It irritates the living hell out of me when politicians (or anyone for that matter) uses the “I have been there” line. You know, that line when a country comes up in a conversation and they say “I have been there”. I was listening Bill Maher (yeah, yeah) on my iPod when some or other politician was using this argument that things are soooo much better in Iraq. You know – he’s “been there”. Like he knows something we don’t know. Sorry buddy. You haven’t been there. Going on an escorted trip to some holiday camp isn’t “been there”. It’s just a package deal holiday trip. It’s buying that Disney trip off the travel agent. Not planning your own trip to Florida. Disney isn’t Florida. You haven’t been to Florida just because you have been to Disney World. Mickey Mouse isn’t Governor Charlie Crist – and Goofy isn’t Jeb Bush either. They just act like them. I know – it’s a shocker. But that’s the truth.

Dick Cheney has been to Iraq. Hillary has been all over the place. All escorted trips. Talking to people and seeing people that other people controlled. Not a moment of meeting the people in the streets. No. They met the people those in power wanted them to meet. Those “good little soldiers”. Those on the side of the winners or warlords or occupiers – not those who suffer in their homes without water or electricity or food or jobs. Or walls for that matter. Those have been bombed as well. So what you have are just very big windows as the Republicans would like you to believe. You see what they want you to see. And not what you should see. You don’t see the families caring for the wounded ones or crying for the lost ones.

It brings me to McCain. (No, I am still not writing about the election – just the topic of “I have been there”). McCain went to Iraq last week. Made a few “misspokes” by confusing a few issues. Wouldn’t you with Lieberman standing next to you? You just don’t know which way Lieberman might go – Independent today, Republican tomorrow, Democrat yesterday. Anyway – I digress. Again. So McCain went to the marketplace. Bought a few goods there I hope. You know. A bucket of water (just a few minor shrapnel holes in it). Some oil (imported from Saudi Arabia because you can’t find Iraqi oil). An AK47 (seen some action). But no food and no freedom fries. But why didn’t he go to the market he went to the last time? Because it wasn’t safe. Not even with those Blackwater guards, marines, armoured vehicles and helicopters. He hasn’t “been there”. He could only say “I haven’t been there”.

They don’t know those places. They don’t live in those places. They fly in and they fly out. Just so they can say “I have been there”. Just so they can spin it in a way that you like it – with a bit of cream on top thank you. It makes it soooo much easier to swallow. It’s just the way I used to feed my dog his medicine – hide it in a piece of ham. But even my dog got it in the end. He started spitting out the pills (but still ate the ham). Americans aren’t stupid. No. Let me rephrase that. Americans aren’t dumb for long. You start smelling something rotten and starts spitting out the pill of stupidity. And the approval rating of those “who have been there” starts dropping faster than the bombs in Iraq. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time…

“I have been there”. I should be a politician really. No – I should be the ruler of the world by now. Hear me people of the world – your leader is here. The wait is over. Get the roses and the wine ready, because here I come. The people of Cameroon – I am your main-man. I have been there once. For almost a day. A stopover on my flight to Bamako, Mali. Actually, I have been there twice – on my return flight as well. I am the most knowledgeable foreign policy person I know. Why? Because “I have been there”. Zambia – vote me in. I spend time in Lusaka – many times. “I have been there”. I’ve eaten your nsima and drank your Mosi. Ivory Coast – your saviour and warlord is here. “I have been there”. Twice. Stuck at the airport.  Hungary – anoint me in the Danube. “I have been there”. For 3 long days in a luxury hotel that included a massage from a big hairy Hungarian – male. Mexico – ola, make me your main revolutionary piñata. “I have been there”. Mexico City, Chihuahua, Monterrey and many Tequila’s. France – c‘est la vie, your monsieur of la resistance has arrived. “I have been there”. Four long days in Paris – baguettes, wine, cheese, insults and all. Germany – your über prince of the united country is here. “I have been there”. In Trier to shop for toys, in Berlin to do nothing really, and in Nuremberg for a job interview. “I have been there”. I have been everywhere. Almost. Never mind South Africa where I was born and raised. Or the UK where I spend four long years watching footie, drinking pints and eating crap “fish and chips” like a real Englishman. Or the US where I have lived for the last 18 months shouting for the Red Sox and hating the Yankees like all good Americans should. Yes, I have been there. But I know nothing. Because I don’t live their lives. I am just a guy from South Africa. An Umlungu who knows too little and says too much.

