Category Archives: politics

Migration, Conflicts and Climate Change: What the Pope Said and How the US reacted

On Monday morning 16 October, I rushed to FAO, the opening ceremony for World Food Day was to be graced by Pope Francis who had agreed to deliver the keynote address: the theme was migration…Here is the article I immediately wrote for Impakter (it was published yesterday):

MIGRATION, CONFLICTS AND CLIMATE CHANGE: A NEW TURN?

World Food Day held yesterday at UN-FAO headquarters in Rome was full of surprises. An event organized since 1979 by FAO every year on October 16 to celebrate the founding of the organization in 1945, World Food Day is the occasion to draw the international community’s attention to a pressing issue in agriculture and rural development. This rarely excites the world’s attention, but this year’s theme was particularly well chosen: The focus was on what is undoubtedly the number one problem of our times, migration.

IN THE PHOTO: HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS GREETING FAO STAFF DURING THE WORLD FOOD DAY CEREMONY, FAO HEADQUARTERS (ATRIUM).PHOTO CREDIT: ©FAO/CRISTIANO MINICHIELLO.

The numbers are staggering: UN figures show there are roughly 244 million international migrants – that’s more than the whole population of Brazil –  while 763 million are migrants within their own country. Taking the two numbers together, that’s about one billion people, as much as India.

As the video FAO made for the occasion shows, the problem with migration is the lack of choice. And the solution to the migration crisis, is investment in the rural sector to give people a livelihood, so that they are not forced to migrate. Why the rural sector? Because that is where the problem starts, 75% of the world’s poor and food insecure live in rural areas.

In 2015 alone, 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced by conflict worldwide, and more than 19 million people were internally displaced because of natural disasters – many triggered by climate change.

First, Pope Francis is different from other Popes in that he attends more readily UN events. He has come before to FAO and gave a notable address to the ICN2.  Food security is clearly one of his major concerns.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here. You will also find there the video of the Pope’s speech (very interesting, worth seeing, it’s only 20 minutes) and I report on the remarkable position taken by the US Secretary of Agriculture: Since the Trump administration announced last week that the US was pulling out of UNESCO, everybody in Rome feared the worst. But the worst, surprisingly given Trump’s track record, didn’t happen. See what happened and rejoice!

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GLOBAL HUNGER IS ON THE RISE AGAIN: DOES ANYONE CARE?

Impakter magazine just published my latest article – I wrote this while attending the CFS (Committee on World Food Security) that runs from 9 to 13 October: It’s the biggest UN meeting on food issues, opened to the private sector and civil society – the latter totaling some 380 million people, farmers, women, youth, consumers – who are given a chance to bypass their own government and make their voice directly heard at the UN! In fact, no other UN meeting compares with the CFS and what they are discussing this week really does matter…Here’s the beginning of the article:



GLOBAL HUNGER IS ON THE RISE AGAIN: DOES ANYONE CARE?

When the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) opened its 44th session in Rome on October 9, it wasn’t just another chatty UN meeting. It came with the disturbing news that global hunger was on the rise again. This was a shock. Since 2000, we had all grown complacent, every year brought the good news that hunger was slowing even though world population continued to grow, it looked like the scourge of famine was at last a thing of the past.  From a high 926 million in 2005, global hunger hit a low of 777 million people in 2014.

Hunger: 815 million people were affected in 2016 – up from 777 million in 2014

But now we need to revise this cheerful view. According to the best estimates of five major UN agencies, FAO, World Food Programme, IFAD, UNICEF and World Health Organization, the trend has reversed, 815 million people were affected in 2016, slightly more than one in ten persons, as reported in the newly released UN document “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”.

FIGURE 1: THE NUMBER OF UNDERNOURISHED PEOPLE HAS BEEN ON THE RISE SINCE 2014, REACHING AN ESTIMATED 815 MILLION IN 2016. CREDIT: FAO-CFS

Undernourishment and malnutrition is clearly on the rise again. Worse, for the first time this century, outright famine was declared in South Sudan on 20 February 2017, and three more countries, Yemen, Somalia and Northern Nigeria are at serious risk, unless international aid comes to the rescue.

