Since last week's deadly cyclone in Burma, the nation's ruling military junta has been reluctant to allow aid to enter the country. Since then, trickles of food, water and medicines have been allowed to enter the country, but international aid workers have not. Citing a government that failed to even warn its citizens of the impending disaster, international observers believe that the regime in Burma has neither the will nor the capacity to distribute aid fairly, that corrupt officials are profiting from aid packages, and that the situation created by these conditions threatens to outpace the humanitarian devastation of the 2004 tsunami.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner--the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)--suggested that the international community and the UN are obligated to intervene in Burma, regardless of the wishes of the military junta, in accordance with the "Responsibility to Protect", or R2P, as outlined by the UN at the General Assembly in 2005. The concept asserts that the international community is obligated to intervene in cases where states fail to protect their populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
There are widely varying opinions (pdf) on the legality of the Responibility to Protect. Some argue that it violates the basic concept of sovereignty, while others like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, believe as Kouchner does, that the UN is abdicating its responsibility in Burma. Garreth Evans, of the International Crisis Group, offers a more nuanced interpretation in an editorial for The Guardian:
If it comes to be thought that R2P, and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will simply evaporate in the global south. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along we will be back to the same old depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s."
He admits that if the inaction and neglect of the Burmese government is widely interpreted as a crime against humanity, then there might be room for the principle's application.
But there is no disagreement that the people of Burma can't wait for these issues to be bandied about at the Security Council or across editorial pages. Frustrated nations have a choice to make: either they must defy the wishes of the Burmese junta and send aid workers or airlifts to the Irrawaddy Delta, or they must submit to the regime and send whatever they have in the hopes that it will reach those in need. Regardless, it is clear that moralizing and posturing on the issue is not going to influence many, either in Rangoon or at the UN.
Nearly a week after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, the first UN World Food Program and Red Cross planes were finally allowed to land in Yangon today. U.S. military planes carrying supplies are still waiting in Bangkok for permission to fly from the Burmese government.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. The total number of casualties is anywhere between 23,000 and 100,000 depending on estimates and over 1 million people may have lost their homes. As the arresting images in FP's photo essay "Burma Picks up the Pieces" show, rebuilding after this catastrophe would be a monumental task for any state. For one as repressive and paranoid as Burma, it may be impossible.
While it might seem unimaginable to find a reason for optimism in suffering of this scale, the Burmese people can only hope that the cyclone, and the government's inept handling of it, might be the final blow that brings this odious regime to an end.
Due to skyrocketing rice prices, Liberians are switching to pasta and learning how to twirl spaghetti on a fork. In India, the government has restricted rice exports, and moms are choosing between eating and paying for their children's schooling. Meanwhile in the United States, Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouse stores are limiting the sale of 20-pound (9 kg) bags of jasmine, basmati, and long-grain white rice to four per customer.
In the developed world, food shortages might be overhyped. The head of the California Rice Commission told Reuters, "Bottom line, there is no rice shortage in the United States. We have supplies." Plus, how many Americans buy 80 pounds of rice per shopping trip? (Apparently, it's restaurant owners and small-business owners who typically buy in bulk.)
But for people in developing countries, outrageous food prices and shortages are a serious reality. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, which provides food aid to the needy, told FP in this week's Seven Questions, "This is a silent tsunami." Video, audio, and prepared remarks from her recent talk on global food insecurity at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is also available here.
By the way, if you want to help hungry people get rice, play the Free Rice vocabulary game.
North Korea is not a normal country. Its leaders and state mouthpieces rarely directly say what they mean. Instead, they resort to the same sorts of tactics a truculent toddler might use to get what he wants: screaming, refusing to budge, and so on. The latest? The country threatened to bolster its "deterrent capabilities" to counter "U.S. attempts to initiate nuclear war."
