Monthly Archives: December 2011

Global Diasporas Create Economic Prosperity

The book review in the Wall Street Journal this morning discusses the Robert Guest book, Borderless Economics, which details how global labor movement increases trade, informational flow, communication, and technology.  The topic of migration has been making the rounds, partly due to book reviews of Borderless Economics in all the major journals and magazines, but also because the time is right for a frank discussion about the realities of a global economy.

Develop Economies agrees with all of Guest’s points.  The economic benefits are vast.  With engineers and PhDs from abroad and a more nimble, low-cost workforce comprised of unskilled immigrant labor, the United States can compete for first place in the global economy.  Without it, we might be battling for second place.  But, in this post, I want to discuss the role of Diasporas in preventing conflict and promoting economic development.

The world would be a better place if international movement and migration were more fluid.  One of the reasons that Ghana is considered to be one of the successful democracies in Africa, while Kenya deals with upheavals every few years and corruption scandals every day, is that an internal diaspora through the country over the last half-century led to a blurring of tribal boundaries.  Both countries have dozens of tribes, each with its own language.  But, while Kenyans, as a generalization, maintain strong ties to their familial home and typically marry within the tribe, Ghanaians intermarry and bring the entire family with them when they move.  “That’s why we are so peaceful,” one coworker told me. “We all marry each other!” (This is also one reason why mobile money is pervasive in Kenya, but not Ghana – but that is for another post.)

Now imagine that dynamic on a global scale.  Heterogeneous and multi-ethnic societies are less likely to adopt a herd mentality, because cultural exchange promotes empathy.  This, to me, is why the United States is probably the most integrated and least bigoted country in the world (seriously).  I am always amazed when I come back to the U.S. and look around the airport to see people of every color speaking different languages.  And, from a numbers perspective, it makes sense:

Mr. Guest concludes with the argument that, thanks to America’s immigrants, the U.S. is likely to remain for decades the richest and most powerful nation in the world. America has the largest foreign-born population by far—an astonishing 43 million people, 10 million more than the entire population of Canada. China, by contrast, has a foreign-born population of less than one million.

From an economic standpoint, Diasporas create global trade networks that move money and products around the world for a fraction of the cost it might cost otherwise.  I saw it in the Philippines, where the richest family in the country is Chinese, and West Africa, where the Lebanese control rice importation, and in East Africa, where the Indians control just about everything.  With greater economic integration, the cost of conflict increases drastically for both nations.  Create enough cross-border migration and trade, and the lines begin to blur completely.

Infographic from the Economist

In the WSJ article, specifically, the author examines the point purely from an international development perspective.  The author, Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor of Reason magazine, discusses the economic benefits, compared with foreign aid:

Infographic from the New York Times

‘As a tool for spreading wealth, open borders make foreign aid look like a child’s lemonade stand,” writes Robert Guest, business editor of the Economist, in “Borderless Economics,” a rapid-fire case for the free movement of labor from one country to another. [Economist Lant] Pritchett found that if developed countries slightly liberalized their immigration laws and increased their work forces by a mere 3%, the gains in remittances and other benefits to developing countries would amount to more than $300 billion.

Put another way, a Salvadorean man with a high-school education needs only to come to the U.S. to increase his annual earning power more than eightfold, from $2,700 to $22,611—a figure, by the way, almost identical to the earning potential for Americans with the same level of education. Compare the $300 billion benefit with the $70 billion spent annually on foreign aid by developed countries, much of which ends up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt politicians.

Sing it from the rooftops

I couldn’t agree more.  But I do have to address one point at the end of the article, in which the author feels the need to take down microfinance:

It is galling to Mr. Guest that many well-meaning people are more invested in promoting ideas like Third World microcredit than in clamoring for easier immigration. Lant Pritchett, the former World Bank economist, shares Mr. Guest’s skepticism about the importance of the much ballyhooed microloans that help the world’s poorest people to buy livestock or open a small business. The concept was pioneered by Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Pritchett tells the author that the average gain for a Bangladeshi from a lifetime of these loans is about the same as the earnings from working just eight weeks in America. “If I get 3,000 Bangladeshi workers into the U.S.,” Mr. Pritchett wonders, “do I get the Nobel Peace Prize?” No, but with luck Mr. Guest’s argument in “Borderless Economics” will be rewarded with serious attention in the places that count.

This is unnecessary.  Whether or not that Bangladeshi will make more in those eight weeks is completely irrelevant if he never has the chance to go to the United States.  I think that all countries should have freer trade agreement, reduce tariffs, and eliminate ethanol and farm subsidies.  That would certainly be more effective than the most successful anti-poverty strategies in lifting hundreds of millions of people above the poverty line.  Unfortunately, it will never happen.  Because supporting the elimination of tariffs, like open borders, is political suicide.  And, like most policies supported by purist Libertarians, it will never happen.

So, in the meantime, microcredit is doing something to fill the gap.  I am sure that the Bangladeshi would prefer that to waiting for his visa to the United States to process.  If Pritchett can make that happen for even ten poor Bangladeshis, then he should get the Nobel Prize.

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How to Use Data to Better Serve the BoP Market

Develop Economies, age 42.

When I was a kid, my parents enrolled me in a program called “Science by Mail” through the Museum of Science in Boston.  The Museum would send me a kit.  Once I received a box containing balsa wood and glue with instructions to build a bridge that could hold as many pennies as possible.

Fast forward 20 years, and I am pretty much doing the same thing.  For the last two years, I have been working at different non-profits and companies, trying to figure out how to use data to maximize effectiveness.  While I think relying on data too heavily without taking into account externalities that make us human risks making bad decisions, I do believe that data is a powerful tool to make good decisions.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things I have learned about using data in the context of non-profit, social enterprise, and all other endeavors at the base of the economic pyramid.

1.  Choose a Problem-Solving Framework

McKinsey, the management consulting firm, has an approach to problem-solving called MECE.  It stands for “mutually-exclusive, completely exhaustive.” The idea is to first come up with a question you want to answer, and then deconstruct all of the elements of that question to its most fundamental elements.  Then, once you have those bite-sized questions, you approach answering them methodically.  This is particularly useful when you have a big data set and a wide scope of questions you could answer.

When I was trying to figure out how Bridge could expand our reach to as many students as possible, I started breaking the question down to its components.  How do get more students in school?  You can do it two ways: attract more students, retain the ones you have, or both.  I decided to focus on retention, since the data I had could more easily be used to answer that question.  I broke off a sub-question – why do students leave?  Well, that can be broken off into preventable reasons – poor quality education, parent preference – and non-preventable ones – money, moving upcountry, etc.  You can continue breaking these questions down to make your analysis more manageable.

The visual representation of this process is a decision tree, which is typically used when you have a series of binary, fork-in-the-road decisions.  There are other ways of looking at problems – scenario analysis, etc.  Breaking down complex problems this way is an easy way to make these questions a lot more manageable.

2.  Start with what you want to know

Sometimes, you don’t have enough data.  Sometimes, you have too much data.  Believe it or not, the latter can sometimes cause more problems than the former.  A couple months ago, the World Bank and the Kenyan government launched “Open Kenya,” an online database containing every bit of government data that could be digitized.  As the first African government to open its data to the public, Kenya was considered to be at the vanguard.  And, working at the iHub, I had good fortune of seeing the World Bank’s “Open Data Evangelist,” Tariq Khokar, speak to software developers about how to use this Open Data website for good.

He cautioned the group of mostly researchers and developers about a problem that many people who love data don’t often think about: what to do when you have too much data.  You can easily get lost if you try to boil the ocean.  One approach is to look at the data, see what you have, and decide which questions you want to answer.  Another, more enlightened approach, according to Tariq, is to step back, think about what you want to do, then seek out the data you need.

This is good advice.  Data can’t tell you everything.  But it can tell you how to optimize a process, think about the most lucrative market, the most cost-effective way of doing things, etc.  This is particularly important when you are trying to balance two dimensions of creating products and services for the base of the pyramid market: affordability and quality/utility.  There is a point where these two lines cross – the maximum people will pay for a certain value – that can be identified by taking a look at the data.

3.  Take It With a Grain of Salt

The current financial crisis has at least some of its roots in financial engineering, also known as computation finance, which tries to “precisely determine the financial risk that certain financial instruments create.” The problem with this goal, of course, is that it is completely impossible.  What distinguishes human beings – sentient beings with feelings and emotions – from, say, gravity, is that sometimes we behave irrationally.  What you end up with are a bunch of mortgage-backed securities and derivatives with AAA ratings from Moody’s and Standard & Poors that become collectively known as “toxic assets.”  Another case of when keeping it real with data goes wrong.

