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22 posts from January 2009

January 30, 2009

Limiting the Spread of AIDS

During my discussions about Development-in-a-Box™, I have often made the point that frontier economies progress faster when they have achieved a few pre-conditions that help them attract foreign direct investment. One of the things that investors look for is a healthy workforce. As Americans are well aware, healthcare places an enormous overhead burden on businesses offering insurance for their workers. Even more onerous, however, is the burden of trying to operate a business using people whose health is so poor that they cannot be relied upon. The healthier the workforce the more productive and cost-effective a business can be. One of the developing world's health scourges is AIDS and the virus that causes it (HIV). The Holy Grail of AIDS researchers is discovering a vaccine that can prevent the spread of the disease; but, according to The Economist, that discovery remains elusive. As a result, healthcare providers are exploring alternative ways to limit the spread of AIDS ["The ideal and the good," 29 November 2009 print edition].

"It has become a cliché among doctors who deal with AIDS that the only way to stop the epidemic is to develop a vaccine against HIV, the virus that causes it. Unfortunately, there is no sign of such a thing becoming available soon. The best hope was withdrawn from trials just over a year ago amid fears that it might actually be making things worse. As a result, vaccine researchers have mostly gone back to the drawing board of basic research. Meanwhile, the virus marches on. [In 2007], according to UNAIDS, the international body charged with combating it, 2.7m people were infected, bringing the estimated total to 33m. Reuben Granich and his colleagues at the World Health Organisation (WHO), though, have been exploring an alternative approach. Instead of a vaccine, they wonder, as they write in the Lancet, whether the job might be done with drugs."

The world is filled with adages and the appropriate one here is: "Better is the enemy of good enough." That is the basic argument of the article. The vaccine may be the ideal, but drugs may be good enough. The article also discusses the fact that the war on AIDS needs to be two-pronged -- one prong for helping those already infected and the other prong helping the uninfected remain that way. The "good enough" drug approach can help both the infected and uninfected, but it requires a massive PR campaign and the cooperation of those carrying the virus.

"In the spread of any contagious disease, each act of infection has two parties, one who already has the disease and one who does not. Vaccination works by treating the uninfected individual prophylactically. Since it is impossible to say in advance who might be exposed, that means vaccinating everybody. The alternative, as Dr Granich observes, is to treat the infected individual and thus stop him being infectious. For this to curb an epidemic would require an enormous public-health campaign of the sort used to promote vaccination. But that campaign would be of a different kind. It would have to identify all (or, at least, almost all) of those infected. It would then have to persuade them to undergo not a short, simple vaccination course, but rather a drug regime that would continue indefinitely."

Anyone familiar with the history of AIDS knows that treating it has always been complicated by the fact that those who carry the virus are often treated as social pariahs. As a result, many infected individuals never come forward. If the social stigma of having AIDS remains, it could cripple any effort "to identify all (or, at least, almost all) of those infected" and then persuade them to undergo treatment. As the article notes, this leads to the overriding question about whether such an approach could work -- even in principle.

"It is this [question] that Dr Granich and his colleagues have tried to answer. Using data from several African countries, they have constructed a computer model to test the idea. In their ideal world, everyone over the age of 15 would volunteer for testing once a year. If found to be infected, they would be put immediately onto a course of what are known as first-line antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). These are reasonably cheap, often generic, pharmaceuticals that, although they do not cure someone, do lower the level of the virus in his body to the extent that he suffers no symptoms. They also—and this is the point of the study—reduce the level enough to make him unlikely to pass the virus on. For the 3% or so of people per year for whom the first-line ARVs do not work, more expensive second-line treatments would be used. When Dr Granich crunched the numbers through the model, he concluded that if this scheme could be implemented, it would do the trick. The rate of new infections (now 20 per 1,000 people per year) would fall within ten years of full implementation to one per 1,000 per year. Within 50 years the prevalence of HIV would drop below 1%, compared with up to 30% at the moment in the worst-affected areas."

So, in principle, the approach could work. A favorite saying of many military strategists is "that no plan survives first engagement with the enemy." As aside note, according to Ralph Keyes, "This observation actually originated with Helmuth von Moltke in the mid-nineteenth century. The Prussian field marshal’s version was not so succinct, however. What von Moltke wrote was 'Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.'" The question in the war on AIDS is whether the drug plan could survive first contact with reality. That's the question next addressed in the article.

"Whether such an approach could be made to work in practice—and if it could, whether it should—are two other questions. The existing plan for combating HIV centres on saving the lives of those already infected. The intention is to make ARVs available to everyone who needs them, in rich and poor countries alike, by buying the drugs cheaply and building the infrastructure of doctors, nurses and clinics to prescribe and provide them. 'Needs', however, is defined as 'at risk of developing symptoms'. People with HIV often remain asymptomatic for years, and conventional wisdom is that treating such people brings little clinical benefit while exposing them to unpleasant side effects such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Even vaccination bothers some medical ethicists because, although it does protect the vaccinated individual, governments promote it in order to create 'herd immunity'—from which the unvaccinated will also benefit. Treating asymptomatic carriers of HIV causes greater qualms if it brings no benefit to the people actually taking the medicine. However, Kevin De Cock, one of Dr Granich’s colleagues, points out that the latest research suggests such people are not as asymptomatic as had once been thought. They may suffer from illnesses such as heart, kidney and liver diseases and cancers that are not classical symptoms of AIDS. Indeed, a recent study suggested that deferring treatment until classical symptoms appear increases the chance of someone dying by 70%. If that result is confirmed, it would change the ethics completely. It would also make it easier to persuade people to come in once a year for testing at their local clinic, even if they felt well. And it would create pressure for the current policy to be reviewed anyway, so that something like the scheme Dr Granich and his colleagues have been investigating might end up happening by default."

Ethics aside, the next big question is whether the international community could afford to pay for the drug program.

"If the scheme were implemented (and the WHO is at pains to point out that this paper in no way indicates a change of policy), it would be more costly to begin with than the existing plan of universal access. However, that would change over the years, as the caseload fell. This seems, therefore, to be an approach worth exploring. AIDS doctors are not so spoilt for options that they can afford to ignore new ones. Employing the logic of vaccination using proven drugs may be an idea whose time has come."

In other words, the question is not whether the international community can afford the program but whether it can afford NOT to support it. A well-educated and healthy workforce is the most important natural resource that any country can possess. Companies that value their employees normally do well. Countries that value their citizens also find themselves climbing the economic ladder. The turning point in the battle against AIDS will take place when there is more social stigma attached to those unwilling to help AIDS victims than there is to the victims themselves. The developed world has demonstrated that people infected with HIV can live long and productive lives. Victims in the developing world deserve that same chance.

January 29, 2009

Voting in Iraq

As the date for elections approaches in Iraq, ethnic tensions are once again flaring in the north. While most of the fighting in the south is between Sunnis and Shi'as, tension in the north is between Kurds and Arabs. The situation is most tense along the border of the Kurdish autonomous region ["In Iraq's North, Ethnic Strife Flares as Vote Draws Closer," by Ernesto Londoño, Washington Post, 28 January 2009]. Londoño reports:

"Iraq's upcoming provincial elections have exacerbated tensions along the ethnically mixed frontier between the traditionally Arab parts of the country and its Kurdish autonomous region in the north. As Election Day looms in Nineveh province, where the most dramatic power shift is expected, Sunni Arab politicians are vowing to curb the influence of the Kurdish regional government, which in recent years has sent millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers into villages south of the territory it formally controls. The 2005 elections, which most Sunni Arabs boycotted, left Nineveh province solidly in the hands of Kurds, a minority in the predominantly Arab province. The Kurds currently hold 31 of the 37 seats on the provincial council, the equivalent of an American state legislature. In the vote set for [January 31st], Arabs in Nineveh are widely expected to win a comfortable majority. Taking the reins of Nineveh's government would allow Arabs to appoint a governor and use their political power to roll back Kurdish expansion, which is being bitterly contested in villages across the 300-mile swath of disputed territories, as well as in Baghdad and in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab, and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, have exchanged heated accusations in recent weeks, underscoring the intensity of a conflict that U.S. officials and Iraq experts have come to view as Iraq's most potentially destabilizing."

The issue isn't just about ethnic identity, it's also about money (mostly in the form of oil), about security (ensuring that past atrocities never again occur), and about religion (there is more tolerance in the Kurdish region of Iraq than elsewhere).

"The power struggle has made battlegrounds of places such as Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town, which lies about 15 miles southeast of Nineveh's capital, Mosul. Sherbel Issou, Qaraqosh's senior priest, prides himself on having kept his flock largely unscathed by war. But in recent months, as the rhetoric has sharpened and campaign promises have begun sounding like calls for battle, residents of the disputed areas are feeling squeezed. ... Wedged between the devastated city of Mosul and the prosperous Kurdish autonomous region, Qaraqosh is home to roughly 40,000 Assyrian Christians, who have lived for the past five years in the shadow of the insurgency. Largely invisible to the provincial and central governments, the town has had only one reliable, undisputed authority since 2003: the church. Shortly after the war began, the Kurdistan Democratic Party opened an office here. A banner posted at the party's headquarters proclaimed, 'Under the parliament and government of the Kurdistan region, the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkmens will enjoy their rights.' Soon afterward, as violence picked up in Nineveh, Sarkis Aghajan, the Kurdish region's finance minister, began funding a Christian militia that currently has 1,200 members in Qaraqosh and surrounding villages."

