Opinion

The Great Debate

Tracking the Nigerian kidnappers

nigeria -- candlelight vigil

Abubakar Shekau, the purported leader of Boko Haram, ignited international outrage when he announced that he would sell more than 200 of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls “in the market.” Nations around the globe offered help to Nigeria.

Getting back the more than 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from school a month ago will require a deep understanding of the environment the extremist group that took them operates in.

Thanks to some new tools, and the spread of some older technologies, crucial data can be gleaned to show where the kidnappers, Boko Haram, may be holed up. Everything from cell phone usage to weapons acoustics to satellite imagery can help build a more complete picture of the group and its activities.  Possibly even a map.

nigeria -- child in signAfrica is often mistakenly seen as a “data desert.” But exponential growth in telecommunications coverage, mobile phone and Internet usage is increasingly revealing a continent rich in data and information.

Boko Haram’s shadowy structure presents a unique threat to stability throughout the region. Untangling the group — let alone freeing the girls — ­poses significant challenges to international assistance efforts and local enforcement groups seeking to extend their authority over sparsely settled lands.

Post Rwanda: Invest in atrocity prevention

In the 20 years since the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its terrible spillover into the Congo, it has been clear that the global community remains ill-equipped to address such human-made catastrophic tragedies.

While many have worked to heal Rwanda, crises of unfathomable mass violence have continued to unfold in places like Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria. In each case, the international community has failed to live up to a global commitment to prevention, protection and accountability for mass crimes.

War and mass violence not only halts development, it reverses it — scarring the lives and memories of new generations.  This creates traumatized societies — one of the biggest factors contributing to conflict.

A ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa’s employment challenge

To Africa’s many challenges, add one more: unemployment.

Unemployment, independent of any other factor, threatens to derail the economic promise that Africa deserves. It’s a time bomb with no geographical boundaries: Economists expect Africa to create 54 million new jobs by 2020, but 122 million Africans will enter the labor force during that time frame. Adding to this shortfall are tens of millions currently unemployed or underemployed, making the human and economic consequences nearly too large to imagine.

Thus, even with the strong economic growth we have seen over the past decade, job creation in Africa remains much too slow. Africa needs a comprehensive, coordinated approach akin to America’s “Marshall Plan” in Europe after World War Two. That effort focused on building infrastructure, modernizing the business sector, and improving trade. By the end of the four-year program, Europe surpassed its pre-war economic output.

We can, and must, do the same for Africa. Entrepreneurs, politicians, philanthropic foundations, and development organizations — such as the World Bank, International Finance Corporation and USAID — must all work together to solve the unemployment crisis and make Africa an engine of growth. If we are outrun by the employment challenge, Africa will be a drag on global growth and resources for generations to come.

Internet access is a vital healthcare tool

When Mark Zuckerberg announced a new private sector initiative last month to make affordable Internet access available to people in developing countries, he breathed new life into a long-simmering debate within the global development community — what is the value of technology in societies suffering from urgent social, economic and humanitarian challenges? Familiar voices of criticism have been heard, pointing out that in communities lacking food, clean water and medicine, getting people online is hardly a priority.

Some of these critics are trusted friends and colleagues within the healthcare and humanitarian sector. But as someone with over thirty years of field experience in developing countries, I humbly disagree with them. Achieving greater Internet access in developing countries can save lives, transform communities and revolutionize the quality and provision of healthcare for hundreds of millions of people today. Not only should connectivity be part of the global development agenda, it must be recognized as a vital enabler of the entire agenda.

There are several important reasons for this.

First, better tools for diagnosis and communications can lead to differences in health outcomes. One group of students at Stanford, through our Liberation Technology course, recently produced a mobile app to improve clean water delivery in a large slum in Kenya, allowing users of the app to locate the cheapest prices for water in their community, comment on quality and identify sources of water that make people ill. Another app for community workers targets cholera treatment in areas without any physicians. While many of us in the developed world use our mobile phones for triviality, in developing countries they can be the first line of defense in a public health emergency. This isn’t about cat pictures or Angry Birds — mobile phones can be the difference between life and death.