My point is that data can only tell you so much.  I happen to rely on it quite a bit in my job, but I know that, to understand the nuance behind the data, I need to speak with people who understand what is happening on the ground.  Parents living in the slums and earning $60 a month have a much different idea of what “quality” means than a parent living in a posh suburb of Nairobi.  And, even more importantly, parents living in Baba Dogo (a slum in Nairobi) have a different concept of quality than those in Mathare (another slum in Nairobi).  Unless you understand what motivates those parents to make education decisions and ask them why they choose to send their students to one school over another, your data will be useless.

These are three things to consider when thinking about how to use data in running your social enterprise or non-profit.  Go to work.

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Please Help: Tragedy in the Philippines

Tragedy has struck the Philippines, my adopted second home.  From NPR:

The United Nations is rushing food, shelter and clean water to the Philippines, following last weekend’s devastating tropical storm. The UN estimates about 1,000 people died when Tropical Storm Washi burst ashore last Friday on the big southern island of Mindanao.

Washi, known as Sendong in the Philippines, may be the world’sdeadliest storm of 2011, according to Washington Postmeteorologist Jason Samenow. The system raked the southern Philippines islands, finally emerging in the South China Sea, where it lost strength.

Philippines president Benigno Aquino declared a state of calamity and ordered coffins sent to the two cities worst affected by the storm, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro City. AP reports he’ll order an investigation to find why more people didn’t seek higher ground and the reason for the high death toll. While visiting Cagayan de Oro, he said “Our national government will do its best to prevent a repeat of this tragedy.”

Victims need the aid. According to Mindanao News, survivors in Cagayan de Oro City should look for missing relatives in the city’s dump, where dozens of bodies have been left because local funeral parlors don’t have enough coffins or embalming fluid.

Please consider making a donation to the Philippine Red Cross or Gawad Kalinga, both reputable charities providing support to the affected areas.

The U.S. Must Pay Its Debts to Its Iraqi Allies

An Iraqi translator working in Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2007. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from Sushmita Meka, a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  Previously, she worked as a research associate for the Centre for Microfinance at IMFR in Chennai, India and a fellow with FrontlineSMS:Credit in Nairobi, Kenya.

It’s strange to think that the end of the Iraq war has come and gone so quietly, eight years after the fact. At a cost of $800 billion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, this chapter has closed with little fanfare and muted tribute to those who have died and whose lives have been immutably changed.

Among those whose lives have been permanently altered are the unsung and largely abandoned heroes that supported our every move in the war. Without them to navigate this new physical and social landscape, our soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers would have been completely at a loss. These are the translators, the fixers, and the drivers that risked the additional burden of being deemed aameel—collaborators, agents, traitors—at home to support the American effort.

I first became aware of their plight in 2007 when George Packer of the New Yorker wrote at length about our betrayal.

But the mostly young men and women who embraced America’s project so enthusiastically that they were prepared to risk their lives for it may constitute Iraq’s smallest minority. I came across them in every city: the young man in Mosul who loved Metallica and signed up to be a translator at a U.S. Army base; the DVD salesman in Najaf whose plans to study medicine were crushed by Baath Party favoritism, and who offered his services to the first American Humvee that entered his city. They had learned English from American movies and music, and from listening secretly to the BBC….The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America’s failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.

These are the Iraqis who lived surreptitious lives to aid this cause and gave their lives more often than should ever have been tolerated. Five years later, America’s failure to grant refugee status to these men, women, and their families (numbered at over 100,000), even as we have pulled out our last troops, is indefensible. Five years later, and these words still ring prophetic:

America is pulling away from Iraq in the fitful, irritable manner of someone trying to wake up from an unpleasant sleep. On my last day in Baghdad, I had lunch with an Embassy official, and as we were leaving the restaurant he suddenly said, “Do you think this is all going to seem like a dream? Is it just going to be a fever dream that we’ll wake up from and say, ‘We got into this crazy war, but now it’s over and we never have to think about Iraq again’?” If so, part of our legacy will be thousands of Iraqis who, because they joined the American effort, can no longer live in their own country.

In 2007, after this article was published, there was a semblance of hope. Thanks to George Packer and Kirk Johnson of the List Project, Congress realized its folly and passed legislation allowing for the safe entry of 25,000 American-affiliated Iraqis over the following five years via special immigrant visa status. Those that had loyally served the U.S. for at least one year and that faced an imminent threat on account of their service were deemed eligible. Unfortunately, to date, at most just over 5,000 have been granted.

This is due not to a lack of perseverance on the Iraqi side but rather to an arcane labyrinth of bureaucratic procedures that these individuals are forced to navigate (including sending petition forms from Iraq to Nebraska). As a result, processing takes up to two years and requires multiple security checks (including a last-minute check before departure if one were to get that far).

As we pull out of Iraq, these lives are in even graver danger. Militias are known to have lists of individuals who served the American army, lists that are being used to coordinate assassinations. Repeatedly, those identified as assisting the occupier have been systematically targeted—in Vietnam upon our withdrawal, in Iraq as the British left, and even on our own soil following the American Revolution.

It’s not enough to leave these individuals to fend for themselves—to abandon them now would be no less than murder when there are viable options. For one, Iraqis at risk can be airlifted to Guam to await further processing—this is an option that has been exercised multiple times in the past and for which there is political support inside of Guam.

If you are still not compelled to act, read this. If you are, you can write or better yet call your Congressperson and/or representatives on the Committee on Foreign Relations to signal your concern. Please tell your friends, family members, colleagues, etc. to do the same.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on honoring our debts.  For the sake of the thousands of Iraqis and their families whose lives are now in danger, I hope we live up to our creed.

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Wal-Mart (Does Not) Come to India

There is a fierce debate going on right now in India about a new piece of legislation that that will allow multi-national corporations to operate as joint ventures in the country, owning up to 51%.  And a week ago, the Indian government backtracked and announced that it would not pass the legislation after all.  It is worth examining the potential pros and cons.

There has been no shortage of voices from the left and right commenting about whether or not this is a good thing.

On the one hand, there is no question that everything, from food to clothing, will be cheaper as a result of companies like Wal-Mart entering the country.  Huge multi-nationals have the economies of scale and capital to invest in efficient end-to-end supply chains that ensure that the crops don’t rot on their way to point-of-sale.  In the existing system, middlemen – also called traders, “market ladies,” or aggregators – insert themselves into the inefficient supply chains and take a piece of the margin, which is ultimately passed onto the consumer.  So the advent of a retail giant like Wal-Mart, which has the scale to develop large-scale commercial farms and negotiate with farmers’ cooperatives to fund the harvest in exchange for the yield will be a good thing.

Productivity will undoubtedly increase as farmers invest in fertilizer, irrigation, and good agricultural practices (GAPs).  The cost of food will decline across the country and fewer people will go hungry.  Inefficient farmers may end up going under as larger farms become more dominant, but they – along with everyone else in the country – will be paying less for food as a result of this increased productivity.

The American Enterprise Institute details other advantages to farmers:

Farmers, who comprise 60% of India’s workforce, could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Wal-Mart and other large retail chains entering India. Currently, farmers depend on the traders at the local warehouses to sell their produce. Adding an additional competitor, particularly one that will value quality and will have the ability to pay more in the absence of middlemen, will help farmers get better deals.

While farmers get only a fraction of what their produce sells for on the market, consumers end up paying unnecessarily high prices and have limited choice because of the middleman’s cut and the fact that 40% of India’s fruits and vegetables are lost each year to wastage. Retailers like Wal-Mart will cut out middlemen and create modern cold storage systems and supply chains for produce that will help check India’s double-digit inflation.

Critics of the legislation feel that the introduction of massive big-box retailers will eliminate a source of employment for the millions small business-owners who sell fruits and vegetables at independent shops called Kiranas.  But Rupa Subramanya of the Wall Street Journal explains why this fear may actually be unjustified:

The principal fear in India regarding the potential entry of Wal-Mart is that it will wipe out the “kirana” stores, the Indian equivalent of “mom-and-pop” stores in the U.S.  An estimated 33 million people or 7.3% of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganized retail sector, which includes the kirana stores, and only 5% of the retail sector is organized.

So are these fears well-founded? Research suggests, probably not.

A much cited study by the Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations looks at the effect organized retailing has on the unorganized retail sector. It shows that, on average, when an organized retailer opens, the kirana stores nearby generally lose about 23% of their sales in the first year, but are back at their original sales figures within five years.  About 1.7% close down every year, but, even in the medium to long run, traditional retailers will still control 85% of the market, according to the study.

This is a difficult question, but I find myself siding with the laissez-faire crowd on this one.  I have seen firsthand the inefficiencies of a highly distributed agriculture sector that lacks large retailers.  I have seen the lack of investment in productivity and the crops rotting in the markets.  Consolidation, within reason, is a good thing because it creates economies of scale where there are none.  And, in the end, most of the country ends up ahead.

