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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.



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Entries since June 2012

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Celebration and Relief in Egypt

June 24, 2012 ·

The announcement by Egypt's electoral commission that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had won the run-off presidential election last week generated a joyous party, with music, dancing, chanting, and fireworks in the huge crowds who had gathered in Tahrir Square. But behind all the celebrating was a sober reminder that Egypt's revolutionary process remains unfinished, and that its goals of freedom from dictatorship, real democracy, human rights are still unrealized.

Egyptians rallied in Tahrir Square to celebrate the election of Mohamed Morsi. Photo by Jonathan Rashad / Flickr.This was still a moment to rejoice. Many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood flooded into Tahrir Square, celebrating that their candidate, whose organization had been banned for so many years, now holds the top seat of Egyptian power. For many others, the mood reflected less celebration of the candidate than relief that the threat of Egypt's still all-powerful military rulers to reverse the popular vote in favor of their own chosen candidate Ahmad Shafiq, had not come to pass — and a commitment to continue the unfinished revolutionary process launched more than a year ago.

In the week since the vote, after public counts showed a clear Morsi victory, Egyptians held their collective breath waiting for the decision of the military-backed election commission. Rumors were rampant, that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF, the generals who have held power since the overthrow of Mubarak last year, would not allow their long-time nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood, to come to power at all, and would simply steal the election and hand the presidency to Shafiq, Mubarak's own last prime minister with longstanding ties to the military hierarchy. The fact that it didn't happen is one sign of the truly shifting power relations in Egypt — unlike the 30 years of the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship, the military could no longer simply announce their decision and expect it to hold; post-Tahrir Square, the people's voice still has to be taken into account.

But there are other power shifts that remain to be realized. There had been a significant call from a number of progressive and secular forces to boycott the run-off election, in protest of the paucity of choices. The limited option of choosing between the old regime or the old opposition did not reflect the breadth, the enthusiasm, and the power of the people's revolutionary process that culminated in Mubarak's overthrow by the protesters of Tahrir Square. The boycott call may well portend some of the future struggles that could pit supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood against those secular and religious forces calling for equality, citizenship, and human rights. But despite that boycott call, after the vote, many of the secular activists and organizations who had played such a central role in the Arab Spring uprising came together with the Muslim Brotherhood in a unified front to challenge the military's continuing seizure of power.

The main threat to Egypt's revolutionary trajectory right now comes from the seizure of ever greater positions of power by the SCAF. In the days following the vote, the SCAF dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament elected several months ago, and announced that it was taking over the constitutional drafting process, that the new president would not command the military and would not have oversight power over the military and its enormous budget, including the $1.3 billion in military assistance the U.S. provides every year.

In a highly symbolic move, within an hour following the election commission's recognition that Morsi had won the presidency, the SCAF also announced that since the parliament, for 40 years the site of presidential swearing-in ceremonies, was dissolved, Morsi would be sworn in at theSupreme Constitutional Court. The court, a holdover of the Mubarak era, had been the instrument used by the SCAF to provide a veneer of legality over its dissolution of the newly elected parliament, so imposing it as the venue for the new president's taking office is a deliberate slap in the face to the notion that this election should herald a new day for post-Mubarak Egypt.

There have been rumors, though so far unconfirmed, that the Brotherhood negotiated terms of power-sharing with the generals during the days between the election and the announcement of results. In its first statements after the announcement Brotherhood spokesmen reaffirmed their commitments to represent all Egyptians, not only their own supporters, to standing for human rights, civil rights, women's rights, minorities including Egypt's Coptic minority, and more. But if they have already signed off on an agreement with the generals, their former tormenters, to allow military control to continue under a Muslim Brotherhood figurehead president, they may have to contend with as mobilized and determined a popular opposition as Mubarak did in his final days in power. Morsi's announcement that he would choose his defense minister only after consultations with the SCAF does not bode well for claiming the real powers of the presidency.

It remains unclear whether protesters will demand that Morsi insist on swearing his oath of office inTahrir Squareitself, the place most resonant of the struggle to reclaim Egypt's democracy. It remains unclear whether Morsi, or the Brotherhood, or protesters inTahrir Squarewill publicly call for the $1.3 billion inU.S.military aid to either be directed to the elected government or cancelled altogether.

