Category Archives: International Affairs

Emergence of New Systems

Last week the National Intelligence Council released its 2025 Global Trends report and naturally our Georgetown MSFS program was pretty interested in looking at it.  The report considers what the major themes and trends will be of the next couple decades and assesses how they will affect different countries, power structures, and ideologies.

It must have sucked for the NIC because at first the report was issued at 33MB and didn’t seem to be uploaded correctly.  It wasn’t until this weekend that the report was fixed and was only 8MB to download.  Lost a lot of readership that way.

Some of the report’s assessments I didn’t exactly agree with.  I felt that it sold international institutions short, saying countries and regions would seek pragmatic concerns — a return to a “mercantilist” and realist perspective — over recommitting to international institutions.  At the very least I think it’s up in the air on that count; Obama’s presence alone (see his calm, thoughtful interview on 60 Minutes) might bring people back to the table, especially with Europe seeking to reassert itself in the midst of its own internal problems with population and economic stagnation and with filling a power vacuum from America’s absence the last 8 years.

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Filed under Economics, Foreign, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Internet, Policy

Why I Chose Development

When I tell people I’m studying development at grad school, their eyes glaze over.  What does this mean?

Are they confused as to whether I mean business development as in getting new clients?  Or as in employee training?  Do they only understand what I mean if I say “international development” instead?

Do they know what the field is, but assume that it’s just for pot-smoking Peace Corps losers who want to go help the dark-skinned starving people who have AIDS?

Or do they REALLY know what the field is, and associate development with World Bank and IMF policies which were attacked for being neo-colonialist and usurious toward developing nations?

Those are the broad generalizations and stereotypes.

And what of me?  I just got out of the Army.  I went from trying to kill some people to learning how to help others.

To be honest, I applied to the Georgetown Masters of Science in Foreign Service program intending to study foreign policy and try to start a career in national security policy.  I figured I could continue doing what I was doing before, but at a higher policy level.

But all the classes I wanted to take were in development.  Why?  Because that’s where a lot of cool stuff is going on.

Here’s what international development is to me:  billions of people around the world still aren’t healthy, educated, and online.  They have no voice.  They have few rights.

Meanwhile, technologies in health, science, telecommunications and economics fields that study behavior, developing markets, microfinance, etc. are all converging.

Lift people out of poverty and you connect more people together.  You get new ideas, new influences, new businesses, new economic models, new politics.  You get substantially more new opportunities for business and sharing and progress.  You get more representation from around the world.

Have you heard of USAID?  DFID?  UNDP?  Probably not, but these organizations are using a lot of money to fund programs that are geared towards certain aspects of development, including human capacity, governance, gender equality, food and nutrition, etc.

In the past, funding and programs had disastrous results.  Economic theory has been most pushed by areas such as development theory, which has failed time and time again to deliver success to third world nations.  Models have been hyped up and then discarded as they’ve led to countless failures.  But all that work has enabled us to figure out the different elements of what goes into human organization:  politics, individual rational and irrational decision-making, economics, biological nutritional and health and hygiene needs, etc.

Also strongly influencing helping poor people has been foreign policy (why Afghan development and not Darfur?), economic ideology (Keynes vs. Friedman), and misinformation about what has succeeded and what hasn’t (AIDS awareness programs).

And how do you measure the success of programs and donor money?  This requires a study of basic accounting and balance sheets for microenterprise and microfinance, developing proper metrics to properly assess impact of projects (does counting the number of graduates in a country tell you improvement in overall education?), and understanding of how to win a development contract and then plan it through 5 years to completion with a fluctuating budget.

Do you know what that is, all that project design and evaluation stuff?  It’s basically the same thing as learning how to found and run your own startup.

That’s where I’m going with all this.  I want to start new companies.  If all the stuff above didn’t excite you, then I’m not sure what will, because all of what goes into development involves all aspects of the human condition and learning how people make decisions and what people need to be successful.  It involves all the fields where breakout technologies are currently coming from.  It involves being able to meet and interact with and do business with vastly more people.

