RDRutherford

August 25, 2009

The Women’s Crusade

Filed under: Africa, Nature — rdrutherford @ 7:39 pm

The Women’s Crusade
Saima Muhammad, shown with her daughter Javaria (seated), lives near Lahore, Pakistan. She was routinely beaten by her husband until she started a successful embroidery business.

Goretti Nyabenda of Burundi transformed her life with a $2 microloan that allowed her to build a small business.

IN THE 19TH CENTURY, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.

Yet if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. “Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos. There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

One place to observe this alchemy of gender is in the muddy back alleys of Pakistan. In a slum outside the grand old city of Lahore, a woman named Saima Muhammad used to dissolve into tears every evening. A round-faced woman with thick black hair tucked into a head scarf, Saima had barely a rupee, and her deadbeat husband was unemployed and not particularly employable. He was frustrated and angry, and he coped by beating Saima each afternoon. Their house was falling apart, and Saima had to send her young daughter to live with an aunt, because there wasn’t enough food to go around.

“My sister-in-law made fun of me, saying, ‘You can’t even feed your children,’ ” recalled Saima when Nick met her two years ago on a trip to Pakistan. “My husband beat me up. My brother-in-law beat me up. I had an awful life.” Saima’s husband accumulated a debt of more than $3,000, and it seemed that these loans would hang over the family for generations. Then when Saima’s second child was born and turned out to be a girl as well, her mother-in-law, a harsh, blunt woman named Sharifa Bibi, raised the stakes.

“She’s not going to have a son,” Sharifa told Saima’s husband, in front of her. “So you should marry again. Take a second wife.” Saima was shattered and ran off sobbing. Another wife would leave even less money to feed and educate the children. And Saima herself would be marginalized in the household, cast off like an old sock. For days Saima walked around in a daze, her eyes red; the slightest incident would send her collapsing into hysterical tears.

It was at that point that Saima signed up with the Kashf Foundation, a Pakistani microfinance organization that lends tiny amounts of money to poor women to start businesses. Kashf is typical of microfinance institutions, in that it lends almost exclusively to women, in groups of 25. The women guarantee one another’s debts and meet every two weeks to make payments and discuss a social issue, like family planning or schooling for girls. A Pakistani woman is often forbidden to leave the house without her husband’s permission, but husbands tolerate these meetings because the women return with cash and investment ideas.

Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt.

When merchants requested more embroidery than Saima could produce, she paid neighbors to assist her. Eventually 30 families were working for her, and she put her husband to work as well — “under my direction,” she explained with a twinkle in her eye. Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.

“Now everyone comes to me to borrow money, the same ones who used to criticize me,” Saima said, beaming in satisfaction. “And the children of those who used to criticize me now come to my house to watch TV.”

Today, Saima is a bit plump and displays a gold nose ring as well as several other rings and bracelets on each wrist. She exudes self-confidence as she offers a grand tour of her home and work area, ostentatiously showing off the television and the new plumbing. She doesn’t even pretend to be subordinate to her husband. He spends his days mostly loafing around, occasionally helping with the work but always having to accept orders from his wife. He has become more impressed with females in general: Saima had a third child, also a girl, but now that’s not a problem. “Girls are just as good as boys,” he explained.
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Saima’s new prosperity has transformed the family’s educational prospects. She is planning to send all three of her daughters through high school and maybe to college as well. She brings in tutors to improve their schoolwork, and her oldest child, Javaria, is ranked first in her class. We asked Javaria what she wanted to be when she grew up, thinking she might aspire to be a doctor or lawyer. Javaria cocked her head. “I’d like to do embroidery,” she said.

Abbas Be was held captive in a Delhi brothel. After she was freed, she returned to her home city of Hyderabad, became a bookbinder and now puts her sisters through school.
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Claudine Mukakarisa, who survived the genocide in Rwanda, was paired with a donor who helped her educate her children.

As for her husband, Saima said, “We have a good relationship now.” She explained, “We don’t fight, and he treats me well.” And what about finding another wife who might bear him a son? Saima chuckled at the question: “Now nobody says anything about that.” Sharifa Bibi, the mother-in-law, looked shocked when we asked whether she wanted her son to take a second wife to bear a son. “No, no,” she said. “Saima is bringing so much to this house. . . . She puts a roof over our heads and food on the table.”

Sharifa even allows that Saima is now largely exempt from beatings by her husband. “A woman should know her limits, and if not, then it’s her husband’s right to beat her,” Sharifa said. “But if a woman earns more than her husband, it’s difficult for him to discipline her.”

WHAT SHOULD we make of stories like Saima’s? Traditionally, the status of women was seen as a “soft” issue — worthy but marginal. We initially reflected that view ourselves in our work as journalists. We preferred to focus instead on the “serious” international issues, like trade disputes or arms proliferation. Our awakening came in China.

After we married in 1988, we moved to Beijing to be correspondents for The New York Times. Seven months later we found ourselves standing on the edge of Tiananmen Square watching troops fire their automatic weapons at prodemocracy protesters. The massacre claimed between 400 and 800 lives and transfixed the world; wrenching images of the killings appeared constantly on the front page and on television screens.

Yet the following year we came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that outlined a human rights violation that had claimed tens of thousands more lives. This study found that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because parents didn’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys received — and that was just in the first year of life. A result is that as many infant girls died unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square. Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.

A similar pattern emerged in other countries. In India, a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry — but these rarely constitute news. When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news.

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. “More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for “missing women” of between 60 million and 107 million.
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Girls vanish partly because they don’t get the same health care and food as boys. In India, for example, girls are less likely to be vaccinated than boys and are taken to the hospital only when they are sicker. A result is that girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys their age. In addition, ultrasound machines have allowed a pregnant woman to find out the sex of her fetus — and then get an abortion if it is female.

Edna Adan A former first lady of Somalia and World Health Organization official, she built her own maternity hospital in the enclave of Somaliland.

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.

For those women who live, mistreatment is sometimes shockingly brutal. If you’re reading this article, the phrase “gender discrimination” might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved. While a precise number is hard to pin down, the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, estimates that at any one time there are 12.3 million people engaged in forced labor of all kinds, including sexual servitude. In Asia alone about one million children working in the sex trade are held in conditions indistinguishable from slavery, according to a U.N. report. Girls and women are locked in brothels and beaten if they resist, fed just enough to be kept alive and often sedated with drugs — to pacify them and often to cultivate addiction. India probably has more modern slaves than any other country.

Another huge burden for women in poor countries is maternal mortality, with one woman dying in childbirth around the world every minute. In the West African country Niger, a woman stands a one-in-seven chance of dying in childbirth at some point in her life. (These statistics are all somewhat dubious, because maternal mortality isn’t considered significant enough to require good data collection.) For all of India’s shiny new high-rises, a woman there still has a 1-in-70 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. In contrast, the lifetime risk in the United States is 1 in 4,800; in Ireland, it is 1 in 47,600. The reason for the gap is not that we don’t know how to save lives of women in poor countries. It’s simply that poor, uneducated women in Africa and Asia have never been a priority either in their own countries or to donor nations.

ABBAS BE, A BEAUTIFUL teenage girl in the Indian city of Hyderabad, has chocolate skin, black hair and gleaming white teeth — and a lovely smile, which made her all the more marketable.

Money was tight in her family, so when she was about 14 she arranged to take a job as a maid in the capital, New Delhi. Instead, she was locked up in a brothel, beaten with a cricket bat, gang-raped and told that she would have to cater to customers. Three days after she arrived, Abbas and all 70 girls in the brothel were made to gather round and watch as the pimps made an example of one teenage girl who had fought customers. The troublesome girl was stripped naked, hogtied, humiliated and mocked, beaten savagely and then stabbed in the stomach until she bled to death in front of Abbas and the others.

