Free Press is Essential to Development

In a January article on Niger, IRIN reports that

“Press freedom groups agree that an increase in arrests, intimidation and harassment of journalists in Niger is impeding development in one of the poorest countries in the world.”

The current crackdown on journalists seem to be related to government’s dealing with a rebellion in the Northern part of the country, according to Transparency International. The Media Foundation for Western Africa (MFWA) listed Niger as one of the worst offending African countries when it comes to press harassment (the report notes that Reporters Without Borders – RSF – disagrees with that assessment).

What is interesting about this report is the connection it emphasizes between freedom of the press and development. A free press can exercise a watchdog function over government and keep corruption in check by putting governance practices on the frontpage. In Western Africa, at least, there is a strong correlation between development and freedom of the press. Of course, as good sociologists, we all know that correlation does not mean causation but a functioning press can lead to open governance, a better-informed citizenry and ultimately better governance.

“The link between democracy, press freedom and development has been well articulated by several studies, including from the World Bank and United Nations, which have shown that the more freedom journalists have the greater the control over corruption, and the greater focus of resources on priority development issues.”

As I have written someplace else, based on my reading of Jeffrey Sachs‘s The End of Poverty, the corruption argument is often used to throw our hands in the air when it comes to aid. The argument goes like this: aid money is wasted money because there is so much corruption that it will line the pockets of petty dictators; nothing can be done because of corruption.

This argument gets the causality wrong: Africa is not poor because it is corrupt; it is corrupt because it is poor. It is higher incomes in a country that improve governance for two major reasons: (1) a more affluent society is also more educated. People are able to be informed about government’s doing and can exercise oversight. Media and telecommunication technology support such a role (as illustrated by the role of bloggers in American elections; (2) a richer society also can afford better governance. A richer population generates more money through taxes. Civil servants are better educated so that public administrations are managed more competently and openly. Most African countries are too poor to afford high-quality governance but they are no more corrupt than other countries at the same income level.

Why Vegetarianism Makes Sense Socially, Economically and Environmentally

I don’t eat meat (except when I go back to France) mostly for the reasons mentioned by Mark Bittman in the New York Times:

“Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.”

Producing and consuming meat in such a fashion is environmentally unsustainable:

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Headscarf Controversy in Turkey

If the current Turkish government and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan get their way, women might now be allowed to wear the Islamic headscarf in Turkish universities. However, the secular, Kemalist camp is not let this pass without a fight:

La polémique turque sur le voile rebondit
LE MONDE | 30.01.08

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veil-in-turkey.jpgThe government is seeking to change two articles from the Constitution in the name of a “right to education”, the argument being that young women are victims of “rigid prejudice” because they are forced NOT to wear the headscarf in universities. This interdiction dates back to the 1980 military coup and its reversal was one of the Erdogan’s major campaign promises. So, Erdogan might be delivering on a promise but this might get Turkey in hot water in its bid to join the European Union.

Indeed, the headscarf is controversial in that it hints at the islamization of the Turkish society, that is, the rejection of the secular, Kemalist model in favor on re-introducing religion into public life. Indeed, secular politicians see this move a trial balloon and a first step in a political shift toward greater Islamic influence over society.

It is yet unclear what the implications will be for Turkey’s potential membership to the EU, but it is safe to assume that this might rub France (who’s had to deal with its own headscarf controversy) the wrong way. Contrary to what is often assumed by an America audience, wearing the headscarf in Europe is not perceived as part of multiculturalist or pluralist claims. They are more separatist and exclusivist assertions of identity. And of course, the headscarf is, recognized or not, a sexist symbol, again, whether or not the women wearing it see it that way.

Photo source: Le Monde, REUTERS/FATIH SARIBAS


From the Dark Ages – A Journalist Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy in Afghanistan

It’s a good thing the United States and NATO liberated Afghanistan from the fundamentalist religious rule of the Taliban and.. oh wait…

Afghanistan : le Sénat soutient la condamnation à mort d’un journaliste pour “blasphème”
LEMONDE.FR | 30.01.08

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What exactly is the blaspheme? Sayed Parwez Kaambaksh, journalist at a local newspaper, stated that men and women should be equal within Islam and asked why a man could take four wives whereas polyandry is forbidden. According to the court ruling, such statement constituted a humiliation of Islam… Yes indeed, so what?

This case has gained some global visibility and international organization as well as the United Nations have mobilized against the judgment. Along with them, Reporters Without Borders (English version) as well as local journalists groups have called on President Karzai to intervene. This is actually a good test to see whether Afghanistan is now a democracy with a secular government or still a theocracy in disguise.

Well, the results are in on that one and it’s not encouraging: the Senate confirmed the judgment (something it is not constitutionally allowed to do) and the Senate President (an ally of Hamid Karzai) denounced the international mobilization as interference.

Sayed Parwez Kaambaksh has appealed his sentence.

The European Parliament Goes Green

As a follow-up to my post on B&Q phasing out patio heaters comes, via the Guardian, a possible decision from the European Parliament to ban the appliances across the European Union:

“The EU parliament is expected to back a resolution requiring the use of appliances with low energy efficiency to be phased out. Patio heaters are specifically targeted in the motion, which calls on the EU to act urgently and introduce minimum standards for energy efficiency on such appliances as air-conditioning, television “decoder” boxes and light bulbs. It also calls for the abolition of stand-by mode on electrical appliances.”

Sounds good but (there is always a “but”, isn’t there?), apparently, it’s not so easy or straightforward. “But” number 1, even if the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) vote the ban, it’s not enforceable:

“Fiona Hall, the Liberal Democrat MEP for the North-East, authored the energy-efficiency report for the European parliament. The paper constitutes an “own initiative” report, which has no legal force.”

Ok, so, I guess that’s that. “But” number 2, are patio heaters really the right target?

“(Climate change expert, Dr Eric) Johnson, a national expert reviewer for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said plasma televisions produce more carbon dioxide than outdoor heaters when looking how each appliance is normally used.(…) Televisions in the UK produce 4.6m tonnes of CO2 each year. Judged on stand-by mode alone, it would take an equivalent of more than five patio heaters to produce as much CO2 as one TV does in a year.”

Oh good, let’s go after plasma TVs then. Why does it have to be an “either-or”. How about requiring manufacturers of small appliances to make them energy efficient? And then, of course, no environmental article is really complete without an “it’ll hurt business” segment:

“Although only 10% of the UK pub trade owns outdoor facilities, a patio heater ban would effectively restrict outside dining for six months of the year – costing the licensing and catering industry up to an estimated £250m a year, or as much as £45,000 a year for a single business.”

Ok then, how about some commonsense: if you live in a rather cold country, don’t eat outdoors in winter, or if you do, put on a sweater.

Is Sarko Hypocritical?

Asks Texas-based columnist Anene Ejikeme in a Worldpress piece.

Let me answer that, borrowing from Master Blogger Atrios:


This has been another edition of easy answer to easy questions.

Interestingly though, the author, so focused on pop psychological stuff (geez, Cecilia and Carla have the same initials and look alike… eerie), misses the major hypocrisy, the one most likely to rub the French the wrong way: his cozying up with the Pope and longing for a return to religious values while flouting his oh-so exciting love life.

Corporate Social Responsibility

According to the Guardian, the retailer B&Q (a kind of British Home Depot) is going to stop selling patio heaters for environmental reasons:

“The company said yesterday it has 20,000 heaters in its stores and expects to sell the last one during 2008. After that it will no longer stock the heaters once branded by ministers as “environmental obscenities.”

The company says it has decided to stop selling the heaters which consume enough energy in an hour to make 400 cups of tea, as part of its plan to put the environment at the heart its business. It also follows a long campaign by against the heaters by environmental groups.”

In that respect, B&Q is following Wyvale garden centre chain who stopped selling gas-powered patio heaters last year. A Friend of the Earth campaigner described the heaters as “carbon-belching monstrosities” (I have nothing to add, I just loved the expression). Furthermore,

“B&Q has also announced that it has signed a three-year partnership to become a One Planet Living business, a global initiative set up by the WWF which commits B&Q to 10 principles of sustainability. These include zero carbon, zero waste, sustainable water, natural habitats and wildlife, culture and heritage and equity and fair trade.”

I think I like B&Q. I had first heard about this company via the slavery video produced by the organization Antislavery, which featured Kevin Bales. B&Q was featured through its ethics officer (what a great title) and its promotion of the rugmark, the label that certifies that rugs were not made by slaves. This officer noted the relatively low cost of ensuring that the products sold in B&Q stores were not tainted by slavery, in addition to the peace of mind, that is.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an important piece of the multi-layered approach that needs to be used to resolve global problems such as slavery or carbon emissions.

Resource Wars – Water and Food

Jacques Diouf - Director of FAOIn an interview with Le Monde, Jacques Diouf, Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reiterates his warning to the participants of the World Economic Forum at Davos: water and food will be major sources of conflict unless something is done for a more equitable distribution.

“L’eau ou l’alimentation seront des sources de conflits potentiels”
LE MONDE | 25.01.08

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According to Diouf, the demand for food increases along with the world population. However, global climate change is at the root of desertification and flooding. As a result, the world’s stock of food has decreased to levels lower than those of 1980. With 854 million undernourished people, 70% of which live in rural areas, and a world population scheduled to reach 9 billion by 2050, greater emphasis should be given to agriculture. So, the FAO will also emphasize food security as a major challenge for the 21st century.

In addition, Diouf insists on the need for economic regulation when it comes to food. Prices have gone up and the poorest of the world simply cannot afford food. Something has to be done to ensure access, otherwise, water and food will be major sources of conflict. And of course, this ultimately related to the price of oil and gas. According to him, unilateral decisions (such as taxing food exports) are not the solution.

Relatedly, conflicts are also responsible for the disruption of agricultural production, especially in peripheral countries, such as Yemen, Indonesia, Mauritania, Guinea or Senegal. And the lack of food itself become a fuel on such conflicts as warlords and warring factions vie for control over food sources.

Global political, economic and strategic measures are needed to ensure that food, as a basic right, is available to all. Otherwise, the price to pay will be very high, beyond the actual world food bill.

Photo source from Article: AFP/GIULIO NAPOLITANO


Two-line Movie Review – La Vie en Rose

A complex life, a rotten childhood, an immense talent, tormented relationships, Edith Piaf was a tragic character and Mario Cotillard deserves an Academy Award in this beautiful film.

My personal Piaf favorite: La Foule

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France is A Target for Terrorism

So says Jean-François Daguzan, Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), in an interview with Le Monde. Well, knock me over with a goddamn feather! Since the Algerian decolonization war (oh, pardon me, the “events in Algeria” as pro-colony groups used to euphemize), when has France not been a target for terrorism.

The groups with grievances against France and the French government have varied but terrorist threats have always been part of France’s political life, let me count the ways (in no particular order):

  • ETA
  • Action Directe
  • Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)
  • Islamic Armed Group (GIA)
  • Anti-Algerian independence groups
  • Pro-Algerian independence groups
  • Al Qaeda in Maghreb

And I’m sure I am forgetting certain groups. And I am not even mentioning the actions from the French government itself (Rainbow Warrior, anyone?).

So, pardon me if I am neither surprised nor frightened by the prospect of potential terrorist attacks. Those have always been part of France’s political landscape.

Expropriation 101 – Landless Occupy Drug Lord Farm in Brazil

Personally, I see nothing wrong with this:

“Police say 300 families took over the property owned by Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia in Rio Grande do Sul state. The ranch, said to be worth nearly $1m (£500,000), was confiscated when he was arrested last August. The accused is in a high-security jail in Brazil awaiting extradition to the US on drug and racketeering charges. He is regarded by the authorities as one of Colombia’s leading drug-traffickers.

(…) The protest has been organised by the Brazilian landless movement, the MST. The MST says the land was bought with money raised through criminal activity and it wants the government to use the area to settle local families. It says it intends to remain on the property until it gets a response from the authorities.But officials say the auction will go ahead and that a judge who ordered the sale of the properties will ensure the protesters are removed.”

Well, it’s a shame. There is a logic to this; a logic similar to that depicted in Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s film, The Take. These people plan on working that farm to make a living. It would be a productive investment to let them use it in such a fashion. Some community benefits might be derived from it. I say, let the peasants have it!

Sierra Leone Bans Timber Exports

According to this article from the BBC,

“Sierra Leone has re-imposed a timber export ban because of what it says is indiscriminate plundering of forests by Chinese and other foreign companies. “They just invaded and started doing what they felt like doing,” Forestry Minister Joseph Sam Sesay told the BBC.”

And as with almost any such issue, the consequences are multiple. As the article states, over-logging has been devastating to the environment in neighboring countries such as Guinea, Ivory Coast and Liberia. These countries have enacted their own logging bans in the face of over-logging from Chinese companies.

In addition to soil erosion, deforestation has been damaging to the local populations that rely on the forests for their livelihood and have fled into Sierra Leone. Overall, the local communities have not benefited from trade.

Such examples fly in the face of the concept of comparative advantage: it might make sense for Sierra Leone to exploit its natural resources and position itself on the global market but the problems arise when foreign companies get to exploit these resources without returns for the local communities and when there is stable and strong enough governing body to enforce forestry laws. Opening markets to global trade without strong governance structures was one of the major problems identified by Joseph Stiglitz in his book, Globalization and its Discontents.

Gay Adoption – A Step Forward in France

In a victory for the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt, the European Human Rights Court (CEDH) has condemned France for discrimination for refusing to let a lesbian adopt. According to Liberation, the Court’s argument was that since France lets singles adopt, there is no compelling reasons to deny the same right to gays and lesbians. It is a reversal of a 2002 decision where the same court had denied a gay man’s petition to adopt. On the downside, it took the woman 10 years to finally obtain justice and compensation.

This case illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of multilayered governance: the fact that cases pertaining to human rights or discrimination based on identity, stand a better chance of getting favorable judgments from regional institutions such as the European court. This court has repeatedly been a strong corrective to forms of discrimination taken to be traditional and therefore unquestions within countries (such as the rights of French citizens to sue when hurt during their military service). Similarly, cases pertaining to the preservation of local languages or cultural practices (as in Brittany) again get more sympathetic rulings at the European level than at the national one.

In the meantime, human rights scored a victory against antiquated bigotry.

Compensation for Tasmanian Aborigines

This is as good a time as any to bring back that great Midnight Oil song:

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As the Guardian states:

“Tasmania today approved millions of dollars in compensation for members of the “stolen generation” of Aborigines removed from their families, its premier calling this an attempt to right a shameful wrong in the island’s history. (…) The stolen generation refers to Aboriginal children – mainly those of mixed race – who were removed from their families and sent to institutions run by the church or state, or who were adopted into white families, in practices that began during the 19th century and only ended in 1970.”

This tragedy was was best depicted in Philip Noyce’s film, Rabbit-Proof Fence. It’s about time the Aborigines get compensation and recognition for past racial discrimination and what we today consider a gross violation of human rights. However, Tasmania is so far the only Australian state to have back its apology with money, a step even newly-elected PM Rudd will not take.

A short except from Rabbit-Proof Fence: Skin color check

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It’s a great film, without any reservation and Peter Gabriel’s music is perfect for it.