Posts Tagged 'obama'

A phone that’s not satisfied just with being smart

By Harry van Versendaal

“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.

From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.

“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.

Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.

Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.

“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.

Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.

The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.

“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.

Storytelling device

From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.

“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.

“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”

Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.

“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.

Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?

“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.

“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.

The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.

“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.

“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.

“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”

Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.

“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.

If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.

http://www.fairphone.com
#WeAreFairphone

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Divided we stand

Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

By Harry van Versendaal

Will Bosnia make it? Few people place much hope in this small Balkan country these days. A national vote held earlier this month has intensified pessimism about its future as it appeared to cement the political deadlock that has sabotaged Bosnia’s integration with Europe.

Fifteen years after the ethnic war that cost the lives of more than 100,000 people, the election outcome mirrored the persistent ethnic divisions inside the former Yugoslav state of 4 million people.

But there was little in the way of surprise. “The results were not unexpected given the preceding election campaign,” Stefan Wolff, an international security expert at the University of Birmingham, told Athens Plus. “Ethnic divisions will not necessarily deepen further; rather, the results reflect the existing deep divisions and these will now harden as all sides see their perceptions of the respective others confirmed,” he said.

The complexity of the election system is frustrating, even by the exacting standards of the Balkans. Voters picked the three members of their collective presidency – one from each ethnic group – along with deputies in the central, regional and cantonal parliaments. Additionally, Bosnian Serbs picked a new president and two vice-presidents as well as delegates to their own parliament.

A US-brokered deal in 1995, known as the Dayton Peace Accord, stopped the bloodshed while splitting Bosnia into two regions – a federation of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats and a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS). The two entities are relatively autonomous but they do share a joint presidency, parliament and some state institutions all based in Sarajevo. Constitutional changes, designed to undo Bosnia’s bureaucratic behemoth and unblock the country’s European path by ending international guardianship, were put on ice earlier this year amid political wrangling.

Fade to black

In a sign of hope, Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of Bosnia’s wartime Muslim leader and an advocate of ethnic reconciliation, ousted Haris Silajdzic, a hardliner, in the race for the Muslim presidency. However, Milorad Dodik — Silajdzic’s political nemesis — strengthened his grasp on power in RS after the strong showing of his party and his own convincing election as president. Dodik, who will now chose one of his close aides to replace him as premier, is the international community’s bette noir in Bosnia, as he has repeatedly called for the Serbian Republic to secede.

“Dodik – as the undisputed center of power – will ensure that the presidency of RS, which played a largely symbolic role during [Dodik predecessor] Rajko Kuzmanovic’s tenure, becomes even more prominent and assertive,” Ian Bancroft, executive director of TransConflict and a UN global expert, told Athens Plus.

Dodik makes no secret of his ambitions. “Bosnia is a mistake created during the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia,” he recently told a Serbian daily. “Bosnia cannot be, never could be, and never will be a state. That’s the only reality.” Dodik, who refuses to recognize Bosnian Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, predicted independence will come in the next four years. “It can be argued that the entire campaign has in a way been a referendum on RS separation,” Sara Nikolic, an expert based in Sarajevo, told Athens Plus.

In addition, many Bosnian Croats – who want the creation of their own Croat entity within Bosnia – feel disenfranchised by the re-election of Zeljko Komsic as Croat member of the tripartite presidency, apparently accomplished on the back of Muslim support due to his support for a united, multiethnic Bosnia.

There is no fast track for Bosnia, where the formation of governments usually takes four to five months. “Though optimistic estimates suggest a governing coalition could be formed by February, the persistence of such disputes and tensions will only serve to further deepen ethnic rifts as the horse-trading and political bargaining gets under way in earnest,” Bancroft said.

Analysts claim that lingering economic misery is making voters prone to nationalist tantrums. About half the population is unemployed, while growth is expected to hover this year at 0.8 percent. Despite the slew of modern shopping malls and restored mosques around Sarajevo, lack of economic development means that many of the psychological and physical reminders of the 1992-1995 conflict remain.

Still, many observers say the economy is really not the most important factor. “The deterioration of ethnic relations, which have never been very good at any rate over the past almost two decades, also has to do with the fact that nationalism remains a powerful mobilizer of people in all three of the main communities and thus is too tempting for politicians not to exploit in their quest for power,” said Wolff.

Dodik has clearly sought to benefit from the Bosniaks’ failures – a bloated bureaucracy, ineffective decision-making and poorly controlled public spending – that have left the federation on the verge of bankruptcy. “Many in RS question why they should seek closer ties with what they perceive to be a failed part of the state,” Bancroft said.

