Sunday, December 22, 2013

Signs of Hope at the End of 2013

As we close out 2013 a remarkable thing happened, Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, Wall Street Journal opinion writer and Republican darling tells the startling truth about what might be passing through the minds of the world's thinking billionaires. While many  dream of ever bigger houses and yachts some worry about the market continuing to rise. Noonan overheard a New York billionaire say these unlikely words,   "I hate it when the market goes up. Every time I hear the stock market went up I know the guillotines are coming closer."  Noonan reflects that self-made, broadly accomplished was concerned that the gap between the ever richer haves and the increasingly poverty line and below have nots "has become too extreme, too dramatic, and static," and "fears it will eventually tear the country apart and give rise to policies that are bitter and punishing, not helpful and broadening." What is arresting apart from the stark choice of imagery is the fact that this commentary is published on capitalism's flagship newspaper, the Wall Street Journal. There maybe some hope that the financial and political captains of the country (more or less the same people) maybe having second thoughts about the increasing unfairness of a system that keeps rewarding those with the wealth and will think again about continuing to fray the  safety net that keeps millions of people from destitution. Liberals who propound such views are usually vilified by the right wing media machine as well "liberals" who know nothing about the need to run profitable businesses or some such tired put down,  but they are in reality capitalists best friend, trying to make an inherently unequal system slightly more humane and by extension less unstable. Thus for example initiatives such as passing higher cost of living related minimum wage laws are designed to keep the system from not breaking down so completely that families cannot get properly fed and clothed and people cannot afford to live in dignity.  Obama with nothing left to run for but a legacy as a change agent to protect, should be dedicating his presidency to closing the wealth gap.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Global Education At A Crossroads

Since the 1970s, there has been a long struggle to have global education accepted as part of the curriculum and as a subject for serious study. Since 9/11, despite the upshot in interest all things global, the states and the federal government have lacked sustained interest to push for more global education in the curriculum.
In 2008 the standards of only two states, Maryland and Mississippi, contained the term “global citizenship.” Remarkably, the Common Core standards pay only a glancing attention to global issues. Maryland was the only state to receive “Race to the Top” funding that included international education and global citizenship in 2011.
Generally, what has occurred over the half century that spans the term’s first use in the 1970s until today is an increased number of teachers who are experimenting with making their classrooms more global -- but no commensurate increase in the number of schools or school districts that could be termed fully global in nature. Nowadays, when schools or districts reference global issues, it is often done in the context of promoting something referred to as “global competence” or even more nebulously "21st century skills." The terms sound appealing, particularly to the business community that sees both as embracing the need for workers equipped with both foreign language and STEM skills. But it strips out the core meaning why many of us first got involved with global education movement: the need for students to truly understand people from other cultures.
To do this effectivelyas much of the research since Hanvey wrote his masterful essay, “An attainable global perspective,” bears out, is to collaborate with people from other parts of the world. Following the growing sophistication of online tools such as Skype and services such as iEARN and ePals, these approaches are now more widely available but to tend to require a deeper, longer-term commitment on behalf of teachers than many of them can nowadays afford to give. Such teachers are in danger of becoming marginalized, as classroom time is ever more taken up with teaching only what is measurable and they find alack of support for the more difficult to quantify cultural skills that students only learn through such longer term collaborative efforts. As a result of these developments, the global education movement faces an uncertain future.
For global education to grow as a field and not just survive, individual teachers who care about creating the next generation of world-minded students need to collaborate together through social networks or forums such as the global education conference affords to make clear their core principles. They need to work with their colleagues to help their entire schools become global, with sustained partnerships that help enrich the curriculum across disciplines and grade levels. To make progress we will need to extend and expand our discussions from beyond our fellow “true believers” to include our fellow teachers and school leaders as well as parents and community leaders. The field will need to examine areas where it can have greatest impact. Working towards an aspirational goal of creating global 21st-century citizens will require entire schools to develop partnerships with counterpart schools around the globe that can be sustained -- so that when one globally minded teacher leaves, the entire program does not then disappear.
For this type of vision to be sustainable, we will also need university partners who can evaluate the harder-to-measure metrics connected with what it means to move from an awareness of different cultural perspectives to a willingness to act as a global citizen and provide the all important preservice and inservice professional development that is today so noticeably lacking.
Activities such as those during Connected Educator Month and the Global Education conference are a start in the right direction.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lack of Coverage of Warsaw Climate Conference Does Not Bode Well

The devastation from the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines according to the country's lead negotiator at the United Nations climate summit in Warsaw, Naderev Sano,“was [like] nothing we have ever experienced before, or perhaps nothing that any country has ever experienced before”.
Despite the thousands of people killed and Sano's plea to nations to act on climate change and prevent super typhoons such as Haiyan, from becoming “a way of life” the UN Conference on Climate change in Warsaw seems currently deadlocked.

The UN climate change summit going on now in Warsaw might as well be occurring on an alternative universe. There is no coverage in the mainstream press.  The news today of a walk out among
"hundreds of environmental activists  over the absence of a binding agreement on curbing global warming coming on the heels of a group of 133 developing nations walking out of a key negotiating meeting about how much of the burden developed economies must pay for the cost of the damage they have caused seems to suggest deadlock is now inevitable. According to one source

"The paper makes it clear that, despite President Barack Obama's progressive stances on climate issues over the past year, the US continues to pose difficulties to closing an international global climate deal by strongly resisting the concept of historical responsibility for emissions and positioning itself in opposition to developing countries on the main issues at stake."

