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Foreign Policy In Focus

Foreign Policy In Focus

Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.

While We March for the Climate, Governments Meet With Polluters

climate marchers in Washington D.C.

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

I’m going to guess you’ve heard of the People’s Climate March by now. It’s been all over Facebook, the blogosphere, buses and subway cars—it’s even shown up on network news, which has been something of a black hole for climate activism.

But in case you’re just getting back from vacation (or a cave), here’s the deal: on Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people are expected to flood the streets of New York City to call on global leaders to take action on climate change.

What’s been somewhat forgotten in the truly herculean effort to make this the biggest climate mobilization ever is what global leaders are doing in town in the first place.

The truth is, they’ve been called to New York by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to meet in an unofficial capacity, because formal negotiations for a global treaty to stabilize the climate aren’t going so well.

Circular Debates

In fact, little more than a year out from the December 2015 deadline for signing a deal, countries can’t even agree on a fundamental approach to curbing heat-trapping greenhouse emissions.

One option is a binding treaty that mandates a clear target for reducing overall emissions and assigns each country a fair share of the work. The second option is a nonbinding “pledge and review” process by which each nation records what pollution cuts it thinks it can make. According to this plan, we’d add up those pledges, hope they’re enough to avoid climate chaos, and come back in a few years to see how governments have done.

The United States is the primary proponent of the latter option, for the record.

But emissions cuts are not the only hang-up.

If there’s frighteningly little political will to take common-sense action in the face of devastating ecological disruption—i.e., to stop burning fossil fuels and put clean renewable energy in place as fast as possible—there is even less appetite to pay for it.

At the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, industrialized countries promised to create a Green Climate Fund to channel money to poorer countries to support their shift to clean energy and climate-resilient development. Since the global North made much of its wealth polluting the planet, it seemed only fair that it would pick up part of the tab to help the South grapple with the result.

But five years later, the fund lies conspicuously empty.

Rich countries say that in order to muster political support for climate finance, they need to see developing countries going out of their way to earn it. Poor countries wonder how they’re supposed to act first when many of them are on the front lines of climate chaos largely caused by pollution from rich countries.

Making Space for Polluters

These debates are nothing new. They’re repeated every year at the UN climate convention.

What’s different about the upcoming New York climate summit is its unofficial nature, which is meant to provide a “neutral” space where heads of state can have a more productive conversation. But by holding the summit outside of official negotiations, the Secretary General has set a table where corporations and banks are on equal footing with governments. Literally.

The one-day climate summit will feature a high-level private-sector luncheon where businesses will share actions they are taking “to demonstrate leadership on climate change and measures that governments can take to enable the private sector to develop long-term climate change solutions.”

The guest list includes global oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, international coal financier Barclays Bank and South Africa’s power utility Eskom, which is currently building one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants with funding from the World Bank. They’ll be joined by more than 130 other companies and banks.

That means our leaders aren’t just dithering at the edges while the planet burns—they’re actively inviting the very companies that are causing this crisis to help fix it.

The Bottom Line

“So what?” you might wonder. “Don’t companies have a role to play?”

Of course they do. But there’s no solution to climate change that doesn’t threaten the bottom line of companies that currently profit from dirty energy. That doesn’t mean that their interests never line up with what’s good for the climate. But when they don’t, it’s tough luck for people and the planet.

Unfortunately, governments have been abetting this “tough luck” for years. Look no further than the Green Climate Fund.

At the behest of governments—mainly from developed countries, where most multinational corporations are headquartered—the private sector has played a central role in the institution from the beginning. There is a special facility specifically to support the private sector, a private-sector advisory group that makes policy recommendations on all aspects of the fund and two private-sector observers who comment on the proceedings of the fund’s board.

Ironically enough, one of these observer seats is filled by Bank of America, whose shareholders have pushed back against its financing of the coal industry.

Unsurprisingly, corporate influence is threatening the very purpose of the fund. The rules governing investment and what institutions can receive funding are being written with the express purpose of making the Green Climate Fund as attractive as possible to financial investors.

In a board discussion about whether to exclude oil, coal and gas projects from receiving money from the green fund, for example, one private-sector observer argued that “ruling out technologies” would tie the hands of governments trying to address climate change.

But wasn’t financing a transition away from these “technologies” the point of the fund to begin with?


At this point the small group of social movements and nonprofit organizations trying to keep corporate influence in check at the fund is severely outflanked.

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So while turning out in big numbers in the Big Apple is critical, it will take more than marching to compel governments to stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry and start regulating and reducing climate pollution.

Imagine the collective power we could bring to bear if the 1,400-plus organizations endorsing the climate march—representing the labor movement, people of faith, youth, immigrant rights activists and, of course, environmentalists—pulled out all the stops and poured their resources into an uncompromising, coordinated “no more dirty energy” campaign: one that forced governments to cut taxpayer subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry, put our bodies in the way of fossil-fuel extraction and transport, and moved money quickly to community-centered renewable technologies that already exist.

In the meantime, we can and should keep flexing our political muscle. One way is to “flood Wall Street,” as activists staying on in New York are planning to do after the climate march.

Kicking corporations and big banks—and their government enablers—out of the Green Climate Fund is another.


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How Hard Times Are Healing Bosnia

Protesters form a human chain outside their parliament building in Sarajevo. (AP

Protesters form a human chain outside their parliament building in Sarajevo. (AP/Amel Emric)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Over the past year and a half, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced social upheaval that outstrips any other political turmoil since the end of the 1992–95 war. Along with these events, recurrent flooding has taken place that is worse than any previous incident in the country’s 120 years of recorded weather history. The combination of these events, in a year of national elections, brings the dysfunctional condition of Bosnian society into high contrast.

In June 2013, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, to protest an absurd legislative snarl that, for several months, prevented newborn babies from being registered and receiving identification numbers. This essentially rendered the newborns as non-citizens, without the rights to healthcare and passports that were, in some cases, urgently needed. At least one infant died as a result of the inability to travel to a neighboring country for treatment. Although the proximate cause of the demonstrations was the government’s apparent indifference to the rights of its youngest citizens, the unrest was meanwhile directed at the larger problems of pervasive corruption and the careerism of governmental officials.

Demonstrations spread to Mostar and several other cities in the Croat- and Muslim-controlled Federation, and there was some show of support from activists in the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska. The protests were larger than any others since the war—Bosnia’s parliament building was surrounded and blocked for a couple of days.

After several weeks the protests subsided and people went back home. But the action resonated throughout the country, where historically it has been difficult for people of different ethnicities to cooperate with each other, not only because of geographical separation in the ethnically divided postwar state, but also because of political divisions and the memory of the four-year-long war.

Then, in February of this year, far greater protests took place that more directly addressed the economic ills of a society with a clumsy government that boasts more ministers than the far more populous Japan; where those in power earn more than the average European politician; and where unemployment is pushing 40 percent. The demonstrations, growing out of protests by workers laid off from privatized companies in the Tuzla area, spread to every city in the Federation and gained support in the Republika Srpska as well.

One of the results of the February-March uprising, in which governmental buildings and party offices were torched in several cities, was the formation of grassroots citizen assemblies known as plenums. These informal bodies, intensively active for a couple of months, communicated among each other throughout the country and developed a set of demands confronting the politicians‘ corruption and cronyism.

Although grassroots activism is cyclical in Bosnia, in each new phase it grows, spreads and becomes more sophisticated. International commentators habitually ignore such activism as an element in the possible resolution of Bosnia’s systemic ills. But that is a mistake—and the events of spring 2014 have shown that ordinary Bosnians are, albeit episodically, a force that cannot be ignored.

The Floods

Quickly following the spring rebellion, epic flooding struck Bosnia in May. Starting in the middle of the month, in a matter of three days the skies dumped three months’ worth of rain.

The results were cataclysmic. Nearly 100,000 residents of the northern and eastern parts of the country, from Prijedor to Bijeljina and down to Zvornik, were temporarily displaced. Thousands of houses were completely destroyed, and bridges were dislodged—as were landmines left over from the war. Farm plantings were sloughed away along with the top layer of land as, hard on the heels of the flood, several thousand landslides wreaked further damage in the mountainous sections of the country.

The human and economic toll was staggering. While the death toll did not exceed several dozen, thousands of people were displaced on a long-term basis—many of them for the second time since the 1990s. Thousands of livestock were killed in the flash floods and landslides, creating an urgent public health hazard. Schools were rendered useless, and some local administrative offices and libraries were washed away.

One local resident reported, “The material damage caused by the floods is far worse than after the war”—even though the war itself had resulted in half a million destroyed housing units.

The destruction caused by natural disaster was quite possibly greater than that caused by armies in some parts of the country, and it is probable that recovery from the economic setback affecting all of Bosnia-Herzegovina will take many years. Mines were flooded and rendered useless, and many factories severely damaged as well, putting hundreds out of work.

The Uses of Adversity

On the positive side, ordinary people mobilized in many parts of the country and volunteered to help with emergency assistance. Students and activists from Sarajevo donned boots and work gloves, and bused to afflicted areas to help dig out. A recreational rafting outfit from Bihać took its equipment to Doboj to help pluck stranded flood victims off roofs and balconies.

Ethnic boundaries often melted away. Some of the worst flooding took place in the Republika Srpska, and Muslim volunteers paid no attention to the inter-entity borderline as they traveled to help out whoever needed help. Solidarity thus developed quickly among the flood victims and volunteers from various parts of the country, with Serbs, Croats and Muslims often working together.

