2020 was a watershed year for European Union
2020 was a watershed year for European Union

In 2021, global cooperation ought to make a strong comeback, and the EU should continue to pursue “strategic autonomy” so that it can safeguard its citizens and interests in the years and decades ahead.

It is a truism that 2020 marked a watershed. In fact, the world has been undergoing several tectonic shifts for years now, including but not limited to growing public distrust, polarization and identity politics, tepid economic growth, rising debts, and deepening inequality. We have witnessed the weaponization of interdependence. Trade, technology, investment, tourism, and other former venues of deepening cooperation have become instruments of power and domains of intense competition.

This was the big picture that we in the EU leadership saw when we took office in December 2019, just before conditions became even more challenging. For Europeans, it looked as though everything we held dear was being contested, be it multilateral cooperation; solidarity between countries, generations, and individuals; or even basic respect for facts and science. In addition to several crises brewing in the EU’s neighbourhood and the escalation of Sino-American tensions, we were hit suddenly by covid-19, which has compounded all the other longer-term challenges Europe faces.

There is no denying that the EU struggled during the early days of the pandemic. We were ill-prepared, and many member states were initially inclined to let everyone fend for themselves.

But genuine acts of solidarity soon followed, with many countries taking patients from, and sending emergency equipment to, those most in need. Then the EU-level measures kicked in. The European Central Bank provided massive liquidity, and the European Commission authorized member states to incur large deficits to support their economies.

The discussion quickly turned to how the EU could provide fiscal support to the hardest-hit countries, and these debates culminated in a historic “recovery fund.” An unprecedented €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) was allocated for a new “Next Generation EU” instrument and the bloc’s next seven-year budget. Moreover, two longstanding economic-policy shibboleths were shattered.

For the first time, European Union leaders agreed to issue large-scale common debt and allow for fiscal transfers, provided that spending is aligned with the twin priorities of funding a green transition and securing Europe’s digital future.

On the international front, the EU’s position has been clear: a “pandemic world” needs multilateral solutions. We have lived by this motto even when others were going it alone. Our May 2020 (virtual) pledging conference to raise funds for vaccine research was a perfect demonstration of the EU’s unique strengths. While the US and China were proverbially at each other’s throats, Europe stepped up to lead on this critical issue. Moreover, we did so in a quintessentially European way (call it “Multilateralism 2.0″), working with not only governments, but also foundations and the private sector.

Since the summer, Europe has suffered a second wave of infections and struggled with renewed lockdowns. Although we have far more knowledge about covid-19 and how to treat it, “pandemic fatigue” is widespread. Worse, the initial economic rebound appears to be fading, indicating that the crisis will continue to dominate our lives for months—and perhaps years—to come. As such, we must keep mobilizing across all of the relevant domains, from public health and the economy to security and global governance.

Revitalizing multilateralism thus will be a top priority for the EU in 2021. Obviously, we cannot achieve this alone. But we anticipate that we will have more partners in the year ahead than we did in 2020. With Joe Biden succeeding Donald Trump as president, the US is expected to rejoin to the Paris climate agreement, restore its support for the World Health Organization, return to the Iran nuclear deal, and adopt a more constructive stance within the World Trade Organization.

America’s return to the global stage will serve as a much-needed shot in the arm for multilateralism. We hope that others, including China and Russia, will follow suit in reversing their selective and self-serving approach to multilateral cooperation in the UN and elsewhere.

To be sure, pleas for “rules-based cooperation” often sound less inspiring than bombastic appeals to “take back control.” We must ensure that multilateralism delivers tangible results for citizens. No one will be safe until we have a reliable vaccine, so the paramount questions on vaccination are who will get what, when, and how. There is a serious risk of “vaccine nationalism” or “vaccine diplomacy,” with rich and powerful countries forcing themselves to the front of the line. In early 2020, some countries used “mask diplomacy” to extract political concessions in exchange for critically needed personal protective equipment.

The EU will insist on the opposite approach: vaccines must be treated as a global public good and distributed based on medical needs.

