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Afghanistan's Mineral Wealth: An End to Problems, or the Beginning of New Ones?

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on the earth, where the income per capita is only $446 per year. So when the US Department of Defense announced that Afghanistan may be holding more than a trillion dollars of mineral wealth under its soil, the future prospects of Afghanistan suddenly seemed a little brighter.  Some have even stated that Afghanistan could be the Saudi Arabia of minerals.

Great news, right? Not necessarily. First and foremost, Afghanistan will have to stabilize to even attract foreign investors. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Afghanistan, with a population of 27.2 million people, saw $300 million in foreign direct investment in 2008. That might sound like a lot, but Trinidad and Tobago, a much smaller country of only 1.3 million  inhabitants attracted over $3 billion in that same year. Even if foreign countries and businesses eventually decide to heavily invest in Afghanistan (and that’s a big if) some examples from around the world show that an abundance of natural resources can create a lot of problems. These problems are often referred to as “the resource curse”. Nowhere is the resource curse more evident than in Africa.

Nigeria’s resource curse is synonymous with its oil problems. Nigeria’s political instability and history of systematic corruption has left much of its oil wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. Rather than being a force for development throughout the country, Nigeria’s oil wealth has far too often fallen prey to government mismanagement or worse - outright graft. Corruption isn’t Nigeria’s only oil problem. Rebel groups in the oil rich Niger River Delta resent both the government and foreign oil companies who ignore the environmental and social problems that come with drilling. Throughout the years, these rebel groups have kidnapped foreign oil workers, and attacked oil rigs making investment by foreign countries less attractive.


Elsewhere on the continent, the mining of diamonds have fueled deadly conflicts and activities of warlords throughout Africa. Charles Taylor, who faces charges of war crimes at The Hague, used diamond exports to fund his support of insurgency groups in Sierra Leone while he was the president of Liberia. Thankfully, the practice appears to be on the decline due to sanctions by the UN, increased international visibility, and a conflict-free diamond certification process.

While these problems may sound unique to a continent continually ravaged by war and prone to corruption, they also exist in abundance in Afghanistan. It’s not hard to imagine mineral wealth squandered by an already corrupt Afghan government. It’s equally easy to see a future in which minerals are used to fund tribal conflicts or even aid terror groups. It would be wonderful to believe that mineral wealth could create jobs, raise the standard of living, and solve many of Afghanistan’s problems. But in its current state, it may be more likely that the minerals would just create new ones.



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Exercises in Futility: Dress Codes in Iran and France

On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker talks about the evolving world of Islamic fashion. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!

When I was studying in France a few years ago, I taught at a high school in a largely Muslim suburb. One of the most profound rituals of daily life at Voillaume high school happened during the few minutes immediately before and after the school day. Many Muslim girls would arrive at the school gate wearing the traditional Islamic head covering called the hijab, (Arabic for “scarf”). Seconds before entering the gate, they would whip off their hijabs, and they would just as rapidly reapply them as they exited through the gate when the school day ended. The speed and grace with which these girls would take off and put on their hijabs, within feet of the school entrance, fascinated me.

But, why did they have to take them off? Because restrictions passed in 2004 disallow religious head coverings in public schools in France. The French government argues that the wearing of hijabs in public schools is an affront to the concept of “laïcité,” and threatens secular government. The vast majority of Muslim youth I encountered in France, many recent immigrants, cherished the personal liberties that France gave them. In fact, students I spoke with who objected to the policy didn’t frame the headscarf controversy in terms of the government suppressing Islam, but rather as a kind of hypocrisy - the French government limiting the same personal freedoms it claimed to defend.

Nonetheless, they understood the secular nature of the French government and would find the idea of replacing it with an Islamic version as preposterous. Compare this to Iran, where the hijab is compulsory. A new generation of Iranians wants increased freedom from a stifling dress code that has been in place since the Islamic revolution. Simply put, many young women in Iran are sick of religious modesty laws and other limitations on their personal freedoms. Some women are fighting the dress code by following it to the bare minimum. As opposed to wearing the chador – a traditional loose garment covering the entire body (and still worn by Iran’s most religious women), many young Iranian women have adopted modifications that comply with the law but allow a degree of fashion and mobility. These modifications include jackets that sufficiently cover the body but are form fitting and stylish. Some wear hijabs in bright, lively colors instead of traditionally modest monotones. An Iranian journalist who has worked for increased rights for women in Iran, responded to these newer fashions by saying, "It signals that we obey the law, but nothing more than that." 

The objectives of women who want to wear hijab in France, and those who would like to moderate it in Iran, are different. But the desire to have freedom to dress as one sees fit is essentially the same. When governments mandate how people can and can’t dress, they aren’t just trying to control what people wear, but how they feel. But does the Iranian government really think that easing restrictions on Islamic dress would instantaneously lead to a rise of Paris Hilton clones, promiscuous activity and the forsaking of Islam? Does the French administration really believe that allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab will lead to a sort of “Franganistan,” where women lose all rights and Islam replaces secular governance?

