Muslim-European Interactions

  1. Compare and contrast the following discussed patterns of Muslim-European interaction: assimilation, communitarianism, or newer modes or integration.

As we’ve progressed in this class, it is apparent from our readings and discussions in class that strong tensions exist in Europe between native cultures and societies, and those of immigrants. Particularly strong are the tensions brought on by Islam and the influx of Muslim immigrants and residents in Western European countries. In her book, Shireen Hunter concludes with discussing different approaches to Muslim-European interaction. Assimilation is a popular viewpoint followed by countries such as France and Germany. “The assimilationists tend to believe that Muslims should accept the totality of the cultural and political ethos of their country of residence or citizenship. They can, of course, remain Muslim, but their religion must be a private matter and publicly invisible” (273). This viewpoint perpetuates a Muslim-European interaction that is defined by more restrictions on the Muslim freedom of expression. For example, in France, female Muslim students are prohibited from wearing their head veils. On the other hand, countries like the United Kingdom follow a communitarianism approach. “Communitarians-both European and Muslim-prefer Muslims to form cohesive communities which can then enter into systematic dialogue with state and society. Some Muslims prefer to live in complete isolation according to strict Islamic rules” (273). These governments see it as easier to give group identities, and have immigrants fit into these groups and operate on a more representative level, rather than the immigrants being more active members of society themselves.

  1. What is the diversity myth discussed by Malik? How does assimilation differ from multiculturalism? Give examples. What solutions does Malik propose to overcome the failure of multiculturalism?

Once heralded as the solution to Europe’s woes, multiculturalism is now perceived by many to be the source of such problems. Kenan Malik, in his article The Failure of Multiculturalism, explores how Europe’s approach to immigrants and policies have exacerbated the tension between cultures. He identifies how many governments, “seek to institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes…and defining their needs and rights accordingly” (21) The diversity myth “embodies both a description of society and a prescription for dealing with it…perceived problem with supposed solution” (22). Multicultural society is defined as having a diverse population, but policies that attempt to manage this population exist. The dissolution of many labor organizations and decline of the working class in Europe has led to a reframing of the way people perceive one another. Social class is not so much a factor. “They define social solidarity not in political terms but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith…concerned less with determining the kind of society they want to create than with the community to which they belong” (24).  In the 1940s, British governmental officials feared that the influx of immigrants would “undermine the country’s sense of identity” (25). A common myth the author identifies is that these governments created multiculturalist policies with the belief that these minorities wanted to “assert their differences.” But Malik points out that the immigrants themselves weren’t so preoccupied with cultural assimilation as political officials were. They faced discrimination and different treatment, when they were not seeking out to be treated differently because of their cultures. It was with this realization of discrimination that the government realized these immigrant groups needed to be represented, in some form, in the political sphere. That, is what Malik explains as the origins of the first multiculturalist policies. The “policies…not only bound people more closely to particular identities but also led them to fear and resent other groups as competitors for power and influence” (26).  In Germany, the influx of Turkish immigrants were met with policies that encouraged them to retain their own culture and traditions, but Malik points out that this policy wasn’t perpetuating an inclusive culture in the country. He states, “the policy did not represent a respect for diversity so much as a convenient means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture” (27). France claimed to have an assimilationist policy that treated “every individual as a citizen rather than a member of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group” (29). Despite this claim, however, Malik says that the French government was still treating its immigrants in a “multiculturalist way,” that set them apart from French society.

Malik offers solutions for how Europe can alleviate the issues caused by multiculturalist policies. First, he says, it is important to avoid institutionalizing diversity and formally distinguishing cultural differences. It is then important to recognize the existence of racism and prevent certain groups of citizens from being treated differently. Lastly, Malik identifies that Europe needs to distinguish people from values. This means that diversity is important, but so is treating everyone as an equal citizen. Taking the best attributes from Multiculturalist and Assimilationist policies is necessary for positive change.

 

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Muslim Youth in Europe

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Image courtesy of http://www.europe-infos.eu/europeinfos/en/archive/issue181/article/7249.html

  1. What struggles are unique to Muslim youth in Europe? In what forms does Muslim youth identity manifest itself in Europe? What role does discrimination play in the formation of Muslim youth identities?

 

In Islam, Europe’s Second Religion, Shireen Hunter explores the unique challenges that Muslim youth living in Western Europe face. Not only is being a teenager a difficult task in itself, but Muslim youth must also forge their identities in the face of the uncertainty and discrimination onslaught by the Western European societies in which she lives. Hunter breaks down the struggles that Muslim youth in Europe face into four separate categories, each of which contributes to the difficulty of identity manifestation.

  1. Cultural Adaption: As with a majority of Muslim migrants to Europe, Muslim youth face difficulty fully assimilating into their new Western European societies. Many Muslims living in Western Europe tend to reside in predominantly Muslim communities within neighborhoods. The tendency to stick within the comfortable confines of their own culture and communities, paired with many Western Europeans’ resilience to fully accepting Islam, makes it extremely hard for Muslim youth to assimilate into Western European culture.
  2.  Balance of Integration and Tradition: Not only must Muslim youth face difficulty assimilating into Western European society, but they must also deal with internal conflicts of interests. Muslim teens are constantly trying to balance the norms and expectations of Western European societies and peers, with the norms and expectations of their Islamic faith.
  3.  Boundary Identification: Another problem that Muslim youths face is grappling with the identifiers placed on them by Western society. They are defined solely by their Islamic faith and the countries from which they hail. It seems that many times these Muslim youths cannot overcome these associations and identifiers.
  4. Discrimination and Stereotyping: Typically, discrimination and stereotyping are methods  people use to confront or deal with things they don’t understand. Muslim youth in Western Europe, along with the majority of the Western European Muslim community, face frequent discrimination and prejudice from their counterparts. There is a misperception of many Muslims in Western society as radical and dangerous, when really this stereotype is only representative of a small segment of the Muslim population. Many moderate Muslims are lumped together into a stereotype that contains radical Islam and terrorists, which is one that many Westerners tend to hold, and this is an unfair perception that impacts their daily lives.

 

  1. In what ways has the influence of Western experiences on Malaysian Muslims been contradictory? How can this be applied to Muslims worldwide?

Western experiences and Western influences appear to drive some Muslims towards a more radical Islamic view. Rather than assimilating into the Western European culture, Muslims’ experiences with the West make clear the differences between the values and ideals that divide Islam and the West. The contradiction that exists for Malaysian Muslims when it comes to Western influence is the fact that, rather than de-escalating or assimilating their beliefs,  their Western experiences actually radicalized their beliefs. Many Muslims may feel like they need to more aggressively defend their beliefs and react more strongly in light of Western culture impeding itself on Islam. This can be applied to Muslims worldwide who feel that their Islamic faith is threatened by Western ideals and that they need to react in a more radical way.

Islam in the United Kingdom

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Image courtesy of http://journalism.nyu.edu/about-us/news-post/2015/03/05/new-distinguished-writer-in-residence-salman-rushdie/

A) Who is Salman Rushdie? What is the significance of his novel, The Satanic Verses, with respect to Muslims in the U.K?

Salman Rushdie is a British Kashmiri novelist and essayist, whose novel The Satanic Verses, sparked outrage among much of the Muslim community. The novel was seen to denounce and blaspheme elements of Islam, and many Muslim communities across the world had the novel banned. The controversy escalated when the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a “fatwa,” or called for Rushdie’s death, and that Muslims should kill him. Rushdie had to live under constant police protection for the next nine years of his life, following the publication of the novel. Muslims held many protests in the U.K., and the controversy led to a falling out with the Iranian and British governments. Rushdie’s novel sparked the conversation concerning freedom of expression, and the conflicting ideals between the Western world and Islam. I think for Muslims in the U.K., it was a major conflict of interests, and there was a struggle of wondering whether or not to support the critically acclaimed writer, or the strict order of the Ayatollah.

B) What limitations to Muslim assimilation in the U.K. exist? Do all British Muslims want to assimilate?

There is a greatly diverse and large Muslim population present in the United Kingdom, and the various Muslim communities present in the nation often hail from different ethnic backgrounds. This large scale of diversity makes it difficult to categorize the Muslim population in the U.K. as “one” sect of its citizens. According to Chapter 3 of Islam, Europe’s Second Religion, there are various theological and political differences that exist within the Muslim communities. The chapter goes on to say, “these divisions exist along the following lines: (1) traditional versus militant or activist Islam, whose followers are often referred to as Islamists; and (2) traditionalist versus modernist” (p. 59). There are clear differences between Muslim groups in the U.K., and followers of Islamic modernism are more aligned with the ideals of Western culture, and these intellectuals are often more accepted by British natives. Islamic modernists seek to gain the respect of the British elite, both in the intellectual and political realm (p. 60). However, not all British Muslims follow this ideology. More extremist groups within the British Muslim population exist, and are concerned with converting more people to Islam, and following the more traditional rules of Islam.

C) What is the musawah organization about? What does musawah mean? What are some of their key messages? What is your assessment of this association?

The Musawah organization is concerned with advocating for equality for Muslim women, along with equality in the family. According to Musawah.org, it is:

“a knowledge building movement. It facilitates access to existing knowledge and creates new knowledge about women’s rights in Islam. We seek to apply feminist and rights-based lenses in understanding and searching for equality and justice with Muslim legal traditions”

The word “musawah” itself is the Arabic word for equality, and that is the ultimate goal for this association. They seek to empower and educate women and support female leaders, to establish a greater sense of justice and equality for Muslim women. The organization’s website lists their key messages, values and principles. Here are some of the ones that stood out the most to me as I was reading through:

  • Equality in the family is the foundation for equality in the society. Families in all their multiple forms should be safe and happy spaces, equally empowering for all.
  • We use a holistic framework that integrates Islamic teachings, universal human rights, national constitutional guarantees of equality, and the lived realities of women and men.
  • A global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, which advances human rights for women in Muslim contexts, in both their public and private lives.
  • To build and share knowledge that supports equality and justice in the Muslim family using a holistic approach that combines Islamic principles and jurisprudence, internationational human rights standards, national laws and constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, and the lived realities of women and men.