The second big multilateral priority for 2021 is climate change, another area where the EU has shown leadership. Having already set a 2050 carbon-neutrality target, we are close to an agreement on a binding commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030. Moreover, these efforts seem to have inspired others: China has signalled its intention to become carbon neutral by 2060, and Japan and South Korea have said they will do so by 2050. We now need the US, India, Russia, Brazil, and other big emitters to get on board.

Climate change is the existential challenge of our time. As with covid-19, the warning signs are visible for all to see, and there is a solid scientific consensus about what to do. The difference, of course, is that there will never be a vaccine for climate change. So, we must bend the curve of GHG emissions as fast as possible.

Finally, at the same time that we pursue multilateralism, we must build a capacity to act autonomously when necessary. As I argued a year ago, Europeans must confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. The EU must “learn to speak the language of power.”

The pandemic has underscored the need for European strategic autonomy, a concept that originated in defence circles, but that now extends to public health and many other domains.

We have learned the hard way that there are costs to depending on just a few suppliers of critical goods – especially when the supplier is a country whose value system is fundamentally at odds with our own. The solution to this problem is diversification and, when necessary, shorter supply chains.

This is not just about market failures in medical supplies. Strategic autonomy is about how Europe can address vulnerabilities across a wide range of areas—from critical technologies and infrastructure (such as digital networks and cloud computing) to rare earths and the raw materials needed for the green transition. We must avoid excessive dependence on external suppliers in these strategic sectors. The point is not to embrace autarky or protectionism, but to safeguard our political independence so that we remain masters of our own choices and future.

Some elements of this strategy were put in place in 2020. Europe now has a mechanism to screen foreign investments, and we have begun to address the distorting effects of foreign subsidies. We are also boosting the international role of the euro, and preparing additional measures on issues such as government procurement.

As matters stand, the EU procurement market is almost totally open, while that of some others remains almost completely closed. We must either ensure reciprocity or take steps to restore balance.

Strategic autonomy also applies to cyber issues. How can Europe manage data? We must avoid the dichotomy whereby data belongs either to Big Tech platforms (with little government oversight) or to the state (including its link to the security apparatus). The EU’s last major tech legislation was the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, and much has already changed since then.

These are just some of the many challenges the EU will have to navigate in 2021. It will be rough sailing, but we will emerge stronger if we stay focused on two complementary priorities: revitalizing multilateralism and building up strategic autonomy. ©2020/Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

Josep Borrell is the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and a vice president of the European Commission

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European Council approves provisional application of trade deal with UK
European Council approves provisional application of trade deal with UK
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The European Council adopted on Tuesday the decision on the signing of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and its provisional application as of January 1, 2021, according to a press release from the Council.

The agreement will now be signed by the two parties on Wednesday. European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will sign in Brussels on behalf of the European Union (EU) while Prime Minister Boris Johnson will sign in London on behalf of the United Kingdom, the release added.

“Next #BrexitDeal hurdle cleared: EU member states have given the final green light by written procedure to the provisional application of the EU-UK Trade & Cooperation Agreement as of January 1, 2021,” Sebastian Fischer, spokesperson for the German Presidency of the EU Council, tweeted.

Next year, the Council will adopt the decision on the conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, once the European Parliament has given its consent and once all procedures necessary for the entry into force have been completed, according to the release.

The fast-track procedures were adopted in the EU as the post-Brexit agreement was only reached one week before the transitional period expires at the end of 2020.

The EU and the UK announced last Thursday the reaching of an agreement that will govern bilateral trade and security relationship starting from Jan. 1, 2021.

The deal will need the approval of the European Parliament, the British Parliament and the EU’s 27 member states.

The UK is the EU’s third largest trading partner in goods, after the United States and China.

Source: GNA

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Buddhist Times News – Buddhist Eco-monks and Tree Ordination
Buddhist Times News – Buddhist Eco-monks and Tree Ordination

In recent years we have seen the continuous, unrelenting abuse of the world’s resources. Forests and trees, which are critical to ecosystems and planetary biodiversity, are under acute stress. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born from Maya’s side under a tree. He achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and delivered his first sermon and entered parinirvana under the shelter of trees. For religious and scientific reasons, the health of forest ecosystems is critical to the Buddhist idea of collective, planetary well-being.

