Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Wal-Mart goes to India

Terms of endearment
ND Batra

From The Statesman

West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was reported to have asked at a meeting of business leaders in October, “Why do we need Wal-Mart to come?” That’s a good question, which Wal-Mart has yet to answer.

There is a genuine apprehension that small shopkeepers and intermediaries would be adversely affected by the arrival of the global retailer, as it has happened in many places in the USA where many mom-and-pop corner stores have shuttered down and others are struggling to survive.

“The High Cost of Low Price,” a recently released documentary by Robert Greenwald shows the seamy side of the retail giant, including the denial of health coverage to employees, exploitative wages for women and the elderly, ethnic and gender discrimination and many other not so legal practices, for which ultimately the taxpayer bears the burden.

Small entrepreneurs are the backbone of the Indian economy as well as the burgeoning middle class; and they must not be savaged. Nonetheless, they need to be exposed to the challenges of globalisation, to Wal-Mart’s organisational innovations.

Fortunately the retail space in India, unlike in the USA, is expanding rapidly and something like Wal-Mart is going to occur with or without Wal-Mart. Talking with analysts in June, John Menzer, president and CEO of Wal-Mart’s international operations, said: “India represents a $250-billion retail market, growing 7.2 per cent a year, but modern retailing is just starting to emerge.”

India is not only “a huge organic growth market for Wal-Mart”, but also a fast growing outsourcing market, with expected $1.5 billion merchandise export to Wal-Mart’ stores this year. But that is nothing what Wal-Mart exports from China, $70 billion annually, and has created myriad entrepreneurial opportunities by establishing a most modern supply chain system.

Chief minister Bhattacharjee should focus on not only how Wal-Mart treats its employees, keeping in mind that in the USA the retailer does not encourage unionisation, but also whether Kolkata could be another outsourcing hub for the hungry giant global with 2,000 worldwide stores, including 40 in China.

When small things aggregate, they bring about great changes. The world’s biggest retail giant, Wal-Mart sells almost everything and at the lowest prices, providing low and middle-class people affordable access to goods which would have been otherwise beyond their monthly budgets. The retailer is able to do so by buying massive quantities from inshore and offshore sources and hiring people at blood and sweat wages, mostly women, and that should be of great concern to political leaders like Mr Bhattacharjee and others.

In the long run, such business practices may have greater impact upon the world than Al Qaida, tsunami and the earthquake. As Nelson Liechten-stein, professor of US labour history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in the Globalist, “Wal-Mart rezones our cities, determines the real minimum wage, channels capital throughout the world — and conducts a kind of international diplomacy with a score of nations.”

As the retail giant scrounges and sponges the Third World for cheap goods, in the process it creates employment for hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries, especially China. In the USA, it keeps overheads low by hiring mostly female workers at wages much less generous than it pays to its male employees.

In 2001, six women said to Wal-Mart, this is discrimination against women and you can’t do it. Six women snowballed into more than a million current and former women employees who in a class-action suit charged that Wal-Mart, one of the nation’s largest employers, paid less and gave fewer promotions to women than to male employees. In the land of presumed equality, this is a serious accusation and has become a public relations disaster.

And the US district court judge, Martin J Jenkins, found that the plaintiffs did “present largely uncontested descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time, that women take longer to enter management positions, and that the higher one looks in the organisation, the lower the percentage of women.”

Gender and race-based discrimination is an anathema in American society; and that’s how it should be in India, whenever a foreign company is allowed to do business. This is, however, not the first gender-discrimination class-action suit against corporate America. Home Depot, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Public Super Markets and many others were hit with class-action suits for discriminatory employment practices and paid millions of dollars in settlement.

A legal and humanitarian precedent set in the USA should be followed whenever Wal-Mart and other multinationals come to India, where local companies, too, should have no choice but to offer competitive opportunities to their female employees at par with what they offer to males: another consequence of globalisation. These should be the terms of endearment that political leaders offer to global corporations wanting to do business in India.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Can Wal-Mart do business in India?