Unfortunately, the usual delays caused by donor fatigue have been recently compounded by the fear that the United States might choose to withdraw from the international community, with Donald Trump announcing plans in March to slash the US foreign aid budget by 31 percent. This would directly hit UN agencies, the World Bank and other international institutions, in particular WFP as it proposed to eliminate most US international food assistance.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here. Besides the threat of famine and what to do about it, other issues are also discussed, like obesity.

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Cocaine: The Hidden Cost

My latest article, just published on Impakter:

A TRAIL OF BLOOD (PART ONE)

This is the first of a two-part article investigating cocaine. Part One surveys the cost in human terms, focusing on Colombia, the world’s top coca producer, while Part Two investigates the environmental destruction caused by cocaine.

On August 10, President Trump told reporters he was getting ready to “declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency”, in response to a chilling report from the White House commission on the opioid crisis, that said “142 Americans die every day from a drug overdose”, a death toll “equal to September 11th every three weeks”. Trump promised “a lot” would be done to stop drug flows into the US and ensuring young people never use drugs but he didn’t mention access to treatment. And it is not clear exactly how he would proceed, particularly now that natural disasters wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma demand attention.

So far, Congress has done little except pass the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law by President Obama in 2016. It added US$ 1 billion over two years for drug treatment and disbursement has just started.  Yet Trump talks up the role of the border wall and law enforcement while his proposed budget and congressional efforts to take down Obamacare are going in the wrong direction, preventing access to insurance to pay for treatment.

At state level, the move away from a criminal justice fix to the drug problem has been patchy at best. One reporter from Vox found that at least fifteen states followed Kentucky’s example of tightening penalties for low-level drug offenders, increasing mass incarceration rather than offering treatment.

Yet treatment is key.

The rest of the world, if not the US, has moved on past the obvious failure of the “War on Drugs” to focus on non-military, non-police, non-legal measures as possible solutions. That’s where improved access to treatment comes in. It is part of the UN Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goal 3, specifically target 3.5 which reads: “Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol .”

Unfortunately, even within the United Nations, the political discourse is largely focused on other issues, like eradicating poverty as evidenced by the latest “outcome report” of the high-level “political forum” (10-19 July 2017), a ministerial meeting that reviews progress on the SDGs every year. Only one sentence addressed the drug problem: “We reiterate the need to strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.” Surely stronger statements are required, more needs to be done.

Yet the US-waged “War on Drugs”, started some 60 years ago, and costing an estimated US$ one trillion should have taught us a lesson. It began when President Lyndon Johnson first proposed a toughening of penalties for drug trafficking in 1968; it ballooned with President Nixon in 1971, coming to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Whatever improvement America was able to achieve at home, it quickly vanished: Since 2009 there are more deaths from drug poisoning every year in the US than from firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and murders, said a recent US DEA report.

Meanwhile, in the Andean countries, the war left a devastating legacy, clearly traceable to US aerial fumigation programs to stop coca cultivation and anti-narcotics policing that quickly spiraled into full-scale civil war, particularly ferocious in Colombia, pitting Marxist-inspired guerillas against the central government. The war in Colombia lasted until 2016 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARCs) agreed to a peace deal with the government, but not before there were some 200,000 dead and five million people forced out of their home.

The lesson from History is clear:  fighting drug trafficking through military or police means solves nothing.

The US is the World’s Largest Cocaine User

The latest report (March 2017) from the Office of National Drug Control Policy on global cocaine trafficking confirms that the US is the largest cocaine user, consuming one third of world production.

Cocaine is known as a “rich man’s drug”, though one form, “crack cocaine” (smoked, not snorted) being much cheaper, is widely used in inner cities and by black communities, ensuring that the drug is prevalent in all social strata.

Cocaine is the second most popular illegal recreational drug in both Europe and the United States behind marijuana. More people use cocaine than heroin, and the number of cocaine users keeps rising (26 percent more in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health).

The street value of cocaine gives an idea of its importance as a recreational drug.  One calculation, often cited, is based on a model developed in 2005 by the UN drug agency (UNODC) which estimated that the US cocaine market exceeds some US$70 billion in street value per year. This is likely to be a conservative estimate but still true today considering that cocaine prices have been (slightly) dropping over the past decade.