On the personal and community level, assistance was forthcoming immediately. Here and there, the plenums that had been formed a few months before played a significant role in coordinating assistance. Likewise, emigrant communities abroad raised funds and sent hundreds of truckloads of aid into Bosnia.

One volunteer reported, “Today I was in Prijedor. People, the closer you are to misfortune, you encounter better and better people; they speak with you as if they have known you for years. Before you say anything, they ask how things are with you, are you alright. People in trouble have that wonderful characteristic…to smile sincerely. These people have lost everything that they have, and still they have a smile that heals. In Prijedor everyone is helping each other, regardless of what their name is. While we were loading food in Doboj, two vans arrived from Sarajevo; in Šamac I saw an aid truck from Gradačac.”

Doboj and Sarajevo—as well as Šamac and Gradačac—are towns that lie on opposite sides of the inter-entity borders, but people were eager to help those in need regardless. In response to the assistance, there were public expressions of thanks to those of another ethnicity, without whom, as one flood victim expressed, “we would have died of thirst and hunger.” News articles bore headlines such as “Catastrophic floods bring down Bosnia ethnic barriers” and “Faith Restored in Humanity in the Mud of Doboj.”

In the official realm, help was not as efficient, leaving politicians the target of widespread criticism. The state and entity governments were slow to react to the disaster. When they did, officials competed for publicity—with politicians vying to be seen as “on the spot” and concerned. Too often, they were only concerned about their own ethnic constituency. Indeed, in the Republika Srpska, local officials tended only to help Serb communities, leaving communities of returned Muslims to fend for themselves or depend on help from the Federation.

Sadly, floods struck again in August for a brief period. With the rainy season around the corner, it is certain that there will be more calamity. Public officials have thus had renewed opportunities to show their concern and efficiency, but the government remains sluggish in allocating the millions of euros it has received in international donations.

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Flooding has altered the course of rivers in some places, but emergency management agencies have not gotten around to repairing levees and taking other measures to prevent future damage. Hundreds of schools, which should have opened at the beginning of September, remain closed, and there are still hundreds of displaced people in collective centers without early prospects for return.

Low Trust

Public trust in government has for years hovered around the bottom of the scale, but it is even lower now, as ordinary people voice suspicions about embezzlement of donations. In some areas, villagers whose roads have been cut off by landslides have blocked nearby highways, demanding assistance.

All this is taking place in a period leading up to the four-year national elections that will be held in mid-October. With over 7,000 candidates and two dozen parties vying for seats in parliaments at several levels and for the three-part presidency, the challengers are alternately promising to help the flood victims and accusing their incumbent rivals of failure to help. Those incumbents have shown that they are more interested in expending resources to ensure their electoral victory than to improve public safety.

But prospective voters have less faith than ever that elections can lead to relief, as new faces in the electoral lists are all but non-existent. Political contests and natural disasters both seem to be events that ordinary people have to suffer through.

Elections come and go, and so do floods, and the survivors are left on their own to cope as well as they can. It is to be hoped that in the course of increasing protests, citizens of all ethnicities will continue to unite and build pressure for real change.

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Kingdom of Slaves in the Persian Gulf

Construction workers rest during their lunch break in Doha. (Reuters)

Construction workers rest during their lunch break in Doha. (Reuters)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Since FIFA picked Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, the tiny and über-rich Gulf emirate has increasingly come under scrutiny for its failure to protect the human rights of its huge foreign workforce.

Qatar’s 1.8 million foreign workers—who vastly outnumber the country’s 300,000 native citizens—are frequently deprived of wages, trapped into permanent debt, exposed to hazardous working conditions and denied the right to unionize. Approximately 1,000 foreign workers have died in Qatar since 2012, according to Qatar’s government. Independent human rights organizations claim that the figure is even higher.

Amid growing international calls to pull the Cup from Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has promised new reforms aimed at safeguarding workers’ rights. It remains to be seen whether he is serious.

The large-scale use of foreign labor is widespread throughout the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, where traditional royal elites, businesses and private individuals have accrued high levels of wealth despite the region’s small domestic workforce. Bolstered by its natural gas exports, Qatar, for example, has the highest gross domestic product per capita of any country in the world. Through energy exports and financial services, the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have also cultivated substantial financial reserves.

This wealth has enabled Gulf countries to invest heavily in massive new infrastructure works, but the region lacks a sufficient indigenous workforce to staff these projects. Additionally, many Gulf states provide robust social benefits for their native citizens, which decreases the incentive for natives to work in hazardous fields like construction.

Consequently, demand for migrant workers is substantial. The Gulf’s construction boom has been fueled by a massive influx of workers, primarily from Asia, who also take jobs in domestic work and other low-wage fields. These foreign laborers are driven to the Gulf by poor economic prospects in their home countries and the perception that a steady income can be earned easily in the Gulf. But many arrive to find a waking nightmare.

Indentured Servitude

A key plank in the Gulf’s foreign labor apparatus is called the kafala, or “sponsorship,” system.

The system entails middlemen who travel to Southeast Asia and sell the right to work in the Gulf to prospective migrants. Once in debt to the middlemen, who “sponsor” the workers’ right to travel to the Gulf, the laborers are expected to pay off their debt to the sponsor by working long hours—often in the construction industry, where workers labor away in temperatures that can rise above 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

The physical toll on these workers is brutal. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, an estimated 700 Indian workers died in Qatar, and Nepali authorities say that hundreds of their own nationals have perished there as well. According to estimates by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), without reforms to the region’s labor laws and proper enforcement, some 4,000 workers could die on construction projects related to the 2022 World Cup alone. The ITUC reports that workers are often denied access to water and shade, and that the shelter reserved for them is unsanitary and dehumanizing.

Yet because permission from their sponsor is required to seek a new employer, foreign laborers are often trapped in their jobs. This ensures that their paltry wages are used to pay off the debt incurred by their travel. Without citizenship or any political rights, and unable to exit the country—their passports are frequently seized by authorities upon arrival—these foreign workers are trapped in what can only be described as virtual slavery or indentured servitude.

Foreign women employed as domestic workers for the GCC’s wealthy residents are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Secluded in private homes and typically denied the right to leave, they’re often trapped with employers who withhold pay and subject them to appalling episodes of physical assault and sexual violence.

And there is not much they can do about it, as this April 2014 report from Amnesty International makes clear:

Women [in Qatar] who have been physically or sexually abused face major obstacles to getting justice. None of the women researchers spoke to had seen their attackers prosecuted or convicted. In one horrific case, a domestic worker broke both her legs and fractured her spine when she fell from a window as she tried to escape a rape attack by her employer. Her attacker then proceeded to sexually assault her as she lay on the ground, injured and unable to move. Only afterwards did he call an ambulance.

When researchers interviewed her six months after the attack, she was still using a wheelchair. Despite her appalling injuries, the Public Prosecutor dismissed the case due to “lack of evidence” and she returned to the Philippines last year. Her employer has never been held accountable.

While there have been some reforms for domestic workers put on the table by GCC leaders, the language has largely been vague and thus far inconsequential.

A Regional Phenomenon

Recognizable patterns recur throughout the GCC.

In Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s economic powerhouse, human rights organizations have documented widespread labor rights abuses that include long working hours, wage theft and violence against domestic workers.

A particularly egregious case was the beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan woman working as a maid in Dawadmi, in January 2013. She was charged with strangling the 4-month-old baby of her employer to death. Evidence against Nafeek was limited to a “confession” that she signed following her arrest, which Nafeek said was coerced and undertaken without the assistance of a translator. Complicating matters, Nafeek’s family said she had lied about her age on her passport application, meaning that in 2005—the year of the alleged offense—she was only 17, and thus a minor under standards set by international law. She was tried without legal representation and subsequently executed over the fervent protests of the Sri Lankan government.

The United Arab Emirates, where guest workers outnumber citizens nearly 8 to 1, has been taken to task for deporting workers who strike, housing workers in poor conditions and stealing the passports of employees. Like FIFA’s embarrassment over the World Cup in Qatar, Western artistic, academic and cultural institutions that have established operations in the UAE have been repeatedly embarrassed by the emirate’s treatment of its workers.

New York University, for example, has faced a public relations nightmare over the construction of a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. Although the university’s officials issued a “statement of labor values” after deciding to build the campus in 2009, the New York Times reported in May that workers on the NYU campus, who were employed by the BK Gulf Corporation, were paid as little as $272 per month, which doesn’t go far in a country famous for its opulence. The paper reported that up to fifteen workers were forced to share rooms scarcely bigger than 200 square feet. Eventually, the workers launched a strike which, on its second day, was met by a violent police crackdown. Hundreds were subsequently deported.

Similar problems have been reported in oil-rich Kuwait, where 2 million expatriate workers live next to 1.8 million natives, as well as Bahrain, where guest workers face the additional challenge of navigating political tensions since the failed uprising of 2011, when Shiite-led protests against Bahrain’s ruling monarchy were quashed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.

Prospects for Reform

In response to widespread criticism over its World Cup preparations, Qatar’s government has promised several reforms for guest workers, including changes in the kafala system that would enable foreign workers to exit the country or change jobs with less difficulty.

