Information and news about politics.

fight against global poverty
How many members of Congress are there, you ask? Fair question. The short answer is 535. That is, 100 Senators, two from each state, and 435 Representatives, which makes about one representative for every 700,000 people. But there’s more to it than that. All members contribute, positively or otherwise, to the fight against global poverty. Below is a quick guide to the most important groups and their key members for foreign policy decisions.

The most influential committees for major foreign policy decisions are the aptly named House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The House committee has 45 members and is chaired by Rep. Ed Royce. The committee’s recent efforts to fight against global poverty have included a hearing on the Boko Haram kidnapping victims and, more recently, legislation to combat international human trafficking, introduced by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. Meanwhile in the Senate, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez heads the Foreign Relations Committee. The committee’s recent efforts include a resolution urging a political solution to the ongoing humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria.

Of course, among the most influential forces behind Congress are the parties themselves. In the House, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 33 members, while in the Senate there are 45 Republicans to 53 Democrats, along with two Independents. What does that mean for foreign aid? It is a popular belief that the left in America have a more vested interest in reducing global poverty than the right. Therefore, the Democrats would be more likely to favor measures to reduce global poverty.

Republican leadership under the Bush administration, in part as a response to 9/11, but also as part of Bush’s bid for a more “compassionate conservatism,” dramatically increased foreign aid. Republicans in the early 2000s renewed efforts to fight AIDS and malaria, and also tripled foreign aid to Africa. Under the Obama administration, aid increased further, now totaling about $30 billion.

It is The Borgen Project’s stance that the U.S. needs a far stronger commitment to foreign aid in order to address global poverty. But the good news is that under the control of both parties in recent years, the budget has moved in the right direction.

The key parties, key committees and key players of Congress all help shape American politics and the fight against global poverty. In Congress, reducing global poverty crosses party lines, which can lead to a better bipartisan consensus.

– Julian Mostachetti

Sources: Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Committee on Foreign Affairs 1, House Committee on Foreign Affairs 2
Photo: follw.it

Human Rights Watch is currently investigating whether the Syrian government used chlorine bombs in recent attacks. Last September, Syria complied to dispose of its chemical weapons, around 1,300 metric tons, after external threats from the United States and Russia. Yet, many believe that chlorine was used in recent attacks in the country through barrel bombs.

The barrels, which are stuffed with nails and explosive material, are pushed out of airplanes into areas of rebel, and civilian, congregation — including schools, hospitals and civilian facilities. While the Syrian government has blamed the attacks on terrorist groups, Nadim Houry, the Deputy Director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, thinks otherwise.

Since the Syrian government has sole control over the air, Houry believes these attacks are meant to push residents away from these rebel areas. Causing panic amongst the civilian population, it causes them to flee and, subsequently, allows the government to advance more quickly.

While chlorine is not lethal, it can cause serious health problems for those affected. The Chemical Weapons Convention chalks chlorine’s exclusion from the list of prohibited toxic chemicals to its widespread commercial use, which is most commonly used for water purification and bleaching purposes. Yet this notion has been met with criticism; Charles Duelfer, who was head of Saddam Hussein’s investigation under weapons of mass destruction, claims that the magnitude of chlorine bombs equivocates the problem to other chemical munitions which are currently being destroyed.

Syria, which will be holding an election this upcoming Tuesday, has been in civil uproar since 2011, leaving many in rebel areas hopeless. Now, with voting only allowed in regime-controlled areas and set to virtually assure victory for the incumbent Bashar al-Assad, those in impoverished areas of the country are having trouble remaining hopeful.

Ahmed, a young rebel fighter from a now-besieged Deir Ezzor, is just one of many clinging to survival.

“Deir Ezzor is surrounded by the regime and [ISIS] has cut off the only way out,” Ezzor said.  “We will all be killed.”

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: CSMonitor, NPR, VOANews
Photo: Vice News

As the military coup continues in Thailand, Thai military leaders delivered rice payments promised to farmers. The rice was given to the government in return of payments through a rice-pledging scheme created by Yingluck Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, as a populist measure.

