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New technology has enabled cybercrime on an industrial scale

20210508 ird001 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

NOBODY LIKES a call from the taxman. Donald Rumsfeld, who as America’s defence secretary oversaw a budget bigger than the economy of a typical country, nonetheless finds the rules so confusing that he writes to the Internal Revenue Service each year complaining that he has “no idea” whether he has filed his taxes correctly. So it is hardly surprising that, when the phone rings and an official-sounding voice says you have underpaid your taxes and will be connected to an adviser to pay the balance, ordinary folk tremble.

It is, however, invariably a scam. Few tax authorities call individuals about their taxes; if you are lucky, they will send you a letter a year later, to the wrong address. They will certainly not menace you, as bogus calls often do, with the threat of arrest if you do not stump up the cash right now.

Such scams have become vastly more common. Phone calls from tricksters claiming to be taxmen almost doubled in number last year, according to UK Finance, a trade association of banks. Other countries show increases at least as dramatic.

Even as rates of most crimes remain low in rich countries, the spectacular growth of cybercrime—crime committed mostly or entirely over the internet—stands out. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, the best indicator of long-term trends in Britain, in 2019 there were 3.8m incidents of fraud, most online, representing a third of all crimes committed. That figure has increased every year since 2017 when the government started collecting data. Around 7% of all adults were victims. Three-quarters lost money, and 15% lost more than £1,000 ($1,393). In America the number of reported cases of internet fraud increased by 69% last year. Reported losses there (excluding bank or credit-card fraud) reached $4.2bn, three times higher than in 2017.

Other kinds of internet-enabled crime are growing too. Spam phone calls and text messages, typically attempting to defraud people, extract billions of dollars a year. Illegal gambling websites, many of which steal from their customers, have multiplied. And new technology makes many old-fashioned crimes easier to perpetrate. Drug dealers use Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, to take payments and move money around. They rely on specialised criminal encrypted communications software to organise their affairs. “There is no serious organised crime that does not have a digital component,” says Nigel Leary of Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA).

Most significant over the past year is the growth in “ransomware”—hacking attacks where victims’ files are locked up until money is paid. Such attacks were once crude. Ransomware arrived in spam emails and targeted ordinary people’s computers. The sums demanded were often small, to encourage people to pay up.

These days hackers focus on large organisations and demand big ransoms (see chart). Malicious software is injected into specific computer systems. It steals data before locking them. A ransom is then demanded to unlock the files or, increasingly, to prevent them being leaked (backups of important data are common now). It is almost always in Bitcoin. According to Chainalysis, a cyber-security firm, the amount paid in Bitcoin ransoms increased by 311% last year, compared with 2019, to around $350m compared with 2019. Victims are usually businesses but more and more include governments and their departments, including the police. On April 27th Washington DC’s coppers revealed that they have been hit by hackers, who say they will expose police informants to gangs if the authorities do not pay up.

Ransomware is “the single biggest threat” in the organised crime world, says Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Sussex who advises Europol, the EU’s police agency. On April 29th Alejandro Mayorkas, America’s secretary of homeland security, described it as “a threat to national security”. The damage is enormous. Maersk, a global shipping company, wrote down $300m in losses related to a ransomware attack in 2017. Travelex, a British currency trader, collapsed last year, with the loss of 1,300 jobs. An attack that took its systems down at the end of 2019 was partly to blame. Despite coughing up 285 Bitcoin—then worth around $2.3m—the firm lost about £25m that quarter. It attributed most of that to the attack.

Ransoms can be eye-watering: an attack in March on the Broward County school system, which covers much of Fort Lauderdale in Florida, came with a demand for $40m in Bitcoin. In messages leaked by the hackers, one of the district’s negotiators was incredulous: “You cannot possibly think we have anything close to this.”

Most government bodies do not. But the consequences of not paying can be just as costly. In Baltimore, Maryland’s biggest city, schools had to stop online teaching last year for several weeks after their systems were locked by a ransomware attack. It was not the city’s first experience. An attack in 2019 cost its taxpayers $18m. During the pandemic hospitals have been hit, too. France reported 27 attacks on hospitals last year, as part of a 255% increase in ransomware attacks generally. Medical treatments have been delayed in Germany and ­America because of attacks.

Bitcoin buccaneers

The criminals who do it are a mixed bunch. Many seem to be based in Russia, other parts of eastern Europe, or China. In Russia and Belarus, cybercriminals thrive because the state tolerates them, as long as they only scam foreigners. Some reportedly have links to the security services.

But cybercriminals do not seem to operate in tightly organised crime groups, like drug cartels or mafias. Their strength comes from their decentralisation. Individual elements of each crime are provided as a service to organisers. One lot might write and sell the software. Others might get it into targets’ computers. Others might collect and launder the ransom. And a few kingpins might finance the entire operation. And yet they might never know each others’ names or locations.

Crimes such as bank robbery used to be artisanal, says Mr Leary, of the NCA. Big jobs like the Brink’s-Mat robbery of 1983, in which £26m of gold, diamonds and cash were stolen from a warehouse at Heathrow airport, required a large specialist staff who all knew and trusted one another. Now large-scale crime is being industrialised by technology. “The barriers to entry are really very low,” says Mr Leary.

That is largely because an entire internet infrastructure has developed to enable attacks. Cryptocurrency is key. Ransomware criminals like to use Bitcoin, says Kemba Walden, a lawyer with Microsoft’s digital crimes unit, because it is very liquid and relatively anonymous. The end recipient is anonymous unless his real-world identity can be connected to his virtual address. Criminals can trade Bitcoin between themselves. Cashing out their earnings into real money is risky; in most rich countries Bitcoin exchanges apply strict “know-your-customer” requirements. But it is not impossible. Some exchanges in less-regulated countries apply looser criteria. And coins can be “tumbled”—swapped between cryptocurrencies by money launderers—to conceal their origins, and then sold on well-regulated exchanges. In Russia and China “it’s just incredibly difficult” to trace stolen money, says Ms Walden.

Other technological innovations are vital, too. SIMboxes, which allow people to “spoof” (conceal the origin of) phone calls, are sold for legitimate purposes, to marketing firms, for example. But they also allow criminals to spam people or communicate without revealing their location. TOR, software which anonymises internet connections by bouncing data around the globe, allows the “dark web” to thrive, hosting the forums on which criminals anonymously trade their wares. “Bulletproof hosting”—server farms with a high level of security and privacy—operate like virtual safe houses, where compromising data can be moved off at a moment’s notice, invariably before the police are able to get to it.

What is the future of such crime? As ransomware has grown, so has the industry promising to protect firms from it. The crime is “becoming more high-profile”, says Michael Levi of Cardiff University. Organisations are trying to buttress their defences. But many do not want to report hacking attempts or fraud. Data breaches are not only damaging in themselves; they are embarrassing, too. Individuals rarely think to report cybercrimes to the police. The costs may be borne indirectly. Banks and insurers will often compensate people for losses. Security is improving but the crimes are increasingly profitable.

The worry of law enforcement is that more traditional criminals are moving into cyberspace, and vice versa. “Now the dark web is used for the commodity trade [fencing of stolen goods], the drugs trade and firearms,” says Mr Leary. In raids in Belgium in March, police seized 28 tonnes of cocaine, as well as cash, guns, police uniforms and a torture chamber in a shipping container. The criminals had reportedly been using Sky ECC, an encrypted phone network sold by a Canadian firm. The phones were seemingly designed to hide criminal activity, with end-to-end encryption, disappearing messages and no GPS data. Subscriptions were paid in Bitcoin. That gave them a great deal of anonymity—at least until European police forces managed to inject their own malware into the phones to spy on them.

Governments are beginning to take cybercrime more seriously. America’s Justice Department has appointed a team to tackle it. The “five eyes” allies—America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand—are sharing intelligence on it. But there is a long way to go. In Britain only one in 200 police officers focuses on fraud, despite its outsize footprint, according to figures revealed through the Freedom of Information Act by the Times newspaper.

And the opportunities are growing. In the past six months the value of the world’s Bitcoin has soared to over $1trn. That surge of liquidity makes it even easier to hide crime. And as Mr Woodward puts it: “Why would you walk into a bank with a sawn-off shotgun to steal £30,000 when, if you’re got some money to invest, you can go on the dark web and start a ransomware campaign and make millions?” ■

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Diplomacy has changed more than most professions during the pandemic

WHILE ASSORTED G20 “Sherpas”, officials who do the donkey work on summits, gathered in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia in March last year, lockdowns were starting and international travel was stopping. A scramble to get home began. But within weeks, after some teething troubles with videoconference technology, the Sherpas were conducting talks over Zoom and Webex, and their bosses were holding a leaders’ summit by video. Diplomacy had gone virtual.

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“For a long time we’ve been talking about the advent of digital diplomacy,” says Jonathan Black, Britain’s sherpa. “It has really now arrived.” Over the past year diplomats have all but abandoned big multilateral meetings in the flesh. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which normally clogs up New York for two weeks in September as thousands of delegates jet into the city, became a more modest affair with leaders joining via screens.

In the parts of the world that have secured vaccines “in-person” diplomacy is slowly restarting. When Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, hosts fellow G7 foreign ministers for “covid-secure” talks in London on May 3rd-5th, it will be the first time the group has met in the same room since they did so in Saint-Malo in France in April 2019. Current plans envisage that the full G7 summit in Cornwall in June, and a NATO one in Brussels immediately afterwards, will be in-person too.

In the meantime, a great experiment in virtual diplomacy has been under way. In February, for example, Joe Biden held his first summit meeting as president, with Justin Trudeau of Canada, by videoconference. Without leaving the White House, he has since joined a virtual meeting of fellow G7 leaders hosted in London in February—cyber-hopping across to Germany on the same day to speak at the Munich Security Conference—as well as the inaugural summit of the “Quad” (America, Australia, India and Japan) in March. In April he brought together 40 world leaders on screen for a climate summit. Diplomats everywhere, accustomed to ceaseless flying around the world, have spared the national coffers and done their bit to save the planet by cutting out travel.

“Diplomacy has not stopped; it’s accelerated in some respects,” says Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador, now at Harvard University. Communiqués have been agreed upon, resolutions passed, relationships nurtured. In some respects diplomats have probably never been busier.