Age of corporate diplomacy
By ND Batra
From The Statesman

When American Airlines, the second US carrier to start a nonstop service to India, planned its Chicago O’Hare to New Delhi flight, its management realised that open skies do not necessarily mean open hearts and minds, in spite of the excellent business climate and trust between the two countries. In an international business venture of this magnitude, failure is not an option. Competition is knocking at the door.

Cultural sensibilities, such as cuisine, had to be taken into account, especially as competition becomes hot on the lucrative non-stop route to one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

According to company sources, “With assistance from the American Airlines Indian Employee Resource Group, and in conjunction with Indian chefs based in the USA and India, the Americans structured a special menu for the Delhi flights that features Indian, Indian-inspired vegetarian and Western meal selections.No beef or pork will be served on the flights to and from Delhi. Only chicken, lamb and seafood dishes will be featured.”

Another airline, Continental, began its non-stop flight from Newark, New Jersey to Delhi on 1 November; and European and Indian carriers are bound to follow soon.Besides, as US Today reported, the non-stop flight has to fly over Russian airspace, which required agreement between the two governments and further corporate diplomacy. So there is a lesson here. Since the foreign policies of a country could put a damper on its international commerce, multinational corporations must have their own corporate diplomats and protocol officers for business development abroad.

Corporate diplomacy is crucial to the credibility of a company in explaining, positioning and carrying out its business, especially in these times when the image of the USA abroad is not bright.

International commerce depends upon the goodwill of the public, which must be continuously built so that it works as a shock absorber when some unforeseen calamity occurs and crisis communication strategy has to be deployed.

The creation and the development of this intangible and valuable asset, the public goodwill, is the function of corporate diplomacy.

In the 21st century, doing business in a foreign country must be much more than making profits. In his keynote address to Owens Corning Executive Summit at Tampa, Florida, Bill Shireman, President and CEO, Future 500, said: “The world is demanding a lot of the modern corporation.” When a company captures market share, he said, it also captures mind share, the deep support of the people.

When the host population perceives a corporation as a good citizen, it produces collateral benefits for the home country. On the other hand, when the local population perceives a country as hostile, foreign businesses could be hit hard, as it happened in Karachi when KFC was torched for the second time recently.

And ironically it happened at a time when Karen Hughes, US under-secretary for public diplomacy, was leading a delegation to Pakistan and visiting Muzafarrabad (Pakistani Kashmir) to assure the people and the government about the US commitment for the rehabilitation of the people affected by the 8 October earthquake. Accompanying Ms Hughes were some top corporate executives from Xerox, Pfizer and UPS, but the Pakistani public remained unimpressed. The foundation for grassroot public diplomacy, which is more than show-and-tell visits by celebrities, has not been laid in Pakistan.

Resentment against US foreign policy has been contaminating the image of US corporate brands, especially in Arab-Muslim countries, which requires corporate America to do its own public diplomacy.

Doing effective global corporate diplomacy requires local knowledge, competencies and tools for implementing strategic communications to deal effectively with foreign publics.

The overarching goal of corporate diplomacy is to develop an effective corporate voice and to learn to use all available means of persuasion, media and human networks, to shape public opinion as well as policies of the government in the host country.

KFC, McDonald’s and Coca Cola cannot depend upon their international brands to survive in hostile environment. They have to engage in creative business-to-people diplomacy.

Global business needs a new kind of corporate diplomat, one who must be responsive and effective in communicating with different publics, interest groups, activists, governments and stakeholders in international settings by using various media forms, print, radio/television and the Internet.

The corporate diplomat must be able to create a powerful corporate identity that serves the mission of the corporation as a responsible global corporate citizen and at the same time support the culture of the host country.

Developing intercultural sense and sensibility will enable the practitioners of corporate diplomacy to develop culturally sensitive best business practices throughout the supply chain.

Special focus must be placed on: developing strategic communications for foreign media; maintaining brand reputation; developing rapid response crisis communication strategies; developing corporate advocacy for environment, open trade and free markets; using philanthropy and community relations to counter negative sentiments; dealing with foreign bureaucracy, influentials, activists and opinion leaders.

