Latest Developments, September 26

In the latest news and analysis…

Waiting for the politicians
Grist reports that 11 major engineering organizations have issued a joint statement saying a lack of political will, rather than technological shortcomings, are standing in the way of an 85-percent cut in global emissions by 2050.
“The statement calls on world leaders to reach a global commitment to emissions reduction and energy efficiency at December’s COP17 climate change talks. Once that commitment is in place and adequately backed up, say the engineers, the technology is there to carry it out.”

Killer profits
The Arms Trade Treaty Monitor has collected statements made last week to the UN General Assembly by the leaders of countries such as Mexico, Nigeria, Ghana and Costa Rica concerning the agreement which should be finalized in 2012.
“It is unjust and inhuman that the profits of the arms industry should decide the deaths of thousands of people,” according President Felipe Calderón of Mexico.

Untapped markets for unmanned aircraft
The Globe and Mail reports worldwide drone sales are expected to double over the next decade but with a sluggish US market, the quest for profits could trump proliferation concerns.
“Both surveillance and armed U.S. drones, which have been widely deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, have received strong interest from Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan, among others.”

Trafficking losses
The Financial Times reports on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s growing interest in cracking down on loopholes that enable companies to play one country against another in order avoid paying taxes.
“The OECD last year highlighted its fears about the ability of banks to use losses accumulated since the financial crisis – calculated by the OECD to be worth $700bn – as a tool for aggressive tax planning. Among the concerns is ‘loss trafficking’ – schemes in which losses are sold to other companies to reduce their tax payment. In a report published in August, the OECD also warned about aggressive tax planning concerning the carry-forward of ‘vast’ corporate losses than can be as high as 25 per cent of gross domestic product in some countries.”

G20 and tax dodging
Christian Aid’s David McNair accuses G20 finance and development ministers of “backing away from their commitments to help poor countries collect more of the billions they lose to tax dodgers” at last week’s meeting in Washington.
“If the G20 were serious about harnessing the power of tax against poverty, they would have made a specific commitment to the big solution to tax dodging – financial transparency. Such transparency would make life far harder for companies and individuals hiding wealth in tax havens, not to mention the multinationals that use financial secrecy to dodge billions in tax in poor countries.”

Dodgy oil contracts
A new Global Witness report calling for reforms in Liberia’s oil sector also touches on some questionable behaviour by American oil giant Chevron.
“In 2007, Nigeria’s Oranto Petroleum authorized a bribe to be paid to the Legislature in connection with the passage of at least one of its contracts. In 2010, US company Chevron purchased a 70 % share of the same contracts, despite information about how they were obtained being in the public domain.”

Oversimplifying the economy
University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss suggests the thinking underlying the last few decades of Western economic policy reveal “a naive, self-serving misreading of history” and warns against anyone who suggests “obese and addicted societies” can painlessly right themselves by pushing the right fiscal buttons.
“The danger of listening to the people who oversimplify the past and then oversimplify the present… is that they really can make things worse, especially when they propose to dope us up on more of the same. The longer we avoid accepting complex, unmanageable realities, and the real discomforts involved in convalescence and recovery, the more we risk the long-term future for our children and grandchildren.”

The power of aid
The Guardian reports on the remarkable similarities between the UK’s “centre right development policy,” as described by the man who runs it, Andrew Mitchell, and the development policy of the ostensibly centre left Obama administration.
“Over the past 18 months, the US and the UK have been treading very similar development policy paths. As well as results, both talk about the important role to be played by the private sector, and by science and technology, in bringing about development. And both pepper speeches and announcements with mentions of national interests, security and power. The opening line of the executive summary in the USAid policy framework for 2011 to 2015, published earlier this month, provides a clear example. ‘International development co-operation is a key component of American power, along with diplomacy and defense,’ it reads.”

