Post #42 – The Lone Ranger Rides Again: America’s Return to Iraq

 

            In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on August 8 (www.nytimes.com/2014/08/09/opinion/president-obama-thomas-l-friedman-iraq-and-world-affairs.html?), President Obama stressed that the US was only fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) in Iraq as a partner, not as Iraq’s or the Kurds’ air force. “We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you.  We’re not sending a bunch of US troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things,” Obama said his officials are telling everyone.  Now, less than three weeks later, the strategic picture changed.  US air strikes temporarily stalled the IS advance, but its expanding territorial control (now about equal in area to Jordan) and the beheading of an American reporter led Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to declare IS a threat “beyond anything we’ve seen.”  Washington was reported to be contemplating increasing the number of US advisers.  There is even talk of carrying out air strikes in Syria.

            We have witnessed this sudden turnaround many times before, haven’t we?  The pattern is all too familiar.  First, the President and other top US leaders soft-pedal talk about a modest direct role in a conflict: no boots on the ground, just a few air strikes to create better odds for our side.  Then the characterization of the threat changes, from local to regional and even global (see the comments of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, at www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/us/politics/us-isnt-sure-just-how-much-to-fear-isis.html).  What was once called a terrorist group now is an insurgency, with grand ambitions that may carry to our doorstep.  This change is followed by dropping talk of partnership and political reform in our ally’s capital.  Now the threat takes on highest priority.  Congress follows the administration’s lead by abandoning its responsibility to authorize war or otherwise challenge the commander-in-chief.    

            Once the stakes have risen in the minds of decisionmakers, the US role becomes paramount.  After all, if not us, who?  The US thus becomes the victim of its unilateralist impulse.  When presidents of both parties have decided to intervene abroad—in Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, and Iraq, for example—they always acted in the name of national security and were quite prepared to go to war without allies.  When they accepted offers of help, it was only on the condition of total US control of war making.  War “by committee” was unacceptable, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said in relation to the first Gulf War.  What the US wants are “coalitions of the willing”—governments willing, that is, to follow US orders.

          Now the US faces having to deal with the IS largely on its own. The “we” in Obama’s interview with Friedman includes no one else but us—unless, that is, you include Syria, whose dictator has already thrown down the welcome mat at the prospect of the US becoming involved in its civil war and bombing IS soldiers.  Everyone else is writing checks or cheerleading from the sidelines. Such a situation, as John Feffer recently wrote (http://fpif.org/bombing-caliphate/), is fraught with peril.  US bombs will kill a certain number of IS fighters, but how many more recruits will IS gain as a result?  How much more likely will an attack on a target in the US become as Washington makes the war on IS its own?  How much less likely will a political settlement of Iraq’s internal struggle be?  Trying to level the playing field unilaterally with bombs and advisers is a sucker’s game.

            Where are US allies in this supposedly monumental battle—not just the Europeans in NATO but the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Australians?  Where are the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Turks?  (Well, we know where they are.)  What about the Saudis, who have played an artful double game by supplying low-cost oil to the US and doing business with Israel while nurturing the Salafi Sunni terrorists whom the US now faces as IS? (See www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/opinion/isis-atrocities-started-with-saudi-support-for-salafi-hate.html?).  (Oh yes, the Saudis wrote a check for about a half billion dollars to the UN for humanitarian relief—quiet money!)  Chuck Hagel may think the IS threat is “imminent” and must be “destroyed,” but why has no one else said so?  And why hasn’t the US brought this “threat to international security” to the United Nations?

          ISIS is evil, but it isn’t a threat on the order of Nazi Germany.  If it were, presumably many countries would line up with Washington. Moreover, the IS threat is to regional states and people of every religion.  If they believe their survival is on the line, they will respond accordingly.  The Kurds, the Iranians, the Saudis, even those Iraqis who haven’t run away are all well armed and well trained, and have the numbers, to deal with IS.  Let them protect themselves.  The US is again playing sheriff without a posse.

Post #41 – The US-China Tangle Over the South China Sea

The best way to describe the latest round of U.S.-China dispute over the South China Sea (SCS) is “déjà vu all over again.”  (See post #23 for background.)  The setting this time was the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Burma (Myanmar), attended by foreign ministers from the ten ASEAN countries plus representatives from seventeen other countries affiliated in various ways with the forum.  The ARF’s purpose is to discuss security and political issues of concern to the region, and on this occasion the topics included North Korea’s nuclear weapons and host Burma’s human-rights situation as well as the SCS.

For the US, the SCS issue keeps rising on its Asia agenda.  It’s no longer a matter of offering to serve as a broker, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did. At the August 9 meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The United States and ASEAN have a common responsibility to ensure the maritime security of critical sea, land and ports. We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea and to manage them peacefully, and also to manage them on the basis of international law.” He called for a freeze on “provocative acts” in the disputed area, echoing a Filipino idea.  But ASEAN’s secretary-general refused to pick up on Kerry’s idea, saying: “”It is up to ASEAN to encourage China to achieve a serious and effective implementation of this commitment, rather than ASEAN asking whether it should support or not support the [U.S.] proposal.”[1]

The Chinese position at the ARF meeting was that China was the party practicing restraint, and that “provocations” by other countries would require that China make a “clear and firm reaction.” Rejecting the freeze idea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “any proposal to come up with an alternative [to a code of conduct] would only disrupt discussion” of a code.[2]  China’s Wang Yi added: “Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea,” Wang told reporters. “We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them.”