Abbas was never paid for her work. Any sign of dissatisfaction led to a beating or worse; two more times, she watched girls murdered by the brothel managers for resisting. Eventually Abbas was freed by police and taken back to Hyderabad. She found a home in a shelter run by Prajwala, an organization that takes in girls rescued from brothels and teaches them new skills. Abbas is acquiring an education and has learned to be a bookbinder; she also counsels other girls about how to avoid being trafficked. As a skilled bookbinder, Abbas is able to earn a decent living, and she is now helping to put her younger sisters through school as well. With an education, they will be far less vulnerable to being trafficked. Abbas has moved from being a slave to being a producer, contributing to India’s economic development and helping raise her family.

Perhaps the lesson presented by both Abbas and Saima is the same: In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy. With education and with help starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty.
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In East Asia, as we saw in our years of reporting there, women have already benefited from deep social changes. In countries like South Korea and Malaysia, China and Thailand, rural girls who previously contributed negligibly to the economy have gone to school and received educations, giving them the autonomy to move to the city to hold factory jobs. This hugely increased the formal labor force; when the women then delayed childbearing, there was a demographic dividend to the country as well. In the 1990s, by our estimations, some 80 percent of the employees on the assembly lines in coastal China were female, and the proportion across the manufacturing belt of East Asia was at least 70 percent.

The hours were long and the conditions wretched, just as in the sweatshops of the Industrial Revolution in the West. But peasant women were making money, sending it back home and sometimes becoming the breadwinners in their families. They gained new skills that elevated their status. Westerners encounter sweatshops and see exploitation, and indeed, many of these plants are just as bad as critics say. But it’s sometimes said in poor countries that the only thing worse than being exploited in a sweatshop is not being exploited in a sweatshop. Low-wage manufacturing jobs disproportionately benefited women in countries like China because these were jobs for which brute physical force was not necessary and women’s nimbleness gave them an advantage over men — which was not the case with agricultural labor or construction or other jobs typically available in poor countries. Strange as it may seem, sweatshops in Asia had the effect of empowering women. One hundred years ago, many women in China were still having their feet bound. Today, while discrimination and inequality and harassment persist, the culture has been transformed. In the major cities, we’ve found that Chinese men often do more domestic chores than American men typically do. And urban parents are often not only happy with an only daughter; they may even prefer one, under the belief that daughters are better than sons at looking after aging parents.

WHY DO MICROFINANCE organizations usually focus their assistance on women? And why does everyone benefit when women enter the work force and bring home regular pay checks? One reason involves the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men. Surprisingly frequently, we’ve come across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net; the mother says that the family couldn’t afford a bed net and she means it, but then we find the father at a nearby bar. He goes three evenings a week to the bar, spending $5 each week.

Our interviews and perusal of the data available suggest that the poorest families in the world spend approximately 10 times as much (20 percent of their incomes on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children (2 percent). If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries. Girls, since they are the ones kept home from school now, would be the biggest beneficiaries. Moreover, one way to reallocate family expenditures in this way is to put more money in the hands of women. A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier.

In Ivory Coast, one research project examined the different crops that men and women grow for their private kitties: men grow coffee, cocoa and pineapple, and women grow plantains, bananas, coconuts and vegetables. Some years the “men’s crops” have good harvests and the men are flush with cash, and other years it is the women who prosper. Money is to some extent shared. But even so, the economist Esther Duflo of M.I.T. found that when the men’s crops flourish, the household spends more money on alcohol and tobacco. When the women have a good crop, the households spend more money on food. “When women command greater power, child health and nutrition improves,” Duflo says.

Such research has concrete implications: for example, donor countries should nudge poor countries to adjust their laws so that when a man dies, his property is passed on to his widow rather than to his brothers. Governments should make it easy for women to hold property and bank accounts — 1 percent of the world’s landowners are women — and they should make it much easier for microfinance institutions to start banks so that women can save money.
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OF COURSE, IT’S FAIR to ask: empowering women is well and good, but can one do this effectively? Does foreign aid really work? William Easterly, an economist at New York University, has argued powerfully that shoveling money at poor countries accomplishes little. Some Africans, including Dambisa Moyo, author of “Dead Aid,” have said the same thing. The critics note that there has been no correlation between amounts of aid going to countries and their economic growth rates.

Our take is that, frankly, there is something to these criticisms. Helping people is far harder than it looks. Aid experiments often go awry, or small successes turn out to be difficult to replicate or scale up. Yet we’ve also seen, anecdotally and in the statistics, evidence that some kinds of aid have been enormously effective. The delivery of vaccinations and other kinds of health care has reduced the number of children who die every year before they reach the age of 5 to less than 10 million today from 20 million in 1960.

In general, aid appears to work best when it is focused on health, education and microfinance (although microfinance has been somewhat less successful in Africa than in Asia). And in each case, crucially, aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return. Only a small proportion of aid specifically targets women or girls, but increasingly donors are recognizing that that is where they often get the most bang for the buck.

In the early 1990s, the United Nations and the World Bank began to proclaim the potential resource that women and girls represent. “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world,” Larry Summers wrote when he was chief economist of the World Bank. Private aid groups and foundations shifted gears as well. “Women are the key to ending hunger in Africa,” declared the Hunger Project. The Center for Global Development issued a major report explaining “why and how to put girls at the center of development.” CARE took women and girls as the centerpiece of its anti-poverty efforts. “Gender inequality hurts economic growth,” Goldman Sachs concluded in a 2008 research report that emphasized how much developing countries could improve their economic performance by educating girls.

Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth were women, all covered in black cloaks and veils, on the right. A partition separated the two groups. Toward the end, in the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” The small group on the right erupted in wild cheering.

Policy makers have gotten the message as well. President Obama has appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls. Perhaps he was indoctrinated by his mother, who was one of the early adopters of microloans to women when she worked to fight poverty in Indonesia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is a member of the White House Council, and she has also selected a talented activist, Melanne Verveer, to direct a new State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues. On Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has put Senator Barbara Boxer in charge of a new subcommittee that deals with women’s issues.

Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country’s population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room. That’s in part why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and international security specialists are puzzling over how to increase girls’ education in countries like Afghanistan — and why generals have gotten briefings from Greg Mortenson, who wrote about building girls’ schools in his best seller, “Three Cups of Tea.” Indeed, some scholars say they believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.

SO WHAT WOULD an agenda for fighting poverty through helping women look like? You might begin with the education of girls — which doesn’t just mean building schools. There are other innovative means at our disposal. A study in Kenya by Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist, examined six different approaches to improving educational performance, from providing free textbooks to child-sponsorship programs. The approach that raised student test scores the most was to offer girls who had scored in the top 15 percent of their class on sixth-grade tests a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade (and the glory of recognition at an assembly). Boys also performed better, apparently because they were pushed by the girls or didn’t want to endure the embarrassment of being left behind.
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Another Kenyan study found that giving girls a new $6 school uniform every 18 months significantly reduced dropout rates and pregnancy rates. Likewise, there’s growing evidence that a cheap way to help keep high-school girls in school is to help them manage menstruation. For fear of embarrassing leaks and stains, girls sometimes stay home during their periods, and the absenteeism puts them behind and eventually leads them to drop out. Aid workers are experimenting with giving African teenage girls sanitary pads, along with access to a toilet where they can change them. The Campaign for Female Education, an organization devoted to getting more girls into school in Africa, helps girls with their periods, and a new group, Sustainable Health Enterprises, is trying to do the same.

And so, if President Obama wanted to adopt a foreign-aid policy that built on insights into the role of women in development, he would do well to start with education. We would suggest a $10 billion effort over five years to educate girls around the world. This initiative would focus on Africa but would also support — and prod — Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan to do better. This plan would also double as population policy, for it would significantly reduce birthrates — and thus help poor countries overcome the demographic obstacles to economic growth.

But President Obama might consider two different proposals as well. We would recommend that the United States sponsor a global drive to eliminate iodine deficiency around the globe, by helping countries iodize salt. About a third of households in the developing world do not get enough iodine, and a result is often an impairment in brain formation in the fetal stages. For reasons that are unclear, this particularly affects female fetuses and typically costs children 10 to 15 I.Q. points. Research by Erica Field of Harvard found that daughters of women given iodine performed markedly better in school. Other research suggests that salt iodization would yield benefits worth nine times the cost.

