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By Sara Hooker

Sporting events have traditionally been a source of catharsis for the nation-state. The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing was like prom for the girl who had finally removed her braces, as China showed off the eclectic economic mix which had taken it to dizzying new heights of wealth. The World Cup this year in South Africa showed a host nation with a truly hopeless soccer team but a more valid story; a country emerging from the after effects of apartheid as a blossoming economic power.

Of course, the role of the debutante nation-state is not always easy. Greece struggled to organize the 2004 Summer Olympics in time, running massively over budget and saved only by the formidable Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. The games themselves were a success but the fundamental issues within the Olympic committee; corruption, logistical delays and incoherence in government seemed to indicate greater underlying issues which rippled the economic system.

Looking at the latest example of international games, the 2010 Commonwealth Games currently underway in Delhi, India, we may again question what these games say about the economy of the host nation. So far the verdict is discouraging. The games themselves have been ill attended with empty stadiums dominating the landscape and heavy criticism about the state of facilities, particularly the Athletes’ village. This is all against an estimated sunk cost of $2.8 billion, making it the most expensive Commonwealth Games in history.

What does this say about India’s future as an emerging economic power? Read the rest of this entry »

About 40 % of the Afghan population are Pashtuns, and there are 4 million Pashtuns living in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a nation divided, a nation that holds the key to security in the region. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pasthun native, has to some degree neglected the Pasthun population the past 9 years, and while keeping up a tight relationship with India, Pakistan is stirring up the Pashtuns in order to undermine the Afghan government.

The relationship amongst the Pashtun people is one of the reasons why the U.S. objective of a secure and stable Afghanistan has failed so far. Pashtunwali, the Pashtun social code, was one of the reasons the Pashtun population of Baluchistan, FATA and the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan gave shelters to the Taliban and al-Qaeda warriors, and thereby letting them regroup and conduct operations, rest and recreate, and train from inside their bases within Pakistan. This creates a situation that makes it difficult for the U.S. and NATO to achieve their goals in Afghanistan, as most of the main insurgent groups have their bases in Pakistan. The provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar are the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and the insurgents in these provinces conduct their operations from Pakistan (e.g. the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network)

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With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

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Ten months into his administration, President Obama finally announced his nominee for top USAID administrator—Dr. Rajiv Shah.

This morning, I joined a packed room of dark suits on the fourth floor of Dirsksen for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s nomination hearing.

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network had sent out the nomination notice a few weeks ago, so I had already read Dr. Shah’s credentials—currently Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leading the Department’s participation in the President global food security initiative and managing 10,000 staff worldwide; former Director for Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he managed the foundation’s $1.5 billion vaccine fund; trained doctor, former health care policy adviser for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, Masters in health economics, etc.

While excited to see an appointee with such extensive experience in both agriculture and medicine, I thought, “how exciting can this guy really be?  He’s probably some stuffy top-down bureaucrat who’s never even spent a day in the fields.”

But today’s hearing brought me hope.

Dr. Shah, a mere 36 years old, graciously fielded questions regarding his vision for USAID, changes he would implement both short- and long-term, balancing development and defense, conflict resolution, education, gender integration, food security and Afghanistan.

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It had started off simple enough.

Two weeks ago, still relatively new in my position as a Northeast Regional Coordinator with AIDemocracy, I spent a few hours trawling through Social Edge and twitter. With an eye on global development and security, my goal was to discover what was being done already in the non-profit world, who was doing it best and who among these folk were the most open to collaboration.

I made a number of new friends: the people at Acumen Fund, Water Charity (not to be confused with charity:water), Be Unreasonable, Sangam India, CORD and Open Society Institute were fantastic right off the bat– They were engaging, interested and human. It was like a Utopian first day at school.

In the context of my new job and projects I had in mind, I needed to know what was being done in terms of technology support for non-profit outreach and education services. One name that came up regularly was Ken Banks, founder of Kiwanja.net

I had heard of Kiwanja in passing before, but didn’t know much about it’s main project FrontlineSMS, otherwise known as \o/ (Which, btw, is a design based on this fantastic visual here).

