Posts tagged ‘Middle East’
The recent political unrest in predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East has seemed like a stack of dominoes falling. The dictatorships of Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya: they all fall down like toy soldiers. Of course, some people in the United States have been terribly alarmed at these turns of events. It is disturbing, but it’s also refreshing, isn’t it?
These people have been under the rule of brutal regimes in some cases. In all cases they have been subject to economic hardship that maybe even the poorest of those of us in the United States would not be able to comprehend. The countries are overpopulated, and their young people cannot find work. In fact, I’ve read recently that the Muslim population of the world is the fastest growing population in the world.
What’s worse is that in many of these countries our government has been complicit in keeping these people under the thumb of tyranny. We’ve supported inept, corrupt leaders who were guilty of countless human rights violations in order to ensure that we had someone in power who supported American interests.
A lot of things I’ve read recently have been coming together for me with a click. I’ve read about our government’s enslaving poor nations into crippling debt. I’ve read about Arab people all over the world having economic difficulties. I’ve read about political unrest in predominantly Muslim nations. How much of the political unrest do you think comes from political and economic oppression?
I’ve read about people in these countries demonstrating for democracy, for the right to be heard and for their concerns to be validated. I’ve read about many of these people being women, and there’s been more than one article written about the feminists in Tahrir square, as well as how the Muslim Brotherhood held hands to form a bond of chains around the women so that they could protest alongside the men safely.
I read an excellent Newsweek article on Hillary Clinton and her tenure as Secretary of State and how she champions women’s rights globally. I saw an interview with Melinda Gates about how empowering women in third world countries provides further opportunities for both women and men alike. I read Half the Sky where women who were the benefactors of microfunding produced profits for their investors and themselves. They became entrepreneurs and created income for others. There’s no reason why the same model, with maybe a few tweaks, can’t work for men as well.
I read an article in The New Yorker about Mo Ibrahim, a multi-billionaire Sudanese Muslim businessman who made his fortune in the cell phone industry. He retired to start his own charitable foundation that now bestows a prize to any leaving African political leader who has made a significantly positive contribution to his society. For the last two years it’s been awarded to no one because no one was deemed worthy of the prize.
Ibrahim’s foundation keeps records on African countries and their rulers. The Ibrahim Index assigns a numerical score based on human rights, gender, sanitation and access to clean water, corruption, and economics among other categories. It then judges Africa’s leaders’ effectiveness based on these criterion.
China, India, and, indeed, all of Asia is undergoing enormous change. Economic opportunity abounds. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades. We’re on a cusp now of a real revolution in Africa and the Middle East as well. We can help these people flourish and encourage them in their efforts to define democracy for themselves. Or we can do what we’ve done in the past. We can covertly support their poverty and enslavement.
In the past the Western world has been reluctant to invest in this part of the world because it’s unstable. But is it poor because it’s unstable or is it unstable because it’s poor? Which came first? The chicken or the egg?
Most of these people don’t actually hate Americans, you know. They’re not really fond of our government – with good reason, I might add. But I think we might find, like Greg Mortenson did when he was nearly dying on the descent down from a mountain climbing expedition, that people are people.
We can win the war on terror, and we can win gender equality for women in countries where there is none. But we aren’t going to be able to win the war on terror with weapons. Remember that old saying? Kill them with kindness? We need to change our foreign policy, both as a government and as individuals. We need to invest in these countries and these people.
We need to throw our economic and political support behind the countries that meet a certain standard on the Ibrahim Index and withhold our support from those that don’t. We need to forgive the debt of African countries. We need to work in tandem with these people to create a sustainable environment of prosperity and invite women to participate. When men in these countries see tangible results from the efforts of women, when these results benefit them and result in more economic opportunities for them, then they won’t protest so loudly anymore.
I know this argument has a tendency to sound oversimplified, and no doubt it is greatly oversimplified and idealistic. But there’s something to the old Southern saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We can’t just buy the world a Coke and teach them all to sing, but if someone bought you a Coke would you then be inclined to blow him up with an improvised explosive device? I wouldn’t.