We would also recommend that the United States announce a 12-year, $1.6 billion program to eradicate obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury that is one of the worst scourges of women in the developing world. An obstetric fistula, which is a hole created inside the body by a difficult childbirth, leaves a woman incontinent, smelly, often crippled and shunned by her village — yet it can be repaired for a few hundred dollars. Dr. Lewis Wall, president of the Worldwide Fistula Fund, and Michael Horowitz, a conservative agitator on humanitarian issues, have drafted the 12-year plan — and it’s eminently practical and built on proven methods. Evidence that fistulas can be prevented or repaired comes from impoverished Somaliland, a northern enclave of Somalia, where an extraordinary nurse-midwife named Edna Adan has built her own maternity hospital to save the lives of the women around her. A former first lady of Somalia and World Health Organization official, Adan used her savings to build the hospital, which is supported by a group of admirers in the U.S. who call themselves Friends of Edna Maternity Hospital.

For all the legitimate concerns about how well humanitarian aid is spent, investments in education, iodizing salt and maternal health all have a proven record of success. And the sums are modest: all three components of our plan together amount to about what the U.S. has provided Pakistan since 9/11 — a sum that accomplished virtually nothing worthwhile either for Pakistanis or for Americans.

ONE OF THE MANY aid groups that for pragmatic reasons has increasingly focused on women is Heifer International, a charitable organization based in Arkansas that has been around for decades. The organization gives cows, goats and chickens to farmers in poor countries. On assuming the presidency of Heifer in 1992, the activist Jo Luck traveled to Africa, where one day she found herself sitting on the ground with a group of young women in a Zimbabwean village. One of them was Tererai Trent.

Tererai is a long-faced woman with high cheekbones and a medium brown complexion; she has a high forehead and tight cornrows. Like many women around the world, she doesn’t know when she was born and has no documentation of her birth. As a child, Tererai didn’t get much formal education, partly because she was a girl and was expected to do household chores. She herded cattle and looked after her younger siblings. Her father would say, Let’s send our sons to school, because they will be the breadwinners. Tererai’s brother, Tinashe, was forced to go to school, where he was an indifferent student. Tererai pleaded to be allowed to attend but wasn’t permitted to do so. Tinashe brought his books home each afternoon, and Tererai pored over them and taught herself to read and write. Soon she was doing her brother’s homework every evening.
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The teacher grew puzzled, for Tinashe was a poor student in class but always handed in exemplary homework. Finally, the teacher noticed that the handwriting was different for homework and for class assignments and whipped Tinashe until he confessed the truth. Then the teacher went to the father, told him that Tererai was a prodigy and begged that she be allowed to attend school. After much argument, the father allowed Tererai to attend school for a couple of terms, but then married her off at about age 11.

Tererai’s husband barred her from attending school, resented her literacy and beat her whenever she tried to practice her reading by looking at a scrap of old newspaper. Indeed, he beat her for plenty more as well. She hated her marriage but had no way out. “If you’re a woman and you are not educated, what else?” she asks.

Yet when Jo Luck came and talked to Tererai and other young women in her village, Luck kept insisting that things did not have to be this way. She kept saying that they could achieve their goals, repeatedly using the word “achievable.” The women caught the repetition and asked the interpreter to explain in detail what “achievable” meant. That gave Luck a chance to push forward. “What are your hopes?” she asked the women, through the interpreter. Tererai and the others were puzzled by the question, because they didn’t really have any hopes. But Luck pushed them to think about their dreams, and reluctantly, they began to think about what they wanted.

Tererai timidly voiced hope of getting an education. Luck pounced and told her that she could do it, that she should write down her goals and methodically pursue them. After Luck and her entourage disappeared, Tererai began to study on her own, in hiding from her husband, while raising her five children. Painstakingly, with the help of friends, she wrote down her goals on a piece of paper: “One day I will go to the United States of America,” she began, for Goal 1. She added that she would earn a college degree, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. — all exquisitely absurd dreams for a married cattle herder in Zimbabwe who had less than one year’s formal education. But Tererai took the piece of paper and folded it inside three layers of plastic to protect it, and then placed it in an old can. She buried the can under a rock where she herded cattle.

Then Tererai took correspondence classes and began saving money. Her self-confidence grew as she did brilliantly in her studies, and she became a community organizer for Heifer. She stunned everyone with superb schoolwork, and the Heifer aid workers encouraged her to think that she could study in America. One day in 1998, she received notice that she had been admitted to Oklahoma State University.

Some of the neighbors thought that a woman should focus on educating her children, not herself. “I can’t talk about my children’s education when I’m not educated myself,” Tererai responded. “If I educate myself, then I can educate my children.” So she climbed into an airplane and flew to America.

At Oklahoma State, Tererai took every credit she could and worked nights to make money. She earned her undergraduate degree, brought her five children to America and started her master’s, then returned to her village. She dug up the tin can under the rock and took out the paper on which she had scribbled her goals. She put check marks beside the goals she had fulfilled and buried the tin can again.

In Arkansas, she took a job working for Heifer — while simultaneously earning a master’s degree part time. When she had her M.A., Tererai again returned to her village. After embracing her mother and sister, she dug up her tin can and checked off her next goal. Now she is working on her Ph.D. at Western Michigan University.

Tererai has completed her course work and is completing a dissertation about AIDS programs among the poor in Africa. She will become a productive economic asset for Africa and a significant figure in the battle against AIDS. And when she has her doctorate, Tererai will go back to her village and, after hugging her loved ones, go out to the field and dig up her can again.

There are many metaphors for the role of foreign assistance. For our part, we like to think of aid as a kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own. That is what the assistance to Tererai amounted to: a bit of help where and when it counts most, which often means focusing on women like her. And now Tererai is gliding along freely on her own — truly able to hold up half the sky.
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April 23, 2008

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Filed under: Uncategorized — rdrutherford @ 7:44 pm

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July 26, 2007

Revenue Transparency: Russia vs. Africa/Stratfor

Filed under: Africa — rdrutherford @ 10:28 pm

Revenue Transparency: Russia vs. Africa
By Bart Mongoven

Representatives of transparency advocates Global Witness and Freedom House appealed to the U.S. government this week to help them in their struggle to get former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, including Russia, to disclose the amount of money they receive from oil and natural gas operations — and to reveal how that money is spent. The concept, known as revenue transparency, is backed by a growing network of organizations and companies, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but has received little more than lip service from Washington.

In their July 23 testimony before the Helsinki Commission, the U.S. arm of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the activists said programs such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Publish What You Pay campaign are beginning to show positive results in some regions. They implied, however, that FSU countries conspicuously lack transparency.

The activists contended that the tight global oil supplies make transparency in oil-rich states more important than ever, because energy security in the short term requires knowledge — and knowledge requires transparency. They also argued that the U.S. drive toward energy security is complicated by its reliance on countries where corruption and disregard for the rule of law run rampant. Finally, both organizations concluded that campaigning by nongovernmental organizations is unlikely to be sufficient in the FSU and that improving transparency there will require the U.S. government to become actively involved — in terms of effort and funding — in supporting global transparency programs.

Also on July 23, Merrill Lynch issued a research report arguing that Africa has, in broad terms, turned a corner and deserves investor attention. The report contends that parts of Africa have seen improvements in governance just as oil and commodity prices have increased. As a result, according to Merrill Lynch, many places in Africa are witnessing economic growth and an improved investment climate.

Merrill Lynch’s research expressly compares governance in Africa to the FSU and backs the message implicit in the activists’ testimony: Transparency and governance are improving in Africa, while the FSU is lagging. For transparency campaigners this is a difficult mixed result. When Global Witness embarked on its work in Africa, its chances for meaningful progress were considered slim, but now key indicators suggest they are turning a corner. On the flip side, while they have focused their energy on Africa, they have looked up to find a far tougher situation developing in the FSU — and they appear to doubt their chances of success without significant support from Western governments.