Latest Developments, August 24

In today’s news and analysis…

Libya’s rebels are calling for $5 billion in emergency funds to be unfrozen from Gadhafi regime assets. The US is working in the UN on getting $1.5 billion. Of course, as the Globe and Mail’s Eric Reguly writes, it is no secret that Libya has something everybody wants: “By Wednesday it was amply clear that NATO’s mission creep was lubricated by oil.” The question, he says, is “who will get the prizes.” Earlier in the week, a rebel spokesman said they had good relations with an eager bunch of NATO countries but “may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil” who were less keen on providing military support against Gadhafi. And although the rebels have pledged to honour all legal contracts, Reguly writes that “Libya is looking suspiciously like an oil war and the countries that delivered the bombs want their rewards.” But human rights NGO Global Witness is calling first for measures “to guard against a Libyan “oil grab” and ensure the Libyan people benefit fully from the exploitation of Libya’s natural resources.” It wants no new oil deals before democratic elections are held, extensive and “concrete” transparency measures, recovery of Gadhafi-regime money stashed abroad and sanctions against banks that sheltered such funds.

Anticipating a possible European oil embargo against Syria, international petroleum companies are not signing any new deals with the increasingly isolated country, which announced the discovery of a new gas field just last week. But for the time being, company executives said they “still had outstanding contracts that were signed months ago, to either supply refined products or buy crude,” according to the Financial Times. Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney took a much harder line with Damascus in his day, as he reveals in his upcoming autobiography that he wanted to bomb Syria in 2007. The New York Times reports he also defends the use of waterboarding in interrogations and is “happy to note” that current US President Barack Obama has not shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay as promised.

Meanwhile, there is still a famine going on in Somalia and the African Union is holding a “pledge summit” to address the Horn of Africa food crisis. International Foundation for Agricultural Development President Kanayo Nwanze welcomed the intiative, saying Africa cannot wait for other countries to solve its problems: “No nation, no people ever had sustainable growth that sprang solely from external support. Africa’s development must be made in Africa, by Africans, for Africans.”

The UK and Switzerland have agreed on a new deal that would require taxes be paid in Britain on money held in by British citizens in Swiss bank accounts but would preserve the anonymity of the account holders. Drawing a parallel with the tough-on-crime frenzy that has taken hold in Britain since the riots, the Tax Justice Network’s Richard Murphy is livid: “So at a time when the government is demanding respect for the law, high moral standards and responsibility by all in society one group of criminals – those who have deliberately and knowingly broken the law by tax evading in Switzerland – are going to be let off without paying anything like what they owe even in tax, let alone in penalties and interest. What is more, instead of these people being brought before an all night court sitting to make sure justice is done with names and addresses being published for all to see anonymity is instead being guaranteed to those criminals so they can still held (sic) their heads up high in polite society.”

The Canadian Medical Association has denounced the federal government for blocking the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on a UN treaty’s list of hazardous substances. “This is an important health care issue and a product that causes significant illness and even death,” according to the organization’s outgoing president Jeff Turnbull. “Canada should not be in the business of exporting such a dangerous product.”

The Guardian’s John Vidal says “plans for a US-based investment company to lease up to 1m hectares of South Sudan for only $25,000 a year appears to have stalled following protests by local communities over the potential “land grab“.” But Indian agribusiness investors are showing major interest in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, where they say there is as much arable land as in their home country. As in South Sudan, however, local populations are expressing misgivings: “No one should believe that these investors are there to feed starving Africans, create jobs or improve food security,” according Solidarity Movement for New Ethiopia’s Obang Metho.

Also writing in the Guardian, Rick Rowden argues that the UK’s Department for International Development’s new emphasis on promoting private sector growth in poor countries fails to distinguish “between the needs and interests of domestic private sector firms and those of foreign investors” and “perpetuates the foggy notion that the needs and interests of the two parties are somehow exactly the same. They are not.” He argues that, in countries where the private sector has taken off over the past decades, domestic companies got help from their own governments, whether in the form of temporary trade protection, cheap credit or R&D investment. But far from encouraging such measures today, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the proliferating bilateral trade agreements between rich and poor countries proscribe them as “bad government intervention.”

