Browsing articles from "March, 2012"
Mar 30, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

A New World Bank?

As expected, the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – did not achieve their proposed goal of creating a new development bank to rival the World Bank during their latest meeting, which ended yesterday. But they did not give up: the countries announced the creation of a working group to discuss the idea further and write a report on it for next year. I don’t see why.

The Hindu

Officially, the idea is to better fund initiatives and improve access to capital for developing countries. It seems to me, though, that what is behind the move is in reality exasperation with the slow pace of change in leadership and decision-making at the World Bank and the IMF.

Pressed with the news (and about to leave his post), Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, weighted on the issue saying in an interview with Reuters that a joint development bank by the Brics will have a hard time getting off the ground and could struggle to match the World Bank’s expertise.

He is probably right. The Brics are right to push for reform at Bretton Woods institutions, and it is about time developed countries cede some space. But it was just the other day that Brazil, for example, went from borrower to lender of the IMF, and It is not clear that the country and its colleagues are not getting ahead of themselves in their search for a more prominent global position.

Developing countries tend to suffer more from badly implemented programs and policies than from lack of capital per se.The Brics still suffer from pervasive corruption and not all are currently stars in the good policy map. Wouldn’t that be reflected in their new bank? Perhaps changing the way institutions we have today work would have more of an impact than creating new ones without solid new approaches in place.

Besides, Brics countries already have a strong presence in developmental initiatives, specially in Africa. Would the rise of a new bureaucracy and a new process be so much more helpful?

Not to mention the challenge of internal coordination. The Brics are a great brand, but they mean very little as a group beyond defying the West management of the global financial architecture. Brics compete amongst themselves and are found more often than not on opposing sides of foreign policy. This banking idea is barely a plan and it has already led to rivalries: China expressed in not so subtle a tone the desire to occupy its presidency, which bothered Brazil (afraid of of Chinese dominance) and India (which wanted a rotation of the future chairmen).

If the new bank the Brics envision changed the way development is addressed, it could be a good thing. The danger is of manufacturing another institution to replicate the same problems we see elsewhere today.

Mar 28, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

A Lot of Hot Air

Image courtesy of Mario Piperni

President Obama’s so-called “hot mic” incident with Dmitry Medvedev certainly has received a lot of traction in the press. Mitt Romney, long the presumptive GOP presidential nominee in everyone’s mind except these guys, even has a Foreign Policy article on it running today, “Bowing to the Kremlin.” For reference, here is the exchange, courtesy of ABC News:

President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

Mitt Romney, as one would expect, takes issue with Obama’s condition of flexibility. “In a self-governing country like ours,” he writes, “the people have a right to know what kinds of decisions are being taken in their name. The American people deserve candor.”

Candor. How does this ideal notion mesh with the complexities of diplomacy? Does Mr. Romney truly suggest, as it seems, that America hand foreign leaders a black-and-white roadmap for further discussion and engagement? An all-or-nothing set of choices that would more likely serve to even further alienate our “Number One Foe”? Romney acts disgusted that Obama “appears determined to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin.” But how would anything else advance U.S. interests in the region? Ambiguity and cunning is certainly not always bad in this arena. We should be reminded of the old adage: a diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.

Romney’s high-stakes rhetoric is one way of winning the majority of the Republican vote in the American primary contest. But living in envy of the Cold War era is not a viable strategy to lead a country through complex conflict. And if a future president Romney truly wants to (in his words) “extract meaningful concessions from Russia,” he is going to need to go about it another way. And that way, like it or not, may not sound so sexy to his voting block.

Mar 27, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The (other) problem with aid

Confronted with the old question of whether aid helps democratization of strengthen dictatorships, Nabamita Dutta, Peter T. Leeson and Claudia Williamson, a postdoctoral fellow from NYU’s Development Research Institute, suggest a new answer: neither. Their working paper on the topic, released at the end of last year, comes in handy for the situation Afghanistan is about to face.

According to them, aid does not change the trajectory of political institutions of the recipient country, merely reinforces it. They call this tendency the “amplification effect” and “argue that foreign aid has neither the power to make dictatorships more democratic nor to make democracies more dictatorial. It only amplifies recipients’ existing political institutions.”

To make that case, they analyzed data from 124 countries between 1960 and 2009 and say that the findings support the amplification effect. “Aid strengthens democracy in already democratic countries and dictatorship in already dictatorial regimes.”

It would seem obvious, but that is not the theory behind countless efforts stemming from western democracies towards developing countries. Let’s go back to Afghanistan: – isn’t the one of the main goals of the billions thrown into the country having a central government with democratic practices? Dutta, Leeson and Williamson claim that not only sending money with purposes of democratization doesn’t work, but it may actually harm a country: “when dictatorships receive aid they become more dictatorial, preventing the adoption of better policies, which in turn prevents increases in economic growth.” So what happens when you send aid to a disorganized government?

Right now, more and more people are arguing the country will benefit from the expected reduction of aid once troop withdrawal is completed. Aidan O’Leary, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan, affirms that aid has up until now been driven more by political and military concerns than by actual need (counterinsurgency, anyone?). The slow down might force a revaluation of recipients, which could be beneficial.

Of course, serious concerns persist regarding the ability of the Afghan government to keep its budget needs met if it gets less money for security and civilian expenditure and about what will be the consequences of a sudden drop in investment.
At least, it will be a test for the “less is more” theory when it comes to aid.