The loudest chant inTahrir Squareremains "Down, down with military rule!" Many protesters in the Square have already announced their intention to remain in Tahrir once again, reprising the 18 days of the spring uprising, until the SCAF has transferred real power to the elected civilian government. Until that happens, the status of Egypt's revolutionary transformation remains precarious, active, and unfinished. It is a reminder that no part of the Arab Spring is yet a finished revolution. These are revolutionary processes, still contested and still in formation. Revolutionary times, indeed.

Blogging the Rio+20 Earth Summit for the Rest of Us: The Great Moving Nowhere Show

June 22, 2012 ·

Given how backwards the Rio Summit’s priorities were, it's hardly surprising that negotiations ended before they began. A slow swarm of black ministerial limousines has crawled across Rio regardless, with Ministers, Presidents and Prime Ministers queuing up to talk the language of sustainability, while mostly advancing corporate interests. And today a final outcome document called, without hint of irony, the "The Future We Want," was adopted.

The final Rio declaration contains 283 paragraphs of blank prose that "reaffirms," "notes," and "acknowledges" a long shopping list of activities, but "commits" to virtually nothing. There is no program of action, figures, dates, targets, nothing at all that locks countries into taking action. It is a political non-event that turgidly regurgitates some of the sustainability-speak of the original Rio conference 20 years ago, with none of its ambition.

Manish Bapna speaking at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), Sustainable Development Dialogues, June 16, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: Michael Oko/WRI, Flickr)Despite the low ambition, there are a few straws for optimists to clutch at. The most significant-sounding, from an environmental perspective, is that the text "reaffirms" a commitment to "phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies." This references previous statements released by the G-20, the group of 20 countries accounting for over 80 percent of the global economy, but it is the first time fossil fuel subsidies get such a mention in a document with multilateral sign-ons. However, no practical, legal or financial provisions are envisaged to support this goal, and the proposal lacks any nuance. Fossil fuel subsidy removal is likely to fail unless it is phased in while subsidies are shifted towards public transport support and renewable energy development, as popular backlash against recent attempts to remove fossil fuel consumer subsidies in Bolivia and Nigeria make clear. Meanwhile, significant subsidies for fossil fuel producers in industrialized countries, which should be the first target for action, remain in place, while the Rio declaration simultaneously supports "cleaner fossil fuels technologies" (a point lobbied for by Canada, Russia and the coal lobby)—which, translated for the non-sustainability-speakers means things such as unproven and expensive carbon capture and storage technology.

Elsewhere in the Rio declaration, there is a welcome restatement of the original Rio principles, notably the "common but differentiated responsibilities" between countries that climate justice advocates have been so keen to defend within global climate negotiations. The "right to water" is reaffirmed too, although without any new measures to enact this principle.

One of the most significant aspects of the final declaration, meanwhile, is what it does not say. It is entirely silent about the "nature, origins and evolution of the global economic and financial
crisis that is wreaking havoc in the world today," while undermining sustainability, as Professor Alejandro Nadal of the Centre for Economic Studies in Mexico points out in an excellent diagnosis the Rio negotiations have completely side-stepped. Yet finance quietly dominated from the sidelines, and to historians looking back on Rio in 20 years time, it may well be that the most significant agreement was not the summit’s final statement itself, but a $30 billion currency swap deal between Brazil and China that was announced at a G20 side-event.

Thankfully, the declaration also does not say as much as it had threatened to in terms of advancing  corporate-driven "green economy" proposals, which would have put a price on nature as a prelude to creating new markets in "ecosystem" commodities. The G77 (a grouping of 133 developing countries, including China) blocked this language, under pressure from civil society, and the resulting agreement speaks merely of "green economy policies." That has been interpreted here as a victory for pluralism, with different countries free to define their own vision of what a sustainable economy might look like.

Some residues from this corporate-driven approach can still be found in the Rio declaration, however. Although the green economy was billed as the conceptual replacement for "sustainable development,"  it is actually the phrase "sustained growth" that has moved to the top of the rhetorical hit-parade, with 16 mentions in the text. This echoes the emphasis on "green growth" in the G20 declaration, which pre-empted the Rio summit.

