Monday, June 29, 2009

Honduras, Haiti and the Struggle for Popular Democracy

When I heard the news from Honduras that democratically elected Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped in a coup, there was a 5 second delay before I thought about Haiti. In 2004, the democratically- elected president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide was also violently overthrown in a similar US-supported coup and taken hostage by military forces. Each coup was more than an action against a sitting president, but were counter-revolutions by elites aimed at silencing popular movements for social and economic change. We can't let them win.

In Honduras Sunday, the military took over the government television station, a curfew was imposed, and the Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan Ambassadors were also kidnapped and detained. According to the New York Times, the only people permitted to have access to information were the wealthy with access to the internet. President Manuel Zelaya told Telesur from Costa Rica that he was kidnapped in his pajamas and told if he refused to hang up the cell phone, he would be shot. Zelaya was largely supported by organized labor and the poor. The referendum was expected to succeed by popular mandate---hence the violent reaction by elites who wanted to prevent the voting altogether. The referendum was bitterly opposed by the Honduran upper-classes who feared Zelaya would extend his four- year term limit and transform political inequalities in their representative system.

Choosing not to use violent revolution, a host of popularly elected leaders in Latin America are using the ballot box to empower the poor and working class. The most powerful weapon in their arsenal until now has been the referendum, which allows citizens to vote on constitutional reforms aimed at redistributing power and influence. Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, and Haiti's Bertrand Aristide had taken calculated risks, upsetting historical elites who for years have used the constitution to protect their private wealth and influence.

Today in Haiti, the same entrenched elites that staged the 2004 coup have united against former president Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, by banning them from running candidates in the next election. They fear that the massive support which the party continues to enjoy could lead to a broader movement toward popular democracy in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. In response, the Lavalas party has called for a successful boycott of the elections which are clearly illegitimate without their participation.

In 2002, the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez was also overthrown briefly before a popular movement and resistance in the military restored him to power. There is a widely circulated video on the internet called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which highlights how the US and Venezuelan media were culprits in fomenting the anti-democratic actions of domestic elites.

Much the same thing is happening in both Honduras and Haiti, where popular movements for justice are all to often silenced by violent reactionary force from people with tremendous historical privilege and power. In the United States of America, there needs to be more forums that allow popular movements in Latin America to express their struggle among those of among us with a conscience and heart for the poor and exploited.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Delayed Indian Monsoons Highlight Growing Water Scarcity

What is water scarcity? Imbalances between availability and demand, the degradation of groundwater and surface water quality, intersectoral competition, interregional and international conflicts, all contributes to water scarcity. - FAO Water Unit

After weeks of delay, the Indian monsoon is finally showing signs of arrival advancing toward crop regions that grow sugarcane and coffee. The Indian Meteorological Department is expecting that pre-monsoon rains are on their way to the capital New Delhi, later this month and the monsoon will officially begin the first week of July. The slow pace of the monsoons have been particularly damaging as India has also been caught in the grip of a severe heat wave which took the lives of 100 people and led to water and energy shortages.

Indian government officials have proposed greater irrigation, water conservation and a number of other potential strategies in the future to protect India's agricultural produce. It is reported that 60 percent of the arable land there is completely dependent on rain water.

Water scarcity is likely to push up food prices and require more government spending to support farmers. So far, much of the discussion about global climate change has fallen short of addressing the water crisis. The water crisis has already began in much of the world and poses a serious threat to the future of rural development and poverty eradication. The World Health Organization has produced a fact sheet on water scarcity around the world. For years now scientists and policy-makers have been predicting major shortages in the supply world's freshwater. The case of the Indian rain short-fall is yet another example of why the world's governments desperately need to work toward a integrated development policy on water.

For more information on water scarcity and its relationship to the world's poor, check out the (Food and Agricultural Organization) FAO Water Unit website here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

War and Famine, Peace and Milk: Avoiding Another Missed Opportunity in Somalia

The first half of the title of this post is a traditional Somali proverb, which I find particularly moving in the context of contemporary events in the eastern Horn of Africa. The longer the decades old conflict between various factions continues in Somalia, the more difficult a reversal of the tremendous human suffering, disease and hunger there becomes.

New ideas and fresh solutions are hard to come by, but it is crystal clear that endless war is not the answer to the devastating circumstances in which the Somali people now live. For advocates of peace and development, its time to let the US military know a middle-east style "war on terror" is unacceptable in east Africa.