Hurdles have had to be overcome. At the UN, Russia has refused to accept anything other than physical presence for the Security Council, depriving virtual meetings of formal status. That has slowed things down. Since the seats in the council are not sufficiently socially distanced, a system had to be worked out for voting by emailed letters. With receptions and other forms of entertainment ruled out, diplomats have had to adapt. Instead of the usual dinner to mark their stint as president of the Security Council in February, for example, the British distributed picnic baskets to other missions—placing an unusual amount of diplomatic weight on Branston pickle and Fortnum & Mason tea.

The main workarounds, however, have involved not tea but technology. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms have both enabled diplomacy to continue and opened new possibilities for efficiency and reach. “We’re a lot better off now because of covid, in terms of diplomacy and mediation, because we’ve been forced to think more carefully about how to do our job,” says Martin Griffiths, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen. “It’s a huge seismic change to the way we do business.”

It is not the first time that technology has transformed the world of diplomats. Ambassadors used to be “the equivalent of ship captains”, says Charles Freeman, a former American ambassador, now at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. “They were far away and not subject to control.” At the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, the British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, enjoyed great autonomy, since letters to London might take four to six weeks to arrive. “I did not wait for instructions at Vienna,” he later told Parliament. “I took upon myself the responsibility of acting.”

The telegraph changed all that. News and instructions travelled instantly, to generals in battle and diplomats in embassies. Envoys bemoaned their loss of autonomy (one British diplomat lamented the “telegraphic demoralisation of those who formerly had to act for themselves”). Diplomatic power became more centralised.

The pace could still be leisurely. Winston Churchill fished with Franklin Roosevelt and painted with Dwight Eisenhower. Leaders invested time “tending the diplomatic garden”, as George Shultz, America’s secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, put it. In his final year in office, in 1988, Shultz undertook an eight-country, three-week tour of Asia, “unthinkably long by today’s standards”, recalls Mr Burns, who accompanied him.

Cables and wireless

Since then, air travel and the demands of the news cycle back home have led to shorter summits and a general acceleration of diplomacy. Email and social media have further speeded things up, often bypassing careful drafting and clearance procedures developed to avoid mistakes. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, an impulsive tweet could short-circuit the best-laid diplomatic plans. Modern diplomats have had to adjust to “the annihilation of distance and the compression of time”, as Mr Freeman puts it.

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Now covid-19 has shaken things up still more. For one thing, it has played havoc with foreign services’ plans and personnel. At the top, foreign trips have been scaled right back (see chart). Down the ranks, many diplomats have been withdrawn from their posts because of health precautions, or find themselves on extended tours without their families. The pandemic itself has also become a core element in diplomacy, whether as part of soft-power manoeuvring between America, China and Russia, or among allies in tensions stoked by vaccine nationalism. But its longer-term impact will probably be on how diplomacy is conducted, changing practices in three important ways.

First, in the often staid world of diplomats, it has accelerated the adoption of technological tools. Videoconferencing and other means of direct communication, especially via WhatsApp and (for greater security) Signal, have been used more widely. Foreign services’ investment in secure video technology is expected to grow.

Martin Waehlisch, who leads an “innovation cell” at the UN in New York, says the pandemic has boosted adoption of virtual-reality (VR) technology to give decision-makers in New York a sense of what it is like to be on the ground in conflict zones. He sees this as “the future of briefings”, replacing the traditional reports in “Times New Roman, single-space, black-and-white block text”. “Iraq 360”, a VR experience to help mobilise donors, showed the possibilities in 2019. Now the restrictions on travel have led to an investment in other immersive storytelling projects as an extra format for briefing the Security Council. Such projects are under way for Yemen, Sudan and Colombia. Mr Waehlisch hopes this will become standard practice.

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The second change is improved productivity, thanks to videoconferencing. Interacting with people around the world has become a lot simpler. “I’ve been able to reach out to more people because I’m not constantly in an airport or on the road,” says Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s undersecretary-general for political affairs. Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, it has become possible for diplomats and political leaders to show up for speeches and meetings that they would almost certainly not have attended had their physical presence been required.

For example, 12 foreign ministers and a prime minister might not have flown to New York in February to discuss global vaccine access, but they did all take part in a virtual Security Council meeting on the subject. Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, would hardly have travelled from Canberra to the Rocky Mountains just to address the Aspen Security Forum, as he did last August. It takes months of planning to assemble all the people necessary for a G20 or ASEAN gathering, but you can bring presidents and prime ministers together on a video screen with relative ease. For peace talks, too, virtual platforms make it possible to bring in people who probably wouldn’t find the time to get on a plane and spend several days cloistered in Stockholm or Geneva.

Virtual meetings also cut out a lot of the formalities and pomposity of traditional diplomacy. They are “a great leveller”, says a diplomat from a UN Security Council member: “They’re in their bedroom and you’re in your bedroom.” In the bigger gatherings, officials feel less need to be loquacious than when they have the floor after travelling for a day to deliver a message. As a result, they can sometimes achieve much the same outcome, insiders say, only faster.

Blessed are the peacemakers

The third change may be the most important: the pandemic has accelerated experiments in ways to include a wider range of voices in peace efforts. For some time “inclusivity” has been a buzzword in the world of conflict resolution. Diplomats know that peace processes are often perceived as being imposed from above, or from outside, and that any such deals may not enjoy widespread support. A number of private-diplomacy outfits, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), based in Geneva, have worked to facilitate the involvement of grassroots representatives, including women and young people. But the logistics can be hard. Getting a handful of women from a conflict zone to Switzerland for a few days of discussion is a challenge at the best of times. During a pandemic it can be an impossibility.

So mediators turned to technology—and found relatively quick and easy ways to bring in people who are not normally consulted on a political or peace process. Diplomats are now excited about the potential. “This should become a standard part of how we operate,” says Ms DiCarlo. Her innovation cell in New York repurposed a commercial tool normally used for market research to develop the ability to conduct what it calls “large-scale synchronous dialogues”. These digital focus groups feel like a texting chat, but have the scale of an opinion poll.

The first experiment was in Yemen. A regular poll with 20-30 questions in that country would cost €250,000 ($300,000) and take a month to get the answers, according to Mr Waehlisch of the innovation cell; the digital dialogue cost only a modest consultancy fee for the question design, and produced results instantly. “It’s quite extraordinary for the UN to be in the forefront of this stuff,” says Mr Griffiths, the envoy for Yemen. “It’s terrific, it’s 21st-century diplomacy, because of course it gets away from men in rooms.”

The absence of alternatives

Libya shows the impact this can have. Last year the pandemic pushed negotiations between the country’s rival forces onto video platforms—Zoom for the political dialogue, Teams for the military track. In the summer, with the help of HD’s mediators, a physical meeting in Montreux led to a road map for reconciliation, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). Stephanie Williams, at the time the UN’s acting special representative for Libya, realised she needed to expand the numbers in the dialogue for it to be more representative.

In September she started doing big Zoom sessions with mayors, women’s groups and youth activists; representatives of each group reported back to the LPDF, giving their suggestions. In all, Ms Williams says, some 200 women took part, as well as 100-150 young people and the majority of Libya’s 130 municipalities. And then, between November and January, she held five digital dialogues, averaging over 1,000 people for each one, typing back and forth in Arabic. “It really took off with the Libyans,” says Ms Williams. “And it turned out to be a great tool.”

The dialogues included spot polls, which confirmed a lot of what she knew Libyans wanted from the political process, “but we were also able to use it to push the political class, to say, hey, it’s not just the UN mission that’s saying what Libyans want.” In particular the dialogues were useful in pressing the need for unified institutions before elections, which are planned for December. In giving Libyans a voice, the UN’s diplomats reckon, the Zoom calls and dialogues not only boosted confidence in the peace process but improved the prospects for it lasting. An opinion poll (of the traditional sort) in February by Diwan Research found that 71% of Libyans were satisfied with the LPDF process to select a new government, and 68% deemed the process fair and transparent.

Sooner or later these tools would have been put to use in diplomacy. But the constraints of covid-19 had the effect of hastening their adoption, in Libya saving valuable time. “I don’t think that we would have considered things like the digital dialogues had it not been for the pandemic,” Ms Williams says.

Even enthusiasts for the new possibilities of digital diplomacy, however, are keenly aware of its limits. Building a rapport is harder on Zoom than in person. Samantha Power, when appointed by Barack Obama to be America’s ambassador at the UN, went to the trouble of paying a visit to each of her 192 fellow mission heads (with the sole exception of North Korea’s), an investment in relationships that could no doubt be done far more easily today by Zoom, but with much less impact.

Part of what is missing are the signals you can pick up about an interlocutor in a physical meeting: the visible reaction. “When you ask a tough question, do they blanch or do they back up, do they lean into it?” says Mr Burns of Harvard. “You’re not going to get that on Zoom.”

And the really hard part of a negotiation is best done in person. If things aren’t going well, a chat at the bar, or a stroll in the grounds, may help create a breakthrough. The plus side of virtual meetings, the efficiency gains, are also their minus side: you lose the time spent on the margins, the space for informal conversation that helps to establish trust. Difficult messages, often the stuff of diplomacy, can be delivered with more nuance, and less lasting damage to a relationship, face to face than when struggling with a poor connection. At a distance, diplomats say, it is easier to camp on a red line than when you are in the same room. Confidentiality is another concern: “The most delicate issues aren’t amenable to virtual,” says Mr Griffiths.

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For all these reasons the toughest agreements—such as Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU—and the hardest conversations will still have to be worked out in person. It is one thing for the White House to convene world leaders to make worthy on-screen statements about tackling climate change, as happened on Earth Day in April. It is another to cajole and corral countries into a difficult agreement, as happened in the negotiating rooms at COP21, the Paris climate summit in 2015. Hence the hope that COP26 in Glasgow later this year can be held in person too.

So physical summitry will not end. Neither is the role of the resident ambassador under serious threat, despite the ease of direct digital communication between governments. Diplomats insist there is still no substitute for that man or woman sitting in the foreign capital, soaking up the culture, the politics, the media, the arguments, and being the acknowledged interpreter of that culture back home.

Diplomatic immunity

But any complacency about a simple reversion to pre-pandemic habits of diplomacy would be misplaced, just as it was after previous disruptions such as the telegraph and the jet plane. The big diplomatic jamborees of the past, such as UNGA, may never return in quite the same way. Digital tools, from virtual meetings to inclusive focus groups, have proved their worth. The diplomatic handbook is ready for a rewrite.

