Three students from the Makerere University College of Computing and Information Sciences have won the Microsoft Imagine Cup Grant worth $50,000 for their project WinSenga, a smartphone app that performs ultrasounds on pregnant women and can detect problems like ectopic pregnancies and abnormal heartbeats. The winning, Team Cipher256, consists of Aaron Tushabe, Joshua Okello, and Josiah Kavuma.
Recently Ugandans had one small cause to celebrate. The World Bank announced that their country had moved up in the rankings in its annual ease of doing business survey. And not only did Uganda move up -- it also overtook regional rival Kenya, which had long enjoyed a much better rating in this area. The ratings are important, of course, because foreign investors quite understandably prefer to put their money into places where there are fewer obstacles to business.
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In a remarkable interview with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Nazila Fathi asks Iran's leading human rights activist why she believes that an attack on Iran would strengthen the mullahs and undermine democratic aspirations.
Mark James Russell explores how South Korean popular culture has been giving the country's exports a brand name bump in the developing world.
Looking ahead to next week's parliamentary election in Georgia, political scientist Scott Radnitz argues that having two political machines contending for power is better than one. This week's case study from Princeton's Innovations for Successful Societies offers an in-depth look at one of President Saakashvili's signature reforms.
Christian Caryl makes the case that Aung San Suu Kyi should not be immune to criticism.
Roger Bate urges the FDA to take regulating internationally sourced pharmaceuticals more seriously.
Mohamed El Dahshan takes aim at the seemingly archaic Egyptian economic policy.
Endy Bayuni contrasts the various Indonesian views on blasphemy laws.
And here are this week's recommended reads:
The International Republican Institute offers a handy overview of the political scene and the major players in Georgia's October 1 election. At The Atlantic, Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. looks at the recent prison scandal there and what they say about the legacy of the 2003 Rose Revolution.
The Caracas newspaper, El Universal, analyzes the impending Venezuelan presidential election through the prism of both candidates' tweets. Reuters investigates the scandal over a fortune in government funds spent on a factory that never quite got built.
In its latest report, Freedom House takes a critical look at the state of censorship on the web.
October's issue of Journal of Democracy includes several noteworthy papers on the state of Burma's transition, including pieces by Hkun Htun Oo on minority rights, Min Ko Naing on civil society, and Brian Joseph and our very own Min Zin on the challenges of building democracy.
Anthony Kuhn of National Public Radio tells the story of Singapore's forgotten dissidents.
Democracy Digest offers a helpful introduction to a new report, Political Parties in Democratic Transitions, that analyzes the dynamics of democratic transitions.
As the wave of protests around the Muslim world ebbs, two authors offer their perspectives on the motives of religious anger: Kenan Malik compares the latest protests with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and Steve Cole, writing in The New Yorker, shows why the TV imagery of fanatical rioters usually falls short of a complex reality.
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This week I attended two events in Cairo devoted to Egypt's economic situation, but the setting could easily have been any point in the decade prior to the January 2011 revolution -- for better or for worse.
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Three Princeton researchers (Morgan Greene, Jonathan Friedman, and Richard Bennet) tell the story of how post-Yugoslavia Kosovo (with some help from the international community) managed to pull off a remarkable feat of state-building.
Endy Bayuni explains why Indonesians disagree about the start of Ramadan, and what it says about the country's climate of religious toleration.
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While much of the developed world is mired in sluggish growth or downright recession, a few days ago Venezuela came out with healthy GDP figures. According the country's central bank, GDP grew at 5.6 percent in the first quarter of the year, outperforming Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, and equaling Chile. Unnamed government officials cited in the Wall Street Journal expect the GDP as a whole to grow by 5 percent in 2012.
This is welcome news, especially after the country was hit hard by the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Unfortunately, this growth spurt will not last.
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In March, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi troweled dollops of concrete onto a barren patch of land on the picturesque island of Lamu, Kenya, where a future seaport will lie. The Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), a $23-billion undertaking that will connect Kenya's coastal Lamu region to South Sudan and Ethiopia with oil pipelines, railways, and super highways, is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Africa to date. According to President Kibaki, LAPSSET "will stimulate the growth of regional economies through promotion of trade and other productive activities." He predicted that the project will boost employment and contribute to better prospects for some 167 million people in the surrounding region.
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Mohamed Fadel Fahmy interviews Robert Becker, who decided to stay in Egypt and have his day in court rather than leave the country with the other Americans implicated in the NGO affair.
Francisco Martin-Rayo argues that America is undermining Yemen's opportunity to build democracy for the sake of waging war on Al Qaeda. (The photo above shows Yemeni jihadis manning a checkpoint.)
Reporting from The Hague, Christopher Stephen explains why the welcome verdict against Charles Taylor shouldn't divert attention from the continuing irrelevance of the International Criminal Court.
