Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Time to Bring Federal Oversight to State / Local Government Deals

Everybody wants good jobs (both public and private) and good public services–both have positive and immediate benefits for the municipalities securing them. However, there are also costs associated with bringing in jobs and providing public services. If these costs (even if they seem far off) outweigh the benefits, in the end everyone suffers.

It has become abundantly clear that local and state officials are (generally) either unable and/or unwilling to conduct meaningful C-B analyses when making deals with taxpayer money. They are unable to strike sustainable deals because of power asymmetries; large corporations and powerful unions have more legal clout and can out-negotiate municipalities. Furthermore, in the case of private sector jobs, a company can threaten to move to a different municipality, leading local / state officials to bid against each other in a “race to the bottom“. They are unwilling to strike sustainable deals because while benefits are realized immediately (look at the jobs / roads / services I brought!), the costs are paid gradually over time, usually long after said decision maker is out of politics.   

Two examples highlight the bad deals taxpayers are getting due to a lack of political will–subsidies for corporations and municipal budget deficits.

Subsidies for Corporations

A few months back, when NN was in it’s infancy, I picked up on a NYT article highlighting how out of control subsidies for private corporations had become in America. Here are some highlights from that post:

One form of government subsidy, which was brought to light by a recent NYT article/study, highlighted how state and local governments often engaged in bidding wars to lure private corporations to their markets. Billions in taxpayer dollars go toward subsidizing these companies operations, with NO INTENTION of ever paying the money back.

It is hard to believe such an archaic system exists in today’s modern world. Small municipalities come to the negotiating table with huge multinational corporations. A  power asymmetry exists; companies often outright lie about other municipalities bidding for their business to drive up prices. A “fight to the bottom” ensues, where each party is trying to give the best deal for the business, which on the flip side is going to be the worst deal for the taxpayer as they will be financing the subsidy. No real cost-benefit analysis goes into the decision. Politicians dedicate funding because they want the short term benefits of added employment on their record, without any long term accountability on the part of the company that receives the benefit or the politician securing the financing.

At a time when fiscal responsibility is on the agenda, how can we justify taking money from schools and public goods and giving them blindly to corporations with the hope that it ends up working out in the taxpayers benefit? How can we justify paying companies, not on a needs-based basis, and not hold them at all accountable for anything?

Municipal Deficits:

The ongoing bankruptcy of Detroit–the largest municipality to ever attempt such a bankruptcy–brought the concept of municipal waste to the forefront. However, Detroit’s problems could be seen coming from a mile away; once a symbol the strength of American manufacturing, economic decline and associated emigration have left Detroit unable to pay it’s bills. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote an excellent Op-Ed on the subject, entitled “The Wrong Lesson From Detroit’s Bankruptcy“.

Detroit’s bankruptcy makes sense, it is the combination of government excess and economic decline. Much less understandable is the story of San Jose’s municipal budget deficit:

This metropolis of nearly a million residents is the third-largest city in California, home to tens of thousands of technology industry workers, as well as many thousands more struggling to get by. Yet even here, in the city that bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley, the economic tidal wave that has swamped Detroit and other cities is lapping at the sea walls.

San Jose now spends one-fifth of its $1.1 billion general fund on pensions and retiree health care, and the amount keeps rising. To free up the money, services have been cut, libraries and community centers closed, the number of city workers trimmed, salaries reduced, and new facilities left unused for lack of staff. From potholes to home burglaries, the city’s problems are growing.

“We’re Silicon Valley, we’re not Detroit,” said Xavier Campos, a Democratic city councilman representing San Jose’s poor East Side. “It shouldn’t be happening here. We’re not the Rust Belt.”

The situation in San Jose is not anywhere near as dire as it is in Detroit or two other California cities, Stockton and San Bernardino, already in bankruptcy. But government officials and municipal bankruptcy experts across the country are watching San Jose closely because of a plan to reduce benefits — drafted by Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, and passed by 70 percent of voters in areferendum last year.

The plan is being opposed in court by unions that represent city workers and say it is illegal under state law. It would introduce a second tier for new city employees involving much lower pension and health benefits. It would also alter pension benefits for existing workers, allowing them to choose either a similar, second-tier benefits plan or to pay significantly more out of their own pockets for the benefits they had come to expect.

The outcome of the case is expected to have a major impact on municipal budgets around the state and, perhaps, the country. If a state court rules later this year or early next year that the referendum allows San Jose to alter pension plans for existing workers, and it survives appeals, similar measures are expected to pop up elsewhere.

“These employees did nothing wrong, and their unions did nothing wrong for pushing for these benefits,” said David Crane, a lecturer at Stanford University and special adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on pensions and other issues. “Nobody forced government officials to make these promises and not fund them. And now you have some really brutal things happening to people who had counted on a certain level of retirement.” 

Cities in California are under particular pressure because it is so difficult to raise property taxes in the state, and because in 1999, at the height of the tech bubble, the Legislature voted for a huge benefit increase allowing, for instance, police officers to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salaries.

“We have this all over the state of California,” said Karol K. Denniston, a bankruptcy lawyer with the firm of Schiff Hardin in San Francisco, who is advising a number of local taxpayer groups. “There is growing recognition that there is not enough money to keep doing what they’re doing, and something’s got to change.”

As in San Jose, public employees’ unions sued. In March, a state administrative labor-law judge found that the city had failed to bargain as required with its workers. The city went ahead with the ballot-measure change, but the administrative finding portends further litigation.

Mr. Crane blames the political leadership in Sacramento, San Jose and all similarly struggling cities for failing to deal with the pension problem while it was still manageable. Mr. Reed agreed. “I have to accept my share of the responsibility,” he said. “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Now, he said, city workers must understand that the 10 percent pay cut they accepted a few years ago, in a previous attempt to right the city’s imbalance, was not sufficient to solve the problem and that deep, painful pension and retiree health care changes were needed.

State and local officials have failed their constituencies with unsustainable spending. Instead of pursuing “counter-cyclical fiscal policy”, saving when times are good to have a cushion when times are bad, these officials have used taxpayer money to show all the “benefits” that have accrued during their time in office. The end result of ignoring the costs is that during times of economic downturn–when public services and jobs are most needed–there is no money to fund these essential services.

The Federal government must step up to fill this void in the name of the interests of American taxpayers.

In terms of private corporate subsidies, the federal government has the resources to negotiate with large corporations. It also has the resources to conduct strong cost-benefit analysis and determine needs based subsidies, as opposed to a money grab under the guise of maximizing shareholder value. And perhaps most importantly, the federal government will not have to bid against any other parties, as it represents every municipality within the United States. It will be able to secure the best deal for the municipality, not the worst deal.

When it comes to public services, the federal government has the benefit of being insulated from the short-sighted demands of taxpayers. While local and state officials rely on being re-elected, an appointed federal committee should in theory be able to consider the costs and benefits of any potential deal with greater prudence.

State and local governments have failed to secure good deals for their taxpayers when negotiating with both the private and public sectors. These bad deals are systematic; they are the manifestation of short-sighted political aspirations and power imbalances. It is time the Federal government got into the business of making sure that American tax-payers are getting their moneys worth.

Federal oversight would be in public  workers best interests as well; while they may get slightly less generous benefits, they will have the comfort of knowing that the deals they have struck will not be reneged. It would also help avoid ugly litigation which pits civil society against the civil servants who serve them, and want only to receive what they were promised in the first place. 

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Transparency Report: America The Post-Racial? Not So Fast…

While there is no single definition of a post-racial society, I like the definition offered on Wikipedia:

Post-racial America is a theoretical environment where the United States is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice.

Having defined what a post-racial American society entails, the next natural question would be “have we achieved this normative goal ?” Despite anecdotal evidence (Barack Obama was elected and re-elected as our President!), I would argue that America is not yet a post-racial society. It is important to make this distinction, as prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” ultimately makes accomplishing this goal all the more difficult.

Two specific issues–minority voting rights and school desegregation–highlight that work still remains to be done when it comes to achieving a post-racial society. Recent Supreme court decisions would make it seem that racial bias is no longer an issue in America; experiences in everyday life suggest otherwise.