However, the ITUC and others are highly skeptical about what, if anything, the reforms will achieve. An ITUC spokesperson stated that foreign workers in Qatar still have “no freedom of association, no minimum wage, and no effective labor compliance system. None of the laws seem to apply to domestic workers.” Moreover, migrant workers will still require exit visas to leave the country, giving the state the authority to decide if and when the workers can return to their countries of origin. That means that nearly 1.8 of Qatar’s 2.1 million residents are trapped there, with virtually no legal protection, at the state’s discretion.

Unfortunately, while such staggering figures highlight an imperative for reform, many human rights observers are pessimistic. The Qatari economy has become massively dependent on foreign workers, especially for construction. Without these workers, the Qatari “miracle” of breakneck urbanization, sky-high average incomes and rapid modernization would have been impossible. As the number of migrant workers grows, the cost of providing them with even basic labor protections will only rise, further increasing the economic costs of real reform.

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But if Gulf leaders prove indifferent to pressure from global civil society, economic factors might move them to act. As the GCC makes an economic pivot toward Asia, demands from source countries could force them to improve conditions for migrant laborers.

For example, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia inked an agreement to grant Indonesian workers in the kingdom greater rights, including the right to keep their passports, communicate with family members, get paid on a monthly basis and have time off. This agreement followed Indonesia’s August 2011 ban on sending migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, where reports of horrific abuses of Indonesian workers had circulated for years. While Human Rights Watch assessed that these new regulations amounted only to “slow moves in the right direction,” the pressure from Jakarta underscored the leverage that Asian governments can wield over the GCC states that rely on their migrant laborers.

But change won’t come easily. Only a few months ago, GCC states unanimously refused to endorse a protocol by the International Labor Organization for the improvement of labor standards.

The plight of foreign laborers in the Gulf underscores a dark underside to the modern, glossy exterior the GCC states like to showcase to the world. In the absence of a powerful labor movement in the Gulf, the GCC’s millions of suffering foreign laborers will have to hope that their home countries can protect them abroad, even if they couldn’t provide jobs at home.

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Ethiopian Activists Fight US-Backed Land Seizures

Oromo ethnic group

Ethiopians of the Oromo ethnic group stage a protest against the ruling government. (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Yehun and Miriam have little hope for the future.

“We didn’t do anything and they destroyed our house,” Miriam told me. “We are appealing to the mayor, but there have been no answers. The government does not know where we live now, so it is not possible for them to compensate us even if they wanted.”

Like the other residents of Legetafo—a small, rural town about twenty kilometers from Addis Ababa—Yehun and Miriam are subsistence farmers. Or rather, they were, before government bulldozers demolished their home and the authorities confiscated their land. The government demolished fifteen houses in Legetafo in July.

The farmers in the community stood in the streets, attempting to prevent the demolitions, but the protests were met with swift and harsh government repression. Many other Oromo families on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s bustling capital are now wondering whether their communities could be next.

These homes were demolished in order to implement what’s being called Ethiopia’s “Integrated Master Plan.” The IMP has been heralded by its advocates as a bold modernization plan for the “Capital of Africa.”

The plan intends to integrate Addis Ababa with the surrounding towns in Oromia, one of the largest states in Ethiopia and home to the Oromo ethnic group—which, with about a third of the country’s population, is its largest single ethnic community. While the plan’s proponents consider the territorial expansion of the capital to be another example of what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the country’s “terrific efforts” toward development, others argue that the plan favors a narrow group of ethnic elites while repressing the citizens of Oromia.

“At least two people were shot and injured,” according to Miriam, a 28-year-old Legetafo farmer whose home was demolished that day. “The situation is very upsetting. We asked to get our property before the demolition, but they refused. Some people were shot. Many were beaten and arrested. My husband was beaten repeatedly with a stick by the police while in jail.”

Yehun, a 20-year-old farmer from the town, said the community was given no warning about the demolitions. “I didn’t even have time to change my clothes,” he said sheepishly. Yehun and his family walked twenty kilometers barefoot to Sendafa, where his extended family could take them in.

The Price of Resistance

Opponents of the plan have been met with fierce repression.

“The Integrated Master Plan is a threat to Oromia as a nation and as a people,” Fasil stated, leaning forward in a scuffed hotel armchair. Reading from notes scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, the hardened student activist continued: “The plan would take away territory from Oromia,” depriving the region of tax revenue and political representation, “and is a cultural threat to the Oromo people living there.”

A small scar above his eye, deafness in one ear and a lingering gastrointestinal disease picked up in prison testify to Fasil’s commitment to the cause. His injuries come courtesy of the police brutality he encountered during the four-year prison sentence he served after he was arrested for protesting for Oromo rights in high school and, more recently, against the IMP at Addis Ababa University.

Fasil is just one of the estimated thousands of students who were detained during university protests against the IMP. Though Fasil was beaten, electrocuted and harassed while he was imprisoned last May, he considers himself lucky. “We know that sixty-two students were killed and 125 are still missing,” he confided in a low voice.

The students ground their protests in Ethiopia’s federal Constitution. “We are merely asking that the government abide by the Constitution,” Fasil explained, arguing that the plan violates at least eight constitutional provisions. In particular, the students claim that the plan violates Article 49(5), which protects “the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa” and gives the district the right to resist federal incursions into “administrative matters.”

Moreover, the plan presents a tangible threat to the people living in Oromia. Fasil and other student protesters claimed that the IMP “would allow the city to expand to a size that would completely cut off West Oromia from East Oromia.” When the plan is fully implemented, an estimated 2 million farmers will be displaced. “These farmers will have no other opportunities,” Fasil told me. “We have seen this before when the city grew. When they lose their land, the farmers will become day laborers or beggars.”

Winners and Losers

The controversy highlights the disruptive and often violent processes that can accompany economic growth. “What is development, after all?” Fasil asked me.

Ethiopia’s growth statistics are some of the most impressive in the region. Backed by aid from the US government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country’s ruling coalition, is committed to modernizing agricultural production and upgrading the country’s economy. Yet there is a lack of consensus about which processes should be considered developmental.

Oromo activists allege that their community has borne a disproportionate share of the costs of development. Advocates like Fasil argue that the “development” programs of the EPRDF are simply a means of marginalizing the Oromo people to consolidate political power within the ruling coalition.

“Ethiopia has a federalism based on identity and language,” explained an Ethiopian political science professor who works on human rights. Nine distinct regions are divided along ethnic lines and are theoretically granted significant autonomy from the central government under the 1994 Constitution. In practice, however, the regions are highly dependent on the central government for revenue transfers and food security, development and health programs. Since the inception of Ethiopia’s ethno-regional federalism, the Oromo have been resistant to incorporation in the broader Ethiopian state and suspicious of the intentions of the Tigray ethnic group, which dominates the EPRDF.

As the 2015 elections approach, the Integrated Master Plan may provide a significant source of political mobilization. “The IMP is part of a broader conflict in Ethiopia over identity, power and political freedoms,” said the professor, who requested anonymity.

American Support

Standing in Gullele Botanic Park in May, Secretary of State Kerry was effusive about the partnership between the United States and Ethiopia, praising the Ethiopian government’s “terrific support in efforts not just with our development challenges and the challenges of Ethiopia itself, but also…the challenges of leadership on the continent and beyond.”

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Kerry’s rhetoric is matched by a significant amount of US financial support. In 2013, Washington allocated more than $619 million in foreign assistance to Ethiopia, making it one of the largest recipients of US aid on the continent. According to USAID, Ethiopia is “the linchpin to stability in the Horn of Africa and the Global War on Terrorism.”

Kerry asserted that “the United States could be a vital catalyst in this continent’s continued transformation.” Yet if “transformation” entails land seizures, home demolitions and political repression, then it’s worth questioning just what kind of development American taxpayers are subsidizing.

The American people must wrestle with the implications of “development assistance” programs and the thin line between modernization and marginalization in countries like Ethiopia. Though the US government has occasionally expressed concern about the oppressive tendencies of the Ethiopian regime, few demands for reform have accompanied aid.

For the EPRDF, the process of expanding Addis Ababa is integral to the modernization of Ethiopia and the opportunities inherent to development. For the Oromo people, the Integrated Master Plan is a political and cultural threat. For the residents of Legetafo, the demolition of their homes demonstrates the uncertainty of life in a rapidly changing country.

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The Central African Republic’s Forgotten Crisis

A man waves a machete in a protest against French peacekeeping troops in the Cen

A man waves a machete in a protest against French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic.  (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Take a look at the World section of nearly any mainstream news outlet and the main story will be Iraq, Syria, Ukraine or Gaza—all of which are suffering acutely from their respective conflicts. Yet even together they hardly enjoy a monopoly on gruesome civil wars or protracted refugee crises.

At a time of so many global calamities, it’s easy for smaller countries in which the United States lacks a vested interest to fall by the wayside. And that’s exactly what’s happened in the Central African Republic (CAR).

For the past two years, sectarian Christian and Muslim militias in CAR have been waging war against each other’s communities with horrific violence. Over 2,600 Central Africans have died, and nearly 1 million of the country’s 4.5 million residents have been displaced, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis.

Yet although the country is teetering on the edge of complete chaos, the outside world is paying very little attention.

Coup and Counter-Coup

An aptly named country in the heart of the African continent, CAR has a history shared by countries throughout Africa and the broader post-colonial world: colonization followed by independence and subsequent political turmoil.

Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the small country has seen at least five coup d’états and numerous protracted civil conflicts, many of which have exploited the country’s ethnic, religious and regional divisions.