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Before this Saturday, I had no idea who Ken Banks is as a person, and was as wary as a product of post-post-colonialism can be of anybody who does “non-profit work” in “Africa”. I was afraid I might run into yet another individual who’s working to “save Africa” just because that’s what Bono, the UN and everyone else is talking about right now.

[And if this is something that bothers you, Aid Watch has a great post on the issue here.]

I sent an email to Ken, one of those self-introduction/basic outline of project/can we chat sometime emails. You must remember that I moonlight as a writer: after all my experiences writing lit mag queries, I was prepared to face rejection or silence.

Read the rest of this entry »

First, let me begin with an introduction: my name is Ethan Frey. I’m a senior International Politics major (+ a few minors) at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA.  I am serving as one of Americans for Informed Democracy’s Northeast Regional Coordinators this year, with a focus on  Global Environment. There’ll be some great, exciting and substantively significant events happening through the Fall (Power Shift Pennsylvania and Copenhagen, most namely) and I’m excited to organize around them – for and against them – with you all. Thanks for the opportunity!

Now on to the G20…

Unfortunately, I was only able to roam the streets of Pittsburgh Thursday, and not Friday. I’ll set the scene: driving south into Pittsburgh signs read “road closings for G20”, “Pittsburgh welcomes world leaders”, “Use caution: police forces on high alert”, so once we get into the  city, we realize that, in reality, the streets are bare aside from what seems to be a government crackdown in a policed state.

Our first stop: the press tent to assist with an Avaaz photo-op at the Media Check-In outside Mellon Arena.  They were marketing “SurvivaBall” – the newest chic invention by the zillionaires that (attempt to) run the world.

“SurvivaBall” is the G20’s answer to the climate crisis: corporate accountability; save our CEOs.

It’s oozes satire, as the Avaaz folks attempt to display how spending 1 billion to insure the CEOs and executive directors that run the largest corporations and countries is not going to be enough.

Their message: we need to spend the money now to ensure the safety, and provide the ability for developing countries to adapt to a changing climate. International Adaptation Aid is an issue that must emerge on the political scene once the U.S. Senate returns to negotiations around a Climate bill.

Read the rest of this entry »

Guest post from Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant at International Labor Rights Forum:

As finance ministers from the G-20 nations prepare to meet in London, reports are emerging that 425321 Western nations are ready to accept some proposals for an increase in power for developing countries in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The Washington Post stated this morning that “the big winner will be the developing world, with the United States, Europe and Japan offering China, India, Brazil and other emerging nations unprecedented new influence in global financial decisions.”  The notion that industrialized nations currently holding sway in the IMF have to ability to “offer” developing countries a voice in the lending policies that deeply affect their economies highlights some of the power imbalances within international financial institutions — it also brings to mind Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s controversial comments last week about the global economic crisis.

The issue of representation in the decision-making bodies at the IMF is a real concern.  Currently, Europe holds a third of the chairs in the executive board and continues to follow the “tradition” of filling the managing director position with a European while the US has veto power at the IMF due to its large voting share.  The power structure at the IMF, and other international institutions, needs to be changed, but the bigger question is how will these changes can result in a qualitative shift that promotes policies that support poor and working people globally?

Read the rest of this entry »

President Obama isn’t letting go of the Bush administration’s obsession with defense spending.

Over the past month and a half, we’ve seen our new President alternate between faltering new kid on the block to strong, progressive policy maverick. His foreign policy agenda, especially with respect to foreign aid, fall somewhere in between his dual personalities of tired novice and bold social entrepreneur.

One recent development that has many international aid and foreign policy experts alarmed is Obama’s apparent continuation of sky-high defense spending. A recent article from Foreign Policy magazine reveals the economic downturn has not precluded a quickening arms race, and neither has Obama’s election into office. The magazine claims Obama has released budget figures that allocate a whopping 534 billion for the Department of Defense; Obama’s pentagon budget reportedly falls 1.9 percent above last year’s figures, adjusting for inflation. The United State’s defense expenditures still violently exceed those of China, India, Russia, and Iran, and greatly exceed funding allocation for development agencies such as USAID.

So how does this relate to foreign aid?

