Single parents don’t need anonymous generosity but public respect


Powered by article titled “Single parents don’t need anonymous generosity but public respect” was written by Suzanne Moore, for on Monday 26th January 2015 11.51 UTC

Are random acts of kindness so rare that they are actual news? Apparently so. A young woman Samantha Welch was on a long train journey with her three year-old son. She did her best to entertain him, playing games with him and letting him listen to music. Eventually he fell asleep and because the train was full, she pulled him on to her lap so that she could offer his seat to other people.

Anyone who has travelled with a child will be familiar with this. Trains and boats and planes. Or actually buses. You try your best to keep the child quiet and happy and it’s exhausting. There are times when they become fractious, whatever you do. There are tantrums that not even a bag of Wotsits can soothe. There are stairs in most stations where people rush by as you bump up a buggy with a child and a heavy bag.

There are times when you need to leave your luggage to take a child to the loo or when a flight attendant will dump a tray of food on top of you when you have a toddler on your knee.

Travelling with a small child can be hard work, work that single parents do all the time. If you are not in that stage of life, it’s easier not to notice: move away from wailing infants and put your headphones in.

One man, however, did notice that this young woman in front of him was doing her best. As he left the train he tapped Samantha on the shoulder and said she had dropped something . It was a note that said:

“Have a drink on me. You are a credit to your generation, polite and teaching the little boy good manners. Man on train at table with glasses and hat. Have a lovely evening.
“PS I have a daughter your age, someone did the same for her once. Hope when she has children she is as good a mother as you.”

There was a fiver wrapped inside it.

The letter Samantha Welch received. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex

The Daily Mail reported this story and wants to find this “generous stranger”. Kindness is clearly no longer its own reward. The subtext to this sweetness, though, is that of a decent man acknowledging a good young mother. Who knew such a thing existed? Samantha said: “People look at you and judge you every day when you’re a single mum but getting that note made me feel special and proud. That might sound silly, but all I’m trying to do is make a better life for my son.”

That does not sound silly at all. It makes perfect sense. Where, pray, does the assumption that single mothers do not want the best for their children come from?

Is it only the province of perfect couples to teach their children basic manners or how to behave in public? Actually, as a single parent, it has always been to my advantage to make my children as portable as possible.

But I am happy that this young women’s efforts were recognised. What we need though is not simply anonymous generosity but public respect. This has long been in short supply from the top down as single mothers are spoken of as failures, burdens, and responsible for so many societal ills. Besides dropping us a fiver and helping us with our bags, the ultimate kindness would be to relieve us of the baggage of nasty and negative preconceptions. We mostly try to get it right most of the time.

It’s nice that at least one person saw that. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Google searches for a way to avoid Microsoft’s fate


Powered by article titled “Google searches for a way to avoid Microsoft’s fate” was written by John Naughton, for The Observer on Sunday 18th January 2015 07.00 UTC

The news that Google’s share of the web-search market in the US has suddenly dropped is interesting. According to an independent analytics firm, StatCounter, last month Google’s market share dropped to 75.2%, compared with 79.3% a year earlier. That is its lowest share since 2008, when StatCounter started tracking the data. Yahoo, by contrast, seems to be on the up: its December market share (10.4%) was the highest it has achieved since 2009.

This could be just a blip, of course, and it doesn’t change the fact that Google is still the dominant player in search or that its share of the European search market ranges between 90% and 96%, depending on which country you look at. So this is not the time to start selling your Google shares, but it does make one look at the company through a different lens. What if the dominance of its core business were beginning to wane?

Remember that Google is, despite the hoopla about self-driving cars, antisocial spectacles, YouTube, the “right to be forgotten”, stratospheric balloons and the other exotic stuff, primarily a company that makes its (colossal) revenues from search-driven advertising. (Advertising provided bn of the company’s bn revenues last year.) All the cool, PR-friendly stuff that the company does stems from two things: those vast revenues and the shareholding structure that enables the company’s co-founders to do as they damn well please rather than being hounded by quarterly earnings reports and Wall Street expectations.

