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Video Blogging from the UN: Indian Ambassador Talks Afghanistan

Moments ago I spoke with the Indian Ambassador to the UN Manjeev Singh Puri about India’s policies toward Afghanistan. (I’ve long lamented the fact that Indian’s role in the conflict in Afghanistan is rarely discussed–both by media figures and in official circles. ) Alas, I could not shake him much from his talking points, but I found his explanation of Indian interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan to be a very good distillation of official Indian foreign policy.

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Video Blogging from the UN: UK Ambassador Suggests Gaza Blockade May be Lifted

I just sat down with the UK Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant. In a discussion about the flotilla incident, he seems to suggest that there is some serious international momentum behind convincing Israel to lift the Gaza blockade.  He throws cold water on the notion that Israel cannot credibly investigate itself, citing, for example, the hard-hitting Winograd Report about Israel’s incursion into Southern Lebanon in 2006. We also discuss the state of play of the Iran sanctions and North Korea.  Interestingly, Ambassador Grants tells me that, so far, the flotilla incident has not affected the Iran debate. 

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Video Blogging from the UN: A Chat with Under Sec General Lynn Pascoe

I’m at the United Nations today, filming back to back interviews with officials around the United Nations for BloggingHeads. Throughout the day, though, I’ll post some of the interviews I’m able to upload to YouTube.  Below is a just-completed interview with the highest ranking American UN official, under secretary general for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe.  It’s a position often referred to as the “UN’s Secretary of State.”  We talk about the UN’s role in a potential investigation of the flotilla incident, drug trafficking in West Africa, and what it’s like to be the highest ranking American at the UN.

Check back. I will be posting more of these kinds of interviews throughout the day.

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Liberia and Aid Dependency

During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told a crowd assembled at the Council on Foreign Relations that “Liberia should not need aid in 10 years [...] we’ve got the resources … We’re going to go from dependency to self-sufficiency.” As Elizabeth Dickinson notes in her FP column, the Liberian government’s budget has steadily increased over the years, from a mere $80 million in 2005 to $350 million in 2010. To break its dependency on aid, Sirleaf explained, the country plans to attract increasing levels of foreign investment and private capital.

As I mentioned in a recent post, major natural resource companies are slated to invest in Liberia, including Chevron, BHP Billiton and Arcelor-Mittal, all of which are negotiating deals with the Liberian government. In her remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sirleaf referred to China’s equally big appetite for natural resources “to keep their economy going.” She noted how flexible Chinese investments in Liberia were key to her country’s reconstruction and development, particularly when it comes to financing and building infrastructure.

Sirleaf’s commitment to strengthening her country’s political and economic foundations is clear, and her personal charisma and favorable reputation abroad have helped Liberia’s post-war reconstruction effort. Sirleaf has the ear of the World Bank and IMF, and is skilled at negotiating with UN agencies and foreign governments. Nevertheless, in spite of Sirleaf’s efforts to rebuild her country since the end of the war, Liberia remains a long ways away from being independent from foreign aid.

The Financial Times just launched a series examining “whether Africa is finally turning the corner.” In the first installment, the paper published an interesting interactive graph that compares African countries’ foreign aid support as a percentage of government spending, from 1980 to 2008. In 2008, foreign aid to Liberia represented 771% of government spending, up from 652% in 2007, 369% in 2006 and 218% in 2005. The second highest ratio – 221% – goes to Guinea-Bissau.

 

Considering these figures, Sirleaf’s hopes for independence from foreign aid within 10 years seem overly optimistic. Spending by the UN peacekeeping operation in Liberia, UNMIL, is likely included in FT’s calculation of total aid, which may inflate the numbers. Still, by contrast, foreign aid as a percentage of government spending in the Democratic Republic of Congo – which has the world’s largest peacekeeping force – was 126% in 2008, a far cry from Liberia’s 771%.

The Heritage Foundation, which releases an annual Index on Economic Freedom, downgraded Liberia in 2010, ranking it 40th out of 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The report cited concerns over the country’s “burdensome bureaucratic red tape” and “negative investment climate.” As Liberia continues in its struggle to bring real social and economic change to its people, the country has also been working to clear the $4.9 billion debt burden it inherited from decades of poor governance – which the IMF has been aiming to waive since 2007 under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s goal of increasing foreign investments and freeing Liberia from foreign aid within the next 10 years is laudable. But it is also worth noting that foreign direct investment (FDI) is not a panacea, particularly in fragile, post-conflict states. As a 2008 policy brief entitled “Post-Conflict Countries and Foreign Investment” by scholars at the United Nations University notes:

“If FDI is left to its own devices, it is unlikely to generate growth, lead to meaningful technology transfer or create the internal links necessary for development. Any potential contribution by FDI to economic growth of the host country depends upon creating links with the local economy [...] Encouraging a form of FDI that benefits post-conflict countries relies upon prioritizing quality of investment, rather than focusing purely on the size of investment flows. FDI can only be justified if it is high value and makes a real contribution to the host economy, in terms of job-creation and spill-over of knowledge or technology.”

Liberian political and business leaders will have to work hard to ensure that foreign investment in their country can generate positive returns for the country’s 3.5 million people. Until then, Liberia’s reliance on a combination of foreign aid and “roads-for-resources” deals with China and natural resource companies threaten Sirleaf’s vision of true independence.

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The “Pledge Guarantee for Health”

All too often, the stream of life saving medicines or other health goods intended for recipients in the developing world becomes interrupted for one reason or another. Funds sometimes dry up unexepectedly forcing the supplier to hold shipments. People suffer as a result.   

To try and navigate a way around this unfortunate dynamic, the UN Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have borrowed a concept from the financial world to find a way in which a third party can provide collatoral against which suppliers can be guaranteed to be paid on time and in full for medicines and other health care goods that they provide. They call it the “Pledge Guarantee for Health.”  The article below, from Alliance Magazine, does a good job summarizing what it is and how it works.  Check it out. 

 

Pledge Guarantee for Health

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Introducing MDG.Devex.com

 

In four short months presidents and prime ministers from around the world will gather at a major UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals. The meeting will be a major stocktaking of what has been achieved and what has not; which policies work, and which don’t; but most of all it will focus on how can governments renew their commitments to reach each of the eight MDGs by 2015.  

Fortunately, there are a number of MDG success stories that government officials and development practitioners can draw upon to make the case for the MDGs.  And as of today, a fascinating new experiment in social media is making those stories easier to access. The UN Foundation (which sponsors Dispatch) and Devex just launched a platform in which development professionals can share their on-the-ground success stories and challenges while working on MDG related projects around the world.  The idea is to facilitate a direct dialogue with an array of on-the-ground practitioners about what has been working for them, with the ultimate goal of making the delivery of assistance more efficient. 

Between now and the UN Summit in September, the site will host a conversation on each of the eight MDGs. Anyone who has something to add can just log in and join the conversation. 

The site kicks off with a conversation about MDG 1: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.  So far, discussants have come from a pretty diverse crew.  Microsoft has chimed in, but so has one Enock Mugabi from a small Ugandan NGO who tells the story of successful project he worked on. Here’s Enock:

Between 2004-2009, I worked for a Danish organization called MS Uganda. We had a trade Empowerment theme where we were supporting small holder farmers in increasing acreage for maize, the quality and linking them to markets. Special emphasis was put on the youth and women and 70% of our beneficiaries were single and married women. The small holder farmers that benefited could only manage half an acre before the project but after, they were cultivating 4 acres. So, they were food secure as well as economically secure. After the 4 years, an evaluation was done and 80% of them had registered success and one fascinating experience was that, one couple managed to educate two of their daughters in a good private school and by the time we left they had qualified to go to the University. This was a strategic achievement and they were very proud of it.

 

It will be interesting to see how the conversation evolves as the site grows and the discussion moves to each of the other 7 Millennium Development Goals.   I highly recommend folks check back regularly. I know I will. 

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