Good News… Sorta

From BBC News:

The UN General Assembly has passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, with the ultimate aim of abolishing capital punishment.”

Yay!!… Oh wait…

It voted 104 in favour and 54 against with 29 abstentions on a resolution which, while non-binding, reflects the view of most member states. Unusually, the US sided with countries like China and Iran to oppose it.”

Yeah, that’s a big surprise. </snark>

Oh, and rule #983842 of bad faith – when you do something questionable as far as human rights are concerned, and you don’t want to be questioned or criticized, scream cultural imperialism. It works every time:

The vote followed a heated debate in the Human Rights Committee of the UN as Singapore accused countries in favour of the moratorium on the death penalty of trying to impose their values on the rest of the world, the BBC’s Laura Trevelyan reports from the UN.”

Haven’t They Seen Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home?

Per the New York Times:

The United States is pushing Japan to suspend its hunt of humpback whales, and the American ambassador to Tokyo said an agreement to stop it may have already been reached. Japan dispatched its whaling fleet to the southern Pacific last month in the first major hunt of the endangered species since the 1960s.

Could we please leave the freaking whales alone?

Update: from the BBC, Japan decides to leave the freaking whales alone (for now). The Online Microcredit Lending Revolution

As someone interested in issues of global poverty, development and aid, I am of two minds when it comes to microcredit: the lending of small amounts of money, mostly to women, in the poorest countries in the world, in order for these women to start a small business and become self-sufficient. As is now well-known, microcredit was initiated by economist Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, through what is not the multimillion dollar Grameen Bank. Yunus’s efforts were rewarded by a Nobel Prize for Peace.

Since then, microcredit schemes have expanded and many program now exist in various peripheral countries, some for-profit, non-for-profit. One such organization is Kiva, an online microlending organization made famous by Bill Clinton in his latest book on giving. As this report from the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) states:

Kiva offers investment options that appear to revolutionise the interface between giver and receiver, lender and client. According to Jonathan Morduch, co-author of The Economics of Microfinance, “Kiva and the micro-finance world are set up not just as a better way to fight banking but also an important way to rethink traditional modes of giving and global social justice.” (…) was co-founded in 2005 by Matt and Jessica Flannery as the “world’s first and only online micro-lending opportunity”, teaming up with international organisations working in low-income communities. It lists 61 partners in 37 countries that are responsible for deciding which borrowers will be posted on the website. The loans are disbursed to the partners – local MFIs – for ultimate disbursement to the borrowers.

While browsing through the site, a potential lender sees brief descriptions of the borrowers, making it easier to create a connection with one or more entrepreneurs. By using the internet, Kiva claims to have reduced costs.

It appears that many “ordinary” people are choosing this route, perhaps over more traditional methods of donating money. As of 13 November 2007, had raised $14 million from 142,000 people to fund 20,769 loans – and the count changes daily. That represents a sizeable amount of cash from a large number of people who, more likely than not, did not previously know about micro-finance or MFIs.”

Of course, microlending is not without its critics for both side of the political and economic spectrum. The major objections to microlending?

  • Higher than average interest rates
  • Private microlending becomes a convenient substitute for public policy
  • Slim evidence of effectiveness
  • The issue of whether or not loans do reach the poorest of the poor and whether these loans really stimulate self-sufficiency
  • The neglect of the macro-economic and social causes of poverty in favor of micro-solutions

From the evidence we have, it seems that microlending can be profitable but the jury is still out as to whether it does alleviate poverty sustainably and over the long term. However, most of the objections listed above tend to assume that microlending should be the panacea, the perfect remedy to absolute poverty. It is not and I don’t think Yunus ever pretended that he had found the perfect solution. It is possible that governments in poor and highly-indebted countries might use any form of foreign aid as a way to avoid poverty-reduction policies. But at the same time, we know that the rules of lending tie their hands in many ways.

So, no, microcredit is not the silver bullet. Unfortunately, there is no one solution to solving absolute poverty problems. That requires a multifaceted approach. Microlending is one tool in the toolbox, it’s not the only one.

In the meantime, Kiva is an organization well-worth checking out and supporting. With loans as small as $25, what do we have to lose?

