Monthly Archives: March 2010

A messiah can’t do it. To reshape the world, the US must first reform itself

Obama’s foreign policy so far has had disappointing results. But if he made a shaky start, more blame lies with others

When was the last time you heard anyone enthusing about Barack Obama’s foreign policy? When was the last time you did so yourself? Over the last year, his outstretched hand of friendship has been bitten or brushed aside by China, Russia and Iran. His administration has just been snubbed by Israel. It is not at all clear that his surge in Afghanistan is working, while Pakistan still teeters on the brink. European governments’ passion for the new US president has proved fickle. His eloquent opening to the Islamic world seems to have run into the sand. The Copenhagen summit on climate change fizzled out in mutual recrimination between the US and China. Once upon a time, the world thrilled to the Obama chant of “Yes we can!” Now it seems to be shouting back: “No you can’t!”

Beyond improving the US’s popular standing in the world – no mean achievement, to be sure – Obama’s foreign policy has so far produced no clear, significant success. Why? Here are some of the explanations offered. Disappointment was foreordained: those messianic expectations of his presidency could never have been met by any mere mortal. Rather than being a messiah, Obama is a first-term president with little personal experience in foreign affairs. As his predecessor showed, the experience of your aides cannot always make up for your own lack of it.

Republicans claim that his “liberal”, rational, compromise-seeking approach invites these snubs from Beijing to Jerusalem. As he himself remarked in a speech in Moscow last summer, quoting a Russian student: “The real world is not so rational as paper.” Democrats retort that his real problem is the unholy mess bequeathed by George Bush: Iraq, neglected Afghanistan, alienated Muslims and American unpopularity abroad; massive debts, financial crisis and recession at home.

Others point to problems accumulated over a longer period: American consumers who for years have been encouraged to live beyond their means; domestic infrastructure neglected in favour of imperial expenditures; a dysfunctional system of government. Meanwhile, the political middle ground where compromises used to be forged has disappeared in an increasingly polarised politics. Most fundamentally, it is argued that historic power shifts mean we are entering what Fareed Zakaria calls a post-American world. In this multipolar order, or no-polar disorder, the US will find it increasingly difficult to get its own way against the will of rising great powers – above all, China.

These explanations are not mutually exclusive. If you examine any particular foreign policy issue and ask why Obama has not done better, you have to look at the interaction of several of these causes. Take Iran. I do not think the Obama administration has hit upon the best policy here. Last year it focused too exclusively on the offer of nuclear negotiations, while a huge opportunity for political change was opening up and then partly closing down inside Iran. (Iran’s green movement is definitely down, but not out.) Snubbed by Tehran on the nuclear front, Washington is now investing too much political capital in the pursuit of sanctions that are unlikely to bring the current Iranian regime to a negotiated renunciation of its nuclear programme, even if China and Russia were to agree to those sanctions.

But if you ask why Iran spurned Obama’s outstretched hand, then you have to look at the legacy of the Bush years, including the way in which the Iraq war strengthened Iran’s position in the region. If you ask why China is so hard to get, then you have to recall the underlying power shifts, as well as a growing Chinese economy’s thirst for Iranian oil. If you ask why the Obama administration is playing it this way, then you have to look also at the pressures from Congress, and the fear that Israel might take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. In turn, the priority given to Iran helps explain why Washington has not pushed China and Russia harder on other fronts, including human rights.

The results of Obama’s first year of foreign policy are thin, but it is much too soon to despair. America is never again going to enjoy the position of near-supremacy that it experienced after 1945 and again after 1989 – using it well in the first case and badly in the second. But all the rising great powers have great problems too, not least China. America has its time of troubles now. Theirs will come. The United States will probably emerge from this economic crisis in better shape than Europe. It has power resources which few can match, combining scale, flexibility, enterprise, a capacity to tap the creative energy of immigrants, technological innovation, a popular culture with global reach and, not least, individual liberty. Obama personifies those strengths.

Many other administrations have had a shaky start. Bill Clinton’s first term was not great either, not to mention George W Bush’s. There may be some truth in the criticism that Obama played a bit too much softball at the beginning, making prior concessions to China (postponing his meeting with the Dalai Lama) and Russia (abandoning the missile defence shield in east central Europe) without getting anything in exchange. He is learning the hard way. Welcome notes of firmness have been heard in the relationship with China. In the last few days, the administration has reacted with rare public anger to an affront from Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.

