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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 July 2012

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Unconventional Wisdom: The Power of Culture

July 13, 2012 ·

Where else can you get an analysis of the Supreme Court's health decision in a poem? Or find information on how artist activists are protesting museums that accept funding from giant oil companies?

The Institute for Policy Studies has a long history of combining political analysis with the power of culture. Today we're proud to house two important cultural groups, Split This Rock and DC Advocates for the Arts. Split This Rock is a national nonprofit organization of poets, artists, and activists that celebrates the poetry of provocation and witness and works to help make poets be effective champions of social change. Using policy tools and trainings, DC Advocates for the Arts offers the most comprehensive source for data and information about local arts policy in the District of Columbia. Both organizations infuse our work with the creative energy of artists young and old who are committed to building a better world.

We also have to brag about John Feffer. Our Foreign Policy In Focus co-director moonlights as a progressive playwright. His new production, The Pundit, has been featured in Politico and The Washington Post and will open this Friday. If you're in DC, catch one of his performances here in July at the Goethe Institute. New Yorkers can see The Pundit in Manhattan next month at the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre.

Our IPS colleagues don't just study the important political issues of the day. As activists and artists, we work to change the culture through the arts in ways that will open the door to progressive change. Andy Shallal, IPS Board Treasurer and owner of Busboys and Poets, created a collage of the Institute's history in our conference room that we invite you to stop by and see. And IPS Board Chair E. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet and author. As part of our 50th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion in 2013, we will hold many events dedicated to arts and activism. If you'd like to get involved, please email joy@ips-dc.org. Our arts and activism endeavors are just one of the many reasons that we're so proud to work here.

We thank you for your support as we kick off our IPS Summer Drive. Please donate now to help us reach our goal of raising $50,000 by Labor Day.

Photo Slideshow: An Act of Art

July 9, 2012 ·

On July 7 in London I had the honor of joining artist activists from LiberateTate in a guerilla installation and performance piece at the Tate Modern Museum.

Photo 1: The piece, entitled “The Gift,” is just the latest in a series of artistic direct actions to denounce BP’s financial support of the museum and other iconic cultural institutions and events (BP’s also a sponsor of the 2012 Olympics taking place this month in London).

Previous actions – both beautiful and profound – include Human Cost, Toni and Bobbi and my favorite – Dead in the Water. It involved a batch of very ripe fish tied to helium balloons released to the ceiling of the main exhibition hall to commemorate the BP disaster that spewed 5,000 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, decimating sea life.

Photo 2: By the time I arrived – late – crews had already carried pieces of The Gift from three different parts of the city to the Tate and forced their way into the loading doors at the top of the (aptly named) Turbine Hall. This was no small feat – one security guard actually laid down in front of the dories carrying the one and a half tons of steel, wood, and fiberglass in this must see video. Having direct action tactics used against you while doing a direct action is a little disorienting. I hope someone got his number to recruit him for the next action.

Photo 3: As museum-goers watched curiously I forced my way past a very polite security guard and jumped in the 100-strong human chain encircling the blade and the assembly team.

Photo 4: I even got a chance to be part of the hands-on crew that lowered the turbine blade to rest on the museum floor.

Photo 5: It caused a bit of a ruckus, and showed up on BBC Radio 4 and the Guardian.

Photo 6: Apparently in the UK no gallery can refuse a gift of art, and so once The Gift was officially presented to the museum staff – along with documentation of the preceding performances – the Tate Modern became the proud owner of its own wind turbine blade. And technically, nothing about the action was ‘illegal.’ 

Photo 7: Still, the police weren’t particularly happy we were leaving behind a giant symbol of what the British government should be (but isn’t) supporting – i.e. clean renewable energy – in the middle of one their most popular public spaces.

Photo 8: And they almost didn’t let us leave the museum without it.

Photo 9: But it was too late. As soon as we set the blade on the floor and we walked away eager visitors wanted to know what it was all about. The message was already out.

Photo 10: Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for museum staff to disassemble The Gift.

Photo 11: But by then we were off to celebrate a day’s work well done with a pint of London’s finest by the River Thames!