The memo is indicative as to how many western governments are now turning their backs on climate change. As the Guardian has reported,

"Recent decisions by the governments of Australia, Japan and Canada to downgrade their efforts over climate change have caused panic among those states most affected by global warming, who fear others will follow as they rearrange their priorities during the downturn.

In the last few days, Japan has announced it will backtrack on its pledge to reduce its emission cuts from 25% to 3.8% by 2020 on the basis that it had to close its nuclear reactors after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Australia, which is not sending a minister to this weekend's talks, signaled it may weaken its targets and is repealing domestic carbon laws following the election of a conservative government.

Canada has pulled out of the Kyoto accord, which committed major industrial economies to reducing their annual CO2 emissions to below 1990 levels.

These governments as well as the US have been allowed to get away with it by a compliant media that is owned in large part by corporate interests. If there is to be real change in terms of addressing the climate crisis it has to come from the grassroots.  Even though the NGOs are walking out of Warsaw only after mobilizing a sleepy public and a negligent media.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Democrats Need to Go on The Offensive

Despite the travesty of the Republican led government shutdown the GOP is still controlling the debate in Washington.As George Packer writes in the New Yorker"These days, Republicans may be losing politically and resorting to increasingly anti-majoritarian means—gerrymandering, filibuster abuse, voter suppression, activist Supreme Court decisions, legislative terrorism—to nullify election results. But on economic-policy matters they are setting the terms. Senator Ted Cruz can be justly described as a demagogic fool, but lately he’s been on the offensive far more than the White House has. The deficit is in fairly precipitous decline, but job growth is anemic, and millions of Americans remain chronically unemployed. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and last year they won a larger share of the national vote in the House than Republicans did. And yet the dominant argument in Washington is over spending cuts, not over ways to increase economic growth and address acute problems like inequality, poor schools, and infrastructure decay."As Larry Summers has stated recently in the Financial Times" budget deficits are now a second-order problem relative to more pressing issues facing the US economy. Projections that there is a major deficit problem are highly uncertain. And policies that indirectly address deficit issues by focusing on growth are sounder economically and more plausible politically than the long-term budget deals with which much of the policy community is obsessed. The latest Congressional Budget Office projection is that the federal deficit will fall to 2 per cent of GDP by 2015 and that a decade from now the debt-to-GDP ratio will be below its current level of 75 per cent. While the CBO projects that under current law the debt-to-GDP ratio will rise over the longer term, the rise is not large relative to the scale of the US economy. It would be offset by an increase in revenues or a decrease in spending of 0.8 per cent of GDP for the next 25 years and 1.7 per cent of GDP for the next 75 years."So why the disconnect between the political conversation that should be dominated by facts and not by Republican talking points?   A lack of White House leadership seems the best explanation.  As Maureen Dowd puts it well in yesterday's New York Times, this is a President who is too fond of being above the fray,"Obama’s default position is didactic disdain. He underuses the fear and charm cards. When he first saw the White House movie theater, he was surprised there were so many seats beyond what the first family would need. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, probably would have built a balcony and auctioned off seats, if he could have.As Valerie Jarrett told David Remnick in “The Bridge,” Obama’s “uncanny” abilities need to be properly engaged, or he disengages. “He’s been bored to death his whole life,” she said. “He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”The worst part about the situation is that the White House will not allow other talented people do anything either.  Perhaps they are too caught up in the health care exchange failure but this cannot be the entire explanation. The President so controls the message that they will not allow other potential spokespeople, notably his Secretary of Labor to take center stage in the way that Robert Reich was allowed to do in the Clinton administration. The Democrats in Congress too seem in a cowering position as if they just want the Republicans to return to the old centrist party they once were and feel they might get rewarded for good behavior if they play on their turf.  If Obama is really serious about preserving jobs and growing the economy he should repeat over and over again that the deficit is not the issue, the problem is growth. He should be out front on this debate instead of gaming the next potential shutdown in January when Republicans will demand cuts in social programs and refuse to allow tax increases on billionaires. You cannot win when you don't engage. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is Obama Squandering his Legacy?

In July Obama visited  Knox College in Galesburg Illinois and told the audience that he cared about “one thing and one thing only, and that’s how to use every minute of the 1,276 days remaining in my term to make this country work for working Americans again,” but now Obama is so boxed in with regard to Syria that it is highly unlikely that many of those days will now be devoted to delivering on that major goal.  This will be unfortunate as the slow crisis that has been building since the implosion of the economy under reckless mismanagement by the former president, his friends on Wall Street and enablers in Congress, is now stealing the futures of the young. The portion of people aged 20-24  who have jobs has fallen from 72.2 percent in 2000 to just 61.5 percent, while adjusted for inflation, their median earnings has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1973 and women, the median by 17 percent.  Meanwhile the average net worth of the wealthiest seven percent of households climbed by 28 percent. The effects on the next generation will be even more severe. In 2011 nearly one third of all children lived in a household where no parent had full-time year round employment while half of all children in urban centers experience unstable family employment.  As a recent ETS report points out “only Romania has a higher child poverty rate than the US." This is shameful for a nation that claims to be a world superpower. There is no use to pretending either that these numbers don't translate into significant gaps in achievement between rich and poor particularly in cities where continued segregation compounds the problem. As the recession continues income and educational equality will make the lives of poor families even worse as 26 states provide less funding per student to local school districts in the new school year than a year ago.