The chain of events which led to this year's turmoil is long and can be difficult to untangle. BBC news has a fairly accurate time line of the major events in Somali history over the centuries. However, regardless as to how Somalia arrived at this point, the important thing now is turning the corner. So far, so bad.

Whatever their intentions for doing so, the US military's mobilization of new weapons armaments to send to the Somali government is a failed strategy---one that in the past has brought terrible consequences for the people. The US government's attempts to prevent a potential hot bed for future acts of extremism are doomed to fail when they involve further militarization of the conflict.

There has been a wealth of evidence that supporters of the rebel group Al-Shabaab (the youth) are motivated by a strong hatred of foreign intervention, and a desire for order and stability. Until now, the actions of the United States and other foreign actors has merely fed the flames, bringing more instability and chaos. Human Rights Watch and other international observers have accused Ethiopian, Somali and African Union forces of committing war crimes on innocent civilians since the chaos reignited in 2006.

Now, like a self-fulfilled prophecy, perhaps hundreds of foreign fighters under a proclaimed banner of Islam are entering Somalia to join Al-Shabaab. As the African Union prepares for its July summit in Libya, they should go fully aware of the long list of violent responses to Somalia's political crisis that have failed before. If by chance they decide to follow the example of the US military's recent actions, they risk any potential hope of lasting peace and development. Militarization of the conflict is not the answer.

Can Latin America's "ALBA" Deliver?

The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America, or ALBA according to its Spanish acronym, is a little known secret to many citizens of the United States. But throughout our hemisphere the Venezuelan-led project is gaining momentum and raising new questions about the future of trade and development in Latin America.

ALBA began in 2004 between Venezuela and Cuba when the two countries began exchanging petroleum for medical assistance. Cuba has sent more than 14,000 physicians free of charge to poorest sectors of Venezuela. In return, Venezuela at one time was sending ships to Cuba with 90,000 barrels of oil a day. In the last five years, the alliance has grown to include a total of nine members spanning South America and the Caribbean. Wednesday, ALBA made regional headlines adding Ecuador, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda as its newest member countries.

The major difference between traditional US- led free trade agreements, and ALBA is that the later explicitly works toward a version of regional economic integration that is based on a vision of social development and mutual economic aid. ALBA has a stated mission of "solidarity, cooperation, complementation, and justice." US trade initiatives are primarily concerned with market access and liberalization.

The alliance functions as a counter-weight to the free-trade negotiations initiated by the US in Latin America. The final declaration of the last ALBA summit makes no secret of the member's mistrust toward the US influence in the region.

"[We recognize] the strengthening of the ALBA and its consolidation as a political, economic, and social alliance in defense of the independence, sovereignty, self-determination, and identity of member countries and the interests and aspirations of the peoples of the South, in the face of attempts at political and economic domination,"

While the political position of ALBA has been well defined, there is very little information about the success or failure of specific projects within the alliance on delivering basic needs and creating economic opportunities for people within member countries. Ultimately, the impact on poor people in one of the vastly unequal regions of the world should be the most important aspect of any trade agreement here. Otherwise, ALBA would essentially be no different from the US agreements it seeks to replace. There will most certainly be political costs for nations who join ALBA in their relationship with the United States. Is membership in the new alliance worth those costs or is ALBA nothing more than an example of inflamed rhetoric?

There have been some positive developments, most notably Cuba's "Operation Miracle Program" which, has provided eye care to hundreds of thousands of poor people throughout Latin America. If the alliance does measurably improve the lives of people within membership countries, ALBA should no longer remain in the shadows of political debate and the development community in the United States should take notice.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Should GMO's Be Included in US Food Assistance?

As the debate about the safety and fairness of genetically modified organisms (GMO's) by large agribusinesses intensifies around the world, is it rational for the United States not to be debating the use of such products as food-aid to poor countries? Mandated by law in the United States, 75 percent of all U.S. food donations must be produced, processed, and shipped by U.S. companies.

Large agribusinesses have recently been lobbying around the world to secure markets for their GMO products. Major agricultural oligopolies claim that their genetically modified products are completely safe. Furthermore, any attempt by governments to guard local farmers from their more advanced products was simply "protectionism".