Slavery in the News (Again)

From the Independent, another slavery story, this one, closer to home:

Three Florida fruit-pickers, held captive and brutalised by their employer for more than a year, finally broke free of their bonds by punching their way through the ventilator hatch of the van in which they were imprisoned. Once outside, they dashed for freedom.

When they found sanctuary one recent Sunday morning, all bore the marks of heavy beatings to the head and body. One of the pickers had a nasty, untreated knife wound on his arm. Police would learn later that another man had his hands chained behind his back every night to prevent him escaping, leaving his wrists swollen.

The migrants were not only forced to work in sub-human conditions but mistreated and forced into debt. They were locked up at night and had to pay for sub-standard food. If they took a shower with a garden hose or bucket, it cost them $5.

Their story of slavery and abuse in the fruit fields of sub-tropical Florida threatens to lift the lid on some appalling human rights abuses in America today.”

Control and exploitation through violence with next to no payment are the trademarks of modern slavery. In the era of globalization, slaves are cheap and disposable and therefore do not need to be cared for by their owners. They are easily replaceable. And what do I mean by next to no payment?

Fruit-pickers, who typically earn about $200 (£100) a week, are part of an unregulated system designed to keep food prices low and the plates of America’s overweight families piled high. The migrants, largely Hispanic and with many of them from Mexico, are the last wretched link in a long chain of exploitation and abuse. They are paid 45 cents (22p) for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes collected. A worker has to pick nearly two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes – a near impossibility – in order to reach minimum wage.

There is no question that global economic conditions promote the use of slave labor in certain sectors, especially, extraction and agriculture, but also domestic services. But certain levels of responsibility for such exploitation is less abstract:

For several years, a campaign has been under way to improve the workers’ conditions. After years of talks, a scheme to pay the tomato pickers a penny extra per pound has been signed off by McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, and by Yum!, which owns 35,000 restaurants including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. But Burger King, which also buys its tomatoes in Immokalee, has so far refused to participate, threatening the entire scheme.

As they pro bloggers say, read the whole thing for some corporate rationalization and double-talk on these shameful practices, including by Whole Foods. But in the context of rabid anti-immigration discourse that pervades the current presidential campaign, it’s hard to imagine any immediate improvements in the pickers’ working conditions. For shame.

Will Ingrid Betancourt Be Finally Released?

From the New York Times:

“President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela confirmed that he had received a statement from the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, saying it would release three hostages to him or whomever he chooses. Earlier, Prensa Latina, a Cuban news agency, reported that the group had ordered the release of Clara Rojas, the running mate of Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate when both were kidnapped in 2002. Also to be freed are Consuelo González, a congresswoman kidnapped in 2001, and Ms. Rojas’s young son, Emmanuel, whose father is one of the guerrillas who have been holding Ms. Rojas. The rebels’ statement, dated Dec. 9, did not indicate when they would be released.”

There is a pretty good background story on Ingrid Betancourt on the France 24 website (it’s in English). Her story is a good illustration of the long-lasting conflict that has plagued Colombia in the past 50 years. Ingrid Betancourt and her running mate were taken hostages by the Marxist guerilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while campaigning for the presidency in 2002. Since then, very little has transpired of her condition. FARC is considered a terrorist group that specialized in drug trafficking and kidnappings in its struggle against the Colombian government and the right-wing paramilitary groups that commit atrocities of their own.

For more details on the topic of new wars, see my essay on this site.

Before We Start Stuffing Ourselves during the Holidays…

A little something to remind us of the economics of food production and distribution:

“The soaring cost of food is threatening millions of people in poor countries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned.
Food prices have risen an unprecedented 40% in the last year and many nations may be unable to cope, the agency says.It is calling for help for farmers in poor countries to buy seeds and fertiliser, and for a review of the impact of bio-fuels on food production.”

Let’s see… “the impact of bio-fuels on food production”?? Could it be that we use arable land to grow corn to make ethanol and that, as a result, food production decreases and prices go up? Or could it be that the spread of certain types of diets also limits subsistence food production?

“The increases are partly due to droughts and floods linked to climate change, as well as rising oil prices boosting demand for bio-fuels, the FAO said.