The KRG's desire to create a buffer zone between the Kurdish autonomous region and the rest of Iraq is understandable considering the treatment Kurds received under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. Forensic archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the genocidal campaign that Hussein mounted against the Kurds ["Witness to Genocide," by Heath Pringle, Archaeology, January/February 2009]. Mass graves concealing the bodies of men, women, and children (some still babes in arms) have been documented. During the genocide, over 100,000 Kurds disappeared and 2,600 villages were destroyed. The killings were carried out in a brutal and calculated way. Pringle writes:

"In May 1988, a prison guard checked Taymour Abdullah Ahmad's name off a list and directed him to a bus idling in the Popular Army camp in Topzawa, southwest of Kirkuk. The camp was one of Iraq's grimmest prisons. During his month-long internment there, the 12-year-old Kurdish boy watched guards beating male prisoners senseless with lengths of coaxial cable. He had seen four children weaken and then die of starvation. He stood helplessly as a guard stripped his father to his undershorts and led him off to his death. So Taymour was not sorry to see the last of Topzawa. He did not know that the paper in the guard's hand was an execution list. The buses idling in the prison courtyard looked like ambulances. But this, Taymour soon discovered, was a cruel illusion; inside, they were squalid mobile prisons. The boy, his mother, and two younger sisters were forced into a dark air compartment that reeked of urine and feces. There was no toilet, no food, no water, no way out. The only ventilation came from a small, mesh-covered opening. By the time the bus pulled out, 60 or so frightened passengers--mainly Kurdish women and their young children--were crushed together in the stifling heat. After more than 12 hours of travel, the bus bumped to a halt in the desert near the Saudi Arabian border. Taymour stepped into the cool night air and noticed at once that their bus, along with the 30 others in the convoy, had parked next to a large, shallow pit. Before he could take this in, however, a soldier pushed Taymour and his mother and sisters over the edge. Gunmen began firing. "When the first bullet hit me," Taymour later recalled, "I ran to a soldier and grabbed his hand." He had seen tears in the man's eyes, and instinctively reached toward him, hoping he would pull him out. But an officer watching nearby issued a command in Arabic, and the soldier shot Taymour. This time the boy fell to the ground, wounded in the left shoulder and lower back. He played dead until the gunmen moved away, then crawled out of the open grave and set off into the darkness. Several hours later, he reached a camp of Bedouins who took pity on him, hiding him in their tents. Taymour told this story in 1992 to Human Rights Watch, which was investigating the treatment of Kurds in Iraq."

At one site alone, ten massive burial pits, all oriented along the same north-south axis, were discovered. The forensic team claims there were "graves as far as the eye can see." In one of the mass graves, "they discovered that eight adult victims had died with infants or small children in their arms." Adults had on average been shot nine times while children had been shot on average four times. These mass killings were the backdrop against which the Kurdish autonomous region was established. The fresh memories of lost relatives have motivated Kurdish leaders to try and establish as large a safety zone for their people as they can. Londoño continues:

"Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, the Kurdish government began deploying soldiers of its militia, the pesh merga, to towns in Nineveh and other provinces that border the Kurdish region. In the years that followed, as the Iraqi army and police forces were disbanded and a burgeoning insurgency took control of vast stretches of the country, the presence of the Kurdish militia drew little criticism. After the 2005 elections, non-Kurds in several villages in northern Iraq said the militia's soldiers had prevented them from voting. In Qaraqosh, residents awoke on Election Day thrilled by the prospect of casting votes. 'We waited from morning until noon,' Issou said. But the ballots never came. Later, Issou said, town leaders discovered that ballot boxes earmarked for Qaraqosh had been taken to a neighboring town and stuffed with ballots marked for Kurdish candidates. 'So much for freedom and democracy,' he said, laughing. Nineveh has become Iraq's most restive province. As violence has ebbed across the country in recent months, the U.S. military has shifted troops and resources to Mosul, now among the country's most dangerous cities. Governance of the province, by all accounts, has been disastrous. The sitting provincial council does not dispute that, but it blames the central government in Baghdad for withholding its budgeted funds and otherwise thwarting the authority of local leaders."

For its part, the central Iraqi government is trying desperately to forge a single nation out of the ruins of war. A goal supported by the United States. As a result, the central government has concerns about the KRG's autonomy and its expansionist plans.

"Much of Mosul remains in shambles. Millions of dollars that the central government sent to the province last year to fund reconstruction projects have vanished. Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, including many Christian families who fled the city last fall amid a string of killings. Kurdish leaders say Sunni insurgents were behind the slayings. Some Arab politicians have blamed the Kurds, suggesting that the campaign was designed to undermine confidence in the central government's security forces. Arab parties have accused Kurdish officials and their proxies of intimidating and detaining their candidates, and expressed concern that Kurdish soldiers will keep voters from polling sites ... in areas where Kurds are expected to do poorly. The Kurds reject those accusations and call their opponents political novices who have ties to the insurgency. U.S. and Iraqi officials say they fear that the perception of unfair elections on the part of either side, or both, could trigger a fresh wave of violence. On 27 January, a bomb detonated near an office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Mosul, killing three policemen. It was unclear whether the office was the intended target."

The high emotions and increased tensions on both sides are understandable. One side fears a return to persecution while the other fears a future of retribution. Had the area prospered over the past few years there would be less fear and more hope. Unfortunately, fear and poverty rules the day.

"Even if the political stalemate doesn't turn violent, a protracted fight over disputed areas is likely to create breathing room for insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has clung onto Mosul. 'Nineveh is a place where all the fault lines of Iraq meet,' a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said. Abdullah Humedi Ajeel al-Yawer, a wealthy, influential tribal leader who is one of the founders of the largest opposition party, al-Hadba-a, says he is eager to keep the fight in the political arena. But in a province with only a short, troubled history of democracy and a mix of politically malleable armed forces, his faith in the power of the ballot box is limited. ... 'I personally work against violence,' Humedi said recently, sipping espresso in the living room of his palatial fortress near the Syrian border. 'I try to keep my people out of the violence. But to protect ourselves? We will do anything to protect ourselves and our democracy. All options are on the table.' Kurdish candidates call such rhetoric dangerous -- but not surprising from leaders they say have checkered pasts."

As noted earlier, ethnic survival is not the only issue keeping tensions high. Oil riches are also a motivating factor.

"The fight for votes is complicated by the vast oil reserves in the disputed region and competing ancestral claims to them by Arabs and Kurds, who in recent decades have been pushed in and out of the area, often by force. 'The debate is quite legitimate,' the senior U.S. official said. 'And it's a debate that is likely to go on for years, even in a prosperous Iraq. The line has never really been drawn. It's going to be very difficult to determine the boundary in this dispute because the population has shifted so many times and so dramatically.'"

Part of that "population shift" involved the "Arabification" of formerly Kurdish areas and Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign, which, according to Pringle, he dubbed "Anfal--The Spoils of War--the title of the eighth chapter of the Koran, which records revelations received by Muhammad after his first victorious battle over non-believers. By characterizing the Kurds as infidels, Iraqi officials hoped to rouse support in the Muslim world for their genocidal campaign." The wounds of past remain fresh in Kurdish memories and the spoils of the future are tantalizingly within reach of both Kurds and Arabs. These two factors make the situation along border of the Kurdish autonomous extremely dangerous. Conflict, however, is not going to solve it. In an interview broadcast on al-Arabiya televison earlier this week, President Obama said it was his job "to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy" ["On Arab TV Network, Obama Urges Dialogue," by Alan Cowell, New York Times, 28 January 2009]. Although the President's focus was on the situation in Gaza, one of his first challenges may be to deal with the outcome of the election in Iraq. The U.S. government supports a strong Iraqi government, but it also appreciates the strong ties it has with the Kurdish community. Iraq will never be on the full road to prosperity until men of good will on both sides sit down, put the past behind them, and focus on a better future for all of Iraq's citizens -- despite their ethnicity or religious beliefs.

January 28, 2009

Child Labor in the Developing World

Unicef reports that an estimated 158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labor. That represents one in every six children in the world. Everyone agrees that the best place for children is in school; but the hard reality is that millions aren't and won't be. Those who aren't in school, according to Unicef, are often found "engaged in hazardous situations or conditions, such as working in mines, working with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or working with dangerous machinery. They are everywhere but invisible, toiling as domestic servants in homes, labouring behind the walls of workshops, hidden from view in plantations." The World Bank insists "that child labor is one of the most devastating consequences of persistent poverty." That being the case, it might seem surprising that New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in which he claims that in some cases having children working in a sweatshop is a good thing ["Where Sweatshops Are a Dream," 14 January 2009]. He submitted his column from Cambodia.

"Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about 'labor standards,' I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh. This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires. The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage. Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough."

That sounds harsh -- and it is. Kristof isn't an anti-labor reactionary ranting against the excesses of corrupt labor union leaders. Nor is he arguing against the value of labor standards or the need for them. And he certainly isn't arguing that it is better for children to be at work than at school. The point that Kristof is making is that labor standards, if enacted, need to take into account local conditions and needs.

"Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children. 'I’d love to get a job in a factory,' said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. 'At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.' Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous."

Kristof makes it clear that just because working in a sweatshop might be more pleasant work than scavenging around in a toxic waste heap it doesn't justify ignoring the working conditions in sweatshops. On the other hand, he insists that eliminating sweatshops rather than working to improve working conditions there is also the wrong tactic.

"I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade. When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom. My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs."

Kristof clearly understands what most people in the development community understand -- jobs are the key to a better life. The creation of jobs is an essential activity for any country mired in poverty, especially if it has a burgeoning population.

"Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports. I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and 'living wages' have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia."

Kristof points out the fallacy of one the big arguments used against globalization. Detractors claim that companies scour the globe looking for low-cost labor to exploit. As Kristof points out, that simply is not true. The countries with the greatest numbers of low-cost laborers have been the last countries to benefit from globalization. Manufacturers are looking for low-cost countries not just low-cost labor. Such countries must achieve a minimum level of competence in areas such as the rule of law, security, infrastructure, and so forth. Countries that struggle to survive because they don't meet those minimum standards need to be helped to achieve them. That is the motivating principle behind Enterra Solutions' Development-in-a-Box™. Kristof reports America's best foreign policy objective would be to help developing countries attract manufacturing -- in other words, to help make them low-cost countries.

"Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally. The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it. Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely."

One of the reasons that analysts use "purchasing power parity" to compare the quality of life in different countries is the obvious fact that the cost of basics varies from country to country. An apple may cost 50 cents in one country and a nickel in another. In America, retirees often look at the cost of living in different areas of the country before deciding where to live out their golden years -- a form of purchasing power parity. Kristof's point is that the developed world's labor standards cannot be easily transferred into the developing world. He concludes:

"Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a 'Playboy' shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her. 'It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,' she said wistfully. 'A factory is better."

There is much left to be said that Kristof didn't write. One must look back at the industrial revolution and how workers were exploited to understand why labor unions and labor standards emerged. Even though jobs are important and manufacturing can supply them, that doesn't justify the continued exploitation of workers. If the terrible labor strife that many developed nations went through is to be avoided, developing countries must be constantly looking for the right time to enact evolving labor standards that protect both jobs and those that fill them. According to a 2004 United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) report, "The benefits of eliminating child labour would be seven times greater than the costs." But there was a big caveat to that statement: "Reaping the economic value of expanded education depends on countries' ability to create new jobs, take advantage of higher levels of human capital and develop economic policies to stimulate growth." That is the Catch 22 with which Kristof's column deals. The faster the international community can assist developing countries to create jobs, the sooner the world will be able to eliminate the scourge of child labor and ensure that all workers labor in more favorable conditions.

January 27, 2009

Schoolgirls in Afghanistan

Most people are aware that the conflict in Afghanistan is not going well. Upon taking office, Barack Obama has pledged to turn his attention to the situation there and try to develop a strategy that can help the Afghanis turn the corner and recapture the future of their country. Part of that future belongs to some heroic young women who have continued to attend school in spite of terrific persecution and physical attacks ["Afghan Schoolgirls Undeterred by Attack," by Dexter Filkins, New York Times, 14 January 2009]. Filkins focuses on the story of some schoolgirls in Kandahar who survived such an attack.

"One morning [in November 2008], Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking through the muddy streets to the local girls school when a man pulled alongside them on a motorcycle and posed what seemed like an ordinary question. 'Are you going to school?' Then the man pulled Shamsia’s burqa from her head and sprayed her face with burning acid. Scars, jagged and discolored, now spread across Shamsia’s eyelids and most of her left cheek. These days, her vision goes blurry, making it hard for her to read. But if the acid attack against Shamsia and 14 others — students and teachers — was meant to terrorize the girls into staying home, it appears to have completely failed. Today, nearly all of the wounded girls are back at the Mirwais School for Girls, including even Shamsia, whose face was so badly burned that she had to be sent abroad for treatment. Perhaps even more remarkable, nearly every other female student in this deeply conservative community has returned as well — about 1,300 in all."

What struck me about this story -- in addition to the amazing courage of these young women -- was the fact that their parents encouraged them to go back to school despite the dangers. In America, parents often pull their children from school at the slightest hint of trouble. I'm not faulting U.S. parents for their caution or Afghani parents for their lack of it; no one wants their children hurt. So what's the difference? In the U.S., parents know that the danger will pass and that their children's education will continue once it does. In Afghanistan, parents understand that a better future for their children -- especially their girls -- requires that they receive an education. If they prevent their children from attending school, the school may not be there when the danger passes. In fact, they are not even sure right now that the danger will pass. The truth is that Afghani parents did at first keep their girls out of school, but, as explained later, were convinced to send them back.

"'My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,' said Shamsia, 17, in a moment after class. Shamsia’s mother, like nearly all of the adult women in the area, is unable to read or write. 'The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.' In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built here by the Japanese government, it appears to have set off something of a social revolution. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to the school each morning. Many of them walk more than two miles from their mud-brick houses up in the hills. The girls burst through the school’s walled compound, many of them flinging off head-to-toe garments, bounding, cheering and laughing in ways that are inconceivable outside — for girls and women of any age. Mirwais has no regular electricity, no running water, no paved streets. Women are rarely seen, and only then while clad in burqas that make their bodies shapeless and their faces invisible."

If Afghanistan is ever going to achieve peace and prosperity, it will need the talents and efforts of every one of its citizens. Ignoring the potential of half its people -- the women -- is not in the country's best interests. Yet the Taliban and their supporters are willing to throw away the future to enforce their warped interpretation of Islam. Filkins describes last November's attacks.

"Three pairs of men on motorcycles began circling the school. One of the teams used a spray bottle, another a squirt gun, another a jar. They hit 11 girls and 4 teachers in all; 6 went to the hospital. Shamsia fared the worst. The attacks appeared to be the work of the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that is battling the government and the American-led coalition. Banning girls from school was one of the most notorious symbols of the Taliban’s rule before they were ousted from power in November 2001."

The Taliban's legacy was one of fear, destruction (they infamously destroyed some historical images of Buddha carved into an Afghani mountainside), intolerance, and misogyny disguised as religious belief. The new Afghan government, and the international coalition supporting it, has been trying to blot out that legacy and provide the country with a new start.

"Building new schools and ensuring that children — and especially girls — attend has been one of the main objectives of the government and the nations that have contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Some of the students at the Mirwais school are in their late teens and early 20s, attending school for the first time. Yet at the same time, in the guerrilla war that has unfolded across southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have made schools one of their special targets."

As noted earlier, Afghani parents at first reacted as any parent would and they kept their daughters home.

"In the days after the attack, the Mirwais School for Girls stood empty; none of the parents would let their daughters venture outside. That is when the headmaster, Mahmood Qadari, got to work. After four days of staring at empty classrooms, Mr. Qadari called a meeting of the parents. Hundreds came to the school — fathers and mothers — and Mr. Qadari implored them to let their daughters return. After two weeks, a few returned. So, Mr. Qadari, whose three daughters live abroad, including one in Virginia, enlisted the support of the local government. The governor promised more police officers, a footbridge across a busy nearby road and, most important, a bus. Mr. Qadari called another meeting and told the parents that there was no longer any reason to hold their daughters back. 'I told them, if you don’t send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins,' Mr. Qadari said. 'I told them not to give in to darkness. Education is the way to improve our society.' The adults of Mirwais did not need much persuading. Neither the bus nor the police nor the bridge has materialized, but the girls started showing up anyway. Only a couple of dozen girls regularly miss school now; three of them are girls who had been injured in the attack."

Although Afghanistan remains filled with more fear than hope, it is hope for a better future that motivates parents and students.

"For all the uncertainty outside its walls, the Mirwais school brims with life. Its 40 classrooms are so full that classes are held in four tents, donated by Unicef, in the courtyard. The Afghan Ministry of Education is building a permanent building as well. The past several days at the school have been given over to examinations. In one classroom, a geography class, a teacher posed a series of questions while her students listened and wrote their answers on paper. ... At a desk in the front row, Shamsia, the girl with the burned face, pondered the questions while cupping a hand over her largest scar. She squinted down at the paper, rubbed her eyes, wrote something down. Doctors have told Shamsia that her face may need plastic surgery if there is to be any chance of the scars disappearing. It is a distant dream: Shamsia’s village does not even have regular electricity, and her father is disabled. After class, Shamsia blended in with the other girls, standing around, laughing and joking. She seemed un-self-conscious about her disfigurement, until she began to recount her ordeal. 'The people who did this,' she said, 'do not feel the pain of others.'"

Hopes and dreams -- even distant ones -- are enough to motivate people. Any activity that supports hope and reduces fear is worth supporting. Standing for something rather than opposing something is always a better course to pursue. In an op-piece about the on-going situation in Gaza, New York Times' columnist Thomas Friedman asked the leaders of Hamas, "Are you about destroying Israel or building Gaza?" A similar question could be posed to the Taliban -- are you about destroying those who see things differently than you or about building Afghanistan? The Taliban are clearly not about building Afghanistan. Taliban members in Pakistan are now trying to spread their twisted theology there ["Pakistani Taliban blow up schools in Swat," by Junaid Khan, Washington Post, 19 January 2009].