Deforestation is a major threat in many majority Buddhist countries, including Thailand and Cambodia. Decades of illegal logging has had an adverse effect on local economies, food security, and biodiversity. However, a group of Buddhist monks and activists in Thailand and Cambodia are working together to protect threatened forests, integrating Buddhist principles with environmental awareness, providing consultation to government officials about environmental issues, and implementing sustainability projects. They are also involved in tree ordination, which over the past few years has gained media attention around the world for its innovative and inspiring message about the sanctity of the natural world.

In their campaigns, the eco-monks highlight how the selfish and short-sighted desire for economic gain and accelerated development have led to the exploitation of resources. They see it as their duty to bring traditional religious concepts and rituals to bear on contemporary ecological needs.

For years, the monks have made a substantial difference by cooperating with local NGOs to formulate sustainable development plans, developing education programs to encourage alternative farming methods that place a lighter burden on the land, and providing farmers with the knowledge, tools, and financial support to improve villagers’ economic circumstances.

Prominent eco-monk Phrakhu Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsuri has established a traditional farming school at his temple in the eastern Thai province of Chonburi: the Maab-Euang Meditation Center for Sufficiency Economy. With many full-time students, Phra Sangkom teaches the Buddhist concepts of personal reflection and a theory called the Sufficiency Economy, which was developed by the late Thai monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej to promote subsistence farming, encourage self-sufficiency, and teach detachment from materialism and consumerism.

In Bangkok, another eco-monk, Phrakhu Win Mektripop, who holds a master’s degree in environmental economics from Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, has taught for years on the interrelationship between Buddhism and environmentalism. Many Thai universities and NGOs have followed in the stead of these monks by promoting environmental values founded on the Buddhist teaching to farmers and residents. The Bangkok-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) is one such organization working to connect Buddhist and non-Buddhist social and environmental activists across Asia and the world.

Thai monks are also teaching their Cambodian counterparts to protect forests. For example, Cambodian monk Ven. Bun Saluth, head of Samrong Pagoda in Oddar Meanchey Province, is a pioneer in protecting forests in Cambodia. Ven. Bun Saluth grew up in a rural village, the son of a farmer, but left home at an early age to become a monk. He spent five years studying in Thailand, where he lived with a group of eco-monks, returning home in February 2002 with a vision to protect his country’s forests. He has since succeeded in preserving 18,261 hectares of forest land in Oddar Meanchey. For his work, Ven. Bun Saluth was awarded the Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Programme in 2010.

According to a World Bank report, 73 per cent of Cambodia was covered by forest in 1990, but by 2010 that had fallen to 57 per cent. The monks fighting to preserve Cambodia’s forests have worked mainly through two large groups: the Monks Community Forest (MCF) and the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ). Both groups are battling to save forests by demanding stronger government action against deforestation and lobbying lawmakers for greater protection of trees.

The IMNSJ has more than 5,000 monastic followers who teach local people how to use social media to raise awareness about illegal logging by uploading photos and videos and publishing articles. The monks also teach local residents what they can do to prevent deforestation. IMNSJ founder and leader Vene. Buntenh is a passionate advocate of preventing deforestation. Among his concerns are the threats against Prey Lang, one of Cambodia’s largest and oldest evergreen woodlands, comprised of 3,600 square kilometres of forest, including giant luxury timber trees, and home to at least 20 endangered plant species and 27 endangered animal species. Large sections of Prey Lang have already disappeared to make space for plantations, and illegal loggers have removed large patches of trees in protected areas.

The environmental and conservation activities of monks in Thailand and Cambodia also extend to performing tree ordination ceremonies. Tree ordination, adopted from traditional Buddhist practices, is popular in many Buddhist-majority countries. Trees are given “monastic ordination” and wrapped in the iconic saffron cloth worn by Theravada monks, thereby making them sacred and protecting the trees from damage, destruction, and deforestation.

