IPS Blog

Talking Points: Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech vs. Obama’s Foreign Policy

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama’s West Point graduation speech outlining his foreign policy had some pretty good stuff in it. Leadership doesn’t mean only military force. Just because you have a big hammer doesn’t mean everything is a nail. “A world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.” It all sounded great. Just an hour or so later I discussed the speech on Al-Jazeera.

It was a pretty great speech that challenged much of the militarization of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy—the problem is, like too many great speeches before, it has far too little to do with what the Obama administration actually does.

No question Ben Rhodes is a terrific speechwriter (though don’t get me started on what he doesn’t know as deputy national security adviser,) and Obama knows how to talk the talk. The problem isn’t the speech. The problem is the policy.

Obama was right to criticize the isolationism of “self-described realists” whose interest in the world starts and ends with what is useful for traditionally-defined U.S. interests — that is, mainly military and corporate ones. And he was right to criticize and address the “interventionists from the left and right” who believe that “America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos” — essentially, those who want to use force even more than he does.

But once again Obama didn’t answer his critics — also from the right and left, though most especially from the left — who are outraged at how much he and his administration are using military force, in far too many places, against far too many people, far too often, and far out of public sight.

The mainstream media was full of post-speech carping about Obama setting up a straw man when he accused others of wanting to send ground troops to Syria (or Ukraine, or Nigeria, or Thailand.) The real problem is not that he’s refusing to send ground troops — it’s that he is escalating the military conflicts by involving the U.S. military: providing weapons, supplies, planes and pilots, training, CIA counter-terrorism troops (the CIA now has its own fleet of armed planes, special forces in all but name), and looking for military solutions all over the world.

Obama was right to push back against critics who complain that the U.S. has lost its global leadership role because it hasn’t sent troops everywhere the warmongers wanted. He was right when he said that leadership doesn’t only mean military force. The problem is, though, U.S. leadership and credibility have been dramatically weakened because of too much, not too little military force. The direct U.S. military interventions that failed (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya); the U.S. search for military solutions even when they claim there are none (Syria); the continuing U.S. reliance on might-makes-right arguments (Guantanamo, the drone war); and the U.S. refusal to get out of the way to let other, more legitimate global institutions lead (Israel-Palestine) have all weakened U.S. global leadership.

Obama’s repeated statement that “there is no military solution” in Syria is belied by the CIA training rebel forces in Jordan, by U.S. allies being allowed to provide U.S.-produced weapons to the rebels, and by apparently imminent efforts to send U.S. shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. If the president believed there is no military solution in Syria, then he should stop supporting one side of this brutal civil war, call for an immediate ceasefire and immediate international arms embargo on all sides, and re-engage with Russia to figure out a diplomatic solution. The current progress in negotiations with Iran should lead to new engagement with Iran on the Syria crisis as well.

When Obama extols American exceptionalism and says, “What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions,” he is simply wrong. It is precisely Washington’s ability — and willingness — “to flout international norms and the rule of law” that shows its exceptional military and economic power.

What other country could get away with violating sovereignty by using drone missiles to kill citizens of other countries — within those countries’ borders — because it claims the target of those drone strikes were “bad guys?” What if some other government decided that certain Americans in the U.S. were the bad guys and sent missiles to kill them? Affirming international norms and the rule of law means ending drone strikes and illegal invasions and bombing campaigns, not simply claiming they’re legal because it’s Washington that does it instead of Moscow or Beijing.

The president said he would “continue to push to close Gitmo” because U.S. values and legal traditions “do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.” The problem is, that “indefinite detention” is now precisely what defines the values and legal traditions of our country. Like his predecessor, Obama has relied on memos drafted by his own lawyers, without oversight by any court, to reinterpret U.S. law by simply declaring things like assassination of American citizens “legal.” That’s the new American legal tradition.

It’s great to hear that the president describes his most important lesson in foreign affairs being “don’t do stupid shit,” meaning, don’t go to war like we did in Iraq. How does he not recognize, even ignoring the morality of the issue, that killing over 3,000 people by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia — and antagonizing whole populations of restive countries by doing so — qualifies as “stupid shit?” If Congress balks at closing down Guantanamo, it sure sounds pretty stupid not to at least begin to show some leadership by freeing those long-term prisoners already cleared for release.

It’s not completely off-base to say that with Al-Qaeda’s leadership largely decimated, the U.S. (and many other countries) face danger from scattered bands of terrorists across the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa. But what is completely wrong is the notion that somehow going to war can stop terrorism. For any who doubt it, 13 years of responding to the crime of September 11 with a limitless global war has unequivocally proved the point: Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and it’s not possible to conquer terrorism with war. It doesn’t work — it hasn’t worked in Afghanistan (and won’t, with two and a half more years of U.S. war) or in Iraq, and it isn’t working in Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia either. The U.S. never went to war against “terrorism” — it went to war against the land, people, economy, and environment of the countries it invaded. And still, terrorism has thrived.

President Obama reminded the world that, “As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” It might have been more powerful if he acknowledged that many of those extremists first gained their battle-hardening experience in Iraq — fighting against the U.S. occupation and its Iraqi partners.

If Obama really believed that “respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror,” wouldn’t he move to do something differently, something like renouncing — without waiting for Congress — the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that followed September 11? Wouldn’t he move to do something to show respect for human rights and international law, like joining the International Criminal Court or working to strengthen, instead of undermine, the United Nations?