Covid-19 has hastened the arrival of hybrid diplomacy, a blend of the physical and digital. Quite what the ideal mix turns out to be has yet to be worked out, but it is something international negotiators and foreign services are starting to think through. In America Mr Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, want to reinvest in a State Department that had been badly neglected. The money and training should go on preparing for tomorrow’s diplomacy, not yesterday’s.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The Zoom where it happens”

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The West’s armies are getting more serious about climate change

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WESTERN DEFENCE ministries are talking up their willingness to take on a new enemy: climate change. In March Lloyd Austin, America’s defence secretary, wrote that “the changing climate is altering the global security and operating environments, impacting our missions, plans and installations.” The Pentagon set up a “Climate Working Group” after an executive order from President Joe Biden that climate considerations should be considered a greater foreign-policy and national-security priority.

American allies are making similar noises. On March 30th Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) published its “Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach”. In the foreword, Lieutenant-General Richard Nugee, who led the review, wrote: “The character of warfare is changing fast; so is the climate…The imperative could not be clearer: Defence must and will act now.” A few days previously, a meeting of NATO foreign ministers had agreed to make climate change a far greater priority.

Such talk cannot disguise a fundamental problem: there is little oversight or acknowledgment of just how much armies themselves contribute to climate change. “One of the greatest challenges is that we lack numbers,” explains Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general. This lack of data stems from armed forces’ historic reluctance to disclose information that might place limits on military activity.

The Kyoto protocol, adopted by the UN in 1997, was the first international climate-change treaty to commit countries to slashing their greenhouse-gas emissions. But it came with a loophole: military emissions around the world were exempt from reduction obligations, and even from reporting. The exclusion was granted at the request of America, where some insisted that making calculating emissions and making them public could create pressure to curtail the country’s military activities and thus represented a security risk. (Despite this, the country ultimately did not ratify the protocol.) Climate change, it seemed, was seen as a lesser danger to the armed forces than climate-change mitigation.

The military exemption was removed by the Paris agreement of 2015. But the signatories agreed among themselves that each would decide individually whether to set specific targets for their armed forces, or whether to separate out military emissions in the reports they make under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The result is that, usually, some military emissions are lumped in with other totals, while others are not calculated at all, explains Louise van Schaik, of Clingendael, a Dutch think-tank. Emissions from buildings and vehicles used by the armed forces might be included in the figures provided for government or transport, for example. And only domestic emissions have to be counted and reported, so the activities of armed forces overseas are excluded. In the American armed forces, 70% of energy consumption comes from moving and using troops and weapons, mostly abroad.

Various groups have tried to estimate the level of greenhouse-gas emissions armed forces are actually responsible for, as opposed to the numbers they report. In February 2021, a report commissioned by a group of left-wing members of the European Parliament tried to work out the bloc’s military emissions, based on military expenditure. They estimated that the total footprint for EU armed forces was 24.8m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) in 2019 (including estimated emissions from military industrial production.) That is more than three-quarters of the emissions for the whole of Denmark. In 2018, however, the 27 countries of the EU attributed just 4.5m tCO2e to military activities—roughly 0.1% of the total they emitted that year. France—the EU’s most militarily active member—was estimated to have been responsible for one-third of the EU’s total military emissions in 2019 but had reported none at all.

Similarly, for 2017-18, Britain’s MoD declared it had emitted 942,283 tCO2e, which made up half of the central British government’s emissions. A report by Scientists for Global Responsibility—a British advocacy and research group—found that the MoD’s total direct emissions were closer to 3m tCO2e (excluding emissions from the production of equipment or supply chains).

These figures are dwarfed by estimates for America, with the Pentagon thought to be the largest institutional consumer of petroleum products in the world. A paper published in 2019 by Professor Neta Crawford, a political scientist at Boston University, estimated that America’s armed forces emitted 59m tCO2e in 2017. For comparison, total emissions from all sources and sectors for the whole of Switzerland were 44m tCO2e in 2018.

In recent years, many Western armies have adopted cleaner technologies—including electric vehicles and renewable energy sources. Others are experimenting with new fuels for aviation: the Dutch Ministry of Defence, for example, is phasing in biofuels (as is America) and now uses them to power all F-16 Fighting Falcon jets from its base in Leeuwarden. In the absence of transparent emissions reporting or targets, this is often trotted out as evidence of their green credentials. But the changes have been driven mostly by the imperatives of operational efficiency and continuity.

Reliance on fossil fuels for energy—once described by General David Petraeus, a former director of America’s CIA, as “the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities”—creates security risks and threatens missions. Transporting fuel to remote bases typically requires long convoys of military vehicles, vulnerable to enemy attack. Between 2001 and 2010, for example, over half of American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred during land transport missions. Many of these missions involved the delivery of fuel to remote bases—a study by the Army Environmental Policy Institute published in 2009 estimated that the average load allocation for convoys in the region was 50% fuel. Fossil fuels are also costly: between 2010 and 2018 the American armed forces purchased roughly 100m barrels of fuel each year, with an annual bill of $8bn-17bn. And securing access to the fuel adds more costs still. It is estimated that America’s armed forces spend around $81bn annually defending the global oil supply. Besides the expense, the adoption of green technologies in civilian markets will also drive the armed forces to follow suit.

Despite these pressures, most Western armies are yet to cut their emissions significantly. Meanwhile, climate change is increasingly shaping the environment in which they operate, and the risks for which they are trying to prepare. Higher sea- levels threaten infrastructure: operations at the world’s largest naval base, in Norfolk, Virginia, are regularly disrupted by flooding. Western countries with territories in places susceptible to extreme weather—such as the Caribbean for both Britain and the Netherlands, and the Pacific for France—have also found more demands being made on the armed forces based there to provide humanitarian relief and assistance after disasters. Fears abound about new geopolitical tensions—driven by melting ice in the Arctic, instability caused by migration and resource scarcity as temperatures rise. America is now explicitly incorporating such scenarios into its modelling, simulations and war-gaming; NATO has recently agreed to launch new research into the link between global warming and security.

The result is a curious mixture of resignation and urgency. Britain’s recent climate-change strategy, for example, stated baldly that the country’s armed forces are preparing for a “climate-changed world of between +2 and 4°C” above pre-industrial levels—ie, above the 2°C ceiling set as a target in Paris. But the amount that temperatures will rise depends on progress in reducing emissions. Doing so efficiently requires accuracy and openness about emissions. This is coming at last from military forces themselves. Mr Stoltenberg, for example, recently announced that he wants NATO alliance members to pledge at a summit later this year to make their armies carbon-neutral by 2050 and NATO is currently developing an emissions-reporting methodology to facilitate this. Britain’s MoD has also now promised to set specific targets for reducing its carbon emissions. Lieut-General Nugee’s report, for instance, says that Britain’s sprawling defence estate—the MoD is one of the largest landowners in the country, with hangars, houses and barracks—will reduce emissions by at least 30% by 2025.

The difficulties in balancing armies’ desires for combat effectiveness with the need to cut emissions will persist. Yet attitudes are, slowly, changing. “Climate change makes the world a more dangerous place,” says Mr Stoltenberg. “And therefore it matters to NATO, and therefore we need to be part of the answer to global warming.” Earlier this month, speaking at a climate summit, Mr Austin called the climate crisis an “existential” threat, and pledged that the Pentagon would be “doing our part” to alleviate it.

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Female soldiers are changing how armed forces work

RACHEL GRIMES served three tours of Northern Ireland as an officer in the British army. Her colleagues in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the region’s erstwhile police force, noticed that things were different when she—the only woman present—joined police and army patrols. The team’s behaviour changed. Fellow soldiers behaved with more restraint. At checkpoints, locals stopped to talk for longer. She did not notice these things at the time.

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Her epiphany came years later, when she deployed as a gender adviser to United Nations forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She recalls seeing women and children gathered on the edge of a village—victims of rape cast out by their communities. “The last thing a Congolese woman wants to see is a man in uniform,” she recalls, unsurprisingly, in a place where soldiers commit a lot of rape. “But a woman in uniform is different.” At one meeting with women in Eringeti, on the edge of Virunga National Park, the information they shared about when and where attacks might occur was far more useful than other intelligence gleaned by the UN.

Between 1957 and 1989 only 20 women ever served as UN peacekeepers, anywhere. But the number of female soldiers has been growing of late. Women now make up a fifth of officers in the US Army, for example. In 16 countries, including Britain and France, as well as America, they are allowed to serve in combat roles once reserved for men. The growth has prompted new thinking about what female soldiers can bring to soldiering. It is also forcing commanders to confront the impact war has on women more generally. But progress is not always as fast as it should be, and without more radical change, some ideas about what women soldiers can achieve seem overblown.

In many respects, the UN has played a leading role in championing female soldiers. It has pledged to increase the share of women in military forces from 1% in 1993 to 15% by 2028, and to 20% in police units (see chart). “This is not just a question of numbers,” claimed Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary general, in 2019, “but also of our effectiveness in fulfilling our mandates.” Among the pioneers were 103 Indian women sent to Liberia in 2007 as the first all-female police unit. Subsequently, all-female police units from Bangladesh were deployed to Haiti and Congo.

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Such ideas are spreading more widely. Canada’s chief of defence staff, the country’s most senior officer, has a gender adviser. So too do the chiefs of Canada’s army, navy and air force. NATO, where Lieutenant-Colonel Grimes now works, has also made the issue a priority. General Curtis Scaparrotti, who was NATO’s top commander until 2019, points to America’s use of all-female units, or Female Engagement Teams, in Iraq, where they were called Lioness teams, and later in Afghanistan. “Women had a great deal of influence in those families and societies,” he recalls. Yet conservative norms and cultural taboos often prevented male troops from interacting with them.

In modern wars, soldiers do more than just inflict violence on enemies. They also build trust and gather intelligence. And when predominantly male forces interact with women, too often it goes badly. In 2011 the US Army conducted a study to ask why so many Afghan soldiers had attempted to murder their Western colleagues. One recurrent complaint was Western troops “violating female privacy during searches”, particularly on night raids. “They take photos of women even when we tell them not to,” complained an Afghan soldier. Female American soldiers, noted the study, “were viewed as having better attitudes and being more respectful and respected.”

Women often find that they can navigate the battlefield in unique ways. “Being a female soldier means that you’re almost like a third gender,” says Captain Lizzy Millwater, a British officer who advises the UN mission in Mali. “You can engage the male population on patrol, but you are also then able to engage with the women and children without being seen as a threat.” Western armed forces were not the only ones who have learnt this lesson. Jacqueline O’Neill, Canada’s ambassador for women, peace and security, notes that most suicide-bombers for Boko Haram, a Nigerian jihadist group, are women. “They know women can have more access in markets, and are less likely to be searched at checkpoints,” she says.

