Microlending – Good for the Poor, Good for the Planet

So says the Worldwatch Institute :

"The number of "microborrowers" worldwide-people participating in the rapidly growing field of microfinance-increased by 17 percent in 2006, benefiting both communities and the environment, according to the latest Vital Signs Update released by the Worldwatch Institute.

"By helping individuals and villages replace firewood, oil, and kerosene with solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels, microfinance institutions help to improve the local environment while expanding access to electricity, boiled water, and refrigeration, dramatically improving the quality of life of the poor," said Worldwatch Senior Researcher and Update author Gary Gardner."

But the report also indicates one potential danger related to the success of microlending: its folding into the market and being turned into profitable investment by hedge or pension funds.

"The sudden and significant success of microfinance is increasing pressure on many microfinance institutions to become more commercially oriented in their operations. Some analysts fear that this shift may cause microfinance institutions to raise interest rates or distribute profits to shareholders rather than reinvesting them in microfinance activities, hindering their original mission of poverty reduction. Proponents of private investment counter that commercializing microfinance is needed to attract the large sums of capital that will allow the practice to spread rapidly."

This is something that Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus (considered the founding father of microlending) strong disapproves of, as he prefers to promote a social business model. This trend was illustrated by a very interesting issue of Now on PBS on for-profit Mexican microlender Compartamos, Who’s Making Money from Microcredit?

MSC But this is reason for caution, not giving up. There is still enormous potential for expansion for microlending, which is why the Microcredit Summit Campaign has launched a new campaign:

  • 175 million of the world’s poorest families, especially the women of those families, are receiving credit for self-employment and other financial and business services by the end of 2015.
  • 100 million families rise above the US$1 a day threshold by 2015.

And as is often mentioned, women are the prime beneficiaries of microcredit. It is not a panacea. Microcredit will not solve the global poverty problem but it is one small- (or not so small) scale solution that can have short-term impact.

I also love how the success of microcredit shows that the poor are not poor for lack of skills and that they do not need us to teach them how to conduct business. Provided with the opportunity to do so, with a small load, they can take care of themselves and run their businesses successfully, without economic prescription from the Chicago Boys, or the IMF.

The best example of this is Kiva (disclaimer: I am a Kiva lender, as the button at the top of the page shows… I would encourage everyone to click on it and become a lender for a little as $25).

Blackwater Out of The Security Business

This qualifies as good news, I guess:

And it was also able to operate with immunity in Iraq, which is what made it controversial. Ultimately, the US Congress passed a law to have military codes apply to private military contractors.

But let’s not feel too bad for Blackwater. It has operations all over the world and a major training facility in North Carolina.

Hopefully, this would trigger a serious discussion of the role of private military contractors in contemporary conflicts and the whole trend toward privatization that accompanies militarization.

For starters, it would be a great idea to revisit the following:

The End of the Jeans Defense – A Not A Moment Too Soon

Here is the story, again, from Italy. Ten years ago, a man sexually assaults a teenager and gets convicted of rape. He appeals his conviction, arguing that the sexual encounter was not rape because the young woman was wearing a pair of jeans. Jeans are hard to remove, ergo, no rape because, obviously, the young woman had to have helped in the jeans removal.

In 1999, the Appeals Court subscribed to this reasoning in a different case where a driving school instructor was accused of raping an 18-year old. Italian women were not pleased and started wearing jeans everywhere in protest, at work, in Parliament, etc.

Today, the same Court reinstated the conviction, stating that jeans are not chastity belts and the fact that the woman was wearing jeans was no obstacle to her being raped. Case closed. Ten years too late.

The Shame of A Nation – Dehumanization 101

Italy Shame

This is the photo that puts Italy to shame and rightfully so:

It is hard to imagine the amount of indifference and dehumanization it takes to just go and enjoy an afternoon at the beach with the corpses of two girls nearby.

It is a well-known group mechanism where members of a stigmatized (Erving Goffman again) minority are either mistreated or simply become invisible as non-human entities. As non-human entities, all that is expected from them is to not disturb the context: vacationers at the beach. So their corpses were covered because the sight of drowned human bodies might cut one appetite for picnic food. But otherwise, who cares, really? They’re Roma.

To be fair, lifeguards did try to help when the relatives of the girls notified them that they had disappeared in the waters. When their bodies reappeared, they were already dead. So, the police showed up and arrested the relatives to proceed with identification. And some people simply put towels on the bodies and life just went on.

As if nothing had happened.

A New Cold War?