Wang insisted that the SCS situation was “stable on the whole” and implied that Kerry was wrong to think otherwise.[3]  China and ASEAN don’t need any help resolving the dispute, Wang said at the close of the meeting.  Does the United States “want to confuse the region?” he asked. “Countries out of the region can reasonably voice their concern, but we disagree with them for coming to the region finger-pointing.”[4]  So much for Kerry’s notion of “working together to manage tensions.”

These quite diverse positions were prefigured by US-China exchanges on SCS earlier this year.  In February, for instance, on the eve of a trip to East Asia, Kerry lent support to the Philippines position and called for resolving the territorial issue through negotiations in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international law.  (The US, it should be noted, has not ratified UNCLOS, though it has recognized the convention as customary international law. China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, but in 2006 declared that it had sovereignty over the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.[5])  The Chinese side said then that its position was in accord with international law and that the SCS dispute is best dealt with “by the countries directly concerned”—meaning bilaterally.[6]  Then in July, Kerry met with senior PRC officials in Beijing as part of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an event that Xi Jinping opened by saying that “cooperation between China and the United States will benefit the world.”  However, the spirit of cooperation was not much in evidence, as Kerry criticized China’s record on human rights and others in the US delegation pressed China on climate change.  Kerry urged that China sign a legally binding code of conduct.  A unilateral attempt to change the status quo, he said, would be “unacceptable” to the US.[7]

In the background to this dispute are immediate and long-range differences.  China has been actively asserting that the SCS islands are one of its “core interests” for some time.  Its moves into the Scarborough Shoal area claimed by the Philippines in 2012, and its deployment of a deep-sea oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam this year—though the rig was withdrawn within two months, in mid-July—are among the Chinese actions that have led to sharp exchanges between Beijing and these neighbors.  China’s unwillingness to accept international adjudication of the dispute, and its presumption of sovereignty over the islands and much of the surrounding area, have raised suspicions of its intentions around Asia. Yet the major feature of China’s Southeast Asia policy is economic. The SCS contains well-established oil and gas deposits that all the claimants covet.  China-ASEAN trade is approaching $500 billion annually, and Chinese aid projects have been highly visible—a high-speed rail line in Thailand and a second gas pipeline in Burma, for instance.[8]

Meantime, the US has been stepping up its own presence in the region, particularly in the Philippines.  Manila has agreed to expand the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement to allow more regular US naval and air access to Philippines bases such as Subic Bay.  US support of Japan in the Diaoyudao-Senkakus dispute with China is also relevant.  Washington has long wanted greater Japanese burden sharing on security matters, and now, to Beijing’s dismay, it has that possibility: Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s push for constitutional revision that would enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective defense activities with the United States.

The long-term strategic context of these moves is the contrasting approaches of the US and China to regional security.  The US plan since 2009 to “rebalance” its forces in Asia, underscored by President Obama’s trip to four countries in the region in April,[9] is clearly designed to reassure both traditional allies and other friendly governments (including Malaysia) that the US remains committed to defense of its Asia interests, presumably against China.  Meanwhile, Xi Jinping, while promoting the theme of a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, talks of an all-Asia security arrangement that would not include the US.[10] At the Beijing meeting in July, Kerry, with Xi at his side, sought to reassure the Chinese that US policy was not to “push back against or be in conflict with China.” Trouble is, the Chinese do not seem reassured, instead seeing the renewed US attention to Asia as (depending on the Chinese official or security analyst) either a return to the Cold War or a challenge to China’s sovereign rights.  On the US side, the worry seems to be that China’s initiatives in the SCS and with the ASEAN countries add up to an effort gradually to erode the US alliance system.  Some experts think China’s goal is eventually to push the US out of East Asia altogether.

Secretary Kerry, in a speech in Hawaii following the ARF meetings, said that the US wants a “rules-based regional order” in Asia.[11]  Freezing activity in the SCS is seen as being preliminary to creating a binding code of conduct.  The nearest thing to a code, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC), signed by ASEAN and China at Phnom Penh in November 2002, is (like most such documents) vague on the details.[12]  The DOC commits the parties to resolving disputes by peaceful means, without using threats or force and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.  Article 5 of the Declaration then states:

 

The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner. Pending the peaceful settlement of territorial and jurisdictional disputes, the Parties concerned undertake to intensify efforts to seek ways, in the spirit of cooperation and understanding, to build trust and confidence . . .

 

The document goes on to indicate various trust-building steps, including exchanges of views between defense officials, prior notification of military movements, and cooperative projects such as search-and-rescue and protection of marine life.