I think that this association is working to dispel the norms of traditional family life in Islam, and is a holistic approach to creating a more equal society. I really liked how their website explicitly listed their major values and ideas, as well as what the organization is working on, and how others can get involved and support the movement. I think that the initiative is worthwhile, and how it’s an all-encompassing movement that strives to improve the lives of all citizens and improve the quality of family life. Musawah’s Framework of Action demonstrates the thoughtfulness behind this movement, as well as their willingness to work with other organizations and leaders on all levels, in order to achieve social justice and equality.

 

http://www.musawah.org/about-musawah/framework-action

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Satanic_Verses_controversy

The Displacement Crisis

a)

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Image courtesy of http://fair.org/home/the-syrian-refugee-crisis-and-the-do-something-lie/

After reading through the Foreign Affairs The Dispossessed article, I found it to be very emotionally appealing, and an effective combination of factual and statistical data with the narratives of real-life refugees. As a American who is more far removed from the refugee crisis taking place in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, this article was a very powerful medium that effectively convey the tragedies and hardships faced by those refugees seeking a better life. I found the nonfiction comic included in the article to provide a face and a name to the refugee crisis, making it easier for people like myself, who perhaps feel isolated from the situation, to adopt a sense of the significance of this migration occurring across the globe. The comic was a clever and unconventional approach to analyzing the refugee situation, and I think the goal was to create a story that illustrated the arduous journey these migrants take, and give readers an idea of what that journey entails. Authors identified that reasons for escape are largely personal and unique to each migrant, but that fear of an oppressive regime was a motivating factor. Islam does play a role in the refugee situation, as differences between practices can become a source of conflict when refugees are fleeing their homes to go to another country. All in all, though, these people are just in search of a better life.

Overall, I thought the piece was engaging to read, and I found myself reading in suspense until the ending, wondering whether or not the characters presented in the comic made it safely to their destinations. I think that the comic definitely simplified what these refugees had to go through to reach asylum, but that it still was effective in demonstrating their hardships, and making readers sympathetic to the situation. I don’t know if I would say that the comic in itself was a thorough analysis of the crisis, but when paired with the rest of the content in the article, I think that the Foreign Affairs piece was an encompassing approach to the displacement crisis taking place in today’s world. It conveyed the direness and uncertainty of the situation, and signaled that a global effort is necessary to fully support the migrants, and prevent the political and social structures in host countries from collapsing.

b)

In their article, Islam and the West: Narratives of Conflict and Conflict Transformation, Nathan C. Funk and Abdul Aziz Said analyze the complicated relationship between the United States/Western world and the Muslim Middle East. They focus on the medium of the narrative. “Narratives, then, are the stories that members of social and political groups tell about themselves and their relations with selected “others,” to create or reinforce a sense of collective identity and shared purpose,” (Funk & Said, p. 3).

“the narratives which come to dominate public discourse are often those which serve most effectively to give definition to in-group identity and values through reference to an out-group” (p. 3). Narratives that perpetuate an in-group dynamic along with a villainous portrayal of adversaries can often emphasize tension and increase the possibility of conflict. Rather than narratives that focus on polarization and the differences between two different cultures, the authors believe that crafting a new narrative, one that highlights common interests or shared ideals. This type of narrative is more likely to lead to positive progress and conflict resolution.

Relations between the United States and the Muslim Middle East have long been tense and surrounded in controversy. The authors of this article reveal how both cultures are promoting a polarizing and hostile perception of the other, because of their “self vs. other” ideology. Both the United States and the Muslim Middle East are similar in the fact that the narratives of both cultures perpetuate an adversarial relationship, and exaggerate/misrepresent differences. Each group has a tendency to focus on extreme and sensationalist representations of the “other” culture, and these images convey an insurmountable barrier to cooperation or understanding. The authors say that both the United States and the Muslim Middle East fail to recognize the “common ground” or context. The current narratives surround themselves with a confrontational and adversarial relationship between the West and Islam. There is a consistent reference to conflict, both ancient and more recent, feeding into the idea that the two cultures are simply too different to resolve anything. What the authors point out, is that the two cultures are taking the same approach:

“If Americans and Westerners are often tempted to regard the Muslim Middle East as a foil – a means of defining themselves in relation to everything that they presumably are not – Middle Eastern Muslims are more than capable of manifesting a similar attitude toward a Western ‘other'” (p. 6). A far more effective approach to framing a narrative is intercultural compatibility. It’s the approach that the authors identify as recognizing shared values that can transform the focus of narratives from a confrontational and adversarial one, to revealing how the West and Muslim Middle East “share many values which provide a basis for understanding and cooperation. These values include respect for learning, desire for peace, esteem for toleration, and partisanship on behalf of human dignity” (p. 15). If both the West and Muslim Middle East can transform their narratives to include more intercultural compatibility and complementarity, than conflict transformation will soon follow.

 

What does it mean to be Islam?

