Amid allegations of fraud, Congo’s high court confirms a new president

news image

JOSEPH KABILA’S machinations to keep control of the Democratic Republic of Congo have crumbled one by one. But his last desperate gamble—handing power to the friendly leader of an opposition party—is having a tad more success.

In the early hours of January 20th, Congo’s constitutional court (stacked with government loyalists) ceremoniously ruled that a presidential election held on December 30th had been won by Félix Tshisekedi, the friendly opposition leader, with 39% of the vote. It said that Martin Fayulu, a former oil executive who has promised to fight corruption, had come second with 35% of the vote.

The court’s judgment flies in the face of extensive evidence that the election was actually won by Mr Fayulu. A tally by the Financial Times of leaked data found that Mr Fayulu had won almost 60% of the vote and that Mr Tshisekedi was far behind, with 19%. Congo’s Catholic bishops, who sent out 40,000 observers, also said the official result did not match their tally.

Mr Kabila, who has been in power for 18 years, is no stranger to dirty tricks. In 2015 he tried to change the constitution and abolish term limits, so that he might join the regional club of presidents-for-life. After that failed because of massive protests, Mr Kabila simply refused to hold an election when his second term ended in 2016. He stayed in office for another two years. But more protests and pressure from regional powers forced him to set a date for the poll.

Mr Kabila wanted voters to elect his handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister. But he proved too unpopular to win even a rigged election. The vote count was delayed for several days amid an internet blackout. Mr Fayulu, who has threatened to investigate the wholesale theft of Congo’s mineral wealth by members of the ruling class, appears to have lost the count. He is backed by Mr Kabila’s two biggest adversaries, Jean-Pierre Bemba (a former warlord) and Moïse Katumbi (a tycoon), both of whom were barred from standing. Mr Kabila apparently saw him as the biggest threat to his continuing influence.

The African Union inititally expressed concern about the vote and called on Congo to hold off on officially handing victory to Mr Tshisekedi. But following the court ruling the AU seemed to back down. The Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc that had called for a recount and government of national unity, congratulated Mr Tshisekedi. So did the presidents of South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.

Most are concerned mainly with preserving stability in Congo, a sprawling and ill-governed country that could destabilise its neighbours if it descends again into civil war. Yet the electoral stitch-up has so infuriated many Congolese that it, too, presents a risk to stability. Mr Fayulu has asked his supporters to stage peaceful protests across the country. There is a good chance that government troops will use force to disperse them. If people are killed then outrage may spread rapidly.

Meanwhile Mr Kabila’s allies “are furious—he cannot even cheat successfully,” says someone close to the president. For now the police and army are backing Mr Kabila. But their loyalty is fickle.
As may be that of Mr Tshisekedi, who celebrated the court’s decision by sipping champagne. He has made friendly noises towards Mr Kabila, calling him “an important political partner”. He may be unable to throw his weight around much without Mr Kabila’s co-operation, since Mr Kabila’s party dominates the legislature. Indeed, Mr Kabila’s critics say he wants to play puppet-master to Mr Tshisekedi.

But he may not be able to. Power can quickly drain from a former president to a new one, and it is far from clear that Mr Kabila has the political skill to remain in charge when he is no longer in office. The game is not over. Nor, probably, is the cheating.

Read More

Remembering John Bogle, patron saint of the amateur investor

news image

IN DECEMBER 2009 Paul Volcker, a revered former chairman of the Federal Reserve, took part in a conference on the future of finance. America was plunging to its worst recession since the 1930s, taken to the brink of disaster by the products dreamed up by Wall Street alchemists. To underline his argument, Mr Volcker made a bold claim. The most useful financial innovation—indeed the only beneficial one—of recent decades, he said, had been the ATM.

Mr Volcker is right about many things, but wrong about this one. The prize must go to the index fund, pioneered in the mid-1970s by John Bogle, who died last week aged 89. The idea behind it was simple: a mutual fund that mimicked the S&P 500 index of leading American stocks. An index fund holds stocks in exact proportion to their importance (measured by their market capitalisation) to the overall stockmarket. Because such a fund owns all the stocks in the index, it is diversified: it is not overly exposed to the risk that a single firm, or group of firms, would fail. Above all, an index fund is cheap to run. It has no need to employ expensive stockpickers. Turnover costs are trivial. You only buy a stock when it joins the index, and sell it when it leaves. Otherwise you just hold the index.