Voting Rights:

During the 2011 legislative sessions, states across the country passed measures to make it harder for Americans – particularly African-Americans, the elderly, students and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. Over thirty states considered laws that would require voters to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely.

Despite this frenzy of state legislation to counteract so-called voter fraud and to protect the integrity of our elections, proponents of such voter suppression legislation have failed to show that voter fraud is a problem anywhere in the country. Aside from the occasional unproven anecdote or baseless allegation, supporters of these laws simply cannot show that there is any need for them. Indeed, despite the Department of Justice’s 2002 “Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative” promising to vigorously prosecute allegations of voter fraud, the federal government obtained only 26 convictions or guilty pleas for fraud between 2002 and 2005. And other studies of voter fraud consistently find that it is exceedingly rare – a 2007 Demos study concluded that “voter fraud appears to be very rare” and a 2007 study by the Brennan Center found that “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.” The Voting Rights Project will continue to fight these laws that disenfranchise millions of eligible voters without any legitimate justification.

Despite evidence of voter discrimination based on race as recently as the 2012 Presidential Election, a Supreme Court ruling this June essentially removed federal oversight over state and local voting laws (which is the level at which all elections are held):    

The decision in Shelby County v. Holder revolves around Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes a “coverage formula” to determine which states and local governments fall under Section 5, and therefore need to get approval before changing their voting laws. The justices ruled that Section 4 is unconstitutional, and that the formula used for decades — revised and extended several times by Congress — can no longer be used to establish those “preclearance” requirements: “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” 

Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion on the ruling highlights the need to restore Section 4 and the potential dangers of prematurely gutting the Voting Rights Act:

With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, §5 should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against back­-sliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.

School Desegregation:

African-American and Latino students are less likely to attend racially and ethnically diverse schools today than at any other time in the last four decades. This, almost 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools, represents a major setback for one of the core goals of the civil rights movement.

“Our school district is extremely segregated,” said Caitlin McNulty, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Valley West Elementary School in Houston. “Part of that is just we have a huge minority population in our district, period, so I’d say the majority of our schools are at least 80 percent minority.”

In her school district, African-Americans and Latinos made up more than 90 percent of the student population last year. Only seven of the 705 students at her school were white — less than one percent.

“That’s not out of the ordinary” in her district, McNulty said. “It’s just not representative of the population that’s here.”

In the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public school districts could pursue desegregation by busing students from highly segregated neighborhoods into majority-white schools. The goal was for schools to be “racially balanced” and be compliant with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But in 1991, the Oklahoma City v. Dowell case ended a federal order to desegregate Oklahoma schools, opening the door for numerous court cases that have rolled back desegregation efforts across the country. The court ruled that as long as school districts made a “good faith” attempt to remedy past segregation, they would no longer have to try to integrate public schools.

Commenting on the findings of the Civil Rights Project’s study, the University of South Carolina School of Law’s Derek Black said that “integration steadily increased in our public schools from the late 1960s well into the 1980s and fundamentally enhanced the quality of education received by students of all races. But through a combination of willful, blind and benign neglect, nearly all of those gains have been lost.”

In Texas and other states experiencing resegregation of their schools, students now often grow up interacting only with other students who look like them.

Some may say “so what? whats the big deal? overt racism is no longer a problem in America and beyond that a persons racial biases (or lack-thereof) is their personal choice” However, racial bias in voting rights and school segregation have implications beyond just educational attainment and electoral outcomes. Both of these variables shape the enabling environment for a more racially inclusive and egalitarian society.

Voting rights are important because, based on who is elected to office, different policies will be enacted. By depressing minorities abilities to choose their elected officials, a snowball effect begins, with the end result being that the concerns of these marginalized groups are not addressed by our politicians. Inequalities increase and social exclusion persists. Minorities do not have the right to unilaterally determine who is elected / what policies they pass. However, they should have the same rights of every other citizen in affecting the outcomes of elections.

School re-segregation has an inter-generational effect on racial equality. When students go to desegregated schools, they interact with children who come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences, particularly early in life, go a long way towards shaping peoples attitudes towards race and can help break damaging stereotypes. Every future leader of America will go through school, who they go to school with could very well affect their future policy decisions.

There is also the idea that “separate but equal” is never truly equal. If minority students are systematically herded into sub-par schools, they will go on to get worse jobs and racial inequality will increase in the future. American concepts of “equality of opportunity” and “meritocracy” are at stake; recent evidence suggests that inequality and social immobility have been trending upwards unchecked for decades.      

It is nice to dream of a post-racial America–it is a normative vision I surely share with millions of other Americans. However, simply saying “race is no longer an issue” does not make it so. This premature declaration will reverse recent gains made in racial equality and depresses the future prospects of minorities, threatening the “American Dream” itself. Political will is needed to counter inequality of opportunity in America, and it is clear that race must still be a consideration when harnessing this political will into public policy.


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Economic Outlook: African Leaders Demand Better Deals in Chinese Extractive FDI

Original Article:

In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they call ruinous. In neighboring Chad, they have been even more forceful, shutting down the Chinese and accusing them of gross environmental negligence. In Gabon, they have seized major oil tracts from China, handing them over to the state company.

China wants Africa’s oil as much as ever. But instead of accepting the old terms, which many African officials call unconditional surrender, some cash-starved African states are pushing back, showing an assertiveness unthinkable until recently and suggesting that the days of unbridled influence by the African continent’s mega-investor may be waning.

For years, China has found eager partners across the continent, where governments of every ilk have welcomed the nation’s deep pockets and hands-off approach to local politics as an alternative to the West.

Now China’s major state oil companies are being challenged by African governments that have learned decades of hard lessons about heedless resource-grabs by outsiders and are looking anew at the deals they or their predecessors have signed. Where the Chinese companies are seen as gouging, polluting or hogging valuable tracts, African officials have started resisting, often at the risk of angering one of their most important trading partners.

“This is all we’ve got,” said Niger’s oil minister, Foumakoye Gado. “If our natural resources are given away, we’ll never get out of this.”

“We’ve got to fight to get full value for these resources,” Mr. Gado said. “If they are valued correctly, we can hope to bring something to our people.”

“The Chinese are genuinely unprepared for this degree of pushback,” Mr. Soares de Oliveira said.

China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the notion that its role had been anything but fruitful. In Niger, it said, it has improved the economy, has hired local residents and is building schools, digging wells and carrying out other “public welfare activities.” In Chad, it said, it has urged companies to protect the environment and will seek to resolve the dispute through “friendly negotiation.” In Gabon, as elsewhere, it said, it supports cooperation “on the basis of equality, amity and mutual benefit.”

Few nations in the world are as weak as Niger, where nearly half of the government budget comes from foreign donors. But the nation long had unfulfilled oil dreams that were largely ignored by major companies. In 2008, two partners came together secretively — the country’s autocratic ruler, Mamadou Tandja, and China National Petroleum — and signed an unpublicized deal that seemed to give both parties what they wanted.

But far less clear, then and now, was whether Niger — one of the world’s most impoverished countries, regularly threatened by famine — would substantially benefit from the deal.

Mr. Tandja got a costly oil refinery in an area of Niger that he needed to win over with the promise of development, but the need for such a project in this low-energy-consuming nation has been sharply questioned by experts, not to mention the mysterious $300 million “signing bonus” Mr. Tandja’s administration received….The refinery has a capacity that is three times Niger’s consumption, and the overall cost should have been only $784 million, according to a United Nations expert. Niger must still pay 40 percent of the original cost, with money lent to it by the Chinese.

In return, the Chinese got access to untapped oil reserves in the remote fields on Chad’s border on terms that still make Oil Ministry officials here wince. Beyond that, local residents have protested that the Chinese presence has brought few jobs, low pay and harsh working conditions.

“In the context of this fight, we are revisiting these contracts to correct them,” said Mr. Gado, the oil minister in the new democratic government led by an opponent of Mr. Tandja. “In the future, we will pay closer attention, to not make the same mistakes.”

“This is a lesson we are giving to the Chinese: we are keeping a close lookout on them,” said Mahaman Gaya, the Oil Ministry’s secretary general. Mr. Gado has not made his last trip to Beijing.