Through trial and error, the Obamaites can pull together the security-led “realist” agenda that has dominated this first year, their concerns for development, democracy and the rule of law, and their interest in an open global economy (also one less distorted by Chinese currency manipulation). Complex multilateralism will always take longer than mindless unilateralism, but it can be more effective in the end. If some version of healthcare reform goes through and the economy recovers, Obama could win a second term in which to reap the harvest of strategic policy choices. That second term could realise some of the hopes with which the first began.

There are many “ifs” in there, but the largest single obstacle along the way has nothing to do with Obama’s character, ideology or team, nor with the rise of China, India or Brazil. It is the American political system. This 21st century perversion of a magnificent 18th century invention now gives powers to interfere in foreign policy, unmatched in any other major democracy, to a legislature that is both deeply divided along partisan lines and a shameless aggregator of special interests.

The biggest problem for American foreign policy today is not called Obama, or Bush, or China; it is called Congress. Whether you look at trade, climate change, China or Iran, it is the US Congress where policy becomes entangled, distorted and stymied. If the United States really wants to meet the hopes of a world in which its own relative power is undoubtedly diminished, it should introduce four-year terms for members of the House of Representatives, reform political finance and curb the lobbyists who enjoy “power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. Effective foreign policy begins at home.

Posted by Ariana Mirus, 106

What’s the Moral Price for Playing Politics?

Antigay policies can be attributed to populist, even democratic, politics, but that does not absolve their perpetrators of bigotry.

Gay Rights, Census

By Ellis Cose | Newsweek Web Exclusive 

Mar 11, 2010

I had never heard of California state Sen. Roy Ashburn before he made headlines earlier this month by getting arrested for driving while intoxicated after leaving a gay bar in Sacramento. But even though his name was not well known, there was something awfully familiar about his situation: a closeted Republican who made his mark opposing gay-friendly legislation suddenly outs himself, accidently, with some foolish public act. To his credit, Ashburn, quickly came clean. He apologized and took responsibility for the incident. A few days later, in an interview with a sympathetic and supportive conservative radio host, he announced he was gay and asked listeners to pray for him.

His votes, explained Ashburn, reflected his “duty to represent my constituents,” the vast majority of whom, in his opinion, were against various rights for gays. Left unasked and unanswered was the natural follow-up: at what point does catering to a presumably bigoted constituency (particularly by one who belongs to a group that is the object of that bigotry) become not just hypocritical but downright immoral? The question, of course, is not just one for Ashburn, but for politicians everywhere who seek political gain from advocating discrimination.

For most human-rights advocates, the answer is obvious (at that point where bias trumps both logic and compassion), which is one reason a measure before the Ugandan Parliament has been condemned around the world. The proposed law, supposedly designed to protect Ugandan culture, its vulnerable children, and “traditional family values,” would harden the country’s already tough laws against homosexuality. It sanctions life imprisonment for those who engage in same-sex marriage or for anyone who touches another person with the intention of “committing the act of homosexuality.” It allows executing those who engage in homosexual acts with certain classes of victims. And it would jail those who encourage or counsel others who engage in homosexuality.

The Ugandan proposal (which few expect to pass in anything like its present form and which, interestingly enough, was undergirded by arguments from certain American evangelicals) is so over the top that no serious thinker believes it to be remotely enforceable. Also—according to a brief filed by the London-based Equal Rights Trust—it violates both the Ugandan Constitution and the country’s obligations under various international agreements.

Dimitrina Petrova, executive director and founder of Equal Rights Trust, believes the timing of the proposed legislation is suspect. “Homosexuality has been around in African cultures for centuries, as well as in non-African cultures,” she told me. “Why now, given that homosexuality is already prohibited?” The answer, she says, is politics. “At this time when Uganda has a number of political problems and insecurities … poverty is horrible, security is horrible, sexual crime in unaddressed … the focus on the issue of homosexuality is a way of distracting attention from the real problems of the country.”

In a brave and powerful speech delivered in Uganda, Sylvia Tamale made much the same point. Homosexuals had nothing to do with the country’s serious economic or medical problems, pointed out. Tamale, dean of the Makerere University law school in Kampala. Yet anyone “who cares to read history books knows very well that in times of crisis, when people at the locus of power are feeling vulnerable and their power is being threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in society. They will pick out a weak voiceless group on whom to heap blame for all society’s troubles.”