The latest unrest dates back at least to 2003. That year, former CAR army chief of staff François Bozizéseized the presidency from Ange-Félix Patassé, who had been CAR’s first democratically elected leader but whose rule had been marked by civil strife and upheld by foreign troops.

A civil war, known as the Central African Republic Bush War, broke out the following year when rebel groups attempted to overthrow Bozizé. The war raged for four years before a shaky truce was reached. However, violence resurged in December 2012, when rebel groups accused the government of not abiding by the peace agreements that were signed at the end of the Bush War.

By March 2013, the mostly Muslim Seleka faction had ousted Bozizé and installed Michel Djotodia as president, making him the majority-Christian country’s first Muslim leader. Yet this apparent political victory did little to stem the unrest the Seleka were sowing throughout the countryside. By June 2013, rampaging Seleka fighters had deliberately killed scores of civilians and destroyed 1,000 homes in Bangui and other provinces.

In an effort to distance himself from their violent crimes, Djotodia attempted to disband the Seleka militias last September, but many of them refused to disarm. The Seleka burned villages, looted homes and murdered civilians as swaths of the country descended into lawlessness.

The brutality of Seleka gave rise to the mostly Christian militias known as the anti-balaka. The new militias, whose name means “anti-machete,” proceeded to carry out their own violent reprisal attacks on Muslim villages, introducing a dangerous sectarian element to a conflict where civilians were targeted with increasing frequency.

Last December, the fighting dramatically escalated, with anti-balaka forces launching coordinated attacks on Seleka fighters in the capital city of Bangui. They also deliberately targeted Muslim civilians, including women and children. In retaliation, Seleka fighters murdered more Christian civilians. Amid the increasing sectarian violence around the capital and international pressure calling for him to step down, Djotodia resigned the following month.

The United Nations drafted a resolution authorizing France to send troops to the beleaguered nation last December. In April, as the crisis showed no signs of de-escalation, the Security Council voted unanimously to send 12,000 peacekeeping troops set to arrive in September, in addition to the 2,000 French soldiers.

Political developments inside CAR have so far done little to stem the violence. A tentative late July ceasefirefell apart after only a couple of days. In August, CAR elected its first Muslim prime minister, Mahamat Kamoun, but the Seleka fighters have rejected him and are refusing to join the unity government. Clashes continue while the fate of the people remains in the balance.

Women and Children First in Suffering

The human toll of the conflict has been considerable. A UN report from January found rampant violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, mutilations and targeting of civilians based on religion.

Much of this abuse has been directed at innocent women and children. Last December, for example, UNICEF reported the gruesome beheadings of two children and the mutilation of another.

Meanwhile, children fleeing the violence have fallen prey to disease and malnutrition while trekking across jungles to the relative safety of their neighbors’ lands. Many children are unable to return to school, while those lucky enough to attend have been crammed into overcrowded classrooms.

For women, the biggest fear remains sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) opened up two women’s centers in early 2014 and interviewed 125 women and girls—the youngest being only 7 years old—who had come to the group for help. Of those 125, a startling 84 percent had been raped.

The prospects for rape survivors getting assistance remain grim. The combination of limited resources and a culture that typically remains silent in the face of sexual violence means that many women will never receive help.

Although both sides of this sectarian conflict have perpetrated horrific violence on militants and civilians, the anti-balaka fighters are currently the main perpetrators, according to Human Rights Watch. Alongside vicious attacks against civilians, anti-balaka fighters have pillagedand burned mosques in what Amnesty International has described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the western part of the country.

Some 300,000 Muslims have fled CAR altogether, while others remain in hiding, hoping that French and or African peacekeepers will be able to provide them with protection.

But it’s a fraught existence, even for those who find help. Earlier this year, neighboring Chad sent special forces to evacuate scores of Muslims from Bangui. Christians cheered as a convoy of trucks, sent to the airport and to mosques to pick up Muslim evacuees, left the city, headed towards Chad. When a Muslim man fell off the truck, he was attacked by a mob that cut off his hands and genitals.

A Wave of Refugees

The fighting is creating a displacement crisis that could grow to rival Syria’s if left unchecked.

As of July 2014, there were 528,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Central African Republic—that’s 12 percent of the population—and 60 percent of the figure are children.

The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) estimates that there are nearly seventy makeshift refugee camps in Bangui alone—including the M’Poko Airport, where nearly 100,000 people have gathered for safety. As security issues abound, the UN’s World Food Program has struggled to deliver food to M’Poko.

But outside of Bangui, information on the location and condition of IDP camps is extremely limited. Very few government officials or international observers are even present in the provinces outside the capital, making information difficult to gather.

Another 398,000 people have taken refuge in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other neighboring countries, which are hardly paragons of stability or human rights themselves. (A Haitian saying—“running from the rain but falling in the river”—comes to mind.)

Meanwhile, CAR is facing a dire humanitarian situation. According to USAID, as many as 2.5 million people need immediate assistance, and 1.7 million people face acute food insecurity.

The World Is Not Watching

The international community hasn’t done nearly enough to alleviate the suffering in CAR. In 2013, CAR was the fifth most underfunded UN appeal and appeared in ECHO’s “Forgotten Crisis Assessment” in both 2012 and 2013.

In January of this year, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released the Central African Republic Strategic Response Plan, requesting $551 million for emergency assistance. But according to OCHA’s financial tracking service, only about $366 million has been pledged by donors. Organizations that provide vital services, like the World Food Program, are still reporting substantial funding shortfalls.

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Not only has the international community failed CAR, the media’s scant coverage of the crisis means that the average Westerner is wholly unaware of what’s happening in the country. Unlike for Gaza, there have been no marches or protests in support of humanitarian aid for the civilians in the Central African Republic.

“Unfortunately, there does not exist much political will to address human rights crises in Africa, even those on the grand scale and magnitude of what’s been occurring in CAR,” explains human rights activist and Africa expert Jeffrey Smith. “A case in point is the recently concluded US-Africa Leaders Summit, which did not address the underpinning issues of human rights or good governance in a meaningful or genuine way.”

Crises like the situation in Central African Republic “do not merely erupt spontaneously or overnight,” adds Smith. “They are quite often the result of long-term and routine human rights abuses that are left unaddressed.”

President Obama’s foray into Iraq has been billed as a humanitarian intervention. If the United States actually intervened in countries for purely humanitarian reasons, there would be millions of dollars in aid money and assistance for the country in the heart of Africa that is on the brink of collapse.

Read Next: Why Hillary Clinton is wrong about Obama’s foreign policy

From Schools to Shelters in Iraqi Kurdistan

Yazidi Refugees flee Iraq towards Syria

Members of the minority Yazidi sect flee the recent violence in Iraq toward the Syrian border. (Reuters/Rodi Said)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Using schools for shelter was a natural. When the Islamic State drove waves of people from the Sinjar area of Iraq in early August, most of them members of the Yazidi minority group, they fled first to the mountains and then to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. They camped out in whatever unoccupied structures they could find.

Now more than 600 schools are filled with desperate families struggling to come to terms with the trauma of the mass killings, abductions and sexual violence by the Islamic State that decimated their communities. They sleep in classrooms, hallways and the courtyards of facilities intended for children’s education.

The impact is double-edged. With no prospect for them to return home soon, these people need better shelter and care for the long term, including education for the tens of thousands of children among them. Yet the children of accommodating host communities also need access to their schools.

The school year under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is due to start on September 10. But hundreds of schools will not be able to open that day.

According to the KRG Education Ministry, 653 schools in the Dohuk governorate, which has borne the brunt of the crisis, are being used to shelter displaced Yazidis and others, with schools playing a similar role in the cities of Sulaimaniya and Erbil. Across Iraq, around 2,000 schools are being used to shelter the displaced, the United Nations says.

The northwestern Dohuk governorate, with its 1.3 million residents, has absorbed 520,000 displaced people, according to then UN. That’s in addition to 220,000 refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria already in KRG areas. Around the country, 1.8 million people are internally displaced.

The governor of Dohuk, Farhad Atrushi, said 130,000 people were living in Dohuk schools. “If I didn’t open the doors, they would be on roads and in open areas,” he said.

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The immediate answer to the crisis gripping Dohuk schools is to build camps, and that is happening. But it will take months before the fourteen planned camps in KRG areas are up and running, and they will serve only half of the displaced. More funds are urgently needed to expedite and expand the work.

The United States and other countries can help the Yazidis and other Iraqis by increasing financial support for desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Compounding the problem is an ongoing budget dispute between the KRG and Iraq’s central government, which has blocked funding for displaced people in the Kurdish region and kept teachers there from getting regularly paid for months. Children should not be held hostage to the political crisis gripping Iraq.

The dispute includes differences in curriculum between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish-run region. To promote education and reduce tension, the Baghdad authorities and the KRG should rapidly find ways to deliver textbooks and administer exams.

The logistical and political hurdles are daunting. But the children here, both residents and the displaced, need all the help they can get to turn the shelters back to schools.

Read Next: The alternatives to more war in Iraq

The BRICS: Challengers to the Global Status Quo

(L-R) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma (RT/Nacho Doce) 

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy in Focus.

The term “BRICS”—which refers to the bloc of emerging economies in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—was coined years ago by Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill, who saw the countries as promising markets for finance capital in the twenty-first century. But even if O’Neill had not invented the name, the BRICS would have emerged as a conscious formation of big, rapidly developing countries with an ambivalent relationship to the traditional center economies of Europe and the United States.

