Somaliland Democracy

Would you vacation in Somalia? Given Somalia’s image (and reality) as an ungovernable failed state locked in perpetual violence, the answer is obvious.

But last week Peter Buttitigieg and Nathaniel Meyers  report they walked through the market (it sounds like Berbera) and drove around in a battered pickup truck to see rock paintings in the desert in the Republic of Somaliland.

It’s a unique and provocative report from the unrecognized, autonomous, self-governing territory north of Somalia, a place few people have heard of.

Buttitigieg says a democratically elected government is functioning despite desperate poverty and lack of recognition by the U.S., Europe and the African Union. Paradoxically, it’s what the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, needs.

But, to call it a paradox is deep understatement. The Republic of Somaliland has been functioning as a democracy since 1991 without recognition, not because it’s unknown but because it’s the policy of the AU, US and EU. There are many reasons, not the least of which is that the Republic constituted itself and has gone about its business without acceding to requests by the international community for it to dissolve and merge with the rest of the anarchic territory to the south.

Therefore, even with its record of success, it presents all kinds of problems to Africa and the world community. Tenuous borders were drawn by colonial administrators who disregarded land use patterns by various tribes. These are still an inflammatory issue.

The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a recent reminder. Competing claims on the Ogaden within the borders of Ethiopia but used by ethnic Somalis is another.

In addition, tenuous elections have put people in charge who hold on through coercion, finesse and, sometimes, force.

Many feel that self-constituted autonomy opens a Pandora’s box that could lead to more problems than solutions. So the Republic remains incognito.

Never the less, Buttitigieg and Meyers provoke interesting reflection on the Republic of Somaliland and whether it should be ignored by the rest of the world. I have a T-shirt that says, “I vacationed in Mogadishu and lived to tell about it.” Buttitigieg and Meyers don’t claim the Republic is a tourist destination, but given the instability to the south they ask if the world should take a second look at the Republic of Somaliland and re-consider its invisible status.

Fuel Costs in West Africa and the Global Food Crisis

I wrote from Ivory Coast last week of the public strike against higher fuel costs. Abidjan, the country’s economic center, was shut down. Young people set up roadblocks and had to be dispersed by police.

An article this morning from Reuters offers a glimpse of the social impact of higher fuel prices. They are economically oppressive and socially destabilizing.

We experienced the chaos in a milder form. When we went to check out of our rooms preparing to leave for the airport we were told airport workers were on strike and no planes were flying. Hotel guests gathered in the lobby swapping bits of information and offering advice to each other.

We reserved rooms for the night and began a frantic search for alternatives, calling travel agents, local people who might know more, and conferring with others in the hotel. Prospects looked bleak. We might be stranded for the duration of the strike. We called home to break the news. Not a happy task.

Then a call came from a local contact who said he learned the plane we were booked on would be allowed to land and take off. Go to the airport.

We gathered our bags and rushed off, to the chagrin of the hotel staff who smiled and said they’d see us soon, assuming we would be back shortly.

At the airport, however, people stood at the arrival gates awaiting debarking passengers and we skimmed through security, ticketing and passport control in record time. No waiting because the rumor had kept everyone away.

To our surprise the airport was operating normally. Planes were landing and taking off. Our plane sat at the gate and at the appointed time we were boarded and we departed. I still don’t know if the strike was quashed, fell apart or was a rumor.

However, cost of living is an issue. Fuel costs have driven up prices not only for fuel but for food and other goods and services, including public buses and taxis. Pocketbooks already stretched are now being emptied. Many lucky enough to have a  job can’t earn enough to get to work and buy food. As one taxi driver told the Reuters reporter, he is working to pay for fuel.

In a developing economy price increases don’t ripple through and eventually get absorbed, they rip through tearing a hole in the pockets of people who are already barely able to survive. And that’s a much more significant reality than the inconvenience of travel for folks like me. Per capita income in Côte d’Ivoire is $587 U.S.

Yesterday Exxon announced record profits, earning $1,500 a second, $11.7 billion for the quarter, record profit for a corporation. And still, it wasn’t enough for Wall Street. Exxon shares dropped and the LA Times actually opined we in the U.S. should be grateful for the company’s staggering profits because the pain of higher gasoline prices is driving the search for alternatives, and, of course, the editors think it’s bad policy to tax excessive profits. Bad for the corporation.

A more useful discussion of food and trade policy is here.