Observers of the Venezuelan oil sector did a collective spit-take on Tuesday when the proudly socialist administration announced that it intends to privatize part of the state-owned oil industry. It's a decision that barbecues perhaps the most sacred of all sacred ideological cows in the Bolivarian Republic. In a first for the Chávez era, a portion of Venezuela's vast oil industry is to be floated on the stock market. (Characteristically, perhaps, the stock exchange involved is Hong Kong's, rather than New York's or London's.)
The decision involves Petropiar, a joint venture between Venezuela's state-owned oil firm, Petróleos de Venezuela (known as PDVSA), and U.S. oil major Chevron. Petropiar, which has the capacity to transform 190,000 barrels of thick, tar-like, extra-heavy crude into 180,000 barrels of light, easy-to-refine synthetic crude every day, has been 70 percent PDVSA-owned for years, while Chevron holds the remaining 30 percent.
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As I write this, about 2,000 Burmese workers in a town on the outskirts of Rangoon are continuing a strike at the Chinese-owned Tai Yi slipper factory. (The photo above shows a worker at a garment factory in Rangoon.)
"This could be the biggest labor strike since oil workers went on strike and marched in protest against the Burma Oil Company and British colonial rule in 1938," Phoe Phyu, a young lawyer who represents the workers, told me earlier this week. "More than 90 percent of the workers joined the strike."
The walkout started on Feb. 6, when the company refused to pay five days of wages that it had deducted for a holiday to mark the Chinese New Year, which is not officially recognized in Burma.
An industrial worker in Burma earns about $50 to 60 per month. All workers have to work overtime, and draw on hard-to-get performance bonuses to make around 60,000 to 70,000 kyat ($75 to $87.50) a month.
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Non-Ugandans may not realize that our country makes a lot of money from oil. The recent discovery of a massive new oil field in the Albertine region of the country is raising the stakes. All citizens are supposed to benefit from the sale of these resources, but this is not always the case.
Ugandans are growing more dissatisfied with the way oil deals are being carried out. Many people in civil society organizations and the media are decrying the absence of a proper oil policy, particularly the lack of transparency about oil-related transactions and how the resulting money is put to use.
Nobody foresaw that the discovery of oil in Uganda might be monopolized by President Museveni's right-hand men. But that's what has happened. (The photo above shows the president entering Parliament a few days ago with Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.) A number of senior government officials, right up to the prime minister, have been accused of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from the oil companies.
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Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a statement saying that Burma has a chance to become "the next economic frontier in Asia." But the IMF went on to note that the country can realize its potential only "if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world" to its advantage.
In a word, it's up to the government.
Contrary to what you might think from the headlines, it's not western sanctions that are causing Burma's economic woes. It's government policy. The Burmese government's Industry Minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, admitted as much when he responded to a journalist who asked whether the country has done enough to get U.S. sanctions lifted: "We have a lot of things to reform and lots of things have to change: laws, regulations and institutions, not only in the political sector but also in the economic sectors. But sanctions are up to them."
In 2004, the well-known U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that sanctions against Burma had "systematically weakened the economy by limiting trade, investment and foreign aid." It's an argument that many critics of sanctions have made.
The media love to use terms like "pariah," "isolated," and "closed" whenever they describe Burma and the effects of sanctions on the country.
If the term "pariah" denotes a country that utterly disregards international norms and behavior, and correspondingly meets with unrelenting censure from the international community, then that's a pretty good fit for Burma. But when the word is used in a way that's supposed to characterize the country's overall economic position (invariably in combination with words like "closed" and "isolated"), then it doesn't describe the situation at all.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2010 Burma's exports and imports stood at $8.7 billion and $4.9 billion respectively. That's higher than the data for some of the comparable members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), such as Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, many experts caution that the official figures for Burma's exports fall far short of the real numbers because they don't cover the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to neighboring countries.
As far as foreign direct investment (FDI) is concerned, Burma reached a record high in 2010-11 of almost $20 billion. That's more than the figure in the same year for Southeast Asia's latest investment darling, Vietnam.
These facts suggest that Burma's exposure to trade and FDI is higher today than ever before, and even higher than that of some comparable ASEAN countries. In this light it becomes extremely hard to argue that sanctions have deprived Burma of FDI and trade, much less that Burma is "isolated" or "closed." (This also offers an eloquent commentary on how ineffective the sanctions regime has actually been.)
Of course, sanctions do have negative effects on the economy (for instance, job losses in garment industry after the 2003 sanctions imposed by the U.S.), and there are many spillovers to other sectors, ranging from education to the growth of civil society. But the government cannot use sanctions as an excuse for its mismanagement and kleptocratic corruption.
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The conventional wisdom on Venezuela has Hugo Chávez's government locked in a death match with the country's embattled, shrinking private sector. But even if they aren't fans of the man, many in Venezuela's business elite have found ways to make a buck within the system he's created.