The BRICS served notice that they are now an economic alliance that poses a challenge to the global status quo during their last summit in Brazil in mid-July, when they inaugurated two path-breaking institutions intended to rival the US- and European-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank: a Contingency Reserve Arrangement, with an initial capitalization of $100 billion, which can be accessed by BRICS members in need of funds; and the New Development Bank, with a total authorized capital of $100 billion, which is open to all members of the United Nations. Both institutions aim to break the global North’s chokehold on finance and development.

But while the BRICS countries have made plain their desire to loosen control of the global economy by the United States and Europe, they’ll have to confront some serious problems at home.

Benefiting from Globalization

The BRICS have been among the key beneficiaries of corporate-driven globalization, owing their rise to the marriage between global capital and cheap labor that has followed the fuller integration of formerly non-capitalist or dependent capitalist countries into the global capitalist system over the past thirty years. This union was among the factors that kept up the rate of profit and raised global capitalism out of its crisis of stagnation in the 1970s and ’80s.

Make no mistake: the BRICS are capitalist regimes—albeit with large central apparatuses capable of controlling workers.

In China, for instance, though the Communist Party leadership retains its socialist rhetoric, the reality is that thirty years after Deng Xiaoping’s pro-market reforms, the country now represents—in the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek—”the ideal capitalist state: freedom for capital, with the state doing the ‘dirty job’ of controlling the workers.” Zizek says China “seems to embody a new kind of capitalism,” with “disregard for ecological consequences, disdain for workers’ rights, everything subordinated to the ruthless drive to develop and become the new world force.”

The other BRICS states may not have the same coercive and extractive power as the Chinese state, and three of them—Brazil, South Africa and India—are electoral democracies. But all have relatively powerful central bureaucracies that have been the key instrument in the technocratic transformation of their economies. Lula’s Brazil, it might be noted, inherited the developmental state forged by the Brazilian military-technocratic elite that produced the so-called “Brazilian Miracle” in the 1960s and ’ 70s. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress stepped into a centralized state apparatus that had been honed not only for repression but for extractive exploitation by the apartheid regime. And of course, Putin’s Russia inherited the old super-centralized Soviet state.

While there might be a healthy discussion on whether all of these regimes might be called neoliberal, there can be no doubt that they are capitalist regimes, prioritizing profits over welfare, loosening prior restraints on market forces, spearheading the integration of the domestic to the global economy, following conservative fiscal and monetary policies, exhibiting close cooperation between state elites and dominant forces in the economy, and, most importantly, relying on the super-exploitation of their working classes as the engine of rapid growth.

Contradictions with the Center Economies

Although the BRICS have been major beneficiaries of corporate-driven globalization, their integration into the world economy has been marked by a complex relationship with the traditional center economies of Europe and the United States.

True, some of them, particularly China, have developed investment regimes extremely hospitable to foreign capital. But all have also manipulated foreign capital to accumulate technological and management expertise to eventually wean themselves off foreign financiers. Even as they have re-energized global capitalism as a whole, they have pursued decidedly nationalist goals of enhancing their own clout vis-à-vis the traditional centers of global economic, political and military power.

This is exhibited most sharply in the relationship of China to the United States. American consumer demand has driven the rapid growth of China’s export-oriented economy, but China is increasingly challenging the hegemony of the US dollar as the global means of exchange. It is also supplanting the United States as the main investor and trading partner of many countries in Latin America—America’s so-called “backyard.”

If competition is pronounced at the economic level, it is even fiercer at the geopolitical level. In recent years, Beijing has moved from its policy of “peaceful rise” on the global stage to overtly challenging the military power of the United States and Japan, two economies with which China is deeply integrated, in the Western Pacific. At the same time, Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States—two blocs with which Moscow has developed significant economic ties, especially when it comes to finance and energy—have deteriorated as Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed back against NATO’s expansion onto Russia’s doorstep.

From Engines of Growth to Stagnation

In 2001, O’Neill identified the BRICS as the “drivers of global growth.” The next few years appeared to prove him right, as their performance on all key indicators—including GDP growth rate, per capita income growth rate and rates of return on investment—surpassed those of the United States and other economies in the North.

When the global financial crisis broke out, the BRICS at first seemed to be dragged down by the collapse of their markets in the North, with their growth rates slowing down significantly in 2008. However, recovery was swift, triggered in some countries by countercyclical stimulus programs. In China, for instance, a $586 billion stimulus program—which was, in relation to the size of the economy, bigger than Obama’s $787 billion stimulus in the United States—reversed the economic contraction not only in China but also in neighboring economies that had become greatly dependent on Chinese consumers to absorb their products.

It was in this context that Nobel Prize laureate Michael Spence predicted in his book The Next Convergence that the BRICS would replace the United States and Europe as the key engines of the world economy. In a decade, Spence confidently predicted, the BRICS’ share of global GDP would pass the 50 percent mark. Much of this growth, he said, would stem from “endogenous growth drivers in emerging economies anchored by an expanding middle class.” Moreover, as trade among the BRICS increased, “the future of emerging economies is one of reduced dependence on industrial-country demand.”

Hardly had Spence’s book come out when the performance of the BRICS put paid to his rosy predictions. Beginning in 2012, the stagnation of the global economy engulfed the BRICS in earnest, revealing the stimulus-triggered recovery of 2009 to be a short-term affair rather than a passing of the baton. Brazil’s growth rate dropped from 5.3 percent in 2010 to 1.5 percent in 2012, India’s from 8.2 to 3 percent, Russia’s from 4.9 to 2.5 percent and China’s from 9.8 to 7.2 percent. The near simultaneous slowing down of the BRICS’ growth was accompanied by foreign capital outflows, which plunged currency values, increased inflation and exacerbated inequality.

The Crisis of Export-Led Growth

Export-oriented manufacturing based on the exploitation of hundreds of millions of workers from parts of the world formerly independent from or peripheral to global capitalism was the mode of integration for most of the BRICS into the international economy. This strategy focused priorities, incentives and resources on the export sector, depressing domestic demand and creating dislocations in the domestic market. With its dependence on the now stagnant or contracting markets of Europe and the United States, however, the export-oriented strategy has entered into severe crisis.

China’s crisis illustrates the difficulty of breaking away from the model of export-oriented production. China’s stimulus program was meant to help transition the country to a new domestic-demand centered economy, where growth would be driven by Chinese consumers rather than foreign importers. After achieving some initial success, however, China then reverted back to its reliance on exporting products to US and European markets. According to Yu Yong Ding, one of Beijing’s most influential economists, the dependence of millions of Chinese workers on the export sector “has become structural. That means that reducing China’s trade dependency and trade surplus is much more than a matter of adjusting macroeconomic policy.” The retreat back to export-led growth reflected the powerful influence wielded by a set of forces from the reform period that, as Yu put it, “have morphed into vested interests, which are fighting hard to protect what they have.” The export lobby—which brings together private entrepreneurs, state enterprise managers, foreign investors and government technocrats—remains the strongest lobby in Beijing. Staying with the export-oriented model was a dead end, according to Yu, since China’s “growth pattern has now almost exhausted its potential.” As the economy that most successfully rode the globalization wave, China “has reached a crucial juncture: without painful structural adjustments, the momentum of its economic growth could suddenly be lost. China’s rapid growth has been achieved at an extremely high cost. Only future generations will know the true price.”

Social Conflicts on the Rise

The crisis of the export-oriented model is likely to exacerbate social conflicts in the BRICS, which were already intensifying in the period of rapid growth. The most explosive problem is rising inequality.

In Brazil, which has one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America, the payback came in the form of riots throughout the country in 2013. The outbursts were triggered by an explosive combination of transportation fare hikes, deteriorating public services and the displacement of urban residents and corruption connected with the construction of infrastructure for the World Cup.

In South Africa, the illusion of BRICSdom fostered by the 2010 World Cup was shaken by the protests of miners that climaxed with the infamous Marikana massacre, in which troops fired on strikers and killed forty-four people in August 2012. Marikana exposed a developed-country infrastructure coexisting with one of the world’s most unequal income structures.

In China, “mass incidents”—a euphemism for protests—doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to 180,000, according to the Chinese Academy of Governance. The causes were varied, ranging from land grabs to official corruption to environmental degradation. Protests against pollution and other forms of ecological destabilization appeared to be particularly numerous and underlined the authorities’ subordination of quality of life to the goal of high growth rates. In China and the other BRICS as well, the notion appeared to reign that there was a trade-off among environmental protection, labor rights and development. In 2010, however, a successful strike for higher wages by workers at a Honda plant in Nanhai inaugurated a new era of resistance, this time with the workers who had served as the backbone of export-oriented manufacturing in the lead. In June 2011, it was the turn of thousands of poorly paid garment workers in Zengcheng, the so-called “blue jeans” capital of the world, to protest with riots and strikes. These events were a dress rehearsal for the strikes involving some 30,000 workers in Dongguan, near Guangzhou, which hit the manufacturing subcontractor Yue Yuen, perhaps the largest producer of branded footwear in the world, this past April.

The movement appears to be growing. “More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform,” noted a writer for the progressive journal Jacobin, “China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes—there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.”

The BRICS and the Global South

Despite their exploitative practices at home, the BRICS portray themselves as paragons of the global South, providing the leadership of such blocs as the “Group of 77 and China” in international climate negotiations and the “Group of 20” in the World Trade Organization.