However, I wonder if that means it’s good policy to let the poorest of Africa and elsewhere walk and eat dirt, because that’s what’s happening. The global food crisis is, in part, borne by global fuel costs and for some it’s not a mere inconvenience.

Lighting Africa

New technology could bring light to off-the-grid Africa according to Jonathan Marks at Critical Distance weblog.

Marks reports on a joint venture by the Dutch electronics multinational, Philips, the Netherlands Ministry of Overseas Development and selected African partners.

Marks says the effort will produce solar lighting kits for Sub-Saharan Africa.

He writes, “The aim of the agreement called ‘Sustainable Energy Solutions Africa’, is quite simply to create ten million LED lights, giving people in the rural areas of 14 countries access to sustainable light before the year 2015.”

Global News Coverage in Decline

According to research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Center coverage of global news in U.S. print media is declining and now makes up 10.7% of coverage.

Editors say they are reducing both staff and resources for coverage of news outside the United States. The report says staff cutbacks and movement to the Internet will result in smaller newsrooms in the future.

For all the talk about globalization, this trend belies the claim we’re becoming more globally connected. At least, our awareness of our global connections aren’t reflected in the trend.

The Pew report also provides a roadmap for the future, if you base it on how news is presented right now. It points toward coverage of U.S. foreign policy, corporate interests and conflict. Nothing new here.

If we continue down this path, the future will look like the present, only skinnier. Much of the same kind of coverage we’re accustomed to now.

According to the Pew research, foreign coverage for the first six months of this year was dominated by China, Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Israel, Palestine and Afghanistan.

What that means is we can expect coverage of the world’s hot spots, emphasis on global corporate interests and the continent of Africa presented as a cauldron of corruption, violence and hunger.

Faced with this reality, alternative sources for global news are becoming even more critically needed for those who want a more comprehensive and nuanced reporting of the world we live in.

Global Food Crisis: Part Two

This is our first day in Cote d’Ivoire where I’m meeting with church and government officials to talk about communications issues, particularly radio. In our opening briefing we were told the visit was almost cancelled last week due to price increases in fuel.

Fuel increased fifty cents per liter bringing costs per gallon between eight and ten dollars U.S. Our host said, “Abidjan was like a ghost town. There were no buses running, no cars on the street and people stayed home.”

Food and fuel are inextricably linked. When fuel costs more so does food. Increases in delivery fees are are passed on to consumers, already stretched.

A similar story is playing out in Asia according to a report this morning by Keith Bradsher in the New York Times.

As wages stagnate the bind gets worse. While Bradsher makes the case for Asia being hit hardest, it’s clear this is a global crisis and no developing economy can escape without hunger and pain. If fuel costs are causing the U.S. consumer to back off, consider how it must be for families already living at the edge of survival in developing economies.

The comments section of the previous post asks about ideas from those concerned about the crisis. I invite you to join the conversation and suggest actions we can take.

The Global Food Crisis

Reports from Somalia are the worst I’ve seen in years. Hunger is already threatening over two and a half million Somalis and the United Nations says 3.5 million are at risk of famine in coming weeks.

Security, already terrible, is becoming even worse. A U.N. official was killed as he exited a mosque in Mogadishu and notes threatening aid workers are being left in conspicuous locations. Three medical workers from Doctors Without Borders were killed recently by a roadside bomb.

Aid workers are leaving the country. Humanitarian aid has become a tool manipulated by factions. And while it’s unclear just who is responsible for the most recent events, it’s clear the people already vulnerable will bear the result–even more suffering and death. It’s the story of Somalia in modern history.

Another report about the global food crisis by Kevin Sullivan in the Washington Post says women bear the brunt of the growing shortage of affordable food. They eat last and least, Sullivan writes.

This is not new. Women, especially in Africa, have long been the last to eat after men and children. It’s just more widespread and critical now.

Sullivan points out that because of the high cost of food, women are foregoing medical care and some are turning to prostitution. Children, unable to buy uniforms and pay fees, are dropping out of school.

The crisis isn’t limited to Africa, of course, it’s affected parts of Asia and, to a lesser degree, South America and even some parts of central and eastern Europe.

Bread For the World is encouraging passage of the Global Poverty Act (S.2433) and has talking points on their website giving pointers on what to say when you call your senator.

The Measure of America:U.S. Slips Downward in Development & Health

A report released yesterday says the 42nd among developed nations in life expectancy despite spending more on health care than any other nation in the world.

