Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

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

Saving Face: Film and Society in Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accept the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short Subject for their film "Saving Face" at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood (Gary Hershorn/Courtesy Reuters). Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accept the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short Subject for their film "Saving Face" at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood (Gary Hershorn/Courtesy Reuters).

In a feel-good moment for Pakistan, a native daughter won an Academy Award on Sunday – a first for the country. Sharmin Obaid-Chinoy, 33, took home the Oscar, along with her co-director, Daniel Junge, for their documentary “Saving Face.” The film tracks the heroic work of a British plastic surgeon, Dr. Muhammad Jawad, who tries to rebuild the faces, and lives, of Pakistani women who have been terribly disfigured by an acid attack. Every year in Pakistan, about 100 cases of acid attacks are reported to the police, but many more go unreported. These are usually intimate crimes, perpetrated by family members, often vindictive husbands, but also disgruntled mother-in-laws. The victims tend to be young women who have displeased in some way – perhaps producing a daughter instead of a son; or not doing the mother-in-law’s bidding. Some die, but many are left with horrific deformities that often render them blind, unable to eat or to carry on a normal life. Read more »

Missing Pieces: Pakistan’s Problems, the Foreign Assistance Budget, and More

by Isobel Coleman Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani salutes while reviewing the passing out parade of newly recruited soldiers during a ceremony in Quetta, Pakistan, October 11, 2011 (Naseer Ahmed/Courtesy Reuters).

Charles Landow highlights a wide range of stories in this edition of Missing Pieces. Enjoy the selection.

  • Pakistan’s Problems: An Economist special report last week examines Pakistan. It is young, populous, strategically located, and full of economic potential. It is also poor, dominated by its army, and beset by domestic and regional conflict. “Piety and anti-Westernism,” the report says, “have become inseparably fused,” while unreliable electricity and insufficient credit hobble the economy. Education, especially for girls, is an Achilles heel. Violence is rampant and water dangerously scarce. For matters to improve, the report concludes, the military must change its outlook, ceasing its “flirtation with terrorist groups,” making peace with India, and interfering less in politics. The list is daunting. Read more »

Morocco and Political Reform

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Morocco's King Mohammed and Crown Prince Hassan pose for a picture with members of the new cabinet in Rabat in January 2012 (Courtesy Reuters).

While Morocco faces many of the same demographic, economic, and political challenges as its neighbors, it has managed to avoid the violent upheavals witnessed in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. The relative calm in Morocco is not due to a lack of citizen engagement or mobilization; a passionate and determined opposition, the February 20th movement, has staged weekly protests in the past year, including a boycott of the November 2011 parliamentary elections. Just last month, several unemployed university graduates set themselves on fire near a ministry of education building in Rabat, the capital, to protest their lack of jobs and opportunity. One of them later died from his burns. During a recent visit to Morocco, however, I heard again and again from people that “Morocco is different” from its neighbors. Moroccans point to their long history as a nation, the steadying role of King Mohammed VI, their own brand of moderate Islam, and their business and social ties to Europe. But no matter how influential any of these factors might be (and that’s debatable), none provides immunity from the rising tide of dissatisfaction caused by unemployment, corruption, and the widening gap between the rich and poor. Read more »

History Eliminated in Afghan Textbooks

by Isobel Coleman Friday, February 17, 2012
Girls study in a school in Kabul, Afghanistan in October 2011 (Omar Sobhani/Courtesy Reuters).

I recently finished reading Joseph Ellis’ excellent biography of George Washington, and was struck by a particularly poignant passage. As Washington’s best efforts to strike an honorable deal with the Native Americans fail, he worries that the Indian side of the story would never make it into the history books, “They, poor wretches, have no press thro’ which their grievances are related; and it is well known, that when one side only of a story is heard, and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it, insensibly.” (p. 371) As the saying goes, winners write the history books – which is why the Afghan government’s recent decision to eliminate any post-1973 events from its school texts is so worrisome. Since none of the major groups can agree on a basic set of facts, the country’s new school books simply leave out the last four decades of events: no Soviet involvement, no brutal years of civil war, no rise of the Taliban, and no U.S. involvement. The intention – the hope – is that this know-nothing “de-politicized” approach will lessen tensions by avoiding controversy and division in schools, which since the 1970s have been ideological battlefields. It will “encourage brotherhood and unity,” says Education Minister Farooq Wardak, optimistically. But the absence of modern history in the school books is more likely an indication of irreconcilable divisions in society rather than a portent of national reconciliation. Read more »

Ethics and Accuracy in Crowd-sourced Data

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Actor George Clooney talks to observers from Japan during the south Sudan independence referendum in Juba in January 2011 (Thomas Mukoya/Courtesy Reuters).

Earlier this month, I wrote about how technology innovations are being used for humanitarian assistance, focusing on the work of the Kenyan-based NGO Ushahidi. Several readers posed some important questions about the reliability of crowd-sourced data. How can we trust information that could very well be manipulated by various groups, including government-backed groups, which clearly have a particular political agenda? (One reader noted that many tweets from Yemen last year were erroneous. There are multiple examples of this kind of disinformation.) Read more »

Missing Pieces: Mexico’s Presidential Race, Africa’s Progress, and More

by Isobel Coleman Monday, February 13, 2012
Josefina Vázquez Mota celebrates with her campaign team after winning the primary election to be the National Action Party's candidate for president, in Mexico City, February 5, 2012 (Bernardo Montoya/Courtesy Reuters).

