Latest Developments, August 15

In the latest news and  analysis…

With Switzerland’s currency looking like a safe bet to investors and getting stronger by the day, there is growing concern the franc could become a threat to the Alpine nation’s economy: “It’s the curse of the diligent student,” Bank Sarasin’s Ursina Kubli told the Globe and Mail. “It’s being punished for doing its homework very nicely in recent years.” But Global Financial Integrity sees Switzerland in a less flattering light, as an important part of a worldwide network of tax-friendly regimes where individuals stash “US$12 trillion of assets in jurisdictions other than their own countries of residence that are not declared in their own countries of residence; the lost tax revenue annually from such undeclared assets is estimated at US$255 billion,” in addition to avoidance by corporations and other organizations. The Washington-based financial transparency advocates argue the recent tax deal Switzerland has made with Germany and another anticipated one with the UK involves “handing over money and some account information without making substantive changes to a system that puts tax collection and law enforcement officials at a disadvantage.” The solution, as GFI sees it, is a global agreement “to end tax haven secrecy.”

A deal has been struck to end a dispute in Gaza between Hamas and the US Agency for International Development that looked like a role reversal from aid-threatening rows elsewhere that saw Somalia’s Al Shabab – and Sudan’s government before them – accusing Western aid agencies of political interference. This time around, it was USAID who decided to stop humanitarian assistance because of perceived meddling by the host government.

The World Health Organization is looking into the emergence of a mysterious non-fatal illness that seems to be striking Angolan schoolchildren: “Although the cause of these outbreaks still remains unknown, this may be related to exposure to irritant chemicals.” Angola’s economy has grown rapidly since a decades-long civil war ended in 2002, due mainly to oil and supporting industries that account for roughly 85% of GDP. But it remains mired near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index rankings, behind Haiti and Uganda.

The UN is calling for investigation of possible war crimes in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state, which sits on the border of newly independent South Sudan. But a Guardian editorial entitled “United Nations: Weak leaders wanted” strongly criticizes current secretary Ban Ki-moon for, among other things, his seemingly selective attention to evidence of serious human rights violations: “The myopia of powerful governments is clearly shown in their preference for weak candidates for UN secretary-general. Occasionally they misjudge their man, with interesting results. With Dag Hammarskjöld, it was peacekeeping. Kofi Annan’s staff devised the millennium development goals. This time – with the quiet reappointment of secretary-general Ban Ki-moon this summer – they got what they wanted. Mr Ban presides over the slow decay of the UN secretariat, an institution that should be working, as Hammarskjöld said, on the edge of progress.”

New York University economist Nouriel Roubini writes that global capitalism as currently practiced is doomed: “To enable market-oriented economies to operate as they should and can, we need to return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods. That means moving away from both the Anglo-Saxon model of laissez-faire and voodoo economics and the continental European model of deficit-driven welfare states. Both are broken.” Among his prescriptions are “stricter supervision and regulation of a financial system run amok.”

James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations is “depressed” to see Western pre-eminence slipping to the point where countries that are home to over 80 percent of the world’s population could soon account for half its wealth. But while the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson concedes “it’s natural for people to worry about their daughter or son finding a good job in a depressed Western economy, and for them not to care that billions of people have been lifted out of the very worst poverty as a result,” he is a firm believer in linear human progress and sees the rise of the world’s most populous countries as another big step in the right direction. “The more wealthy countries there are, the more wealth they will make together, which in turn will lift more people out of poverty and make them more free, reducing the chances of great wars, the kind that kill tens of millions, possibly including your daughter or son, or you.” And the Economist happily announces the BRIC countries are embarking on a path that could fundamentally alter the world of aid: “The establishment donors’ aid monopoly is finished.”

Following up on his recent rejection of the view “that history is something to be left to historians,” the Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie looks at the recent history of measuring poverty. Concerning the World Bank’s practice of dividing countries into low-, medium- and high-income countries (LICs, MICs and HICs) and the apparent trend towards upward mobility, he cautions against a too-linear view, pointing out that “of the 26 countries that went from LIC to MIC status in the last decade, 18 had been MICs in the past but had relapsed to LIC status, mostly in the early 1990s.” On the other hand, membership in the UN’s Least Developed Country club has been depressingly stable.