The previous government blamed the protests and the limited mandate of the government, after the parliament was dissolved last year, for the failure to pay farmers the promised sums. However, the program has been criticized for its waste and corruption, especially by the Bangkok establishment. Intended to help rural areas, the payouts are double the market price found on world markets.

Regardless, the military has made it one of their first priorities.

The Thai military ordered that 92 billion baht, or $2.8 billion, be paid out, while the country’s banks must lend the government the necessary cash.

In the national newspaper, Ban Maung, headlines read: “Farmers Receive Money With Tears of Joy,” in line with the compliant role the Thai media has taken with the military.

Despite many reports of praise from farmers over the payout, in the northeast section of  Thailand, where support for the previous regime remains high, the policy is unlikely to gain much support, according to David Streckfuss, an expert in Thai politics of the northeast region.

In Chiang Yuen, a part of Northeastern Thailand, farmers hope for a return to normalcy, in which they expect the ousted Pheu Thai party and its populist policies to return to power.

For the Bangkok middle-class, the loss of their hegemony over Thai politics left many in dissatisfaction. Particularly, many felt that the system of democracy that was in place consigned them into the structural minority. Now the middle-class views democracy as an inefficient and wasteful use of their taxes, especially as many government policies only benefit the ‘greedy poor.’

In contrast, many people from the northern provinces feel the benefits and are in favor of the previous government.

As the coup continues, the outbreak of class warfare is likely. Although the middle-class is pushing for the return to a constitutional minority rule, such a result is unlikely.

The potential for a descent into civil war in which the Northern provinces would oppose the Bangkok establishment is possible. If such a result were to happen, the effects would be devastating, displacing many into poverty and ruining the promise of the nation and its progress.

— William Ying

Sources: BBC, Borgen, Channel News Asia, New York Times, The Nation
Photo: Channel News Asia 2

Tiananmen Square

The spring of 1989 saw one of the most sensitive moments of Chinese history unfold. Students began leading demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and experienced widespread support from surrounding residents. On June 4, Chinese troops armed with assault rifles attacked student demonstrators, killing anywhere from hundreds to thousands in a bloody crackdown. But in recent years, new stories of the events of Tiananmen Square have come to the surface, and they draw a more complex picture.

By June, student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had entered month two. Chinese leaders were unsettled, and army commanders were called to pledge loyalty and commitment to the possibility of military force to crush student protest. Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian refused to do so, and declined to lead troops into Beijing.

The protesters, Xu believed, were a political issue that required negotiation, not military force.

Xu’s defiance is just one example of a complicated and resistant military reaction to Tiananmen Square. One soldier of the 39th Group Army held genuine fears of having to fight Xu’s 38th Group Army as rumors of the general’s actions spread. But the commander of the 39th Group Army never even made his troops enter the square, faking communication problems. Another soldier, seventeen years old at the time of the crackdown, shared experiences of bonding between his unit, stationed in Tiananmen Square for days, and the students who had brought them there. Tears were shed upon the unit’s departure prior to the events of June 4, names and addresses exchanged.

Military documents prior to the crackdown speak just as loudly. A former Communist Party researcher reported that a petition existed at the time that was aimed at withdrawing troops from Tiananmen Square. It was signed by seven senior Chinese military officers, and sported language of service to the people: “The people’s military belongs to the people and cannot oppose the people.”

These stories tell a tale of Chinese soldiers largely unwilling to fire on a Chinese civilian population. They tell a story of Chinese government pressure met with Chinese military hesitance. But they are stories only rising to common knowledge outside of China.

A lot has changed for China in the 25 years since the crackdown: diplomatic isolation ended, China hosted the Olympics and the country made great strides in its space program. 1990 saw China’s first entrance into the stock market. Where products were hard to find for Chinese consumers before, they are now in abundance, and Chinese college graduates now compete for jobs they want instead of leaving college to be assigned a workplace.

The sensitive commemoration of Tiananmen Square, though, remains largely static. This year, celebrations included playing cards, show tunes and confetti.