Although the practice of tree ordination did not exist in the Buddha’s time, it is clear that the dedicated teams of monks aspire to create a “pure land” in the human realm. This engaged aspiration has led to the organic development of tree ordination tradition. A monastic robe wrapped around a tree symbolizes the aspiration to not only reduce deforestation, but also to establish a wildlife reserve in the area.

However, monks and activists in Thailand and Cambodia have also come under fire for their activities. Ven. Buntenh was charged with fraud alongside two other civic leaders in January 2018, prompting him to live in exile in the US. In the same year, the supreme patriarch of Cambodia’s monastic sangha turned against the activists, saying that monks should not be involved in protests and calling on pagodas to close their doors to those who are.

At a more everyday level, eco-monks continue to receive criticism about their methodology. Some say that the prominence of monks in worldly or political affairs will lead younger generations of monks to put less emphasis on their monastic lives and practice. It has been a tradition for the Thai monastic sangha to remain conservative on social issues, with monks rarely commenting on topics with political implications. Thai conservatives firmly believe that the role of the monastic sangha should be restricted to the spiritual realm. Less ideological and more pragmatic detractors worry about a hostile relationship developing between monks and the government as a result of repeated clashes. The role of Buddhism in Thai communities as a whole has also been challenged, owing to increasing government involvement and scrutiny.

Nevertheless, the eco-monks insist that they simply want to promote awareness of dependent origination as taught by the Buddha. All things exist through complex causes and conditions, which in turn become the causes and conditions for other phenomena. From this perspective, the world is a vast web of interdependence, in which human and environmental well-being are inseparable. Individuals, communities, businesses, and governments therefore must incorporate mindfulness of this reality into their daily work to avoid destructive acts against nature. This is the ultimate objective of the eco-monks: to protect the forests and trees for the well-being of the environment while also eliminating mental defilements and relieving human suffering.

We live in a world full of thorny and complex issues that demand nuance and sensitivity. We should not overlook the power of religion to address social issues, such as environmental problems, war and peace, and so on. The activities of eco-monks remind us of the benefits of engaged buddhism. Each one of us can take part in the fight for eco-values and religious values.

WWF believes that the green economy approach is the choice for a viable future in the Mekong and, recognising the anticipated changes in the region, is both realistic and feasible. Conservation responses need to be both strategic, addressing the need for long-term development, and where necessary tactical, using temporary measures to secure species and ecosystems under imminent threat. Multiple actions will be needed, ranging from initiatives at international, regional and national policy level to many thousands of projects, negotiations and decisions at the level of sites and landscapes.

Buddhist Times News – Farmers with red flags have taken over the highway with their SUVs and tractors.
Buddhist Times News – Farmers with red flags have taken over the highway with their SUVs and tractors.

By   —  Shyamal Sinha

The sixth round of talks between the central government and the protesting farmers took place on Wednesday with the government agreeing on two of the four issues which caused the famers to block border points in Delhi and surrounding areas since November 26. The Centre agreed to spare heavy fines for stubble burning and continue the current mechanism of providing subsidised power for agricultural use. However, the two sides remained deadlock on the removal of the three controversial farm reforms and legal guarantee for the Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy. This round of negotiations was held between three Union ministers and 41-member representative group of the protesting farmers.

Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar said that the meeting was held in cordial atmosphere adding that discussions would continue on the remaining two issues on January 4. “Discussions on the three farm laws and MSP are continuing and will continue in the next round of talks on January 4,” Tomar said. The minister also urged the farmer groups to send back the women, children and the elderly back to their homes due to the harsh weather conditions in the national capital.

With pizza stalls, masseurs and bonhomie, the protests here and at the Singhu border have the air of a town fair.

This is India’s new proletariat. Fattened on power subsidies and minimum support price at the Indian taxpayers’ expense, they do not care whether they are causing the nation heavy loss and inconvenience.

As the farmers’ protest lingers, one wonders whether there is a bigger game and deeper planning at play to weaken India.

Protesting farm unions have said they will write to British lawmakers and Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to travel to India to take part in Republic Day celebrations next month until the Modi government scraps three pieces of legislation they say will hurt their livelihoods.

