Happy Holidays, Mahmoud

December 15, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Could a change in scenery mean a change in attitude? With Hamas leaving Damascus for the Gulf state of Qatar a lot of people are hoping that might very well be the case.

Conventional wisdom might indicate that to be a pipe dream but the shrewd money is betting on a real change. Why? Assad may be toppled but even if he isn’t he will be severely weakened.  A weakened Assad might sell Hamas out if it serves the regime’s interests. Iran is being increasingly isolated and they too would happily sacrifice Hamas to buy more wiggle room. Further, with each passing day the connection between Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah is becoming increasingly evident. That connection will not be well tolerated in the region. From Egypt to Saudi Arabia, leaders understand that Hamas would usurp them at a moment’s notice. Hamas support for Assad and Nasrallah in Lebanon made that very clear. 

The time for real change in the region may have come. It won’t be easy, it won’t come quickly but the conditions may be right.

We live in interesting times.

Foreign Policy:

The shifting allegiances in this tumultuous era of Arab politics have come to resemble a game of musical chairs. According to an unnamed Hamas official quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the hard-line Palestinian group is seeking to move its political headquarters from Damascus as early as this week. Its reliance on the tottering regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has left it significantly weakened and in search of a new base for political operations, and Egypt and Qatar have both materialized as possible new bases, according to the official. In the case of the Qatari capital of Doha, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

It’s still unclear if Hamas will actually make the move. Speaking to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, another Hamas official was quick to dismiss the Wall Street Journal story, claiming that only administrative staff will leave Damascus while the top political figures will stay. But whatever Hamas’s current plans, it’s clear that Assad’s violent crackdown — and the negative reaction from Arab powers — have pressured the group into exploring its options.

The fall of traditional regional power brokers like former Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the likely fall of Assad have helped to burnish Qatar’s diplomatic and strategic influence. Qatar took the lead in persuading the Arab League to impose sanctions on the Assad regime, and was also the first Arab country to back international intervention in Libya — even sending its own special forces to support the anti-Qaddafi rebels.

For the countries that could be potential new bases, Hamas’s weakness presents an opportunity to turn the group away from extremism, isolate it from Iranian influence, and potentially lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The Wall Street Journal article contended that Hamas is being encouraged to make a hurried exit out of Syria by Qatar and Turkey. According to the Hamas official quoted in that piece, the two countries have castigated the group for its continued relationship with the murderous Assad regime, allegedly telling Hamas, in the words of the official, “Have you no shame? It’s enough. You have to get out.” On the verge of becoming embroiled in a Syrian civil war, Hamas is “looking to re-establish themselves somewhere with stability” according to one Palestinian official quoted in the Times of London last week, but also where it will be “protected, diplomatically and militarily, from Israel.”

It is unlikely that Hamas’ top leadership will move its headquarters to Gaza, as the group would be vulnerable to attacks by Israel. Jordan is another possibility, but the Hashemite kingdom and Hamas don’t have a smooth relationship — Hamas officials were expelled from the country in 1999 for actions deemed harmful to the state. Fear of becoming a flashpoint for regional conflict could still convince King Abdullah to avoid strengthening ties with Hamas. There’s always Khartoum, but relocating to distant Sudan would look like an act of desperation for Hamas, which has always prided itself for exercising influence at the center of the Arab world.

Hamas’ position is unenviable. On the one hand, it faces pressure from Iran, another patron, which has allegedly threatened to withdraw funding should the group leave Damascus  a threat the Islamic Republic also reportedly followed through on briefly this year when Hamas refused to publicly support Assad. On the other hand, the longer Hamas remains in Damascus and implicitly stands by Assad, the more legitimacy it will lose among Palestinians living in Syria and broadly among Sunnis opposing the regime. It will also find itself working against its ideological affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood — an important force in the Syrian opposition movement.