Above all, emphasis must be on maintaining corporate integrity abroad; and being a good global citizen

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Cyber age: ND BATRA:

Saddam’s trial as public catharsis

From The Statesman

The trial of Saddam Hussein might turn out to be the trial of President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in the court of global public opinion whether they were justified in invading Iraq in the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

It could be also the trial of American journalists who uncritically supported the White House war against Iraq; and UN’s oil-for-food traders, who illegally enriched themselves. Cynics might say: That is killing too many birds with one stone. So let the trial begin.

Nevertheless, the trial of Saddam Hussein provides the USA with a unique opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the people especially in the Arab and Muslim world, if conditions are created for him to defend himself in an open and fair trial held in Iraq by a panel of credible judges. Assassins must not rule the courthouse.

The world knows Saddam Hussein’s monstrous crimes, the torture chambers, the gassing of the Kurds, the disappearance and murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis buried in unmarked graves, and much worse, even the killing of his own two sons-in-law. But when television showed us in glaring light the haggard, bedraggled, haunted, pitiable face that twisted and turned on command for examination for lice and saliva, we wondered, “Was this the face that launched…?”

How did this man create the social apparatus, the machinery, and the network of collaborators that sustained his regime of fear that lasted so long? Saddam Hussein’s capture presents the Iraqi people a great opportunity to discover how organised violence by the Baathist Party under the dictates of one man subjugated their spirits. Hussein’s crimes against his people must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Even though we have seen pictures of the mutilated bodies of children, men and women, young and old, lying helter-skelter after they were gassed to asphyxiation, Hussein must be given the right not to be a witness against himself as well as the presumption of innocence until he is proven guilty. I am simply paraphrasing the rights of an accused in the USA enshrined and hallowed in the Bill of Rights, the greatest document ever written by the human mind, which is the ultimate source of American values, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and fair trial, all that is good about the USA, all that makes it a unique civilisation in the annals of mankind.

It is only by judging the worst amongst us in a fair and open trial – and in the global village Saddam Hussein is one of us– that we test our values, affirm our faith and renew ourselves as an open society.

A fair trial subject to international scrutiny conducted by Iraqis themselves, with the help of American and international jurists, if necessary, could be the beginning of a new era of transparency in Iraq based on the rule of law; and as a corollary, a great challenge to closed West Asian societies showing them how life could be better for them under a different system.

Sunshine is the greatest threat to rulers of the dark side. But how could Iraqis who have lived in mortal fear of this man for such a long time put aside their anger, hatred and overpowering desire for revenge to let a panel of judges conduct a fair trial? That is the challenge.

Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunals for Rawanda and the former Yugoslavia wrote sometime ago in Los Angeles Times that while Hussein’s trial gives the USA a chance to show that “the rule of law is stronger than the need for revenge,” it also presents a great challenge for conducting a fair trial because for decades Iraq had “no credible criminal justice system”; and the country has hardly any prosecutors trained to present a credible prosecution case. “There are,” Mr Goldstone wrote, “no credible Iraqi defence attorneys capable of providing Saddam the advice and support that he would need in defending himself. The independence of the judges would be highly questionable as well.”

Two defence attorneys have been killed. The people of Iraq, although a house divided against itself, Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and others, must be trusted and trained to handle a trial of this magnitude, a trial that would have a decisive influence on the future of their country and beyond. A broad-based all-inclusive and legitimate government in charge of the country is the first and foremost step in conducting a fair and open trial.

Let Hussein tell his side of the story in the best possible manner so that we understand how he built such a durable system of tyranny that lasted for more than three decades, and which might have continued but for the intervention of an outside power.

In the ultimate analysis, the purpose of Hussein’s open trial is social catharsis, purgation of hatred and desire for revenge by seeing the criminal punished; justice and may be compensation for the victims; and closure and national reconciliation.

The trial could be the beginning of a new society based upon the rule of law so that in future no one could abuse power without fear of punishment. And what is true of Iraq is also true of the USA.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Teaching virtually

cyber age: ND Batra

Teaching virtually
From The Statesman

There is a misplaced feeling on the American campus today that old faculty members are generally resistant to pedagogical technology and feel stressed by it.

But who wouldn't feel the pressure especially when every year vendors relentlessly push software and hardware upgrades, even though the older ones are quite functional and adequate? Most professors do not see any special advantage in teaching by pushing most advanced information technology in the classroom, which somehow gives the erroneous impression that they are too hidebound or too dumb to learn new things.

