President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address highlighted the growing imbalances throughout the world.  In recent decades, the U.S. has depended on its military strength as a substitute for diplomacy, but the President specified the need to shift the focus to fighting extreme poverty within Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific.

The President’s agenda is taking on the issue of poverty head-on.

He recognizes that to address the large inequalities we must reverse the decline of social and economic mobility.  Currently, 65 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth of incomes stay in the bottom two-fifths income class while 65 percent of top fifth stay in the top two-fifths.

A major factor that maintains this mobility gap is poverty.

Families from poor backgrounds and low economic status are at a disadvantage right from the start.  Just 36 percent of kids born in the poorest households get a strong start in life compared to 70 percent for middle-income kids and 87 percent for the upper class.

With federal programs like Head Start and Race to the Top are putting an emphasis on early child development, it is critical that we create social policy that supports individuals throughout all stages of life.  The Brookings Institute has identified five major life stages that we can consciously cultivate in order to increase mobility and opportunity in America.

  • Strong Start in life: Being born to a mother with at least a high school degree increases the likelihood of leading a successful life. Only 48 percent of children in the bottom fifth are born to mothers with a high school level education.  Increased cognitive ability starts in the home and these same children will hear fewer words, read fewer books and are overall less stimulated than their counterparts.
  • Strong Start in School: Starting school with a disadvantage is a factor that only compounds as a child grows.  By the age of five, less than half of low-income children are deemed school-ready.  To get a head start, children must develop social and academic skills before they enter school.  This is the rationale behind the President’s early learning initiative.
  • A Strong Start in Postsecondary Education:  Postsecondary education must begin with a high school diploma.  The dropout rate among low-income students is six times higher than the rate of high-income students.  Students must not only graduate but graduate with sufficient skills to succeed in higher education.
  • A Strong Start in Labor Market: In today’s economy, the value of a postsecondary degree is tremendous.  On average, each additional year of school accounts for an extra 10 percent return in annual income.  This makes four-year degrees more desirable than one from a community college.  Over 50 percent of low-income students enrolled in community college fail to graduate or transfer to a four-year college.  A support system to encourage students to remain focused and finish their degrees will transform their chances in a sluggish labor market.
  • A Strong Start for a Family: This brings the cycle full circle.  Before getting married and having children, individuals need to consider their personal financial security as a prerequisite.  Marriage plays a critical role in determining the fate of a child. Proper parenting skills are often developed through the shared experience of marriage.  Crafting social policy that encourages marriage can offer more incentives for couples to stay together and create a strong family.

Sunny Bhatt

Sources: Brookings Institute, New York Times
Photo: Prague Post

After 25 years, the civil war that plagued Sri Lanka and claimed thousands of lives is finally finished. The war, between the Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers separatist group, is estimated to have killed over 40,000 people in its final months.

The long war was between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE,) or simply the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE desired an independent state for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

The Tamils claim to have been victimized by the Sinhalese majority once the country became fully independent in 1948.

But, just because the war is finished, does not mean its opponents are any less quiet. In fact, many human rights groups are accusing the Sri Lankan government of destroying mass burial sites in order to cover its fingerprints on various human rights abuses.

Australia’s Public Interest Advocacy Center detailed an in-depth report chronicling the various abuses perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. The Tamil Tigers have been accused of using civilians as human shields and recruiting child soldiers. While these violations are heinous, the report lays the majority of the blame at the feet of the Sri Lanka government forces.

A United Nations report shows the majority of those 40,000 killed in the war’s final months can mostly be attributed to government action.

The team of investigators highlight the years 2008 and 2009, where the Sri Lankan government is accused of mass civilian bombardment. For example, in 2009, civilians were blocked by rebel fighters from leaving the war zone; the government shelled the entire area.

U.N. satellite images show the area the government shelled was occupied by up to 50,000 noncombatants. The government forces are also accused of purposefully targeting hospitals as well as blocking food and medicine to civilians and miscounting the number of civilians located in the war zone.