Richard Falk, a retired Princeton law professor, argues “the Afghanistan war is being fought against the nationalist Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for political control of the country” and as such is hurting America’s image and giving “extremism a good name” in the region. “Such an analysis yields a single moral, legal and prudential imperative: when foreign intervention is losing out to determined national resistance, leave the country quickly, stop the killing immediately, and declare victory with pomp and circumstance.”


Latest Developments, August 17

In the latest news and analysis…

The Guardian reports on new research regarding the death of former UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961, which suggests his “plane was shot down over Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) 50 years ago, and the murder covered up by the British colonial authorities.” Among the new pieces of evidence are telegrams from the days before Hammarskjöld’s death “which illustrate US and British anger at an abortive UN military operation that the secretary-general ordered on behalf of the Congolese government against a rebellion backed by western mining companies and mercenaries in the mineral-rich Katanga region” and interviews with eyewitnesses describing a second plane firing on the ill-fated UN one. “Suddenly we saw another aircraft approach the bigger aircraft at greater speed and release fire which appeared as a bright light,” one man recounted and another said: “There were some who witnessed the crash and they were taken away and imprisoned.”

Some of the biggest British banks – the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB, Barclays and HSBC – are investing hundreds of millions in companies that produce cluster bombs, despite the UK’s obligation under an international treaty banning the devices. According to the Convention on Cluster Munitions which came into effect in the UK last year, ratifying countries must not assist or encourage the production of such weapons. But the Independent’s Jerome Taylor writes that a loophole allows for investment in companies such as Alliant Techsystems and Lockheed Martin as long as the financial backing does not go directly towards manufacturing the bombs: “None of these investments is illegal. But they will lead to further concerns about the moral behaviour of the banking industry at a time of public anger over its role in the credit crisis and bankers’ bonuses.” Only Belgium, Ireland, Luxemburg and New Zealand have implemented legislation forbidding direct or indirect financing of cluster munitions.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced plans to nationalize the country’s gold industry in order to retain control over the increasingly valuable resource. “We have close to 12 or 13 billion of dollars in gold reserves,” according to Chavez. “We can’t allow it to continue to be taken away.” In a less radical move, the Tanzanian government is trying to increase its share of mining profits by collecting four-percent royalties on exports, up from the current three.

Chatham House has just released a European Parliament-commissioned report entitled “The Effects of Oil Companies’ Activities on the Environment, Health and Development in sub-Saharan Africa.” The study concentrates on the region’s top two producers, Nigeria and Angola, and rattles off a list of the industry’s negative environment and social impacts.“While oil companies are implementing certain measures to address these impacts, corporate social responsibility activities largely remain piecemeal and short-term, community engagement is inadequate and requirements for accountability and transparency are either insufficient or not enforced.” Moreover, over the last decade in Nigeria, “the way that oil corporations chose to engage with local communities through development projects caused inter-community conflicts in the Delta between communities participating in such projects and those that did not.”

The Canadian government is threatening legal action against Michaela Keyserlingk, the widow of a man who died of asbestos-related cancer, because she is using the ruling Conservative Party of Canada’s logo in an online campaign against her country’s “hypocrisy in exporting chrysotile asbestos to the developing world, while guarding against its use at home.” The offending, logo-appropriating banner ad, designed by her son, reads: “Canada is the only western country that still exports deadly asbestos!’’ Keyserlingk says she will take the ad down if she can meet with a senior member of the government to discuss the asbestos export policy. In June, Canada sided with Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being added to the UN’s Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous materials, a measure that would have required exporting countries to warn buyers of potential health risks.

The Canada-Colombia bilateral free trade agreement which came into effect this week “is a global precedent and will be closely watched,” according to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation Gauri Sreenivasan. What makes the treaty unique is the provision that both parties must produce annual parliamentary reports on the human rights impacts of the deal in both countries. But Sreenivasan worries the absence to this point of specific details on how the governments will live up to their duties may justify fears the reports, the first of which are due in May 2012, will be “mere public relations exercises.”  Nevertheless, she concludes: “The opportunity is there to ensure the reports can be a tool for greater accountability, highlighting that states have obligations not just to international trade rules, but to international human rights law.”

University of Virginia historian and former US Department of State staffer Philip Zelikow argues “the domestic-foreign dichotomy is anachronistic” and “foreign policies should focus on how to harmonise “domestic” policies.” He says the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks is an example of how “a traditionally conceived foreign policy negotiation founders on the inability to reconcile domestic policies.” Zelikow has little patience for high-profile summits that give pride of place to heads of state and foreign ministry officials, envisioning instead “a model of distributed foreign policymaking, in which many ministries and non-governmental organisations will move into the foreground of diplomacy.”

The Overseas Development  Institute’s Jonathan Glennie argues the “widespread public revulsion” caused by a video in which a bloodied Malaysian student was mugged during the London riots suggests “the British want to see decency and ethics at the core of national policy and community strategy.” This observation leads him to ask: “Why not, then, on the international stage? Should we not be equally ashamed when our government or companies act unethically in foreign countries? Or do our ethics stop at the border?” He has concerns about promoting international cooperation using national self-interest arguments, such as increased trade or greater security, because “appealing to self-interest entrenches the traditional position that national interests should generally predominate over ethical conduct.” Instead, he calls for ethics-based arguments supported by tangible evidence in order to “make the case that a country should never act unethically, any more than a person should.”

As for why people do evil things, the University of Exeter’s Alex Haslam writes in the Guardian that the classic Milgram experiments which took place 50 years ago this month remain important not so much for highlighting the “banality of evil” but for raising the question of “why participants identify with the authority rather than with the victim, and hence are willing to follow him down the destructive path he sketches out.” Haslam believes ordinary people commit organized, terrible acts “not because they were blindly obeying orders but because they were working creatively towards the goals of a leadership with which they identified.” In other words, atrocities “involve not just passive obedience but also dynamic followership.”

In yet another round of the “aid vs. foreign direct investment” debate, Christian Aid’s Dereje Alemayehu writes: “Can we realistically rely on foreign investors to deliver development? The amount they steal through aggressive tax evasion is at least fourfold what comes in as aid. I can’t see how ending aid would make them change their behaviour. I have nothing against Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), but let us make a distinction between scavengers and investors. And in Africa, we have more of the former.”

Latest Developments, August 8

In the latest news and analysis…

Australia’s so-called Malaysia Solution is on hold for now. The country’s high court has said the Australian government may not have the legal authority to carry out the terms of the deal, which would involve sending 800 boat people to Malaysia to have their refugee claims processed in exchange for 4,000 who have been approved for permanent resettlement. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees.

UNESCO head Irina Bokova has condemned last month’s NATO attack on Libyan state television that left 3 dead and 21 injured. “Media outlets should not be targeted in military actions,” she said, pointing to a 2006 UN Security Council resolution on the safety of media workers in conflict zones. Following the bombing, NATO justified its choice of targets: “Striking specifically these critical satellite dishes will reduce the regime’s ability to oppress civilians while [preserving] television broadcast infrastructure that will be needed after the conflict.” But Bokova appeared to head off this argument by saying “the NATO strike is also contrary to the principles of the Geneva Conventions that establish the civilian status of journalists in times of war even when they engage in propaganda.”

The US is eager to get more involved in Mexico’s escalating drug war but faces laws forbidding foreign soldiers or police from operating on Mexican soil, according to the New York Times. The solution so far has been the deployment of CIA agents, with possible reinforcements to come from private security contractors. Meanwhile, there will soon be 5,500 private troops operating under State Department command in Iraq, but “no one outside State knows anything more, as the department has gone to war with its independent government watchdog to keep its plan a secret,” according to Wired’s Spencer Ackerman.

There is much uncertainty in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu after Islamist rebels withdrew from the city over the weekend, leaving observers to wonder whether the move represents a retreat or simply a shift to guerrilla tactics. There also appears to be lingering confusion among humanitarian organizations in Al Shabab-controlled areas over strict US rules that are ostensibly meant to ensure the rebels do not benefit from foreign assistance but are having a chilling effect on groups looking to provide emergency food aid. “USAID says they want to move, they do want to get us funding, and from their perspective it’s all sort of green light, ready to go,” an anonymous aid official told the Huffington Post. “Maybe they’re not really understanding that NGOs are quite nervous, especially the American ones — and the European ones are taking their cues from the Americans.” US aid to Somalia dropped from $230 million in 2008 to below $30 million last year. But the White House has just announced an additional $105 million in emergency aid for the Horn of Africa, bringing the total up to $565 million for the year so far.

South Africa’s maternal mortality rate has “more than quadrupled over the last decade,” according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. But in a piece on Africa’s high rates of economic growth, Witney Schneidman, president of Washington-based consulting firm Schneidman & Associates International says “Africa’s moment is at hand.”  He praises South Africa where “for the past 15 years, the government has pursued an economic policy that has brought greater financial discipline and macroeconomic stability.” Schneidman does, however, concede South Africa “has a first-world economy” but “faces developing-world challenges.”

The Guardian reports on the Nigerian fishing village of Goi destroyed by oil spills and one of its inhabitants suing Shell in The Hague for reparations. Another piece in the same paper suggests Gaza’s new, Spanish-run five-star hotel provides “hope” in a place “where there are no tourists and around 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.”

In the ongoing punditry frenzy over credit rating agency S&P’s decision to downgrade the US debt slightly, “chutzpah” and “overreach” are two frequently recurring terms. Paul Krugman, who wrote last year that such agencies “were a big part of that corruption” which triggered the financial crisis in the first place, now compares S&P to a “young man who kills his parents, then pleads for mercy because he’s an orphan.” The author of a post on the Economist’s Democracy in America blog does not necessarily disagree but also sees plenty of chutzpah in those now blasting S&P: “So yeah, S&P failed to accurately identify the junk that made up those troublesome mortgage securities. But I can hardly fault them for trying not to repeat the mistake when evaluating the make-up of America’s political system, which is ultimately responsible for paying the country’s bills.” And the Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie, sounding a little annoyed at the Americentrism of it all, asks via Twitter: “why has s&p overreached itself just because it has downgraded us bonds? Are its analyses of other countries less important!?”

Fraud lawyer Monty Raphael shows little enthusiasm for the UK’s new bribery act, arguing that without proper enforcement, “it will change little or nothing.” And while the act only deals with offences occurring since it came into force, he wants to see a mechanism to deal with “all the accumulated corruption committed before July 1 this year.” He calls for an integrated anti-corruption agency, along the lines of those currently operating in Hong Kong, Singapore and New South Wales. Recognizing that governments are not eager to take on new spending these days, he suggests: “Resources presently available can be channelled into a single investigation and prosecution agency with a wide remit, and with penal, civil and administrative powers. It should include within its remit Parliament, the legal system and all public and private sectors.”

Former World Bank economist Dennis Whittle praises his former employer for its attempts at “democratizing” development, by which he seems to mean the increased use of focus groups. “If the World Bank can make progress in this area,” he argues, “the payoff for the entire aid field could be large, both in terms of finding effective policies as well as catalyzing more openness and accountability.”

Latest Developments, August 4

In the latest news and analysis…

After controversy and delay, the UN Environment Programme has released the results of a 14-month study of the oil industry’s impacts on Nigeria’s Ogoniland region. According to the report, “there are, in a significant number of locations, serious threats to human health from contaminated drinking water to concerns over the viability and productivity of ecosystems. In addition that pollution has perhaps gone further and penetrated deeper than many may have previously supposed.” It goes on to say clean up could take decades and cost billions. Shell Petroleum Development Company, a Nigerian subsidiary of the world’s second largest oil company, says it ceased oil production in Ogoniland in 1993 and blames the majority of spills on illegal bunkering by local inhabitants. But Nigerian NGO Environmental Rights Action wants Shell to apologize to the Nigerian people and pay for clean up and compensation. It is calling for a $100 billion remediation fund and environmental audits of other drilling areas in the Niger Delta.

French oil giant Total, its CEO and a number of French politicians are being charged for their roles in a scandal involving bribe paying and the UN’s oil-for-food program which operated in Iraq from 1996 to 2003. French law allows for corporations to be “declared a legal entity and be prosecuted,” according to Radio France International. The trial is expected to begin next year.

Although much of the blame for the severity of Somalia’s current humanitarian crisis has been heaped on the Islamist rebels who have banned many foreign agencies from operating in the country’s south, the Guardian’s Xan Rice reports “delays in procuring food aid and raising funds” are every bit as much of a problem. A problem that makes the international humanitarian community look bad, according to one aid worker, given that warnings of a looming food shortage started months ago. A Globe and Mail editorial calls the current situation a crisis of unpreparedness, anarchy and sloth.

The Economist says “developing” countries have surpassed their “developed” counterparts – a division it call “more than a tad arbitrary – on a number of economic indicators. While the former still only account for 38 percent of global GDP, that figure is twice what it was two decades ago and when adjusted for purchasing-power parity, it climbs to 54 percent. These same countries also accounted for more than half of foreign direct investment inflows, energy consumption and mobile-phone subscriptions. But in none of these categories does their share equal their proportion of the global population.

US President Barack Obama has issued a directive establishing a new “standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board” in order to remedy the fact that “66 years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.”

Oxfam’s Duncan Green points out some of the things World Food Programme head Josette Sheeran left out of her TED talk on ending hunger: “Globally, apart from an oblique reference to food subsidies, there is little mention of rich country policies on biofuels, or cutting aid to agriculture, or land grabs, or driving risks down the value chain to small farmers, or failing to do anything on climate change, which all contribute to the problem.”

Reuters’ Barry Malone writes about the predictable nature of the food crises he covers. He laments “that every few years we’re faced with an “emergency” that could have been prevented, that aid groups must frantically try to raise money to respond, that journalists need to find emaciated babies at death’s door and film and photograph and write about them before the world gives a damn.” And he is sceptical of foreign charities that “talk about long-term plans to help people become self-sufficient but they’ve been failing to achieve them for 20 years.” Saving perhaps his harshest criticism for his own profession, Malone quotes an Ethiopian girl who was moved to tears while watching foreign journalists interacting with a Somali woman in a refugee camp: “All she had left was her dignity,” the girl tells him. “And then they took that, too.”

With the EU currently looking into establishing rules on corporate transparency, Christian Aid’s Joseph Stead argues it should draw inspiration from US legislation requiring oil, gas and mining companies listed on American stock exchanges to divulge how much they pay to foreign governments, thereby making it easier for citizens of poor countries to hold their elected officials to account. But Stead believes the EU should go a step further by requiring European businesses to disclose their profits, sales and number of employees on a country-by-country basis. These requirements, unlike the US ones, would address the two main ways the inhabitants of poor countries miss out on the benefits of resource wealth: In addition to bringing to light government corruption, the information Stead suggests “would also help identify suspected corporate tax dodging. The latter is a problem that Christian Aid estimates costs poor countries $160bn a year – much more than they receive in aid.”

In a wide-ranging Q&A, City University of New York’s Talal Asad talks about the fear among many Western observers that the Arab Spring will eventually hand the reins of power to Islamist groups, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: “I don’t think, in principle, that just because a movement declares itself to be religious, it should be made the object of special suspicion. In my view, one shouldn’t trust anyone who hankers after state power, whether they call themselves religious or secular. The modern state is at once one of the most brutal sources of oppression and a necessary means for providing common benefits to citizens. Whether it is secular or religious seems to me much less important than the fact that it is a state. If we look back over the twentieth century and this should become obvious.”