Where is the money coming from?

Who gains the most from blocking laws that can revolutionise the Indian agricultural economy?

Who has recently received a military jolt while trying to bully its way into grabbing territory along a disputed border?

Who had to swallow its pride and halt its progress?

Who is on the receiving end of a massive diplomatic backlash worldwide over its role in being the originator and spreader of COVID-19?

And so, who is most likely to try dirty, covert means to attack India’s progress?

The questions point only in one direction: A Communist dictatorship run by a man of almost delusional ambition.

In 1959, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru admitted to illegal actions by Chinese forces in the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA) and Ladakh, the Communist Party of India stayed quiet, as if it were not important at all. During its Calcutta summit, it released a statement effectively disputing India’s territorial claims along the McMahon line.

When the Chinese butchered the Tibetans, the CPI put out a statement praising the Chinese for leading the Tibetans from “medieval darkness”.

Comrade VS Achutanandan was censured in 1962 for arguing in favour of donating blood for the jawans and contributing money from the sale of prison rations saved by inmates to the defence fund.

During the 2017 Doklam standoff, the CPM blamed India for increasing “the profile of the Dalai Lama and the so-called Tibetan provisional government. The visit of the Dalai Lama accompanied by a union minister to Arunachal Pradesh and the recent unfurling of the Tibetan flag of the provisional government in Ladakh are serious irritants for China,” its statement said.

After the clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Galwan, the CPM politburo released a statement calling it “unfortunate”, without even naming China.

The Congress itself has quite a record with China.

Rahul Gandhi wanted to pass the very same farm laws. It was in the Congress 2019 election manifesto. Now, the party is misleading farmers and fomenting chaos.

Is there a deeper agenda?

Gandhi insinuated that the Chinese had robbed Indian land, insulting the government and the forces in the time of conflict. On 3 July, 2020, he tweeted a video where people were claiming that China had taken our land, implying that the Indian forces were lying. Turns out the man in the video was actually a Congress worker and former councillor.

Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (run by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi) took money from China between 2005 and 2009. Congress-led UPA government allowed the trade deficit with China to balloon 33-fold, increasing it from an almost negligible $1.1 billion in 2003-04 to $36.2 billion in 2013-14.

In 2008, the Congress and the Communist Party of China (CCP) signed an undisclosed MoU. Around then, Sonia Gandhi-led Rajiv Gandhi Foundation accepted Chinese money.

Rajiv Gandhi Foundation has also been found to have donated to the China Association for Internationally Friendly Contact (CAIFC). The US Congress has called the CAIFC a “suspicious extension” of Chinese military involved in espionage activities.

Rahul secretly met with the Chinese several times in the past. Once he met Chinese ministers during Kailash Yatra. In the middle of the Doklam stand-off, he had quietly met with the Chinese ambassador.

These farmer protests have been the launchpad for an attack on Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance, an Indian giant standing in the way of China’s 5G plan to wire the world. China’s plan is to python-wrap the world with the Belt and Road Initiative and 5G networks. However, lately, nations have almost unanimously kept Chinese companies away from setting up 5G networks.

It is significant than that in the last few days, protestors vandalised and destroyed more than 1,500 mobile of Reliance Jio in Congress-ruled Punjab. Jio is set to be the biggest 5G player in India.

The protesters have demanded the release of Naxals and jihadis in jail for anti-India activities. Punjab railway lines were blocked, cutting off supplies to the critical Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh among other routes. The exchequer has already lost more than Rs 30,000 crore.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot targeted the Centre for not resolving the issues of farmers by saying that farmers were forced to welcome New Year out on the roads. “It is sad that our farmer brothers and sisters, who are protesting would welcome New Year out on roads and away from homes. A sensitive, responsive govt would never let this happen,” Gehlot tweeted.