US$70 billion spent on cocaine is a lot, as much as Americans spend on playing the lottery, more than on books, video games, movies and sporting events combined (2015 data) – none of which have the devastating impact on health that cocaine has, particularly from chronic use.

PHOTO CREDIT: HÄGGSTRÖM, MIKAEL (2014). “MEDICAL GALLERY OF MIKAEL HÄGGSTRÖM 2014“. WIKIJOURNAL OF MEDICINE 

Coca Production on the Increase

Increased drug supplies mean more deaths: cocaine-related deaths in the United States have increased by about 60 percent since 2010, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What makes the situation increasingly dangerous, is that production of cocaine in Colombia is higher than ever: according to the UN, it reached 866 metric tons in 2016, a 34 percent increase over 2015 when the war was still on-going. And that’s 200 million tons more than the average annual production of cocaine a decade ago (it stood around 650 million tons).

But some believe the UN data is too conservative.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here

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The American Dream is Dead, Long Live the American Dream!

My latest article on Impakter that I wanted to share with you:

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM!

BOOK REVIEWS: REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH AND POWERBY NOAM CHOMSKY, PUBLISHED BY SEVEN STORIES PRESS (MARCH 2017); THE VANISHING MIDDLE CLASS: PREJUDICE AND POWER IN A DUAL ECONOMY BY PETER TEMIN, PUBLISHED BY MIT PRESS (MARCH 2017)

In a raft of bestselling books this year, our thinking elite has announced the demise of the middle class and the “American Dream”. At the heart of that “dream” is the idea that every generation, through hard work, would come out better off than the previous one. Of course, the 2008 Great Recession put a serious dent in the notion and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 pointed the finger at income inequality (it’s the One Percent!). In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century, provided definitive scientific confirmation to every man’s perception that middle class income had been stagnant for decades, that the ultrarich was getting richer at the expense of everyone else.

Two important books from MIT luminaries addressing this issue came out in the same month (March 2017): Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream and Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. They both caused waves, loudly proclaiming that the American Dream is dead.

But can we really declare the American Dream dead? Both authors make suggestions though perhaps neither offer definitive solutions. That might require something more than a new set of policies and some people are beginning to talk about it. Recently New York Times journalist David Brooks suggested in an Op-Ed that “Trump is not just a parenthesis.” He is “the farcical culmination of a lot of dying old orders — demographic, political, even moral — and what comes after will be a reaction against rather than a continuing from.”

A lot of “dying orders” and one of them is the American Dream. It is essentially what kept the lights on in the “city on the hill”, the beacon that famously attracted the tired, poor and huddled masses to America – to paraphrase the American poet Emma Lazarus.

REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

At the outset, it is striking how different Noam Chomsky’s Requiem is from all the other books he has written. It is far more accessible than the academic fare he has accustomed us to. Chomsky has taught at MIT for fifty years and he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, the most famous voice of dissent on the left. He is also an innovative linguist, credited with revolutionizing the field and as a political philosopher, the author of several seminal books, notably 9/11: Was There an Alternative?   considered the most influential post 9/11 book both at home and abroad.

The reason for Requiem’s greater accessibility probably derives from the fact that it is, bottom line, a movie tie-in. Based on the documentary of the same name released in April 2015, it encapsulates and builds on the main ideas presented in the film.

To read the rest, including about Peter Temin’s book and a possible solution suggested by Courtney E.Martin in a famous TED talk, click here 

Enjoy! These books are seriously good summer reading…

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Filed under Book review, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

The Collapse of Democracy in Poland: Another Exit from the EU?

My latest article on Impakter magazine:
Democracy in Poland is under threat ever since the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015. If it collapses, it could lead to another Brexit episode with Poland forced out of the EU. Or choosing to leave.   

The villain in the story? For many, it is Jaroslav Kasczynski, the strongman who leads the party. He is a strange man who (so far) has refused to enter the government, he is a simple Member of Parliament yet he effectively pulls the reins. The current President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, is said to be in his pocket, and the Prime Minister too.  And a key player in taking over the judicial system, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro is at his beck and call.

Who exactly is Jaroslav Kasczynski?