Charles Landow ranges from Mexico to the Maldives and from corruption to constitutions in this week’s Missing Pieces. Enjoy!

  • Mexico’s Potential Presidenta: Josefina Vázquez Mota became Mexico’s first female major-party presidential nominee with her victory in the National Action Party (PAN) primary last weekend. She has served as secretary of public education, secretary of social development, and head of the PAN contingent in Mexico’s lower house. CFR’s Shannon O’Neil writes on that Vázquez Mota’s gender will make her the candidate of change, even though the PAN has held the presidency for twelve years. She starts out behind Enrique Peña Nieto, former governor of the state of Mexico. But he has proved prone to cringe-worthy gaffes, including a December remark that opened him to charges of sexism.
  • Africa’s Progress: Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian-born author known for her stinging critique of foreign assistance in 2009’s Dead Aid, argued last week in the Financial Times that Africa is thriving by following the solid capitalist practices “that the rest of the world forgot.” Attractive investment opportunities, auspicious demographics, and strong efforts to fight corruption and bolster the rule of law have the continent poised for growth, Moyo writes. One promising initiative on corruption comes from Kenya, where citizens are recounting their experiences with bribery on a new website called ipaidabribe, inspired by a similar site in India. Individual names are blocked, but the aggregation of reports about the most corrupt agencies could be a powerful tool for cleaner public services. A Washington Post piece last week profiled the site and its founder, and a recent article in Kenya’s The Star reviewed many interesting tales.
  • Moscow and the Maldives: Two former presidents published op-eds last Wednesday. The first is deposed president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives. He writes in the New York Times that his resignation last week was in fact a coup with important lessons for other nascent Muslim-majority democracies. The other is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia. He seeks in the Washington Post to recast himself as a corruption-busting democrat who deserves a return to the presidency. Both articles are worth reading.
  • India’s Problematic Police: The Wall Street Journal examines India’s “fake encounters,” or murders disguised as self-defense shootings by the police. The practice dates from the 1990s, when teams of officers competed to take out Mumbai’s notorious gangsters. Sometimes, according to the Journal, they just wanted to bag criminals; other times they took money to help corrupt parties settle their scores. Though India’s government is trying to clean up its police, some citizens apparently approve of the extra-judicial killings as a useful “shortcut” around the country’s dysfunctional courts.
  • Constitutional Inspiration: As Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia try to craft new constitutions for a more democratic era, a New York Times article suggests that the U.S. constitution’s global influence is slipping. The piece cites a forthcoming study showing that other democratic constitutions are becoming less and less similar to America’s. The U.S. constitution guarantees some rights not highly valued today, while omitting others now considered crucial, the Times reports. Of course, who writes a new constitution and how the process unfolds determine what ends up in the text. Scholars such as Jennifer Widner and Tom Ginsburg and others have explored these issues.

Libya’s New Election Law: Part III

by Isobel Coleman Friday, February 10, 2012
Residents protest against the presence of weapons inside the city of Tripoli in December 2011 (Ismail Zetouni/Courtesy Reuters).

On Wednesday, Libya’s interim government announced that it had finalized an election law to govern the choosing of a new 200-member National Assembly. The election, to be held prior to June 23, will be Libya’s first in more than four decades. In addition to managing the country’s affairs over the next year, the National Assembly will also be responsible for drafting the country’s new constitution. Read more »

Reforming Petroleum Subsidies in Yemen and Egypt

by Isobel Coleman Wednesday, February 8, 2012
A worker pumps fuel at a petrol station in Cairo on January 16, 2012 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

Around the world, subsidies pose particular challenges for politicians. Over time, they inevitably cease to do what they were intended to do; they usually distort the market and end up benefiting the “wrong” people. They also become prohibitively expensive. But once in place, subsidies are notoriously difficult to eliminate. Beneficiaries of subsidies naturally love them, and will lobby (or riot) to keep their perquisites. In the United States, farm subsidies, for example, have little to do with their supposed function of propping up the family farm; they are mostly gobbled up by big corporations with large land-holdings. And they cost taxpayers about $18 billion a year. Read more »

Guest Post: Liberia’s Emerging Entrepreneurs

by Isobel Coleman Tuesday, February 7, 2012
A view of Benson Street in Monrovia, Liberia, October 13, 2011 (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters).

Liberia, once a byword for conflict and misery, has become an admired young democracy. Its development challenges, however, remain dire. Liberia ranks 182 out of 187 countries in the 2011 Human Development Index; its index value is lower today than it was in 1980. The IMF puts GDP per capita at less than $300. According to a World Bank paper, 400,000 of Liberia’s 650,000 households live in poverty. Read more »

Missing Pieces: Food Aid, Saudi Arabia’s Workforce, and More

by Isobel Coleman Monday, February 6, 2012
Sacks of food are unloaded from a UN helicopter in Pibor, South Sudan, January 13, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters).

Charles Landow covers topics ranging from food aid to the developing world’s brain drain in this edition of Missing Pieces. I hope you enjoy the selection.

  • Food Aid’s Perils: Could food aid, meant to relieve suffering, actually cause war? A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests so. The authors measure the average impact of U.S. food aid on conflict across 134 countries from 1972 to 2006. They find that larger food shipments increase the incidence of civil, though not inter-state, fighting. Aid boosts both the onset and duration of civil conflicts; its effects are greater in small conflicts than large ones. Food aid also does less harm in countries with more roads, apparently because aid supplies are less easily stolen when multiple routes exist. Read more »