Thinking Aloud: On This Day in History, Oct. 25

Oct. 25, 2014 by Darius 

Over the years, a number of interesting historical events have fallen on October 25.

On October 25, 1854, as part of the Crimean War, the British Light Brigade mistakenly charged Russian gun emplacements at the Battle of Balaclava.  Immortalized in verse, the Charge of the Light Brigade has become a symbol of courage, patriotism, and sacrifice ever since, even though it was actually a military disaster brought about by a failure in communication.

On October 25, 1962, Adlai Stevenson presented photographic evidence of Soviet missile bases in Cuba to the UN Security Council.  Stevenson’s presentation marked a major escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the closest the US and Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war.

On October 25, 1971, the United Nations voted to expel Taiwan and transfer Taiwan’s UN Security Council seat to the Communist government of mainland China.  The United States opposed the vote, but it nonetheless served to confirm shifting US-China relations.  In 1972, US President Richard Nixon made a historic trip to Communist China, and in 1979, US diplomatic relations were established with Communist China and broken with Taiwan.

On October 25, 1983, US military forces invaded the island nation of Grenada in response to a Marxist coup there.  The invading US forces easily brushed aside Grenadan resistance and installed a pro-US government.  At the time, Grenada was portrayed as a major Cold War battleground, but the invasion has since been ridiculed as an example of overly zealous US foreign policy.

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News You Really Need To See: “New Protocol Seen as Barrier to Volunteers”

“New Protocol Seen as Barrier to Volunteers”

The New York Times, October 25, 2014, p.A1

“On Friday, in a surprising move, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey imposed a mandatory quarantine on individuals arriving at two area airports who have had direct contact with those infected with Ebola, including health workers.  Among medical professionals who have been fighting Ebola in West Africa, the restrictions only intensified the debate.  While a few of those interviewed said an overabundance of caution was welcome, the vast majority said that restrictions like those adopted by New York and New Jersey could cripple volunteers’ efforts at the front lines of the epidemic.  Although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets the baseline for recommended standards on Ebola, state and local officials have the prerogative to tighten the regimen as they see fit.   Dr. Rick Sacra, who contracted Ebola in Liberia and was flown back to the United States to be treated in September, said he believed that the new rules in New Jersey and New York would reduce the number of people willing to volunteer their time to treat Ebola patients.  He said many doctors and nurses who volunteered would spend about three weeks in Africa and then return to their regular jobs.  The requirement that they be quarantined at home upon their return ‘will effectively double the burden on those people, on the loss of productive time,’ Dr. Sacra said.”

Quickie Analysis:  Are these restrictions about stopping Ebola or shielding officials from political consequences?  Either way, they’re hurting people who actually have the disease.

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Thinking Aloud: It’s the (Tunisian) Economy, Stupid

Oct. 24,  2014 by Darius 

One of the biggest source countries for foreign fighters in Syria is also the Arab Spring’s only real success story: Tunisia.

While it’s true that greater political freedom in Tunisia since the Arab Spring has meant greater political freedom for radical Islamists too, one of the big reasons Tunisia has sent so many foreign fighters abroad has little to do with politics or ideology.  It’s simply a bad economy.

Everyone is no doubt familiar with the don’t-have-a-job-so-join-a-militia motif.  In Tunisia, it’s a bit more complicated.  Economic problems in Tunisia have specifically led to a massive rise in smuggling across Tunisia’s long borders with Algeria and Libya.  (Smuggling represents up to 50% of Tunisia’s trade with Libya.)  Most of the stuff being smuggled is just ordinary electronics and other consumer goods.  But weapons and, to a large degree, people, are also being smuggled across the border—and that’s how so many Tunisians are getting to Syria.

The government can’t just crack down on smuggling because of another piece in Tunisia’s puzzle: the smuggling is dominated by mafias, clans, and even whole communities that live along the border.  These groups are too powerful for local policemen and border guards to stop, so they just take a cut and look the other way.  The clans, then, prevent the government from closing the borders because doing so would ruin their economic interests.  Jihadists benefit.

Thus, the easiest step to stem the flow of foreign fighters—stopping them at the border—just isn’t an option.  And the fix, creating jobs to give Tunisians in the interior an alternative to smuggling, is much harder.

For more on Tunisia, see “Tunisia’s Borders Open Ground for Smuggling,” Al-Monitor, September 2014,

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News You Really Need To See: “Nation Won’t Accept New Syrian Refugees”

“Nation Won’t Accept New Syrian Refugees”

The Washington Post, October 24, 2014, p.A8

“Lebanon announced on Thursday it will not accept any more refugees from neighboring war-torn Syria, except in what authorities deem to be ‘exceptional’ cases — a move that could prevent tens of thousands of Syrians from escaping the civil war.  Information Minister Ramzi Jreij said Lebanon can simply not handle any more refugees.  The tiny Mediterranean country has 1.1 million officially registered Syrian refugees, although the number is believed to be far higher.  They make up almost a quarter of the country’s population of 5 million. … The Syrian refugees already in Lebanon would be encouraged to leave, said Jreij.  The government would ‘encourage the displaced Syrians … to return to their countries, or go to other countries, by all means,’ he said.  Ninette Kelley, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Lebanon, said the country had begun restricting the entry of Syrians since August.  As a result, she said the UNHCR was receiving 75 percent to 90 percent less people seeking refugee status.”

Quickie Analysis:  It isn’t clear how far Lebanon is willing to go to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the country, but this won’t make life any easier for displaced Syrians, be they already official refugees or simply fleeing.