The original idea was not Bogle’s. It emerged from academia. In October 1974 Paul Samuelson, a Nobel-prize winning economist, published a short article in the Journal of Portfolio Management. In it, he argued that most stockpickers should go out of business. They charged hefty fees for achieving worse returns than the market average. An alternative was urgently needed. Someone should set up a low-cost, low-turnover fund that tracked the S&P 500.

When Bogle read Samuelson’s article, it “struck me like a bolt of lightning”. Just a week earlier he had set up Vanguard, a mutual-fund group that would be truly mutual: it would be run not by external shareholders but by investors in the funds. The following year Vanguard launched an index fund. It was not met with great enthusiasm. Denounced on Wall Street as “un-American”, the Vanguard fund raised a mere $17m in its first five years. It was only after the mid-1990s that index investing took off. Fund-management groups other than Vanguard began to launch their own index funds. In the two decades since, such funds have grown far faster than those tended by “active” fund managers who select stocks.

For academics like Samuelson, the case for an indexed fund rested on the idea that stockmarkets are broadly “efficient”, in that relevant news about a company’s prospects is reflected in its share price. The weight of active money will quickly bid up the price of any obvious bargains. The index investor is a free-rider on this market efficiency. For his part, Bogle claimed he knew nothing of the efficient-markets school. “I was part of the pragmatic school of indexing,” he wrote in 2016. The average investor can do only as well as the stockmarket average, he concluded. If some investors beat the market, others must be beaten by it. After costs, most professional investors do indeed lose to it.

The key to successful stockmarket investing is avoiding high management fees. This is what Bogle called his “cost-matters hypothesis”. Because of him, lots of ordinary investors now get the average stockmarket return, thus beating the professionals, for a negligible fee. In total, Bloomberg reckons, investors may have saved $1trn in fees from indexation. John Bogle is the patron saint of the amateur investor. And he was the man who created something that is supposed to be as vanishingly rare as rocking-horse dung: a useful financial innovation.

Read More

We need to own our data as a human right—and be compensated for it

news image

AT A LUNCH at the World Economic Forum five years ago, guests were asked to predict what people would care about around 2019. My mind raced through thoughts about identity and data. When the host, Marc Benioff, the founder and chairman of Salesforce, turned to me, I stated: “idatity”. Identity and data are increasingly intertwined. The term I coined that day evokes the need for people to be more aware of how they safeguard and share their information.

Personal data needs to be regarded as a human right, just as access to water is a human right. The ability for people to own and control their data should be considered a central human value. The data itself should be treated like property and people should be fairly compensated for it.

As a musician, I benefit from the copyright system that attaches ownership rights to my lyrics and instrumental tracks. Why should the data that I generate be handled any differently? It makes no sense that the information is used as the raw material to produce billions of dollars of income for massive “data monarchs” yet is of no financial value to me.

But in the five years since that lunch in Davos, these data monarchs—companies like Facebook and Google that collect, store, mine and sell data—have expanded into giant businesses. While these companies that give away “free” services have grown rich, the data that belongs to their users has at times been compromised, and people’s digital habits sold, often without their full knowledge.

The consequences have included fake news and groups that have influenced the outcome of America’s presidential election and Britain’s “Brexit” referendum to leave the European Union. Phoney social-media campaigns have been launched in South Africa designed to create chaos. So much for a “free” account. Has this ugly outcome that has divided societies on three continents been worth the trade?

Of course, I love technology and apps. I’m always using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But I’m tired of being bombarded with content that adds little value to my life, and I’ve become desensitised and ignore most of it. The data monarchs know more about me than my mother, my government or my doctor. Then there’s the question of trust—I’ve lost my faith in social-media networks and search engines to deliver information that is as true as it is helpful.

There is no data freedom when the options of who to sign up with are limited, the data monarchs rake in billions and all one gets is a “free” account bursting with advertising, faux news and lame “sponsored content”. The current arrangement feels lopsided, benefiting the data monarchs more than it benefits individuals and communities.

Payment is one way to redress the balance. If personal data has been used to build a handful of companies that exceed $3trn in market value, it should absolutely have monetary worth. But so is transparency about the terms of trade. I want to have it clearly explained in plain language who has access to my camera, to my photos, who’s listening to my microphone, and who gets to use this information. Are my apps tracking my activity and selling information about me? Promisingly, Europe is making progress with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to help rebalance data rights to be more transparent and fairer to people.

Now step it up: mix personal data with artificial intelligence (AI) and all these issues become super-charged. With AI algorithms, police can predict high-crime periods and pinpoint neighborhoods where more resources should be deployed. Computers can screen x-rays and scans, identifying problems with more accuracy than the human eye. The potential benefits of such services are huge. But they make it all the more important that consumers, especially young people, are educated about “What is data?”, “What is my personal data?” and “Why is it so valuable?”.

I see these issues not just as a user of technology but as an entrepreneur. Social-media platforms are the companies of today, but they are not the companies of tomorrow. The next data giants will create new types of services designed to help people. They will become the most valuable companies in the world by providing beneficial new uses of data and AI for people, based on a combination of trust, services that improve one’s life and the involvement of communities.

Today, my gadgets may count my steps, but they aren’t seeing the big picture: what I ate, how I felt, what my blood pressure is. New services, built from the point of view of the consumer, will benefit me by sharing and interconnecting my own data, rather than selling it on. When more trust is established, my personal “agent” or “assistant” should merge relevant things together that are currently just disconnected data points.

Their systems will be based on conversational computing and aimed at consumers and businesses. Consumers will be able to read the terms-of-service agreements that are fair to both sides and don’t require an attorney to decipher. It will be so easy that your granny can use it. It will be intelligent and useful, from directions to find the right train station, to guidance on how to live a healthier life. You will trust it and value it.

Despite dark, cinematic visions of a future hijacked by algorithms, I am an optimist that AI and data can contribute to society. It is time to focus on doing what is moral, fair and right. I challenge today’s data monarchs and the next generation of leaders to put their energies into data and AI that serve humanity first, instead of designing platforms bent on controlling humanity with money as the primary goal.

The ideas behind “idatity” are becoming understood. So what would I say today over lunch about what people will care about in five years? Actually, I’d say “idatity” again because i.am my data, and my AI agent should be my personal data scientist. But in five years, I believe this will be the norm. Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs will create virtuous companies that honour people’s data. They will make use of my data with my consent but I will always own it.

____________

will.i.am is a musician and the founder and chairman of I.AM+, a consumer-electronics and voice-assistant services company using artificial intelligence. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Committee and an honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology in Britain.

Read More

Livers for transplant can now be kept alive at body temperature

news image

Editor’s note (January 21st 2019): An innovative new machine that keeps livers alive outside of the body received recommendation for use from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence on January 16th 2019. The device is expected to greatly increase the availability of livers for transplant—as far more organ donations can be kept healthy until they can be matched with a recipient. The device has been designed to keep livers fully functioning, provides blood, oxygen, nutrients and temperature control, and is also being tested in America, Europe and India. Similar devices for hearts, lungs and kidneys are bound to follow eventually. This piece, published on January 25th 2018, explains how the device works. 

WHEN Constantin Coussios, a biomedical engineer at Oxford University, arrived one day in 2013 at the transplant centre of King’s College Hospital, in London, with a liver for their use, he triggered a brief flurry of panic. Two other livers had arrived at the same time. The hospital had only one operating theatre in which liver transplants could be carried out—and because livers intended for transplant can be kept in cold storage for no longer than 12 hours, the situation looked serious.

What saved the day, and possibly a patient’s life, was that Dr Coussios was bringing not a cold liver, stored on ice, but a warm one. Instead of having had its metabolism slowed, it was fully functional. This was because it was connected to a supply of blood and nutrients inside a special box known as a metra (a Greek word meaning “womb”), invented by Dr Coussios and his colleague Peter Friend. The metra even had a graphical interface to show, moment by moment, how well its cargo was faring. Dr Coussios told the surgeon to transplant the cold-stored livers first. The one he had brought would keep.

That was in the early days of metras. Now, the devices are starting to spread. So far 25 have been deployed around the world and others are about to be. There are also plans, by Dr Coussios and others, to extend the idea behind the metra to the preservation of other vital organs. If that works, it would change the transplant business by improving both the supply and the health of such organs.

A metra is designed to keep the organ it is nurturing supplied with the correct amount of blood—an amount which varies from one instant to the next. It detects the organ’s demand for blood by monitoring pressure in the arteries and veins going into and out of the liver. It then adjusts the power of its pump in response.

The blood in question has been tinkered with to make it more effective. It has had its white cells and platelets removed to avoid inflammation, clotting and the transfer of disease. For the further prevention of clotting, it has had anticoagulants added. And it has been boosted with special chemicals that the liver needs in order to produce bile; with insulin to regulate the organ’s metabolism; and with nutrition in the form of glucose and amino acids.