Google’s existential challenge is therefore how to keep the search money-pump going. So far, the main strategy has been to do everything in its power to extend internet use. The more people who are connected to the net, the better it is for Google. (Which is why Project Loon, which aims to bring free internet connectivity to poor countries using balloons in the stratosphere, makes both philanthropic and commercial sense.) But since most new internet users in the next decade will access the network via mobile phones, that means Google has to be active in that space too. Hence its development of Android, the operating system that powers the overwhelming majority of smartphones.

So Google is doing all it can to keep its core product growing. But it’s also working on a Plan B just in case search declines or is displaced by some as-yet-unknown technology. Part of Plan B is trying to be spectacularly innovative (self-driving cars, say); another part is to acquire startup or young companies such as Deepmind or Boston Dynamics, just in case one of them has managed to find the secret of life, the universe and everything. This quest has probably turned the search giant into the largest and most active venture capitalist in the US. You could view this either as a quest for world domination or planning for life after search.

Bill Gates once said that the only technology company that reminded him of Microsoft in its early days was… Google. Thanks to one of those delicious ironies in which capitalism excels, guess which company Google now reminds people of? Answer: Microsoft in its current dotage. Gates’s creation was once even more dominant in the industry than Google is now. It had three core products – the Windows operating system, Office and Windows Server – which were licences to print money. Microsoft had huge revenues that just rolled in every quarter, just as Google’s advertising revenues do today, and on the back of them built a huge 128,000 employee company. But, cushioned by its money-pump, it failed to innovate and, in particular, failed to address the decline of the desktop PC and the rise of mobile computing.

Despite Google’s self-image of an ultra-agile, young company, in fact it’s become a 55,000-employee monster, which is what is leading some people to see parallels with Microsoft. The Bloomberg columnist Katie Benner is one. “Microsoft,” she writes, “was stymied by a huge headcount and, more importantly, legacy products that no one inside the company wanted to mess with for fear of killing the golden goose… Even when those commanding positions were eroded at the margins, it was hard to see a world in which Microsoft wouldn’t be the backbone of a PC-centric tech industry.”

By the same token, it has been impossible to envisage a networked world in which Google would no longer be a dominant player. But after last week’s revelations about market share, maybe it’s time to downgrade “impossible” to merely “difficult”. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Time Warner internet outage affects millions of US broadband customers


Powered by article titled “Time Warner Cable outage affects millions of US broadband customers” was written by Alex Hern and Jessica Glenza, for on Wednesday 27th August 2014 14.35 UTC

Internet service went down for millions of Americans on Wednesday morning after cable company Time Warner Cable suffered a major outage.

The company, which has almost 12m broadband subscribers nationwide, said it was investigating the cause of the outage, which apparently began around 4.30am ET. By 6am, it said “services were largely restored”, but an hour later, said it was still “working to restore services to all areas”. By 10am, the company was telling customers the outage had been resolved, but some social media users said access was still spotty.

twc outage
A Time Warner outage map as of 10:20am ET Photograph: /http:/

Affected users besieged the helplines and social media accounts of the firm, which declared an operating income of .1bn in the 2nd quarter of 2014.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Time Warner Cable paid .1m to resolve an investigation from the Federal Communications Commission that found the provider did not properly report multiple network outages.

“TWC (Time Warner Cable) failed to file a substantial number of reports with respect to a series of reportable wireline and Voice Over Internet Protocol network outages,” the FCC’s report read. “TWC admits that its failure to timely file the required network outage reports violated the commission’s rules.”

The FCC is currently reviewing a deal for company to be purchased by Comcast – a cable and internet giant.

The deal comes after Time Warner received a bn offer from smaller rival Charter Communications, but accepted Comcast’s offer of .2bn after Charter threatened to unseat the company’s board of directors.

Consumer groups have repeatedly warned that combining the two companies would be a disaster for consumers, and would further reduce competition in an already monopolized market. Several studies confirmed that services competing against Comcast, such as Netflix, have been throttled by the company, the delivery speed of media significantly slowed by the ISP.

