The Great Debate

What we’ve learned from 25 years of famine

By Mark Malloch-Brown
The opinions expressed are his own.

Twenty five years ago, in the aftermath of a devastating famine in Ethiopia, remembered for better and worse for Bob Geldof’s Bandaid concerts, I wrote a book called “Famine: A Man-Made Disaster?” The question mark said it all. I ghostwrote the book for a group of African and other leaders who were more tentative than I was in declaring what had happened was largely the fault of African governments. So the great men added a question mark.

Yet while it was more convenient–not least for fundraising and handling a nasty regime in Ethiopia–to blame it on God and the weather, that famine was caused in large part by bad governance. A centralized regime in distant Addis Ababa, interested in its own survival, had little time for the development of far off rural areas where non-Amharic minorities were living. Its military background and Marxist pretensions also meant it had no interest in developing local food markets and viable peasant agriculture.

So the first big change is what has not happened. Most of Ethiopia and for that matter Kenya have escaped the famine not just because they were beyond the strict epicenter of the drought itself but because a long investment in rural food security in Ethiopia and a buoyant market economy in Kenya has enabled both to ride out sharply higher food prices.

It is no coincidence that the famine has taken hold where governance remains weakest in the region: northern Kenya where pastoralists are marginalized and have little voice in the capital, Nairobi; the Ogaden region, a similarly politically marginal area of Ethiopia, is struggling but in Tigre, the centre of the famine 25 years ago, a central government back in Addis led by Tigreans has built robust economic and environmental defenses as it has in much of the country. By contrast next door in Eritrea an unpleasant reclusive leadership may be hiding the extent of its failure to contain the famine.

The best example of why government matters is in Somalia, where there is no central government to speak of and the famine is principally in the area controlled by the ruthless Al-Shabab Islamic militia. By contrast semi-independent, better governed Somaliland and Puntland have weathered the crisis much more effectively. Following the logic that safety from famine follows good leadership and management it may be time for its neighbors and the world to hear Somaliland’s call for international recognition and independence. Its parent is a failed state that might do better broken up.

America still needs to engage the world

This is a response to Nader Mousavizadeh’s latest Reuters column,  “A smaller America could be a stronger America.”

By David Miliband
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nader’s statistics pointedly and appropriately speak to a dysfunctional political dynamic of short term promises without long term responsibilities in the U.S.  It is also striking (and worrying) that both sides of American political debate are determined to persuade voters that they won’t be too concerned by the rest of the world.

But the U.S. is doomed NOT to become the Netherlands!  U.S. GDP per head is ten times the Chinese level.   Its universities still dominate in key areas.  Its conventional military might is overwhelming.  Its entanglement with the global system – notably in economics, but today that is inseparable from politics – means that it needs a “global posture.”  So does every country, large or small.

Where does Libya go from here?

By Daniel Serwer
The opinions expressed are his own.

With the press focused on scenes of joy in Tripoli and Benghazi, continued skirmishes with regime loyalists, and speculation about where Gaddafi might turn up, it is time to lift our sights and focus on the really difficult transition ahead. If another autocrat succeeds Gaddafi, the transition could be over soon. But if Libya embarks on an effort to create a more democratic state, unified and inclusive in many dimensions, we’ll need to wait the better part of a decade to know whether it has succeeded or not.

There are no magic formulas for how to go about this. Each contingency has its own requirements. We have seen many more partial failures than full successes: think Iraq and Afghanistan.

Certainly in Libya security will be job one. The immediate goal is public order, so that people can move freely without fear of large-scale violence. But there was public order of a non-democratic sort in Gaddafi’s Libya. What the rebels have done in areas liberated in recent months is as clever as it is remarkable: they have organized local councils to try to ensure security and other immediate requirements. This does not always happen in civil wars but it suggests a way forward. There were at least four councils in Tripoli before Gaddafi fell. Can they step in to organize local communities to protect themselves from the inevitable aftershocks of Gaddafi’s fall?

America must break the machine of industrial-era education

By Shantanu Sinha
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leaders in education to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Sinha’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinRandi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

Steve Brill makes a compelling case that many issues in the educational debate are not actually debatable, but rather easily known facts.  Too many people are simply denying the obvious.

Clearly, public education in America is failing.  While the vitriolic debate rages on, millions of children are the undeniable victims.  Steve pointedly demonstrates how common sense is not sufficiently applied in many hotly contested topics like rubber rooms, teacher merit pay, or tenure rules.  However, while these are all issues worthy of discussion, solving them still won’t necessarily move the dial in a meaningful way.

Put kids first: Get rid of LIFO

By Michelle Rhee
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Rhee’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein, Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

In his opinion piece for Reuters, “School Reform Deniers,” Steven Brill accurately describes last-in, first-out seniority rules as making no sense in our schools today.

LIFO, as the policy is known, requires that when budget shortfalls lead to teacher layoffs, the last teacher hired should be the first one to go. This happens completely without regard to how teachers are actually doing in their classrooms. There is no question teacher layoffs are awful, but going about them this way makes the problem even worse.

What we can learn from Canadians

By Katharine Herrup
The opinions expressed are her own.

This piece is part of a great debate we are having on Reuters around Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Here are pieces by Diane Ravitch, Joel Klein, Deborah Meier among many others.