If their testimony before the Helsinki Commission is any indication, the major players in the transparency movement are looking at the FSU as the next great battleground. This might be a bridge too far. Stratfor was not among those who considered transparency campaigning in Africa akin to tilting at windmills — far from it. In taking on transparency in the FSU, however, campaigners are taking on a different kind of corruption and revenue opacity. Transparency groups appear poised to direct as much effort at the FSU as they are at Africa, but in seriously taking on the FSU they will be running into Vladimir Putin’s strategy to project power and define Russia’s national interest. And they likely will fail.

Transparency Campaigning

With the general acceptance of globalization by human rights campaigners in the early part of the 2000s, activists began to turn their attention to ameliorating the most serious negative implications of globalization. For many human rights groups concerned about poverty, issues of governance leapt to the fore.

Among the dozens of issues that fall under the wide realm of “governance,” campaigners focused on an area in which major Western corporations were expected to increase their influence and exacerbate problems — revenue transparency and corruption. The death of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa at the hands of the corrupt regime of Nigerian Gen. Sani Abacha in 1995 was still fresh in activists’ minds when large oil discoveries were made off the West African coast. Campaigners were compelled to find ways to arrest the siphoning off of oil revenues by national leaders and to direct the money toward the public good.

The most important early effort to address this form of corruption was the Publish What You Pay campaign, which was developed by Global Witness and endorsed by a large coalition of human-rights and relief organizations. It started with the demand that oil and mining companies make public the amount of money they paid in royalties and other fees to governments in developing countries. The idea was that if the amount of revenue going into government coffers could be monitored, the amount of graft could be determined and campaigns could be developed that would dissuade dictators from siphoning off sizeable portions of their country’s income.

In the wake of Saro-Wiwa’s death, pressure built within the Commonwealth, particularly within the United Kingdom, for sanctions against Nigeria, and out of this, transparency emerged as a priority issue for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. His government provided assistance to Global Witness and later developed an intergovernmental plan for building on the Publish What You Pay campaign. This plan, the EITI, essentially called for corporations to follow the basic idea of the Publish What You Pay campaign, and asked for governments to take actions that would advance these goals. More than 21 countries, including Nigeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and many other major oil exporters, signed on to the program and a few even have complied with many of the guidelines.

Further aiding this movement, the vast majority of private lenders and the World Bank’s lending arm, the International Finance Corp., have adopted codes of conduct that guide lending to projects in developing countries. For the private banks, the code is the Equator Principles. These codes, which address revenue transparency among other issues, have begun to affect how regimes in developing countries approach projects.

Unlike the Equator Principles, Publish What You Pay has not caught on as a driving code of conduct for resource countries, though the transparency ideas promoted by EITI have caught on to some extent. In his testimony to the Helsinki Commission, Global Witness Director Simon Taylor recognized Nigeria and Azerbaijan for their adherence to the EITI program.

The Final Investing Frontier?

Sub-Saharan Africa remains a corrupt market where graft, protection money and bribery are all part of doing business. Perhaps Taylor’s singling out of Nigeria — a notoriously corrupt and risky place to do business — most clearly indicates the small increments by which Global Witness and EITI measure progress. Global Witness and the Publish What You Pay coalition have spent millions of dollars and years of work trying to pressure leaders to improve revenue transparency.

Of course, any activists who have spent a decade on the project would be tempted to tell the world they are making progress — regardless of the evidence on the ground. However, when a major financial institution says things are improving — particularly when the brokerage’s point of view and objectives are so different from the campaigners — it is worth taking a look. According to Merrill Lynch, things are getting better in Africa. Corruption and adherence to the rule of law remain significant problems, but using their own research and data from the United Nations, World Bank and other sources, they also contend that Africa as a whole is now ahead of the FSU, and roughly on par with South Asia, in terms of rule of law and corruption, and ahead of South Asia in terms of political stability. Merrill Lynch acknowledges that Africa poses significant risks, but in addition to governance, it also argues that the continent is improving its infrastructure (thanks largely to Chinese investment) as well as banking and trade laws.

In terms of overall human rights, Merrill Lynch presents a mixed message. The improved stability that impresses the company is largely assured by the strengthened position of autocratic regimes that are bolstered by mineral wealth. Still, Merrill Lynch notes that economic growth in Africa is rising generally commensurate with oil revenue, a sign that high oil prices are improving the economy as a whole. Compare this to written testimony from Freedom House to the Helsinki Commission, which pointed out that Central Asian oil states such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are growing at a paltry rate, despite high oil prices, because of the amount of revenue leaders are siphoning off.

Bearish

The difference between moves toward transparency in Africa and in the FSU is rooted in the nature of the corruption and the indigenous oil industry. Anti-corruption measures have worked in Africa because the focus has been on convincing single leaders or a leadership clique to make small changes. These leaders have learned that improving transparency and even increasing the amount of money going to the people need not necessarily result in a diminution of their lavish lifestyle. More important, they also have come to understand that they put all of their riches at risk if they ignore the campaigners, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Equator Principles banks and the rest of the growing network of organizations and companies that are demanding increased transparency.

The corruption in the FSU is different. First, African dictators depend on foreign oil companies to bring oil to market and foreign banks to fund projects. This dependence has opened avenues for transparency campaigners that do not exist in Russia. More important, the reason for the lack of transparency is different. African leaders simply want to steal the money. Russia’s lack of transparency is critical to its ability to control the oil industry, which it views as an offensive strategic weapon.

According to both Global Witness and Freedom House, Russia’s opaque oil and natural gas industry has caused a cascade of corruption throughout the FSU in which ownership of companies, fields and pipelines is not readily apparent — and where the revenue ends up is even less clear. Because the majority of Turkmen and Kazakh oil and natural gas pass through Russia, they are part of the intricate web of oligarchs, politicians and oil companies at the heart of Russia’s government. At the top of this chain is Putin, a leader who is not sending the country’s oil revenue to personal accounts in Swiss banks, but instead is enriching his political allies (or allowing them to enrich themselves). Meanwhile, he is holding a good portion of the proceeds in bank accounts in the country’s name.

This intricate web is designed to solidify Putin’s position (and presumably that of his successor) and also to ensure that the most powerful economic weapon Russia has — its oil and natural gas industry — remains a tool of the Russian state. With full Kremlin control of oil and natural gas, Russia has been able to flex newfound muscle, telling Europe that on important issues, including NATO expansion, it must deal with Russia on Moscow’s terms.

Controlling corruption in Russia, therefore, is not a matter of convincing a billionaire despot that his billions are secure only if he plays by new rules. Russia is using corruption to secure power that ensures the safety of the state. Unlike in Africa, getting half the pie will not work — there is no half control for Putin. It is a different ball game.

Global Witness and Freedom House implicitly acknowledged this in their testimony to the Helsinki Commission. They are calling on the federal government to become more involved in EITI and to turn transparency into a priority issue. Their testimony acknowledged that the new center of corruption in the global economy is a very different animal than Africa.

The question is whether the United States will act on this. On one hand, Washington might find that transparency issues strike at the heart of Russia’s strength. But as with Cold War human rights advocacy, Western calls for transparency in Putin’s oil and natural gas industry are likely to change nothing in Russia.

June 15, 2007

Improvised Explosive Defeat?

Filed under: Terrorism — rdrutherford @ 6:05 pm

Improvised Explosive Defeat?
By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 10, 2007; Page B07

The photographs gathered by The Post each month in a gallery called Faces of the Fallen are haunting. The soldiers are so young, enlisted men and women mostly, usually dressed in the uniforms they wore in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s striking is that most of them were killed by roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The United States is losing the war in Iraq because it cannot combat these makeshift weapons. An army with unimaginable firepower is being driven out by guerrillas armed with a crude arsenal of explosives and blasting caps, triggered by cellphones and garage-door openers.

This is Gulliver’s torment, circa 2007. We have thrown our money and technology at the problem, with limited effect. In 2004 the Pentagon created a special task force called the Joint IED Defeat Organization (or JIEDDO, in Pentagon-ese). It has spent $6.3 billion and assembled a staff of nearly 400, but every day more of our brave young people die, and we seem unable to stop it.

“Once the bomb is made, it’s too late,” says Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has studied the IED problem. She says the best hope is to disrupt the money and supplies that allow the bombs to be constructed.

