Watching (and worrying) about Egypt

Today’s events in Egypt have left me emotionally exhausted.  “Why?” my brother asks.  Good question.  Why did I rush from elation, to anger, to anxiety over events in a country that I don’t really have any personal connection to, nor will have a direct effect on me?  (So I hope).  Here’s why:

1)   It was a surprise: Several times I watched a former US Ambassadors to Egypt (Nick Veliotes) and another State Department official say they were “surprised” by today’s events.  That’s disappointing at best.  More importantly, it is completely unacceptable.  There’s no such thing as a surprise – and most certainly not at the magnitude that we’re seeing in Egypt today. There were several thousand Egyptians on the street today.  Wasn’t anyone at the embassy or the State Department talking to them?

2)   We’re deeply concerned: White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs whimpered that the Obama administration is “deeply concerned” about “the images and the events we see in Egypt today.”  Lucky, though, they’re “monitoring a very fluid situation.”  I’m a spokesperson and appreciate the utter anxiety and stress of standing in front of a gaggle of reporters.  So trust me when I say: don’t do it if you don’t have clear instructions.  It was evident that the White House didn’t know what to do. They choked.  That’s not only embarrassing, it’s not fair.  The Egyptians deserve better than that – especially since its Washington that has turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s authoritarianism for decades.

3)   I feel your pain:  That the Egyptian president “is concerned for the poor,” and that he’ll “always be on the side of the poor.”  Spare me.  The poor aren’t stupid – they’re poor.  As someone who works on development issues it’s infuriating to hear such patronizing palaver – not because it’s thoughtless but because it has no regard or respect for people who have nothing else.

4)   Power to the people: Seeing people stand up for themselves is empowering.  It appeals to our idealism that we can make a better world.  Let us hope that’s how it turns out for the long oppressed Egyptians.  And how it turns out for them gives me much to worry about.  Mubarak’s only credible challenger isn’t former IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, a fervently Islamist party.

Say what? According to Egyptian election laws, ElBaradei can’t stand as a candidate for anything.  He doesn’t head a political party represented in Egypt’s parliament.  Unless he masters political jujitsu, ElBaradei can only appeal to our Western romanticism, which will likely wane when things get really hard in Egypt.  And, I suspect, things will get really hard.  Thinking about alone gets my blood pressure going, because when things get really hard, we, not just Washington or faceless bureaucrats but all of us, look away.

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Obama to the world: Bring it

Tonight President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address.  We’re all pretty sure that the focus of it will be unity, then jobs, jobs, jobs.  (My guess on how many times he says it? 43).  On Saturday, during his weekly radio address, President Obama gave us a preview of what it’s really about: America’s place in the world.  And he’s prepared to “compete” to regain the top spot.  That’s great news if it’s true.  Somehow, however, I doubt it.

We’re living in a new and challenging time, in which technology has made competition easier and fiercer than ever before.  Countries around the world are upping their game and giving their workers and companies every advantage possible…. I know we can win that competition.  I know we can out-compete any other nation on Earth.”

Paul Krugman had an excellent take down of the President’s words yesterday.

David Brooks hops on the high road to say that “economic competition between countries is less like the competition between armies or sport teams… It’s more like the competition between elite universities, who vie for prestige in a networked search for knowledge.”  He’s right.

That America has been suffering as the developing world is starting to make economic strides isn’t zero-sum, nor is it the cause of our Yankee malaise.  We should rejoice that Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey have joined Brazil, Russia, India and China as the new economic engines.  The more innovators there are, the better all our collective lives will be.

Over Facebook, I caught this interesting challenge to all this:  You really want to make America great again Barack?  Then bring it.  Bring global companies to the United States to compete in our markets.  Those companies not only will create the jobs that America so desperately needs, it will also move this country’s tremendously talented and diverse population to out-innovate and out-perform the rest, which I know they can.  Say what? That’s not what you had in mind?  That would be a threat to our country?  Then you’re not really talking about competition. You’re making empty gestures.

Competition is useless without incentive.  America owes much to both.  Our citizens needn’t be coddled with protectionism or consoled with trash talk.  They need challenge and inspiration.

So I say let’s bring in the competitors, starting with mobile phone operators, particularly those based in Africa.  Perhaps that will incentivize American operators to improve their service.  Can you hear me now AT&T?

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Wonderment competition: What is development theory?

Leave it to me to pick out the smallest detail in an article.  That’s what I’ve done in reading Robert Kaplan’s op-ed “One Small Revolution” in today’s New York Times.  He writes about Tunsia’s revolution and what it means for other democratic movements in the Middle East.  In doing so he notes that deposed Tunisian leader Ben Ali “presided over a growing economy and middle class, with progress penetrating to the areas beyond the fossa regia.”  Here’s the next sentence that caught my eye:

What happened was classic development theory: rising expectations along with uneven economic growth that led to political upheaval.”

Is that what classical development theory is?

Former Costa Rican president and Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias has a different approach to this topic the latest Foreign Affairs (“Culture Matters: The real obstacles to Latin American development”).  Rather than focusing on development theory, Arias is concerned with the obstacles to development (as they relate to Latin America).  He notes that there are four four obstacles that “need to be overcome for development to succeed” in Latin America.  They are: resistance to change, absence of confidence, fragile democratic norms, and a soft spot for militarism.  I’m not entirely convinced.  But it does make me curious to know (1) what other development theories are out there and (2) what are the obstacles to development?

Prize for the most compelling response(s)? Lunch at the Oyster Bar.

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Ahem, what was that about human rights Mr. Hu?

Seems I’m not the only one who choked when Chinese President Hu Jintao said that he “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights,” and that “a lot still needs to be done in China,” in terms of it.  It’s one of the lead stories in today’s New York Times and the subject of China expert James Fallow’s piece on The Atlantic‘s website.  What does it mean?  I’ll leave that to the China experts.  But it did make me think whether China’s willingness to utter the very words “human rights” has anything to do with its increased role in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Among us development junkies China in Africa is a big deal.  After all, the East Asian giant is building roads, bridges and train lines — without self-righteous interventions about “democracy,” “civil society,” and “human rights.”  That, some believe, is helping the countries of the dark continent develop far better than any Western aid program has.  It’s the model the development world should consider if it is serious about “ending poverty.”  Others take another view, such as Freedom House‘s Christopher Walker and Sarah Cook who see only a “dark side to China Aid.”

This provocative piece by Howard French in The Atlantic (May 2010) tells us that Bejing’s foreign policy doctrine of non-interference is not exactly all that in Africa.  By importing their own laborers from the mainland, the Chinese aren’t transferring skills to Africa, nor are they creating jobs on the continent.  That has been bad news for Africans.  My friends in Africa and at the State Department tell me, however, that to demonstrate their displeasure, many Africans are making it difficult for China to operate on the continent.  Bills go unpaid, promises get broken, projects get stalled.  One Chinese official, I’m told, asked a U.S. diplomat, “How do you suggest we get Mugabe to pay us?”

Could the “human rights” that fell from President Hu’s lips really be an acknowledgement about China’s bold new role in the developing world (and the difficulties it bears) rather than a reflection that the country’s leaders are maturing and becoming sensitive to its peoples needs?  Then again, what’s the difference?

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The irresponsible nation?

The yellow ribbons are what I remember most from that year.  From the television images that flashed into our living room night after night, they seemed to be tied around trees all over Washington DC.  “Why don’t they have them in Brooklyn?” I recall asking my mother in her native Turkish  “Well, the hostages are all from Washington,” she replied.  “Not from around here.”

While it was true that the American hostages that were taken by Iranian radicals in 1979 were diplomats, I couldn’t understand why there were no yellow ribbons in our neighborhood.  Based on the jeers from my third grade classmates, I was sure that they too would want to exhibit their pain.  They surely expressed it to me.

