Latest Developments, March 21

In the latest news and analysis…

White Savior Industrial Complex
Novelist Teju Cole argues that Americans should focus on reducing the negative impacts of their own government’s actions abroad before trying to “help” by intervening in Africa.
“Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to ‘make a difference’ trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund. I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”

Silicosis suit
Reuters reports that “the biggest class action suit Africa has ever seen” is looming for South Africa’s gold mining companies as thousands of former miners with damaged lungs join a fast-growing list of plaintiffs.
“A successful suit could collectively cost mining companies such as AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and global giant AngloAmerican billions of dollars, according to legal and industry experts. The largest settlement to date by the mining industry in South Africa was $100 million in 2003 in a case brought by [Richard] Spoor against an asbestos company.

It’s hard to estimate the potential size of a silicosis class action. South Africa is the source of 40 percent of all the gold ever mined. At its height in the 1980s the industry employed 500,000 men – two-thirds of them from Lesotho, Mozambique and the Eastern Cape – although production has fallen behind China and Australia and employment since halved. But silicosis can take years to show up and check-ups are at best haphazard. A 2005 study by the National Institute of Occupational Health in Johannesburg, based on autopsies of miners, suggested 52 in every 100 had the disease.”

World Bank options
Reuters also reports Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo are set to become candidates for the World Bank presidency but the US “is still likely to ensure that another American will succeed” outgoing president Robert Zoellick.
“All of the World Bank’s 187 members nations have committed to a merit-based process to select Zoellick’s successor.
Emerging and developing economies have long talked up their desire to break U.S. and European dominance of the Bretton Woods Institutions, but have until now have failed to build a coalition large enough to change the status quo.”

Limiting patents
Intellectual Property Watch reports that the US Supreme Court has ruled against the right to patent “an invention that merely applies known technology to natural phenomena.”
“The ruling is likely to a major impact on the medical and biotech industry. Many methods of medical diagnoses and medical treatment are now unpatentable. And the ruling may kill patents on human genes – including Myriad Genetics Inc.’s controversial patent on two breast cancer genes. The Federal Circuit (America’s so-called “patent court”) recently upheld Myriad’s patent, but that ruling is now in trouble, according to many experts.”

Suspect behaviour
The Guardian reports the story of a former FBI informant who says the agency’s efforts to prevent terrorist plots too often consisted of entrapment.
“In the case of the Newburgh Four – where four men were convicted for a fake terror attack on Jewish targets in the Bronx – a confidential informant offered $250,000, a free holiday and a car to one suspect for help with the attack.

Such actions have led Muslim civil rights groups to wonder if their communities are being unfairly targeted in a spying game that is rigged against them. Monteilh says that is exactly what happens. ‘The way the FBI conducts their operations, It is all about entrapment … I know the game, I know the dynamics of it. It’s such a joke, a real joke. There is no real hunt. It’s fixed,’ he said.”

Better but…
Human Rights Watch reports that labour conditions for migrant workers are improving at an Abu Dhabi mega-construction project that includes new branches of New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim, but problems remain.
“In addition, Human Rights Watch found that contractors are regularly confiscating worker passports and substituting worker contracts with less favorable ones when the workers arrive in the UAE. While the developers and institutions on Saadiyat have pledged to end these practices, and the scale of the problems Human Rights Watch documented is not as bad as in 2009, the continuation of poor practices in a number of cases reflects ongoing gaps in protection. The parties that benefit from these ventures need to make an unequivocal pledge to reimburse workers found to have paid recruitment fees in contravention of existing policies. The educational and cultural institutions and local developers also need to investigate and effectively enforce penalty provisions against contractors who disregard policies meant to protect workers from abuse.”

Lowering rents
The Centre for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker takes issue with the argument that the prospect of enormous profits is necessary to drive innovation.
“The question is not whether we are better off with Steve Jobs getting very rich and all the products that Apple developed, or having Steve Jobs be poor and not having these products; the question is whether it was necessary for Jobs to get quite so rich in order to get these products.

Suppose we paid for the research and development of prescription drugs upfront rather than by giving drug companies patent monopolies. As a result of these monopolies, drugs that would sell for $5 per prescription in a free market sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The savings from this switch could potentially save us more than $200bn a year and provide us with better health care.”

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, July 25

In the latest news and analysis…

The UN will hold a donors conference in Nairobi on Wednesday to try to raise $1.6 billion for drought assistance in the Horn of Africa and is looking into allegations that some of its officials are demanding money in exchange for food in refugee camps there. Former US ambassador to neighbouring Ethiopia, David Shinn, lays out some of the obstacles to helping in Somalia, including Al Shabab’s dislike of foreign aid agencies and US policy that is fixated on not helping the Islamist group in any way. A pair of Chatham House experts hold a similar view: “Both parties bear responsibility for treating emergency aid as a political tool.”

The Guardian’s Simon Bowers reports the UK’s Serious Fraud Office is allotting more resources to investigating overseas bribery cases than to fraud schemes hatched in London’s financial offices, “raising concerns that tackling the very biggest UK fraud cases may be slipping as the agency’s top priority.”