"Pakistani Taliban insurgents blew up four schools in the northwestern Swat region ... hours after a cabinet minister vowed that the government would reopen schools in the violence-plagued valley. ... As with Afghanistan's Taliban, their Pakistani counterparts oppose education for girls and they recently banned female education in Swat altogether."

Teachers in Swat have indicated that they will not return to the classroom until the government can guarantee their safety and peace and security are restored to the region. As a result of the Taliban's actions, those who could afford to flee have left the area. For those who could not afford to move, daily life is filled with terror and a generation of young Pakistanis is watching their future literally go up in smoke. I'm reminded of Edmund Burke's famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The "good men and women" of Kandahar are doing something. Let's hope they triumph over evil.

January 26, 2009

Religious Conflict in Nigeria

Nigeria is a country blessed (or as many believe cursed) with oil. It is a major supplier to the United States and over the years it should have banked a bunch of money and established itself as the economic king of the African continent. For a number of reasons that has not happened. Foremost among those reasons is corruption. Close behind is religious tension that threatens to divide Africa's most populous nation ["The Muslims and Christians of Jos," The Economist, 6 December 2008 print edition]. As the sub-heading of that article states, "The government of Africa’s most populous country is slow to stem violence," and that's a problem. The article concentrates on recent events in the town of Jos, the Capital of Plateau State and a city surrounded by beautiful hills. The ironic thing is that Plateau State calls itself "The Home of Peace and Tourism" in Nigeria." Recent violence (last November) may have changed all that.

"The Katako market was still smouldering five days after it was razed to the ground by a mob of Christian youths. The bodies of ten people trapped in the fires that destroyed it had already been taken away and buried. Muslim men kicked up plumes of dust as they shuffled through the ashes of their stalls, which a week earlier had numbered more than 5,000. A dirty young man searched through a pile of blackened onions, picking out those that were not inedibly charred. A few hundred yards away, students and teachers at an Augustinian monastery were also sorting through wreckage. Their monastery had been attacked on the same day, just 30 minutes later, by a group of Muslim youths. The monk in charge narrowly escaped death when a Molotov cocktail thrown into his tiny room happened to land in the toilet. The central Nigerian city of Jos is still assessing how much damage was done in the course of three days of destruction that began on November 28th, when what began as protests over local-government elections quickly took on a lethal sectarian character. At least 300 people died, 7,000 were displaced and many businesses, churches and mosques destroyed. A curfew remains in place, with dozens of army and police checkpoints."

Unfortunately, this is not a new storyline in Africa or in Nigeria. Poverty and lack of employment give young people (mostly young men) plenty of time to consider their plight and look for someone against whom they can strike out. Those of a different faith have historically been good targets.

"Exactly who started the violence is unclear. On the other hand, everyone in Nigeria is familiar with the fierce animosities that exist between the various religious groups in Jos. The town is situated in the so-called 'middle belt', between Nigeria’s largely Muslim northern half and its predominantly Christian south—and thus has a pretty mixed population. And like other such cities, Jos has a history of ethnic and religious tension that has often boiled over. Similar incidents in 2001 and 2004 left thousands dead."

Before dismissing the troubles in Jos as an "African" problem, I must remind you that the mixed religious population in the former Yugoslavia experienced similar tension that led to a civil war. The tensions there have not disappeared and may again lead to conflict (for more on that subject read my post Bosnia and the Challenge of Fake States). Had oil brought prosperity to Nigeria, religious differences (especially in mixed communities) might have been overlooked as people spent more time improving their lives than wondering why they were mired in poverty. Oil revenues, however, have not trickled very far down the economic ladder as a result of corruption and incompetence.

"Many say the federal and state governments could have done more to prevent the killings. Local polls were a probable flashpoint. Elections in Nigeria are often violent and crooked affairs and in Jos there had been no local elections since the country’s military rulers gave way to democracy in 1999. Local officials wield enormous power all over Nigeria, often determining who can get college graduation diplomas, business forms and, most contentiously, papers indicating who is an 'indigenous citizen' in a particular area. So the stakes are high. It was the declaration of victory in Jos for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, widely perceived as a mainly Christian party, that set off the chain of events that led to the violence. Backers of the defeated All Nigeria People’s Party, a mainly Muslim Hausa outfit, protested that the vote had been rigged. Even after the mayhem began, the authorities’ response was slow. In most of the areas with widespread violence, the police did not show up for several hours and in some places did not arrive until the next day. Many residents say that when police and soldiers did eventually arrive, they used excessive force, sometimes shooting indiscriminately into crowds. Army officials have blamed such incidents on impostors dressed in makeshift fatigues."

In countries with underdeveloped infrastructures, the adage "out of sight, out of mind" is often the guiding political principle. Nestled among the hills and far from the sea where most of Nigeria's oil and money are located, Jos doesn't capture many headlines. The Nigerian president didn't even bother to make a trip there following the violence.

"The president, Umaru Yar’Adua, added to his reputation for underreacting to events by not even going to Jos after the violence, though it is only a three-hour drive from the federal capital, Abuja. Instead, as his envoy, he sent the minister of labour, who arrived after dark and left long before the sun rose the next day."

The tragedy of Jos, which by all accounts could be a lovely tourist destination, is that it now has much in common with Sarajevo.

"Forgiveness and reconciliation in Jos will be hard. The balkanisation of this city of 500,000-plus people that began in 2001 with a first round of religious violence will become starker after this latest bloodshed. Muslim businessmen will find it harder to rebuild shops in mainly Christian districts and Christian home owners will struggle to persuade their families to resettle in mainly Muslim areas. Since democracy was restored in 1999, most of northern Nigeria’s Muslim states have introduced sharia law. That prompted many thousands of Christians to migrate to other states. Increasingly, it seems, Christians and Muslims find it difficult to live alongside each other in a country of 140m-odd people."

The introduction of sharia law is not a good sign that reconciliation is just around the corner. A stable country requires the rule of law (not the rule of different laws). In one form or another, ethnic and/or religious cleansing is taking place in many places around the globe. In the United States there are areas where certain religions dominate. The difference in America, however, is that even in areas where a particular religion is dominant other religions are tolerated or even embraced. In areas poisoned by ethnic or religious cleansing, tolerance is replaced by hatred and violence. That is what is now occurring in Nigeria. The Economist's article concludes with a tragic example of what is going on.

"At an internet café in one of the few shops still open in Jos, a businessman sitting at a computer doing research had an idea for how to avoid future outbreaks of violence. Every man, woman and child in Nigeria, he said, should own and know how to use a gun. Then events like the recent fighting wouldn’t happen, he said. And what was he researching? How to purchase, operate and dismantle an AK-47. He said he already had seven guns at home, including five pump-action shotguns. An AK was next on his wish list."

The age of oil won't last forever. That means that Nigeria has a limited amount of time to salvage its future by wisely investing its oil revenue. As I continually preach, economic development goes hand-in-hand with security and stability and Nigeria's bright future lies beyond a horizon now filled with violence, hatred, mistrust, and corruption. It's not too late to make a difference, but the sun is beginning to go down in Nigeria.

January 23, 2009

The Challenge of Power

The Washington Post recently published a fascinating profile about a young Iraqi power broker who has become the dominant authority in small Iraqi town called Thuluyah ["New Paths to Power Emerge in Iraq," by Anthony Shadid, 13 January 2008]. The report is a cautionary tale about short-term success and probable long-term failure. Shadid begins:

"Nadhim Khalil wears the clothes of the cleric he is. He bears the scars of the insurgent he was. And in a country where business these days is power, he talks the speech of the merchant he has become, plying his trade in a contest for authority."

As a businessman, I would normally cheer the fact that "business these days is power" in Iraq. It's a sign that the country is turning from conflict to commerce and that is a good thing. But commerce is generally about profits not power and that is what makes Shadid's article a cautionary tale about the future of Iraq. Shadid's description of Khalil is not one of an honest businessman but one of a mob boss who controls all aspects of the town's life. That is not a good thing.

"Imbued with the swagger of youth, lording over this oasis-like town on a bend of the Tigris River, Khalil has power, the fruits of a singularly Iraqi odyssey that has taken this scion of a religious family from the leadership of the local branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, responsible for a reign that saw residents executed in the streets, into the generous arms of the American military and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his erstwhile foes. Khalil's analysis is blunt: He used to be on the losing side. His formula is simple: With God, guns and money, he is now the authority in town."

Khalil's story is typical of what happens when the rule of law fails because the central government doesn't have enough capacity to provide internal security within a country. It is a storyline that can be found in other places as well -- like Afghanistan and Somalia. One of the guiding principles of the development community (and of Enterra Solutions' Development-in-a-Box™ approach) is strengthening domestic capacities to govern. Without such capacities, corruption grows, crime increases, and the business environment suffers. Development efforts are completely undercut when efficient governance is lacking. Shadid discusses how quickly nefarious forces fill in gaps in governance.