The Lineup: Week of July 9-15, 2012

July 9, 2012 ·

In this week's  OtherWords editorial package, Daphne Wysham says that Washington's recent storm and heat wave underscored the need for wiser energy choices, and Martha Burk weighs in on what the Supreme Court's health care ruling means for women. On our blog, Tom Israel offers a creative quiz for Obamacare foes. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. A Perfect and Hot Storm / Daphne Wysham
    It's time to save ourselves from a climate nightmare of our own making.
  2. Year of the Gaffe / Peter Hart
    We've got four more months of this to come.
  3. Drinking MOX-Laced Lemonade / Ryan Alexander
    The government is spending $15 billion to create a nuclear fuel derived from plutonium that we have to bribe companies to take.
  4. Why Women Love John Roberts / Martha Burk
    The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the health care mandate may not stop the war on women, but it surely feels good to win such a decisive battle.
  5. Pennsylvania's High-Profile Pedophile Scandals / Donald Kaul
    The Penn State and Philadelphia archdiocese cases are parallel examples of two grand, exalted institutions fleeing their moral responsibilities.
  6. Sabotaging Montana's Campaign Finance Legacy / Jim Hightower
    The Supreme Court has trumped a century-old state law that made the state a model for campaign finance in America.
  7. Our Troops as Cannon Fodder / William A. Collins
    Wars of conquest are most popular if they can be made to appear tidy, safe, just, and relatively cost-free.
  8. Mitt's Gift of Gaffe / Khalil Bendib

Mitt Romney's Gift of Gaffe, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Caught Red Handed: Rwanda, Violence in Eastern Congo, and the UN Report

July 5, 2012 ·

The atmosphere was tense during the DRC Briefing at IPS on June 29, 2012. The audience of 45 squeezed into the conference room to hear the updates on Rwanda’s most recent breach of Congolese sovereignty, and the Q & A session threatened to reach a fever pitch.  

The panel, comprised of three Congolese and one Rwandan, represented integral members of panelist and moderatorCongo's extended civil society family. Each panelist expressed concerns about the future of Eastern DRC, yet convictions about the recent M23 uprising diverged dramatically. Some were convinced the conflict was spurred on by remaining post genocide ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. Others blamed the Congolese government for its lack of political will to handle conflict. Yet others maintained that the external influence of international actors was muddling the picture and exacerbating the poor image of African nationhood. And, of course, the "corruption card," omnipresent in conversations of the "dark continent's" troubles, was placed on the table early on.

Anyone who has heard of the DRC knows it's a country with some issues but despite the devastating numbers (200,000 displaced), popular media has largely ignored the gravity of the latest mutinies in the Kivu provinces. Perhaps the "resource curse" seems too cliché to make headlines anymore...Or, perhaps the ugly effects of Western involvement are too unpleasant for America's tender ears.

The US government certainly seems to believe the latter is the case. Portions of a recent leaked UN Report provide implicating evidence that Rwandan leaders have been aiding and abetting mutinous rebel leaders. Furthermore, the US has turned a blind eye to its ally’s behavior, suspiciously delaying the release of the report.

However, the root motivation for Rwanda's and the State Department's covert support of violence was largely overlooked by the panel. What the conversation lacked was a focus on the vast amount of valuable minerals in the region and potential succession of the Kivu Provinces. It has been said that Rwanda wishes to see the Eastern DRC break off and form a South Sudan-esque situation. A vulnerable and independent Eastern DRC would make an easily manipulated nation state for the resource hungry Rwanda.

audienceMore troubling was the lack of solutions with real teeth. Increased diplomacy between the Rwandan’s and Congolese has a warm fuzzy feel to it but in a situation driven by layers of greed, it sounds hollow and unlikely. Security sector reform was also mentioned as a potential answer to the problematic mutiny. However, if the Congolese government lacks political will and all of its members are defecting to the M23 in the Kivus, it's likely that Kabila's government simply doesn't have the capacity to undertake such reforms.

The situation is likely to remain sticky if the international community continues to play the role of concerned onlooker.

The Wall Street Journal reported the State Department’s tepid response:

"'We are deeply concerned about the report's findings that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups,' said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The U.S. has 'asked Rwanda to halt and prevent the provision of such support from its territory.'"

Pentagon, it is time to put your money where your mouth is. Politely asking to cease and desist is3 of the panelists a little too polite with the amount of lives at stake.