But that hasn't stopped the groundswell of resistance in the European Union for example. Many countries inside the European Union refuse to accept many varieties of GMO's which are bought and sold in the United States. Citing higher safety standards than the United States, European countries remain committed to denying access of some GMO's into their territories. Eleven European Union countries will call next week for the right to opt-outs for growing genetically modified crops.

In response, to the question "should GMO's be banned in Europe?” conducted in April 2009, 79 percent said yes, 18 percent no and 3 percent did not know. There is no question that in Europe there is a deep skepticism about the growing pressure from agricultural powerhouses to pump their products into European markets.

In the US, fifteen groups in the top wheat-exporting countries of Canada, the U.S. and Australia released a joint statement of opposition to GMO wheat this month. The group cited competitive concerns as their primary resistance.
"If (genetically engineered) wheat is released commercially, contamination would be inevitable and markets would view all wheat produced from these areas as GE unless proven to be non-GE...Farmers growing GE wheat will take on all of the responsibilities, costs and liabilities, with little available legal recourse to recover their losses."
If such a resistance is emerging in the global North on the grounds of either safety concerns or competition with larger oligopolies, why is there virtually no debate about the use of these same genetically modified products flooding into poorer countries as aid, let along be sold in the US?

These products have been long criticized by advocacy organizations for hurting local farmers who can't compete. Concerns about the safety of these products are also voiced in regions of the world where cash-strapped governments are less likely to question the safety standards.

As the United States looks to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance to developing countries. There is an important but sadly absent debate about US food aid and GMO's that could prevent us from doing more harm than good.

It would be a complete shame if a little pink cat on youtube could host a more honest discussion on GMO's than the US government.

Well i'll be darned....

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What Is Sustainable Development?: Video

This 2006 discussion at the Aspen Institute on "What is Sustainable Development", hosts one of the liveliest, most insightful interactions on the subject of sustainable development and provides plenty of critical food for thought. The video recorded discussion includes an expertly well- articulated case from the current White House Chief of Economic Advisers, Larry Summers that policy-makers not sacrifice economic development and poverty reduction today for hypothetical "sustainable" successes tomorrow.
"The highest morality is in taking a rather hard-edged view in thinking about where the greatest return for dollar spent is on improving the lives of desperately poor people... and that discipline needs to inform the policy debate."
Sustainable development of course is one of the most prevalent catch phrases in the development community today. There is however, very little discussion about what the term actually means and how sustainability is shaped in the conceptualization of specific courses of action. The rigorous debate, presented to the internet viewing public by Fora TV, is a great starting point for raising deep questions about how development policies are organized. Other than Summers speakers included Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, Harriet Babbitt, former Deputy Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, and Cameron Sinclair, the co-founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity.

The Aid VS Trade Debate Rages On

The debate rages on in the development community between "aid versus trade" strategies for African development. Rest assured, there are absolutely no holds barred here.

In an article clearly aimed at pro-trade advocates like Dambisa Moyo, John McArthur of Millennium Promise argues that Africa has actually made considerable progress in both economic and social development contrary to the opinion that there has been a long-term decline in these areas due to Western aid. "Debunking the Claims of African Regress", lists a few examples of where Africa, compared to South Asia, has reduced extreme poverty, expanded AIDs treatement, and decreased mortality rates.
"These are just a few of the success stories arising from strong local leadership and supportive international partnership. These successes can be replicated and expanded, which is why it is so important to debunk the claims of African regress and to understand how misguided it is when people call for the international community to disengage from supporting Africa."
Ouch! McArthur's article is most certainly entertaining and it does rightly identify some successes in African development. However, it ignores a whole host of failures in the recent past that Moyo and others allege are a result of aid dependency. I personally, would spend a good amount of my summer intern stipend for a ticket to see a debate between Dambiasa Moyo and John McArthur.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Europe Sets Its Sights on African Solar Energy

Africa is a continent rich in natural resources that have the potential to enhance human development for the very poorest of communities. No resource is more abundant than sunlight. The world's largest solar project is planned in the Sahara Desert by a host of European companies that hope to tap into the African sun to meet European energy needs.