Yet many armies have been slow to make use of this experience. “We do a fairly good job at promoting this in other places, like Africa and Latin America,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island. “But in the United States it is entirely possible to graduate from a professional military education institution and never hear of it.” She points out that the $4m allocated by the Trump administration for women, peace and security issues in the 2018-19 defence budget—the first time it had received any money at all—was dwarfed by the sums spent on Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction medicine by the Pentagon, some $84m in 2014.

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On International Women’s Day on March 8th the UN published videos of female peacekeepers in action, challenging viewers’ possible prejudices with banners asking “Think we play a supporting role?” and “Think we’re bystanders?”. But in practice, they often are. Studies of UN missions have shown that female peacekeepers are more likely to be sent on missions later in a conflict, when fewer bullets are flying. They are particularly underrepresented in conflicts where pre-existing rates of sexual violence are higher. When they are deployed, they are often kept on base and away from the front lines more than men.

Sabrina Karim of Cornell University has found that women are held back because commanders still feel the need to protect them from danger, even if that prevents them from doing their job. The assumption that the loss of a woman in battle would cause uproar in the media is part of that calculation. “They are time and again barred from making meaningful contributions to the places where they are needed most,” says Dr Karim.

Ma’am yes ma’am

Pushing for more female peacekeepers without dealing with the things that stop them from doing their jobs well carries risks both to the women and to the mission, says Gretchen Baldwin from the International Peace Institute, a think-tank in New York. If they are seen to be there only to fill quotas, the men with whom they are deployed will continue to treat them as mere tokens, not fit to engage in combat.

If, in their haste, countries send women who are ill-prepared, that could make matters even worse. In the early days of all-female units in Afghanistan, for instance, many female troops were in effect ordered to serve in such units regardless of their interest in doing so. “This resulted in [all-female units] that lacked motivation and members with little or no formal training,” noted a US Army study in 2014, “both of which can have serious consequences for mission success and personnel security.” Georgina Holmes of King’s College London found that female peacekeepers from Rwanda sent to Darfur said afterwards that they had been overwhelmed and had not received enough training to deal with the many victims of sexual violence they encountered. Military trainers in Rwanda told Dr Holmes that they thought female peacekeepers inherently possessed the skills required to support victims.

Ms Baldwin also points to the hypocrisy of military leaders’ refusal to deploy women to “dangerous areas”—for which they are well trained—while not considering the risk of harassment and worse they face from fellow soldiers. “It’s not at all uncommon for women to say they feel far less safe on base with colleagues than when they are on patrol,” she says. Unsurprisingly, then, progress in meeting the UN’s own target for women peacekeepers has been slow. Today the count for female peacekeeping troops stands just above 5%, though the UN has said it is “advocating consistently” for troop-contributing countries to speed up.

The UN is trying to get to grips with these problems. Peacekeepers are getting more training on gender issues. Pre-deployment training now includes a module on preventing sexual exploitation by UN personnel and a module on preventing and responding to sexual violence suffered by civilians. As part of the Elsie Initiative, a Canadian-backed project, UN officials are redesigning camp layouts to have better facilities for women. Separately, some women with young children are being offered the option of shorter deployments.

Women are also being deployed in new, more effective ways. The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo has 15 female engagement teams, each with 10-15 female soldiers commanded by one or two officers. But when Moroccan peacekeepers in that country went out in all-female patrols, they were not taken seriously until they deployed alongside men, says Major Helen Bryan, the British gender adviser to the mission. “The Congolese men are less accepting of female teams. If it’s a mixed team, they can see that the ladies are doing exactly the same jobs as men—they’re not just doing ladies’ things.”

Yet some of the claims made for the special benefits of having female peacekeepers are a little implausible. The UN, for example, does not just argue that women will be more sensitive in dealing with other women. It also argues that female peacekeepers are “critical” for “empowering women in the host country”—that their mere presence helps to promote the idea that a woman can aspire to do any job. In Liberia, for example, the example of India’s female police contingent and other all-female units has been credited with increasing the share of girls going to school, and even with inspiring local women to join the national police force. Such claims, naturally, are extremely difficult to prove.

The presence of women soldiers can only go so far. In Beni, a city in eastern Congo, on April 8th local police fired live rounds into a crowd of people who were protesting against the peacekeepers’ failure to do anything to prevent massacres that have afflicted the city since 2014. There and elsewhere, peacekeeping missions are often criticised for failing to protect civilians when it would put peacekeepers’ lives at risk, or upset host governments. For all the talk of female peacekeepers paving the way for better relations with the locals, limits persist.

By the same token, having women in uniform does not prevent the men in uniform from behaving badly. In recent years UN peacekeepers in Congo, Haiti and Liberia have been accused of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. The UN set up a unit to assess soldiers’ conduct only in 2005; not until 2015, under pressure from the American government, did it begin revealing which countries’ troops had been accused of abuse. Mr Guterres claims that the presence of more female soldiers may lead to more reporting of sexual violence by peacekeepers. But in reality it seems that women find it as hard as men to report on their fellow peacekeepers.

The debate over female peacekeepers reflects wider issues with the role of women in national armed forces. On the surface, women are more accepted than ever, even in combat roles. A poll of American troops and veterans in January 2019 found that 70% approved of women serving in combat roles; 30% disapproved. But in reality, many remain sceptical. One European officer recalls male colleagues expressing widespread distrust of efforts to up the number of female peacekeepers: “The sense was that women should not serve in patrol, so why should they be deployed? And if 15 women go, then 15 men don’t get their medals.”

Efforts to bring change can often become hostage to wider culture wars. Last autumn, for instance, the Pentagon delayed the promotion of two female generals for fear that Donald Trump would veto it. In March, shortly after their promotion was secured under Joe Biden, Tucker Carlson, a host on Fox News, mocked the idea that “pregnant women are going to fight our wars…It’s a mockery of the US military.” China’s army, he said, was “more masculine”. He was rebuked by the Pentagon, but many viewers agreed with him.

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Take cover

Some armed forces are doing better. NATO’s training scenarios now test soldiers with gender “injects”—checking they do not overlook a civilian woman who may have critical information, for example. One country that has done especially well is Canada. The same US Army study which pointed to American troops’ missteps with Afghan women noted that Canadian troops “were often said to be more respectful and respected”. That may have reflected a broader military culture in which gender issues have been taken seriously.

For over a decade Canada’s government has used a method with the ungainly name “gender-based analysis plus”. It requires assessing how any policy or initiative—whether directed at troops on the ground or civilians at home—would affect men and women differently. It has led to a number of changes, says Lisa Vandehei, who leads a “directorate of gender equality and intersectional analysis” in Canada’s department of defence.

Land, air and she

Canada’s navy, for instance, recently redesigned its working uniform to ensure it would not only fit women better, but could also be tailored to provide modesty for those who wanted it. The air force is looking at how to modify ejection seats on training aircraft to lower the minimum body weight required for safe use. And other aircraft are now being designed with female anthropometry in mind. Even obscure bits of military kit are not spared scrutiny. Ms Vandehei points out that even chemical-weapon detectors, configured forheavier male bodies, are being examined to see if the threshold at which they activate needs to change.

One problem is that gender is not a routine part of military education for the next generation of commanders. Since 2018 Britain’s defence academy has run a twice-yearly course for “human security” advisers, which has trained 130 British staff and 30 foreign ones, but it tends to attract those already interested in the topic. At the Naval War College, Professor Johnson-Freese says that, after six years of effort, she succeeded in including a single text on women, peace and security on the syllabus for the first time this year. None of the other war colleges—for the army, air force and marines—includes the subject in compulsory classes at all. “It is fundamental to military operations but still people feel it is part of diversity and inclusion or a niche subject,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Grimes.

Changing the ethos of conservative and male-dominated institutions, as armed forces tend to be, is not easy. Kristin Lund, who has served as head of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation and commander of its mission in Cyprus, has pointed to a culture where “posters with half-naked women” hang in mission gyms as a key reason why armed forces struggle to retain women. “How many women do gym in bikinis?” she asked in a speech in 2019, noting dryly that, under her command in Cyprus, posters of scantily clothed women “vanished.”

As the number of female soldiers rises, more countries will have to tackle this sort of institutional sexism. Modern armies no longer rely on physical brawn alone; they require troops savvy with technology and capable of navigating complex battlefields. They need to change so that women can serve on equal terms. As Ms O’Neill, the Canadian ambassador, says: “We never want to lose sight of the fact that women shouldn’t have to prove their added value to militaries… The vast majority of women just want to do the job.” After all, as she points out, “when was the last time we had a public event on the value-added of men in a military organisation?”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Officers and gentlewomen”

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India has proved to be a popular—and clever—investor in poor countries

IN CENTRAL Lusaka a brand-new flyover flutters with the green, white and saffron of the Indian flag. Throughout the Zambian capital lorries produced by Tata Motors, part of the steel-to-tech Tata empire, are used for everything from construction to rubbish collection. Signs inside the vehicles instruct drivers in both English and Hindi. The lorries’ occupants phone each other over a mobile network run by Bharti Airtel, an Indian telecoms firm.

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Many Zambians, like people in many other developing countries, complain loudly and often about the Chinese firms that are big local investors. India is also a big commercial presence but no one bats an eyelid. Tata Motors has huge assembly plants in many countries, including South Africa and Malaysia. Bharti Airtel is one of the biggest telecoms operators in Africa. The Aditya Birla Group is the world’s largest producer of carbon black, an ingredient in car tyres. It is one of Egypt’s biggest industrial investors and exporters.

Even in sectors governments deem strategic, such as infrastructure and communications, Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) is not viewed as geopolitical scheming or hegemonic ambition. “That’s one of the selling points for India,” says Gareth Price of Chatham House, a British think-tank. “With the obvious exceptions of Pakistan and China, everyone is kind of all right with India.”

India was once compared to China as an emerging-market power with capital to splurge. The spectacular rise in Chinese investment over the past decade or so has scotched that analogy. Now poor countries are trying to finance their recovery from covid-19 without deepening their debt or their dependence on China. India’s forays are tiny in comparison—around 7% of China’s total stock of FDI in developing economies (not counting investment in Hong Kong, which is sometimes included). But its approach has lessons for foreign investors trying to go about their business without setting off alarm bells.

Firms from emerging markets have long invested in other emerging markets. Their experience at home of delays, chaos and financing constraints provide useful preparation. India helped organise the Bandung conference in 1955, which discussed “South-South” co-operation.