The DOC comes up short on which actions demonstrate self-restraint and which are unreasonable escalations.  How violations of good behavior would be treated also remains to be determined.  There is no assurance that a code of conduct would fill these gaps though, as Mark Valencia has shown, one can be drawn up that would be comprehensive in covering each of the party’s particular concerns.[13]  Everyone agrees, as the final statement of the ARF’s foreign ministers said, that the SCS is a matter of “serious concern” and that all parties need to exercise “restraint.”  Most everyone could probably agree—since such agreement has precedent in the China-Japan island dispute—that a formula to share undersea resources is desirable.  Moreover, during the ARF meetings, China-Japan and Japan-South Korea get-togethers took place on the sidelines, a positive omen in light of the absence of recent summit diplomacy in those relationships.  Still, it would be hard to describe the ARF meeting as a diplomatic success, since all the participants—and not just the Americans and Chinese—clung to previous positions and a code of conduct remains a distant objective.

While that is the case, the SCS dispute holds the possibility of suddenly spiraling out of control.  As events of the last year indicate—not only the Chinese oil rig incident but also landings of personnel on particular islands, contracts with international oil companies, detention of fishermen, deployments of ships, interference with other parties’ vessels, and anti-Chinese riots—none of the stakeholders has a monopoly on good behavior.  And while Washington talks about legalities, China has legitimate concerns about US military snooping in Chinese coastal waters.

The SCS dispute thus continues to overshadow prospects for a fully cooperative US-China relationship. The fact that other issues are also in play to mar the relationship—human rights, cyberhacking, and climate change, just to mention three—only magnifies Beijing-Washington differences on the SCS.  None of these issues needs be a deal breaker that would put US-China relations into a Cold War-style deep freeze.  Kerry’s Hawaii speech in fact was quite optimistic about the overall state of relations, pointing to China’s cooperation on North Korea, South Sudan, and the Iran nuclear talks, and reaffirming that all the US wants in the SCS dispute is nonuse of force and “a mutual embrace of the rules, the norms, and institutions that have served both of our nations and the region so well.”  But Kerry knows very well that China and the US do not agree on many rules, norms, and institutions, partly because of their very different histories and power positions in the world, and partly because of contending nationalisms and levels of interest in Asia.  Handling the dicey SCS issue will require considerable deftness, above all respect for different world views, at a time when both the Obama and Xi administrations have their hands full with domestic problems and other foreign-policy concerns.

[1] www.ibtimes.com/us-proposal-smooth-tensions-south-china-sea-overlooked-asean-regional-forum-2014-1654030.

[2] www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-china-tussle-over-sea-claims/2014/08/10/2f613504-2085-11e4-8b10-7db129976abb_story.html.

[3] Matthew Lee, “Kerry Seeks to Calm South China Sea Tensions,” http://news.yahoo.com/kerry-seeks-calm-south-china-sea-tensions-102916700–politics.html.

[4] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/11/c_126853353.htm.

[5] www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/convention_declarations.htm.

[6] sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/south-china-sea-tensions-a-backdrop-to-kerrys-china-visit/.

[7] www.nytimes.com/2014/07/10/world/asia/kerry-urges-china-to-reduce-tensions-in-nearby-seas.html.

[8] Patrick M. Cronin and Cecilia Zhou, “US and China’s Dueling Visions of ASEAN,” The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2014/08/us-and-chinas-dueling-visions-of-asean/.

[9] See my “Obama in Asia, with China in Mind,” www.chinausfocus.com/print/?id=37399.

[10] Xi presented this idea at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia in May 2014.  He suggested that the CICA become “a security dialogue and cooperation platform that covers the whole of Asia.”  See my “Xi Jinping Visits Seoul: The Bigger Picture,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 12, Issue 30, No. 2 (July 28, 2014), at www.japanfocus.org.

[11] John Kerry, “U.S. Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement,” August 13, 2014, www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/08/230597.htm.

[12] Text at www.asean.org/asean/external-relations/china/item/declaration-on-the-conduct-of-parties-in-the-south-china-sea.

[13] Mark J. Valencia, “The East China Sea Disputes: History, Status, and Ways Forward,” Asian Perspective, vol. 38, No. 2 (2014), pp. 183-218.

Post #40 -The Coup in Baghdad

“What coup?” you ask. “How could I have missed it?”  No, you didn’t exactly miss it; it’s just that the media didn’t call it a coup, describing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s losing struggle to stay in power as Middle East politics-as-usual.  But the event was something more than that.  As I see it, the Obama administration, frustrated with its man in Baghdad, decided, probably weeks ago, that Maliki would have to go and then set about pressuring various parties to bring about that outcome. The administration also anointed his successor, Haider al-Abadi, whom Iraq’s parliament nominated to replace Maliki.  As the New York Times reported August 11, both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called Abadi to congratulate him and offer full support, even though Maliki still has a month to go before he must step down.

The chief political question in Iraq in the last week or so had been which coup, Maliki’s or Obama’s, would prevail?  Maliki reportedly was planning to keep power by deploying loyal special forces and militia to Baghdad.  But he was no match for the forces arrayed against him: Iraq’s army, whose leadership refused to join in a coup; many of Maliki’s Shiite allies, who abandoned support of him; the parliament, where Maliki did not have the votes to stay on; and the Obama administration, which threatened to stop aid to Iraq unless Maliki stepped down.  He angered the administration by refusing to bring Sunnis and Kurds into a new coalition, undermining the US effort to confront the Islamic State’s (formerly ISIS) military advances.

