tyrant succeeding another, why should people watch? Ratings rule.

Monocle comment:

For many in the east, our fretting over who succeeds to power is a little misplaced. What about all those Kennedys and Bushes?

17/25 – Viva chaos!

Daniel Libeskind

Architect

Preface:

Design democracy and technology mean our cities will be shaped by citizens rather than authorities in the future, thus they will be less ordered and more like giant works of art. Come on, embrace the mess.

Visions of the future of the city have been disseminated through the media of literature and film and through the communications of futurologists, utopians and dystopians of every variety and of each epoch. In these visions, technology and the future of the city are always intertwined and that is a necessity if the city is to become a concrete reality.

But what is missing from all these ­visions and is emerging today is a central and co-creator of the city – the empowered citizen. I’m not talking about individuals who admirably work towards a more sustainable building or a greener city, but of a democratic commitment and openness in which the tools of design give each citizen a stake in actual decision- and form-making of the city. The city, therefore, will no longer be one with an “authoritative centre” but it will have a structure as “messy” as democracy itself. The city will no longer be simply linear and causal, but will have a ­communicative structure shaped by ­differences, individualities and irrationalities. The city will change from within rather than from a plan imposed from above. The form may very well appear to be a distortion, a wrenching and twisting away from what is already there.

The information and communications technology so different from the mechanical models of the 20th century will dissolve uniformity and apparent order in terms of spatial geometry. Technical and rational thinking will become so advanced that it will incorporate the unknown quantity – the emotional.

In the future the city will be seen as a work of art, and like art it will appear as a chaos of overlapping and competing visions, where liberty will replace the old western and Eurocentric models of order.

Monocle comment:

If you want to see the free-form city writ large, head to Tokyo. While Japanese society may be rigid in some quarters, when it comes to urban planning – especially in residential areas – it often feels like anything goes.

18/25 – Hail the chief

Colonel Fariad Tanin

Taxi driver

Preface:

After I left my ministerial post and fled Afghanistan, no-one would give me work. People are quick to judge those from my homeland but they have no idea what it’s like to live in a country where nobody can recall peace.

When I was a boy growing up in Kabul in the 1960s, I never dreamt of becoming a London taxi driver. I was born into a highly educated Pashtun family and both my father and grandfather had served as ministers in the Shah’s government. Afghanistan had the resources and traditions to make a great nation, but conflict was never far away and during the aftermath of the communist April Revolution my father was assassinated, along with many other prominent Afghans. It was 1980, I was 20 years old and my life changed forever.

I went to the communist military academy in Tashkent and trained with the Russian secret service. Although the rule of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was far from perfect, they brought order and big opportunities for the educated and ambitious. I became one of the youngest colonels in the ­country, had a ministerial post and commanded a well-equipped and disciplined army. When the mujahideen swept into power in 1989, it felt like a tsunami had eradicated all of our hard work to build a modern nation. I was kept on in the new government, but it was a very dangerous time and the political families who could afford to, were fleeing.

Eventually in 1995 I sold my family estate (which at one time was worth ­hundreds of thousands of dollars) for $15,000 and took my wife and two sons to England. At first it was difficult for me to accept my loss of status – I could barely get work washing plates, and driving a taxi was the only job that gave me a sense of working for myself. One of my friends, who was an executive at the Afghan TV network and the brother of the former Afghan prime minister Sultan Ali Keshtmand, is also driving a taxi in London, as is the former Afghan ambassador to Iran.

I have found that some British people are quick to pass judgement on Afghan-istan, but they should remember that many Afghans have never known peace – their first word was “mother” then “food” then “gun”. Driving around London on a Friday night and seeing the brawling and police sirens flashing, I sometimes think that if these people had gone through three decades of relentless war, they would be eating each other in the streets. I’ve picked up a lot of high profile clients who do not behave as you would hope. Once I was driving the daughter of a British rock star and she tried to go to the toilet in the street. There were a lot of paparazzi around and I helped her back into the car, so the next day I saw my photo in the paper. My picture was often in the papers back in Afghanistan but for very different reasons. If this story found its way back to Kabul it would cause me shame.