Is Russia engaging in a new cold War? One might think so when reading news like this:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7520624.stm

BBC NEWS | Europe | Chavez calls for Russia alliance via kwout

Ok, part of this is usual Chavez chest-thumping and posturing. There is nothing new here. It is also clearly a sign of the declining political power of the United States. One has to examine this in the context of a time where President Bush had a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, who, even though he is no longer president, still exercise enormous influence behind the scenes. With this deal, military and economic power are combined to openly defy the influence of the United States.

And what else could remind us of the Cold War?

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War Criminal Fugitive Radovan Karadzic Arrested

Via the Independent,

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/top-war-crimes-fugitive-karadzic-arrested-873728.html

Top war crimes fugitive Karadzic arrested – Europe, World – The Independent via kwout

Karadzic Couldn’t happen to a better person. If anyone deserves a war crime and crimes against humanity conviction, it’s him. After all, in addition to overseeing the slaughter of Bosnians, he is also charged with running death camps. He is expected to be transferred to the International Criminal Court.

But we should not forget that both the siege of Sarajevo and the fall of Srebrenica are the shame of the international community: civilians were promised protection only to be abandoned at the hands of sadistic mass murderers.

If indicted, Karadzic is almost sure to be the first European to be convicted of genocide and war crimes (Milosevic died while in custody) by the International Criminal Court.

Karadzic and his co-conspirator Radko Mladic, are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Republic of Bosnia, resulting in the death of 100,000 and 2 million displacements. They were also at the root of the systematic rape of Bosnian women in front of their husbands and male relatives as war tactic (The Guardian).

He will now face 15 counts including genocide, ethnic cleansing, deportation, inhuman acts, kidnapping and hostage taking, persecution and mass murder.

There is no question that this arrest is beneficial to Serbia as it seeks to become a member of the European Union and any arrest of war criminals there is proof of its good faith and commitment to international rules, peace and stability in the Balkans. Indeed, the EU has made the active search and arrest of war criminals one of the conditions for integration within the Union.

Now, if only they could find his accomplice, Radko Mladic, and drag his behind to the ICC, that’d be great.

Book Review – Richistan

Richistan The book with which I want to start a series of posts on social stratification is Robert Frank’s Richistan – A Journey Through The American Wealth Boom and The Lives of the New Rich . It is an ethnographic overview of the lifestyles of the new superrich. What does Richistan mean? According to Frank,

"Today’s rich had formed their own virtual country. They were in fact wealthier than most nations. By 2004, the richest 1 percent of Americans were earning about $1.35 trillion a year – greater than the total national incomes of France, Italy or Canada.

And with their huge numbers, they had built a self-contained world unto themselves, complete with thwie own health-care system (concierge doctors), travel networks (Net Jets, destination clubs), separate economy (double-digit income gains and double-digit inflation), and language ("who’s your household manager?"). They didn’t just hire gardening crews; they hired "personal arborists." The rich weren’t just getting richer; they were becoming financial foreigners, creating their own country within a country, their own society within a society, and their economy within an economy.

They were creating Richistan." (3-4)

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The Obama Fan Base: Misogynistic Sociopaths

Case in point (I am not linking directly to that vile place, you can follow the link from Corrente,) these lovely comments:

"At the end of WWII, all the French whores who serviced the Germans were rounded up. Their heads were shaved, and they were tarred and feathered.

At the end of a war, the victorious side settles its debts. If you helped, you get a reward. If you did not help, you are in serious trouble.
Posted by dataguy"

"I like the shaven head and tar and feathering idea for Clintonistas!!
Posted by Mandy"

But they’re not misogynistic at all, no no no. And note hateful either. And the rest of the comments are similar. I did not cherry pick, the rest is just as disgusting. I have nothing in common with these people. They are not progressive. They are not liberal.

And for those who would suggest that these are supporters, not Obama himself, let me say this: he encouraged this behavior during the primary because it benefited him. He engaged in it himself. He opened that Pandora’s box.

If a politician attracted the membership of the KKK, we (liberals, progressives) would not even consider supporting him.

If a politician attracts misogynistic sociopaths… you can finish the sentence yourselves.

Nathalie Menigon, of Action Directe, Gets Paroled

Nathalie Menigon Via Le Monde, Nathalie Menigon, member of the French terrorist group Action Directe, has been paroled. She was serving two life sentences since 1989 with a minimum of 18 years without parole. She actually was already under the statute of "semi-liberte" since 2007 (where an inmate is allowed out during the day to go to work, but has to report to the prison or a halfway house at night and on weekends). The conditions of her parole also include limitations on where and when and for how long she is allowed to travel.

She is also not allowed to discuss her case outside of her legal representation. But she is not allowed to give interviews to the media or to write a book about the events that led to her conviction.

