Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

Family Planning and Foreign Policy

by Isobel Coleman Thursday, April 28, 2011

A mother brings her children to receive their polio vaccine near Doda in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (Amit Gupta/Courtesy Reuters).

My colleague Gayle Lemmon and I just published a new Council on Foreign Relations report, “Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy.” This is a timely subject, given the recent Washington budget battles that saw proposals on the table to gut support for international family planning, even though it is one of the most cost-efficient and successful foreign assistance programs. Today, more than half of women of reproductive age in the developing world, some 600 million, now use modern contraception, up from only ten percent in 1960. Still, there are approximately 215 million women, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, who want to avoid pregnancy but do not have access to contraception.  At the end of the budget process, U.S. funding for international planning fell by only five percent, but as Ambassador Mark Dybul, a member of the bipartisan study group we convened for the report, predicted in our launch event, the bruising FY 2011 budget contest will be a “sandbox” compared with upcoming years.

U.S. support for international family planning has long been a controversial issue. Conservatives tend to view family planning as code for abortion, even though U.S. law, dating to the 1973 Helms Amendment, prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds from being used for abortion. Indeed, increased access to international family planning is one of the most effective ways to reduce abortion in developing countries. Last year, a staggering 35 million abortions occurred in developing countries, some 20 million of which were unsafe abortions resulting in the death of 47,000 women. Studies have shown that meeting demand for family planning would reduce the number of abortions in developing countries by seventy percent.

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Iran: Fire Under the Ashes

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Last week I hosted a meeting at CFR with the courageous human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She is publishing a new book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny (Kales Press, 2011), a gripping story of a modern Iranian family torn apart by politics and ideology. The family is a tragic microcosm of Iran itself, and a sad lesson in how revolutions eat their own.

Dr. Ebadi has been living in exile since June 2009. She left Iran just before President Ahmedinejad’s contested election to give a talk in Spain, thinking she would be gone for less than a week. But as she says, with the eruption of massive post-election public protests over the course of several days, “everything changed.” The brutal government crackdown that followed made it impossible for her to return. In her absence, the Iranian government has hurled accusations and threats against her and her family, hassled her friends and clients, and confiscated her Nobel Prize money. The regime had already shut down her Center for the Defense of Human Rights in 2008. Still, she remains unbowed, and in many ways optimistic about her country. She claims that the government in Iran is in fact weak—the fact that it has arrested so many student leaders and women activists shows that it is scared of the youth movement. She does not expect the regime to survive many more years in its current form. She shared these and other insights in a video interview with me:

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Mortenson: A Correction, and the Broader Message

by Isobel Coleman Friday, April 22, 2011

Afghan girls attend a class at the Ishkashim high school for girls in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, April 23, 2008 (Ahmad Masood/Courtesy Reuters).

Earlier this week, I received a reprimand from ISAF offices in Kabul over a quote of mine that appeared in the Daily Beast about Greg Mortenson’s relationship with the U.S. military, and in particular with General David Petraeus. 60 Minutes recently did a devastating expose on Mortenson, his best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has built numerous schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the report, aspects of Mortenson’s remarkable personal story in Three Cups of Tea are not in fact true, and some of the schools that CAI has claimed to have built are not operational.

Before moving on to Mortenson’s predicament, let me address my comment in the Daily Beast. I was quoted as saying that General Petraeus has been a big fan of Mortenson (which he has), that he recommends the book to people (which he does), and that he has made public appearances with Mortenson and “opened schools with him.” Read more »

Women Assert Place in Yemen’s Protests

by Isobel Coleman Thursday, April 21, 2011

Yemeni women shout slogans during an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University, April 17, 2011 (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the beleaguered president of Yemen, should have known better. Fighting for his political life (and perhaps for his physical life too), he played the woman card. After last Friday’s prayers, he tried to dampen down the escalating protests against his rule by admonishing women to stay home. He claimed that their presence in the streets, “mingling with men,” was against Islam.   His ploy backfired. Within hours of his speech, text messages raced around the capital demanding a “women’s march” as a rebuttal.  The following day, 10,000 abaya-clad women, almost all wearing the face-covering niqab, marched in protest. Many of the women had never before participated in any political activities. They were there to avenge the honor of all Yemeni women. As one woman shouted into a microphone, “If Saleh read the Quran, he wouldn’t have made this accusation.”