The US was not just another player in the effort to remove Maliki.  After all, Washington has made a huge investment in lives and treasure to preserve its interests in Iraq—access to its oil, defeat of terrorist groups, and prevention of disintegration and possible federalization of the country.  Someday I am confident that we will have documents that show the calculated US plan to get rid of Maliki—a coup by any other name.  One piece of evidence of US planning that has come to light is a cable from the main State Department officer concerned with Iraq, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk.  On his Twitter feed, McGurk wrote: “Fully support President of Iraq Fouad Masoum as guarantor of the constitution and a nominee who can build a national consensus.”  Masoum followed the US script by supporting Abadi.

No one should be surprised by the US interest in running a coup to eliminate a leader it had courted and supported since 2006.  From the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam to that of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, removing another country’s leader when he no longer serves US purposes has ample precedent.  Sometimes this happens by assassination, as with Diem: the White House gives the green light to the actual coup leaders.  At other times, as in the Philippines, the White House endorses the local military’s use of pressure to force the leader’s exit.  In Iraq today, the tactic chosen by Washington was to state repeatedly that it had lost confidence in the prime minister and “urged” Iraqi politicians to come up with another guy.  The fact that Maliki had been supported by two US administrations no longer was relevant.  Obama preferred another candidate, and essentially announced that the US would not try to save Iraq with more military aid, air strikes, and advisers so long as Maliki remained in office.  Once Maliki’s ouster was assured, the administration announced that another 130 advisers were being sent to Iraq, raising the US military presence to around 1,000.

Many years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said of Chiang Kai-shek, whose antics were under fire in Washington, that “he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.”  That view saved Chiang from a coup, but it wasn’t enough to save Maliki.  Not that Maliki deserves to stay in power.  Quite the opposite: he is widely regarded as corrupt and dictatorial.  But my point is that his future was for the Iraqis alone to decide.  By becoming the central actor in his removal, and in the designation of Maliki’s successor, the US has once again increased its stake in Iraq and accepted anew all the perils that accompany intervention in a highly unstable political and military environment.

Post #39 – What Works? Microfinance: Financing Dignity

Back in the 1970s, Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh had a brilliant idea.  He would found a bank to provide seed money to poor people who otherwise would have no way to obtain a loan and start a small business.  Believing that women, as managers of households, would be more responsible than their husbands in organizing a business and making it successful, Yunus decided that bank loans would go primarily if not exclusively to women.  This practice empowers women, a major benefit in its own right. As most of us know, Muhammad Yunus was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his Grameen Bank, which provides loans from as little as $100 to $1,000, 97 percent of them to women, and claims a 99 percent return rate. The loans are made possible by people’s deposits in savings accounts, and a charge of 20-percent interest.  The bank’s profits are returned annually to depositors in dividends. Around 8.4 million rural villagers have to date been served by Grameen’s 2,500 branches.

The Grameen experiment has spawned a worldwide network of microfinance institutions (MFIs), including Grameen America. Just to get some idea of the numbers, size of fund, and other features, and how they rank, see the charts in Forbes online.  It surveyed 641 MFIs in developing countries, basing the ranking on full disclosure by the institutions of their loan operations (www.forbes.com/2007/12/20/microfinance-philanthropy-credit-biz-cz_ms_1220microfinance_table.html.) The Forbes survey shows that Bangladesh, India, Ecuador, and Colombia seem to have the most highly ranked MFIs.

Separate from the Grameen Bank is the Grameen Foundation (www.grameenfoundation.org), founded by Yunus in 1997, with headquarters in Washington DC.  The foundation operates in many developing countries, offering (among other services) microloans and microsavings programs. The inclusion of savings programs is instructive.  It reflects the finding that, as important as loans are to the poor, encouraging savings at a reasonable interest rate is just as important.

But not all is rosy.  In 2011 Muhammad Yunus was removed as managing director of the bank by the Bangladesh government, which then decreed that it had the power to control both his successor and the board of directors, which up until then was (deliberately) dominated by poor women.  Politics clearly dictated the removal of Yunus: He was a frequent critic of the government, which is usually ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt.  Yunus has also raised an issue detrimental to the growth of all developing-country MFIs: commercialization. In an op-ed for the New York Times, he observed that in India and elsewhere, microfinancing has given way to for-profit banking, resulting in reduced lending to the poor and increased interest rates (“Sacrificing Microcredit for Megaprofits,” January 14, 2011).  This trend, Yunus observes, defeats the purpose of microlending and should not be dignified with that name.

Microlending has evolved in form as well as function.  A notable example is Kiva (www.kiva.org). Founded in 2005, it has quickly become very popular because of its innovative Internet-based donations approach.  People in developing countries advertise their proposed business projects online and their requested loan levels.  You and I, through our credit cards, are invited to send money, typically $25, directly to the person and project we want to support. Kiva inspectors monitor loans on site to ensure faithful business practices.  In its brief existence, amazingly, Kiva reports nearly $600 million in loans,1.2 million lenders, and a 98 percent loan repayment rate.