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Indian investments in the rich world are more likely to grab headlines. Deals such as the Tata Group’s acquisition of Tetley Tea or Jaguar Land Rover involve household names, hundreds of millions of dollars and a smack of reverse imperialism. But India’s stock of outward FDI to the poor world is about the same as its stake in rich countries, and has been growing more steadily over time. In 2019 it reached roughly $46bn, according to the latest estimates by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, up from around $40bn in 2010. About $30bn of that is in Asia and around $13bn in Africa.

Some of the data are sketchy. Multinational companies headquartered in India generally set up local subsidiaries. They route money through tax havens such as Mauritius. And the 18m-odd overseas Indians (those born in the country or holding Indian citizenship) include entrepreneurs who switch passports and register businesses locally. “It becomes a jigsaw,” says Jai Bhatia of Cambridge University.

Even if some pieces of the puzzle are missing, those that remain demonstrate the most obvious reason investment from India is viewed with less suspicion than that from China: scale. Even as Indian investment has grown steadily, Chinese investment in the poor world has soared: from $83bn in 2010 to $645bn in 2019.

Another reason is that, unlike Chinese investment, little of India’s FDI comes from state-controlled companies,which are often suspected of operating with one eye on geopolitical strategy and foreign-policy goals. ONGC Videsh is one of the few sizeable government-owned Indian businesses operating abroad. It has bought up assets in countries as far apart as Mozambique and Colombia.

But its firepower is not in the same league as its Chinese peers. Sinopec, a state-owned oil company, first muscled its way into the Angolan oil industry in the mid-2000s. It gazumped ONGC to buy a stake in a block from Shell, an oil-and-gas giant. Jonathan Hillman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington, points out that India has nothing comparable to China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, a global infrastructure-building scheme. “The Indian government hasn’t spent as much time presenting grand visions,” he says.

Most of India’s FDI comes instead from privately held businesses, which undertake projects overseas for purely commercial reasons. They include recently arrived entrepreneurs, (disparagingly dubbed “Rockets” in Kenya for their intention of making fortunes and quickly heading home), multinational investors headquartered in India and diaspora families who have been doing business abroad, especially in Africa, for generations.

Indian traders began settling around the edges of the Indian Ocean centuries ago. In the 19th century thousands more were sent to far corners of the British empire, to work on plantations in Mauritius and build railways in Kenya. Many stayed and built their own businesses. Others braved long journeys on dhows to join them in Africa. “We tend to view things ahistorically and through a geopolitical prism, so it is all about China,” says Parag Khanna, an international-relations expert whose father worked for the Tatas in Africa. In a sign of China’s rise on the continent, the railway that drew Indians to Kenya in the 1890s has been replaced by the Madaraka Express, a Chinese-built line named after the anniversary of Kenyan independence from Britain (madaraka means “ruling power” in Swahili).

The Indian diaspora has sometimes experienced resentment. In the 1970s, for example, Idi Amin, a despot, expelled Asians from Uganda and seized their property. But by and large, a shared history has bred familiarity. Kenya’s government has gone so far as to recognise Asians as the country’s 44th official tribe. Vimal Shah, whose grandfather emigrated from India, started the Bidco Africa juice-to-cattlefeed empire with his father and brother about 35 years ago. He knows the best Indian food in Nairobi and volunteers at the Jain community centre, but has a Kenyan passport and sees himself as thoroughly Kenyan. “I’m not a desi [local] from India,” Mr Shah says.

After independence, industrialists looked beyond India’s borders to free themselves from red tape. One of India Inc’s first foreign ventures was a textile mill built by the Birla Group in Ethiopia in 1959. The conglomerate then expanded across South-East Asia, where economies were opening up. A second, bigger, rush of FDI came in the 1990s, when India loosened capital controls. Last year Indian businesses set up 4,590 projects abroad, up from 395 in 2000, according to data crunched by Prema-chandra Athukorala of the Australian National University.

A third reason Indian investment tends to arouse less resentment than that from China is that Indian companies have a largely justified reputation for trying harder than the Chinese to hire and buy locally. In 2006 the World Bank surveyed almost 450 businesses in Africa. On average, Chinese firms employed almost a fifth of their workers from China and other East Asian countries, whereas Indian firms brought less than 10% of their workers from India. The Chinese businesses imported 60% of new machinery from China; their Indian peers bought just 22% from India. That trend continues today, says Harry Broadman, the economist who led the research.

The fact that many Indian companies are still family-run may have something to do with that. Executives worry about both their founders’ reputation and the way their actions reflect on Mother India. Rudrarup Maitra, who looks after Tata Motors’ international commercial-vehicles business, talks about the company’s contributions to development in its overseas markets, including its efforts to get ambulances to Sri Lanka and rubbish trucks to Nigeria. “There is definitely a responsibility we have to brand India,” he says.

Some think India does too little to parlay its diaspora into investment. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a staunch believer in anti-colonial solidarity and refused to use overseas businesses as a tool for foreign policy. Successive governments have followed his lead and offered at best limited support to Indian businesses’ efforts abroad. Diplomats complain that they can do little to help their compatriots beyond courting local governments and rolling out the red carpet for visiting industrialists. Manu Chandaria, who was born in Kenya over 90 years ago to Gujarati parents and is now one of east Africa’s best-known industrialists, laments that the government in New Delhi has not madethe most of ethnic Indians abroad, using them as neither “a tool” nor “a resource”.

Flying the flag

Gurjit Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Ethiopia, Germany and Indonesia, suggests that India Inc might pack a bigger punch if India’s government increased support to cut the local cost of financing investment overseas. India provided $7bn in official medium- and long-term export credit in 2019, according to the Export-Import Bank of the United States. That makes it the world’s fourth-largest provider, but is still far behind China’s $33.5bn.

But Indian companies’ independence from their home government also brings an advantage: it contrasts favourably with the perception that Chinese ones will unquestioningly do the Chinese state’s bidding. Bharti Airtel, which has had a large share of Africa’s telecoms market since its 2010 acquisition of Zain Africa, a Kuwaiti telecoms company, has obvious strategic power. Akhil Gupta, a high-up at the company, says Airtel would “without question” do anything an African government asked, including disconnecting its service. But he would certainly not take orders from the Indian government on how to run Airtel’s overseas operations, he says. “That is the beauty of democracy.”

Not all businessfolk with Indian roots excel as ambassadors for the motherland. Mahatma Gandhi, who spent time in South Africa as a shipping lawyer, created a good impression. The Gupta brothers, less so. The trio, who moved from Uttar Pradesh to South Africa in the 1990s, were at the centre of the corruption scandal that helped end the presidency of Jacob Zuma in 2018. Elsewhere, Vedanta Resources is locked in a bitter dispute with the Zambian government over its copper mines.

The arms-length relationship between New Delhi, India’s political capital, and Mumbai, its commercial centre, works well in good times. But when India Inc messes up abroad, India looks bad. And when the state’s relationship with another country gets complicated, investors find doing business there harder. “Does flag follow trade or does trade follow flag?” asks Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What you find is that they become intertwined.”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “India Inc”

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India has proved to be a popular—and clever—investor in poor countries

fb image 2567 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

IN CENTRAL Lusaka a brand-new flyover flutters with the green, white and saffron of the Indian flag. Throughout the Zambian capital lorries produced by Tata Motors, part of the steel-to-tech Tata empire, are used in everything from construction to rubbish collection. Signs inside the vehicles instruct drivers in both English and Hindi. The lorries’ occupants phone each other over a mobile network run by Bharti Airtel, an Indian telecoms firm.

Zambians, like those in many developing countries, are vocal about their dislike for the Chinese firms that invest heavily there. India is also a big commercial presence but no one bats an eyelid. Tata Motors has huge assembly plants from South Africa to Malaysia. Bharti Airtel is one of the biggest telecoms operators in Africa. The Aditya Birla Group is the world’s largest producer of carbon black, an ingredient in car tyres. They are one of Egypt’s biggest industrial investors and exporters.

Even in strategic sectors, such as infrastructure and communications, Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) is not viewed as geopolitical scheming or hegemonic ambition. “That’s one of the selling points for India,” says Gareth Price of Chatham House, a think-tank. “With the obvious exceptions of Pakistan and China, everyone is kind of all right with India.”

India was once compared with China as an emerging-market power with capital to splurge. The spectacular rise in Chinese investment over the past decade has put paid to such analogies. Now poor countries are trying to finance their recovery from the covid-19 pandemic without deepening their debt or their dependence on China. India’s forays are tiny in comparison—around 7% of China’s total stock in FDI in developing economies (excluding investment in Hong Kong which is sometimes included). But its approach has lessons for foreign investors trying to go about their business without raising alarm bells.

Developing countries have long invested in each other. India was one of the organisers of the Bandung conference in 1955 which highlighted “South-South” co-operation. Some familiarity with the delays, chaos and financing constraints common in fast-growing economies is useful.

Indian investments in the rich world grab headlines. Deals such as the Tata Group’s acquisition of Tetley Tea or Jaguar Land Rover involve household names, hundreds of millions of dollars and a smack of reverse-imperialism. But India’s stock of outward FDI to the developing world is about the same as its stake in rich countries, and has been growing more steadily over time. In 2019 it reached roughly $46bn, according to the latest estimates from the UN Conference on Trade and Development, up from around $40bn in 2010. About $30bn of that is in Asia and around $13bn is in Africa.

Some of the data are sketchy. Multinational companies headquartered in India set up local subsidiaries. They route money through tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands. And the 18m-odd overseas Indians (those born there or with Indian citizenship) include many entrepreneurs who switch passports and register businesses locally. “It becomes a jigsaw,” says Jai Bhatia of the University of Cambridge.

Even if some pieces of the puzzle are missing, the figures point to the first and foremost reason why India is not viewed with the same suspicion as China: scale. India’s investment abroad has grown but Chinese investment in the poor world rose to $645bn in 2019, up from $83bn in 2010, eclipsing India’s investments.

But statistics do not tell the full story. Indian investors have deep roots in much of the developing world. Indian traders began settling around the edges of the Indian Ocean centuries ago. In the 19th century thousands more were sent to far corners of the British empire, to work on plantations in Mauritius and build railways in Kenya. They stayed and built their own businesses. Others braved long journeys on dhows to join them in Africa. “We tend to view things ahistorically and through a geopolitical prism, so it is all about China,” says Parag Khanna, an international-relations wonk whose father worked for the Tatas in Africa. In a sign of the region’s shifting power dynamics, the railway that drew Indians to Kenya in the 1890s has been replaced by a Chinese-built line called the Madaraka Express, after the anniversary of Kenyan independence from Britain.