The Afghanistan War Continues

Instead we now hear that the U.S. war in Afghanistan will go on for another two and a half years. How many more Afghans will die, be grievously wounded, be made refugees, by this occupation? How many more U.S. troops will come home with grave physical and psychological wounds? On the Real News I discussed why keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan won’t solve the problems that country faces after almost three decades of war and occupation: If 100,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 NATO troops didn’t bring peace, stability, democracy, development, or any of the other things we promised, keeping 10,000 troops there won’t do it either.

And we should not forget that the special forces troops who remain will have only one military job: to kill those the U.S. (based on who-knows-what intelligence) identifies as bad guys. That’s why we’re almost certainly going to see access to military bases as part of the agreement with Afghanistan — to keep the drone war going, to kill more bad guys. No pretense that “protecting Afghans” is somehow on the U.S. agenda, just straight-up counter-terrorism, plus training the Afghan military to do the same thing. Not such a great prospect for Afghan civilians.

The Afghan elections — the final round of voting is scheduled very soon — are not likely to have much impact on the war, except that both of the leading candidates have indicated their willingness to sign off on a Bilateral Security Agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain. We’ll see whether they can convince their parliament to guarantee full immunity for U.S. troops for any war crimes they might commit — the refusal of which was what led to the full troop withdrawal from Iraq. Both candidates have also recruited notorious warlords as running mates in the interest of winning various ethnic votes. I’ve been talking about that, and what has and hasn’t changed in Afghanistan — you can watch The Real News interview or listen to my discussion on FAIR’s Counterspin show.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Washington event where I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and veterans’ families to call for “the right to heal” — challenging the Pentagon’s longstanding habit of sending back to active duty soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or other traumatic brain injuries. But they went beyond the demand for better health care for veterans — an issue that remains at the top of the political agenda despite the dismissal of Eric Shinseki as head of Veteran’s Affairs — to include the call for real accountability and support for health care as well as more for the victims of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As our great congressional heroine Barbara Lee said last week, in response to President Obama’s announcement about keeping troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016, “There is no military solution in Afghanistan.” That’s true now, and it will still be true in 2016. This just means 30 more months of U.S. war.

Syria: The War Still Expands

Syria’s multi-faceted civil war continues to expand, and conditions for Syrian civilians continue to deteriorate. In early May, the UN opened a new refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan with space for 130,000 people — 6,500 arrived just in the first month. When it reaches capacity — and unfortunately, it seems certain that it will — it will surpass the Zaatari camp in Jordan, already the second largest refugee camp in the world.

Reports of bombings, sieges, and killings continue. By May 29, the BBC reports that almost 3 million people have fled across Syria’s borders, one of the largest forced migrations since World War II. I talked about this humanitarian crisis and Syria’s six wars in the Real News. And after UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned in mid-May — in frustration with the world’s failure to do enough to stop the killing — I discussed the consequences of this decision for Syria on Al Jazeera.

So What Do We Do about Syria?

Of course it’s not enough to say the U.S. shouldn’t send missile strikes or arm one side of the civil war: We need a serious campaign to change U.S. policy towards Syria. Over the last several weeks, many of the leaders of national anti-war and peace and justice organizations have been meeting to figure out what our “ask” should be — what should we be demanding of our government? Out of these discussions, I wrote “5 Concrete Steps the US Can Take to End the Syria Crisis” for last week’s issue of The Nation.

Read it, add to it, use it as talking points for meeting with members of Congress, as the basis for letters to the editor, or as the beginning of new campaigns. We can’t allow Syria to slip away from our attention.

Good News with the Bad: Iran and Palestine

There is some good news, weirdly enough, on a couple of fronts not known for good tidings. On Iran, there are serious indications that the talks underway between Iran and the U.S. with its allies (known as the P-5 + 1, for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are going reasonably well. The fact that we’re not hearing a lot of debate and opposition in the Congress is actually a good sign.

Following last February’s interim agreement, the talks are shaped around Iran’s nuclear power program on one side and ending sanctions and Iran being taken seriously as a regional power on the other. The current deadline is July 20, but the interim agreement allows for a six-month extension — and both sides have an interest in making an effort. President Obama is desperate for some kind of foreign policy success, and a bargain with Iran — grand or not — would give a huge boost to his claimed commitment to diplomacy over force (even if he still falsely claims that only sanctions brought Iran to the table.) President Rouhani is under significant public pressure to get U.S. and United Nations sanctions lifted, and he still faces political challenges from other factions of Iran’s powerful ruling circles.

(It must be mentioned, but it’s not all good news: the Washington Post, rarely supportive of diplomacy with Iran, took their usual editorial position warning that a deal was unlikely — but then went further, reassuring readers that if a deal were somehow reached there would be “a strong check on any concessions made by the Obama administration. If Congress or Israel are dissatisfied, they may be able to scuttle the deal.” Really? If another country — Israel is not part of the P-5 + 1 — is “dissatisfied,” it might have equal status with the U.S. Congress to “scuttle the deal?” I’m torn between being pleased that the Post felt compelled finally to admit that possibility, or outraged that as usual they appear to think it’s a good thing.)

In Palestine, the Pope Replaces the Peace Process

The other good news has to do, first, with the collapse of the U.S.-orchestrated “peace process” between Israel and Palestine. After 23 years of failed diplomacy and nine months of intensive John Kerry-led talks with and between Palestinians and Israelis, the latest “Einstein Round” ended unceremoniously. (I’ve been calling this the “Einstein Round” based on the great scientist’s definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.)

The talks ended after Israel reneged on its earlier promise to release the last 29 of 104 prisoners, following that up with announcing its plans to build hundreds of new illegal settlement apartments. That’s all business-as-usual for Israeli occupation. The good news included the Palestinian response, which was to sign on to 15 human rights and other treaties and covenants, bringing Palestine into compliance with a wide range of international norms. What a contrast: Israel violates more agreements and more international laws, Palestinians respond with claiming international law as their own. And the U.S. responds that both sides have done unhelpful things. Great.

