A Seat at the Table: a Twitter-ful list of women crucial to foreign policy

Elmira Bayrasli gave “Levo her (expansive) list of women who are deeply ingrained in critical foreign policy issues, and how to follow their travails and their progress.” Among the women in that list, you will find some (if not most) of my all-time favorite lady tweeters: @texasinafrica, @scarlettlion, @meowtree, @bonniekoenig, @saundra_s, @nancymbirdsall….

That Elmira included in me in her list is such an honor; I’m truly grateful for that “tip of the hat” from her, and really pleased to be associated – if only through this list – with some of today’s leading female thinkers, journalists, politicians, artists, activists and generally awesome women.

You can find the full list here, on the Levo League website, or click the image below

Bananas from Jersey: How the world is losing trillions to tax havens

bananas

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch on November 30, 2011.

Since the economic collapse of 2008 and the ensuing recession, increasingly more attention is being paid to corporate accountability. Recently, the Occupy movement has brought into sharp relief some of the discontent with poor corporate citizenship. If you pay close enough attention, there have been many stories in the media exposing unfair – sometimes illegal – corporate practices and how they are affecting the overall health of the economy. We’ve learned, for example, how G.E. – America’s largest corporation – avoided paying any taxes in the United States in 2010 – thanks to the “clever use” of tax breaks and offshore accounting. While Republican presidential hopefuls will have you believe that reducing corporate tax rates is the best way to boost the economy, American corporate tax rates haven’t been this low (35%) since before the Second World War. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to figure out how to cut a soaring budget deficit and continue financing key health care and welfare programs.

This situation, however, is not unique to the United States or the industrialized world. Indeed, a recent report by Eurodad (European Network on Debt & Development) finds that developing nations lose more than a trillion (yes, trillion) dollars of potential tax revenue every year because of corporate tax evasion.

The UK-based Tax Justice Network also recently published a report to highlight the negative effects of tax dodging by multinational corporations, and launched a new campaign “Tackle Tax Havens (By the way, their website, www.tackletaxhavens.com, offers myriad resources, information and data about tax evasion – I highly recommend checking it out.) Their reportshows that tax evasion costs 145 countries, representing over 98% of world GDP, more than US$3.1 trillion annually.

As noted in the executive summary of the Eurodad report, “the international community has repeatedly stressed the need to mobilise domestic resources in developing countries, as the most sustainable way of financing development and ending aid dependency […] The cross border nature of multinational companies’operations combined with the absence of adequate transparency regulations have very damaging implications for a country’s ability to mobilise domestic resources.” Mobilizing resources through taxation is not just critical for developing countries’ ability to finance development: it is, in fact, one of the most fundamental functions of modern, sovereign states – developing or industrialized. Drawing a parallel with the way in which the United States is weak on corporate tax enforcement allows us to see the depth of the problem of tax evasion.

While we continue to think about how developing nations can finance programs to support economic and social development, it’s clear that the issue of corporate tax evasion must be addressed. In the extractive industry, efforts such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, begin to deal with this issue, but the voluntary nature of the EITI, and the lack of enforcement mechanisms, make it an imperfect solution. Dealing with tax havens is a third rail issue. Similarly, attempting to close tax loopholes for multinational corporations is practically political suicide. The globalized nature of this problem suggests that bold, concerted action will need to take place – nothing less than the viability and sustainability of our economic and financial systems are at stake.

Can Inequality Fuel Revolutions?

Peru factory

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch. Many people shared comments and thoughts via Twitter and Google +, thank you very much for engaging. The title of this post has a question mark because I really think of this as a question – can inequality fuel revolutions? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Continue reading Can Inequality Fuel Revolutions?

Wonk love

A woman in Nigeria's Otu-Jeremi village carries tapioca on a palm tray as a large gas flare burns nearby. Photograph by Akitunde Akinleye/National Geographic

‘Tis that time of the year again: long weekends and celebrations of national holidays, fireworks and hot-dogs. As I suspect many of you will be traveling this weekend (and throughout the summer), I thought I’d recommend one of my all time favorite podcasts: the Center for Global Development’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast. Usually hosted by Lawrence MacDonald, the podcasts usually last about 20 minutes and feature Center for Global Development (CGD) fellows, as well as other prominent guests. The themes discussed are always salient and topical, and the expertise is spot-on.