Generations of migration to Africa has helped breed familiarity with India. The Indian diaspora has faced resentment, notably in the 1970s around the time the then-president, Idi Amin, expelled Asians from Uganda. But the government in Kenya has gone as far as recognising Asians as the country’s 44th official tribe. Vimal Shah, whose grandfather emigrated from India, started the Bidco Africa juice-to-cattle-feed empire with his father and brother about 35 years ago. He knows the best Indian food in Nairobi and volunteers at the Jain community centre, but has a Kenyan passport and sees himself as thoroughly Kenyan. “I’m not a desi [local] from India,” Mr Shah says.

A second reason India seems less threatening is that state-run firms are not the ones doing the investing. ONGC Videsh is one of the few sizeable government-owned businesses operating abroad. It has bought up assets from Mozambique to Colombia. But the company’s firepower does not compare to that of its peers in China. Sinopec, a state-owned oil company, first muscled into the Angolan oil industry in the mid-2000s. It gazumped ONGC to buy a stake in a block from Shell, an oil-and-gas giant. Jonathan Hillman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies points out that India has nothing comparable to China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, a global infrastructure-building scheme. “The Indian government hasn’t spent as much time presenting grand visions,” he says.

Most Indian investment abroad involves private-sector companies going elsewhere for strictly commercial reasons. After independence, industrialists looked beyond India’s borders to escape monopoly-busting regulation. India Inc’s first foreign venture was a textile mill set up by the Birla Group in Ethiopia in 1959. The conglomerate expanded across South East Asia, where economies were opening up. A second—bigger—rush of FDI came with liberalisation in the 1990s when India loosened capital controls. Indian businesses undertook 4,590 foreign projects last year, up from 395 in 2000, according to data crunched by Prema-chandra Athukorala of the Australian National University.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a staunch believer in anti-colonial solidarity and refused to use overseas businesses as a tool for foreign policy. Successive governments in New Delhi have followed this lead and offered limited support to Indian businesses’ efforts abroad. Diplomats mourn the fact that they can do little to help their compatriots beyond courting local governments and rolling out the red carpet for visiting industrialists. Gurjit Singh, a former ambassador to Germany, Ethiopia, Indonesia and elsewhere, sees government support in reducing the local cost of financing Indian investment as the solution. India provided $7bn in official medium- and long-term export credit in 2019, according to the Export-Import Bank of the United States, making it the world’s fourth-largest provider but still far behind China’s $33.5bn financing.

A wasted opportunity

Manu Chandaria, who was born in Kenya over 90 years ago to Gujarati parents and is now one of east Africa’s best-known industrialists, laments the fact that the government in New Delhi has not made the most of ethnic Indians abroad, using them as neither “a tool” nor “a resource.”

But the lack of government backing can be helpful to Indian companies. Bharti Airtel, which has controlled a large share of Africa’s telecoms market since its 2010 acquisition of Zain Africa, a Kuwaiti telecoms company, has obvious strategic power. Akhil Gupta, a high-up at the company, says Airtel would “without question” do anything an African government asked, including disconnecting their service. But he would not take orders from the Indian government on how to run Airtel’s overseas operations. “That is the beauty of democracy,” he says. The implication—that, unlike Chinese firms, Indian companies do not take orders from their home government—makes them less threatening.

The third reason India raises fewer hackles in emerging markets stems from the manner in which it goes about investing. In Africa, where worries about exploitative investment, especially Chinese, are common, Indian investors include families who have been doing business there for generations, multinational investors headquartered in India, and entrepreneurs who have arrived in recent years (disparagingly branded “Rockets” for their tendency to make their fortunes and head home).

They have a reputation for doing a better job than the Chinese at hiring and buying locally. There is some truth to that. In 2006 the World Bank surveyed almost 450 businesses in Africa. On average, Chinese firms employed almost a fifth of their workers from China and other East Asian countries, whereas Indian firms brought less than 10% of their workers from India. The Chinese businesses imported 60% of new machinery from China; their Indian peers bought just 22% from India. That trend continues today, says Harry Broadman, the economist who led the research.

That many of these Indian groups are family-run may explain sympathetic local attitudes. Executives worry about their founders’ reputation as well as that of India. Rudrarup Maitra, who looks after Tata Motors’ international commercial vehicles business, talks about the company’s contributions to development in its overseas markets, including its efforts to get ambulances to Sri Lanka and rubbish trucks to Nigeria. “There is definitely a responsibility we have to brand India,” he says.

Not all Indian-origin businesspeople excel as ambassadors for their country. Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most famous Indian migrants to South Africa. But the Gupta brothers are well-known too. The trio, who moved from Uttar Pradesh to South Africa in the 1990s, were at the centre of the corruption scandal that ended the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Elsewhere, Vedanta Resources is currently locked in a gnarly dispute with the Zambian government over its copper mines.

The arms-length relationship between New Delhi, India’s political capital, and Mumbai, its commercial centre, works well in good times. When India Inc messes up abroad, India looks bad. When the state’s relationship with another country gets complicated, investors find doing business there harder. “Does flag follow trade or does trade follow flag?” asks Tanvi Madan at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What you find is that they become intertwined.”

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Covid-19 is fuelling a Zoom-boom in cosmetic surgery

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CALL IT “Zoom face-envy”. Because of the rise of video-conferencing during the pandemic, legions now spend hours staring at their own faces and, inevitably, comparing them with those of others. Poor lighting and the skewed angles of laptop cameras are rarely flattering. Nor is “lockdown face”, brought on by stress, or a dearth of sunlight and exercise. For Kim, a 57-year-old actress in New York City, Zoom seemed to add ten pounds and a “crepey” look to her skin. After seeing “way too much” of that, she got a facelift last summer. She is delighted with the result. Similarly, Michèle Le Tournelle, a 62-year-old retiree near Nantes in France, the “horrible” confinement turned into “a revelation”: it spurred her to undergo a slimming procedure and a facelift with which she has been “very, very, very” pleased.

Many cosmetic surgeons had expected the pandemic to hammer business. Instead the industry is enjoying a Zoom-boom. The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reckons that the pandemic has led to a 10% increase in cosmetic surgery countrywide. In France, despite limits on elective procedures during the pandemic, cosmetic surgeries are up by nearly 20%, estimates the French Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. For Ashton Collins, the boss of Save Face, a firm in Cardiff that refers people seeking minimally invasive cosmetic treatments to the 852 (and counting) practitioners it has accredited across Britain, business is “through the roof”. In Italy, Pier Andrea Cicogna of Studio Cicogna, a plastic-surgery clinic in Treviso, says his revenue has risen by nearly a third despite more than three months of closure.

Every day can be Christmas

Apart from face-envy, other forces are at play. In the age of teleworking, patients can recover inconspicuously at home as bruises and swelling fade. It helps that professionals, the biggest clients for pricey cosmetic surgery, are more likely to work from home than many others. In normal times finagling time off work is a big hurdle (which is why Christmas breaks have traditionally been the high season for cosmetic surgery). Recuperation is made easier by the widespread use of face-masks, which neatly hide away the signs of surgery to the nose, chin, cheeks and jawline, as well as the “resurfacing” of facial skin and lip-plumping.

Money not spent on clothes, evenings out and travel has financed much of this. Gains in the stockmarket have also helped, says Alan Matarasso, whose clinic in New York is “being stretched” by requests for surgery. Intriguingly, Dr Matarasso, a former president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, thinks a more ethereal force is also at work: by casting light on “the fragility of life”, the pandemic is imbuing people with greater desire to squeeze more out of whatever time they have left.

Covid-19 has highlighted our helplessness, concurs Richie Chan, the head of cosmetic surgery at an OT&P Healthcare clinic in Hong Kong, which has enjoyed a roughly 15% rise in procedures; as a result people have become keener to exert control over their bodies through elective surgery. Pierfrancesco Cirillo, head of the Italian Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in Rome, points to previous increases around the world in minimally invasive procedures following the 9/11 attacks (about 6%) and the global financial crisis (10%). The pandemic, he says, has coincided with a record rise in cosmetic surgery of about 12% in Italy.

Surgeons marvel at another recent change: before the pandemic, one in ten of Studio Cicogna’s surgery patients were men. Now it’s one in five. Most operations are for eyelids, noses and “love handles” liposuction. For minimally invasive skin rejuvenation, the proportion of male clients has risen from roughly one in eight to nearly half. In Britain men now account for about 40% of skin rejuvenations, says Save Face.

Zoom gloom

By highlighting her defects when she made calls for her PR job, Zoom had become demoralising, recalls a 47-year-old single mum in Milan: “I felt uglier.” Being stuck at home without occasion to dress up didn’t help. “I really needed to do something to feel better,” she says. Eyelid surgery wiped “ten years off my face”, she reports; the operation was “psychologically therapeutic”.

Such satisfaction is common, but it is not universal. Some psychologists fear that the boom in beauty treatments is encouraging an obsessive-compulsive disorder sometimes called dysmorphia. Sufferers obsess over an imagined or exaggerated body flaw. This can be magnified by a morose mood and a lack of normal social interaction—not to mention more time spent comparing oneself to others. As a result, Dr Cirillo says, cosmetic surgeons must work harder to turn down those with a pathologically confused self-image.

A less acute but more common problem is that a growing share of those asking for surgery seek an unattainable appearance. Dr Cirillo worries about the emergence of a “sort of supermarket” for aesthetic surgery in which less-principled surgeons accept patients with unhealthy or unrealistic aspirations. As they cash in, surgeons would be wise to avoid would-be patients who show up with photos of an envied celebrity. Success is more likely with those who, less ambitiously, present pictures of their younger selves.

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Love them or hate them, virtual meetings are here to stay

GEORGINA IS IN no hurry to get back to the office. The 37-year-old, who works in financial services in Geneva, has been working from home for most of the past year. Doing so allowed her to skip her commute, wear tracksuit bottoms and avoid awkward conversations about her pregnancy. She is now on maternity leave but her colleagues are trickling back into the office. Meetings all still take place via Zoom; her colleagues dial in individually from their desks so those working from home do not feel excluded. But Georgina worries that, as restrictions ease, people will rush back to their pre-pandemic ways and that working from home will once again be the exception.

