Category Archives: Gender politics

Global South Rising

Amidst all the bad news from Syria and the Middle East, three amazing new datapoints show that economic development in the global South has legs. Economies are working better, governments have learned lessons, and the international community is far more effective than in the past at helping very poor countries claw their way out of poverty.

The first datapoint is a new report from the World Bank about the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, defined as less that $1.25 per day (in today’s dollars). In 27 years from 1981 to 2008, the ranks of the extreme poor fell from more than half the world population to less than a quarter. The lion’s share of this dramatic progress has come in China, where economic growth of about 10 percent annually has been sustained over these three decades, with the result that extreme poverty fell from 84 percent to 13 percent. Meanwhile in the world’s poorest region, sub-Saharan Africa, the rate had increased in the 1990s but fell from 56 to 48 percent just in 2002-2008.

In the past few years of economic turmoil and recession in the global North, the big countries of the South (China, India, Brazil) have kept growing robustly. This has kept commodity prices relatively high, unlike most past recessions in which lower demand forces prices down. The higher commodity prices favor exporting countries throughout the global South (as well as Russia, notably). Despite the recession in the North, and high food prices that have hurt the poor in the past few years, the World Bank preliminary data show the decline in extreme poverty continuing unabated through 2010. Charles Kenny argues that the World Bank data are actually too pessimistic — things are getting better even faster than reported. And the spread of technology like cell phones into poor countries is accelerating the progress.

Ten years ago the UN adopted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to assess progress in economic development and the provision of basic human needs in the global South. The first of the eight goals is to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 relative to 1990 levels. I figured it was an ambitious goal that we’d get halfway to, and that was probably good enough. Instead the world has met the goal in full, five years early. As I said, “amazing.”

Another MDG is to cut in half the number of people worldwide without access to safe drinking water, relative to 1990s when one quarter of humanity lacked that access. A new report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the 2010 number at 11 percent of the world — again meeting the MDG five years ahead of schedule, and again amazing. It translates to billions of people getting safer water over the past twenty years.

The third datapoint is a series of reports and findings in recent months that add up to tremendous progress in improving health in poor countries. For years UNICEF has promoted low-cost methods of saving children from preventable deaths, especially from disease. UNICEF says it is “off track” in meeting the MDG to reduce child mortality by two-thirds, and other MDGs such as sanitation also lag behind schedule (African leaders meet today to review progress on the MDGs). But sub-Saharan Africa’s under-five mortality rate still dropped by almost a quarter from 1990 to 2008. Maternal mortality has also made progress, though mostly outside Africa, in the past two decades.

Vaccination campaigns (boosted by the Gates Foundation’s efforts) have made relentless progress against measles, polio, and TB. “Measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2008 worldwide,” reports the WHO. Polio is just being eradicated entirely from India, with tangible (if still a bit elusive) prospects of eliminating the disease worldwide, following the smallpox model. Rates of tuberculosis are falling, though slowly, and the terrible setback in global health from the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been reversed, with new infections now on the decline although years of pain are still ahead with tens of millions infected globally. Finally, malaria mortality rates have fallen by a quarter worldwide in the past decade, with mosquito netting and other programs reaching more and more people.

This is more than a humanitarian success. The economic growth in the global South that underlies much of this progress, and has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty in China alone in recent decades, is reshaping the world political economy. The list of biggest economies — total GDP measured at purchasing-power parity — now reads:  USA, China, India, Japan, Germany, Russia, and Brazil (which, at $2.3 trillion, has just passed the UK, France, and Italy which occupy spots 8-10 on the list). In other words, the global South now accounts for two of the top three, and three of the top seven, economies in the world. Small wonder that the old G7 (with four from Europe, two from North America, and Japan) has all but retired in favor of the G20 with representatives of the South.

Good news never seems to get as much attention as violence and disaster, so perhaps we should not be surprised that the monumental progress in reducing poverty made it only to the bottom of p.4 in today’s New York Times. As for the great report on safe drinking water, well there it is in the last paragraph of that story on p.4 about the World Bank poverty report. And the progress in public health worldwide does not seem to be newsworthy at all. But it really is.

Egypt’s Election and Islamism

Ballots in Egypt Dec. 2011The results of the Egyptian election are in, though not complete, and two Islamist parties have scored big victories. The Muslim Brotherhood, a long-established and well-organized point of opposition to Mubarak over the years, leads the voting as expected with about 37 percent. What was not expected was the strong showing for the Salafists, a more conservative Islamist group, with about 25 percent, outpolling the liberal, secular parties. As the traditional center of the Arab world and a country of 80 million people, Egypt will set the direction of political Islam far beyond its borders.