Life always brings the good along with the bad, and I have seen some great kindness in Britain. I think of it like my own country now, and although I would return to Afghanistan tomorrow if I could guarantee my family’s safety and regain my position, I no longer dream of getting my wealth and status back. Money cannot save your life, and what matters is that people try to love, respect and understand each other. I can still do that while driving a taxi in London.

Monocle comment:

On a recent trip, our driver (an Afghan graduate who spoke five languages) had been forced to move country three times. He was 26.

19/25 – Walk the walk

Paula Scher

Partner, Pentagram

Preface:

How we tackle pollution, energy efficiency and traffic congestion will be the biggest success (or failure) of our age. The solution is actually staring us in the face, and it’s as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.

This summer, New York’s Department of Transportation closed down several blocks of Broadway around Times Square. They put out tacky lawn chairs and suddenly Broadway transformed itself from a traffic-clogged thoroughfare into a relaxed pedestrian area. Designers, planners and architects were horrified by the makeshift nature of the conversion. But the public loved it: if the traffic’s not there they will walk, and it’s especially nice, when one is walking a long distance, to be able to sit down.

While most cities are grappling with viable ways to improve mass transit, or simply trying to install bike lanes, the simplest, more durable solution to congestion, pollution, and energy efficiency is walking. Our cities need a 15th century design approach to 21st century problems. Cities need to create walkways, arcades, passageways through buildings. In 2010, and onward, designers, urban planners and developers will address the city from a pedestrian perspective. They will do this because it’s the most viable solution to urban congestion.

Monocle comment:

It’s great to walk to work but that assumes you don’t live miles away. There needs to be a new acceptance that we need all sorts of commercial and light industrial units in the centres of our cities, near our homes.

20/25 – Go slow in Japan

John R Harris

Writer

Preface:

Japan may not seem the logical choice for those seeking peace and tranquillity, but as the cities draw in the countryside’s young and property prices fall, it is now the best place on earth to find your own rural paradise.

Oh, to be in Provence, that Jerusalem of slow living revealed by the gospel according to Peter Mayle. Shame, though, that property is now so exorbitant and burglary angst so pervasive; and that expat demands for broadband have left France Telecom staff so hyper-stressé. If not volatile, dysfunctional or unwelcoming, most other Edens are equally overpriced and crime-ridden. So where else could a slow-life pilgrim go? The last place one might guess is Japan. For as everyone knows it’s an expensive sardine can encased end-to-end in concrete.

Granted, Japan’s postwar “economic animals” tried their best, improvising with golf greens and tree farms where they couldn’t subdue nature in concrete. But in six decades you can only pave so much of a mountainous archipelago that extends 2,500km. Now, with vast pockets of rural beauty still “unimproved”, Japan’s long march to “progress” is ­running out of steam. And, as aspiring slow-lifers are finding, it’s creating some remarkable opportunities.

Massive farm subsidies and public-works spending were meant to keep the hinterland fat, populous and voting ­conservative. Instead, educated and prosperous rural youth have opted massively for city lights and small families. So the countryside is emptying at an alarming rate. Forest is retaking abandoned farmsteads an hour from Tokyo. Wild boar and monkeys are proliferating. And foreigners are moving in…

My own fast-life ethic was stunted by a novelist father who dragged me on 1960s sabbaticals to the Camargue and Catalonia. I’ve had no ambition beyond living somewhere sweet on the avails of writing. But as a freelance hack in Tokyo that seemed beyond reach. Then came the internet. As work went digital and shopping went online, the need to be in Tokyo receded. And as optical fibre reached every village in Japan just as rural property prices imploded, it no longer made sense.

The fishing/farming town of Onjuku lies 100km southeast of the Emperor’s palace. But, nestled between forested hills and a beach beloved by surfers, it could be California. Kissed by a warm ocean current, palm trees thrive and flowers bloom year-round. Not much has happened in 400 years since locals rescued survivors from a Spanish galleon that foundered offshore. Today, with 35 per cent of the 8,000 odd remaining inhabitants being over 65, the high school sits empty. Townsfolk welcome incoming ­foreigners. Onjuku may lack cafés to compare with Tourrettes-sur-Loup but doors need never be locked. Tradesmen show up within hours.