Unfortunately, the Indian government caved to popular sentiment and backtracked.  In an article titled “Wal-Mart’s India Delay Means Politics ‘Killing Farmers'”, the impact is discussed:

The global chains were likely to invest in trucking and distribution systems in India, where government estimates show 40 percent of fruit and vegetables rot before being sold because of the lack of cold-storage facilities and poor transport infrastructure. Farmers will have “assured business” if foreign companies were allowed to invest in multibrand retail, said Pratichee Kapoor, associate director for retail at Technopak Advisors Pvt.

India reversed its decision amid protests by the opposition and its allies that had forced repeated adjournments of parliament. Opposition parties argued that the move would wipe out the jobs of small shopkeepers, who dominate the country’s retail sector.

Rajan Bharti Mittal, managing director of Wal-Mart’s wholesale partner Bharti Enterprises, in a statement yesterday called the government’s reversal an “unfortunate” decision. The policy change would have brought “farmers better realization for their produce as well as better prices for the consumer,” he said.

It is a shame.  But I suspect we will see this change sometime in 2012.  If India is to truly be a global power, it needs to not only modernize its food production and distribution, but also provide a modicum of confidence for foreign investors.  But we will see.

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Preventing the Next Pandemic with Cell Phones

Human biologist Nathan Wolf with a Cameroonian hunter.

Much is known about patient zero, allegedly the first carrier of HIV and catalyst for one of the greatest pandemics the world has ever known.  But the origins of the virus can be traced much further back than that.  The roots of the virus that has plagued humanity for the last three decades snake from the United States, through Haiti, and back to Africa, where all life began.

A recent Radiolab show titled “Patient Zero” traces the virus from the French-Canadian steward who recklessly spread the virus through the gay community in the early 80’s through an evolutionary timeline that begins in a 100 square-mile patch of jungle between three rivers in the southeastern part of Cameroon.  There, Colobus monkeys carrying variants of SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) found their way into the stomachs of much larger chimpanzees.  At some point, multiple strains of these SIVs crossed and mutated and became the virus that was the precursor to HIV.

According to the “cut hunter” theory, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, a Bantu man living in this region of Cameroon killed a chimpanzee for food.  While gutting and cleaning the chimp, the hunter nicks himself with his blade and comes into contact with the infected chimp’s blood, transferring the SIV virus into the man.  SIV becomes HIV and, just like that, the human immunodeficiency virus is born.

Now that the virus exists, it begins its long journey into bloodstreams of 60 million people.  It is impossible to know exactly how it happened – perhaps the hunter infected a prostitute, who in turn infected a fisherman.  Because this region is located along two major rivers that feed down into what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fisherman may have traveled downstream to Brazzaville, Kinshasa, or one of the many other urban centers that were sprouting up across the Belgian Congo and the rest of colonial Africa.  And from here, HIV exploded.

The story is fascinating and I recommend listening to the Radiolab episode in its entirety.  But one of the things I found most interesting is the way scientists and public health researchers are now using this information to prevent this from ever happening again.  As the Radiolab hosts point out, it took 75 years – 1908 to 1981 – before HIV hit the mainstream in a big way.  What if we had been looking for it all that time?

That is precisely what we are doing now.  The remote communities where HIV entered this world are often only accessible by plane.  With few roads, they are isolated from the world.  Yet, as the most recent Economist points out in its lead article, “Africa Rising,” there are 600 million mobile phone users in Africa – more than half the population.  As I have written about extensively in this blog, technology has adapted to suit the specific conditions of Africa.  Mobile banking, for example, allows people to access cash in places with no banks.  This same dynamic makes it possible to pinpoint the start of a potential epidemic before it has a chance to leave the community where it began.

HIV Researcher Nathan Wolf actually traced the path of the virus from Cameroon down the river to the cities of the Congo.  He understands firsthand the circuitous path a virus can take before it reaches the tipping point.  To identify future outbreaks, he and his colleagues have set up monitoring stations to track “viral chatter” across Central Africa.   He identifies where an immunodeficiency virus makes the jump from chimpanzee to human hunters.  And the way he finds them is fascinating.

In the DRC, for example, communities with no roads still have cell phone towers.  So Nathan and his team actually track cell phone patterns in rural communities.  When a flurry of calls is made to a local medical center or clinic in a short period of time, it raises a red flag.  The researchers swoop in to identify the cause and take samples to study the new virus.  This is how we stop a virus before it spreads throughout the world.

