News from Malawi

Malawi is a country of nearly 16 million people in south-eastern Africa. Sandwiched between its much larger neighbors of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, Malawi rarely makes headlines. However there is a movement growing in Malawi that is largely reminiscent to those events currently happening across the Arab world. Malawians have risen up in protest against their president Bingu wa Mutharika. Mr. Mutharika assumed office following a controversial election in 2004. He would soon after split with his political party to form his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Mr. Mutharika, as head of his own political party, effectively nominated himself to stand for re-election in 2009. He and his party were swept into office garnering more than twice the number of votes as the opposition party. His popularity in Malawi had largely been driven by economic growth. In 2010, the Malawian economy grew by 6.7% driven by agriculture and mining operations. Even though this is a slower rate of growth than 2009 (7.6%) due to lower agricultural yields caused by drought in northern Malawi, the economy has nevertheless remained steady and growing during the otherwise global downturn.

So why have the people risen up now? In recent years, Mr. Mutharika has grown increasingly dictatorial. He has nominated his brother to succeed him in the 2014 presidential election and in 2010, he married his second wife (his first had died of cancer in 2007) in a ceremony, funded at public expense, costing $1.3 million. The GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (a measure of per capita GDP that takes into account the actual purchasing power of the people in their own market) of Malawi is only $800. Despite the growth of the economy, Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. After Mr. Mutharika expelled the British High Commissioner for a disparaging remark the Commissioner made about him, the Brits withdrew aid to Malawi. The EU quickly followed suit, suspending their aid. These recent protests have also forced the United States to suspend their aid to Malawi’s energy sector. It is estimated that up to 40% of Malawi’s development budget is based on aid from foreign nations, so these suspensions from some of the largest providers of aid, have really cut into the Malawian federal budget. All told, Malawi has seen nearly $750 million in aid money suspended.

The destruction and violence in Malawi is also threatening to spill over into the rest of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a treaty among 15 southern African nations including Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The SADC’s mission, taken from their website, is “[T]o promote sustainable and equitable economic growth and socio-economic development through efficient productive systems, deeper co-operation and integration, good governance, and durable peace and security, so that the region emerges as a competitive and effective player in international relations and the world economy.”

The organizers of the protests in Malawi have given Mr. Mutharika until August 17 to respond peacefully to their demands and for him to leave office. Let’s hope that there is a peaceful resolution to this conflict and that the people of Malawi can rejoin the world economy and continue to grow their country and their society.

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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in Africa


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Crime Doesn’t Pay. But What If the Conviction is Faulty?

David Hicks is an Australian citizen who was captured by the Afghan Northern Alliance in Afghanistan where he was found training with al-Quaeda. He was turned in to U.S. forces and sent to the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was held there until 2006 when he was convicted under the Military Commissions Act. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in Hamdan v Rumsfeld that these commissions to be illegal under U.S. law, effectively invalidating his conviction.  Mr. Hicks also claimed that he was tortured and mistreated by both U.S. and Afghan forces. Following these allegations, and the voiding of the initial charges against him, Mr. Hicks had new charges brought against him, including providing material support to terrorists. In exchange for a severely reduced sentence, Mr. Hicks and his defense team cut a deal whereby he pleaded guilty to a single count of providing material support to terrorists. Mr. Hicks was returned to his native Australia and served nine months in prison there.

Now, Mr. Hicks has written a book detailing his experience and ordeal in Guantanamo. In the book, Mr. Hicks claims he was falsely arrested and reasserts his allegations of torture and abuse and estimates of his royalty income so far are about $107,000. The Australian government however, has sued to freeze the assets generated from the sale of Mr. Hicks’ memoir and the Court has agreed and frozen the trust account holding the royalty monies. Australia has a law, as do many other countries around the world, the United States included, that prohibits criminals from making money off of their crimes. These laws usually specifically forbid selling rights to the story or producing a film or book about the crime. In this case however, Mr. Hicks claims that his initial conviction, the one that produced the events detailed in the book, was declared invalid and therefore should not bar him from receiving the profits from the telling of these events.

