AS ALL COUNTRIES CONTINUE to deal with meteoric inflation caused mainly by high energy prices and the disruption of supply chains, the conflict in Ukraine continues unabated. There is food and water shortage, fires, droughts in places, floods in others, unemployment, and rising prices of essential goods just to name some of the calamities being faced by almost everyone in the world today.
The developed world can sustain the hardship in the short term but if the root cause of the issues is not dealt with expeditiously, there will be far-reaching consequences for everyone. More than anyone else, the real victims of the current brutality are the people of Ukraine, especially children, the elderly and the vulnerable. I have been listening to the numerous debates on television about the aftermath of this catastrophic event in history and worry about the basic understanding that our learned analysts have on the repercussions of a country devastated by conflict. They should simply ask the people of Iraq or Afghanistan who have had the most recent experience of conflict; a generation of development is going to pass them by. War is the surest way to go back to the stone ages and the consequences of this carnage will linger on in the form of hatred that will not only foster generational discord but will have societal degeneration resulting in more sociological disorder.
It is commonsense that for any dispute to be resolved, the leaders of the conflicting sides must be brought together. The word ‘parley’ is a noun that has been used through time immemorial to have a direct dialogue between adversaries to settle disputes. Intermediaries may strengthen you morally, spiritually, legally and in the case of conflict may provide you armaments to defend yourself, but they cannot ever find a solution to the dispute. More than anything, intermediaries always have different interests. The effort of global leaders from the beginning has been and should remain to bring the two leaders (Russia and Ukraine) into a room to thrash out the issues and arrive at a solution. Rather than look at broader issues of the EU and NATO, the parties should look at what is better for them as neighbors and erstwhile allies of the cold war.
As more blood is shed, every continuing day of the war will result in the hardening of positions of both sides and the end will be in the systematic destruction of decades of development. Arming Ukraine is not the answer as their stronger adversary is not going to be silenced through retaliation. Each building and bridge that is destroyed will have to be rebuilt and every citizen displaced will need to be provided for. No third party will do this for Ukraine. The leaders in Ukraine should know that there are no free lunches, and irrespective of outcomes they will eventually be burdened by so much moral and material debt that they will never be able to come out of the shackles of infinite financial bondage. More than anything else, in paying these debts, Ukraine will become an agricultural and mineral hinterland for the extended boundaries of a few nations that are fueling the war. The choice today is nothing other than between the ‘devil or the deep blue sea’.
Sanctions are not an all-inclusive answer to this conflict. The impact of sanctions is being felt not just by Russia but by all countries in the world but mostly the EU. Most countries are far removed from the problem and remain helpless spectators. There are world leaders who have negotiated with and who Putin will listen to, and it is time that leverage is used for the neighbors to settle this dispute in a bilateral discussion. The UN Security Council (permanent and non-permanent members) with the participation of the UN Secretary General must demand a ceasefire and ask the leaders to meet in a neutral territory and resolve the issue. Both sides will need ‘Stand-Still’ assurances during this period, and these must be provided with integrity. A sensible solution is possible, and this route must be expedited to cool down temperatures and stop this senseless conflict.
On another note, as the temperatures start soaring during summers in the Middle East, my wife and I visited the UK and Switzerland this year during July/August. Europe has always been the haven for the summer holidays to get respite from the high temperatures in the Middle East. Not any longer and this is not a one-off occurrence. It didn’t matter whether we were in London, Edinburgh, Geneva, Lausanne, Crans Montana or Zermatt, it was difficult to escape the unusually piercing heat in the afternoon. What we are seeing now is going to become a way of life for Western countries. Climate change is sadly irreversible and countries in Europe must adapt to this new reality as none of the countries are prepared for the scorching heat.
In this context I am reminded of my tenure at the Antarctic during my military career. I was selected, in 1987, as part of the seventh scientific expedition to start building India’s second permanent base in the Antarctic at a place called Maitri (latitude 70.76 South, longitude 11.73 East) in Queen Maud Land. The experience was one of the greatest adventures of my life as we toiled hard through blizzards and whiteouts for four months to finish, despite all the elements, the foundation work of the new station. What I am reflecting on today is not so much about the back-breaking work that we did there but what I saw from an ecological disaster perspective and the sad realities we are faced with today because we failed to act in time. Even as far back as 1987, scientists had flagged global warming and the need to course-correct. Icebergs the size of large islands were breaking off from the Antarctic continental shelf and floating into the Southern Ocean. The protective ozone layer was being gradually disseminated and the impact of ultraviolet radiations was predicted to have a far-reaching impact on rising temperatures and sea levels.
As a quick recap, the continent of Antarctica is 98% covered by ice that has an average thickness of 2.5 kilometers and is the largest reservoir of fresh water in the world; holding 70% of global fresh water. Hypothetically, if this and the ice in the polar region of the Northern pole melts, the sea levels across the world will go up by 230 feet, submerging every coastal city on our planet. This is an alarming thought. Furthermore, it is projected that by the year 3000, ocean levels around the world will go up by 13 feet. If you think your grandchildren will benefit from beach-front properties that you have willed them, think again!!
When I returned from the Antarctic and after leaving the forces in 1988, I started speaking at various events regarding the need for a drastic reduction in our Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) emissions and single-use plastics; my words fell on deaf years. In the following years, I started reaching out to high schools in Dubai to talk about the future of, and the need to preserve and safeguard, our planet. The simple analogy is “how will your body survive if your skin is peeled off”. The school children were more attentive and responsive to the discussion as they perhaps understood that they would likely see the impact of global warming within their lifetime. This was 34 years ago. What we have seen during this period is the gradual depletion of the ozone layer which is now becoming more blatant and harsher as we are exposed to the changing weather patterns arising from global warming. We have seen artificial intelligence (AI) rendered images of future cities by 2050, but no one is paying attention to the acidification of our oceans and the impact on marine life by 2050; an incidence of dying fish owing to possibly pollution have come up this year in the Oder River which borders Poland and Germany. It is flagged as an environmental and ecological disaster. This is just the start of the destruction of marine life, whether by drought or pollution, which will have a material impact on the world. While the subject is being dealt with, the sad reality is that the pace of change may never catch up with the impending crisis.
Coming closer to home, things on the African continent remain extremely volatile as well. The impact of global events always has a knock-off impact on African economies and it’s no surprise to see the repercussions of supply chain disruptions and food shortages in different parts of Africa. The short-term issues will continue to be vexing but my long-term prognosis on the future in Africa remains positive. This was validated by a breakfast meeting that I had a few weeks back in Johannesburg with some extremely enterprising individuals. The meeting was hosted by a long-time friend and outstanding businesswoman, Sneha Shah, who was formerly the Managing Director of Reuters Africa and has just finished her most recent assignment as the Managing Director of Business Accelerator at the London Stock Exchange Group, based in New York. Most of the attendees were young business leaders who were focused on relooking at ‘purpose’ and wanting to make a meaningful impact on the future of Africa.
My generation has made many unforgivable mistakes, but I am inclined to believe that our younger leaders have a better understanding of what the future needs. Their focus was clearly on responsible investing considering diversity, green energy, and transformation. It was heartening to hear the statistics on incremental growth in FDI into Africa and the interest from a lot of pockets of capital to invest into bankable transactions in Africa. I was also delighted to meet the founder of the Harambeans; an organization developing the younger generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in Africa. Despite the gloom at a macro level, there is much hope for the future of our continent.
Despite all the gloom, I am a die-hard optimist and believe strongly in the words of Nelson Mandela: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”