Faced with such bizarre outbursts, many reporters seem mystified as to why Kim Jong Il's regime would suddenly appear to renege on its commitment to disclose all of its nuclear programs. Just being fickle and untrustworthy? But when it comes to North Korea, there's always something else going on behind the craziness. Facing rising inflation back home, China has cut off food exports to the struggling North Koreans:
In Dandung, Liaoning Province, near China’s border with North Korea, food exports to the impoverished country have been completely suspended. Up until now, an average of approximately 1,200 tons of food has crossed the border every day, but as of the beginning of the year, the Chinese government has not issued any new permissions for exports. [...]
China began blocking grain exports in late December of last year in order to stabilize domestic food prices. On December 20, 2007, Beijing suddenly abolished tax incentives for grain exports. Since then, food assistance to North Korea has been completely stopped. As China has refused to permit food exports, officials are finding it useless to try to pay duties on grains.
Not knowing any other way to communicate, the North Koreans tend to lash out when their food supplies run low. And we could be talking about a humanitarian catastrophe soon:
Almost 80-90 percent of food aid to North Korea is delivered via Dandung. If the current situation continues for an extended period of time, North Korea’s food supplies are expected to deteriorate quickly.
The official in Dandung noted that the demand for food will climb in North Korea owing to what is anticipated to be another season of poverty in the spring. "If external shipments of food aid are blocked, North Korean residents will be forced to depend on smuggling or flee the nation," the official added.
Perhaps there's something more nefarious going on, but Occam's Razor suggests that an impending famine is the main reason for the North's latest tantrum. Until the country's leaders learns how to address such problems in a forthright manner, I'm afraid, this is the kind of thing we can expect.
Not long ago, FP editor-in-chief Moisés Naím looked at the phenomenon of "rogue aid" emanating from cash-rich countries like China, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia. Their no-strings-attached assistance to the developing world, he argued, threatens to export undemocratic practices. Illiberal lending may foster a world that is "more corrupt, chaotic, and authoritarian." Now it appears the Bank is trying to make common cause with at least one of the lenders:
The World Bank is planning joint projects in Africa with China's Export-Import Bank to address concerns that Beijing is taking more than it gives as it scours the continent for oil and minerals. World Bank President Robert Zoellick, wrapping up a four-day trip to China, said the pros and cons of the country's push into Africa had been an important topic during his talks with senior officials including Ex-Im Bank Governor Li Ruogu.
A worthwhile effort, no doubt, but as long as China remains ravenous for energy and raw materials it's hard to imagine that Beijing will stop cutting deals with African autocrats. Better Chinese aid practices may well depend on a slower Chinese economy.
Vermiculate. Lobscouse. Desuetude. Macerate.
Just about every American high school student who has planned to attend university has had to learn words such as these in preparation for the SAT exam that is used as part of the college admissions process.
Now, by learning these words, whether for fun or for test preparation, you can also help end hunger. A computer programmer created a Web site, Freerice.com, that throws multiple-choice vocabulary questions at you. For every one you answer correctly, the site donates 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program. The first few questions are relatively easy, but as you answer questions correctly, subsequent ones become progressively more difficult.
Which country is the fairest and most humanitarian of all? According to Dara International, an organization based in Madrid, it's Sweden.
Dara has just released its first Humanitarian Response Index for 2007, which ranks 22 developed countries plus the European Commission in five categories: response to humanitarian needs; integration of relief with development; work with NGOs; implementation of international law; and promotion of accountability.
It's worth noting that the Index rewards countries for devoting a greater percentage of its resources to foreign aid. So, although the United States gives more aid in absolute terms than anyone else, it gets low marks for what you might call "relative generosity."
The funny thing is, most Americans seem to think their country is opening the spigots when it comes to foreign aid. According to statistics compiled by Columbia University professor and FP contributor Jeffrey Sachs, the typical American believes that 25 percent of the gross national income (GNI) is spent on foreign aid. In actuality, the OECD reports that the U.S. provided just 0.22 percent of its GNI in direct foreign aid in 2005, or $27.6 billion.