Focusing mainly on Oprah Winfrey’s philanthropic activities, Cambridge University’s Priyamvada Gopal writes about “how billionaire benevolence is closely tied to the big neoliberal political manoeuvres of our time.” While Gopal stresses she does not question the sincerity underlying what she terms “humanitarian privatisation,” she worries about the combination of ignorance and “missionary zeal” the mega philanthropists display: “The billionaire “humanitarianism” of Winfrey, Gates and Murdoch is deeply compromised not only by its failure to acknowledge the causal relationship between extreme wealth and great poverty but by participating in an ideological assault on the welfare state. It posits itself as the only way to change the world – from above and with a wealthy few firmly in control.”

Latest Developments, July 18

In today’s news and analysis…

UN General Assembly president Joseph Deiss has urged reform of the Security Council’s size and membership, saying “any solution to the long-running debate on making the Council’s composition more representative ultimately lies with the 193 Member States of the world body.” Except that in realitiy, responsibility “ultimately lies” with the US, China, Russia, the UK and France who, as the five permanent members of the Security Council, enjoy veto power over charter changes. For example, even if a two-thirds majority voted to scrap Security Council vetoes, any of the five permanent members could trump those 130+ votes with a single “no” of their own.

Former UN assistant secretary general Ramesh Thakur argues the UN “remains our best and only hope for unity-in-diversity in addressing problems without passports that require solutions sans visas,” while conceding the organization has to work harder to meet what he terms the “legitimacy criterion” and the “performance criterion.” He calls for the reform of a number of UN bodies, including the Security Council, as well as “greater transparency, democracy and inclusiveness in decision-making.”

According to a new survey of British public views regarding UK foreign policy, the majority do not think ethics should play a role in international relations. “The government’s conception of security, linking spending on development with a direct enhancement of the security of British citizens, has yet to resonate with the public. Moreover, findings that show “the general public and opinion-formers consider aid largely irrelevant to Britain’s international reputation, and as playing only a small role in serving national interests” could make it tough for the government to stick to its commitment to raise aid levels to 0.7 percent of GDP, according to Chatham House researcher Rob Bailey.

In an editorial entitled “Human rights at home, too,” Canada’s Globe and Mail suggests the EU needs to do a little introspection if it wants to have a credible voice when criticizing human rights violations elsewhere in the world: “The EU is quick to wag fingers at other countries that fail to respect human rights. It’s time they had a look at the ramshackle dwellings and decrepit shacks the Roma inhabit in their own backyard.” To which one commenter responded: “And Canada should look at how it treats Aboriginal Canadians before we get to (sic) high and mighty about our position on racism and human rights.”

Former G7/G8 sherpa Gordon Smith frets about the future role for Canada, a country which accounts for roughly 0.5 percent of the global population, in international diplomatic power circles. As for what Canada’s current government has to offer the international community, Maclean’s Magazine’s Paul Wells argues now that the Conservatives finally have a majority government and a weak opposition means they can do more or less as they wish within parliament, they are adjusting their persecution complex to see the rest of the world as “an excellent substitute enemy.”

A new Bureau of Investigative Journalism piece disputes the US claim that drones have killed no civilians in Pakistan for nearly a year. The report comes right on the heels of efforts to seek the arrest of ex-CIA general counsel John Rizzo for his role in approving drone targets.

The international community is looking to regulate the conventional arms trade next summer but may yet leave off riot-control equipment, which some critics refer to as “weapons of repression.”

The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting declares South Sudan “the biggest development challenge in the world.” She writes: “What faces South Sudan is daunting: it needs help on the scale of a Marshall Plan for one country. It’s an unprecedented development challenge and, so far, there has been more goodwill than action or sense of urgency.” Meanwhile, the last country to bear that distinction, Haiti, still has 600,000-700,000 people living in tents, most of its destroyed infrastructure has not been rebuilt and most of the rubble has not been removed 18 months after the earthquake, according to physician and longtime Haiti advocate Paul Farmer.

Also writing for the Guardian, Nicholas Watt describes the “new Scramble for Africa,” which, he says, China appears to be winning. Africa also has Google scrambling, as it tries to provide more local content in local languages, in order to get into a largely untapped market.

World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy kicked off a conference to review the Aid for Trade initiative – intended to provide poor countries with the tools and expertise needed to boost trade – with words of praise for the six year-old program: “Results range from increased export volumes to more employment, to faster customs clearance times and impacts on poverty.” Note the language: “increased export volumes,” “more employment” and “faster customs clearance times” but no modifier for “impacts on poverty.” The same conference saw the unveiling of the Transparency in Trade Initiative, described by one UN agency as a “project aiming to eliminate the transparency gap resulting from the lack of access to data on country-specific trade policies”

And finally, Monday also saw the beginning of a week-long conference on intellectual property and genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore.