Tag Archives: south africa

Good news

Trigger warning: indefinite detention, electoral disenfranchisement, racism

The past few weeks have seemed like a bit of a parade of bad news – with Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican primary among other worrisome events. Recently, however, there’s been a few small but significant changes that can give us hope.

Think of the children

After the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the US peaked in 2014, the public’s attention to the issue has steady declined. Even as fewer children have ended up in the overcrowded and dangerous detention facilities scattered across the southwest US, those already here have largely faced a toxic mixture of judicial neglect and increasingly unrealistic orders for them to leave the country.

A new report from Generation Progress touches on the issues that I and others noticed were looming problems just as the crisis began – that very few of these cases have assigned lawyers or even translators. Concerned Senators and Representatives have stepped in with new federal legislation requiring more extensive availability to those services as well as more thorough accountability for the agencies overseeing these detention facilities and court proceedings. Unfortunately, as long as the Senate and House are Republican-controlled, these reforms are unlikely to become law.

The day’s wages

In New York and California a similar tentative step forward, in this case on the minimum wage, has unfolded. In both progressive-leaning states with large labor pools, local activism was sufficient to push for incrementally raising the wage floor. In New York, the main determinant will be regional, with New York City proper seeing its wages move up the most quickly, followed by outlying parts of the urban center, and lastly other parts of the state. To a certain extent, that reflects cost of living, although across the state that will catapult minimum wage workers from $9 an hour into a more manageable economy. In California, the changes will be tailored more to the type of business, with smaller companies given slightly more time to adapt.

072814-minimum-wage_map
(Changes have so far been concentrated in states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, however. Image modified from here.)

Many commentators have viewed this as a reflection of the populist politics fueling Senator Sanders’ presidential run, but the piecemeal approach in both California and New York is more reflective of the gradual and contextual increases advocated by Secretary Clinton. Far from outside of these policy victories, Clinton took part in the celebratory rally put on by New York Governor Cuomo in her adoptive state.

Who counts the voters

Whether at the state level or federally, these different movements aimed at improving the quality of life have relied on elected leadership. In short, they have needed at least the possibility of voters caring about these issues to motivate political action. The capacity for that to happen as evenly as possible with the population of a district was upheld 8-0 by the Supreme Court on Monday in Evenwel v. Abbott.

This case was launched by the Project for Fair Representation, which previously played a role in an unsuccessful challenge to affirmative action and a fruitful dismantling of the electoral pre-clearance system. The racial dimensions of their work are deliberate and striking, and Evenwel was no exception. The Cato Institute (known for its own relationship with racist, colonialist, and antisemitic ideologies) published a rather flowery amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs in Evenwel where they argued-

Once again this Court finds itself at the intersection of the VRA and the Fourteenth Amendment. The parties here are caught in the inevitable trap of (1) maintaining majority-minority districts under complex, overlapping standards and (2) administering electoral schemes that do little to advance racial equality while doing much to violate voter equality— the idea that each eligible voter’s vote should count equally. In the background of this conflict, there lurks a cacophony of precedent and oft-conflicting court administered standards that have arisen from Section 2 cases. Basic constitutional guarantees of equal protection inherent in the Fourteenth Amendment— such as OPOV—are getting lost in this thicket.

Avoiding racial discrimination under these circumstances is particularly difficult in jurisdictions where “total population” and “citizens of voting age population” (CVAP)—standard metrics for evaluating whether a district violates OPOV—diverge due to varied concentration of non-citizens. As with the tensions amicus Cato has described before, jurisdictions navigating between the VRA’s Scylla and the Constitution’s Charybdis are bound to wreck individual rights—here, voter equality—on judicial shoals.

The reality that redefining electoral districts across the country by either eligible or registered voters would cast aside representation for people ineligible to vote or unregistered (who are largely people of color) is only indirectly considered. It’s framed as an unfortunate cost needed to make each vote cast equally contested by candidates – a pipe dream as turnout can easily inflate a given voter’s power or swamp their decision in a sea of others’. These organizations, all too recently comfortable with the legal realities of Apartheid, were pushing for a milder version of the same multi-tiered political system, where there are people represented and people beneath consideration.