Time Warner and other cable companies are facing increased competition from companies such as Google. The Silicon Valley giant installed fiber optic cables in several cities around America. It claims the internet speeds are up to 100 times faster than typical broadband. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Ángel Di María and the problem of Manchester United’s central midfield


Powered by article titled “Ángel di María and the problem of Manchester United’s central midfield” was written by Jamie Jackson, for The Guardian on Monday 25th August 2014 13.25 UTC

After another dismal Manchester United performance against Sunderland on Sunday came a Louis van Gaal revelation regarding his desperation to solve the dearth of central midfield talent at the club. “Kagawa – I have tried to play him in that position in the US and he could not fulfil my wishes and my philosophy,” the manager said of an experiment with the Japanese on the summer tour. “We have spoken about that and he is more of a No10. Mata was playing at No10 [at Sunderland] and I thought I had to change the other players, which is why I chose to bring on Januzaj.”

Van Gaal thereby signalled that Shinji Kagawa’s United career may be in critical condition and also illustrating why Ángel di María may be a £60m red herring. The Argentinian is a fine footballer, a member of the elite band below Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but he is no chief conductor of central areas.

To audition Kagawa for the role shows, in one stroke, Van Gaal’s assessment of Tom Cleverley, Marouane Fellaini, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Ander Herrera as a squadron, and illustrates where the manager feels he really should strengthen.

To compound this Fellaini, Herrera and Anderson, plus Jesse Lingard, the forward Van Gaal is forced to deploy further back, are all unavailable. Michael Carrick, another central midfielder, is also injured. This caused the use of Adnan Januzaj – a No10 or wide man – in the engine room when the Belgian entered the fray in the 63rd minute of Sunday’s 1-1 draw.

“It is not usual that we have four injuries in midfield,” Van Gaal said. “Every club that has that has a problem. That is why I played Januzaj in midfield because as a coach I want to win. I have said that we need creative passing and I thought Januzaj could provide that. That is the reason.

“It is because of creation. Kagawa can also create, but I asked Adnan to play there because of the lack of midfielders. When he played in Belgium, he played in midfield so I asked if he could do it for us. I said to him: ‘You are on the bench as a midfielder,’ because I want him to focus. He played there and you could see it’s not so many times that he’s played there. But he did his utmost and I cannot demand more.”

The United midfield problem is not new. Doctorates could – and maybe should – be written about how and why it is yet to be resolved. Van Gaal joins Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes as managers who, since Roy Keane and Paul Scholes faded and Owen Hargreaves suffered a career-hobbling injury, have found the problem a puzzle.

The word is that Di María, a wide player by instinct, could be moved inside though into the No10 position at present given to Juan Mata by Van Gaal. Yet even here doubt hovers. “At this moment, we have five No9s and four No10s and don’t have wingers to give us attacking width,” the Dutchman said a couple of weeks ago, before describing Di María as a winger of the “highest level”.

This suggests Van Gaal is not paying a British record fee for Di María to be a fifth No10. So where will he play? As a wing-back in the 3-5-2? If not then in a 4-3-3, maybe?

The conundrums keep coming. Van Gaal switched United from a traditional four-sentry defence to a three centre-back system to accommodate the attacking trident of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Mata. To tear this plan up after a summer-long bedding-in period and the season’s opening matches may confuse a squad Van Gaal is adamant requires three months to adjust to his methods, as the 63-year-old retrains them to use “brains” rather than instinct.

A glance at United’s competitors shows how all harbour midfield gold. Manchester City boast the A-lister Yaya Touré, plus Brazil’s World Cup player Fernandinho, as well as Frank Lampard and Fernando. The latter was a £12m summer bargain from Porto and precisely the ilk of midfielder United should be acquiring.

At Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers has a Premier League great, Steven Gerrard, supported by Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, Adam Lallana and Joe Allen, plus the potential of Emre Can. Chelsea have two gun midfielders in Cesc Fábregas and Nemanja Matic, who are complemented by Ramires and Mikel John Obi. And how Van Gaal might like to choose from Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Carzola, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini. Or even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who Arsène Wenger believes will one day be a deep-lying maestro “very similar to Steven Gerrard”.