Syria is a huge distraction from the battle to focus people’s attention on unemployment and underemployment.  A Syrian operation will likely cost several billion dollars just a few of those dollars could be spent to raise the minimum wage. How can you justify paying workers who support families wages that cannot support those families so that they have to apply for food stamps ? These are not handouts. The minimum wage in 1963 when Martin Luther King marched for jobs and justice was held constant for inflation it  would now be $9.40 an hour in today’s dollars, not $7.25. Rather than wasting his political capital on rounding up Congress to authorize a dubious strike with a dubious legal basis he should be raising the minimum wage to reignite his flagging presidency. Doubtless MLK, Obama's hero, as he declared so passionately on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial this month, would have supported the fast food workers. As their strikes move to more cities he could allow his inner MLK to sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage and rescue at least some of the workers caught in today's  economic vice. On Syria he should follow Jane Harman’s advice and get Russia on our side, “If Russia would align with us on stopping all the butchery, that would be an important change, and Russia’s not there. For Russia to be on the wrong side of the use of chemical weapons is stunning, and we’re just not calling them out adequately. Our recent track record with Russia has not shown many results, but I think pulling the international community together to shame Russia is something we should be doing. We should use the leverage we have. The G20 is happening [September 5-6] in Russia. I would look at the G20 and at the United Nations General Assembly as two places where the international community comes together. It should be G19 against G1 going into Russia.”

For Obama to squander his last year and a half in this way will not help his legacy and set back the hopes of a generation.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why The Rush to "Retaliate"?

We have had two wars in the past two decades and they both started through murky if not dishonest reasoning. We now hear the drum beat again to start prompting allied action in Syria. Why the rush?  As Hans Blix notes in an interview with the Huff Post,

"As far as they are all concerned, a criminal act has been committed so now they must engage in what they call "retaliation." I don't see what they are retaliating about. The weapons weren't used against them. It should be the rebels who want retaliation. If the aim is to stop the breach of international law and to keep the lid on others with chemical weapons, military action without first waiting for the UN inspector report is not the way to go about it. This is about world police, not world law."
You may recall the Bush administration went out of its way to discredit Blix and he returns the favor nicely by exposing the flaws in this latest crop of world leaders' reasoning .  The British public at least seem to have learned the right lessons from recent history with respect to middle eastern conflict and they have  no desire to repeat the same moronic behavior. As Cassidy notes in in his  New Yorker blog, widespread  opposition to Syrian action is cooling Cameron's  desire to play Blair's role in agreeing to follow the Americans, 
"Britons are against military action by a majority of about two-to-one, and the skepticism extends to many supporters of the Conservative-Liberal coalition. In recent days, the voters have been besieging their M.P.s with phone calls and messages, and their protests have had an effect. “Grateful for all the emails I’m receiving from constituents about Syria,” the Conservative M.P. Zac Goldsmith wrote in a tweet on Wednesday. “Unlike so many cut-and-paste jobs, they are authentic & heart-felt.”
Maybe giving the UN a chance to vote on any action might be a good start. If you want to play world policeman and want a world of laws you cannot ignore the one body entrusted with the right to authorize military action under these circumstances. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

New Book Out! Planet in Peril: Young People to the Rescue

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Planet in Peril: Young People to the Rescue you can find it on Amazon Kindle among many other venues.Why did I write this book? First because the news headlines concerning the future can make young people especially if not the rest of us feel gloomy and even despondent about the future.

Young people in particular find it harder to separate off their own futures from the general gloom. While a gifted environmental science or social science teacher can give them a perspective on topics like global warming and the many calamities to come, too often the discussion is framed far too abstractly. I wrote this book because students need and want to comprehend their own role and place in this unfolding drama. Without understanding their own sense of agency students can all too often feel depressed and tune
out. But how do students gain this sense of agency? In my view it is through understanding people like themselves acting in the world and working to realize their own goals and following their own core values. My second reason for writing is that for a while now I have been frustrated by the gap between the rhetoric applied to various school reform initiatives and the reality. The rhetoric of why we must change our traditional teacher and text book centered classrooms and embrace more global realities has been in place at least since the cold war ended in the 1980s if not before. Yet despite the introduction of computers that can link any classroom to anywhere around the world, we have been relatively slow in using technology to exploring our global identities, preferring the safety and security of our still quite insular textbooks and the traditional approaches to the curriculum that they so often favor. The latest effort of our still quite insular textbooks and the traditional approaches to the curriculum that they so often favor.  A third and final reason for writing this book is my deep conviction that if we are truly to survive as a species we will need to be able to exhibit a new ethic of cooperation and collaboration that can surmount race and nationality. Young people I have met instinctively understand this and yet in their classrooms they are not shown enough people who may not look like them or sound like them who also want to make a difference on behalf of our common humanity. As the world gets smaller and we all get connected on Facebook and other social networks, we need to do more to show our young people the ways they can make a difference by using their voices to affect positive change in the world.

