Friday, August 31, 2012

Al Qaeda and the Syrian Opposition: A Terrorist Triumph

In a recent CFR article, Ed Husain argued that Syria’s ongoing civil war is overshadowing the infiltration of Al Qaeda into the rebel forces, and they are now winning the ideological battle for the revolution. Although acknowledged by western policymakers including CIA Director Leon Panetta, the presence of the terrorist group has not stopped leaders such as French President Francois Hollande from declaring that they would recognize any interim government formed by the Syrian government. Such a move would completely disregard the fact that no interim government could be formed without the support of the well-organized, amply funded and armed Syrian Al Qaeda.

As early as May, Panetta admitted that the U.S. believes that Al Qaeda has established a solid presence in Syria among the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, but that the nature of their movements and organization were still cloaked in mystery. The group believed to be behind the Al Qaeda attacks of recent months calls itself Jabhat al-Nusra l’al-Ahl al-Sham, or Victory Front of the Syrian People. Al-Sham is the traditional name for the region encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, a reference to the group’s long-term goal of redrawing the regional borders starting with a liberated Syria.

An FSA fighter on the streets of Homs. Photo by Bo Yaser.

The term “liberation” is, of course, misleading when it comes to Al Qaeda. What “liberation” means to them is a casting off of both Asad and Western influence, to be replaced with a strict form of Sunni Islamic law, a totalitarian religious government, and a continuation of jihad waged against countries like Israel. Jabhat al-Nusra benefits from many of the same circumstances that allowed Al Qaeda to gain a foothold in Afghanistan in the 1980s: a welcoming population, ideological appeal, a steady supply of weapons and money from Arab donors, a pre-existing conflict in need of recruits, and Western reluctance to interfere. Much like the Taliban discovered their regime could not succeed without the Al Qaeda mujahideen, any interim government will find itself unable to dislodge the extremist elements within the opposition once they have become a crucial part of its operations.

According to Husain, the group had already conducted 66 attacks in Syria by June, including many car bombings that the Asad regime was quick to publicize for the international community as terrorist attacks. The global community for its part is even less likely to give aid to a Syrian opposition it views as infiltrated by extremist Salafi jihadists. Overlapping political affiliations in Syria already make any direct support of the opposition complicated at the very least; that the likely outcome of such aid would see U.S. weapons in the hands of a group like Al Qaeda precludes such support from becoming reality. After all, America learned its lesson the hard way in Afghanistan when the mujahideen it had armed against the Soviets became the terrorist group responsible for 9/11 and some of the most fervently anti-American organizations on the planet. Many of the Syrian jihadists are thought to be from Anbar Province in Iraq, and as such they are not an unfamiliar enemy to the United States.

The Syrian opposition itself is fully aware of how precarious its position is, especially given that it will eventually need outside support to survive. It has deliberately tried to hide the Al Qaeda-associated groups within its ranks from the view of the media. When reporters discovered opposition soldiers sporting Al Qaeda’s flag in a neighborhood in Damascus, they were ushered away by opposition leaders before they could interview the fighters. The Free Syrian Army has rejected videos and photos blatantly showing opposition soldiers wearing Al Qaeda symbols and insignia.

Syrian opposition fighters stand behind an Al Qaeda flag.

Yet the evidence is mounting that without Al Qaeda, the resistance would be nowhere near as successful as it has been.  Which means that Jabhat al-Nusra has the power and the resources to demand a part in whatever government emerges from the Syria conflict. While Western countries have wasted no time disavowing Asad, they have been much slower to provide concrete support to the opposition forces that desperately need it. In part, the opposition can thank groups like Jabhat al-Nusra both for propping up the rebellion, and also, perhaps, condemning it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Promising Step Forward in El Salvador (and Hopefully, the World)

Up until March of this year, the tiny Central American state of El Salvador was known to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world every year. A recent State Department study estimated that there were approximately 70 homicides annually per every 100,000 people. This ranking put them in second globally, behind only Honduras – as comparison, the U.S. came in at approximately 4 per 100,000. However, this was all before March, and by most accounts, was due to the overwhelmingly violent gang wars prevalent not only throughout El Salvador, but much of Central America. Two gangs in particular – Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known in the U.S. as MS-13, and Barrio Diesicho, more commonly known as Barrio 18 – had over the decades had recruited armies that at the beginning of 2011 had a comprised 50,000-100,000 soldiers that routinely fought bloody wars on the streets with many innocent casualties.