  1. What are some of the myths about Muslims in Europe that Justin Vaisse discusses? Justin Vaisse, in his “Muslims in Europe: A short introduction,” debunks a myriad of myths regarding Muslims in Europe, which many Europeans have held true, as the Muslim populations in Western European countries has continued to rise. One of the myths he discusses that I found the most relevant, was that “Being Muslim constitutes a fixed identity, sufficient to fully characterize a person” (pg. 1). Why is it that followers of Islam are almost immediately identified by their religion, and first referred to as a Muslim, when oftentimes, people are not primarily identified by their religion? Other groups are not being referred to as Catholics or Christians, before they would be identified as French or German, so it’s quite interesting to me that it is so common for us to use Muslims as a primary identifier. This myth exemplifies the difficulty many Muslims in Europe may face when trying to fully assimilate or become active members in European society. This point leads into the second myth, which Vaisse identifies as, “Muslims in Europe are, in one way or the other, inherently foreign, the equivalent of visiting Middle-Easterners who are alien to the “native” culture” (p. 1). Vaisse says that a French Muslim would differ in political and social culture from a German Muslim, and that the majority of the Muslim population in Europe holds a Western European nationality and are proud of this fact. I think the biggest misconception that Vaisse is trying to clarify for readers by debunking these myths, is to show that the Muslim population in Europe cannot be lumped together or easily defined as one group. Each is different, reflecting the social and cultural norms of their country.
  2. Why is it important to make a distinction between the religious and political dimensions of Islam?I think that being able to identify and discuss the distinctions between the religious and political dimensions of Islam is a critical component to engage in knowledgeable conversation on the topic. The emphasis on anti-terrorism within the past decade has led to a widespread Islamophobia in American and many Western countries, whose citizens don’t fully grasp or understand what Islam is or what it means. People have a tendency to lump all Muslims into one group, meaning that the average Muslim is being grouped with the radicals we see about in the media, the ones who are responsible for the terrorist attacks. To make this generalization is not fair for the majority of the Muslim population across the world, who do not associate with this radical view or practice of Islam. I think that this distinction is also difficult to identify, because in its origins, politics and religion were woven together in Islamic countries. There was no distinction in these societies and governments, it was just the way of life. I think that the spread of democracy across the world, and the movement of Muslims into Western countries, has led to controversy and conversation on separating church and state. This separation and secularity is common for Western nations, and so I think it is difficult for us to be willing to learn and understand more about Islam and how it works. But it is critical to realize that not all Muslims are practicing Islam in terms of politics.

    169_feature_kaufmannImage courtesy of  http://www.futurecenter.ae/en/analys.php?analys=454

  3. What kind of challenges do education and social rifts in Europe bring to Muslim communities of Europe? What does Ramadan suggest Muslims should do in face of such challenges?

The Muslim populations living across Western Europe face a variety of difficulties and prejudices brought on by misconceptions and Western ideologies. Western European political and social practices often create a disconnect that prevents Muslims from being able to fully practice their faith and also be an active citizen. For example, the female Muslim population in France had to deal with a ban on wearing Hijab’s in schools, as well as a ban on full-face veils in public places. French public figures and feminists argued that this practice directly clashed with their cultural and political framework that emphasizes individual freedom. However, this seems hypocritical, as it is preventing Muslim women and students from being free to express their religion. Policies like this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Western European laws prevent Muslims from being able to practice or express their religion fully, Muslims may be more likely not actively seek to participate in the communities beyond their neighborhoods, because they feel like they are not welcome. I think that many European countries feel as though Muslim populations are incapable or unwilling to fully assimilate into their cultures, even though they are perpetuating policies that create a subtle prejudice and discrimination towards Muslims. Ramadan encourages Muslims to exist peacefully and practice their faiths in the midst of the dissonance it may have with the culture of their country. During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to fully immerse themselves in their faith, fasting and worshipping, while also avoiding impure behavior or activities. But if, as in France, a female Muslim student cannot wear her hijab during Ramadan, how does she handle the situation? Ramadan suggests not engaging in conflict, so I think that Muslims living in Europe have had to adopt to the cultural standards set forth.

Islam in Europe

1)

