obama_state_of_the_union
United States President Barack Obama mentioned extreme poverty during the State of the Union address on January 28 while explaining that America’s leadership is in a better position than any other country to help the world.

The president said that the leadership of the U.S. is defined “by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, [and] to free people from fear and want.”

Obama made these references roughly one hour into the State of the Union address when discussing his administration’s stance on foreign policy. He said that his administration is proud of the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran and that he would not hesitate to use his power to protect America in case anything went wrong.

Although the U.S. is responsible for maintaining order and spreading democracy, according to Obama, the U.S. is also responsible when it comes to helping those in need.

“Across Africa, we’re bringing together business and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty,” said Obama.

But what exactly does this mean? Obama referred to is a USAID program named “Power Africa.”

USAID describes Power Africa as “a U.S. Government initiative that addresses one of the most pressing challenges to sustainable economic growth and development in sub-Saharan Africa – access to electrical power.” Obama announced this program during a visit to South Africa in 2013.

Under the program, the U.S. seeks to cooperate with African governments, the private sector, and international institutions such as the World Bank in order to “add more than 10,000 megawatts (MW) of clean, efficient electricity generation capacity.”

Obama also mentioned extreme poverty in last year’s State of the Union address. He said the U.S. would work to eliminate it within the next 20 years, according to an article by Think Progress.

Although Obama mentioned extreme poverty two years in a row, the contemporary U.S. Congress remains divided on many issues. Citizens may call their congressmen to help Capitol Hill unify and tackle the issue of poverty as well.

– Juan Campos

Sources: CBS News, Think Progress, USAID
Photo: Politico

troops_afghanistan
By the end of 2014, the United States is expected to have all of its troops withdrawn from Afghanistan after 13 years of occupation. Public opinion in the U.S. heavily favors troops leaving Afghanistan before the proposed deadline. A majority of Americans now believe that the initial occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 was a mistake.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has stressed the importance of pulling out of Afghanistan for years, but now Obama is trying to land a deal with the Afghan Government that will allow several thousand military personnel, Special Forces troops, and CIA members to stay in the country through 2024. Why would the U.S. effectively ‘end the occupation of Afghanistan’ while leaving behind thousands of workers for the next 10 years? There are two possible explanations that could explain why the U.S. is opting to remain in the region and not just let the Afghan government completely take over.

First, the U.S. government fears that if they leave Afghanistan in the same way they left Iraq, the country could lose ground to al-Qaeda. The Iraqi government has already lost two cities that were considered major wins for the U.S. troops during the fighting in 2004, Fallujah and Ramadi. The U.S. pulled out of Iraq before reaching an agreement between both governments that was similar to what they are working on in Afghanistan. Not securing an agreement meant the U.S. had no control over the political development in Iraq. Al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with al-Qaeda have since begun gaining more ground in the western Anbar province.

Another reason that could be compelling the U.S. to maintain a presence in the region is because the only Middle Eastern Pentagon base is in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a strategic geopolitical asset for the U.S. It borders Iran, China and Pakistan, so it sits in the center of an area of the world that the U.S has many vested interests. Maintaining top officials in the country can help influence U.S. interests throughout the region.

If the U.S. does not pull all of their officials from the region, there is a possibility of continuing a smaller scale occupation until 2024. On the other hand, if the U.S. completely leaves and al-Qaeda and other military groups regain control of the region, more problems could be created for the U.S. and for citizens of Afghanistan.

Colleen Eckvahl

Sources: The Telegraph, Global Research
Photo: The Telegraph

John_Kerry_Vatican
United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, met with the Vatican on January 14 for an hour and a half to discuss issues facing the Middle East. Kerry and the Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolinm covered topics that ranged from Israel and Palestinian relations, the Syrian civil war and a possible meeting between Pope Francis and President Barack Obama.

John Kerry is the first Roman Catholic Secretary of State to visit the Vatican since the 1980’s. Kerry stopped by the Vatican on his way from Paris where he was at the Syrian Peace Talks with the UN.

The Pope has been very critical of the United States, debating whether they should invade Syria saying, “Violence and war are never the way to peace.” The current state of Syria was discussed at length, with the Vatican issuing a statement of support of the peace talks. Both men said the talks, ‘covered broad topics’ and were a ‘comprehensive conversation.’