An MS-13 member.

In March, these two gangs set a hopeful precedent and reached a heroic milestone in setting aside their differences and agreeing to a truce. An article yesterday details the tense meetings, occurring amongst leaders of both sides, all of who are currently imprisoned, as soldiers stood by with unmasked leeriness waiting for things to go sour and fighting to break out. This never happened though, and more surprisingly, the truce has survived over 150 days. Statistically, over the first half of 2012, the Salvadoran government has said that homicides are down 32% and kidnappings a whopping 50%. This is both indicative of the ferocity and strength of these gangs, as well as the optimism this type of a truce brings to other regions of the world.

One such other region is Mexico. Although not necessarily on as quite grand of a scale as the gangs in El Salvador, the drug cartels of Mexico have wreaked havoc on the state for decades. Estimates suggest that since just 2006, over 50,000 people have been killed in the drug wars that former President Felipe Calderón fought so hard to ameliorate. These cartels have much to fight for: the Sinaloa Cartel alone brings in roughly $3 billion annually between their drug sales, kidnapping and extortions. But good business requires “turf,” something the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, the Tijuana Cartel, and several others viciously battle over.

Despite former President Calderón’s best efforts, these drug wars have not slowed. If anything, weeding out the corruption within the government and police force and beginning to crack down on the gangs only escalated the violence. Today, it is uncertain what will be able to successfully alleviate some of the chaos caused by the cartels. The U.S. will always have the market for cocaine, heroin and other major exports of the cartels, and as long as they can continue to reap the small fortunes they generate annually, the violence will not cease.

This is why I am counting on the successful truce in Central America to act as a precedent and as a message to the cartels of Mexico that there is an alternative solution to the endless bloodshed that has become such a commonality of the region. With the assistance of the Salvadoran government, there will be improved prison conditions for gang convicts, better job prospects, and an overall reach towards a better quality of life. It is my hope that with some encouragement from the Mexican government, the drug cartels there will realize the same and begin talks towards a similar truce.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ansar Dine: The Taliban of Northern Mali

It reads like a description of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s: music banned, temples and monuments destroyed, women beaten in the street for failing to wear hijab, people stoned to death for having extramarital sexual relations. Yet this is not Kabul; this is Timbuktu, an ancient cultural center located in Northern Mali (Azawad) nearly 5,000 miles away. Despite the distance, in Azawad Aghan history is repeating itself, and it is unlikely that external intervention by the United States will put an end to the brutal extremist regime that has taken up residence in the cities and towns of the north.

Areas held by rebels. Source: Orionist.

Mali has been caught in a state of chaos since a Tuareg rebellion began in the north in January following the fall of the Qaddafi regime in nearby Libya. As fighters, weapons, and money poured over the border, what began as an ethnic nationalist movement was hijacked by extremists groups like the Salafist Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In March, the government in the southern capital Bamako was overthrown in a military coup, further destabilizing the country. Today, Islamist groups have declared the northern state of Azawad to be independent and have turned on their former allies the Tuareg and the MNLA.

The consequences for the local people have been tremendous and heartbreaking. Aid has virtually ceased to flow to the north following a looting of a UN World Food Programme warehouse containing over 2,000 tons of food. A worsening drought has left residents without food or fresh water and without any resources to obtain them. Rebels have taken to stealing from the people they claim to govern and protect and families must hand over scarce food stores or face harsh reprisals. As a result of the violence, extremism, and hunger, more than 200,000 people have fled the north thus far, a number that will likely only climb higher.

For those that cannot leave for whatever reason, they now live in a region known as the Tora Bora desert. The similarities of Ansar Dine and AQIM to the Taliban and the Afghan Al-Qaeda are difficult to not seize upon. Religious extremism is now the rule, not the exception. This clashes with the Islam practiced by most Malians: Sufi Islam is a sect based on mysticism, introspection, and respect for peace. Sufis also regularly visit shrines and other holy sites condemned by Salafists as blasphemous and heterodox. In a move that recalls the destruction of Afghanistan’s famous statues of the Buddha, the rebels are systematically destroying Timbuktu and other cities’ ancient and culturally irreplaceable monuments, temples, shrines, and even mosques. The UN estimates that at least half of the World Heritage sites in northern Mali have now been eradicated, driven back into the desert sands from whence they came.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu. Photo by Senani P.