Mar 25, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Lagging Behind Latin America

For all its forwardness, Brazil is conspicuously late in comparison to its Latin American neighbors in addressing its amnesty law and establishing truth commissions to investigate crimes committed during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). And although the Brazilian Supreme Court is supposed to examine a request for abolishing the amnesty law this week, there is very little chance the situation will change.

Protesters ask for the end of Brazil's amnesty law in the Inter-American Court of Human RIghts in 2011

The topic is stirring troublesome reactions from many sectors of Brazilian society. Those in favor of the amnesty, including some of the country’s largest newspapers, say that it benefits both military officials and former guerrilla members and that attempts to overrule it amount to revanchism by the left; those against it claim that the so called “pact” that allowed for forgiveness of political crimes was in reality an agreement dictated by the authoritarian regime that prevents torturers from being brought to Justice.

Progress has been slow. A much delayed truth commission has already been approved by Congress and will begin procedures as soon as Dilma Rousseff’s government nominates its members. But while the commission will bring some clarity to obscure parts of Brazil’s past, its findings cannot be used for prosecutions. In addition, the amnesty law stands firmly in place. Experts whom I spoke with had very little hope that the Supreme Court would actually abolish the law this week.

The Court already looked into the matter in 2010, when a law suit questioned the constitutionality of applying the amnesty law to crimes of torture, which do have a statute of limitation. Back then, the judges decided that the law applied to everything, period.

Now, the case is different. The suit that the Court is about to examine argues that the amnesty law should not be applicable to kidnappings in which the bodies of victims were never found. According to the proponents of the case, the amnesty is only valid for crimes committed prior to its approval, and without the bodies or the release of the victims, the kidnappings are ongoing. There was initial optimism about winning this time, since the Court had agreed to extradite Argentines accused of kidnappings during Argentina’s dictatorship for very similar arguments. However, the signs so far indicate that the court is not leaning in that direction, for several reasons. First, while bodies were never found, victims were declared dead and families even received financial compensation. Secondly, and more importantly, the court does not want to cause a stir and mess with the delicate relationship the Armed Forces have with the Brazilian government.

In spite of strong arguments on both sides, there are two things that for me stand out in making the case for abolishing the amnesty law for crimes of torture. The first is obvious: the sense of impunity is large enough as it is in Brazil to have the amnesty law as a shield against brutal human rights violations. Even if it is symbolic –many perpetrators are at this point dead or very old – it would send an important message in a country that struggles so much with its less than pristine Justice system.

The second point is a fundamental disagreement with the official discourse about the end of the military period. It is a fallacy to say that democratization and the amnesty law in Brazil were social pacts achieved in conditions of equality between all sides. The regime controlled the process and guaranteed the protection and survival of its members; society agreed to what it could get, from a much weaker position. To claim today that the agreement that originated the amnesty favors everyone equally is to have a very one-sided approach to our history.

Finally, it is true that the dictatorships of Argentina, Uruguay and others which are more advanced in investigating crimes of the military era were more violent and repressive (at least in terms of number of victims) than Brazil. But that is hardly a good enough reason for Brazilians to have less respect for the memory of those who fought and perished. How many victims are needed to make a dictatorship bad enough?

Unfortunately, it seems that Brazil will continue to lag behind the region in that regard for now.

Mar 23, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Women and Mobile Phones at the “Base of the Pyramid”

It is one of the more exciting benefits of the Social Age that major development organizations sometimes hold conference calls for bloggers to ask questions about programming efforts. This week I took advantage of the trend and dialed in to one held by USAID and GSMA regarding a new report on women’s access to mobile services in the developing world.

The report, which launched during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a few weeks ago, focuses on an often-overlooked aspect of the use of technology-based solutions for development. According to its findings, women who live on less than $2 per day are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than men in comparable situations. This is certainly powerful information at a time when the power of the mobile phone to solve the world’s ills has been heralded widely.

The mobile gender gap, it seems, is deeply rooted. Here are a few of the more sobering conclusions drawn by USAID’s Maura O’Neill and GSMA’s Trina DasGupta:

Women don’t see a need. Worldwide, most women do not see the advantages of owning a mobile phone. While a very high majority of women contacted by the survey would like to receive healthcare information, for example, such as family planning information, only 30% would want to receive it through a mobile phone. Much work needs to be done make the benefits of mobile technology more practical and upfront to women.

Women don’t like the tools we promote. The international community may be relying too much on SMS communication to the detriment of development. According to the survey, the heavy majority of women don’t “enjoy” sending SMS messages. Modes of communication with unenjoyable user experiences may not be useful for empowerment communication. Instead of staying on the SMS bandwagon, it may be worth looking into voice-based mobile tools, a much-preferred method, to promote women’s mobile inclusion.

Women need infrastructure first. Until alternative and low-cost energy solutions are in place in much of the developing world, it will be difficult for women to have comparable mobile accessibility rates to men. 38% of women surveyed were living off-grid without an electricity source and therefore could use mobile phones at all; without an off-site place of work or daily travel outside the home to charge the phone, there really is no way to get connected.

Some have argued that no technology innovation has changed the world more deeply than mobile phones. But in order for USAID and GSMA to reduce the mobile gender gap by 50% in the next two years, as is their goal, it will take a strong re-consideration of existing norms and practices in ICT4dev. Simply slapping mobile phones in peoples’ hands and developing useful applications works for some, but obviously not for all.

Interested in the GSMA-USAID study? Don’t worry, it’s not entirely negative! Check out the short report, “Portrait: A Glimpse into the Lives of Women at the Base of the Pyramid,” and the full one, “Striving and Surviving: Exploring the Lives of Women at the Base of the Pyramid.”

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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