When Zemni and Parker delve into the notion of the “failure of integration” of Muslims in Europe, the discussion focuses mainly on the separation that exists between the migrant, or Muslim, and the European state or society itself. They define this concept as, “the perceived failure of migrants/immigrants of non-European origin to integrate into host societies…the social construction of the migrant as a problematic participant in European social and political life has occurred against the backdrop of two objective demographic movements” (235).  The authors identify the two major influxes of migrants into western Europe, first during the 1950’s, and then again in the 1980’s.  This “migration of laborers and their families from developing countries to fill low-wage jobs in European economies….and a dramatic increase in the number of people fleeing conflict and/or political and economic insecurity in their home countries and arriving in Western Europe after the end of the cold war,” resulted in a fairly large population of migrants in European countries. However, these groups were never able to ‘assimilate’ into European society or public. The notion of a multicultural Europe didn’t have a positive connotation denoting a “positive interaction of distinct communities in a common project, but rather the challenge or threat posed by the apparent inability of immigrant groups to ‘get ahead’ in the European context” (235). There was the perspective that these groups were perhaps unwilling to do so. “This apparent failure to integrate has been viewed in cultural terms, that is, as a failure to adopt styles and practices of daily life considered compatible with the norms of hegemonic national cultures.” (235) In the 1970s, the out-group referred to migrant workers from countries like Turkey, Morocco or Algeria, but now, these ‘others’ are Muslims. There exists in Europe a prejudice that is more disguised and harder to recognize. There was the separation of the migrant from their nationality, and more of a connection to a “civilizational/cultural matrix” making it possible for European communities “to problematize the migrant’s presence” (235). It’s a matter of “Islam and Europe,” versus “Islam in Europe,” that brings about potentially problematic ideologies. “It is clear that these two discourses have fused and interacted in ways that reinforce a notion of culture as a primary determinant of political behavior,” meaning that a Muslim in Europe is perceived and judged solely on that basis. The authors go on to say, “embedded within this discourse is a suspicion that the migrant—being essentially determined by his or her culture of origin—is inherently incapable of meeting and respecting the demands and responsibilities of citizenship in the ‘secular’ European state” (236).  That point clarifies how this discourse can actually legitimize prejudiced or discriminatory behaviors, placing a Muslim immigrant or migrant in a compromising position. It prevents them from feeling like a welcome member of the European community, who can engage and participate in civic matters. The discourse of “Islam in Europe,” affects the way in which European “publics and policymakers view and interact with Europe’s Muslim communities” (236). The authors say the real problem lies in the fact that these assumptions can develop into a self-fulfilling prophecy for these Muslim migrants, and they will fail to extend their involvement from the home and neighborhood into the larger European community.

2)

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Image courtesy of http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/07/your-veil-is-a-battleground-ii.html

In Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott explores the controversy surrounding the Islamic head veil in French society. Especially in the classroom. To many French policymakers and feminists, “the veil represented the subordination of women, their humiliation, and their inequality.” (153) Wallach identifies the perverse sexualization the French have placed on the head veil, which is meant to downplay sexuality. “For Muslims, the veil is a declaration of the need to curb the dangerous sexuality of women (and also of men), a response…’to the risks associated with our vital impulses” (154). So while the Muslim female students were more covered and modest in there clothing and veils, they were perceived as being ostentatious and conspicuous. “The French system celebrates sex and sexuality as free of social and political risk.” Simultaneously, though, sex also raises questions to the abstract individualism present in France. “If we are all the same, why has sexual difference been such an obstacle to real equality?” (154). The author goes on to say that Islam’s recognition of the problems incited by sexuality perhaps  revealed limitations within France’s own system. There is so much debate and controversy over the meaning of the veil and the message it sends to others. Some French feminists say that the problem with the veil is that it covers up the sexuality of the woman, and that it perpetuates inequality between men and women. Wallach Scott recognizes that it may not be so much an issue of equality between men and women, but between Muslim women and French women. Meaning that French society wants Muslim women to embrace the sexual openness and style of French women, and adopt laïcité, parting from the religious connotation of the veil. Being raised in the United States, I lean more towards the side of religious freedom and freedom of expression. I think that Muslim female students should be able to wear their veils or headscarves in schools, without being ostracized or sexualized. To me, it just seems like the right thing to do to allow this, though I can see how it is more complicated because of French secularity. Regardless, I don’t agree with the ban and think it violates the rights of Muslim women, because they should have the freedom to practice their faith.

Poor Economics, Poor Policy?

A)

In the remainder of their book, authors Banerjee and Duflo analyze the controversy surrounding the debate on development aid in foreign countries. Their discussion centers around the respective arguments of acclaimed economists Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) and William Easterly (NYU).

Easterly argues that the political institutions themselves are the key component to bringing about good policy. “If the politics are right, good policies will eventually emerge. And conversely, without good politics, it is impossible to design or implement good policies, at least not on any scale” (p. 236). He believes that developing nations need to find their own way to reform, and that the most critical element in getting better is freedom. The free market would drive citizens of these nations to pursue ambitions, and seek out education and healthcare. Freedom and democracy, however, cannot be brought from foreign influences. It is a development that Easterly believes should come from the nation itself. The most that foreign parties can do, he says, is advocate for human equality and civil rights (p. 242). But how can a bad institution change itself? Will changing the institution truly make a difference, or can small changes make an impact? Both authors like the idea of giving more power to the people, but not too much power. They believe that decentralization should come from a centralized power, to ensure that the elite don’t grab all the power, and minority interests are represented.

Banerjee and Duflo highlight an interesting point when they recognize individual efforts in developing countries to fight corruption, for example, school headmasters in Uganda calling out government officials for not sending full funds to school. This level of fighting corruption, on a small and gradual scale, though not a political or institutional revolution, can make a big difference (p.237).  However, a corrupt or ineffective institution greatly inhibits the development and growth of a country. “Bad institutions tend to perpetuate bad institutions, creating a vicious circle, sometimes called the ‘iron law of oligarchy'” (p. 238). This is a trend that has plagued many of the developing nations in Africa, where the political leaders don’t find it in their best interests to create economic institutions that benefit the whole of society. Rather, they maintain the systems that make them rich, without regard to the poor. And so, these nations get stuck with bad political and economic institutions. While both Easterly and Sachs believe many perspectives on institutions in poor countries are misplaced in the fact that some experts view them as a hopeless case, I think Sachs view towards helping these countries is more proactive and viable to make a difference. I believe that Banerjee and Duflo emphasize this point as well.