The cultural cost to the country is insurmountable and has been mourned by people worldwide who understand the historical importance of a site like Timbuktu that was once the “Oxford of West Africa.” Neighboring states have also expressed their concern that the extremist views of the rebels could spill over into their countries and as a result have been supporting the government in the south. Although sanctions were imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) after the military coup in March, since then the attitude of Ecowas has been more conciliatory as the priority shifts to quelling the northern rebellion. To strongly encourage the southern interim government to form a permanent administration, Ecowas threatened Mali with expulsion in July. The move appears to have worked, with a national unity government formed in August. Ecowas has also approved 3,300 soldiers to be sent to Mali to aid with the battle in the north, an offer that has not received approval from the U.N. or the southern government in Bamako.

Western nations have been mixed in their responses. The civil war in Syria has absorbed the world’s attention for now, but some nations have been pitching in to help the southern government. France and the U.K. have been building runways in Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso to facilitate aerial strikes and military intervention if the time comes for that. The U.S. has refused to recognize the rebel government in the north; however, they also cut off all aid to Mali following the military coup in the south. A mysterious car crash in northern Mali in April in which three U.S. Army commandos were found dead has also suggested that Special Operations forces have been operating the country covertly.

The next step will have huge implications for the northerners currently living under the thumb of Ansar Dine and AQIM. Whatever form the next battle takes – be it an indigenous strike launched by Bamako, a regional force sent by Ecowas, or a full military intervention by global powers – it is almost certain to be drawn out and bloody due to the large stockpiles of arms controlled by the rebels. Yet the violence may be a price northerners are willing to pay; Timbuktu mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse called for intervention before it is too late, because “We cannot cook omelettes without breaking eggs.” If the “omelette” is the democratic future of the region, it may be worth breaking a few extremist eggs to achieve it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Where is World Peace?

In his 2011 book “The Better Nature of Our Angels: Why Violence Has Declined”, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that statistically speaking, the world has seen a steady decline of violence, rape, and deaths as time has progressed. This is great news! We look back at World War I and World War II and see nothing but sheer devastation, and the world of terror that the tragedy of 9/11 fostered has yet to be mitigated. But, according to Pinker’s book, the past century has still been an improvement upon the century before it, and the 19th century an improvement on the century before that. The argument is a simple one: as history progresses, people’s IQs increase, and the smarter we are, the less likely we are to kill in cold blood and act like barbarians towards each other (well, maybe except for Syrians). Eventually, perhaps, there will be no more bloodshed, and the world can enjoy the utopian peace that has been dreamed of for centuries. With all of the optimism Pinker’s book and others like it bring to the world, it may seem tendentious to suggest this optimism is unwarranted. Because until we achieve the utopian peace that has been sought after since the evolution of mankind, there will be bloodshed, and as the paradigm of war continues to shift, it is leaving a vacuum in regions where without the military assistance of more developed countries, there will be nothing but misery. To put it more succinctly, we need to stop letting this paradigm shift for the time being, and begin to fight wars again.
The globalization of the world during the early 20th century lead to World War I in 1914 and World War II just several decades later. The scale of which these wars were fought resulted in unprecedented destruction and millions of deaths, and upon the conclusion of World War II in 1945, world leaders knew that without a serious shift in alliances and global foreign policy, the repercussions of another war would be too severe to recover from. Smaller conflicts continued as the Cold War raged for the next four decades, but the 1990s exhibited “The End of History”, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama so eloquently titled it. There were smaller conflicts, and less of them, as the world entered the new millennium with a refined optimism.
Things have settled down relatively nicely for the world. Global terrorism has evolved and become the world’s greatest threat, and unfortunately the unique ability terrorism has to transcend any and all boundaries has made it more difficult to bridle. But if the Libyan Revolution of last year is any indication, there has been serious change in the way developed nations fight their wars these days. For example, the United States did not put a single soldier on the ground in Libya during the several months the conflict raged, but rather provided NATO with firepower and the aircraft to use it. Considered one of the greater success stories of President Barack Obama’s career, the Libyan Revolution set a major
precedent in reducing casualties and increasing efficiency during war.