Against Sunderland Van Persie and Rooney were starved of chances. Even Phil Jones hinted at the lack of creation. “We were dominant in possession and created glimmers of chances, but never really carved them open like we would have liked,” he said. “We need to keep working on everything.”

The hope is that the closing week of the window will prove to be a particularly long time in the club’s transfer fortunes. Juventus’s Arturo Vidal, Milan’s Nigel de Jong and Ajax’s Daley Blind, who is also a defender, are on Van Gaal’s radar. Any of these trio’s signature would strengthen midfield and transform hopes.

United would arrive at 2 September having ended the summer by adding Luke Shaw, Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Di María (assuming that he arrives) plus AN Other midfielder.

The continual line of players offering post-match promises to improve next time could then end. “We dropped two points today,” Van Persie said post-Sunderland. “We were a bit too sloppy in possession, and in that sense we made it too hard for ourselves. We’ve played two games and only picked up one point. We would have loved to have got six points but it didn’t happen, so we have to bounce back.”

• This article was amended on 29 August 2014. Because of an editing error, the names of Frank Lampard and Fernando appeared in the wrong order, leading to the implication that it was Lampard who was a £12m signing from Porto. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Anne Frank’s diary: the honest teen voice preserving Jewish wartime life


Powered by article titled “Anne Frank’s diary: the honest teen voice preserving Jewish wartime life” was written by TheOxygenJunkie, for on Monday 25th August 2014 11.55 UTC

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

First published in 1947, the power of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl has not diminished over time. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Diary of a Young Girl, it is a diary which 13 year old Anne kept for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War.

Today, her diary still remains extremely relevant to teenagers across the world; not only because of Anne’s experiences in hiding, but because of the honest and unvarnished way that she describes the universal struggle of simply being a young person. Any modern teenager, even 80 years after the start of the Holocaust, can identify with Anne, and the state of adolescent turmoil which she writes so accurately about. This is what makes her diary so enduring.

As a teen reader, what I love most about her diary is that while war rages on around her, she still finds time to write about seemingly trivial grumbles.

Take her entry from Friday 14th April 1944:

Everyone here is still very tense. Pim has nearly reached boiling point; Mrs Van D is lying in bed with a cold, grumbling; Mr Van D is growing pale without his cigarettes; Dussel, who’s having to give up many of his comforts, is carping at everyone; etc., etc. We seem to have run out of luck lately. The toilet’s leaking, and the tap’s stuck.

Anne Frank is no saint: her diary reveals a typically hormonal, sometimes self-absorbed and temperamental teenager. But this is what makes her so real and human to this day. Anne Frank’s diary reveals more about the tragedy of the Holocaust than any dusty textbook or lengthy scholarly article.

As we turn the final page, and read Anne’s final, written wish – “If only there were no other people in the world” – we know that she never wrote another word. Anne tragically died when she was 15-years-old, of typhus inside Bergen Belsen, one of the Nazi’s most notorious concentration camps.

I often wonder, what would she have achieved if she had lived? Would she have become a successful journalist as she had hoped? Sadly, we will never know. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Thai king endorses coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister


Powered by article titled “Thai king endorses coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister” was written by Kate Hodal in Yangon, for on Monday 25th August 2014 11.42 UTC

The king of Thailand has officially endorsed the army chief and coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister, three months after the military leader took control of the nation in a bloodless coup.

The approval on Monday – a mere formality from the ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej – follows Prayuth’s appointment last week by the military-majority national assembly, who voted in the sole candidate unanimously.

Dressed in a while military uniform and flanked by officers, Prayuth said: “I consider this the highest honour of my life,” and added: “I am ready to get tired.”

The royal endorsement will allow Prayuth – who is due to stand down as army chief next month – to establish an interim government until elections are held some time in late 2015. He is expected to form a new cabinet by October and described his priorities as preparing the country for national reform and establishing prosperity, according to media reports.