However, critics of the BRICS say that their investment and trade practices belie their benevolent posture toward developing countries.

Much of this criticism is directed at China. Although China has poured billions of dollars in aid into sub-Saharan Africa—much more, in fact, than the World Bank—it has also been criticized by local populations for bringing in Chinese workers instead of hiring local labor, for flooding retail markets with Chinese products and for supporting repressive regimes with economic assistance. In Southeast Asia, China’s economic diplomacy is said to be geared toward dividing the region’s collective stand on the South China Sea issue, isolating in particular the Philippines and Vietnam.

Although many of these criticisms are valid, the rise of the BRICS is a good thing for the South. In the geopolitics of development, the BRICS currently fulfill the role that the Soviet Union once played, which was to provide a pole that developing countries could play off the United States as they struggled to achieve political and economic independence. The dark period of unipolar domination by the United States, with its neoliberal institutions and ideology, has come to an end with the emergence of the BRICS bloc, and this is an extremely positive development.

The Future of the BRICS

With export-oriented production and globalization now in crisis, the question emerges: what is the future of the BRICS? It is certainly possible that the BRICS will not break with their current paradigm of growth. However, there are serious discussions in ruling circles about ways to surmount the current crisis.

One option is for the BRICS to become more integrated with one another and with other developing-country economies, along the lines of the “South-South Trade” or “South-South Cooperation” strategies that have long been propounded by many progressive economists. Further integration is one of the key topics in the BRICS summits that now take place every two years.

There is, however, one problem with this solution: the fruits of integration would be limited if that integration involved highly unequal societies with restricted demand, since large parts of the population would be left out of the market.

The other solution, which the BRICS elites are not too enthusiastic about, is for the BRICS to adopt policies aimed at radically reducing income inequality and thus creating vibrant domestic markets. This would involve no less than promoting social revolution in these countries, since powerful interest groups have congealed around the current economic regimes.

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Even more fundamentally, assuming that the BRICS can break with export-led growth, can the pursuit of policies promoting greater equality be undertaken within these countries’ current capitalist frameworks, where profitability remains the elites’ central concern? The elites in the BRICS are dealing with the challenge of transformation in diverse ways.

In India, the new BJP government of Narendra Modi seeks to revitalize the Indian economy by opening it up more fully to foreign investors and radically cutting down the country’s budget deficit à la Tea Party partisans in the United States. This seems to be a prescription for continuing and deepening the past twenty-five years of conservative economic policies and thus is unlikely to succeed in surmounting the country’s stagnation.

In this area, the bellwether among the BRICS is again China, where the current leadership is very much aware of the consequences of the previous leadership’s failure to cultivate a domestic market invigorated by radical asset and income redistribution. Whether Xi Jinping succeeds where Hu Jintao failed remains to be seen.

Whatever strategies the BRICS follow in the coming period, their competition is likely to intensify with the center economies, even as their long pent-up domestic pressures are released in a staccato of internal social explosions.

Read Next: Pietro A. Shakarian on recent developments in the Ukraine crisis.

What the Twin Plagues of ISIS and Ebola Have in Common

James Foley memorial

Memorial for James Foley, US journalist killed by ISIS, 220 miles north of Baghdad (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic) 

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how death comes to an ugly French port in Algeria.

Thanks to an infestation of rats and the fleas they carry, the bubonic plague descends upon the city in the spring and intensifies during the hot summer. After a short period of denial, the residents panic, then sink into despondency and alcoholism. The port is put under quarantine. Undeterred by the apathy of the population and the danger of exposure, a small number of courageous individuals mobilize to fight the epidemic and eventually beat back the invader.

Camus took great care to detail the symptoms of the disease. But for all his medical exactitude, the French writer was not primarily interested in epidemiology. His inspiration was a different kind of infection. The novel is set some time in the 1940s. The plague is Nazism, and those who fight the disease stand in for the heroes of the French Resistance. It is a supremely apt allegory, for did not the Nazis claim that their victims were vermin? Camus surely must have enjoyed reincarnating the German fascists as the lowest of the low: bloodsucking fleas and desperate rats.

The twin plagues of Nazism and bubonic plague, except for some isolated cases, are behind us. But now it seems that a different pair of plagues is in our midst.

Today’s headlines are filled with similar stories of the spread of death and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. American commentators worry that these plagues will burst their borders and somehow spread to these shores. And, as in Camus’s novel, these diseases point to something larger, not the imposition of a new malignant system but the breakdown of the existing order.

In West Africa, the plague is Ebola, a terrifying fever that ends in massive hemorrhaging. The mortality rate, if untreated, is as high as bubonic plague. But at least with the modern version of the Black Death, treatment brings the mortality rate down to 15 percent. Ebola, by contrast, resists treatment. There are no vaccines for this hemorrhagic fever—though there’s promising news out of Canada—and the few treatments that have been used remain highly experimental. Doctors and officials establish quarantines and hope the disease will burn itself out. With airlines shutting down service to the infected region, hampering efforts to deliver medical supplies, the disease continues to rage on.

Ebola has so far claimed around 1,500 lives. This is terrible, of course, but it pales in comparison to how many children succumb to diarrhea in Africa. According to a 2010 report, 2,000 African children die every day of a disease that can be prevented through relatively cheap methods: safe water and hygiene. But diarrhea is not a communicable disease in the same sense as the plague or Ebola. And no one in the United States worries that a summit of African leaders or the repatriation of infected patients will spread an epidemic of diarrhea stateside. Ebola monopolizes the headlines because what grabs attention is fear (along with the usual colonial images of Africans as dirty and irresponsible).

The panic is, of course, more acute in the areas hardest hit by Ebola. Consider the case of Kandeh Kamara, a brave 21-year-old who volunteered to help fight the disease in Sierra Leone. He was promptly drafted to become a “burial boy” responsible for dealing with the corpses of the infected. “In doing their jobs, the burial boys have been cast out of their communities because of fear that they will bring the virus home with them,” writes Adam Nossiter and Ben Solomon in a powerful piece in The New York Times. Talk about thankless tasks. Kandeh Kamara initially received no payment for his work and had to beg for food on the street. He now gets $6 a day and hopes to rent an apartment, though landlords often refuse to lease to the burial boys.

Ebola is bad news, but it hasn’t generated the same kind of fury as that other fast-spreading scourge, namely the Islamic State (IS). The recent beheading of US journalist James Foley has ratcheted up the outrage of American observers.

It’s certainly not the first beheading that IS has done. The group specializes in meting out barbarous punishments—decapitations, crucifixions, amputations. But just as Ebola’s impact became real for Americans when it infected people “like us”—two US missionaries in Liberia—the United States was prompted to act against IS when it began killing non-Muslims, first the stranded Yazidis and then the abducted journalist.

IS has spread quickly, and so has the panic that has accompanied its territorial acquisition. There have been the inevitable analogies to Nazism. But even those who don’t invoke Hitler are quick to use Manichean language to describe the IS challenge.

“We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer,” writes David Ignatius in a Washington Post commentary titled “The New Battle Against Evil.” “But stopping that evil is a harder task.”

The IS killers are a nasty piece of work, and their ideology is thoroughly malign. But I hesitate to use the language of good and evil. Such moralistic terminology presumes that they, the beheaders, are a Satanic force that can only be exorcised with whatever version of holy water our angelic forces dispense—air strikes, boots on the ground, military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, efforts in the community to dissuade angry young men from taking the next flight to Mosul.

We, on the other hand, are good. We would never behead anyone. Those we execute “deserve” their punishment (though the occasional innocent person might inadvertently fall through the cracks). And the civilian casualties from our military offensives, because we are by definition good, are simply mistakes. After all, we don’t publicly celebrate the deaths of Afghan civilians from our drone strikes (forty-five in 2013 alone) or the deaths of over 400 children in Gaza. But our protestations of innocence are little consolation to the families of the victims.

At what point do mistakes aggregate into something evil? At the very least, do they prevent us from claiming the mantle of good? And, of course, it’s not just the mistakes that are problematic but also the deliberate policies that, for instance, align Washington with dictators and other murderous actors. American disgust with IS may already have prompted intelligence sharing with the regime in Damascus, though the Obama administration has denied such deals.

Camus had some choice words for those who are reluctant to call evil by its name. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences,” he wrote in The Plague. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

Humanists perhaps disbelieve in pestilences. “I used to not believe in evil,” confesses Richard Cohen this week in a Washington Post column declaring a “return of evil” with ISIS. Once a liberal humanist, Cohen long ago remade himself into a liberal hawk.

I still consider myself a humanist. But my brand of humanism sees pestilence everywhere. Indeed, I tend to see pestilence not only in the acts of individuals but in the structures within which the plague takes root and spreads. And this is where the two plagues intersect, Ebola and IS. They both prosper where the immune system is weak.

When it comes to medical infrastructure, Africa definitely has a compromised immune system. The continent has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS (70 percent of those living with HIV are in Africa), cholera (major outbreaks took place recently in Senegal, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone), and malaria (an African child dies every minute from this disease). Ebola has spread rapidly because of critical shortages in medical staff and supplies.

But the deeper reason is environmental: the clear-cutting of forests that have served as a traditional barrier to pathogens. West Africa has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, losing nearly a million hectares a year. The forests are Africa’s natural defenses, and Ebola is a sign that these defenses have been fatally weakened. What used to stay in remote villages now spreads quickly to urban areas.

