Archive for March, 2009


Chinese evade censors again?

March 25, 2009

It appears there’s a T-shirt, and perhaps more, floating around China alluding to Tiananmen Square. Here. (h/t to The Peking Duck)


How crippling is foreign aid to Africa?

March 23, 2009

In last week’s Wall Street Journal, there’s a provoking essay by Dambisa Moyo, a former Goldman Sachs economist, on whether aid to sub-Saharan countries is productive in the long run. At first the piece’s assertion seems counterintuitive, but the argument—that aid enables autocratic regimes to maintain their hold on power and provides little incentive for economic initiative—isn’t entirely new.

One thing about the article I found lacking was the absence of details on the extent to which aid is tied to loans, or even what percentage of aid is in fact not aid at all, but loans under a different name. Moyo takes a stab at it with this:

Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, such charity-based aid is relatively small beer when compared to the sea of money that floods Africa each year in government-to-government aid or aid from large development institutions such as the World Bank.

Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.

Even after the very aggressive debt-relief campaigns in the 1990s, African countries still pay close to $20 billion in debt repayments per annum, a stark reminder that aid is not free. In order to keep the system going, debt is repaid at the expense of African education and health care. Well-meaning calls to cancel debt mean little when the cancellation is met with the fresh infusion of aid, and the vicious cycle starts up once again.

It would be intellectually lazy to assess Moyo’s ideas with a shoot-the-messenger approach. Some governmental improvements Moyo touts as integral to reform are issuing bonds, participating more actively in capital markets, and attracting foreign investment by altering tax structures and streamlining bureaucracy.  

Whether this is the most effective route to weaning African governments off their dependence on aid is debatable, but doesn’t detract from the overall argument that by perpetuating never-ending monetary infusions, Western governments, NGOs, and their advocates become complicit in limiting the potential of much of sub-Saharan Africa and its peoples.


US journalists held in North Korea

March 23, 2009

More here.


Sunday items

March 22, 2009

Two things on Israel and Gaza: First from The New York Times, a soldier’s account of the military’s attitude toward killing civilians, and, from The Guardian, a follow-up piece on a group that’s interviewed a number of Israeli soldiers.

A piece on The Democratic Republic of Congo and a photography exhibit on the women of Congo.

For those of you who missed it, here’s AP on Iran’s response to Obama’s holiday message.

And finally a Wall Street Journal piece on the man who could take Karzai’s place in Afghanistan.


Obama’s message to Iran

March 20, 2009

Here are a few takes on Obama’s overture to Iran today: Greenwald and Rosen.



Thoughts and El Salvador

March 19, 2009


Voters looks for their names in the voters register in Panchimalco, 18 kms south from San Salvador. Mauro Arias

Voters looks for their names in the voters register in Panchimalco, 18 kms south from San Salvador. Mauro Arias

Most of the week’s news centered around the charlatans at insurance giant AIG, but what many may have missed is El Salvador’s presidential election and Marico Funes’ victory last Sunday. Funes’ party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, has successfully put an end to over two decades of right-wing rule.

While some are wary of Funes’ election, thinking he may take after Hugo Chavez, Funes has gone to great lengths to assure his critics that’s not the case. Throughout the campaign, he modeled himself as a new leftist, taking the conciliatory path of Barack Obama, suggesting he was willing to work with the opposition.

El Salvador’s 12-year long civil war ended in 1992, after 75,000 people had been killed. It was once a country that compelled Joan Didion to write “Terror is the given of the place.”

Roughly a decade ago, nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. It’s a superb meditation on how countries come to terms with authoritarian regimes and the legacies of violence, paranoia, and rage they leave behind. Soyinka explores at length what governments attempt at the threshold of reconciliation. What he finds isn’t startling, but nevertheless sublime. There’s no uniform approach. Each country adapts to the peculiarities of the defunct regime.

Two countries he surveys are post-aparthied South Africa and Germany after reunification. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is well-known. In what was once East Germany, the government opened the Stasi files to the public, allowing citizens to see who had informed on them, whether it was an endearing neighbor, the postman or one’s spouse.

It appears that El Salvador’s attempt at candor and national repair came only in half measures. In 1992, as part of the peace agreements between the FMNL and the ruling regime, the parties established a truth commission.  A year after the civil war, the commission—composed solely of foreigners—released its report. Amnesty provisions weren’t addressed at its inception, and the effort was hampered by obstruction from the United States and President Alfredo Cristiana. Cristiana subsequently recommended amnesty for military officials named as human rights violators; an amnesty, as these things go, that wasn’t his to give.

I know little of what has transpired in El Salvador since then, nor how far the national conversation has progressed. So it’s difficult to judge where on this journey the nation finds itself. And half measures—inadequate as they may be—are better than none at all.

Soyinka believes a wounded nation must confront its past, and neglecting this indelibly cripples the body politic. Reestablishing trust is essential for the prospect of real progress. Considering last week’s events, one hopes El Salvador is on such a path.


Death of Newspapers?

March 17, 2009

newspapers31As I noted in an earlier post the disappearance of newspapers often means corruption increases. What wasn’t addressed in that post is the grand kibbitz going on now: What did the newspapers in?

Conventional wisdom has the Internet as its culprit, but that’s simplistic and naive. Long before the Internet was making inroads into the newspapers’ market share, newspaper owners got giddy over who could cut costs faster. If you have a chance to speak with a Vietnam-era foreign correspondent, ask them about well-staffed foreign bureaus, per diem pay, and corporate accounts. I’m not saying those journalists were living large, but what passes for a foreign bureau now is risible compared with its predecessor.

And it wasn’t only foreign bureaus. After the glory days of American investigative journalism, newspapers began cutting their investigative staff as well, and in a race to see who could garner the largest quarterly profits, newspaper owners cut time and again, and now they’re gobsmacked that nothing’s left.

Any newspaper in the country that depends on wire services for stories on New York and D.C., but just laid off its local sports reporter is a paper destined to fail. Just as all politics is local, in the end, all news is as well.  As tiring as it is to see so many blaming technology, it’s nice that there’s at least one industry insider who gets it. I suspect there are many, many more who decided to stay silent trying to preserve their positions.

But here’s a taste of what columnist Bill Virgin has to say on the last day of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. While I disagree with his contention of how newspapers drove away conservatives, the bulk of his argument is sound:

 … Or at least newspapers did until they began lopping away content and features readers had come to expect. The rationale the industry used was that readers could and would get that information elsewhere, especially online, so why waste valuable print real estate on them? But the message readers got from the newspapers was they ought to go elsewhere for TV listings, stock quotes and the like. Surprisingly enough, readers took the advice and did.


Until now. In business there is a phenomenon known as the death spiral, in which the measures intended to rescue a company or industry not only fail to stem the losses, they actually accelerate the decline. In the case of newspapers, the loss of readers and advertisers led to cuts in content and features and greater irrelevancy, which led to more lost readers and advertisers, which led to still more cuts, which led to …

As he says, where we are today.