Economic assistance alone won’t secure Tunisia’s transition

TUNISIA UGTTSince the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a debate has emerged in Washington concerning the focus on development assistance in response to citizen demands for economic advancement and more accountable governance, notes Scott Mastic, the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute. Advocates of economic assistance argue that popular demands for jobs and an improved quality of life is what drove citizens to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond; therefore, U.S. policy should prioritize programs supporting economic stability and growth, he writes for the Fikra Forum.

A new poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that Tunisian citizens directly tie perceptions of their economic situation to the political transition’s progress, revealing an important linkage between both factors. This data suggests that progress on the political track is crucial to effectively managing the public’s mood about the state of the economy. At the start of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, initial public euphoria was high with 79 percent indicating that the country was headed in the right direction. However, by October 2013, with little to show in the way of progress in the country’s political transition, that number flipped to 79 percent saying that Tunisia was moving in the wrong direction.

In this most recent poll, IRI’s first since Tunisia’s formation of a caretaker technocratic government and passage of a new constitution, numbers have again shifted toward the positive (right direction up 31 points). The key indicator that changed between the October 2013 and February 2014 surveys was future economic expectations. In asking people what they expect about their household financial situation in the next year, the February survey revealed a 18 point positive shift in the number of people saying that they expect it to get either somewhat better (37 to 51 percent) or much better (7 to 11 percent).

Trends in IRI polling data in Tunisia and elsewhere suggest that the immediate post-election period will see another positive leap in both public attitudes and expectations. The trends underscore the importance of a U.S. policy that provides economic assistance, but also one that helps the current government and next government achieve success by effectively managing expectations and delivering on core democratic governance principles……


Scott Mastic is the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.


To prevent another Rana Plaza, ‘build better societies, not just better factories’

bangladesh1-superJumboOn the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory’s collapse, rights groups noted that many survivors remain unable to work, and some have not yet received the compensation promised to them. Meanwhile, experts question the ability and will of the Bangladeshi government to extend labor protections to off-the-books factories and workshops, The Washington Post reports.

The tragedy is that countless people died even though both workers and management knew something was wrong, Rachael Meier writes for the Harvard Business Review blog:

Part of this has to do with what rights activists might refer to as a “lack of voice”: Bangladesh has notoriously hostile working conditions, perpetuated by low wages, a lack of unions, and a thick layer of government and local industry corruption — not to mention the complicity of global fast-fashion timelines that focus attention on cost and speed, which can come at the expense of basic rights and well-being of workers….. A World Bank study tells us that the cost of land in Dhaka, where hundreds of thousands of garment workers live, is comparable to suburban New York. And according to research by the Solidarity Center [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy], less than 1 percent of women in garment factories participate in worker associations in Bangladesh’s export zones.


Eastern Ukraine: ‘a new pawn in Putin’s dangerous game’

Putins-InterestThe wave of patriotic jingoism which Putin is riding is unprecedented in Russia’s post-Soviet history, writes Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI), an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies:

And yet, having unleashed the beast of 19th century-style politics of territorial expansion in the service of a unifying national narrative, Putin’s very survival depends on his ability to continue to feed it. Whether keeping this beast happy will involve gobbling up eastern Ukraine in the near future may not matter as much, considering that a dangerous precedent has already been set with Crimea, threatening to unravel the very fabric of the post-World War II order of international relations. And while the Kremlin likes to point to the US’ own adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria as having set that very precedent, they did not involve annexation of a sovereign country’s territory.

Russia may one day rue its Crimea adventure when, say, in 20 years, Beijing decides to send tanks across the border to Russia’s Far East, ostensibly to protect its Mandarin-speaking guest laborers there, who by then may number in the millions, he writes for Al-Jazeera.