But, for a change, there was some good news when the White House and State Department made clear their view that, in fact, Israel was responsible for the talks’ collapse.

Kerry even used the term “apartheid” — and while he used it only in the sense of warning Israel that it could face a future as an apartheid state if it didn’t manage a two-state solution, rather than recognizing Israel today as an apartheid state — his very mention of the word reflected the change in U.S. discourse on the issue. As CNN reported it, “John Kerry wasn’t the first to use the A-word — apartheid — when talking about Israel, and he likely won’t be the last.” Of course his statement led to attacks and calls for Kerry’s resignation from Israel supporters in the U.S. and beyond, but there were no serious political consequences.

Discourse shifts are never enough, though. On the ground things have not changed for most Palestinians. Two young boys, 15-year-old Muhammad Abu Thahr and 17-year-old Nadim Nuwara, were killed by Israeli soldiers firing live ammunition at a protest outside Israel’s Ofer Prison in the occupied West Bank on May 15, Nakba Day, the day Palestinians commemorate their massive dispossession that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. They were only the latest casualties of the occupation.

There is some cause for optimism regarding the Palestinian unity process that may result in a new technocratic government of national unity for the Palestinian Authority supported by both main factions, Fatah (that controls the PA in the West Bank) and Hamas (running the authority in Gaza.) It isn’t yet a full unity process — it remains unclear how Palestinians living inside Israel and the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered in far-flung exile will be included — but if it succeeds it represents a major step forward.

And then, finally, we had the Pope. Pope Francis went to Palestine and Israel, and — as we’ve seen so many times already in his shifting the church’s focus to the poor and dispossessed — here he made clear that he was not, as his predecessors have been, interested only in strengthening the Vatican’s ties to Israel. This time, it was all about the visuals — and that meant the extraordinary photograph of the Pope praying and leaning his head against the Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world.

I talked about it on The Real News and wrote about it for FPIF and The Nation last week — and since the Pope went to lay a wreath at his tomb, I got to include my favorite quote from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. It’s the one from his letter to the infamous Cecil Rhodes (who conquered much of Africa for the British Crown) in which Herzl begs Rhodes to join his project for a European Jewish state in Palestine because it is “something colonial.”

He should know.

Student Debt Report Captures National Attention

Crushing College Dreams

Indentured Student (DonkeyHotey/Flickr)

IPS’ recent report, “The One Percent at State U” examines the 25 state universities that paid out the most in executive compensation from 2005 to 2012, and found that executive pay at these schools reached an average of nearly $1 million by 2012 while student debt and low-wage faculty rose much faster than national averages.

Since release, the report has garnered significant attention in prominent national media outlets. Coverage has included articles in The New York Times, TIME, CBS Moneywatch, and Bloomberg, and was also featured in Gawker and The Nation.

“Why should students and faculty — and everyone who cares about them — pay close attention to the upward spiral of such salaries?” asked report authors Marjorie Wood and Andrew Erwin in their Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Because according to our research, these highest-paid presidents are more likely to preside over public universities where student debt is growing fastest and the number of full-time faculty is shrinking.”

The report also resulted in a New York Times editorial on May 23, 2014. Using the report’s findings, the Editorial Board concluded: “Confronted with punishing state budget cuts, the public colleges and universities that educate more than 70 percent of this country’s students have raised tuition, shrunk course offerings and hired miserably paid, part-time instructors who now form what amounts to a new underclass in the academic hierarchy. At the same time, some of those colleges and universities are spending much too freely on their top administrators.”

The report and an infographic of its findings have also become important resources to organizations working to eliminate inequality in higher education institutions, including SEIU’s Adjunct Action Campaign, the New Faculty Majority, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, Jobs with Justice, and the Student Labor Action Project.

For more information, or to read the full report, visit “The One Percent at State U.”

Emira Woods Joining ThoughtWorks, Becoming Associate Fellow at IPS

Emira Woods has guided IPS to prominence on issues connected to Africa and the Global South.

Emira Woods has guided IPS to prominence on issues connected to Africa and the Global South.

I write to share with you news about an important transition happening at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Emira Woods, Co-Director of Foreign Policy In Focus at IPS since 2003 and a treasured leader in the movement for global justice, is transitioning her role at the end of May. Emira will be taking a position as Global Client Principal for Social Impact Programs at ThoughtWorks, a technology firm committed to social and economic justice. Emira will maintain an ongoing relationship with IPS as an Associate Fellow.

A steadfast advocate for the African world, labor rights, environmental justice, land rights, food sovereignty, and peace, Emira has led IPS to international prominence during her 11 years as Co-Director of FPIF.

Emira has been instrumental in bringing forward a legal suit and a campaign against Firestone for their abuse of child labor and the environment in Liberia. She effectively lobbied the U.S. Department of Labor for Liberia’s rubber sector to be added to the list of countries with materials produced by child labor, and was also pivotal to the campaign to cancel over $4 billion of odious debt after Liberia’s 26-year war.

Emira led the campaign against the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and succeeded in reducing Congressional appropriations and increasing oversight. She testified as an expert witness for Congressional hearings on global debt and development as well as peace and security in Africa. She also briefed Congress’ Lantos Human Rights Commission on Zimbabwe and Cote D’Ivoire. She organized Congressional briefings on child labor, conflict diamonds, conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, human rights in Zimbabwe, private military contractors, and other issues. Emira also served as technical adviser to the African Union’s Diaspora Summit and provided strategic technical advice to the governments of Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on “vulture funds” and broader issues of debt cancellation.