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Last week, the Wonkcast had an excellent episode on the Gulf of Mexico gusher and Africa’s oil boom (mostly about the latter topic, really), with Todd Moss and Vijaya Ramachandran. The New York Times reports that “as many as 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta over the last five decades, or nearly 11 million gallons a year.” Unlike the outrage sparked by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophy, the response to the relentless flow of oil into the Niger delta has generated little action. There are different factors affecting the situation: criminal activity by rebel groups, which illegally tap pipelines and fail to cap them, is one major issue. But one point which the experts in the Wonkcast insist on is the responsibility of corporations.

Nigeria has a weak regulatory environment, and many of the companies drilling for oil do so out of sight – literally. With offshore platforms left unmonitored by the government or other independent bodies, the safety and security precautions taken by companies are determined internally. This leads to several issues related to poor maintenance of facilities (corroding and unsecured pipelines), environmentally destructive practices (gas flares, which are the result of burning off natural gas recovered during the extraction of crude oil), and a general lack of accountability and responsibility for the social and environmental impact of natural resource extraction activities.

The Nigerian authorities – both federal and local – and natural resource companies share the responsibility for what is occurring in the Niger Delta. If they are not directly responsible, they are at the very least guilty of omission. Todd Moss speaks of the need to drastically improve the regulatory framework that governs natural resource extraction in Nigeria. I would add that companies also need to adopt much stricter standards, and embrace good corporate citizenship. As we are seeing with BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the practice of putting profits and the bottom line ahead of any other concerns has to change.

Efforts to promote the value of corporate social responsibility have been gaining in importance in recent years. The notion of “triple bottom line” (people/planet/profits), for instance, is becoming the dominant approach to full cost accounting, which takes into account the full economic, social and environmental cost of operating a business. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index “comprises the leading companies in terms of sustainability around the world. It captures the top 10% based on long-term economic, environmental and social criteria out of the biggest 2500 companies worldwide.” The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as well at the Global Reporting Initiative, are other examples of new accountability systems that are changing the way in which companies report on their activities. What ties all these initiatives together is the move towards taking into account all of the dimensions – economic, social, environmental – which a business necessarily impacts.

Another initiative, this time led by executives in the natural resource sector, is the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). The ICMM’s mission is to help its member companies make their social and environmental commitments in line with sustainable practices, and to increase the overall sustainability of their operations. Having worked with the ICMM in the past, I can attest to the quality of the organization’s work. As far as I know, there is no similar initiative for the oil and gas industry.

Because of the nature of the natural resource extraction business,  negative externalities caused by these activities are often not on people’s radars. It took a massive disaster in the Gulf of Mexico for the general public in the United States to question the practice of deep-water, offshore drilling. In our day to day lives, we are not exposed to the environmental and social consequences of natural resource extraction – out of sight, out of mind.

For the estimated 30 million people living in the Niger Delta, however, the effects of poorly regulated oil extraction have very tangible consequences: destroyed ecosystems, depletion of fish stocks and wildlife (impacting the livelihoods of local fishermen and farmers), hampered agricultural production, pollution (leading to many health issues), insecurity (due to the presence of armed criminal groups), etc. Amnesty International released a comprehensive report last year, where these issues are explored in depth.

One of the solutions discussed by Todd Moss to decrease poverty in the Niger Delta is the institution of direct cash transfers to the local population. Under this scheme, the Nigerian government would redistribute 10% of its annual dividends directly to individuals in the region. By by-passing state coffers, and thus the possibility of funds being misappropriate or mismanaged, direct cash transfers are seen as a way to beat the “oil curse”, which has plagued natural resource rich countries with poor governance. This method of redistributing revenue is being used in Alaska since 1982, and Moss has been advocating for this approach to be adopted by West African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria.