But has this precedent been used since Libya? There are ongoing conflicts in virtually every region of the world today that are unhampered by the Western world. Why is that? Syria, the most notable of these conflicts, has claimed over 20,000 lives according to an activist group, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Yes, President Obama stated earlier this week that he was willing to use military force in Syria if President Bashar al-Assad unleashed his arsenal of chemical weapons, but that is unlikely to happen. The United Nations was unsuccessful in garnering support for a multilateral military intervention, and now the U.S. and Europe sit idly by as the revolutionary forces and those still loyal to President Assad continue to slaughter one another. Terse words urging President Assad to step down are moot and a poor demonstration of showmanship, nothing more. It was one of former President Bill Clinton’s biggest failures during his time in office to not act sooner in both former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, and because of his retrospective cognizance of this, I ask: how many more will have to die in Syria before there is armed intervention? Perhaps it will be a hard lesson learned retrospectively for President Obama as well that he should have acted sooner.

I am by no means a warmonger. I am as pacifist as they come, and it saddens me to see such wanton violence so prevalent throughout the world. And to those who argue that the United States’ military budget should be curtailed, and that money can be put to so many better uses, I wholeheartedly concur. But the truth is, the military budget is not being curtailed. In light of the greatest deficit the country has ever faced, the United States continues to outspend the next ten countries combined on military expenditures. If we continue to spend so much, it must be necessary, and we should be putting our military technology to use and helping alleviate the myriad tensions that plague the world. If we continue to look the other way as innocent civilians are killed in so many places - in South Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa, and numerous other countries around the world – then we may just see a reversal of Pinker’s hopeful predictions for the future.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and the Alienation of Latin America

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, finds himself at the crux of an international maelstrom this week as he seeks safe passage from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to the airport, where he will flee to Latin America and begin his political asylum far from the clutches of Sweden and the U.S. This has undoubtedly exacerbated tensions between the United States and Ecuador, and earlier this week, the U.K. stated that it would exercise a little-known law in order to legally enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and remove Assange. Australia remains unsupportive of Assange while Sweden continues exhausting all possible ideas on how to successfully get Assange back on Swedish soil and begin addressing sexual assault allegations.

Julian Assange, however, is a small indicator of a much broader trend sweeping through Latin America: there is a new Left emerging, with many populist heads of state alienating themselves more and more from the United States and the rest of the Western world. In granting political asylum to Assange, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa may not be risking much diplomatically. It takes a lot more to draw the ire of the United States at a time when Iran is blatantly ignoring global exhortations to cease its uranium enrichment and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likewise blatantly ignoring multilateral pressure to step down. But President Correa is nevertheless acting defiantly, something his citizens will see as a flexing of strength and a reason to continue supporting him.
This is not the first time President Correa has aggravated relations between Ecuador and the U.S. In 2008, President Correa decided not to renew the U.S. lease on an air force base in Ecuador, effectively closing the base for good. Coincidentally, in an interview with Mr. Assange back in May, President Correa joked, “We can give the go ahead as long as we are granted permission to set up an Ecuadorian military base in Miami.” The Ecuadorean people once again saw the move, which outraged the U.S. government at the time, as a sign of strength, something incredibly important to a relatively unimportant country. The following year, President Correa easily won his re-election.

Ecuador is not alone in shuttering the West from its affairs. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been a staunch opponent of the U.S. since he has been in office. Argentina has not been without drama this summer either – several months ago they nationalized their oil company YPF which had previously been a subsidiary of the Spanish oil giant Repsol. This infuriated Spain, and led to the E.U. complaining to the WTO about Argentinean licensing laws. Then just yesterday, Argentina filed a formal complaint against Spain to the WTO, citing problems with Spain’s biodiesel exports.

I’m not sure yet whether this trend of populist left leaders is alarming or not. A decade or two ago, once the fad of import-substitute industrialization disappeared in Latin America, there was an increasing dependency on strong relationships with the West, primarily because it was Western countries with the capital to purchase much of the oil and other natural resources from Latin America. Today, this dependency has vanished; China’s growing population and industrialization has given rise to the need for natural resources, and China has almost enough capital to create a perfect monopsony for Latin American oil exports. The thing is, the U.S. doesn’t yet have a serious need for strong relationships in Latin America. They contribute little to the global political arena in terms of military capacity, diplomatic efforts, as well as aid. Let’s just hope that doesn’t change in the next decade or two.

You can watch Mr. Assange's speech from the Ecuadorean Balcony on Sunday here, and the episode of Mr. Assange's web series during which he interviews Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tina Renquist is on a Quest for...Toilets?