Kerry hinted that there are plans in the works for a meeting between Obama and Pope Francis who have both expressed interest in addressing extreme poverty on a global scale. Pope Francis has further caught the attention of United States conservatives who criticized him for his focus on addressing poverty.

In a statement outlining his vision for the future of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said, “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open, there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor…may we never abandon them.”

Pope Francis has brought positive change with his plan to address global poverty. It is a welcome and refreshing change to have the religious leader proclaim that Catholics should focus more on helping the poor. The pope leads a religion with an estimated 1.2 billion people across the world.

– Colleen Eckvahl

Sources: Christian Today, USA Today, The Washington Post
Photo: Religion News Service

merchant marines food aid
For some, the U.S. Merchant Marine represents an organization that shuttles American imports and exports around the world during peacetime while becoming a naval auxiliary during wartime. For others, they represent the largest obstacle to food aid reform.

Current food aid regulations stipulate that at least 80% of aid must be shipped by U.S. citizens on U.S. flagged vessels. Critics argue that needless money and time is spent hauling items around the world when food could be purchased locally in a much more timely fashion.

President Obama proposed a food aid overhaul in 2014’s fiscal budget that would reach an estimated 2 to 4 million more people within the year. Specifically, he wished to expand local and regional procurement procedures and food vouchers.

U.S. mariners were not amused by this proposal, however. When the food aid amendment attached to the farm bill reached the Congress floor, maritime lobbyists worked strenuously to ensure it wouldn’t pass, and succeeded.

The U.S. merchant marines provide a unique service for the United States. As they are not employed by United States military, they are able to service both the government and private sector.

The duality of their role in regard to the United States is significant for a number of reasons. The Navy League, a special interest group representing the U.S. maritime community, reports that they provide over 33,000 jobs for Americans, account for $1.9 million in economic output and $24 million in household earnings. Although food aid reformists argue that the shift in these numbers would be slight, by only a few hundred, Merchant Marine advocates contend that change would usher in the end of the merchant marines all together.

The Merchant Marine’s ability to transport troops and supplies during wartime, known as sealift, may be severely impacted if reform results in job loss. The U.S. Maritime Service was established by President Roosevelt in 1938 in anticipation of needed shipping vessels to both the European war front and Pacific Theater. The Merchant Marine provided invaluable service during the war, and current mariners argue that their services are still necessary.

Despite the mariners concerns, the Obama Administration has plans to counteract any negative effects the reform may usher in by providing aid directly to the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The administration proposes shifting $25 million of the efficiency savings that will be obtained through the food aid reform to the Department of Transportation’s Maritime administration. According to the White House International Food Aid Fact Sheet, this additional funding will provide a vehicle to support sustainment of militarily-useful vessels and a qualified pool of citizen merchant mariners.

Although this may not be the solution the merchant mariners were hoping for, the strong advocates for food aid reform may ensure that this is the best they can expect.

Emily Bajet

Sources: The Center for Public Integrity, U.S. Merchant Marine FAQ, The Maritime Executive, The White House: International Food Aid Fact Sheet
Photo: Giphy.com

Fast_For_Families
On the 11th day of a hunger strike, Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to a Fast for Families strike tent on the National Mall in Washington. The Vice President then prayed with the group and encouraged their efforts to bring immigration reform.

The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill (S.744) in June. However, the House of Representatives has been deadlocked on the issue. Fast for Families supporters have vowed to fast until the House votes on the immigration reform bill that has already passed in the Senate. The Fast for Families effort in Washington is in conjunction with local fasts and events taking place in congressional districts all over the country.

The Vice President’s visit inspired the fasters as he addressed the crowd saying, “[w]e’re going to win this.” Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama have struggled to keep immigration issues in the spotlight since the President made a promise to bring immigration reform in his campaign.

Biden also said during his visit to the Fast for Families tent, that the 11 million undocumented men, women, and children working for citizenship are already Americans. Throughout the first eleven days, Fast for Families has been visited by many public officials including Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Fasters have vowed that they will continue fasting until they can no longer sustain themselves or are “medically prevented” from continuing. Long time immigration reform activists participating in the fast received the Vice President’s visit and message as inspiring. In fact, Biden’s visit, in connection with House Speaker John Boehner’s recent comments at a news conference on November 21 that immigration reform is not dead, has offered hope to immigration reform advocates and a sign that the change they hope for is coming.

For more information and Fast for Families updates, please visit fast4families.org.

Daren Gottlieb

Sources: Time, Los Angeles Times, Fast for Families
Photo: Media Heavy

Like members of Congress, the President monitors emails, letters and tallies phone calls to determine which issues are important to voters. On average, the White House receives 20,000 letters and e-mails every day and they are all read by White House staff. The staff consists of 50 full-time mail analysts, 25 interns and over 1,500 volunteers who read these letters. After analyzing the letters the team then picks 10 letters per day to be read by the President.

 

1. Phone: To call the White House, the number for the comments line is 202-456-1111 and the switchboard line is 202-456-1414

2. Email: Click here to email the President. The White House prefers receiving communications from constituents via email.

3. Mail: If the letter is handwritten, it is recommended that it be in pen and neatly written. Include a return address on the letter and a work address as well, if that is an option. Send all letters to:

 

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

 

Sources: NPR, White House

 

What to Say When you Call:

“I’m a Borgen Project supporter and I would like the President to increase funding for the International Affairs Budget.”

 

 

adr_opt
The 50 countries that make up the African Caucus recently released a statement requesting additional support for large-scale infrastructure projects on the continent. In their address to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the officials requested funding for these projects, as well as assistance with debt relief.

Large-scale infrastructure projects in Africa have gained momentum in the past year, including U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for U.S. support for an energy grid for the continent. The meeting among World Bank and IMF governors resulted in a Single Infrastructure Project Preparation Facility that will help leverage support for these large-scale projects.

In addition to supporting these bi-lateral and multi-lateral projects, the African Caucus has asked the World Bank to assist with identifying private sources of capital that may help fund these projects. These large-scale infrastructure projects will include energy, water, transportation, and sanitation development efforts.

The World Bank recently approved financing for a USD $340 million hydroelectric project in Africa’s Great Lakes region. The Regional Rusumo Falls Hydroelectric Project will utilize the power from the Rusumo Falls and will eventually generate 80 megawatts of electricity.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, has also undertaken significant infrastructure projects on the continent. In 2012, IFC funding for these projects reached USD $1 billion. The IFC focuses its projects on renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure projects due to its increased concern for global climate change.

President Jacob Zuma of South Africa recently invited businesses from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) to invest in Africa’s infrastructure development. In his address at the BRIC Business Council, Zuma emphasized the commercial opportunities that would open, given improved infrastructure across the continent.

The China Development Bank (CDB) recently announced that their investment in African infrastructure projects has reached USD $2.4 billion. This funding has gone to support projects in mining development, energy, and agricultural and mechanical manufacturing.

During his June 2013 trip to Africa, Obama announced a USD $7 billion investment in energy infrastructure projects in the Sub-Saharan region of the continent. While there are critics of this energy plan, it seems to be one in a long line of infrastructure projects planned for the continent.

– Callie D. Coleman
Sources: Afrique, IFC, USA Today, South Africa Info, Ventures
Photo: IPS

Light_Africa_Beneficial
President Obama and Congress’ plan to double power to sub-Saharan Africa has people buzzing about an Africa where energy poverty is a thing of the past.

During a recent whirlwind tour of Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, President Obama announced his Power Africa initiative, which would invest $16 billion to combat Africa’s energy deficit. Meanwhile in Congress, a bipartisan contingent led by Representatives Edward Royce (R-CA) and Elliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Electrify Africa Act of 2013, which would provide over 20,000 megawatts of electricity to 50 million Africans by 2020.

So, why is the U.S. government so interested in turning on the lights in Africa?

The fact that millions of Africans are trying to get out of the dark certainly has something to do with it. In Senegal, only 42 percent of citizens have access to electricity. The situation in South Africa is much better where electricity is available to 75 percent of the populous. However, in Tanzania only 14 percent of the population is on the grid. This lack of energy availability continues to curtail the continent’s development.

Furthermore, the fact that the U.S. has the opportunity to reap enormous economic benefits also has something to do with it. By eradicating the energy gap and lifting Africa out of poverty through aid-based and market-driven approaches, the U.S. will be able to access markets that were previously closed.

The U.S. has a very successful track record of providing aid to countries in order for them to develop and then establishing trade partnerships with them.

Unlocking the trade potential Africa holds could be the answer to the economic woes the U.S. has been experiencing. An immense new consumer base could be created, which could mean more jobs and increased productivity.

The benefits to Africa could be profound as well–millions of people could enjoy an improved standard of life–while ushering in a new era for Africa from a hopeless continent to a legitimate investment and trade partner.

Diminishing global poverty by narrowing the energy gap is essential for any of these benefits to take place.

– Aaron Faust

Sources: White House Press Release, H.R. 2548: Electrify Africa Act of 2013, Access to electricity in SenegalWorld Bank
Photo: Philips

National_Association_Social_Workers
Although most people are familiar with social workers and the various governmental agencies with which they work, not many are familiar with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This organization was founded in 1955 as a consolidation of seven other organizations for social workers in the United States.

According to the NASW’s website, it is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of its members across the country, as well as to create and maintain professional standards and ethics and to promote effective social policies.

The NASW has published a standard Code of Ethics in order to maintain consistent practices amongst social workers throughout the United States. It emphasizes the need to forego discrimination, maintain respect for all clients, and to advocate for social justice.

The organization focuses its efforts on two major aspects of social work: professional practice and social advocacy. The NASW works to encourage social workers to adopt practices that lead to the ultimate goal of providing tangible services, effective counseling and psychotherapy, and assisting communities.

Each state has a chapter of the NASW, and there are also chapters in New York City, metropolitan Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and an international chapter.

The NASW also runs a NASW Press in order to publish scholarly articles and monographs about social work. In addition to its official newsletter, the NASW Press runs the quarterly journal Social Work.

Advocacy and promoting social justice is another major focus of the NASW. It seeks to engage social workers with grassroots advocacy campaigns for federal legislation, candidate elections, and social reform. Some of the current political issues that the NASW is addressing include health care reform, immigration, and drug policy reform.

In order to keep social workers informed about ways that they can engage in advocacy campaigns, the NASW has organized a listserv for members so that the NASW government relations staff can keep members informed of different advocacy efforts. The NASW also runs a CapWiz system that allows social workers to email or send letters to their members of Congress.

In 2012, the NASW issued a document to the Obama administration entitled “Building on Progressive Priorities: Sustaining Our Nation’s Safety Net.” The document calls on the Obama administration to promote and encourage bipartisan approaches to seek sustainable and effective solutions to benefit Americans in need. It asks for the administration to invest in social work efforts, expand social work research, rebuild the economy, strengthen health care, advance the rights of women and disabled people, care for children and the elderly, and protect veterans and their families.

Beyond simply being an organization designed to unite social workers across the country, the NASW seeks to promote a code of ethics for all social workers as well as to promote activism amongst its members in order to improve the lives of people in need across the country. The NASW serves as a centralized and effective way for social workers to engage in activism, promote valuable legislation, and better serve the populations that need them the most.

Sarah Russell Cansler
Photo: White House

afghan_troops_civilians
The UN reports that Afghan civilian casualties are on the rise as international forces are phase out their military presence. This year, the war has caused 1,319 civilian deaths with 2,533 injured, which is a 23% increase in civilian violence compared to last year. Women and children have been affected disproportionately, with 38% more casualties this year.

The primary cause of civilian casualties continues to be IEDs, which have indiscriminately killed more children than any other demographic – 53% more than last year. Insurgents were responsible for 74% of all casualties this year, who are targeting civilians believed to be working in alignment with the government, and 12% of the casualties were incurred in fighting on the ground with 207 civilians counted dead in crossfire.

Foreign troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan next year, leaving the Afghan army to assume control of the countries security. In places where international troops have withdrawn, insurgent attacks are on the rise. The reported increase in civilian casualties is being weighed by decision makers, who must consider how the Afghan troops can assume control of continuing the fight against extremists while protecting innocents from unnecessary violence.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: Al Jazeera, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Photo: Anti War