Low-tech seems to trump high-tech. The military is operating nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with 150 in 2004. The latest model, dubbed “Fido,” has a digital nose that can sniff explosives. Yet the bombs are so cheap and easy to make, and the robot sniffers are so expensive and finicky to operate, that the cost-benefit ratio seems to work in favor of the insurgents.

We have dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Iraq at any given time, monitoring highways and ammunition dumps and suspected terrorists. And we have many hundreds of additional sensors, adding more data. But the flow of this intelligence information is so vast that it overwhelms our ability to analyze it. Retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who heads JIEDDO, disagrees. “It’s not true that there is so much data we’re swamped and can’t deal with it,” he said.

Someday, perhaps, the Pentagon will track and target bombers by identifying biological tags — smells or DNA traces that are unique signatures. Someday, we will be able to examine the microbes on an insurgent’s skin or in his gut to find out if he was trained in Iran or the Bekaa Valley or Afghanistan. But in a world with an ever-expanding supply of suicide bombers, will such technology make any difference?

The insurgents who kill our young soldiers are ruthless, but we have sometimes been cautious in our response. Take the question of targeting bomb makers: There may be an unlimited supply of explosives in Iraq, but there is not an unlimited supply of people who know how to wire the detonators. In 2004, CIA operatives in Iraq believed that they had identified the signatures of 11 bomb makers. They proposed a diabolical — but potentially effective — sabotage program that would have flooded Iraq with booby-trapped detonators designed to explode in the bomb makers’ hands. But the CIA general counsel’s office said no. The lawyers claimed that the agency lacked authority for such an operation, one source recalled.

There are technologies that would allow us to detonate every roadside bomb in Iraq by heating the wires in the detonators to the point that they triggered an explosion. But these systems could severely harm civilians nearby, so we’re not using them, either. “In our system, we often are not given credit for the fact that we are very concerned about collateral damage,” Meigs said.

We wrote the book for the insurgents, in a sense. By arming and training the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, we created the modern dynamics of asymmetric warfare. That extends even to the fearsome armor-piercing “explosively formed penetrators,” or EFPs, that we have accused the Iranians of supplying to Iraqi insurgents. The CIA referred to these tank busters as “platter charges” in the days when we were covertly helping provide them to the Afghan rebels.

The simple, low-tech answer to the IED threat is to reduce the number of targets — by getting our troops off the streets during vulnerable daylight hours, to the extent possible. It’s an interesting fact that very few IED attacks have been suffered by our elite Special Forces units, which attack al-Qaeda cells and Shiite death squads mostly at night, with devastating force. They blow in from nowhere and are gone minutes later, before the enemy can start shooting. That’s the kind of asymmetry that evens the balance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

June 11, 2007

Namibia: There’s Power in the Bush

Filed under: Africa, LDCs — rdrutherford @ 8:43 pm

Wezi Tjaronda
Windhoek

Efforts to find ways of combating invader bush have culminated in a bush-to-power project that may start operating in June if all goes according to plan.

The project – Combating Bush Encroachment for Namibia’s Development (C-Bend) – is a collaborative effort of three organizations, namely, the Desert Research Foundation Namibia, Namibia Agricultural Union and Namibia National Farmers’ Union. Plans are for it to be implemented between 2007 and 2008, after the EU-funded Rural Poverty Reduction Programme provisionally approved financing the project.

The project will be located in one of the areas with a high density of invader bush around the north-central areas of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein.

Other conditions of the project site will be the proximity of the areas to electricity, where the generated power can be fed into the national grid and the willingness of farmers around those areas to have their farms used.

C-Bend’s fact sheet says that Namibia’s bush-to-electricity energy potential in bush-infested areas lies in using available electricity-generating technologies and applying ecological management principles that can generate between 0.5 and 2.5 MWh per hectares per year.

At a sustainable yield of 2 MWh per hectare, some 1.5 million hectares of bush harvested each year would ensure that Namibia’s entire annual electricity consumption of 3 000 GWh is generated.

Studies conducted in 2000 assessed both large-scale (10-30 MW) and small-scale (0.2 – 0.5 MW) biomass technologies, and although both were found to be technically feasible, the economic feasibility was undermined because of cheaper electricity imports from South Africa.

But the current situation of lack of generation capacity and energy security as well as technology developments present new opportunities for the introduction of small-scale decentralised wood gasification technologies.

A 0.5MW wood gasification plant costs over N$4 million and produces 3 500 MWh per hectare and taking into account sales of N$0.3 per KWh, annual revenues from the sale of electricity would yield some N$1 million. This would also result in an increased carrying capacity of debushed land and also yield additional income.

At a meeting on Bio-Energy recently, DRFN’s Detlof von Oertzen said the project would also address productivity issues, job creation and improved livelihoods.

“Poverty statistics are shocking. We face an uncertain energy future while we have a very high unemployment rate,” he said, adding that the project gave the country a unique opportunity to address local problems with local solutions.

“This is a first tiny step to use local resources in finding solutions,” he added.

He said the project has the endorsement of the country’s power utility, Nampower, the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, the Namibia Women’s Association and the regional councils.

Studies indicate that 26 million hectares of agricultural land are infested with bush encroachment, therefore preventing the growth of useful grass species and compaction of soil in the bush encroached areas.

This has reduced the land’s carrying capacity resulting in reduced cattle numbers over the years and leading to economic losses of N$700 million every year.

C-Bend aims at assessing the actual economics and developing the best management practices for rural bush-to-energy, which paves the way for the introduction of such technologies in rural communities and areas.

Apart from generating electricity, invader bush is a resource from which animal fed, charcoal products, chipboards and bush blocks can be produced.
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Although there are other methods to limit bush encroachment such as herbicides, use of browsers, fire, stumping or felling and bulldozing among others, many of these methods have been found to be so costly that farmers say it is cheaper to buy another farm than to debush.

The objective of the project is to get a bush-to-electricity enterprise up and running and through the enterprise hopefully change the perception that invader bush is a nuisance.

The bush will be harvested sustainably as a resource in a way that it can be re-harvested in future.
Namibia: There’s Power in the Bush

June 1, 2007

Warmer world gets wetter

Filed under: Global Warming — rdrutherford @ 5:45 pm

Warmer world gets wetter
Global warming will increase worldwide precipitation by three times the amount predicted by current climate models, according to a study based on two decades’ worth of satellite observations.

The discrepancy between the models and the data might mean that the models are wrong. Or it might be that two decades is not long enough to test their predictions. But researchers believe that the work is a step towards understanding the thorny issue of how global temperatures affect rainfall.

Warmer air holds more water. Satellite observations and climate models agree that each rise of 1 °C in global temperatures increases the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere by about 6.5%.

But climate models project that global warming will also bring weaker winds, leading to less water evaporating from the ocean and counteracting the effect of warming. Models predict that worldwide precipitation — which must match the amount of evaporation — will increase by only 1-3% for each degree of future global warming.

Uncertain forecast

To see how rainfall had changed with the 0.4 °C warming of the past 20 years, Frank Wentz and his colleagues at Remote Sensing Systems in Santa Rosa, California, analysed data collected by US weather satellites from 1987 to 2006. The satellites measure atmospheric water vapour, surface winds and precipitation.

They report in Science that the amount of water in the atmosphere, evaporation and precipitation all increased at the same rate, by about 1.3% per decade1 — or about 6.5% for every degree of warming. Surface winds increased, not decreased, with warming.

It is currently impossible to predict where additional precipitation will fall, says Wentz. Wet areas may get wetter, but drought-plagued regions might also get some relief.

The study is “a good first step” in the debate over future precipitation, says Gerald North of Texas A&M University, College Station, who studies rainfall patterns. But, he adds, the single 20-year data set is not enough to get a definite answer.

He also notes that it is difficult to measure evaporation from space — and even from the ground. “The satellite-inferred trends are not a measurement but an estimate with unknown and subtle error characteristics,” he says.