One of the few substantial decisions , a proposal to upgrade the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in the pecking order of global institutions, is also a cause for concern. In theory, a beefed-up UNEP should be a welcome development, re-balancing the multilateral system to put a greater emphasis on protecting the planet. But UNEP is one of the principle targets of a new global campaign, launched here in Rio, to end the corporate capture of the UN. Through its The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Green Economy reports, in particular, UNEP has positioned itself over the last few years as the main cheerleader for a corporate-driven "green economy" agenda that would leave the key decisions to the financial sector.

Moving beyond the Declaration itself, the inadequacies of the Rio+20 declaration are a symptom of a broader crisis of multilateralism. Although the conference was marshaled to a conclusion without the all-night, beyond-deadline chaos of climate negotiations, it did so by agreeing only on lowest-common-denominator platitudes, and reaffirming other initiatives. The final declaration here is no less of a stalemate than those in the WTO or UN climate negotiations, and we know from those processes that multilateral stasis is a breeding ground for bilateral and regional agreements that stack the cards against poor countries. This time, the EU was outraged, the G77 was cautiously positive, and the results were the same: a victory for the dirty energy agenda of the US and Canadian governments, while people and planet continue to lose ground.

Blogging the Rio+20 Earth Summit for the Rest of Us: The Eurozone Crisis

June 19, 2012 ·

It's my fifth day at the Rio+20 summit and my mind is elsewhere.

Just enough Greek voters gritted their teeth and switched their votes to give the center-right New Democracy party another shot at government in their June 17 elections. Amid this victory for fear over hope it's bear in mind the meteoric rise of the radical anti-austerity Syriza coalition, which polled a close second. Syriza's support rose from 5 percent in 2009 to 27 percent on Sunday, narrowly avoided the fate of presiding over the next pThe metoric rise of the radical anti-austerity Syriza coalition was not enough to win the Greek elections. (Photo: Adolfo Cuartero/Flickr)hase of the country's economic collapse.

Greek voters gave European politicians a small window of opportunity to devise a credible plan to halt the downward spiral of bank insolvency and sovereign debt that's afflicting much of Southern Europe. More likely, however, it has bought them a little more time to display even greater hubris. Thankfully, there's plenty of insightful commentary that puts this in perspective.

 Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times is essential reading. Without shirking the fact that "there are big failings in Greece's economy, its politics and no doubt its society," he points out that all of these are "beside the point" because:

[T]he origins of this disaster lie farther north, in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin, where officials created a deeply — perhaps fatally — flawed monetary system, then compounded the problems of that system by substituting moralizing for analysis. And the solution to the crisis, if there is one, will have to come from the same places….The only way the euro might — might — be saved is if the Germans and the European Central Bank realize that they're the ones who need to change their behavior, spending more and, yes, accepting higher inflation.

Larry Elliot, writing in The Guardian, also stresses the need for European and global policymakers to tackle "structural issues," given that the Eurozone has fatally locked in "differences in productivity and competitiveness."

A more detailed version of this analysis has been provided over the past few years by the Research on Money and Finance group, under the guidance of Costas Lapavitsas. He's also featured in Monday's Guardian, reminding readers that the Pyrrhic victory for pro-austerity parties in the Greek election prolongs the Eurozone's structural failings, that are hitting southern Europe hard: "As long as Germany continues to keep its own wages stagnant, no country in the Eurozone can significantly gain competitiveness by reducing wages," he writes, while reminding readers that delays in tackling structural issues have served mainly to shift responsibility for the crisis from private investors to the Greek people:

When the crisis burst out in 2010, Greece had €300bn of debt, held overwhelmingly by private creditors and governed by Greek law... by early 2012 Greek debt had risen to €370bn. Of that, however, only about €200bn remained in private hands. In less than two years, the EU had saddled Greece with a massive official debt, much of which had been used to retire old debt, allowing large private creditors to exit without losses.