An agenda to boost Africa’s economy

A lot can happen in a year. This time last year, U.S. businesses and NGOs bemoaned the Obama administration’s perceived indifference to Africa. Now, they’re trying to find out how to catch the wave of interest. Major new initiatives, including Power Africa and Trade Africa, unveiled during President Obama’s first true trip to Africa this summer, as well as a reinvigorated push to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act fully two years before it’s due to expire, have given U.S.-Africa watchers a lot to consider. But what — and when — is enough for U.S. policy in Africa? What more can be done in the year ahead? How do things really shake out for investors, civil society and Africans? Here are three additional areas the Administration should consider as it deepens its commitment to the continent:

1. Invest in Africa’s equity and commodity markets. ­Despite all the interest in Africa’s economic growth and investment potential, it’s still very hard to invest on the continent. Of its less than 30 stock markets, only a few exchanges really offer modern processes and back-end technology to facilitate daily transactions. As Todd Moss from the Center for Global Development notes in a recent paper, some African exchanges trade less in a whole year than New York does before “their first coffee break.” As a result, for institutional investors who need to take large positions or who have fiduciary requirements for daily liquidity, Africa remains almost entirely off-limits. In an era of algorithmic and high-speed trading, Africa’s antique market infrastructure is a major barrier to entry for much needed foreign direct investment.

Innovation is perhaps most evident in commodity exchanges. A number of projects in East Africa are taking off — including the East Africa Exchange (EAX), a private initiative founded by Heirs Holdings, Berggruen Holdings and 50 Ventures, which was launched in January this year. The eponymous Eleni LLC, a consultancy focused on developing private exchanges, builds off the rapid success of Ethiopia’s commodity exchange and the work of Eleni Gabre-Madhin, its founder. Both efforts build the critical architecture necessary for productivity growth in economies that still remain predominantly agrarian.

The looming U.S.-China rivalry over Latin America

President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) in California, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Though the U.S. and Chinese presidents heralded a “new model” of cooperation at their weekend summit, a growing competition looks more likely. The whirlwind of activity before President Barack Obama met with President Xi Jinping in the California desert revealed that Beijing and Washington’s sights are set on a similar prize — and face differing challenges to attain it.

Their focus is Latin America and the prize is increased trade and investment opportunities in a region where economic reforms have pulled millions out of poverty and into the middle class. Latin America is rich in the commodities and energy that both China and the United States need, largely stable politically and eager to do deals.

Rice: Hitting ‘reset’ on Africa talks

Michael O’Hanlon, in his Reuters Opinion piece, “In defense of Susan Rice” (Reuters, December 10, 2012), took issue with my New York Times op-ed article, “Susan Rice and Africa’s Despots” (December 9, 2012).

Mine were not ad hominem attacks. It is fair to hold a public official accountable for her career and for the roles she played and continues to play in attempting to resolve African conflicts. I was not questioning U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s desire for a more peaceful continent.

My point was to call attention to Rice’s relationships with Africa’s strongmen, most notably Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, developed over the decades. I think these relationships have affected U.S. credibility in the region and limited its ability to serve as an unbiased arbiter in conflicts.

In defense of Susan Rice

The accusations against Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and potential nominee for secretary of state, continue. They took a new turn on Monday as an Eritrean-American, Salem Solomon, wrote for the New York Times op-ed page about Rice’s supposed affections for a new generation of strongmen of Africa.

This article comes at an inopportune time, since Rice is now being hammered for all sorts of reasons — many of them specious. It feels more like piling on than fair-minded criticism. It is particularly unfortunate because partisanship is complicating efforts to determine whether Rice would be a strong choice as secretary of state.

I have written before about Rice, who is a friend and former colleague. I’m an admirer of her work, though this is not to suggest that she would necessarily be a better choice for secretary of state than Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) or someone else. But she is a capable public servant and a serious candidate for the job. The recent criticisms — including the New York Times commentary — are often unfair.

Obama, Romney missing the point on Libya

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in Monday’s foreign policy debate are again likely to examine the administration’s handling of an Islamic militia’s murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its significance for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, they may again miss the crucial question raised by the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans: Why is Libya at the mercy of hundreds of lawless militias and without a functioning state one year after U.S. and NATO support enabled rebels to overthrow dictator Muammar Ghadaffi?

What both presidential nominees fail to see is that the United States and its allies went beyond their (and the U.N.’s) declared objective of protecting civilian areas under threat of attack to promoting rapid and violent regime change. This left the country in the hands of a fledgling rebel political leadership, which has tenuous control over the country’s militia groups.

The U.S. needs to walk the walk on African security

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wraps up her travels across the African continent to showcase President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive to advance the “prosperity, security and dignity of its citizens,” she might have some explaining to do.

No doubt about it, the directive is a great strategy focused on strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade and investment, advancing peace and security, and promoting opportunity and development in Africa. It’s the right combination of the right ingredients. However, when the United States recently had the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to these objectives in fragile regions around the world, including Africa, the Obama administration walked away. Instead of standing with other nations against the illicit and irresponsible arms trade that kills 1,500 people a day, it abruptly reversed course.

Negotiations for a global arms trade treaty were 10 years in the making. But during the final hours at the United Nations in New York, the United States, which was getting the final text adjustments it wanted, surprised everyone by suddenly voicing opposition. Russia and China piled on, halting the entire process.

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