Egypt: Team Europe – EIB and Banque Misr work together to support private businesses and speed up the recovery of SMEs from COVID-19
Egypt: Team Europe – EIB and Banque Misr work together to support private businesses and speed up the recovery of SMEs from COVID-19

  • €425 million to support Egyptian SMEs and mid-caps, boosting their ability to drive the economic recovery
  • Part of Team Europe response to the coronavirus crisis

The European Investment Bank is providing Banque Misr with a €425 million credit line to support Egyptian private small and medium-sized enterprises that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and boost their ability to lead the economic recovery in the country. The credit line will finance investment projects, as well as working capital needs, in productive and service sectors, thus sustaining growth and employment while helping to mitigate the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

The EIB financing forms part of the EIB contribution to the Team Europe response to the COVID-19 crisis in the European Union partner countries. It is consistent with the objectives of the External Lending Mandate (2014-2020) and the EU cooperation with Egypt as set out in the EU Single Support Framework for Egypt for the period 2017-2020, as well as the EU-Egypt Partnership Priorities, in that it aims to support private sector development with a focus on SMEs, increased competiveness, job creation and financial inclusion.

Flavia Palanza, Director for Neighbouring Countries at the European Investment Bank, made the following comment on the signature: “We are reinforcing our partnership with Banque Misr to support the Bank’s strategy to expand in SME financing. Our new credit line comes at a time when SMEs need strong support to overcome the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. SMEs are most vulnerable to the impact of this global crisis. We are proud of our partnership with Banque Misr and the tangible impact that our project will have on people’s lives in Egypt.”

“Small and medium-sized enterprises create job opportunities and add value and innovation while delivering products and services that people need. More than ever during these challenging times, businesses need access to finance and affordable credit from banks. A number of EU programmes where EU grants are pooled with loans provided by European Financial Institutions (EFIs) are supporting businesses by offering them access to direct concessional loans or guarantee schemes with local partner banks,” said Christian Berger, Ambassador of the EU to Egypt.

“Last April, the EU together with its Member States and EFIs launched the Team Europe package to help partner countries to cope with the consequences posed by the pandemic, including its socioeconomic impact. Today our partner, the EIB, is signing further important Team Europe funding, which will make a real impact on SMEs and eventually on people’s lives across Egypt,” he added.

Akef El-Maghraby, Vice Chairman of Banque Misr, confirmed that the signing of this agreement seeks to assist national companies – mainly SMEs – in performing various activities, especially in light of the implications of the COVID-19 crisis. Banque Misr is one of the most pioneering financial institutions in supporting and financing SMEs, attaching great importance to the SME sector, as the size of the financing portfolio of this sector amounted to 20% of the total financing portfolio. This comes in line with the directives of Central Bank of Egypt and the state’s efforts to advance the sector in order to improve economic indicators, drive rates of economic development, promote local products and reduce the import bill.

Akef El-Maghraby also highlighted that Banque Misr is also interested in providing financial support to SME sector via its branch network, reaching more than 700 branches throughout the Arab Republic of Egypt. This is coupled with the Bank’s endeavours to provide distinctive financing mechanisms that meet the financing needs of all projects in all sectors of economic and service activities, which reflects in the advancement of the national economy.

Akef El-Maghraby said that Banque Misr launched the “Express” loan for small projects, which is considered the first integrated digital product, which allows Banque Misr’s small project customers to submit a financing application online via the website, without the need to visit the branch, on a step-by-step basis with minimum procedures. The small project financing loan is the fastest loan in Egypt and can be obtained within five days of the date of submission, subject to applicable terms and conditions.

Banque Misr is the second largest bank in Egypt with a clear focus on SME lending and a large retail presence across all the governorates. In 2019, Banque Misr served more than 123 000 SMEs across the country, which makes it one of the largest supporters of the SME sector in the country.

Since 2015, the EIB has provided €3.9 billion in support of Egyptian SMEs and mid-caps through 15 operations, accounting for about a third of the Bank’s portfolio in Egypt. Over these years, in line with the objectives of External Lending Mandate and national priorities, the EIB has focused on building fruitful relationships with those publicly and privately owned banks that are committed to supporting SMEs and particularly with institutions willing and able to reach out to traditionally underserved segments such as small, rural, youth and female.