Serving as an accomplished pubic scholar, Emira has written book chapters, op-eds, and magazine articles on a range of issues from debt, trade and development to U.S. military policy. She has been a regular commentator on PBS’s NewsHour, CNN’s Your World Today, BBC’s The World Today (Weekend), National Public Radio, Al Jazeera and Voice of America. She has hosted a WashingtonPost.com online chat and published pieces in BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine, NAACP’s Crisis magazine as well as the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, New York Newsday, the Nation, the Baltimore Sun, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, among many others. She was listed in Essence magazine’s “Top 40 Influential People Under 40.”

Emira served as visiting lecturer at American University School of International Service, Trinity College Economics Department, and Howard University’s African Studies Department. She also frequently represented IPS as a speaker at conferences and events.

During her tenure, Emira has provided strong, principled leadership at the Institute and in the broader progressive community. She has convened and coordinated numerous advocacy coalitions on Africa and other issues. One of her many strengths has always been “speaking truth to power,” which she has done passionately from the White House and U.S. Congress to Southern governments and intergovernmental agencies — and done it all with a smile.

We are pleased to continue Emira’s affiliation with the Institute, and we look forward to working with her in her new capacity at ThoughtWorks.

The Accessibility of Health Coverage

Handicap Accessibility SignMy friend Brian — who uses a mobility device to move around — can today gain access to more stores than a mobility-impaired person could two decades ago. Thanks to social movements and federal policy changes, many public locations are now required to make their entrances more accessible to those with disabilities.

The thing is though, while Brian now has an easier time getting into the stores themselves, he can’t always afford the things that he needs once he gets inside.

When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, it was certainly a step forward in ending discrimination against people with disabilities. Yet, it was not enough to combat the disproportionate poverty and joblessness that people with disabilities experience: In 2011, the poverty rate of working-age people with disabilities — 10.5 percent of the U.S. population — was over twice that of those without disabilities. Two-thirds of that 10.5 percent were also unemployed.

Social welfare programs like Medicaid are meant to help address and alleviate this sort of discrimination — approximately 70 percent of Medicaid funding has been used for services and supports related to disability since the program’s inception. This funding is particularly important, since many people with disabilities face additional costs that others do not, such as expensive monthly medication, long-term services and care, or special equipment.

However, an increasing number of people in poverty who have disabilities will not receive care from social services because their state will not accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the ACA’s new definitions will be qualifying more people for Medicaid, there will be constraints on who actually receives those benefits if its funding is not expanded.

Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the country, is among those that have not accepted Medicaid expansion. Because Governor Phil Bryant turned down approximately $426 million in federal Medicaid expansion funds, nearly 300,000 adults in the state will not get healthcare because they do not qualify for Medicaid under the state’s current rules and do not make enough to afford private insurance.

My friend Brian, who struggled to find an affordable health insurance plan, was lucky to live in Illinois — now that he qualifies for Medicaid thanks to the expansion that Governor Pat Quinn has accepted, he can now actually afford the goods he needs. If only more states accepted Medicaid expansion, others like Brian could have access to a more equitable standard of living.

Brianna Montague is an intern for the Break the Chain Campaign.

Help Wanted: Slow and Expensive Accountant

Photo from Flickr/Paul Townsend

Photo from Flickr/Paul Townsend

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a long-time opponent of CEO-worker pay ratio disclosure, has just gone on record estimating that making this ratio calculation will force American businesses to expend a total of $710.9 million per year. For large companies, the Chamber reports, calculating a CEO-worker pay ratio will take an average of 1,825 number-crunching hours at an average cost of $311,800.

Unfortunately, the Chamber’s projections have elicited widespread ridicule from independent observers. Given this ridicule, it is imperative that corporations like ours demonstrate that calculating a CEO-worker pay ratio will take the maximum possible amount of time and cost.

Successful candidates for our new accounting position must have a track record of delivering slow and expensive work in difficult circumstances. In this case, these circumstances include:

  • Limited scope: The accountant responsible for calculating our CEO-median worker pay ratio does not have to bother calculating our CEO pay, since all publicly held corporations already must report their executive compensation. This work only involves calculating median worker pay.
  • Flexible methodology: Under the proposed Securities and Exchange rule prepared to enforce the new disclosure mandate, companies like ours need only base their median worker pay figure on a sampling of our workforce.

Qualifications:

  • Advanced degree in Accounting/Finance.
  • The ability to produce inaccurate analyses in a less than timely manner.
  • Self-starters and individuals with excellent multi-tasking skills need not apply.

Salary and Benefits:
Salary is flexible. To exceed the Chamber of Commerce average, we’ll need to spend more than $311,800 to calculate this number, the equivalent of at least $650 an hour for six months of work. Benefits include generous vacation/unexplained leave time and nap room.

5 Concrete Steps the US Can Take to End the Syria Crisis

This article originally appeared in The Nation.

(Reuters/Nour Fourat)

(Reuters/Nour Fourat)

The civil war in Syria grinds on, and conditions for Syrian civilians—those inside its borders as well as the millions forced to flee to neighboring countries—continue to deteriorate. As global and regional powers not only fail to help end the war but actively engage in arming and funding all sides in the fighting, we in civil society must sharpen our demands for a different position from that of our governments.

The crisis began with a popular call for an end to repression and a nonviolent movement demanding accountability from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the release of political prisoners and detainees. Economic and environmental traumas, including a crippling drought and the slashing of key government subsidies, underpinned the crisis. The government responded with a promise of reform—which went unfulfilled—accompanied by terrible violence. Many Syrian activists and defecting soldiers took up weapons in response, and as the fighting spread, Islamists—many of them non-Syrian extremists—joined the anti-government battle. Three years on, the civil war has broadened into several overlapping but distinct wars, national, regional, sectarian and international.