Niger’s lesson is being applied elsewhere as well: African governments, grateful as they are for Chinese-built roads and ministry buildings, are no longer passive partners.

“Are we going to continue to ignore what the Chinese companies are doing?” asked Mr. Doudjidingao, the Chadian economist. “I think this is the beginning of a change between African states and the Chinese. It’s a consciousness-raising, so they won’t be guilty in the face of history.”

Natural resources need not be a “curse”, but avoiding human rights violations in extractive industries takes political will, government oversight, and corporate accountability. In order to help African governments, which tend to be underfunded and sometimes corrupt, the Chinese government should hold it’s companies accountable for their extra-territorial human rights obligations (especially considering these companies are state-owned!). Sure this may result in higher costs in the short-run, but businesses thrive on consistency and stability; it is better to pay a little more now then have no idea what the cost may be in the future.

Commitments must be made on the side of the African government’s too; if the Chinese agree to work with them on vetting extractive contracts for human rights implications, then the terms agreed upon will be honored for the life of the contract. This is admittedly challenging in an unstable political climate, where the government of today may not necessarily be the government tomorrow. I am not talking about regime changes, I am talking about revolutions, coups, and other means of fundamentally altering the structure of the government. But still, deals should be made with a mutually beneficial long-term view.

Certain types of foreign direct investment, known as “market-seeking” FDI, are characterized by better deals for host-countries. Willing to forgo some of the labor and regulation saving costs, companies pay a little more because they wish to not only produce at a cheaper cost, but to also empower locals to become future customers. Unfortunately, “extractive” FDI does not lend itself to such benevolent partners. It is therefore the job of the government(s) involved to ensure that human rights obligations are upheld; in an industry with tens of billions of dollars in annual profits, paying to ensure the local poor are receiving a fair deal should not be an issue.

It is not only foreign powers that wish to exploit Africa’s natural resources, cheap labor and lax environmental standards. Natural resources can be easily stolen, especially in countries with lax security / highly organized criminal networks. Furthermore, often times corrupt government officials are willing to provide protection for oil thieves in exchange for personal riches:

Thieves steal an estimated average of 100,000 barrels a day, the report said; working in elaborate networks and protected by corrupted security officials, they tap into the huge and isolated network of pipes that crisscross the country’s swampy southern Niger Delta region. The price of oil fluctuates, but a hypothetical per-barrel price of $100 would mean an annual loss of $3.65 billion. Oil closed at $107.28 per barrel on Thursday.

“Top Nigerian officials cut their teeth in the oil theft business during military rule,” it said. “Over time, evidence surfaced that corrupt members of the security forces were actively involved. The country’s return to democracy in 1999 then gave some civilian officials and political ‘godfathers’ more access to stolen oil.” Security officials are said to extort payments from the oil thieves in return for protection, according to Chatham House.

There is no easy answer to sustainable human development in Africa. However, it is self-evident that the presence of natural resources should expedite the development process, not slow it down or reverse it. This requires political will from both host countries and governments representing foreign investors. But political will is not enough, multiple layers of accountability are needed to ensure the gains of resource extraction go to help the people in the countries which own these resources. Corporate accountability is one aspect which, alongside political accountability, can help ensure that the rule of law is upheld with respect to contracts, and that deals are properly vetted for human rights considerations.

There is, however, another part of the story. African governments would be right to instill the idea within their citizenry’s that profits from natural resource production indeed do belong primarily to the people. Bad contractual terms are more easily remedied than organized criminals and corrupt officials stealing resource rents. In order to remedy this issue, social accountability could go a long way. Empowering people with political rights, and institutions for voicing grievances (such as ombudsman offices and / or NHRIs, or institutions created specifically for extractive industry grievances) can help turn nationalism and self-interests into meaningful accountability on a scale that is otherwise unachievable.

If people in the developing world are convinced resource profits will go to development programs, and governments are committed to these programs and institutions that promote social accountability, then perhaps we can move past the point in history where the presence of natural resources is considered a “curse” and move toward a future where natural resource profits help expedite human development (as they should!). It appears the political will is slowly accumulating throughout Africa, this is great news as tighter regulations always work better when imposed regionally in order to avoid a “race to the bottom”. The UN Post-2015 Development Agenda will also help achieve this goal, as it is set to have human rights considerations and accountability at it’s core.


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Conflict Watch: Snapshot of Middle-Eastern Turmoil

Obama Military Spending

The NYT released an article today, highlighting the rare opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. (presumably representing the interests of the international community) and various Middle-Eastern nations. First I will recap some highlights of the article, then I will give my input on the situations in Syria, Iran, and Egypt:

Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.

For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as “head spinning.”

In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.

“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Thursday. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”

Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.

All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.

Iranians are desperate for relief from sanctions that have cut their oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible, but they may not understand the price of relief. “I suspect they are heading for sticker shock,” one official deeply involved in developing the American negotiating strategy said recently.

I am by no means a war-hawk; as a political / development economist, I understand that no MDG has ever been sustained in a conflict region. Peace and political stability are necessary preconditions for sustainable human development, which is the ultimate goal of development practitioners / human rights advocates around the world (it is also at the core of the UNDP’s strategic plan  for 2014-2017, which is where I was introduced to the term). Sustainable development requires development not be achieved at the expense of the environment / future generations. The human-rights-based-approach to development requires that development not be achieved by exploiting the worlds most impoverished / violating their human rights. Put together, these two concepts form the concept of sustainable human development; this is the only truly sustainable form of development as it reduces the probability that conflicts–which tend to have human rights violations at their core–will undo otherwise environmentally sustainable development gains.

But I am also a realist. I understand that sometimes revolutions are needed in order to overcome structural impediments to sustainable human development, such as an autocratic regime. Such regimes are not accountable to their people, and while there may be “benevolent dictators”, there is nothing sustainable about someones rights being granted by an individuals benevolence (he may change his mind, or be succeeded by a less progressive ruler). In this vein, effective democracy is the only means to sustainable human development. It is not some “western value” that drives my passion for democratic governance, it is my belief in the power of people, self-determination, and “development as freedom” which fuels this passion.

In the real world, concepts such as human rights and effective democracy are kept at bay by vested interest who would lose power if civil societies as a whole were empowered. These vested interests rely on collective action problems (I gain a lot as-is, by changing each person only gains a little) to maintain the status-quo. When collective action problems are overcome (a process which has been aided by innovations in social media / ICTs), vested interests often turn to military power to maintain their positions. I find this to be unconscionable, and therefore give some of my time to doing what little I can to try to shape the world as I believe it should be.

Diplomacy is a powerful preventative tool. However, I am less sold on diplomacy’s “soft-power” when the gloves come off and all-out war begins. Diplomacy is always more effective in democracies (where governments are accountable to the will of the people) than in autocracies (where the survival of the regime is the governments number one priority).

Syria: As you could probably tell, I am not sold on the “solution” to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. I think this is a stalling tactic, which will further entrench Assad’s grip on power and further marginalize the legitimate Syrian opposition. I hope I am proven wrong, but I am not optimistic.

The Syrians now face a series of deadlines. The first comes this weekend, when they must issue a declaration of their chemical stocks that “passes the laugh test,” as Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on unconventional weapons, put it earlier in the week.

It is also concerning that, so soon after a deal was reached and before any part of the deal has been carried out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already calling for Western Nations to “force” the Syrian opposition into peace talks with Assad. Mr. Lavrov does not seem to understand that democratic governments cannot “force” people to do things; furthermore, Western powers do not have that sort of leverage as they have till this point been largely absent in aiding the Syrian opposition. It is not surprising Mr. Lavrov had this misunderstanding, in Russia the government can indeed force people to do things.

Even more concerning is President Putin’s recent assertion that the UN chemical weapons report, which did not explicitly accuse Assad but does does implicitly suggest his regime was responsible for the August 21st chemical weapons attacks, is “biased”. He later goes on to say the Assad regime has evidence suggesting the rebels are responsible. So Putin would have us believe the UN is biased, but Assad is not? Sorry, but I’m not buying that and neither should you.