Videoconferencing platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom (now so ubiquitous it has become a verb), made remote work possible as covid-19 spread and countries locked down. Staff once needed permission to work from home; they now need it to go to the office. All kinds of work that once took place in person—from yoga classes to medical appointments—have moved online. The daily number of participants in Zoom meetings jumped from around 10m at most at the end of December 2019 to more than 300m four months later.

The shift has been good for the planet. Videoconferencing uses less than a tenth the energy required for in-person meetings once travel and equipment are accounted for. The benefits for people, in terms of their mental health and relationships with colleagues, are less clear. Some have come to enjoy interacting through screens. Others are exhausted by their colleagues’ inability to master the mute button. However people feel, virtual work is here to stay, says Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School. The trick, she argues, will be keeping the good parts and finding workarounds for the bad.

A year into the pandemic, many are suffering from Zoom fatigue. New research from Stanford University has laid out the science behind it. The first problem with video calls is that they force people to stare at their colleagues in close-up. Talk to someone on a laptop using the default configuration on Zoom and their face appears as big as it would be if the two of you were standing 50cm apart. At such proximity the brain is hard-wired to expect either a punch or a kiss. Endless eye contact makes the experience more stressful still. People rarely lock eyes for long during meetings in person. On video calls participants peer into their screens constantly and then wonder why they feel as though everyone is staring at them. Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and the study’s lead author, compares the experience to cramming co-workers into a lift and forbidding them to avert their gazes.

Poor connection

Videoconferencing also eliminates important non-verbal communication. People nod dramatically in an effort to send non-verbal cues that in face-to-face meetings they send naturally. That is tiring. In real life you can see your colleagues fidgeting as your presentation drags on. That is less obvious online. People speak 15% louder on video calls than they do in person, which becomes exhausting. Delays in transmission, common when internet connections are spotty, make communication harder still. A gap of just 1.2 seconds makes participants seem less attentive, friendly and conscientious.

Building trust without these social cues is difficult, says Paul Fisher. Mr Fisher, who teaches negotiation at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, has recently started a module on virtual communication. Every late response to an email and glance to the side on a video call breeds suspicion. Virtual negotiations are “more likely to reach an impasse”, Mr Fisher says, as negotiators struggle to understand each other’s emotions and grow frustrated.

The constant image of yourself on such calls is also trying. In June 2020 Gabrielle Pfund at Washington University surveyed women—narrowing her search by sex because women often report more issues around body image than men—and found respondents reported spending on average 40% of their time on video calls looking at their own face. Endlessly scrutinising your wrinkles and puffy eyes is not good for your self-esteem.

Virtual meetings have proved a mixed blessing for women in other ways. In one survey of women working in engineering and technology, almost a third of respondents said they were talked over, interrupted or ignored more frequently during such conferences than they were in person. But virtual meetings also free women from tiresome judgments. Bobbi, who is high up at a big consultancy, describes herself as “petite”. She does not miss being sized up in meetings. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, points out that deciding what to wear to a virtual meeting is less of a minefield. “You don’t have to worry about how long or short your skirt is,” she says.

The past year has also shown that, to the surprise of some bosses, many people labour harder when they barely have to get out of their pyjamas. According to a study of 3m employees at 21,500 companies published in September by Harvard Business School, they worked longer hours, dealt with more emails (see chart) and attended more meetings (a dubious measure of productivity) when the pandemic struck and work first shifted online.

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That will make it harder in future for managers to refuse when employees ask to work from home. “One of the big questions last March was: would people essentially watch Netflix all day?” says Jared Spataro, head of Modern Work at Microsoft. It seems they do not.

Virtual work does have advantages. On video calls everyone appears as an equally sized, randomly arranged square; that has a certain democracy. Markers of status, such as taking the seat at the head of the table or next to the boss, have disappeared. Time differences permitting, staff anywhere in the world can hear from their bosses directly in mass meetings and can collaborate with distant colleagues.

Some feel uncomfortable about blurring the boundaries between their home and work lives, but it is also helping co-workers get to know one another. One in five people has met colleagues’ pets or families virtually during the pandemic, according to a Microsoft survey. That breeds comradeship. One in six has cried with a co-worker as the stresses of lockdowns take their toll, according to the same poll. “Previously you had a work persona and a home persona,” says Krish Ramakrishnan of BlueJeans, a videoconferencing service owned by Verizon Communications, an American telecoms group. “During the pandemic there is just one persona.”

Take Sherry S. Wang, a radiologist in Utah. Before covid-19 one physician at a local hospital dropped by her room there to show her scans. Now that she works from home, he calls via Skype. She had never seen his office or the tchotchkes it is filled with. “I feel like I know him better now,” she says.

WFH SMH FML

Other aspects are less appealing. Morag Ofili, a lawyer in London, changed jobs last year. Virtual drinks with new colleagues sounded fun at first. But Ms Ofili soon found that socialising with strangers via video call feels awkward and lacks the “energy” of the pub. “Fundamentally, I’m in a room on my own,” she says.

For good or ill, a hybrid model of online and in-person meetings seems inevitable in the aftermath of the pandemic. A survey by PwC at the end of 2020 found that over 80% of employers reckon remote work has been a success. Some 70% of executives are planning to increase investment in virtual-collaboration tools. Almost 65% plan to plough money into training managers to deal with a virtual workforce.

The coming months will be devoted to working out how to avoid the worst aspects of telework. Harry Moseley, chief information officer at Zoom, takes his dog for a walk twice a day in lieu of a commute. He opts for audio-only calls when he is on the go or speaking briefly with colleagues he knows well. Non-stop videoconferencing over an eight-hour workday leaves users exhausted and bottom-sore.

After a year of working from home, over 40% of employees surveyed in 31 countries said they still lacked office essentials such as a printer. One in 10 did not have an adequate internet connection. Managers are using their imaginations to keep their staff engaged. Courtney Hohne is the communications chief of X, a secretive arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. She uses flashcards with a series of icebreakers to start frank, unstructured conversations. They range from “It was something you said,” to “You have no idea what’s really going on here.” If nothing else, staff can bond over the misery of such exercises.

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More sophisticated use of technology will improve the experience of virtual work. Many businesses forced online last year rushed into using videoconferencing for everything. But other tools work well for different tasks. At LeanIn.Org, a women’s organisation that encouraged remote work long before the pandemic, teams rely on shared Google Docs. That allows for “asynchronous work”, where colleagues work on a task together but in their own time. Meetings start with silent brainstorming using Jamboard, a virtual whiteboard. The goal, says Rachel Thomas, the group’s boss, is to communicate in different ways to include different people—slow and fast thinkers, verbal and visual learners, introverts and extroverts.

The makers of such products are trying to improve them, too. To lend structure to the “shapeless workday”, Microsoft Teams is introducing a “virtual commute” that eases users into the day with questions about what they need to get done. BlueJeans now allows people to highlight key moments in a video call and record them for others to watch later in an effort to combat the “FOMO” (fear of missing out) that rages among a remote workforce. With new filters, Zoomers can add a unicorn horn to lighten the mood. The company has also rolled out an end-to-end-encrypted option to allay privacy concerns.

Technology will help those who decide to carry on working from home to feel more included. The Zoom Rooms function for conference rooms is being upgraded with a “smart gallery” tool. Cameras will detect the faces of those physically present at meetings and display them side by side on the screens of those who join virtually.

Such a future may sound lonely and tiring. But those who worked remotely before the pandemic, such as Tara Van Bommel of Catalyst, a non-profit organisation, say things will be different. As Ms Van Bommel points out: “Normally, at the end of the day you go out and see your friends.” Working on Zoom should prove less tiring when the rest of life moves offline.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Virtual insanity”

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When brawn and technology ruin the spectacle of sports

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THE 13TH hole at Augusta National, named Azalea after the riotous pink blooms behind the green, is one of golf’s most celebrated par-fives. Its fairway turns sharply left after 275 yards, still 235 short of the flag. Most recreational players need three strokes to reach that azalea-fringed green—which is protected by a creek at the front and four bunkers at the back. Yet several competitors at this year’s Masters tournament, which starts at Augusta on April 8th, will expect to be on it in two.

Among them will be Bryson DeChambeau. Thanks to data analysis, more powerful clubs, more muscle and better technique, golf’s biggest hitters are driving the ball farther than ever, and the Californian farther than anyone. Last year Mr DeChambeau put on 40lb and a few yards. In September he won the US Open. And in November, at the Masters, bookmakers predicted he would triumph again, thanks to his ability to bomb the ball 350 yards or more and reach the greens on par-fives with just a drive and a short, lofted iron. On the final day, he holed out in a mere three shots on the 13th. (Alas, he hit some wild shots into the bushes, too, so he did not come close to winning the tournament. Another mighty hitter, Dustin Johnson, did.)

The defanging of golf’s most fearsome courses encapsulates a problem facing authorities in several sports. How should they respond when better technology, allied with improved physique and technique, lets players take a leap forward? Do they weigh them down again, or let them soar?

Thirty years ago, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) was facing a similar conundrum. Players were getting stronger and wielding more powerful rackets. Games were dominated by big serves and shorter, less entertaining rallies: “Just boom, boom, boom; bang, bang, bang,” shrugged Jimmy Connors, winner of eight Grand Slam tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Jeff Sackmann, a tennis analyst, the average length of a point in men’s singles finals at Wimbledon fell from just under three shots (ie, serve, return, winner) in 1981-85 to just above 1.5 (serve, returned half the time) by the end of the 1990s. On his way to the title in 2001 Goran Ivanisevic blasted 213 aces.

The ITF, with the organisers of the four Grand Slams, took action. Balls were made bigger and fluffier, so they travelled through the air more slowly. Courts were relaid with different materials to encourage bounce; at Wimbledon, different grass was sown. It worked: Mr Sackmann calculates that in 2011-15 the average point length at Wimbledon was up to more than four shots. Points got longer at the Australian and US Opens, too.

All the while, players have adapted, both to power and to changing conditions. Mark Kovacs, a tennis coach, says that having grown up facing big serves, the generation of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not only served well themselves but became better than their predecessors at returning the ball. And Mr Kovacs expects “a big increase in the next five years in the power and speed of tennis players’ shots” as the game makes fuller use of sports science. This could in turn prompt the authorities to act again if power becomes too dominant once more.
In athletics and swimming, technology poses governing bodies a different problem. Runners and swimmers battle not only their opponents and the elements, but also the clock. Great rivalries and fierce championship races are thrilling—but doubly so when records are broken.

Several studies have suggested that humans are approaching the physical limits of how fast they can run and swim. On the track and in the pool, the progression of world records has slowed dramatically. In the 1960s seven men lowered the record for the 400 metres by a combined 1.3 seconds. In the next 50 years it was broken only thrice more, by a total of 0.8 seconds. Several marks in women’s sprinting have stood for more than 30 years. In 2008 Mark Denny, a Stanford biologist, estimated the fastest possible times for a range of races. So far, all but one of his predictions have held up. Even the mighty Usain Bolt failed to break the Denny barrier, despite setting records for the men’s 100 and 200 metres (9.58 and 19.19 seconds, both at the world championships in Berlin in 2009).

But lately, technology—in the shape of the newest running shoes—has helped athletes start smashing world records again, at least at longer distances. At the same meeting in October 2020, runners wearing Nike shoes cropped four seconds from the best time for the women’s 5,000 metres, which had stood for 12 years, and six from for the men’s 10,000 metres record, after 15.
Unlike the tennis authorities in the boom-boom years, World Athletics has taken a broadly permissive view. It has updated its guidelines, but the new rules would still allow almost all of the record-breaking shoes to be worn at the Olympics due to take place in Tokyo this summer. “It is a very difficult line to tread,” says Gareth Balch of Two Circles, a sports marketing agency. “You want to balance being modern and relevant with being contextual and traditional. The shoes are right on the line.”

A blanket ban on next-generation shoes would open World Athletics to accusations of obstructing innovation. But if it does nothing, record times could become so quick that modern, tech-powered athletics becomes shorn from glorious achievements in the past. Swimming offers a cautionary tale. Its governing body, FINA, permitted drag-reducing all-in-one polyurethane suits before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Twenty-five world records were set, 23 of them by swimmers wearing all-in-ones. The suits became almost a requirement for winning a gold medal. FINA banned them the following year, but has been left with a group of records that subsequent swimmers have struggled to break. Instead, competition pools have been deepened and drainage improved to encourage faster times.

At Augusta golf’s rulemakers (the USGA in America and Mexico; the R&A elsewhere) will watch the tee shots with more than just the usual appreciative eye. In recent years they have become more concerned by the lengths that elite golfers are driving. One could make golf courses longer to accommodate big hitters, but that is expensive, since it typically requires more land. So this year the R&A and USGA published a report making the case for new regulations on clubs and balls. Outlawing new equipment would annoy its manufacturers—who spend a lot of money on sponsorships and advertising. And many players chafe at putative restrictions on their driving power.

Any changes would need to be phased in slowly, so whoever dons the winner’s green jacket at this year’s Masters will probably be a big hitter. But afterwards golf’s authorities are likely to look to the example of tennis, and tilt the balance of the sport back in favour of its most demanding holes and away from its power-hitting players.

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Almost one billion doses of covid-19 vaccines have been produced

FLIGHT EK 787 touched down in Accra at 7.39am on February 24th. It was carrying 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s covid-19 vaccine. The shots arrived in Ghana from the Serum Institute in Pune, India—the biggest vaccine-maker in the world. It was the first delivery of jabs made through COVAX, a vaccine-sharing initiative.

COVAX was established last year to promote the supply of vaccines to countries that might otherwise struggle to obtain them. Some 192 nations joined. Each was promised enough jabs to inoculate 20% of its people. But on March 24th India put a temporary halt on vaccine exports. Since it provides 86% of supplies for COVAX, this has thrown a spanner in the works.

It is in the world’s interest to suppress transmission everywhere at the same time. New variants may emerge wherever the virus is able to spread unchecked by vaccines. The founders of COVAX started planning early. They were determined not to repeat mistakes made in 2009 in dealing with H1N1—or swine flu, a pandemic for which vaccines were difficult to obtain globally. They worked quickly to bring so many countries on board. By the end of 2020, it looked as if the extraordinary scientific effort that had produced vaccines in record time would be followed by an unprecedented co-operation to vaccinate one-fifth of the world. And yet even as growing quantities and varieties of vaccine are coming online, COVAX is now struggling to deliver.

Richard Hatchett is the head of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a charity in Norway. Along with Seth Berkley, head of Gavi, a vaccine-finance agency, he began in January 2020 to think about how to distribute any successful vaccines around the world.

Mr Hatchett worked in the White House during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. That pandemic was far less serious than covid-19, but even then the issue of exporting vaccines was “incredibly fraught”, he says. Rich countries placed advance orders for vaccines, leaving poorer nations to depend on donations which were slow to arrive. He was determined to avoid the same thing happening with covid-19.

In early 2020 hundreds of covid-19 vaccine candidates were being concocted. “We had no idea whether any of these vaccines were going to work,” recalls Mr Berkley. Historically about 10% of vaccine candidates have proved successful. Experts feared that covid-19 vaccines might be particularly difficult to make. Rich countries made multiple upfront investments, guaranteeing their access to early doses.

The world needed a vaccine-buying club. The result was COVAX. It has secured at least 2bn doses, enough to protect health-care workers and the oldest and most vulnerable in all 192 of its members. Rich countries are paying for vaccines for poor ones. Before India’s export ban, COVAX had delivered 32m doses—mostly to low-income countries. So far the efforts to distribute vaccine in poor countries are looking more like the H1N1 forerunner than had been hoped. That picture should, however, change as the year goes on.

Rich nations representing just 14% of the world’s population had bought up 53% of the most promising vaccines, calculated Oxfam, a charity, in December. Nine out of ten people in poor countries, it added, would miss out in 2021. The EU has ordered 2.6bn doses for its 450m citizens. Too few have been delivered, so it has been considering banning the export of vaccines made in Europe. This will, its says, help it get its “fair” share.

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Rich countries are not the only ones holding on to doses. The decision of India, a poor country that is currently the world’s third-largest vaccine-maker, to halt exports is a particular blow to COVAX. The alliance relies on India for most of its supplies (see chart 1). Some 40m doses expected in March and up to 50m doses in April will be delayed, crippling the scheme’s modest ambition of distributing 350m doses in the first half of the year.

It is true that rich countries have vaccines in far greater supply than poor ones. But it is also true that rich and middle-income countries, with their older and fatter populations, have been much harder hit by covid-19 (see chart 2).

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Many poor countries are in Africa. The continent as a whole appears to have been less badly affected by covid-19, with a few big exceptions such as South Africa. This may be because of the relative youth of the continent’s population. Some worry that African cases and deaths are being dramatically undercounted. But Salim Abdool Karim, a South African epidemiologist, notes that the proportion of positive tests across the continent has been consistently below 10%. Colleagues across the continent are not reporting queues of patients with respiratory distress, says Dr Karim. None of this means that Africa should not get the vaccine it wants, but it may lessen the impact of the slow arrival of its vaccines.

In January Winnie Byanyima, the head of UNAIDS, the United Nations agency charged with dealing with the disease, said the world was witnessing “vaccine apartheid”. Yet at that time there was little enthusiasm among the mostly low- and middle-income countries of COVAX for the two vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, that were available at that point, says Mr Berkley. They are costly and hard to distribute, since they must be kept unusually cold.

Instead the vaccine of choice for members of COVAX was the cheap and easy-to-distribute jab from AstraZeneca. Because the world was slow to fund COVAX, rich countries ordered many millions of doses before the alliance was able to start buying. But COVAX was able to obtain supplies from the Serum Institute in India and a manufacturer in South Korea. COVAX countries were also keen on shots being developed by Novavax and Johnson & Johnson. Both were inexpensive and could be kept in normal refrigerators. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also looked as if it would require just one shot. These will arrive, but not until later this year.

One of the main problems for COVAX is that the AstraZeneca vaccine has taken longer to arrive than had been hoped. The World Health Organisation (WHO) did not grant emergency authorisation for its use globally until February 15th. Eight days later, the vaccine was being packed up in Pune for export to Ghana and Ivory Coast. And so it was that at the start of March the distribution of COVAX doses seemed at last to be under way.

Given COVAX’s limitations it has been galling to many experts to see rich countries snaffling doses of AstraZeneca from the Serum Institute—pushing COVAX supplies further down the queue. Britain has already taken 4.5m doses, and recently sent an envoy to India to try to secure another 5.5m. The EU is sniffing round, too.

Other countries are also far from blameless. Anxious to speed up their vaccine roll-out, various low- and middle-income countries have bypassed COVAX and obtained supplies directly from the institute or through the Indian government. According to Airfinity, an analytics company, Argentina, Brazil, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and South Africa have between them taken 12m doses. Canada has snagged 500,000, and the UAE 200,000. India is keen to donate shots for political gain.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, has said that Europe and America should donate 4-5% of their supplies to developing countries. The Biden administration rejected this idea and opted to send money to COVAX instead. Meanwhile, America has millions of doses of AstraZeneca sitting unused. The national medicines regulator has not yet approved its use, but America has not donated its stockpile, either. When countries have shared any spare doses their donations seem to have been driven by politics and economics, rather than necessity or fairness. On March 18th America said it would loan 4m doses to Mexico and Canada, its closest neighbours.

Judging COVAX’s success has become difficult because the goalposts have shifted since last year. More vaccines are available for distribution than had been expected. That has helped, but the high efficacy of the new vaccines means that many countries are now keen to offer vaccines to most of their citizens—rather than just the most vulnerable ones. Indeed, with highly effective vaccines, something close to herd immunity might be possible.

I am not givin’ away my shot

The prospect of some countries deciding to give additional shots is further complicating attempts to work out how much vaccine is available to share. Last week Britain said that, from September, those aged over 70, health workers, and the clinically very vulnerable could get booster shots to protect against variants. Producing new variant vaccines will diminish the capacity to produce vaccines against the original strain. There is also talk of vaccinating children as well—when trials are completed. If rich countries decide to vaccinate children, this would further eat into what is available to suppress the virus globally.

COVAX has shown that a new medicine can be launched in rich and poor countries at about the same time, and that the supply of new medicines can be driven by pooling demand from the many small countries that are usually last in line for them. New deals mean COVAX may be able to supply its members with 27% of their doses this year. But without more support it will be unable to meet its most basic aim: to supply them with the first 3% of their jabs—enough to jab every health-care worker in the world.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, wants all countries to start this task by April 10th, the 100th day of this year—and, as it so happens, the day by which the world is expected to have produced 1bn doses of vaccines, according to Airfinity. Inoculating only health-care workers will require only a small portion of the vaccines that the world is creating. Yet the year is rolling on and that task has barely begun. The world, warns Dr Tedros, is on the brink of “moral failure”.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Spreading the needle”