Uganda’s leaders, Tamale noted, had a long history of scapegoating vulnerable populations. “Dictator Idi Amin blamed Asians for Uganda’s dire economic problems and expelled all Indians in the early 1970s.” Former president Milton Obote’s demonized refugees. “The lesson drawn from these chapters in our recent history,” Tamale said, “is that today it is homosexuals under attack; tomorrow it will be another exaggerated minority.”

When I asked Petrova her view of the future globally for gays and other sexual minorities, she reflected on the year that had just passed: “Consider in the second half of 2009. There were two days, two very different days … The second of July 2009, the Delhi high court decriminalized homosexuality in India; on 14th of October … the absurd antisexuality bill was introduced in the Parliament of Uganda … I personally think that what will be happening more and more is something of the nature of what happened in India.”

Petrova is probably right. Blatant discrimination is becoming less and less acceptable in more and more places. But as Professor Tamale makes clear, we are far from a world in which the rights of the vulnerable can be taken for granted. Scapegoating will always serve someone’s political interests. Still, however much you gain in the short term by pandering to prejudice, the shredding of one’s country—or one’s soul—is an awfully high price to pay.

Ellis Cose is the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.

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Posted by Jackie Hamilton, 106

How food and water are driving a 21st-century African land grab

An Observer investigation reveals how rich countries faced by a global food shortage now farm an area double the size of the UK to guarantee supplies for their citizens

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John Vidal in Juba, Sudan The Observer, Sunday 7 March 2010 Article history
A woman tends vegetables at a giant Saudi-financed farm in Ethiopia.

We turned off the main road to Awassa, talked our way past security guards and drove a mile across empty land before we found what will soon be Ethiopia’s largest greenhouse. Nestling below an escarpment of the Rift Valley, the development is far from finished, but the plastic and steel structure already stretches over 20 hectares – the size of 20 football pitches.

The farm manager shows us millions of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables being grown in 500m rows in computer controlled conditions. Spanish engineers are building the steel structure, Dutch technology minimises water use from two bore-holes and 1,000 women pick and pack 50 tonnes of food a day. Within 24 hours, it has been driven 200 miles to Addis Ababa and flown 1,000 miles to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries in the world with more than 13 million people needing food aid, but paradoxically the government is offering at least 3m hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world’s most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations.

The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.

But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.

An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies. The data used was collected by Grain, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Land Coalition, ActionAid and other non-governmental groups.

The land rush, which is still accelerating, has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union’s insistence that 10% of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.

In many areas the deals have led to evictions, civil unrest and complaints of “land grabbing”.

The experience of Nyikaw Ochalla, an indigenous Anuak from the Gambella region of Ethiopia now living in Britain but who is in regular contact with farmers in his region, is typical. He said: “All of the land in the Gambella region is utilised. Each community has and looks after its own territory and the rivers and farmlands within it. It is a myth propagated by the government and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is not utilised in Gambella.

“The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.

“All the land round my family village of Illia has been taken over and is being cleared. People now have to work for an Indian company. Their land has been compulsorily taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot believe what is happening. Thousands of people will be affected and people will go hungry.”

It is not known if the acquisitions will improve or worsen food security in Africa, or if they will stimulate separatist conflicts, but a major World Bank report due to be published this month is expected to warn of both the potential benefits and the immense dangers they represent to people and nature.

Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by some of the world’s cheapest land.

Together they are scouring Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007. Any land there, which investors have not been able to buy, is being leased for approximately $1 per year per hectare.

Saudi Arabia, along with other Middle Eastern emirate states such as Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, is thought to be the biggest buyer. In 2008 the Saudi government, which was one of the Middle East’s largest wheat-growers, announced it was to reduce its domestic cereal production by 12% a year to conserve its water. It earmarked $5bn to provide loans at preferential rates to Saudi companies which wanted to invest in countries with strong agricultural potential .

Meanwhile, the Saudi investment company Foras, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and wealthy Saudi investors, plans to spend $1bn buying land and growing 7m tonnes of rice for the Saudi market within seven years. The company says it is investigating buying land in Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda. By turning to Africa to grow its staple crops, Saudi Arabia is not just acquiring Africa’s land but is securing itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce water a year. Water, says the UN, will be the defining resource of the next 100 years.

Since 2008 Saudi investors have bought heavily in Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya. Last year the first sacks of wheat grown in Ethiopia for the Saudi market were presented by al-Amoudi to King Abdullah.

Some of the African deals lined up are eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1.2m hectares deal between Madagascar and the South Korean company Daewoo would have included nearly half of the country’s arable land.

Land to grow biofuel crops is also in demand. “European biofuel companies have acquired or requested about 3.9m hectares in Africa. This has led to displacement of people, lack of consultation and compensation, broken promises about wages and job opportunities,” said Tim Rice, author of an ActionAid report which estimates that the EU needs to grow crops on 17.5m hectares, well over half the size of Italy, if it is to meet its 10% biofuel target by 2015.

“The biofuel land grab in Africa is already displacing farmers and food production. The number of people going hungry will increase,” he said. British firms have secured tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania to grow flowers and vegetables.

Indian companies, backed by government loans, have bought or leased hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique, where they are growing rice, sugar cane, maize and lentils to feed their domestic market.

Nowhere is now out of bounds. Sudan, emerging from civil war and mostly bereft of development for a generation, is one of the new hot spots. South Korean companies last year bought 700,000 hectares of northern Sudan for wheat cultivation; the United Arab Emirates have acquired 750,000 hectares and Saudi Arabia last month concluded a 42,000-hectare deal in Nile province.

The government of southern Sudan says many companies are now trying to acquire land. “We have had many requests from many developers. Negotiations are going on,” said Peter Chooli, director of water resources and irrigation, in Juba last week. “A Danish group is in discussions with the state and another wants to use land near the Nile.”

In one of the most extraordinary deals, buccaneering New York investment firm Jarch Capital, run by a former commodities trader, Philip Heilberg, has leased 800,000 hectares in southern Sudan near Darfur. Heilberg has promised not only to create jobs but also to put 10% or more of his profits back into the local community. But he has been accused by Sudanese of “grabbing” communal land and leading an American attempt to fragment Sudan and exploit its resources.

Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher with Grain, said investing in Africa was now seen as a new food supply strategy by many governments. “Rich countries are eyeing Africa not just for a healthy return on capital, but also as an insurance policy. Food shortages and riots in 28 countries in 2008, declining water supplies, climate change and huge population growth have together made land attractive. Africa has the most land and, compared with other continents, is cheap,” he said.

“Farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is giving 25% returns a year and new technology can treble crop yields in short time frames,” said Susan Payne, chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, a UK investment fund seeking to spend $50m on African land, which, she said, was attracting governments, corporations, multinationals and other investors. “Agricultural development is not only sustainable, it is our future. If we do not pay great care and attention now to increase food production by over 50% before 2050, we will face serious food shortages globally,” she said.

But many of the deals are widely condemned by both western non-government groups and nationals as “new colonialism”, driving people off the land and taking scarce resources away from people.

We met Tegenu Morku, a land agent, in a roadside cafe on his way to the region of Oromia in Ethiopia to find 500 hectares of land for a group of Egyptian investors. They planned to fatten cattle, grow cereals and spices and export as much as possible to Egypt. There had to be water available and he expected the price to be about 15 birr (75p) per hectare per year – less than a quarter of the cost of land in Egypt and a tenth of the price of land in Asia.

“The land and labour is cheap and the climate is good here. Everyone – Saudis, Turks, Chinese, Egyptians – is looking. The farmers do not like it because they get displaced, but they can find land elsewhere and, besides, they get compensation, equivalent to about 10 years’ crop yield,” he said.

Oromia is one of the centres of the African land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies’ association, said last week in a letter of protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired 1m hectares, Djibouti 10,000 hectares, Saudi Arabia 100,000 hectares, and that Egyptian, South Korean, Chinese, Nigerian and other Arab investors were all active in the state.

“This is the new, 21st-century colonisation. The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are dying from man-made famine as we speak,” he said.

The Ethiopian government denied the deals were causing hunger and said that the land deals were attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign investments and tens of thousands of jobs. A spokesman said: “Ethiopia has 74m hectares of fertile land, of which only 15% is currently in use – mainly by subsistence farmers. Of the remaining land, only a small percentage – 3 to 4% – is offered to foreign investors. Investors are never given land that belongs to Ethiopian farmers. The government also encourages Ethiopians in the diaspora to invest in their homeland. They bring badly needed technology, they offer jobs and training to Ethiopians, they operate in areas where there is suitable land and access to water.”

The reality on the ground is different, according to Michael Taylor, a policy specialist at the International Land Coalition. “If land in Africa hasn’t been planted, it’s probably for a reason. Maybe it’s used to graze livestock or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users.”