Sachs claims that poverty could be wiped off the map if the developed world spent 0.7 percent of its total GNI on official foreign aid, yet only five countries do so: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. If the United States followed their example, American taxpayers would shell out approximately $93.8 billion each year in foreign aid.
Ah, but don't Americans give plenty of money through other channels? Not quite. Even if we include the estimated $33.6 billion that is contributed by private organizations each year, the U.S. would still fall $32.6 billion short of that $93.8 billion total.
Why does this matter? Because it's astonishing what could be accomplished if the United States were more like Sweden—in other words, if it increased the U.S. foreign aid budget to 0.7 percent of GNI. For a mere $93.8 billion, the United States could keep all of its current funding commitments and also:
Even after doing all of that, we’d still be over a billion short… but who's counting?
Google Earth is a cool tool that's fun to play around with. Now you can also use it for something more serious—monitoring countries' progress toward achieving the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, eight objectives to be reached by 2015 that form the blueprint of a mighty effort to make poverty history.
Launch Google Earth (download it first if you don't already have it) from the MDG Monitor Web site and you'll be able to click on capital cities all around the world to monitor their corresponding countries' progress toward achieving the MDGs. For example, you can learn that due to improvements in health and education, Madagascar brought its poverty rate down from 85.1 percent in 2003 to 67.5 percent in 2006. (The goal is to reduce the percentage of Madagascarians living on less than $2 a day to 50 percent by 2012.) There are also links to complete country profiles, such as this one for Madagascar.
Not to be outdone, the World Bank has put a bunch of its own data and links to its projects around the world into a Google Maps mashup. It's not quite as flashy, but you don't need to download any special software to view it. Is this the beginning of a map war between the World Bank and the U.N.?
(Hat tip: Mark Leon Goldberg)
Do you know anyone in India who lives near a Western Union branch? If so, they have the chance to receive free money from Tyler Cowen, author of the new book Discover Your Inner Economist. Apparently, he enjoyed his two visits to India so much that he wants to make a "merit-based" gift to Indians.
By the end of this week, he will wire one Indian $500 and five others $100 each through Western Union. If his book gets published in India, he will also distribute the net, post-tax value of his Indian advance to individuals on the subcontinent.
Why in the world is Cowen, an economics professor and blogger, experimenting with this new form of charity? He thinks we should test out zero-overhead giving, in keeping with a belief that perhaps remittances are better than bureaucratic foreign aid. Additionally, he is trying to live by principles for helping people that he writes about in his book. Those principles are:
If you live in India, you can enter yourself, or if you know someone living in India, you can enter on behalf of that person. All Cowen asks is that you send an e-mail with a one-sentence explanation of how the money will help India, according to the instructions posted on his blog.
Cowen says that this method is a zero-waste way of giving money. But with more than 1 billion people in India, it won't shock me if at least one clever person figures out how to scam this experimental form of philanthrophy.
Want to know why China is finding it so easy to make inroads in Africa? Here's what Serge Mombouli, the Republic of Congo's ambassador to the United States, told NPR's Tom Gljelten recently:
Tangible development means you can see, you can touch," Mombouli says. "We need both. We cannot be talking just about democracy, transparency, good governance. At the end of the day the population does not have anything to eat, does not have water to drink, no electricity at night, industry to provide work, so we need both. People do not eat democracy."
Note to world leaders: Spurn Bono at your own risk. Earlier this month, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to meet with the world's most powerful rocker-activist at the G-8 meeting in Germany. "I've got to say that meeting celebrities isn't kind of my shtick ... my principle focus in public policies is not kind of to meet celebrities," Harper said at the time. Bono fired back that Harper had "blocked progress" on aid for Africa and was "out of sync" with his constituents.