Mike Koehler, aka the FCPA Professor, looks at the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s facilitating payments exception, arguing the provision, which allows small “grease payments” to foreign officials, is wrongly being ignored by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission: “If Congress wants to remove the facilitating payment exception from the FCPA, let Congress do that, not the enforcement agencies through its charging decisions.” Similarly, a Washington Post headline decries the fact that US companies don’t know “whom to bribe.”

Al Jazeera reports on Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining’s El Dorado mine in El Salvador which is reportedly shut down at present due to ongoing protests.“Recent murders and death threats against activists in the region have put the spotlight on the gold mining project there,” according to the report. Pacific Rim, for its part, insists it has done nothing wrong and is itself the victim of unscrupulous tactics: “Despite our consistently professional behavior throughout our time in El Salvador and investigations clearing us of any involvement, we are again being maliciously and falsely tied to a horrible act for the third time,” according to a statement posted on the company website.

Despite continued rumblings within South Africa’s African National Congress about nationalizing mines, Anglo American Platinum, the world’s biggest platinum producer says the government simply does not have the money to follow through.

Declaring “the future of the global economy lies in the hands of poor countries,” Harvard economist Dani Rodrik looks at the long-term growth prospects of these states to see whether we are headed toward a newly egalitarian economic world order. His conclusion: probably not. “Ultimately, greater convergence in the post-crisis global economy appears inevitable. But a large reversal in the fortunes of rich and poor countries seems neither economically likely, nor politically feasible.”

Colombian ambassador to London Mauricio Rodríguez argues no option should be left off the table in the search for a completely new approach to fighting the global drug trade. One key element, he says, is to follow the money: “Let’s be serious about where the big money is. If you look at the trail of cocaine, you’ll find that 5% of the profits remain in the producing countries; 95% is in the distribution networks and laundered. The big money is in the big banks in the big countries; the big money is in the US, Europe and Asia.”

Fox News’s Oliver North recounts his conversation with a young man who asks him what he intends to do “once ‘The Empire’ bans your shotguns,” in reference to negotiations on the UN-sponsored Arms Trade Treaty that would regulate the international transfer of conventional weapons without interfering with “the right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections on private ownership, exclusively within their territory.” The piece ends with the two men, anxious about their guns but filled with mutual admiration, parting ways: “When he got into his truck, I noticed his license plate: Massachusetts. Home of Paul Revere, John Adams, John Hancock. When an empire struck at Americans in 1775, they knew what to do. Let’s hope we still do.”

Howard Berman, a member of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, makes the case for his efforts to modernize American foreign assistance. He says the changes he will propose this fall include “reforms in the areas of conflict prevention and mitigation, human rights and democracy, security assistance, and trade and investment programs.”  Berman points out the current legislation is 50 years old and better suited to the Cold War than today’s world. “In this tight budget environment, one thing that can unite Democrats and Republicans is a commitment to make our foreign assistance programs more efficient and more effective.  We may have differing views on how much aid to provide and to which countries, but we should all agree to deliver aid in a way that reaches the intended beneficiaries and achieves its desired objectives.” But the University of Ottawa’s Stephen Brown has argued that, while most can agree on the desirability of making aid more effective, “the definition of what constitutes effectiveness and the choice of means to promote it are highly debatable.”

A Globe and Mail piece entitled “When business charity goes wrong,” uses the example of as a cautionary tale about the potentially disastrous consequences of acting on good intentions without doing one’s homework first.

Inter Press Service’s Thalif Deen looks at how much progress has been made since last July’s UN resolution making water and sanitation a human right. The answer, according to those he interviews, is not much.

Latest Developments, July 14

In today’s news and analysis…

South Sudan has become the UN’s 193rd member amid much hope and apprehension about its future prospects.

Canada is complicating preliminary negotiations for a multilateral treaty regulating the sale and transfer of conventional weapons by insisting on a number of exemptions. The Canadian delegation proposed the following addition to the draft accord: “Reaffirming that small arms have certain legitimate civilian uses, including sporting, hunting and collecting purposes.” To which Mexico reportedly replied that “victims don’t make that difference and neither should we.” Canada, whose Conservative government has scored considerable points with its base by promising to scrap the federal long-gun registry established by its Liberal predecessor, also proposed exemptions for ammunition and other “high volume items.”

Britain has suspended budgetary support to Malawi due to concerns over diminishing democracy and economic mismanagement. In making the announcement, the UK’s Department for International Development pointed to a number of indications of poor economic stewardship, including its assessment that “tobacco exports have deteriorated.” Given the fact that the UK trains and equips the counternarcotics police in Afghanistan, the British government apparently believes Malawian tobacco is good but Afghan poppies are bad.

Jayati Ghosh, warning of India’s “jobless growth” and increases in “fragile and unprotected” casual contracts, calls on the government to embrace employment creation for the young and educated in order to avoid “larger gaps between aspiration and reality in India’s labour markets.” To which, Bill Easterly tweets “Scary “jobless growth”! Wait, isn’t output growth > labor growth called “productivity growth” AKA “development”?”

