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UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kyrgyzstan (Video)

The head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres headed to Kyrgyzstan this week to oversee the UN Refugee Agency’s efforts there. 

Sky News caught up with him yesterday.


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Happy Canada Day!

In honor of Canada day, here is arguably the best classic rock song ever written about Canadian colonial history. Can’t help but think the Acadians’ plight might have been made easier should the international Organization for Migration or the UN Refugee Agency existed back in 1759.


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Failed States and the UN

I attended a panel at the New America Foundation yesterday that included James Traub (one of my favorite authors), Steve Clemons (a friend and former boss) and Pauline Baker of the Fund for Peace for a discussion of the Fund’s Failed States Index, which is published annually in Foreign Policy.  FP’s Editor in Chief Susan Glasser moderated.

The conversation focused on what the United States can and should do to take on the problem of failed states.  To get a sense of what we are talking about, here are the top ten failed states from the 2010 index: 



The panelists lamented that there was no comprehensive U.S. approach to failed states. It would seem to me, however, that the United States has had a fairly consistent strategy for dealing with failing states:  pass off the problem to the United Nations.  Seven of these countries — Somalia, Chad, Sudan, DRC, Afghanistan, Iraq, and CAR have had a robust UN political or peacekeeping presence (or both), since at least 2003.  In each of these cases the United States, through its presence on the Security Council, pushed for the internationalization of these states’ civil wars, political failures, or humanitarian disasters.  

Why would the US turn to the UN so consistently in these matters? I think it has to do with the fact that the United States believes it has a prudential or moral interest in resolving problems associated with state failure (like civil war or humanitarian crises.) The thing is, even though the United States may want to act in each of these cases, it lacks the capacity and wherewithal to intervene all the time and everywhere.

The antidote to state failure is economic development and institution building. This takes time, money, and political support from key member states. In a number of the cases listed above, one or more of those elements are missing.  But over the long term the “UN model” can, in fact, work.  In 2006, Liberia ranked 12 and Sierra Leone 16 on the Failed States index. Peacekeeping interventions aimed at building up local governance capacity sparked a profound turnaround in these countries.  In 2010, Liberia fell to 33 and Sierra Leone is not even in the top 60.

The U.S. also looks to the UN because it has both the technical expertise and and global reach that the United States does not. (The United States has been trying to build a cadre of expeditionary civilian nation building experts since 2005, but so far that effort has been halting.) The UN also has an in-country legitimacy that any single country, let alone a global super power, does not.  

A serious “failed states strategy” would treat the UN like the indispensible tool that it is and offer more robust support to UN institutions like peacekeeping, the UN Development Program, and the UN Peace Building Commission. If we think it is in our interests to fix failed states, then it is certainly in our interests to give the UN the tools to do so.  

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Liberia Qualifies For Complete Debt Relief

In Liberia’s post-conflict reconstruction process and for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s government, reaching the “completion point” under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative – the stage at which full and irrevocable debt relief is won -  is a milestone. The news, announced yesterday by the World Bank, is a testament to the success of years of targeted reforms by the Liberian government. Under the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her cabinet ministers, and with the assistance of international partners, the Liberian government worked hard to ensure that the country’s heavy debt burden could be waived. Until yesterday, Liberia had the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratio (90%). After reaching the HIPC completion point, this ratio is drastically reduced to 15%.

This accomplishment is the result of the implementation of a series of reforms in the country. Debt relief under HIPC depends on whether a country has put in place an effective poverty reduction strategy, with clear objectives and processes to improve development indicators and human security. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf explained how her country reached the completion point: “We concentrated on building the institutions, getting the laws, getting our public financial management law passed, making sure we got a general auditing commission that’s functioning, making anti-corruption effective.” Acknowledging that much still needs to be done, Augustine Ngafuan, Liberia’s Minister of Finance, noted  “we will continue to be geared toward consolidating macroeconomic stability and fostering conditions conducive to rapid and sustainable growth and employment creation as well as poverty reduction.”

Liberia’s total outstanding debt was around $4.9 billion, $4.6 billion of which have now been pardoned under the HIPC initiative. While the country still has to negotiate additional deals with other creditors, analysts explain that debt relief will generate new fiscal space for Liberia. The government’s biggest priorities are to rebuild infrastructure, improve social services and attract foreign investment. All of these aspects of post-conflict reconstruction will be positively impacted by the provision of debt relief, which signals to creditors, donors and investors alike that Liberia is moving away from the emergency phase of its recovery. The country will now be able to borrow internationally, and will have access to facilities from which it had been precluded.

Liberia has been struggling with debt for decades, and, in fact, most of the debt pardoned yesterday was contracted during years of poor governance and dictatorship, and never repaid or serviced. As recently as November 2009, Liberia was sued by so-called “vulture funds” over a $20 million debt contracted three decades prior, under the presidency of William Tolbert. Poor fiscal management decisions on the part of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s predeccesors, which have been hampering Liberia’s post-conflict reconstruction, are now a thing of the past. Liberia’s ability to continue in this current trajectory of greater responsibility and accountability will be a significant determinant of the successful reconstruction of the country. As Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf gears up for what promises to be a competitive 2011 presidential election, the President will be able to leverage this important milestone in her bid to win a second term.


photo credit: World Economic Forum on Flickr


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How I Learned to Love the Millennium Development Goals

Once upon a time, I hated the MDGs. I thought they were a cruel joke on poor countries, setting the entire developing world up for demoralizing failure. Let’s set impossibly high standards and demand that resource-strapped nations achieve them!

I was also concerned about their one-size-fits all nature. Can we really set common standards for the whole planet?  That didn’t seem practical or effective or like the basis for good policy-making. Finally, I was afraid of the massive scope for failure. Word a single Millennium Development Goal wrong and you can damage, say, education throughout the developing world. And for that matter, why set goals and not designate any way to achieve those goals?

All in all, I thought that the MDGs were a terrible mistake being committed on a global scale. I agreed with Bill Easterly’s assessment of the MDGs as a utopian nightmare.

Turns out, I was wrong. The Millennium Development Goals are not perfect. All the goals are treated with equal weight, even though some are clearly more important than others. Some of them are badly worded, and the targets vary between overly optimistic and far too easy to achieve. The methodology behind them is opaque.

But the more often I encounter the MDGs in my work, the more I like them. None of the theoretical problems with the MDGs matter that much in practice. Yes, some of them are overly optimistic and unlikely to be reached, especially in Africa. But governments are actually accustomed to not meeting targets. It’s not discouraging; it’s just business as usual.

For all the methodological weaknesses of the MDGs, what really matters is that they are measurable goals directly related to human development. They’re about making people’s lives better, and we get to hold governments to them. That is very, very useful.

My favorite thing about the MDGs, though, is that they are comprehensive and already agreed upon. Any time you are working with a government to set policy goals, you can use the MDGs as a guide. Their ubiquitous, motherhood-and-apple-pie acceptability makes them impossible to argue against. Have a country that is reluctant to invest in basic education? Remind them of their MDG commitment. Don’t know how to measure progress in the fight against AIDS? Use the MDGs.

The Millennium Development goals have permanently altered the policy discussion and the way that governments set their goals. Despite their imperfections, the government decision-making they influence is almost always better than it would be without them.

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What Will It Take to Enroll Every Child in School in the Developing World?

Earlier this month, a United Nations report estimated that 89% of primary school-aged children in the developing world were enrolled in school.  Achieving universal primary education by 2015 goal number 2 of the Millennium Development Goals, which has galvanized international efforts to help the developing world reach this goal. 

The lead UN agency in charge of MDG 2 is UNESCO. As it happened, I had the opportunity to sit down with UNESCO director general Irina Bokova yesterday. She was rightfully proud of the progress on this goal. But, of course, the goal is universal primary education—not *near * universal. The report said that even though great strides have been made, hope is “dim for for universal primary education by 2015.”

What would it take to fill in that 11% gap? Bukova said it basically comes down to funding. Bokova estimated that about $16 billion a year in additional investments would close the gap.  The problem is, funds have been harder to come by since the global economy took a sharp downward turn. 

While notably upbeat about the progress already made, Bokova said that both keeping children, particularly girls, enrolled is an ongoing challenge. “If we look only at the problem of primary education, it’s great,” she said. “But look deeper and you can see some serious problems — like girls dropping out of school after two or three years.”

Also, as with many of the other Millennium Development Goals, progress is uneven across regions.  Sub-Saharan Africa still lags behind other parts of the world. 

That’s from the 2010 Millennium Development Goals report. Even though about 1 in 4 primary school aged sub-saharan African child is not enrolled in school, because it started from such a low base level of enrollment, progress there has been the greatest.  Strategies like eliminating school fees have boosted enrollment in Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia, according to the report.  

Perhaps not by 2015, but if other countries followed their lead, universal primary eduction across the continent could be within reach. 

Image: flickr.


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