The French seem to finally be willing to arm the legitimate syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army:

“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army … because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.

“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.

If the U.S. also agrees to arm the FSA, and can garner international support to strike Assad in response to confirmed chemical weapons usage, the Syrian-stalemate can be overcome and the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people realized.

Egypt: With Chemical weapons use in Syria dominating news, unrest in Egypt has taken a back-seat on the international communities agenda. However, fighting between Islamic Militants and the Egyptian Army continues. It is the job of the Egyptian military to rid Egypt of these extremists and ensure stability. It is not the Egyptians army’s job to condemn all Muslim’s as terrorists (as it has in the aftermath of the Morsi ouster). The Egyptian military wishes to remain unaccountable to the Egyptian people–it is not committed to effective democratic rule–as expressed in a draft of the new Egyptian Constitutional Declaration.

(Original article):

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

And this assembly, just like the previous one, is rushing its work, and conducting it with little transparency. In fact, the Islamist assembly may have been better at sharing information about its progress: It maintained a Web site tracking the latest discussions and amendments. We learn of the workings of the current assembly only through sporadic interviews its members give to the press.

This issue could be addressed in the coming weeks. And there are many ways in which the current constitution could improve upon the last. Hoda Elsadda, a founding member of a prominent feminist research center who heads the freedoms and liberties subcommittee, says she want to include an article prohibiting discrimination and human rights violation by the security services. Several members of the assembly have voiced their opposition to military trials of civilians. The rights of religious minorities, women and children — given short shrift in the last document — will probably receive greater emphasis now.

But In a country  ruled by the military, and amid a declared war on terrorism, it seems very unlikely that the constitution’s biggest shortcomings will be addressed. The draft as it stands now subjects fundamental freedoms to vague qualifications that render them meaningless: These freedoms must be exercised “according to the law” or as long as they don’t hinder “national security.” The document places the army above oversight and accountability.

And it sets many Egyptians — not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — on the sidelines of what should be a national conversation and a fresh start.

To be fair, Morsi’s constitutional drafting process was not exactly inclusive either. But Morsi’s regime was willing to work within the democratic process, while General Sisi is not. The democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people will likely come second to ensuring the military’s grip on power.

Iran: Iranian President Rouhani, a relative moderate, has been much more diplomatic towards the West than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy has been crippled by 5 years of economic sanctions, and in order to have those sanctions lifted, Iranian leaders appear willing to negotiate an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which it denies having):

American officials say they understand that Iran will need some kind of enrichment ability to assure its own people that it has retained its “nuclear rights,” as its negotiators say. The question is how much. Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled, Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability — that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama can live with that; the Israelis say they cannot.

The NYT article talked about “sticker shock”, the price Iran will have to pay in order to keep its nuclear rights and have sanctions against it removed. In a previous post, I laid out conditions I thought Iran should have to agree to in order to have sanctions removed:

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.

I still believe these conditions should be part of any talk to ending sanctions against Iran.

Iraq: Sectarian violence has gripped Iraq since the U.S. pulled out, and is in some ways worse than before the Sadam Hussien ouster. Iraq is a case-n-point of the limits of armed intervention in other countries.

Diplomacy is a powerful tool, but it has it’s limits. Both diplomacy and military action, as well as economic leverage and intelligence sharing, combine to form the D.I.M.E foreign policy paradigm I believe the U.S. should pursue.

5 years of sanctions were needed to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and the threat of force was needed to get Assad to admit he had chemical weapons / agree to dismantle his arsenal. Only time will tell how / if these complex issues can be resolved thought diplomacy. One thing is certain; we cannot trust dictators or take them at their word, their commitments must be verifiable. In order to hold a dictator accountable for his concessions, international investigators must be given unfettered access to any point of interest. This requires relinquishing some “national sovereignty”, something no country–democratic or otherwise–likes to do.

The U.S. failed to drive a hard enough bargain (in my mind) on chemical weapons with the Syrian regime. At least as a starting point, Western powers should make their demands clear and strong heading into negotiations with otherwise unaccountable regimes.


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Green News: Who Is Cutting and Who is Increasing GHG Emissions? The Answer May Suprise You

I gotta say, it is nice to not be covering the Syrian civil war in this post. Events in Syria have dominated the news lately, but it seems that at least for the immediate future diplomatic exercises have stalled the prospect of outside military intervention.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an interesting trend I have noticed lately, involving different countries efforts (or lack thereof) to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The trend is interesting because it involves major players from both extremes (both high emitting nations and sustainability champions) moving forward with policies that would seem to contradict their historical stances on climate change. In recent news, the U.S. and China are moving to curb GHG emissions , while Australia and Canada are moving towards less sustainable energy portfolios.

(For some background, please see interactive maps on: GHG emissions by country per capita, CO2 emissions by country, renewable / fossil fuel energy production and consumption by country)

Australia and Canada have, in recent history, been global champions of sustainable development. Both countries were original ratifying members of the Kyoto Protocol, and have signed the protocol into law (although it appears Canada will not make it’s emissions targets). Australia became one of the first countries to sign a carbon tax into law, and while Canada does not have a federal carbon tax, several Providences have their own regulations in place. Canada and Australia, with their natural beauty, seemed like global poster-children for sustainable development. However, recent developments show these two countries shifting in the other direction.

Economic downturns have pitted environmentalists vs. industry in a zero-sum and short-sighted game, in which advocacy for sustainable development could be political suicide. Of course, in the long run, we need a more sustainable global energy portfolio; but these are problems for future generations who do not have the unemployment problems of today’s world, opponents of carbon taxes argue (I am not considering the climate change skeptic as a legitimate opposition anymore).

Canada has seen rising GHG emissions in recent years, with no future decline in sight–if anything, increased production of oil sands forecasts emissions trending upwards in Canada. Politics have turned against environmentalists in Canada for reasons discussed above; anybody who thinks about environmental sustainability implicitly does not care about jobs / the economy / problems facing Canadians today (sound familiar? this is a common argument for putting off action on reducing emissions around the world).

Australia recently had elections, which were won by conservatives based partially on a promise to abolish the unpopular carbon tax:

The Australian mining industry welcomed Saturday’s election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition’s pledge to abolish the carbon tax on fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax on coal and iron ore mining profits.

The coalition of Liberal and National parties campaigned on a platform to repeal the taxes within 100 days of taking the reins of government.

“On the first sitting day of Parliament under a coalition government, I will introduce legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax,” Abbott said on the Liberal party’s website that included policy documentation stating the party would also rescind the MRRT.

For some Australians, the free-rider issue seems to make being environmentally conscious not worth fronting the bill–literally:

The carbon tax is one reason Sydney resident Geoff Hamment, who normally votes for Labor, is supporting the conservatives this time around. Hamment said he’s seen his household electricity bills go “through the roof” since the tax was introduced.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I think us paying so much is just pointless when you have countries like China churning it out.”

The tax is extremely unpopular, despite the fact that most Australians, but not the wealthy, get government compensation for higher electricity prices.

For all the well-founded China bashing on the environmental front–China has overtaken the U.S. as the global leader in terms of absolute GHG emissions (although the U.S., per capita, still emits more than China; this is arguably a better measure of a countries energy efficiency)–the Chinese government appears to be trending towards more sustainable environmental policies:

BEIJING — The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on burning coal and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.

The plan, released by the State Council, China’s cabinet, filled in a broad outline that the government had issued this year. It represents the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism over allowing the country’s air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth.

The criticism has been especially pronounced in some of China’s largest cities, where anxious residents grapple with choking smog that can persist for days and even weeks. In January, the concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

“The plan successfully identifies the root cause of air pollution in China: China’s industrial structure,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate. “Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed.” he said. “The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning — China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world.”

In the United States, the world’s number two GHG emitter, the issue of emissions has been divided largely down partisan lines. Liberals, led by President Obama, believe in taxing carbon and subsidizing renewable energies as part of an “all of the above” energy portfolio to meet future demand and cut emissions. Conservatives tend to argue against the need to curb GHG emissions, largely for the same reasons mentioned above with respect to Canada and Australia. However, it seems Obama intends to bypass partisan gridlock by passing executive orders, carried out through the EPA, to curb emissions from fossil fuel power plants:

The Environmental Protection Agency is due to unveil next week the first batch of regulations under President Barack Obama’s new climate action plan – a carbon emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants.