This round of elections will choose only about 30 percent of the seats in parliament so it’s too soon to say how a new government will shake out. But I’m not convinced that “the Islamists” — representing the more moderate Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists (and a third party with about 5 percent) — is the right category for thinking about this. In 1962 the political scientist William Riker developed the theory of minimum winning coalitions. It predicts basically that if the Muslim Brotherhood is going to lead a government, it may turn to smaller parties, perhaps the liberal secularists, to get over 51 percent. The #2 winner, the Salafists, would exact a greater price (in cabinet positions, for example) for their participation, whereas the liberals would take what they could get.

In addition, the Salafists put the Brotherhood in an awkward position in defining the role of Islam in Egyptian society. The Salafists’ success, according to the NY Times, presents “a challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, in part by plunging it into a polarizing Islamist-against-Islamist debate over the application of Islamic law in Egypt’s promised democracy, a debate the Brotherhood had worked hard to avoid.”

And indeed, today the Salafists came out with a statement that they would not water down their views to join a Brotherhood-led government. They oppose a secular state and insist on sharia law. Ed Husain writes in The Atlantic that they pose an extreme danger and terrify many Egyptians.

Israelis are worried that the Islamist turn in Egypt will spell trouble from its long-time stable ally. Israel has seen Islamism turn Iran from an ally to a bitter enemy after 1979, and more recently saw free elections in Palestine bring to power the Islamist movement Hamas, which has also been a bitter enemy. A former Israeli ambassador to Egypt called the changes in the region an “Islamic tsunami,” which actually does not seem too far from reality.

However, as the Egyptian elections clearly illustrate, there is not one Islamism in the region, but several. Three states have Islamist leaders but follow very different models. Saudi Arabia is most closely related to Egyptian Salafists, and follows a very conservative domestic politics in such matters as women’s rights and sharia law. Iran is an Islamic Republic but Saudi Arabia’s great enemy — reflecting the Shia-Sunni divide. Turkey is the model that resonates most in the region, with an Islamist leader but capitalist economy, connections with the West (Turkey is a NATO member), and a deepening respect for human rights. That is the model followed by Tunisia’s recently successful party that won elections there, and the model of the Brotherhood in Egypt.

With all these models competing, and others that do not have control of a state (the failed al Qaeda model still limping along in Yemen and Somalia), the label “Islamist” does not clarify Middle East politics very much. What divides Islamists is as important as what unites them.

Seven Billion and Counting

Baby photoToday the world’s population passes seven billion, more or less. Population is growing by about 200,000 a day and nobody really knows when it passed, or will pass, this milestone. But UN officials declared October 31 as their best guess.

This led to some silliness about declaring one person to be the “seven billionth baby” — proof that people like stories better than statistics. Since India is the country with the most babies being born, and Uttar Pradesh the most populous state in India, with 11 new babies every minute, why not pick a baby there as the lucky number 7 billion?  Why not indeed? “A primary health centre in Sunhaida village has predicted the baby will be born to 25-year-old Pinky Pawar, wife of a local shopkeeper.”

Then a couple of NGOs that focus on the skewed sex ratio of boys and girls, the result of sex-selective abortions, decided to pick a girl baby in Uttar Pradesh, in order to draw attention to their issue. They picked the newborn daughter of a poor farmer, Baby Nargis, to symbolize how great baby girls are (what’s not to like?)

But why cede ground to India? International relations is a competitive business after all. The Philippines got a jump by declaring Danica Camacho the 7 billionth even though she was born two minutes before midnight. Her mother said simply, “She looks so lovely.” But a Philippines health official warned, “We should really focus on the question of whether there will be food, clean water, shelter, education and a decent life for every child … If the answer is ‘no,’ it would be better for people to look at easing this population explosion.” Easier said than done.

Recently I have been lecturing about the encouraging decline of armed conflict worldwide in recent decades. At almost every event, someone in the audience asks whether it isn’t true that the world’s growing population and a shortage of natural resources will send war back into an upswing. My answer is mostly no. The partial truth behind this idea is that poverty is a big risk factor for civil war Economist Paul Collier has written clearly about the “conflict trap” in which war keeps poverty in place while poverty makes war more likely. To the extent that growing world population makes it harder for the poorest countries to get economic growth going, those countries will be at greater risk of civil wars. However, we can see from the example of India that rising population and some festering little civil wars do not necessarily hold back a big country from getting its economic legs under it. India’s economy is growing robustly, its birthrate has been falling for years, and its war-proneness is also gradually abating. The same is generally true for the world as a whole.

