Archive for ‘South Asia’

Bangladesh and Sweatshop Economics

By , 10 May, 2013, No Comment

Very belatedly, posting the link to my debut piece for the Guardian. I look at the debate about the economics and ethics of sweatshops that has erupted in the wake of the Dhaka factory collapse last month. In particular, I’m intrigued by the logic of sweatshop apologists, who argue that because individual workers chose to work in these sweatshops over available alternatives, sweatshop jobs are the best possible jobs in Bangladesh. This is rational choice theory taken to an absurd Panglossian extreme, where everything that happens in a market economy must be good because if it wasn’t good, it wouldn’t be happening. It’s a way of thinking that strips out A. any normative analysis of what is a good choice B. any real engagement with the context in which choices are made. You can read the piece here.

Pakistan: Women’s Empowerment and the Women’s Vote

By , 22 March, 2013, No Comment

Political stalemate continues in Islamabad, where government and opposition leaders have failed to reach a deal on an interim government. While a parliamentary committee meets to resolve the issue, the outgoing Prime Minister is governing the country without a cabinet or parliamentary oversight. Lucky him.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking at issues that will color the upcoming election and I’m particularly intrigued by the government’s record on women’s issues.

Pakistan is a patriarchal society and that is reflected in its politics. Although women have had the right to vote since independence, female voter turnout has historically been low. That may be about to change.

The Express Tribune reports that the government has, over its five-year run, increased female voter registration by 88%, and the nearly 40 million female voters account for 44% of voter registration over all.

That’s due in large part to a popular cash-transfer program for poor women, the Benazir Income Support Program or BISP, introduced in 2008. The program has been immensely popular, and compared to other areas of Pakistani bureaucracy, relatively corruption-free. Indeed, the Asian Development Bank recently announced  a $200 million loan to help BISP to expand its work.

Its economic impact, however, is far less certain. A project manager for BISP tells me most of the recipients are spending their cash on food and other necessities. It’s not enough money for women to save and invest in education, health care or ventures that might actually lift them out of poverty for good. And with high inflation (Pakistan’s CPI is up 80% since 2008), the cash is of limited value.

A more important benefit of the program is political. In order to receive cash payments, women were required to register for national ID cards, and thereby for the electoral rolls. If those 40 million women exercise their new voting power in May, they may break heavily for the government that has been transferring them cash, a possibility not fully taken into account by polls that focus on registered voters from the previous cycle.

Women are likely to thank the government also for its legislative record. In its five year term, the National Assembly passed acts against acid attacksworkplace harassment and sexual harassment in public placesbanned forced marriages and the withholding of women’s property rightscreated a government commission on girls’ and women’s rights; and elected its first female speaker.

And yet, as the security situation in the country has worsened, women’s rights have been eroded on the ground. From the shooting of Malala Yousafzai last fall to the murder of a Karachi social worker earlier this month, militant groups have disproportionately targeted women and girls. Meanwhile, seeking to pacify these extremists, local government agencies have outsourced critical public services to religious charities with anti-woman views.

The People’s Party’s inability to curtail the violence is a huge failure in its own right, but it has also served to undermine the effects of some of the government’s best policies.

Back In Pakistan

By , 15 March, 2013, No Comment

I’m back in Pakistan today, for the first time since I ended my stint as a foreign correspondent three years ago. I’m here because a risky but incredibly important thing is about to happen. For the first time in the country’s history, a democratically elected government, having served out its full term, is going to hand over to another democratically elected government in a constitutionally sanctioned process.

Pakistan’s constitution provides for a caretaker government – whose composition must be agreed upon by both government and opposition parties – to govern from the moment the outgoing team steps down until elections can be held. This government’s term officially expires tomorrow, March 16th, and elections are expected to take place in early May.

Yet with 24 hours left, the composition of the caretaker government remains something of a mystery. The leading opposition party, PML-N, put forward its list of nominees last week, but government leaders dismissed those names. The government’s own list of recommendations is out today and backchannel discussions are underway to find a solution by tomorrow. The Express Tribune has published a useful set of bios of the contenders.

Meanwhile, both of the major parties have unveiled their electoral manifestos.

The governing People’s Party manifesto focuses on making populist promises to the country’s poor: expanding a cash-transfer program for poor women, raising the minimum wage and promising to keep energy prices low. There is an interesting section on addressing Pakistan’s youth bulge and youth unemployment, proposing a scheme by which young people would be provided with training and work experience opportunities with the goal of enabling them to find formal work or start their own businesses. “A large proportion of the jobs created will be in the social sector (elementary education, basic health care) and will form part of the Party’s programme for the expansion of social services,” says the manifesto. It’s a nice idea, like David Cameron’s workfare program crossed with Americorps, but it’s exactly the kind of structural change that the PPP has failed at implementing over its five year term, so color me skeptical.

It’s not just the security situation, which has gotten steadily worse over the government’s run, or the cloud of corruption and incompetence that hangs over day-t0-day administration. The country’s economy is in dire straits. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence is damning in its section on Pakistan:

Pakistan, with its small tax base, poor system of tax collection, and reliance on foreign aid, faces no real prospects for sustainable economic growth. The government has been unwilling to address economic problems that continue to constrain economic growth. The government has made no real effort to persuade its disparate coalition members to accept much-needed policy and tax reforms, because members are focused on retaining their seats in upcoming elections. Sustained remittances from overseas Pakistanis (roughly $13 billion from July 2011 to June 2012, according to Pakistan’s central bank) have helped to slow the loss of reserves. However, Pakistan has to repay the IMF $1.7 billion for the rest of this fiscal year for money borrowed as part of its 2008 bailout agreement; growth was around 3.5 percent in 2012; and foreign direct investment and domestic investment have both declined substantially.

Indeed, the government’s record has been so dismal that many Pakistan watchers thought it unlikely the PPP would survive a five-year term at all.

Many parties helped get the government this far, but particular credit goes to both the army chief General Kayani, and the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who could have rocked the boat by pushing for military takeover or early elections during the government’s vulnerable moments. In the case of Sharif, that’s an entirely pragmatic choice. He surmised, as I wrote 4 years ago, that the government’s poor performance combined with the collapse of Pervez Musharraf’s party (PML-Q) following his fall, would make him the frontrunner in any elections. So he chose to wait it out in Punjab province, which his party controls, and exploit the contrast between the PML-N’s record in Punjab and the national party’s floundering. I’ll be looking at that record in detail while I’m here.

But that’s not enough to ensure that Sharif has a third shot at the Prime Minister-ship (a post he held twice in the 1990′s): current polling suggests a hung parliament and negotiations to bring a coalition government into place. In those negotiations, Imran Khan, the ex-cricketer whose party has risen to an unlikely third place by appealing to young people and those disaffected from mainstream politics, is likely to play a critical role as a potential king-maker. His manifesto will be released on the 23rd, but I am hoping to sit down with him before then and talk about his priorities and the audience he’s reaching that the major parties are not.

I’ll be updating this blog and posting for Forbes while here, so stay tuned.

Zero Dark Thirty: A Review

By , 20 February, 2013, No Comment

Last night, I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I expected to be disappointed, but I did not expect just how much the film would irritate me. Here are the four biggest problems I had:

1. The film is inaccurate.

Despite screenwriter Mark Boal’s promise not to play ‘fast and loose’ with history, there is a lot of sloppiness to his script.

The majority of the film is set in Pakistan, where CIA employees work out the U.S. embassy compound. The protagonist, Maya, drives her own car in and out of this compound, something few women in Pakistan, and no senior officials, do.

When two agents sit down with a prisoner for a meal, he’s served hummus and tabbouleh. This is laughable. Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern country, and no one there is eating hummus, unless they are going to ethnic restaurants.

When CIA operatives masquerade as aid workers offering vaccines to get bin Laden’s DNA, the film misstates the vaccine being offered (it was hepatitis B, not polio) and doesn’t address the consequences of using humanitarian workers as a cover, thereby discrediting NGOs that provide real aid to Pakistanis.

I could go on a long time picking out details like this, but the point is: to anyone who has any firsthand experience of Pakistan or the ‘war on terror’ in South Asia, the movie is highly implausible.

2. The film glorifies torture.

It is no secret that there is a lot of time spent on torture in this film, from the opening water-boarding scene to later segments featuring forced nudity, dog collars, and a grown man confined in a small wooden box.

What makes the film abhorrent, however, is not that it depicts torture – it would have been inaccurate to exclude it entirely. The problem is in the way it is depicted. Maya’s initial discomfort with torture is something she has to overcome, and we are encouraged to view it as part of her personal growth when she does. Later, when President Obama ends the torture program, we are encouraged to see it as a bureaucratic annoyance.

When the White House asks for hard evidence – photos, phone logs or DNA – that the Abbottabad compound houses bin Laden, Maya’s boss replies, “We lost the ability to tell that when we lost the detainee program.” That statement is presented uncritically, with no one in the room challenging it. It summarizes the position of the film on torture, which is that it was central to CIA success.

As people with knowledge of the matter have pointed out, this is a highly inaccurate claim, not least because in a real room of intelligence officers, there would have been more dissent. Yet it would be an immoral claim whether it was accurate or not, because torture is unequivocally wrong even if it can be effective.

3. The film pretends to be journalism.

My biggest problem with Zero Dark Thirty, however, isn’t in its Orientalist depiction of Pakistan or its abhorrent justifications of torture. It is the film’s utterly dishonest attempt to cloak these views under the mantle of journalism.

Its opening title, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is a claim to journalistic authority. It’s a much stronger claim than the standard “based on a true story” we’re used to seeing in historical fiction. Presenting it at the start of the film, rather than during the credits, accompanied by audio of real phone calls from the collapsing World Trade Center, is a way of making an explicit plea that we interpret what follows as fact. Director Kathryn Bigelow herself has referred to the film as a ‘reported’ work and an ‘imagistic version of reportage.’

Lots of viewers – the ones who don’t have any expertise on this topic – will take these claims at face value, and thereby walk away with the conviction that all the film’s fictionalizations are factual, that this is a work of journalism. That is wrong.