His conclusion that the next "more complex and dangerous phase" will play out in Greece may not be correct, however. Spanish government bonds are taking a hammering, pushing the costs of servicing government debt (which, in turn, was mostly incurred by bailing out failed private investments) to unsustainable levels. The unwinding of the country's recent bailout (which, as I live in Barcelona, I take no particular pleasure in having predicted) continues apace.

 As the BBC's Paul Mason points out,

"Spain can now go bust on its own timetable, instead of one dictated by a Greek exit from the euro. And then the problems begin....The over-arching problem is the severe social pain and disintegration austerity has brought to   Greece: 22% unemployment; 1,000-euro one-off tax demands to pensioners; falling incomes, closing shops and bars; quiet motorways. Despair."

A similar list could be reeled off for Spain. 

All of this may seem far removed from the Rio+20 talks, but there's actually not such a great distance between this and the "green economy" agenda that the EU is pushing here. "The EU is badly affected by a crisis of capital accumulation" explains Antonio Tricarico of Re:Common, an Italian-based organization challenging the financialization of nature. "There is a massive amount of private wealth, and few sufficiently profitable assets to invest in... so they're creating new asset classes from which to extract more value."

Or, at least, that's what the EU wants to do. As I write, most of the meat has been stripped from its proposals to push new ecosystem services markets through the Rio+20 summit, and the EU is fuming.

A Robin Hood Tax Can Raise Big Bucks for People and the Planet

June 19, 2012 ·

Today I’m joining tens of thousands of people — in 15 cities around the country — rallying outside Wall Street institutions to tell President Barack Obama that it's time to put a tiny tax on big banks. We’re calling it a Robin Hood tax because the tiny tax will hit some of the wealthiest corporations on earth, but the money it raises will mean big bucks for people and the planet. Take back our money from the banks, give it to the people. Simple enough:

In Washington, DC, where I live, we’re heading down to JP Morgan — home to CEO Jamie Dimon who just lost $2 billion on his watch to risky trades. He told members of Congress in a hearing last week that everyone should calm down, it’s just a drop in the bucket. He's likely to stick to the same script at another hearing today.

This is exactly the problem. Wall Street fat cats don’t care if their reckless behavior makes the economy less stable. In fact, they make a lot of money when the prices of things like food and oil race up and down.

Volatility may be a cash cow for the already rich, but it undermines long-term investment in what we actually need  — like clean energy. A Robin Hood tax could curb some of that risky speculation by making high-speed trading less lucrative.

That’s part of why climate activists are calling on world leaders to tax financial speculation — and why that call is reaching a crescendo at the Rio+20 Earth Summit. People who care about our children’s future are demanding that the financial sector, which made trillions from a global economy that trashed the planet, pay its fair share to heal the environment.

The other reason is that a Robin Hood tax could raise hundreds of billions of dollars each year for building a climate-friendly economy and creating good, green jobs.

Heads of State like new French President François Hollande are committed to a financial speculation tax, and to coordinating with other European countries. Now more than ever it’s time for Obama to say yes to a Robin Hood tax.

The Lineup: Week of June 18-24, 2012

June 18, 2012 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Matias Ramos weighs in on President Obama's new immigration policy and Janet Redman looks at what's at stake in this week's Rio+20 environmental summit. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. The Elephant in Rio / Janet Redman
    Don't bank on a new "green economy" to solve our climate challenges.
  2. Obama's DREAM Gambit / Matias Ramos
    With this new immigration policy, Obama is galvanizing his reelection prospects and potentially boosting support for many Democratic congressional candidates in November.
  3. Low-Wage Nation / Peter Edelman
    Poverty and inequality are threatening our democracy.
  4. Making the World Safer for the Next Bernie Madoff / Joe Newman
    Lawmakers are pushing a bill that would hand the oversight of investment advisers to an organization with an inherent conflict of interest.
  5. Running for Magician-in-Chief / Donald Kaul
    Republicans are embracing a dangerous Marxist philosophy.
  6. Wisconsin's Alien Seed / Jim Hightower
    There can be no joy in the fact that money rules.
  7. The War on Drugs Is the Dumbest of Them All / William A. Collins
    We went through this exercise once before with Prohibition.
  8. Broken Planet / Khalil Bendib

Broken Planet, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

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