At this point, then, the only member of Action Directe still incarcerated is George Cipriani (his case is to be reviewed in September). Jean-Marc Rouillan (Menigon’s husband and co-founder with her of Action Directe) has been in semi-liberte since 2007 (he has published books and works now at the company that published them). Joelle Aubron was released in 2004 as part of a law that allows for the liberation of very sick inmates. She died in 2006.

Action Directe was the French version of the left-wing groups that engaged in armed actions against representatives of what they perceived to be a repressive state or figures of national capitalism. They parallel the history of groups such the German Baader-Meinhof (RAF) or the Italian Red Brigades. Action Directe is alleged to be responsible for the assassination of George Besse, ex-CEO of the french car manufacturer Renault and of Eurodif, a nuclear power company, as well as the assassination of Engineer General Rene Audran, who was in charge of the French arms sales.

The four members were all arrested in 1987.

Amnesty International had been calling since 2001 for the French government to apply standards of humane incarceration as the four members were detained under various forms of solitary confinement and were showing signs of physical and mental health deterioration. As the letter sent to the French government stated (again, that was seven years ago, things have not improved since, healthwise):

"The reported breakdown in the physical and mental health of at least two of them is widely attributed to the years of isolation to which they have been subjected.

Joëlle Aubron and Nathalie Ménigon were originally held under a specially restrictive high security category, but were transferred in 1999 to a prison where conditions were expected to be normalised. However, their means of social communication, correspondence and visits have reportedly remained subject to special restrictions and they are not able to visit the common areas of the prison.

Nathalie Ménigon married Jean-Marc Rouillan in 1999, but has been unable to see him. She is suffering from serious cardio-vascular problems and depression, and is reported to have recently had two heart attacks. She is also reported to be paralysed on her left side and to be suffering from speech problems. Georges Cipriani, held at Ensisheim (Haut-Rhin) and for a time at a psychiatric hospital, is reported to have gradually lost his sanity and to no longer be aware that he is being held in prison at all. Prison guards have expressed concern about his condition."

The French government never addressed these concerns. French prisons are hellholes from another age that should put any democracy to shame.

Book Review – Making the Cut

Making the Cut I have already discussed sociologist Anthony Elliott’s Book, Making the Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery is Transforming our Lives when it was reviewed in a newspaper. I have since read the book in its entirety. Below is my full review.

"In the new economy nothing is more sexy than surgery. From Botox to lipo to tummy tucks and mini-facelifts, the number of cosmetic surgery operations undertaken around the globe has soared recently, as consumers spend more and more on themselves in the search for sex appeal and artificial beauty. In a society in which celebrity is divine, information technology rules, new ways of working predominate and people increasingly judge each other on first impressions, cosmetic enhancements of the body have become all the rage." (7)

In other words, for Elliott, we have entered the era of the cosmetic surgical culture , a subset of the makeover culture that also includes fashion, fitness and all sorts of therapies. His book is dedicated to examining the social causes and consequences of this cultural shift in the global context, both in terms of the social production of identity at the micro-level and at the global level of shift in the structure of work at the macro-level.

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A Gay Honor Killing?

Yildiz Via the Independent,

"Ahmet Yildiz, 26, a physics student who represented his country at an international gay gathering in San Francisco last year, was shot leaving a cafe near the Bosphorus strait this week. Fatally wounded, the student tried to flee the attackers in his car, but lost control, crashed at the side of the road and died shortly afterwards in hospital. His friends believe Mr Yildiz was the victim of the country’s first gay honour killing. (…)

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The Taliban Exercise Sharia Law over Their Controlled Areas

So the Taliban are alive and well and still oppressing women and exercising their brand of religious fanaticism over entire regions whenever and wherever they can. How do we know that? First, via the BBC , we learn that the Taliban have set up Islamic courts in the North-Western area of Pakistan they control,

Taleban Courts
"The top spokesman for the Pakistani Taleban Movement (PTM), Maulvi Omar, has told the BBC Urdu service that permanent Taleban courts were already functioning in Bajaur district, Mohmand’s northern neighbour.

"About 20 local religious scholars issue dozens of judgements each day in Bajaur, where we have the most organised judicial system in place," he said. (…)

In addition the PTM also runs a vast network of mobile courts in the rest of the Fata areas, he said.

The cases range from land transactions and loan disputes to family matters.

All this is embarrassing for the Pakistani government, especially because the Taleban have in the past carried out cruel punishments against people accused of moral turpitude, crime or spying.

Earlier this month, two Afghan nationals accused of spying for the US were publicly killed on the orders of a Taleban court in Bajaur.

Last month, a court in Orakzai ordered the public killing of half a dozen alleged bandits.

And in March, the Taleban killed a couple after they were allegedly found guilty of adultery by a court in Mohmand."

But these actions are not limited to Pakistan. The Taliban are still active in Afghanistan as well. This is why it is not surprising to find a video of Taliban executing women for allegedly being involved in prostitution. Via Jonathan Turley ,

"Afghan journalist Rahmatullah Naikzad has released a videotaped of the kidnapping and execution of two women, shown below, for their alleged involvement in a prostitution ring. The video is graphic and the viewer can hear that at least one woman screaming. It is another example of the barbarism still carried out by the Taliban under Sharia law. It is also more evidence of the return of the Taliban in a surge of its own in Afghanistan."

The video is graphic:

Stories like these of course question the efficiency of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan and the status of Western relationship with Pakistan. There is no question that the Afghanistan / Pakistan border region is a Taliban stronghold, which means major oppression for the communities there, especially women. And these zealots show no signs of softening their misogyny.

And these paragons of virtue are also not stranger to bandit tactics such as kidnapping for blackmail. Via the New York Times , the Taliban are threatening to start executing the dozens of Pakistani officials they hold hostage if the Pakistani government does not release their captured comrades.

"So far, the government has held firm, dispatching hundreds of soldiers to the area, Hangu, in North West Frontier Province, to engage in the first real fighting with the militants since the two sides agreed to a new series of peace deals earlier this year.

The fighting comes as the government faces mounting pressure from the United States to take stronger action against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, which the militants use as a launching pad for attacks against NATO and American troops in southern Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s newspapers and television programs have been abuzz the last few days about suggestions in Washington that the United States might take direct action itself in the tribal areas to stop the flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan. Such a move would be strongly opposed by most Pakistanis as a violation of sovereignty.

But the militants have also increasingly extended their presence into more settled areas of Pakistan, like Hangu, where provincial police arrested about half a dozen armed Taliban riding in a pickup truck last Saturday."

What is going on in this area is an attempt by the Taliban to start a regional war between secular forces and religious fundamentalist groups, especially in the Pakistan / Afghanistan region in the context of American politics, that is according to Pakistan expert Ahmed Rashid, interviewed in Der Spiegel :

"We are witnessing a major offensive in both countries by the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban. Previously one of these two groups of Taliban was fighting while the other would rest. This summer they are both on the offensive. This is a strategic decision by the Taliban who see a lame duck American president and also know that it will take until next spring before a new US administration can become effective. They also see a weak and divided Pakistani government and a weak and ineffectual Afghan government."

We are indeed embedded in global times when the state of the American Presidential election as well as the steps in administrative transition are taken into account by religious fundamentalists to determine their strategy. What is the immediate strategic goal?

"The Afghan Taliban want to create a strategic debacle, either by taking a town or city and announcing an alternative government or by trying to force one or two of the less committed NATO states to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban are determined to conquer or grab as much territory as possible in the next few months in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in order to extend their influence in the Pakistani population, but also to offer more protection for al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban leaders in this region."

How did the Taliban become so powerful in this part of Pakistan (beyond its geographical location)? Like many other aspects in this region, ethnicity is the key to understanding the dynamics:

"The Pakistani tribesmen, the Pashtuns, who helped al-Qaida to escape from Afghanistan in 2001, were benefiting enormously from this new relationship with the Taliban and al-Qaida — they were the hosts and the protectors of al-Qaida and received large sums of money from them. They also felt encouraged to form their own militias. The real fault lies in the Americans’ lack of interest in the Taliban after 2001. They insisted again and again that the only enemy was al-Qaida. This allowed Pakistan to accept the retreating Taliban and give them refuge."

The situation seems critical now because the Pakistani government is now in the hands of the secular political wing that defeated both the fundamentalists and Musharraf’s party. But the Musharraf regime left a lot of cleaning up for the new government, which the Taliban interpreted as a sign of weakness to press on with their strategy of controlling their own region of the country. Pakistan has also been affected by the high prices of food. And add to this the fact that the military still wants to maintain its control over foreign policy. These governance issues are opportunities for the Taliban. It is a general rule that these groups thrive on weak or failing governments.

For Rashid, there is no question as to what crucial mistake was made early on that led to this:

"The original sin was made when the US abandoned Afghanistan in early 2002 in order to prepare for the war in Iraq. We did not see major reconstruction of the country until 2004 and the window of opportunity for winning over the Afghan people and truly undermining Taliban influence was lost. (…) I still think Afghanistan is doable. But it is not a single conflict anymore — it is becoming a regional war that is spreading to Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran. And what is needed now is a regional diplomatic approach of the West to resolve this problem. It has become a much bigger problem than it was in 2001."

No major country, especially not the United States, can afford incompetent governance at this juncture. We just had 8 years of that and a lot of people around the world will continue to pay the price for the combination of hubris and religious fervor (Bush’s that is).