Born in 1949, unmarried and a Warsaw resident, he is a lawyer and the co-founder in 2001 of PiS, along with his identical twin brother, Lech, also a lawyer.  The PiS came first to power from 2005 to 2007 and it distinguished itself with fighting the remnants of Communism in the country and with having tense relations with Russia and Germany: In short, a clear nationalist agenda was already emerging.

Jaroslav’s brother was Mayor of Warsaw from 2002 to 2005 and then President of Poland until his death in 2010. Jaroslav, as the sole survivor of the so-called “terrible twins” that ruled Poland tried to succeed his brother as President but lost out to the incumbent.

Lech’s death in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, left Jaroslav convinced it was murder. A believer in conspiracy theories, he blames the Civic Platform leaders who governed after his brother’s death, in particular Donald Tusk, then Prime Minister, today President of the European Council. Others he has taken aim at are Tusk’s chief of staff at the time, Tomasz Arabski and the former foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski.

So, people say, that is why he is attacking the judiciary. But that’s too simple a theory.

The PiS Grab for Power

It is a fact that the PiS is trying to take over control of the judiciary and in its first year in power it had packed the Constitutional Court, politicized the appointment of prosecutors and abolished court consent for state access to private internet accounts – a direct threat to people’s privacy.

But it didn’t stop with the judicial system. It worked on another front too.

To read the rest, click here.

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The People vs. the Elite? Democracy is the Loser

Yet another one of my articles just published on Impakter. Here’s the opening: 

BOOK REVIEW: THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM BY EDWARD LUCE, PUBLISHED BY LITTLE BROWN (JUNE 2017)

In his latest book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce argues that with the rise of populism, Western liberalism is facing its gravest crisis since World War II. And without a deliberate effort on the part of the governing “elite”, it may be impossible to save it.

An Oxford-trained journalist and currently the Financial Times columnist in Washington and author of several bestselling books, Luce has made a solid reputation for successfully predicting the future, anticipating in his 2012 bestseller, the rise of middle class resentment and fight over immigration that led to Brexit and Trump’s victory.

In this book, with his deep knowledge of History and keen observing eye, he zeroes in what is ailing our society: At the heart of the crisis, the people pitted against the elite. That part of the middle class left behind by globalization – now fast becoming a large, vociferous mass of angry people –  rising against the experts. As he put it:

“Here then is the crux of the West’s crisis: our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts – the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders; Britain versus Brussels; West Virginia versus Washington. It follows that the election of Trump, and Britain’s exit from Europe, is a reassertion of the popular will.” (p. 120)

The Enemy is Within

“This time,” writes Luce, “we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

As we all know, that was just the beginning in the US and UK. Abroad, populism has already made giant steps, starting in Russia where despite the hopes raised by the fall of the Wall of Berlin, democracy was still-born and Putin gained absolute power, increasingly unopposed.

Luce reminds us that liberal, democratic forms of government are recent, they arose some two hundred years ago, and they are notoriously fragile. There are numerous historical precedents for setbacks and relapses into autocracy. Two dozen democracies have failed since 2000 and we now find such “illiberal democracies” everywhere, in Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, and Duterte’s Philippines.

This growing tension between the people and the experts could end up killing Western liberalism (and democracy) or at least, as the title of Luce’s book implies, cause a serious “retreat”:

“Europe and America’s populist right wants to turn the clock back to the days when men were men and the West ruled. It is prepared to sacrifice the gains of globalization – and risk conflict with China – to protect jobs that have already vanished.” (p. 67)

Conflict with China? That possibility is explored in Chapter 3 aptly titled “Fallout”. Populist trends all point in that direction – “fear is the currency of autocrats” as Luce says.  Add irascible, narcissistic Trump to the mix, and what you get is (inter alia) war with China.

Luce estimates it could very well happen in 2020 and he makes the case that the man who is likely to stop this conflict is… Putin.

Really, Putin-the-peace-maker? It sounds over-the-top and crazy but, alas, probably it is not.

IN THE PHOTO: PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN OF RUSSIA. PHOTO CREDIT: CNN

To drive the point home, Luce draws a striking parallel between the world today and the world in 1914, noting that the “decades preceding the First World War marked a peak of globalization that the world economy only regained in the 1990s”.