Living on a forested acre (acquired for a song) is paradise for my wife and two daughters. But then we’re Canadian. Urban Japanese friends think we’re insane to live among poisonous snakes and mosquitoes. Even visitors who profess love of nature shriek just at the sight of caterpillars.

Japan now abounds with beautiful, empty countryside. Anywhere else this might trigger a land rush. But apart from a still-marginal back-to-the-land cadre, urban Japanese don’t know what to do next with their hinterland. There are many reasons why, but the crux seems to be a lack of righteous examples. So good might well be done if the world’s slow-life pilgrims discovered the rewards of missionary work among the Japanese.

Monocle comment:

From Germany to Japan, we have detected a renewed passion for the rural life. One of the places this is most evident is on the magazine shelves.

21/25 – All together now

Robert Bound

Culture editor

Preface:

A good dose of karaoke can be the oil that keeps a company’s engine purring. Whether you’re entertaining clients or building morale. It’s inclusive, always interesting and impossible to hate. Ready? 1,2,3,4, hit it.

There’s a lot of rubbish talked about boardrooms being where business gets done in Japan. PowerPoint presentations, flipcharts, conference calls, lucky ties. Don’t believe it. You’ll know when they’re on the point of signing because a microphone will be thrust into your hand; the deal will be done over “Islands in the Stream” or “American Pie” or “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – for which it’s best to allow your would-be investor to sing the part of Elton John while you take on the essential, but more ancillary, role of Kiki Dee. Help out with the harmonies and don’t forget who’s boss.

What’s your poison? Lennon, Nilsson, Minnie Ripperton? Pick wisely. Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” is a popular number but who are you kidding if you’re wearing pinstripes? “Mr Tambourine Man” is a dirge without Bob Dylan at the helm, Bowie’s for show-offs (I’ll admit it) and you’ll be surprised at how few of the words to “Satisfaction”, other than “I can’t get no!”, you know (no, no, no).

Karaoke is a civilising force; a great tester; a playing-field-leveller that allows the shy accounts department to shine and the foxy fashion crew to mis-step. Karaoke’s always interesting. After the whisky sours begin to warm the cockles of your heart and the bashful streak’s been banished, you’ll be rewarded by your choice of Bond themes, Carpenters classics and Rat Pack croon-a-longs. Karaoke is a cosy, slightly camp country of the future where stone-cold classics rule, snobbery is a memory and all-comers are equal. The handing of the karaoke mic, like the procession of the Olympic torch, signifies trust. Somewhere in Tokyo, there’s a mic stuck down the back of a banquette, as Excalibur was stuck in a stone. Karaoke is mystical, but bring Strepsils.

Monocle comment:

A point of etiquette: in Japan your enthusiasm for karaoke is not evidenced by accompanying gyrating. So don’t be surprised when the crooners stay seated throughout their performances. They are having fun.

22/25 – Fear the Reaper

P W Singer

Author

Preface:

Drone warfare – in which bombs dropped on Pakistan are controlled by men sat at computers 7,000 miles away – is a totally unprecedented form of combat and could be the biggest threat to global security in 2010.

Going to war used to mean something. Whether you were talking about Achilles, Odysseus and the other ancient Greeks sailing off to fight Troy, or my grandfather sailing off to fight the Japanese in the Pacific after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the individual to go to war meant heading off into a realm of such danger that one might never come home.

As we enter the year 2010, that is no longer the case for many modern fighters. A growing number of US and Royal Air Force pilots wake up in the morning, drive into work, sit in front of computer screens, and then use Predator and Reaper drones to battle insurgents 7,000 miles away. Then, at the end of the day of war, they get back in their cars, and, as one US Air Force officer put it, “Within 20 minutes you are sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids.”