In retrospect, the international compromise reached last week to calm tensions in eastern Ukraine seems like a vehicle for both sides to pursue their broader objectives, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia hasn’t abided by either the spirit or the letter of an agreement to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, and he warned that the U.S. is prepared to impose additional costs. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required: HT – FPI)  

The Ukrainian interim authorities said Thursday that “civilian activists” had regained control of City Hall in the southeastern city of Mariupol, forcing pro-Russian protesters to leave without bloodshed. – New York Times

Clashes between Ukrainian security forces, local protesters and pro-Russia activists spread across the region Thursday, with fighting at an arms depot, a city hall and at checkpoints near the restive city of Slovyansk, where the “people’s mayor” threatened to protect his men with hostages. – Washington Post  

The promised Ukrainian military effort to reassert control over the restive eastern part of the country barely registered on Wednesday, but the Geneva agreement to defuse the crisis in the country frayed even further as the United States and Russia exchanged warnings and accusations of meddling in the region. – New York Times  

Russian oil and gas company Gazprom has billed Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz $11.4 billion for not importing the full amount of natural gas under a 2013 supply contract, Gazprom’s deputy Chief Executive Alexander Medvedev said Thursday, Interfax news agency reported. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)  

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that it is “deeply concerned” about reports that Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky has been kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists in the Slaviansk city of eastern Ukraine. – Washington Times  

Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland are planning to band together and form a joint military brigade, according to local media reports. – Washington Times  

  The death of a pro-Ukraine activist adds to a growing file of vigilante “arrests” and disappearances of politicians, activists and journalists – blamed on armed separatists – as law and order erode, the civic fabric frays, and fear of violence grows in Ukraine’s east. – Financial Times  

Ukrainian confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko has a chance of winning the May 25 presidential election in the first round, an opinion poll indicated on Wednesday. – Reuters

Towards a Free Media in Vietnam?


Every single newspaper, radio station, and television broadcast in Vietnam is officially controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party or government. But thanks to social media and news outlets based outside the country, Vietnamese citizens are increasingly gaining access to independent sources of news.

Faced with a rapidly changing media landscape, Vietnam’s authorities rely on a combination of restrictive laws, Internet controls and outright repression to stifle the free flow of information. Vietnam is second in the world only to China in the number of jailed netizens. 

Given the economic impacts of a stifled Internet, online censorship is not only a human rights issue but increasingly a business issue. The business ramifications of Internet censorship have increasingly come to the forefront as the U.S. and Vietnamese governments negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

In marking World Press Freedom Day, join bloggers from Vietnam and other experts working to expand freedom of expression for a discussion on the challenges and opportunities in promoting a free media in Vietnam.

Confirmed speakers:

Vietnam-based bloggers and digital activists*

Le Thanh Tung (freelance journalist and digital activist)

Ngo Nhat Dang (freelance journalist and contributor to the BBC Vietnamese section)

Nguyen Dinh Ha (blogger and digital activist)

Nguyen Thi Kim Chi (actress, director and playwright)

To Oanh (blogger and former contributor to state-owned newspapers) 

Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Do Hoang Diem, Chairman, Viet Tan

Libby Liu, President, Radio Free Asia

Brett Solomon, Executive Director, Access

Meredith Whittaker, Program Manager, Google 

*Highlighting the challenges faced by Vietnam’s online community, Hanoi authorities blocked three of the invited activists from traveling: Pham Chi Dung, a writer and civil society advocate, had his passport arbitrarily confiscated in February and until now, has been banned from traveling; Nguyen Lan Thang, a blogger, was stopped at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport and prevented from boarding his flight on April 5; and Anna Huyen Trang, a citizen journalist for Vietnamese Redemptorists’ News, was stopped at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport on April 13 and physically harassed by security police.

Date and time: Thursday, May 1st Time: 12:00 – 2:00pm (lunch will be served from 12:00 – 12:30pm) Location: Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St NW (Suite 300), Washington, DC. RSVP

The US State Department is “deeply concerned” by the Vietnamese authorities’ decision to uphold the conviction of human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges. 

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.