"If just 0.3% of the Saharan Desert was used for a concentrating solar plant, it would produce enough power to provide all of Europe with clean renewable energy. That is why 20 blue chip German companies are gathering together next month to discuss plans and investments to create such a massive project. Both the meeting and project are being promoted by the Desertec Foundation, which is proposing to erect 100 GW of concentrating solar power plants throughout Northern Africa."
The ambitious project would also create desalinization plants to draw freshwater from the ocean to meet local agricultural needs. There are plenty of good reasons to be excited for inspired attempts to create "an oasis in the desert" anywhere, but especially in Africa. Hopefully though, the fruits of scientific innovation harnessing the sun's power will ultimately be used to help meet developmental needs in the continent. In recent history, European powers have unfortunately been the primary beneficiary of Africa's resource rich geography. Will solar power be any different?

Why is Globalized Agriculture Leaving 1 Billion People Hungry?

All of us have probably seen movies lampooning the ditzy beauty pageant contestant and her selfless desire to see the "end of world hunger". All jokes aside, the steady march of global hunger is actually gaining strength, while our every attempt to fight back is encumbered by either a lack of coordination, fresh ideas, or both. The number of people in the world designated as hungry has reached a mind-blowing 1 billion. There are 100 million more people who are identified as hungry than last year, consuming fewer than 1,800 calories a day. Not surprisingly, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of hunger in the world.

There are no easy answers to solving hunger in the world, but at least one thing should be obvious---what we have done up until now hasn't worked.As I explained in an earlier post on the 2008 global food crisis, people around the world aren't hungry because there isn't enough food, or even simply because of bad economic policy (although this is an important factor). The very design of globalized agriculture has unfortunately contributed to a lop-sided model that has enriched a few at the expense of many of the world's poorest.

The Impact of the Economic Crisis

Despite the good intentions of policymakers, activists and aid agencies, the economic crisis has only worsened the hunger problem, moving poor nations further away from the aim of food security. The near future looks even bleaker in light of an expectation that international food prices will be exceptionally high well into the next decade. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, released a report which predicts crop prices will be 10 to 20 percent higher during the next decade than during the previous 10 years. The current economic crisis has reduced access to food by the poor. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf had this to say about the fall-out of the recession on the world's most vulnerable,

"A dangerous mix of the global economic slowdown combined with stubbornly high food prices in many countries has pushed some 100 million more people than last year into chronic hunger and poverty...The silent hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security. We urgently need to forge a broad consensus on the total and rapid eradication of hunger in the world and to take the necessary actions."

More and more, the urban poor in the developing world are completely dependent on food that they not only can't produce, but that is produced farther away and by fewer and fewer sources. The end result is that poor families are left vulnerable to wild price fluctuations in the global market. When jobs are lost and incomes dried up there is virtually little recourse for protection. Under the status-quo, many governments are unlikely to initiate any kind of price controls on key food sources to offer some security when prices do sky-rocket.

Is Uneven Development to Blame?

There is a strong argument vocalized in the global South that the world's productive and financial resources for farming are concentrated in the hands of too few agricultural oligopolies in North America, Europe, and in Australia. In this view, the economic crisis did not create the world's hunger problem, but only exposed inherent structural weaknesses in the architecture of globalized agriculture.

The Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal explains the uneven nature of global food production in the world lucidly in an article called, "The new agrarian question : What alternatives for the Third World peasant societies?"

"Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of return on capital, which is localised almost exclusively in North America, in Europe, in the South cone of Latin America and in Australia, employs only a few tens of millions of farmers who are no longer “peasants”. But their productivity, which depends on mechanisation (of which they have monopoly worldwide) and the area of land possessed by each farmer, ranges between 10.000 and 20.000 quintals of equivalent cereals per worker annually..........
The ratio of productivity of the most advanced segment of the world agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10 to 1 before 1940 is now approaching 2000 to 1 ! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agricultural-food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reducing of relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were fifty years ago."

The majority rural farmers in the global South simply can't compete with the highly capital-intensive techniques of subsidized farmers in rich countries without support. In the developing world, peasant farmers are rarely supported with the appropriate technologies and processes to fight crop disease, and climate change among other external factors. Ultimately, these families are priced out of the local market for agricultural foods, which can be produced cheaper in America or Europe and with higher-yield varieties due to genetic modification. Furthermore, colonialism and later structural adjustment policies from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank coordinated the whole sale abandonment of large scale domestic agricultural production for a "competitive advantage" in the extraction of cheap natural resources or labor.