As we argued in our July 2011 report on Fatah-Hamas unity, Hamas’s increasingly untenable position toward the Arab revolt was what induced politburo chief Khaled Mashaal to discuss reconciliation and a unity government back in May with his Palestinian political rival, Fatah – an arrangement the group had previously rejected when offered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. The fragility of its position in Syria may have also inspired Hamas to arrange the prisoner swap that exchanged Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — a move designed to secure much-needed popular kudos and international credibility. Hamas is trying, in its own way, to look like a group that other countries can do business with.

But do those countries have any interest in playing host to Hamas — a movement that has proven to be one of the chief obstacles to regional peace and stability? One could assume that splitting Hamas’ political operations between Doha and Cairo could provide a check on the group’s behavior. At the same time, there’s a risk that it could act more liberally in Qatar — in order to acquire legitimacy — while at the same time developing a more radical agenda in Egypt, especially with its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, set to dominate the Egyptian Parliament.

For its part, Qatar may view the prospect of hosting Hamas as an opportunity to increase its diplomatic clout and leverage in the region, as it has done since the start of the Arab Spring. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, has long played a behind the scenes role in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. He previously offered to establish a bilateral committee with the United States to advance Arab-Israeli peace, to mediate internal Palestinian disputes, and has provided $50 million in financial support to the then Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in 2006.

Achieving peace in the region has been Qatar’s stated policy goal since 1994, when Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamid bin Jassim al-Thani said in a Washington event that the country was willing to talk to all parties in the conflict, including Israel. Qatar pursued low-level diplomatic relations with Israel and even hosted an Israeli trade mission in Doha. However, the relationship broke off in December 2008, after Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, on the other hand, currently enjoys Qatar’s hospitality: Mashaal, for example, currently owns a house in Doha…

Read it all.

The armed forces used to be populated by young draftees. Back home, parents and family waited and girlfriends stationed themselves at the mailbox. Now, the services are filled with young married volunteers, often with children and unmarried couples who are no different in their familial structure.

Unlike previous generations large numbers of the families of these service members live on base surrounded by others in the exact same circumstances. They are away from the community at large and live in a military society and culture as opposed to living in a a civilian environment.

This change in military culture has brought big changes, some good and some not so good. When all is said and done, we need to be particularly mindful of how military veterans and their families are treated.

Washington Post:

Two visitors, their arrivals separated by a few hours, stop at a grave in Section 6, Row 5 of the Veterans Cemetery here. The burial grounds are cold and quiet.

A few miles away at Fort Campbell, thousands of soldiers are preparing for yet another tour in Afghanistan.

The first visitor arrives a little after 10 a.m. He is tall and lean, a 42-year-old Army officer. He wears a dark-blue dress uniform with four stripes on his right sleeve, each mark indicating six months spent in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Lt. Col. Joel B. Vowell commanded the soldier who lies in the grave. Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga and five others died in an assault on an insurgent sanctuary in Afghanistan that Vowell planned and led a few weeks before his battalion came home. The deaths caused some soldiers and families to question whether the operation was necessary. The whispers stung Vowell deeply.

Among the angriest was Arrechaga’s 23-year-old widow, Seana. As Vowell kneels at the grave on Veterans Day, he can see a photograph of the couple clasping hands at their wedding. The photo is tucked behind a drawing of a ghost and a small sign that says “Spooky,” decorations Seana has placed for Halloween.

The relationship between Vowell and Seana, at once distant and uncomfortably intimate, reflects an important change in the American military. In past wars, soldiers were mostly unmarried draftees who ­deployed to combat zones as in­dividuals. Commanders often barely knew their men.

Today, troops fight as units, living and training together for years on gated Army bases far from the country’s big cities. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former top commander in Afghanistan, calls the practice “exclusionary bonding.”

The close bonds, sealed by the military’s growing sense that it is fighting a war that America has forgotten, have helped the Army withstand the strain of a decade of combat. One of the service’s biggest successes is that it has not been torn apart by the widespread discipline problems, racial tension and drug abuse of the Vietnam War era.