The abuses have been noted by the United States Government, resulting in intensified relations between the two countries. Recently, the U.S. has floated the idea of a third U.N. resolution against Sri Lanka. It responded by denying a visa request for a State Department official.

The government remains obstinate in the face of international pressure. Its President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that it would be a “great crime” to accuse the government of war crimes. He went as far as to say that those bringing these allegations against the Sri Lankan government shows they are “opposed to peace.”

It is uncertain where these U.N. resolutions will lead or if they will be effective at all in finding justice for the many thousands that were needlessly slaughtered by their own government.

– Zack Lindberg

Sources: Al Jazeera, CFR, ABC News
Photo: The Telegraph

The region of West Papua does not make the news often; in fact, it rarely merits a news blurb in most Western headlines. However, West Papua is arguably one of the most under-reported cases of exploitation an indigenous groups in the 21st century.

Since 1969, the people of West Papua have been in conflict with the government of Indonesia in one way or another. The University of Sydney’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies put out a report stating that for the better part of 40 years, the people of West Papua have been under the boot heel of the Indonesian Security forces.

The report goes on to state that due to wide scale incursions by Indonesia’s armed forces, West Papua has seen over 100,000 of its citizens die and much of its national resources depleted.

A report by The Guardian also notes the devastating effect that Indonesian resource extraction is having on the people of West Papua. It notes the case of the Mooi people, who are one of the 250 indigenous tribes that are having their way of life destroyed due to the deforestation of their lands by timber and palm oil companies.

The oceans off the coasts of West Papua are also being devastated due to nickel mining in the area, which is flooding the bountiful coral reefs with polluted sediment.

It is not only the eco-system of West Papua that is being destroyed. Even though it has been close to 45 years, the Indonesian military is still cracking down severely on people who are part of the Free Western Papua Movement.

Last year, the Free Western Papua Movement’s Facebook published the photo of a dead Papuan named Edward Apaseray, who was reportedly tortured and killed by the Indonesian Special Police Forces for being a “separatist.” The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine for the Asian-Pacific region, published a report in which a recent study noted that in West Papua, an incident of torture occurred every six weeks for the past half-century.

The human rights organization Tapol that monitors human rights abuses in West Papua published the story of Yawan Wayeni. He was a tribal leader and formal political prisoner who was tortured and killed by Indonesian security forces in brutal fashion.

The media have long overlooked the plight of the people of West Papua. It has only recently begun to receive real traction in Western media. The International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) is a group of politicians around the world who support the right self-determination for the people of West Papua.

One of its members, Benny Wenda, an exile from West Papua, recently had an article published in which he decried the recent statement of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, who stated that things in West Papua are “better and not worse.”

West Papua is one of the forgotten atrocities of the 21st century; the responsibility making sure that it does not continue to be rests with us and our elected officials. The Arab Spring occurred with the help of Facebook and a determined populace. The plight of West Papua needs the same type of support from those who have the ability to stand up to the Indonesian government.

– Arthur Fuller

Sources: Amnesty International, The Guardian, Tapol,  The Diplomat, The University Of Sydney, Tapol,  CNN, The Guardian, Tempo, Australia News Network
Photo: London Mining Network

India is known for having one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Currently, the growth for GDP within India rests at 4.9 percent, but this is far below its potential.

Similarly to the United States, India is another one of the world’s largest democracies. However, they both also have some of the worst cases of income inequality. In the past 15 years, the net worth of India’s top billionaires have increased 12 times, enough to eliminate poverty in India twice.

The public infrastructure of India is developing at a decent pace, but there are problems that are often left unaccounted for by the Indian government. For example, education in India is a system in dire need of improvement.

According to UNESCO’s Education For All global monitoring report, “At 287 million, India has 37 percent of the total population of illiterate adults across the world.” The report also asserts that the poorest of India will not expect to receive universal education until around the year 2080.