Bigelow and Boal are retreating behind the argument that art should be weighed against its fealty to a ‘higher truth’ not against political context. I am skeptical of this notion, but it simply doesn’t apply to a work that has been marketed as nonfiction.

4. All art is political.

Even without its pseudo-journalistic framing, the film would still be problematic.

All culture happens in a political context. Art that aims to be ‘neutral’ by simply presenting ‘the way things are’ is still political. When you present political context as ‘the way things are’ as opposed to ‘the way individuals have chosen for things to be’ you are normalizing the prevailing political order, and thereby helping to sustain it.

This film normalizes not only the torture apparatus, but also the validity of spending ten years and billions of dollars on the bin Laden search in the first place. Plenty of reports suggest that the al Qaeda center of gravity long ago moved away from bin Laden to splinter groups elsewhere, or to lone militants radicalized online.

There are good arguments for the significance of catching bin Laden, but the film does not allow its characters to have this debate. The head of the CIA’s operation in Pakistan voices skepticism about Maya’s project. But he is never taken seriously by his peers (or the audience) and is fired from his post in disgrace. The film is on Maya’s side by default, and the audience in my theatre clapped at bin Laden’s death.

Bigelow is a talented director and the film is well made. But she uses the war on terror and claims of historical accuracy as a cheap backdrop for her characters’ stories, refusing to engage in any real way with the moral implications of doing so.

That’s not artistic subversion. It’s disgraceful callousness, and deserves to be called out as such.

China’s ‘String of Pearls’ – Real or Fake?

By , 2 February, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up looking at the Chinese investment strategy in South Asia, and in particular, the theory that China is acquiring a ‘string of pearls,’ a network of strategic assets in Pakistan, Burma, Nepal et al that will encircle and contain India. My post is a response to a post by Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy, in which he contends that the ‘string of pearls’ is something western journalists cooked up in our imaginations because it feeds into fears about Big Scary China. I disagree.

My post argues that the ‘string of pearls’ is a real strategy, an extension of longstanding Cold War alliances China had in the region, and that its primary function is economic, not military. But I concede that the strategy may be failing or weakening, in part because China is growing wary of Pakistan, in part because China is growing less wary of India, and in part because the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has altered regional dynamics.

Read it all here.

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

Some Recent Things Wot I Wrote

By , 26 June, 2012, No Comment

I try to keep this blog up to date with what links to things I write elsewhere, but (as those who follow me on Twitter will know), this site’s been experiencing some downtime of late, and for much of the last week, I wasn’t even able to log in to it to post a status update. So, just in case you’ve missed these pieces, here’s what I’ve been up to during the hiatus:

1. Commenting on a slightly paradoxical hunger crisis in India: more agricultural output, but less food in the hands of the poor. Cause: Corrupt and inefficient government food subsidy program.

2. Examining the economic impact of Title IX, which is 40 years old this week. Short version: it made American women richer and more successful and helped narrow the gender achievement gap.

3. Taking the Atlantic to task for a cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” My take: neither can men (a fact the author overlooks) and who ever said ‘having it all’ was the goal? The piece is touching a nerve with a lot of readers, and I’m getting a lot of fascinating, often critical, feedback which I may revisit in a follow-up post.

I didn’t mention this in my Forbes piece, but the Atlantic does seem to have a penchant for personal essays in which individual writers frame regrets or frustrations about their experiences in critiques of feminism from within feminism. This piece reminded me quite a bit of last year’s ‘All the Single Ladies‘ and the previous year’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in that respect, even though those pieces were about romantic, rather than professional, struggles. There’s an awful lot that’s wrong with being a woman today, but feminism isn’t the root of it. It’s almost always our best shot at making things better. I’m so very tired of the Atlantic suggesting otherwise.

Bin Laden Dead: The Sovereignty Debate

By , 6 May, 2011, 1 Comment

A post on the legal status of U.S.-Pakistan relations right now. Verdict: they’re pretty ambiguous.

Thankfully, for the moment, the United States doesn’t need to defend its actions on Sunday because Pakistan is not pushing it. For this particular raid. But the Pakistani government has been very clear that a future raid–on other high value targets believed to also be in Pakistan, say–would be received as a hostile act and merit retaliation.

Legally, most scholars I’ve spoken to say an official statement saying ‘no’ has to be respected. Or at least, explains Gabriella Blum, a professor at Harvard Law School, it constitutes a reclaiming of sovereignty temporarily, a resetting of the accountability clock, and has to be taken–whether this seems plausible or not–as a promise to try again. The United States would have to build up a new case for Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to combat terrorism if it wanted to go in again. To continue to pursue covert raids without a break now could very easily be described as a attack on Pakistan. That’s quite concerning, since it appears from the recent re-shuffling of CIA and Pentagon leadership, that more covert raids and other intelligence-heavy operations are going to be a staple of the Obama Administration’s war on terror.

If you need further enticement, there’s a clip from the West Wing. Read here.

Bin Laden Dead: Pakistan Responds

By , 3 May, 2011, No Comment

Have started a new post tonight, with some information from the Pakistani government on their role. Probably best to read yesterday’s post as background first.