The Disunited States of American Gun Control

LONDON – The Las Vegas massacre and its aftermath are pure Americana. A deranged person lugs nearly two dozen high-tech assault weapons to a 32nd-floor hotel room to spray death upon concertgoers in a mass murder and suicide. In response, the culture wars flare anew, with gun-control advocates in pitched battle against gun enthusiasts. Yet there is consensus on one deep truth: nothing much will change. After a week of televised, heart-wrenching funerals, American life will go on until the next massacre.

Mass violence is deeply rooted in American culture. America’s European settlers committed a two-century-long genocide against the native inhabitants, and established a slave economy so deeply entrenched that only a devastating civil war ended it. In almost all other countries, even Czarist Russia, slavery and serfdom were ended by decree or legislation, without a four-year bloodletting. When it was over, America established and enforced a century-long system of apartheid.

To this day, America’s homicide and imprisonment rates are several times higher than Europe’s. Several large mass shootings occur each year – in a country that is also waging several seemingly endless wars overseas. America is, in short, a country with a past history and current stark reality of racism, ethnic chauvinism, and resort to mass violence.

The Las Vegas shootings make clear once more the need to ban assault weapons. When America had such a ban, from September 1994-September 2004, it helped to limit mass shootings; yet Congress failed to renew the ban, owing to intense lobbying from gun enthusiasts. Nor is the ban about to be reinstated any time soon at the federal level. A prohibition against “bump stocks,” the device used by the Las Vegas killer to enable his semi-automatic rifles to fire like fully automatic weapons, appears possible; but there will be little more federal action than that.

When Australia banned assault weapons in 1996, mass shootings stopped abruptly. America’s gun lovers reject such evidence, and mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas serve only to reinforce their belief that firearms are their only true protection in a dangerous world. According to compelling recent survey data, the attachment to guns is especially intense among less-educated white Republican men residing mainly in rural and suburban areas in the South and Midwest – the same demographic that forms the core of support for President Donald Trump.

Despite the deep ideological divisions in the country, there is a glimmer of hope. Under the US Constitution, states have the authority to ban assault weapons and regulate firearms (though not to ban handguns and rifles outright, given the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms”). My own state, New York, already bans assault weapons, as do a handful of other states. Rather than fighting another ill-fated battle in Washington, it is more promising to encourage many more states to exercise their prerogatives.

States that do will have lower rates of mass shootings, more secure citizens, and more vibrant economies. Las Vegas will suffer not only from the trauma of the recent massacre, but also from a diversion of tourism and conferences, at least until Nevada cracks down on assault weapons and can guarantee visitors’ safety.

America today doesn’t just have red (conservative) states and blue (progressive) states, but de facto red countries and blue countries, that is, distinct regions with distinct cultures, heroes, politics, dialects, economies, and ideas of freedom. In New York City, freedom means not having to fear that the thousands of strangers sharing the city’s sidewalks and parks with you on any given day are carrying deadly weapons. In Texas or Las Vegas, freedom is the comfort of carrying your trusty firearms anywhere you like.

It’s time to let red states and blue states go their own way. We don’t need to fight another civil war to agree on an amicable and limited move to much looser linkages across the states. In this, the conservatives have it right: Let’s reduce the power of the federal government and turn more revenues and regulations back to the states, subject to the constitutional limits on the division of powers and fundamental rights. That way, each side of the culture wars can move closer to its preferred outcomes without impeding the other side from doing the same.

My own state would thrive in such a looser federation, using its increased margin of maneuver to tighten its own regulations and to scale up its social services with the savings in taxes now paid to the federal government. And the weaker federal government would mean fewer US “wars of choice” in the Middle East.

At some point, the US will end up with federal gun control legislation. When more Congressmen come to realize that their own lives are on the line – which, sadly, they are – we will finally see national action. Two members of Congress have already been shot this decade (Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and Steve Scalise earlier this year). For now, however, members of Congress will remain caught in the political crossfire of mad gunmen and pro-gun lobbyists. This is terrifying, but sadly the case.

In Trump’s America, gun violence and instability are being stoked daily. A rapidly implemented, national-scale solution would be ideal. But until that happens, more US states should be encouraged to choose gun sanity for themselves.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

By Jeffrey D Sachs

Six Features of the Disinformation Age

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA – Concern about the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda has reached the point where many governments are proposing new legislation. But the solutions on offer reflect an inadequate understanding of the problem – and could have negative unintended consequences.

This past June, Germany’s parliament adopted a law that includes a provision for fines of up to €50 million ($59 million) on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, if they fail to remove “obviously illegal” content, such as hate speech and incitements to violence, within 24 hours. Singapore has announced plans to introduce similar legislation next year to tackle “fake news.”

In July, the US Congress approved sweeping sanctions against Russia, partly in response to its alleged sponsorship of disinformation campaigns aiming to influence US elections. Dialogue between the US Congress and Facebook, Twitter, and Google has intensified in the last few weeks, as clear evidence of campaign-ad purchases by Russian entities has emerged.

Such action is vital if we are to break the vicious circle of disinformation and political polarization that undermines democracies’ ability to function. But while these legislative interventions all target digital platforms, they often fail to account for at least six ways in which today’s disinformation and propaganda differ from yesterday’s.

First, there is the democratization of information creation and distribution. As Rand Waltzman, formerly of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently noted, any individual or group can now communicate with – and thereby influence – large numbers of others online. This has its benefits, but it also carries serious risks – beginning with the loss of journalistic standards of excellence, like those typically enforced within established media organizations. Without traditional institutional media gatekeepers, political discourse is no longer based on a common set of facts.

The second feature of the digital information age – a direct byproduct of democratization – is information socialization. Rather than receiving our information directly from institutional gatekeepers, who, despite often-flawed execution, were fundamentally committed to meeting editorial standards, today we acquire it via peer-to-peer sharing.

Such peer networks may elevate content based on factors like clicks or engagement among friends, rather than accuracy or importance. Moreover, information that is filtered through networks of friends can result in an echo chamber of news that reinforces one’s own biases (though there is considerable uncertainty about how serious a problem this represents). It also means that people who otherwise might consume news in moderation are being inundated with political polemic and debate, including extreme positions and falsehoods, which heighten the risk of misinforming or polarizing wider swaths of the public.

The third element of today’s information landscape is atomization – the divorce of individual news stories from brand or source. Previously, readers could easily distinguish between non-credible sources, like the colorful and sensational tabloids in the checkout line at the supermarket, and credible ones, such as longstanding local or national newspapers. Now, by contrast, an article shared by a friend or family member from The New York Times may not look all that different than one from a conspiracy theorist’s blog. And, as a recent study from the American Press Institute found, the original source of an article matters less to readers than who in their network shares the link.

The fourth element that must inform the fight against disinformation is anonymity in information creation and distribution. Online news often lacks not only a brand, but also a byline. This obscures potential conflicts of interest, creates plausible deniability for state actors intervening in foreign information environments, and creates fertile ground for bots to thrive.

One 2015 study found that bots generate around 50% of all web traffic, with as many as 50 million Twitter users and 137 million Facebook users exhibiting non-human behaviors. Of course there are “good” bots, say, providing customer service or real-time weather updates. But there are also plenty of bad actors “gaming” online information systems to promote extreme views and inaccurate information, lending them the appearance of mainstream popularity and acceptance.

Fifth, today’s information environment is characterized by personalization. Unlike their print, radio, or even television counterparts, Internet content creators can A/B test and adapt micro-targeted messages in real-time.

“By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks,” according to a recent exposé, groups like Cambridge Analytica can create personalized, adaptive, and ultimately addictive propaganda. Donald Trump’s campaign was measuring responses to 40-50,000 variants of ads every day, then tailoring and targeting their messaging accordingly.

The final element separating today’s information ecosystem from that of the past, as Stanford law professor Nate Persily has observed, is sovereignty. Unlike television, print, and radio, social-media platforms like Facebook or Twitter are self-regulating – and are not very good at it. Despite the US campaign-ad controversies of the last few weeks, neither platform has yet consulted leading experts, instead seeking to solve problems in-house. It was not until mid-September that Facebook even agreed to disclose information about political campaign ads; it still refuses to offer data on other forms of disinformation.

It is this lack of data that is undermining responses to the proliferation of disinformation and propaganda, not to mention the political polarization and tribalism that they fuel. Facebook is the chief culprit: with an average of 1.32 billion daily active users, its impact is massive, yet the company refuses to give outside researchers access to the information needed to understand the most fundamental questions at the intersection of the Internet and politics. (Twitter does share data with researchers, but it remains an exception.)

We are living in a brave new world of disinformation. As long as only its purveyors have the data we need to understand it, the responses we craft will remain inadequate. And, to the extent that they are poorly targeted, they may even end up doing more harm than good.

Kelly Born is a program officer for the Madison Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

By Kelly Born

Politics in the Way of Progress

BERKELEY – There are 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to tackle problems including poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, climate change, ecological degradation, and many others in between. Clearly, 17 is too many. As Frederick the Great supposedly said, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Similarly, those who emphasize everything emphasize nothing.

This points to the problem of forging goals through consensus: they can end up being a wish list for everything short of heaven on Earth. But, to be effective, goals should operate like turnpikes, which allow you to make progress toward a specific destination much faster than if you had taken the scenic route. The purpose of consensus building, then, should be to get us to the on-ramp, after which it becomes harder to make a wrong turn or reverse course.

Still, there could be obstacles on the road ahead. For Tsinghua University’s Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng of the University of Hong Kong, these include “technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality,” but, above all, “populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism.”

Sheng and Geng see a world in which “the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives.” They point out that, for advanced and developing economies alike, “paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing,” given that “both democratic and authoritarian governance” have struggled to deliver “equitable development.” Their conclusion is that “achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible” in a world beholden to “the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states.” After all, there is “no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods,” and “no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace.”

Another obstacle, argues Mark Suzman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that “without a more deliberate, data-driven focus on the needs of women and girls in particular, progress toward a wide range of [SDG] objectives will suffer.” Over the past two centuries, the world has made significant strides in reducing infant mortality, such that the typical woman no longer has to spend five years of her life pregnant and another ten years nursing. Yet traditional patriarchal systems are still blocking women from contributing as much as they otherwise could, and without more data, we cannot see where those blockages are occurring.

Nobel laureate economist Michael Spence, for his part, warns that as long as there are “non-inclusive growth patterns” in both developing and advanced economies, there is little hope of “reducing poverty and fulfilling basic human aspirations for health, security, and the chance to contribute productively and creatively to society.” And, complicating matters further, inequitable growth risks fueling “political or social turmoil, often marked by ideological or ethnic polarization, which then leads either to wide policy swings or to policy paralysis.”

And Kaushik Basu of Cornell University laments that a “growth slowdown” in India, once “a poster child for political stability and economic growth among emerging economies,” has become a “source of serious concern not just domestically, but around the world.” To right the Indian ship, Basu calls on the government to focus its development efforts on specific sectors such as health, education, and medical tourism, and to do more to attract capital investment.

To me, a common underlying concern in all of these commentaries is not so much economics as politics and people – and a politics of people. We live in a world that is far richer than that of any previous generation. In theory, it should be easy to ensure that all people have the nutrition and health care they need to live full lives. Educating all people so that they can make the best use of modern technologies and the other resources at their disposal should be rather straightforward. And it should be obvious to everyone – even the richest among us – that providing comfort in old age, and prosperity for the next generation, requires that the wealthiest pay enough in taxes to ensure that growth is truly and equitably shared.

The problem is that while many people work toward the SDGs, political confidence men (and some women) are throwing up new barriers, by stoking the resentments of those who have benefited the most from inequitable growth, as well as those who have missed out. In the United States, one can see this every hour on Fox News, where Mexican auto-parts workers, Salvadoran refugees, Muslims, “ungrateful” non-white Americans, and “globalists” of all stripes are routinely vilified. And, of course, one can see the same thing in other countries around the world.

But many of those sitting at home watching cable news (or reading commentaries about the SDGs) hail from the top 50% of the income distribution in the Global North, or from the top 20% in the Global South. We are the ones who need to be sufficiently grateful for our circumstances. Some of us have much more than others; but we all have far more than we deserve.

Then again, perhaps we should stop thinking in terms of what is “deserved” at all. “For we each of us deserve everything,” a character in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed reminds us, “and we each of us deserve nothing.”

In other words, achieving the SDGs may require a radically different approach. “Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning,” Le Guin’s character continues, “and you will begin to be able to think.”

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By J. Bradford DeLong

Breaking the Middle East’s Cycle of Terror

FEZ – In July, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been driven out of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, which it captured three years ago. Sooner or later, it will also lose Raqqa, the capital of its self-styled caliphate – and the last true city under its control. But these defeats do not mean the downfall of ISIS, much less Islamist terrorism, or that the Middle East’s most acute conflicts will be resolved anytime soon.

To be sure, the fading dream of an Islamic caliphate will weaken the ability of ISIS and kindred groups to recruit disaffected youth. Already, the flow of foreign would-be jihadists crossing from Turkey into Syria to join ISIS has plunged, from 2,000 per month to about 50.

But such groups still have powerful lures at their disposal. Most fundamentally, they are able to offer disillusioned young people a sense of purpose and belonging. The fact that this purpose entails murder, terror, and mayhem may make it all the more appealing among frustrated and resentful youth.

Despite recent setbacks, writing off the threat posed by ISIS is as unwarranted as it is premature. Consider the history of al-Qaeda, which proves that even if a state that nourishes a terrorist group fails, a radical ideology can continue to fuel violence near and far. The group’s leaders must simply adjust their methods, in order to continue attracting recruits and planning attacks from outside the borders of a friendly sovereign state.

To that end, in Iraq, terrorist groups will continue to exploit sectarianism, which had divided the country long before the United States invaded it in 2003. More broadly, they can capitalize on escalating tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims to attract alienated young Sunnis.

This increasingly dangerous dynamic is apparent in the decision of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, owing to its alleged ties with regional terrorist groups and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival for regional influence. It is also visible in the devastating proxy war in Yemen, which has become a key battleground in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.

Against this background, it seems likely that ISIS, from its scattered bases in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, will be able to continue planning and executing terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond. But there are ways to avoid such an outcome – or at least minimize the damage.

For starters, governments and non-governmental actors in the Arab world must sever all financial ties to terrorist groups. Beyond official transfers, this means halting private efforts by individual citizens to fund terror. States in the region already have harsh legal codes; governments should enforce them more effectively against those who finance terror.

At the same time, religious and political leaders must loudly condemn the violent Islamist ideology that nurtures jihadist movements, spurning them with the same vigor that they reserve for challengers to their own authority. Qui tacet consentire videtur (silence means consent). In this case, tacit consent emboldens terrorist actors, with deadly results.

The countries of the Middle East have become associated with extremist ideologies and terror the world over. If they are to recover their reputations, and restore the health of their societies and economies, they must act decisively to weaken the allure of terrorist recruiters. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have all made some moves in this direction, but they cannot do it alone.

Like these countries, others in the Middle East must not allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by the ostensible fall of ISIS as a territorial entity. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle of terror and violence in the Arab world is to resolve the conflicts within Islam. To reach that point, however, the region’s governments must urgently pursue a two-prong strategy of interdiction and condemnation.

Moha Ennaji is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco. His most recent books include New Horizons of Muslim Diaspora in North America and Europe and Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe.

By Moha Ennaji

What Puerto Rico Needs

WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump and the US Congress are coming under mounting pressure to increase assistance to Puerto Rico. The devastation caused there last week by Hurricane Maria has only exacerbated severe longer-term problems resulting from deferred maintenance on the island’s critical infrastructure. Puerto Rico needs more than short-term assistance (although this is also urgent); it needs bipartisan support to rebuild, with an initial and essential focus on a more robust and cheaper supply of electricity.

The existing electricity grid has substantially collapsed, with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) estimating that up to 90% of the transmission system may have been destroyed by the hurricane. A major dam is at risk. Damage to the air traffic control infrastructure has severely limited flights to and from the island. As Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stated publicly, there is now a real risk of a major humanitarian disaster. Donations are flowing in, but the total will be small relative to what is needed.

The Trump administration says that FEMA is working hard and effectively. Let’s hope they are right. There will be a lot of questions about whether Puerto Rico’s roughly 3.4 million US citizens receive the same support as Texas and Florida (and other parts of the 50 states) when natural disaster strikes. But the bigger question is this: What will be done – and by whom – to help Puerto Rico really recover?

Puerto Rico – a dependent territory of the US – needs major investment in its essential infrastructure to bring it at least to the level of the 50 states. After the humanitarian situation is stabilized, policymakers should focus on providing Puerto Rico with stable, reliable, and cost-effective electric power, generated primarily by renewables and distributed over a smart, resilient grid. Ensuring energy availability will be indispensable for stability and sustained economic growth.

Merely propping up aging infrastructure will not be effective. Cheaper and more resilient electricity benefits everyone – from the sidewalk vendor to the most sophisticated pharmaceutical operation. And all the technology needed to provide it is available in the US today.

Ironically, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the bankrupt incumbent energy provider, has been effective primarily in building its own competition. Electricity prices on the island are higher than anywhere else in the US (except Hawaii), and service is unreliable. As a result, an ever-growing number of customers have shunned PREPA’s offerings, relying instead on their own diesel-powered generators.

Noel Zamot, who serves as Revitalization Coordinator under the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, has suggested that a smart, resilient grid would be designed from the ground up, and would rely on distributed generation to mitigate the impact of future natural disasters or human attacks. Smaller, more agile power-generation units would be linked to a sophisticated monitoring and control system to ensure immediate startup and generation following outages.

Moreover, at least 50% of all energy could come from renewables (solar, wind, tidal, and more), including through the use of advanced storage technologies, some of which are currently under development. The bulk of long-haul transmission lines would be shielded or buried, and an information strategy that deploys sensors appropriately would detect losses, whatever their source.

Such a grid would stabilize costs for existing businesses, likely reducing the single biggest cost for most small and medium-size enterprises. And it would create conditions for truly innovative future scenarios. Imagine Puerto Rico becoming the electric vehicle capital of the world, with well-apportioned recharging stations, near-zero emissions, and car sharing for the tourism sector. Puerto Rico could even become an energy exporter, supplying excess capacity to nearby neighbors in the US and British Virgin Islands.

All of this (with the exception of large-scale storage for renewables) is achievable with existing technology. The key issues are strategic, organizational, and regulatory. With government support, and an understanding of the proper governance structure and processes for effective regulation, this vision could be executed within the coming decade. And building this grid would generate plenty of good jobs.

The federal government’s role should be to make Puerto Rico a hub for investing in clean, renewable energy that is resilient to weather shocks. New technology that results from this investment could be commercialized and sold to a world that is struggling to adapt to climate change and extreme weather.

The Trump administration would have trouble passing such a package of long-run investment through Congress with only Republican support; various ideological objections would no doubt be raised. But this is a perfect opportunity for Trump to reach out to the Democrats, and to demonstrate that both sides can cooperate on rebuilding and updating essential national infrastructure.

Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the co-author of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.

By Simon Johnson

Is South Asia the New Middle East?

PARIS – The Middle East is often viewed as a region waylaid by feelings of collective humiliation and violent rivalries, both between and within countries. But South Asia is beset by some of the same forces, reflected in a surge of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya are being driven from the country, and Hindu nationalism in India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The good news for South Asia is that a “Middle Eastern” future is not inevitable. But the mere possibility indicates the febrile state of affairs that rising nationalism, often couched in religious terms, is producing across the region. It is as if growing fundamentalism within Islam has now encouraged fundamentalism in other religions.

The situation is particularly dire for the Rohingya. Since August, the military has been engaged in a brutal campaign that, despite being nominally focused on stopping Rohingya militants, has targeted civilians and burned entire villages, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

But while this latest crackdown is particularly devastating – “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – persecution of the Rohingya is nothing new. Since independence in 1948, successive governments have denied even the most basic rights to the Rohingya, refusing to grant them so much as citizenship.

As the international community has condemned the crackdown, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stood largely silent, a choice that has done untold damage to her once impeccable image as a courageous champion of democracy and human rights. Even when she finally did address the issue – at a press conference, delivered in English, after weeks of violence – she refused to mention the Rohingya by name.

Suu Kyi’s problematic response has often been attributed to her political calculations regarding how to deal with Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country until just last year and remains beyond civilian control. But, as unbefitting as it is for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the truth is that her response probably also reflects her indifference to the fate of a small minority. Muslims comprise just 4% of Myanmar’s population. To her Burman aristocratic sensibility, their interests barely register.

What began as a localized tragedy has now become an international crisis – and not just because of the refugee flows into Bangladesh and elsewhere. As in the Middle East, national and religious identities tend to be inextricably linked. Like Myanmar, neighboring Thailand is a majority-Buddhist country; Malaysia and Indonesia are mostly Muslim; and India is majority Hindu. Pakistan, for its part, was created as the homeland for the Muslim minority in Britain’s former Indian empire after independence.

For religious minorities in the region, security can be hard to come by, not least because of the British and Dutch imperial legacies. The British Raj used minorities to help enforce colonial rule, by promising to provide a better life for those enduring discrimination. But when the British went home, discrimination resurfaced – sometimes with added zeal, given resentment of minorities’ collaboration with colonial rule.

It is that discrimination that has led a small minority of young Rohingya to choose violence, such as the attacks in August on security outposts and police stations. The militants may have been egged on by fundamentalist Muslim preachers from the Middle East, or even by homegrown fanatics. In any case, they are typically seeking to strike back at the system and people responsible for oppressing them.

And radicalization within Myanmar’s Muslim community has proceeded alongside the growth of religious extremism among the Buddhist majority. Buddha preached peace and tolerance. Yet some Buddhist priests today are inciting hatred and violence.

In fact, even before the latest eruption, a succession of massacres garnered only indifference from the international community. Like the horrors inflicted on Bosnia’s Muslims during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, the assault on the Rohingya seems to reveal the Western world’s selective empathy.

The result is a vicious circle of radicalization and violence. Terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, now defeated on the ground in Syria and Iraq, undoubtedly hope to use the Rohingya’s plight to mobilize Muslims, particularly in Asia, for their own ends.

As religious tensions escalate, regional cooperation is in jeopardy. How can an organization like ASEAN, which has promoted gradual progress on security and economic collaboration, weather the killing and displacement of religious minorities in its member states?

If a geostrategic catastrophe is to be avoided, the unholy alliance of religion and nationalism must be broken. The United Nations should take the lead in this regard, by committing to bringing an end to the Rohingya crisis. Beyond the moral imperative of doing so, a successful intervention could help to restore multilateral institutions’ tarnished image. The last thing the world needs is another politically fragmented region mired in violent conflict.

Dominique Moisi is Senior Counselor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

By Dominique Moisi

South Africa’s Rhino Paradox

JOHANNESBURG – Earlier this year, South Africa’s Constitutional Court overturned a 2009 moratorium on trade in rhinoceros horns. It was a devastating blow for animal conservation groups, which had hailed a measure that aligned South Africa with the global ban on the trade in effect since 1977.

But as the court’s ruling sinks in, commercial breeders and animal rights groups face a crucial question: could the creation of a legal market for farmed horns curb a poaching pandemic that claims some 1,500 wild rhinos annually?

For South Africa’s rhino industry, the court’s decision was a watershed. John Hume, the world’s most successful rhino breeder, hosted the country’s first online horn auction in August. Writing on the auction’s website, he argued that “the demand for rhino horn is high, and open trading of the horn has the potential to satisfy this demand to prevent rhino poaching.”

Opponents of the trade say demand for horns could increase as a result of legalization, reviving dormant interest. This growth could outpace commercial supply, and even fuel more illegal poaching of wild animals. Critics also worry that ending the ban will remove any lingering stigma associated with possessing rhino horn, further boosting demand.

Breeders and traders like Hume concede that demand “is not going to die down anytime soon.” But they argue that because horns are a renewable resource – they grow back when trimmed, albeit slowly – what South Africa actually needs are incentives to encourage responsible breeding and conservation. “If we do not take the steps to meet the demand,” Hume argues, “we won’t save the rhino.”

We still do not know how the court’s decision will affect demand for a resource that is prized throughout Asia for its medicinal value. What is clear, however, is that placing too much trust in a commercial conservation approach is risky. Evidence suggests that while farming of rhinos may have niche market possibilities, it will not prevent poaching of wild rhinos.

Similar efforts to protect wild animals through farming have fallen short. For example, a 2010 study in Vietnam found that commercial farming of the Southeast Asian porcupine, a popular meat source, had not dramatically reduced the hunting of wild porcupines. It is the same story for elephant ivory, bear bile, and mule deer musk. Demand for wild products often far exceeds what commercial breeding can realistically offer.

Commercial breeding programs are further disadvantaged because of the perception among some buyers that wild products are more valuable. As University of Johannesburg scientist Laura Tensen has noted, “wild animals are considered superior because of their rarity and high expense.”

That is especially true for rhinos. Poachers often prove the veracity of their illicit product by showing buyers horns that have been removed from the base of the skull, an extraction method that kills the animal. Only the most conscience-stricken consumer would ensure that horns they purchase are sourced from licensed breeders.

Historically, poaching has also been immune to fluctuations in the retail price of rhino horns. For the price mechanism to eradicate poaching, demand would need to bottom out. With demand actually increasing, and without a threshold price to encourage breeding, supply-side interventions are unlikely to be effective in protecting wild rhinos. Currently, rhino horn sells for as much as $60,000 per kilogram in parts of Asia.

Breeders are convinced that with permitting systems and detection technologies, legal horns could be identified, law enforcement could prevent illegal horns from being trafficked, and domestic trading could reduce the stress on wild populations. But these arguments hinge on a number of conditions that are, at the moment, purely aspirational.

For starters, commercial breeding will succeed only if farmed horns are viewed as a substitute for products sourced from wild animals. But as researchers like Tensen report, that is unlikely in the near term, given the higher status associated with non-farmed products.

Law-enforcement efforts would also need to be increased to detect illegal supplies and break up laundering rings. Unfortunately, the illegal syndicates that smuggle wildlife products, often with assistance from government officials, are adept at evading detection.

Finally, the pro-farming argument assumes that commercial breeders will eventually supply horn at lower prices than poachers. But captive breeding is costly. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, for example, have shown that white rhinos rarely produce fertile offspring in captivity. Furthermore, the horns of young adults grow by only about six centimeters a year, and that rate diminishes with age.

Commercial breeders dispute that their operations amount to “captivity,” and Hume’s model is meant to replicate wild conditions as much as possible. Yet if farmed solutions were ever to be seen as an alternative to wild harvesting, other breeders would need to replicate such conditions. The cost would be significant, and corners would no doubt be cut.

While breeders are eager to defend their trade, economists have debunked the myth that a legal domestic market in rhino horns will conserve wild populations. Even if farmed supplies from South Africa satisfied a portion of the demand globally, it will not alter demand among consumers drawn to wild product, or those who are indifferent about the source. South Africa will most likely soon be home to parallel markets, with extensive laundering of illegal horn. That may be acceptable to breeders, but it defies reason for those trying to conserve wild rhinos.

Ross Harvey is a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

By Ross Harvey

Data-Driven Gender Equality

NEW YORK – A key agenda item at this year’s annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, under way this week, will be to assess global progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN’s consensus roadmap for solving the world’s biggest challenges by 2030.

I was part of the UN team that helped create the Millennium Development Goals, which preceded the SDGs. By the time the MDGs concluded in 2015, they had fueled some of the fastest and most extensive gains in global health and development the world has ever seen. The MDGs paved the way for the SDGs, and I have been encouraged by the commitment the global community has shown to sustaining the post-2015 development agenda.

But it has also become clear to me and others that without a more deliberate, data-driven focus on the needs of women and girls in particular, progress toward a wide range of objectives will suffer. If we fail to achieve universal gender equality, we will fall short of many other goals, from ending poverty to ensuring good health.

One of my personal frustrations with the MDGs was that gender equality was more a matter of rhetoric than of action. Despite their promise of empowerment, the MDGs didn’t adequately target many of the biggest challenges that women and girls face, such as gender-based violence and economic discrimination. These gaps have persisted, because in the 1990s, when the MDGs were being formulated, most people, including me, did not adequately understand the scale or complexity of the problem.

We must avoid a similar fate with the SDGs. Achieving gender equality is more than a once-in-a-generation opportunity; it is also the best way to make progress on nearly all of the SDGs, and to build a world where everyone can thrive. As Bill and Melinda Gates will discuss at a gathering of world leaders next week in New York, and show in a new report, collective action is needed to address the various dimensions of gender inequality and drive progress.

One of the biggest impediments is a dearth of good data on issues that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as land rights, access to education, family planning, or health care. Data are essential to understanding what is working and how to track progress. Yet up-to-date data exist for only a small fraction of the indicators that were developed to assess progress on the 17 SDGs – including the more than 40 that directly relate to gender equality. Of the 14 indicators of progress associated with the primary gender equity goal, SDG 5, most countries are measuring just three.

To help fill these critical gaps, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has created a three-year, $80 million initiative to generate more reliable data that can improve the design and targeting of programs and policy interventions. As part of that effort, the foundation recently launched a $10 million partnership with UN Women to help countries improve the quality of the gender-specific data they collect. The foundation is also supporting Equal Measures 2030, an initiative to empower advocates and civil-society groups with easy-to-use evidence to assess progress toward targets and keep the SDGs for women and girls on track.

These and other efforts will provide gender-equality advocates and decision-makers with better information about the nature and scale of the social and economic barriers holding women and girls back, and help identify who is falling through the cracks.

We know from existing evidence that empowering women and girls can accelerate progress. For example, when girls attend secondary school (SDG 4), they are up to six times less likely to be married as a child. And higher literacy rates among adolescent girls are associated with lower adolescent birth rates and improved health (SDG 3). Likewise, women are much more likely than men to invest surplus income in ways that improve the lives of their children.

The benefits of gender equity are also apparent when women have access to basic financial services, like credit and savings accounts, which enable them to start businesses and save money for family essentials.

Closing the gender gap in agriculture, meanwhile, could have an even more profound impact on families and productivity in the developing world. Today, for example, women make up nearly half of the agricultural workforce in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, they typically work smaller, less productive plots of land than men, and often lack access to the best seeds, fertilizer, credit, and training opportunities. Studies show that giving women more decision-making power over productive assets has the potential to increase farm yields by more than 20%, which is essential to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030 (SDG 1).

When we remove the barriers confronting the most vulnerable in society, the effects are transformational. But to do that, donors, development partners, governments, and the private sector must invest in more and better data that are sorted by age and sex. Doing so will allow programs to be tailored to the needs of women and girls everywhere.

Our challenge – and opportunity – is to overcome the deeply entrenched barriers that impede progress for women and girls. The SDGs are a huge step in that direction. But goals without actionable strategies are just good intentions. The SDGs provide the roadmap to ending poverty and creating a better, healthier, more secure world for everyone. Ensuring that we have quality data is the best way to ensure that no one gets lost along the way.

Mark Suzman is Chief Strategy Officer and President of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Reviving India’s Economy

NEW YORK – Not long ago, India was a poster child for political stability and economic growth among emerging economies. Though the country had a long way to go to eradicate poverty and extreme inequality, when it came to steady GDP growth, it was among the world’s strongest and most consistent performers. Not anymore.

In the second quarter of 2017, India’s growth rate fell to 5.7%. It is now tied with Pakistan – behind China, Malaysia, and the Philippines – on the list of major economies for which The Economist provides basic economic data. Neighboring Bangladesh, which is not on that list, is now growing at over 7% per annum (and Bangladesh’s per capita income now exceeds Pakistan’s).

Given the Indian economy’s massive size and extensive global linkages, its growth slowdown is a source of serious concern not just domestically, but around the world. But it is not too late for India to reverse the trend. The key will be carefully crafted policies that address both short- and long-term challenges.

In the short term, policymakers must address declining demand for Indian products, both among domestic consumers and in export markets. All signs point to falling consumer and business spending in India. In fact, India’s index of industrial production grew by a meager 1.2% in July, compared to 4.5% a year earlier. Output of consumer durables fell by 1.3%; a year earlier, it grew by 0.2%.

Meanwhile, annual export growth has fallen in recent years to just 3%, compared to 17.8% in 2003-2008, India’s rapid-growth phase. This is partly a result of a stronger rupee, which has raised the price of Indian goods in foreign markets. And, indeed, imports have risen sharply as well, as the rupee’s appreciation lowers the relative price of foreign goods: in the first half of this year, nominal merchandise imports grew by 28%.

But there is another potential driver of the sharp rise in imports: people may be over-invoicing, in order to shift money abroad. This could indicate that big traders expect a correction in the rupee’s exchange rate, at which point they plan to sell the dollars that they are now accumulating for a larger sum of rupees.

This possibility should worry the Indian authorities – and spur them into action. To boost domestic demand in the short term, India needs Keynesian interventionist policies. To mitigate the rupee’s appreciation, thereby boosting external demand, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) – one of India’s most respected institutions, populated by qualified professionals – must be given greater policy space and autonomy.

My advice would be for the RBI to lower interest rates further, thereby aligning India’s monetary policy more closely with that of the world’s other major economies. While the current tendency toward very low interest rates is not ideal from a global perspective, the fact is that as long as India remains an outlier, it will encourage the so-called carry trade, which artificially drives up the rupee’s value.

The bigger challenge facing India will be to nurture and sustain rapid growth in the long run. To figure out how to achieve that, it is worth considering the efforts of another major emerging economy: China.

As part of its industrial policy, China’s government has identified specific economic sectors to boost. India can adopt a similar approach, with health and education being two particularly promising sectors.

Despite its success, India’s medical tourism industry still has plenty of untapped potential – not least because health-care costs are rising around the world. The income earned from such tourism could help the country to shore up its own health system, ensuring that all Indians – including the poor and especially children, among whom malnourishment remains rampant – have access to quality health care.

Likewise, India can become a hub for higher education. For the government, the imperative is to create more regulatory space and provide a facilitating ethos for the private sector. An education boom would bring huge returns for the entire Indian economy.

The final piece of India’s long-term growth puzzle is investment more broadly. The experience of East Asian countries, not to mention economic theory, shows that capital investment is among the most effective drivers of sustained economic growth. Even in India, the sharp uptick in growth from 2003 occurred alongside a surge in overall investment.

Yet India’s investment-to-GDP ratio is now slipping, from over 35% in the last eight years to below 30% today. This can be explained partly by an increase in risk aversion among banks, which are concerned about non-performing assets. Falling business confidence may also be a factor.

If India implements policies that boost short-term growth, while laying the groundwork for long-term performance, confidence should rise naturally. Once investment picks up, India will be able to recapture its past rapid growth – and sustain it in the coming years. That outcome would benefit not just India, but the entire global economy.

Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University.

By Kaushik Basu

Counting What Counts in Development

NEW YORK – To most people, “development” is best measured by the quantity of change – like gains in average income, life expectancy, or years spent in school. The Human Development Index (HDI), a composite measure of national progress that my office at the United Nations Development Programme oversees, combines all three statistics to rank countries relative to one another.

What many do not realize, however, is that such metrics, while useful, do not tell the entire story of development. In fact, to understand how developed a country is, we must also grasp how people’s lives are affected by progress. And to understand that, we must consider the quality of the change that is being reported.

When statisticians compare countries, they require commensurate data. To compare school attendance, for example, researchers would count the number of registered students in each country, relative to all school-age children (although even this can be a challenge in many developing countries, where record keeping is not always standardized).

But to gauge the relative quality of a country’s education system, researchers would want to determine whether students are actually learning. For those numbers, statisticians would need to test students across a range of subjects, a project that is far more ambitious than simply taking attendance.

Statisticians have always recognized that comparing quantities is far easier than comparing quality. But, because existing measures are all we have, the weaknesses are often overlooked when ranking relative gains or making policies, even though “progress” according to a given indicator is not necessarily genuine. If the world is ever to reach parity in development, we must change how we gauge and catalogue the quality of policy initiatives.

Consider the statistics measured by the HDI – life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Life expectancy statistics suggest that the world is getting healthier, and data show that people are living longer than ever before; since 1990, average life expectancy has increased by around six years. But the increase in quality of life has not been as dramatic. Those extra years are often accompanied by illness and disability – such as dementia, which the World Health Organization now estimates affects 47.5 million people worldwide.

While life expectancy can be calculated based on birth and death records, indices that measure quality of life, like the WHO’s disability-adjusted life year estimates, require considerable amounts of information on a wide range of illnesses and disabilities in every country. And, unfortunately, the difficulty of gathering such data means that many life-quality datasets are incomplete or infrequently compiled.

It’s a similarly mixed picture for education. The world is no doubt making progress in extending access to schools, with more children are enrolled and attending than ever before. But how do we measure the gaps in educational quality? Some 250 million children worldwide do not learn basic skills, even though half of them have spent at least four years in school. It will come as no surprise that in most countries, schools in wealthier neighborhoods typically have better facilities, more qualified teachers, and smaller class sizes. Addressing inequality requires measuring educational outcomes, rather than school enrollment rates.

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which relies on tests not directly linked to curricula, is one approach to making cross-country comparisons. The results for 2015 paint a much richer picture of educational performance across participating countries, while highlighting stark disparities. For example, PISA found that “socio-economically disadvantaged students across OECD countries are almost three times more likely than advantaged students not to attain the baseline level of proficiency in science.”

Data on employment – critical for policymakers, as they prepare for the future – tell a similar story. The 2015 Human Development Report recognized that as the world moves toward a knowledge economy, low-skill or marginal workers are at greater risk of losing their jobs, and opportunities for exploitation of informal or unpaid workers increase.

To put this in perspective, consider employment projections for the European Union, which foresee the addition of 16 million new jobs between 2010 and 2020. But over the same period, the number of jobs available for people with the least formal education is anticipated to decline, by around 12 million.

“Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted,” the sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote in 1963. His dictum remains true today, though when it comes to measuring human development, I would suggest a slight revision: “Not everything that is counted counts for everything.”

Equitable human development requires that policymakers pay more attention to the quality of outcomes, rather than focusing primarily on quantitative measures of change. Only when we know how people are being affected by development can we design policies that bring about the most valuable improvements in their lives. “The intention to live as long as possible isn’t one of the mind’s best intentions,” the author Deepak Chopra once observed, “because quantity isn’t the same as quality.”

Selim Jahan is Director of the Human Development Report Office and lead author of the Human Development Report.

By Selim Jahan

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