          Acción (www.accion.org) is active in 32 countries, including the US.  Three of every four borrowers are female, and 97 percent of its loans are reportedly repaid.  Acción works with over sixty partner MFIs, mainly in Latin America but also with some in Asia (India and China) and Africa.  Unlike most other MFIs, Acción focuses on building microfinance institutions rather than lending directly (except in the US, where it is a loan agency).  It describes this service as follows: “We build sustainable, scalable microfinance institutions (MFIs) that share our commitment to the double bottom line – maximizing both financial and social impact – by providing those MFIs with management services, technical assistance, investments and governance. Like a venture capital firm, we combine investment of capital with managerial expertise. Our managers are typically seconded to partner MFIs and use their experience to help build sound, commercial models of microfinance that are scalable, profitable and carefully attuned to protecting clients’ rights. Together, these services help catapult smaller, younger MFIs to the highest level of performance.”  As of 2012, Acción reports average first loans of just under $1,000 and a total loan portfolio of over $7 billion.

FINCA (www.FINCA.org) is another US-based microfinance organization.  Over a 25-year period, FINCA has developed credit programs in 22 countries serving about 1.7 million people.  In Africa, for example, FINCA’s reports indicate it now serves about 636,000 people who seek to start small businesses.  Its loans average $490, and have a 97 percent repayment rate.  FINCA also provides insurance to both businesses and individuals, enabling them to afford such things as health care and solar energy, and in some countries operates subsidiaries that have been accepted as full-fledged banks catering to low-income people.

Ufani Agricultural Organization (UFAGRO) is a microloan organization in the village of Dareda Kati, Tanzania.  Formed in 2012, UFAGRO grew out of the grassroots development work of the Karimu International Help Foundation (www.karimufoundation.org) based in Idyllwild, California.  Don Stoll and Marianne Kent-Stoll visited Dareda Kati in 2007, established the foundation the next year, and have returned regularly to the village ever since. Thanks to them and village leaders, four members of the community every month, mostly women, are voted $70 loans. The money comes from monthly dues that microcredit group members pay into the fund.  Villagers have used the seed money to buy more egg-laying chickens and set up a snack shop, among other projects.  Through Karimu (which means “generous” in Swahili), Don and Marianne recently provided additional seed money, nearly $4,000, to help villagers with larger needs.  As they describe it: “The seed money funded more substantial loans, of about $230 each, to seventeen different members.  Each recipient of a $230 loan was given one year to repay, at five percent interest; each recipient of a smaller, $70 loan was given three months to repay, with an additional five percent also payable at the end of the three months.” Thus, between Karimu and UFAGRO, the people of Dareda Kati have the means to go beyond their traditional subsistence farming.  Don’s periodic Tanzania diary (http://dstoll49.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/tanzania-diary-july-3/) tells of the daily struggles and achievements as these villagers determine how to improve the quality of their lives.

Our last microfinance story is about BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  It was founded in 1972 by Dr. Mahabub Hossain, an international development economist. BRAC has branches in twelve Asian, African, and Caribbean countries, and ranks very highly among all microfinance organizations according to various expert analyses. It is a full-scope development nongovernmental organization, with microloans only one component of its anti-poverty agenda.  The organization describes its work (www.brac.net/) as “creating an ecosystem in which the poor have the chance to seize control of their own lives. We do this with a holistic development approach geared toward inclusion, using tools like microfinance, education, healthcare, legal services, community empowerment, social enterprises and BRAC University. Our work now touches the lives of an estimated 135 million people, with staff and BRAC-trained entrepreneurs numbering in the hundreds of thousands . . . ”  (Thanks to Peter Beck for bringing BRAC to my attention.)

Post #38 – Smoke and Mirrors in Gaza

One of the cardinal lessons of international conflict resolution is that two warring parties will not be interested in a peaceful settlement if they believe continuing to fight is worth more than negotiating.  John Kerry faced this truth as he struggled to broker something more meaningful in Gaza than a few hours or a few days of so-called peace.  Unfortunately to him, both the Israeli and the Hamas leaderships came to believe that peacemaking on their terms would yield few gains, whereas fighting might achieve gains that had been unachievable before.  Now it appears that Israel won’t even bother to meet with Hamas on a truce, having announced it would wind down its assault in Gaza on its own terms—which allowed for more indiscriminate bombing that yesterday claimed a UN school-turned-shelter, an attack that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”

Many reports from Israel pointed to an increasing conviction among its leaders that now was the time to eliminate Hamas once and for all.  The tunnels had to be entirely wiped out and the rockets silenced; Hamas’ leadership had to be discredited; Gaza had to have a permanent Israeli military presence.  For Hamas, continued fighting justified its existence and established its legitimacy as a negotiating partner.  It was also the only way Hamas leaders saw, apparently, to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza, open border crossings with Egypt, and thus free Gazans from the economic squeeze that has dramatically reduced their quality of life.  At this moment the Israeli approach seems to have succeeded.

For both sides, and especially for the innocent people who are paying the highest costs for more fighting, this war is particularly anguishing because it was avoidable, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group recently argued (www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/opinion/gaza-and-israel-the-road-to-war-paved-by-the-west.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss).  Thrall’s article points the finger at Israel, with US support, for obstructing the reconciliation agreement reached by the PLO and Hamas last April, which might have laid the groundwork for a new peace accord with Israel.  Hamas was in a weakened condition then, and the “national consensus” that it agreed to put the Palestinian Authority in the driver’s seat in Gaza as it is in the West Bank.  A few generous acts by Israel and the US at that time, in particular enabling Gaza’s civil servants to be paid, might well have produced entirely different reactions when the kidnappings and murders occurred earlier this month.