Wentz agrees that two decades’ worth of data are not definitive — but “it is all we have”. The accuracy of climate models’ predictions regarding precipitation has not been tested before, he adds.

John Bates, a remote-sensing expert at the US National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, says studying the global water budget is “notoriously difficult”, but the latest climate models may be better able to account for precipitation.

He is looking forward “to seeing how those models compare with the ever improving satellite observations”.

May 23, 2007

Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages

Filed under: LDCs, Technology — rdrutherford @ 8:51 pm

Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages
Solar Flashlights

FUGNIDO, Ethiopia — At 10 p.m. in a sweltering refugee camp here in western Ethiopia, a group of foreigners was making its way past thatch-roofed huts when a tall, rail-thin man approached a silver-haired American and took hold of his hands.
Skip to next paragraph
The New York Times

A Houston oilman brought the solar flashlight to Fugnido camp.

The man, a Sudanese refugee, announced that his wife had just given birth, and the boy would be honored with the visitor’s name. After several awkward translation attempts of “Mark Bent,” it was settled. “Mar,” he said, will grow up hearing stories of his namesake, the man who handed out flashlights powered by the sun.

Since August 2005, when visits to an Eritrean village prompted him to research global access to artificial light, Mr. Bent, 49, a former foreign service officer and Houston oilman, has spent $250,000 to develop and manufacture a solar-powered flashlight.

His invention gives up to seven hours of light on a daily solar recharge and can last nearly three years between replacements of three AA batteries costing 80 cents.

Over the last year, he said, he and corporate benefactors like Exxon Mobil have donated 10,500 flashlights to United Nations refugee camps and African aid charities.

Another 10,000 have been provided through a sales program, and 10,000 more have just arrived in Houston awaiting distribution by his company, SunNight Solar.

“I find it hard sometimes to explain the scope of the problems in these camps with no light,” Mr. Bent said. “If you’re an environmentalist you think about it in terms of discarded batteries and coal and wood burning and kerosene smoke; if you’re a feminist you think of it in terms of security for women and preventing sexual abuse and violence; if you’re an educator you think about it in terms of helping children and adults study at night.”

Here at Fugnido, at one of six camps housing more than 21,000 refugees 550 miles west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Peter Gatkuoth, a Sudanese refugee, wrote on “the importance of Solor.”

“In case of thief, we open our solor and the thief ran away,” he wrote. “If there is a sick person at night we will took him with the solor to health center.”

A shurta, or guard, who called himself just John, said, “I used the light to scare away wild animals.” Others said lights were hung above school desks for children and adults to study after the day’s work.

Mr. Bent’s efforts have drawn praise from the United Nations, Africare, Rice University and others.

Kevin G. Lowther, Southern Africa director for Africare, the largest American aid group for Africa, said his staff was sending 5,000 of his lights, purchased by Exxon Mobil at $10 each, to rural Angola.

Dave Gardner, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company’s $50,000 donation in November grew out of an earlier grant it made to Save the Children to build six public schools in Kibala, Angola, a remote area of Kwanza Sul Province.

“At a dedication ceremony for the first four schools in June 2006,” Mr. Gardner said in an e-mail message, “we noticed that a lot of the children had upper respiratory problems, part of which is likely due to the use of wood, charcoal, candles and kero for lighting in the small homes they have in Kibala.”

The Awty International School, a large prep school in Houston, has sent hundreds of the flashlights to schools it sponsors in Haiti, Cameroon and Ethiopia, said Chantal Duke, executive assistant to the head of school.

“In places where there is absolutely no electricity or running water, having light at night is a luxury many families don’t have and never did and which we take for granted in developed countries,” Ms. Duke said by e-mail. Mr. Bent, a former Marine and Navy pilot, served under diplomatic titles in volatile countries like Angola, Bosnia, Nigeria and Somalia in the early 1990s.

In 2001 he went to work as the general manager of an oil exploration team off the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea, for a company later acquired by the French oil giant Perenco. But the oil business, he said, “didn’t satisfy my soul.”

The inspiration for the flashlight hit him, he said, while working for Perenco in Asmara, Eritrea. One Sunday he visited a local dump to watch scavenging by baboons and birds of prey, and came upon a group of homeless boys who had adopted the dump as their home.

They took him home to a rural village where he noticed that many people had nothing to light their homes, schools and clinics at night.

With a little research, he discovered that close to two billion people around the world go without affordable access to light.

He worked with researchers, engineers and manufacturers, he said, at the Department of Energy, several American universities, and even NASA before finding a factory in China to produce a durable, cost-effective solar-powered flashlight whose shape was inspired by his wife’s shampoo bottle.

The light, or sun torch, has a narrow solar panel on one side that charges the batteries, which can last between 750 and 1,000 nights, and uses the more efficient light-emitting diodes, or L.E.D.s, to cast its light. “L.E.D.s used to be very expensive,” Mr. Bent said. “But in the last 18 months they’ve become cheaper, so distributing them on a widespread scale is possible.”

The flashlights usually sell for about $19.95 in American stores, but he has established a BoGo — for Buy One, Give One — program on his Web site, BoGoLight.com, where if you buy one flashlight for $25, he will buy and ship another one to Africa, and donate $1 to one of the aid groups he works with.

Mr. Bent, who is now an oil consultant, lives in Houston with his wife and four young children. When he is not in the air flying his own plane, he is often on the road.

Traveling early this month in Ethiopia’s border area with Sudan, Mr. Bent stopped in each town’s market to methodically check the prices and quality of flashlights and batteries imported from China.

He unscrewed the flashlights one by one, inspecting the batteries, pronouncing them “terrible — they won’t last two nights.”

On his last day along the border, Mr. Bent visited Rapan Sadeeq, 21, a Sudanese refugee who is something of a celebrity in his camp, Bonga, for his rudimentary self-made radios, walkie-talkies and periscopes.

The two men huddled in the hut, discussing what parts would be needed to power the radio with solar panels instead of clunky C batteries. “Oh, I can definitely send you some parts,” Mr. Bent said. “You can be my field engineer in Ethiopia.”

Will Connors reported from Fugnido, Ethiopia, and Ralph Blumenthal from Houston.

May 21, 2007

The Return of the Idiot

Filed under: South America, Venezuela — rdrutherford @ 11:59 pm

The Return of the Idiot
Throughout the 20th century, Latin America’s populist leaders waved Marxist banners, railed against foreign imperialists, and promised to deliver their people from poverty. One after another, their ideologically driven policies proved to be sluggish and shortsighted. Their failures led to a temporary retreat of the strongman. But now, a new generation of self-styled revolutionaries is trying to revive the misguided methods of their predecessors.
Ten years ago, Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, and I wrote Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, a book criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary. The “Idiot” species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs—revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law—derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct.

Because of the inexorable passing of time, today’s young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira’s pop ballads to Pérez Prado’s mambos and no longer sing leftist anthems like “The Internationale” or “Until Always Comandante.” But they are still descendants of rural migrants, middle class, and deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy displayed in the glossy magazines they discreetly leaf through on street corners. State-run universities provide them with a class-based view of society that argues that wealth is something that needs to be retaken from those who have stolen it. For these young Idiots, Latin America’s condition is the result of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, followed by U.S. imperialism. These basic beliefs provide a safety valve for their grievances against a society that offers scant opportunity for social mobility. Freud might say they have deficient egos that are unable to mediate between their instincts and their idea of morality. Instead, they suppress the notion that predation and vindictiveness are wrong and rationalize their aggressiveness with elementary notions of Marxism.

Latin American Idiots have traditionally identified themselves with caudillos, those larger-than-life authoritarian figures who have dominated the region’s politics, ranting against foreign influence and republican institutions. Two leaders in particular inspire today’s Idiot: President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Chávez is seen as the perfect successor to Cuba’s Fidel Castro (whom the Idiot also admires): He came to power through the ballot box, which exonerates him from the need to justify armed struggle, and he has abundant oil, which means he can put his money where his mouth is when it comes to championing social causes. The Idiot also credits Chávez with the most progressive policy of all—putting the military, that paradigm of oligarchic rule, to work on social programs.