In the podcast, Moss notes that this direct cash transfer proposal is creating strange bedfellows: on the one hand, progressive liberals believe that this allows citizens to have a stake in the wealth of their country, and, on the other hand, libertarians love the idea of cutting out the government middle man. Moss points out that the dividends paid to citizens should still be taxed by the government, in an effort to keep accountability loops. Nevertheless, I wonder about the indirect effects of such a system.

For example, under this system, the incentives for government accountability in terms of natural resource wealth management are reduced. In other developing nations, the approach has been to strengthen both the regulatory framework and redistribution channels, and to build the capacity of government agencies to manage natural resource wealth. While direct cash transfers may be a good short term solution, in the long term, it does not help resolve the overarching challenge of poor governance.

In my mind, building the institutional capacity of resource-rich countries is the most critical element of turning the “resource curse” into a blessing. Chile and Peru are examples of countries that, not very long ago, were struggling with poverty. Both of these nations have instituted reforms and focused on attracting and managing foreign investors and natural resource companies. The government of Peru has a complex taxation and redistribution system in place, which seeks to ensure that the wealth generated by mining is shared based on principles of equality.

A study by the Fraser Institute supports this view (emphasis mine):

“The authors of the report, after considering new and existing data, come to the conclusion that whether a country benefits from natural resources depends largely on the integrity of its institutions and economic freedom — government bureaucracy, legal structure, property rights, monetary policies and international trade. Simply put, the higher the level of economic freedom a country enjoys, the greater the benefit from resources.”

For Nigeria, direct cash transfers can probably help alleviate poverty to some degree. Nevertheless, I don’t think the egregious violations of human rights, the environmental destruction and insecurity will subside unless: 1. the government of Nigeria improves governance and regulation, and 2. natural resource companies self-impose stricter standards for safety, security and work much harder on mitigating the negative social and environmental impact of their activities.

These aren’t short term projects, but they should accompany any initiative that seeks to diminish the negative impact of natural resource extraction in the region.

Investing in women: a human rights approach

At Women Deliver, a message is extolled throughout the dozens of sessions, plenaries, panels and press conferences: “Invest in women and girls, it pays.” This simple message, however, has several layers of subtext. Many of the conference’s attendees are emphasizing the broader concepts that underpin it – one of the great takeaways of this conference, at least in my mind, is that it will take more than an additional $12 billion to ensure that women and girls around the world are able to fully realize their rights. Among these concepts, is the notion that women’s s rights are, first and foremost, human rights.

I listened to Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative,  speak about the importance of framing maternal health with a human rights approach. She eloquently articulated the need for a holistic human rights approach towards the issues affecting girls and women. Robinson noted that so much of what we talk about when we talk about improving maternal health and reproductive rights is related to broader, human rights issues: access to health care and family planning, nutrition, religious and cultural dimensions, discrimination, domestic violence, early childhood marriages, to name a few.

And indeed, there is a very strong case to be made for envisaging maternal health as a broader human rights issue. Ever since the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women’s rights are being increasingly framed as human rights. This is critical because it can help circumvent the barrage of opposition typically put up by conservative groups. Religious leaders, right-leaning or traditional family-oriented groups have all at some point or another been antagonistic to the notion of women having control of their bodies and fertility.

I attended two panels today where this point was driven home very vividly. First, was the panel entitled “Delivering Solutions at the Margin: Reaching the Hard to Reach”. The conversation, which was moderated by Mary Robinson, featured several activists and advocates for women’s rights in vulnerable environments. One speaker, Martha Sanchez, who works for organizations advocating the rights of indigenous women in Central America and Mexico, spoke powerfully on this issue. She explained that issues related to indigenous women’s rights and maternal health were often circumscribed by structural discrimination and stigma. Dealing with this marginalization requires a holistic approach: you cannot look at maternal health in a silo: it belongs to a much broader picture of persistent inequity and unequal access.

In the same vein, Malika Saada Saar, president of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights,  spoke of the oft-forgotten American women who are not able to avail themselves of their rights. Specifically, Saar discussed the case of pregnant women in U.S. prisons who are shackled when they begin labor, and until after they deliver their baby. Often, these new mothers have to breastfeed their newborns while still shackled, and then have to deal with the trauma of having their children taken away from them and put into foster care. She spoke movingly about how this “drachonian practice” is, in effect, depriving women of their rights and is tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment”, thus establishing the link between women’s rights, human rights and legal protection.