And the U.S. is twelfth in human development which includes income growth, quality education, life expectancy, personal safety, secure livelihood and a say in the decisions that affect one’s life.

The report measures quality of life by U.S. Congressional districts. It’s modeled after the United Nations Development Programme’s global Human Development Report which has been refined over the past decade, making it possible to reliably compare human development and quality of life issues among developed and developing nations.

The report was funded by Oxfam America, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Annenberg Foundation.

A Commonwealth Fund report on health care echoes the slide downward. The report says benchmarks for access, quality, efficiency, and other key measures of health system performance were all down from its 2006 assessment.

In a New York Times article, Dr. Denis A. Cortese, the chief executive of the Mayo Clinic, says the U.S. has got to create better value (in health care).

Websites to Make You Think

Four websites I’ve been following that make me think:

TED: Ideas Worth Spreading is a remarkable collection of thought-provoking ideas by innovative thinkers and doers in a wide range of skills, some highly specialized, some with unique new thoughts on common subjects. I found Hans Rosling’s thoughts on poverty fascinating.

Big Think: We are what you think offers a variety of experts who provide video talks on a number of subjects providing new insight, new framing or innovative applications that breaks out of old ways of thinking about things. I found the rap by Mark Kramer at Adventures in Philanthropy about General Electric establishing health clinics in Ghana a very interesting take on limited profit corporations and social benefits.

The Washington Post’s Voices on Personal Technology offers the insights of entertainers, activists, politicians and others into the use of new technology and how various technological products or services are changing how we live our lives, and how they are changing our social and civic institutions.

Al’s Morning Meeting blog at Poynter Online also offers a list of a dozen sites Al follows, many of which use media in creative ways including interactive journalism.

Del McCoury Sings of a “Forgotten America”

Moneyland by Del McCoury“Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can now best be described as ‘Forgotten America.’”

This is the opening sentence of the liner notes on Moneyland, a new bluegrass collection assembled by bluegrass master Del McCoury. It is directed at Washington politicians under a heading of “Obligatory Disclaimer.” The words stake out strong territory, territory once inhabited by Woody Guthrie and later by Pete Seeger. It’s the role of social prophet in a musical voice.

The prophet hears the voices of the oppressed and forgotten and lifts them up, but isn’t necessarily obligated to offer a prescription for social change. The prophet seeks a hearing and calls for justice.

It’s the politicians entrusted with the responsibilities of governance who ought to serve the people and Moneyland makes it abundantly clear that politicians have failed working folks wholesale.  It frames the case in an interesting way. The opening and closing cuts are taken from Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.

Roosevelt began his chats in 1933 when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression and radio in its infancy. The chats revealed his remarkable ability to communicate with the masses, especially working people, despite his patrician background. To put it mildly, it’s an ability that’s been long absent among politicians with roots in Roosevelt’s social vision and belief in progressive government for all the people.

Sterner and more angry voices today call the treatment of working people contemptuous neglect wrapped in hypocrisy and exploitation. And these themes are vocalized in Moneyland.

McCoury sings of greed and forgotten people. As if to nail down the point, the same week the album was released former Sen. Phil Gramm said we’re a nation of whiners concerned about a “mental recession.” He virtually ignored the real, down-to-earth dislocation that is tearing apart lives in the heartland.

Also included is Merle Haggard’s What Happened?, an unsparing critique of popular culture that asks where the America we once knew has gone.

Haggard says mainstreet has gone the way of Walmart. Jobs have gone offshore. Houses and double wide trailers are going back to the mortgage companies, and more and more families are going bankrupt. And it’s seemed as if no one is listening.

A poignant report in the New York Times by writer Michael Powell recounts the experience of Jeana Brown, a Georgia woman working two jobs. She tells Barack Obama about the sacrifices she and her husband are making to keep up payments on their double wide trailer after they went from $670 to $1,378.

Powell contrasts Ms. Brown’s story with the dissonance of Obama going from this conversation to fundraising events in elegant surroundings with wealthy patrons. Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope it’s difficult to stay in touch with the hard edge of life when wealth provides both a cushion and distance.

It’s this disconnect that McCoury focuses on with clarity and sharpness. Both McCoury’s album and Ms. Brown’s story hint at something stirring in the heartland. It’s the stewpot of betrayal that a lot of people are feeling–economic exploitation, hypocrisy, greed, a toxic culture of consumption and unresponsive politicians.