Finding Alternative Solutions to the Hunger Problem

The natural response to the global hunger crisis by most is simply more investment coupled with liberalization. The assumption being that increased spending on productive capacity, and an expansion of market access will help small-holder farmers increase productivity and income. However, this status quo approach does not address the fundamental structural deficit that developing nations have inherited. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton wrote an article in the Huffington Post laying out the Obama Administration's plan to fight hunger. Her policy prescriptions were more of the same market responses to the problem that has characterized at least the last 30 years i.e. "increase agricultural productivity", "stimulate the private sector", and "increase trade".

There are important organizations in the US investigating alternative responses to the growing problem of world hunger which go beyond free- market mechanisms alone. The Institute for Food and Development Policy is a think-tank in Oakland, California which, "believe(s) a world free of hunger is possible if farmers and communities take back control of the food systems presently dominated by transnational agri-foods industries." The IFDP sees the solution to global hunger as a three-pronged approach including building local agri-food systems, forging food sovereignty for farmers, and democratizing the development process.

A host of think-tanks like the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the Third World Forum and mass social movements in the global South are rightly asking for a re-organization of globalized agriculture to meet the needs of the world's poor. However, the dominant policy discourse on hunger in the US hasn't yet acknowledged the uneven structure of globalized agriculture and the need for serious transformation within the system. It seems highly unlikely that the battle against world hunger can be won without conscious policy changes in the US, Europe and other rich nations. There are 1 billion people and counting waiting for that to happen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Celebrating the Summer Solstice...Outside

In the midst of a deeply contested health care debate, there is no better excuse to get our fat American asses outside and enjoy the Earth's great source of energy for billions of years.

Today is the summer solstice, which in the northern hemisphere is the longest day of the year and when the Sun is farthest north. "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still. On the day of the solstice, the Sun rises to the highest level of the year. The effect is that the Sun appears to "stands still."

Around the world there are thousands of festivals to celebrate the awesome power of the Sun at its zenith. Here in Cleveland, I am interning with Policy Matters Ohio and we are having a few celebrations of our own at the local Art Museum.

Enough blogging, its time to catch some rays. It's summer time ya'll!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Climate Change May Starve Africa to Death

Let us all demand that Europe and America finally commit themselves to giving financial assistance to African countries, who are baring the brunt of richer country's carbon emissions. A pretty grim article today in IRIN, warns that climate change might literally wipe out many of Africa's staple food sources in the next 10 years.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international scientific body, has predicted that food production in Africa could halve by 2020 as global warming pushes temperatures up and droughts become more intense.
The article details the increasing likelihood that African farmers will find themselves unable to produce traditional food staples like maize. Unless significant action is taken by African governments to develop climate change resistant crop varieties, the continent could face its worst battle with food insecurity in recent memory. Western governments should save the lectures about the onslaught of global climate change and put the money where their mouths are.

Indian Inequality Fuels Maoist-Insurgency

"The conflict between industry and farmers reflects a wider battle in India, where efforts to modernise the densely populated country have often met with violent backlashes from villagers who make up more than half the country's 1.1 billion plus population."

The government of West Bengal, India has initiated a new counter-insurgency campaign with the hopes of eradicating a Maoist-led "liberated zone". Historical conflict between India's poor farmers and large industrial businesses has fueled a growing Maoist insurgency, which the Indian government considers the country's "greatest internal threat". The insurgency began as a peasant rebellion in the Indian village of Naxalbari in 1967. Since then, the Maoists have been known throughout India as the Naxalites. There have been decades of military actions designed to squash the Naxalite movement, but all have failed.

But the Naxalites maintain widespread popularity reflecting discontent with India's uneven economic development model, which has earned it the position as one of the world's most unequal societies. Despite one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, India has more poor people than any other country, with a third of the global poor there. To give a perspective, there are more people now living under the poverty line of $1.25 in India (425 m), than there are the entire population of the United States.

Aligned with the Naxalites are scores of landless farmers and tribal groups that are willing to risk their lives in order to gain a more decent life. As long as such miserable social conditions persist in India, radical movements for economic change are likely to continue.

This amazing video by Journey Man Pictures details the untold story of India's growing Naxalite movement and the issues of poverty and maldevelopment which continue to plague India. The video features commentary by one courageous author and advocate Arundhati Roy, who continues to speak truth to power on behalf of the poor and oppressed of India.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

All About the Benjamins Baby? The End of American Dollar Hegemony

There is an ever growing possibility that the US dollar's privileged status in the world economy may be eroding, permanently. A necessary step toward a more multi-polar world, why didn't this happen aeons ago?