“You murderer!” one classmate shouted.

“But I’m not Iranian,” I whimpered, not even bothering to address the fact that no American had been killed.

“Liar,” another yelled.

A liar because as an American born to Turkish Muslim parents I must have had some connection to the event.  In 1979 in Brooklyn, New York that was the same as being an Iranian radical in Tehran.  I was someone to blame.  And given the great pain the country was going through, someone to blame was important.  Blame still seems to be important as we soldier through America’s most recent nightmare in Tucson.

The Tucson shootings that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and took the lives of six unleashed a torrent of blame on the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.  That is unfortunate, misplaced and worrisome.

Among the key principles the United States was founded on was due process and responsibility.  Though the court of public opinion has maligned the former, its justice system has persevered to uphold just that.  It is not perfect.  But it is powerful.

Responsibility, on the other hand, has somehow atrophied.  In its place vituperative harangues and accusations.  With the Arizona shootings it is the left accusing the right.  This past summer we saw the right pillaging Islam as a collection of terrorists in order to prevent the construction of an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan.  That is why I so very appreciated President Obama’s words last week from Arizona:

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.

And make sure that we’re talking in a way that helps us restore accountability, which is slowly evaporating from our lives.  With it, it is taking trust and community.  Though we live in a hyper connected world through Oprah, Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour news channels, it seems as though we’re not listening to one another.  We salve (not a typo!) our problems through medicines, alcohol, diets and law suits in order to avoid solving them.  Solving problems requires a look both inward at ourselves and outward to others, to stand in their rhetorical shoes.  Given that in today’s world it is difficult just to stand in our own, we’re not able to see ourselves much less the other side.  It is an explanation, but certainly not an excuse.

Today it seems we choose to clutch on to fear.  That is what my classmates did in 1979 when they ostracized me for events on the other side of the world, to which their only connection was the passport we all have in common.

Given that at the time we were all in the third-grade, I can understand and even forgive.  Not sure, however, what to make of the current atmosphere of accusations.  Is it a question of graduating beyond the primary schoolyard or regressing into an irresponsible nation?  Not sure which is worse.

This post is a Hybrid Ambassadors blog-ring project.

You met our multinational Dialogue 2010 cultural innovators last spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM and followed their reactions to a polarizing book promotion. In this round they offer their thoughts on the recent shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona.  You can read the other posts below:

Tara Lutman Agacayak’s Enough

Catherine Bayar’s We the People

Catherine Yigit United in Fear

Sezin Koehler’s The Culture of Violence

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When is aid enough?

Today’s New York Times has me thinking, when is aid enough?  It was prompted by two pieces, one an op-ed by Adam Hochschild on Patrice Lumumba‘s assassination 50 years ago.  The other, a report (buried under the fold on page four) about Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s, Haiti’s former authoritarian president, surprising return to Haiti.  That today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not lost either.

A story of action: Lumumba

“It is now up to you gentlemen,” Hochschild writes about Lumumba addressing Congolese delegates, “to show that you are worthy of our confidence.”  Lumumba was the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first democratically elected leader.  And what he said was not what Western colonists wanted to hear.

Hochschild writes: “The Belgians, and their European and American fellow investors, expected to continue collecting profits from Congo’s factories, plantations and lucrative mines, which produced diamonds, gold, uranium, copper and more.  But they had not planned on Lumumba.”  He spoke “forcefully” about “the violence and humiliations of colonialism,” and the need not just for self-rule but economic independence, so that his people can finally thrive.  He was assassinated by a CIA-backed operation on January 17, 1961 and replaced by Mobutu Sese Seko.

A story of inaction: Duvalier

It is said that most killers return to the scene of the crime.  That’s the only thing I can find to explain  Haiti’s former authoritarian president, sudden arrival in Port-au-Prince last night.  Duvalier’s ancien regime rule is renowned for pillaging Haiti’s resources, particularly tobacco farms, and consequently driving the country’s economy into a pit from which it has not been able to climb out of for several decades.

That Duvalier is back just a year after Haiti’s devastating earthquake and at time of great political uncertainty is extremely disconcerting. That the international community and the NGO world have not taken to the streets is, while not surprising, infuriating.

A happy ending?

Lumumba’s assassination 50 years ago shows that when motivated, the United States can affect the fate of far away and less powerful lands.  Congo’s veritable treasure trove of commodities was such a motivator (albeit a negative one) .  What will motivate Washington to protest Baby Doc’s arrival in Haiti?  That the U.S. government has committed nearly 42 million in assistance is unlikely to be enough. And that is tragic.  It is tragic not only for the Haitians, who by now know tragedy all too well, but for aid itself.

Aid is riddled with problems, which we are all too quick and excited to point out.  We want it to be more “effective,” and more “accountable.” Some even want it out of government hands.  Today, on this day in honor of Dr. King, I’d like to remember that aid is also filled with hope and the dreams of many for a better life.  That should be enough for us to find serious and sustainable solutions for the world’s poor — and find enough outrage to protest political assassinations (had we the opportunity in Congo in 1961) or the political return of dictators, which we can do today.

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Development choices: The poor or profits?

(updated) Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize winning founder of the Grameen Bank, writes in today’s New York Times that microcredit has “give(n) rise to its own breed of loan sharks.”  He’s troubled, in particular, with the “commercialization” of the industry, formed, as he says to “provide small loans that people, especially poor women, could use to bring themselves out of poverty.”  “Commercialization,” Yunus says, “has been a terrible wrong turn for microfinance.”  It has been a turn into profits.

Yunus’s concern about profits, while legitimate, are misplaced.  To begin, the very premise upon which microlending is predicated assumes a connection to profits.  They are, after all, loans issued to encourage entrepreneurship and pull the poor into the marketplace.  That is important.  While jobs are one of the many things the developing world is desperate for, so too is the integration into the global and globalized economy.  That inevitably means profits.

And that has automatically meant a disadvantage to the poor.  It should not.  While profits have most certainly exploited many poor people and exacerbated destitution, it is not inherently a zero sum game.  Yunus recognized this when he lent Sufiya Begum several dollars to scale up her bamboo stool business.

It is also what Vikram Akula recognized as well and motivated him to take SKS Microfinance public last year.  Akula, a student of Muhammad Yunus, noted at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative that he did so in order to reach as many poor.  Non-profit, with its limited resources, isn’t able to do this.  Yunus does not mention this in his piece, choosing to focus on interest rates for-profit microlenders must charge.  That his own Grameen Bank, a non-profit entity, charges exorbitant fees is ignored.

While “there are,” as Yunus points out, “always people eager to take advantage of the vulnerable,” there is no reason to believe that all profit does that.  The poor deserve an opportunity to compete in the global economy.  Yunus’s suggestions to have a “microcredit regulatory authority,” and increased oversight are worth consideration.  What is not, however, is his worry that profits are bad for the poor.  It isn’t a choice.

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“Exploding misconceptions”

Yesterday’s shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others prompted a furious Twitter debate about whether or not the incident was “terrorism.”  MSNBC’s @keitholbermann believed so, as did several others, including @sumner, who asked “If this isn’t terrorist activity, what is?”

Others chose to call not the incident but the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, a “fringe character,” or suffering from “mental illness.”

“Can we stop calling this ‘terrorism’ or a ‘shooting,’” pleaded @hildygottlieb, “The routine name for such an incident is ‘assassination attempt.’”  My question is, can we just stop and think?

Labels, because they help us categorize, are comforting.  But they don’t help us understand motives or causes.  (Sorry, hate is a symptom, not an explanation of motive.)  @m_clem had the wisest thoughts on matter, noting that “terrorism comes from psychosis, not from any particular religion or country.”  Couldn’t agree more.  So how to we remedy that?