Sachs views political corruption as a poverty trap in itself, with corruption causing poverty, and poverty causing corruption. With this perspective, Sachs holds that improving the living conditions of the poor, and contributing aid to achieve specific goals and raise the standard of living, would thereby lead civil society and the government to conduct itself in a better way (p. 236). Improving conditions can be a process with many steps, but that doesn’t mean it’s less effective than widespread political change. The authors identify that, “politics is not very different from policy: It can (and must) be improved at the margin, and seemingly minor interventions can make a significant difference” (p. 253). There is a complex relationship between politics and policy, and “large-scale waste and policy failure often happen not because of any deep structural problem, but because of lazy thinking at the stage of policy design” (p. 261). So, politics are not the end-all, be-all solution to solving the problems in these developing nations. I am more inclined to side with Sachs view of developing and achieving specific goals and and milestones in developing nations, as an effective way of implementing change. Making people aware of their rights, holding people accountable and setting standards to follow makes it easier to make strides towards progress. In the end, the journey to eradicating poverty will be a long and winding one; far from simple and far from easy. There is no single, clear cut solution. I think a combination of foreign aid and institutional reform will be necessary to see change in developing nations, but results will not be seen immediately. Change will come gradually, and just as Banerjee and Duflo point out, the small victories should be recognized.

B)

Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras. Image courtesy of http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/laura-poitras-citizenfour-oscar-winner-821500

Laura Poitras’ venture, Field of Vision, uses documentary film as a tool towards educating the public about developing stories from across the world. There is a special emphasis on short-form films, which allows for a quicker production cycle, as well as more freedom to take risks and explore new and creative ways for filmmakers and artists to reach audiences. I think Poitras’ concept is a very intriguing and effective one. I believe that the general public is drawn to cinematic mediums, and would be more interested and inclined to watch a short film about global issues then perhaps seek out the global current events section of a newspaper. Short-form documentary film combines the art of cinematography and drama, with the important task of telling the stories of relevant global issues from a variety of perspectives. Film can be an extremely effective medium for sending a message and inciting emotion and thought in people. I know that very often, I am engaged by film, and a particularly good film can cause me to think about its content and message long after I watch it. This mode of story telling could illustrate what is going on in developing nations and make people more aware of the need for change. Perpetuating the media and pop culture could be a very effective way to reach mass audiences and educate them about global issues, and I think Poitras’ website is a good example of how to do so. Check it out: https://fieldofvision.org/#films

 

 

 

 

 

MicroFinance in Liberia

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Image courtesy of http://www.alliancemicrofinance.no/where-we-work/diaconia-mdi

Authors Banerjee and Duflo, in chapters 8 and 9 of Poor Economics, discuss the growing trend of microfinance and microcredit institutions. The “microfinance and ‘social business’ movement, which starts from the premise that the poor are natural-born entrepreneurs, and we can eradicate poverty by giving them the right environment and a little bit of help getting started” (p. 206).  Overall, the authors argue that both institutions can be valuable tools for helping the wellbeing of the poor, but are not going to make a significant difference in eradicating poverty. A lot of this has to do with some factors surrounding the poor’s spending tendencies, as well as the common business model that many of them follow. It is extremely difficult for the poor to save sometimes, especially when their goals seem impossibly far away. It is all too easy for them to succumb to impulsive spending when their stress levels are so high; extreme levels of stress diminish rational decision-making ability. “Most microcredit institutions disapprove of borrowing to buy consumption goods–some actually put a lot of effort into making sure that their money gets spent on some income-earning asset” (p.202). The authors point out that gaining access to microcredit can help reduce spending on goods that the poor would like to give up anyways (cigarettes, tea, snacks, etc) (p. 203). From their research they found that it is sometimes difficult to convince the poor that saving or cutting back on certain items will make a significant difference in their lives. Small business and entrepreneurship are key. The poor who take part in programs where they are give some asset and small financial allowance end up not only saving more, but are also more likely to borrow money and be able to pay it back (p.212). However, the majority of these poor businesses are extremely small and don’t make much money at all. “The low profitability of businesses run by the poor also explains why…microcredit does not seem to lead to a radical transformation in the clients’ lives” a loan to jumpstart a new business may not be the best or even an effective way of making an impactful difference in the welfare of the poor (p. 213). Banerjee and Duflo focus on this concept as the great paradox presented by the poor and the idea of MFIs. “This is the paradox of the poor and their businesses: They are energetic and resourceful and manage to make a lot out of very little. But most of this energy is spent on businesses that are too small and utterly undifferentiated from the many others around them” (p. 218). Such a small scale of businesses explains why overall returns are dismally low while the marginal return are high. What little money the poor can borrow happens to be very expensive, and some poor people choose simply not to take out loans from microcredit institutions, even if they have the ability to (p. 219). Many of the poor people who take out loans or get funding from MFIs don’t pour it all back into their business; oftentimes, they put the remainder towards their home or other items. The authors identify that it all goes back to the business model so many of the poor have. It is not viable to substantially grow the types of businesses they are operating (p. 220). Microcredit and MFI’s can help the poor sustain their business and get by in their everyday lives, but overall, the authors argue that they won’t be the key to eradicate poverty. Effective business models and strategies will make a more significant difference.