Jacques Diouf The FAO director general has warned millions could be at risk

Changing diet in fast-developing nations such as China is also considered a factor, with more land needed to raise livestock to meet increasing demand for meat.. (…) The use of land to grow plants which can be used to make alternative fuels – and the use of food crops themselves for fuel – has reduced food supplies and helped push up prices.”


We Can All Use Some Good News

Good news #1:

“Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has pardoned a woman who was gang raped and then sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man who was not related to her, in a case that sparked rare criticism from the United States, the kingdom’s top ally.”

But lest we forget we are talking about a religious fundamentalist regime, we get this jewel:

“”The king always looks into alleviating the suffering of the citizens when he becomes sure that these verdicts will leave psychological effects on the convicted people, though he is convinced and sure that the verdicts were fair,” al-Sheik told the Al-Jazirah newspaper.

The victim – known only as the “Girl of Qatif” after her home town in eastern Saudi Arabia – was in a car with a man in 2006 when they were both attacked and raped by seven men.

She was initially sentenced in November 2006 to several months in prison and 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man with whom she was neither related nor married, a violation of the kingdom’s strict segregation of the sexes.”

Ugh 🙁

Good news #2:

“A millionaire couple were yesterday found guilty of subjecting their two housekeepers to a modern form of slavery that included physical punishment amounting to torture and forcing them to work for 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

Manender Murlidhar Sabhnani and Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, both Indian born, were convicted on all 12 counts including forced labour and involuntary servitude. The couple, who own a multimillion dollar perfume business, face up to 40 years in prison. The case arose after one of the workers, named in court only as Samirah, escaped from the house in Muttontown, Long Island, and sounded the alarm.”

Well, now that they’re not getting any more taxcuts, how are the super wealthy supposed to afford hired help? Sheesh </snark>

And since I am mentioning slavery, books by Kevin Bales make excellent Christmas presents!

Update: Kevin Bales left a comment to this post, specifying, as I should have done, that he does not make a penny for the books he writes. All the proceeds go to the cause of liberating slaves. So, not only are the books excellent and life-changing (some reviews to come) but it’s definitely money well-spent! Buy them here!

Free Trade and Counterfeit Drugs

Well, here is a nice follow-up from the New York Times on the topic of counterfeits in the context of the global economy:

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But an examination of the case reveals its link to a complex supply chain of fake drugs that ran from China through Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Britain and the Bahamas, ultimately leading to an Internet pharmacy whose American customers believed they were buying medicine from Canada, according to interviews with regulators and drug company investigators in six countries.

The seizure highlights how counterfeit drugs move in a global economy, and why they are so difficult to trace. And it underscores the role played by free trade zones — areas specially designated by a growing number of countries to encourage trade, where tariffs are waived and there is minimal regulatory oversight.

The problem is that counterfeiters use free trade zones to hide — or sanitize — a drug’s provenance, or to make, market or relabel adulterated products, according to anticounterfeiting experts


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Dubai seems to be the hub of such trafficking because of its location at the crossroads for Asia (most trafficking starts in China), the Middle East, Europe and Africa and because it’s a free trade zone with limited oversight over what passes through. Some of the shipments end up in Internet pharmacies but those that go to Africa can have devastating consequences.

It seems that, between this and the various pet food / toy recalls, the weakening of regulations and oversight over trade has come at a price.


Counterfeiting: the Mafias’ Activity of Choice

This past Friday, the French newspaper Le Monde had an excellent but chilling article on the rise of counterfeiting as a major activity for the main organized criminal networks. Economically, counterfeiting appears to be a very profitable activity, even more profitable than illegal drugs. Moreover, counterfeiting is nowhere near as risky as drug or arms trafficking: the legal sanctions are minimal.

According to United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), located in Italy since its creation in 1968), the number of units seized by Customs offices has jumped from 68 to 128 millions between 2000 and 2006, an 88% jump. This trade is now worth over $200 billion and the Oorganization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that it has cost Europe over 100,000 jobs.

Here is where it gets chilling: we are used to hearing about counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags and other luxury items. Quite frankly, most of us do not lose sleep over that. However, the rise in counterfeiting involves more than luxury goods, clothing, watches or shoes. It also involves medications, car and airplane parts (a $12 billion trade), as well as food. This is where the trade can turn potentially deadly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 7 and 10% of the world’s medications are counterfeit. That number reaches 20% in the republics of the former USSR and 40% in Africa. Between 2005 and 2006, the European Union seized almost 3 million units.