Development rides a lot off social change, but also technological and economic change.  The implicit understanding, in my opinion, is that development is disruptive.  Sometimes this can be very bad, but hopefully it will be even better.  I seek the new, profitable ideas.

Even the coldest entrepreneur-oriented MBA, who writes development off as poor-paying jobs in bad countries, needs to understand where the market gaps are in order to found a new company and make a lot of money.  One would need to understand social needs, social trends, and the limits of said change within policy and economic environment contexts.  Learning straight-up MBA tools can help you only if it builds upon the potential you have to create your own ideas — that is, business training only helps you monetize pre-existing ideas — it doesn’t actually create new ideas.

That’s enough of my rant on that.  Probably a bit unfair, anyway.  I want to keep this pretty positive and insightful so I guess I’ll close by saying that I have been deeply suspicious of policy and aid but upon learning more about it, I’ve found that there’s just so much meat in the study of it that I’m loving every bit of it.

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Filed under Development, Economics, Education, Globalization, International Affairs, Policy

The Digital Africa Surprise

For my African Development class, I was required to write a 15-page paper on some aspect of African economic development. I chose to write about converging factors, such as the east coast Africa backbone coming online, the cloud, and cheap online tools, contributing to a surprising boom in African digital connectedness to occur in the next decade. Will people be paying attention?

Read my INAF-450 Paper 1:  “The Digital Africa Surprise”.

[I’ve also converted the paper to Google Docs if you’d like to read it. (and here’s the .doc format).]

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Filed under Africa, Communications, Computers, Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Internet, Mobile, Policy, Tech, Web

Webheads for Africa

This is an aside but today’s market rally (Dow +936) was astounding. I barely made any money though (sadface) because most of the move was on a gap up and I think you would’ve had to be suicidal to buy on Friday to hold over the weekend. To be honest I don’t know what the market will do next. I’m not sure the US has taken any moves to make the system more structurally sound. They’re just trying to recapitalize it.

So recently some web experts (inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s keynote at Web 2.0 New York) have been talking about how the community needs to start designing applications that matter; that is, not beer-drinking or sheep-slinging apps for the iPhone but apps for poor people in Africa.

Any time you hear this kind of stuff, watch out. It’s just either guilt or self-righteousness talking. The idea that some developer in San Francisco is going to make some app that Africans (the poorest of whom have slow data connections, no security, unstable food supplies, little defense against disease, et al will want more AJAX is absurd.

In fact this “help the dark-skinned people” is the same philosophy that’s been pushed in international development for the last few decades. It led to technocrats enforcing strict, paternal structural adjustment programs on countries that just don’t seem to get this whole free market thing. It led to flooding money to leaders who realized they just had to say they were trying to reform while in truth they used the money to keep themselves in power. It led to thinking that persists today that Africa is a backwards place that will never sort itself out.

The truth is that the American web folks should keep doing exactly what they’re doing: working on open standards and protocols and authentication systems that allow us to share data without compromising passwords so that we can ensure data control and privacy. That seems to be the big thing we need to work on, along with moving the tools into business and government. And you know what? That stuff will migrate immediately to African platforms and sites when they need it. What? Do webheads know the first thing about HIV prevention programs and deployment, agricultural productivity, or conflict management?

Right now I’m reading a lot more Africa blogs and it sounds like they’re developing their own culturally relevant tools. Could they use technical help? Sure, we all could. But they’re not sitting around waiting for the web experts to swoop in and bless them with tools that will lift them out of poverty.

So can we drop that canard now? It seems like the World Bank, IMF, and other international agencies have, and look! Things have quickly improved in developing nations worldwide.

[addendum: Tim Berners-Lee recently sensibly announced the World Wide Web Foundation, which I think has a more realistic approach for getting everyone wired and collaborating.]

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Filed under Communications, Development, International Affairs, Internet, Policy, Web

Bob Baer on “Fresh Air”

My mom and a classmate recommended that I listen to Baer speak on NPR. It’s a long interview, but well worth it. Listen here.