On December 18 The Economist ran a piece called “Exploding misconceptions” that argues that terrorism is not the result of poverty but politics.  “According to a 2008 survey of such studies by Alan Krueger of Princeton University, they have found little evidence that the typical terrorist is unusually poor or badly schooled.”  The number is higher among those from the middle class and a high school education or more.  “Nearly 60% of suicide bombers had more than a high-school education, compared with less than 15% of the general population.”

What explains this?  The Economist says “it may be that a certain level of education makes it more likely that people will become politicized.”  “Politics, not economics,” the magazine concludes, “is likely to be a more fruitful weapon in the fight against terror.”  But isn’t a key part of politics the manifestation of our social and economic standing?

Extremists are those on the margins of society, seething about perceived wrongs. Some of those wrongs may be political.  Some are also likely to be economic.  Poverty may not equal terrorism where everyone is poor.  Haiti shows that to be true.  Yet, where there is a wide (and widening) gap between the rich and poor, and, more importantly, a decline in the middle class, it is more than likely you will see a rise in extremism and violence.  And it is more likely that you will see it – not just in Mexico or Pakistan – but in places such Tucson, Arizona where the unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 27 years and the state’s Senator can’t keep track of how many homes he owns.

Call yesterday’s shooting whatever you want.  If we want it to end, it’s important to recognize that its causes go beyond politics – and lie deep in the complexities of society.

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Twitter do’s, apply to life too…

“Quick turn on your TV,” my mother breathlessly shouted into the phone. “Matthew is on CNN.” She was referring to The Economist‘s Matthew Bishop, who made headlines after being stuck on British Air flight 183 from London to New York. The flight that landed at around 22:20 on Monday night, a day after the Big Apple’s severe snowstorm, sat on the tarmac without making it to the gate for more than seven hours. But if Matthew was frustrated we didn’t know it.  Communicating with via Twitter, Matthew informed us of the situation in what Business Insider‘s Henry Blodget described as “remarkably restrained tweets.”  In reviewing the thread I agree.  Yesterday, I noted that it is a perfect example of Twitter “do’s” and best practices — not just on Twitter, but in life in general.

When I mentioned this on my Twitter timeline, Matthew asked me what made it a best practice?  Here’s what I told him:

1) You didn’t blame anyone.

2) You provided information in a rational, non-emotional, yet humorous, manner.  Doing this gave you credibility.

3) You didn’t Tweet every five minutes.  Tweeting every hour demonstrated your level-headedness and willingness to focus on the situation rather than you.

One of the challenges on Twitter is that many users wants to be popular rather than human.  (One other I think is that many use it as a release valve in lieu of a therapist’s chair, deluging us with TMI, but I digress…)   There is an urgency to break news or be the “first” with information.  Trouble with that is we’re seeing a lot of information that is bad.  Matthew’s tweets were a reflection not of “me, me, me” but of a person who is interested in observing, thinking and processing — in order to provide value.  Ah, value.  Something each of us should consider in anything we do, whether it’s tweeting, launching a business, or “saving the world.”

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Twins? Handel & Jay-Z

twinsIt is not uncommon to see the word “entrepreneur” alongside “rap artist” when describing Jay-Z.  Founder of RocNation, co-owner of the 40/40 Club and investor in the New Jersey Nets, Jay-Z has extended his innovative hand into the boardroom.  (For more, watch this great Charlie Rose interview.)  He has been featured on the cover of Forbes, along side Warren Buffett and is regularly profiled for his $450 million and growing entertainment empire.  This weekend, I learned that he’s in good company — not with Sean “Diddy” Combs, but classical music and opera composer George Frideric Handel.

Handel was among the first musicians to make it big as an investor and entrepreneur.  His Messiah, a Christmas favorite (love this flashmob clip), gave birth to the oratorio, a clever and cheaper alternative to opera.  Opera, as I learned form this fascinating clip from PBS’s NewsHour, was the invention of artistic souls who no longer wanted to work for the church or nobility, but wanted to break out on their own.  “Opera was the road to independence.”

Opera and rap, more in common than you knew.

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