That failure to seize the moment is merely the latest in a long string of missed opportunities for peace in the Middle East.  Recall the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Authority legislative council, elections that President George W. Bush strongly urged.  The result was a Hamas victory that took Washington completely by surprise.  Neither the Americans nor the Israelis could stomach such a turn of events.  Back then Israeli artillery and air strikes in Gaza, met by Hamas rockets, ended a brief post-election truce.  Thus began the latest round of the war on Gaza.  In 2007 Israel imposed an economic blockade on Gaza, and in 2008 set restrictions for security reasons on substantial portions of Gaza’s agricultural and fishing areas.  These restrictions, according to a United Nations report in August 2010—“Between the Fence and a Hard Place,” (www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_special_focus_2010_08_19_english.pdf)  —had “devastating” consequences for people’s livelihoods in Gaza.  They also enhanced Hamas’ standing there as an alternative to Israel’s continuing assault on living standards and personal security.

David Grossman, Israeli author of The Yellow Wind and other outstanding books on Israeli-Palestinian differences, has written an impassioned op-ed that deserves wide attention (www.nytimes.com/2014/07/28/opinion/david-grossman-end-the-grindstone-of-israeli-palestinian-violence.html). He believes it may finally be dawning on Israelis of diverse political persuasions that there are no winners in war, and that Israel must negotiate with Hamas.  He writes in the name of a common humanity as well as a deep conviction that Israel’s leadership has failed its people by rejecting a peace that has long been within reach.  But nobody in Tel Aviv is listening.  Benjamin Netanyahu seems to believe that war is the answer—that somehow, contrary to all the historical evidence about resistance movements, the civilian and military survivors of Israel’s attacks will accept their fate and allow the occupying power to do what it wants.  Netanyahu and his supporters will be proven wrong, but before that happens, the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike will continue.

And what of the US role?  The Israeli air attacks have been met with “understanding” by the President, the Secretary of State, and other high US officials.  Yes, they have expressed “concern” about the “heartbreaking” toll on the Palestinians these attacks have caused—over 1,800 dead and 8,000 wounded last I looked.  (Israel has lost 63 soldiers and 3 civilians.)  Far be it from US leaders to criticize Israel’s conduct, however. To the contrary, President Obama told Netanyahu in a telephone call July 24 that he “underscored the United States’ strong condemnation of Hamas’ rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself,” said the White House statement.  Evidently, the Palestinians have no such right.  And whereas Obama demanded the unconditional release of an Israeli soldier wrongly believed to have been captured by Hamas, calling it a “barbaric” act, no Israeli action has been so characterized.  Public and Congressional opinion in the US seems to support the official view that Hamas is to blame for this latest round of conflict, so Obama is just where he wants to be—on politically safe terrain.

Kerry said the US goal in Gaza was “an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.”  Though a cease-fire of any sort seems dead in the water now, we might still raise questions about it.  What humanitarian objectives would it have achieved?  Would it have ended Israel’s economic stranglehold on Gaza’s people, replaced their bombed-out homes and hospitals, or compensated the families of innocent victims of military assault?  Would it have demilitarized Gaza in ways applicable to Israel as well as to Hamas?

It now appears that the Israelis were never really interested in Kerry’s cease-fire efforts, minimal though they were.  As was reported the other day, Netanyahu upbraided the US ambassador to Israel by saying the Obama administration should never “second guess me again” on dealing with Hamas. You have to hand it to Netanyahu; he knows how to manipulate the Israel-US relationship to his advantage.  He knows how rarely Washington follows up its “concern” about Israeli military and political actions with any withdrawal or reduction of support.  Thus, he lets the US leadership fret (or pretend to fret) for awhile, and engage in endless shuttle diplomacy, while he goes about his business. This time around, Netanyahu has had a bonus: For their own reasons of state, the Egyptians—meaning the military junta that seized power last July and has been busy suppressing human rights ever since, with barely a murmur from Washington—are perfectly content to watch the demise of Hamas.  The junta is earning its reward in June: resumption of US military aid ($575 million for starters, and assurances that Apache attack helicopters will be shipped).  We sure know how to keep our friends happy.

As I argued in a previous post (#13), the US approach to a Middle East peace is one-sided and doesn’t effectively address the core obstacles that have bedeviled diplomacy for decades.  A just peace would mean Israeli-Palestinian sharing of authority over Jerusalem, with assured access to all religions; mutual recognition by Israel and the new Palestinian state of each other’s sovereignty and right to exist; compensation to Palestinian refugees; and a land-for-peace formula that would swap arable land annexed by Israel for an equal amount of land Israelis have settled, allowing for creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.  Jimmy Carter’s Geneva Initiative (see www.cartercenter.org/news/documents/doc1556.html) and Tikkun magazine’s Geneva Accord (www.tikkun.org/article.php/JanFeb2004TOC) are among the sources that demonstrate that a just peace can be constructed if only the various parties have the will to do so.  What is lacking to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not so much a fair and viable plan as the political will to carry it out.  “Political leaders are the obstacles to peace,” Carter has said.