Now the Canadian public has weighed in, and they find Bono to be more credible than their own prime minister. Forty-eight percent of Canadians believe Bono when he says that their country is obstructing efforts to get aid to Africa. Just 28 percent believe Harper when he says he isn't. Sixty percent of Canadians agree with Bono that Harper is out of sync with the country.
Looking at these results, you can help but wonder whether Bono has become too powerful.
Just a few years ago, protests by 10,000 demonstrators at a G-8 summit would have been front page news. But yesterday's protests in Heiligendamm, Germany earned merely a few paragraphs on page 21 of today's Washington Post. That tells you just about everything you need to know about the strength and influence of the anti-globalization movement today.
Writing in the latest issue of Britain's Spectator, Ross Clark makes the argument that, "one of the little-remarked side effects of 9/11 was the eclipse of the anti-globalisation movement." It certainly seems that, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many in the anti-globalization movement decided that globalization would simply go away. The reality, of course, as FP pointed in its September/October 2006 issue, couldn't be further from the truth. Globalization is not only alive and well, it is thriving in all corners of the globe.
So why hasn't the anti-globalization movement come back? It doesn't make sense. Globalization is bigger and badder than ever. The World Bank—anti-globalization's Enemy No. 1—has just been hit by a nasty ethics scandal. Yet the "movement," which just a few years ago was so powerful, is nowhere to be found. Why? Iraq probably has something to do with it. Rich, disillusioned youth and the tenured professors who teach them used to sit around vilifying well-intentioned bureaucrats at the World Bank. Now they spend their days vilifying well-intentioned bureaucrats at Embassy Baghdad.
But, perhaps more importantly, the reality is that the anti-globalization movement doesn't have a U.S. president to kick around anymore. It certainly doesn't have one in the Bush Administration, which has delivered more for the poor in Africa than Clinton or Carter did. That, as Al Gore would say, is an inconvenient truth for the anti-globalization left, particularly in Europe. As Bono told CNN (video) this week, "Europeans say Americans don't care, [that] it's a continent behaving like an island. They are wrong."
The sucking sound you hear in Heiligendamm isn't the riot police firing up their water cannons, which appeared to do nothing more than give the protestors a much needed shower. It is the gaping chest wound the Bush administration has inflicted upon the anti-globalization movement. And, if this week's protests are any indication, that wound appears to be fatal.
Of course, that isn't stopping Hollywood from trying its best to resuscitate the fledgling anti-globalization activists. Watch for the movie "Battle in Seattle" coming out in December, starring Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson as erstwhile heroes.
I applaud Al Gore's efforts to confront climate change and laud the fact that he has brought many previously ignored environmental issues into the mainstream. But it's hard not to be a little provoked by a Reuters report today that leads with Al Gore's hope that the Live Earth concerts scheduled for July 7 will do for climate change awareness what Live Aid did for Africa. Aside from noting that pop stars, with their "taste for conspicuous consumption," are hardly the best advocates for environmentalism, we should ask: What exactly did those Live Aid concerts ultimately achieve, apart from a glittering media spectacle and some healthy publicity for its entertainers? An update more than two decades on:
The Live Earth message is undoubtedly important. I just hope the upcoming concerts achieve more than Live Aid did back in 1985.
In yesterday's New York Times, FP editor-in-chief Moisès Naim nicely dissected the growing problem of what he termed "rogue aid"—development aid by dictatorships like China and Venezuela with no strings and little social conscience:
In recent years, wealthy nondemocratic regimes have begun to undermine development policy through their own activist aid programs. Call it rogue aid. It is development assistance that is nondemocratic in origin and nontransparent in practice, and its effect is typically to stifle real progress while hurting ordinary citizens. China is actively backing such deals throughout Africa; its financing of roads, electrical plants, ports and the like boomed from $700 million in 2003 to nearly $3 billion for each of the past two years.