Really, if “I have been there” qualifies you as a foreign policy expert then every pilot on the Delta international route is Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And sorry my friend, you ain’t from Egypt or his world. I sometimes even doubt if you are even from this world. Even if you “have been there”. You still haven’t “been there” or “got it”.

So. Stop it please. Stop trying to sound all travelled and wise because you “have been there”. You haven’t. You haven’t even “been there” when it comes to the US. You can’t use a daft and brainless line just to justify and spin your stupid, warped and pathetic policies. It isn’t an answer. It isn’t an analysis. It isn’t even SNL or Real Time. It’s just you being stupid. Like my dog was in the beginning. But even he got over it. He roams and knows his territory. He even marks it by lifting his leg on everything. Instead of telling me “I have been there”, tell me how you are going to “be here”. Just don’t leave a mark like my dog. Just don’t take the piss.

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I won’t comment on whether I believe in unions or not. That’s for another time and another debate. And I think my time in the unions might affect my opinion. But I do have a concern about the impact that attitudes towards unions can have on a business – especially a global business.

I don’t know how often I hear US companies say that they don’t need or like trade unions. That it is their business and they will make the decisions. Or that they like to develop a personal relationship that is more like a family. That people working for the company are not workers, but rather partners or associates. ‘Unions are not for us thanks. We look after our workers and believe in the personal relationship between us and our partners’ – standard responses by businesses in the US. And these are good businesses. Not sweatshops or the companies you would put on your black list. No, these are companies I, and most people, admire and like most of the time. Companies we don’t mind supporting or work for. Companies we hold up as leaders in the field of development, environment, stakeholder engagement and everything else you want to throw in the hat. Companies that inspire us. And I just don’t get it.

Yes, unions in the US might not be the friendliest of the bunch – and they have their own reasons. But the world is different the minute you step outside these borders. You might have strong feelings about unions and their role in the US. But they are viewed differently outside these borders.

You run the risk of killing your business if you believe that Europe is a key market and you still believe that trade unions have no role to play in your business. Go to Germany and France and people love their unions. People are proud of being a member and unions have huge influence on communities and politicians. Hey, they even participate on the board in many companies.

In most Scandinavian countries unions are part of official political alliances on national and local levels. They help decide what money goes to what programs and they support union movements all over the globe. The local political leader will most likely be a union leader as well. In these countries unions are seen as key to development and foreign policy. Remember, we are talking about social democracies here.

And political alliances between governments and unions are also common in places like South Africa. Here the largest trade union federation COSATU is also an official ally of the ruling ANC government. In fact, they played a key role in electing Zuma as the new ANC leader over current President Mbeki. They didn’t like Mbeki’s economic policies and selected someone they felt they could control a bit more. And union members are part of the official Ministerial WTO team of negotiators. They are embedded in the government. And South Africa has unionization rates way above 80% just to make things a bit more difficult in case you decide you don’t like them.

Also, why would you want to tell your suppliers that their workers should have freedom of association in places like India, China and Mexico when you don’t want that back home? Yes, unions are mostly limited or controlled (and sometimes hunted) in some of those places, but the principle of freedom of association should be consistent for both you and your suppliers. Your suppliers won’t feel that committed if you don’t walk the talk.

And to make things even more difficult they use a a different language when you leave these borders. It’s not brother and sister anymore – it is comrade. Again – no comment from me whether this is right or wrong – you just have to live with it. And learn to celebrate 1 May as Workers’ Day – a global celebration of workers and their rights, just not in the US.

So, if you decide that you don’t want unions in some of your overseas offices you might just as well close your shop and walk away from the global market. You have to think and act like a global player if you want to play oas a global player. Love them or hate them, but you can’t operate efficiently in these countries without them. Remember that, and you might become trusted and build a loyal workforce – become the ‘comrade boss from the big office’.

