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Some good news to start your Friday

UNICEF released figures yesterday showing a dramatic decrease in child mortality over the last 18 years.   In 1990, some 12.5 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday.  In 2008 that figure shrunk to 8.8 million children.  The figure is still ghastly, but but represents a 28% decline in child mortality.    This is progress. 

So what can be attributed to this decline?  Aid. Or, more accurately, internationally sponsored public health campaigns in the developing world.   

Public health experts attribute the continuing decline to increased use of key health interventions, such as immunizations, including measles vaccinations, the use of insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria and Vitamin A supplementation. Where these interventions have increased, positive results have followed (Emphasis mine. Our friends at Nothing But Nets should be proud!) 

True, there is still a long way to go to reaching the Millennium Development Goal of lowering by two-thirds the number of children who fail to reach the age of five.  The UNICEF figures show that a small handful of countries--India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria--account for a large proportion of under-five deaths. If child mortality can be brought to heel in those countries, the MDG may yet be reached. 

The figures released by UNICEF show that this kind international intervention can work.  If we want to achieve this MDG, we ought to scale up our financial and political committments to these issues.  Or, in the words of then-candidate Barack Obama "make the Millennium Development Goals American Goals." 

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Founder of One Laptop Per Child Responds

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per Child, reponded in the comment section of a post in which Alanna suggested that the "dream of one laptop per child is over."  Here is Negroponte's comment in full.  (NB: Negroponte says this is a "UN site." It is not.)      UPDATE:  Some readers are having trouble seeing comments on Alanna's post.  I've copied those comments to end of these posts.  We truly appreciate alternative perspectives on this question and enjoy the debate. 

The dream is not over. When OLPC started there were no low cost laptops. We created the category less than four years ago and it now represents almost one third of the world production of latops. I am not aware of too many technologies that have gone from “impossible” to such wide adoption.

The million laptops, our little green ones, that are in the hands of children, are currently in 19 languages and 31 countries. Another million are on their way. Not bad. But even better, these countries include Afghanistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, as well as places like the West Bank (and next month Gaza). Even better, eh?

I suggest you look more carefully at Uruguay, Peru and Rwanda. In the case of Uruguay, every child has one. That is pretty amazing. Peru is headed there. Rwanda too. In fact, we have moved our learning group (as of early June) to Kigali perminently, to be in the field and get the kind of feedback you claim we ignore.

Anyway. I do not normally answer press and blogs, because we would spend all our time with words, not actions in the field But you are on a UN site and the UN is our partner. Check out Kofi Annan’s words -- they have been fulfilled. Has it been harder than I expected? Yes. But do you know why? It is not due to what I had anticipated, things like corruption and logistics. It has been due to commercial interests and press, stories like yours.

As a small non-profit, humanitarian organization, it is hard to battle giants who view children as a market, not a mission, and have other agendas. In spite of all that, the change is huge. I no longer hear people arguing against “one laptop per child” as a concept. The issue is purely a matter of funding and there are many ways to do that. Wait and see.

Nicholas Negroponte

More comments below the fold.

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Another perspective on Ban Ki Moon

In the Asia Times,  Ian Williams does a good job of contextualizing some recent criticisms of Ban Ki Moon.   A few worthy exerpts:

Half-way through Ban's first term there is indeed room for a critical assessment of the former South Korean foreign minister, but the sources cited by Juul in her report bear similar examination of their motivation. For many of them, like Rupert Murdoch's London Times or the National Interest's Jacob Heibrunn - who wrote a blistering assault on Ban in Foreign Policy magazine (which in fact looked like the main reference for Juul's report) - the UN is always wrong.

Indeed, their attacks could suggest that Ban has in fact outgrown the do-nothing role that former US envoy to the UN John Bolton allegedly scripted for him on his election. This has led to him joining the long line of UN secretaries general to be excoriated by the conservative press for not following orders.


Many analysts beleive Ban is most certainly not "charmless and spineless". He is remarkably affable, charming and has shown strong attachment to principle - which may be one reason for the neo-liberal disaffection. He went on the hustings to campaign for the seat and while running explicitly avowed support for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept - a new international doctrine on the responsibility of sovereign states and the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes - and the International Criminal Court. Neither of these moves were calculated to win the affections of president George W Bush or Bolton, who were in office at the time - nor indeed of China. He has maintained those stands, and recently steered the R2P concept away from the shipwreck planned for it by the Nicaraguan president of the General Assembly.

Since taking office, he has made climate change his pet issue - once again not music to the ears of his original Republican nominators, nor the Chinese, and he has not eschewed berating the powers for not taking it seriously.

Williams also points out that Ban is actually quite popular in China and Japan--no easy feat for a South Korean!  Anyway, read the whole thing. 

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John Bolton, sounding reasonable

Credit where credit is due, John Bolton sounds fairly reasonable in this interview with the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader:

Question: Should the U.S. engage in long-term nation-building in Afghanistan?

Bolton: "It's not within our power to create a stable country there. Hopefully, the people will do that for themselves. There are probably ways we can help out. But that's not the same as saying it's a strategic interest of the United States. And I say that because on the one hand, you've got people who already think we ought to withdraw from Afghanistan -- in the Democratic Party on the left side. People who think that, I think is a mistake. On the other side, you've got people who say we may be there for a long, long time, doing nation- building. I think that's a mistake, too.

It's a fair point, though I do disagree with Bolton's framing of this along a typical left-right axis.  Supporters of our current engagement in Afghanistan include both the Obama administration and a coalition of neoconservatives.  On the other side, left liberals like Russ Feingold are joining conservatives drawn from the realist tradition, like George Will, to question the wisdom and utility of a drawn out commitment in Afghanistan 

Also, earlier in the interview, Bolton frames American strategic interests in Afghanistan in a way that I *gulp* would largely agree. 

"The U.S. has an important strategic interest in Afghanistan, and that's making sure that neither the Taliban or a l-Qaida can use it as a base for terrorist operations against the United States, No. 1, and No. 2, that their combined efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan don't result in the overthrow of the Pakistani government." 

  </Cognitive dissonance>

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What’s the deal with a possible Afghanistan recount?

Juan Cole has a bead on it:

There are two electoral commissions operating in Afghanistan, a wholly local and a partially international one. The local one, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, announced Tuesday that with 90% of ballots counted, incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has 54% of the votes, enough to allow him to avoid a second-round run-off against his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. But the other body, the United Nations-supported Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) (which has Afghan members but the head of which is a Canadian), clearly was disturbed at the IEC announcement and it ordered the IEC to conduct a recount and to throw out clearly fraudulent ballots.

In essence, the two electoral commissions have locked horns, and if the local body gets its way, Karzai may well be declared the winner hands-down. The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission has the authority to order recounts, but it is probably too under-staffed and under-funded to make its objections stick. If the IEC declares for Karzai, he may well keep his job because of inertia (see: next-door Iran). On the other hand, the EEC's objections really could lead to a massive recount of over 5 million ballots, which might delay a firm result for several months.

I doubt the analysis that the EEC is "probably too under-staffed and under-funded to make its objections stick."  It is very likely under-staffed and under-funded, a weight too many UN offices are forced to suffer under, but people seem to be listening to what they have to say, and I very much doubt that the Karzai government could just sweep those objections under the rug.

What does "UN-supported" mean? According to the EEC website, it was formed under Article 52 of Afghanistan's Electoral Law and three of the five EEC commissioners are chosen by the UN Secretary General's Special Representative.  Those three commissioners --Maarten Halff, Scott Worden, and the chairman Grant Kippen -- look pretty impressive, at least on paper, having served in election monitoring capacities in Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iraq (where Halff "advised on the development of election laws, electoral systems and complaint mechanisms"), Liberia, Nepal, Moldova, Pakistan, Timor Leste and Ukraine.

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Civil Disobedience

About a year ago, Al Gore urged citizens to take direct action and called for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal-fired power plants. 

It seems that a group of activists in West Virginia are taking this call to heart. Via ItsGettingHotinHere, activists from the group ClimateGroundZero are staging a blockade at the headquarters of coal giant the Massey Energy Company. Four activists, ranging in age from 22 to 81 are blocking the road to Massey Energy headquarters to protest the companies practice of Mountain Top Removal mining, a particularly vile method of mining.  

Daryl Hannah and Climate scientist James Hansen were arrested in a similar protest in West Virginia earlier this summer. 

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One Laptop Per Child – The Dream is Over


(photo credit: laihiu)

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project started out with big dreams. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s media lab, it promised a hundred dollar laptop that would be sold directly to Ministries of Education in huge lots. The laptop, they promised, was the new pencil. It was going to revolutionize education in the developing world.

It didn’t.

The laptop never came down to the hundred dollar price that was promised. The huge orders never materialized, and the project was very slow to allow sales to NGOs and charities instead of just governments. They abandoned the human-powered power source. They abandoned the special child-friendly OS. The laptop still didn’t sell to their target market in the developing world.

Americans wanted the OLPC. We fell in love with its tremendous promise and adorable shape. (note: I own an OLPC) We were the first market it conquered. OLPC launched a give one-get one promotion that let individuals pay $400 to donate one laptop and receive one for themselves. It was a huge success, except that OLPC wasn’t set up for that kind of customer order fulfillment. Laptops arrived far later than promised, and several thousand orders were simply lost.

Once the laptop finally started arriving in the developing world, its impact was minimal. We think. No one is doing much research on their impact on education; discussions are largely theoretical. This we do know: OLPC didn’t provide tech support for the machines, or training in how to incorporate them into education. Teachers didn’t understand how to use the laptops in their lessons; some resented them. Kids like the laptops, but they don’t actually seem to help them learn.

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure. Businessweek called it two years ago. Now, Timothy Ogden, editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action has made a compelling argument to give up on OLPC. He points out that supporting de-worming programs has more impact on child learning than the OLPC laptops.  The laptops were designed without end-user input, they cost too much both to produce and to run, and they’re now being outcompeted by commercial laptops. Only about a million OLPCs have shipped so far.

Some people call OLPC Nick Negroponte’s vanity project. I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s not going to change the world, or even affect it all that much. One Laptop per Child got everyone thinking about the education in the developing world. It spawned the commercial laptops that are now out competing it. But that’s all. The dream is over.

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Is Sri Lanka determined to become an international pariah?

The government of Sri Lanka has ordered the expulsion of a UNICEF spokesperson.  UNICEF Director Ann Veneman and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon have objected to the decision.  But authorities in Columbo apparently stand by their decision to expel the Australian James Elder, chief of communications for UNICEF's operations in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan authorities have not stated what offense Elder committed. Chances are, however, that it has something to do with UNICEF speaking out on behalf of children affected by a brutal counter-insurgency against the Tamil Tigers.  To date, over 200,000 ethnic Tamils are being forced to live in military run internment camps, largely off limits to the press and international humanitarian community. 

Expelling a UNICEF spokesperson is not exactly the behavior of a responsible government.  Sri Lanka is well on its way to becoming an international pariah state, on par with the governments of Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, North Korea, and Burma.