You hear it all the time when people ask for donations to charity: imagine if… Imagine if you didn’t have a toilet. Imagine if you didn’t have a stove. Imagine if the home you lived in didn’t even have floors to keep the indoors in and outdoors out.

The thing is, I would put money down that not a single one of you would ever be able to imagine that. The closest you’ve come in your life to lacking a floor, stove, and toilet is probably a camping trip, and you chose to do that. People who live in poverty did not choose to grow up without basic amenities that could have made them lead healthier, happier and more comfortable lives.

Tina on a home visit

It’s not your fault that you were born into developed countries where things like this ceased to be a concern for the majority of the population over the last century. You got lucky. You won the geopolitical lottery, so to speak.

The families my cousin Tina Renquist works with in Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer were not so lucky. Where they were born and where they live is a place with few amenities and less resources to attain them. Simple matters like hygiene, plumbing and waste disposal, even floors are literally foreign concepts. The Peace Corps Volunteers’ main task with these families has been to educate them on simple things that can make the difference between life and death: washing of hands, proper cooking of food, diarrhea treatment, etc. In return for their efforts to educate themselves, the families are then given a choice between a floor, a toilet or a stove for their homes, whichever they decide they need most.

This isn’t your typical charity scheme where the White Man’s Burden manifests itself in the needy being told what they need as determined by us in the developed world. The families determine their own needs and request the means to fulfill them from the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, funding is such that Volunteers finance their own projects through donations. Tina’s project is particularly ambitious, requiring just short of $10,000. Although this is double what a normal Volunteer tries to raise, it is also much less than what you would think you need to change the lives and fortunes of 111 families.

On this website, we write a lot about the problems of the world, but at the most we are only increasing awareness, certainly not solving them. Tina is someone who actually has gone to a country where she is needed and makes a tangible difference in peoples’ lives every day. For that reason alone I would appeal to our readers to support her cause. The fact that you will be helping to improve the lives of so many people in need should be enough for you to want to support her, too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Bahraini Uprising and American Hypocrisy

Over the last year, as protests and isolated uprisings in Syria have grown into a full-scale civil war, Western nations have been foremost among those calling for Pres. Bashar al-Asad to step down. The United States has been no exception, likening his regime to the fallen governments of Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Qaddafi, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Yet absent from the calls for democracy is another small Arab state that, like Syria, has been caught in the grips of a sustained uprising since spring 2011. Bahrain, a small state on the eastern border of Saudi Arabia, has not experienced the same degree of violent repression as Syria, yet human rights abuses are just as widespread and flagrant as many of the nations where the U.S. has demanded and actively sought regime change.

Protesters in the now demolished Pearl Roundabout

Bahrain’s essential problem is sectarian discrimination and disenfranchisement. The majority Shi’a population of Bahrain is noticeably marginalized in a country where they make up approximately 70 percent of the citizenry, while Bahraini Sunnis enjoy places of privilege and power in both the private and public sectors. The Sunni royal family, the Al Khalifas, have ruled the country since 1783 and the current ruler, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has not fulfilled his initial promises of reform since taking power in 1999. Following a brief hopeful period at the beginning of his reign, the country has since slid back into its past habits of practicing systematic torture, repressing of activists, and importing Sunnis from other Arab nations to staff the army and police and tip the demographic balance in favor of the ruling class.

The Bahraini uprising began last year in February in the wake of the Arab Awakening protests that swept through the region. On February 14, the designated “Day of Rage,” protesters took to the streets for what was supposed to be a peaceful march and were met by police in full riot gear firing live rounds, tear gas, and rubber bullets. For a month, the movement was centered on Pearl Roundabout in Manama, a monument to Bahrain’s pearl farming past, where protesters set up an “occupation.” The protesters’ initial demands largely centered on pro-democracy reforms rather than an all-out appeal to topple the government, but criticism of the monarchy grew as the death toll mounted.

The Roundabout following Bloody Thursday.

February 17 put an end to the protesters’ hopes that their movement would be allowed to continue occupying the Roundabout. On what became known as “Bloody Thursday,” police raided the camp and used live ammunition to disperse protesters. Following the raid, hospital staff reported being prevented from treating the injured and witnesses described police attacks taking place within hospital grounds on wounded protesters. After an urgent appeal was launched by the Bahraini monarchy to the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC troops, mostly Saudis, arrived in March to help put down the protests.