I heard a man say recently, “This is not the country I grew up in.” When McCoury and Haggard put this disaffection into song it means there’s an audience for it. Something’s afoot.

Ms. Brown told Powell she hasn’t voted in 32 years, but she’s going to vote this year. Now that they’re being directly affected by the greed and neglect, folks who have felt they weren’t being heard and have little stake in the civic process are sounding like they’re ready to join in making change.

Whether it’s hope or desperation, it doesn’t matter, this is a time of opportunity that could re-energize the democratic process if this renewed interest can be harnessed and given active expression.

But it’s not only politics that has failed these folks. (I know this essay is too long and I’ll stop after this.) Much of the mainline religious community has been equally neglectful, sometimes even holding them in disdain, our only contact being when they repair our air conditioners or tune up our cars–despite the fact that some of us are them. We are working class but we got educated and got above our raising, as another Haggard song puts it.

In the process, mainliners lost the the ability to talk with working people and they figured out that mainline churches were no place for them and, maybe, religion was irrelevant anyway. Those who did reach out to them (fundamentalists, evangelicals and religious entrepreneurs) offered biblical interpretation devoid of social justice alongside a privatized expression of faith that was in some cases coopted by political operatives who wed right wing politics to conservative religion and claimed it was family values.

As I see it, the distance of the mainline from working folks is even more serious than the politicians because it’s a fundamental betrayal of the biblical admonition to stand for justice and express concern for your neighbor, especially the excluded and forgotten. (Matt. 25:35-40.)

So McCoury’s album is a prophetic poke at mainline religion as well. Mainline theologians and preachers could do worse than listen to McCoury, Haggard and others on this album and reflect on its themes. It expresses a deeply human, and therefore, deeply religious yearning for respect, dignity and community that deserves to be heard and given attention.

They also show us how the deepest yearnings of the human spirit can be expressed through story and sound, and in doing so point us toward recovering the ability to communicate with folks who are taking it on the chin right now and about whom we should be urgently concerned.

For some of us, “they” are us, but we need to close the gap.

The Social Security Disinformation Campaign

John McCain’s widely quoted criticism of Social Security repeats an on-going misinterpretation that seems to have as its goal the privatization of retirement accounts.

“Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s got to be fixed,” he said.

He attempted to clarify his initial remarks by saying younger workers “are paying so much that they are paying into a system that they won’t receive benefits from on its present track that it’s on — that’s the point.” Well, that’s clear enough, maybe.

Obama’s interpretations in the past haven’t proven much better.

But the question is, “Is this accurate?” Is the system heading off the cliff? Many informed people don’t think so, and politicians who use Social Security as a tool for their own policy positions (unsurprising but disappointing) rather than working to improve the system and keep it functioning for the benefit of all continue to add to the fog.

McCain’s assessment flies in the face of solid analysis by the AARP and economists familiar with the current system.

None of the dire predictions is even remotely likely. And privatization might well do more harm than good,” according to Fred Brock in his retirement guide, Retire on Less Than You Think.

“Why all the fuss?” Brock asks. “Think hidden agendas, on all sides.” He points to the attraction of 2 trillion dollars to commission-driven Wall Street brokers. The same folk, it’s worth noting, who gave us Enron speculation and the current mortgage bundling investment opportunities. Thomas Frank called it the “trillion dollar hustle” back in 2002.

What bugs me, among other things, is that this goes beyond inaccuracy. It scares the dickens out of retired folks who don’t know all the facts and are afraid their retirement is jeopardized right now. These folks, many of whom have no other retirement support, don’t deserve to have their fears stoked by politicians with agendas.

Those in my family are barely making do now. They’re worried about Medicare and high drug bills and it just seems unnecessarily frightful to pile this onto their legitimate concerns.

Secondly, it sows generational cleavages. Ageism is a reality and these candidates know it. The idea that younger workers are paying for benefits of older workers that might not be available when they retire is simply not an inevitability and if it appears a shortfall is looming it can be addressed. Pitting young against old is damaging to the conversation and deflects away from genuine problems and the search for solutions.

This issue will take at least forty years to play out according to knowledgeable economists. There is time to work out a solid plan to keep social security as the backstop for retirement for all workers but we need a constructive discussion between Obama and McCain and the nation, not more inaccurate, divisive off-the-cuff musings.