"Khalil's ascent here is a legacy of the war that has all but ended and the struggle that has begun in Iraq, shaped by the expediency of American tactics to quell the insurgency and the combustible, shifting landscape those choices have left behind. War and occupation shattered old notions of power here, embedded in patronage and tradition. In places like Thuluyah, new leaders and forces are emerging, redrawing the maps of towns and regions that, in quick succession, have passed from the hands of Saddam Hussein, through the throes of the insurgency and into today's far murkier contest. Fierce in its customs, Thuluyah is a microcosm of Sunni Muslim regions of the country, residents like to say. If so, the town is a sober harbinger. Khalil, often forthright, sometimes persuasive and occasionally thuggish, has become the strongman. Just 30 years old, Khalil has inherited from his family the town's biggest mosque, where brimming crowds gather on Fridays for his stentorian sermons. He heads the council that oversees the hundreds of armed men who deserted the insurgency for U.S.-funded units known as the Sons of Iraq, outnumbering the police and army unit stationed here. The mention of Khalil's name -- Mullah Nadhim, as he is known here -- ensures passage through their checkpoints. He heads a council of tribal leaders that provides a channel to Maliki, who offered his hand in friendship in a meeting in Baghdad's Green Zone. The elected city council can only watch and complain -- in whispers -- about a man they fear. The town's elders scoff at his age and pedigree, with a wayward glance. 'My opinion?' asked Abdullah Jabbouri, a council member and former general. He paused, smiling a little sheepishly. 'Anyone who has absolute power becomes dangerous, even to himself,' he said."

There is an "official government" in Thuluyah, but it has no capacity to govern. As a result, none of the locals look to it for any of the normal services that a government should supply. This is what Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart call the "sovereignty gap" [for more about their ideas read my post More on Dealing with Failed States]. As Shadid puts it:

"The city council is universally despised, castigated as corrupt and dismissed as impotent. Tribal leaders hold sway. On a recent day, the sheiks of the region's tribes met in Balad to negotiate blood money for 14 construction workers from that town whom al-Qaeda members from Thuluyah had executed with a bullet to the back of the head in 2006. But even the sheiks complain they no longer enjoy the same writ in a terrain shaped by force of arms and patronage that comes through ties to the American military and the government. Khalil calls the perspective of the tribal leaders 'limited.' That leaves Khalil himself, who is called commander by the 700 members of the Sons of Iraq in the region. In mismatched uniforms or civilian clothes, they man checkpoints on the town's main road, draped in bandoleers and waving walkie-talkies. He heads a council of 10 tribal leaders established last year by Maliki, the prime minister's tentative but far-reaching attempt to cultivate rural support. He said he meets with the U.S. military every two weeks. Each Tuesday, he gathers a council in Thuluyah with the mayor and heads of the police, city council and army to review security here. ... [City leaders are concerned about Khalil's power. They say] Khalil's conversion was akin to a cleric banning alcohol, then mixing the first drink. Money and power have made him a pharaoh. His guns, in the hands of his men, have left the city council with no qudra, or capability. Though elected to office, the [city councilmen] find themselves on the outside looking in."

Right now the U.S. military is happy to have Khalil's guns pointed at common adversaries and away from American forces. Once U.S. forces depart, however (a day for which Khalil longs), things are likely to turn ugly if the central government cannot disarm Khalil's forces and provide the necessary peace and stability in the region. Like a true mobster, Khalil is unlikely to give up his authority peacefully.

"'The fight now is the fight over the finger,' Khalil said over a lunch of roast lamb and rice, grilled fish, okra and more lamb, after delivering his sermon. He meant the coming election and the indigo stain Iraqis receive after voting. He meant, too, that he himself planned to run for parliament, hoping to represent Thuluyah. These days, Khalil is a man about town. He got married and got respectable. He mixes easily with worshipers, his fighters and the workers renovating his mosque. ... Through his intervention, he said, the Americans have funded 20 projects for the town, from paving 10 miles of roads to bringing clean water for thousands of families. He still oversees salaries for the Sons of Iraq. He has found 400 people jobs in the army and police. He has secured compensation for 1,500 people who suffered injuries in fighting."

That sounds like a scene right out of The Godfather. And like the main character in The Godfather Khalil mixes good deeds with intimidation in order to maintain his authority. As Shadid writes: "There is something familiar about the reluctance of many others to talk."

"'He who is scared stays peaceful,' goes a proverb sometimes uttered in the town. It was often pronounced after Hussein's fall, in the ensuing anarchy. But it holds truth today, too. There is fear here, the sense in places where law is arbitrary that fewer words are better. 'He still needs time to build trust,' said Suleiman Kanoush, a 43-year-old government employee. 'We still need time to give him our trust again.' Trust, though, is not Khalil's power."

I often describe the benefits of Development-in-a-Box™ in terms of building trust -- I never describe it in terms of creating power. Trust is developed when organizations operate transparently and according to accepted standards and rules. Men like Khalil find their power mainly operating outside those parameters. Khalil is clearly a bright man. He is also an ambitious man. If he doesn't permit his ambition to blind him to the needs of those he claims to serve, he may yet make a true "conversion" from rebel to businessman. To do so, he needs to: work with the government to disarm his militia; help build up the local city council; support government efforts to provide social services and eliminate corruption; and use his resources to establish legitimate businesses that create jobs. Too many ambitious people embrace corruption and crime to secure short-term benefits and fail to recognize that such tactics inevitably undermine their long-term interests. As Iraq attempts to transition from conflict to development, its leaders will face dozens of men like Khalil who have rushed to fill the sovereignty gap created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The government must wrest power from them and foster the trust of the people if it is going to lead the country into a peaceful and prosperous future. For more about how power can be a corrupting influence, see my blog Political Power and Progress.

January 22, 2009

Learning from Nature

Amid all the bad news -- the current recession, conflict in the Middle East, famine in Horn of Africa, etc. -- it's important to look around and see what else is happening in the world that could help make it a better place. One of the things that buoys me up is learning about innovative things that people are doing. In other posts, I have noted that nature often provides the example that sparks someone's imagination [see, for example, the post Turning to Nature to Save Energy]. Juliet Eilperin provides a few new examples ["Inventors Find Inspiration in Natural Phenomena," Washington Post, 29 December 2008]. Eilperin begins her article with a discussion about whales and biomimicry.

"For some, whale watching is a tourist activity. For Gunter Pauli, it is a source of technological inspiration. 'I see a whale, I see a six-to-12-volt electric generator that is able to pump 1,000 liters per pulse through more than 108 miles of veins and arteries,' he said. The intricate wiring of the whale's heart is being studied as a model for a device called a nanoscale atrioventricular bridge, which will undergo animal testing next year and could replace pacemakers for the millions of people whose diseased hearts need help to beat steadily. Pauli -- who directs the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) Foundation in Geneva -- is an unabashed promoter of biomimicry, the science of making technological and commercial advances by copying natural processes. At a time when many are looking for a way to protect Earth's biodiversity and reduce the ecological impact of industrial products and processes, a growing number of business leaders and environmental activists alike are looking to biomimicry as a way to achieve both ends. 'The idea behind biomimicry is that life has already solved the challenges that we're trying to solve,' said Janine Benyus, who leads the Biomimicry Guild, a Helena, Mont.-based consulting group. 'There are literally as many ideas as there are organisms.'"

Just because nature has already solved some of the challenges that we are looking to overcome doesn't mean that copying nature is easy. Scientists have been searching for ways to replicate the intricacies of the human brain since computers were invented and they still have not reached that goal. In other areas, however, inventors have achieved better success.

"In the past few years, entrepreneurs have developed and started marketing an array of inventions that imitate natural phenomena. For instance, the resurrection plant, a desert species common in Africa and Latin America, dries up and appears to be dead when water is scarce. It does so without breaking its cells' membranes, enabling it to revive when moisture returns. Researchers have learned to make some vaccines with a similar capability so they do not have to be refrigerated. Other inventors are developing friction-free surfaces modeled on the slippery skin of the Arabian Peninsula's sandfish lizard, an advance that could eliminate the use of ball bearings in many products as well as industrial diamond dust in automobile air bags. Knowing that the pearl oyster uses carbon dioxide to construct its calcium carbonate shell, a Canada-based company called CO2 Solution developed and patented a technology that converts carbon dioxide emissions into a water-based solution of bicarbonate ions, which can be turned into pure carbon dioxide gas or solid calcium carbonate. The firm has applied the process to cement production, reducing the large amounts of CO2 that process releases."

The impressive thing is not just that scientists, inventors, and innovators have managed to mimic nature but that they had the insight and inspiration to understand how natural processes could be applied to challenges not directly related to circumstances in which the natural process occurs. Such eureka moments are what make creative thinkers different from the average human being. Several organizations have banded together to recognize the best ideas that have been inspired by nature.

"The United Nations Environment Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature have joined the Biomimicry Guild and ZERI to develop a list of Nature's 100 Best -- the most prominent innovations inspired by natural processes. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said such technologies will be essential to more sustainable development in light of global warming. 'There is simply a transformational challenge ... that needs new ideas and new solutions to unlock the potential of nature and reinforce the planet's natural carbon storage capacity,' he said. 'If you can have 7.8 billion people living comfortably with one-tenth, one-thousandth of the amount of energy, that opens up a new realm of possibility.'"