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The Transformative Power of Mobile Banking

by Isobel Coleman Wednesday, April 13, 2011
A Kenyan farmer sends a text message to inquire about the latest corn prices from her field in Thigio, 22 miles from Nairobi.

A Kenyan farmer sends a text message to inquire about the latest corn prices from her field in Thigio, 22 miles from Nairobi. (Antony Njuguna/Courtesy Reuters)

Sometime during 2010, the 5 billionth person in the world got a cell phone. More than 90 percent of the world’s population now has access to a mobile network. In 2010, people around the world sent more than 6 trillion SMS text messages—a tripling in the past three years. Much of that growth has been in the developing world. In the past five years, developing countries’ share of mobile subscriptions has climbed from a little over half to more than three quarters.

The rapid spread of cell phones in developing countries—even in remote areas—has been astounding, and transformative. Wherever I travel, from remote villages in Afghanistan to rural Rwanda, everyone seems to have a cell phone—something simple, practical, and rugged that can make and receive calls and send texts. While these “unsmart” phones might seem archaic to a “smart phone” user, they are lifelines to the modern world for many in developing countries. And they are being applied in increasingly innovative ways for all sorts of important economic, political, and social activities, from voting to checking which market is offering the highest prices for crops to getting school test scores and health information.

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Ivory Coast: Prospects for Peace and Prosperity

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Supporters of Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara celebrate in Abidjan, April 11, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters).

Ivory Coast seems to be stepping back from the brink of a full-scale civil war after yesterday’s capture of Laurent Gbagbo, the recalcitrant leader who refused to give up power after losing the presidential election last November. The country’s internationally recognized winner of that election, President Alassane Ouattara, a trained economist and former IMF official, announced the “dawn of a new era of hope” for the country. For the sake of the Ivorian people, let’s hope he’s right. Abidjan, the country’s cultural and economic center, is in shambles, with stores destroyed from looting, dead bodies in the streets, and widespread power failures. Months of escalating violence have resulted in more than a million displaced people and thousands of casualties. There are reports of massacres by both sides that could drive the death toll much higher. The economy too has been stalled during this period of political uncertainty. Millions of dollars worth of cocoa, Ivory Coast’s main cash crop, is languishing in warehouses at the docks, waiting for export.

Once known as the “jewel of French Africa,” Ivory Coast today is a testament to the ills of poor governance.  At the time of independence in 1960, its GNP per capita was roughly on a par with that of South Korea. Today, it is approximately one-twentieth of South Korea’s. Decades of social turmoil and political instability, and more recently civil war, have taken their toll. Read more »

CSM&D Launch Event with Tony Blair

by Isobel Coleman Thursday, April 7, 2011

Earlier today, we hosted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Council on Foreign Relations’ DC office to officially launch the new Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy (CSM&D) initiative. Blair engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with CFR President Richard Haass, covering such topics as political change in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, China’s political and economic model, and the resilience of U.S. and European democracy in the face of unprecedented fiscal challenges and demographic pressures. Although the meeting was not for attribution, afterwards he recorded a short video interview with Richard Haass covering some of the same ground.

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Welcome and Mission Statement

by Isobel Coleman Thursday, April 7, 2011

Naheed Ahmadi Farid, an Afghan parliamentary candidate, casts her ballot at a polling station in Herat, Afghanistan, September 18, 2010 (Rehab Homavandi/Courtesy Reuters).

Welcome to Democracy in Development.

These are interesting times for those who care deeply about the spread of freedom and prosperity in the world today. There are tremendous reasons for optimism—from improvements in global health and rising levels of education, to the spread of beneficial new technologies and media, expanding middle classes, greater rights for women, and emerging democracies around the globe. To be sure, deprivation, poor governance, war, disease, violations of human rights, extremism, and many other ills remain acute. Moreover, the global economic crisis and the rise of a powerful alternative model in China’s “authoritarian capitalism” have shaken faith in open markets and democracy.

However,  I continue to believe in a capitalist, democratic system as the best means of advancing liberty and economic growth; while it has its limitations and drawbacks, I am not convinced there is any better alternative.  Many years post-graduate school, I am still inspired by the work of economist Amartya Sen, who views development as an expansive concept not limited to simple questions of income. “Economic growth cannot sensibly be treated as an end in itself,” Professor Sen wrote in Development as Freedom. “Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy.”

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