Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Libya: is the AU relevant?

Back in March, I wrote about how the Arab world was seeking a new modernity. The African Union, it seems is not.

While the Arab league was fairly quick to expel Libya, the AU treated the conflict in Libya as if it was a political dispute to which there was a political solution. I followed events on the Al Jazeera web site as well as twitter in the early weeks of the revolution and these unfiltered sources made it clear that this was a genuine grassroots uprising. What's more a major driving force in the continuation of the uprising was the certain knowledge that to be identified as a "rebel" in the Gaddafi world view, where everyone loved him, was to set yourself up to be killed.

Let's be clear on how this thing started. In line with the broader "Arab Spring" movement, peaceful protests broke out in Libya, and the regime responded by shooting at protesters with heavy calibre weapons. Once it became clear that things would not die down despite this, talk escalated to exterminating all rebels, and Gaddafi deployed tanks to shoot at civilians. In the early days of the conflict, the opposition was vastly outgunned, and the courage to face such odds is rare. I remember talking to someone at this stage whose view was that anyone prepared to machine-gun crowds couldn't be overthrown, and these people were not stopping at machine guns. They were firing anti-aircraft guns into crowds, and shelling residential districts.

I've been listening to various "experts" pontificating on the matter on South African talk shows and many come from the starting point that the AU had the right approach and the NATO intervention was excessive and unjustified. But look at the AU's track record. Zimbabwe and Kenya both had disputed elections. Rather than insist on correcting the results, both countries had solutions imposed on them that rewarded electoral fraud.

In South Africa, in particular, many in leadership view Gaddafi with affection because he supported liberation when western powers saw the apartheid South Africa as a "good" authoritarian regime, stopping the advance of communism. That the major liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), was a largely social democratic alliance (with a small communist membership) that at the time saw the British Labour Party as its role model was hardly indicative of communist tendencies, but such was the global politics of the time. Either you were in the communist camp or your weren't. The Cold War is now over, and such neat divides no longer apply. The Soviet Union, far from a utopian example of "scientific socialism" today is understood to be a corrupt state favouring a small elite, using harsh police state practices to suppress opposition. The West, on the other hand, far from promoting democratic values, has a long history of promoting authoritarian regimes.

In this post-Cold-War era, we need to abandon ideological preconception and see things for what they are.

Gaddafi was a bloodthirsty military dictator, who wrapped himself in a cloak of Africanist liberation rhetoric. The AU, by attempting to prolong his rule, has shown itself to be a creature of a bygone era. NATO, on the other hand, has intervened in a relatively principled way, doing the minimum to give the revolution the upper hand. Whether the end result is a truly free country remains to be seen, but comparing this with Iraq, where the UK, US and a rag-tag coalition went in on the basis of a lie is ridiculous. Rather than question why Libya, I question why not Barhain as well? Had the vicious suppression of that uprising been stopped too, what are the chances that the hesitant steps to reform in Syria, preceding the ongoing vicious crackdown, would have continued?

The ANC radically transformed the whole space of foreign policy by tearing down the notion that national sovereignty precluded intervention in the internal affairs of a country by outsiders. The struggle against apartheid did more than anything else to put human rights on the global agenda. Why, then, is the ANC today at the forefront of coddling dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe in its own foreign policy? I can only see it as misplaced loyalty to old comrades in arms.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Market Share Bug

Ford did it with the Model-T. VW nearly went broke for the same reason. Is Microsoft heading for trouble by listening to their customers too much?

Not so long ago, I recall reading somewhere that Microsoft was not going emulate Apple's iPad design, because they had consulted their business clients and they all wanted something that looked like Windows.

This all reminds me of how VW battled to break away from selling the Beetle (Bug if you're American) for much the same reason. All their customers said they wanted one (or something much like one); as many as 90% could say that and still lead a company to terminal decline.

This picture is a tad complex but captures the basic problem. Let's assume a company launches a new product in a market with an overall growth of 10% per annum, and it consistently scores a 90% retention rate with clients (the red line): that fraction can be relied on to buy it again. Despite this very consistent figure, market share rises very fast at first, peaks, then goes into slow decline. Growth follows an even more spectacular variability, starting at over 40% the first year of production, shooting up to over 80%, then going into steep decline, steadying at around 5%. They key to understanding all this is the yellow curve, the fraction of the market the product doesn't already have that it takes from the competition. This fraction rises very fast until it levels off at 40% (first arrow, a) for a couple of years, then the competition starts retaining its customers a bit better (second arrow, b), and the rate of converting competitors declines for a couple of years to 20%, where it sticks for a while until the competition comes out with a product with significant new appeal (arrow c), and conversion from the competition enters a steady and terminal decline.

This graph doesn't correspond to a real scenario; plugging in actual market share numbers requires access to stats over a long enough time to do this properly. Nonetheless the basic model applies whenever a company hits a point where it has a very loyal client base and new buyers aren't interested.

Through all this, the company has been maintaining 90% of its loyal clients, yet if this trend continues, they will eventually go out of business. This is what happened with the Beetle (and before it, the Model-T). Increasingly, buyers who had not bought one before saw it as outmoded and uninteresting. Asking the existing client base what they wanted would have resulted in a resounding "more of the same".

This is why Microsoft today asking their clients what they want is to risk oblivion. Ford and VW recovered; will they?