2014: year in review (by countries, part 2)

2014

 

This is the continuation of previous post I published yesterday. Here are a few more countries under the spotlight this year:

 

Iraq – this country has long been notoriously associated with sectarian strife, the failed US invasions, and right now, a seemingly new synonym is ironically added into once was an influential power in Middle East a millennium ago: ISIS. Since its advent in the middle of this year, this organization, led by a former CIA informant (ha!), has committed numerous atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities across much of the country, most notably Christians and Yazidis. Excluding their poor public-relations exercise by means of decapitation, which, as horrendous as it seems, still continues to entice thousands of foreigners across the whole world to join this movement.

With the Iraqi Army still in partial disarray due to internal conflicts, who else remains in charge of limiting ISIS’s movements? Big kudos to Peshmerga, the army for Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. While the Army’s offensive has been largely limited (and some even escape), the Peshmerga fighters remain fiercely committed to defending their region, and more generally, the country as a whole, despite the frequent fracas between Baghdad and Erbil (capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) in regard to oil production sharing contracts.

Iran – it has been an uneasy year for President Hassan Rouhani, as nuclear deals with Western countries remain largely in limbo. But one piece of slightly good news abounds: Iran has, for the first time since Ahmadinejad era, achieved positive economic growth, albeit small compared to most emerging markets. With GDP growth estimated at 2%, no matter how small it is, Iran is expected to move slowly into better direction in the years to come.

The big concern that matters, as of my opinion, is the limited freedom of expression that prevails.

Israel / Palestine – “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Gandhi’s quote resonates very obviously in terms of how these two countries relate to each other. A few Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, followed by a retaliation by which a Palestinian child was done so in similar manner. And huge conflicts, due in part to deep scars that remain in both governments, reverberated again, as history has taught. More than 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed during an offensive by Israeli military in August this year. But is Israel the sole culprit in this conflict? What about Hamas, notoriously known for exploiting civilian places like schools and hospitals to launch unending attacks to Israel? With now Israel dominated by hard-line Zionists, and Palestine partially under control of hard-line leaders as well, the doors towards negotiation and dialogues will not be achievable in the near future.

A piece of good news that remains largely overlooked in this conflict zone: start-ups, mostly in software development and creative products, in both countries are flourishing, and more European countries are recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state.

Japan – Shinzo Abe was reelected as Prime Minister of Japan in a somewhat risky bet he placed in this year’s general election, as his Abenomics was showing failure. In short term, his quantitative easing policy has pumped over trillions of dollars into the market, therefore stimulating exports growth, abundant cash, as well as inflation, the word first time appearing in the news after more than 20 years experiencing continuous periods of deflation. Nonetheless, with Abe’s introduction of consumption tax at 8%, this deals a catastrophic blow for his ambitious initiative intended to revive Japanese economic miracle. With GDP contracting this quarter, the country unofficially enters its recession again. Even his ‘Womenomics’ program, aimed to increase female participation in leadership seats across Japan’s corporations and organizations into 30%, will be hardly achievable in this decade.

In 2015, challenges will not be even easier for Abe, as a whole range of issues will soon face his administration. Revision of US-drafted post-war constitution has attracted massive opposition from largely Japanese public, still traumatized by the deadly repercussions of World War II, even though Japan will never become a militarist power again, given the country’s increasing demographic pressure. His plans to restart nuclear power plants, ratify the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pass national secrecy laws, and handle Japan’s fragile relations with China similarly encounter big resistance from much of the Japanese population as well. 2014-2018 will not be a smooth path for Abe, were he to continue his tenure.

Libya – the country remains largely fractured three years after Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered by opposition forces in a NATO-led civil war that destroyed Libya in 2011. Some militants have previously formed their own ‘governorate’ in the country’s eastern part, only to face another armed resistance from other fighters, while several ISIS sympathizers have begun to infiltrate the country’s security. Even with Libya’s riches stored abroad (the country’s sovereign wealth fund reaches a staggering amount of 120 billion US$, but mostly in bank accounts in Switzerland, notorious for their secrecy laws), the money can hardly be used for Libyan public, given that much of the money remains under control of Qaddafi’s relatives, many of whom had escaped abroad (except for his son, Saif al-Islam, who may possibly face death sentence).