The recent victories of IS in Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, suggest not a breakdown in the environmental system but in the political one. IS is not simply a band of serial killers. They have a distinct ideology and set of political motives. Nor does it matter whether they are operating in a formally dictatorial or democratic environment. IS thrives both where Assad rules with an iron fist and where Saddam is long gone.

The common denominator is chaos. IS has ruthlessly expanded in the gray areas beyond the reach of the rule of law. In Syria, it has prospered in regions that already broke loose from the country during the uprising. In Iraq, it took advantage of a paralyzing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni that left the northern reaches of the country tenuously connected to the central government.

Local governance, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian, serves the same function as the forests of West Africa. Such governance holds society together. When it deteriorates, the very cellular structure breaks down. In Ebola, the cell walls fray and the patient bleeds out. With a virus like IS, the fibers of the social fabric fray and large sections of the country bleed out.

There are, of course, many differences between a pestilence like Ebola and a movement like IS. But they are both the result of systemic breakdown. They are opportunistic infections.

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In both cases there are no magic pills. Even if we come up with an antidote to this version of Ebola, as long as we continue to cut down the forests of Africa, more potent versions will continue to appear and spread. And if we attempt to obliterate IS only with bombs or boots on the ground, it will simply pop up somewhere else where the conditions favor such desperate efforts to create a totalitarian order. Instead we should focus on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena—and our role in helping to perpetuate these conditions.

Camus recommended vigilance. Pestilence, he concluded, “bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and…perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” The current plagues have certainly been a bane. Whether they also help to enlighten us remains to be seen.

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ISIS: The Spoils of the ‘Great Loot’ in the Middle East

ISIS Guard

ISIS fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Mosul in 2014. (Reuters/Stringer) 

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

“So far as Syria is concerned, it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy.”    – T.E. Lawrence, February 1915

It was a curious comment by the oddball but unarguably brilliant British agent and scholar, Thomas Edward Lawrence. The time was World War I, and England and France were locked in a death match with the Triple Alliance, of which Ottoman Turkey was a prominent member. But it was nonetheless true, and no less now than then. In the Middle East, to paraphrase William Faulkner, history is not the past; it is the present.

In his 1915 letter, Lawrence was describing French machinations over Syria, but he could just as well have been commenting on England’s designs in the region, which Allied leaders in World War I came to call the “Great Loot”—the imperial vivisection of the Middle East.

As Iraq tumbles into yet another civil war, it is important to remember how all this came about, and why adding yet more warfare to the current crisis will perpetuate exactly what the “Great Loot” set out to do: tear an entire region of the world asunder.

Divide and Conquer

There is a scorecard here filled with names, but they are not just George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice—though the latter helped mightily to fuel the latest explosion.

They are names most people have never heard of, like Sixth Baronet of Sledmere Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot. In 1915, these two mid-level diplomats created a secret plan to divvy up the Middle East. Almost a century later that imperial map not only defines the region and most of the players, but continues to spin out tragedy after tragedy, like some grotesque, historical Groundhog Day.

In 1915, the imperial powers’ major goal in the Middle East was to smother any expression of Arab nationalism and prevent any unified resistance to the designs of Paris and London. France wanted Greater Syria, Britain control of the land bridges to India. The competition was so intense that even while hundreds of thousands of French and British troops were dying on the Western Front, their secret services were blackguarding one another from Samarra to Medina, maneuvering for position for when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was the compromise aimed at ending the internecine warfare. France would get Greater Syria (which it would divide to create Lebanon), plus zones of influence in northern Iraq. Britain would get the rest of Iraq and Jordan and establish the Palestine Mandate. All of this, however, had to be kept secret from the locals, whom the British and French incited to rebel against imperial Ottoman rule even as they plotted to impose their own.

The Arabs thought they were fighting for independence, but London and Paris had other designs. Instead of the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and access to the Mediterranean the Arabs had been promised, they would get the sun-blasted deserts of Arabia and the rule of monarchs, who were easy to buy or bully.

However, to run such a vast enterprise through the use of direct force was beyond the power of even London and Paris. So both empires transplanted their strategies of exploiting religion, sect, tribe and ethnicity—which had worked so well in Indochina, India, Ireland and Africa—to divide and conquer, adding to it a dash of chaos.

The French put the minority Christians in charge of Lebanon to keep down the majority Sunnis and Shiites. They recruited the minority Alawite Shiites in Syria to head up the army that ruled over the majority Sunnis, while the British installed a Sunni king in Iraq to rule over the country’s majority Shiites. In Palestine the British used Zionism much as they were using Protestantism in Northern Ireland to keep down the native Catholic Irish and keep both communities divided. Communities ended up fighting one another rather than their imperial masters, which, of course, was the whole point of the matter.

Now those demons are on the loose.

Names on the Ledger

There are new players in the Middle East since Sykes and Picot drew up their agreement. Washington and Israel were latecomers, but eventually replaced both imperial powers as the major military forces in the region.

The enemy of the “Great Loot” was secular nationalism, and the United States, France and Britain have been trying to overthrow, isolate, or co-opt secular regimes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya since they first appeared. The rationale for the hostility is that secular regimes were run by dictators. Many have been, but they’re arguably no worse than the Wahhabi fanatics in Saudi Arabia or the monsters the Gulf monarchies have nurtured in Syria and northern Iraq.

Why is Syria called a dictatorship when Saudi Arabia is not? This past February, the kingdom passed a law equating anything that offends “the nation’s reputation or its position”—including dissent, the exposure of corruption and campaigns for reform—with “terrorism.”

The list of names on the ledger of those who nurture terrorism in the Middle East is long. Yes, it certainly includes the Bush administration, which smashed up one of the most developed countries in the region, dismantled the Iraqi state, and stoked the division between Sunnis and Shiites. But also the Clinton administration, whose brutal sanctions impoverished Iraq and eviscerated its middle class. And further back, during the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush pounded southern Iraq with toxic depleted uranium, inflicting a massive cancer epidemic on places like Basra. It was Jimmy Carter and the CIA who backed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, because the Baathist dictator was particularly efficient at torturing and killing trade unionists and members of the Iraqi left.

Not to mention members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, along with associated states Morocco and Jordan—that fund the Islamic insurgency in Syria. Some of those countries may decry the excesses of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, but it was they who stoked the fires in which ISIL was forged.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also on that list. It is through Turkey’s borders that most fighters and supplies pass into Syria. So is the Obama administration, which farmed the insurgency out to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and is now horrified by the creatures that those Wahhabist feudal monarchies produced.

France’s Imperial Grudge

And don’t forget T.E. Lawrence’s French.

Paris has never forgiven the Syrians for tossing them out in 1946, nor for Damascus’s role in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, which dethroned the French-favored Christian minority who had dominated the country since its formation in 1943.

The French have been enthusiastic supporters of the insurgency in the Syrian civil war and, along with the British, successfully lobbied the European Union to drop its ban on supplying the rebels with military hardware. Paris has also earned favor from Saudi Arabia by trying to derail efforts to find a solution to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. France is a member of the group of powers known as the P5+1—France, the United States, Russia, Britain, China and Germany—involved in talks with Tehran.

The Gulf Council praised France’s attempted sabotage, and Paris promptly landed a $6 billion contract to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s air defense system. It is negotiating to sell $8 billion worth of fighter-bombers to the Emirates and almost $10 billion worth to Qatar.

Saudi Arabia recently donated $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese Army on the condition that it be used to buy French weapons and ammunition. It is a somewhat ironic gift, since the major foe of the Lebanese Army lately has been Saudi-supported Wahhabists in the country’s northern city of Tripoli.

And that’s not all. Apparently French President François Hollande met with the foreign ministers of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates last September to discuss a plan for Pakistan to train a 50,000-man Sunni army to overthrow the Syrian government and defeat Al Qaeda–affiliated jihadist groups.

Members of that army may already be on their way to Europe, much as the mujahedeen from Afghanistan did a generation ago. According to Western intelligence services, more than 3,000 European Union citizens have gone to fight in Syria—ten times the number who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The gunman who killed four people on May 24 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels was a veteran jihadist from the Syrian civil war.

Sowing Chaos

For now, the Gulf monarchies see themselves as pulling the strings, but they have virtually no control over what they have wrought. Those Wahhabi fanatics in Syria and northern Iraq may do what Osama bin Laden did and target the corruption of the monarchies next.

The gulf countries are rich but fragile. Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is between 30 and 40 percent, and half the country’s 28 million people are under 25 years of age. In other Gulf nations a tiny strata of superrich rule over a huge and exploited foreign workforce. When the monarchies begin to unravel, the current chaos will look like the Pax Romana.

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But chaos has always been an ally of imperialism. “The agenda has always been about imposing division and chaos on the Arab world,” wrote longtime peace activist Tom Hayden. “In 1992, Bernard Lewis, a major Middle East expert, wrote that if the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity…. the state then disintegrates into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties.” And that is just the kind of disintegration that foreign powers have sought to exploit.

Military intervention by the United States and its allies will accelerate the divisions in the Middle East. If the White House is serious about stemming the chaos, it should stop fueling the Syrian civil war, lean on the Gulf monarchies to end their sectarian jihad against Shiites, pressure the Israelis to settle with the Palestinians and end the campaign to isolate Iran.

And tell the French to butt out.