We must stand with those struggling for equality, dignity and human rights for all Syrians, and on the principle that there is no military solution to the conflict. Further military action will increase the violence and instability, not only inside Syria but within the region and even globally—and will not improve the lives of Syria’s beleaguered civilians.

Read the original article in full on The Nation’s website.

The Moment for Climate Justice

A wind farm outside Cape Town, South Africa. A new African energy initiative in the U.S. Congress promotes an appropriate mix of power solutions in Africa, but it leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels. (warrenski/Flickr)

A wind farm outside Cape Town, South Africa. A new African energy initiative in the U.S. Congress promotes an appropriate mix of power solutions in Africa, but it leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels. (warrenski/Flickr)

This week, the House will vote on the Electrify Africa Act. This bill directs the president to draw up a multi-year strategy to strengthen the ability of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to “develop an appropriate mix of power solutions” to provide electricity, fight poverty, and “drive economic growth.”

Because of strong pressure from climate justice advocates, some positives—such as integrated resource planning and decentralized renewable energy—are named as a part of that mix. But because it still leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels, the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect people or their environment.

And the debate over Electrify Africa continues as the Senate drafts a companion bill.

Powering Fossil Fuels

Behind both pieces of legislation is a White House initiative announced last summer called “Power Africa.” It frames President Barack Obama’s approach to energy investment on the continent, which has been condemned by environmental justice groups. It’s an “all of the above” energy strategy that favors the fossil fuel companies that are destroying the planet and corrupting Washington.

Proponents of Electrify and Power Africa have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent, which has many African activists wary of a resource grab. Executives from companies like General Electric—which according to Forbes has recently pivoted its attention to the continent—have appeared on the podium with President Obama to applaud the policy.

At a March Senate hearing on Power Africa, Del Renigar, Senior Counsel for Global Government Affairs and Policy at GE, even noted that one of the company’s “most significant efforts to date has been focused on the privatization of the Nigerian power sector.” He lauded the potential of Power Africa to help “reduce the obstacles” to negotiating deals for power projects. And some backers of dirty energy are attempting to use the initiative to weaken the existing environmental safeguard policies of national development finance institutions such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

The backers of keeping dirty energy in Power Africa like to portray their opponents as privileged elites who want to keep Africans “in the dark” by denying them electricity and industrialization, while keeping their own lights on.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The real concern here is that U.S. taxpayers will wind up supporting African energy development that caters to corporate industrial zones and natural resource exporters, leaving the majority of Africans in rural and neglected urban areas still without access to power and exposed to dangerous pollution.

An OPIC proposal to finance the Azura Edo gas plant in Nigeria is a recent case in point. Areview of project documents and site visits by Environmental Rights Action Nigeria found that the plant will not provide any new energy access, even to villages immediately adjacent to the project, nor will families displaced by the project receive adequate resettlement compensation. Project developers did not consider any renewable energy options. Instead, the plant will use open-cycle gas turbines supplied by GE—a technology more polluting and less energy efficient than closed-cycle turbines. Yet this project is considered part of Power Africa.

A Global Climate Justice Movement

In Africa, the United States, and around the world, there is a growing outcry against the ravages of coal and other fossil fuel pollution, which sickens and kills—with the burden falling hardest on the poor, elderly, and children.

A climate justice movement with a clear vision for a clean, equitable energy future is making itself heard. The drivers of this movement are people living on the front line of dirty energy in poorer countries and in low-income neighborhoods in wealthier nations like the United States. They understand firsthand the effects of dirty energy pollution and climate chaos, and are champions of innovative forms of clean rural and urban electrification—not only in the Global South, but just as urgently in the heavily polluting Global North. In fact, an international campaign to demand climate justice, representing over 100 groups in developing and developed countries, has called for efforts to ensure “people’s access to clean, safe, and renewable energy sources.”

In Africa, climate justice activists are speaking eloquently about a new economy for Africans and everyone else that leapfrogs fossil fuels and delivers electricity to hundreds of millions of people through clean energy and energy efficiency.

Augustine Njamnshi, Policy Coordinator of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance in Cameroon, asserts that “the transition must be just as much as it must be swift. There must be clear measures to ensure ‘climate jobs’ are created—jobs and livelihoods that are necessary for the shift to low carbon, climate resilient, and equitable development pathways.” Innovation abounds in these areas, but policy incentives still tend to favor fossil fuels over clean energy.

Another dynamic group, Earthlife Africa, is opposing coal-fired plants in South Africa, which they argue will create far more environmental problems than energy benefits. Like most environmental justice groups, Earthlife couples that opposition with bold proposals for an alternative energy future. They are promoting studies about the job benefits of a renewable energy strategy. And they argue that, with the right policies, 50 percent of all South African electricity could come from renewable sources by 2050.

African climate justice groups have documented how large-scale energy projects tend to serve big corporations and the wealthy. According to the South Africa-based NGO Groundwork, residents pay up to seven times more for their electricity in that country than major corporations do. Meanwhile, pollution from the country’s dirty energy system results in massive health costs to the state.

The climate justice movement also points out that those most responsible for the problem should be the ones to help pay for real solutions. And that means divesting from dirty-energy corporations and investing in renewable energy systems that put people first. Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop, recently wrote that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporationsfinancing the injustice of climate change.”