To learn more about the "Nature's 100 Best" list, visit It looks like it remains a work in progress, but the ideas it lists to date are intriguing. They include:

  • Air conditioning inspired by termites
  • Economic cluster inspired by rainforest
  • Value-added business inspired by nutrient cycling
  • Bacterial control inspired by red algae
  • Building Material from CO2 inspired by mollusks
  • Fog harvesting inspired by a desert beetle
  • Economic cluster inspired by the mangrove forest
  • Vaccines without refrigeration inspired by resurrection plant
  • Fiber manufacture inspired by golden orb weaver spiders
  • Water purification inspired by the marsh ecosystem
  • C02 capture inspired by algae
  • Pacemaker replacement inspired by humpback whales
  • Fire retardant inspired by animal cells
  • Plastics from CO2 inspired by plants
  • Self-assembling glass inspired by sea sponges
  • Wound healing inspired by flies
  • Solar cells inspired by leaves
  • Friction-free fans inspired by nautilus
  • Bacterial control inspired by barberry
  • Self-cleaning surfaces inspired by lotus plant
  • Optical brighteners inspired by Cyphochilus beetle
  • Adhesion without glue inspired by geckos

Innovation, of course, is a never-ending process and Eilperin reports that other promising products are already on their way.

"Some biomimicry products are still in the pipeline, but Steiner said many are in commercial use. 'We're not talking about theory anymore,' he said. 'This is real stuff happening in the real world, in the real market.' Architecture has made the greatest use of biomimicry products. Benyus estimated that 300,000 buildings in Europe boast self-cleaning glass that copies the way water balls up on lotus leaves and simply rolls off. Biomimicry is also gaining traction as researchers seek to cut the costs of solar cells and make them less rigid. Two companies -- Konarka Technologies in Lowell, Mass., and Dyesol in New South Wales, Australia -- have developed thin, dye-sensitized solar cells that operate on the same principle that plants use to absorb the sun's rays and convert them to energy. These cells are not as efficient as their photovoltaic counterparts, but they are 60 percent cheaper and more flexible. Including architectural projects, Pauli said, the 100 largest biomimicry products have generated more than $1.5 billion over the past four years. 'The market potential is vast,' he said."

Proponents of biomimicry are quick to point out that their products draw from nature but don't attempt to alter it like those involved in genetic engineering.

"Other entrepreneurs are experimenting with genetic engineering to create products, such as putting the genes from a spider into a cloned goat to produce a particularly strong form of silk, but Benyus draws a distinction between that sort of invention and her line of work. 'That's not biomimicry,' she said. 'That's bio-assisted technology.'"

The fear of proponents of biomimicry is that they will be tarred with the same brush being used to discredit genetic scientists, whose tampering with nature, opponents argue, will unleash terrible natural calamities. Biomimics want to be seen as the good guys.

"The payoffs from biomimicry research, she said, provide a strong incentive for conserving plants and animals rather than exploiting nature in destructive ways. 'Preserving their habitats is really preserving the wellspring of ideas for the next industrial revolution, that gets us there with the minimum amount of energy, the minimum amount of toxins,' she said. That line of argument encourages environmentalists such as Patrick Ramage, director of the global whale program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. If inventors can model pacemakers on whales' circulation or wind turbine blades on the flipper of a humpback whale, he said, that will bolster efforts to protect the animals. Ramage said that humans are grappling with questions such as 'What can we learn from these masterpieces of nature? What secrets do they hold that can help us build a better world for ourselves and for them, for animals and people? In the end, our fates and futures as humans and wild animals are not separate; they are inextricably linked.'"

Working with, rather than against, nature is generally a better way to go. One of the strongest arguments being made for the preservation of diverse ecosystems -- like the Amazon rainforest -- is that these systems still contain natural solutions to many challenges. Destroy the ecosystem and you lose the solution. In financially troubled times, research often suffers as funds dry up. I'm hoping that people are farsighted enough to recognize that research is likely to open promising paths to the future that not only help carry us out of our current difficulties but open economic opportunities in both the developed and developing worlds.

January 21, 2009

Diplomacy in the Obama Administration

With Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton poised to be the most notable of President Obama's cabinet appointments, a lot of attention has been given to how new administration's foreign policy might evolve. Having won the election by preaching a message of change and hope, people beyond the U.S. borders are waiting to hear a similar message. This is what the President said during his inauguration speech yesterday:

"The question before us [is not] whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. ... As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

In August 2006, just as the American presidential race was beginning to heat up, I wrote a post entitled The Need for Global Leadership. In that post, I wrote:

"Leadership vision is most poignant in times of instability and is most needed and most effective when providing guidance in times of rapid change and during and after war. ... A grand vision that inspires action makes the global system much more resilient because it becomes the touchstone that helps keep the whole system on track. Current events have an uncanny ability to sidetrack plans and without a direction it’s difficult to know when you are off the right track. I'm reminded of the incident when Alice, lost in Wonderland, comes upon the Cheshire Cat sitting in the branch of a tree at a fork in the road. "Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?" Alice asks. "That depends a good deal on where you want to go," responds the Cheshire Cat. "I don't much care where," Alice replies. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," the Cheshire Cat wisely asserts. But it does matter which way the world goes. The path the international community takes, determined by the vision it adopts, establishes the ordering principles around which the resources of the developed world can be mustered to benefit mankind. While some critics believe the nation-state is waning, its demise is overrated. The nation-state remains the primary driving force of the future. More states, not fewer, have been established over the past half century. Other new states (like one in Palestine) are likely to arise. The reason is that people believe that their interests and their security are best served by being governed by individuals who understand and appreciate their aspirations. ... Hopefully, enough voices will be raised across the globe so that the efforts of world leaders can be channeled into finding the vision that will ignite the passions of rich and poor alike. Once ignited, however, those passions must be turned into actions that realign international organizations, array national resources in support, and improve the structural capacities of states so that they can assume control of the own future. Envision, plan, and implement. Without the vision you can’t plan. Without planning you can’t successfully implement."

With the world now embroiled in a financial crisis that was just over the horizon in 2006, the need for global vision is more important than ever and the U.S. is still in the best position to help form it. New York Times' op-ed columnist Roger Cohen calls it a time for "Realism and Magic" [14 January 2009]. He offered his opinions in light of the confirmation hearings for Senator Clinton to become the next Secretary of State.

"So the next new thing is 'smart power.' The phrase was sprinkled through Senator Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It means using all the levers of influence — diplomatic, economic, military, legal, political and cultural — to get what you want. I’ve nothing against smart power, a blend of soft and hard. It’s better than dumb power, of which we’ve had a dose. Dumb power estranges friends, privileges force, undermines United States credibility and proclaims war without end. But what I want from the Obama administration is something more than Harvard-to-the-Beltway smarts. I want magical realism."

"Magical realism" is not a term you'll hear tossed about in many political science classes or the hallways of strategic think tanks. I think it's close to what I called progressive realism in the aforementioned blog. The term does capture the need for vision and hope along with the necessity to see things for how they really are. It is the hope being ushered in by the new administration that Cohen hopes creates the magic.

"Seldom has so much hope confronted so much anxiety as in these ... days before Barack Obama becomes the 44th president and the first African-American one. From the West Front of the Capitol, where he will be sworn in with Lincoln’s Bible beneath his hand, Obama will face Abraham Lincoln, who saved the Union in a war over slavery, and the spot where Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech. A fuller expression of American possibility at a time of American penury is hard to imagine. Obama will then move into the White House, which slaves helped build, facing the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Reconciliation and transcendence and a reaffirmation of the mythology of American possibility vie with debt, doubt and depression. If they are poised in equal measure, which will prevail? One thing seems certain: The meltdown is going to hang over at least the first 18 months of the Obama presidency. The Treasury is bare. Americans are deluged in debt. Confidence has been Madoffed. That’s the realism. But this 47-year-old man of mixed race, whose very name — O-Ba-Ma — has the three-syllable universality of a child’s lullaby, has always had something of the providential about him, a global figure who looks more like the guy at the local bodega than the guys on dollar bills. That’s the magic. He needs this magic, which resonates in a voice with the solemn clarity of a bell. Smart power will not be enough. If it were, Americans would have elected Hillary Clinton president."

Cohen acknowledges that hope played a major role in Obama's election and that his ability to inspire and motivate is what attracted enough voters to secure him the nation's highest office. He's hoping those same traits prove sufficient to foster allies abroad.

"Americans intuited the imperative to reach beyond smartness for some ineffable quality, capable of unifying and inspiring at a time of national and global division. Inevitably, the nation is looking back to 1932. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself,' Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural, with the economy devastated by the Depression. He also said: 'This nation asks for action and action now.' Action followed — a torrent of legislation and speeches in the first 100 days designed to kick-start the country. Obama has been vowing a similar flurry, but has also been talking down expectations, saying things are going to get worse. That may be true, but he has to be careful. An excess of realism will undo him. ... Americans’ thirst to be uplifted is great. Obama has to lay out a vision that goes beyond the war on terror and draws the partners of a re-imagined United States, less powerful but still indispensable, into a shared push for greater prosperity and security."