Post #37 – War’s Other Casualties: The Situation in Gaza and the Global Refugee Crisis

I ended a recent post by asking when someone would step forward to bring about a cease-fire. Well, John Kerry eventually answered the call. But by the time he left Tel Aviv and a 12-hour ceasefire began on July 26, the body count had reached 856 Palestinians and 40 Israelis dead, as well as several thousand wounded. As I write, the Palestinian toll has reached 1,000. Neither side seemed interested in negotiating a more enduring halt to the fighting or a renewed approach to a peace agreement. Instead, accusations of terrorism and self-righteous proclamations were commonplace. I’m thinking, in the latter case, of Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the US and former US citizen, who said in an interview with the New York Times July 26, “the Israeli Defense Forces should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.” Indictment of Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes seems more appropriate.

Left out of the casualty figures, but no less important, are all the people who have been forced from their homes and have become refugees in their own country. This reality, that war’s heaviest impact is on civilian populations, is often obscured by its frequency. People flee as the bombs fall; another refugee camp is set up to house thousands of them; and thousands more line the roads leading to another country. How often have we read such reports?

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says there are around 5 million Palestinians in the Middle East who count as refugees (www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees), making them the world’s largest refugee population. About a third of them are registered with the agency in 58 (!) camps, located in Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding countries. The other two-thirds are not in camps. Except for those living in Jordan, Palestinians are stateless; they do not have citizen rights, whether in Israeli-occupied territory or in Syria and Lebanon (http://prrn.mcgill.ca/background/).

With the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the figure for Palestinian refugees is rising again. It draws our attention to the desperate worldwide refugee situation. The main United Nations refugee organization—UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—provides statistics and, along with numerous nongovernmental organizations, various forms of relief. Its most recent (2013) report (www.unhcr.org/gr13/index.xml) gives a total worldwide refugee population of around 11.7 million, of whom UNHCR assists about 8.5 million. That figures does not include a staggering 24 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) who, like the refugees, overwhelmingly live in the Middle East and Africa. When all types of forcibly displaced persons are counted, the global figure is over 45 million, the highest total in twenty years.

You can imagine what the costs of helping all these people must be, and how increasingly difficult it must also be to raise adequate funds when the problem keeps growing and when so many other global issues compete for money. At the end of 2013 UNHCR’s budget called for around $5.3 billion; but it only raised about 60 percent of that amount from governments and private sources. (The US, at 36 percent; Japan, at 9 percent; and the European Union at 7 percent are the top three governmental donors. Private donations account for 7 percent of all funding.)

Keeping up with the world refugee crisis is virtually impossible. Just look at what has happened in the Middle East this year. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries or calmer parts of their own country (such as Kurdish territory in Iraq). Many Iraqi families have become refugees for the second or third time in recent years. Afghani refugees, numbering 2.6 million, are stranded in Pakistan and Iran. Meanwhile, in Africa, very large numbers of people from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eritrea have also been forced to flee. The strain on the budgets of host countries is enormous, and the stresses that providers must face as they try to meet basic needs are huge. Moreover, refugee camps are fertile ground for gangs, recruitment by terrorist groups and political factions, and fights over scarce resources.

And let’s remember that “refugees” does not include migrant workers and their family members. Consider, in the US alone, the roughly 3 million undocumented migrants from Mexico and beyond as well of late as the many thousands of children who have crossed the border alone from Central America. They aren’t exactly receiving a warm welcome from Texans and Arizonans–though I’m pleased to note that the governor of Oregon has declared those children are welcome here. Or take the North Koreans who manage to cross the border with China to escape horrendous repression. They must somehow blend in with the Korean Chinese population; but if they are caught and returned to China, they are treated as migrants and thus denied the rights granted to refugees under international law. We need to remind ourselves that ever since the enormous refugee problem at the end of World War II, refugees who have “a well-founded fear of persecution” have the right to resettlement in another country, and cannot be sent back by the receiving country. Tell that to Beijing.

Interested in helping? Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, CARE, and the International Committee of the Red Cross are among the many relief organizations that are doing wonderful work. A full list of organizations can be found at www.globalcorps.com/jobs/ngolist.pdf.

Post #36 – What Works? Person- and Planet-centered Development

The usual script for international development is the provision of aid—mostly in loans, occasionally in outright grants—by a “developed” country or international institution to an “underdeveloped” one. The money goes from the top to the top. With luck some of it will flow from the receiving government to the local people who need it. As often as not, however, a fair portion of the aid money will find its way into the pockets of developing country officials, their cronies in business, and their favorite banks in Geneva or Miami.

But there is another script: development from the ground up. I’m referring to grassroots assistance that encourages self-reliance and capacity building, and is directed to immediate human needs, such as clean water, unadulterated food, literacy, childhood diseases, gender balance, and increased income opportunity. Thanks to the insights of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, the United Nations Development Program adopted a concept of human development that it now applies annually to rank all countries that contribute information. You can see this ranking and its components at www.undp.org. Nongovernmental organizations that focus on aid for human development, such as Oxfam (www.oxfam.org), the Renewable Energy Enterprises Foundation (www.alleviatepovertynow.org), and the Institute for Food and Development Policy (www.foodfirst.org) deserve our support, because they make a difference in people’s lives and understand that the purpose of aid is to promote sustainable, locally-determined growth, not to provide charity or aim at growth for growth’s sake.