For those in tightknit military communities, the combination of proximity and isolation can produce intense emotion, especially in the wake of a soldier’s death.

Seana arrives at the cemetery a little after 2 p.m., accompanied by the couple’s 3-year-old son, Alston. Her shoulder-length blond hair matches the color of the straw scattered atop her husband’s grave site. She looks like a college student.

In the first weeks after her husband’s death, searching for someone to blame, she imagined confronting Vowell and other more senior officers. It would take months for her anger to fade.

Lt. Col. Joel B. Vowell: The commander

Vowell, like many members of today’s officer corps, grew up in a military family. His father did two tours of Vietnam as a Special Forces officer and company commander, leading a unit of about 120 men.

At age 17, Vowell headed off to the University of Alabama, determined to become a doctor instead of a soldier. “I saw what it did to my dad,” he said of the Army. “He was home late and gone all the time, and I thought that sucked.”

During his first semester of college, he spotted a couple of Army ROTC cadets on a training patrol. The camouflage-clad students reminded him of home, and he signed up for a few ROTC courses. A few months later, he won a three-year ROTC scholarship. “I liken it to people who find a calling in the clergy,” he said. “The passion hit me.”

He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a planner and a staff officer before taking command of an 800-man infantry battalion. In April 2010, the unit deployed to northern Konar province, one of the most violent areas of Afghanistan. Vowell’s troops arrived just as the enemy was shifting fresh fighters and resources into the area. He lost nine soldiers in the first two months to roadside bombs, rocket attacks and a suicide bomber…

Read it all.

Once touted as an tool of empowerment for the world’s underprivileged, micro loans and micro lenders have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. Why? It turns out for many borrowers micro loans can lead to financial slavery. Loans to women are often taken by men and in certain societies women are forced to work two or more jobs to pay back the original loan just so as to avoid ‘shaming’ the family. Micro loans have done wonders in some instances and have been disasters in others.

Some borrowers have brought themselves out of poverty and others have sold kidneys or a part 0f their liver to pay down their debt. 

Something is very, very wrong. Now all we have to do is figure out how to fix the problems.

The New Republic:

In August, Bangladeshi police broke up a ring of human organ dealers operating in Joypurhat, a district in the north of the country. Investigators say that three local “brokers” preyed on a large pool of indebted farmers, who agreed to part with a kidney or a chunk of their liver for a couple thousand dollars—enough for them to pay down their debts. Mosammat Rebeca and her husband sold their kidneys to help pay back 180,000 taka ($2,358) owed to five separate lenders—a massive sum in a country where the per capita annual income hovers around $1,700. Rebeca’s husband was paid 135,000 taka ($1,768) for selling his kidney last year, but it wasn’t quite enough. “We were about 65,000 taka short, so I had to donate my kidney as well,” she told me in a recent interview.

Rural indebtedness is as old as the earth in South Asia, but what was notable in this case was its source. Instead of the usurious village moneylenders of old, many organ sellers say they were victims of a new, apparently virtuous, engine of economic empowerment—microfinance. While such micro-loan programs have been widely touted as a ladder out of poverty, they had become a crushing burden for many in Joypurhat, who spoke to me of entangling webs of debt and the aggressive tactics of NGO debt collectors. Indeed, stories like the ones I heard in Bangladesh speak to a larger backlash, both on the ground and in the academy, against the practice of offering micro-loans as a tool for international development. While the majority of microcredit institutions are doubtless well-intentioned, in many places an unregulated and overzealous lending market has led to rashes of personal indebtedness and desperation that are a far cry from the development outcomes originally envisioned by experts and donors.