The events are a representation of political activism buried. Activist groups make attempts each year to pay respect to those killed in the crackdown and call attention to the real events of the Tiananmen Square protests, like the stories of Maj. Gen. Xu that find life outside, but not inside, China. These attempts have yet to succeed.

This is not stopping anyone from trying to get the voices of the past heard. One activist group created a website this year called backtotiananmen.com. It asked simply for people to come to the square, gather and sing or hum a well-known song from the musical Les Miserables: “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Wen Yunchao, one of the organizers of backtotiananmen.com, pointed out that simply coming to join the group, even without singing, would be a powerful way to commemorate those killed 25 years earlier.

Wen organized the group from New York City, spreading publicity by editing a leaked pornographic video to spread the message to gather and sing. While censored immediately, the video, Wen reported, was still downloaded thousands of times.

Another suggestion for activism was tossing white paper from the skyscrapers of Beijing in the hope that, perhaps, these small, raining scraps would remind China of the lives lost at Tiananmen Square many years ago now. Whatever the method, attempts at remembrance and knowledge are alive and well.

– Rachel Davis

Sources: The Economist, LA Times, New York Times, Reuters
Photo: CNN World

odessa_fire_ukraine_on_safety_council_watch
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message was hard to miss last Friday as he strolled through the streets of Sevastopol on Victory Day.  To invade a sovereign state, call its defenders “fascists” and blame its government for the resulting turmoil is all in a day’s work for Putin.  The twisted political masterminding that has been Russia’s reaction to the crisis in Ukraine is perhaps Putin’s way of reminding the world that Russia is once more a major world power.

Having achieved the political gains he sought, Putin now calls for new dialogue to replace the violence.  Instances of pro-Ukrainian forces attacking pro-Russian, such as that in Mariupol on May 9, will be portrayed in the Russian media not as Ukrainians defending their land from foreign invaders, but as violent militants killing Russians who desire only to return to the motherland.  Putin can thus use the violence to rally support at home for his regime against the incorrigible Ukrainians.

As busy as the Security Council has found itself with the troubles of Nigeria, Syria and South Sudan, the 15 members have certainly not overlooked Russia’s aggression.  One of the first to speak at the emergency Council meeting called in the wake of Friday’s violence in Odessa – where 46 persons, most of whom were pro-Russian, died when the headquarters was set ablaze – was Russian Representative Vitaly Churkin.  It is hard to imagine that more than a few eyes did not roll at the Russians’ first complaint: Ukrainians are attacking Russians.  This would seem to be expected when invading another country.

French Representative Gérard Araud spared no feelings in his response, going so far as to refer to the pro-Russian groups as “thugs terrorizing Ukraine.”  Both the United Kingdom and United States joined France in her condemnation of the Russians and praise for the Ukrainian government’s restraint – although this restraint likely stems from Ukraine’s limited military capabilities.  The delegate of Lithuania turned the discussion towards the hypocrisy of a Russia that will complain of Ukrainian conflict and remain indifferent to al-Assad’s regime’s attacks on its own people.  Finally, the Representative of Ukraine offered, on behalf of Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, that those who surrender soon will be granted amnesty.

The very next day, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hostages were finally released in Slovyansk after having been held for a little over a week.  Yet, even as the Secretary General shared his approval with their freedom, he warned of growing tensions and the prolonged chaos.  Even if the Russians withdrew tomorrow, having made their point, the Ukrainian people would have years of reconciliation ahead.  For now, the world awaits the May 25 presidential elections, which will undoubtedly further change the situation.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: New York Times 1, New York Times 2, The Economist, UN 1, UN 2

venezula_raises_minimum_wage
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro raised the country’s minimum wage by 30 percent in May 2014. This marks the second time the standard has been raised this year, which, in total, accumulates to a 43 percent increase since the end of 2013.

These measures were implemented to help citizens overcome the country’s crippling inflation. Over the past twelve months inflation has risen by 59 percent, a staggering rate that exceeds any other country in 2014.

The new minimum wage is expected to provide the equivalent of 657 U.S. dollars a month for the citizens of Venezuela.