In regards to the specific problems that India faces with education, access and quality are two of the greatest concerns. Much of it is tied to the proper functioning and funding of Indian government, which may not be reliable in certain instances.

90% of people do not continue to college in India, 58% do not finish primary school and 4% never even have the opportunity to start.

The extensive lack of universal education in India also goes on to provide problems for India’s human capital in general. Out of 122 total countries released by the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index, India is ranked a measly 78.th The problems India faces may require the nation to make steps toward realizing more inclusive growth and development.

Income inequality ought to be addressed in India for their human capital to rise.

This means core public services including basic healthcare, education and power or water supply must be established by Indian government at multiple levels. Investment in people has proven a successful method to national development. In other words, India still has a ways to go in realizing its full potential.

– Jugal Patel

Sources: World Bank, India Times, Teach For India, Live Mint, Outlook India
Photo: The New York Times

Yao Eng-Chi, President of the Taiwan-based World League for Freedom and Democracy (WLFD,) recently expressed his hope of visiting China this year. His intentions regarding China came about at a celebration for the WLFD’s 60 founding anniversary in Taipei, just one day before Taiwan’s World Freedom day. He plans on democratizing the country via different types of exchanges.

The WLFD is an international non-governmental organization that originally stemmed off of the Anti-Communist League and was initiated by the leaders of the Republic of China on Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines in 1954. In 1991, it was renamed to adjust to the reality of the global political spectrum and to attract more people to join the causes of freedom and democracy.

According to Focus Taiwan, Eng-chi stated that his visit to China would help WLFD members “know how the Political Consultative Conference of the other side works.” In this statement, he was referring to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference which is a political advisory body of the People’s Republic of China.

The WLFD was originally formed in order to meet the needs of national policies while in an era dedicated to fighting communism. Now it focuses on promoting freedom and democracy in China and throughout the world. They are now a member of the Department of Public Information and Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the WLFD, Eng-Chi launched a new book, titled “60th Anniversary of the WLFD,” which reveals the history and efforts of the organization throughout the last six decades according to the China Post.

“This book is an authentic report of our past and achievements during these years. Through this book, we would like to let more people understand what we are fighting for and participate in our activities to promote a sense of democracy and freedom in the future. The meaning of this book is not only reflecting back on our history but also looking to the future,” said Eng-Chi at the book release press conference.

Eng-Chi is open to opportunities to lead him to visit mainland China in the near future to advocate for democracy in China. He plans to do this through cross-strait discussion and exchange. His main point is that the system of democracy he supports is from Western countries and uses his country of Taiwan as an example to prove that the foreign system is applicable to Chinese culture.

Lindsey Lerner

Sources: Focus Taiwan, China Post
Photos: China Post

South Korea has come a long way since it emerged from the Korean War in 1953 as an underdeveloped United States client state. Once a top receiver in foreign assistance, South Korea is now leading the charge in aiding underdeveloped countries.

Recently, Prime Minister Jung Hong-won committed to investing $2 billion worth of official development assistance (ODA) in 2014, in an effort to aid recipient countries by fast-tracking development programs and campaigns. This committed funding is an 11 percent increase from last year’s efforts and another progressive step forward in South Korea’s storied history.

Minho Cho, the deputy government director of ODA, stated that the majority of South Korea’s funds will be used to build and improve upon social and economic infrastructures.

Other development plans include the building of water treatment, education, healthcare and energy facilities in underdeveloped countries from Asia to Africa. “We are taking efforts to increase steadily the size of our ODA for several years and we are planning to increase [assistance] going forward,” said Cho.

South Korea’s foreign assistance programs will also focus on better suited developmental projects in underdeveloped countries in hopes of making aid more effective and transparent. “This year’s [development] policy priority is, first, we like to push for what we call a win-win ODA which means that both [the Korean government] and the recipient countries receiving aid are benefitting,” said Cho.

