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“Someone Should Do Something…?” *

In Joe Raimondi on August 27, 2012 at 5:21 pm

* see Russell Brand for more on the title

Reading William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good (2006), I came across the following paragraph (quoted in full), regarding Western aid agencies’ AIDS prevention-treatment efforts over the past three decades:

AIDS treatment is another example of the SIBD syndrome – rich-country politicians want to convince rich-country voters that ‘something is being done’ (SIBD) about the tragic problem of AIDS in Africa. It is easier to achieve SIBD catharsis if politicians and aid officials treat people who are already sick, than it is to persuade people with multiple sexual partners to use condoms to prevent many more people from getting the disease. Alas, the poor’s interests are sacrificed to political convenience. When the U.S. congress passed Bush’s fifteen-billion dollar AIDS program (known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR) in May 2003, it placed a restriction that no more than 20 percent of the funds be spent on prevention, while 55 percent was allocated for treatment. (225)

SIBD syndrome, on some level, conveys a focus on treatment rather than prevention, which in turn suggests that the underlying causes of the problem are not addressed. At the governmental or organizational level, this translates into an emphasis on AIDS treatment rather than prevention: the symptoms are being addressed, but the root causes perpetuate. As noted, a fairly recent example is Bush’s PEPFAR program, which allocates funding for prevention and treatment at 20 percent and 55 percent, respectively. The sub-title of the chapter to which this passage belongs? “Path of Least Resistance.”

There’s a compelling economic component to arguments about treatment versus prevention (although Easterly acknowledges that “this past negligence is not an argument for or against any particular direction of action today – we must move forward from where we are now”): money spent on prevention is less costly and significantly more efficient. This is in no small part because it addresses the root causes of the problem (i.e. condom promotion)

He continues:

Why do we have a well-publicized Treatment Access Coalition when there is no Prevention Access Coalition? Why didn’t the WHO have a ‘3 by 5’ campaign intended to prevent three million new cases of AIDS by the end of 2005? The activists have been only too successful in focusing attention on treatment instead of prevention. A Lexis-Nexis search of articles on AIDS in Africa in The Economist over the previous two years found eighty-eight articles that mentioned ‘treatment’ but only twenty-two that mentioned ‘prevention.’ (226)

In terms of costs, the difference between treatment and prevention is striking: “overall, the World Bank estimates the cost per year for a variety of health interventions like these [i.e. voluntary testing] to range from five to forty dollars, compared with the fifteen-hundred-dollar cost of prolonging the life of an AIDS patient by a year with antiretroviral treatment” (223).

When figures like these are thrown around, we have to remember that sometimes the deceptively low cost obfuscates more complex, long-term issues, or hidden costs. This applies to both shockingly “cheap” figures for prevention as well as treatment. One example are first-line therapy drugs (an AIDS treatment) at $304 per year, which work for about as long before the virus builds up resistance. A more comprehensive figure, quoted by Easterly, is about $1,500 “per year per patient for delivering treatment to prolong the life of an AIDS patient by one year” (222)

SIBD syndrome seems to be linked to a focus on the treatment of AIDS rather than its prevention, for a variety of reasons (i.e. certain prevention/intervention mechanisms may be controversial for religious reasons in some parts of the African continent). Putting the focus on prevention, however, lends credence to one of Easterly’s primary points: the need to move away from Big Plans for Big Problems, and towards focused, efficient, piecemeal solutions that take account of context and local voices.


The Politics of Pleasure and Distraction

In Rajiv Gopie on August 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

What do the Olympics, Paul Ryan’s abs and gay marriage have in common? No it’s not that they are all great trivia but rather that they have been the central focus of much of the mainstream media for the past month. As the world burns and economies continue limbering, driven only by the dying gasps of industry across Europe and America, the political class along with the easily amused media have pulled their ace: distraction and pleasure. Wine and Games for the people!