You can find the book at the following E-Reader Sites--

On Amazon

On Nook

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sugata Mitra: We Are Just at the Beginning of Exploring the Web's Potential for Education

I have been following Sugata Mitra' work since I discovered his Hole in the Wall experiment in which he left a working computer in a hole in the wall of a remote Indian village and observed how the children taught themselves how to use the machine. This was ground breaking work that Mitra classifies under the academic sounding title 'self organized learning.'  The work provoked some mild interest and a spell binding TED talk that earned him a $1 million dollar prize in 2013 but not much else(as Mitra notes in a Guardian article) seems to have changed in the educational landscape. Mitra seems frustrated by the problem but has not stopped experimenting. His most recent innovation is the Granny Cloud--that has involved a group of volunteer teachers from the UK and a few other countries  who have been connecting to poor schools in India and South America for more than five years, "using a combination of the internet and admiration to provide a meaningful education for children."The grannies, or e-mediators as they are officially known, are not teachers, and the sessions they conduct with the children in India are not lessons. Instead, they read stories to the children and talk about things relevant to them and to the U.K. They encourage, praise and became a "virtual granny" to these Indian children. The granny idea emerged when after he saw students learning grow using the computer alone he brought in a " 22-year-old woman with no knowledge of the subject to tutor the kids, using “the method of the grandmother.” Instead of traditional instructing, she simply gave encouragement. The kids’ test comprehension scores jumped. There are around 300 "grannies" involved in the scheme and is growing all the time." What a good idea.  As Mitra states

"We don't need to improve schools. We need to reinvent them for our times, our requirements and our future. We don't need efficient clerks to fuel an administrative machine that is no longer needed. Machines will do that for us. We need people who can think divergently, across outdated "disciplines", connecting ideas across the entire mass of humanity. We need people who can think like children."

Mitra's major point is that we need to reinvent schooling based on the notion that the kind of superficial learning that school encourages can be mastered in a few minutes by children using the web

"The curriculum lists things that children must learn. There is no list stating why these things are important. A child being taught the history of Vikings in England says to me: "We could have found out all that in five minutes if we ever needed to."
What the Internet has really allowed in classrooms is what do we do with the knowledge once we find it ---how does it apply to real world problems. How can we devise new solutions. What does it mean for example that we are entering a period of planetary unsustainabilty?   We as teachers have been given a gift--we still seem to be struggling to know how to use it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Google Takes Up A New Socially Useful Way of Harnessing their Profits and the Web

We live in an exciting age where good ideas can come from everywhere and anywhere not just from the ivy towers. The web can be used not just to gather the ideas but to enable them to go quickly to scale if they are designed correctly.  Google, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook etc etc maybe one of the first of a long line of innovations to transform the world. In later years we might be referring to these developments as those who transformed us into a socially and globally networked species, perhaps the most important transformations, led by such creations as Kickstarter will launch a new wave of socially useful ways to tap into that massive connectivity.  As web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee,  has stated “The Web’s contribution to economic progress has been much celebrated, but I believe that we are only scratching the surface of its potential to solve social and political problems."Berners-Lee was among those who persuaded Google to set up a competition in which four organisations will be awarded   £2 million ($3 million) in the UK that are using technology for social good in areas like education, economic development, health, environment and community service. The challenge is being piloted in Britain ahead of a "global rollout" “Google believes technology can help solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges, and is eager to back innovators who are using technology to make an impact,” a spokesman said. Doubtless it is good for Google's PR image to be associated with something  so socially useful as  Tech Crunch states

"The Global Impact Challenge is an extension of the Global Impact Awards, $23 million award that Google gave out in December among seven non-profits using technology to solve world problems like clean water (charity:water) and endangered species (Consortium for the Barcode of Life).

A Google spokesperson says that the difference between that round of awards and this newest Global Impact Challenge is that the latter features a competitive element, with the prize open to any non-profit in the UK that chooses to apply. On the other hand, with the earlier grants, “there was no entry criteria, rather, [the] grants [were] awarded to exceptional orgs doing amazing things with tech.”

Now if Apple can be persuaded to follow Google's example and just a fraction of its profits that it parks off shore in shady accounts  then we might begin to see some impact. Go vote on the latest set of innovative ideas by clicking here!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dictators Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics

Since the dawn of history there have been no shortages of leaders who are prepared to do anything to stay in power. By “anything” we can include starving, torturing, stealing from and even slaughtering their own people, anything includes anything. We may want to believe that we live in an enlightened freedom loving world but for the peoples of Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Mynama, Cambodia. Sudan and a host of others the future is as bleak as it ever was. These scoundrels are often assisted in their task of pillaging their country’s resources by a system of international aid and a belief that the “enemy of my enemy” is my friend that keeps these ruthless tyrants well supplied with US armaments designed to fight terrorism. Although de Mesquita and Smith’s thesis in The Dictators Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics is broader than a critique of the way the US and the international system it supports maintains these thugs. Its theme is that once the dictator. mob boss or even CEO is in power they have to follow some well entrenched rules or risk losing power. The preeminent among these is take care of those who brought you to the table first above all things or risk being deposed. Julius Ceaser forgot this basic rule when in his efforts to reduce the tax bite he got rid of tax farmers and destroyed the livings of many of his core supporters. There are many other interesting ancetdotes like this, from Carly Fiorina’s troubles as CEO of Hewlett Packard to “Big" Paul Castellano failed efforts to survive their enemies that give flavor to a highly readable book.  One of the features that make it such an easy read is the combination of  academic insights and "ripped from the headlines" inside stories of how corrupt dictators manage the game.

The takeaway is that good governance matters and there is a way to change our approach to the giving of aid so that we do not abet their egomanical desire to stay in power and force them rather to address the needs of their own people. But for any real efforts in this direction to begin we should give up our naive notions that foreign aid does anything more for the suffering people who are unfortunately locked inside the dictators’ prison walls. Despite the billions that have been given to countries’ where dictators rule there has been neglible impact for the simple reason the authors claim that autocrats believe money spent on “people-like infants and little children who are years away from contributing to the economy is money wasted. Resources should instead be focused on those who help the ruler stay in power now, not those who might be valuable in the distant future.” The difference in belief is shown by useful contrasts between where there is a commitment to democracy and where there is a flagrant disregard of it. Take Equataorial Guinea for example, with a per capita income of $37,000 a year can only provide 44 percent of its people with clean water. By contrast Honduras with a per capita income of only $4,100 can provide 95 percent of of its people enjoy potable water.

The authors conclude, “The availability and technology of clean water doesn’t favor democratic socieities; democratic regimes favor ensuring that drinking water is clean.” While many dictators do provide their people with a reasonable if basic education system and adequate health care that is because they need workers to be productive and pay taxes. Transportation systems may be more of an option since on the face of it new roads would increase productivity, the threat that a system of roads poses to a fortress like dictatorship can outweigh the benefits. Take Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko who once told the President of Rwanda that the reason why he never built one road despite staying in power for thirty years was he did not want them driving down his roads to get him. In fact so worried was he about the danger of roads that he made his life work destroying as many roads as possible. When he came to power in 1965 there were 90,000 miles of roads in Zaire, when he was finally deposed in 1997, 32 years later there were only 6,000 miles. Enough roads to take goods to market but not enough to make an armed uprising easy. Autocracy and corruption feed of each other much like symbiotic bacteria. According to Brookings Insitute’s Daniel Kaufman more than a trillion dollars is spent annually on bribes worldwide and much of that pocketed by government officials who live under dictators or the dictators themselves. Among the many features of the book that calls out for action is the discussion concerning the abuse of foreign aid.

If you want to get a lasting picture of how corrupt and ruthless these dictators are  you can take a look at what happened in Sri Lanka which suffered a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami that hit that country in December 2004  killing over 230,000 people across 14 nations. Assistance totalled over $14 billion contributed by people throughout the world. Oxfam sent 25 four wheel drive trucks to the region which the Sri Lankan government promptly impounded "insisting that Oxfam pay a 300 percent import duty. For over a month (the first critical month after the tsunami) the trucks sat idle and people went without food and shelter. Eventually Oxfam paid over a $1 million to have the trucks released."

Those who protest and fight against the obvious corruption find themselves in extreme danger. The dictators’ lifeblood is providing a source of riches to their most loyal supporters. Since the plunder is to be had not from their own citizens who they have for the most part bled dry they must gain the funds from the outside. The anti-corruption movement represents a large threat to their rule. Kaufman notes that the fate of some courgeous individuals who have joined the few anti-corruption commisions is that they are “either embattled or dead.” The leader can make no mistakes when dealing with dissent he must not give any signal to his core supporters that he can be toppled by being perceived as weak. Dictators constantly fear they will be deposed by an even more ruthless tyrant. But donors, most notably the World Bank, the IMF continue to cosy up to the dictators “like people so desperate to eat at a restuarant that they continued to ignore the health department warnings that the kitchen was overrun by rats.” The donors cannot pretend they are having the wool pulled over their eyes. When the IMF gave Kenya a $252.8 billion loan following the new president’s hollow promise to clean up corruption, the finance minister was whistling “pennies from heaven” and the new anti corruption minister had to flee to Britain carrying with him the tapes of how corrupt the new administration was. His information was ignored as whistleblowers routinely were in the circles where secrecy and non accountability is king. Nor can we have any illusions about the benefits bestowed by agencies like USAID which is more about advancing American foreign policy interests than about relieving poverty. If we ever wondered why we can never really make a dent in poverty we have to look not only at the World Bank and its fellow travellers as they turn a blind eye as the dictators siphon off cash and the western consultants and companies take their share, but to agencies like USAID.  They often provide a way for dictators to discharge themselves of their responsibility to feed the hungry and provide medical assistance due to weather emergencies etc so that they can better concentrate on their business of maintaining power. For example, half of Cambodia’s budget is made up of foreign aid. “Rather than supplementing government programs. these donor funds are largely directed toward the bank accounts of government officials.” Cambodia ranks among the world’s most corrupt countries. The USAID report notes that fact “a significant portion of funds earmarked for schools, teachers and textbooks and for clinics, health care workers and medications are diverted.” The NGOs are similarly taken advantage of and all these outside bodies the authors contend are “facilitating the government’s opportunity to steal more money..helping to further entrench a bad government in power to plague the people for many more years to come.”