Once a liver is hooked up inside a metra, its health can be tracked by monitoring things like blood flow, bile production and acidity levels. All these data permit a transplant team to see how the organ is faring. Moreover, a metra not only keeps a liver healthy but can, in some circumstances, actually improve its health. Putting a liver that has been cooled for storage into a metra can reverse damage it has sustained when cold by providing an environment in which its natural propensity to rejuvenate can come to the fore. More remarkably, metras may even be able to recondition livers that are sickly because they contain too much fat, and are thus untransplantable. Once a liver has been removed from the body that was making it fat, it will recover surprisingly quickly. A mere two days in a metra “liver spa” is enough to have a palpable positive effect on the health of such an organ.

At the moment, this last benefit is of only theoretical value, because regulations mean livers for transplant can be stored in a metra for a maximum of 24 hours. That, though, is twice the maximum a liver ought to be kept chilled for transplant, and almost three times the nine-hour limit generally preferred—hence Dr Coussios’s insouciance at the hospital back in 2013. Research on metras suggests that the 24-hour limit could safely be raised to three days, and possibly longer than that.

Twenty-four hours is, though, still long enough to conduct tests on the quality of livers that might otherwise be rejected. The existing assessment of a liver for transplant is necessarily subjective, because there is no sure way to tell if a cooled organ will work normally when it is warmed up and reconnected. Many surgeons therefore err on the side of caution, knowing that if they put a defective liver into a patient, it will probably kill him.

All this means that using metras should increase the availability of livers for transplant. Dr Coussios reckons that reducing the rate of rejection by surgeons could, by itself, double the number which can be used in Britain. Metras could also make it easier to perform the tricky operation of splitting livers in two, which is sometimes done to create a child-sized organ while still leaving enough over to transplant into an adult. The use of a metra is likely to permit these divisions to be carried out more slowly and carefully.

The metra is being commercialised by OrganOx, a firm based in Oxford. Dr Coussios estimates that the world’s hospitals have need for about 300 of the machines, but the firm says it will have reliable repeat business from furnishing the metras it has sold with the disposable plastic connectors that hook machine and organ up together—for a replacement set of these is required with each new liver stored.

In the future, OrganOx hopes to expand its activities by building a metra for kidneys, and perhaps also one for pancreases. Meanwhile, the firm has competition in the form of TransMedics, of Andover, Massachusetts. This company is developing similar devices for livers, hearts and lungs.

Besides increasing the supply of organs, and improving patient outcomes, metras and their competitors can also help ease the psychological burden on surgeons. One such, of some 30 years’ experience, still admits to having sleepless nights after performing a liver transplant. Even if he has done the surgery perfectly, he cannot be sure that the liver he has transplanted will actually work. Metra-storage makes it quite likely that it will.

Read More

“Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America” is timely and troubling

news image

BETWEEN 1811 and 1813 Pavel Petrovich Svin’in, a Russian diplomat, travelled across eastern America gathering stories and images. The resulting travelogue, “A Picturesque Voyage in North America” (1815), purported to reveal to curious foreigners how Native Americans lived; in truth, Svin’in and his illustrators never witnessed many of the scenes the book depicted. Instead, they drew upon pernicious cultural stereotypes, creating sensational paintings that would stimulate the imaginations of readers abroad. Svin’in’s watercolour of a European man in a top hat grappling with two barely clothed Native American men in a canoe (pictured) powerfully encapsulates the offensive misconception—held by Euro-American societies for centuries—that indigenous American cultures are uncivilised and uncouth.

“Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America”, a small but thought-provoking exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, explores how European artists have depicted Native Americans over the past five centuries. The exhibition begins with efforts to sell the fantasy of America in the 17th century by emphasising the “exotic” qualities of indigenous groups. The “Indian princess”—a beautiful woman covered in animal skins and feathers—was an especially popular trope, seen to embody the independent spirit of the young United States. “An Emblem of America” (1801), a print, depicts a woman wearing a leopard skin in a lushly vegetated landscape; the title links the supposedly wild sexuality of indigenous women with the fertility of American soil. By the turn of the 19th century, even as the national government refused to accept Native claims to land and resources, the depiction of America as an “Indian princess” recurred in visual mythology.

The exhibition also features images by artists convinced by the notion of a “doomed race”. Their subjects were usually tribal chiefs, such as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who campaigned for the return of ancestral lands in the late 19th century. These tragic, romanticised portraits appeared in both ethnographic studies and in advertisements, contributing to the idea of the “noble savage”. On display are collectible Allen & Ginter cigarette packages (1888), showing stoic indigenous chiefs in ceremonial clothing. These promoted a Native American crop—tobacco—which many groups could no longer cultivate due to their forced displacement.