What remains of Venezuela's "private sector" -- farm, transport, banking, and manufacturing firms that have yet to be expropriated -- is heavily regulated. I recently asked a top manager at one of the country's largest private banks how they cope with this.
His response startled me.
"Yes," he said, "the government sets everything, from the interest we charge to our ATM fees. They decide how we allocate our loan portfolio -- a minimum X percent for agricultural loans, Y percent for personal loans, and the like."
"But," he added, "this makes the market more orderly. We don't have to decide how much we lend to whom. We don't spend time finding out what other banks are doing. This levels the playing field for everybody. It's smart."
Finding a silver lining in the government's heavy hand may help to explain why the private sector is taking Chávez's latest regulatory push in stride.
Last July, Venezuela's legislature passed the "Law of Fair Costs and Prices," forcing private businesses to hand over detailed cost and production information. On that basis, the government is empowered to set a price ceiling for any product sold in the nation at any time.
Business may not be pleased with the new law, but since they can't stop it, many are trying to turn it to their advantage. Their muted response may reflect what economists Frederic Scherer and David Ross call the "focal point" theory of collusion.
In a market economy, they argue, firms have the incentive to form a cartel, but the existence of an infinite number of possible price points makes collusion difficult. When the government steps in and sets a price ceiling that is high enough, this provides a focal point for all firms to coalesce around, stifling competition.
This may help explain the banker's satisfied approach to Chávez's economic policies. It could also be the reason why most Venezuelan private businesses, from airlines to insurance companies, have long ago stopped trying to provide quality products and good customer service. They're simply coasting, focusing their efforts on getting the best possible price ceiling from the government.
In Venezuela, it seems, competition isn't just rare; it's actually illegal.
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The World Bank and IMF have warned Africa that a fresh economic crisis could hit the continent hard in 2012. This downward trend has to do with ripple effects from the Eurozone financial crisis and weakening growth in emerging markets. The Daily Monitor reports:
The bank also cut its global growth forecast for 2012 to 5.4 percent from 6.2 percent for developing countries and 1.4 per cent from 2.7 per cent developed countries. The global growth is projected at 2.5 and 3.11 per cent for 2012 and 2013, respectively.
That means that living costs on the continent will continue to rise. In Uganda, where the general populace is growing dissatisfied with rising prices, this is already fueling a fresh round of non-violent protests. Early in the year, traders in Kampala, under their umbrella organization, Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), announced a strike. The traders, small shopowners who are a mainstay of the Ugandan economy, closed their shops for three days earlier this month to protest the new interests on existing bank loans. In November of last year, Bank of Uganda increased its base lending rate from 13 percent to 23 percent. Commercial banks then increased interest on their loans to 28-29 percent. Bank of Uganda's reluctance to intervene, and the commercial banks' refusal to lower their interest rates, triggered the strike. KACITA declared that it would mobilize its members to withdraw their money from banks en masse if the decision was not reversed.
The strike forced President Museveni to leave a political retreat at Kyankwanzi to address the traders. He met with over 1,000 traders at the Serena Hotel in Kampala to work out a solution. He called on the traders to diversify their imports and exports, and promised to get Bank of Uganda to look into scaling back its interest rates. He warned the traders not to sabotage their own businesses. He stressed that banks and the businesses belonged to Ugandans. Analysts had warned the traders not to mix their strike with politics.
I believe the president needs to let the relevant authorities deal with the conditions that provoked the strikes instead of trying to have the final say in all disputes. This meeting shows that a culture has been cultivated where Ugandans do not believe in their institutions; as a result, only the president can solve every crisis. This culture of misplaced patronage needs to be addressed, since it is a symbol of a weakness in the democratic process.
The public called the banks "thieves" who were out to exploit poor borrowers. At least one banker tried to explain that borrowing costs are dictated primarily by two factors: inflation, which is likely to be high in the year to come, and the cost of funds, which is set by market conditions as well as the central bank rate. But people aren't necessarily in a mood to listen.
The strike cost the government millions of dollars in lost tax revenues. With the traders back to work, it is not clear whether it has been a win-or-lose situation. No sooner had the traders' strike subsided than other Ugandans resumed their walk-to-work protests, which were greeted by the government, as usual, with mass arrests and indiscriminate use of tear gas. On several occasions this week the police deployed at dawn at the homes of different opposition politicians in order to prevent them from taking part in the demonstrations. On Thursday (Jan. 19), main opposition leader Kiiza Besigye was held for several hours -- along with a few sympathetic members of parliament and supporters -- at Kiira Road Police station in Kampala after he attempted to launch a new phase of protest. (The photo above shows him shortly before his arrest.)
The gloomy state of the economy means that other professions are gearing up to protest. Teachers have promised to strike after Jan. 22 if their salaries are not increased. It will be interesting to see how the government reacts.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.