Aside from porous economic fundamentals, mass popular unrest may have influenced the President’s willingness to take action. Violent protests have pervaded the the country for the past two months, leaving 41 Venezuelans dead. Demonstrators are demanding greater government intervention to improve the prospects of middle class families.

The escalating situation has pressured Maduro to remain proactive. The President recently issued a statement promising that he will take the necessary steps to ensure inflation is conquered within the next year.

“If another increase is needed, the working class can rest assured that I will do it,” Maduro told laborers in the nation’s capital.

Although inflation has plagued the nation’s current financial woes, economists blame past government policies for the recent recession. Hugo Chavez’s rule oversaw decades of price controls and currency manipulation, inefficiencies that have stymied growth and facilitated an unhealthy dependence on imports.

Economists are also pessimistic about Venezuela’s future. Many see the recent minimum wage adjustments as purely reactionary responses that will further accelerate inflation and exacerbate the government deficit.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Venezuelan opposition party has criticized Maduro for not doing enough. Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s opponent in the last election, maintains that the minimum wage raise should have kept pace with inflation.

Although protesters continue to call for Maduro’s resignation, the President remains steadfast in his commitment to help Venezuelans through this difficult time as he claims, “I am a worker president committed to the class that works and struggles.”

Unfortunate for his re-election prospects, many citizens remain unconvinced.

— Sam Preston

Sources: BBC News, Bloomberg
Photo: TT News Flash

search_for_kony
President Obama has ordered an increase in U.S. involvement in the search for warlord Joseph Kony and members of his organization, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This course of action follows the 2009 legislation that mandated the “support for increased, comprehensive U.S. efforts to help mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.”

Kony is infamous for his years of attacking central African villages, mutilating civilians and abducting children. He has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, but has not been sighted for “some time.” He is believed to be in the Central African Republic, where conflict and the absence of an effective government make it easy for him to hide.

The new aid package includes four CV-22 Ospreys, a type of tilt rotor aircraft with short takeoff and landing capabilities. They will be effective in taking quick action should Kony be sighted in central Africa. This marks the first incidence of military aircraft being deployed in the effort to find Kony. About 150 Air Force Special Operations forces will be in charge of flying and maintaining the aircraft.

U.S. officers will be in central Africa to provide “information, advice, and assistance” to the African Union military task force that is already looking for Kony. The search spans across Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo.

As with the troops that Obama sent to support the search for Kony in 2011, the new batch of U.S. personnel will be combat-equipped, but prohibited from engaging LRA forces except in cases of self-defense. The addition of these troops brings the total of all U.S. forces in Uganda to 300.

Although the LRA poses no direct threat to the U.S., the Obama administration sees this mission as a helpful way to build partnerships with African governments in a region that is ripe for the development of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.

— Madisson Barnett

Sources: The Washington Post, USA Today

Gang_Violence_El_Salvador
The figures are striking: 2,594 murders in El Salvador, with a daily average murder rate of 7.11 in 2012. Since the announcement of a peace agreement between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang and Barrio 18 gangs, the murder rate has fallen slightly to 2,492 murders in 2013, only to rise once again. In December 2013, the number of murders rose to 208 compared to 168 murders in 2012.

What are some of the reasons behind this gang violence in El Salvador? After having a notoriously high murder rate in recent years, the government of El Salvador started a risky peace agreement after years of repressive anti-gang policies. The truce brokered by the government not only promised a halt in recruiting youth from schools but also promised to establish a “peace zone” within 11 municipalities in the country.

Many people have questioned the efficacy of the peace agreement, claiming that by not cracking down on the gangs they are only going to come back stronger. Furthermore, the gangs have stated that if the peace agreement fails they would begin to kill more people. This kind of pressure from the gangs against the government has only served to fuel more resentment from the public who fear the new negotiating power of the gangs.

The peace deal is also facing opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. President-elect Salvador Sanchez Cerén purposefully remained silent on the truce during the presidential elections for fear that promoting it would weaken his support-base. His opponent in the elections, Norman Quijano of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), had stated he would dismantle the agreement if he won the presidency.