It was 3 months ago when President Lula da Silva of Brazil remarked that white "blue-eyed bankers" were to blame for the global financial crisis. President da Silva's comments were just one of many diatribes among post-colonial nations against centuries old European and particularly American influence over the world's financial institutions.

Today, emerging powers in the global South met in Russia to discuss a drastic move toward transformation of the global financial architecture. The New York Times, in its standard neoliberal form, fasely described the meeting as a narrow attempt by Russia to challenge perceived American hegemony in the world-system.

For the Kremlin, undermining the dollar as the prevailing medium of exchange reflects a broader Russian belief that the United States exercises a dominance in global affairs that exceeds its diminishing power.

But the article misses the point, which is that something new and of historic proportions is happening in the world economy. In reality, the United States actually does exercise dominance in global affairs that exceeds its diminishing power. Since the 1970's the US dollar has had a virtual monopoly on global exchange. Raw materials, for example are bought and sold for U.S. dollars. Exchange rates between currencies are not fixed but fluctuate all the time, depending largely on speculation about interest rates, and trade balances. There has been no shortage of protest among developing nations against this form of American hegemony.

Today's agreement by China, Russia, India, and Brazil to possibly buy one anothers bonds to lessen dependence on the U.S. , could finally begin a structural shift against the supremacy of the US dollar. Bloomberg Financial News, citing economist Nouriel Roubini, recognized the impending effects of a push-back against US dollar hegemony.

For the U.S., a change in the role of the dollar would risk increasing its financing costs and undermining its preeminent place in the world economy...The currency has dropped 10 percent against the euro in the past three years.
A more horizontal structure of international trade would essentially take out the US as middle-man and level the playing field for developing countries. For the first time in the recent history of global capitalism, there may not be a sole hegemon that controls international exchange. And that may not be such a bad thing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Think-Again: The Iranian Election Was NOT "Stolen"

Disclaimer: I am virulently on the political left, which would make me ideologically opposed to the vast majority of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies (except for his attempts at redistributing Iran's oil wealth to the rural poor). Nevertheless, the facts are the facts, and it is extremely dangerous and tacky for the "independent" press to fabricate lies in order to gain an intended result in an election.

There were no shortage of news commentaries about the supposedly "stolen" presidential elections in Iran. I was a little bit suspicious of how anyone could begin saying the election was rigged with no evidence, within minutes of when the official results were announced. An article today from the Washington Post actually confirms my suspicions. Before the elections, presidential incumbent candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to win by a wider margin than he finished with.

Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin -- greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election.

What actually happened is that upper-middle class groups in Iran screamed the loudest and the western media believed the hype without conducting any independent research. The supposed "new media" internet revolution by opposition candidate supporters was nothing more than a story-book example class privilege.

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups....

The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians.

Yet again, the mainstream media and now even so called "new media" like the Huffington Post, interfere in other nation's democracies, telling lies, or distorting the truth. The Iranian election is a most obvious case.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Italy, and the United States of Africa

All eyes have been on Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi during his first official visit to Libya's former colonial master, Italy. Per his usual eccentric style, there has been no shortage of controversy during his trip. Al-Gaddafi blasted the U.S. for hypocrisy in its war against terrorism, gave a well received speech to hundreds of well-clad Italian women, and suggested that Europe substitute representative democracy for a more direct democratic system along the lines of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

When Gaddafi was elected in February as leader of the African Union, the drums began beating again for a United States of Africa. While discussion of such a Pan-African dream has taken place for decades, no concrete steps have been taken to make it reality.

Today, Africa yet remains fragmented into both large and small countries carved by former colonial powers. The artificial divisions have lead to an untold number of ethnic conflicts, resource wars and an inability for many small countries to compete in the global economy. My hope is that a United States of Africa like the ideal being pushed by Al- Gaddafi, can finally bring an era of peace and development to a continent that has been riddled with internal divisions and extreme poverty.

Of course, there are many skeptics who doubt the feasability of continental unity in our lifetimes. They say a slower unification plan is more likely. The first leader of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, is perhaps the most remembered for his unrivaled advocacy for a politically unified continent. His warning that a gradualist, regional approach to continental unification was impossible, has been adopted by Colonel Gadaffi as he makes his case before the African Union.