If standards are as strict as the industry expects, it could be the death knell for new coal plant construction. The recent bankruptcy of Longview, a highly efficient West Virginia coal plant, is an example of the pressures already facing the industry.

The EPA is due to issue an emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants by September 20. Proposed standards on existing plants will follow in 2014.

Obama asked the EPA to re-propose a rule it introduced last year using a section of the federal Clean Air Act that required all new power plants, including those that use coal, to meet a standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour – the rate of an average gas-fired plant.

Sources that have met with the administration in recent weeks said the agency has likely revised its earlier proposal to provide separate standards for natural gas and coal plants, and also raised the emissions limits for coal plants.

The new rules, like those initially proposed in 2012, are also likely to include a requirement for new coal plants to use a form of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures carbon emissions and stores the carbon underground, that is years away from being available on a commercial scale.

Eugene Trisko, a lawyer who represents clients such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in energy and environmental matters, said CCS cannot be deployed if coal plants, such as Longview, are unable to run.

“If you really wanted to advance CCS, you really need to build new coal plants because those are the plants that one day or another would be the laboratories for CCS,” he said.

“Nobody is going to put CCS on plants that are 50 years old,” he added.

But some environmentalists argue that new EPA rules will only add another layer of financial risk around coal plant investment even in coal-reliant states like West Virginia.

Instead of investing in new coal plants, which will only become more costly, states should diversify their energy supply, said Cathy Kunkel, an energy research consultant and fellow at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The concept behind taxing carbon emissions and subsidizing renewable energies is pretty straightforward. Emissions represent a negative externality, pollution, that is a detriment to society as a whole. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system creates a cost for this negative externality, discouraging its use and potentially helping to fund R & D in renewables (and therefore encouraging competing cleaner energy sources). Renewable energy has positive externalities (energy with lower levels GHG emissions), subsidies compensate producers for these externalities. Furthermore, renewable energy is still a relatively infant industry, which combined with its inherent positive externalities and increasing global energy demand, make it a prime candidate for government subsidy.

Do not get me wrong, we are still a long way away from the point where China and America can lecture Australia and Canada about their emissions (especially considering that China and America represent large export markets for Australian and Canadian fossil fuels respectively). However, it is interesting to note the role reversal, which I believe at it’s root is a failure of the international community to embrace the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Previous environmental champions, discouraged by the lack of international commitment to emissions reductions, have created an environment where politicians can win elections by tapping into that frustration. “We have tried, now we are concerned with our own problems.” people in these countries may argue. Australia has taken this stance on step further, with respect to ODA:

The outgoing Labor government said in May that Australia’s long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.

The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labor’s commitment to reach the 0.5 percent target “over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget.”

“I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities” than reaching the 0.5 percent target, Abbott told reporters last week. “The best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy.”

The plans have been condemned by opponents and aid groups, who dubbed it short-sighted and contrary to the nation’s image of global cooperation, particularly in light of Australia’s recent appointments to presidency of the U.N. Security Council and the G-20 in 2014.

While this stance on international relations is obviously flawed and short-sighted, it is understandable how Canada and Australia got to this point. The U.S. and China, on the other hand, are recognizing they must lead any global initiative to reign in GHG emissions, before the costs rise further and irreparable damage is done.  China has an even more pressing problem, with the deadly smog it’s unchecked emissions has produced. This is the natural ebb and flow of accountability without coordinated global policy. Those who are mostly responsible for GHG emissions, fearing future accountability, want to work together to make those future costs as low and evenly shared as possible. Those who have forgone some economic growth for sustainable development in the past feel they have already done their part, and are beginning to forsake what they see as failed international commitments for domestic goals.
This is a failure of global policy coordination, and one the world cannot afford. The G20 would be a natural place to come up with a global environmental commitment, based on the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (which is really only fair) as the worlds largest emitters are represented there. Furthermore, as a relatively new group (established in 1999, the first meeting of the G20 Leaders took place in Washington, D.C., on November 14-15, 2008)the G20 doesn’t have the history of failed negotiations that sometimes doom other global climate change efforts. Australia taking over the U.N.S.C. and G20 presidency in 2014 looked liked a “win” for sustainable development a few years back; now I am not so sure that is the case.


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Transparency Report: In Response to the Vladimir Putin NYT Op-Ed, and the Future of the International Community

Welcome to Russia’s Syria doublespeak

A few of my responses / comments on Vladimir Putin’s NYT Op-Ed seemed to form a blog that I felt compelled to share (and expand upon without character limits) with the NN community:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

I had this to say in response:

Mr. Putin is using the UNSC, like he has the concept of national sovereignty, as a shield for human rights violators, and evoking the specter of past wars to paralyze the international community into inaction. Don’t trust Vladamir Putin because he writes an op-ed in the NYT. Do not trust Assad; while no one’s hands are clean in the Syrian Civil War, Assad has committed human rights violations on a drastically larger scale than have extremist elements of the Syrian opposition (perhaps supporting the argument that a legitimate Syrian opposition is still in control on the ground despite reports of increased extremist influence).

Syria’s civil war is a fight for democracy; it started as peaceful protests for basic human rights and dignity. The longer the international community is paralyzed, the further legitimate grievances are highjacked by extremists in the Syrian opposition. If Syria and Russia can hold out for long enough, there will truly be no champions of democracy in Syria–as time goes on, Assad’s assertions become self-fulfilling, explaining this desperate attempt to buy time. Assad continues to receive help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah; the opposition receives only broken promises from the West and support from extremists.

Political Islam and democracy are reconcilable, the wrong message is currently being sent in the ME (in both Egypt and now Syria). The “responsibility to protect” (R2P) is about holding governments accountable for human rights obligations, and intervening in the case the government is unable to stop human rights violations, or even worse is perpetuating those violations themselves (as is clearly the case in Syria, and has been since before chemical weapon usage). In this sense, R2P supersedes national sovereignty in certain instances The future of R2P and modernization in the Middle-East and Africa are closely tied.

This is not the end failed of the Arab spring–democratization and modernization are time consuming and non-linear processes–the freedoms, human dignity, economic empowerment and security it bestows are well worth it.The time has come when global powers must be willing to use more than words in support of their ideals. Vested interests play by their own rules in trying to secure their hold on power–this is no accountability. The forces of democratization and modernization should recognize this, and know when to work within international mechanisms (such as the UNSC) and know when such mechanisms are being used to shield for violators of the very international laws they are meant to uphold!

The international community can’t say we can’t afford to intervene due to fiscal constraints at home–FIND A WAY through joint action! Currently, autocratic regimes in the M-E are weakened and peoples’ latent desire for effective democratic governance is well cited through social media / ICT usage, and reinforced through the results of the UN “My World 2015 Survey” and the Post-2015 Global Consultation on Governance. If we do not seize this opportunity now autocracy will take deeper root, and advocates for democracy will face another era of historic precedent reinforcing the inevitability of autocratic rule / democratic failure in the Middle-East and Africa. Simply put, if the international community does not find a way to protect the interests of civil societies in the M-E and Africa now, it may not get the opportunity again for decades to come.

Ultimately, it comes down to ideological differences within the international community. The G20 leaders summit reinforced the idea that we can all agree on the need to cooperate to grow in a sustainable economic fashion–the ideological split is no longer capitalism vs. communism, but human rights v. national sovereignty. How to make capitalism work for sustainable development remains the point of contention. The growing body of both empirical and theoretical evidence pointing to the merits of a human rights based approach for sustainable human development. The UN, the foremost organization for international relations, has adopted a human-rights based approach to development. However, Russia clearly is not committed to human rights, and despite soft rhetoric and better relations between the US-China in recent months, it appears the Communist Party–like the Kremlin–is more concerned with its own survival than the sustainable human development / desires of its’ civil society.

