Australian Flooding vs. U.S. Food Prices

January 17, 2011

By Kaeleigh Forsyth, Contributor

After weeks of cataclysmic rainfall in a continent on the other side of the world, the United States Department of Agriculture is telling consumers to gear up for a year of surging food prices.  Australia’s devastating flood has all but exhausted their crop supply, necessitating the importation of food from places in the world that could use it themselves.

In an increasing trend of large natural disasters offsetting food and energy prices around the world, these Queensland floods are expected to inflate global prices in wheat, fruit and vegetable crops. Crop destruction is already estimated at over $2.5 billion, notwithstanding the damage to their globally dominant coal industry, their permanent infrastructure, and the livestock supply that feeds the entire continent.

Weather-triggered crop output setbacks are already resulting in public riots in less developed places like Algeria and Mozambique, which do not get the benefit of affording importation alternatives when confronted with massive crop loss.  In an increasingly globalized and interdependent food industry, the repercussions of these natural disaster setbacks are no longer constricted to the geographical area where they occur.

World Bank Chief Robert Zoellick, who seeks to calm the panicking consumers, thinks we can still restructure markets to make them more resilient to natural disasters by establishing regional humanitarian reserves in disaster-prone and infrastructure-poor areas.  But with climate change making disaster-prone areas less and less predictable, are these suggestions short-term solutions to long-term and increasingly prevalent problems?


Hack Job

January 14, 2011

Men burn a picture of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as they demonstrate against Ben Ali on January 11, 2011 in Paris. Anger over a government crackdown on protesters in Tunisia grew Tuesday as a union official said 50 were killed in three days of violence, more than double a toll issued by the interior ministry. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

By Kaeleigh Forsyth, Contributor

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali appeared to have resigned last week, and he seemingly chose to make this alarming and unexpected announcement via….blog?

A letter of resignation was reportedly forged on the foreign minister’s personal website, entreating the citizens of Tunisia to be more graceful toward him and his family, and apologizing for the violence that he had caused during his tenure in the presidency.

Had the post been legitimate, a public apology from a long-time serving member of the government would have exposed some serious instability in the already precarious Tunisian leadership, especially considering that their army is about to be deployed across the country any day now while their number of civilian protestor deaths continues to rise by the second.

The forger of the letter appears to be a hacker who runs a website called takriz.com.  Hours after posting the fake resignation, they added two follow-up entries: one of a French icon which implored people to defend Internet freedoms, and the other showing a video of dead Tunisian protestors under the headline, “Look at this! Tunisia is being murdered by BEN ALI.”

This is the latest in a series of reports of hackers targeting Tunisian government websites in response to the strict government-imposed Internet censorship group known as “Ammar.”  These censorship protests raise compelling questions about the function of strict government censorship in the face of social unrest.  Is hacking governmental websites an effective approach to combating this censorship, or was momentary global exposure the culprit’s sole objective?


Beijing’s Ugly Duckling

December 18, 2010

Dai’s egg-dwelling

By Paul Nash, Contributor

Dai Haifei, a 24 year-old architect, has been ordered to remove his new home from Beijing’s streets.  Dai built his giant “egg” house on wheels six months ago, after graduating from Hunan University and going to work in Beijing, because he couldn’t afford to buy an apartment, which he reckons would cost him two or three hundred years’ wages.

He parked his egg, two months ago, beneath a tree across the street from his office in Haidian District, a northeastern suburb that Time magazine once dubbed China’s Silicon Valley, the key to its future and a “celebration” of the country’s “ability to change itself and become, once again, great among nations.”

There isn’t much that is grand or high-tech about Dai’s egg-dwelling.  Inside, there is a small bed, a water tank and an electric lamp powered by a solar panel on top.  The shell is an eco-friendly bamboo and wood framework, standing two meters high, covered with rough gunny sacks filled with fermented wood chips and grass seeds.

The seeds would have sprouted next spring, adding a welcome layer of insulation to the unheated pod, had municipal authorities not taken notice.  After seeing Dai in a local media interview, urban management officers did some head scratching and decided the egg was an “illegal residence” and promptly ordered it out.

Dai built the egg with less than $1,000, borrowed from his cousin.  His inspiration came from a concept called An Egg Laid by the City on display at his firm’s biennial design exhibition.  It seemed a practicable solution to the shortage of affordable housing for the city’s burgeoning migrant worker population.

The son of a construction worker and an office cleaner in Shaoyang, Hunan Province, Dai is what locals call a dream-chaser.  He is one of several million rural migrants who have flocked to Beijing in recent years looking for work, staying in the big city without a legal residence permit.  Many are content with inexpensive lodgings in outlying villages, but Dai obviously isn’t the typical migrant worker.  The money he saves on rent has allowed him, he says, to experience what his parents have never really had: a “petty bourgeoisie lifestyle.”  For Dai, this means hanging out in Beijing’s trendy cafés or periodically enjoying a sauna.

No one seems quite sure what to make of Dai’s egg.  Some dismiss it as a publicity stunt sponsored by the firm he works for.  Others are sympathetic to the way in which it speaks to the capital’s deepening socio-economic problems: the high cost of housing, wage disparities, a ballooning population, heavy pollution and the marginalization of migrant workers.

Dai’s egg certainly adds a bit of comic relief to these worries.  It is becoming evident, though, that what it symbolizes is hatching into an ugly duckling, a political quandary for a government struggling to bridge the nation’s widening economic and social divides, trying to find ways to transfigure this duckling into a swan gracefully.


Europe on Alert

November 21, 2010

Photo by Getty Images

By Brian J. Forest, Contributing Editor
In the latest in a series of threats to Europe this month, Germans are on high alert after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government warned of a possible attack from Islamist extremists.
Speaking Wednesday, Merkel’s interior minister, Thomas de Maziere, said the government was concerned that terrorists might be planning a so-called ‘Mumbai-style’ attack at the end of the year. He urged vigilance but cautioned the public to avoid panic and “not allow international terrorism to limit our lifestyles nor our culture of freedom.”
Even so, German law enforcement has stepped up patrols and officers are preparing for a busy holiday season. The New York Times reported Saturday that German officials are tracking two men from Pakistan’s Waziristan region who may be awaiting a shipment of explosive devices. Both are thought to have gone into hiding by dressing in Western-style clothing and staying away from telephones and the mosque. 
The weekly Der Spiegel also reported on a threat to the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin in early 2011, although many have dismissed that threat as overly speculative.
These threats come on the heels of a wave of package bombs shipped from leftist militants in Greece to foreign leaders—one of which was addressed to the chancellor herself—and a foiled terror attack in France.  Last week, five French nationals—four men and a woman—were arrested in connection with what the interior minister called a “conspiracy to prepare a terror attack.”
Parcel bombs originating from Yemen were also recently intercepted in the United Kingdom and Dubai. The Yemeni-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula boasted that the bombs required little more than “a few months of work and a few thousand bucks,” and that it planned to ship more.
Even with so many threats affecting Europe and its Western allies, officials have urged calm. Speaking in Lisbon on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Merkel assured the public that all necessary measures were being taken to ensure safety. She also sounded a note of defiance, saying that despite the plots, “we are determined not to be deprived of our free way of living by such threats.”


“Merchant of Death” to Stand Trial

November 19, 2010

Viktor Bout behind bars in Thailand. Photo by Reuters.

Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR) issued this interesting development, which may explain the intricate relationship between Viktor Bout, so-called “Merchant of Death” and Russian Intelligence. Bout was extradited to the United States from Thailand. On Wednesday, he pleaded not guilty to four terrorism-related charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing weapons to terrorists groups.  According to STRATFOR, his former backers are more concerned with what Bout might reveal.

Bout, a former Soviet Air Force officer who speaks six languages, started a logistics company after the Soviet collapse. His firm became a major arms distributor willing to provide products and transportation where no one else would go. (The United States once engaged him to ship material to Afghanistan and Iraq.)

He spent most of his time in Russia due to fears of arrest abroad. Thai Police arrested Bout in March 2008 in Bangkok after he met with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which Washington has labeled a terrorist organization. During the meeting, he agreed to sell the group $5 million in arms.

Russian officials frequently have protested developments in the case against Bout, who probably has connections to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. Moscow fears he might reveal his connections with intelligence and organized crime networks that reach high levels in the Russian government, a concern doubtless shared by other countries he dealt with. STRATFOR sources say he began to be cut out of deals with the Russian establishment at the same time the United States began to pressure his activities. In 2004, the United Nations placed travel restrictions on Bout, and the Bush administration ordered U.S. entities to cease doing business with him.