According to the Central Bank of Liberia, there are currently 18 registered microfinance institutions operating in the country. These institutions are concentrated mostly in the areas surrounding the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Credit Unions, Village Savings and Loan Associations, along with Rural Community Finance Institutions(RCFIs) are among the various types of microfinance institutions present in Liberia. I found the RCFIs to be an interesting concept and initiative taken by the Liberian government. The Central Bank of Liberia’s website states, “The establishment of these RCFIs is consistent with the Government’s focus on creating an inclusive financial environment through the delivery of financial services to the people of Liberia based on the National Strategy for Financial Inclusion adopted in 2009.” This initiative appears to offer technology-driven services like Western Union and Moneygram. It is clear that the Liberian is taking strides to provide access to banks and saving to the poor, especially in rural areas. The registered MFIs are aiming to mobilize saving and make it easier for the poor to have bank accounts and save money. I think that as they continue to develop, digital technology will play a greater role, specifically for the poor in rural areas. Being able to transfer money through the help of texting and cell phones means that people don’t have to travel far distances to get money to or from others. Overall, I think microcredit and microfinance institutions are a beneficial tool that can provide more immediate, short term solutions for the poor.

Outside Sources:

https://cbl.org.lr/2content.php?sub=219&related=32&third=219&pg=sp&pt=CBL%20Maya%20Declaration

How does Liberia stack up?

Part I:

A)

                      220px-ellen_johnson_sirleaf_february_2015

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the 24th president of Liberia in 2005. She’s made history as the first elected female president, or even head of state, in the entire continent of Africa. Johnson Sirleaf got her start as the Minister of Finance for President William Tolbert, but had to leave the country after the 1980 coup d’état. She continued to have off-and-on involvement in Liberian government, effectively running and being nominated from 1985 to 2011. Johnson Sirleaf was unafraid to speak out against rigged and unfair elections, even turning down a seat in the Senate. In 2005, the Unity Party selected her to represent them in the presidential election. She ended up victorious, and even opted to run for a second term in 2011! Her campaign was rooted in the desire to reunite a long divided nation long plagued by civil war and unrest.Without a doubt, I consider Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a ‘cheetah’ for Liberia. From her very first term in office, she made it clear that she wanted to improve the state of human rights, as well as ease the tensions and divisions present in the country. In 2007, she made education free for all elementary school aged children through an executive order. She continued to make history with groundbreaking initiatives. In 2010, the Freedom of Information bill was signed by Sirfleaf, allowing both journalists and the public to access information from any person or party under government authority. She has also been a champion for women’s rights and movements for peace.

B)

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(Liberia’s score according to the Polity IV)

When it comes to the task of defining democracy, Steven Radelet first recognizes that there is no universally accepted definition of what democracy is. There is no clear cut way to categorize a country as democratic. As major elements, though, he highlights “popular sovereignty through either majority rule or representation, freedom of speech and the press, the rule of law, protection of minority rights, civil liberties and basic human rights, civilian control over the military, and systems for accountability and checks on power” (pg. 68). In chapter 3 of his, Emerging Africa, however, he indicates that there are a handful of internationally reputable indices and rankings of democracies that can be used to evaluate countries. Most notably, “Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index and the University of Maryland/George Mason University Polity IV Index of Political Regime Characteristics and Transition” (Pg. 68).  Each source focuses on components considered critical to a democracy, and measures how countries across the world stand up to these measures. For example, Freedom House uses a scale of 1-7, with scores of 2.5 or lower considered “free,” and scores of 5.5 or above “not free.” Radelet points out that using this scale, a score of 4 or under would be categorized as a democracy (pg. 69). He goes on to describe how the Polity IV index focuses on institutions and the process of elections along with other components related to “institutional measures of authority and governance” (pg. 69). This index uses a range from -10 to +10 to indicate whether or not a country is more autocratic or democratic. Radelet again indicates that for our purposes, a country with a score greater than 0 would be considered a democracy. I proceeded to explore how the country of Liberia ranked according to both Freedom House and the Polity IV. Freedom House issued a score of 61, indicating that it was a “Partly Free” nation. Its “Freedom Rating” was a 3.5, with a 3 for “Political Rights,” and a 4 for “Civil Liberties” (Freedom House). When I checked the Polity IV index, it showed that as of 2013, Liberia has a score of 6 (Systemic Peace.org). These scores demonstrate how Liberia has made strides in the right direction; combating its long history for civil strife and political division.