Naim acknowledges, of course, that Western governments have often dabbled in the strategic aid business, particularly during the Cold War. And today's Christian Science Monitor has an interesting take on France's struggle with its own rogue aid problem, which has come to a head at this year's Franco-African summit in Cannes. For years, France has given succor to shady Francophone regimes in a bid to maintain influence in its erstwhile colonial realm. It's a practice that's becoming untenable at home, however:
African protesters, along with international aid organizations, led protests outside of the Cannes summit this week, and France's ties with illiberal African regimes has become a hot-button topic in the ongoing presidential race to replace President Jacques Chirac. "By favoring personal friendships to the detriment of the general interest, the presidential practice has tarnished the image of our country, which is associated in African minds with the most questionable regimes on the continent," wrote French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, in an editorial for the Témoignage Chrétien, a Catholic weekly.
France's bout of conscience makes Naim's point well. For all its flaws, Western development aid has inched toward transparency. Beijing and Caracas are nowhere close.
The German government is getting behind an initiative to open up alternative financing for African countries tempted by Beijing's no-strings-attached loans. The idea? Set up African bond markets that can attract international capital.
Berlin has presented its initiative, part of its agenda as president of the G8 group of industrial nations, as part of an effort to help African countries to insulate themselves against rapid swings in international exchange rates. However, Thomas Mirow, deputy finance minister, said the move would also address concerns fuelled by Beijing’s policy of granting generous, unconditional loans to African countries as a way of securing access to these countries’ resources and markets.
The initiative is a sign of just how nervous Western officials are about losing the powerful leverage that lending has provided them.
It's a sadly typical story: Nearly 2 years after the Asian tsunami struck, aid to countries like Sri Lanka is being handicapped by undelivered funds. The numbers are more shocking than usual, however:
Pledges by countries are falling far below the mark:
After suffering one of its worst droughts in a decade, the Horn of Africa is now the victim of heavy rains and severe flooding. The United Nations estimates that about 1.8 million people across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea are currently affected by the worst flooding in half a century. Bridges and roads have been destroyed, making access for international aid and assistance much more difficult. At least 80 people have already died from the flooding, and the conditions are sure to have devastating effects on homes, livelihoods, and the spread of infectious disease. Plus, the worst isn't over yet. The rains are expected to last a few more weeks.
One of the striking things as I was traveling through Africa: everybody said that the United States' absence is as noticeable and prominent as the Chinese's presence."
As Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora begs for international aid to help offset the estimated $3.6 billion dollars in damages his already economically fragile country has endured over the last few weeks, California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos -- in a mind-boggling move -- is promising to stop a bill that would send $230 million in reconstruction funds to Lebanon. The top Democrat on the International Relations Committee, Lantos is apparently concerned about smuggling on the Syrian border and worried that Israel isn't getting enough money:
Lebanon will get help from both Europe, the Arab world and the United States. Unless the United States provides some aid to Israel, Israel recieves no aid.
Lantos needs to get his priorities straight. Smuggling is something the international community can worry about after it ensures that the Lebanese government is back on its feet and the Lebanese people are no longer dependent on Hezbollah for relief. And reconstruction money for Israel can come later: With a per capita GDP of $21,000, Israel, which is already on the U.S. dole to the tune of $2 billion a year, is more than capable of funding what little "reconstruction" it needs.
Ever wonder what happened to all the foreign donations given to the United States in the aftermath of Katrina? It's not good news. It turns out that, like so much of the federal response to the crisis, the largest influx of foreign assistance to the US in memory was met with foot-dragging and clumsy bureaucracy. None of the donated funds has actually made its way to evacuees.
Some of the donated funds were stuck in a non-interest bearing account for nearly six months - so long that they lost value due to inflation. Back in March, the State Department finally agreed to give a portion of the funds to the Department of Education. When I contacted the DoE recently to find out how they'd put the foreign donations to good use, I was shocked to learn that the money hadn't yet been spent.
Today, the DoE announced that it plans to spend $60 million donated by foreign governments - about half the total received by the federal government - to help rebuild schools on the Gulf Coast. To that, I say kudos; it's money much-needed. But why so late? Why did DoE sit on the funds for so long? Shouldn't those schools have been rebuilt in time for this school year?