Cohen is looking for the same inspired global vision I was calling for in 2006. The need for such a vision is even more critical now. Just as importantly, there are a lot more listeners eager to hear such a message. Cohen continues:

"When you’re down, you need friends. Clinton was right to say, 'We must build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries.' She might have added, especially in the Muslim world. A good starting point would be the realization that the very barrier-breaking technology that helped America to the zenith of its post-cold-war power has now democratized knowledge in ways the United States cannot control. The world view shaped in the Middle East by Al Jazeera is not amenable to Western logic. It has its own. Wealth has also migrated to an archipelago of new powers, including Brazil, Russia, China, India and the Gulf states. This scattering of power demands a new U.S. humility, but there is still no idea as compelling as the American embodied in Obama’s rise. Only if he can harness the magic of that to new realism can he summon the energy to overcome America’s crisis. Smart power alone cannot usher in the postponed promise of the 21st century."

As bad as conditions currently are, I agree with Cohen that the promises of the 21st century have only been postponed and not broken. Because I'm an entrepreneur, I tend to meet and deal with a lot of other entrepreneurs from around the globe. As I've written before, as a class entrepreneurs are optimistic. They see opportunities amid challenges and always hold fast to the belief that they are going to succeed. It is that optimism that will fulfill the promises to which Cohen refers. He concludes:

"Gandhi, asked what he thought of Western civilization, replied, 'I think it would be a good idea.' Obama could do worse than place on his new desk the words of another Indian-born man, a novelist of magical realist power, Salman Rushdie: 'This may be the curse of the human race. Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.'"

Those two notions -- that people are mostly alike and should act in a civilized way -- are two of the underlying principles that move globalization forward. Globalization only works because people, businesses, and governments agree to govern their activities using rules they have all accepted. They accept those rules because they understand that the world is a better place when we worth with and not against one another. Washington Post op-ed columnist David Broder discusses one of the "soft power" tools available in America's kit that can help usher in some of the promises of the 21st century ["Diplomacy That Heals," 15 January 2009]. He learned of these tools from people who normally would not be associated with diplomacy -- the last two Secretaries of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt.

"I was struck by the fact that one of [Leavitt's] strongest recommendations [for incoming Secretary Tom Daschle] echoed something that Thompson had told me. When I interviewed him in January 2005, Thompson said he had developed a passion for 'medical diplomacy.' 'I have traveled to 37 countries,' he said, 'helping deliver medicine for AIDS, malaria and other diseases. I dedicated a hospital for women and children in Kabul, Afghanistan. The gratitude of people for what America, with its wealth of medical talent, can bring is overwhelming.' Four years later, Leavitt has reached exactly the same conclusion. As he told me, 'The language of health is heard by the heart.' In one of his summing-up reports, Leavitt spelled out the message: 'Give a mother with HIV-AIDS hope that she can raise her children, and her gratitude will never wane. Heal a father's child, and he will never forget. Give a teen with disfigured legs the mobility of a wheelchair, and he will praise your name forever. As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said to me, "Health is a good messenger of peace."'

It's obvious why soft power generally works better than hard power in winning the "hearts and minds" of those being helped. This is especially true when it comes to healthcare. It's something that the NGO Doctors Without Borders has known for a long time.

"Leavitt said that since the Bush administration took office, overseas medical assistance financed by both government and the nonprofit sector has expanded markedly. But there is so much more that can and should be done. He points out that the Castro regime in Cuba and now Venezuela's Hugo Chávez have dispatched doctors by the thousands to assist poor populations in Latin America. The United States could do so much more than those countries and, in the process, begin to reap the rewards that it deserves for its generosity. When two Republican Cabinet members who have seen the potential with their own eyes offer such a suggestion to the incoming Democratic administration, it's probably worth listening to them."

Even the U.S. military, the "hard power" in America's kit, understands the value of soft power (see my recent posts Calculating the Worth of Cows and The Gift of Sight). One of Navy's most effective efforts is carried out by the hospital ship USNS Mercy. The government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines, still posts a press release on its official web site thanking the U.S. Government for sending the ship there back in 2006. The release states:

"Regional Governor Datu Zaldy Uy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao expressed his deep appreciation to the government of the United States of America for sending to ARMM the USNS Mercy medical mission which he said is a big boost to the health services of the regional government. Ampatuan said the generosity of the US government to extend medical assistance to the indigent patients of ARMM clearly shows its concern to the needy people. 'We thank the US government for this medical assistance and we look forward to have more cooperation with the US government in other areas of concern,' he said."

The Mercy is gratefully received wherever it sails. The United States sits on the cusp of an historic moment. There are challenges aplenty that require the cooperation and goodwill of the international community if the global economy is going to recovery and peace and stability provided to war-torn regions of the world. The current feeling of hope will soon be replaced by disappointment then anger if hope doesn't result in effective action. None of the desired changes in the world will happen fast enough to make people happy. Having an inspiring global vision that can continue to spark hope, even when change comes slowly, is critical to managing expectations.

January 20, 2009

The Latest on Turkish-Kurd Relations

Today is an historic day in the United States as Americans inaugurate their first president with African roots. Barack Obama enters office with an approval rating of 78 percent -- one of the highest in history. The papers indicate that his first full day in office will be spent focused on foreign affairs. It's not that the economy is not important; but he has already committed a significant amount of time during his transition to the economy. As part of the momentous events in Washington, D.C., Enterra Solutions is hosting a group of government and business leaders from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. One of the foreign policy issues that President Obama will have to deal with is ensuring that Iraq remains stable and progressive as U.S. troops begin their withdrawal. Some of challenges that Iraq will face will be cross-border disputes, including some with America's long-time ally Turkey.

I have written a number of posts about the on-going tensions between the Turkish government and the rebel group known as the PKK that takes sanctuary in the mountains of northern Iraq in territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). I have also noted that despite these tensions the Turks' and Kurds' future (in both Turkey and Iraq) are inextricably linked [see, for example, my post entitled The Symbiotic Relationship Between Turkey & Kurdistan]. The new year has brought new efforts from Turkish leaders to bridge relationships with it Kurdish minority. One of those efforts is a new television station providing Kurdish programming ["Television diplomacy," The Economist, 3 January 2009 print edition]. This is a big change in a country where stressing your Kurdish identity has been illegal. The Economist reports:

"Rojin is a feisty, beautiful Kurdish bard who belts out nationalist ballads. As a result, private Kurdish television channels that showed her were long penalised or even taken off the air. But now she will be a regular on Turkey’s stultified TRT state television, which this week launched a 24-hour Kurdish channel in the main Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji. A contradiction, yes. But it may just suggest that the Justice and Development (AK) party is regaining the reformist zeal that made it one of Turkey’s most popular and progressive governments. Kurdish hardliners scoff that the new channel is a cynical sop to the country’s 14m-odd Kurds before local elections in March. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK prime minister, told an audience of Kurds in Diyarbakir in 2005 that the state had made mistakes in its treatment of the Kurds, his party won many a Kurdish heart (and vote). But it has lost them since he succumbed to the army’s demands to deal with Kurdish PKK rebels by force, not negotiation."

For more on the on-going tension between the Turks and the PKK, see my post New Violence between the Turkey and the PKK which also contains links to nine other posts on the subject.

"The army has been relentlessly pounding PKK guerrilla bases in northern Iraq. The PKK’s civilian arm, the Democratic Society Party, which has 20 elected parliamentarians, has been consistently snubbed by the AK government. Court cases bordering on the ludicrous continue against its members and against Kurdish-run municipalities that name their streets after eminent Kurds. One child in a Kurdish family from Germany was refused entry at the Turkish border recently because he had a Kurdish name. Even radical Kurds express hope that the new television channel, however wimpish, may spell a new beginning. Indeed, they hope the AK will renew the reform promises that helped it to win re-election, with a bigger share of the vote, in July 2007. Mr Erdogan is expected to make a statement during the televised launch. Kurdish dissidents are due to host some of its shows. Whether it can compete with the PKK’s hugely popular satellite channel, Roj, is another question. Private Kurdish television channels in Turkey are allowed to broadcast in their mother tongue for only four hours a week. Every show is vetted and has to have Turkish subtitles, making live programmes impossible. But the fact that Shivan Perwer, one of the most renowned Kurdish nationalist singers, is considering appearing on TRT’s Channel Six is being widely hailed as a breakthrough."

The Turkish government is also reaching across the Iraqi into the Kurdistan region ["President Barzani receives Turkish Special Envoy to Iraq,", 10 January 2009].

"Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani received Murat Özçelik, the Turkish Special Envoy to Iraq, on [10 January 2009]. The two discussed the economic, political and social relationship between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey, as well as the situation in Iraq in general. ... The meeting touched upon the implementation of the agreement for the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and the relationship between Iraq and Turkey. Both sides stressed upon the necessity of strengthening their relationship in order to serve the interests of both countries and the stability of the region. The meeting was also attended by Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff of the Kurdistan Region Presidency."

These, of course, are only small steps towards a more peaceful and prosperous future for the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Nearly 700 members of the PKK were reportedly killed by Turkish military forces last year. Another 237 were captured, while 177 reportedly surrendered. Recently, the PKK has accused Turkish and Iranian forces of conducting indiscriminate attacks on villages in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, any step towards peacefully resolving the region's future is a step in the right direction. The Kurdistan Regional Government has shown that prosperity is possible and that cooperation rather than conflict is the best way forward.