Part II:

Question C)

A prolonged period of civil war in Liberia catapulted the country backwards in terms of progress, especially compared to other countries. In terms of education, there has been an ongoing collaborative effort between Liberian government and international organizations to rebuild and improve the education system. Steps in the right direction include the aforementioned Education Reform Act, which President Johnson Sirleaf signed into law in 2011, to provide young children with free elementary education.One organization that has been working to improve education conditions in Liberia is USAID. The American organization strives for “improving the quality of teaching and learning, and increasing equitable access to safe learning opportunities for girls,” and other youth (USAID.gov). There is also a focus on improving higher education opportunities, and emphasizing the domains of engineering and agriculture, both disciplines that would contribute to development in Liberia (USAID.gov). While there is much work to be done, in terms of closing the gender gap and improving the quality of education, I think that Liberia is heading towards significant improvement.

 

Sources:

https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2016

https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2016

https://www.usaid.gov/liberia/education

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Johnson_Sirleaf

What’s Next for Africa?

Part I.

In his book, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way, Steven Radelet explores the major factors responsible for the continent’s strides towards progress. In my previous post, I discussed the five major factors that Radelet identified as signs of hope and signals of change in Africa. One of those critical components was a new wave of African idealists and leaders, a generation that Radelet believes will initiate the significant changes that have long been needed in the countries across the continent. These leaders are present in the realm of politics, business, civil rights, and bureaucracies. Coined by George Ayittey, the Ghanian scholar, “the Cheetah generation,” is a major point of discussion for Radelet (pg. 126). Rather than being characterized by the typical demographics of age, gender or ethnicity, this Cheetah generation is more so defined by a desire for change. He goes on to say, “they are Africa’s new generation, a nebulous yet palpable group across the continent that is seeking to redefine Africa through democracy, transparency, and a dynamic private sector, and by fostering strong connections with each other and with the rest of the world” (pg. 126). The desire to see concrete and meaningful change in Africa is what unites these thinkers and leaders, and Radelet believes that they are the key to progress. Their ideals are a stark contrast to those of the previous “hippo generation,” which Ayietty categorized as the slow-moving post-colonialist leaders who ruled with fear and clung to power (pg. 127) The “Cheetah generation” is concerned with “transparency, accountability, good governance, respect for basic human rights, and private sector economic opportunities (pg. 127). It’s these unique perspectives and initiatives that Africa has needed, but hasn’t seen. They are the future of Africa.

Part II.

Authors Banerjee and Duflo, in their acclaimed book Poor Economics, discuss the validity and prevalence of the nutrition-based poverty trap. Their main argument focuses on analyzes the habits and food consumption tendencies of the impoverished across the world. It is revealed that while yes, a poor person is defined as someone without the means to eat enough, that starvation is actually a result of food not effectively being shared across the world (pg. 26). The whole nutrition-based poverty trap theory is rooted in the belief that because the poor can’t afford to eat enough, they are then less productive and subsequently stay poor. However, when given the opportunity to purchase more food, and more nutritious food, the authors identified a surprising fact. The poor actually tend to spend that extra money on “better-tasting, more expensive,” food (pg. 23). They are making a conscious decision not to spend money on more nutritious food that would, ideally, make them better workers and help them out of poverty. But Banerjee and Duflo don’t believe that the solution lies in providing more food subsidies or more income to the poor. Rather, focusing on two key groups of the population, pregnant mothers and children, will vastly improve the outcomes in these impoverished nations. Unborn babies and young children would greatly benefit from better nutrition, and yield significantly higher incomes.

An interesting point that was brought up in the reading was the topic of witch hunts. I didn’t even realize that this was an event occurring in today’s world, but the reasons behind them were different than what we would think of when referring back to the Salem Witch trials. In impoverished nations, witch hunts commonly occur when resources are particularly scarce. It is seen as reasonable to sacrifice a few people so that the others have enough to eat, survive and produce (pg. 28). It is a notion that is hard to even consider occurring in a nation like the U.S., and was quite startling to me.

Part III.

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(After years of civil strife, the desire for peace in Liberia was at a high. Image from LiberianWomenDemonstrating.jpg)

The country of Liberia has long faced internal conflict concerning political stability and security. In 1989 began a drawn out civil war that had devastating impacts on the country, the collapsing of systems, and the abuse of human rights (UNDP). For years after, the country has faced political instability and uncertainty, struggling to recover its economy. The UN stepped in after multiple peace talks. Dubbed the United Nations Mission in Liberia, foreign assistance aimed to help stabilize the country and prepare it for better elections and aiding human rights (UNDP). Liberia elected its first ever woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who strived to reverse the country’s past and rebuild. The country has largely relied on foreign assistance to help quell the civil conflict as well as reboot the economy. While the country is rich in resources that signal potential for a better economy, its health system is not where it needs to be, and the country was hit by the Ebola Virus in 2014, which resulted in great loss of life (UNDP). While greatly impacted by the outbreak, overall, increasing political stability and competence, as well as cooperation with NGO’s and foreign aid, Liberia is making strides in the right direction to get its economy stronger and recover from the civil conflict that has plagued the country for years.

 

http://www.lr.undp.org/content/liberia/en/home/countryinfo/