Perhaps most tellingly, the case here sought a structural response to the reality that millions of people are disenfranchised – while being incarcerated (and depending on the state, afterwards as well), for being undocumented or otherwise non-citizens, or from the inaccessibility of the voter registration system. Instead of asking why those people are beyond the pale of electoral participation and what could be changed about that, it treated their exclusion as an accepted given to be worked around.

Luckily the Supreme Court saw things differently, and as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund described it:

Upwards of 75 million children—13 million of whom are Black—not yet eligible to vote would have been counted out of the redistricting process had appellants prevailed. Indeed, appellants’ case threatened to take America’s redistricting process back to nefarious periods in our democracy similar to when Black people were counted as 3/5ths of a person for redistricting purposes and expressly excluded from the body politic.

The Court’s decision today vindicates the “one person, one vote” standard, which rightly takes into account Census-derived total population counts when apportioning voting districts. This standard has been applied universally for over 50 years by all 50 states and the thousands of localities within them. Moreover, this clear understanding of “one person, one vote” is already regarded as America’s “de facto national policy” in legislative redistricting, enjoying overwhelming, bipartisan support among state and local governments. Today’s decision reaffirms the guiding logic of this inclusive standard, which fosters access to electoral representation and constituent services for all people, regardless of race, sex, citizenship, economic status, or other characteristics, or whether a person chooses to or is able to vote.

That vision of participatory democracy is the engine that’s helping to drive these modest steps towards a fairer political and economic system. This newly post-Scalia Supreme Court has made clear that they favor that understanding of how this country could organize itself.

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In the aftermath

Trigger warning: terrorism, abortion, sexism, war, racism, police violence, violence against protesters

In the past couple of months, almost every region in the world has been rocked by a shocking and violent event. When writing about those, it feels like an easy trap to fall into where almost all coverage is about the immediate happenings, and the wake they have left behind is swept under the rug. Here’s a Friday Let-Me-Link-You rundown of some shocking and interesting observations that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Making abortion a visible part of life

Following the Black Friday shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, many have asked how that might affect the public discussions on abortion and the on-going debates about various new restrictions on access to abortion and other reproductive health services. On Tuesday’s episode of Podcast for America, Rebecca Traister appeared as a guest, and highlighted recent and more long term coverage she has done on how the changing types of participants in public office has begun to alter the way these medical procedures are talked about.

At its core, she noted that not only are more (cisgender) women in prominent political positions, but that they are increasingly women of color and women from more difficult economic backgrounds. Able to raise their personal experiences in debates, they have helped transform abortion in public consciousness from a “dirty” thing “those people” do into a messy thing that many do.

Assad: the greatest threat in Syria?

Just as that shooting in Colorado has brought abortion rights and anti-abortion violence to the fore in the US, the attacks in Paris reignited predominantly Western interests in resolving Syria, as a hypothetical means of preventing further attacks in their part of the world. In light of that, President Obama’s staunchly anti-Assad policy has come under criticism, with a number of political powers all but declaring that they prefer Assad’s dictatorial regime to the violent start-up of Da’esh.

An image put together by the anti-Da’esh and anti-Assad Syria Campaign and shared on Facebook this week by the German activist group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS) clarifies that anti-Assad policies’ roots. As it shows, a vast majority of deaths in Syria have been from Assad’s forces:

deaths assad daesh(From here.)

Like many Obama administration policies, there is a very logical political and moral calculus behind the choice. In this case, all lost lives – Syrian and Western – are understood as tragic, and when tallied up it’s recognized that one of the greatest threats to life in general isn’t necessarily the flashiest or even the ones terrorists deliberately designed to shock.

South Africa Internet Availability: closing the floodgates

Meanwhile, international and local media in South Africa continue to pick apart what exactly happened at an October student protest in Cape Town that caught a lot of attention for its White participants’ attempt to shield protesters of color from the police. The underlying motivations behind the protest highlight familiar problems in higher education throughout the world – that tuition hikes are particularly affecting the poor and Black and particularly poor and Black, that the children of non-academic university staff are no longer guaranteed certain tuition benefits reinforcing class inequalities, and that the campus and curriculum valorize a colonial past.

That said, the history of Apartheid weighs heavily, and gravely concerns the many protesters who were born after the overtly legally-sanctioned racial hierarchy in South Africa was dismantled.

The Washington Post noted recently that this student protest was particularly innovative for South Africa in how it used modern social media to create discussion spaces, organize, and articulate activist goals. More than simply an importation of a global protest model, that also showed a reversal in terms of which parts of South African society could most easily use an online medium in political activity:

Social media has been a growing influence in South African politics for a while: think of how former opposition party leader Helen Zille (of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, or DA) has become known for tweeting from the hip, and landed her in trouble for unguarded remarks. Zille’s twitter dominance of course reflected racial disparities (then still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa. Not for long, though. Zille and the DA were gradually deposed by the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF) Twitter smarts (especially that of its young MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and its leader Julius Malema) and what passes for#BlackTwitter in South Africa.

The government of South Africa appears to be rallying against these changes, according to an assessment of proposed legal changes published by Access Now earlier this week. The increasingly diverse twitter landscape in South Africa has motivated the creation of a “a series of new crimes for unlawful activity online” which just on the heels of this major protest would “pose a risk to freedom of expression”.

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Whose protest is driving the conversation on climate change?

Trigger Warning: colonialism, climate change

Recently, many activist spaces and organizations in wealthy, early-to-industrialize nations have been prioritizing action on global climate change, and have even seen some response from among others, the Obama Administration itself. As I’ve noted before, both colonized people living within those parts of the world and people living with the fallout of centuries of colonialism and other policies in other areas have much more at stake in this warming world, have done much less to create the current situation, and unfortunately have significantly less international power to influence the developing crisis. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, however.

Hurricane Danny's projected path into the Lesser Antilles this weekend or MondayHurricane Danny is expected to make landfall in the Lesser Antilles before this coming Monday, from here. More info here.

Most visibly, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, famous for his anti-Apartheid activism in his home country and more recent HIV/AIDS activism, has publicly called on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Barack Obama to set even more ambitious targets for declining greenhouse gas output – specifically a total cut of emissions by 2050. His open letter to those two officials is not only being circulated but presented as something that any interested person can also sign in support. Public protest actions within the countries most responsible for the global warming are important, but it’s important to also center the voices of people in the broader world who have a different language to describe the nature of the problem.

The featured image is of some of the indigenous participants in the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, from here.

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The year that class apparently stopped mattering

TW: classism, racism, nativism

2012 was a fascinating year, especially from a perspective within the United States. There’s a long history of residents of this country telling ourselves that we’re a classless society, or failing that a country where opportunity is ubiquitous and untainted by social and political biases. Last year, and particularly the presidential election over the course of it, seemed like something of an abrupt end to that, with Romney’s 47 percent video solidifying class as inevitably one of the salient identities and the post-election analysis often becoming fixed on how rapidly support for the Democrat Obama transformed into support for the Republican Romney at around $50,000 per year per household in most states.

romney in a pile of money

(It was also a golden age of photoshopped images of Mitt Romney, for obvious reasons, from here.)

This past year something else happened, however, particularly in how the media analyzed issues. In short, class completely disappeared from the conversation. In some cases, the absence of class in how representative sets of groups were selected was appalling obvious, with Ron Fournier’s perceived look into the heads of current students he expects to lead the country in the future being a particularly vivid example. That the class of those he talked to (never even directly about the issue, it seems important to add) was a force that could bias them to a certain view on government was something Fournier never broached in his article. While he could obliquely reference their class status as easing their launch into “public service”, he couldn’t imagine it as something that shaped their opinions, their experiences, and ultimately their politics. It’s not that the economic system is invisible, just people’s status (that is, class) that apparently was to his eyes and ears. Likewise, the result was that the differing positions held by poorer young people weren’t considered.

Fournier was just an undeniable example of this phenomenon. Earlier in the year, in fact, Obama’s State of the Union address reflected a similar disrecognition of how his language divided immigrants into those that worked desired jobs and hence were imagined to be “highly-skilled” and even “entrepreneurs” and those that, ostensibly, are neither of those things as a result of them being unwanted. The reality that many undocumented immigrants are badly wanted as laborers by US-based businesses, but precisely because they can be exploited economically and socially, wasn’t acknowledged in the slightest. Much like the high school students with less affluent backgrounds, their reality (and hence, their political interests and needs) were outside of the discussion.

This failure to consider how class intersects with nearly all political issues didn’t merely erase poor people from the discussion, but actively distorted a number of historical figures records while they were remembered this year. From Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr, the class politics of a number of Black political figures were totally removed from public political memory, often as a part of otherwise remaking them into figures useful to White commentators. The former was done an additional disservice before his death, by BBC reporting that disregarded the economic reality of historical and modern South Africa, largely again by means of erasing the poorest residents of that country (who remain the indigenous Black communities) in order to make a political point that seemed stolen from White nationalists.

In a lot of formal and official discussions, 2013 was a year of class needlessly receding from the discussion, which often took any type of look at the beliefs, ideas, and even existence of the poorest people with it.

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The long shadow of Apartheid

TW: racism, Apartheid

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95 years. For many South Africans he occupies an interesting political space – as both something of a founder of their present democracy and the embodiment of its limitations (namely to challenge the economic disparities created under Apartheid rule). From within US and UK politics, however, the present remembrance of Mandela exists in a different awkward context, with almost all figures lionizing Mandela, even those who worked against him and with the Apartheid government for decades. Although Reagan is no longer a living part of that number, there is a largely forgotten history of his and others’ support for that repressive, racist government:

The story doesn’t end there, but rather continues to include Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, and then his selective and incomplete enforcement of it after congress blocked his veto with vote margins unimaginable today. There are many reasons why the perpetual idolization of Reagan by many White, straight, and cisgender Americans is profoundly unsettling for others, but his insistence on negotiation with the settler colonial regime in South Africa should clearly be near the top of that list.

Of course, the story is not merely one of former officials who supported the Apartheid government who are with us only in memory, but familiar faces that remained in power long after casting votes in favor of inaction in that conflict and even the replacement of that state with another that actually allowed the vast majority of its population the right to simply vote.

Many prominent Republicans come to mind, but none more than Dick Cheney, who continued to serve in the Senate for three years after his vote towards the end even advancing to Majority Whip, a leadership position. Following that, he was promoted to Secretary of Defense under President George Bush (the first one). He spent most of the 1990s a well-regarded lobbyist, but returned, with minimal criticism, to politics as Vice President for eight years. He has within conservative circles remained so positively received that his daughter was taken as serious contender in a Senate race for no other reason than her relation to him. While it’s a bit early to tell, her campaign may ostensibly stay afloat purely as a result of his connections and still intact reputation.

Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan during Reagan's presidency
(Guess that was another thing these two have had in common?)

In short, he has never been held accountable for his role in working against resistance to Apartheid rule. Unshockingly, that lack of accountability has led to him feeling that he was not in fact in the wrong on that, but all along was right in his course of action. Even now, Cheney stands by his record that Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists” and that any restriction on the government most directly opposed to them was to be delayed, hindered, or stopped.

Reagan famously explained his position on the sanctions against the Apartheid government as being motivated by an interest in opposing the government responsibly and not too rashly. If that’s the case, then why is this part of his and Cheney’s history so rarely discussed? Why was Mandela still listed as a terrorist by the US government until 2008? Why are defenses of Apartheid specifically and (neo-)colonialism in Africa more broadly still so prevalent among conservatives in the United States?

The United States (among other countries) has never examined its role in maintaining and supporting Apartheid rule. This is the fallout of that – that wide swathes of our country’s politicians and even many citizens still support that system built on the idea of White supremacy and Black servitude. So far, that reality has been inadequately challenged. Let’s change that.

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But what about White people?

TW: racism, colonialism, apartheid South Africa, class inequality

The BBC decided to do a story recently on the poorer Whites within South African society. Their article honestly begins- “The question I have come to South Africa to answer is whether white people genuinely have a future here.”

Wouldn’t a better driving question be whether Whites should have a future in South Africa? Their presence in South Africa is a result and element of the colonial disinheriting of the the indigenous Black population. The same should be asked about many other colonized parts of the world, including where I live, but that the issue is particularly relevant in South Africa considering that nearly 80 percent of the population has near-exclusively indigenous African ancestry (whether Bantu-speaking or the purportedly even more historied indigenous non-Bantu groups).

Speaking of how an overwhelming majority of South Africans are Black… the article includes this chart of income aggregated into the four common racial categories in South Africa:

So, just to remember or at least check Wikipedia, people of near exclusively White heritage comprise under 10 percent of the population of the country, but have only just seen their demographic cease to control a majority of its wealth. Yes, there are poor White people, but talking about how less than a tenth of the population now only controls more than a third of it…? Really BBC?

That’s about 80 percent of the population at the lowest rung there – with less than 10 percent of the income. If wealth were distributed proportionately across racial groups in South Africa – that’s what White people’s share would look like. Keep in mind, the end of Apartheid allowed the development of a small Black economic and political elite, who have gained inclusion in the previously Whites-only halls of power. Removing those few from the Black category would likely cause it to deflate to an even more miniscule amount.

There’s a point to be made here about how indigeneity and blackness are still the surest symbols, even in a nominally democratic and predominantly Black country, of being an undeserving investment, unreliable hire, or always suspected to be overpaid employee. But you missed it, BBC, for what about the White people!?

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An interesting comparison

TW: colonialism, military intervention in Mali

I have to admit, a lot of the time, I have to carefully consider whether I should keep following the Johannesburg Times on twitter, because of how much of what they write about and post there are interesting-but-not-very-important factoids like this. But often, their coverage for all its faults is the most detailed examination of what’s happening in South Africa specifically and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa generally that’s easily accessible and understandable to non-Africans like me. With a good amount of frequency, the Times will share a couple of articles that even if not particularly revolutionary themselves help put together an image of what’s happening in that part of the world.


(On the left, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore while raising funds in Brussels, Belgium, from various EU member states and EU international bodies, from here.)

Sometimes that’s pretty infuriating, however. Take, for instance, this article on South African economic development and this one on aid to the Malian state. In South Africa at the moment, disparate political groups with different perspectives on what state policies should be are in the process of negotiating at length how their society can improve its lot, which is quite the tall order after centuries of colonial occupation. It’s likely that few people in the United States will hear about these debates, and the few like you and me who have are unlikely to have much detail to them – but part of that is because of the internal nature of what South Africans are debating. I don’t know that the country can be declared decolonized (and I do know that I shouldn’t be the one to do that in any case), but it seems that they’re moving in a positive direction in terms of popular negotiation being central to creating economic policies.

The situation in Mali seems to stand in stark contrast to that. In the wake of what could be seen as another chapter in an on-going and multidimensional internal conflict, the power center that appealed to outside assistance is now working to receive aid from individuals and organizations largely affiliated with the military forces that intervened on its behalf. Perhaps France specifically should provide the territories under the governance of the state of Mali with restitution for colonial rule, but it’s important to note that that’s not what’s happening now. What’s happening now, is that the government of Mali has successfully pitched to the EU Humanitarian Aid Commission and other such bodies the idea that the intervention on the basis of security will be for naught without basic economic stability in the region. The colonial framework that the intervention reinforced is being explicitly expanded through this request for aid.

Unlike South Africa, the government of Mali seems to have decided to farm out its economic insecurities, but at the cost of autonomy and arguably its democracy.

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Rival unions, corruption, and the corporate state

TW: violence against protesters, violence against unionized workers

How about another quick peek at some conflicts in South Africa that I mentioned a few months back? Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent direct reporting on it, and in a nutshell: the inability for rival unions to reach a consensus, let alone coordinate, has led to some difficulties for the miners in Marikana, South Africa. That much should be clear from the fact that the body of one of the local union’s leaders was found this weekend, in his workplace, presumably after an altercation.

While it seems most likely that Mawethu Steven was killed by armed men in the pay of the mining companies that have operated at of the South African Lonmin site or the corrupt local government, as he was due to testify against their coordinated violence towards strikers, it can’t be ruled out that a more conciliatory and competitive union was involved.


(Some of the thousands of protesters in Marikana over the past few days, from Al Jazeera.)

The entire situation is an unfortunate warning for the US in terms of the dangers of disintegration of unions as a location for workers to establish their shared economic goals into business-like entities that compete to provide the workforce (or rather, portions of it) with benefits. To be fair to South Africa, our current predicament with unions is a warning for how easily stable systems that benefit that majority of workers can slowly degrade over time into far less effective systems.

Nonetheless, it seems important to note that when unions cease to operate as spaces for workers to organize and collaborate, the competition between workers to be held favorably by management (even if only in contrast to other workers), can lead to very violent extremes. That’s something that many workers in assorted information and technology fields should especially take to heart at the moment, as Mark Zuckerberg is lobbying for legislation that would pit local and immigrant workers against each other.

And when we compete with each other instead of them, they win.

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Is Obama the next Thatcher?

TW: Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet-era Chile, class inequality

Throughout today I’ve been preemptively greeting people with facts about the United Kingdom’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to stave off any eulogizing or other fond memories of her. For instance, did you know she called the African National Congress (the popular movement that eventually toppled the Apartheid government of South Africa) a “typical terrorist organization“? Because after all, the brutally colonial governance of an indigenous population by somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the whole population is such a noble political situation. And maintaining it was key in the battle against communism. Likewise, concerning renowned Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Thatcher explained her support for his regime on the basis that he was “bringing democracy to Chile“. As we all know, nothing says democracy like a coup that killed thousands and forces thousands more the flee the country in terror. But at least the democratically-elected socialist wasn’t in charge of a country in another hemisphere entirely from Britain.


(There’s a reason these sorts of events have been popular for years. From here.)

It’s common for critics to compare her with her US contemporary, former President Ronald Reagan, but I think another comparison might be called for today: that of her and current President Barack Obama. Both of them cracked a glass ceiling, but seem dishearteningly to more represent a new spirit of inclusion and openness than actually embody it. For the past few months, the unemployment rate among Black Americans has averaged twice what it is among White Americans. Obama’s governance doesn’t seem to have made any significant dent in racist hiring and firing practices within the United States. While many major media outlets were narrowly focused on the risk of US-supplied weapons ending up in islamists’ hands, they overlooked the meaning behind that – the Obama administration had continued to supply weapons to undemocratic regimes throughout the Arab world even as the Arab Spring mounted and anti-protester violence grew more endemic.

Most recently, Obama has put forward a plan to switch from standard to “chained” inflation adjustments for social security and similar government assistance programs’ payouts. That this comes now, after years of slowing wage increases mere symbolizes how tidily Obama’s governance has fit into many larger economic trends in the US. He hasn’t been disruptive, but rather a great facilitator… of the same underlying principles in US politics that had been unquestionable to the point of invisibility.

I wonder if we’ll remember Obama the way many Brits are remembering Thatcher today: as being remarkable merely as a symbol that their group could occasionally have access to controlling a destructive political system. Will both be remembered as history’s tokens?

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Billions of people aren’t enough leverage?

The Hindu recently published a rather interesting opinion piece on Chinese foreign policy, that looked over the history of how China has annoyed almost every neighboring country in the past couple of decades, and consequently is feeling a little lonesome. While India is one of those countries, as the two have previously come to blows over a border dispute, a number of different international factors is driving the two to look past those squabbles and focus on the need for joint international action on various issues. Chief among those reasons to unite forces would be climate change.

But the fact that China and India must tactically coordinate in order to influence international policy actually leads to only further questions. Both nations are by far the largest single-state portions of the global population, and the coming decade China is predicted to outpace the United States as the world’s largest economy. While both superstates have per capita wealth that’s dwarfed by the US, Canada, Australia, and much of Western Europe, there’s clearly indications that their economies are actually more stable and in a sense more robust than those of “more developed” countries.

In spite of this, India or China acting independently on the issue of climate change would apparently get nowhere. There’s two potential explanations for that. For one, as individual countries they’re in such completely unique positions that their political views, while influential, fails to connect with the interests of others. Alternatively, their needs are at least somewhat similar to not only each other but many other countries. In spite of that, even when working collectively, their capacity to influence world affairs is disproportionately small. It seems as though both are highly plausible arguments.

For one, a frequently used socio-economic category for countries used since the fall of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the idea of a capitalist first world, socialist second world, and unaligned third world, has been that of BRICS. The steadily more democratic Brazil, ostensibly more open Russia, developing India, increasingly Western-friendly China, and post-apartheid South Africa represented to many analysts a confusing and new national category in the changed global landscape. They were unified by recent indications of growing prosperity and bright political futures in spite of past histories of violent repression and extensive concentration of wealth in a small elite. Likewise, they were all populous regional powers that contained diverse religious and ethnic groups. Occasionally, Mexico and Indonesia would be included within the category as similarly emergent powers.


(The BRICS countries, from here. They contain for approximately 2.9 billion people. If Indonesia and Mexico are included in the same category, they account for 3.3 billion people.)

As negotiations over the original Kyoto Treaty began to become more urgent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they successfully pushed for the exemption of “less developed countries” (which included all of their categorical members except Russia) from stipulated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The economic development of the poorest countries in the world, which to some extent still included the BRICS countries, was understood as an acceptable alternative to stricter environmental protections (especially since most of the historical emissions had been produced in wealthy developed countries).

That said, the classification of Russia as a developed country has led to it pushing for policies more in line with those proposed by Japan, the US, and Canada, rather than India or China. As Al Jazeera’s coverage of the discussions shows, the EU is essentially the lone voice within the “developed world” in even entertaining the idea of a second or additional periods of proposed cuts. India and China have disagreements between each other, and with the coalition of the poorest and most flood-prone countries, but have the beginnings of a consensus among “less developed” countries. The positions of South Africa and Brazil are unmentioned, but it’s unclear why they would disagree with those other nations.

Even assuming that the positions of India and China are unacceptable to their fellow BRICS-type countries, inadequately strict for the most vulnerable nations, and anathema for the developed world aside from the EU, those three collectively are 3 billion people of the planet’s 7 billion. Surely, a few additional millions can be found in places too poor to be considered “developed” and too secure from rising tides to be considered among the most at-risk. Reaching a plurality if not a majority of the world’s population in terms of signatory states to a new treaty is not some unthinkable prospect. But it’s still treated as a long-shot.

The only explanation is that not all countries’ votes count for as much. The treaties are non-binding and there’s not really any clear context for punitive measures for refusing to sign on. So the majority of the population of the “developed” world can burn what we want without a care, even if we number a noticeably minor portion of the world’s people. The oil-rich gulf states (another tiny minority) seem to gladly agree to our right to do that, since they can turn a tidy profit from it.

Not only does climate change spell out a future where your race and class within wealthier countries may determine your security, but the same factors play out across the entire globe. And China and India might be better situated than other nations, but their voices are still devalued in the current debate, even if their nations represent a third of the world.

Edit: I apologize for erroneously calling China the world’s current largest economy in the original published version of this article. I was confused by misleading representations of this argument, that China may have a much larger GDP than largely believed.

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Ill omens for Suu Kyi?

Just to review, if for the past week you stuck exclusively to American media you’d probably have heard either nothing about President Obama’s recent trip to Myanmar, or saw an awful lot of this image:

Helpfully, Al Jazeera can provide you with a more nuanced look at the talks in which multiple issues are clearly at play. Obama has done a lot of work in opening Myanmar to democratic influences from namely the US but the broader world. But there’s also speculation around the world about what else will happen now that the country with the world’s tenth largest natural gas reserves has been opened up. Aside from potentially exchanging isolated exploitation for a globalizing variation on the same theme, there’s always the possibility of a close bond between the US and a democratized Myanmar to further politically contain China. As we’re still trying to extract resources from the region and contain Chinese political influence, it seems worth asking if this is just a smarter version of the same US policies that brought us the Vietnam War.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective leader of the democratizing movement in Myanmar brilliantly said, of the gains made while Obama has been in office, “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people.” With brave talk like that, from someone who’s been under house arrest almost continuously for the past twenty years, we should all have hope. But for her to provide the tenacious leadership that won’t settle for exchanging a Myanmar run at the behest of China for a Burma designed for the benefit of the United States, she’ll have to beat the odds.

Suu Kyi will have to avoid the fates of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and former Chilean President Salvador Allende. She’ll also have to overcome the temptation to avoid challenging the powerful that daunted the still lauded Nelson Mandela. There’s actually been another democratizing female politician from a politically dynastic family trying to fight against military rule in a former colony in subtropical Asia – former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who seemed to combine the worst of Mandela’s subverted democratization and Allende’s and Mossadegh’s inability to avoid assassination. That’s not a very positive predictor of either Myanmar’s or Suu Kyi’s futures.

Perhaps a better question than why some Burmese people created a mural of Obama is why didn’t they create one of her? And how does that bode for any emerging democratic government in Myanmar?

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Learning from history

TW: class warfare, forced relocation

After decades of horrendous environmental policies, Chinese protests based in the city of Ningbo against reckless industrial expansion seem to have reached critical mass and have become capable of shutting down questionable projects. While China didn’t have to go through its own Bhopal Disaster to reach this point, it’s obvious that an environmental price in quality and length of life has been paid by some of the country’s citizens.

57.54% of Ningbo Area waters are severely pollutedMarshes surrounding Ningbo, China
(Although a majority of the surrounding marine environments have been determined to be “severely polluted”, they are not significantly increasing in size, and the area appears relatively healthy. Right image from here, left from here.)

The most recent aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip went on the PR offensive before being seized by Israeli officials. One of the founders of the group that had organized the current effort provided an interview before reaching Gazan waters which specified their goals, their cargo, and responded to multiple likely accusations to justify the seizure of the flotilla. With the famous Turkish flotilla having been subjected to provably false allegations by Israeli officials, this was probably a good way of heading off another such round of “he said, she said” discussion on the aid group.

In Mumbai, there’s the beginning of political organization within the majority of the city’s population which dwells in places labeled as “slums”. Facing forced relocation by the government to make way for urban development, some of the communities in the city are protesting for investment in existing communities, rather than displacement of the poor. Although some areas’ populations have already been forcibly removed and replaced with upper scale housing developments, the political movement is largely anticipatory at this stage. As a result they’re more on their toes than comparable movements in South Africa, which have largely responded to existing mass evictions in working to prevent further displacement or ease transitions.

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