The U.S. Congress and the White House would both do well to heed his call and allocate resources to contribute to the energy revolution that Africa and the United States so desperately need. It’s not a fossil fuel revolution, but instead one rooted in clean alternatives that come from the remarkable innovations of people working together.

Fossil Fuels: The Tide is Turning

(Pöllö/Wikimedia)

(Pöllö/Wikimedia)

On the same day that the federal government released its National Climate Assessment which summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, Stanford University trustees voted to divest their $18.7 billion endowment of coal stocks, the largest in a growing group of funds to partially divest from fossil fuels.

The message in the National Climate Assessment was clear: Climate change is upon us and it has already dramatically transformed our national landscape along with our weather. The time for delay on action is over.

The message from Stanford students was equally clear: It’s time for universities to act and divest from all fossil fuels. “Fossil Free Stanford, along with over 400 student campaigns across the country, maintains the goal of divesting from all fossil fuels,” the students wrote in their online statement. “Stanford’s coal divestment alone will not be enough turn the tide on climate change. We call on university administrators across the nation to follow Stanford’s lead and begin the process of divestment.”

Stanford students have worked for several years to build student, faculty and trustee support for an effort to divest their endowment of all fossil fuels. While Stanford has taken the first step in purging its investments of coal stocks, Deborah DeCotis, the Stanford trustee who chairs the investment responsibility committee, conceded that this was not the only step the university was prepared to take: “This is not the ending point. It’s a process. We’re a research institute, and as the technology develops to make other forms of alternative energy sources available, we will continue to review and make decisions about things we should not be invested in. Don’t interpret this as a pass on other things.”

The determination of Stanford students to divest their university from fossil fuels echoes some work several of us at the Institute for Policy Studies launched together with other groups in 1997, when we began to urge the World Bank to divest from all fossil fuels.

Last year, the World Bank issued its own report on climate change, “Turn Down the Heat,” which warned that the planet is on track for a four-degree Celsius temperature rise by 2100. Along with many scientists, the Bank fears that such an increase would be incompatible with civilization as we know it. At the very least, rapid global warming — and the storms, droughts and other extreme weather it would unleash — would render the bank’s mission of alleviating poverty and fostering sustainable development impossible.

It is surprising it took them this long to come to this conclusion. It was in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, when the scientific community warned that a climate crisis was imminent, that the World Bank was charged with the task of marshaling the funds to address the emergency. But instead, over the next two decades, the Bank invested roughly $48.8 billion — not in clean energy, but in dirty fossil fuel projects in the developing world. Over the same time period, the Global Environmental Facility, housed at the Bank, invested only $3.5 billion in climate change mitigation projects.

In 2005, our researchers calculated that from 1992 to 2004, the World Bank had financed fossil fuel projects around the world that would release the equivalent of almost two years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetimes. Our research found that virtually none of this financing would meet the energy needs of the planet’s poorest two billion people, nearly all of whom lived without access to electricity. Instead, the projects would power export-oriented heavy industry and urban areas — and bolster the bank accounts of wealthy corporations like Exxon and Halliburton.

Pressured to conduct its own review, the Bank issued a 2004 report that showed that the global poor were actually harmed by the Bank’s fossil fuel investments. The 2004 report further urged the Bank to stop financing coal immediately, to get out of oil by 2008, and to rapidly ramp up its investments in renewable energy sources. The Bank’s Board of Directors voted to ignore these recommendations, with the exception of setting modest targets for renewable energy lending.

Fast forward to June 2013, when President Obama made a major announcement on climate action in Georgetown, stating that public financing of coal — such as financing via agencies like the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank) — should end.

We were the first organization, together with Friends of the Earth, to document the significant climate impacts of the Ex-Im Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s fossil fuel investments in 1998. That research resulted in a lawsuit filed by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the City of Boulder challenging both of those public financial institutions with violations under the National Environmental Protection Act, for not calculating the cumulative emissions of their projects on global climate. Obama’s statement took that research and legal action one step further and called for an end to almost all U.S. government funding of coal overseas. The White House statement said:

“…The President calls for an end to U.S. government support for public financing of new coal plants overseas, except for (a) the most efficient coal technology available in the world’s poorest countries in cases where no other economically feasible alternative exists, or (b) facilities deploying carbon capture and sequestration technologies. As part of this new commitment, we will work actively to secure the agreement of other countries and the multilateral development banks to adopt similar policies as soon as possible.”

Shortly after Obama made this statement, other international financial institutions followed suit: First the World Bank, then the Ex-Im Bank rejected a coal burner in Vietnam; the European Investment Bank pledged to get out of most forms of coal; and then the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development followed along with the Nordic countries and the United Kingdom.

The recognition by all of these banks, and now by some university trustees, is abundantly clear: Coal is part of a bygone era. Coal kills, and — in an era of rapidly warming temperatures — it is time to seek other energy alternatives. But divesting from coal is not enough: These banks and universities must divest from all fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the tide is turning. And hopefully it will turn more rapidly than our own tides will rise.

Food, Livelihoods, and Bridging Race and Class Divides

Egleston Farmers Market

Egleston Farmers Market (Photo: Mike Steinhoff/Flickr)

The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET) is a Transition Initiative in the diverse urban neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in Boston, Massachusetts. Our program is dedicated to strengthening community resilience and transitioning to a new economy, and from our inception, we’ve emphasized economic or “pocketbook” issues relevant to the average person. One of the first potlucks we held in the community, “Rising Costs of Food and Fuel – And What We Can Do About It,” was a learning moment for many when folks began to connect issues like climate change with the rising costs they were experiencing. People were inspired to build community resilience in the face of these global trends. This gathering, along with many others, catalyzed work to increase access to fresh healthy food in Jamaica Plain, create new kinds of livelihoods, and bridge historical race and class divides.

