Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

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

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Missing Pieces: The Foreign Aid Budget, Somalia, and More

by Isobel Coleman
August 5, 2011

Farzana, 6, displaced by heavy floods for almost a year, stands outside of her family tent donated by USAID while taking refuge along a road in Sukkur, Pakistan, July 11, 2011 (Akhtar Soomro/Courtesy Reuters).

Charles Landow highlights a number of interesting items in this edition of Missing Pieces. As always, let us know what you think and send us your suggestions for additional reading. We will put relevant items in a future post. Have a good weekend.

Budget Cuts and Foreign Aid: It is too early to tell how this week’s debt ceiling deal and budget cuts will affect U.S. foreign assistance. The bill sets only overall spending limits; Congress must still make appropriations for individual programs. However, for the next two years, negotiators placed the entire international affairs budget, which includes foreign assistance, in the same bucket as defense, as this story from McClatchy Newspapers explains. Since military spending has passionate defenders (and well-funded lobbyists), foreign assistance may face serious cuts. The Washington Post on Wednesday featured a round-up of opinions on this issue. Among other interesting views, Sen. John Kerry argues that foreign assistance remains a vital investment.

Crisis in the Horn: With famine in Somalia now gripping three new regions, including the capital of Mogadishu, humanitarian organizations are struggling to deliver aid. Beyond infrastructure deficits and security threats, U.S. law has hindered the effort. Because al-Shabaab, the militant group that rules part of Somalia, is on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, aid providers could be in jeopardy if any funds or goods are diverted to the group. But on Tuesday, the Obama administration issued new guidance to assure aid organizations that they would not face legal trouble for trying to help. (A background briefing from administration officials offers information on the change.) Of course, this alone will not solve matters: al-Shabaab has been blocking aid organizations from entering and destitute Somalis from leaving, according to an appalling report in the New York Times. Somalia, which garners the top spot in the 2011 Failed States Index published by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, continues to pose a sad predicament for policymakers: military intervention is impractical, but nothing else seems to help.

The Ills of Oil: Oil wealth, as the familiar resource curse idea suggests, brings costs as well as benefits. Two of the well-known questions are how to protect the environment while extracting the oil and how to share proceeds equitably. The former is the subject of a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) assessing degradation from oil extraction in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria. The numbers are staggering: in one area, investigators found a layer of oil 8 centimeters thick covering groundwater used for wells. UNEP says a full clean-up could take 30 years. On ensuring that oil benefits the people and not just the elite, a report last week from the Center for Global Development offers an interesting possibility for Uganda’s newly discovered reserves: directly transfering oil proceeds to Ugandans. There are many practical obstacles to this approach, but, as the report concludes, it could do great things for poverty reduction and government accountability.

China’s Burgeoning Microblogs: After the July 23 crash of two high-speed trains in China, microblogs quickly emerged as a central arena for bitter criticism of the government’s response. Sina Weibo, a Chinese site analogous to Twitter, has led the way, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Yesterday, the Journal followed up with an unexpected development: Chinese authorities seem open to allowing microblogs to flourish. In the land of the “Great Firewall,” which tries to block sites that Beijing considers dangerous, this would indeed be suprising. However, as the Journal notes, it is too early to tell if the authorities are truly shifting their view. They may also view microblogs as a venting mechanism that will reduce the desire for protest in the streets. But this seems a risky bet given the events of Tahrir Square and elsewhere. In a Markets and Democracy Brief in April, CFR’s Elizabeth Economy and Jared Mondschein explored the effect of internet activism on China’s political system. Even if the internet has not produced a revolution, they argue, it is having a profound impact.

Turkey’s General Resignation: Few phenomena are more poisonous for democracy than military dominance over civilian authority. There is an entire organization in Switzerland devoted to this issue, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. The conventional wisdom in Turkey is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has succeeded in cementing civilian control following the resignation last Friday of all of Turkey’s top military commanders. But CFR’s Steven Cook argues on foreignpolicy.com that this narrative “seems a little too neat.” He writes that Turkey’s officers might try to retain some independence even as Erdogan seeks to consolidate his authority. The incident plays into broader questions about Turkey’s identity as a Muslim-majority democracy. Is the Islamic character of Erdogan’s government–a change from the strict state secularism long enforced by the military–a step toward theocracy or a positive development? This commentary in Hurriyet argues the latter. And could Turkey serve as a model for Egypt and others? An article in the Economist suggests caution given Turkey’s unique historical circumstances.

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