“Our country has accumulated many problems … which need to be urgently solved,” he said. “To do this we must not create future problems.”

Prayuth, 60, is the first coup leader to serve as prime minister in nearly 60 years and his appointment was condemned by opponents.

The ruling junta, named the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has also come under fire both at home and abroad for cracking down on dissidents; detaining politicians, journalists, critics and activists; shutting down newspapers, radio and TV stations; imposing martial law; and handpicking a military-dominated parliament that now has more officers in it than Burma’s.

In a statement, the overseas-based Organisation of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy described Prayuth’s appointment as “a political farce and in violation of the rule of law”. Prayuth himself has promised a “Thai-style” democracy and has staged various “happiness festivals” around the capital Bangkok in order to “bring happiness back to the Thai people”.

Prayuth seized control on 22 May after six months of sometimes bloody protests that left the nation in legislative paralysis and saw 28 people killed and over 700 injured.

The coup removed the democratically elected PM, Yingluck Shinawatra, from office eight years after her brother Thaksin was also removed from his post as prime minister – in yet another coup that also involved Prayuth. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Jackie Chan: five best moments


Powered by article titled “Jackie Chan: five best moments” was written by James Walsh, for on Friday 22nd August 2014 09.44 UTC

To mark Jackie Chan’s appearance in Chinese Zodiac, here’s our selection of the Hong Kong legend’s finest moments to date. What have we missed?

Drunken Master

Now finding his own style after earlier efforts to mould him into a Bruce Lee-style star, Drunken Master was Jackie Chan’s breakthrough picture, and introduced his own unique combination of action and comedy (and, in this film, the concept of “drunken boxing”) to the masses.

Operation Condor

As his career grew, Chan became as well known for his frequently dangerous stunts as for his fight scenes. As the spoof news site The Onion calmly explained back in 1997, “The media-dubbed ‘Supercop’ has also fallen from an exploding helicopter into a frozen lake; jumped [from] a sports car on to a moving barge; battled an axe-wielding mob [while] on stilts amidst rising flames; and wrestled a great white shark.” This frantic scene from Operation Condor ends with a jump that, like much of Chan’s output, could have ended very grimly indeed.

King of Comedy

Not to be confused with the Scorsese / De Niro picture, Stephen Chow’s knowing action/comedy about working one’s way up through the Hong Kong movie industry obviously appealed to Chan, as did the opportunity to make fun of his own acting ability.

Who Am I?

A rollicking romp that sees Jackie suffering from amnesia, a point hammered home when he stands on top of a mountain and shouts WHO AM I? while being circled by a helicopter.

The film is rightly best remembered for Jackie’s ridiculous stunt where he slides down the side of a building in Rotterdam. Acrophobics, look away now…

Rush Hour

After many, many attempts to break the American market, including an early turn in the Cannonball Run movies and, much later, a rumble in a very Canadian-looking Bronx, Chan found success alongside Chris Tucker in the buddy-cop action/comedy Rush Hour. The long delay before Chan’s character finally admits – at gunpoint – that he can speak English is perhaps the movie’s best joke, but the vase scene is the one you can’t imagine anyone else pulling off. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Iraqi and Kurdish forces launch attacks to recapture towns from Isis


Powered by article titled “Iraqi and Kurdish forces launch attacks to recapture towns from Isis” was written by Mark Tran in London and Spencer Ackerman in New York, for on Friday 22nd August 2014 13.17 UTC

Iraqi government forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have launched attacks to recapture two towns in the north from Islamic State (Isis) militants, as Western governments consider how to mount an effective response to the threat posed by the extremist group that has redrawn the border of Iraq and Syria.

The Kurdish forces, backed by US air power, took one district near the eastern entrance to Jalawla, 70 miles (115km) north-east of Baghdad. Jalawla was taken by Isis more than a week ago. Iraqi troops supported by Iraqi fighter planes were advancing towards the nearby town of Saadiya. Both towns are near the Iranian border and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Shirko Mirwais, an official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, said the battle to reclaim Jalawla had already left several dead on both sides. “The peshmerga advanced on Jalawla from several directions” before dawn, he said, adding that they had already taken back several positions, cutting off the militants.