The fact that many French girls reapply the hijab as soon as they leave the gates of school, and that many Iranian women see modesty laws not as a symbol of their relationship with God but as an imposed annoyance, shows the ultimate failure of the social engineering schemes in these two countries. While governments can dictate how people dress, they ultimately can’t change how people feel.



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10 Bright Spots in a Pretty Bad Year

In this week’s special edition of Global Pulse, host Erin Coker reviews 2009 news stories that will matter in 2010. Watch the episode, and share your thoughts, below!


Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an upsurge in violence in Pakistan, Iran’s political upheaval and the global financial crisis, 2009 has been tumultuous to say the least. Even for someone immersed in global media, it was difficult at times not to hit the cheap (and the not-so-cheap) wine just to get through the daily barrage of bleak news.


Which is why I took it upon myself to drum up 10 of the year’s more positive stories. Some were widely reported, others warranted only a fleeting mention, but all stand out as bright spots on an otherwise challenging year. A good reminder that even in the darkest of times, a silver lining can be found if you look hard enough. I’ll drink to that!

1. A Different Kind of Hotel Rwanda
Following the instability and brutal civil war that plagued the central-African nation in the late-1990s, tourists are returning to the country to marvel at its mountain gorillas and lush landscapes. Tourism revenues rise 11 percent in the first quarter of 2009, compared to the same period last year. Even better, the Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World announces that Rwanda is officially “landmine free” – a distinction that is doubtless welcomed by tourists and residents alike.


2. Afghanistan and Pakistan Get More Schools
Non-profit activist Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), continue to build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in Taliban areas. Because CAI schools rely heavily on community involvement, militant groups have largely avoided destroying or damaging what are perceived as locally-backed projects.  To date, the CAI has built 130 schools in the two countries. To learn more about CAI or to get involved, visit


3. Aceh Rebuilt
Five years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated communities in Aceh, Indonesia, rebuilding efforts in the hardest-hit province are wrapping up. In November, aid group CRS announces that it has met its reconstruction goals in Aceh.


4. Karadzic Faces the International Criminal Court. Sort of.
Although the alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal boycotts the opening of his trial, claiming that he did not have sufficient time to examine the evidence against him – 10 years on the lam wasn’t enough time? – Radovan Karadzic does appear in court on November 3. The trial is expected to resume in March of next year.


5. Kidnapped Aid Workers Released
After being seized by Somali gunmen in Kenya, three aid workers with Action Against Hunger are released three months later. In a similar bit of good news, assailants also free kidnapped aid workers snatched in Sudan’s Darfur region.


6. U.N. Demands Halt to Rape as War Weapon
Unanimously voted in, resolution 1888 reflects the 15-member body's "demand for the complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence with immediate effect." Plans are in the works to create a special U.N. post to front the effort.


7. Detained Journalists Freed in Iran, Iranian Writers Honored
Following domestic and international protests, jailed U.S./Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi is released from a Tehran prison. Saberi had been originally sentenced to eight years in prison for “having collaborated with a hostile state.” Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari is also released after being held for nearly four months following Iran’s June elections. In November, Human Rights Watch honors four Iranian writers with prestigious Hellman/Hammett awards for their courage in the face of political persecution.


8. Latin America Takes Steps Towards Equality
Mexico City backs a gay marriage bill, making the city the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. In another first, Uruguay passes a same-sex adoption bill, granting same-sex couples the right to adopt children.


9. Zimbabwe Slowly (Very Slowly) Improving
Following political instability, runaway inflation and a devastating cholera outbreak, Zimbabwe is making some inroads to recovery. HIV prevalence rates continue to fall and inflation is dropping. After months of fruitless negotiations, Zimbabwe’s rival leaders reach an agreement on commissions for human rights, election and the media, possibly putting an end to ongoing political deadlock.


10. Child Brides Take a Stand
A Saudi court rules in favor of an 8-year-old girl seeking to divorce her 47-year-old husband. Soon after the decision, the Saudi justice minister announces plans to enact a law protecting young girls from marriages. In rural India, young girls follow the lead of Rekha Kalini, who attracted widespread attention after refusing a forced marriage.


For more news highlights from 2009, catch the Global Pulse year-end special Once and Future News 2009-2010.


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Opposition Detainee Abuse and Iran's Power Struggle

For this week's Global Pulse episode, Iran’s Power Players, host Erin Coker asks the question: Are Khamenei and Ahmadinejad playing "good cop, bad cop"? Share your thoughts below!

