How an Olympic Race Became Political: Feyisa Lilesa's Homage to the Oromo Nationalist Movement

Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopian Olympian, Oromo Activist, Rio 2016 Olympics, Photo by Jeso Carneiro

Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopian Olympian, Oromo Activist, Rio 2016 Olympics, Photo by Jeso Carneiro

ETHIOPIA -  While many Olympic runners raise their arms as they approach the finish line, few do so as a demonstration of political protest. Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa joined this elite group of politically charged Olympic athletes such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos when he crossed his arms at the end of the Men’s Marathon during the Rio Olympics. While Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the awards ceremony, Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms at the end of the race to demonstrate his allegiance with the Oromo people as they continue a centuries long clash with the Ethiopian government. What looked like a stretch to many Olympic observers was really a powerful demonstration that resulted from many years of unrest and political strife.

Thousands of miles from where Lilesa made his protest in August, Oromo dissenters had been actively demonstrating against the Ethiopian government since 2014 when a plan was unveiled for the expansion of Addis Ababa. The plan, arguably excellent for the capitals image and perhaps even reminiscent of the rapid improvements made under Haile Selassie in the mid 20th century, also proved reminiscent to the Oromo of how they were kicked off their land when the capital was moved from the north of the country to Addis Ababa in the first place. The new plan involved permeating the capital city into the Oromo occupied outskirts of its current blueprint, displacing members of the already marginalized group in the process. Without previous knowledge of the maltreatment of the Oromo, one might think that protests involving more than one hundred thousand people across Oromia might be drastic, but the government’s plan to expand the city into heavily Oromo occupied territory was perhaps the last straw after centuries of government action taken to improve Ethiopia at the expense of the Oromo.

In 1941 at the end of the Italian occupation the imperial system made strides towards assimilating the Oromo in order to build Ethiopian nationalism at a time when the country was lacking a strong national identity. This assimilation process entailed making Amharic the national language and banning the use of the Oromo language in schools, churches, and public offices. While some Oromo’s ‘Amharised’ in order to achieve upward mobility, it was not long before campaigns such as Macha Tulama and Ethiopian Student Movement formed in opposition to the current political environment and poor treatment of the Oromo identity. While some of the more extreme followers of these movements wanted independence from Ethiopia all together, they at the very least desired equal treatment of the Oromo language, culture, and religion to that of the Amhara. [1]

Unfortunately, not all that much has changed since Oromo nationalist movements began. The Oromo remain the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (and the Horn of Africa for that matter), yet groups such as the Amhara and the Tigray are favored in government just like they have been for decades. Interestingly though, Ethiopia is a country in which a strong sense of fraternity is felt amongst its citizens, which can perhaps be attributed to the historical bond that it is the only country to have fought off colonization. However, it must be noted that fraternity and national identity cannot be confused here because if you ask an Oromo about their national identity it is likely that they will respond “I am Oromo,” not, “I am Ethiopian

With this in mind, it is not surprising that when Oromo athlete Feyisa Lilesa ran for the Ethiopian Olympic team he also took a stand that demonstrated his allegiance to his Oromo identity during a crucial time in their history and relationship with the Ethiopian government. Even though Lilesa won silver in the race, he won gold in the hearts of many Oromo nationalists through his bold demonstration of solidarity and civil disobedience towards a government that has historically mistreated his people.

1. Bulcha, Mekuria. "African Sociological Review/Revue Africaine De Sociologie."African Studies Companion Online 1.1 (1997): 30-65. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

Failed Military Coup Against President Erdoğan Leaves Dozens Dead in Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, (r) & Gen. Necdet Ozel (l), Source (AP Photo)

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, (r) & Gen. Necdet Ozel (l), Source (AP Photo)

TURKEY - A military coup in Turkey was announced by Turkey’s government broadcasting agency, TRT, Turkish Radio and Television, July 15th before midnight, local time. The note read by TRT’s Tijen Karas said “Control of the government is completely seized.” The note was also published in office of commander of chief, which later was removed after the situation was taken largely under control.

Chief of Turkish Military staff, Hulusi Akar was taken hostage by a group of military personnel attempting the coup, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported. His whereabouts is still unknown.

The coup simultaneously took over the control over Ataturk International Airport, and both bridges, Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Boğazici, over Bosphorus. Military tanks were stationed riot police headquarters Istanbul. An email sent to press members from Turkish Military Forces said the control of the government was seized.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially addressed the nation on CNN Turk via Facetime, where he called people to meet in squares in cities to protest to coup attempt and protect the democracy. The call received a quick reply and and large crowds started their march toward squares despite the martial law, and curfew declared by the coup.

Several of the tanks were taken over by the people and were handed to police. Many civilians were killed during the protests since the coup attacked protesters with tanks and military aircraft. At least 42 was killed in Ankara’s Golbasi district during the attacks by the coup, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported. Though the death toll of the civilians, military, and security forces is unclear, at least 60 people were reported dead in the country.

Following TRT, CNN Turk and Kanal D were raided by the military coup, which had to stop its broadcast coverage of the coup temporarily. Both outlets were liberated by the people protesting and taking over district from the military coup members, and continued their broadcast.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the situation is largely under control and necessary actions were taken to end the coup attempt. He characterized the Coup attempt 'greatest insult' towards Turkish Republic, Anadolu Agency reported.

Though largely under control according to the government agencies, military attacks which earlier targeted Riot Police Headquarters, General Directorate of Security, as well and the parliament building in Ankara, continues to target civilians who are still on the streets protesting the coup.

President Erdoğan has returned to Istanbul where he talked to press at Atatürk International Airport. Erdoğan wowed to bring the coup plotters to justice Anadolu Agency reported.

''This is a movement of treason and an insurgency. Let me tell you that they will pay a heavy price for this treason,'' Erdoğan told TV networks during a live broadcast from Istanbul's Ataturk Airport.

''There is a government in power and a president in power elected by the people. We are on duty and we will continue to conduct our duty until the very end,'' Erdoğan said, assuring the country that ''the outcome of this will be good.''

The president also warned soldiers participating in the overthrow. ''You are our soldiers. It is impossible for us to accept you pointing your gun at the people, your parents, your brothers and sisters. These weapons have been given to you by the people. If you point these to the people, you will pay a hefty price.''

Arrests in the military would go higher up the ranks, he said.

Contributing Journalist: @ElvanKatmer
LinkedIn: Elvan Katmer

Taking Back America is About Personal Responsibility

Statue of Liberty, New York, Photo by Alex Be.

Statue of Liberty, New York, Photo by Alex Be.

UNITED STATES - No one should have to pay for the crimes of others, or be condemned simply because they share skin tone, profession, or religious affiliation. America isn’t that far removed from a time when Blacks, Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, Mormons and others had no legal recourse for being discriminated against. But we as a country and society have made great strides. However, in the last few days, much to the dismay and horror of the majority of Americans, the disenfranchised have chosen to discard reason and rational discourse to engage in ex-judicial violence. They have advocated for “race wars.” They are more vociferous and aggressive in their condemnation of foreigners. They are blinded by emotionalism and have conflated their desire to return to a past that made sense to them with the right to threaten a sitting President Barack Obama with death.