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is the story of Mortenson, a young mountain climber and hippie who impulsively decided to build a school for the children of a poor mountain village in Pakistan. In the early 1990s, Mortenson, whose younger sister had just died, came down from a failed attempt to climb K2. The climb was supposed to be his memorial to his sister, Christa. He was lucky to have escaped from the climb with his life. His guide had lost him, and the guide had Mortenson’s pack with all his food, drink and survival gear with him.
The people of a mountain village were kind enough to offer him shelter and help him to recuperate. The name of the town was Korphe, and when Greg saw the children of this town on a hillside, trying to practice writing and arithmetic with sticks in the sand, he asked them why they weren’t at school. He learned that they didn’t have a school. Pakistan has government funded education, but this is available in larger towns and cities only. Greg Mortenson was so impressed with the children of Korphe and his experience there that he promised to build them a school.
The process was slow going at first. Mortenson learned that he could build a good, solid school building in Pakistan for only $12,000. Astounding, huh? The only problem was that he didn’t have $12,000, and the $12,000 didn’t include his round trip fare to Pakistan. Mortenson was an emergency room nurse. He lived as frugally as possible in order to save his money. He was essentially homeless. He slept in his bedroll on the floor of a friend’s apartment or in his car. Still, it seemed to take forever to save the money he needed.
Mortenson’s mother was the principal of an elementary school. The students at her school saved pennies in jars. They called the project Pennies for Peace, and when the project was done for the year, they had saved over $600 in pennies. The mountain climbing community embraced Greg’s vision for a school, and they let him give talks at a lot of their seminars.
At one of these seminars Greg was introduced to Jean Hoerni, an eccentric engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who had a hand in the creation of Teledyne, Union Carbide, and Intel. Hoerni was a very wealthy mountain climber who had been moved by the poverty of the people in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, where Mortenson wanted to build his school. Hoerni gave Greg a check for $12,000.
There were many, many stumbling blocks on the road to that school in Korphe. There was a man Greg trusted with the storage of his building materials only to come back and find that he used or sold a great deal of them. There was graft and religious leaders looking for bribes. There were people from other villages who were intent on diverting Greg from Korphe to build a school in their villages, or to build a school for porters instead. But there were also lots and lots more good people who helped him along the way: trusted advisors, a bodyguard willing to lay down his life for Greg, a religious leader who was willing to put his reputation on the line and to petition the highest Shia authority in Iran to approve of Greg’s schools and the education of Pakistani girls, in particular.
Once the first school was built, Jean Hoerni gave the money to start a non-profit with an endowment of one million dollars. Greg started the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute now has many, many schools for boys and girls in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, Mortenson met his wife and started his family. Both the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace are currently thriving.
And why, might you ask, is this important for you to know about? Well, what Greg is doing is important because education is important, period, and because we should be concerned about those people who are less fortunate than us, whether they live next door or in the tiniest town in Afghanistan. And also: educating boys and girls in Pakistan does more to combat terrorism and the extremists of Islam than bombs and guns ever will. Bombs and guns make terrorists. Those children who are given a well-rounded basic education by Mortenson’s schools are the benefits of knowledge. That knowledge will help them to make better decisions about what to do with their lives and how to view their fellow citizens of the world.
The alternative for many of these children is either no education at all or an education of hatred provided by the Saudi funded madrassas. Wealthy Saudi Arabians fund madrassas in poverty-ridden countries. These madrassas do not provide education to girls, and they often do not provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There is a lot of range in the quality of madrassas. Instead, what they never fail to teach is the rhetoric of fundamentalist Muslims. They teach the Koran to boys who cannot read it for themselves. Sometimes the teachers can’t, either.
The purpose of these schools is to recruit future soldiers for the Al Quaeda and the Taliban and other such organizations that propagate violence. And, much like in America, the wealthy fund the military while the poor become its foot soldiers. The Saudis don’t send their sons to “war.” Instead, they recruit the young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan who don’t have the opportunities that Saudi oil wealth provides.