Off the radar

Western powers helped stabilize Bosnia after the war but analysts warn the region is dropping off their radar, particularly as the Obama administration is devoting most of its energies in limiting damage in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment, Bosnia’s security is the responsibility of some 2,000 European peacekeepers but some EU governments are calling for at least partial withdrawal. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, former international high representative for Bosnia, recently remarked that the EU and US “are not connecting on Bosnia.”

“Bosnia is in no way ready for complete Western withdrawal,” Nikolic said. Although the actual physical Western presence in Bosnia is very small, the country, which has received 15 billion dollars in foreign aid since the end of the war, is still highly dependent on economic assistance.

Wolff believes the West will not chose to ignore the troubles in its backyard. “I do not think that the West, and in particular the EU, will abandon Bosnia. It is too important for stability in Europe and as a symbol for EU crisis management,” he said.

Balkan domino

Yet again, some wonder whether there is really any point in trying to keep together a state that does not wish to continue as one. Bosnia, after all, is a country where the allegiances of a majority of its population lie elsewhere. “No amount of nation-building will help foster an overarching Bosnian identity, at least not for several generations,” Bancroft said.

But while Bosnia may lack a shared identity and a civic conception of the state, he added, it does have a largely shared orientation: EU membership. “In order to progress down that road, however, Bosnia will have to cease being a protectorate, meaning that the office of the high representative (OHR) will have to close,” Bancroft said, adding that much of the country’s woes lie with the failure to foster local ownership of the reform process. Bosnian politicians, in other words, see little reason to take on the hard stuff when they can simply blame painful and politically costly measures on outsiders.

If the past is any guide, failure to keep the fragile country together may well create even bigger problems for the region and beyond. “Another contested secession in the Balkans, after Kosovo, would be very damaging and destabilizing, as it would intensify debates on redrawing boundaries elsewhere in the region as well,” Wolff said.

Raw history in the making

By Elis Kiss and Harry van Versendaal

What is history made of if not big and small moments experienced by those who live them? Take the people of New York, for instance, for whom city life is a fast-paced work-in-progress, defined by plenty of highs and lows, especially in the last decade.

Greek photographer Alexandros Lambrovassilis and compatriot journalist Achilleas Peklaris sought to capture the city’s tireless spirit and the result of their joint effort, “Hopes, Dreams and Hard Times,” is currently on display at the Benaki Pireos Street annex.

From Pulitzer winners to those who survived the Twin Towers attacks, through single mothers, war veterans-turned-homeless, Upper East side lawyers, detectives patrolling the streets of Harlem, hot-dog street vendors and Wall Street golden boys, Lambrovassilis and Peklaris record life in the aftermath of  9/11, the election of the first African-American president and a country going through a recession.

While Lambrovassilis points his camera at 150 people living in the city, capturing their portraits in their location of choice, Peklaris’s accompanying texts provide insights into their thoughts and situations.

Now a journalist, Peklaris has also served as a bartender, a kibbutz worker, a speechwriter, and a party promoter, among other professions, while Lambrovassilis, is a trained musician who turned to the medium of photography.

“Hopes, Dreams and Hard Times”, which came about when the two found themselves living in New York working as correspondents for Greek publications, is accompanied by a book published in Greek by Estia publishers.

The duo recently shared their thoughts with Athens Plus.

How did the project come about? Are you capturing moments in history? A country in transition? Do you feel that you achieved your goals?

A.L. Timing was the definite factor of  this project in all aspects. Our own personal timing as persons who could look into matters and at the same time as professionals able to deliver such a demanding project, matched with the historic times we and the rest of the world were witnessing.

A.P. We both felt that we’re witnessing some historic moments for the city – and also the whole American nation. Moments when everybody starts to doubt if the American dream or the American lifestyle are still valid. Or if they have to be redefined. Hard times for the people. Hopes that Obama’s election gave to everyone. We felt that we needed to capture this, in order to understand and realize the historic situation around us. And we feel that we did.

A.L. I feel so too. I think we did achieve our one and only goal. Democracy and equal representation of all social backgrounds and ethnic groups in our sample. We met and talked to almost every different character that lives in this city. From the homeless to philosophers and from bankers to pimps, all were interviewed and photographed keeping also in mind the demographics of NYC so that we came up with a documentary and not a tale of fiction about the city.

Was the project as spontaneous as it feels?

A.L. I would say yes, no and yes, meaning that, yes it was a spontaneous idea, which however came through discussion. No, to the extent that we worked really hard in order to define and then stay with our methods till the end. And again yes because we both approached this whole thing with our individual/personal solid interest in New York and its people. We needed to look and find first of all for ourselves and I guess to some extent we did.