In the nearly three months since Iran's disputed election and the massive street protests that followed, global media have turned their attention to the internal factional bickering within Iran's ruling party. Allegations of detainee abuse have created further fissures within Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative government, with the country's leadership offering conflicting responses to the allegations.

Reacting to claims made by opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi of detainee torture and sexual abuse, Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani vehemently dismissed the allegations as "sheer lies," according to a CNN report. Larijani's remarks contradicted police and judiciary officials who acknowledged detainee abuse at the now-shuttered Kahrizak prison and promised to investigate the claims. According to The Guardian, an unnamed Iranian MP said he had proof of the abuse, further contradicting Larijani.

As this week's episode points out, Ahmadinejad and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have also appeared at odds over abuse allegations. According to a report that ran on the state-controlled Press TV website on August 28th, Ahmadinejad blamed the abuse on an enemy plot, saying that he had evidence which "exonerated revolutionary, military, security and intelligence forces." But three days later, following a report that the detained son of a conservative political advisor had died as a result of abuse, the BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamenei promised the young man's father that those responsible would be brought to justice.

The confusing signals reflect factional struggles at the highest levels of government, which can only be aggravated by the Iranian blogosphere's relentless pursuit of allegations of torture, sexual abuse and killings of detained protesters, often through chilling personal accounts. On September 2, the independent Radio Zamanah’s website reported that a rape victim and key witness in the case had disappeared. Mentions of the story surfaced several times throughout the day on the microblogging site Twitter, alongside posts like "Regime, No matter how many you execute, torture, or rape. We will never stop. We will never give up on our right to freedom," and, "Saeedeh's body was burned & almost unrecognizable (note that she was arrested from her house, so burning was deliberate)."

Even after the dust has settled on the present internal political struggle, it may take more than damage control to bridge the divisions between the Iranian government and its people.



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From Indifference to Hope: My prayer for Iran.

Almost two weeks after the heavily disputed Iranian elections, the question still remains: Was the election rigged? According to the Guardian Council’s spokesman, Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, “[There were] No major irregularities in Iran's election,” yet they have requested a 5 day extension to continue their investigations. Meanwhile on the streets of Tehran, people continue demonstrating and get beaten and killed as a result, as a report from McClatchy News describes.

My name is Shams, a pseudonym. My parents are from Iran and Pakistan and I was born in the U.S. I grew up in all three countries and speak all three languages fluently. I spent my teenage years growing up and attending school in Tehran. I have been living in the U.S. for the last 9 years. As I watch events unfold in Iran, I can’t help but feel a mixture of guilt, rage, excitement and reservation. On one hand, after having lived under the Islamic Regime and experiencing the oppression first-hand, I know how exciting and incredible these demonstrations are and how much hope they are eliciting worldwide. Yet, on the other hand, I have strong reservations and doubts about what the Iranian government wants the world to know or see and what is actually happening behind closed doors.

Chaos has been allowed to erupt in Iran because the rulers are divided. On closer observation, there is a lot happening in the leading ranks. Clerics, parliament members and other civil servants have been voicing concerns over the elections and the violence that has ensued in opposition to the results. Ahmadinejad, supported by Iran’s Supreme Leader, is seen in this video, meeting with clerics and talking about a change that will take away the right to vote. While Rafsanjani, his main rival and head of the Assembly of Experts, held an emergency meeting with the same body to discuss post-election matters. This body also has the constitutional power to depose the Supreme Leader. According to the Huffington Post, Rafsanjani’s meeting was seen as a possible threat to the current government and brought about the immediate arrest of his relatives as “a clear warning from the hard-line establishment to a cleric who may be aligning himself with the opposition.”

When I lived in Iran, life was normal in the most basic sense of the word. We had our parties, met with boys, ate, drank and made merry, but all out of sight of the authorities. Yet, we wanted more. We wanted the chance to voice our opinions without being arrested or shut down. We wanted the ability to walk down the street without being persecuted for what we were wearing or not wearing. We wanted to listen to music and show our art publicly, even if it had controversial subjects. But we were too afraid. We were afraid of all that we heard from those who had gotten arrested and beaten for speaking out, wearing what they wanted to, or listening to loud rock music…

I returned to visit in 2005, when Ahmadinejad had just won the elections, and what I saw was very disheartening. I saw a population of young and talented people wasting away by means of drugs, alcohol and a general sense of indifference. No one was concerned about rights or freedoms; they just wanted to escape reality.

At this pivotal moment in history, I watch the demonstrations and masses of people all over the country pouring into the streets, speaking their minds and standing together, with tears in my eyes. It has made me wildly joyful and filled with hope to know that those same indifferent people from a few years ago are rising up to the challenge of fighting for what they want: freedom.

So, what will become of my people and country? All I can do is pray that none of the lives that have been lost, the suffering or the anguish experienced is in vain, and that whatever change takes place is for the best and is defined by the people.


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