They are advocating for undemocratic policies, and seek to elect leaders willing to discard the sacrosanct ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Within the last three days we have witnessed the death of two black men shot dead by officers, and a reported retaliatory shooting, murder, and wounding of several policemen in Dallas, Texas. Yet, in the midst of this mayhem and climate of blame and hate, cooler heads are prevailing and calling upon us to act with dignity, restraint, love, and civility in the face of the deeper undercurrent of distrust, fear, and intolerance which currently besets our nation.

On July 4th the Washington Post featured a post in which Fernando Herboso, 58, and his brother Carlos, who are Hispanic and own their own real-estate company, recount the difficulties they are encountering when trying to sell homes to Muslims wearing traditional clothing in the supposedly progressive suburbs of Washington, DC. They report an incident which occurred when they were showing a U.S. military veteran and his wife a home in Frederick, MD.  When they entered the community clubhouse and went out to the pool area a patron verbally assaulted them.

According to the article, the “woman lounging at the pool took one look at his client’s hijab and said it loud and clear: “We don’t want Muslims in our clubhouse. Take off that robe over [sic] your head!” she boomed.”

In another incident a child of one of his clients needed to use the restroom and the house they were touring had no running water. So he took her across the street where a woman was in the front yard watering her grass. He politely asked her if the little girl could use her restroom and without a word the woman shut off her hose, walked into her house, slammed and locked the door behind her.

This is the America we live in today, a sad reminder of days we thought were long behind us. Practices which we believed eradicated through the enactment of Civil Rights Laws and in this instant, the Fair Housing Act.  U.S. citizens are succumbing to baser natures and vilification of the other in lieu of examining their own role in why they are unable to keep pace with the demands of the new world. With bravado they proclaim that they are no longer holding back and are going to ‘tell it how it is,” but it would seem, to everyone but themselves. People who once privately embraced racism, misogyny, xenophobia, antiSemitism, anti-Muslim, and isolationism, now publicly defend these reprehensible characteristics and when confronted claim they have been misinterpreted.

But White Nationalists are unapologetic in their incitement of violence, or their exhilaration that their agenda has been elevated to the national stage. Sites like The White Genocide Project, promote the myth that racism against whites is a fact and that white people are the only ones who have to give up the country they built. They believe that Asians get to keep Asia, Muslims and Arabs get to keep the Middle East, Jews should be exterminated, and Black people get to keep Africa. Because, according to them all across Europe and in America white people are being forced out of their countries.  But, here is the problem.....America was stolen from the Native Americans, built on the backs of African slaves, and expanded westward through the construction of Central Pacific Railroad at the hands of Chinese-Americans. This is not to say that many other immigrants also didn’t contribute, however, in the early decades of its establishment, the blood, sweat, and tears of these three groups built this nation.

Thus, there are no halcyon days when this was a 'white' country to 'take it back to' or even to make great again. There is only the historical evidence of the dark days of violence, openly legislated systemic racism and intolerance, which resulted in the murder of millions of black slaves, the near annihilation of the Native Americans, and the abject treatment and exploitation of many other immigrants.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the passage of the Brexit referendum is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for Americans being swayed by nationalism, seduced by nativism, and ensnared by nostalgia. The referendum presented British citizens with the choice to leave or remain as member country of the European Union. Overwhelmingly, the country voted in favor of leaving, though many regretted the decision upon review in the cold light of the morning after, leading to over 4 million people signing a petition to hold a second referendum.

The measure passed in large part because of cunning pandering to fear and xenophobia wrapped in the illusion of restoration of days of yore, and the charlatan promises to rob from the rich and give to the poor. For those who voted in favor of leaving or simply to make a political statement of their dislike of the status quo, they were shocked to discover that the passing of the referendum would not lead to greater freedom, opportunity, and affluence. Instead, it ushered the country into a Charles Lutwidge Dodgsonian universe, in which the young people and immigrants are Alice in anything but ‘Wonderland.’ The minute it approved the referendum Britain had to confront the impending reality of diminished presence and participation in the global market space, as well as being excluded from the privileges and ease of mobility that came with being citizen of the EU.

For young people like Sarah Abbasi, there is a great deal of anger toward the older generation holding the future of her generation captive. In her op-ed in The Guardian she wrote that “The future of the younger generation in the UK has been decided against their wishes. A nostalgic older generation has shaken my identity and I no longer fully understand what it means to be British. The number of students wanting to pursue opportunities in another EU country is likely to decline; it remains unclear whether or not future generations will even have the opportunities that were made available to me, which moulded me into an outward-looking, inquisitive and ambitious British.”

In numerous interviews and polls of Brits over 60, they revealed that they wholeheartedly supported leaving the EU so that they could take back their country or return to the way things used to be. In essence they voted to leave so that they could return to the idyllic days of a bygone era. One is tempted to ask if these elderly British citizens also longed for the loss of wealth that occurred immediately after World War II? Or perhaps they wanted to return to the 1970’s when Britain suffered a long running period of relative economic malaise, dogged by severe inflation, strikes, and citizens being regularly targeted in deadly terrorist’s attacks perpetrated by Irish Republican Army (IRA). Maybe they yearned for the times when “Unemployment exceeded 1 million by 1972 and had risen even higher by the time the end of the decade was in sight, passing the 1.5 million mark in 1978? (Source: West Sussex County Times)

It was reported by The Telegraph that the pound has crashed below $1.30 and bond yields hit record lows as Brexit aftershocks rattle global markets.  With the pound trading at its lowest levels in thirty years, inflation is predicted to hit the country hard. This means that older citizens who voted for the measure, were so wedded to the past they failed to take into account the realities of living as a pensioner on fixed income. Now these pensioners must look at their unvarnished history, no longer obfuscated by hazy memories, to accurately recall the difficulties they faced in that ‘better past.’ They must grapple with the present reality of decreased purchasing power of their pensions forcing many to make hard choices, even to the point of forgoing basic necessities.

When British citizens voted on behalf of xenophobia, racism, and isolationism, they deceived themselves and willingly bought into an irrational assertion that it is possible to resurrect the past. These older citizens who live predominantly in areas of the country which suffer from high unemployment as a consequence of the loss of industrial and mill jobs, became willing participants in what can only be described as mass psychosis. They chose to believe in the absurdity that the anachronistic industries that no longer meet the needs of our technology driven world would magically reappear. They longed for and fervently hoped to return to the ‘glory’ days of the Industrial Era. An era as outmoded and inefficient as slavery, the horse and buggy, and gas lights, etc.

Similarly, during each U.S. election cycles, candidates up and down ballot promise the return of factory jobs that supported families and communities in areas of the United States known as the Rust Belt. Politicians count on these constituents looking backwards, resisting progress, acquiescing to complacency and apathy, instead of aggressively retooling their skill-sets to prepare them to compete and grow with technology advancements. They count on their refusal to work in other market sectors despite the evidence that manufacturing has been in rapid decline for decades. Particularly in the steel mills and coal mines 'pink slipped’ workers refuse to acknowledge that these jobs will never come back.