What can be done? This is the subject of the last chapter and one that might be usefully read by all foreign policy students and future world bank bureacrats and aid executives. The danger is of course to become cynical and just put the entire miserable if not tragic history of aid down to the inevitable weakness built inside the human soul towards corrupt behavior. The anitidote is transparency and accountability, just like corporations that go off the rails when CEOs get drunk with power countries can do the same. In the case of companies it is frequently when the board and the shareholders lose track and a small proportion of them get wined and dined to go along. As the authors state we live in an age of networking. Much of the world although certainly not all of it is on Facebook or LinkedIn we can express our outrages at corportate excess--unjustified bonuses and the like in a more personal fashion using highly powerful social shaming techniques. For dictators who have armies the challenge is greater but by no means different. One of the reasons the Arab spring started in Tunisia is that the dictator there was concerned about a fall off in tourism. Tunisia had a relatively free press and the ability to assemble but tourism was a big ticket item and tourists wanted access to the internet and a feeling of less oppression. “Free assembly on line ..was translated into mass assembly in the streets.”

The authors see tourism as a key tool for helping to democratize countries--places like Kenya, Fiji and Palestine either are or want to become big tourist destinations. Aid does not just have to advance security interests it can be used more effectively as a tool for foreign policy--the aid needs to be contingent on criteria being met and “if the performance does not come up to agreed upon standards the money reverts to the donor.” We need to find more incentives for leaders to step down and the authors have no qualms in granting them immunity and keeping a portion of their ill gotten gains. The world is moving rapidly for the dictators --they cannot keep the lid on the ability to organize through cell phones and the internet forever. The Arab spring spells one hopeful sign that the era of dictators, one which thrived on isolation, ignorance and fear maybe coming to an end but it will take the concerted efforts of people who can pay attention and stand up for the injustices and outrages. It could all begin anywhere with someone carrying a simple device like a smart phone. Will we take the call?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Waging War on Corruption

Frank Vogl first came to the US in 1974 to cover the Watergate scandal for the London Times. He walked in on a moment in history that was to forever shape him as he discovered the mother of all corruption scandals was not contained by the romantic narrative that Woodward and Bernstein created and immortalized by the Alan Pakula movie, All the Presidents Men. The story he continued to follow continued long after Nixon resigned in shame and has not yet ended. It is a story of how not only a free press but civil society institutions like the one he co-founded Transparency International (TI) still need to identify corruption where it exists and name and shame those who commit these crimes. Vogl’s book makes for compelling reading because he gives us a large number of reasons why succcessfully going after corrupt officials matters to the well being of hundreds of millions of people around the world who although they may live in mineral rich countries find it difficult to feed themselves or keep their societies free from endless wars.

This is a must read book for any student of foreign policy. Vogl points out that the aftermath of Watergate dragged on in the Committee rooms of Congress and exposed the extent of corrupt corruption involving US companies around the world. You become aware while reading the book how gigantic the problem of corruption really is despite Congress and various world bodies to curtail its spread. Vogl estimates that corruption forms perhaps 25 percent of Africa's GDP, or is ten times as great as the money flowing in foreign aid,. Vogl never loses sight of the human realities of corruption the untold human misery, suffering and death that it causes. This is the great strength of the book, to balance the political and institutional context in which corruption is allowed to breed with the human dramas. Vogl has had a cat bird seat in the battle against corruption and it shows in every word. Readers will be pleased to know that this is not one more miserable tale of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Vogl believes the war against corruption is winnable and provides good evidence for this in the book. The author himself has contributed to some clear progress in the fight, having co-founded Transparency International (TI) which has been credited for winning many battles in the long struggle to take this enemy of progress and civilization down. 

The story of Watergate as Vogl points out did not have ended on the White House lawn with either Nixon’s departure by helicopter or Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon the former president but dragged on much of it without the public paying much attention. What Watergate revealed was the long list of corporations who had contributed to the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) through their subsidiaries were just a fraction of the bribes and payments that had been paid to a long list of government officials around the world. In other words Watergate was the tip of the tail of a huge dinosaur of global corrupt actions and practices that some of our most prestigious Fortune 500 companies were involved with including such luminaries as American Airlines, Lockheed, Ashland Oil and Goodyear. In the post Watergate era, Senator Frank Church, as Chairman of the Subcommitee on Multinational Companies decided despite the eagerness to move on and go back to business as usual to hold an unusually hard hitting set of hearings in which he placed on the witness stand the heads of these companies that had topped the CREEP contribution list. He managed to get on the record sizeable bribes that an assortment of companies had paid to corrupt dictators around the world. But their attitude towards reforming the system reflected much of the problem that it was the cost of doing business in these countries and they did see why they should be put at a disadvantage. It took bipartisan leadership to get the landmark legislation the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) signed into law and only after business had received an amendment allowing for “faciitation payments’ did American business to reluctantly get on board and start working to get other countries to pass simllar laws or sign relevant international agreements.

Vogl follows the mixed reaction to the FCPA through the 1980s and early 1990s with high level institutions like the UN and the World Bank where Vogl worked at a senior level after he left the Times to fully embrace the new mentality. In fact most of the multilateral institutions felt that despite their efforts of economic aid and development ending up in too many cases in the Swiss bank accounts of dictators and felons that they were tilting at windmills to insist that basic rules should apply to the donating of money such as transparent accounting, respect for the rule of law. Well respected institutions like the World Bank had to find leaders who could effectively take their bureaucracies and the networked relationships they had with low and high level government officials and set them on a new path. As he points out the efforts of Wolfensohn at the World Bank ran into frequent roadblocks and unbelievable levels of cynicism. The UN had not helped itself with efforts to stamp out corruption when it was revealed that it was running its own corrupt oil for food program in the 1990s and had to confront the fall out from several other scandals. But to its credit in 1989 after the OECD had moved in the same direction Kofi Annan announced the launch of the UN Global Compact to “stimulate best practices in global corporate citizenship.” But then after Volker found huge abuses in the UN the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003 and by 2009 140 countries had signed on. ut with so many countries that have shown little interest in enforcement (only a tiny number of people even in the US have gone to jail) the role for a monitoring body was clear and Vogl’s TI has stepped into the vacuum publishing its AntiCorruption Index which analyses the practices of 82 countries when it comes to corruption.