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How John Maynard Keynes Can Save the Arab Spring

Syrian rebel

A Syrian Rebel. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

At first glance, the Arab region appears to have entered a new period of crisis—perhaps the greatest in its modern history. The Arab revolts of 2011 seem to have given way to a “Jihadi Spring,” with the civil war in Syria providing a haven for radical extremist groups from across the globe. As the crisis in Syria spills over into neighboring Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, the world is confronting a frightening revival of the Al Qaeda franchise.

In 2011, North Africa witnessed the dramatic downfall of three dictators: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. But in much of the region, “deep state” security apparatuses have proven more resilient than any one political leader. Cabals of military officers managed to frustrate democratic transition in Egypt and hold onto power in Algeria, with Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recently claiming landslide victories in sham elections that were largely boycotted by the progressive left. The oil-rich sheikdoms of the Middle East, meanwhile, have brutally suppressed any form of domestic opposition, while leveraging their huge cache of petrodollars to appease their restive citizens through a combination of expanded welfare and new employment opportunities.

More worryingly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a uniquely vicious offshoot of Al Qaeda, has upended the twentieth-century map of the Middle East. The shocking brutality of ISIS—and the overweening ambition of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—prompted the Al Qaeda “general command” led by Ayman al-Zawahiri to disown the group. After pulling off a lightning defeat of the Iraqi armed forces across much of the country’s western and northern regions, ISIS announced the formation of an “Islamic caliphate,” a new political entity at the heart of the Middle East that connects various Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq and Syria.

Just as the British Philosopher Edmund Burke decried the French Revolution for replacing monarchical stability with republican terror, many modern-day pundits have lamented, in varying forms, how the Arab Spring has supposedly paved the way for a renewed era of instability in an ever-combustible region. This mistaken narrative has allowed autocratic regimes across the world to use the slogan “stability” to smash and delegitimize any organized call for democratic freedom.

On closer inspection, however, German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel may provide a better framework to understand the likely trajectory of the Arab uprisings. Although cognizant of the immediate and terrifying outcome of the French Revolution, Hegel maintained that a true break with the past inevitably requires a violent rupture with the ancien régime—part of a dialectical transition toward a new historical epoch.

After decades of centralized, autocratic leadership, the advent of popular revolutions has naturally created new power vacuums, which have been temporarily filled by well-organized reactionary groups and extremist terrorist groups. But none of the above groups is likely to provide any lasting solution to the agonies of the Arab street, from massive youth unemployment to economic stagnation and political repression. Although the Wahhabi-Salafist ideology of the Al Qaeda franchise, and particularly the extremist version embraced by ISIS, appeals only to a small minority of people, the secular autocracies in places such as Algeria and Egypt, in turn, are recycled versions of long discredited post-colonial Arab regimes.

This lack of appealing alternatives is precisely where progressive forces can build on the democratic gains of the 2011 uprisings.

Perils of Revolutionary Transition

Strongmen in Algeria and Egypt may have managed to frustrate any meaningful democratic transition in the short-to-medium term, but neither Bouteflika nor Sisi has proposed any remedy to the myriad political and economic problems that afflict their nations.

The aging Algerian leader is struggling with health issues and has been barely visible to the public. There are serious concerns over the prospect of violent intra-regime jostling once Bouteflika passes away. In Egypt, Sisi’s popularity could melt away as soon as the majority of people realize how he and his colleagues in the military have little understanding of how to run the Arab world’s largest country. By violently crushing the Islamist opposition, the Algerian and Egyptian regimes have opened up the space for the liberal-democratic opposition to take the initiative.

As for ISIS, its emergence as a potent force for mayhem has had the unintended effect of unifying historic rivals such as Washington and Tehran, as both powers scramble to support the government in Baghdad. A warming in the relationship between the two countries could significantly strengthen the domestic position of pragmatists in both capitals, especially the Rouhani administration in Iran, which has tirelessly sought to repair Tehran’s broken ties with the West.

The rise of ISIS has also undermined the largely sectarian rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has come under local and international pressure to step down in favor of an “inclusive” government. Alarmed by the frightening ramifications of an extremist resurgence in their own backyard, Arab sheikdoms in the region have also cracked down on local supporters, including top-level officials, of jihadi groups in Syria and elsewhere. In short, both the patrons of “counterrevolution” and the forces of “jihadi revolution” are by no means secure, as pragmatists and progressive actors unify against a common threat.

But what of the Arab Spring? Today’s gloomy reading of it tends to overlook a fundamental factor, which not only explains the regrettable turn of the recent revolutionary upheavals, but also holds the key to resuscitating the democratic aspirations of the Arab street. And it is here that the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, arguably history’s greatest economist, could be of greatest help.

The Keynesian State

Reflecting on the roots of the Great Depression , Keynes analyzed the immanent instability of capitalism in the absence of proactive state intervention. Unlike Marx, however, he didn’t call for the abolition of capitalism. Instead he proposed a set of macro-economic policies to empower the state to manage the excesses of the markets for the benefit of the greater population.

His direct participation in the establishment of the Bretton Woods system paved the way for a measure of stability and openness in international trade, which in turn facilitated the rapid industrialization and recovery of economies across the world. Many developing and industrialized economies used Keynesian theories to strike an optimal balance between capitalist expansion and sustained national development. The result was the emergence of welfare states in the West and developmental states across Asia. This marked the “golden age” of capitalism.

But as Richard Posner intelligently observed, the heirs of Keynes failed to appreciate the necessity of preventing government “from exceeding the limits of optimal intervention.” It was this particular mistake, coupled with the devastating impact of the Vietnam War and the multiple oil crises in the Middle East, that allowed neoclassical economists to eventually marginalize Keynesian thinking, advocate “pro-market” policies and call for the retrenchment of the state in recent decades.

The 2007–08 Great Recession, however, served as a wake-up call by violently interrupting almost three decades of neoliberal economic stupor. The economic crisis undermined the naïve belief in orthodox economic models, which stubbornly defended the supposed rationality and self-correcting dynamism of impersonal markets.

Consequently, a growing number of policymakers and academics have come to realize the wisdom of Keynesian thought, which elegantly articulates the inherent necessity of judicious public management of economic cycles. No wonder that recent years have seen a huge push to both re-inject more Keynesian principles into the curricula of the world’s leading economic departments and espouse robust state participation in, and regulation of, both the national and global economy.

An Arab Economic Revolution

As I argue in How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Arab Uprisings, the 2010–11 Arab uprisings were fundamentally a reflection of the failure of the post-independence Arab states to internalize Keynesian economic thinking. There was neither a sober appreciation of the benefits of capitalism nor any effort to establish an autonomous, developmental state.

Many Arab states witnessed the emergence of quasi-socialist regimes, which were undemocratic, heavily militarized and dependent on strategic or hydrocarbon rents. These personalistic Arab regimes failed to institute genuine land reform, blocked the emergence of a vibrant entrepreneurial class and squandered their national resources in pursuit of autocratic consolidation—all at the expense of sustained industrialization and economic diversification. The result was an economic crisis in the 1980s, which forced much of the Arab world, especially non-oil-exporting countries, to undertake aggressive pro-market reforms over the succeeding decades.

Instead of transforming Arab economies into dynamic emerging markets, however, the economic liberalization of the 1990s allowed many autocratic regimes to outsource welfare responsibilities, transfer the ownership of state-owned companies to favored clients and abolish support mechanisms for strategic agricultural and industrial sectors. Although the pro-market reforms allowed Arab states to establish a modicum of macro-economic stability, the result was double-digit unemployment, widespread poverty, high dependence on food and commodity imports, and heavy reliance on speculative and service-oriented economic sectors such as tourism and real estate.

It is no surprise, then, that the 2007–08 Great Recession had a devastating impact on the Arab street, precipitating massive food insecurity and a macro-economic downturn across the Middle East. With minimal assets, fiscal resources and policy space for intervention, many Arab regimes had limited capacity to cope with the impact of the crises. In the absence of genuine democratic mechanisms to express their economic discontent, it was arguably just a matter of time before the middle and working classes would unite against the autocratic regimes—and spark a revolution.

Today, however, the Arab Transition Countries (ATCs) have failed to adequately appreciate the structural economic roots of the Arab Spring. None of the major post-revolutionary contenders for leadership has provided a coherent policy agenda to address systemic economic vulnerabilities. Instead, much of the public discussion has boiled down to questioning the democratic credentials and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots across the Arab world.

A cursory look at the ATCs reveals how post-revolutionary governments have largely pursued the macro-economic policies of the previous regimes. And this is precisely why there has been a wobbly march toward genuine democratic transition. Unless the ATCs establish a new economic paradigm, focusing on public welfare, inclusive growth, macroeconomic resilience and industrial and agricultural revival, there will be no genuine democratic transition.

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After all, beyond freedom of expression and ritualized electoral exercises, democracy is about establishing an egalitarian economic system that empowers the greater citizenry to fully participate in the shaping of the political order. Keynes’s ideas are the greatest guide to achieving an optimal balance between democracy and economic development, serving as the blueprint for the progressive-democratic forces that hold the promise of resuscitating the spirit of the 2011 revolutions.

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, moderate Islamists (especially the dominant Ennahda Party) and progressive liberals have managed to negotiate, albeit painstakingly, the foundations of perhaps the first truly democratic country in the Arab world. Having established a modicum of democratic political consensus, the next step for Tunisia is to embrace an egalitarian economic policy, which will translate rising discursive freedom and political openness into social justice for the majority of the people. The Arab spring is far from over.


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