He said nine peshmerga had been wounded in the fighting but could not say how many had been killed. Another PUK official, Mullah Bakhtiar, confirmed the operation was under way and said it had already achieved some of its goals.

Kurdish forces lost at least 10 fighters when Isis took Jalawla, one of the deadliest flashpoints along the peshmerga’s 600-mile (1,000km) front.

In Syria, government forces have sent reinforcements to an airbase under attack by Isis militants, the last government foothold in north-east Syria, an area largely controlled by jihadi fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring violence in Syria, said the reinforcements had been flown in overnight to Tabqa, 25 miles (40km) east of the Isis stronghold of Raqqa.

The group said about 30 Isis fighters had been killed and dozens more wounded on Thursday by heavy bombardment and landmines in areas surrounding the base. Boosted by US weapons seized in Iraq, Isis has taken three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks.

Since 8 August, nearly two-thirds of the 90 US strikes have taken place near the critical Mosul dam, which Barack Obama this week declared was no longer under Isis control.

Amid the latest fighting, Britain’s former head of the army, Lord Dannatt, said the west must build bridges with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to tackle Isis. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Dannatt said the group had to be “opposed, confronted and defeated” in both Iraq and Syria.

“The Syrian dimension has got to be addressed. You cannot deal with half a problem,” he said. “The old saying ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has begun to have some resonance with our relationship with Iran. I think it’s going to have to have some resonance with our relationship with Assad.”

Dannatt continued: “I think whether it is above the counter or below the counter, a conversation has got to be held with him. Because if there are going to be any question of air strikes over Syrian airspace it has got to be with the Assad regime’s approval.”

The former army chief said he believed more UK special forces might need to be deployed on the ground in Iraq to train Kurdish troops in how to use weapons. He also suggested the “time will come” when the government decides that British planes should carry out air strikes, rather than leaving it to the US.

But American and British officials have firmly ruled out co-operation with Assad. Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said he did not believe an alliance with the Assad regime would not be “practical, sensible or helpful”.

Asked if the UK would have to collaborate with the Assad regime, Mr Hammond told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “No. We may very well find that we are fighting, on some occasions, the same people that he is but that doesn’t make us his ally.”

Although US officials have described Isis as an “apocalyptic” organisation that poses an “imminent threat”, the highest ranking officer in the American military said that in the short term, it was sufficient for the US to “contain” the group, which has taken over large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq.

Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said on Thursday that cross-border action was necessary to defeat the group. He played down, however, speculation that US warplanes would strike Isis in Syria as well as Iraq.

Isis “will have to be addressed on both sides of what is at this point essentially a non-existent border”, he said, which would require “a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is air strikes. I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America.”

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and one of Obama’s most trusted foreign policy aides, told a radio interviewer that allying with Assad and his “barbarism” – a word US officials also use to describe Isis – is off the table.

“We basically think that the reason that Isil was able to get the safe haven that they have established in parts of Syria is because of Assad’s policies. His barbarism against his own people created an enormous vacuum. … He’s part of the problem, Assad,” Rhodes told National Public Radio on Thursday, using the US government’s preferred acronym for Isis.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, a viable strategy against Isis hinges on cleaving Sunnis on both sides of the border – “the 20 million disenfranchised Sunnis that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad,” as Dempsey put it on Thursday. Backing Assad, their enemy, forecloses on that option, the thinking goes.

At the Pentagon, defence secretary Chuck Hagel called Assad “probably the central core” of US woes in the region. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Zimbabwe’s Econet Wireless and the making of Africa’s first cashless society


Powered by article titled “Zimbabwe’s Econet Wireless and the making of Africa’s first cashless society
” was written by Anna Leach, for on Monday 18th August 2014 16.11 UTC

Will Zimbabwe be Africa’s first cashless society? Telecommunications company, and now mobile banking service, Econet Wireless predicts that in less than 12 months notes and coins will be long-gone from this southern African country. “We do not expect anyone to still be using paper money in a year’s time,” the company’s CEO Douglas Mboweni recently said. “It will be just like Europe or America, where you no longer see people carrying bundles of cash.”