Malaysia – 2014 is the most disastrous year for the country’s aviation industry, as three airliners belonging to its most reliable carriers, Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, perished this year. The most puzzling of which was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a scheduled flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing that ended up nowhere. After almost 10 months of investigation, involving hundreds of rescue ships and even war ships from more than 27 countries, not even the slightest trace of the plane can be found. The plane was presumed, as by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to have ‘ended up somewhere in Indian Ocean’. This makes the search efforts even riskier, given that much of Indian Ocean’s terrains remain largely unmapped, some of which may have depth over 6,000 meters. Four months after this tragedy, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 again became a tragedy, as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine mistook it as ‘Ukrainian military transport plane’ and shot it down. 239 people in MH370 had never been found, while 298 people in MH17 were instantly killed by the missile launched by the separatists.

And this Sunday, Air Asia, long notable as Asia’s largest low-cost carrier with great safety records, faced its first major crisis with the disappearance of its plane in Air Asia Flight QZ 8501, flying from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, to Singapore. 162 passengers and crew were inside the plane, which remains missing as of this hour.

However, other than aviation disasters, Malaysia faces another major issue in regard to the country’s increasing authoritarian rule, as Najib’s administration restarted decades-old sedition laws, used only during British colonial rule, to detain political opponents without prior permission from judiciary powers, including Anwar Ibrahim, the most outspoken. The country also faces ethnic and religious tumults, as Christians are no longer allowed to use ‘Allah’ in their sermons, and more pro-Malay policies at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities, many of whom have increasingly emigrated abroad.

Myanmar – the country doesn’t experience much progress in democratic transition, as one-fourth of the national parliament remains solely reserved for military. Even the constitution itself requires a law to be approved by more than three-fourths of the entire members, something which can be easily aborted by the powerful military members.

How the country handles its ethnic minorities will remain a concern to be observed in 2015 and years to come, most commonly illustrated by the country’s failure to relate with Muslim Rohingya minorities, many of whom have fled abroad to avoid persecution by ultra-nationalist Buddhists.

One thing almost for sure: in next year’s 2015 election, there is large probability Aung San Suu Kyi will not become the country’s president, given many of the current constitution’s limitations.

Nigeria – Africa’s most populated country faces its major crisis when Boko Haram, an Islamist movement affiliated with Al-Qaeda in northern Nigeria, kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls, sparking an international campaign to free them. However, the kidnapping itself is not the mere problem the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is being faced with. Continuous suicide-bomb attacks have killed over thousands of civilians in many parts across the country, prompting military operations to capture those involved.

Nonetheless, there remains some good news that is worthy of international attention. The country, given its proximity to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, was once thought as a potential ‘bomb’ for Ebola epidemic to turn itself into a pandemic, given the country’s population that now reaches 170 million, as well as high density, low sanitation, acute poverty, and little awareness about cleanliness. However, within months, less than two dozens of cases took place across the whole country, with the number of mortality countable by fingers. This is something seemingly impossible for many experts, but Nigeria, given the national unity in facing this crisis, has proven to the world that no matter how problematic things seem to be, they can resolve it successfully.

And Nigeria’s GDP has for the first time surpassed that of South Africa, therefore becoming Africa’s largest economy. While oil and gas revenues remain the largest source for government budget (and often corrupted), Nigerian economy has been more diversified in recent years.

North Korea – other than the Kim-Obama fracas about naughty comedy ‘The Interview’ and the subsequent Sony hacking attacks that follow (which may possibly be conducted by third parties using North Korean IP addresses), the country is not as isolated as people perceive anymore. Over hundred thousands of Chinese tourists are now visiting North Korea every year, followed by a large flow of cash from China, its principal ally, largely driven by informal economy that the country is mostly depending upon. As economy has collapsed, majority of the North Koreans have now turned into either smuggling or small trade, and the country’s unofficial currencies are either US dollar, euro, or Chinese yuan (South Korean won is not allowed).

The purge, and eventual execution, of Jang Song-thaek remains a proof, however, that Kim Jong-un can be as ruthless as his grandfather and father were (Jang was his uncle, and a sort of ‘intermediary’ between North Korea and China in terms of economic, trade, and investment relations).

 

(wait for part 3)

 

The Perfect Mark

phishing alert

 

A Massachusetts psychotherapist was duped by a Nigerian e-mail scam, and how this became a huge thriving business from 1980s to 200s.

Read the full article, published in May 2006, in The New Yorker.

 

Excerpt:

 

Every swindle is driven by a desire for easy money; it’s the one thing the swindler and the swindled have in common. Advance-fee fraud is an especially durable con. In an early variation, the Spanish Prisoner Letter, which dates to the sixteenth century, scammers wrote to English gentry and pleaded for help in freeing a fictitious wealthy countryman who was imprisoned in Spain. Today, the con usually relies on e-mail and is often called a 419 scheme, after the anti-fraud section of the criminal code in Nigeria, where it flourishes. (Last year, a Nigerian comic released a song that taunted Westerners with the lyrics “I go chop your dollar. I go take your money and disappear. Four-one-nine is just a game. You are the loser and I am the winner.”) The scammers, who often operate in crime rings, are known as “yahoo-yahoo boys,” because they frequently use free Yahoo accounts. Many of them live in a suburb of Lagos called Festac Town. Last year, one scammer in Festac Town told the Associated Press, “Now I have three cars, I have two houses, and I’m not looking for a job anymore.”

According to a statement posted on the Internet by the U.S. State Department, 419 schemes began to proliferate in the mid-nineteen-eighties, when a collapse in oil prices caused severe economic upheaval in Nigeria. The population—literate, English-speaking, and living with widespread government corruption—faced poverty and rising unemployment. These conditions created a culture of scammers, some of them violent. Marks are often encouraged to travel to Nigeria or to other countries, where they fall victim to kidnapping, extortion, and, in rare cases, murder. In the nineteen-nineties, at least fifteen foreign businessmen, including one American, were killed after being lured to Nigeria by 419 scammers. Until recently, Nigerian officials tended to blame the marks. “There would be no 419 scam if there are no greedy, credulous and criminally-minded victims ready to reap where they did not sow,” the Nigerian Embassy in Washington said in a 2003 statement. The following year, Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of Nigeria’s Economic & Financial Crimes Commission, noted that not one scammer was behind bars. Last November, however, Ribadu’s commission convicted two crime bosses who had enticed a Brazilian banker to spend two hundred and forty-two million dollars of his employer’s money on a fictitious airport-development deal. (Prosecutions by U.S. authorities are rare; most victims don’t know the real names of their “partners,” and 419 swindlers are adept at covering their tracks.)

 

What Nigeria and Senegal (and Cuba) can teach the world about fighting ebola

free from ebola

 

While much of the mainstream media has all the hype about ‘Renee Zellweger’s latest face’ or ‘the desperate fate of Ebola outbreak’, these two African countries, Nigeria and Senegal, silently made a great breakthrough in fighting the disease. These two countries, normally identified as lower-middle-income nations with high percentage of population living in extreme poverty, decrepit public facilities and governments oftentimes beset by inefficiencies and bureaucratic logjams, surprised the whole planet with their rapid response towards the outbreak, unlike their much unfortunate counterparts, countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea. Tackling the spread of the virus in both these highly populated countries, each of which boasts 170 million and nearly 30 million, is no easy job, somehow. Nonetheless, with all the efforts made, all parties involved, and health authorities in particular, deserve the accolades for successfully keeping an otherwise apocalyptic maelstrom at bay. This is a great lesson for the world, and especially for other developing nations altogether.

Most importantly, it is not just about advanced technologies; it takes a complete willingness of all parties, especially a political one, to solve this problem. For some conservatives in US who talk about eliminating flights between the country and West Africa to avoid Ebola outbreak, think again.

This is the article from io9 that explains how Nigeria, for this case study, can contain the contagion.

 

Full article:

 

How Nigeria Stopped Ebola “Dead In Its Tracks”

George Dvorsky

Finally, some good news to report on the Ebola front: Nigeria and Senegal are now completely free of the disease. Here’s how they contained the outbreak — and why the world needs to take notice.

Earlier today, the World Health Organization announced that no new case of Ebola has emerged in Nigeria in 42 days. That’s the standard length of time required for declaring the end to an outbreak, since it’s twice the maximum 21-day incubation period for the virus. It’s an incredible achievement — one that should assuage fears and show that Ebola can be contained. Moreover, it’s proof that developing nations, with sufficient support from the international community, are fully capable of dealing with the epidemic.

Thwarting an “Apocalyptic Urban Outbreak”

Things looked bleak back in July when the virus was detected in Lagos, Africa’s largest city. Nigeria, with its 166 million inhabitants, is Africa’s most populous country and its newest economic powerhouse. Lagos boasts a population of 21 million, making it nearly as large as the populations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone combined. With its airport and large population living in often crowded and unsanitary conditions, news of Ebola was met with a palpable sense of dread.

“The last thing anyone in the world wants to hear is the two words, ‘Ebola’ and ‘Lagos’ in the same sentence,” noted Jeffrey Hawkins, the U.S. Consul General in Nigeria, at the time. The juxtaposition of the two conjured images of an “apocalyptic urban outbreak.”

In the end, Nigeria confirmed a total of 19 Ebola cases, of whom seven died and 12 survived. It’s a far cry from the situation in other parts of West Africa — but that’s not an accident. Here’s how Nigeria did it and the “best practices” that should now be employed elsewhere:

Effective Leadership and Public-Health Institutions

The WHO credits Nigeria for its strong leadership and effective coordination of the response:

The most critical factor is leadership and engagement from the head of state and the Minister of Health. Generous allocation of government funds and their quick disbursement helped as well. Partnership with the private sector was yet another asset that brought in substantial resources to help scale up control measures that would eventually stop the Ebola virus dead in its tracks.

The response was greatly aided by the rapid utilization of a national public institution (NCDC) and the prompt establishment of an Emergency Operations Centre, which was supported by the Disease Prevention and Control Cluster within the WHO country office. Nigeria also features a first-rate virology lab affiliated with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. It was staffed and equipped to quickly and reliably diagnose Ebola, ensuring that containment measures could be employed with the shortest possible delay.

Rapid Response to the Initial Case

Nigeria’s first Ebola patient, Patrick Sawyer, was initially thought to have malaria. But once that was ruled out, doctors immediately began treating him as a possible Ebola patient. He was kept in isolation, officials were notified, and a blood sample was rushed to a testing lab. Just three days later, Nigeria’s health ministry set up an Ebola Incident Management Center, which eventually turned into an Emergency Operations Center that co-ordinated the response and decision-making.

Sufficient Access to Resources

As noted, federal and state governments in Nigeria were able to provide ample financial and material resources, including well-trained and experienced national staff. Isolation wards were immediately constructed, as were designated Ebola treatment facilities (though more slowly). Other resources included vehicles and mobile phones equipped with specially adapted apps allowing healthcare workers to engage in real-time reporting as the investigations moved forward. Many of these efforts were supported by social mobilization experts from UNICEF, CDC and Médecins sans Frontières.

High Quality Contact-Tracing

Nigerian health officials, working with assistance from WHO, the US CDC and others, managed to reach 100% of known contacts in Lagos and 99.8% at the second outbreak site in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub. High-quality contact tracing was performed by experienced epidemiologists who expedited the early detection of cases and their rapid movement to isolation wards. And unlike the tragic situation in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, all identified contacts were physically monitored on a daily basis for 21 days. Some contacts tried to escape during the monitoring process, but they were all tracked by special investigation teams and returned to observation to complete the requisite monitoring period of 21 days.

Applying Lessons From Previous Outbreaks

Nigeria has been combating another blight, polio, for quite some time now and with great success. Among their many tactics, health officials use the very latest satellite-based GPS technologies to ensure that no child missed out on polio vaccinations. When Ebola first appeared in July, they immediately repurposed these technologies and infrastructure to conduct Ebola case-finding, contact-tracing, and daily mapping of links between identified chains of transmission. Nigerian health officials also adapted the learnings from their efforts to eradicate guinea-worm disease.

A Rigorous Public Education Campaign

Communication with the public was also key. Nigerian health and government officials rallied communities to support containment measures. This involved house-to-house information campaigns — spoken in local dialects — that explained the level of risk, effective personal measures, and the actions being taken for control. All the while, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, reassured his population on nationally televised newscasts. Traditional and religious community leaders were engaged early on and asked to play a role in sensitizing the public.Finally, the full range of media opportunities were exploited, including social media and televised facts about the disease delivered by Nigerian celebrities.

Screening At Borders — And A Refusal To Stop Air Travel

Instead of panicking and banning air travel, Nigerian health officials screened all arriving and departing travelers by air and by sea in Lagos and Rivers State. The average number of travelers screened each day reached a peak of more than 16,000.

Moving Forward With Vigilance

Clearly, this story isn’t over yet. Vigilance remains high and Nigeria’s surveillance systems remains on a high level of alert. It’s quite possible that, given the country’s success, people from neighboring countries may try to (illicitly) enter in.

As a final note, and as noted by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan: “If a country like Nigeria, hampered by serious security problems, can do this – that is, make significant progress towards interrupting polio transmission, eradicate guinea-worm disease and contain Ebola, all at the same time – any country in the world experiencing an imported case can hold onward transmission to just a handful of cases.”

 

Additional articles:

1. An article from Los Angeles Times

2. One of Cuba’s most reliable sources to conduct its global diplomatic finesse – doctors. Learn how Cuba is prepping up its global image by dispatching more than 160 doctors across West Africa to fight Ebola.

Ingenious homes in unexpected places

torre david

 

Torre David, one of Venezuelan capital Caracas’ tallest skyscrapers, is now mostly known for being the world’s most well-known epitome of a typical vertical slum. Originally intended for use as an office tower, the unexpected death of the edifice’s developer has since left an unprecedented, and painful, mark on the fate of this huge building: it subsequently ran out of funds, and many of the city’s poorest inhabitants now hinge on this building as homes, factories, shops, and even places to gather with other fellow inhabitants.

 

What are the similarities of:

1. A skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, that is unexpectedly used as ‘safe haven’ for a city’s poorest rank-and-file

2. An abandoned ‘dream city’ in Chandigarh, India (a Utopian project by Le Corbusier), that for the city’s most impoverished, is a ‘brand-new huge office space’ to find new dreams upon?

3. A slum city (Makoko) on the suburbs of Lagos, Nigeria, that is entirely built above water and houses up to 150,000 people, and even supports a lively and vibrant economy despite decrepit infrastructure?

4. A densely-stacked town (Zabbaleen) on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, that wholly depends on mounts of waste and garbage, and that for its inhabitants, are the primary sources of income?

5. And lastly, houses built underground that are scattered throughout China, for the reason that ‘governments are overlooking their housing needs’, when in fact more and more ghost cities are built in perpetuity across the whole country?

For Iwan Baan, a globe-trotting photographer, the answer is plain simple: ingenious.

 

And this is the similarly ingenious, and truly original, TED talk by which he presents the illustrations of real human ingenuity.