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Democracy. Ah, good old democracy. It’s been the hot new ideological toy that almost every country wants for their birthday for the last few years, if not centuries. But what is it? What makes a democracy a democracy? I always thought I knew what it meant. But then I was reminded that democracy is in the eye of the beholder. You see, Gen Moeen U Ahmed said that Bangladesh needs its own brand of democracy. So what type do they want? And when is a democracy a democracy? I don’t know – it’s all a bit confusing.

My problem really started in South Africa where I was born. The government of the day (or regime of the day would be closer to the truth) told us we lived in a democracy. Can’t you see? People are allowed to vote for who they want in their government. But that was the snag – “their government”. People had to be classified according to their race and only those of similar race could vote for “their government”. Democracy was too good to share with everyone. But we got to know that this type of democracy wasn’t really all they claimed it to be. It wasn’t what it said on the box. And we threw our toys and got ourselves a new one. We called our new version the one-person-one-vote democracy. Where every persons vote counted as one no matter what the color of your skin, sexual preferences, type of dog you liked etc – and the person and party who got the most votes won! It was revolutionary. I mean really. It was the toy that fitted all our needs and we all wanted to play – a bit like the Wii compared to a game of cards (or a house of cards I guess).

I got a pretty good handle at democracy back then. I liked it. And then the US had their election in 2000. And the guy with the least votes won. What the hell? What version is that? Version 1.1? It felt a bit like someone trying to sell me GI Joe that was so 80’s. Just a shame the guy who ‘won’ was not a real GI. Just a doll dressed up. But they talk tough – just pull the corporate string at the back and listen to him sing. Anyway, I digress. Democracy was obviously not about who won the popular vote. It was about the “will of the people”. And some people just counted for a little bit more than others.

Oh yes, that was another snag in the democracy package you should read. Some votes count for more. Why? Because those living in “go-knows-where-or-why-ville” feels that it would be wrong if those city slickers meant as much to the country as them. Nope. Those out in the sticks wanted a little more for themselves. No plain old Barbie for them. No, they wanted Fairytopia Barbie. With wings and all. So some votes still count more than others. But I knew that at least I had one thing that made sense – people who vote in a democracy are citizens from that country voting for who they want. Right?

And then I went to the UK for a few years. But I remained Proudly South African. And election time came and they started asking me who I was going to vote for! What the…? Yes, I could vote in the UK even though I was not a UK citizen – only a legal resident. They argued that I pay taxes and should therefore have a right to vote. I wasn’t going to argue and went to vote. But I that was odd though. Because I was a South African voting in the UK, but I couldn’t vote in the South African election. Because you have to be in the country to vote in South Africa (makes sense with our limited budget you see). Now I got it though. A democracy is where X marks the spot*. (This spot can mean different things though depending on where you live. Please read the small print). Democracy with strings attached, but at least I knew you put a X next to the person you like to vote for

And then the bloody Swiss allowed me to visit them without a visa. I couldn’t vote – I was really only on a short trip there. But what did I find? People voting by putting up their hand! Yes, just standing around on the village square and voting by hand. And I thought the Swiss were so far ahead of us with their clocks and cheeses. So no X needed.

Moved to the USA and they gave me another more detailed version. First you have primaries – not linked to primates, but they act almost like a bunch of primates with the throwing of poo and constant scratching. Okay, I lie about the scratching. I don’t get it. Primaries and caucuses. But I guess it works out somehow. Still odd though. You can win the popular vote and then still lose the primate race. Don’t get it, but I have sensory overload when trying to get my head around it. It’s a bit like a box of monkeys – too many of them, but you know they all link somehow. Oh, and I couldn’t vote in the US even though I live there and pay taxes. Not complaining. But it makes keeping track of who I support a bit more difficult.

Every place have their own system. In Nigeria you need to win most of the states and not only the popular vote – just too make sure a person from one group or religion does not make promises to one group only. In Cuba they have the Ford version of democracy – you can vote for anyone you like as long as it is for the only guy nominated by Fidel. And in Zimbabwe you can vote for anyone as long as his name is Bob and his surname is Mugabe.

So, General Moeen, be careful when you pick your democracy. Read the back of the pack carefully to make sure which version you have. Your operating system might not support this game – and you will need an upgrade to Democracy 2.0. Democracy is like a Transformer toy. It can be anything you want it to be. It’s still much better than not having a toy at all.

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