Focal Points Blog

The Fetishism of Economic Growth

“Nobody has learned anything from the present crisis, which is much deeper than what economists say,” says Polish sociologist Ryszard Zoltaniecki. (Photo: John Feffer)

“Nobody has learned anything from the present crisis, which is much deeper than what economists say,” says Polish sociologist Ryszard Zoltaniecki. (Photo: John Feffer)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

Capitalism and Communism shared one important principle in common: an almost religious devotion to economic growth. If a Five Year Plan didn’t produce the expected “great leap forward,” Communist officials fudged the figures. If a capitalist economy dipped into recession, economists tried to put the best face on the resulting “creative destruction,” arguing that it would prepare the ground for even greater growth in the future. Both capitalists and Communists treated natural resources as mere inputs to create larger and larger outputs.

Communism has largely collapsed and the environmental movement has challenged the religion of growth at all costs, but the global economy continues to revolve around measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The international financial institutions are all committed to growth. Political leaders, if they can’t produce a rising arrow on the graphs, worry that voters will take their revenge at the polls. Consumers expect bigger and better (or smaller and faster) things to buy every season.
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Sounding the Alarm About the Islamic State Does Not Have to Be a Call to Arms

Islamic state de facto capital Raqqa. (Photo: Beshr / Flickr Commons)

Islamic state de facto capital Raqqa. (Photo: Beshr / Flickr Commons)

On Dec. 18, the Guardian published a report by a team of reporters, including Focal Points contributor Ali Younes, titled The race to save Peter Kassig, the American aid worker who the Islamic State captured and ultimately beheaded. The article is full of juicy details such as this about Islamist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi:

On 18 October, Cohen and Abdel-Rahman flew from Kuwait to Jordan, and checked into the Four Seasons hotel in Amman. Two days later, they finally met Maqdisi, who arrived at the Four Seasons in his beat up ‘97 Hyundai. They set off for Maqdisi’s home, in a relatively poor neighbourhood 10 miles north of Amman. On the way, Maqdisi’s car broke down. Cursing and stuck in the middle of a traffic jam, Cohen said Maqdisi opened up the hood and started beating the engine with a wrench. Five minutes later they were off again.

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A Country Skating on Thin Ice, Tunisia Chooses a New President

The Hotel Medina in Tunis. (Photo: Rob Prince)

The Hotel Medina in Tunis. (Photo: Rob Prince)

Cross-posted from View from the Left Bank.

Tunisian Elections: An IMF Austerity Victory?

Beja Caid Essebsi was elected president of Tunisia in the country’s first free presidential elections since its 1956 independence. He won a clear majority, some 55% of the vote to Moncef Marzouki’s 45% in a run-off election with 60% of eligible voters going to the polls. Essebsi’s demonstrated an ability to play down his connection to the Ben Ali regime – in which he served and to amplify his connection to the country’s generally acknowledged founder and first president – Habib Bourguiba. Immediately after the results were finalized, both Washington and Paris expressed their satisfaction with the results.

The Obama Administration is hoping that now that the elections are over the political parties of the two candidates will join forces, creating a conservative political coalition that can push an IMF austerity program (in exchange for a loan) through the new parliament, the main foci of which are to pry open the country’s growing energy sector to foreign companies and to lift the subsidies on fuel and electricity. Essebsi might have won the popular vote, but one has to wonder if the real winner is not the IMF austerity program (which by the way both candidates supported – and didn’t talk much about during the campaign). Will the political alliance Washington and Paris are nudging the two conservative parties to forge come together? Will it be enough to ram through the IMF austerity program through the Tunisian legislature? Or will the popular movement be able to resist what amounts to as yet another all out offensive against their country by international capital?
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South Sudan: Action Needed Now to Prevent Another Year of Devastation

Fighting in Makalal. (Photo: UN)

Fighting in Makalal, South Sudan. (Photo: UN)

Cross-posted from United to End Genocide.

This time last year, in the middle of the holiday season, a horribly destructive war was breaking out in South Sudan. One year later, the level of destruction is clear, but the prospects for peace remain grim.

As the international community looks to 2015, here is a glimpse of where things stand and why action must be taken now to prevent another year of devastation.

The initial violence in South Sudan was marked by atrocities on both the government and rebel sides including massacres of people hiding in hospitals, churches, and mosques. The world responded with condemnation. The African Union launched a Commission of Inquiry into atrocities committed. The UN Security Council unified in its call for peace, supported a regionally-led peace process, and increased the number of peacekeepers in the country.

The refugee camp in Bentiu, South Sudan. (Photo: UN)

The refugee camp in Bentiu, South Sudan. (Photo: UN)

But efforts at peace are stuck and conditions remain dire. The protection of civilians, one of the main mandates of the UN peacekeepers, remains a monumental challenge. An outpouring of aid helped to avert a famine in 2014, but the level of displacement and the onset of the dry season, historically a time for renewed fighting, do not bode well for prospects of peace and food security.

Children in the Bentiu refugee camp, South Sudan. (Photo: UN)

Children in the Bentiu refugee camp, South Sudan. (Photo: UN)

What’s Next for 2015?

Throughout 2014, efforts at peace have been halting. For every agreement made there has been a deadline passed and for every cessation of hostilities there has been a new bout of fighting. To stop this continued slide of war and man-made humanitarian suffering, international efforts at restoring peace must be increased with real consequences for missed negotiating deadlines in the form of diplomatic pressure, targeted sanctions, and an arms embargo.

The devastation over the past year has been abominable, but without increased efforts at peace and accountability, it could get worse. It has been one year too long already.

Nuclear Weapons Conference Turns Nuclear Dialogue on Its Head

 Submarine-launched ballistic missiles. (Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons)


Submarine-launched ballistic missiles. (Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons)

As I previously posted, the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in Vienna on Dec. 8 and 9, included representatives from 155 countries, as well as the United Nations and the Red Cross. In a report on the conference at Reaching Critical Will, director Ray Acheson wrote:

The “inescapable conclusions” noted by the Austrian government in its Pledge at the end of the conference included the conviction that nuclear weapons raise profound moral and ethical questions that go beyond debates about their legality and that efforts are needed now to stigmatise, prohibit, and eliminate these weapons of terror. These conclusions provide the basis for the Austrian Pledge to “fill the legal gap” for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons.

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Will the Taliban Attack on a Peshawar School Generate More Reform Than the Newtown School Shooting?

Peshawar, site of a savage attack by the Taliban on a school on Dec. 16. (Photo: Muzaffar Bukhari / Flickr Commons)

Peshawar, site of a savage attack by the Taliban on a school on Dec. 16. (Photo: Muzaffar Bukhari / Flickr Commons)

On Dec. 16, a Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan left 132 children, as well as 13 adults, dead. In the New York Times, Declan Walsh reports that “the Red Mosque seemed a nearly untouchable bastion of Islamist extremism in Pakistan.” To refresh your memory, in 2007, the two Islamic militants running Lal Masjid, known as the Red Mosque, in Islamablad ― the brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi ― called for the overthrow of the Pakistani government.
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Hungary Is the Second Leading Country in the EU for “Irregular Border Crossings”

James Peter, from Sierra Leone, began a computer training course for immigrants in Hungary. (Photo: John Feffer)

James Peter, from Sierra Leone, began a computer training course for immigrants in Hungary. (Photo: John Feffer)

People have been leaving East-Central Europe in droves to get better jobs and opportunities further to the west. These diaspora populations are now very visible in the UK, France, and Germany. Considerably less attention, however, has been paid to all the people that have come to East-Central Europe in search of better lives. The region has long been a transit area for those seeking eventual safe harbor in Western Europe.

Hungary has been the second leading country, according to the European border agency FRONTEX, for detaining people attempting “irregular border crossings,” to use the EU lingo.  Those numbers went up dramatically in 2013, from under 10,000 to over 25,000. The top migrants are Kosovars, followed by Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Algerians. Today, about200,000 foreign citizens live in Hungary.

Kamara Peter is one of these foreign citizens. He is originally from Sierra Leone. He had no intention of coming to Hungary. He only wanted to leave his war-torn country. But the ship that ferried him to Europe simply dropped him off somewhere on the coast – he doesn’t know where. He and a few others walked in the direction of what they thought was Italy.
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Poverty Is the Petri Dish That Grows Ebola

As African healthcare systems collapsed, their health infra-structure decimated by the cuts combined with poor nutritional diet to erode resistance to disease among affected populations. (Photo: EC/ECHO / Jean-Louis Mosser/ Flickr Commons)

As African healthcare systems collapsed, their health infra-structure decimated by the cuts combined with poor nutritional diet to erode resistance to disease among affected populations. (Photo: EC/ECHO / Jean-Louis Mosser/ Flickr Commons)

Cross-posted from View from the Left Bank.

1. It ain’t over by a long shot. Far from it.

Now that the election season in the United States is over, and conservative Republicans and their right-wing talk show hosts on FOX news and the like can no longer stoke up fear on the issue, the West Africa ebola epidemic, which is getting worse, has essentially all but disappeared from the news here in the United States.

It ain’t over by a long shot. Far from it. The most recent news remains troubling. As an NPR news story noted, “New cases continue to rise exponentially.”

According to the latest reports, the ebola virus death toll in West Africa is now approaching 6,600 with an estimated 18,000 people reported cases. After claiming that the virus had been brought under control at least in Liberia and Guinea, now it appears to be gaining strength again in Sierra Leone where the government is reporting more than 100 new cases a day. The latest known outbreak has taken place in the rural areas of Kono, the country’s most eastern province just on the border with Guinea. In the past few days (December 13, 2014) “at least 87 people had died and been hastily buried, often without the precautions needed to stop the corpses from infecting the living”.
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A Lesson from Hong Kong in Pragmatism vs. Liberalism

The goals of the Umbrella Movement did not resonate with much of Hong Kong’s public. (Photo: Pasu Au Yeung / Flickr Commons)

The goals of the Umbrella Movement did not resonate with much of Hong Kong’s public. (Photo: Pasu Au Yeung / Flickr Commons)

While thousands of young elites risked their career future to launch an Occupy Central campaign for democracy (focus on free nomination for government’s chief executive candidateship), more than half of the Hong Kong citizenry disagreed with either their ideals or strategies, and asked them to go home. Such a cleavage has provided an insight for understanding the dynamics of international tensions in the 21st century.

After two university polls showed that 55% and 83% of the respondents said respectively the protests should cease, and a group “collected 1.8 million signatures from citizens (total population 7 million) who want the protest to end” [Note 1], many Western analysts and journalists observed that “the protests have cracked the city in two” and accurately described the polarization as a “generational divide” [Note 2]. 
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A Tale of Two Girls Victimized by the West: Malala and Nabeela

Malala Yousafzai said she was ''heartbroken'' by the Taliban attack at Peshawar that killed 132 children. (Photo: Mark Garten / UN / Flickr Commons)

Malala Yousafzai said she was ”heartbroken” by the Taliban attack at Peshawar that killed 132 children. (Photo: Mark Garten / UN / Flickr Commons)

So Malala Yousafzai recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, and everyone all around the world is singing her praises. Rightfully so.

In fact, Malala’s case is probably the only one wherein all media verticals seem to be in absolute agreement, be it Al Jazeera, or Press TV or even Fox News. That girl deserves praise for her efforts.

However, whilst Ms. Yousafzai was receiving her Nobel Prize, my attention was drawn towards the case of another young girl from Pakistan: Nabeela Rahman. Much like Malala, Nabeela too recently travelled to the Western part of the world, albeit the latter went to USA with an altogether different purpose. 
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