Kwame Nkrumah's vision was ahead of its time, but how far? Is the U.S.A. possible in my life time? For now, it remains a dream.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Obama's Quiet War on Poverty?

Poor people basically never came up in the 2008 presidential campaign, not even from the hope-filled lips of Barack Obama. But an interesting commentary by Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director Center for Community Change, claims President Obama has been silently fighting for America's poor and intiated some of the most progressive anti-poverty policies in 40 years since his election.

I haven't seen enough data to check the validity of his claims, Bhargava may be a tad bit over optimistic, but his perspective is interesting none the less.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

African Development Requires Active Government

The World Economic Forum on Africa is a gathering of political and business leaders to discuss global economic competitiveness. With good intentions, speakers like former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and Mozambican first lady Graca Machel are waging consistent efforts to lull foreign venture capitalists to invest in areas such as transport, communications, and agriculture. Their message is crystal clear. While Africa has it's share of bad news, there are positive developments that warrant a safer return on investment and hold the promise of a brighter future for the poor. But is that enough?

Market reforms and democratic governance are two necessary but insufficient pieces of the African development puzzle. Ultimately, governments in Africa must create effective state government structures which can promote socio-economic development. The weaknesses and vulnerabilities of African governments to formulate economic policies and programs that can reverse the deepening poverty trend in the continent are troubling. What Africa desperately needs today is a progressive discussion about the future of economic policy in the region. So far there has been little consensus in continent to ensure that political institutions are empowered to protect the public against market failures like wild fluctuations in the price of food or fuel, and provide essential needs like health care, housing, and jobs.

It would be great to see the World Economic Forum move the discourse from rhetoric about "good" governance to a more focused discussion on effective governance.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Preventing Jobless "Prosperity" in the American Mid-West

American Mid-West Dreams of Prosperity

As policy-makers throughout the mid-western United States look to rebound from decades of capital flight and de-industrialization, prosperity is the mantra of the day. Propserity is a new policy buzz word, which apparently means more tax revenues for government expenditures, and reversal of the population decline in many dying former industrial centers. The hope is that a series of economic reforms can attract Fortune 500 companies back into the region. Last week's infamous flight of NCR from Dayton, Ohio underscores the trend of major companies leaving the mid-west region to cut costs, taking thousands of jobs along with them. With capital flight has come a sustained cycle of joblessness, and it's correlating effects on economic security.

There is a growing consensus in policy debates that the future of economic growth in the region must refocus on former industrial cities like Dayton, Ohio. State governments are looking to spend unprecedented amounts of federal money to stimulate their economies through productivity growth. The logic holds that high-speed economic growth will benefit everyone and attract talented and skilled workers from other areas.

The percentage of productivity growth each year, has become an ever more important indicator for policy-makers during the current recession. But does greater productivity growth necessarily mean more equal opportunity for everyone? And to what ends are policy-makers willing to go to attract Fortune 500 companies into their districts?

Capital or Labor Intensive Industries

For the record, economic growth does not necessarily equal more jobs. The likelihood of more economic growth equaling greater economic opportunity and decent work for current or future residents depends largely on what kinds of industries come into the mid-western cities; capital or labor intensive.

Investopedia, a digital company of Forbes magazine defines a capital intensive industry as
A business process or an industry that requires large amounts of money and other financial resources to produce a good or service. A business is considered capital intensive based on the ratio of the capital required to the amount of labor that is required.
The opposite of capital intensive industries are labor intensive industries which are defined by the same source as
A process or industry that requires a large amount of labor to produce its goods or services. The degree of labor intensity is typically measured in proportion to the amount of capital required to produce the goods/services; the higher the proportion of labor costs required, the more labor intensive the business.
Intuitively, the more labor intensive the industry, the more jobs created. But there are profitable reasons in the short-term for why Fortune 500 companies would choose to invest in a more capital intensive industry. Less workers mean fewer costs, and labor replacing technologies won't demand a living wage, a pension, or healthcare insurance for a family of four---a human being will.

Getting Growth Right

The strategy of many Fortune 500 companies is to increase the ratio of capital to labor, thereby avoiding the burden of paying labor costs. Policy-makers who care anything about creating pathways out of poverty for the poor and decent work for middle-class families should be doing the exact opposite, increase the ratio of labor to capital. The increasingly narrow bottom-lines of Fortune 500 companies, are not the same as those of public servants---or at least they shouldn't be.