One of our panelists, Kambale Musavuli, summed up the situation tidily in a July 3rd Al Jazeera interview:

"We are funding half of the [Rwandan] military. They are being trained by AFRICOM and we are still not holding them accountable... Military aid [to the Rwandan Government] is causing conflict in the Congo, and we are partly responsible in the United States."

Ultimately, a push for greater corporate responsibility is needed in the mining regions and must take a increased policy priority. In the mean time, the US government must suspend all aid to Rwanda until the Rwandan army discontinues its supply of ammunition, recruits, and weapons to M23. It’s time to stand with the people of the Congo. Let's talk about an sanctions, not pathetically stand by because we can’t let our corporations suffer from lack of access to minerals. The US has a law that requires the revocation of aid from countries who contribute to violence in the Congo. It's called Public Law 109-456. Let's see that it gets enforced.

Trading in Democracy: Why Rights Are Still For Real People

July 4, 2012 ·

One of us had just landed in Vancouver, Canada, for a huge “Shout Out Against Mining Injustice” when we got the news: A tribunal in Washington, D.C. that nobody elected recently issued a verdict that will potentially constrain the democratic rights of millions of people.

The International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a tribunal located at the World Bank, ruled that Canadian mining company Pacific Rim may continue to sue El Salvador for not letting the company mine gold there. The impoverished Central American country could potentially be forced to pay the foreign company $77 million or more in damages. The anti-democratic ruling has ominous implications for all of us.

We visited El Salvador last year to learn more about this landmark case. A wide vein of gold lies alongside the northern portions of a large river that flows down the country's middle, providing water for more than half the population. The gold remained relatively untouched until about a decade ago when foreign companies began to apply for mining permits.

Farmers and others told us that they were initially open to gold mining, thinking it would bring jobs to ease the area's deep poverty. But, as they learned more about the toxic chemicals used to separate gold from the surrounding ore and about the massive amounts of water used in the process, they began to organize a movement that opposed mining. Their simple cry: "We can live without gold, but we can't live without water."

By 2007, polls showed close to two-thirds of Salvadorans opposed gold mining. In 2009, Salvadorans elected a president who promised he wouldn't issue any new mining permits during his five-year term. He has kept this pledge.

But Pacific Rim didn't sit idly by as democracy worked its way from El Salvador's northern communities to its national government. The company sought a mining license. When the government rejected its environmental impact assessment, the Canadian company resorted to lobbying Salvadoran officials. And, when its lobbying failed, Pacific Rim lodged a complaint against El Salvador at ICSID in Washington under a U.S-initiated trade agreement and a little-known investment law in El Salvador.

Laws and trade pacts like these grant corporations the right to sue governments over actions—including health, safety, and environmental measures and regulations—that reduce the value of the corporation's investment.

To the surprise of many observers, the tribunal ruled on June 1 that Pacific Rim can proceed with the lawsuit against El Salvador. Even if the cash-strapped Salvadoran government wins in the end, it will likely have to shell out millions on legal fees to defend an action taken after lengthy democratic deliberations. If it loses in the tribunal's next ruling, it will cost even more.

Laws and trade agreements that allow corporations to sue governments should worry us all. No international tribunal should have the right to punish countries for laws or measures approved through a democratic process, be it in the United States, El Salvador, or anywhere else. President Barack Obama said this himself in 2008 when he promised, while campaigning, to limit the ability of corporations to use trade agreements to sue over public interest regulations.

Yet the Obama administration is currently negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership with several countries. And it's pushing for provisions that would allow companies to sue governments under this trade pact.

But an expanding coalition of labor, environmental, religious, and other groups opposes giving Big Business this privilege. A similar coalition in Australia, another country negotiating this trade deal, has convinced its government to oppose such corporate "rights." The Trans-Pacific Partnership may well prove an opportunity for this outrageous assault on democracy to be defeated.

Democracy belongs to the people. Those of us standing up to defend democracy and counter corporate abuse should strongly oppose any new "rights" for corporations being written into new trade pacts as we try to overturn the existing ones.

In Vancouver, we did not sit by idly when we heard the tribunal’s decision. The day after the decision was announced, 200 of us marched to the headquarters of Pacific Rim where Salvadoran anti-mining activist Vidalina Morales vowed that the broad-based National Roundtable on Metallic Mining would continue to fight to keep Pacific Rim out of El Salvador and asked for international solidarity.

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