What is more, in most western democracies, we don’t issue declarations of war anymore. We don’t have conscription or the draft anymore. We don’t buy war bonds or pay higher taxes for wars anymore. But these trends don’t mean that our nations aren’t at war. For instance, the Bush Administration launched 33 drone strikes into Pakistan in its last year of office. By October 2009, the rate under the administration of President Obama reached 10 strikes a month. And there was no debate about it in legislatures or the UN.

The challenge is that while we have 5,000 years of experience in one way of war, we have very little to guide us in this new type of conflict in 2010. And the stakes are as high as ever. The continuing turmoil within Pakistan, and how our actions from afar either stabilise or weaken the world’s most fragile nuclear power, may well be the biggest security concern of the new year.

Monocle comment:

The current rate of drone strikes on Pakistan is greater than what took place with manned bombers during the opening of the Kosovo War.

23/25 Identity crisis

Chuk Ikéh

Writer

Preface: The glowing accounts of life in Nigeria recounted by older generations are at complete odds with the media portrayal of internet scoundrels and kidnappers. Would the real Nigeria please step forward.

As a dual British and Nigerian citizen, I have often found that the latter status yields few advantages. Were it not for close family ties to the country, my Nigerian passport would probably stay sitting solemnly in the back of a drawer. But nostalgic accounts proudly recited by my parents during my childhood painted a very different picture of Nigeria from the one I have become familiar with in the media. When I compare the two, something doesn’t quite add up; somewhere along the way, Nigeria has been lost in translation.

In the Nigeria of my parents’ generation, the children who entered its education system emerged as doctors, lawyers, architects or engineers – even during one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. Its fields boasted all kinds of valuable and profitable natural goods that attracted the likes of the Malaysians and the British, not to mention the rich reserves of crude oil nestling deep below ground level that caught the eye of the Americans.

Forty years later, all of these attributes still exist, with the addition of a multi-million-dollar “Nollywood” film industry (the second largest in the world behind India) and the emergence of a flock of award-winning writers, including the first black African Booker Prize and first African Nobel Prize for Literature winners. And while Nigeria’s position as one of the top 10 exporters of oil is no secret, its gold and natural gas reserves appear to be relatively untapped.

The country’s military peace-keeping presence on the continent is unmistakable and its voice is heard clearly on the African diplomatic stage. Nigerians overseas are prominent contributors to the economies of their adopted countries. Walk the corridors of the major international banks, law and IT firms and you are bound to bump into a Nigerian.

Yet, despite all of these attributes, the caricature is now of a nation bristling with tricksters, militant kidnappers and oil embezzlers. This image has been constructed over the past decade and has cast a shadow over Nigeria that looks as though it will be difficult to shake.

It is fair to say that Nigeria’s national brand does not glow on the international stage. Yet when I talk to Nigerians both home and abroad they still believe that it is not too late for Nigeria to reach into the closet and pull out its Sunday best.

Nigerians like to think of themselves as intelligent and resourceful and, above all, tenacious. They believe that the government can tempt its frustrated, unemployed graduates back to the countryside to reap their rewards, instead of chasing the oil dollars that have led to well-documented conflicts over the years. They are confident that Nigeria can combine its resources with its manpower and its engineering capability to lead the way for the successful development of African technologies. They are more than optimistic that, with the aid of the international community, they can block the loopholes that have allowed a minority to siphon its wealth out of the country and instead invest it in the nation’s future.

Nigeria’s banking sector – spearheaded by central bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi – has already undergone a controversial shake-up that has seen the heads of five of its banks axed. Sanusi’s no-nonsense attitude showed a much-needed decisiveness at a time when the Americans and the Europeans are dithering over how to reform their own banks.

If those in the highest positions of the Nigerian federal administration can renounce their laissez-faire attitude towards corruption, and if the country can attract its well-qualified expatriates back to its shores to help breathe life and hope back into its education system, then perhaps the Nigerian brand can recover. Perhaps next time I receive an e-mail from a Nigerian investor, I might think twice before deleting it.

Monocle comment:

Brand Nigeria would simply benefit from a modicum of internet policing by the powers that be in Abuja.

24/25 – Race ahead

Trefor Moss

Defence writer and analyst

Preface: In 2010, the United States will be forced to acknowledge that its status as the world’s sole superpower will be effectively over. If you want proof of China’s growing power, you only have to look up into space.