At the moment it is unclear what the outcome will be; the government is still in talks with Mr. Hick’s legal team about how to resolve the situation. But Mr. Hicks’ father is claiming that this move is politically motivated and the Green Party has agreed, calling the move a “[S]how trial designed to deter authors from publishing politically sensitive material.” Whatever the outcome, perhaps it’s worth considering that we should all be entitled to tell our tale in our own words.

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Posted by on August 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


The Arab Spring

In what has come to be known as “The Arab Spring,” revolutions, protests, civil war, or demands for regime changes have occurred in 17 nations across the Middle East and north Africa. Among the most televised were the protest that took place in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Many protesters were killed in clashes with police forces loyal to former head of state Hosni Mubarak. Following the protests, which caused the toppling of Mubarak’s regime as well as the dissolution of Parliament and the suspension of the Egyptian Constitution, a peace was restored to Egypt as the country and the people began to rebuild. Some however, chose to remain in Tahrir Square as a living memorial to those who had died as martyrs for their country.

There has been a growing impatience with these lingering protesters, however. There is little threat of renewed, prolonged violence, as most people accept, or even openly support the cause represented by these temporary residents of Tarhir, but most have come to think that it is time to move on. However, the Egyptian Army forcibly removed lingering protesters yesterday, amid calls from some residents of Tahrir to finally reopen the Square. The removal lead to heated skirmishes not seen in six months since the height of the revolution.

This removal also coincides with the beginning of Ramadan, the month-long period for fasting, spiritual purification, and communion with God celebrated by Muslims. Hopefully this skirmish is over quickly and the people of Egypt can move on to rebuilding their lives and their country.

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Posted by on August 2, 2011 in Africa, Asia


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Striving for a Better Life

The tiny island of Lampedusa lies in the Mediterranean Sea about 150 miles south of Sicily, and like Sicily is part of Italy. Because of its proximity to Tunisia and north Africa however, it is the chosen port of call for thousands of refugees every year. There are only 4,500 permanent Lampedusans, yet it is estimated that some 20,000 refugees have passed through Lampedusa over the past few years. These people are fleeing wars and unrest in Tunisia and Libya and are seeking a better life in Italy and the EU at large. However, as with any situation where two cultures collide in frenzied fashion, there are many misgivings feelings of hostility. The problem has been festering for a while, in April Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi paid a visit to the island and promised to “[C]lear the island of migrants in record time.” The situation is similar to that occurring in the south-western United States with migrants form Mexico looking to cross the boarder and start a new life in the U.S.

Unfortunately, as with the Mexican migrants, the Tunisian and Libyan refugees are willing to take any means necessary to get to a better life. Many do not make it. Just today, 25 bodies were found in the engine compartment of a 50-foot boat. What’s more, there were 271 survivors. This boat, no bigger than a small commercial fishing boat, was smuggling more than 300 people. While we have seen the numbers of people seeking asylum shrink dramatically over the past decade, new struggles in north Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere are putting strain on international humanitarian organizations. And this is just one incident. It’s estimated that one in ten refugees dies on their journey. There have been at least 800 people who have died trying to get to Lampedusa over the past months. Stories similar to today’s highlight these tragedies and have been documented by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees here, here, and here.

The UNHCR celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and is just as relevant today as it was in 1951. Originally founded to help Europeans displaced after World War II, it has since aided refugees from every major conflict on every populated continent. In 60 years, the UNHCR has helped some 50 million people get their lives back in order following displacement due to political, economic, military, or environmental factors.

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Posted by on August 1, 2011 in Europe


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Famine in Somalia

The UN has officially declared a famine in Somalia. The UN will declare a state of famine based on the following criteria,

“Famine is declared when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, more than two people per every 10,000 die per day, and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).”

Famine has only been officially declared by the UN six times since 1984; in Ethiopia in 1984-85, in Somalia in 1991-92, in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 1996, in Ethiopia in 2000, in southern Sudan in 2008, and the most recent one in Somalia.

Many Americans remember Somalia only for the Battle of Mogadishu where Somali rebels shot down a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter and paraded the body of a dead soldier through the streets. It remains a land of violence and warlords. Despite the famine, al-Shabaab, an extremist group with links to al-Qaeda and who is in control of several parts of Somalia, has essentially blockaded the country and prevented the free flow of humanitarian supplies since last year. Only recently have the group let up their ban on outside assistance and allowed some shipments of aid through. The people of Somalia however, have continued to persevere in the face of daily struggles quite literally between life and death.

The famine has also created a humanitarian crisis beyond the Somali borders. The World Food Program (WFP) has estimated that there are some 2.2 million Somalis displaced by the famine. Clearly not all of them choose to stay in Somalia. the go where there is help and food available. This is putting enormous strain on other countries in the region, countries that are themselves the victims of famine and drought. There have been reports that one refugee camp grew to 20,000 people in under 10 days.

To help out, visit the WFP website or check out your favorite charity.

One final note, Free Rice is a great site that makes a donation to the WFP for every word that you correctly define. Got a few minutes? Give it a try. You can even create a profile to track your lifetime totals.

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Posted by on July 28, 2011 in Africa


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Rugby in Oceania

Papua New Guinea will host the 2011 Oceania Cup. The Oceania Cup is an international rugby tournament among the island nations of Oceania. The participants this year will be American Samoa, Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Papua New Guinea are the reigning champions, though the tournament has not been held since 2009.

Rugby has become a major sport in Oceania, brought over by British colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of the participants are still colonies or protectorates of the British, but even those that are independent or are colonies or protectorates of other nations have picked up the game of rugby. The sport fits in well with the tribal, warrior mentality common to the histories of many of these regions. In fact, many Oceanic teams perform a ritual haka or war dance before each game. These are always performed facing the other team and the custom itself if rooted in war. Prior to battle, each army would muster in formation and perform their tribe’s haka as a way to both psyche themselves up and to intimidate their opponents. The most famous of these modern hakas is that of the New Zealand national team, the All Blacks. There is a fantastic video of it here, complete with subtitles and translations as the chant is done in the traditional Maori language.

If you’re interested in learning more about the sport of rugby, there’s a pretty straight-forward explanation available here. If you’re interested in going a little bit deeper, visit the International Rugby Board’s website for the complete rules and regulations of the sport.

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Posted by on July 27, 2011 in Oceania, Sports


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Harry Potter Goes to Indonesia

Several months ago, the Indonesian government proposed a new tax on foreign film studios wishing to screen their films inside Indonesia. The proposed tax was to be in the form of a combined 23.75% excise and 10% income tax on top of the tax collected on ticket sales. This move drew the ire of Hollywood, as well as movie studios around the world, and prompted many of the leading American studios to form a boycott of the Indonesian market. These studios had been spending about $6.2 million per month in Indonesia. The move was made to protect the domestic film industry, an industry which has produced only 2,200 movies since the first one in 1926. By contrast, the US industry has produced 520 films in the most recent year, while the Indian industry (the most prolific in the world) has produced 1,325 (according to these guys). The tax was almost immediately called into question by citizens and lawmakers alike, the tax went into effect and the studios went ahead with their industry boycott. There’s a report now that Harry Potter has worked his magic in Indonesia and has served as vanguard in what may be a re-opening of the Indonesian movie market. Warner Brothers just couldn’t bring themselves to leave the country of 245 million people without the final chapter of “The Boy Who Lived” and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. Indonesians may even get to see Transformers 3 and Kung Fu Panda 2 in theaters within the next couple of weeks.

As an aside, Indonesia is definitely on my bucket list of places to visit. It is the fourth most populous nation in the world (behind China, India, and the US) and is the most populous majority Muslim nation in the world (some 86% of Indonesians are Muslim). The first Europeans to reach Indonesia were the Dutch, who colonized the archipelago in the 17th century. Following nearly three centuries of Dutch rule, the Japanese invaded and colonized Indonesia during World War II. Following the war, the Dutch relinquished control of Indonesia back to Indonesians who suffered under a series of oppressive military regimes through the second half of the 20th century. Since 1999 however, there has been relative peace in Indonesia and tourism and industrial production now drive the economy. It’s history and geography have placed it at the crossroads of East and West, leading to an interesting and exciting fusion of cultures, attitudes, and customs.

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Posted by on July 26, 2011 in Asia


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