It would appear that the ideologies of major global powers a diverging, not converging, even as advancements in the social and physical sciences point alarmingly to the need for concerted global efforts to embrace sustainable human development.

I must call into question the merits of the U.N.S.C. veto system, a system in which an individual country can hand-tie the whole international community into inaction. A resolution could be a 3/4 veto-overrule by the UN General Assembly–such a high veto threshold would ensure the U.N.S.C. is only overruled in times of strong international consensus. Permanent Security Council members, including the U.S., would likely oppose such an amendment to the UN Charter. However, if the ultimate result is a more democratic and effective UN System, this is a power the U.S. should willingly give up and a reform we should advocate for.

I also wanted to share a response to a well thought out comment in response to the Op-Ed jfx from Chicago writes: Well written. I appreciate hearing Putin’s thoughts directly, and hopefully his open letter to the US can be reciprocated, allowing Obama to directly address the Russian people on important topics.

I wanted to share my response because this seemed like a rational and logical response; the hope that Obama could prepare a similar address to the Russian people to enhance communications between the two countries and possible effect Russian national consensus. 441 people recommended the response, and the NYT shared it as a “top response”–so clearly many support this notion. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic possibility (my response):

Due to media restrictions, Obama couldn’t do it; whenever a U.S. official tries to address an issue in Russia they are accused of conspiracy. Even if he could, the Kremlin is insulated from such unimportant things (/sarcasm) as the “will of the people”.

This was a smart move by Putin, he is a very calculating man. He knows the value Americans place on the freedom of speech and press, and is playing on that knowledge. This is a move that cannot be reciprocated, and even in the special circumstances it was allowed to happen, it would not have nearly the same effect on policy.

The international community will explore a diplomatic chemical weapons deal because it is our collective duty to attempt to destroy these WMDs. However, we must continue to assert our willingness to strike militarily should Russia / Assad appear to be stalling for time and / or restricting access to potential storage sites. Furthermore, Assad must commit to isolated cease-fires within a reasonable time period in order for intentional inspectors and chemical weapons disarmament experts to do their work in relative safety (if we can keep non-extremists from the opposition out of these areas too, and provide security against extremists in the opposition, the Syrian government would be the only remaining party capability of shelling these areas). Russia must also commit to cancelling all military contracts with Assad.

Assad and Russia have a lot of social capital to make-up if they want to be able to negotiate in good faith with the international community / the Syrian opposition; agreeing to these terms are where they must start. These terms should not be preconditions for diplomatic talks, but failure to agree to any of them could be considered “red-lines” in negotiations (I know we are all sick of that saying but they are a necessary component of any negotiation) and trigger a house vote on military strikes and serve as a signal for the international community to sanction military intervention (if not through the paralyzed UNSC, then individually / through regional blocs). Failure to push for these concessions would represent a failure by the intentional community to properly leverage the likelihood of military strikes against Assad.


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Conflict Watch: The Political “Solution” in Syria, and the Syrian End-Game

A comment made practically in jest by Secretary of State John Kerry, has become the centerpiece of the international communities “solution” to holding Assad accountable for chemical weapons attacks:

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry’s remarks, especially the reference to the short window of time, underscored the urgency of the administration’s preparations for a strike, and it did not appear to signal a shift in policy. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later clarified in an e-mail to reporters that Mr. Kerry was simply “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.”

“His (Kerry’s) point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.

President Obama called a proposal by Russia on Monday to avert a United States military strike on Syria over chemical weapons use “a potentially positive development” but said he would continue to press for military action to keep the pressure up. But he said that “if we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”

In another interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama said he would take the Russian proposal “with a grain of salt initially.” But he told the network that if Syrian officials accept the Russian proposal, “then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”

Reacting to another comment by Mr. Kerry — that any attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small” — Mr. Obama said any attack would not be felt like a “pinprick” in Syria.

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he said in the NBC interview. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”

I do not think dismantling Assad’s chemical stockpile is a bad idea, this should certainly be part of any long-term geopolitical strategy for a post-Assad Syria. But the idea that Assad will grant the international community full and unfettered access anywhere in Syria, or that such a mission would even be reasonably safe during a civil war, is ludicrous.  John Kerry said Assad lied to his face about using scud missiles to his face and is “a man without credibility”. Assad is not a man we can trust; even if he was, he may not even have the ability to give full access and cooperation to the international community. This so called “solution” is a non-plan as it is not credible and does not address the root causes of the problem in Syria.

For all of the tough rhetoric from Assad, it is very clear that Syria’s ability to strike back at the U.S. is virtually non-existent. Assad’s forces themselves are rightfully scared of the prospect of American military intervention, and the opportunities it will open up for the Syrian rebels (last week I advocated pairing U.S. military strikes with a redoubled effort to consolidate opposition power / rooting out extremist factions by creating Syrian national rebel army. For the record, I still believe more intelligence must be made available to the public to prove Assad’s forces used the chemical weapons themselves). 

Although commanders spoke of unspecified plans to fight back against U.S. attacks, junior service members described the notion of actually taking on U.S. forces as absurd.

“Our small warships are spread around the coast on full alert, and why? To confront the U.S. destroyers? I feel like I’m living in a bad movie,” said a Syrian Navy sailor reached on a vessel in the Mediterranean.

“Of course I’m worried. I know we don’t really have anything to confront the Americans. All we have is God.”

Obama is correct to take the stance he is taking; if Assad wants to avoid military strikes he must commit to a political resolution in Syria. The U.S. is not intending a “pin-prick”, even limited strikes over the course of 60 (or 90 if he gets a congressional extension) combined with redoubled efforts by the Syrian opposition could help turn the tide of the war.

If the ultimate goal is a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it would be wrong at this point to back away from military intervention. Assad continues to receive support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The opposition has received empty promises from Western allies and fierce fighting from extremist-linked allies. If the U.S. has any hopes of separating out extremist and legitimate factions in the Syrian opposition and truly pressure Assad to come to the bargaining table, it must maintain a “political-transition-or-military-strike” approach to Syria, while continuing to enhance the capacity of a parallel Syrian military and government to assume the power void in post-Assad Syria. 

The Syrian opposition and the Gulf Arab States have already opposed the proposed Syrian chemical arms deal:

Gulf Arab states said on Tuesday a Russian proposal calling for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to win a reprieve from U.S. military strikes would not stop bloodshed in Syria.

“We’ve heard of the initiative … It’s all about chemical weapons but doesn’t stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told a news conference in Jeddah.

If the international community wants any chance of having political capital in a post-Assad Syria, it must not renege on it’s commitments to the Syrian opposition now, when after years of inaction meaningful assistance appeared to imminent. Doing so would further sour already strained Western-opposition relations, and bolster the power of extremist groups who have willingly participated in the civil war (not out of the kindness of their hearts mind you, they will try to seize power for their role in the civil war unless a more powerful Syrian national rebel army exists to oppose them).

The Syrian civil war is at a cross-roads, or more like a stalemate that fosters misery, chaos, death, human rights violations and economic decline. It is time for all sides to stop posing behind their positions and try to find mutual ground. Both the international community and Assad wish to avoid U.S.-backed military intervention. The international community and the Syrian opposition want Assad to step down. To reconcile these positions, Assad could agree to hand over his chemical weapons stockpile and move forward with a road-map to democracy in Syria. However, If Assad is interested only in retaining power–which all signs indicate he is–the U.S. and its allies must ultimately show their hand as well and fully commit to overthrowing Assad with force.

There is no long term solution for Syria which involves Assad staying in power–only more years of lost economic growth and death. If the international community is truly interested in a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it must lay the groundwork right now. Failure to do so will mean that either Assad remains in power, or extremist factions fill the power-void after Assad’s ouster. We cannot turn our backs on the legitimate Syrian opposition, who only want the ability to live meaningful lives with dignity and freedom–things generally taken for granted in modernized democratic society. We cannot send the message that political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that jihad is the only path to empowerment for young Muslims. This precedent has already been set in Egypt, it cannot be allowed to be driven home in Syria.

Secretary Kerry said that the public is right to debate the costs and benefits of limited strikes in Syria. But we must remember that we are not talking about “boots on the ground” or any other prolonged effort. We are talking about upholding international law, not some “red-line” Obama made up. “You’ve got to draw lines and there are consequences for crossing those lines.” “You’d say, ‘don’t do anything’. We believe that’s dangerous, and we will face this down the road in some more significant way if we are not prepared to take some sort of stand now.” The Syrian civil war cannot be left to fester unattended–the consequences currently are catastrophic for Syria and its neighbors and in the future could be for the world.


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Highlights From the St. Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration

The G20 Leader’s summit was held in St. Petersburg, Russia over the past 2 days. While much has been made over the lack of an international consensus on Syria, less attention has been given to agreements made on global political economy decisions. Global leaders reinforced the importance of cooperation, transparency and trust on global issues such as renewable energy / climate change, sustainable economic development, financial regulation and tax avoidance.

Furthermore, the international community reaffirmed its commitment to the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with a human rights based approach to sustainable human development at it’s core. It also reaffirmed the idea that certain issues (ex tax avoidance, financial regulation) require global policy coordination to be effective, and recognized the G20’s unique ability–by representing 2/3 of the worlds population and 90% of economic output–to hold countries accountable for “cheating” on international agreements.

The resolution reaffirmed the importance of rule of law, transparency, and judicial independence for fostering trust between civil society and governments, and conversely how corruption can undermine both this trust and the trust between governments in global governance mechanisms. In recognition of the destructive power of corruption, the resolution reaffirms a global effort to combat corruption through education campaigns and empowering civil society to practice “social accountability” via ombudsman’s offices / NHRIs.

Below are the highlights of the Saint Petersburg Declaration (as I see them, I realize the post is a bit lengthy, but I was able to capture the 27 page documents essence in about 5 pages–woohoo academic / knowledge management experience). Underneath certain resolutions I included (in parenthesis) how that resolution fits into a common NN theme. For those who wish to read more in depth on G20 resolutions, I suggest the Saint Petersburg Development Outlook, the FSB report on financial reforms, and the Tax Annex to the Saint Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration.

(It should be noted that grandiose rhetoric is often used in global policy summits. There is a difference between resolutions and implementing / financing programmes to operationalize those resolutions. However, at least on the sustainable economic development and global policy coherence fronts, important groundwork was laid down at the summit)

G20 LEADERS’ DECLARATION
Saint Petersburg Summit
5-6 September 2013
Preamble 

5. We understand that sound and sustainable economic growth will be firmly based on increased and predictable investments, trust and transparency, as well as on effective regulation as part of the market policy and practice.

6. As Leaders of the world’s largest economies, we share responsibility for reinforcing the open and rules-based global economic system. We are committed to working cooperatively to address key global economic challenges:

  • Achieving a stronger recovery while ensuring fiscal sustainability. We have today agreed the St Petersburg Action Plan, which sets out our strategies to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth.
  •  Unemployment and underemployment, particularly among young people. We are united in the resolve to achieve better quality and more productive jobs. Coordinated and integrated public policies (macroeconomic, financial, fiscal, education, skills development, innovation, employment and social protection) are key to reach this goal. We today committed to continue our efforts to support inclusive labour markets, with the exchange of country-specific plans or sets of actions, developed as appropriate according to our different constitutional circumstances.

(In line with the principle of self-determination)

  • Free and rules-based trade fosters economic opportunities. We stress the crucial importance of strong multilateral trading system and call on all the WTO members to show the necessary flexibility and reach a successful outcome in this year’s multilateral trade negotiations. We extend our commitment to refrain from protectionist measures and aim at enhancing transparency in trade, including in regional trade agreements.
  • Cross-border tax evasion and avoidance undermine our public finances and our people’s trust in the fairness of the tax system. Today, we endorsed plans to address these problems and committed to take steps to change our rules to tackle tax avoidance, harmful practices, and aggressive tax planning.

We have agreed and are implementing a broad range of financial reforms to address the major fault lines that caused the crisis. We are building more resilient financial institutions, making substantial progress towards ending too-big-to-fail, increasing transparency and market integrity, filling regulatory gaps and addressing the risks from shadow banking. We will pursue our work to build a safe, reliable financial system responsive to the needs of our citizens.

 G20 countries have a responsibility to ensure that all people have an opportunity to gain from strong, sustainable and balanced growth. We endorse the St Petersburg Development Outlook to focus our efforts on concrete steps to improve food security, financial inclusion, infrastructure, human resource development and domestic resource mobilization.

(The universality of human rights based development)

Corruption impedes sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction, threatening financial stability and economy as a whole. We will hold ourselves to our commitment to implement the G20 Anti-Corruption Action Plan, combating domestic and foreign bribery, tackling corruption in high-risk sectors, strengthening international cooperation and promoting public integrity and transparency in the fight against corruption. Recognizing the need for sustained and concerted efforts we endorse the St Petersburg Strategic Framework.

We share a common interest in developing cleaner, more efficient and reliable energy supplies, as well as more transparent physical and financial commodity markets. We commit to enhance energy cooperation, to make energy market data more accurate and available and to take steps to support the development of cleaner and more efficient energy technologies to enhance the efficiency of markets and shift towards a more sustainable energy future. We underscore our commitment to work together to address climate change and environment protection, which is a global problem that requires a global solution.

We will continue to develop comprehensive growth strategies to achieve stronger, more sustainable and balanced growth in the context of fiscal sustainability.

7. Too many of our citizens have yet to participate in the economic global recovery that is underway. The G20 must strive not only for strong, sustainable and balanced growth but also for a more inclusive pattern of growth that will better mobilize the talents of our entire populations. 

(“no-person-left-behind” human rights based approach (HRBA) to development, inclusive growth to reduce inequalities of opportunity / break power asymmetries)

Global Economy and G20 Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth
10. We consider the main challenges to the global economy to be:

  •  Weak growth and persistently high unemployment, particularly among youth, and the need for more inclusive growth in many economies;
  •  Financial market fragmentation in Europe and the decisive implementation of banking union;
  •  Slower growth in some emerging market economies, reflecting in some cases the effect of volatile capital flows, tighter financial conditions and commodity price volatility, as well as domestic structural challenges;
  •  Insufficient levels of private investment in many countries, in part due to continuing market uncertainties, as well as internal rigidities;
  •  High public debt and its sustainability in some countries that need to be addressed while properly supporting the recovery in the near-term, especially in countries with the highest actual and projected debt to GDP levels;
  •  Volatility of capital flows as growth strengthens and there are expectations of eventual monetary policy recalibration in advanced economies;
  •  An incomplete rebalancing of global demand; and
  •  Continued uncertainties about fiscal policy deliberations.

15. We reiterate that excess volatility of financial flows and disorderly movements in exchange rates can have adverse implications for economic and financial stability, as observed recently in some emerging markets. Generally stronger policy frameworks in these countries allow them to better deal with these challenges. Sound macroeconomic policies, structural reforms and strong prudential frameworks will help address an increase in volatility. We will continue to monitor financial market conditions carefully.

16. We commit to cooperate to ensure that policies implemented to support domestic growth also support global growth and financial stability and to manage their spillovers on other countries.

(Accountability for extra-territorial human rights obligations)

Growth through Quality Jobs

26. Policy reforms to support higher employment and facilitate job creation and better matching of skills with job opportunities are central in our growth strategies. We commit to take a broad-ranged action, tailored to national circumstances, to promote more and better jobs:

  • Invest in our people’s skills, quality education and life-long learning programs to give them skill portability and better prospects, to facilitate mobility and enhance employability.

(Human capital investment for sustainable human development)

29. Promoting youth employment is a global priority. We are committed to quality apprenticeship and vocational training programmes, finding innovative ways to encourage firms to hire youth for example by, where appropriate, reducing non-wage labour costs, moving towards early intervention measures and effective job-search assistance for different groups of youth, and motivating youth entrepreneurship and business start-ups. Tailored strategies including youth guarantee approaches, developing school and university curricula that support entrepreneurship, and facilitating exchange of best practices among the G20 countries and the social partners are crucial in this respect.