As for fighting over natural resources, I don’t really buy it. It’s one thing to see small bands of thugs, I mean armed militias, grabbing diamonds or coltan in very remote locations in very poor countries in Africa. But the idea of big wars between countries fought over water or oil or food doesn’t fly. After all, this was the model of Japan in the 1930s — use military conquest to secure access to needed natural resources — and of Germany’s military expansion to gain “living room” for its growing population. How did that work out for them?

Today China has some conflicts with its neighbors over, say, oil in the South China Sea. The moment a war breaks out, nobody will be able to pump oil there. Or take Israel and Lebanon, trying to figure out who owns newly discovered natural gas deposits offshore near their border. Fighting over them will not allow the gas to be developed. Rather, the way to get the goods is through negotiation, agreeing on a line or a division of the spoils, and using international institutions to monitor compliance. In the Caspian Sea, vast oil deposits were discovered just after the Soviet Union broke up and the international boundaries were unclear. But no war resulted. Instead the countries yelled at each other for a few years, then got out the maps, drew some lines, and started pumping oil.

Thinking about the big wars of recent decades, none of them were fought over access to natural resources: The Ethiopia-Eritrea war,the Iran-Iraq War, the India-Pakistan Wars, the Vietnam War, the Korean War. Some people look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a grab for oil, but if so it sure didn’t work out.

Wealth these days comes from trade, not land. Trade is disrupted by war.  Countries used to encourage patriotic baby-production to create larger armies. Now technology trumps size in military conflicts. Therefore a growing population does not mean growing levels of violent conflict.

As for baby Danica Camacho in the Philippines and baby Nargis in India, they arrive in a world wired for Internet, not for war. Just Google “Danica Camacho billion” — 200,000 results, impressive for someone not yet a day old. And “baby Nargis billion”?  2.4 million pages. We have a winner!  You go baby!

In Praise of UNICEF

UNICEF photo of childThe famine in Somalia continues to call for our attention and response. As stepped-up international aid begins to arrive, I have been noticing the key role of an agency we too easily take for granted — the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

It’s not just how much UNICEF does, but how many different kinds of things. UNICEF has operated in Somalia continuously since 1972. In the past week, it vaccinated 40,000 children under five, and a like number of women, in Mogadishu alone, while gearing up to vaccinate 55,000 more kids in Somalia and another 200,000 in areas of Kenya overrun with refugees. Recently, when the Islamic militant group al Shabab eased its restriction on international aid to areas it controls, the first in with an airlift to the town of Baidoa was UNICEF. This involved a delicate negotiation to ensure aid was not diverted by the militants and that aid workers were not harmed. The latter, sadly, cannot be taken for granted, as aid workers in Somalia have been harassed, kidnapped, and killed in the past. In Burundi in 1999 the UNICEF representative was murdered by rebels.

The agency’s role in emergencies such as the present one is laudable. But more impressive is its worldwide presence. UNICEF is the largest purchaser of vaccines worldwide, responsible for 40 percent of vaccines used in developing countries. It provides nutritional supplements such as Vitamin A, and helps with mosquito nets for malaria. UNICEF also promotes breast-feeding and other low-cost methods to enhance child health.

These efforts are dramatically improving prospects for poor children. In just thirty years, immunization rates went from below 20 percent to 75 percent worldwide. And most impressively, in just 20 years since 1990, the overall mortality for children under five has fallen by a third, from about 12 million to 8 million a year. That translates to 12,000 fewer child deaths per day. And the progress is accelerating in the new century compared with the 1990s. Many people are sad that the world is falling short of a Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015, but one-third in twenty years is still historically unprecedented.

UNICEF operates in 150 countries and sticks around through thick and thin. In Sierra Leone in the 1990s, UNICEF arrived years before any peacekeepers, and stayed on when fighting flared and the peacekeepers left for a while.

All this from an agency that receives no money from the UN budget, and relies entirely on voluntary contributions from governments, businesses and individuals. When I was a kid, we collected donations at Halloween in little orange boxes. Today kids continue this tradition, started in 1950, but this year people short of spare change can scan a Microsoft Tag on the box with a smart phone to donate to UNICEF. Don’t wait for Halloween, though — the UNICEF website is here. Or think about supporting the other organizations doing vital work in the Somalia famine, mentioned in earlier blog posts:  Oxfam, the World Food Program, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors Without Borders.

The international response to a famine says a lot about who we are, as human beings. In this case things were slow to get going, but are gearing up impressively as the international community mobilizes. NGOs and agencies like UNICEF have learned a lot over the years, and are doing a good job with limited resources. It’s worth a “thank you” and some money in that orange box.

Arab Spring struggles through summer

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to in international relations right now? My answer is, still, the Arab Spring,the latest of the great waves of democracy worldwide to crest in recent decades. It will reshape the international relations of the greater Middle East. For the better, I hope.

