Monday, March 27, 2006

Cheapskates and ‘bookalikes’

When I came to Roskilde University, I had only a vague idea of how to procure the titles on the lengthy reading list. There were at least 20 novels and textbooks to be discussed over the term, and a supplemental list of twice that number.

The photocopy machine is a fixture at every Philippine university. Each building is accessorized by a couple of these animals at every floor and wing, cranking out stinking facsimiles that manage to survive long enough to one’s final exams before degenerating to a pale gray pulp. Entire businesses are built around the copy machines, and at UP-Diliman a row of shops proudly advertise high-quality, back-to-back copies of expensive titles, carefully bound, the titles stamped in gold leaf. Some enterprising fellow has dubbed them “bookalikes.”

But Denmark is dead serious about international copyright law. Like other affluent countries its universities don’t ban photocopying per se, but discourage the practice by making the cost prohibitive and the quality shoddy. The only sure way to read everything on your list—especially if you’re a quiet foreigner who finds it tough to make friends—is to buy everything on your list.

To find the price of an English title, brand new, covert the cover price to Danish crowns and then add 25 percent VAT. Even my Danish classmates complain—and their tuition is free, with a student’s allowance to boot. At the RUC bookshop, I came upon a young woman in my British Studies class grimly considering the Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2. This is a tome so massive that, even in paperback, a well-aimed copy could kill a cat. Volume 2 cost 500 Danish crowns (a little over P4,000). “It’s just money to be burned,” she sighed. The other books on our list, not to mention the compendia for each subject, cost between a 150 and 300 crowns.

I suppose most people in Northern Europe are leery about investing in a brand-new book because much of the time they don’t have to. Each municipality in Denmark must have at least one library, and these are beautiful affairs, with reading rooms, online search systems, music and video collections, and free membership. Additionally, each library is linked to a central database and one can order a book from any part of the country and have it delivered by post, free of charge. Oh yes, majority of these wonderfully accessible titles are in Danish, and I doubted very much if a search would yield any of the small-print-run Caribbean and African authors on my list. There’s a charity shop in many a neighborhood, and no shortage of books there, either, but again only a handful of those are in English, and tend toward bodice-rippers and such.

I obtained as many titles as possible in Manila and carried them all on the plane. It was worth it. Filipinos like to complain about the high cost of books, as an excuse to avoid reading. We don’t realize we’re getting them at a discount already. At National Bookstore there is perennially a disparity between the cover price and the tag price, the latter being lower. Since these titles arrive in Manila many months after their first appearance abroad, local stores must be operating on some sort of deal whereby they sell old books at a discount to a less-affluent market. Like apparel, books have to be gotten rid of eventually, else the costs of storage would soon outstrip their value. Fortunately the majority never go out of style.

Most of the others I bought online, from Amazon.com, a harrowing experience for this first-time Internet user with a well-founded distrust of the postal system. I didn’t purchase a single bookalike this term. I hear some people have discovered the digital-age counterpart, though, photographing 400-page volumes from cover to cover and consigning whole libraries to their hard drives. Some folks are just anal.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Pulling the blinds on awareness work

In Copenhagen recently, the Danish Association for International Cooperation held a farewell party. The nongovernmental organization, known by its Danish-language acronym MS, had been forced, by a budget cut, to fire 30 staff members. Song sheets were distributed, someone having cleverly replaced the lyrics of well-known numbers, as is the practice at birthdays and anniversaries here; and accompanied by a piano, the guests, most of whom had worked together for decades, sang nostalgically and triumphantly of the projects they had accomplished together. Speeches were made, and one of these ended in a rather bitter challenge to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister.

MS was founded in 1944 by individuals and organizations that had anticipated both the close of World War II and the amount of reconstruction that was to follow. Accordingly it sent out young people on a volunteer basis to work camps around Europe, which also provided an opportunity for these youths to travel and socialize. Its efforts were initially concentrated in Europe, but as the 1950s drew to a close and many former colonies around the world began to declare their independence, the NGO decided to participate in development work in these places. Eventually it began to send out volunteers, which sounds a lot like the American Peace Corps, but in the Danes’ case they have finished an education and have at least a couple of years experience in their field of expertise. Also they did not initiate projects of their own but sent out people to augment the staff of already existing projects in the countries being aided. Through the decades, MS was funded by private contributions and by an outlay from the Danish foreign ministry.

The NGO came to have four distinct departments. One for the volunteers, one for youth work camps, a third concerned with immigration and refugee issues. A fourth department was devoted to information—because of the nature of its functions, MS had become the most important supplier in Denmark of information regarding the developing countries. In practice, 1 percent of the budget for development aid was allocated for this kind of awareness work and available for any interested entity.

In August last year, following general reductions in the budget for NGOs working in developing countries, the Danish foreign ministry decided to cut that one percent substantially. MS was the immediate victim of this action: it was obvious that its library would have to close, as would its publishing arm, and staff would have to be laid off. This put an end to an important means by which Danish citizens could gain familiarity with living conditions in developing countries. MS, on its website, made an editorial comment to the effect that this would make Danes “more ignorant.”

“The government talks a lot about globalization and the challenges Denmark is facing—challenges that require insight and engagement in complex international questions. But now the same politicians intend to take away Danish citizens means of understanding the living conditions in poor countries,” the MS secretary-general said in an interview last year.

Interestingly, this country guarantees the freedom to form associations without the encumbrance of registering with some government authority. Thus the proliferation of groups founded on ethnic identity, such as Babaylan, composed of Filipino women. But this freedom was curtailed to some extent recently—a news item on the radio informed us that the government had just been cosignatory of an international agreement requiring the registration of organizations in future, the stated purpose being the prevention of terrorist activities, regardless of ideology. This move is the latest in a series of actions since 9-11 that threaten individual freedoms.