With regard to the fossil fuel industry, many countries, including Saudi Arabia, are planning for future decreases in demand for oil and gas. According to Bloomberg News, the Kingdom plans to invest $109 billion in technologies to harness renewable clean energy sources from solar panels, wind, geothermal and nuclear reactors. Here in the States, coal companies are shuttering their doors and moving their base of operations overseas where regulative oversight is less stringent, and occupational health and safety rules non-existent. Robert Murray, owner of one of America’s largest private coal company, mendaciously informed employees that his company plans to lay off as many as 4,400 workers, or 80 percent of his workforce, and that their only hope to keep their jobs is to vote for a coal-friendly political candidates.

The fact of the matter is the industry is obsolete, and cannot compete against natural gas and other renewable energy producers. But, this didn’t stop Murray or politicians from stoking fears, peddling false hope, and persuaded the workers to blame others for their inability to compete in the new economies. Instead of inspiring confidence in the future, or offering educational opportunities to enable these workers to become more competitive, they appealed to their resentment. They urged them to wallow in self-pity, play the blame game, and adjured them to eschew personal responsibility.

When politicians cynically display and profess empathy for the plight of manufacturing workers and miners, cajoling them into giving them their votes with the patently false and empty promises of bringing back their jobs, they too are guilty of avoiding personal responsibility. They know that they will not be held accountable for the things they promise, so they can say anything with impunity in this culture of irresponsibility. Yet, these jobs will never come back because America no longer has a need for, nor the appetite to, pay for the high costs of these materials when manufactured domestically.

Additionally, our economy is much more complex and driven by domestic and international market forces. We now trade across borders intangible assets, resources, goods and services that are sold at greater profit to emerging countries. Though the economy is not as robust as we would like, we are not in a Great Depression, and the huge infrastructure building programs which were implemented as part of a strategy to kick start our economic engines, are no longer integral to our continued economic stability. Thus, to posit that we are going to turn back the clock, reinvigorate the Rust Belt and put people to work on large infrastructure projects is simplistic a best and deceptive at worst because we live in a world governed by technology.

The past is irrevocably complete and there is something profoundly pathetic and inimical about trying to steer a present into yesteryear and selling it as the future. The time of isolationism is past, we live in a global economy in which working poor and middle class people, especially in America, couldn’t survive without access to the low-costs products produced in China and elsewhere and sold in mega-stores like Walmart and Target. The very idea that the U.S. can pull back from its role as a global leader, ignoring the positive impact of international politics, policies, and trade is absurd. We have become and are becoming an increasing pluralistic and culturally diverse country and this cannot be reversed. So the preposterous idea of expelling all Mexican immigrants, building a wall, or otherwise seeking to once again homogenize the power structure, is not only xenophobic, but would also economically devastate the country and set a dangerous precedent that is antithetical to the democratic ideals of our nation.  

According to the New York Times, if unauthorized farm workers are expelled from the U.S. it would result “not just [in] more expensive produce, but the collapse of American labor-intensive agriculture. Instead of milk from a nearby dairy, the only kind available would come from abroad, and it would be irradiated or powdered. Meat would come from Brazil, shellfish from Thailand, fruits and vegetables from New Zealand — and that's the good, expensive stuff. There would be plenty of inferior products too, and much much less of anything would be fresh.

But worst of all would be the jobs lost for Americans. According to economists, every farm job supports three to four others up and downstream in the local economy: from the people who make and sell fertilizer and farm machinery to those who work in trucking, food processing, grocery stores and restaurants. Do we really want to lose those jobs too? No one in America is going to benefit from expelling immigrant farm workers. And the cost won't be pennies: it will run to billions of dollars.”  

And then there are the technological advances that skilled and highly trained immigrants bring to the economy. Already a challenging process, further restricting or outright closing our borders to immigrants will negatively affect our quality of life and access to innovations which streamline our daily interactions.

The Hill recently reported that “More than 100 chief executives of major tech companies and trade associations — including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer — urged President Obama and Congress on Thursday to reform the existing immigration rules for highly-skilled workers. In recent years, tech giants have argued that the U.S. isn't producing enough graduates with the advanced technical skills needed to fill the several open engineering and research positions they have. In their letter, the tech executives note that IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle combined have 10,000 job openings in the U.S.  

“We call on you to address the need for more qualified, highly-skilled professionals, domestic and foreign, and to enact immigration reform this year."

Once again, it comes down to personal responsibility. There are jobs in the country which Americans are unwilling to do – field workers, domestics, cleaning people, manual day labor, fast food employees, etc. Yet, we blame the immigrants who are willing to do what every other immigrant group has done who came to this country. You start at the bottom, you work hard, you save, poured your hard work and sacrifice into the futures of your children. These people were and are not afraid of responsibility. They did and do not shrink from the challenges of becoming captains of their destiny. They did and do appreciate the gift of democracy and freedom, and we would do well to return to this.

We shall fall as a nation if we chose to circle our wagons to the exclusion of the majority of people who do not look like us, pray like us, or talk like us. Emma Lazarus inspired us to enlarge our tents in the second and most famous stanza of her sonnet “The New Colossus,” in honor of The Statue of Liberty.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

If we chose to turn our backs on this path and shutter our borders, we shall dim that light of that beacon that will guide us through these uncertain times. If we start to single out groups of people and accuse them of being un-American, we risk reviving the “practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.” In so doing, the U.S. shall lose its moral authority, and become no better than other countries where differences are not tolerated and often violently eradicated.

It is up to us to bury the carcasses of mythos, inhumanity, and the shamefulness of a past that didn’t serve us well as a nation. We must at every opportunity disabuse those who extol a time when people could abuse, subjugate, and kill others with impunity simply because they believed it was an inalienable right. We must resist all attempts to force us into suspicion and distrust, and reporting on our neighbors. We must remember our recent past, when tactics disguised as policy were implemented to disenfranchise American citizens.

We must stand firm and denounce all efforts to implement a national registration system for law-abiding Muslim Americans. We must remember our history so we don’t repeat it. We need look no further than January 14, 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor to see the ruinous and un-American conclusion of this type of thinking and rhetoric.

Today, it is the Muslim Americans, but in 1942 it was Japanese Americans. First, was the War Department’s blanket Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt which authorized the physical removal and detention of all Japanese Americans into internment camps in the interest of national security, after having classified them as enemy aliens. 127,000 Japanese American citizens, some of whom were veterans, became subject to racism, violence, and had their houses, businesses, and other property stolen. Not just because of the executive order, but by being labeled as such, they were distrusted as potential sleeper agents who could turn upon their communities and country even unto future generations.