By the early 20th century Euro-American artists began to create more humanised portraits. Some members of the Taos creative colony, a group of artists and writers, journeyed around New Mexico and observed Pueblo culture. They recorded scenes of women working on pottery and of local celebrations, which began to be heavily frequented by tourists from the 1920s onwards. While the colony’s work resulted in more naturalistic portrayals and an appreciation of customs, it also contravened the wishes of communities who did not want to be photographed or sketched. Artists such as Gene Kloss and John Marin depicted Pueblo ceremonial dances from memory instead.

By juxtaposing troubling images with enlightening interpretative texts from the curators and Wendy Red Star, an indigenous artist, the exhibition offers an arresting examination of non-Native depictions of Native cultures. However, the exhibition’s impact is dulled by its location within the museum. Although it is sensibly placed within the airy American Wing, the exhibition occupies an inconvenient, hard-to-find location: a small mezzanine in the farthest corner of this large building, accessible only through the open archives or via an elevator. A show about a marginalised group exists in the institution’s margins. 

This exhibition is important viewing, so it is a shame that so few will be able to find it. Harmful stereotypes and gross simplifications about indigenous American culture persist. President Donald Trump has frequently taunted Elizabeth Warren, a senator, about her avowed Native American ancestry with the name “Pocahontas”—considered a racial slur by many indigenous groups. On January 18th a video from the March for Life in Washington, DC, went viral, showing Nathan Phillips, an Omaha tribal elder, being intimidated by a male teenager; the boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, was encouraged by his friends, who shouted disparaging remarks about Native Americans. It is clear that the attitudes laid bare in “Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America” are not yet consigned to history.

“Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America” is showing at the Met until May 13th

Read More

Why are Indian farmers angry?

news image

FARMERS ACROSS India joined in a countrywide general strike earlier this month to protest against what a representative called the government’s “failure to address rural distress issues”. This was far from their first such protest. In November 2018 over 100,000 farmers marched to Delhi. Some wore skulls around their necks to represent the 12,000 debt-ridden colleagues who commit suicide annually. The previous march, outside the capital in October, was met by water cannons and tear gas. In another, farmers held dead rats in their mouths to highlight their desperation. In north and west India, they spilled thousands of gallons of milk and truck-loads of onions onto the streets. Why are they angry?

The last few years have been grim. Monsoons from 2013 to 2015, and again in 2018, delivered below-average rainfall. The messy overnight recall of high-denomination banknotes in 2016 made it harder for farmers to buy seeds and fertilisers just before the crop-sowing season, and also caused problems for providers of labour, transport and distribution services. The implementation of a nationwide goods-and-services tax in 2017 reduced farmers’ incomes by widening the array of taxable goods to include things like chemical fertilisers and pesticides. And with fuel prices near an all-time high, the extra expenses of diesel-guzzling water pumps and generators added to the hardship.

The farmers are demanding an increase in the minimum support price (the price that the central government guarantees to pay for all farm produce should the market price drop any lower) and improvements in the systems to pay those monies. There are not enough government-run centres to buy farmers’ produce; those that do lack storage facilities. And because the centres are not always adept at finding buyers, farmers routinely have to queue for days to get a turn to sell their stuff at the minimum support price. With every day spent away from the farm denting their earnings, and with payments by the government taking up to three months to arrive, farmers may prefer to sell to private traders. They get less money but are assured of instant cash. Additionally, farmers’ demands for unconditional loan waivers have been only partially assuaged by the announcement from eight state governments of debt relief worth 1.9trn rupees ($26.8bn). On-ground implementation has been patchy. Millions of eligible agriculture workers have yet to see the money. Moreover, such windfalls do not help the smaller farmers who own nearly 70% of India’s farmland and have little access to formal credit. As banks and financial institutions are loth to lend to them, they rely on local moneylenders who charge exploitative interest rates. 

There are no easy answers for the 600m Indians who depend on agriculture for their livelihood. First, the water crisis needs addressing. Nearly two-thirds of land under cultivation has little or no irrigation. The country’s 20m boreholes, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s, deplete groundwater. Since 2016 the government has sunk 400bn rupees ($5.6bn) into a “Long Term Irrigation Fund” that is riddled with bureaucracy and delays. Smaller steps like introducing rainwater-harvesting to trap monsoon run-off and building check dams on riverbeds to improve groundwater levels would have helped instead. No matter. Narendra Modi vows to double farm incomes by 2022. Farmers, fed up with fancy projects and false promises, have threatened not to vote for Mr Modi in next year’s general elections. After his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lost, in December, in three Hindi-speaking states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the threat looks ominous.

Read More