Amidst this surge in crime, Church leaders in El Salvador have called on the government to renew the gang truce. Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres has stated his desire for action on behalf of Church officials in calling for a new peace deal.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The Economist (1), The Economist (2), Federation of American Scientists

Democracy_Leads_to_Growth
A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that countries that become more democratic achieve about 20 percent higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the long run. Evidence showed that democracies were better at implementing economic reforms, investing more in public goods like education and reducing social unrest, all of which, to some degree, are tied to increasing GDP.

The researchers, Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, Pascual Restrepo and James A. Robinson, studied 175 countries between 1960 and 2010. Their study tackled the difficult task of comparing apples and oranges. There are countries that recently transitioned into a more democratic state, while others have had a long history of an established democracy. There are countries that hold elections, but practice only single party rule. There are countries that have been in and out of conflict. And there are countries with political institutions and economies that ebb and flow with a change in leadership. Nonetheless, Acemoglu, Naidu and Restrepo took on the challenge of creating a baseline for comparing different countries by developing an improved version of a democracy index.

Another challenge the researchers took on was to address the question, “does democracy need development first?” Some critics suggest that democracy would be economically costly when certain preconditions are not satisfied. For example, it is suggested that a benevolent dictatorship may be preferred when it comes to simple economies and poverty ridden-countries (or what some economist may label as those with “low human capital.”) Others argue that democracy promotes redistribution of resources that would discourage economic growth, or interest groups may end up dominating economic policies at the cost of the majority and hence increase inequality. The example of communist China and its economic powerhouse is often used to support the argument that political rights are not essential for economic growth.

However, Acemoglu, Naidu and Restrepo demonstrated that democracy does not have a negative effect for countries with low levels of economic development. Evidence showing increases in GDP were associated with democracy, no matter the stage of the country’s development. The researchers did note on the side that a population’s level of education did matter, but not in contradiction to their finding. Democracy had a stronger effect for economies with a greater fraction of the population with secondary schooling.

In sum, Acemoglu, Naidu and Restrepo found that there is a statistically significant positive correlation between democracy and future GDP per capita and this was especially so when examining countries that have switched from non-democracy to democracy into their next 30 years.

– Maria Caluag

Sources: NBER, The Regional Economist

Photo: TCF

Bolivia_Raises_Minimum_Wage
Following recent labor union protests in Bolivia, demanding an increase in the minimum wage, President Evo Morales has acquiesced to their demands by increasing the Bolivian minimum wage 20 percent from 1,200 Bolivianos (around $175) to 1,488 Bolivianos (about $215). This increase in the minimum wage has come as a result of a small but concerted effort on behalf of the Bolivian Central Labor Union to agitate for change. Workers were concerned that their wages were not keeping up with inflation, which is currently sitting at 6.5 percent.

Morales explained the reason for the increase in the minimum wage is the economic growth Bolivia has experienced recently, which grew at a rate of 5.2 percent in 2012.

The leader of the Bolivian Central Labor Union, Juan Carlos Trujillo, stated that he asked Morales to recognize “the need and the obligation to create a salary structure which is based on the country’s growth and the recognition that the riches of Bolivia have to be shared between the haves and the have-nots in equal measure.”

Other groups were not so pleased with the announced rise in the minimum wage, saying that the move would simply result in workers paying more through taxes. Moreover, the move can also be seen as political maneuvering and as an attempt to curry favor amongst the workers in time for presidential elections in October, when Morales is going to run for a third term.

The original proposal by the government was for the minimum wage to be increased by 10 percent, until trade unions negotiated a higher rise. Analysts have noted that the increase in the minimum wage would not affect the majority of workers since most people earn above 1,400 Bolivianos (about $203.) The rise would affect house workers and trash men.

Morales himself was a notable leader in the cocalero trade union movement for indigenous coca growers prior to being elected president. Since being elected president in 2006, Morales has helped triple Bolivia’s gross domestic product to $27 billion.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: La Razon, BBC, Bolivia Information Forum
Photo: Nation of Change