The US is defending the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination campaign in Pakistan to obtain the DNA of some of Osama bin Laden’s relatives. “People need to put this into some perspective,” a U.S. official said. “The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world’s top terrorist, and nothing else.” Meanwhile, the CIA is allegedly using a secret prison and rendition to buttress its counterterrorism efforts in Somalia. And Yemeni journalist Khaled al-Hammadi has tweeted today’s CIA drone strike in the south of the country was a “clear message that #US administration is supporting #Saleh’s regime & his family against pro-democracy” forces.

A new poll suggests the US is losing Arab public opinion, as data from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates give America a lower approval rating than it had in the last year of the Bush Administration. And President Obama scored worse than the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France and Iran. “We are talking about expectations raised and expectations dashed,” according to James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, which commissioned the poll.  “Obama didn’t create the problem [of anger at US policies]. He created the expectations that the problem will be solved.”

In a new report on tax havens, Richard Murphy argues “whilst eliminating tax haven abuse is the right thing to do, such a policy must take into consideration the local populations of those places that have been tax havens, many of whom have worked in the financial services sector as it has been the only source of employment available to them.” And so, Murphy proposes “those locations willing to reform their tax haven practices should be given support to protect jobs and livelihoods as they pass through a period of transition in their economies.

Rupert Murdoch may be behind lobbying efforts to weaken the US anti-bribery legislation under which some would now like to see him prosecuted, and a pair of American telecom companies have been accused of involvement in a Haitian bribery scheme.

Saleem Ali makes a mining-free argument for returning to the gold standard. In his view, gold could restore a measure of financial discipline to the global economic system without sacrificing ecological considerations if “a nation’s gold reserves could remain “stored” in their natural underground state, rather than being mined, purified, and deposited in a Fort Knox–like vault.”

A new documentary chronicling a UN resettlement program in Nairobi’s biggest slum illustrates the distance that can separate international development workers from those they propose to help. And Hand Relief International’s Dr. Alden Kurtz has a similar, if decidedly cheekier, message  as Engineers Without Borders: the development industry would benefit from admitting to its failures.

Latest Developments, July 6

In today’s news and analysis…

Joseph Stiglitz says rich countries have learned nothing from the global financial crisis or the failure of earlier austerity measures in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. But the Nobel laureate’s emphasis on growth and “still further growth” suggests sustainability does not factor into his vision.

Patrick Michaels goes a step further, arguing there are no limits to potential growth, at least when it comes to food production, and it is policies aimed at halting global warming that are killing people: “This “limits to growth” argument is as tired as a farmer at the end of harvest.”

Harvard economist Dani Rodrik lays out his position on the place of democracy in economic policy making: “Ultimately, the question concerns whom we empower to make the rules that markets require. The unavoidable reality of our global economy is that the principal locus of legitimate democratic accountability still resides within the nation state. So I readily plead guilty to my economist critic’s charge. I do want to make the world safe for democratic politicians. And, frankly, I wonder about those who do not.”

One of the architects of the Kimberley Process praises Canada’s stand on blood diamonds, while an editorial (also in Embassy Magazine) refers to asbestos as Canada’s blood diamond after Canada opposed the substance’s inclusion in the Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous substances. “So in the same day,” the editorial reads, “Canada stood up for a process designed to save lives and provide accountability in an industry that is wrought with death and hypocrisy, and then took a position of hypocrisy that will contribute to more deaths in developing countries.”

Meanwhile, gold is reportedly fanning the flames of Colombia’s violence. Canada, which is home to a number of the world’s largest gold mining companies, has signed a bilateral free trade agreement which is set to kick in next month. A similar US-Colombia agreement appears stalled for now.

And one final Canadian mining note: The Canadian International Development Agency is teaming up with Teck Resources and the Micronutrient Initiative for zinc treatment in Senegal. Perhaps surprisingly, a spokesperson for watchdog group Mining Watch Canada believes the project goes beyond the kind of “advertising” he says is typical of corporate social responsibility endeavours: “This looks to me like a perfectly positive thing with concrete benefits to children, and it has accountability already built in.”

UNAIDS is praising India’s decision to resist pressure, most notably from the European Union, to adopt more stringent intellectual property protections that would make it more difficult to produce generic HIV/AIDS treatments. “Millions of people will die if India cannot produce generic antiretroviral drugs, and Africa will be the most affected,” UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé said. “For me, it is an issue of life or death.”

Marta Ruiz draws attention to a couple of initiatives, one in Africa and one in the Netherlands, intended to rein in abusive transfer pricing by transnational corporations. But the tax news out of the Netherlands is not necessarily all good for poor countries.

A Chinese prosecutor is calling for international cooperation in tackling the “global cancer” of trans-border corruption, the world’s largest mining company has banned “facilitation payments” in order to comply with the UK’s new anti-corruption law, and the World Bank is looking into possible asset recovery in foreign bribery cases.

In case anyone needed a reminder of the problems inherent in trying to establish a one-size-fits-all global justice system, an angry crowd in Egypt wants tough penalties for police officers who used violence against protesters earlier this year, while a woman who lost her home in Cote d’Ivoire’s recent violence has other priorities.

Nigeria’s president worries about his country’s “huge food import bills,” and the Economist asks if housing is the most dangerous asset of all.