To read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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DUTERTE’S WAR ON ISIS

My latest article on Impakter.com about strongman Duterte and what is really going on in the Philippines – his fight against drugs is probably less important than his confrontation with ISIS in Marawi City:

The Battle for Marawi

The battle for Marawi began on 23 May when Islamic terrorists torched Dansalan College, a protestant school known in the region for its religious tolerance, and abducted a Catholic priest and thirteen churchgoers. They killed nine Christians at a checkpoint and set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. Soon an elementary school and the city jail were burning and IS-style black flags were flown on buildings. Government troops immediately put the town under siege.

The news shocked the Philippines: Marawi is the most important Muslim town in Mindanao island, 1400 km (870 miles) south of the capital Manila. Located in Lanao del Sur province, it is on the north coast of Lake Lanao, the largest lake in Mindanao (130 square miles).

Improbably, the terrorists, said to number 500, managed to entrench themselves in the town which has 200,000 residents. Armed to the teeth, flush with foreign fighters from near-by Malaysia and Indonesia, but also from Arab countries, they put up a strong guerilla-style fight and have killed over 100 soldiers. Some say that 800 civilians or more lost their lives, others that only 45 civilians died. Nobody knows exactly how many terrorists died – but by July 22, some 420 terrorists were reported killed.

Predictably, people fled their homes.

According to press reports, notably Vice that made some striking on-the-ground videos (12 July), more than 400,000 were displaced. Most found shelter with relatives in nearby towns and villages, but over 18,000 were still reportedly stuck in 78 overcrowded “evacuation centers” around Marawi.

More recently (16 July), André Vitchek, an investigative journalist and filmmaker, one of the first people able to get inside Marawi since the fighting started, provided a radically different picture. He discovered that only some 200,000 people had escaped the area – and not 400,000 as reported in the press, though, he acknowledges, it may have peaked at 300,000 at some point. I find Vitchek’s finding highly credible and I will go a step further: since Marawi is a town of 200,000, it could hardly have seen more than 200,000 flee. Even that number implies that every single town resident fled – which is highly unlikely and, in any case, goes counter to other reports that at least 2,000 people remained.

The geography of the town explains this. The Agus river with three bridges divides Marawi, with government troops on one side, and rebel snipers on the other, camped on ruined buildings, jumping from one to the next and shooting at everything that moves. Very few people managed to escape and run across the bridges to the other side. With the conflict entering its seventh week, the army is warning that the death toll will rise.

And it’s not over yet. The conflict is winding down as I write (update on July 23), but the government has yet to clear some 500 buildings occupied by the rebels and some 70 terrorists are reportedly still fighting back. According to Vitchek, the fighting is currently circumscribed to a one square kilometer area and the bombing, far from “indiscriminate” as alleged in the press, is limited and very precise, to avoid civilian casualties.

That the battle for Marawi should be time-consuming is no surprise. Like all guerilla warfare, this is a hard fight to win for regular troops, not trained to pursue fast-moving, unpredictable snipers.

What Really Happened in Marawi

A version closer to the truth is that the battle of Marawi is really part of a much longer war that began late last year when President Duterte launched a military offensive in the Southern Philippines against Moro militant groups, targeting in particular the Abu Sayyaf group.

The appearance of Abu Sayyaf militants on the scene is a game changer:  The Abu Sayyaf group, originally funded by al-Qaeda in the 1990s, is now part of ISIS’ global footprint. The group is led by Isnilon Hapilon, a.k.a. Abu Abdullah the Filipino, a dangerous man on the FBI-most wanted terrorist list, with a $5 million bounty on his head. He was indicted in absentia in the United States for the 2000 Palma kidnapping of 17 Filipinos and three Americans that led to the beheading of one of the Americans. A year ago, the Long War Journal, in a blog post (dated 12 June 2016) reported that Hapilon had been appointed “emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines”, grimly noting that this now “means that a formal leadership structure for the Islamic State is in place, exemplifying its expansion in the country.”

The government learned Hapilon was in Marawi, leading a militant group financed by the Maute brothers, the scions of a wealthy local family – the father is an engineer, the mother a real estate mogul and said to be the family’s financial wizard and also a strict Islamist.

So what really happened in Marawi is this:

To read the rest on Impakter, click here. I updated the article today (23 July), with all the latest news. 

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