This counterfeit trafficking is dominated by the usual suspects: Chinese Triads, Japanese Yakuza, Russian Mafia, and the Camorra from Naples. It is both a lucrative business for these organizations but it can also be used for money laundering.

Experts clearly relate this development to the globalized economy:

  • the enormous volumes of merchandise shipped around the world make it easier to have illegal goods circulate
  • the tearing down of customs barriers within certain regions
  • delocalization and outsourcing
  • the use of flexible networks of production and distribution
  • the increasing use of information and communication technologies

all that combined with organized crime’s own unique touch: violence and intimidation.

For UNICRI, it’s a global problem that requires global cooperation not only between countries but also between the public and private sectors in terms of protocols and procedures for data-gathering to protect consumers.

International Climate Talks In Bali

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber had this to say on the Bali UN Conference on climate change:

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The outcome of the international climate talks in Bali has been a huge win for the planet. Given the participation of the Bush Administration, we were never going to get firm short-term targets in the agreement of this round of negotiations (except as the result of a US walkout, and a deal struck by the rest of the world). But on just about every other score, the outcome has been better than anyone could reasonably have expected, including:

  • Agreement in principle on a 2050 target of halving emissions
  • Agreement to negotiate a binding deal in 2009, when Bush will be gone, and short-term targets back on the table
  • Agreement to provide assistance to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation
  • Agreement by China to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable.”
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This is the first optimistic assessment of the Bali conference that I have seen. John Quiggin also lists the winners and losers:


  • Al Gore for pointing out the stalling strategy of the United States
  • Newly-elected Australian PM Kevin Rudd; under the previous administration, Australia was the only other rich country to not ratify the Kyoto Protocols. Australia has now reversed its stance.

Losers, as Quigging puts it: “They know who they are.”

This actually ties in nicely with my review of Amy Chua’s book yesterday. At this conference, the US clearly adopted its unilateral or “multilateralism as surrender” attitude, with a willingness to completely derail the talks. This triggered hostile reactions:

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The killer blow came from the Harvard-educated representative of Papua New Guinea, Kevin Conrad, who used Mr Connaughton’s diplomatic gaffe of earlier in the week to humiliate the Americans.

Mr Connaughton had said: “We will lead. We will continue to lead but leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow.”
Mr Conrad said, to applause: “If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way.”

Miss Dobriansky finally pressed her button to speak again and said: “We will go forward and join the consensus.”

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Day of Empire Review

day-of-empire.jpgI just finished reading Amy Chua’s Day of Empire – How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall. I liked Amy Chua’s previous book (World on Fire), so, I was eager to read this one as soon as it arrived in the mail.

The first basic idea of the book is that of hyperpower (as opposed to superpower). According to Chua, hyperpowers are the few societies that managed to concentrate so much military and economic power that they dominate the world. A hyperpower is not just a dominant power compared to others, it is a world-dominant power (that is, dominant in its world, the world it knows). Chua’s book is about how these few societies achieved such status and how they lost it, as all of them did.

The central thesis of the book is this:

For all their enormous differences, every single world hyperpower in history – every society that could even arguably be described as having achieved global hegemony – was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence. Indeed, in every case tolerance was indispensible to the achievement of hegemony. Just as strikingly, the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia and calls for racial, religious or ethnic ‘purity’. But here’s a catch: it was also tolerance that sowed the seeds of decline. In virtually every case, tolerance eventually hit a tipping point, triggering conflict, hatred and violence.” (xxi)

For Chua, a hyperpower has three characteristics:

  1. its power is superior to that of all its rivals
  2. it is militarily and economically superior to any other power, known to it or not
  3. it projects power over such large territories and rules over such large populations that it is far superior to a mere regional power.