January 19, 2009

Democracy in Africa -- The Case of Ghana

The eve of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration is a good time to reflect on the subject of peaceful transition of power. Although U.S. presidential elections are costly, interminably long, and often filled with lies and half-truths, there is a majesty associated with the post-election transition of power. President Bush, who was more often than not Obama's target of choice during the elections, has been gracious to the next occupant of the White House during the transition period and has publicly wished him well. Not all transitions of power around the world are peaceful; although there are some encouraging signs. A short sidebar in a recent issue of The Economist trumpeted that "some stories are best told using graphs and charts." In the magazine's print edition, the story was titled "The death of the military coup"; they labeled it differently on their Web site. As shown in the attached image, the apparent demise of military coups is graphically impressive.

Coup graph Of course the fact that recent years have witnessed fewer coups doesn't mean that despots and would-be dictators aren't still among us -- Zimbabwe and Venezuela provide ample evidence of that. The graph does support the fact that democracy has made some halting strides over the past decade. Ghana provides a good African case study ["Ghana's Example: How one African nation has made democracy work," Washington Post editorial, 9 January 2009]. The editorial staff writes:

"African politics were shaped in the past year by two disastrous presidential elections -- that of Kenya in December 2007, which ended in a fraud-marred impasse and triggered ethnic violence in which more than 1,000 people died; and Robert Mugabe's first-round defeat and second-round theft of a Zimbabwean poll, which has prompted a catastrophic national collapse. But democracy in Africa is not dead, as the small but influential nation of Ghana demonstrated over the past month. Its two-round election for president ended with a razor-thin margin of victory for the opposition candidate. There was no major fraud or violence: The winning candidate, John Atta Mills, promised to 'be president for all'; his opponent, Nana Akufo-Addo, accepted defeat and publicly congratulated his opponent. On being sworn in Wednesday, Mr. Atta Mills became the second opposition candidate to peacefully succeed an elected president since Ghana returned to democracy in 1992. A pioneer of Africa's independence movement in the 1960s, Ghana is the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to accomplish that political feat. For the rest of the continent -- including its giant and perpetually unstable neighbor, Nigeria -- Ghana offers a demonstration that such political maturity pays off. Ghana's average annual growth rate of 5.6 percent during the past six years has been one of Africa's highest, and the country has become a favorite of foreign investors as well as donors."

Ghanaians will have to celebrate a few more peaceful transitions before they can feel confident that democracy is likely to persist. Nevertheless, any peaceful transition of power in Africa is an event worth celebrating. As the editorial goes on to point out, democracy doesn't mean that challenges disappear or that prosperity is assured.

"Mr. Atta Mills faces serious challenges, including growing transshipment of cocaine through Ghana to Europe -- and the corruption that the drug trafficking has engendered. He will also need to skillfully manage the country's recently discovered offshore oil, which could propel Ghana to greater prosperity or mire it in the political and economic diseases that afflict Nigeria and other petro-states. For now, however, the new president and his country can bask in the congratulations that have poured in from the European Union, the United Nations and the United States -- not to mention from Ghana's neighbors. 'The conduct of the people of Ghana provides a rare example of democracy at work in Africa,' said Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga. As Mr. Odinga knows all too well, it's an example from which Kenya, Zimbabwe and other states could learn."

An earlier article in a different newspaper published just before the election, reminds us that democracy doesn't automatically eliminate political abuses or corruption ["Ghana’s Image, Glowing Abroad, Is Beginning to Show a Few Blemishes at Home," by Lydia Polgreen, New York Times, 22 December 2008]. Polgreen reports:

"Just a few years ago, democracy’s march across Africa seemed unstoppable. These days, it seems stalled: vote rigging in Nigeria, a convulsion of ethnic violence after disputed elections in Kenya and outright theft at the polls in Zimbabwe are among the most recent signs. That may be why those looking for reasons to be hopeful about democracy in Africa have their sights set on Ghana, the first sub-Saharan country to wrest independence from colonial power, and now a nation that appears to be bucking the antidemocratic trend."

According to Polgreen, the people of Ghana are proud of their democracy, but, as the old adage says, "still waters run deep" and there are numerous issues bubbling just below the surface that could change the course of events there.

"Ghana has long been a favorite of foreign donors and Western governments in a region often known for brutal civil wars, corruption and tyranny. With its growing economy and squeaky-clean image, Ghana is a frequently cited success story. Yet roiling just below the surface are tensions over how the country has been governed, who is benefiting from economic growth and whether corruption is on the rise. Some people here worry that the country’s image as a bastion of peace and democracy is merely a sign of the low expectations outsiders have for Africa. 'Let’s allow that Ghana has achieved some things,' said Yao Graham, a writer and activist who leads the Third World Network, a research and advocacy institution with a regional office here. 'But for this to be the yardstick of a continent is to set very low expectations for a billion people across Africa.'"

As noted earlier, the election was a hard-fought and close-run affair. In the end, it was likely the economy that tipped the balance toward the opposition. Sound familiar?

"The opposition said that the governing party’s record looked impressive on paper, but that in reality many Ghanaians found themselves worse off than before. 'This has been a period of increasing corruption and a broadening gap between rich and poor,' said James Gbeho, a senior opposition official who has served in many top government posts over the years. 'For most people, progress has been an illusion.'"

Polgreen reminds us of Ghana's recent history and how quickly democrats can turn in to despots.

"Ghana has long been a symbol of Africa’s vast promise, but also of the many pitfalls that have plagued the continent in the postcolonial era. After it won independence in 1957, the Pan-African ideas of Ghana’s founding leader, Kwame Nkrumah, helped inspire a generation of liberation struggles. But the dream soon soured. His ideas forged a strong national identity that helped Ghana escape the ethnic strife of many of its neighbors. Still, Mr. Nkrumah’s poorly planned efforts to quickly build an industrial economy drained the country’s treasury and hobbled its growth, historians say. Multiparty democracy gave way to single-party rule. The economy collapsed. Mr. Nkrumah, once seen as a hero for all of Africa, was overthrown by the military in 1966, and few here mourned his departure. He was exiled to Guinea, and in 1972 he died an angry, bitter man."

Polgreen makes an interesting comparison between former British colonies to underscore the point that there is a big difference between "promise" and "performance."

"Ghana’s slide was emblematic of the continent’s slumping fortunes, especially when compared to booming Asian nations. Ghana won its independence the same year as Malaysia, another former British colony. But 50 years later, Ghana remains among the poorest nations of the world, while Malaysia is far ahead of it in many measures of development, including per capita income, life expectancy, literacy and school enrollment. This African giant, it seemed, had feet of clay."

Nevertheless, the word "promising" continues to crop up when people talk about Ghana. Ghanaians, however, are tired of hearing that their future "looks promising." They want to see results.

"Like many countries on the continent, Ghana stumbled through seasons of shaky civilian government and iron-fisted military rule, only to emerge in 1992 as a multiparty democracy once again. Jerry Rawlings, the dashing and sometimes ruthless air force flight lieutenant who had first seized power in a coup in 1979, voluntarily gave up his military uniform and ran in elections. He won two four-year terms and stepped aside in 2000 when constitutional term limits barred him from running again. Ghana again became a bellwether of African progress, helping usher in an era of hope for peace and prosperity across the continent."

Ghana is what my colleague Tom Barnett would call a Seam state. A country that lies between the disconnected and impoverished countries he calls the Gap and countries of the developed world he calls the Core. Seam states are moving in the right direction, but still suffer from many of the maladies that affect Gap states -- including corruption and crime. Polgreen reports that Ghana finds itself in that very position.

"The country has become a hub of the growing cocaine trade between Latin America and Europe, and there have been indications from investigators that some government officials may have been involved. Corruption is widely perceived to be on the rise. Despite the economic growth, many people here say the wealth is not shared. ... Indeed, the success of the opposition in the parliamentary elections was a surprising blow to the governing party. Across Accra, the capital, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and laborers exchange a finger-rolling gesture that is the universally acknowledged shorthand for the opposition’s slogan: change. But in Accra’s sleek new shopping mall, where the country’s small but growing middle class can buy flat-screen TVs, brand-name sneakers and plush imported furniture to a jangling soundtrack of Christmas carols, voters were more optimistic about the country’s current state. 'Ghana’s future is very bright,' said Larry Oppong-Attah, a 19-year-old student. As he tapped out text messages on a shiny Samsung cellphone, he said he hoped for a career in marketing."

The biggest blow to Ghana's future came with the downturn of the international economy and falling oil prices.

"Both parties ... promised a raft of public spending, paid for by recent offshore oil discoveries. But the low price of oil may scuttle plans to drill. Gold is also essential to the country’s economy, and as with all commodities, its price has experienced some steep drops in recent months. 'If you look at democracy as what a country offers its people, there are many questions to be asked,' said Mr. Graham, the writer. 'In Ghana we have growing inequality, an economy that is not creating jobs, and young people do not see a future here. By that standard, prospects for the future are not necessarily so bright.'"

The good news for Ghana is that oil prices are not predicted to remain low and its nascent oil sector may mature just as the global economy once again booms. The country is ripe for an approach like Development-in-a-Box™ because it has a relatively stable and secure environment, it needs to create jobs and diversify its economy, and it needs to control corruption and crime before they become the defining features of the country. Like the editors of the Washington Post, I applaud Ghana for pursuing democracy and the peaceful transition of power. At the same time, I encourage Ghana's leaders to start quickly down the road that leads to better economic conditions through better governance and diversification.