For his part, Bolivia’s Evo Morales has indigenista appeal. In the eyes of the Idiot, the former coca farmer is the reincarnation of Túpac Katari, an 18th-century Aymara rebel who, before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities, vowed, “I shall return and I shall be millions.” They believe Morales when he professes to speak for the indigenous masses, from southern Mexico to the Andes, who seek redress of the exploitation inflicted on them by 300 years of colonial rule and 200 more of oligarchic republican rule.

The Idiot’s worldview, in turn, finds an echo among distinguished intellectuals in Europe and the United States. These pontificators assuage their troubled consciences by espousing exotic causes in developing nations. Their opinions attract fans among First-World youngsters for whom globalization phobia provides the perfect opportunity to find spiritual satisfaction in the populist jeremiad of the Latin American Idiot against the wicked West.

There’s nothing original about First-World intellectuals’ projecting their utopias onto Latin America. Christopher Columbus stumbled on the shores of the Americas at a time when Renaissance utopian ideas were in vogue; from the very beginning, conquistadors described the lands as nothing short of paradisiacal. The myth of the Good Savage—the idea that the natives of the New World embodied a pristine goodness untarnished by the evils of civilization—impregnated the European mind. The tendency to use the Americas as an escape valve for frustration with the insufferable comfort and cornucopia of Western civilization continued for centuries. By the 1960s and 70s, when Latin America was riddled with Marxist terrorist organizations, these violent groups enjoyed massive support in Europe and the United States among people who never would have accepted Castro-style totalitarian rule at home.

The current revival of the Latin American Idiot has precipitated the return of his counterparts: the patronizing American and European Idiots. Once again, important academics and writers are projecting their idealism, guilty consciences, or grievances against their own societies onto the Latin American scene, lending their names to nefarious populist causes. Nobel Prizewinners, including British playwright Harold Pinter, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, and American economist Joseph Stiglitz; American linguists such as Noam Chomsky and sociologists like James Petras; European journalists like Ignacio Ramonet and some foreign correspondents for outlets such as Le Nouvel Observateur in France, Die Zeit in Germany, and the Washington Post in the United States, are once again propagating absurdities that shape the opinions of millions of readers and sanctify the Latin American Idiot. This intellectual lapse would be quite innocuous if it didn’t have consequences. But, to the extent that it legitimizes the type of government that is actually at the heart of Latin America’s political and economic underdevelopment, it constitutes a form of intellectual treason.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR

The most notable example today of the symbiosis between certain Western intellectuals and Latin American caudillos is the love affair between American and European Idiots and Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan leader, despite his nationalist tendencies, has no qualms about citing foreigners in his speeches in order to strengthen his positions. Just witness Chávez’s speech at the United Nations last September in which he praised Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.

Likewise, in presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky has pointed to Venezuela as an example for the developing world, touting social policies that have achieved success in education and medical assistance and rescued the dignity of Venezuelans. He has also expressed admiration for the fact that “Venezuela successfully challenged the United States, and this country doesn’t like challenges, much less so if they are successful.”

But in actuality, Venezuela’s social programs have, with help from the Cuban intelligence services, become vehicles for political regimentation and social dependence on the government. Furthermore, their effectiveness is suspect. The Centro de Documentación y Análisis Social de la Federación Venezolana de Maestros, a teachers’ union think tank, reported in 2006 that 80 percent of Venezuela’s households have difficulty covering the cost of food—the same proportion as when Chávez came to power in 1999, and when the price of oil was one third the price it is today. As for the dignity of the people, the real story is that there have been 10,000 homicides per year in Venezuela since Chávez became president, giving the country the highest per-capita murder rate in the world.

Another nation that certain American opinion leaders have a soft spot for is Cuba. In 2003, Fidel Castro’s regime executed three young refugees for hijacking a boat and trying to escape from the island. Castro also sent 75 democratic activists to prison for lending banned books. In response, James Petras, a longtime sociology professor at the State University of New York’s Binghamton University, wrote an article titled “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights.” In his essay, which was reprinted by various left-wing publications around the world, he defended Havana by arguing that the victims had been in the service of the United States government.

Noted Castro sympathizer Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, a French newspaper that champions every unsavory cause coming out of the Third World, maintains that globalization has made Latin America poorer in recent years. In fact, poverty has been modestly reduced in the past five years. Globalization has given Latin American governments so much revenue from the sale of commodities and from the taxes paid by foreign investors that they have handed out cash subsidies to the poor—hardly a solution to poverty in the long term.

Two decades out of date, Harold Pinter delivered a flabbergasting account of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in his 2005 Nobel lecture. Perhaps thinking that a vindicatory look at the populists of the past might help the populists of today, he said that the Sandinistas had “set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society,” and that there was “no record of torture” or of “systematic or official military brutality” under Daniel Ortega’s government in the 1980s. One wonders, then, why the Sandinistas were thrown out of power by the people of Nicaragua in the 1990 elections. Or why the voters kept them out of power for nearly two decades—until Ortega became a political transvestite, declaring himself a supporter of the market economy. As for the denial of Sandinista atrocities, Pinter would do well to remember the 1981 massacre of Miskito Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. Under the guise of a literacy campaign, the Sandinistas, with the help of their Cuban cadres, tried to indoctrinate the Miskitos with Marxist ideology. But the independent-minded Indians refused to accept Sandinista control. Accusing them of supporting opposition groups based in Honduras, Ortega’s men killed as many as 50 Miskitos, imprisoned hundreds, and forcibly relocated many more. The Nobel laureate should also remember that his hero Ortega became a capitalist millionaire thanks to the distribution of government assets and confiscated property that the Sandinista leaders split among themselves after losing the 1990 elections.

The current enthusiasm with Latin American populism extends to correspondents for major news outlets. Take, for instance, some stories filed by the Washington Post’s Juan Forero. He is more balanced and informed than the luminaries mentioned above, but, from time to time, he betrays an uncanny enthusiasm for populism of the kind that is sweeping the region. In a recent article on Chávez’s foreign largesse, he and coauthor Peter S. Goodman paint a generally positive picture of the way in which Chávez is helping some countries rid themselves of the strictures imposed by U.S.-backed multilateral agencies by providing them with enough cash to pay off their debts. Supporters of this policy were quoted favorably and no mention was made of the fact that Venezuela’s oil money belongs to the Venezuelan people, not to foreign governments or entities allied with Chávez, or that those subsidies have political strings attached. Note Argentine President Néstor Kirchner’s attack against the United States and his praise of Chávez during a recent visit to the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz, in return for Chávez’s commitment to back yet another bond issue on Argentina’s behalf.

THE PROBLEM WITH POPULISM

Foreign observers are missing an essential point: Latin American populism has nothing to do with social justice. It began as a reaction against the oligarchic state of the 19th century in the form of mass movements led by caudillos who blamed rich nations for Latin America’s plight. These movements based their legitimacy on voluntarism, protectionism, and massive wealth redistribution. The result, throughout the 20th century, was bloated government, stifling bureaucracy, the subservience of judicial institutions to political authority, and parasitic economies.

Populists share basic characteristics: the voluntarism of the caudillo as a substitute for the law; the impugning of the oligarchy and its replacement with another type of oligarchy; the denunciation of imperialism (with the enemy always being the United States); the projection of the class struggle between the rich and the poor onto the stage of international relations; the idolatry of the state as a redeeming force for the poor; authoritarianism under the guise of state security; and “clientelismo,” a form of patronage by which government jobs—as opposed to wealth creation—are the conduit of social mobility and the way to maintain a “captive vote” in the elections. The legacy of these policies is clear: Nearly half the population of Latin America is poor, with more than 1 in 5 living on $2 or less per day. And 1 to 2 million migrants flock to the United States and Europe every year in search of a better life.

Even in Latin America, part of the left is making its transition away from Idiocy—similar to the kind of mental transition that the European left, from Spain to Scandinavia, went through a few decades ago when it grudgingly embraced liberal democracy and a market economy. In Latin America, one can speak of a “vegetarian left” and a “carnivorous left.” The vegetarian left is represented by leaders such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Despite the occasional meaty rhetoric, these leaders have avoided the mistakes of the old left, such as raucous confrontations with the developed world and monetary and fiscal profligacy. They have settled into social-democratic conformity and are proving unwilling to engage in major reform—which is why Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is not expected to top 3.6 percent this year—but they signify a positive development in the struggle for modernizing the left.