Since the arrival of the GCC troops, the uprising has only continued to gather strength, while the monarchy has only persisted in its brutal repression the opposition movement. Shi’a mosques have been demolished in scores, arbitrary arrests and disappearances of opposition figures are widespread, and Bahrain’s ugly tradition of systematic and widespread torture has mounted in the prisons and jails. Social networking sites have been blocked in an attempt to interrupt the organization of protests, which have occurred on a small scale almost daily. In one of the largest recent demonstrations, between 100,000-250,000 took to the streets to demand reforms and regime change on 9 March 2012.

Bahraini protesters take to the streets. Photo by Lewa'a Alnasr.

Despite the deteriorating situation in Bahrain, the international community has done little to put an end to the violations of fundamental human rights. U.S. officials have expressed dismay at the use of tear gas, birdshot, and other violent means to repress the protests, yet resumed arms sales to Bahrain in May and approved a $53 million dollar transfer of military equipment to the country. In a move that undermines its criticism of Russia for arming the Asad regime in Syria, the U.S. simultaneously demonstrated that it would not step in to help the protesters, and that indeed it would contribute to their dire situation by arming their oppressors.

Bahrain’s ruling family has long enjoyed the comforts of being a close U.S. ally and a virtual protectorate of Saudi Arabia. America relies on Bahrain as its base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and as a security bulwark against Iranian encroachment in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia shudders at the thought of a Shi’ite-led Bahrain operating on its eastern border, coincidentally next to its Eastern Provinces, where the majority of its oil as well as the restive Saudi Shi’ite population are located. Toppling the Al Khalifas could result in an Iranian satellite, a base for arming a Shi’ite uprising in Saudi Arabia, and a discontinuation of the U.S.’s access to the region’s oil and its own naval bases. As Doug Bandow of Forbes magazine wrote in a recent article, “the U.S. doesn’t want a little thing like some state-sponsored human rights violations to get in the way of an otherwise beautiful friendship.”

Bandow and other observers have been quick to note the painfully obvious hypocrisy of the United States’ stance on dictatorial regimes that happen to be in control of their allies’ governments. While a country like Syria is an easy target given its unfriendly stance towards the West, countries with persistent records of human rights violations like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are more difficult to confront. U.S. relations with Bahrain illustrate a larger American dilemma when it comes to human rights and democracy: how far are we willing to go to protect the citizens of the world from their own governments, especially if those governments have traditionally been our friends?

Moreover, how will inaction damage America’s image abroad and undermine any efforts the U.S. does make to end the excesses of authoritarian regimes? Until America confronts tough questions such as these, it will face detractors like Russia and China who use the U.S. position to justify their support of dictators and human rights violators. In the meantime, it is the citizens of Bahrain, Syria, and others who will suffer the consequences of American inaction in the face of tyranny.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Investing in Human Security for Africa's Development

There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that education is the key to the most critical, global problems of today. Education, they charge, will help the poor and disenfranchised rise from their situations and will make them eligible for high skill, higher paying jobs. This sounds appealing: all we need to do is rally donor support to build schools in poor rural areas, get a few NGOs on board to hire and train teachers, and then establish a sustained funding source for the new schools. When this is achieved, the impoverished will abandon their duties at home in order to earn an education at a local school, and then ascend to the elusive job market. In addition, the newly educated will alo be less prone to engage in violence and will have less kids, easing the pressures of conflict and overpopulation, respectively.

Unfortunately, this theory is almost totally an illusion, and a dangerous one at that. So is the idea that foreign investment in industries alone--and not in the living conditions of the very people participating in  and contributing to economic development--is the best way to bring prosperity to the most poverty-stricken continent on the planet. So what if there are bright and shiny new manufacturing plants in urban centers if they are inaccessible to the poorest of the poor? Conceding to Colin's point in the previous article, though, Africa has seen high growth in the past couple of years. But according to a recent UN report, the growth is concentrated in industries that extract and sell natural resources (oil, timber, precious metals, gemstones, etc.), which are completely unsustainable. The rise in GDP, and even GDP per capita, is illusory as it does not reflect which industries are profiting, whom within the countries are profiting, nor living standards. In other words, you could interpret the rise in GDP as a rise in inequality. The rich get richer and the poor are forgotten. So why are those living in extreme poverty stuck in their situations?