Development experts are divided on the benefits of large-scale, intensive farming. Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva said in London last week that large-scale industrial agriculture not only threw people off the land but also required chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, intensive water use, and large-scale transport, storage and distribution which together turned landscapes into enormous mono-cultural plantations.

“We are seeing dispossession on a massive scale. It means less food is available and local people will have less. There will be more conflict and political instability and cultures will be uprooted. The small farmers of Africa are the basis of food security. The food availability of the planet will decline,” she says. But Rodney Cooke, director at the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, sees potential benefits. “I would avoid the blanket term ‘land-grabbing’. Done the right way, these deals can bring benefits for all parties and be a tool for development.”

Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development, who co-authored a report on African land exchanges with the UN fund last year, found that well-structured deals could guarantee employment, better infrastructures and better crop yields. But badly handled they could cause great harm, especially if local people were excluded from decisions about allocating land and if their land rights were not protected.

Water is also controversial. Local government officers in Ethiopia told the Observer that foreign companies that set up flower farms and other large intensive farms were not being charged for water. “We would like to, but the deal is made by central government,” said one. In Awassa, the al-Amouni farm uses as much water a year as 100,000 Ethiopians.

Apple admits using child labour

Apple admits using child labour MALCOLM MOORE IN SHANGHAI
March 1, 2010 – 11:06AM

Apple products. Photo: AFP

At least eleven 15 year-old children were discovered to be working last year in three factories that supply Apple.

The company did not name the offending factories, or say where they were based, but the majority of its goods are assembled in China.

Apple also has factories working for it in Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, the Czech Republic and the United States.

Apple said the child workers are now no longer being used, or are no longer underage. “In each of the three facilities, we required a review of all employment records for the year as well as a complete analysis of the hiring process to clarify how underage people had been able to gain employment,” Apple said, in an annual report on its suppliers.

Apple has been repeatedly criticised for using factories that abuse workers and where conditions are poor. Last week, it emerged that 62 workers at a factory that manufactures products for Apple and Nokia had been poisoned by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause muscular degeneration and blur eyesight. Apple has not commented on the problems at the plant, which is run by Wintek, in the Chinese city of Suzhou.

A spokesman for Wintek said that “almost all” of the affected workers were back at work, but that some remained in hospital. Wintek said n-hexane was commonly used in the technology industry, and that problems had arisen because some areas of the factory were not ventilated properly.

Last year, an employee at Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that is one of Apple’s biggest suppliers, committed suicide after being accused of stealing a prototype for the iPhone.

Sun Danyong, 25, was a university graduate working in the logistics department when the prototype went missing. An investigation revealed that the factory’s security staff had beaten him, and he subsequently jumped to his death from the 12th floor of his apartment building.

Foxconn runs a number of super-factories in the south of China, some of which employ as many as 300,000 workers and form self-contained cities, complete with banks, post offices and basketball courts.

It has been accused, however, of treating its employees extremely harshly. China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO, accused Foxconn of having an “inhumane and militant” management, which neglects basic human rights. Foxconn’s management were not available for comment.

In its report, Apple revealed the sweatshop conditions inside the factories it uses. Apple admitted that at least 55 of the 102 factories that produce its goods were ignoring Apple’s rule that staff cannot work more than 60 hours a week.

The technology company’s own guidelines are already in breach of China’s widely-ignored labour law, which sets out a maximum 49-hour week for workers.

Apple also said that one of its factories had repeatedly falsified its records in order to conceal the fact that it was using child labour and working its staff endlessly.

“When we investigated, we uncovered records and conducted worker interviews that revealed excessive working hours and seven days of continuous work,” Apple said, adding that it had terminated all contracts with the factory.

Only 65 per cent of the factories were paying their staff the correct wages and benefits, and Apple found 24 factories where workers had not even been paid China’s minimum wage of around 800 yuan (Pounds76) a month.

Meanwhile, only 61 per cent of Apple’s suppliers were following regulations to prevent injuries in the workplace and a mere 57 per cent had the correct environmental permits to operate.

The high environmental cost of Apple’s products was revealed when three factories were discovered to be shipping hazardous waste to unqualified disposal companies.

Apple said it had required the factories to “perform immediate inspections of their wastewater discharge systems” and hire an independent environmental consultant to prevent future violations.

However, Apple has not stopped using the factories.

In 2008, Apple found that a total of 25 child workers had been employed to build iPods, iPhones and its range of computers.

London Sunday Telegraph