THE PRACTICE OF OFFERING micro-loans as a tool for poverty alleviation has a long and multifaceted history, but most popular accounts begin with Mohammad Yunus’s decision to establish the Grameen Bank in 1976, handing out small loans to impoverished households in rural Bangladesh. In the view of Yunus and other early boosters, access to credit was directly linked to poverty reduction: Granting access to funds at reasonable interest rates would allow the poor to avoid the usurious rates of traditional moneylenders and use the funds to start small businesses and cottage enterprises. In addition, one of Grameen’s key innovations was to target its financial services at women, who bear a disproportionate burden of poverty and are thought to be more reliable financial clients than men. Given the chance, Yunus came to believe, Bangladesh’s rural women could form self-reinforcing networks of trust that would guard against defaults. In short, the poor could be made “bankable.”

Since then, microfinance institutions (MFIs) have revolutionized the field of development, and the global clients of these organizations number in the hundreds of millions. From a narrow focus on credit, MFIs have expanded to encompass a wide range of “micro” financial services, including savings accounts, insurance policies, and skills training programs. Yunus’s Grameen Bank has become an institutional behemoth supporting MFI operations on three continents and hawking everything from mobile phones and knitwear to software and business development plans. In awarding the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Yunus and Grameen, the Nobel committee stated that the bank had become “a source of ideas and models for the many institutions in the field of micro-credit that have sprung up around the world.”

But in recent years, microfinance has developed a macro-image problem. Anger has exploded in Andhra Pradesh, India, where journalists and politicians have linked MFIs, including SKS Microfinance, one of India’s largest, to dozens of rural suicides. Opposition came to a head there in October of 2010, when the state government approved an ordinance designed to prevent the “harassment” of small borrowers by debt collectors.Caught in Micro debta 2010 documentary by Norwegian journalist Tom Heinemann, turned the spotlight on Yunus and the Grameen Bank, accusing the Nobel laureate of tax evasion—an allegation that was partly used to justify Yunus’ removal as head of Grameen by the Bangladeshi government in March. (Yunus and his supporters deny the film’s allegations.)

Bangladeshi critics say that MFIs have simply acquired too much power and made far too many irresponsible loans, constituting an unregulated shadow state within the country which, far from alleviating poverty, has worsened the situation of the rural poor. “Microcredit is discrimination against the poor, it doesn’t empower. It’s total nonsense,” said Farhad Mazhar, the managing director of UBINIG, a Dhaka-based alternative development organization. According to unpublished research conducted by UBINIG, only around 8 percent of the micro-borrowers surveyed ended up using their loans to build wealth. Even then, Mazhar said, individual success owed more to pre-existing entrepreneurial skills and family support than to the credit itself. “Most of them became poorer,” Mazhar contends.

Skepticism of microfinance and its benefits, meanwhile, has migrated to the academy as well. Lamia Karim, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon and the author of Microfinance and Its Discontents, has questioned the claim that offering small loans directly to Bangladeshi women has been empowering. On the contrary, she has found women are often pressured to hand over loans to their husbands or male relatives. At the same time, microcredit agencies have created what she terms an “economy of shame,” in which the traditional role of women as bearers of “family honor” is used to leverage repayments—a key yardstick of MFIs’ success. (Grameen, for instance, proudly trumpets a loan recovery rate of close to 97 percent). To avoid the public shame of default, many women take out additional loans from different lenders, and quickly find themselves mired in a quicksand of debt.

A heavy emphasis on measuring loan recovery rates also tends to obscure whether borrowers are actually using the loans for productive activities, as opposed to mere survival. When it comes to quantifying the latter variable, one recent report commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and released in August concluded that “almost all impact evaluations of microfinance suffer from weak methodologies and inadequate data.” Given this vacuum of quality research, Maren Duvendack, a research fellow at the University of East Anglia and one of the report’s authors, says the verdict on microfinance is still out. “I’m surprised microfinance has been hyped up so much,” she told me, “because good impact evaluations are still pretty scarce.”…

Read it all.

Out of Touch

December 15, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


December 15, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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