Three Cups of Tea is an important book, and anyone seeking to further understand the politics of the Middle East and the people of Islam would be well served in taking the time to read it. There is no religious message in the book. The book is about people and cultures and working to find our commonalities rather than our differences. Mortenson grew up in Africa, the son of Lutheran missionaries, but he himself is not a particularly religious man. He learns to pray like both a Sunni and a Shia Muslim in order to fit in, and he adopts the culture and learns the languages of his second home. When in Rome…
I just finished a book that was recommended by my friend, Shy Guy. It’s called, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins. I wanted to share my impressions. Mr. Perkins claims to have been recruited to work for Charles T. Main, a large engineering firm (that he refers to throughout the book as MAIN, as if it were an anagram rather than someone’s last name). He claims that he was recruited to work for MAIN by the NSA or National Security Agency.
The NSA is a highly secretive government agency that mostly concentrates on cryptology. They’re French Connection type spooks. It seems highly unlikely that they would be involved in recruiting unschooled and ill-prepared economists for a private engineering firm. But I suppose crazier things have happened. At any rate, it provides the book with a cloak and dagger edge and a Republican masterminded conspiracy theory that makes for more exciting reading than the dry history of American foreign policy of the last forty years. Supposedly, a production company has bought the film rights for Harrison Ford to star in the movie version one day.
Mr. Perkins does say an awful lot about American foreign policy that might shock some people and would certainly educate many Americans. He claims that as an economic hit man or EHM that he was paid to inflate the cost of modernization projects that we were doing in third world countries throughout Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Not only would he pad the cost of the projects but he would also, more importantly, project inflated figures of future economic growth related to these projects. The work would then be done by American companies like MAIN or Haliburton. When the first note was due the third world country would be unable to pay it and would default on the loan because the economic growth rate that was projected from the project was well below the actual growth rate. This made all these countries indebted to the United States of America and unable to pay the debt.
Mr. Perkins claims that this was done willfully by our government in an attempt to not only further stop the spread of communism by exerting our influence over those countries that owed us debts, but also that we used it as a form of modern imperialism in order to protect our economic interests (i.e. OIL, folks) abroad. I certainly wouldn’t put this past our government. I think that it’s also possible that the loans were simply padded in the name of good old-fashioned greed with the American tax payer footing the bill and the fat cats at firms like MAIN amassing a small fortune with each new indebted foreign country. Gordon Gecko would heartily approve. However it happened, the end result is just the same. Much of the third world is indebted to us and rightfully feels shackled, burdened and cheated.
We may not occupy these countries like the Roman empire but we exert our influence just as heavy handedly. The foreign countries may not be able to pay their debts but we amass our pound of flesh somehow. If the rulers of these countries fail to do our bidding, then this is when America sends in what Mr. Perkins refers to as our, “jackals.” The jackals are CIA agents who commit assassinations, stage coups and fund revolutions with the goal of putting someone in office who will do America’s bidding, regardless of whether that leader is a “good” leader or a “bad” leader and irrespective of any semblance of a democratic process.
In addition, in each of the many instances where the United States has stepped into a foreign country with the lip service of improving conditions, things have actually worsened for the vast majority of the citizens of that country. American companies come in and take advantage of cheap labor and natural resources. The interest alone on the loans that these countries owe in many cases means that even a well-intentioned leader is unable to afford to provide the citizens of his country with basic needs such as food, clean water, and health care. This is why much of the world hates the United States. We got richer while they got poorer. The vast chasm of income disparity between the wealthiest and poorest people and nations continues to grow and yawn.
What can be done to change this? I think we do need to change. We need to wake up quickly and smell the coffee. Unless we change our dependence on oil and change our policies in accordance we are doomed to repeat the historic cycle of superpowers ad infinitum, and we are going down. Ours is such a great country that I would hate to see that happen. Despite the criticisms in this post, I think that America is great and that Americans have done a lot of good in the world as well. I think that if we changed our energy policy and also practiced debt forgiveness to those nations that need it that we could go far in achieving good will throughout the world. If you’re interested in the concept of debt forgiveness, there’s a great organization championing the idea, mostly on the internet. It’s called One, and you can join for free and find out how you can help by influencing the politicians that represent you. Their website is: http://www.one.org/us/.