A few months ago, Kentaro Toyama, a pre-eminent thinker in the ICT4D (information, communications, and technology for development) gave a talk at the iHub, the shared workspace I frequented while in Nairobi.  He spoke about how it is impossible to get rich running a socially-focused technology business – a “social enterprise.”  After the talk, I asked him what he thought about Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-British founder of Celtel, the first telecom in Africa and the man who literally created the mobile telecom market in Africa out of nothing.  Surely, this is a man who has changed the world in a positive way and become massively rich in the process.  Toyama disagreed with me, saying the telecoms are explicitly profit-oriented.  But I still disagree, and stories like this reinforce my view.

A decade ago, we could have never tracked the spread of disease the way we can today with the aid of cell phones.  What Wolf and his team are doing is nothing short of amazing, and it has been enabled by creating a communication network that extends to even the most remote communities around the world.

With biological terrors like multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and malaria still ravaging parts of the world, humans still have their hands full with disease.  But, thanks to cell phones in Africa, we might never see another HIV again.

The Strategic Value of Burma

Myanmar’s state newspapers ran commentary warning Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition democracy movement, that her continued political activity is unlawful and that her plan to tour the country could provoke chaos. The last time she toured the countryside her motorcade was attacked by a mob, apparently aligned with the government. Miss Suu Kyi was blamed for that incident.

This quote comes from the “World this Week” section of the Economist from July 2nd, 2011, a little more than five months ago.  In the interim, the government of Myanmar has undergone a series of reforms, including de-criminalizing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and releasing 200 out of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners.  The progress is welcome, but why the sudden change of heart?

There are a lot of possible answers to that question and no shortage of speculation.  Secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently visited Suu Kyi and the head of the new civilian government, Thein Sein, in the first diplomatic visit by the country’s chief diplomat in more than a half-century.  Clearly, the United States has an interest in extending its hand to the country.  Given its strategic location right between two of the four BRIC countries (India and China) and its abundance of natural resources, including natural gas and oil, Burma is going to only become more important, strategically, over the next few decades.  I wrote extensively about this in a previous post titled “How Burma Will Modernize.”

Another possible explanation is that Burma is just one of several hard-line regimes around the world that are opening up to Obama’s conciliatory overtures to allow dictators to escape with their lives and treasure.  In an article titled “Pragmatism Drives Burma Reform,” the Bangkok Post writes:

If credit is due for reshaping the mindset of Burma’s leaders, then no small part of it should go to President Barack Obama who a short time after he was elected president in 2009 said to despotic regimes around the globe the US was willing to extend a hand if ”you are willing to unclench your first”. According to US diplomatic cables this struck a chord with the junta’s generals who were already laying down a ”roadmap to democracy” which resulted in last year’s election, the first in two decades which was criticised by some as a show to legitimise the generals’ shift to civilian rule. The US diplomatic cable from April 2009 said conversations with the generals indicated they wanted; an ”escape strategy”, the lifting of sanctions and to be accorded the respect shown to other world leaders. They were also seeking assurances that the older generals, after voluntarily ceding power, would not be stripped of their assets and face prosecution.

This, to me, seems reasonable.  Obama may be having some trouble on the domestic front, but his foreign policy is undeniably one of the best in recent memory.  This is a corollary of his strategy of “leading from behind” – instead of forcing enemies into submission, use a combination of hard and soft power and reconciliation to entice leaders into reform.  Harsh economic sanctions took a toll on Burma at the same time the Burmese government and people were feeling the imposing hand of China securing resources in their country.  By voluntarily issuing a series of political reforms, which will hopefully be followed by more, the Burmese government starts to become an ally of the United States – something that we wanted all along, given its strategic location next to China and the fact that the winds of change are increasingly blowing to the east.

This is a good example of how a smart foreign policy achieves its goals without trying to force change.  Creating a scenario in which we coax and welcome change, and set the conditions for its genesis, has given us Libya, Egypt, and now Burma.  Conversely, trying to create those conditions by force – eliminating the government and rebuilding the nation – has given us Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is why Obama’s foreign policy has been so successful. Clearly, his biggest challenge in the next four years (insha’Allah) will be Pakistan, followed by Yemen and Somalia – all borderline failed states with weak or non-existent governments, Islamic extremism, and a shared hatred of the United States.  If Obama can bring reconciliation and development to those countries, he might just have the best foreign policy of any modern president.

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