The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy in 2002 paved the way for Econet Wireless’s mobile payment system. “Hyperinflation had destroyed people’s confidence in financial institutions,” said the Zimbabwe company’s founder, Strive Masiyiwa, at the Mastercard Foundation Symposium on Financial Inclusion in July.

“The lowest denomination circulating was ,” Masiyiwa said. “If you want to buy a packet of sweets for your child, you can’t get change.” The company set up a mobile payment system that handles small amounts and allows people to save as little as . “Today 43% of the GDP moves through Econet Wireless,” he concludes.

Masiyiwa was born in Zimbabawe (then Rhodesia) in 1961. He and his parents fled the country in the turmoil after prime minister Ian Smith declared independence in 1965, settling in Zambia. His parents, who ran their own business, could afford to send Masiyiwa to school in Scotland when he was 12. After school he studied electronic engineering at the University of Wales and worked briefly for a computer company in Cambridge before returning to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.

Econet Wireless was established in 1998, but not before a fight. Masiyiwa waged a five-year legal battle with the government for a licence to deliver telephone services. The company now operates in 17 countries including Botswana, Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and New Zealand. In 2000, while the UN filed a civil suit against Mugabe, Masiyiwa moved his family and company headquarters to South Africa.

Econet Wireless first developed mobile payments to help NGOs transfer money to refugees after the war in Burundi ended in 2005. “Donor agencies were trying to find ways to make cash disbursements to refugees,” says Masiyiwa. “So we built the payment system initially not as a business but as a way to help humanitarians get money to people in rural areas who were trying to re-establish their lives.”

That model was extended and now mobile money transfers are central to Econet Wireless’s business. Like M-Pesa before it, the company blurs the lines between telecomms and banking. Masiyiwa is passionate about this latter part of his business. He believes that extending saving and credit services to the poorest people gives them “extraordinary dignity and a sense that they are in control of their own lives”.

His next challenge is to create a product that allows people who are informally employed, such as smallholder farmers and casual workers, to access credit. “In Africa 70% of people are informally employed,” he says. “The big frontier for us is to create platforms where those people can access credit.” He says there’s no risk that they will get into unmanageable debt because the banks won’t extend excessive credit, calling the system “self-regulating”.

But Masiyiwa says that offering people the ability to save is even more important than credit. “We’re trying to build up a savings culture where people are encouraged to save, even if they only have a dollar – for children’s school fees, for transport, for the doctor. A savings and credit infrastructure builds resilience.”

In his speech to microfinance experts at the symposium in Turin, Masiyiwa recounted a story about the judge in Zimbabwe who granted Econet Wireless’s licence in 1998, saying that 70% of people in the country had never heard a telephone ring. “Today, 75% of people [in Zimbabwe] have a cell phone,” he said “And I want 75% of the people in Africa to have a bank account … on a mobile phone.”

And Masiyiwa has even found a solution to the energy problem that could prevent him from realising his dream. “We have developed solar charging stations where people can go into a kiosk and plug in their phone for free. Because our money is not made from someone charging the phone. It’s made from someone using the phone.”

By way of lessons learnt, Masiyiwa says that in order to reach the unbanked, financial institutions – and telecommunications companies – must design services that are practical, simple and affordable. “I’ve got a customer who has a dollar in his pocket and has got to decide to have some lunch, call his cousin or go to the doctor. We have to develop services with sensitivity to the fact that in Africa our customers don’t have the same disposable income as in New Zealand, for example.”

But the billionaire businessman cautions that it’s a mistake assume the poorest behave differently to other customers. “Their behaviour and aspirations are no different from those who have higher incomes,” he says. “They want to use Facebook. They want to use WhatsApp. We have to find ways for them to access those things with their very low income.”

Read more stories like this:

Using mobile money to buy water and solar power in east Africa

Cashing in: why mobile banking is good for people and profit

The mobile money infrastructure and the role of donors – video

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