The good news is that a majority of professors in the USA are still in their most creative period, 55 or less, according to a report from the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Of the various instructional methods used for undergraduate teaching by American professors, the use of computer or machine-aided instruction hardly exceeds 25 per cent; and that too may be limited to the use of PowerPoint or video clips to break the monotony of the long lecture.

No one has come up with an equally good alternative to classroom lecture-discussion method that has been at the heart of the teaching-learning experience since the days of the ancients.

Nor has any instructional technology been developed to replace cooperative learning that occurs in group projects, field studies, recitals, performances, and writing and re-writing or students critiquing each other's research reports.

Having used PowerPoint for quite sometime, I feel that more often it is a barrier to engaging students deeply in class. Some students positively resent PowerPoint because it has homogenised teaching. From class to class, it is the same, a student bemoaned.

Sometime ago I attended a daylong workshop on the use of information technology in the classroom and asked innocently what I should be doing instead of lecturing if I go for the on-line teaching method. The response was a counter-question: Why do you lecture? The simple retort jolted me and I began to wonder how much lecturing is essential when apart from the textbook there are several reliable sources available on the Internet.

It is true that students do not learn only from the textbook; otherwise teachers won't be needed. When the textbook with supplementary readings is brought to bear upon a discussion topic in the classroom, you see the beginning of learning, which is further enhanced through projects, term papers and the stimulus (or fear) of quizzes, weekly short essay assignments, and mid-term and final examinations.

Learning is a process of pattern building that requires frequent breaks and discontinuities and the silence of the mind. Human brain is not a storage disk. You cannot download knowledge at the stroke of a key or ingest it as a cascade of PowerPoint slides.

Internet on-line courses and software programmes being pushed by publishers on American campuses are no doubt posing some fundamental questions about our traditional pedagogical methods. Although students sometime hesitate to join classroom discussion, I have found that many students enthusiastically participate in on-line discussion.

Many of them express themselves freely if I encourage a free-style discussion, de-emphasising grammar and style for the time being.

Of course, students and professors would miss a lot if there were no face-to-face encounters, dramatic moments which not infrequently result in repartee, witticism, humour and other minor conflagrations that enhance teaching and learning and make the dialogue such a joy.

The American campus is under stress, as is the office workplace, simply because there is no way anyone can be perpetually at the cutting edge of information technology. Even younger faculty members feel stressed by technology. Partly this is due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly; resistance to its adoption has not much to do with age.

Instead of keeping ahead in their academic fields, the faculty members are expected to master newer technology every now and again, which sometime causes frayed tempers. In contrast, the chalkboard and the test-tube have lasted for hundreds of years. If a breezing presentation using PowerPoint does not lead to a lively discussion, it is of no use. A mathematics professor might not feel comfortable to teach abstract concepts to his undergraduates on-line, which could probably be better done by leading students step by step in the old fashioned way.

It would be quite a task to expound to on-line students, for example, the mystery of black holes; the string theory; or the eternal hope in "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" But in this age of abundant technological choices, when everything from facial features to automobile is being customised and personalised, we are being pressured to think whether college instructions too could be made to fit the abilities and aptitude of each student.

I am not sure if information technology can give us some leeway in treating different students with different pedagogical methods to enhance and quicken the learning process for a generation that is growing up with iPods, computer games, chatrooms, instant messaging, and mobile Internet.

The technology gap between the young and the restless generation, short on attention span yet bright and inquisitive, on the one hand; and the campus gray professorate, on the other, has begun to matter a lot more, in fact so much that some of us find ourselves in the wilderness, wondering: Why do we teach the way we do? Should we "coursecast" our lectures on iPod and do something else?

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Diplomacy and disinformation

cyber age: ND Batra
From The Statesman
Info leaks as weapons of destruction

The wages of disinformation have to be paid sooner or later, as the Bush White House and some celebrity journalists are learning painfully.

In 2003, the CIA asked diplomat Joseph Wilson to investigate whether Saddam Hussein procured uranium (yellow cakes) from Niger. Wilson found no evidence and was publicly critical of the Bush administration for making the claim to justify the Iraq invasion. In an Op-Ed piece published on 6 July 2003 in The New York Times, Wilson questioned the infamous “16 words” from President Bush’s state of the union address in which he said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Immediately after Wilson’s critical report, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that “two senior administration officials” told him that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA secret agent working on issues related to weapons of mass destruction and she had suggested her husband be sent for the yellow cake investigation.

The information was leaked to him and other well-known reporters to discredit Wilson and to compromise his wife’s career. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act enacted in 1982 to protect undercover CIA agents makes it a crime to intentionally identify a covert agent. The culprit in this diabolical case was not only the conservative columnist Novak, who willingly allowed himself to be used as a tool of vilification, but also other journalists and some White House officials.

Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter, who never published her story but was a recipient of a White House official leak, was subpoenaed to reveal whom she talked to in the White House. But she refused and chose to go to jail to protect her First Amendment freedom to gather news and keep her mouth shut about her source.

Her defiance at that time seemed very heroic and drew global sympathy. Another journalist, Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, also privy to the leak, agreed to testify before the grand jury but only after Time handed over the source of the leak to investigators. In a grandiloquent and vainglorious tone, The New York Times wrote that it was “a proud and awful moment” for the newspaper because of one of its reporters, Judith Miller, “has decided to accept a jail sentence rather than testify before a grand jury about one of her confidential sources.”

After spending 85 days in jail, Miller said that her confidential source had released her from the promise of confidentiality and she agreed to testify before the grand jury investigating the leak. But soon The Times’ editors discovered that Miller had been less than forthcoming about her “entanglement” with her confidential source.

A colleague at the Times called her a “woman of mass destruction”. Miller apparently played a game of simulation and dissimulation.

Journalists cultivate confidential sources to uncover corruption; and sometime they know more about a case than crime investigators. Whistleblowers leak documents or talk on the promise of confidentiality to reporters.

Reporters must report if they have information that impacts society. Not to report truth would be not only complicity in crime but also unethical and unprofessional behaviour. Sometimes courts, and even legislatures, issue subpoenas demanding information including notes, photos and videos that have not been even published, failing which they exercise contempt power. Contempt power tends to chill Press freedom. Why? Because journalists would dread going behind public relations handouts to find out the truth about the misbehaviour of public men.

American society, for more than four decades, has been struggling with how to strike a balance between the news media’s obligation to do investigative reporting by cultivating confidential sources and the needs of the courts and law enforcement for access to crucial information that journalists might possess.

When a journalist is the only source of information, and possesses an indispensable piece of evidence in a legal case, information so compelling that without revealing its source there is the danger of justice being miscarried, in such a circumstance the source must be revealed regardless of the promise of confidentiality. The right to a fair trial is no less important than Press freedom. But how do you strike the balance?

In the course of time, the US Supreme Court began to use “preferred position balance theory” in deciding conflicts between Press freedom and other rights. In numerous rulings, the court held that some freedoms especially those granted by the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech and the Press) are fundamental to a free society and consequently deserving of more protection than other constitutional values. Nonetheless, Press freedom does not automatically trump all other rights, especially the constitutionally guaranteed right of a person to a fair trial, which may require access to critical evidence in the possession of a journalist.

Thus by giving Press freedom a preferred position in balance with other rights, the court put the burden of proof on the government that forcing a journalist to disclose his news source is necessary.

It is also important to understand that when sources suspect collusion between law enforcement and news organisations, trust is lost. Free flow of accurate and reliable information is choked; and power begins to corrupt. An independent judiciary and a responsible free Press are the watchdogs of an open, secular, democratic society. And they must be kept apart.

It is not only criminal but also unethical when reporters become tools of vindictive officials or political operatives, as columnist Novak and others chose to become, taking shelter under the First Amendment in protecting their confidential sources when they should have known better.

Special counsel Patrick J Fitzgerald, investigating the leak, has concluded his grand jury investigation in the case of Vice- President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I Lewis Libby, who has been indicted with “obstruction of justice, false statement and perjury charges” for lying about how and when he got and disclosed to reporters classified information regarding CIA agent Plame.

While this may be only the beginning of the trouble for the White House, the US news media has suffered another blow to its dwindling credibility.