Two years ago, Bout would have been a great source for intelligence on arms networks and possibly Russian intelligence operations and Kremlin involvement in international conflict. While such information is no longer actionable, it remains Bout’s main bargaining chip with the prosecution. What Bout will reveal, and whether it will aid U.S. arms-trafficking and counterintelligence investigations, remains to be seen. Even if his information is dated, it will still provide good leads and allow for a good assessment of topics of interest to the United States.

Information from Bout also may play a role in the ongoing Kremlin wars, specifically the struggle over Russia’s intelligence agencies. Bout was rumored once to have had connections with some of the Kremlin’s most powerful players. He may have a larger role in what seems to be a brewing bureaucratic battle between the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, and the SVR, its foreign one. After the embarrassment of the 10 Russian spies arrested by the United States in June, a Russian official identified the defector who exposed them in a probable swipe at the SVR and its director, Mikhail Fradkov.


Russia’s Privatization Debate

November 18, 2010

Photo by Reuters.

By Graig Klein, Contributor

Russia is in the midst of debating an economic plan that would privatize and essentially “de-socialize” thousands of government owned companies and assets.  What makes Russia’s political and economic response to the global recession interesting is that it may provide the arena for the long anticipated showdown between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.  Although both leaders originally supported the Economic Ministry’s privatization proposal, several conservatives known as siloviki, serving in the Kremlin have voiced opposition to privatization. 

For those living in capitalist societies, the concept of privatization seems like an appropriate and obvious response to dwindling government funds and lack of external investment. But one must remember that although Russia is no longer the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the yokes of communism and socialism have not been fully broken.  Russia continues to maintain ownership, and therefore exclusive investment, revenue and technology rights, of several crucial and strategic assets including oil and natural gas fields.  By no means is Russia fully embracing capitalism by privatizing a laundry list of companies, in fact, according to the privatization plan, companies critical to national security such as Rosneft, an oil giant, would ultimately remain nationalized because at most, only 40 percent of critical companies would be available for private investment and ownership.  Although the plan is for limited privatization, it would still be a major step for Russia, a country that has foregone major privatization since the early 1990s when it undertook its first post-communism privatization maneuver. 

The more interesting aspect of the privatization plan is not the plan itself; it’s the debate it is creating.  The original privatization plan was supported by both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, but after the siloviki bloc voiced opposition, Russian leadership is faced with deciding between the original economic plan of privatizing limited shares of strategic companies or foregoing the privatization of such companies and sacrificing $29 billion.  The international political scene has watched as Medvedev has increasingly flexed his muscles in challenging Putin’s national policies, especially democratic values.  Medvedev argued that Russians were not as willing as Putin believed to sacrifice political rights and freedoms to pursue stability and economic prosperity. 

In Russia, economic prosperity acts like a phoenix, just as in the early 1990s when Russia first pursued industrial privatization, new industrial privatization and future economic growth may force allegiances aside and lead to the ultimate showdown between the two men. 

Putin has maintained a strong-hold on Russian politics since ascending to the Presidency and “tutoring” his successor, Medvedev, but the global recession and national security interests have forced Russia to not only break the yoke of nationalized industries, but also the yoke of Putin’s seemingly endless political control.  Although the two leaders originally supported the same plan, the siloviki bloc has forced the issue to be re-assessed which allows Putin and Medvedev to support opposing plans.  The global recession may provide the ultimate showdown.


Reasons to Love a Crisis

September 17, 2010

Guest contributor Harriet Riley takes a humorous look at youth on the world stage, and what the eight MDG challenges can offer a generation struggling for direction and identity.

Most people have been told by a parent or teacher that facing down a difficult task ‘builds character’. The challenge is a ‘learning experience’; you undergo ‘personal growth’ and so forth. Back in the old days, people were a bit more frank. They knew hard work forced you to work harder, so they actively flung young people into brutal situations, like wars for example, or Latin grammar, and were not sympathetic if they failed. Oddly enough, I have quite a lot of affection for this old fashioned notion. Let me try to explain why.

Almost everyone my age has been fronted by an elder complaining that Generation Y is ungrateful, lazy and arrogant. Of course, it’s easy to ignore them when you have your iPod on, but I take issue with the ones that say we are apathetic. In my books, apathetic is shorthand for cowardly. If anything, our generation has an excuse to turn its back on the world and complain that it’s all too hard. By the time we reach our parent’s age, climate change, peak oil and the attended chaos of war, food shortages and extreme weather will be threatening a new Dark Age. Most 20-somethings I know have ruled out ever having children due to the empty future they see for them. Everyone older than that is acting like the news is new, as if we didn’t know about climate change, malaria, and famines back in ‘88 when I was born. Well we did, and the delegates who attended the United Nations Youth Assembly at the UN headquarters this August, have grown up with that knowledge, wondering why nothing was being done to preserve their future.

