This is my Christmas blog and here is my card to all of you.

It is upsetting to think of all those children in many corners of the world acting out their nativity plays, but the Christian Palestinians of Bethlehem are being oppressed and squeezed out of their city. And of course the situation in Jerusalem is even worse. I hope everyone will make their New Year’s resolution a determination to insist that Israel complies with international law and put pressure on their governments accordingly. In the meantime, all should support the Boycott Divestments Sanctions movement as the best people did in the case of apartheid in South Africa.


In early November I went to Ethiopia for the Cities Alliance annual meeting. Ethiopia is an ancient country with a long proud history. Ethiopians are mentioned in the Old Testament and had a substantial Jewish population which was airlifted to Israel some years back. It became Christian before most of Europe and also has a substantial Muslim community. But in more recent years it has suffered from famine and cruel government. It is still an authoritarian country, though strongly committed to being a “Development State”, and its economic and social development is impressive. It is still poor – $500 GDP per capita – but has had very good economic growth for more than 10 years with lower inequality than most other countries in Africa; and also impressive progress on universal primary education and other things.

In general Africa is the least urbanised continent but is now urbanising faster than anywhere else. This includes small towns and secondary cities as well as the big famous metropolises. In most countries in sub-Saharan Africa there is a reluctance to plan and organise urban growth and therefore a serious and worrying growth of slums. Ethiopia is an exception to this, and is planning and organising its urban expansion. We visited an impressive new project which will turn the waste of Addis Abbaba into enough electricity to power its new light-rail system. It was being built by a Chinese construction company with Danish technology and a British organisational package. It was on time and on budget, as was the new Metro. There is still a lot of poverty in Ethiopia but a real effort is taking place to lift the country and its people.


I met President Ghani, the newly elected president of Afghanistan, in early December. I knew him when he was the finance minister in the new government in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. We were all hopeful then that the could be real progress for the people of Afghanistan. The deployment of new UK forces to Helmand and others elsewhere in 2006 wiped out a lot of the optimism. President Ghani is not corrupt and has clear and well informed ideas about the development of Afghanistan. But the task is enormous and there are many corrupt elements in the elite he has to manage and compromise with. I can only wish him well.

But I want to share a review of a series of books on the UK war in Afghanistan. It is a very important and depressing finding. All that killing and dying has produced nothing of benefit and was badly intentioned, simply to impress the Americans, from the start!

See here for ‘Worse than a Defeat’ by James Meek.

Interesting facts

  • According to Income Data Services, FTSE 100 Directors’ pay increased 21% in the past year while average wages in the UK failed even to keep up with inflation (FT 13/10/14).
  • The US has exercised its veto 42 times to protect Israel from condemnation for its actions, mostly in the Palestinian occupied territories (FT editorial 1/11/14).
  • Between 1514 and 1886 as many as 12.5 million Africans were sent to the Americas; almost half were shipped after 1776 (the year of the US Revolution) (FT 1/11/14 review of The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandlin).
  • The Black Death arrived in 1348 and wiped out half the population. But England fared better than its neighbours in the aftermath because the scarcity of labour and the accumulated legal rights of peasants brought to an end serfdom 400 years earlier than in most European countries (Christopher Silvester reviewing Robert Tombs, The English and their History, FT 22/11/14).
  • The UK has the second highest proportion of low-skilled jobs in the industrialised world, beaten only by Spain, according to the OECD (FT 25/11/14).
  • The Black Death reduced the human population of the world to one third of the billion. But following a series of volcanic eruptions 70,000 years ago homo sapiens numbers are thought to have reduced to 10,000. (FT book review Stephen Cave 13/14 December 2014).
  • There are already 2 billion people living in countries with absolute water scarcity, according to the World Bank which estimates that the numbers will rise to 4.6 billion by 2080 (Pilita Clarke FT 9/12/14)
  • Government spending per head in 2009/10 in the UK was £5,650 (Martin Wolf FT 4/12/14).
  • Last year China was the world’s fourth largest oil producer behind only Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US (Lucy Hornby FT 4/12/14)

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