He talks mainly about Iran but it has implications in a lot of different areas. A lot of what Baer said challenged what I thought about what’s going on in the Middle East, and I thought I had a good handle on things! Here’s some things that I didn’t know/agree with before he explained it:

Arabs and Persians have transcended their racial differences: Sadr (Mahdi Army in Iraq) and Nasrullah (Hezbollah in Lebanon) under Iranian influence. Iran wants the US to leave completely from Iraq (hence it disagrees with the US leaving bases in Iraq) because it has Maliki in its pocket. Iraq will have to go to Iran for permission to act. In my opinion, this is still contrary to the intentionally false intel that Iran is supporting terror in Iraq — Iran wants stability in Iraq because otherwise war destabilizes Iraq.

Bin Laden is dead. He asks, “Where is he?” Never has anyone disappeared off the face of the map. Bin Laden wouldn’t dye his hair (this is true, he’s very pious). No DVDs recently?

Other points:

Says Iran is unique in history as a virtual empire: pulling strings with Shi’a in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Says we need a Manhattan Project for alternative energy. (also a term used in the debate) Fuck yes. Argues that Iran will light the Persian Gulf on fire and attack oil infrastructure if provoked.

Says Iran is not looking for war with Israel or the US; it can’t afford it. We should talk to the true leaders in Iran, not Ahmadinejad, to see what they’re serious about doing.

Sunni fundamentalism (such as Salafism) is dangerous and can’t be dealt with. Shi’ite fundamentalism is open to a deal. (true, Salafists refuse any modification to Islam, which blocks reform)

Ahmadinejad is as irrelevant as McCarthy was.

Olmert wants to give up West Bank and east Jerusalem. Iran sees itself as a rising star with a weakened US, no enemy in Iraq, weakened Taliban in Afghanistan.

Iranians are more likely to go up against Saudi than Israel — and if they get nukes, so will Saudi. (could Iran help us broker a deal in the Palestine?)

There’s a theory that Israel might try an attack on Iran, but probably only after the US election with a weakened Bush. But Israel doesn’t really want all-out war, Baer says.

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Filed under Foreign, International Affairs, Iraq, Policy, Security, Terrorism/Insurgency

The Debate on Pakistan

Last night I watched the presidential debate.  Whatever.  But one part that really pissed me off was when Obama and McCain talked about Pakistan (here’s a transcript).

First off, McCain mispronounced or did not know the new Pakistani president’s name, Zardari, as “Kadari”.  While McCain knew a lot of past leaders in the old NATO playground of eastern Europe, his flub on Zardari falls in a long line of flubs by senior American leaders on Muslim names.  As an Arabic linguist, I know that there is only one conclusion:  complete ignorance of Muslim culture.  But I guess we knew that already.

Second, McCain claimed that Pakistan was a failed state before General Musharraf (yes, “General”…) took over.  What a fantastic piece of revisionism.  Pakistan was enjoying a rather democratic period in its history with Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who were not altogether uncorrupt but who are now (after Musharraf’s ouster) still prominent figures of Pakistani democracy.

So what McCain was saying was that Pakistan was a failed state until General Musharraf undertook a coup d’état and would later try to arrest a Supreme Court judge, tease along a dog-like US eager for bin Laden’s head, and try to obtain lifetime rule.

When people criticize the US for speaking about democracy but undertaking and espousing anti-democratic views of other nations, this is what they are referring to!

A last note on McCain.  I can’t confirm this but I’m pretty sure McCain falsely claimed that he traveled to Waziristan.  Waziristan, as you might know, is an area in northwestern Pakistan outside of the government’s control and firmly Talibanized, lawless, and incredibly dangerous not only for any white man but for any foreigners.  I can’t imagine McCain went to Waziristan in any shape or fashion.  If he did, he was part of the greatest covert operation ever, involving a wonderful disguise of his skin color, clothing, linguistic abilities, religious belief, etc.  The only way Americans get into Waziristan is with massive special operations escort.

Obama on the other hand was better, but disappointing.  He wants to send more troops to Afghanistan (and I imagine McCain does too).  Afghanistan will not be contained by American forces, no matter how many we send in.  What is the historical precedent?  What are we going to do there?  Wall off Kandahar and Kabul?