Food Web

We imagine that a huge sector of the new economy will be the production of local, organic, healthy food through a low-carbon food system. This system will require lots of skilled work and workers, and we’re helping people reskill as well as increasing access to local food and creating jobs through the Egleston Farmers Market, Boston Food Forest, JP Yard Sharing, Egleston Community Orchard, and Festival Gardens. Our food work has also helped bridge some of JP’s historic divides. For example, the Plaza Meat Market in Egleston Square, a Dominican-owned and operated corner store rooted in the neighborhood’s immigrant Dominican community, has expanded its clientele by carrying locally-sourced cuts of meat, as well as local eggs, milk and butter. JP NET activists put its owners in touch with local suppliers and helped crowd-source new customers. In another example, through JP NET’s Egleston Community Orchard neighbors have come together to reclaim a city lot that had been vacant and trash-strewn for the past 30 years. The lot now produces free food for all in the diverse neighborhood – and includes apple trees, blueberries, raspberries, red currants and raised beds. The orchard strengthened relationships among 100+ neighbors, supporting peace and helping heal community grief after a shooting on the street. As we’ve grown, our food work has grown too. We’ve since established JP’s first winter farmers market, which has since become a year-round market. The market caters to JP’s immigrant communities and is the only one in JP to accept “food stamps” and is working with a local hospital and health centers to introduce coupons to make the produce even more affordable to low-income residents not accustomed to shopping locally. And now the Boston Food Forest is breaking ground on its flagship permaculture education site, showing how to do companion planting from the ground to the canopy to maximize food production and create lovely public space. Food Forest activists are in talks with city officials about other land parcels that could be linked into a network of edible forest gardens and orchards with the hope of weaving a scattered-site Boston Food Forest throughout the city that is cared for by local neighbors.

Sustainable Livelihoods

In the new economy, how will we spend our time? How will we provide for our needs and ensure that everyone gets to live well? We envision a world where livelihoods are safe, support dignified lives, and the work is also meaningful and purposeful. JP NET focuses on quality jobs and new forms of livelihoods that are place-based, sustainable, and reduce race and class inequality. We’re working with several existing “livelihood businesses” “(i.e., businesses that support their owners, but are not poised to grow forever) to help them transition and flourish. For example, J&P Cleaners is an existing dry cleaner owned by first generation immigrants from Central America. Like all dry-cleaners, they use perchloroethylene, a highly toxic and known carcinogen, in their dry cleaning process. With support from the Commonwealth’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI), we are assisting J&P to relocate, transition to becoming Boston’s first exclusively “wet cleaner,” and expand their market. In addition to helping existing businesses transition to a cancer-free new economy, our New Economy Enterprise Hub is incubating new enterprises with an aggressive import substitution strategy, taking advantage of the procurement needs of anchor institutions. For example, local hospitals and nursing homes are major purchases of food, cleaning services and other supplies. We are working to source more of their supply chain from local businesses and providers. We are simultaneously exploring partnerships with local banks to create a “linked deposit program” to leverage locally-focused loans and provide bridge capital to emerging businesses. Through conversations with community members over the years, we know there is a felt need to create a mechanism for “non-accredited investors” (i.e., non-wealthy investors) to move their money to community investments and strengthen social enterprise. Economic resilience is multivalent, and JP is full of people with great ideas for building it. JP NET supports and “catalyzes” lots of this work. Our Community Leaders Fellowship gives young entrepreneurs experience leading projects that build social and community capital, for example:

  • Time Banking – We’re working with the local Time Trade Circle (a 900 member Time Bank) to strengthen alternative systems of exchange to prepare for further economic downturn.
  • Emergency Prep – We’re strengthening neighborhood resilience and networks of mutual aid by bringing people together, block-by-block, to better prepare all of us for short- and longer-term emergencies.
  • Local Business – We’re collaborating with local business owners to create a network of locally owned and independent businesses.
  • Boylston Street Public Art Corridor – We are coordinating a mural contest, working with a local school to paint a new fence, and talking with neighbors about a place-making “intersection repair” to add public art to the Boylston Street corridor leading from the train station up the local main street.

Launched in 2010 as a project of the Institute for Policy Studies which has provided support for a part-time coordinator and in 2013 helped us raise the resources to hire a full-time community organizer, JP NET now involves over 2,000 neighbors and closely collaborates with local businesses, main street districts, community development corporations, youth-based organizations, environmental and social justice non-profits, city and state agencies, and elected officials. In 2012, JP NET co-founded a growing regional network of community resilience and transition groups collaborating across New England. In addition to multilingual educational forums, networking events, and potlucks regularly convening 60 to 150 people throughout the year, we also host an annual “State of the Neighborhood” with 320+ neighbors and key elected officials. JP NET is dedicated to strengthening community resilience, with equity and sustainability as our guiding values. If we are to have a new economy that works for everyone in harmony with the planet then we believe everyone has a part to play in the transition.

Electrifying Africa – But at What Cost to Africans?

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

As families in the United States steel themselves for the possibility of another sweltering summer with rolling blackouts triggered by high demand for air conditioning, it’s a good time to remember that many families throughout Africa work and live in buildings with no electricity. In areas that do have the utility, frequent power outages are a constant reminder of the need for dependable access to electricity.

In June 2013, U.S. policymakers announced two initiatives aimed at increasing electricity production in Africa. President Obama launched Power Africa, an initiative that makes a $7 billion U.S. commitment to the energy sector in six African countries. And Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Electrify Africa Act — which is expected to pass in the House mid-week by unanimous consent — which sets a goal of providing access to electricity for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Both initiatives place increasing investment by U.S. companies in Africa at their center.

