November 16, 2008

Blame in the Blogosphere: When Fundamental Freedoms are under Fire

In the United States, our news media is fortunately uncensored, which encourages citizens to express their opinions openly and honestly. While there have been incidents of abuse concerning the freedoms of speech and press, most recently perceptible in the harsh critique of certain candidates campaigning in the U.S. presidential elections, these rights are fundamentally part and parcel of a democracy. These intrinsic liberties have become particularly powerful in the realm of the blogosphere, which has become a forum for the flow of ideas, concerns, and discourse not only within the United States but also on an international level as well. The blogosphere is undeniably less reliable in terms of non-partisan news delivery, and one must take each post with a grain of salt, as they are often saturated with biased viewpoints and opinions. In spite of a few minor pitfalls surrounding a free media, its emancipated existence is crucial for discussion and self-expression. Unfortunately, these democratic principles are not globally enforced, and even countries that do include these freedoms in their constitutions often violate them when it is to their benefit. A good example of the repression of promulgated rights is discussed in two Nigerians' blogs concerning recent events in both the Nigerian blogosphere and "free" media. The first, from PBS's World View Blog, is a post entitled "Nigeria Joins List of Countries Harassing Bloggers," in which Sokari Ekine discusses the recent arrest of Nigerian bloggers Jonathon Elendu and Emeka Asiwe, and the implications of these incidents in regards to the government's relationship with the media. Nigerian Curiosity, a blog by Solomon Sydelle, raised similar concerns about Nigerian President Yar'Adua's relationship with the press in his post "Yar'Adua to Sue Nigerian Newspaper." Both entries demonstrate how these relatively self-contained incidents could have disastrous effects on the country, further de-legitimizing an already unstable regime of governance.

"Nigeria Joins List of Countries Harassing Bloggers"

Sokari, thank you for addressing such a salient issue that was in need of proper attention. I appreciated the integrity of your post, and the wide base of evidence you incorporated to support your argumentative viewpoint. It seems that the Nigerian government and particularly President Yar'Adua need to practice what they preach and uphold the values they communicate. While it is encouraging that President Yar'Adua declared a commitment to upholding an unrestricted press, his actions concerning the arrest of Jonathon Elendu and Emeka Asiwe dictate the opposite, which makes one wonder if he is truly committed to ensuring that liberty. This disconnect in parlance and performance is especially pertinent in a country such as Nigeria, which has struggled to achieve a true democracy after independence in 1960, and has been burdened with an unfortunate history of cyclic corruption within the government. Intentionally or not, Yar'Adua has further undermined his position as president with the detention of these two bloggers without an explanation as to the crimes behind the two arrests. On the other hand, I find that a president should not be subject to unprecedented attacks or misinformation surrounding his actions as head of state. The arrests have already exacerbated public suspicion on his commitment to freedom of speech and of press.

Additionally, I think the detail you highlighted concerning the widespread anonymity of Nigerians in the blogosphere is also indicative of their fear concerning freedom of expression, particularly when one takes into consideration the "the history of media censorship in Nigeria" and its infringement on fundamental human liberties. Do you think that if the president had provided an initial reason for these arrests the public would have had a different response to his actions? Conversely, is their any merit to Elendu or Asiwe's arrest, or is it purely an infringement on rights clearly defined by the Nigerian constitution? Is the Nigerian media a reliable and credible source of information, or has it been affected by years of inconsistent censorship? Is it possible the bloggers in question were intentionally publishing false or malicious script in an attempt to punish the government's wrongful treatment of, among many things, the media? I would appreciate your insight regarding these subsequent inquiries, as your post demonstrates a high level of intimate knowledge and concern for Nigerian politics.

“Yar’Adua to Sue Nigerian Newspaper”

Solomon, thank you for such an intelligible and thoughtful post. As I have recently just begun to tackle the complex history of Nigerian politics and systems of government post-independence, your blog was particularly useful in terms of more recent administrative events. I appreciated and agreed with your assertion that "Yar'Adua has every right to sue anyone who defames him or his character," especially because Leadership Newspaper has admitted that its article "was not entirely factual." I also sympathize with his attempted action to rectify the misinformation published about him, as it was relevant to his capabilities as a leader. Although the public appearances in question pale in comparison to the country's insurmountable structural issues and internal conflict, had he countered the initial suspicions surrounding his health, his honesty would have reinforced his legitimacy as president. However, in light of the two recent arrests of Jonathon Elendu and Emeka Asiwe, whose convoluted crimes remain highly debated, this law suit unfortunately further clouds his commitment to a free and unadulterated media. While the president says he "fully believes that a free and unfettered press is essential to the growth and entrenchment of democracy in Nigeria," his recent actions seem to dictate otherwise.

Furthermore, I have a few remaining inquiries that I would like for you to consider. Is Yar'Adua's health a potentially large issue for the country? Could the newspapers actually be attacking Yar'Adua's government purposefully to destabilize support for his regime? If so, would this be a result of internal divisions and mistrust for governance among the Nigerian population? Additionally, how do you think Yar'Adua would react to the United States media and their portrayal of politicians? Particularly with the recent US presidential elections, would he consider the coverage concerning the presidential and vice-presidential candidates to be malicious misinformation, or an expression of fundamental rights that encourage democratic elections and governance? Moreover, I would appreciate if you could elaborate on the statement you made in response to Olusegun Adeniyi's accusation of the newspaper's deliberate attempt to destabilize the current administration with the attacks on President Yar'Adua. What were some of the other occasions when Yar'Adua "accused others of trying to undermine the government?" Were they also involving the press, and what were his reactions to these other attacks? With your insight and knowledge on these matters of Nigerian governance displayed so passionately in this post, I would appreciate your response and interpretation concerning these additional concerns.

November 09, 2008

On the Money: The Effective Strategies of Microfinance

This week, I discovered an article summarizing a microfinance summit in San Francisco among leading micro-lenders to discuss organizations that are now incorporating health care education and protection as part of their programs. According to a piece in the San Francisco chronicle, the most common reason for a loan recipient to default is illness or poor health. In order to address this issue, microfinance institutions, such as Freedom from Hunger and Credito con Educacion, are employing doctors who will administer discounted medical care, provide health and wellness seminars, and issue health care loans to borrowers. The hope is to eliminate illness-related loan default, and encourage future lending, spending, repayment, and ultimately, start-up success for their borrowers. If achieved, these health care proposals could dissolve one chief disadvantage to micro-lending. Conversely, this plan could further encumber borrowers, as additional medical loans would place an added strain on timely loan repayment. This potential consequence only encourages the critics of microfinance, who already find its scope too small and too specific, lacking the necessary resources to reach the truly destitute. These are not false accusations, however microfinance has proved to be a largely successful venture when executed properly and provides an alternative to conventional aid organizations, which oftentimes exacerbate the problems of the recipient country. Multilateral finance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank do dispense necessary assistance and relief in the presence of nation-wide economic crisis, yet microfinance is a valuable and practical addition to large-scale aid organizations, whose goals are often muddled or lost within the breadth of their subsidies and the inefficiencies with which they are constructed.

Over the past fifty years, $2.3 trillion dollars has been sent in aid packages to various poor and developing countries throughout the world. Unfortunately, the majority of these funds were lost in the inefficient "bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy" aid model implemented by multilateral organizations. What makes these aid agendas ineffective is an overly complex regulatory plan that is impossible for the recipient country to execute with its already strained and overextended administration. Critics of the IMF contend that the required structural adjustments are often too challenging politically and too rigorous, and that the debts acquired through IMF loans only perpetuate poverty, as capital that could have been invested instead was channeled into debt repayment. Another large issue these plans fail to address is the persistent corruption among administrative officials, who often intercept these funds for their own benefit. For instance, in his article entitled “Foreign aid feeds poverty," William Easterly points to the example of the dictator Paul Biya of Cameroon, who “will get 55% of his government revenue from aid after the doubling of aid to Africa.” Thus, the money frequently does not reach its intended beneficiary, and is often sunk into poorly-executed projects, such as the $5-billion Ajaokuta steel mill in Nigeria, which began in 1979 and never operated at more than twenty percent of its capacity, consequently causing the failure of businesses contingent upon its productivity.

With such sweeping fiscal relief efforts from bureaucracy to bureaucracy or multi-lateral organization to bureaucracy, the desired effect becomes lost in legislation, corruption, or ulterior motives. Hence why small-scale, private microfinance organizations are constructive alternatives to the convoluted current system of foreign aid. Microfinance equips marginalized people with the means and resources to create success for themselves, and is based on loans and credit, not charity. Enabling people to achieve their own objectives is sustainable, and the notion of lending eliminates any sense of obligation of the borrower, placing the two involved parties on more equitable ground. While critics of microfinance, such as former World Bank analyst Sudhirendar Sharma, often argue that high-interest rates put them on the same level as moneylenders, Alex Counts and other defenders of the system demonstrate that the interest rates are high because poor people often have no collateral with which to take out a loan, thus making the risk of loan-default higher. In most countries, property rights are not protected, which makes securing loans in general much more difficult. Supporters of micro-lending also point to the clear, unbridled success stories, which have become so prevalent in the field. Arguably the pioneer of microfinance is Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the unofficial founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank in 1976, which procures loans to those below the poverty line, particularly women. The recipients of such loans were able to escape poverty at a rate of 48% percent, compared to the previous rate of 4% without assistance, and the bank has a 99% loan recovery rate. Thus, many microfinance initiatives today try to emulate the efficient model created by Dr. Yunus. ACCION International is another private non-profit organization whose partner microfinance institutions today are providing loans as low as $100 to poor men and women entrepreneurs in 25 countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the United States. As evident in “Microfinance Leader Launches New Hub in Africa," within the last ten years alone, ACCION partners have provided more than 22.4 million loans totaling $17.4 billion; 97 percent of the loans have been repaid. Even United Colors of Benetton's 2008 aid campaign, as pictured above, promotes a micro-credit program in Senegal called Birima established by Youssou N'Dour.

While microfinance is by no means a flawless system, its incredible accomplishments demand recognition. In fact, its work on the small-scale fosters more personal relations between lenders and recipients, which in turn promote a greater sense of understanding, trust, and commitment among all parties involved. This personal approach lies at the heart of micro-lending success, as does the practice of monetary loans in place of fiscal awards that levels the playing field among all participants in the process. It is difficult to determine how the health care proposals in partnership with microfinance organizations will fare in the future, but it is important to recognize this action as an effort to further improve the system. Despite the shortcomings of multilateral aid organizations, one must appreciate their achievements in delivering large-scale disaster relief. The World Bank has even altered many of its policies after the severe criticism it received in the 1970s and 1980s of its insensitivity regarding the local needs of aid recipients. These institutions remain far from perfect, and are in need of structural and strategic reform, particularly regarding the stipulations they attach to provisional aid plans. In the meantime, microfinance initiatives should be applauded and encouraged as a supplemental type of foreign assistance, which has proven to be successful and sustainable. Spare change to spur change: that is my kind of ingenuity.

November 03, 2008

Global Gab on the Prospective President: South Africans and Nigerians Voice their Vote

With a national debt of more than 10.5 trillion dollars, the United States currently has little fiscal allowance to spare. Our next president, to be declared after tomorrow’s election, will hopefully execute a viable plan of cutting costs and reorganizing American spenditures, concentrating on domestic policy in terms of feasible solutions to the financial crisis, in addition to foreign policy regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it is not solely our grave financial debt that has fostered international intrigue for this particular presidential election. The global hype and concern derives largely from two factors that should be immaterial: race and gender, which, regardless of the outcome, will result in a historical milestone for the United States. The African community is particular energized about the candidates in contention and how their leadership will generate changes for Africa, despite sparse U.S. resources to spare and the urgency of our own domestic economy, along with prior foreign engagements in the Middle East. While rather obvious familial ties exist between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Kenya thus welding a strong voucher of support from its citizens, I consciously chose to explore the responses of citizens from other African nations regarding the U.S. presidential elections. Fortunately, there were two recent posts in the blogosphere that highlighted Nigerian and South African opinions of the two main American candidates in contention, the aforementioned Barack Obama, as well as the Republican nominee, John McCain.

Both Nigeria and South Africa are prominent African countries and recent democracies, and are frequently sought out by the United States as cordial allies to secure oil reserves and fiscal relations, as well as to improve U.S. eminence on the continent. Additionally, both nations have historical ties to one another, particularly Nigeria’s overwhelming support for South Africa and the ANC in the abolition of apartheid. Today, both countries maintain amicable relations with the West, and its respective citizens have shown particular interest in our own upcoming election, demonstrated by the two blog posts I discovered this week: “Black and White South Africans Weigh in on U.S. Election” and “U.S. presidential elections: Nigerians are anxious”. Both posts explore generalized national perspectives on which candidate would best serve the presidency. The former, written by Hamilton Wende, is part of MSNBC’s World Blog, and provides a commentary on which American candidate is favored among South Africans. Wende discusses the opinions of three different South African men on the candidates and the issues, and tries to define the reasons behind their choices, impressing race, change, and African foreign policy as conventional deductions. The second post derives from The Takeaway, a news and analysis program with global partnerships and contributors, and was written by Adeola Aderounmu, a Nigerian blogger who offers a personal testimony regarding the overwhelming Nigerian support for Obama. My commentary on both posts is on each individual blog as well as provided below.

Black and White South Africans Weigh in on U.S. Election
Mr. Wende, thank you for your informative post and providing a global perspective on the U.S. elections. It is important for Americans to comprehend the investiture of non-U.S. citizens in this election, and how the choices we make have profound worldwide effects. South Africa is a particularly impressionable democracy, and it is nevertheless self-evident why they have such a vested interest in the processes surrounding our well-established system of government. Additionally, the historical evidence you provided concerning the South African apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s additionally contextualizes and strengthens the ties between the two countries and its citizens. I found your inclusion of Lucky Mathye’s commentary on Barack Obama and the racial issue particularly interesting. While I had previously heard the issue of race discussed in terms of societal significance, I had yet to hear Lucky’s particular argument for Obama, which contended that the color of his skin might enable him to negotiate settlements among African presidents like Robert Mugabe better than John McCain.

While I appreciate the insight this post provided on the responses to the US elections by both black and white South Africans, the argument your post embodies in its nature is devoid of both female and elderly perspective. Especially with the prevalent issues concerning women’s health and the controversy surrounding Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, I feel your post would have benefited from a woman’s point of view. Additionally, while each of the South Africans interviewed expressed their concerns over which candidate would best benefit Africa, not a single one mentioned any evidential support for their reasoning. If these individuals cannot point to a particular policy or stances that would differentiate Obama from McCain in his ability to better serve Africa in foreign policy, does that not simply reinforce the racial concern? If there is a particular motive for these individual’s support for Barack Obama, the lack of its inclusion is a disservice to the South Africans interviewed, for it illustrates them as less educated on the pertinent foreign policy issues then they might be. Either way, I think your post could benefit from a follow up investigation as to why these three particular men promote Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency, in addition to his overwhelming global endorsement.

U.S. presidential elections: Nigerians are anxious
Adeola Aderounmu, thank you for revealing such an articulate and thoughtful argument concerning Nigerian support of Barack Obama. I appreciated such a personal account in regards to Nigerian mentality, and many of the issues you touched on were ones that I had yet to consider. I was particularly struck by the more tangible evidence you offered in your post, such as your discussion of visa application policy in regards to U.S. immigration laws, which Nigerians feel Barack Obama will reduce their selectivity if elected. The Nigerian criticism and objection to the continuation of the Iraq War is yet another valid point in their endorsement of Barack Obama, who initially stated a timeline of 16 months for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and sees the war as a strategic error. Additionally, I found your concluding statements in regards to the motivation of Nigerians to avidly follow the U.S. elections moving and very poignant. The United States is one of the oldest and most well-established democracies, providing a stark contrast to the Nigerian regime, whose failed attempt for a democratic election in 2007 has left the country in its perpetual slump of poverty and corruption. I hope that whomever is elected on November 4th has a positive impact on the Nigerian system of government.

While I respect and understand your perspective and the majority Nigerian supportive response to candidate Barack Obama, there are a few points that I would like you to consider. First of all, you seem to point towards your own government and poorly executed regime as the main source of wealth discrepancy. Do you think that expanding the role of government is the best solution for Nigerian prosperity, or should more control be left in the hands of the people? In regards to the Iraq war, what do you think will happen to the Iraqi citizens who support the United State’s mission in Iraq if we remove U.S. troops? Additionally, what type of relationship do you feel would best suit the United States and South Africa, and how could each nation foster more mutually beneficial ties? These are a few issues that I would appreciate if you considered in a follow-up post.
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