Fulfilling Millennium Development Goal 5 (reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and ensuring universal access to reproductive health) is not just an issue of financing programs that build clinics, train health workers, and provide services. It is an issue of fair, transparent, equal and indiscriminate access. Maternal health and reproductive rights are also fundamentally part of a broader narrative of respecting and promoting human rights. There are several international legal instruments which should, in theory, guarantee women’s rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of those treaties which, in theory, were it fully enforced, would ensure (among other things) that women would have safe and equal access to health care. Regarding maternal health specifically, Article 12 of CEDAW states that”States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”

“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” is the rallying call for those who advocate for a comprehensive approach that tackles the complex, multi-dimensional issue of maternal health and reproductive rights. In her concluding remarks at this afternoon’s panel, Mary Robinson spoke of the need to be proactive in dealing with the barriers that “dehumanize us.” She urged attendees to “go beyond the statistics”, to really look at whether people at the margins are being reached and their needs, addressed.

Poverty, inequality and discrimination are among some of the structural barriers that need to be done away with in order for not just MDG5 to be achieved, but also the full spectrum of women’s rights to be realized.

On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

International Women’s Day 2010

Today is the 100th year of International Women’s Day, and all over the interwebs, we are celebrating advances in women’s rights and decrying the obstacles still faced by women and girls everywhere. In a world where women still get attacked with acid; where girls are stoned to death for being raped; where, in certain places, not being born male is a handicap, I feel that the strides that have been made in the past century are still dwarfed by the challenges ahead.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist per se, but I do believe in the equality of men and women in every realm of life (except maybe in sports, fine). As an educated woman from France, I’ve been given every opportunity to realize my full potential, to take advantage of everything life has to offer. Being a woman, for me, has rarely been an hindrance – on the contrary, I’m fully conscious of the advantages that come with it. Professionally, I think I’ve encountered more young-ism than sexism. I credit my parents for having brought me up with solid values, and for providing an exemplary complementary partnership at home. My mother, a faithful reader of this blog, needs to be acknowledged here: in her ability to balance family life and career, in her relentless and vocal support for equality between men and women, she has always been an inspiration and a model.

Another source of inspiration for me has been the women of Liberia. The New York Times – fittingly – just published an article entitled about Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf “A Nation Full of Strong Women“, as part of their Female Factor series. I recently read Ma Ellen’s autobiography, “This Child Will Be Great“, in which her strength of character, intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination come across vividly. In her book, she acknowledges (somewhat in passing) the role that women played in helping her win the presidential election. I wish she had emphasized the critical role of women in the 2005 election, and in bringing an end to the 14 year conflict more than she did.

I’ve had the chance to meet some really incredible Liberian women, both in Liberia and in Ghana. Contrarily to what some may think, Liberia is a rather matriarchal society, where women make signficant economic, political and social contributions. Of course, as is often the case in poor places, women are still not on par with men: rape and violence against women are very real, and large, issues, and girls remain less educated than their male counterparts.

That being said, I’d like to focus on the commendable, inspiring actions undertaken by Liberian women. In particular, I wish to honor this International Women’s Day by recommending that you take an hour of your time to watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell“,a powerful documentary on the role of women in ending the war in Liberia. (I watched this documentary last year during the Vancouver International Film Festival, in the presence of the film maker and producer, as well as Lovetta Conto, a young lady who survived the war and is now engaged in supporting post-conflict development in her home country.) The women in this film are fearless leaders and peace-makers, the kind of people to draw inspiration and strength from. Seeing their determination in the face of adversity gives me a lot of hope: not only for the continued advancement of women’s rights, but also in the growing capacity of women to affirm themselves as leaders. For this 100th International Women’s Rights Day, my wish is that, 100 years from now, we no longer need to celebrate women, their achievements and their challenges on a specially dedicated day.

Here is the trailer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. PBS allows you to watch the full-length documentary for free; part 1 is here, part 2 is here.