The point is that policy-makers should be debating about what kinds of industries they want in their communities rather than competing for individual companies. A piecemeal approach to economic growth and prosperity will leave mid-western states weak and vulnerable to a few short-term bottom-lines; capital flows can easily reverse direction. Through responsible regional and state industrial policy, mid-western policy-makers can attract and sustain the kind of economic growth that will bring decent jobs and opportunity for all.

Admittedly, pulling this task off is easier said than done, but the first step is realizing the current approach is doomed to fail. A real economic growth strategy should be a job creation strategy first.

European Left, Down But Not Out

Europe's New Right Rises

Neither the failure of uncontrolled free-markets to provide economic opportunity for the majority of Europe's poor and working-class families, or the historic recession that cost millions of jobs and loss of wealth were able to deliver victory to left-wing electoral parties in the most recent EU parliament elections. In fact, the left received what can only be described as the closest thing in politics to an "ass whooping".

Right-wing parties in the U.K., Spain, France, Germany and Italy all claimed big victories. Latest EU projections showed center-right parties were expected to take 263 seats, with center-left parties heading for 163. Far-right groups in Britain, Austria, the Netherlands and Hungary also saw gains running on overtly racist, and anti-Islamic platforms.

The emergence of the political right in Europe is actually not that perplexing in light of middle-twentieth century history. During the Great Depression, left parties throughout Europe fell to right-wing fascist parties in Germany and Italy for example. Economic insecurity therefore is not a guarantor of a left-ward shift in favor of more egalitarian programs and policies in government; some of the most regressive regimes have emerged in times of crisis.

Like the fascists of the 1930's, the political right's popularity is largely a result of traditionally left-wing economic policies that include nationalizations and bailouts for major companies.

What Went Wrong?

But the recent political defeats of the European left could have been avoided. Firstly, the European left parties are extremely fragmented. In France for example, the French Socialist Party has split into a handful of smaller opposing left parties, none with any viable strategy to win a national election.

Another problem for the left in general, but governing center- left coalitions in particular, is the inability to articulate a bold agenda for the future beyond social democracy. Center-left coalitions have essentially been relegated to mild defense the post-world war II social-welfare system, in an era where neoliberal reforms and globalization have dominated the economic discourse.

The inability of leftist electoral parties to present a distinct agenda for economic, environmental and social transformation, not only in Europe but around the world, has provided an opportunity for right-wing nationalists to win big.

Reason for Optimism?

Although the European left took a beating in the last election, voter turn-out was at a historic low. Only 43 per cent of 375 million eligible voters cast ballots for representatives to the EU legislature. It is clearly not too late for the European left to organize and begin to formulate the kind of agenda that will not only win elections, but deliver fundamental changes that can improve the lives of the poor and working class families fighting through this terrible recession.

The only remaining question is whether they can unite to get it done?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Does Land Redistribution = Economic Opportunity in South Africa?

Rightly or wrongly, the election of ANC presidential candidate Jacob Zuma has opened a healthy debate about the promises or perils of land redistribution in South Africa. Whites who make up a small minority of the nation's population, own around 87 percent of the land. While the new Zuma administration is apparently endorsing an agenda favorable to the poor, the president has been hesitant to announce any steps toward resolving the question of land ownership. 

Land redistribution and reform is likely an effective strategy for poverty eradication, according to a new paper by noted development economist
 Professor Michael Carter. The research paper, which evaluates the impact of land redistribution in South Africa, was written as a part of the BASIS Research Program on Poverty Inequality and DevelopmentThere is more research to be done in this particular study on land redistribution, but you can read an abstract of the paper here

According to statistical analysis, the impact of redistribution on household per capita consumption ( a measure of purchasing power) is positive and has shown the potential of helping families escape poverty in the short-term. Around 40% of the South African population today is found in rural areas, where the deepest cycles of chronic poverty are found.

The election of Jacob Zuma has ignited a renewal of black hopes and white fears for radical agrarian reform. A comprehensive agrarian reform agenda could be the key to asset redistribution and sustainable economic development for the less well-off rural population. For now, South Africa continues to be one of the most unequal societies in the world. Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the nation has ranked consistently among countries with the worst GINI coefficients--an indice which measures inequality in the distribution of wealth.