The theme of the 7th Annual Youth Assembly was the Millennium Development Goals, bringing together nearly 600 diplomats and social entrepreneurs between the ages of 16 and 24 for plenary sessions, workshops and round table discussions on how they too get some world-saving action.

I noticed a few grown-up delegates smirking at the delegates, and giving them that sarcastic ‘yeah, you really care’ look. It makes me kinda mad. I’m angry not because we’re getting the blame for something we didn’t do–after all, who knew during the industrial revolution that fossil fuels would upset the atmosphere? Could James Watt even spell atmosphere?–but at the willingness of people to ignore these big, exciting problems when they come steaming down the line of history. Creating an unreal feud between the generations is, as the proverb goes, ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’. Constantly our society, just like the individual mind with its almost infinite capacity for cognitive dissonance, changes the topic of conversation to avoid having to talk about the big, sweaty elephant in the room.

But dealing with the MDGs is not a question of whose responsibility; it’s about the notion of responsibility itself. Problems like maternal health and gender equality are going to take all of us working together, no matter where we are from or how old we are. Taken together, the MDGs are the Gordian knot of the 21st century, binding up all the conflicts, crises and injustices our current economic and social system has spawned. It may seem ridiculous, given the number of lives lost each year to disease and hunger (goals 1 through 6), and the cataclysmically destructive changes that climate change will bring (goal number 7 asks us to ensure environmental suitability for future generations), but people are still searching for an excuse not to act. We are like that, we humans; we don’t want to deal with a problem until it is right on top of us, like an assignment for college that is due tomorrow.

Many a far-sighted person has spent sleepless nights trying to devise a way of produce the missing ingredient in our fight against extreme poverty and ecosystem collapse: Willpower. These wise and anxious actors are done coming up with technological and political solutions; those already exist, and are ready to implement when the order is given. All that remains is the courage–from leaders some say, from the community as a whole suggest others–to give it. These changes are extensive, indeed they are revolutionary, and will utterly transform the lives of billions in both the developed and developing world. Still, nobody seems willing to step up and take responsibility for their introduction.

We are all teenagers, in this sense, recklessly irresponsible with our environment. Like a dirty bedroom with one too many soggy pizza boxes festering under the futon, we have trashed our world, and now try to conceal the holes in the walls with posters of rock stars. The thing is, taking responsibility for the cleanup might be a lot more fun than we thought.

Every generation gets handed a challenge, each more daunting than the last. Our grandparents had to fight the World Wars. Our parents had to fight the notion of war as an acceptable idea. The character of a generation, and its place in history, is defined by how well it meets the task, just as the individual is moulded by their personal challenges. That is why I like the old fashioned notion of a test, and why I love the MDGs. Problems this big will forge characters so remarkable that future generations of restless youth will wish they had lived now, in the grip of these crises, just to see how well they would have coped.

Through organizations like the youth council, 23-year-old Firdaus gets to share her experience as a community health worker fighting water bourn diseases in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquakes, while Maia, 18, tells other how she set up the Friends of the Seven Lakes Foundation to protect a threatened ecosystem in the Philippines. Every single delegate had a success story about their activism, and a business-like approach to getting things done that reminds you more of Richard Branson than it does Martin Luther King. But these kids are a handful of workaholic over-achievers, right? No, they are pretty normal, and most have great fashion sense too. Gen Y is, after all, anyone born after 1985, the year of Live Aid. Activism on the grand scale (and better taste in music) has been soaking into their media-saturated personalities from birth, and exists to be tapped just below that apathetic, hipster veneer.

The problems that the MDGs aim to solve are nobody’s fault, but they are everybody’s responsibility. There is no enemy in this crisis, no country or sect to point the guns at. That’s what makes it such a complex and beautiful problem; it is only ourselves–our trait inertia–that we have to overcome. If we do it, we’ll be the noblest, most heroic generation in history. If we fail, through lack of communal will, were only letting ourselves down. The MDGs have the potential to heal entire continents, securing us a future without perpetual conflict and economic instability.

When you understand the dauntingly comprehensive task before us, to achieve all this in the next five years, you will know what kind of a person you are. Is it all too hard, kid, or is it a chance to build your character?