A portion of this funding will also go towards funding volunteers and their missions in developing countries to further display South Korea’s developmental footprint globally.

Further cementing South Korea’s footprint of aiding the poor is the announcement of a new World Bank office in Incheon, South Korea. World Bank country director, Klaus Rohland spoke about how other countries can benefit from the country’s storied past, “[South] Korea is an exceptional example of an aid recipient turned donor…and developing countries in Africa and elsewhere can learn from its experience. The new office will help expand partnerships…focusing on finance, private sector development, green growth and other priorities to accelerate poverty reduction and build shared prosperity.”

South Korea’s first woman president, Park Geun-hye, also announced expanded economic ties with India in an effort to add more depth to their existing partnership.

Being Asia’s fourth largest economy, South Korea is making a point to form lasting relationships with neighbors in their area. India and South Korea will be focusing their energy in promoting space technology, greater trade investments and defense industries. They will also be promoting their Korean model of growth in different parts of Africa.

While many countries are currently suffering from crippling poverty and food insecurity, South Korea is doing all they can to help lift the burden for those countries. Ranking near the top of all major donors, South Korea is also hoping to make foreign aid 25 percent of the country’s Gross National Income by 2015. The success of South Korea is a prime illustration of how it’s possible for underdeveloped countries to overcome adversity and achieve prosperity in this lifetime.

Jeffrey Scott Haley
Feature Writer

Sources: Mizo News, Devex, Devex
Photo: KOICA

Few will fail to condemn Syria’s Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons this past August that reportedly killed reported 1,400 people, including civilians. However, the international community responded sternly, spearheaded by the United States.

Obama called the act an atrocity and, with the support of Russia, who had usually blocked or opposed any international action against the Assad regime, lead the United Nations to intervene. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW,) the body created to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention in the 1990’s, has overseen the disarmament of Syria’s stockpiles and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year for the work they have done around the world in chemical weapon disarmament.

Syria is now behind on the timetable that calls for the destruction of all their stores, over 1,200 metric tons, by mid-2014. Logistics are a major obstacle in this feat, as chemical weapons are stored by the government all over the country, with the potential for these sites to be amid conflict and the serious danger in handling them. Still, international resources for this endeavor are in no short supply and, perhaps most importantly, with administration of the operation handled by the OPCW, the will to carry out the plan is strong.

So the stage is set for a humanitarian victory with the U.S. and Russia as an odd couple of heroes, given the respective efforts of the two countries politically and in the physical disposal of the dangerous weapons despite some of the disparate geopolitical leanings of the two superpowers.

The parade, though, will likely be delayed as Syria, as of January 7, has only just removed a very small amount of some of their least dangerous chemicals. They may very well need an extension of their deadline, but this should be a familiar storyline to the two nations that have delayed the destruction of their chemical weapons continuously since signing the Chemical Weapons Convention accord.

In fact, this country’s refusal to relinquish the right to retaliation in the early 1990’s, wanting to retain a defensive store of the most deadly chemical weapons, delayed the drafting of the accord. Russia still has 30 percent of its self-reported stores and the U.S. has 10 percent left, according to OPCW’s 2011 report. While that might not seem like much, the two countries combine for some 20,000 metric tons or nearly 20 times Syria’s entire stockpile.

In 2011 alone, the U.S. destroyed 1,996 metric tons of Class 1 chemical weapons, the most dangerous variety, including Sarin gas. It won’t be until 2023 that the U.S. Government predicts they will finally have destroyed all of its stores, over 5,000 metric tons. Russia is expected to request an additional extension until 2020 for the destruction of their more voluminous horde.

That the two countries that control the largest share of some of the world’s most terrifying weapons are so active in the disarmament of another is certainly still commendable, although setting an example by expediently disarming themselves and reducing the availability of chemical weapons might do more for the world.

– Tyson Watkins

Sources: OPCW, CNN, RIANOVOSTI, New York Times, USA Today
Photo: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty