The Levant War: 2011 – ?

The Syrian revolution now has to be seen as part of a wider conflict in the region. There is no use just talking about the revolution and the subsequent outbreak of civil war, and then viewing the Turkish-Kurdish war as a separate event, as well as the international effort against ISIS as something different again. All of them are interlinked and overlap.

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Without A No Fly Zone, The Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Only Get Worse

This past week Europe, its media, and its people have finally awoken to the refugee crisis. I am pleased to see that everyone has had their peaceful lives interrupted, but I am disappointed that it has taken so long for this to be so.

The heartbreaking images of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Kurdish refugee who drowned whilst trying to reach Turkey, have rocked the world and seemingly shattered public apathy towards refugees and migrants. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been forced to U-turn on his disgusting attitude to deny helping those trying to reach the shores of the UK, and it seems that in every city and every community ordinary people are mobilising to do what they can to help those fleeing countries in the Middle East and north Africa.

The grassroots response has been phenomenal. It is a beacon of hope for humanity in what may well be its darkest hour since World War Two. Taking matters into their own hands, people have gathered, organised, and mobilised, often in direct conflict with the policies of their government, in order to help the desperate people in need of our support.

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Be The Change You Want To See In The World

The title of this piece is a quote often wrongly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, and though Gandhi never said such words, the message remains true enough.

I am a firm believer in the idea that if you are not an activist, you are an inactivist. If you do not actively pursue a life that attempts to change the system, then you are ultimately a part of the system itself. Complaining is not enough to redeem yourself, neither is voicing dissatisfaction online, and neither is voting once every five years. It is your actions, not your thoughts or opinions, who define who you are. And actions are conducted every hour of every day.

It is the widely held belief that we are unable to change anything that prevents many of us from trying. This belief provides a shield to those we would hope to usurp and a reassuring comfort to those of us who have thought the thought, but then shied away from acting. By telling ourselves that it would have made no difference anyway, we let ourselves off the hook. The guilt and perhaps even shame is removed and we can continue our day-to-day lives.

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Why Does Nepal Continue To Be Ranked As One Of The World’s Least Developed Countries?

EDIT 18/06/17

What is said below contains incorrect assumptions and is mostly a shallow diagnosis of the problems facing Nepal and its people. Essentially, the argument is that with a ranked system of Most Developed to Least Developed, someone has to lose out, and that remittance is a good tactic to improve Nepal’s GDP.

By all accounts Nepal seems to be a country making little-to-no progress. Thomas Bell recently labelled the phenomenon “Nepal’s failed development” in an article posted on Al Jazeera. He cites a number of reasons as to why this is and questions the logic behind continually, and often naively, pumping money into a system which seems immune to its effects.

In a very similar vein to Dambisa Moyo, who I have spoken about previously here, Bell highlights the failings of international donations, and the system that it seemingly perpetuates.

Nepal as an LDC

Bell states that: “Nepal has been receiving foreign aid for over 60 years; generally running at fairly stable levels, currently worth over $1bn a year, contributing about a quarter of the government budget.” Despite this enormous sum of money however, Nepal’s achievements have “fallen far short of what’s been promised.”

In 1991 USAID predicted that Nepal would graduate from the ranks of the UN’s Least Developed Countries (LDC) by the year 2001. 14 years on and Nepal still finds itself in the list. The new target year for graduation is 2022, and Bell states that “on current form, it’s likely to miss that target” too.

This should concern us, but the fact that Nepal looks set to remain a LDC should be seen in context.

In the year 2000, the UN had 48 nations on its LDC list. In 2005 this list had grown to 50. By 2010, it was down to 49, and by 2014, the list had returned to 48 once again. At its most basic reading, this tells us that not a lot of progress has been made, but should we be looking at this a little more critically?

As is the case with any ranking system, there exists lower ranked countries, teams or organisations due to the fact that there must exist higher ones. It is only by having one, that you can have the other. The LDCs exist, quite obviously, because the Most Developed Countries (MDCs) exist. The two are contrasted and compared against one another, and a ranking system is formulated.

In the English domestic football system there are four main tiers. The 20 highest ranked teams, and the best teams, play in the Premier League. These are then followed by the next best 24 teams who play in the Football League Championship. Next are a further 24 in Football League One, and following that there are another 24 teams in Football League Two.

Now any football fan will tell you that they would love to see their team rise through the tiers and progress year after year, moving from the bottom of Football League Two right up to the lofty heights of the top of the Premier League. Even football fans though are aware that such a rise would come at the expense of other teams around them. In order to win games and gain points, other teams will have to lose and not gain any. In order to get promoted from the ranks of Football League Two, a team from Football League One will have to get relegated. This is similar to how I see the ranking system for the LDCs.

In order for a country to graduate from the ranks of the LDCs it would have to go over a certain threshold. The chances are, if it did manage to get over this threshold, another country would fall under it. One country’s advance would be another country’s retreat. This, however, may not be the case. Perhaps the countries will continue to progress, and each year more and more of them will surpass the threshold that has been put in place. In football terms this would mean that more and more teams would get promoted from Football League Two without any teams from Football League One being relegated.

Eventually though, if this were to happen, Football League One would become bloated. With teams being promoted, and nobody being relegated, the league would grow in size and would soon be at odds with the rest of the ranking system. 20 teams in the Premier League, 24 teams in the Football League Championship, 40 teams in the Football League One, and only eight teams in the Football League Two.

As humans are a species of order, taking a liking to formulations, labels and groups, having only eight countries labelled as LDCs would prove a problem. On paper it would seem quite an achievement, but in reality we would know that there were far more than eight countries considered to be the “least developed.” With all the countries ranked in order of development, these bottom eight countries would be given the title of “least developed”, but what about the country that finds itself one place ahead of these eight? The country that is ninth least developed on the list? Would this country not be welcome in the LDCs list?

Here then is a problem. The ninth least developed country in the world could technically not be considered a LDC as it had passed the necessary threshold. The rankings would become bloated with an unequal distribution of countries and so a solution would have to be found, that solution would be to change the threshold. Increasing it so that more countries find themselves in the list of LDCs.

This is precisely what happens. In order to maintain a healthy LDC list, the threshold for graduating is increased year upon year. Meaning that even if the countries were to progress and develop, it may still not be enough to allow them to graduate.

One of the three criteria that is evaluated when deciding which nations belong on the LDC list is that of income. Specifically that of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. In 2000 “for the low-income criterion, the threshold on which inclusion in the current list is based has been a GDP per capita of $800, and threshold for graduation has been a GDP per capita of $900.” In 2005, the low-income criterion was “based on a three-year average estimate of the gross national income per capita (under $750 for cases of addition to the list, above $900 for cases of graduation).”

In 2010, the low-income “criterion, based on a three-year average estimate of the gross national income (GNI) per capita, with a threshold of $905 for possible cases of addition to the list, and a threshold of $1,086 for graduation from LDC status.” And now in 2015, “the threshold for inclusion is based on a three-year average of the level of GNI per capita, which the World Bank uses for identifying low-income countries. The threshold for inclusion in the LDC category will be $1,035 in the 2015 review. The threshold for graduation is set at 20 per cent above the inclusion threshold. It will be $1,242 in the 2015 review.”

Here we see the difficulty in graduating from the LDC list. Even if a nation were to raise its GDP per capita from $800 a person in 2000, to $1,200 now – an increase of 50% in 15 years – it would still find itself on the LDC list. To put that in to perspective, the UK’s GDP per capita in 2000 was $26,296.45, and at the end of 2013 it stood at $41,787.47. This represented an increase of 59% in 15 years.

This would mean that in order to graduate from the list of LDCs, by the UN’s own definitions, one of the least developed countries in the world would have to secure an increase in GDP per capita at roughly the same rate as that of the UK, one of the most developed countries in the world. A seemingly impossible task.

Furthermore, due to the fact that LDCs only exist because of MDCs, simply matching the growth and progress of the GDP per capita of MDCs is not enough as this will only maintain the status quo. LDCs need to close the gap on the MDCs and this would mean that their progress in terms of GDP per capita would have to be better than that of the MDCs. A seemingly impossible task becoming that much more difficult.

Corruption and the failure of international aid

From the reading that I have done on the topic of international aid, and from the limited experience that I have of it also, it’s clear that the biggest obstacle to a truly successful aid system is tackling the corruption that is within it.

In echoes of what Moyo speaks of in her book Dead Aid, Bell also highlights the rampant corruption within the system, and that despite this corruption “the donors continue to pour money in.” Bell notes that the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have all recently announced major increases in aid to Nepal. This is in spite of the fact that Nepal has “plummeted down the Transparency International corruption table”, finding itself ranked joint 126th out of 175, below China, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam.

In no other arena of human activity would rampant corruption and meagre successes bring about an increase in funding, yet in international aid, this is exactly what happens. Corruption, poor results, and a lack of accountability are rewarded by ever greater sums of money being transferred to the country year after year. It is this problem which Moyo attempts to rectify with her suggestions in Dead Aid, though I believe that her suggestions are in fact just as dangerous.

An key tactic in the battle against poverty, which is often overlooked, is the issue of remittance. Moyo comments on it briefly but does not take her argument to its logical conclusion, instead deciding to highlight its benefits, before moving on to something more complimentary to her own poverty alleviation strategy.

In Bell’s article we also hear of the positive effect that remittance has in Nepal. Bell states:

“The main reason for recent progress in poverty alleviation is clearly remittances from migrant labourers, which have risen rapidly to be worth around 25 per cent of GDP. Nepali workers go abroad because the domestic economy is ruined, and the money they send home is spent on private health and education, because the donor-supported public sector is useless.”