In the past decade, the Butroopssh administration utilized the military to conduct many foreign assistance missions, a dangerously inadequate model for aid distribution. For instance, the Bush Administration’s Commander Emergency Response Program authorized the military to provide humanitarian relief to citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq, blurring the distinction between aid workers and army officers. The 2006 National Defense Authorization act contained provisions spearheading joint Pentagon-State Department development missions. Similar military/aid ventures have been conducted in Africa as well.

It is up to Obama to dismantle this misguided, militaristic approach to foreign aid that alienates, incenses, and demoralizes civilians, not to mention fails to establish strong civil societies and solid infrastructure. According to Emira Woods, of Foreign Policy In Focus, allowing for such a fine line between humanitarian assistance and military meddling can create serious complications. While some argue that military presence ensures a peaceful and secure environment in which other goals of economic development, health, education and democracy can be met, Woods warns that “making military force a higher priority than development and diplomacy creates an imbalance that can encourage irresponsible regimes to use U.S. source military might to oppress their own people.”  For further articulation of this debate with regards to AFRICOM, or U.S. Africa Command, check out this transcript from a January episode of “Straight Talk Africa.”

President Obama ran on a platform which championed diplomacy and development as stronger, smarter tools than defense.  But if the numbers don’t match the rhetoric, where’s the change?

As I write this, terrorists are attacking Western and Indian targets in Mumbai in one of the safest, most cosmopolitan areas of India. Meanwhile, threat levels blare orange as Americans travel home for the holiday. I am reminded of how closely we are all connected and of the need to work together to inspire hope in place of hatred.

Just this past weekend, AID hosted a Rethinking Counter Terrorism Retreat in LA which featured activists, professionals, filmmakers, and regular volunteers who have chosen to focus not on our differences but on the common bonds of humanity that unite us.* These individuals give poor communities a path to development in place of the desperation that leads to conflict and terrorism. Access to education, jobs, health care, and more equal rights provides individuals in vulnerable areas with a real future, giving them a strong reason to choose peace over war.

As you count your blessings this Thanksgiving, consider those less fortunate and what you can do locally to support the common goal of a safer, happier world. Here’s hoping a ‘Green level’ holiday is not too far off.

* The Retreat featured guests from CARE International, Help the Afghan Children, Principle Pictures, Serving Women Across Nations (SWAN), and the RAND Alternative Strategy Initiative.

If you paid even a little attention to this year’s presidential campaigns, you probably noticed talk of President-elect Obama’s unprecedented use of text-message updates to communicate with voters.  Thousands of miles away in South Africa, health workers aren’t far behind as they find new ways to maximize cell phone technology in getting the word out about HIV/AIDS.

A collabwoman_cellphone_07orative effort between iTeach, the Praekelt Foundation, frog design, Nokia Siemens Networks, and the National Geographic Society, Project Masiluleke will reach one million South Africans daily with information about HIV/AIDS testing and counseling services around the country.  With nearly 6 million people infected with HIV, South Africa has one of the highest infection rates in the world.  Yet, talking about AIDS is still so uncommon that only 5% of the population has been tested, despite the widely available testing and even free treatment.  On the flipside, close to 90% of South Africa has a cell phone.  During a three-week usability experiment in October, Project Masiluleke increased average daily call volume to the National AIDS Helpline in Johannesburg by almost 200%!

But South Africa isn’t the only one to catch onto this social innovation.  BBC World Service Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation are backing a three-year massive ringtone campaign (be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page and listen!) in India in an attempt to make condom use more socially acceptable.  The acapella ringtone currently gets around 5,000 downloads a day and, —in conjunction with tv, radio, and print adds— is anticipated to reach roughly 52 million Indian men.

With 4 billion users worldwide, cell phones holders are five times more prevalent than owners of a personal computer.  As such, they are becoming and increasingly popular topic of discussion as a tool for development.  Last month, USAID launched a new open source challenge to explore the potential of mobile phone applications connecting people in developing countries to key resources in health, banking, education, agricultural trade, or other pressing development issues.  Winners will be awarded between $5,ooo and $1o,ooo and the opportunity to share their idea with potential investors.

So while many of us may have resigned ourselves to the irrelevance of unsolicited and automatically generated messages, could text messages and ringtones really be the key to ending the aids pandemic?  Probably not in isolation, but they are proving to be a clever tool in reaching otherwise inaccessible or overlooked portions of the population.

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