Why is tolerance so central? Because to rise to world dominance, an empire has to harness the best human capital and master the most advanced technologies. You don’t achieve that by slaughtering every population you conquer or by mistreating ethnic minorities (that’s what Spain did in the good old days of the Inquisition, and what the Axis powers did before and during World War II). You achieve it by co-opting the best minds of your conquests, by downplaying or ignoring the religious, ethnic or linguistic distinctions. In other words, by adopting an attitude of relative tolerance. Chua is indeed careful to note that the tolerance exercised by Persian, Roman or Chinese emperors was not contemporary tolerance, but a tolerance greater by the standards of the time. Of course, these rulers had no concept of human rights or self-determination as we understand them today. But they were more tolerant than their contemporaries. Chua is also careful to nuance her analysis by stating that relative tolerance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for world dominance.

So, who were the hyperpowers?

  • The Persian Empire (from 559 to 330 BCE)
  • The High Roman Empire (70-192 CE)
  • The Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
  • The Mongol Empire (1206-1368)
  • The Dutch World Empire (1625-1675)
  • The Ottoman, Mughal and Ming Empires in the East
  • The British Empire (19th century)
  • The United States today

The section of the book I find the weakest is the chapter on the British Empire. In looking to support her thesis, Chua focuses almost exclusively on India, neglecting the racial atrocities committed by the British in their African colonies (Rhodesia, anyone?). That, to me, is a major omission.

Why bother with all this historical stuff? Because it is relevant to the policies adopted by the current hyperpower: the United States. Chua argues that the strength of the United States is precisely its capacity to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world and to assimilate them relatively well. This constant influx of human capital guarantees creativity, innovation and technological developments (something missing from the potential rivals for the crown: the European Union, China and India).

However, all the previous hyperpowers have ultimately fallen, partly because of a rise in intolerance (just watch Lou Dobbs on CNN or listen to any Republican debate and you’ll get a taste of that – my editorial comment, not Chua’s).

For Chua, the current imperialists in the American corridors of power (the Neocons) have not learned from history. If they had done so, they might have learned that the exercise of power has shifted from strictly military to economic. Conquests are expensive, trade is not necessarily (Great Britain didn’t learn that one either). The United States is a democracy operating within a framework of international law where self-determination and human rights are accepted as norms. As much as the American way of life is attractive to millions around the world, the unilateralism and militarism of the current administration has triggered strong anti-American movements. for Chua, the neo-imperialist dreams were incredibly naive to think the Iraqis would embrace their visions (ya’ think?).

Chua’s point is that it is not in the interest of the United States to be an empire. As she puts it “the face of an American empire is present-day Iraq.” (335) Not a pretty sight. Instead, the United States should stick to what has served it so well: being a magnet for global human capital of all background, but there are challenges here as well.

Take immigration: it is impossible to ignore the current crop of nativist promoters (Lou Dobbs again, Tom Tancredo) and the general rise in “anti-brown people” in the conservative blogosphere. For Chua, the current fear-mongering and calls to close the border are wrongheaded:

  • Because silicon valley would not have happened without immigrants. Xenophobic backlashes ultimately undermine the social system as a whole. Hyperpowers fall precisely when purist discourse prevails.

  • Because a reasonably open immigrant policy creates goodwill and good relations with the rest of the world (something the US could use right now).

  • Because the prosperity of the US requires the continuous influx of human capital.

I am less convincedby the argument that outsourcing creates the glue that unites the US to the rest of the world. Sweatshop work does not create such links.

However, Chua closes her book by stating a not very original point: multilateralism is not surrender, but opportunity and the United States will need allies and immigrants to address global issues. The unilateralism promoted by the current administration has been more detrimental. It has exposed the limits of American power rather than its strength.

Amy Chua is neither an activist nor a polemicist, so, you won’t find any Bush-bashing or anti-war statements in the book. Her point is to promote historically-grounded analysis, not quick talking points to throw at one’s political adversaries but, in her own moderate and measured way, she does deal a few blows to the neo-conservative, militaristic view that has undermined American power in these past years.

Welcome to Global Sociology!

After much procrastinating, I guess I had to jump in and start blogging at last. What do I want to blog about? Anything related to my current professional and personal interests: anything pertaining to globalization from a sociological perspective (I am a sociologist after all).

I also hope to bring in contributors as well as my students to this blog, to discuss global social issues they are working on.

Being an avid reader, I will probably also write a lot of book reviews. I hope we can create a pretty solid blogroll and network of sociology blogs for our discipline. Sociology is often not taken seriously by the media and our pundits (it’s either psychologists or economists who get to discuss human behavior). Let’s change that!