As western economies slowly pick themselves up off the recessionary canvas, the likes of China, India and Indonesia, which all hurdled the downturn with remarkable ease, are approaching the new decade as though inheriting the world from its previous, dead owners.

The pattern of Asian financial supremacy – the shopaholic West hoovering up lines of ready eastern credit – is well established; but the dependency will only deepen in 2010 as Asia strengthens its economic framework. The Chinese yuan is poised to step into the breach left by the dollar’s “demise” and become a global currency; regional governments will discuss the formation of an EU-style East Asian Community and an Asian single currency with growing seriousness; and the establishment of free trade ­between China and the ASEAN group of Southeast Asian countries will be another seedbed for regional growth.

The US, winded by Iraq, Afghanistan and the financial crisis, must now be resigned to losing its sole superpower status. China and the Asian tigers won’t eclipse Washington in 2010 but their growing stature prefigures the multi-polar world that we will all soon inhabit.

Take that emblem of the American dream: space. Nothing says more about your national power than your ability to access and make use of space. Yet in 2010 the contrast between the space programmes of China and the US will ­encapsulate the changing of the geopolitical guard. NASA will retire the space ­shuttle in 2010, five years before its replacement, the Constellation, is expected to be flight-worthy. At this point the US will find itself without a manned space capability for the first time in decades.

China’s space programme, meanwhile, is forging ahead (like India’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s). In 2010 Beijing will launch three spacecraft and build its first space station by linking them together the following year – all in preparation for a Chinese moon landing in around 2024. Just think how unfeasible this all once seemed: while the US was conceiving its Giant Leap For Mankind, the Communists’ delusional Great Leap Forward was killing up to 50 million people in peasant China. And in 2010, as we now realise, Beijing will acknowledge that it is building its first aircraft carrier. This is the year in which one of the biggest defence export contracts in history will be awarded by India, for a fleet of new fighter aircraft. And this is the year that Shanghai will host the World Expo, which the US still hopes to attend – provided it can find the money.

As the world meets in Copenhagen to debate climate change this December, all the leverage rests with Asia’s economies; already, China and the G77 of developing countries have wrong-footed the US by accusing Washington of trying to sabotage any emissions deal. Meanwhile, hopes of salvaging the Doha round of world trade talks, which resume in 2010, lie with India, which spurned American safeguard proposals last time around.

So is the Asian Century upon us? There are enough holes for the East to fall down to make that hard to predict. But the Asian Decade is clearly dawning.

Monocle comment:

While the demise of the dollar is speculated about, Washington may have a few factors working in its favour. The true flight to the yuan will only ever happen when China’s banking system looks a little more transparent.

25/25 – Beat generation

Mona Eltahawy

Columnist

Preface:

Denmark-based musician Simona Abdallah brings a new intensity to the traditional Arab drum, the darbuka. She is one of a brave new breed of Muslim women you’re going to hear a lot more about in the coming year.

This is going to be the year of the Muslim woman you’ve never heard of but should know. So here’s your head start. Simona Abdallah doesn’t just play the darbuka, a type of Arab drum. That’s too meek a verb. She kneads and strikes, cajoles and strokes, her hands moving so fast you lose sight of her fingers.

Born in Germany to Palestinian parents, she’s lived in ­Denmark for most of her 30 years. Until Abdallah, I’d never seen a woman play a darbuka. How many Muslim women musicians do you know? In Europe?

There are plenty of Muslim male rappers in Europe, spitting angrily into a mic and cavorting with “party girls” on music channels. See them in Germany, see them in the Netherlands and there they are in Denmark too. But where’s his sister? At home, singing into her hairbrush, being a “good girl” no doubt.

But online in the Middle East there are fearless sisters who use social media as fearlessly as Abdallah hits that ­darbuka. You’ll hear more of these women in 2010.

Monocle comment:

The CDs of women singers from the Middle East line our shelves. Although the likes of Om Kalsoum belong to an era when the Middle East was less afraid of western influences.

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