There is a debate, if that’s what you can even call it, raging in America about how to improve our public education system. While disparate groups rip each other apart, it would seem wise to look to our neighbors to the north. Americans love to casually pick on Canadians, but we should be seriously analyzing their public school system, which has emerged as one of the most successful school systems in the world.

Why? Because all constituents – teachers, teacher unions, school boards, the government — work together. At least, that is the explanation given by Canadian Teachers’ Federation President Paul Taillefer. It’s also because there is required rigorous training for teachers — not just before you can become a teacher, but throughout their entire career.

It’s not about good guys versus bad guys

By Randi Weingarten
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Weingarten’s reply. Here are responses from Diane Ravitch, Joel Klein and Deborah Meier among many others.

It’s not clear to me how Steven Brill, in his book Class Warfare, gets to his own particular Nixon-to-China moment—that teachers and their unions must be full partners if our nation is going to achieve meaningful, sustainable, systemic education reform—but it’s good he did.

Brill is correct: There are serious issues confronting America’s education system. Where we part ways is not so much in identifying these problems (although Brill completely ignores the devastating effects of the 2008 recession and its continuing aftershocks on schools and families). Rather, the difference between us is that the AFT seeks to follow the evidence of what works in our schools and in nations with higher-performing schools, while Brill chooses to see education as a story about good guys and bad guys.

It’s time for teachers unions to lead

By Jennifer Jennings
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Jennings’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinDeborah MeierAlex Kotlowitz and Diane Ravitch as well.

Here’s a thought experiment: if teachers unions disappeared tomorrow, how would American public education change? And would kids – especially poor kids – do better as a result?

Given the tastes of political actors on both sides of the aisle, my best guess is that a new education policy order would look something like this: Teachers would be at-will workers evaluated based on students’ standardized test scores and principals’ evaluations. Compensation would not be a function of experience or degrees, but of these evaluations. Pensions would be restructured to reduce costs and create disincentives to stay in the classroom to collect a payout after a specific number of years in the system. And teachers would not be tenured, but retained or fired based on periodic quantitative and qualitative evaluations.

Should we really expect schools to cure poverty?

By Alex Kotlowitz
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Kotlowitz’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinDeborah Meier, Jennifer Jennings and Diane Ravitch as well.

I greatly admire Steve Brill and his writing, and so was surprised to read what felt like a jeremiad against the teachers’ unions. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot amiss with how the teachers’ unions have come to defend their members at the expense of the children, and at the expense of honest, true school reform, but why the finger pointing when there’s plenty of blame to go around, if blame is what we’re after.

In some ways, Brill’s book is poorly timed. He makes the argument for greater teacher accountability — and yet look at the exploding testing scandal in Atlanta and the emerging one in Washington, DC (under Michelle Rhee, who became a hero to many for her eagerness to take on the unions.) In Atlanta, nearly 200 educators have been accused of tampering with test scores, a culture which clearly came from the top in an effort to keep up with a federal policy aimed at evaluating teachers and schools through test scores. Rhee, according to a New York Times piece today, has run from USA Today reporters trying to ask about allegations of a testing scandal under her watch. The question isn’t whether teachers need to be evaluated or held accountable — but how? (And I suppose we also need to ask: how do we hold administrators accountable, as well?)

The sun sets on sultan Berlusconi

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

The sultans, as shapers of history, have gone from the world: but they leave behind the memory of a style of rule in which the division between the private life and the public one, between sexual arrangements and high politics, between the settlement of personal debts, whether of money or honor, and the state treasury barely existed. That was true of kings and princes, Russian tsars and Chinese emperors too: but because the west began (with mixed success) to separate the private from the public some centuries ago, the Sultans of Turkey – who came to the gates of Vienna at the height of their imperial reach and who fascinated and terrified Europe for centuries – are still seen here as the epitome of luxury and power combined.

In Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, the West finds the nearest thing it has to a Sultan: luxury and power combined. The idea is that of Giovanni Sartori, the Italian social scientist and commentator, who has taught for many years at Columbia University in New York and who, like all writers on the contemporary Italian scene, has had to put Berlusconi at the center of his commentary. His idea expresses the unique quality the media mogul has brought to democratic government in the modern age: a rule for, by and with himself first.

In this, he betrays the legacy of a much greater Italian, Niccolo Machiavelli, who anticipated the modern age of states by his advice to the Prince to separate his private life and family from his public duties. Berlusconi has vaulted back more than half a millennium to the period of the Medicis and the Borgias. The public is private: the state absolves his alleged crimes or future transgressions through laws passed by his governments. His main business, media, especially TV but also his newspapers and magazines, spread the balm of the good life which his governing style proclaims. His private life cannot be other than public: his latest supposed affairs are proclaimed by his estranged wife to be with minors, and are surrounded by wildly improbable stories on his part, together with the use or abuse of the law and police protocol. He seems genuinely surprised when taxed with this: for the Sultan, there is no problem: private, business and state life are all one seamless web. And if a harem is included, well, “I’m no saint!” is one of his best known remarks. Unfortunately (for him) Italy remains a democracy and the Sultan, especially when his powers fade, is harried from all sides.