Africa is home to almost 600 million people without electricity, all of whom struggle to meet their basic needs as a result. Access to power translates into refrigerating vaccines, keeping food from spoiling, studying after dark — the kinds of activities that can dramatically improve basic health, education, and economic opportunity.

While rhetoric around the two U.S. initiatives is about reducing poverty and improving Africans’ quality of life, the approaches being outlined seem likely to lead to large, climate-polluting, centralized power projects — not the decentralized, renewable energy systems that are the most efficient and cleanest means of reaching Africa’s poorest families.

Decentralized, renewable energy sources are best for the rural poor.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that universal energy access can be achieved by 2030 with significantly stepped-up investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, it would require an extra $19 billion a year, and money pledged by the U.S. government could be a strong down payment.

The IEA also notes that the majority of the additional investment needs to go to small-scale mini-grid and off-grid solutions — which are more efficient at delivering electricity to people in rural areas, where 84 percent of the energy-poor live — and not to centralized power plants. Small-scale systems produce energy at the household and community level from renewable sources, including micro-hydro, solar, wind, and biogas.

So an energy access win for the poor is also a win for the environment. By developing clean energy instead of burning fossil fuels, decentralized renewable systems help curb greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change. That’s important because if left unfettered, climate change is predicted to wreak havoc across Africa.

Africa will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

According to the World Bank, climate change is likely to undermine the development gains made in recent decades, pushing millions of people back into poverty. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the leading global scientific body on climate change — notes, warming on the African continent could be some of the developing world’s most severe, reaching one-and-a-half times the global average.

Droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change are expected to significantly compromise agricultural production and access to food in Africa. Yields from rain-fed agriculture could drop by 50 percent in some countries by 2020, and crop revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100. Food insecurity and exacerbated malnutrition in turn will compromise human health.

Sea level rise is anticipated to threaten the 320 coastal cities and 56 million people living in low-lying coastal zones around the continent. And the cost to African nations of adapting to a warmer world could amount to between 5 and 10 percent of their gross domestic product.

“All of the above” means dirty and clean power.

While Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act do include language about developing “an appropriate mix of power solutions, including renewable energy,” proponents of these policies have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent.

Natural gas, in particular, is front and center. While gas is sometimes talked about as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, it can be even more polluting than dirty coal when methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide) is released during its production.

In other words, gas is no “bridge fuel” between energy poverty and the clean power that every person deserves. Once Africans are locked into natural gas infrastructure, they’re locked into 40 years of increasing emissions—and four more decades of global warming’s impacts.

Continued fossil fuel expansion threatens U.S. climate policy.

The push for natural gas is so forceful that one of the U.S. government’s strongest climate policies to date — the cap on greenhouse gas emissions at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) — has come under fire.

OPIC’s cap — an outcome of a 2009 legal settlement with environmental groups over the agency’s practice of lending to large, destructive oil and gas projects — forces a 30 percent greenhouse gas reduction across its portfolio over 10 years and a 50 percent reduction over 15 years.

The results have been notable. By 2011, the agency’s renewable energy finance had risen to nearly $1 billion, about a third of its total commitments that year. By contrast, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) — OPIC’s sister organization — steadily increased investment in dirty energy, with fossil fuel funding doubling between 2011 and 2012.

Unfortunately, some development groups say that to achieve energy access for Africa, OPIC’s hard-won greenhouse gas cap has to be weakened. For instance, a lobbying document [PDF] from the ONE campaign highlights how the Electrify Africa Act “unlocks OPIC’s investment potential by requiring OPIC to revise its existing policy on the carbon emissions of its investments to permit significant investment in the electricity sector of the poorest and lowest pollution-emitting countries.”

Ironically, the impacts of doing away with this policy — more greenhouse gas emissions and fewer renewable projects focused on access — would only come back to hit communities in Africa even harder as climate change intensifies.

Who stands to gain by busting the cap?

If large, centralized fossil fuel production won’t particularly help poor Africans access energy — and would exacerbate climate change, which in turn threatens development on the continent — why would anyone want to bust the greenhouse gas cap at OPIC?

For one possible explanation, look no further than the oil and gas fields recently found off the coast of Africa. Big reserves mean big money, and the business of extracting and processing new oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa will be lucrative.

It’s OPIC’s job to help U.S. companies gain a foothold in emerging markets like these by providing finance. And by doing away with lending restrictions on climate polluting projects, OPIC is free to grease the wheels for mega-deals between U.S. fossil fuel companies and African interests.

One of those companies appears to be General Electric, which recently signed a tentative deal with Ghana to build a power plant likely to be fueled with natural gas from the Jubilee offshore field. (Perhaps not uncoincidentally, G.E.’s CEO traveled with Obama on his Africa trade mission.) According to Forbes, G.E. has recently pivoted its attention to Africa and is marketing power generation products like natural gas engines to African companies. Not surprising, then, that Ex-Im chairman Fred Hochberg called Power Africa a “$7B plan to power up General Electric” on Twitter.

Helping to bring electricity into the homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces of tens of millions of people living on the African continent is the right thing to do. The United States can support energy access through public finance — raised from innovative sources like a financial transaction tax and by ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies — and by directing the $7 billion Obama promised to decentralized, renewable energy systems. That would ensure that we’re spending our money to benefit African families, not U.S. energy companies.

Africans deserve to live full, dignified, productive lives free from dirty energy and safe from the climate disaster it promises. U.S. policymakers and taxpayers can power Africa best by protecting the planet and securing future generations.

This post has been updated from its original version posted on September 16, 2013.

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