Besides NGOs, many individuals—probably in the tens of thousands—are quietly but effectively doing their part to promote the capacity of poor people to improve the quality of their lives. I mentioned some of these folks in a previous post on health care; and in a future post I’ll discuss microfinance. Here I can only add a few more names of people who are promoting other kinds of human development through environmental protection, education, and food assistance. My purpose is to show that there is good news everywhere thanks to the usually unsung efforts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things—people who are reaching out across their community, country, or the world.

Paul Meiliara is chairman of Soralo, the South Rift Association of Land Owners (www.soralo.com), which is home to the Maasai tribe that straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border. Soralo represents seventeen communities spread out over about 2.5 million acres. Under Paul’s leadership since 2004, the Maasai have responded to serious environmental problems—lower rainfall, prolonged drought, overgrazing by livestock, cutting down of trees for charcoal—by coming together around shared values and respect for the land and its animals. Their goal is to make good use of the community’s natural resources while preserving local values embedded in ceremonies, generational stages, and respect for the interdependence of wildlife and livestock. With cooperation from various NGOs, and in response to the Kenyan government’s insistence that the Maasai subdivide land, Soralo has developed land conservancy and ecotourism programs, a resource center, and a women-run dairy cooperative. (Thanks to Shiloh Sundstrom, who is doing doctoral research among the Maasai, for introducing Paul to my community.)

The Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society (www.bluefieldsbayfishers.wordpress.com) in Jamaica seeks to provide people with new employment opportunities while maintaining sustainable environmental practices. In this breathtakingly beautiful seaside area, best known for its luxury tourist villas, the BBFFS runs educational programs, food and housing for the poor, and a market place. Simultaneously, the organization is trying to preserve its fisheries and sea life through establishment of a marine sanctuary, which received help from Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic offshoot of Sandals Resorts. BBFFS is responding to rising tourism by emphasizing ecotourism, with the marine sanctuary as the centerpiece. (Thanks to Candice Goucher for alerting me to BBFFS.)

Right here in my own tiny community of Deadwood, Oregon, three people are involved in international programs that are making a difference. Michelle Holman and Churpa Rosa-Rogers are among the directors of another Jamaica project, the Jamaica Breakfast Program (www.jamaicabreakfastprogram.com), which finances breakfasts for 47 school kids in a very poor neighborhood. The program’s mission is simple but meaningful: “to promote health and nutrition to needy school children in Jamaica and to advance the education and social welfare of the poorest students by providing access to adequate food.” Michelle gave me this personal perspective: “By fundraising in the US, I have been fortunate to play a role in the lives of some very economically disadvantaged children in a very desperate Jamaican ghetto town. The reality is that help from the ‘first world’ is a tourniquet on Jamaica’s hemorrhaging economic system. While this type of help alone is not the ultimate answer, it does stem the flow of suffering for these very needy children for whom the food that is provided by our Jamaica Breakfast Program is often the only food they will receive that day. True economic health lies in a country’s ability to feed itself. Our own government has been guilty of taking resources from Jamaica and not giving back in ways that could help remedy the situation . . . In the present moment, children must eat, so we feed them.”

Johnny Sundstrom links our area with the Russian Far East via the Siuslaw Basin Partnership. The partnership evolved following decades of clearcutting in the Siuslaw National Forest. It has effectively engaged in forest and watershed restoration, including recovery of the salmon population, via collaborative planning among landowners, businesses, and government. In 2004 the Siuslaw Basin Partnership (www.siuslawinstitute.org) won an award, the Thiess International Riverprize, for effective river management, and was encouraged to reach across the Pacific to share expertise in restoring waterways. This brought Johnny into contact with Russia’s Sakhalin Island communities, which have similar geography and salmon issues. The result has been a longstanding friendship and sharing of knowledge about watershed protection.

Jere and Emilee Gettle created Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri to preserve a heritage that is under assault from Monsanto and other giant agribusiness and biotech firms (www.rareseeds.com). The Gettles have gained a lot of media attention for their accomplishments, which include promoting non-GMO, non-patented seed sales at three locations in the US, publishing seed catalogues and a magazine (Heirloom Gardener), holding an annual festival on gardening and food politics in Sonoma County, California, and supplying free seeds in the poorest countries. Their philosophy, defined in their latest Good Seeds catalogue, is to start “a revolution in the garden, on the farm, and most of all, at the dinner table: a revolution that reconnects us and our kids to the earth, to the seeds and to the value of good food.”  Jere adds the following personal note:

“I feel heirloom seeds are not just a means to provide food and security, but also a means for connecting us to future generations, places and times. It is an incredible feeling to bite into a melon or radish that Thomas Jefferson grew, or cook a squash my ancestors grew. Heirloom seeds are living bits of history and often times the only way we can connect to the past in such a vibrant way, as well as embrace the future as we hand these living treasures on to our children. Seeds represent the future, full of promise, blessings and life. “

Know of other good-news stories? Send them along, and support the people behind them.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.

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