It's hard to put former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in a political category. His views on some social issues--faith-based initiatives, for example--invite liberal ire, but the same people might praise him for his commitment to foreign aid or his role in urging President Bush to extend $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. Gerson gets kudos from some Republicans for hawkish tendencies on security, but he has few fans in the small-government camp.
An unusual mix of social conservatism, foreign aid bigheartedness, and sheer political shrewdness, Gerson has been a strong voice in policy planning on issues as different as Darfur and debt relief. But even those without an ear in the White House have heard Gerson's voice through the numerous speeches he wrote for President Bush. FP spoke recently with Gerson--the man who brought the phrase "axis of evil" into the vernacular--about his many years with the Bush administration. Read him in his own words here.
On Sunday, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will hold its first free elections in more than 40 years. International donors have chipped in nearly half a billion dollars to finance the vote - this in a country with only a few hundred miles of paved roads, crippling poverty, little access to health care, and the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping force. But I'm all in favor of freedom, and there's good news out of the country's war-torn east today: three of the main warring militias there have agreed to lay down their arms. Still, the election is a huge logistical challenge: thousands of candidates, rampant intimidation, and the very real possibility of fraud (5 million extra ballots have been printed).
That's just the election. There's the other small matter of rebuilding the country's infrastructure after a devastating civil war that ended in 2002, after killing 4 million people. That war sucked in not just neighboring countries, but tens of thousands of child soldiers, who are now slowly being demobilized. But how do you integrate kids who extorted, murdered, and raped, most because they were forced by elder soldiers, but some because they wanted to?
In a new ForeignPolicy.com exclusive, Paule Bouvier and Pierre Englebert examine the incredible challenges the DRC faces, not just in pulling off this weekend's election, but in making the democratic experiment stick by securing the country and pulling its devastated population out of poverty. Despite all the international investment and the domestic enthusiasm, it's unlikely this weekend's election will deliver a miracle.
More than six years after leaving office, Bill Clinton has a new country to represent: Liberia. On Monday, Clinton pledged himself to be Liberia's roving ambassador, promising an audience in Monrovia to do everything in his power to help the country recover from its 14-year civil war.
One can't help but wonder whether Clinton's offer might stem from guilt for his inaction during Liberia's chaotic 1990s. It's also unclear exactly what Clinton's promise means. At best, it could mean renewed international attention and an influx of aid that the new government could use to reconstruct its war-ravaged infrastructure. At the very least, it will give Liberians confidence that other countries are paying attention to their struggle.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who just completed her first six months in office, said at a donors' conference last week that her country isn't looking for fresh aid, but instead seeks new ideas for how to reconstruct. Getting an American ex-president as a roving ambassador? It won't rebuild roads, but it's not a bad place to start.
The first beneficiary of Warren Buffett's largesse is not some poor developing country, but the world's richest and most powerful nation: the United States.
America's reputation has had a rough ride these last few years. Much of this can obviously be chalked up to foreign policy decisions made by George W. Bush and the almost total absence of public diplomacy during his first term. But a lot of it was also the apparent discrediting of the US economic model. Enron, WorldCom, et al. seemed to demonstrate that corporate America was as corrupt as its critics alleged. Then Katrina "revealed" a country where the poor drowned while the rich fiddled. Combine all this with a justified sense that American social mobility is not what it once was and, for an increasingly large numbers of outsiders, the debate over the morality of American capitalism had been settled. Buffett's actions have changed that verdict from guilty to non-proven.
I was in London when the Sage of Omaha made his announcement and I have never seen such positive coverage of the US in the British media in all my life. All of a sudden articles appeared saying 'why aren't our rich more like the American rich, this is the moral justification for American capitalism, look at how much private American citizens give away' etc. Karen Hughes couldn't have scripted it better.
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