Let us not ‘Regrexit’ because we have blithely succumbed to fear mongering and hatred, or apathetically acquiesced to the belief that there isn’t much we can do. We are responsible for this American experience, and we are the people, who are for the people, and governed by the people who protect the best of this democratic experiment. We should not let a vociferous minority define us as the majority. We should continue to enlarge our capacity for tolerance predicated upon an innate desire to be compassionate toward ourselves and each other. We must continue to push ourselves and our Constitution to embody the best in us, because it is only in this way that we will continue to evolve individually and as a nation. We must take to heart and heed the timeless warning that all evil needs to prevail is for good people to remain silent.

Today, America is at a cross-road, we face a choice between two paths and the future lies on the one less traveled. It is within the boundless possibilities of the unknowable that we can reaffirm our commitment to protecting the ideals of democracy, diversity, pluralism, and freedom. However, it will require bravery, it will require honesty, and it will be difficult. People have grown accustomed to blaming others and outside circumstances for their personal failings. We must take responsibility and face reality - a man is born, he lives, and he dies. If we are unhappy with our life and desire for change, we should as Ghandi recommended, ‘be the change we wish to see in the world,” and this starts and ends with personal responsibility.

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Nigeria’s Corruption Problem: The Causes and Attempts to find a Solution

Anti-Corruption Sign, "Corruption is the parent to poverty," Jos, Nigeria, Photo by Mike Blyth

Anti-Corruption Sign, "Corruption is the parent to poverty," Jos, Nigeria, Photo by Mike Blyth

NIGERIA - In the 1960s, most of Nigeria’s exports were agricultural products. But after the 1970s oil boom, Nigeria became a powerhouse economy, with large multi-nations flocking to the country to exploit its national oil reserves. By the late 1970s, Nigeria had the per capita income of around $1100, which made it the fastest growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. While the oil industry has allowed Nigeria access to international capital markets and thus pursue ambitious private and public sector projects, the oil industry has also made Nigeria more susceptible to corruption. In a survey conducted by the German anti-corruption establishment Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, Nigeria ranked 32nd from the bottom in their annual Corruption Perception Index.

There are many reasons why this corruption exists. Nigeria’s foreign debt problem incentivizes Nigerian officials to participate in money laundering schemes which includes government officials embezzling oil money for private enrichment. Some of the blame could also be attributed to Nigeria’s traditions and cultures. Traditional customs stress gift giving. Those in power, such as businessmen, politicians and other public servants are likely to trade gifts as a way to strengthen interpersonal connections. Nigeria is not the only nation fighting corruption that has evolved as a consequence of these traditions. China, for example, also has a gift giving culture and the government is battling corruption there as well. 

It is worthy to note that corruption isn't just driven by financial remuneration, because just as many powerful officials engage in this illicit behavior to assuage a deep seated psychological need to safe guard their positions. This is especially prevalent during times of political instability. In these instances, bribery is used to prevent being ousted from power, where they may in some cases be forced out into an environment in which they must try to rebuild their lives, but are unable to do so because of the many enemies they created while in power. Their sudden debasement, in particular with extreme cases where they didn’t secret away money, these officials can end up living in poverty.

In Nigeria, officials may be forced out of power by a coup d’etat or low public opinion polls. Much of the corruption in Nigeria is policy-induced, in other words, the regulations and standard operating procedures overseeing government officials affords them an unwarranted amount of freedom to manipulate the system in their favor, often in the form of large sums of cash hidden in off-shore accounts in countries like Switzerland known for its stringent banking privacy practices.

The anti-corruption campaign in Nigeria should not only rely on efforts of political retribution, but also incorporate economic and structural reforms. These reforms should employ punitive action in the form of a national policy for fiscal restructuring. This would include cutting down practices such as ‘rent-seeking’ which is quite prevalent in Nigeria and other African nations. This odd term describes a systemic corruption scheme in which a public officials seek affluence and wealth without working or minimal effort.

It is a form of corruption which predictably results in reduced economic efficiency because funds allocated for specific public safety programs or infrastructure improvements are siphoned off. The resulting decrease in revenue due to these misappropriation of funds, retards economic growth, depresses upward mobility, decreases job opportunities, and fosters income inequality. All of which forms the basis for failed states, and oppressive regimes ill-equipped and in most cases, unwilling to reallocate funds to their rightful purposes. This form of corruption has statistically led to economic decline on a national level.

The newly appointed Nigerian Police acting Inspector General, Ibrahim Idris vowed to reform the police to assist in combating corruption at the highest levels of government. This in and of itself is a gargantuan task given its infamous reputation for criminality and corruption that exist in many police departments. Yet, Idris has vowed to implement tougher legal enforcement measures designed to increase effectiveness in apprehending corrupt officials. During his inauguration ceremony last Tuesday, 21 June 2016, Idris gave a speech promising reforms that will require police officers to more seriously investigate citizens’ complaints against corrupt officials, and to pursue redress these complaints to a natural conclusion, even if it results in charges, trial, and possible conviction.

He also supports partnering with forensic libraries and operating centers throughout Nigeria to better coordinate investigatory efforts, establish standard operating procedures, and design protocols by which security agencies must abide. Without a unified approach, Idris’ promises will become just as ineffective as previous attempts to root out corruption, especially when the allure of extra money is tempting to police officers who are paid low salaries.

Despite these challenges Nigeria continues to be one of the most prosperous sub-Saharan countries. The Economist estimates that Nigeria’s economy will triple in size by the year 2030. However, foreign investment remains a vital component to maintaining this rate of growth. Therein lies the challenge, because the high risk of government officials absconding with the money, and low rate of return because of corruption and bribery, foreign investors are less likely to commit funds or support capital infrastructure projects. Nigeria’s fight against internal corruption is intensifying, but these efforts still have a long way to go.   

Contributing Journalist: @Helene_Serena
LinkedIn: Helen Huang

Palestinians Learn from Israel’s History of Making Handmade Weapons For Use Against an Occupying Power

"Carlo" - Handmade Imitation of the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45 Sub-machine Gun, Source: The Truth About Guns.com

"Carlo" - Handmade Imitation of the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45 Sub-machine Gun, Source: The Truth About Guns.com

ISRAEL - It’s been said that history has an uncanny tendency of repeating, and that those who don't know history are damned to relive it. But, sometimes the repetition of the past is deliberate, especially when the lessons from it are used as a proverbial playbook to frame current actions and strategies. When this happens, it can lead to some interesting conclusions. An example of this phenomenon can be found through the study of the similarities of recent events in the decades-old conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University, published an op-ed critique in the Washington Post of the book ‘Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947’ by Bruce Hoffman (Knopf). He writes about the deftness with which Hoffman draws parallels between the Jews struggle for freedom from the occupying power of British rule and those of the Palestinians today.  

“Palestinian and Israeli narratives have always been more reflective of each other than contrasting. Both peoples suffered exile from their homeland and the experience of being refugees. Both believe they have been the victims of historical injustice. Both claim the same land and have a primordial attachment to that specific land. And members of both have engaged in acts of terrorism in the pursuit of national self-determination and independence.”

At the risk of giving too much away, or even straying from the focus of this article, and in the interest of transparency, in his book, Hoffman does highlight the differences in how Jewish terrorists resisted the British versus tactics employed by the Palestinians today. 

Despite this, Kurtzer acknowledged that “…One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and Hoffman's study will undoubtedly add to the partisan debate over who exactly was and is a “terrorist,” and whether violence associated with the struggle of one people for national independence is more legitimate than the struggle of another people.”

The weapons used by the Israelis between 1917 and 1947 to fight against the British were often handmade because of a lack of access to arms dealers. Fast forward to the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and it has become evident that there is a marked increase in terrorists attacks in which handmade weapons have been utilized in attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces. Of these new and potentially lethal firearms, a cheap imitation of the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45 sub-machine gun (better known by its street name, the “Carlo”) has emerged as one of the most popular handmade weapons.

The “Carlo” has been tied to a string of recent attacks, including one this past February, which took the life of a 19-year-old Border Police officer, Hadar Cohen. Though crude and inaccurate - the firearm was highly effective. It was constructed from cheap and readily found materials, and in this case the barrel of the gun used in this particular case was crafted from a commercially available water pipe. Other such weapons, used in similar recent attacks throughout the country, have been constructed from blueprints found on the internet and assembled out of household items such as fridge pipes, metal hoses, and other random pieces of metal.

Jewish militants, fighting for their independence also worked secretly and around the clock to produce a series of handmade weapons for use against the opposing British forces. Like the “Carlo,” which is now favored by Palestinian militants, a favorite firearm produced by the Jewish resistance was the Sten sub-machine gun. Cheap to produce, this weapon was essentially a hollowed-out metal tube which could spit out bullets. Yet, it became the scourge of British troops who often fell victim to its deadly simplicity.

The weapon was a favorite among the pre-state militias, such as the Lehi and the Irgun, who manufactured and used the weapon with devastating effectiveness. All too common were attacks like one in which a British police sergeant was killed, and three other police officers wounded when ambushed while sitting in a cafe.

It was the relative ease of construction and an inability to control the everyday items from which the weapons were fashioned which has led to escalating concern among local security and military officials. Similarly, the "Carlo,” a handmade Imitation of the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45 sub-machine gun, is a simple design easily constructed from discarded material.  It is comprised of three separate components: an internal mechanism, a barrel, and ammunition, and of all these the ammunition is the least complicated to compound. All other pieces can be manufactured by using common machinery; such as pipe-cutters and lathes, operated by a single person or small group of individuals.

The period in which this weapon was originally manufactured, from the 40’s to the 60’s, lends itself to uncomplicated duplication and inexpensive cost to produce. Consequently, they are readily obtainable on the black market for as little as $750. Perhaps most troubling, is that this also makes it untraceable which further complicates efforts to keep peace in the region. As use of this weapon becomes much more prevalent, and as Security officials seek ways to stop its manufacture and spread, it takes us back to the beginning of the article and to the premise of the oft penchant for humans to repeat history.

Like the Palestinians, the Israelis similarly manufactured and distributed illegal arms for use in its battle against the English occupiers. A war that sought to expel the colonialists from a region that was governed under the British Mandate prior to the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948. Eerily, it seems that the Palestinians have studied and employed a few lessons in warfare from the history of Israel’s struggle against its own former occupier, and that they are equally determined.

Ironically, like the British, Israeli security officials now find themselves in a difficult but strangely reminiscent position that the colonialist must have certainly confronted. The reality that the efficacy of their efforts to hinder the production of the handmade weapons by the Israelis may not have been as effective or swift as they desired or required.  

The question remains, now that the Palestinians are manufacturing and distributing the “Carlo” for use in their resistance against what they see as an occupying ruling government, can the Israelis succeed where the British ultimately failed? Can they control the production and spread of similar handmade weapons used by the Palestinians to attack Israelis, or will they find themselves on the opposite side of a dynamic which may portend a repeat of history of their own independence?

Contributing Journalist: @JonEizyk
LinkedIn: Jon Eizyk

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Continues to Purchase Defense Systems from Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) at G20 2015, Antalya, Turkey, Photo Ahmet Bolat - Anadolu Agency

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) at G20 2015, Antalya, Turkey, Photo Ahmet Bolat - Anadolu Agency

ASIA - Indian Prime Minister Modi addressed the U.S. Congress last Wednesday June 8th, marking his fourth visit to the United States since taking office. The state of India-U.S. relations as described by Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a “pillar of strength in an important region of the world." Prime Minister Modi has also recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who emphasized the growing cooperation between India and Russia as he reiterates his support for “developing the privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia.”

India, the world’s largest arms importer, continues to purchase Russian arms in large and growing amounts. While policymakers in the United States stress over India’s recent growing appetite for Russian weapons, Russian officials disapprove of India’s defense deals with the United States and its allies such as Israel.

Historically, India had been a major purchaser of Soviet armaments. After the 1990s, however, India started to turn to the United States for arms imports. In the past 20 years, India has relied largely on the United States to supply it with arms.

This is not to say that the relationship between the two nations’ leadership have always been peachy. In 2005, members of the American Congress banned Prime Minister Modi from obtaining a visa to visit the United States based on his failure to stop the anti-Muslim attacks three years’ prior in the Indian state of Gujarat. Since then, American leaders and Prime Minister Modi have reconciled under President Obama’s administration. The shared interests of the United States and India included and still include maintaining maritime security in the India-Asia Pacific, such as maritime transportation of legal goods, as agreed during Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s visit with Indian Defense Minister Raksha Mantri this year in April. A major drive for cooperation to maintain maritime security has to do specifically with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which was called upon to reach a resolution by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) under the “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” agreement. As demonstrated in Prime Minister Modi’s meetings with President Obama, Congress, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, both India and the United States intend to cooperate on matters in the India-Asia Pacific.

However, India has also started to seek out Russian bilateral ties in an attempt to change its image as an American subordinate to a more complex player in international politics.

This is great for Russia’s defense exporters. As European nations that were traditionally reliant on Russia for defense are starting to develop their own arms or purchase more Western arms than Russian, the importance of Russia’s arms exports to Asia increases. An estimated 60 percent of all Russian arms exports are to Asia, with 39 percent going specifically to India. Last year in December, India purchased five Russian S-400 supersonic air defense systems, which estimated a cost of roughly 6 billion USD. India shares a great deal of Russia’s goals when it comes to counterterrorism. In past talks, both Modi and Putin were troubled by the security in and bordering around Afghanistan. Both leaders have also expressed support for the termination of terrorist ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan. On the other hand, Russia has also supplied Pakistan with Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters and Klimov RDP93 engines for the JF-17. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s calling Russia “a strong and reliable friend”, it remains to be seen if Russia will continue to provide Pakistan with armaments without requiring it to ban ‘safe havens’ for terrorists.

This is not to say that India has decreased its American defense purchases over the recent years. In 2004, India spent 200 million USD on American arms. In 2014, India spent 2 billion USD and it was during this year that India purchased more from the United States than Russia.

The business to export more weapons to India grows even more competitive with India’s plans to expand its own defense manufacturing and to spend 250 billion USD over the next ten years upgrading its military. Both the United States and Russia have expressed interests to contribute to the development of India’s domestic defense manufacturing. Recently, India has produced the 155mm Dhanush field artillery while it is currently working on the Vibrant-class aircraft carrier.

The United States is the world’s largest arms exporter, with Russia coming in second. The competition to export to India is not exclusively for the reasons of financial gain in the defense industry. Exporting arms leverages cooperation and the cooperation of a nation with a geopolitical advantage such as India will pave way for tactical gains in counter-terrorism and security in the Asia Pacific.

Contributing Journalist: @Helene_Serena
LinkedIn: Helen Huang

The History of American Aid for Jordan

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2012. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2012. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

JORDAN, Amman - The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, one of the Unite States' key ally in the troubled Middle East. It is also one of more than 200 other countries and territories across the globe that consistently receive annual U.S. aid to help face their political and economic hardships. However, despite all this financial support Jordan has received from the second half of the last century up to today, the country has incurred heavy debt of almost $24 billion or around 90 percent of its GDP.  

Based on USAID’s data, this article sheds the light on the extent to which America financed the support Jordan for over the past 16 years, in effect bolstering the reign King Abdulla who ascended the throne in 1999 and continues to rule.

Money received

Jordan has received almost $13 billion during Abdulla's reign, which accounts for 46 percent of the total amount of aid given by America since 1951. When Abdulla inherited the throne of Father King Hussain, as the new ruler he took a more aggressive approach to broadening the country's relationship with the U.S. It appears that the relationship was quid pro quo, giving the appearance that America purchased the country to strengthen its presence in the Middle East. This in effect was how Jordan became a key alley to the U.S, during its invasion of Iraq in 2003, and established the foundation of a joint venture in the war against terrorism in the Middle East.

U.S giving aid to Jordan in 1951, resulting in the cumulative amount of aid given to the country at an astounding $28 billion. The data also shows that Jordan has received approximately $700 million per annum. In 2003, the year of the U.S invasion of Iraq, Jordan received its highest amount in aid which topped out at $1.5 billion.

Another notable fact was that during the intervening years of the civil war in Syria, the U.S. has exponentially increased both its presence in the region and aid to Jordan. Between 2012-2014, the country was given around 4 billion dollars, more than one billion each year in aid or roughly 14% of the total amount of aid the U.S. has given to the country since 1951.

During those three years, Jordan has also tried to absorb more than half a million refugees from neighboring Syria, while actively participating and supporting its allies in the war against ISIS.

In general, the data shows that the amount of aid has tripled over the examined period, increasing from almost $300 million in 1999 to more than $800 million in 2015.


Aid by category

Analyzing the data based on the category of the type of aid received, both economic or military, shows that economic aids was consistetly higher than that allocated to the military.

Aid by sector

Over the past 16 years, the lion share of the aid, around $3 billion or 26%, was channeled into Security System Management and Reform. Second on the list was General Budget Support, around $2 billion (18%) of the aids.Other sectors of the government have also been allocated aid during the examined period totaling five billion dollars. Second, came the category called “Other” which totaled around $3.5 billion. Of this number, the lowest awards were earmarked for education and economic growth and totaled around $300 million each. Despite the billions of dollars in aid to ostensibly improve governance, the country has failed to date to make any significant political reform.

Though initially seen as migrating toward a democracy, the government was actually more akin to a plutocracy. Now, King Abdullah rules as an autocratic monarch, a role which was codified by recent constitutional amendments which increased his powers to appoint and dismiss senior government employees. Most recently these included the president of the judiciary council, the president and the members of the constitutional court. Taken in tandem with his power to both handpick an appoint the prime minister, the chief of the staff and the president of the intelligence department, he has become the rule of law. A king who actually controls both the judiciary and executive branches of government giving him absolute power. This is in addition to his control of the army and security forces.

Transparency International, an organization with "chapters in more than 100 countries and an international secretariat in Berlin, is leading the fight against corruption to turn this vision into reality." A database of Corruption by Countries/Region, which includes a number of data points, including a "Corruption Perception Index” which assesses the amount of corruption perceived or actual which exists in any given countries' public sector. In 2015, on a scale of 168, the Kingdom scored 45, which is counter-intuitive to the fact that so much aid has been awarded to the country with a particular emphasis on political reform. The organization had another revealing indicator which measured the “control of corruption,” which reflects how much public power is exercised for private gain. The index includes both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as "capture" of the state by elites and private interests. Jordan also scored quite low at 0.040 where the highest rank is 2.5 and lowest -2.5. (Source: World Bank)

Thus, the question remains, what has been gained by the magnanimous support of $38 billion given by America? Since it hasn't resulted in economic stability, as the country is poised on the precipice of insolvency, the priority is evidently focused on military efforts to maintain stability in the region. Hopefully in the future, once the eradication of the shared enemy, ISIS, has been accomplished and the war is won, additional aid will be tied to specific goals and milestones. One requirement may be to pay down the debt, as well as a shift toward more equitable and balanced governance, with a return to the separation of important branches of the government. But for now, Jordan like many other countries around the world has entered into a quid-pro-quo relationship with the U.S. It isn't all bad, nor as nefarious as some could make it, but what has been bought and paid for is a location from which to wage war against one of the most dangerous terrorist organization that threatens the West and the Middle East. It also provides direct on the ground access to the region which vastly improves intelligence gathering efforts. This is all good.

However, in these days and times when enemies form partnerships to achieve shared goals, governments need to take note of the potential price which may ultimately be exacted. Allies purchased through economic aid should be cautious and cognizant of the fate of many leaders in the Middle East and around the world who have benefited from Western largess, military arsenal, and technologies. The infusion of capital and assets often remains at the top and is purchased at the price of the ordinary citizens. People who end up suffering under the whims of dictators and authoritarian regimes supported by the U.S. for political expediency. In the Middle East alone this included Ruhollah Khomeini who governed Iran from 1979 - 1989, Hosni Mubarak who governed Egypt from 1981 - 2011, and Saddam Hussein who governed Iraq from 1979 - 2003 when he was executed. Of course there are many other oppressive regimes around the world that are supported by America, most notably in Africa, but the challenges and questions remain the same.

Does the need of the U.S. for political, military, or economic gain far outweigh the potential abuse of human rights? This is a question we all need to ask, and perhaps even pose to our government.

Contributing Journalist: @ImadSulieman
LinkedIn: Imad Alrawashdeh

Sexual Abuse in Peacekeeping: A Not So Simple Answer

37-Year-Old Rape Victim, Mali, IDPS Bamako, Photo by Voice Nature World Plus

37-Year-Old Rape Victim, Mali, IDPS Bamako, Photo by Voice Nature World Plus

CENTRAL AFRICA - Since late March, the United Nations (UN) has come under fire on allegations that peacekeepers committed acts of sexual violence against civilian populations. The advocacy group, AIDS-free-world, made several leaked documents public in March of 2016 which implicated French soldiers and UN peacekeepers in acts of sexual abuse against the populations they were sent to protect. A large portion of these claims come from the Central African Republic, where French soldiers were deployed to help quell internal violence that began in 2013. The first allegations pre-date the establishment of the UN sanctioned peacekeeping mission, known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which was authorized by the UN Security Council in April of 2014. Most of these were directed against French military personnel who were assisting African Union regional stabilization forces. Accusations of sexual abuse against peacekeepers from France, Gabon and Burundi were, however, reported after the establishment of MINUSCA and implicated the UN and its administration. Though many of these accusations are still under investigation, this information highlights the structural flaws within the UN that would allow such heinous acts to happen in the first place.

The current reports of sexual abuse are not the first the international organization has had to address. Sexual abuse on peacekeeping missions has been an ongoing problem within the UN system dating back to stabilization efforts in Cambodia during 1992. Most subsequent missions have also had at least some reports of misconduct, rape or abuse. With few exceptions, most accused perpetrators receive little to no punishment. This is because the UN itself, being an international organization, lacks any sort of power to legally prosecute individuals. Prosecution of criminal acts must be done by individual countries, and peacekeepers on a mission cannot be prosecuted by the host country in which they serve due to diplomatic immunity. Peacekeepers can only be prosecuted by their home country from which they originate. Most troop contributing countries for peacekeeping operations have, however, been reluctant to investigate and prosecute accused soldiers.

This leaves two questions regarding the widespread misconduct and sexual abuse. First, why has the UN been ineffective in addressing the structural challenges that allow such acts to manifest? Second, why are troop contributing countries reluctant to punish their own soldiers, especially in instances where misconduct is clear? The answers to these questions can come from current UN officials themselves. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, UN Special Representative to the Central African Republic, said in an interview with Foreign Policy Magazine that “countries aren’t exactly queuing to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions.” This means that any measures that the UN might put forth, such as expelling contingents of troops with multiple allegations, would cause a backlash from those who provide troops and cut off a much needed resource. Thus politics often comes into play when addressing these types of allegations at the New York Headquarters.

In terms of holding soldiers accountable in their home country, we often see a lack of political will and capacity. Less than five percent of allegations end up with the home country of the soldiers legally prosecuting them. There has been a long held observation that those countries that do contribute soldiers often prioritize domestic legal matters as opposed to those that happen in a different country. Likewise, most troop contributing countries are unwilling to admit any wrong-doing or are unable pursue trial because the evidence collected by the UN does not meet national standards needed to prosecute. Thus, we are left with a situation where soldiers know they practically have immunity in certain cases of rape and other human rights abuses. Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch himself said: “They know very well that, legally, the hands of national authorities and the United Nations are tied.”

We are left with a sensitive political situation that may threaten the efficacy of current and future peacekeeping operations. While certain solutions, such as the suggestion to collect DNA from all soldiers for paternity testing might have some impact, the international community is still faced with the lack of political will, mostly on the part of troop contributing countries. Pressing or coercing such countries to prosecute their soldiers might backfire, and peacekeeping missions could end up understaffed. Again, this result could actually do more harm than good and might potentially destabilize the country in which justice is sought. The international community might be better served to address these problems by better connecting troop contributing countries to potential solutions. One such example is Hervé Ladsous’s proposal for a specialized military court in countries hosting peacekeeping operations. It was not said who should staff these theoretical courts, but perhaps allocating spots for those who contribute the most soldiers to the host country might create political will to hold peacekeepers who commit heinous acts of abuse accountable.

Contributing Journalist: @AdamWolf
LinkedIn: Adam Wolf

Twenty Commandments for Ethical Living

High Desert Canyon, Photo by romain guy

High Desert Canyon, Photo by romain guy

1. Rise with the sun to pray. Pray alone. Pray often. The Great Spirit will listen, if you only speak.

2. Be tolerant of those who are lost on their path. Ignorance, conceit, anger, jealousy and greed stem from a lost soul. Pray that they will find guidance.

3. Search for yourself, by yourself. Do not allow others to make your path for you. It is your road and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.

4. Treat the guests in your home with much consideration. Serve them the best food, give them the best bed and treat them with respect and honor.

5. Do not take what is not yours whether from a person, a community, the wilderness or from a culture. If it was not earned or given, it is not yours.

6. Respect all things that are placed upon this earth - whether it is people or plant.

7. Honor other people's thoughts, wishes and words. Never interrupt another or mock or rudely mimic them. Allow each person the right to personal expression.

8. Never speak of others in a bad way. The negative energy that you put out into the universe will multiply when it returns to you.

9. All people make mistakes, and all mistakes can be forgiven.

10. Bad thoughts cause illness of the mind, body and spirit. Practice optimism.

11. Nature is not FOR us, it is a PART of us. They are part of your worldly family.

12. Children are the seeds of our future. Plant love in their hearts and water them with wisdom and life's lessons. When they are grown, give them space to grow.

13. Avoid hurting the hearts of others. The poison of your pain will return to you.

14. Be truthful at all times. Honesty is the test of ones will within this universe.

15. Keep yourself balanced. Your Mental self, Spiritual self, Emotional self, and Physical self - all need to be strong, pure and healthy. Work out the body to strengthen the mind. Grow rich in spirit to cure emotional ails.

16. Make conscious decisions as to who you will be and how you will react. Be responsible for your own actions.

17. Respect the privacy and personal space of others. Do not touch the personal property of others - especially sacred and religious objects. This is forbidden.

18. Be true to yourself first. You cannot nurture and help others if you cannot nurture and help yourself first.

19. Respect others religious beliefs. Do not force your belief on others.

20. Share your good fortune with others. Participate in charity.

Editor-in-Chief: @ayannanahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Obesity in China: A Plague of Affluence

Lu Zhihao, 4, Foshan, Guangdong province March 28, 2011, Photo: REUTERS/Joe Tan

Lu Zhihao, 4, Foshan, Guangdong province March 28, 2011, Photo: REUTERS/Joe Tan

CHINA - There is a big problem - one which has only gotten bigger in recent years. For the first time, researchers have confirmed that China is facing an ever-growing problem with obesity, an epidemic that has typically only plagued Western nations such as the United States. According to reports, China which previously ranked second among countries with rising rates of obesity, finds itself in the unenviable position of surpassing the US in terms of percentage of obese citizens. “A new Gallup survey published on Friday shows that the obesity rate among adults surged in 2015 to a new high of 28 percent, or a 2.5 percentage point increase since 2008. That means the ranks of dangerously overweight Americans increased by 6.1 million adults over that seven-year period.” (Source: The Fiscal Times)

In many countries, especially those with emerging economies, obesity is associated with economic prosperity. For instance, in Mauritania, a practice called ‘gavage,’ the force feeding of girls to make them fat, is still practiced despite the obvious health risks. This practice is a consequence of societal norms of beauty which arose from the association of weight with affluence.  In this North African country where famine and starvation historically resulted in women being vastly underweight, being overweight signified the converse. Thus, obesity became alluring despite the grave health risks associated with it. However, in the affluent nation such as the U.S., obesity is the result of a complex confluence of factors, including stress, lack of exercise, smoking cigarettes, eating processed or genetically modified foods, or other known ‘fat’ culprits such as high fructose corn syrup.

Those less in tune would find the trend of obesity on the rise in China incomprehensible. From a Western perspective, a country with nearly 1.4 billion citizens is certainly unable to adequately support, much less provide enough food to feed these many people. Thus, it is a conundrum how the plague of obesity has beset a nation in which many of the country's oldest residents vividly recall a time in which the opposite was true. It was during the brutal era of the great famines of China. This tragic part of China’s history is rarely discussed, nor do many young and modern citizens recall the horrendous circumstances in which 45 million people died. Following the Communist Party’s take over in 1949, a deadly combination of natural disasters and ill-conceived government policies resulted in farms being forcibly taken or farmers being ordered to produce food well beyond the capacity of their lands. These farmers were not allowed to consume the food they produced, and if they protested against this mistreatment they were maimed, tortured, or killed.

Shockingly, within less than 70 years, China has managed to go from one extreme to another. It has transformed itself from a nation torn apart by a cultural and political revolution, to one which churns out an astronomical number of exports to the tune of “US$2.282 trillion in 2015.” The top 10 products which the U.S. and other nations purchase from China include, “Electronic equipment, Machines, engines, pumps, Furniture, lighting, signs, Knit or crochet clothing, Clothing, Medical, technical equipment, Plastics, Vehicles, Iron or steel products, and Footwear.” (Source: World’s Top ExportsThe affluence which China has experienced as a result of becoming one of the world’s leading manufacturer is reflected in improved economic stability and social ascendancy which many of its citizens now realize. 

With more discretionary income and leisure time, Chinese citizens are now experiencing a trend which was once unimaginable.  Unprecedented increases in the rate of obesity among its citizenry, particularly with the country's youth, and predominantly in its male population. Boys seem to be at highest risk for this endemic predisposition towards obesity. Recent findings have shown that as of 2014, a staggering 17% of boys and 9% of girls under the age of 19 were reported as being obese, up from just 1% of each when the studies were first conducted in 1985. In addition to the issue of obesity, there has also been an increase in corollary non-communicative illnesses.

  • Juvenile Diabetes: According to a 6 April 2016, World Health Organization news release, Unhealthy lifestyles are also putting China’s children at risk of developing diabetes: more than 4 in 5 adolescents 11-17 years do not get enough physical activity, and rates of overweight and obesity in children are increasing rapidly: from less than 3% in 1985 to around 1 in 10 in girls and 1 in 5 boys in 2010.”
  • Adult Diabetes: The estimated prevalence of diabetes among a representative sample of Chinese adults was 11.6% and the prevalence of prediabetes was 50.1%. Projections based on sample weighting suggest this may represent up to 113.9 million Chinese adults with diabetes and 493.4 million with prediabetes. These findings indicate the importance of diabetes as a public health problem in China. (Source: ResearchGate, Prevalence and Control of Diabetes in Chinese Adults)
  • Hypertension: In 2010, the prevalence of hypertension increased to 33.6% (35.3% in men and 32.0% in women) or 335.8 million Chinese adults based on the China Noncommunicable Disease Surveillance 2010, which was conducted in a nationally representative sample of 98 658 Chinese adults aged at least 18. (Source: Journal of Hypertension in China)
  • Heart Disease and Stroke: The European Society of Cardiology presented to the 27th Great Wall International Congress of Cardiology Asia Pacific Heart Congress the fact that “40%, the mortality rate due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) in China is amongst the highest in the world¹ and has been rightly described as an epidemic.  Its population faces a catalogue of CVD risk factor statistics that expose high levels of obesity, diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure, and a smoking habit within males that is proving stubborn to address. (Source: European Society of Cardiology)

These many obesity-related factors are causing growing concern among Chinese government officials, who worry that it will put increased burden on China's healthcare system which currently lacks the elasticity to handle non-communicable diseases such as obesity which is largely preventable.  In China, as in the U.S., the drastic changes in weight gain among its citizenry is also linked to a growing popularity for high-sodium and fatty foods (such as fast food), which are both inexpensive and readily available. Additionally, China struggles with the cultural acceptance of cigarette smoking, which is another deadly factor that contributes to a host of long-term illnesses. In the U.S. smoking has been advertised as deleterious to one’s health, and many people, especially those who are health conscious, find the practice anathema.

However, smoking isn’t viewed with the same negative connotations outside of the U.S. In Europe, Africa, and the Middle East smoking is a integral component of social interactions, and the same can be said of China. Smoking among the younger generation is on the increase, and this coupled with decreased levels of physical activity are contributing factors to the rise of obesity.  Their decisions to relocate to major cities to pursue high paying job and educational opportunities are the very things which now disadvantaged them. They have replaced low wages and physical labor, with jobs where they work long hours in cramped office spaces, under stressful conditions, which they relieve by smoking or drinking alcohol, neither of which are little more than palliatives.

Officials in both countries are now racing against the clock to aggressively combat a crisis that is both socially and economically complex. One which will take the combined efforts of the citizens, scientists, food producers, and the health care system to develop a long-term strategy for tackling this problem. Steps have been taken by both nations to raise public awareness of the problem through advertisement, anti-smoking campaigns, instructing doctors to provide BMI information to patients in addition to their weight, as well as promoting programs designed to help people develop better eating and exercise habits. Additionally, the creation of educational programs throughout China, such as those sponsored by the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (Source: JUCCCE), have achieved some success in teaching kids the importance of eating healthy.

Here in the U.S. similar programs have been implemented with the goal of encouraging Americans to make positive healthy lifestyle changes, however, it is as difficult for the government of the U.S. as it is for China to convince people to adjust social norms. For example, as Americans have become more obese, manufacturers make clothes in larger sizes to accommodate increased girths. Many of these clothes are made in China which produces them in accordance with consumer demand. Though this correlation is simplistic, one thing is for certain - China and the U.S. would greatly benefit from moving beyond a relationship governed solely by economic expediency to one which protects the health of the two most important resources of their economic ecosystem - laborers and consumers.

The epidemic of obesity which plagues both nations has far reaching repercussions both economically and societally. The levels of economic prosperity, the ease of modern living, plentiful goods and services, and access to functional and unburdened health systems, are all things which are threatened should each nation fail to stop this scourge. It is imperative that we remember in meeting this daunting challenge that real change is only accomplished through implementing strategies which promise long-term success.

Waging a successful ‘battle of the bulge’ will be a slow and arduous undertaking, one which could best be viewed in terms of dieting.  One can lose a lot of weight quickly and just as easily gain it back and then some, or one can implement a regime that takes longer and requires more discipline, but ultimately leads to a gradual return to optimal health. Thus, it is important for us to remain cognizant of the pitfalls of focusing all of our effort on a single aspect of this epidemic to the exclusion of all others, because to do so would be akin to winning the battle, but losing the war.

Contributing Journalist: @JonEizyk
LinkedIn: Jon Eizyk