It’s veterans like me who will have to fill the slots to go to war there.  What will we accomplish?  Iraq is a dismal failure, despite McCain’s promises that it’s wildly successful, and it will be even worse in Afghanistan, the home of mujahed legend, where population density is sparse and economic activity is even lower.  That Obama and McCain do not recognize that Waziristan is outside of Pakistani control (read NYTimes’ recent article on the subject), even after very bloody and humiliating attempts by the Pakistani military to contain it, is haunting.  Our politicians are trying to remain “strong” on terror but they have no long-term focus, or even one that takes into account international relations theory.  But then again, even the Pakistani experts are wrong on this issue.

What we should do in fact is withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and during the logistical flight mess, attack Waziristan and FATA.  It might even be worth doing so while troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We should withdraw funding to Pakistan (and Israel, and Iraq, and…).  My logic is that we know that bin Laden and Zawahiri are in FATA somewhere.  We have set up a large martial law-like apparatus in airports worldwide, which should have been a temporary move instead of a permanent one.

If we were to use our offensive military advantage in FATA, we could disrupt and flush out long-entrenched senior leaders.  They know they are perfectly safe there for now, even while we put clamps down on the rest of the world.  But if they are forced to move, we will generate intelligence and have better leads on them, especially if they attempt to flee to potential future havens like Yemen.

But this must be combined with withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This will drain the mujahed solidarity more than you might think.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Yes, they will celebrate another “victory”, but it will not collapse the US like it did the Soviet Union.  I hope.  The financial crisis here at home has made that less clear.

One problem in Pakistan is that it’s a nuclear state.  Destabilizing the government could cause nuclear weapons to get in the hands of Al-Qaeda, which does indeed desire to use nuclear weapons against its enemies.  But wouldn’t its arsenal be fairly centralized and easy to protect?  Couldn’t we (or China, going by that Wiki article above) help to secure those arms and thus have an avenue to cooperate with Pakistan while going into FATA?  I understand the concern on this issue but don’t think it’s a deal-killer.

But they will lose incentive for arms flows (the US is flooding Muslim nations with weapons), ease of access to killing Americans, ease of training and impact evaluation for missions, public support for jihad.  The US can shore up its domestic support, re-tool its military, and stop draining its coffers.  Regionally, neighbors of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq will have to close their borders.  Up till now, they’ve had a strong incentive to open their borders:  they’ve been able to release their extremists and send them to fight the jihad in other countries, increasing their security by ridding themselves of problem people.  With an outside enemy gone, they will have to return to their pre-Iraq postures.

I believe in sovereignty and self-determinism and all that, but I do believe that we have a very simple mission:  kill bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Even the dumbest soldier understands that mission.  But we have failed for about seven years in this mission.  That is unconscionable.  Critics would say that the mission has changed, or that bin Laden’s death will not end jihad.  No, it will not end the jihad, but killing or capturing key leaders of insurgencies substantially reduces the institutional capacity of an organization.  It is also an incredibly simple metric for governments to pursue.

And to be honest, how politically unpopular would it be to say that we will go balls-to-the-wall to kill bin Laden in his safe haven, regardless of Pakistani “sovereignty”?  They don’t control FATA, and we have history on our side when we almost got bin Laden in Tora Bora.

This scenario won’t happen.  We may get lucky and nab bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Both parties will claim success.  I guess the last question I should leave you with is, “If we’re not going into FATA, then whose interests would it be in to make sure we never do?”

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Filed under Foreign, International Affairs, Policy, Security, Terrorism/Insurgency

Tim O’Reilly on Priorities

Good video from the Web 2.0 conference in NYC. O’Reilly refers back to the divergence between what software developers are working on (silly Facebook apps) and all the major problems in the world which they are NOT addressing.

As a development student with a tech background, I see this first-hand. Hell, that’s why I went into development in the first place, despite my interests in other areas like counter-terrorism and foreign policy. What are we going to do about the bottom billion, or the increasing income gap?

However, I think it would be unrealistic to ask programmers to have much of an impact in Africa or among the most disconnected poor…

Still, worth watching:

http://www.web2expo.blip.tv/#1283514

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Filed under Economics, International Affairs, Internet, Web