(Recognizing youth as a critical stage of personal and professional development, and adequate investment reflecting this recognition)

Growth through Quality Jobs
81. Supporting strong, sustainable, inclusive and resilient growth and narrowing the development gap remain critical to our overall objective for jobs and growth. In this regard, we welcome the progress within the forum achieved this year, in particular on:

  • Food Security: Support to the Secure Nutrition Knowledge Platform, exchange of best practices through the seminar on “Food Security through Social Safety Nets and Risk Management”, and convening the second G20 Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists, along with its ongoing work to identify global research priorities and targets and support results-based agricultural research in 2014.
  • Infrastructure: Completion of the Assessment of Project Preparation Facilities (PPFs) for Infrastructure in Africa; a toolkit on Urban Mass Transportation Infrastructure Projects in Medium and Large Cities by the World Bank and the ADB; and a public-private partnerships (PPP) sourcebook by the World Bank, IDB and ADB, and progress in implementing the recommendations of the High Level Panel on Infrastructure.

(PPP for physical and human capital investments. Both governments and businesses rely on productive societies for growth.)

  • Financial Inclusion: Enhanced coherence with the G20 finance track through the Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI) to pursue efforts to strengthen financial inclusion including work to further reducing the global average cost of transferring remittances to 5% including through innovative result-based mechanisms, to enhance financial literacy and consumer protection for the poor and to foster access to finance for investment, for SMEs for growth, job creation and poverty reduction; and together with the IFC launching the Women Finance Hub.
  • Human Resource Development: Launch of a global public-private knowledge sharing platform on skills for employment and the development of national actions plans on skills for employment in LICs and of a database on skills indicators.
  •  Inclusive Green Growth: Further development, dissemination and implementation of the non-prescriptive, voluntary toolkit of policy options for inclusive green growth in the context of sustainable development, including a workshop with developing countries, and initiation of the G20 Dialogue Platform on Inclusive Green Investments for sustainable development and poverty eradication.
  • Domestic Resource Mobilization: Continued work on strengthening tax administrations in developing countries, particularly LIC’s, through both bilateral and multilateral programs, such as the work of the OECD and G20 members on BEPS, automatic exchange of information, the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes and “Tax Inspectors without Borders” and the expansion of the work of the World Bank Group and the IMF to support developing countries’ ability to raise domestic resources. 

83. We welcome the Saint Petersburg Accountability Report on G20 Development Commitments, which sets out the progress achieved since we adopted the 2010 Seoul Multi-Year Action Plan on Development (MYAP) (Annex). This report demonstrates that many of our development commitments have now been implemented and identifies lessons learned and it highlights the successes achieved. The Accountability Report underlines the importance of continued monitoring and identifies areas where we must continue to work and opportunities to strengthen and streamline the G20 development agenda.

84. In this spirit, we endorse the Saint Petersburg Development Outlook, which states our core priorities, new initiatives and ongoing commitments (Annex). Building on the foundation of the 2010 Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth, the Outlook frames the approach to our future work. We ask the Development Working Group to focus on concrete actions under the core priorities of food security, financial inclusion and remittances, infrastructure, human resource development and domestic resource mobilization, and to deliver specific outcomes at the Brisbane summit. We commit to improve working practices for more effective outcomes by:

  •  concentrating on fewer key areas where action and reform remain most critical to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth in developing countries;
  •  enhancing policy coordination across different G20 work streams in order to ensure greater impact on developing countries;
  •  implementing a forward accountability process to improve monitoring and coordination, and ensure greater transparency of our work;
  •  continuing to expand engagement and partnerships with stakeholders, including non-G20 countries (especially LICs), international organizations, the private sector    and civil society; ensuring flexible approaches to respond to new priorities and circumstances

(Post-2015 development agenda consultations—human rights (political and social empowerment) for inclusive global and national agenda setting)

85. We welcome the substantial progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) since 2000 and the success in galvanizing global action to reach specific targets globally, as well as in individual countries, particularly in eradicating extreme poverty and promoting development. However, the prospects for achieving all of the MDGs differ sharply across and within countries and regions. We remain committed to accelerating progress towards achieving the MDGs, particularly through the implementation of our development agenda and our focus on promoting strong, sustainable, inclusive and resilient growth.

86. We support the ongoing efforts in the UN for the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda. We commit to participate actively in this process and engage in the discussion on the direction of the new framework and its key principles and ideas and effectively contribute to the timely conclusion of the process. The final outcome will be determined through an intergovernmental process in which we will all participate, but much preparatory work is still underway. We welcome the contribution of the report prepared by the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which sets out some illustrative goals We also welcome the ongoing work of the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals and Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing. We stress the crucial importance of collective action, including international development cooperation, based on the principles outlined in the Millennium Declaration, the 2012 Rio+20 outcome document “The Future We Want”, the Istanbul Declaration and Programme of Action of the Fourth UN Conference on Least Developed Countries and the outcomes of other relevant UN Conferences and Summits in the economic, social and environmental fields.

87. We call for an agreement on an integrated post-2015 development agenda with concise, implementable and measurable goals taking into account different national realities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities, focused both on the eradication of extreme poverty, promoting development and on balancing the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development. We commit to ensure that G20 activities beyond 2015 are coherent with the new development framework. 

Sustainable Energy Policy and Resilience of Global Commodity Markets

95. Sizable investment, including from private sources, will be needed in the G20 and other economies in energy infrastructure in the years ahead to support global growth and development. It is our common interest to assess existing obstacles and identify opportunities to facilitate more investment into more smart and low-carbon energy infrastructure, particularly in clean and sustainable electricity infrastructure where feasible. In this regard we encourage a closer engagement of private sector and multilateral development banks with the G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group (ESWG) and call for a dialogue to be launched on its basis in 2014 that will bring interested public sector, market players and international organizations together to discuss the factors hindering energy investment, including in clean and energy efficient technologies and to scope possible measures needed to promote sustainable, affordable, efficient and secure energy supply.

Intensifying Fight Against Corruption

103. Corruption is a severe impediment to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction and can threaten financial stability and the economy as a whole. Corruption is corrosive, destroying public trust, distorting the allocation of resources and undermining the rule of law. To provide a better understanding of the factors constraining the economic potential of countries affected by corruption, we make available the Issues Paper on Anti-Corruption and Economic Growth and encourage the OECD, in collaboration with the World Bank to continue work in this area.

104. As a group of the world’s largest economies, the G20 has the potential to create unstoppable momentum towards a global culture of intolerance towards corruption. We will redouble our efforts to achieve this goal, in particular by enhancing transparency and closing implementation and enforcement gaps.

108. We renew our commitment to ensure the independence of the judiciary, as well as to share best practices and enforce legislation to protect whistleblowers, ensure the effectiveness of anti-corruption authorities free from any undue influence, and promote the integrity of public officials.

109. We also place a high value on implementing and raising awareness regarding effective anti-corruption education programs to build and reinforce a culture of intolerance towards corruption.

(The importance of “social accountability” and access to information in combating corruption, claiming human rights / holding violators accountable)

112. We recognize that a culture of intolerance towards corruption will only be achieved if we work in partnership with business and civil society. We commit to maintain and build on the enhanced dialogue between the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group and the B20 and C20, and have taken note of the recommendations of these two groups. In particular, we welcome the business community’s initiatives to enhance anti-corruption collective actions and to develop institutional arrangements to promote anti-corruption compliance in the private sector.

(Consultative policy setting agenda, PPPs for shared programme financing, accountability / oversight, and technical assistance in realization of different stakeholders comparative advantages and common goals) 


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G20 Kicks-Off Today, A Number of Hot-Topic Issues to be Discussed by World Leaders

G20 Russia 2013

From the international financial and monetary systems to international tax-evasion to armed conflicts, the worlds leaders are getting together to figure out how to minimize human rights violations and hold parties accountable for their violations.

The ultimate goal is to put in place global and national policies needed for sustainable human development in the 21st century–an ambitious goal indeed! Difficulty must not deter our normative visions for the future; as a global community we must attack these issues proactively and in a preventative nature whenever possible.

I urge the NN community to stay up-to-date on G20 related news. I will be sure to write a blog upon the conclusion of the G20 leaders summit.