By contrast, the “carnivorous” left is represented by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. They cling to a Marxist view of society and a Cold War mentality that separates North from South, and they seek to exploit ethnic tensions, particularly in the Andean region. The oil windfall obtained by Hugo Chávez is funding a great deal of this effort.

The gastronomy of Argentina’s Kirchner is ambiguous; he is situated somewhere between the carnivores and the vegetarians. He has inflated the currency, established price controls, and either nationalized or created government-owned enterprises in major sectors of the economy, but he has avoided revolutionary extremes and paid his country’s debts to the International Monetary Fund, albeit with the help of Venezuelan credit. Kirchner’s ambiguous position has been helpful to Chávez, who has filled the power vacuum in the South American Common Market to project his influence on the region.

Oddly, many European and American “vegetarians” support the “carnivores” in Latin America. For instance, Joseph Stiglitz has defended various nationalization programs in Morales’s Bolivia and Chávez’s Venezuela. In an interview with Caracol Radio in Colombia, Stiglitz said that nationalizations should not cause alarm because “public firms can be very successful, like the Social Security pension system in the United States.” Stiglitz has not called for nationalizing major private or publicly traded companies in his own country (the Social Security system was created from scratch), and he seems unaware that, south of the Rio Grande, nationalizations are at the heart of the disastrous populist experiences of the past.

Stiglitz also ignores the fact that in Latin America, there is no real separation between the state’s institutions and the administration in charge, so government companies quickly become conduits for political patronage and corruption. Venezuela’s main telecommunications company has been a success story since it was privatized in the early 1990s; the telecommunications market has experienced an increase of about 25 percent in the past three years alone. By contrast, the government-owned oil giant has seen its output systematically decline. Venezuela today produces about a million fewer barrels of oil than it did in the early years of this decade. In Mexico, where oil is also in government hands, the Cantarell project, representing almost two thirds of national production, will lose half its output in the next couple of years because of undercapitalization.

Does it really matter that the American and European intelligentsia quench their thirst for the exotic by promoting Latin American Idiots? The unequivocal answer is yes. A cultural struggle is under way in Latin America—between those who want to place the region in the global firmament and see it emerge as a major contributor to the Western culture to which its destiny has been attached for five centuries, and those who cannot reconcile themselves to the idea and resist it. Despite some progress in recent years, this tension is holding back Latin America’s development in comparison to other regions of the world—such as East Asia, the Iberian Peninsula, or Central Europe—that not long ago were examples of backwardness. Latin America’s annual GDP growth has averaged 2.8 percent in the past three decades—against Southeast Asia’s 5.5 percent, or the world average of 3.6 percent.

This sluggish performance explains why about 45 percent of the population is still poor and why, after a quarter century of democratic rule, regional surveys betray a profound dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and traditional parties. Until the Latin American Idiot is confined to the archives—something that will be difficult to achieve while so many condescending spirits in the developed world continue to lend him support—that will not change.

If you win a Nobel, you get a free trip to Scandinavia, a shiny gold medal, some cash, and, most important, a shot at intellectual immortality. But becoming a laureate doesn’t make you immune to stupidity, especially when it comes to Latin America.

Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2005

Ignoble Quote: “The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government … The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance.” —Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Dec. 7, 2005

Reality Check: Harold, hate to break it to you, but it was actually the Nicaraguan voters—not the United States government—who kicked the Sandinistas out.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2001

Ignoble Quote: “Chile has had impressive success over the past 15 years. . . . [It] imposed capital controls. It only privatized part of its copper mines, and the privatized mines arguably did not perform better than the nationalized ones, though the profits were sent abroad, while the profits of the nationalized mines could be used in the nation’s efforts to develop.”
—International Herald Tribune, Feb. 14, 2007

Reality Check: If the policies Stiglitz cites—capital controls, nationalized mines, and government intervention in allocating the profits generated by commodity exports—explain Chile’s success, why isn’t any other Latin American country with the same policies nearly as successful?

Günter Grass, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1999

Ignoble Quote: “Cubans were less likely to notice the absence of liberal rights . . . [because they gained] . . . self respect after the revolution.”— Dissent, Fall 1993

Reality Check: How would you feel, Günter, about trading your bourgeois liberal rights, including the right to publish, for a bit of Cuban dignity?

Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Prize, 1992

Ignoble Quote: “For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography, and autobiography . . . I was a survivor . . . who had to convince the world to look at the atrocities committed in my homeland.”— Press conference, United Nations, Feb. 11, 1999

Reality Check: Menchú was defending herself against charges that she had fabricated parts of her autobiography—making herself sound more downtrodden than she was—when she wrote about her life as an ethnic Quiche Maya in Guatemala. Why lie when there are plenty of harsh-but-true stories to be told? — AVL

May 16, 2007

Burning wood to power fridges

Filed under: LDCs, Technology — rdrutherford @ 11:09 pm

A consortium of UK universities hopes to bring affordable domestic appliances to rural areas of developing countries by developing a device that acts as a refrigerator, cooker and power generator all in one, powered by locally available biomass fuels such as wood.

The SCORE (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity) project, led by the University of Nottingham in England, has been granted £2 million (US$4 million) to develop the device using a technology called thermoacoustics. The United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have contributed 80% of this funding.

Thermoacoustics takes advantage of the way that sound waves can be produced when a gas is heated unevenly. In a thermoacoustic engine, such as the Stirling engine developed in the nineteenth century as an alternative to steam power, these pressure sound waves drive mechanical motion.

This process may also be run in reverse: the sound waves can be used to extract heat, pumping it from a cool source to a hot sink and thereby inducing cooling.

Thermoacoustic engines and refrigeration units have been used before in high-tech settings, as power sources or cooling units on spacecraft, satellites and military craft for example. But it needn’t be limited to these top-end applications. “In principle, thermoacoustic devices are quite simple and should be able to be made very cheaply,” says Scott Backhaus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a specialist on thermoacoustics who is assisting the SCORE team.

Sound system

In the SCORE device, says the project director Paul Riley at the University of Nottingham, UK, “burning wood heats a gas-filled pipe at one end. The gas moves from the hot part, where it expands, to the cold part, where it contracts. The pipe then resonates rather like an organ pipe.” This produces acoustic pressure waves, which can be harnessed to produce electricity in the reverse process to how a loudspeaker turns electrical signals into vibrations.

The sound waves are also used to drive a second engine that operates as a heat pump to remove heat from a nearby refrigeration unit. And the heat from the burning wood can also be used for cooking in a conventional cooker stove. The fridge and the cooker are connected by “the pipes necessary to carry the hum,” says Riley — but are kept apart so that the heat from the stove doesn’t interfere with the cooling.

The system will only generate electricity and cool the fridge while it is operating as a stove.

One of the main attractions of SCORE stoves is that they don’t need an external electricity supply. “The electric grid in developing countries basically only serves the cities,” Backhaus explains. And many homes are already using a fuel source such as wood for cooking. “Over two billion people use open fires to cook,” says Riley.

SCORE aims to be producing these fridge/stoves in significant numbers within five years.

Do it yourself

Backhaus thinks this goal is feasible, but admits that it is challenging. He cautions that the SCORE team “will have to stay focused on keeping the device inexpensive and not let a desire for technical perfection get in the way of the true goal: improving the living conditions in the developing world.”

The research team recognizes that the science is only a part of the challenge: success will also depend on ensuring that local communities have enough expertise to maintain and ultimately to produce the devices themselves.

“One of the keys is to make this device simple enough so that it can be produced cheaply by the local population,” says Backhaus. Local researchers and experts from the development charity Practical Action will advise on how to best introduce the new technology. The group is already discussing their project with governments of developing countries.

Burning wood to power fridges: Project aims to bring high-tech device to developing world.

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