It is this remittance effect that I believe is the greatest tactic to poverty alleviation. It is something I spoke highly of in a previous article, where I suggested that aid should take a more remittance-like approach in its methods of work. Charities like Give Directly are showing just how beneficial peer-to-peer direct giving can be. The opportunity for corruption is removed, the most needy receive money directly allowing them to decide what would be the best investment, and the overheads are kept to a minimum as very little staff or organisational costs are needed to be covered.

Until I see evidence to suggest otherwise, I believe that remittance-style direct giving is the greatest tactic that can be used in the fight against poverty. A poverty that will never be defeated entirely, because as I made clear earlier, there will always be LDCs and MDCs, but a poverty that is at least a lot fairer than what we have now.

Those at the front of the pack, the ones leading the charge, are the nations who are most developed, and largely free from poverty. Instead of continuing to run off into the distance, perhaps we should slow down and help some of our fellow runners, in particular the stragglers at the back. They do not need targets to be set and milestones to be reached, they need a helping hand. And if we weren’t so caught up in the race to be the best, perhaps we could supply that to them.



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This article was originally published on CulturedVultures on 08/04/15

Hezbollah, Assad and Syria’s Uncertain Future

The recent decision from The White House to remove Hezbollah from the terror list, coupled with statements from John Kerry regarding possible future negotiations with Bashar al-Assad, should worry and enrage us all.

In the world of geopolitics everything is connected, and nothing occurs in a vacuum. Israel’s recent presidential election, and US negotiations with Iran over nuclear energy, show that actions taken in the Middle East can have far-reaching impacts. In our globalised world even a phone call taken privately in one country can be heard on the other side of the globe.

With this complex web of connected activity ever shifting and changing, and with the US intent on being at the centre of everything, it is their actions which we should take most notice of. Though recent developments with Cuba are cause for optimism, their actions on the topics of Venezuela, and in the case of this article, Hezbollah and Syria are cause for concern.

At face value it seems these issues are not connected and they are separate policies with no relation to one another, but for those of us that have a better understanding of the events in Syria, the dots begin to connect themselves.

On the 15th of March, as the Syrian conflict entered its fifth year, John Kerry gave an interview expressing the thoughts of the US and the Obama administration. Kerry spoke frankly, declaring that the US hopes to “re-ignite a diplomatic outcome”. He continued by saying that “everybody agrees there is no military solution; there’s only a political solution.”

When asked whether the US would be willing to negotiate with Assad, Kerry responded by saying: “well, we have to negotiate in the end.”

Assad, for those that have been hiding under a rock for the last five years, is the man responsible for the ongoing war in Syria. A war that has caused the deaths of roughly 250,000 people, has seen almost four million refugees flee the country whilst seven million more are displaced internally, and has been the reason why 1.5 million civilians have been seriously wounded.

It is a war whereby Assad and his regime have been guilty of indiscriminate targeting of civilians through their use of barrel bombs, torture, and the multiple uses of chemical weapons. All of which are human rights violations and constitute war crimes. The most recent example of Assad’s fondness for brutality came just a few days ago when chlorine gas was used in the town of Sarmin killing six people and injuring many more.

Regardless of these facts it seems that the US is softening in its approach to Assad, with Kerry’s recent declarations proving to be more in line with diplomacy and appeasement, than the non-negotiable opposition that tyrants deserve and indeed require.

Just days after Kerry’s statements on the possibility of future negotiations with the Assad regime in Syria, a report was published by the Senate Armed Services Committeewhich failed to include either Hezbollah or Iran under its “terrorism” section, something the report had done in previous years.

Iran is one of Assad’s major supporters, and Hezbollah soldiers are frequently active in fighting inside Syria itself. As recently as February The Guardian reported that “Hezbollah, backed by fighters from Iran and the Assad regime, took control of the hills of al-Sarja and al-Arous in the south-western countryside of Damascus.”

Hezbollah are a political and militant movement who are based in Lebanon, though as their excursions into Syria show, they are not opposed to getting involved in conflicts in other nations. Ever since its formation in 1982, the organisation has had close ties to both Syria and Iran, and represent a long-time enemy of Israel who they fight on a regular basis. As well as participating in conflicts across the Middle East they are also responsible for a number of terrorist attacks against Western and Israeli targets.

With Iran and Hezbollah being removed from the terror list, and with Obama administration personnel expressing the view that an end to the fighting in Syria can only be achieved through negotiations with Assad, those opposed to the regime may well feel betrayed.

They have every right to be. As if the world’s silence and inaction were not enough, now it seems their demands for a free Syria, without Assad, are being ignored as well.


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This article was originally published here, at Cultured Vultures on 25/3/15