Admittedly the Olympics celebrate the best that money can buy…… I mean “the human spirit,” as long as those humans are well paid professionals and good little ambassadors for their respective sponsors. As far as London 2012 was concerned, the events turned out well, the UK people….. well Londoners were temporarily distracted, not nearly as much by the games more than the fact that many had deserted the capital city and the country for warmer climates. Bumbling Boris Johnson was made a star and the much maligned David Cameron, was left alone for a few days to enjoy his vacation. Across the pond Paul Ryan’s abs are making waves and the left wingers have been blinded by the shimmer of his flat stomach, even the Huffington Post seems flattered. Gay marriage continues to be the lurking spectre that has the right hot and bothered, how dare two consenting adults dare to affirm their commitment to each other in the eyes of the state and their loved ones. It is an abomination… we cannot let people have their right to life and equality, this is America!

The political class can teach Hollywood a thing or two about good entertainment. Most people, and more so the media, have fallen for it. In the midst of a presidential campaign which has money pouring in like never before the best thing that they can do is speculate on the number of crunches Paul Ryan can do. This is the guy who had and probably still has posters of Ayn Rand and is committed to axing a large number of social programmes in the USA and his abs are focused on. The UK is dying, the seat of the largest empire the world has ever known is crumbling into ruin and as millions struggle to find a job and many millions more eke out a living; all glory is given to the Olympics, where corporatism ruled supreme and glowed more than the sacred flame.  Miserably poor states in the USA, struggling under unemployment and low productivity, are all being distracted by their Republican masters who use gay marriage to rile up the masses. It does not matter that we cannot run the state, it does not matter if you have lost your jobs, as long as we can stop those damn gays from marrying then God will provide, when we get to heaven our cups will overflow, never mind the journey from now until heaven may see you living in squalor and handouts.  And once again the people fall for it hook line and sinker.

There are innumerable political, social, cultural and religious research programs into why people care about cultural issues and non-issues over the ones that have the ability to affect them, such as the economy. All those amount to is academic fluff, I say the masses are too easy to distract and the media is not helping. The media in the UK and the USA both left and right should be focusing on grilling the respective opposing candidates and politicians to have them on their toes. They should be focusing on the issues and informing the public. A little distraction is good but it does not have to come at the expense of the national interest. Is it too much in 2012 to ask the media, the politicians and the people to multitask?

-Rajiv Gopie

The ‘black out’ – a view from The Great Wen

In Meor Alif on August 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950 reads as follows;


(1) A person whose name, photograph or pseudonym appears on any publication depicting himself as the owner, host, administrator, editor or sub-editor, or who in any manner facilitates to publish or re-publish the publication is presumed to have published or re-published the contents of the publication unless the contrary is proved. 

(2) A person who is registered with a network service provider as a subscriber of a network service on which any publication originates from is presumed to be the person who published or re-published the publication unless the contrary is proved.

(3) Any person who has in his custody or control any computer on which any publication originates from is presumed to have published or re-published the content of the publication unless the contrary is proved.

(4) For the purpose of this section—

(a) “network service” and “network service provider” have the meaning assigned to them in section 6 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 [Act 588]; and

(b) “publication” means a statement or a representation, whether in written, printed, pictorial, film, graphical, acoustic or other form displayed on the screen of a computer.”.


The Centre for Independent Journalism claims that;

Applying to both civil and criminal cases in which allegedly illicit content is published on a webpage, Section 114A presumes that the following groups or individuals are guilty of publishing the content in question:

(1)Those who own, administrate, or edit websites open to public contributors, such as online forums or blogs;

(2)Those who provide webhosting or Internet services to the webpage in question; and

(3)Those who own the computer or mobile device on which the content in question was published.

And finally you will read tweets from the usual suspects, agreeing across party lines, that the law has to change, or at the very least a review of the law is argued to be in order.

While thousands of Malaysians wait anxiously for the other shoe to drop – as is always the case with bad news in the country that it sometimes seem to pile up – a few basic questions appear to have gone over the heads of almost everyone, myself included (self-incrimination for the sake of fairness).

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not for one minute pretend that the Malaysian “web space” or “internet realm” or whatever the term is to describe the collective imagined spatial territory which constitutes Malaysia’s web usage is the bastion of intelligent discourse and a sort of noble fourth estate that needs to be revered with every written sentence  – It’s not. It’s the internet, it doesn’t have to be, it’s okay if it’s otherwise and if anything, the World Wide Web is first and foremost the space for modern day anarchy where anything goes.

The truth is Malaysians use the internet most of the time to access services. The Alexa rankings will show you that at least 6 out of the top 20 most frequented sites in Malaysia consists of bidding and trading sites like Mudah, Cari, Lowyat.NET and the likes. Maybank2u and CIMBclicks also feature in within that lists taking up another two spots in the rankings, and finally to what can only be described as the surprise of the century, Facebook is the most frequented site in the country. Nowhere will you find the name of any well-known conglomerate news sites, not until number 56 at least where BBC News Online is ranked, and CNN interactive at number 156. This last piece  of observation is of course in no way saying that local news companies are completely unreliable, some of them are great (I think you know which ones I’m talking about – although I’m quite surprised at how some of them ranked), but this snapshot is just meant to put a little perspective into our overall surfing habits.

In any case, the point is; let’s not pretend like we use our internet to rid the world of misinformation, one bad idea at a time.

But just because we don’t use our rights, or we don’t use it the right way (if such a concept even exists) it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t possess the said right altogether. If one were to miss, for whatever reason, voting day in this coming election (whenever that is) and missed the balloting process completely, it doesn’t mean that his or her right to vote should be revoked on the grounds that “he or she isn’t using it anyway”.

Similarly, say what you want about how Malaysians use their internet, but just because most prefer to drown in right wing conservatism or look up the latest on unadulterated local celebrity news, one shouldn’t mistake this as a sign of collective consent to intimately molest our common sense and the laws that protect our internet usage in the way it has been these past few days.

And yes, a lot of us are apathetic to high-brow, snooty, philosophical discussions on justice and equality – I personally reckon that there is nothing wrong with that (other than free loading on those willing to put their reputation on the line to protect your safety as an internet user of course). But even if we are apathetic, I am sure that the thought of knowing that a right exists and it is waiting to be seized is more comforting than the thought of having to argue for one where none exists.

Now back to the basic questions I was talking about earlier.

Well for one, how in the world did we get here? To wake up one morning and realise that we are now only that much closer to having to learn Newspeak isn’t exactly a good indication of how self-aware we all are with regards to what goes on around us. That a law was passed and it was incidentally one of the most freedom encroaching legislation of our generation and we hardly flinched an inch in April only to react retrospectively right now is beyond ludicrous.

Which begs the question of, how did this law passed through parliament? And even if there were opposition to it, why did it feel more like a whimper than a bang? Which office wrote or proposed this amendment? You would think that political careers can be made around opposing such an indefensible policy – Labour or Tory, Government or Opposition – regardless.

I am sure you might be correct in smugly saying that this isn’t the time to point fingers.

Well, to be honest, it is actually, and it should be pointed all around, myself included – this is our fault. How a whole country allowed its collective freedom to express get undercut so easily is a sure sign of carelessness. True, it might be other factors too, like dubiousness at the highest level of politics, or insensitivity and mis-prioritisation of issues to oppose by those sitting across the floor in Jalan Parlimen, being two equally plausible explanations to how we got here, but all of it shouldn’t detract from the fact that most of us didn’t know, didn’t care to know and subsequently just allowed for “it” to happen. This is a country that boasts having 14569 lawyers and enough civil society groups to make something out of something if they wanted to. We were careless, let’s face it, we were.

To make matters worse, the issue of 114A runs the risk of having a very short shelf life just like every other thing on the internet which quickly combusts into fad like a dangerous chemical reaction one day, then as quickly as it combusts – fizzles into nothingness, out of sight and out of the public mind.

The final Jenga piece is of course the comfort we conveniently find in hindsight. Review isn’t the same as not enacting a law. Returning what shouldn’t have been taken is not the same as not taking it in the first place. Accidental as it may have been, and to be completely fair accidents do happen, each and every one of us, regardless of socio-economic background or political leaning (notice I didn’t use the usual categorisation in Malaysia of race or religion) must be very careful in tip-toeing around the issues of fundamental freedoms – one wrong step and the date tomorrow will read 17/08/1984.

This my friends, has been the classic case of “you snooze, you lose”.

Meor Alif

*This article was originally posted on wewriteaboutthings.

Bad Puns Aside, What’s Wrong with the Law of the Sea?

In Ben Kurland on August 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Thanks to recent Senate action, ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is being discussed again. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the chairman of the committee, recently convened several hearings regarding UNCLOS (6/28/12, 6/14/12, 6/14/12, 5/23/12) suggesting that it could come to a vote in the near future. Prospects, however, seemingly died when Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Kelly Ayotte(R-NH) announced their opposition giving nay-says enough votes (now at 34) to block the two-thirds majority necessary to pass a bill in the Senate.

Puns abounded. Politico called UNCLOS “Sunk” and Foreign Affairs published an article declaring the U.S. an “Outlaw of the Sea”. Opponents had already been referring to it as the Law Of the Sea Treaty, or “LOST”. Darlene Casella even joked that it, “could have been dreamed up by Blackbeard” and that “The Jolly Roger should fly over the Law of the Sea Treaty” because “It is theft of the high seas.”

It is understandable. Political commentators are known for having a weak sense of humor when it comes to puns and a sea-based headline would seemingly be hard to avoid. Jokes aside though, the blockage of UNCLOS in the Senate speaks of a worrying trend in U.S. politics, namely a dismissal or denial of the current international field as it stands.

What about this treaty is so disconcerting? The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea is a thirty year old attempt to define the rights and responsibilities of nations regarding the world’s oceans. It was signed in 1982, came into effect in 1994, and to date has 162 parties. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1994 but Senate has yet to ratify it. All-in-all, it acts as the framework upon which the international community can resolve disputes and conduct relations on over 70% of the earth’s surface.

Opposition, however, is often hyperbolic and intensely scornful. In general it relies on arguments that UNCLOS represents an invasion of U.S. sovereignty. Peter Roff, for example, claims that, “In reality the Law of the Sea Treaty is one more step towards a system of global governance under which U.S. sovereignty would be subordinated to an international system managed by an unelected, self-perpetuating form of bureaucratic aristocracy that cares little for democratic traditions.” Phyllis Schlafly claims that the treaty would “subordinat[e] U.S. sovereignty, plus seven-tenths of the world’s surface area, to another entangling global bureaucracy”. Plus, to add good measure to the fear mongering, internationalist plot, Donald Rumsfeld, in his testimony to the Foreign Relations Committee, claimed that UNCLOS is no more than a “sweeping power grab that could prove to be the largest mechanism for the worldwide redistribution of wealth in human history” and John Bolton and Dan Blumenthal warned that ratifying the treaty could “encourage Sino-American strife” and ultimately allow China to block the U.S. from naval and intelligence operations in the South China Sea. Within this rather simple piece of international groundwork, critics have seemingly found a far right gold mine of criticism: an internationalist plot to subordinate Americans to a socialist agenda that will allow China to overtake the United States.

It is scary to think that this is the tenor to which a section of the U.S. will respond to any piece of international agreement. It is not only a worrying trend of isolationism and denial of reality, it is simply wrong. National Security Network has already put together an outstanding “myth vs. fact” regarding the claims of the opposition of the UNCLOS. Namely, it exposes that much of the vitriol is baseless. Claims, for example, that ratification would constrain the United States or its Navy is combated by the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and a host of other top U.S. brass all support ratification. Lest you think this is a partisan affair, so do five former Secretary of States all of which served under Republican Presidents including Henry Kissenger (Nixon), George Shultz (Reagan), James Baker III (George H.W. Bush), Colin Powell (George W. Bush), and Condoleezza Rice (George W. Bush). The Navy has been pushing for ratification for decades because it would give them a codified basis to traverse the world, guarding the shipping lanes and providing the assistance that makes them a global force.

This is not the only treaty that has come up against claims of violation of the United States’ sovereignty. What is worrying is that these claims seemingly have traction. After all, 31 of the 34 Senators who promised to block ratification did so in a letter circulated by Jim Inhofe (R-OK) in which the most biting intellectual and pragmatic criticism of the treaty was that were concerned that, “United States sovereignty could be subjugated in many areas to a supranational government that is chartered by the United Nations under the 1982 Convention.” As the Thomas Wright pointed out in his article for Foreign Affairs, however, most of the concerns of the Senators were addressed in the 1994 rewrite. As he suggests, “as written, UNCLOS would actually increase the United States’ economic and resource jurisdiction. In fact, Ayotte, DeMint, and Portman’s worst fears are more likely to come to pass if the United States does not ratify the treaty. If the country abdicates its leadership role in the ISA [International Seabed Authority], others will be able to shape it to their own liking and to the United States’ disadvantage.” And do not worry about the socialist plot lurking around the corner. Claims that the ISA is really just a social front are combated, as Wright points out, by the fact that “during the 1994 renegotiation, the United States ensured that it would have a veto over how the ISA distributes funds if it ever ratified the treaty.”

So opposition may be misguided, but why then is this a worrying trend in U.S. politics? It is because the ever present automatic opposition to international multilateralism represents a strong misunderstanding of what it means to live in today’s global world. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been a leading member in constructing a liberal (in the classical sense) international order built on a rules-based system that benefits the establishment of an international free market. Backtracking on the order that established the current international regime would bring the United States back to the harmful position of isolationism. If the U.S. wants to recover from the current economic woes the answer is not to hide behind convenient calls of sovereignty but to recognize the global nature of the modern economy and establish international policy that maximizes American competitiveness abroad. The U.S. can do this, for example, by ensuring a legal basis for free passage through the straits of Hormuz, providing a framework for negotiating territorial disputes, and, as Marvin E. Odum, President of Shell Oil pointed out, “the Convention establishes a process through which Parties to the treaty can establish internationally-recognized claims over the resources in their extended continental shelf. Without this high degree of legal certainty, any future claims to oil and gas resources of the extended shelf would be vulnerable to legal challenge or subject to dispute.”

What opponents do not seem to realize is that the United States does not own the sea. Yes, The U.S. has the strongest Navy and are miles ahead of other national competitors. The treaty, as Leon Panetta and the other testifying military personnel suggested would strengthen that position by codifying customary law on free navigation of the open seas. Codification is an important step because it helps develop pre-established guidelines for action taking it from nebulous customary law to actual words on paper. It makes little sense to establish and construct an international order that benefits The U.S.’s liberal ideals if it fails to abide by them especially in an area as uncontroversial as maritime law. By the very definition of sovereignty, asserting U.S. sovereignty does not cover the entire globe. Quite simply, you do not get to claim sovereignty to do whatever you want based merely on perceived power. This is especially important because of the assumed lessons taught us previously about presuming American supremacy. The U.S. leads by example, not by exception, even if the U.S. is exceptional.

This has important consequences. Take, for example, the brewing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. By encouraging multilateral discussions based on prior established ground rules, the world can hopefully avoid armed confrontation as rising powers try to delineate previously contested borders. As Thomas Wight writes in Foreign Affairs, “The United States should not take sides in other countries’ disputes, but it can and must insist upon a strong regional framework to ensure that a rising China does not destabilize the status quo.”

As the five former Secretaries of State wrote, “The continuing delay of U.S. accession to the convention compromises our nation’s authority to exercise our sovereign interest, jeopardizes our national and economic security, and limits our leadership role in international ocean policy…” This addresses perhaps the most coherent of claims against ratification of the UNCLOS. As Portman and Ayotte wrote in their letter of opposition, “the terms of the treaty are not only expansive, but often ill-defined.” This is true and many of their concerns on particular items within the treaty are valid. But like all laws, there is a development process. Laws develop as they are implemented, clarified, applied, amended, revoked, vetoed and voted upon. And, as Sec. Panetta pointed out, “If we are not at the table, then who will defend our interests?” After all, the United States would not want to seem lost at sea on this issue.