From UN Human Development Report 2007-2008. Indicates % of children under 5 with stunted growth (malnutrition/starvation)

Mass starvation and malnutrition. Poverty. Overpopulation. Disease. Violence. Corruption. These are arguably the most pressing problems facing the development of many countries in Africa and hit the poor particularly hard. Surprisingly, education really isn't the solution to any of these problems, and neither are many forms of investment. On a continent with a history as a victim of colonialism, politicized (and damaging) 'structural reforms' advocated by the Western-leaning IMF and World Bank, and failed neoliberal and Import-Substitution-Industrialization (ISI) economic and trade policies, sustainable solutions are long overdue. We've seen that so far most African countries have taken the short-term-solution route by exploiting their natural resources and selling them for profit, but this has done very little to help spur an equitable distribution of wealth. And as pointed out in a recent article in The New York Times, even China has joined the bandwagon in trying to tap into those resources (classic neoliberal trade policy that ends up enriching the Chinese workers in Africa and African elites while little to no resources are allocated to enrich the lives of millions). It would also seem that as a continent rich in natural resources, Africa has attracted the attention of Western nations that are ever-watchful of these assets. The sheer economic potential of Africa, in terms of their potential labor force and resource endowment, has led many powerful multinationals and countries to attempt to cash in, often under the veil of 'development assistance' and economic growth.

Investment can be a great way to build up certain industries within a developing country, but with the case of Africa, it is not and cannot be the main solution to the continent's needs. It creates jobs, but for whom? And who profits? Westerners are used to the idea that developing African countries means investment or financial/humanitarian aid. But I believe a combination of the two hits to the core of the future of development in Africa: Human security.

Imagine living in a place where the local water source (rare) is polluted, malaria and TB kill thousands and your geography is unfavorable to steady crop yields. If we are to develop African countries economically we must first develop the capacities of its people and their environment, which includes access to clean water, transport to local clinics and public educational campaigns advocating better hygiene, sustainable farming practices and prevalent diseases. Disease and malnourishment/starvation are the two most obvious obstacles to human security, as they claim the most lives. Disease and starvation kill off potential workers, leaving behind families with one parent, or more commonly, orphaned children. If we want sustainable economic growth through investment to be a reality, we first need to support the viable workforce by enabling rural communities to overcome water and food scarcity and to have access to medical treatment. Ultimately, the health (and therefore proximity to safe water, viable dirt for farming, and clinics) of the population determines workforce capacity and potential for more investment opportunities.

High mortality rates in some countries, especially in Africa, indicate that life expectancy is below average and infant mortality rate is high. From an economic point of view, impoverished families, facing disease and scarce food and income, have a higher incentive to have more children because they could grow up to be potential providers of economic and physical security for the family. However, if an impoverished family's social environment provided safe access to food, water, local markets and medical clinics, they would be far less inclined to have so many children. Of course some cultural and societal factors play into a family's decision to have more children, but as Jeffrey Sachs points out in his book The End of Poverty, in societies with higher measures of human security, birth rates were much lower. This hints at the prospect that investing in bettering the living conditions of both the urban and rural poor can give them access to modes of income (growing crops and markets) and enable them to actually participate in the economy.

Investing in human security won't be easy since it requires the international community to fund projects aimed at partnering with developing nations in Africa to increase economic opportunity. This means sustained funding over an extended period of time in order to invest in human development. We cannot invest in developing economies without investing in their human capacity to contribute to those economies. This in turn could even send a positive signal to MNCs, inviting them to invest in these emerging economies with sustainable workforces. In an upward-oriented cycle, by enabling the impoverished in Africa to participate in their micro- and macroeconomies and investing in more job opportunities, the economic development of Africa can become a reality. Not surprisingly, however, this will require donor countries to fund the development, which will all depend on political will and national interest. Whenever the world realizes that Africa's human and economic development is in everyone's best interest, we might just see a bright future for the continent.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Turning Africa Into An Economic Powerhouse

In Nicholas Kristoff’s July 1st article in the New York Times, he writes about the economic progression seen in Africa over the past decade. The position China was in twenty years ago – gradual privatization of industry, infrastructural development, and a greater emphasis on improved healthcare and education – is where much of Africa finds itself today. Between 2007 and 2011, countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nigeria all had more than a 6% increase in their annual GDP. On average, the continent’s labor force has increased by 2.7% each year since 2007. There are reasons to be optimistic about what the future holds for Africa, which has experienced every horrific disaster from genocide to the AIDS epidemic since gaining independence throughout the 1960s.

However, optimism must remain anchored in realism: the conflict between Sudan and its new neighbor South Sudan has displaced roughly 500,000 people since last July, and killed thousands. Similar wars are being waged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and countless other countries across the continent. There are still very real problems that plague Africa, and while aid does continue to flow from more prosperous nations around the world, there is little hope that these conflicts will resolve themselves in the near future. It is important to look not solely towards aid as means for a more stable Africa, but also at the developments Africans are already facilitating on their own, most notably increased industrialization, improved quality of living, and improved infrastructure. Through these means will Africa become wealthier, more stable, and overall, will further the continent towards its goal of self-sustainability.

Internally displaced persons in the Sudan.
Despite Africa spending over $45 billion annually on infrastructure, it has been estimated that only one in three rural Africans has access to an all-weather road. This dearth of basic infrastructure prevalent throughout much of the continent is inextricably linked to inefficiencies of transporting goods and services; it is estimated that it can take several months for goods to make the trip from Botswana up to Chad or Sudan. Transportation costs increase the price of many goods by up to 75% due to these alarming inefficiencies. 2009 estimates by the World Bank proposed that Africa needs an additional $31 billion annually to fulfill these needs and develop a network of roads across the country to establish  an economically viable transportation system. But roads are only the beginning: adequate railroad systems and an increase in air travel are also paramount to creating a more mobile Africa. By enabling citizens to travel more easily, and by transporting goods and services more quickly, Africa will see itself connected in a way unthinkable two decades ago, and most importantly, this will allow for easier flow of finances and capital from one location to another.
The development of communication technologies is equally important to increased stability in Africa. As of 2010, only 11.3 citizens in Africa had access to the Internet. Cell phone usage, on the other hand, has seen significant increases in the past decade, with only 10 million cell phone users in 2000 rising to over 180 million in 2007. Communication technologies are the key to a more globalized and better-connected Africa. Providing Africans with increased ability to voice opinions, communicate with friends and family, and enable them to communicate more effectively in terms of business will open up many countries to far-reaching business developments and greater inter-connectedness. Communication technologies will help keep the African population better educated, and more up-to-date on current issues such as conflicts, weather, and politics. Furthermore, the ability to reach individuals on the continent by cell phone will increase the effectiveness of organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, as they will be able to keep in touch with patients, communicate more effectively with local politicians and other organizations, as well as communicate more efficiently with those in developed nations.

Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the largest on the continent. Photo by Andres de Wet.
The most difficult question to answer, then, is where does the financing for these projects come from? Unfortunately, it is the countries that most desperately need outside funding that receive the least. War-torn countries, as well as those under strict dictatorships, are less likely to receive funding from investors or aid from other nations due to government corruption and the likelihood that conflict will severely hinder any development projects. USAID focuses much of its resources in Africa, but the amount of money needed to begin working on many projects is significantly greater than what has been donated thus far. Africa and its allies need to focus on a greater reliance on individual investors, such as multi-national corporations and international development consultants. In 2009 the World Bank estimated that every $1 spent on general upkeep of roads in Africa yielded about $4 in assets, a promising figure for some of the private investors looking to contribute financially to Africa. In the past several years, larger mutual fund companies such as T Rowe Price and Vanguard have begun to emphasize Africa as a potentially lucrative investment for many of its clients. As a “frontier market” or “emerging market,” Africa has the possibility to yield extremely high returns, and as more money is invested from developing nations into these funds, Africa will only continue to grow at higher and higher rates.

There is a whole trove of potential wealth hidden away in Africa’s mines, oil deposits, natural gas deposits and vast farmlands. It is unlikely that there will be a period of unencumbered peace throughout Africa within the next decade or two, but that should not be a deterrent when it comes to infrastructural development. Investors and donors alike need to better recognize the importance of such development – in truth, nothing could be a greater step towards stability in the region. Helping establish a foundation for the continent upon which it can begin to foster its own economic development is paramount in this stability, and if the rest of the world wants to see an Africa in ten years with less AIDS, reduced conflict and greater democracy, economic self-sufficiency is the first major step. In turn, the rest of the world may see the fruits of their generosity: in a day and age where oil is scarce, and fossil fuels are rising in price and demand, having a stabilized continent with a virtually untapped network of those resources might have a lasting impact on everyone.