A.P. I would say that I functioned as spontaneously as I do when I randomly meet some new individual out there, in real life, and I try to connect, share and see life through my new friend’s eyes and learn things from each and every new acquaintance. That’s what we did with all 150 participants. We tried to become friends with them, as we do when we meet people in real life.

How would you describe the enduring appeal of New York City?

A.P. New York City is an active energy volcano. Everybody’s running to stand still. Everybody tries to give his/her best. To do more, achieve more, test your limits. History is being made every single second, on many different levels, such as art, science, business etc. It’s the hub of our planet.

A.L. People are coming to NY from every possible place on earth to pursue dreams and ambitions, trying to make something for themselves and to prove to the rest of the world that they made it. This is kind of common sense in NYC that everybody respects. Respect has been and will always be appealing.

Do you feel that the city represents the United States in general?

A.P. Not at all. This is not America. It’s the “New York Republic” or “the capital of the world” and it’s totally different than any other place in the USA. Frankly, I could live my whole life in New York and be happy, yet I doubt if I could live for more than a month in any other state of the country. Maybe Hawaii would be my second choice.

A.L. My second choice would be New Orleans, also San Francisco or L.A., but still New York would be first, simply because New York moves at such a fast pace that I haven’t seen in any other place. This in addition to the city’s ability to incorporate diversities makes this place unique not only in the United States but also in the rest of the world.

The diaspora element is evident in the exhibition. How would you describe the city’s Greek-American community?

A.P.-A.L. After discussing again and again the way we would approach Greeks in the project, we figured out that the Greeks of New York are divided into three main categories. Number one is the immigrants of past generations who all live in their own communities, they’re everyday, ordinary people, with a genuine American mentality and lifestyle, in everything totally different to the Greeks of Greece. Number two is the young people who were born in Greece and moved to New York to study or work and they mostly act like any other European youngster in New York, mixing with the multicultural crowd, trying to keep their national identity on the side. Number three is the world travelling, fortune-seeking, ambitious Greeks (or people of Greek descent), who have no specific origin and they just act like cosmopolitans, having their own unique identity and trying to conquer the hub of the world, in a very romantic way.

Given the speed at which everything happens, do you think that the city and its citizens have already moved into another chapter since your project?

A.L. We need to understand this first before we attempt an answer. New York is a city more than any other city in the world in which millions of people move in and out every year as part of their personal interests in education and career mostly. This provides us with two directions of thinking. The first has to do with the pace that the city maintains given the limited time that one has to achieve one’s goals. Lying on the couch is not one of those goals. The second is that as people move in and out, this keeps the city in a state of constant motion and change and that is one of the main characteristics of New York, renewing and reinventing itself.

A.P. It’s true. I would add that in this particular period, running is not the thing, as the paths have changed dramatically. You need to adjust first and open or create new paths. And then run again, faster and faster, on those new paths. This is the situation in New York today: Adjusting to the changes.

The debt crisis has taken a hefty toll on Greece and Athens in particular. Do you see any patterns emerging here?

A.P. Fear. Pessimism. Insecurity. Embarrassment. Unfortunately, I believe that this is what the majority of people feel today in Athens. We Greeks, just realized that for 30 years now we haven’t adjusted to the European reality and lifestyle, despite the fact that we joined the EU and the eurozone many decades ago. Obviously, we must now do it the hard way in order to survive. So, hard times are here, undoubtedly. It’s going to be rough. Hopes and dreams, though, for the time being are not yet here. I hope they’ll come soon.

A.L. It seems to me that we do not comprehend the seriousness of the situation. We know that something is wrong here but we want to respond to it in our own good time and manner in order to maintain our pride, as we understand it. This might not work in this case.

Are the two cities – New York and Athens – similar in any way?

A.P. Undoubtedly, it’s the same DNA – the DNA of a big city, but New York is a tiger and Athens is a cat.

A.L. Athens has been the kind of place that New York is now. Democracy, arts, science and business have been elements of human life that the city of Athens promoted a few thousand years earlier, with great results too, I think. As to what happens now I would add to the idea of Achilles that cats can also turn out very nasty.

Your work seems to convey an individual-centered interpretation of history, in the sense that it’s people who make history. Is that so?

A.L. I will refer to “The Stylistics” a 70’s band from Philly and to their song titled “People Make The World Go Round”. New York is all about the people and if this comes through as an idea in our work then I can say with satisfaction that we succeeded.

A.P. Who else makes history? In fact, I think that only people do. And what is history? It’s what people face in their everyday life, their feelings, their hopes, their fears. That’s raw history and that’s what we’ve captured in this documentary.


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