 What is the cost of corruption? Vogl cites some statistics which give you more than a sense that the problem is gigantic, perhaps 25 percent of Africa’s GDP, or 10 times as great as the money flowing in foreign aid, but the true cost of corruption is described in terms of the human misery, suffering and death that it causes. This is the great strength of the book. Vogl is able to show the great inter-relationship between corruption, poverty and loss of human rights. Some of the most dire povery is found in countries that have vast mineral and oil and gas reserves. Sudan, Angola, Nigeria and Myanmar would be able to lift their people out of poverty if corruption was held in check. Vogl uses the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as perhaps the poster child for a kind of rampant murderous corruption that the world thought it saw the last of in the nineteenth century. On paper DRC has enough mineral wealth to feed its people and provide them with a western standard of living. but what has happened there should make us all weep. Just in the last handful of years 5.4 million people have died, half of those were children because of battles between war lords competing over the right to steal the country’s enormous wealth for their own purposes. International corporations are complicit arranging their secret deals and funneling the profits to the Swiss bank accounts of these brutal rulers. DRC also points up the fact that a country might proclaim itself democratic (as the DRC ironically does) but cannot function as a democracy without civil institutions and checks and balances for the executive branch. Vogl makes the case that we must tackle aid and development issues hand in hand with strengthening civil society. Vogl wants to paint despite the horror and destruction that corruption has caused around the world a hopeful picture. We may not be able to win the war on corruption at least not in one generation but we are well on our way to diminishing its pernicious effects across the globe. This is in part due to historical circumstances. With the end of the cold war there was less incentive for the Soviet Union and the US to basically bribe third world leaders with funds that allegedly went to economic development but in reality was funneled into the Swiss bank accounts of people like Marcos in the Phillipines and Somoza in Nicaragua.

 The continued failure of mulitilateral institutions to demand more in the way of accountability or basic norms of law from receipent countries continues to irk Vogl. “The current model used by aid agencies is to try to get along with all kinds of regimes. They do not say there should be no money unless an independent judiciary is in place, unless there is press freedom, unless the people have the right to free assembly, or unless human rights are guaranteed.” They want to hold open the chance for incremental government reform “despite a record of failure.” As Vogl points out these funds come from you and I they are taxpayer funds and we should demand that they should go to the people who need the funds not for more limousines or weapons. His hope is that public pressure from Congress or elsewhere (maybe stimulated by the TI and other global transparency NGOs) will stop the circus once and for all. It is difficult to doubt Vogl’s conclusion that “there is an Everest of corruption still to climb.” The author believes that we are at last a base camp, no longer looking at the mountain and dreaming but ready for more decades of activism and to see the day when we finally turn the tide on this huge evil. He ends his magnicent account of the struggle with the hopeful words of civil rights advocate and author James Baldwin, “the people that once walked in the darkness are no longer prepared to do so.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Steps Towards a SImple Learning Revolution

I have been a fan of Mitra's work for a few decades now and I am pleased to see how he has advanced his ideas from the Hole in the Wall computer to a SOLE concept to help transform learning world wide. SOLE stands for self organized learning and it is designed to put curiosity and mystery back into the learning process and take full advantage of the way children take to the computer and to the Internet without a lot of instruction. The computer seems now to be their natural learning medium. Instead of asking students to work out the tangent of an angle ask them to tell whether an asteroid is or is not on a path to hit earth. it is a simple design-- "Find a welcoming space for the children to share their stories of collective discovery. Facilitate a discussion about the question itself and their investigation process. Engage the kids in their own review" There does not have to be any tests. Just learning for the sake of learning under the kind supervision of a respectful encouraging adult. Here is the SOLE kit. Anyone can do it-- a teacher in a classroom, a parent who wants to home school or an after school supervisor. Let's help change the way people conceptualize what learning for the 21st century. The revolution begins here! Access the tool kit here

Friday, February 15, 2013

Corporate Climate Denial is Now Endangering our Children's Futures

So now we have the bitter truth we are in a race not just against the build up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere but against the pollution industry and the billionaires who fund them. We already know that according to a recent report in The Guardian, "Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change..The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising "wedge issue" for hardcore conservatives. The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more." Now we see the work of these trusts manifest themselves in state laws that are determined to overturn science just as surely as early efforts tried to overturn the teaching of evolution. According to EcoWatch "Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona’s Legislatures are debating bills, all written by the pollution industry front group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The bills all refer to global warming as a “theory” and a “controversy” with scientific weaknesses. The Oklahoma bills say that students need to “develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive and scientifically informed citizens.” As we learn in this report, "ALEC is comprised of corporate lobbyists who write bills that well-greased lawmakers then introduce to Congress and State Legislatures nation-wide. ALEC gets most of its funding from the fossil fuel industry, and its interests are solely to protect the industry’s bottom line. As Americans wake up to the reality of climate change, the corporate polluters responsible for global warming would prefer to put us back to sleep. They want us to lie in a warm blanket of cozy lies, and because their propaganda is not working as well with adults anymore, the polluters are targeting our children" Where are we as a country when money buys this kind of influence over our children's minds? It is a time to stop this notion that the Supreme Court has advanced that money is speech. Money spent by corporations to influence legislatures is not speech it is propaganda to advance their own selfish interests at the expense of the rest of us and our future.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can a Space Eye View of the Planet Change Us?

So if we want to leap forward and change consciousness we may need to take a trip into outer space Ross Pomeroy speculates in his latest Big Think piece. All we need to do is peer out the window as we see the earth--our beautiful spot of vivid blue floating serenely in a black cosmos. As Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweikart told self proclaimed space philosopher, Frank Wright "When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing," ..That makes a change. You look down there and you can't imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don't even see them. There you are -- hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you're not even aware of, and that you can't see." To come up with a term to describe the emotion that is created and the change that seems to occur is hard. The "Overview Effect" does not seem quite right but it is in use for now. Now psychologists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota are studying these "feelings of awe in a laboratory setting. They found that these moments made subjects feel like they had more time available, and that time itself was slowing down. This made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer to help others. Take a look at this short documentary and judge the effect for yourself.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

I am sure Richard Branson and other entrepreneurs will want to use footage like this to sell us on buying a ticket on the next shuttle trip. After all we do live in the 21st century. Of course for the cost of the ticket we might begin to solve some problems here on planet earth. Perhaps a trip to the local iMAX theater might be a good substitute.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gun Violence: Lessons from South Africa

[The following piece is a guest blog that appeared on the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence website] In 1994, perhaps one of the most remarkable events of the 20th century occurred. The former leader of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, who was held captive for 27 years, was elected prime minister of South Africa. This peaceful handover of power was achieved not on the battlefield as many had feared, but because the world had divested from South African companies. This movement took time to grow and become mainstream, but grow it did, eventually going global. Picketing and demonstrations by student radicals on the campuses of the nations’ universities helped, but it was the attack on South Africa’s once vibrant white-dominated economy that really did the damage. In the 1980s, “between one-half and one-third of the S&P 500 did business in South Africa, placing these companies among the best investments at the time.” The amount of stock held by North American pension funds was minute compared to the size of these companies, but it was a game-changer when major colleges decided they could not morally stomach doing business with South Africa’s apartheid economy. By the end of the 1980s, “90 cities, 22 counties and 26 states [in the United States] had taken some form of economic stance against the South African government” and the divestment movement began to spread to other countries. Finally, the South African government got the message: “Continue to do business the same way and expect to be isolated as a pariah in the world community.” Now think about the contemporary American experience with gun violence. With our political leaders continuing to fail to make such basic changes to the law as outlawing assault weapons or banning cop-killer bullets, the anti-apartheid movement should give us confidence that we can still affect change. As Guardian reporter Brett Scott points out, “We’re used to the narrative of how weapons companies support lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association, but we're seldom encouraged to think about who funds the weapons companies themselves.” It’s us funding them, through our pension funds, as police officers, doctors, teachers, etc. Just as with the South African situation, the percentage of stock held individually by these funds in these companies is quite small, but collectively it is a significant stake. We, too, have the capability to send a powerful moral message that is clearly heard in boardrooms across America. This kind of thinking is beginning to provoke some large-scale changes. Announcements from pension funds around the country suggest that teachers are finally exerting their long-neglected power. Shortly after the Newtown tragedy, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (the largest educator-only pension fund in the world) announced that it would review its investments in the national and international firearms business, including the $600 million it had invested in the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which owns a significant chunk of the gun industry. Not coincidentally, on the same day Cerberus announced that it was divesting itself from its gun industry properties (Freedom Group International), including Bushmaster, the firm that manufactured the AR-15 rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Cerberus, however, has so far failed to act on its stock ownership of two of the largest gun manufacturers in the world Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. The movement is gaining its legs. The California action seems to be moving the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System to review its stake in Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Olin Corp, which manufactures Winchester Arms. Other interested parties taking a close look at their investments include Rhode Island Employees' Retirement System in Providence; Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds in Hartford; and the $37.5 billion Illinois Teachers' Retirement System in Springfield. What we now need is a national divestment movement to include the billions of dollars that state and municipalities across the country invest in firearm and ammunition manufacturers. Some pension fund managers will of course argue (as they have begun to do) that their role is not to decide the politics of the investments they make, but to simply serve fiduciaries. In other words, they claim their only mission is to ensure that members receive the highest return possible on their investments. But in a nation that suffers approximately 87 gun deaths per day, don’t they bear at least some level of responsibility for supporting the reckless marketing and sales practices of gun manufacturers? And even looking strictly at their financial argument, when bad publicity about gun manufacturers mounts following mass shootings tragedies like Newtown, these stocks are often highly volatile, and can create undisclosed legal liabilities. If you want another way to circumvent the bought-and-paid-for politicians who have refused to listen to rational arguments, you now have another way to make your voice heard. Call your local pension fund. Tell them you want them to divest 100% from investments in firearms and ammunition manufacturers. Working together, we can end the epidemic of gun violence in America. The divestment strategy worked in South Africa. It can work here, too. EMAIL THIS BLOGTHIS! SHARE TO TWITTER SHARE TO FACEBOOK