And of all the countries in the Arab Spring, the most important is Egypt. The revolution there happened quickly and has been overshadowed by ongoing conflicts in Libya and Syria, but Egypt is the biggest and historically most central in the Arab World. At 80 million people, it’s more than twice as large as any other Arab country.

Trouble is, it’s not clear how things will turn out there. The people’s uprising in Egypt made an extraordinary move by putting their faith in the military to protect society and bring about changes. In the short term, it worked. The military turned against President Mubarak, refused to shoot the protesters, and then took control of the country when Mubarak stepped down. A coup d’etat in the name of democracy.

Since then, the military government has made progress in organizing elections and setting up a process to write a new constitution. Parliamentary elections are expected in October or November, though foreign observers will not be allowed. The Cabinet was just reshuffled in response to street protests. But the government continues to arrest and torture people. Women have been largely pushed aside after taking a big role in the anti-Mubarak protests. And it’s not clear how much power the military will reserve for itself in the new Egypt. The military runs a major segment of the economy and makes a lot of money doing so (money it probably will not want to stop making). And speaking of the economy, it is still in shambles, with tourism way down. Egyptians who put trust in the military were either brilliant or stupid, but it’s not really clear which one yet.

So there we have it on this Friday — the most important phenomenon in the world, the most important country in that phenomenon, but no clear picture of how it’s going to turn out. Protesters are still camping out in Tahrir Square to demand follow-through on real democracy. Their newest enemy is the heat, which regularly tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s even hotter than Massachusetts today.

Democracy is empowering citizens, harmonizing norms across the world, and making war less likely than ever. It’s been an amazing 25 years since People Power swept Ferdinand Marcos from power in the Philippines. Eastern Europe threw off communism; Latin America gave up military government; big players like Indonesia and Nigeria joined in. Now, the Arab Spring. It’s big, and it’s far from finished. Let’s hope it ends well.

East Africa Drought

Today I’d like to pause and give some sympathy and support to the displaced people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya who are suffering from drought on top of war. Refugees International calls it the worst drought in Somalia in sixty years.

Here is background video from al Jazeera:

Oxfam writes:

Severe drought has pushed more than 10 million people in East Africa into a struggle for survival. Conditions are deteriorating rapidly, forcing many families to abandon their homes for refugee camps, a journey so difficult many don’t survive. In some areas, more than half the livestock has perished, while remaining herds are sick or seriously underweight.

Oxfam is trucking water to villages where all other sources have dried up, digging wells and providing life-saving food and medical supplies to people in crisis. As this crisis grows, we MUST rush more supplies and staff to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Here’s a video about the kind of work Oxfam is doing in drought-prone east Africa:

And here’s where you can donate if you want to help Oxfam provide humanitarian aid to the displaced people from Somalia:

Oxfam America — Donate

Thailand Gets First Woman Leader

Today I’m putting Thailand on the top of the stack, to take note of a bit of history being made there — the country’s first woman prime minister.

Over the weekend, Yingluck Shinawatra was putting together her cabinet and coalition arrangements. A week ago her Pheu Thai Party won elections in a landslide after a period of deep divisions in the country. The party’s power base is in the countryside, in opposition to the urban-based traditional Thai elite. Its supporters, known as redshirts, battled the government in armed clashes in the streets of the capital last year. (On the other side are Thai nationalists known as yellowshirts).

Shinawatra’s big brother, Thaksin Shinawat, was ousted from his position as democratically elected prime minister in a coup in 2006. His critics found him corrupt and autocratic. He now lives in exile in Dubai.

Some opponents of Pheu Thai Party say that little sister will just be a puppet for big brother. But in quite a few countries, women leaders have gotten to power on the coattails of their male relatives, such as widows filling in if their husbands are assassinated. At first, various men in the inner circle figure they can control and manipulate the female stand-in while using her popularity to advantage. But usually these women quickly take charge, make their own decisions, and keep the males around them in line.

In Thailand there are also women’s organizations that the new prime minister can draw on. And she is forming a broad coalition government despite winning an outright majority of seats — part of her strategy to unify the country. The Thai military is in no mood for another coup, so little sister might just succeed where big brother ran into trouble.

Here is a 4-minute background video about Shinawatra’s election:

Thailand now joins the growing list of countries that have had female top leaders. In Thailand’s neighborhood that list includes Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Every decade new countries join. The women leaders have varied a lot in style and politics, some pro-peace and some hard-line. But as a group they have proven just as capable at politics as their male counterparts. The countries that still haven’t tried a woman as leader include the United States, China, and Russia.