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Thinking Aloud: “Emergency Economies: The Impact of Cash Assistance in Lebanon”

Oct. 23,  2014 by Darius 

Getting aid to refugees has always been a thorny problem.  There’s been an easy solution floating around for some time, though: just give refugees cash.  Last month, the International Rescue Committee released its report on the first thorough study of giving cash to refugees based on its work in Lebanon.  The IRC program gave an ATM card worth $575 to approximately 85,000 refugees in Lebanon (which has the highest ratio of refugees to population of any country in the world).  I’ve summarized a few of the report’s important findings below.

  • Cash assistance was a big hit with the refugees themselves: more than 80% of refugees in the program preferred cash assistance to other forms of donation, such as in-kind assistance.
  • The study did not find that cash assistance comes with the drawbacks associated with it. There was no evidence that cash assistance increased corruption or was spent inappropriately.  Instead, a majority of cash received as assistance was spent on food and water.
  • Cash assistance (at least in this study) was too small in scale to make a difference in local prices. It also did not contribute to local inflation.  There was also no evidence that cash assistance was a significant “pull factor” enticing other refugees to come to the area.
  • Cash assistance was good for the local economy: every dollar in cash assistance to refugees produced $2.13 in GDP for the Lebanese economy.
  • Cash assistance reduced child labor and increased access to schools. It also promoted community cooperation and decreased tensions within refugee households.  Finally, cash assistance to refugees did not reduce the labor supply, meaning it did not cause refugees who received it to stop looking for work.

Cash assistance has one last great benefit: it is incredibly cheap to actually get into the hands of refugees.  Yet it currently accounts for only 3% of UN aid in Lebanon (Source: “Cash Aid for Refugees Succeeds Despite Donors’ Doubts,” Reuters, October 23, 2014,  Hopefully that will increase in the future.

You can read the full International Rescue Committee report at

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News You Really Need To See: “Taliban Are Rising Again in Afghanistan’s North”

“Taliban Are Rising Again in Afghanistan’s North”

The New York Times, October 23, 2014, p.A1

“The last time Afghans in the northern province of Kunduz felt so threatened by the Taliban was in 2009, just before President Obama deployed thousands of troops to push the insurgents back from the outskirts of the province’s capital.  Now the Taliban are back, but the cavalry will not be coming.  With just two months left before the formal end of the 13-year international combat mission, Western officials insist that the Afghan security forces have managed to contain the Taliban’s offensives on their own.  But the insurgents’ alarming gains in Kunduz in recent weeks present a different picture.  In an area that has not been a primary front against the Taliban for years, there are now two districts almost entirely under Taliban rule, local officials say.  The Taliban are administering legal cases and schools, and even allowing international aid operations to work there, the officials say. … Taken together with new Defense Ministry statistics showing a huge rise in combat deaths for the Afghan Army and police forces, the losses in Kunduz point out a deeper-than-expected concern about the ability of the security forces to hold territory without Western troops directly entering the fight. … The Kunduz crisis is unfolding late in a year that has already included numerous Taliban advances.  A number of provinces, including Nangarhar, Helmand and Kapisa, have become testing grounds for a changing war, where the Taliban have been more willing to gather in large groups to confront Afghan forces now that coalition air support has been scaled back.  The result has been a huge rise in Afghan casualties.  In new figures released this week, the Defense Ministry said that 950 soldiers had been killed from March to August, the worst rate of the 13-year war.  The police, the first line of defense against most attacks, have registered even more devastating numbers: 2,200 dead during the same period, also a record.”

Quickie Analysis:  Someone should tell the Taliban that they’re only supposed to be in the south and east of Afghanistan.  Things are falling apart even faster than expected.

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Thinking Aloud: “The Leaders Who Ruined Africa and the Generation Who Can Fix It”

Oct. 22,  2014 by Darius 

In his TED Talk, “The Leaders Who Ruined Africa and the Generation Who Can Fix It,” Fred Swaniker discusses the enormous impact of individual leaders on Africa.

Swaniker’s life story illustrates the differences a good leader can make.  When he was four, his family fled a military coup in Ghana to the Gambia.  Six months later, there was a coup there, too, and his family fled to Botswana.  In Botswana and neighboring South Africa, though, things were very different: there was good education, infrastructure, and governance.

According to Swaniker, leaders matter in Africa more than anywhere else.  This is due to the continent’s weak institutions.  In places with strong institutions, like the US and Europe, any individual leader does not wield enough power to wreck the country entirely.  In Africa, though, the leader has almost complete power over the political system, economy, and everything else.  One leader can easily make or break a country.  Just look at Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe: he all but singlehandedly took a strong, developing country and annihilated its economy and potential through disastrous fiscal policies.  Nobody else in Zimbabwe could or would tell Mugabe that such actions would bring ruin.

Swaniker also discussed what he saw as the three generations of African leaders.  The first generation, typified by leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, freed Africa from European colonialism.  The next generation of leaders, unfortunately, wrecked the continent, bringing war, corruption, and ruin.  Swaniker cited Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo and Sani Abacha of Nigeria as examples of this second generation.  The third generation of leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, have dedicated their time in power to cleaning up the mess made by the second generation.  These leaders are far from perfect, but they have stopped much of the violence, improved economic policies, and are more accountable to their people.

Swaniker feels the next generation, what he calls generation four, has the power and opportunity to transform Africa.  According to Swaniker, this generation must accomplish two things that previous generations have not.  First, it must create economic opportunities for Africa’s burgeoning population, else Africa and the whole world will be sitting on a ticking time bomb.  Second, this generation must build African institutions “such that we are never held to ransom again by a few individuals like Robert Mugabe.”

You can watch Swaniker’s TED Talk at

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