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October 16, 2008
Muslim schools seesaw between image and reality

Children at the Ulug Beg Madrasah in Uzbekistan.

Muslim religious schools, madrasses, have received negative press in the Western world. Colin Powell denounced the schools as breeding grounds for “fundamentalists and terrorists.” Rumors questioning Barack Obama’s childhood schooling in a Muslim madrassa surfaced during the U.S. presidential campaign.

But as Robin Bush writes, madrassas often suffer similar challenges as do many American schools — a lack of funding and quality educators. Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Indonesia and contributes to their blog, “In Asia.” She writes about the opportunities that madrassas provide and the challenges that these schools face.

Islamic Education as a Vehicle for Human Development

“Human Development” as a concept stands at the center of a vast array of development funding and policy initiatives – and in its broadest sense encompasses indicators of life expectancy, education, gross national product etc.., as well as environmental quality, effective governance, and freedom.  For a full elaboration I refer you to the excellent discussion paper on this topic produced by Hady Amr for the 2008 Doha US-Islamic World Forum.

Let’s look at education, because, when one looks at Islamic schools and Islamic education in the region, one can observe a fascinating dualism:  in many areas, Islamic education is the poorest in quality and serves the poorest demographics; at the same time, there are Islamic schools and institutions that are centers of excellence, which function as a bridge or vehicle for lifting the human development indicators of entire communities around them.

We know that in the predominantly Muslim areas of Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia, Mindanao, and Southern Thailand, the vast majority of Muslim students attend public schools – nevertheless, significant percentages of the population do not.  Provision of basic education through Islamic schools (variously called pesantren, pondok, madrasah, sekolah agama rakyat) ranges widely. In Mindanao, 14% of children attend Islamic schools, while in Southern Thailand, up to 80% of Muslim children attend Islamic schools. In Indonesia 10% of children in primary school are educated in Islamic schools and up to 22% of secondary school children go to Islamic schools.

It is also the case that for the poor, very often a private Islamic school is the only chance for an education. In Indonesia, 80% of families who send their children to Islamic schools live under $2/day. At the same time, these schools that educate the poorest of the poor often receive the least support from the government. In Mindanao only 40 out of 2000 madrassah are registered with the government. In Indonesia, 90% of Islamic schools are private – receive neither regulation nor funding from the government. This can lead to the downward spiral of poor quality teaching provided to children who are already disadvantaged, resulting in education that does not provide a stepladder to a better future.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful success stories of model madrassah and Islamic schools in all of the countries of this region, that do receive government and private sector support, that produce test scores much higher than public school scores, and  that are extremely competitive nationally. Islamic universities in Indonesia, for example, were at the forefront of curriculum reform of civics curriculum when Suharto fell and the militaristic state ideology doctrine no longer had to be taught. It was educators at the State Islamic University that stepped into that breach, and developed a cutting-edge curriculum for teaching democracy, political participation, human rights, and basic civics. A recent World Bank report has also shown that test scores from public Islamic schools in the region are no worse, and in some cases a little better than the standard public school test scores. So we see that Islamic schools and Islamic education in Southeast Asia represents both challenges and opportunities for human development among Muslim communities.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Audry H under a Creative Commons license.

October 14, 2008
Nearly 80 killed in Tijuana drug wars

Crosses commemorate victims of violence — some left unidentified — in Mexico.

On Sunday, seven were killed and three wounded in Tijuana, Mexico — the latest in a chain of deaths from drug-related violence. In the past two weeks, nearly 80 people have been killed in the city — a sign that the drug war is growing.

Many of the victims were members of the Arellano Felix cartel, which dominated the drug scene in Tijuana during the 1990s. Now, rival gangs are competing for control of the city — leaving a trail dead bodies.

Tijuana was once known as a tourist destination for its cheap alcohol and black market for prescription medication. Earlier this month, President Felipe Calderon deployed 20,000 troops in Tijuana, but Mexicans feel no more secure.

Kinsee Morlan, a writer for alternative news Web site “San Diego Citybeat,” is a Tijuana resident living near the site of the latest killings. She writes about the climate of fear surrounding Tijuana in her blog, “Stairs to Nowhere.”

The dead of Tijuana

Violence. Violence. Violence. And more violence in the city where I’ve chosen to live.

And the media reports aren’t nearly as frightening as the reports coming from neighbors and friends.  I don’t think I even want to go into those, but let’s just say I’m officially afraid for the first time. Last night, I got home from Las Vegas at around 11 p.m. and I drove by what I had always considered one of the happiest places in Tijuana, a seafood restaurant called Negrolandia.  The road was blocked off and federal police with their Hummers and machine guns were surrounding the area.  I still have no idea what went down, but I’m sure it was more violence, maybe a few more deaths.  When I pulled up in front of my house, I kept thinking, “What if a cartel caravan drives by, or what if the police chase the cartel up my street?”

All the murders so far seem to be obviously drug related. The dead are reportedly victims of a power struggle between different factions.  I’ve been told it’s the cartel from Sinaoloa trying to take over the drug trade in TJ since the Arellano Felix Cartel has been weakened due to arrests of top members.  I have no idea if this is really what’s happening, as I’m partly going off what I’ve heard and partly relying on what little I’ve allowed myself to read (if I get too caught up in reading about the violence, my ability to sleep at night will vanish).

Truth is, I don’t want to know too much about the cartel, and after this post, I don’t think I want to write about it at all.

So what can I say?  I’m not going to put my tail between my legs and leave just yet.  I’ll stick it out and hope that the violence mellows before my family comes to celebrate Thanksgiving in Ensenada. What else can I do?

See the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user pies cansados under a Creative Commons license.

October 10, 2008
Bihari refugees still stranded in Bangladesh slum

A group of Bihari people crowds the Geneva Camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In recent weeks, a restitution movement has grown in Bangladesh regarding the travesties of the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.

Hundreds of thousands were killed, almost 10 million people fled to India, an estimated 400,000 women were raped and villages were razed.

Also casualties of the war are some 300,000 Bihari refugees still living in 60 refugee settlements in  Bangladesh. They sided with Pakistan during the war and remain a stateless group — after three decades, they still go unrecognized by both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Raza Rumi is a writer and blogger in Pakistan who edits the cyber magazine Pak Tea House and the Lahore Nama blog zine. He describes his walk through a Bihari slum in Dhaka where he sees Pakistani flags, hears the Urdu language and witnesses the desperation of a people with no country.

History’s Ghetto: Stranded Pakistanis

It was almost by accident that I visited the Mohammadpur Geneva camp in Dhaka – one of the largest settlements housing thousands of stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh. On my last visit to Dhaka, my guide Ronny offered the possibility of getting the best bihari kebabs in town. He told me that his house was near the place and I could meet him somewhere close.

This was an extraordinary afternoon when the receding sun was converting the sky into a field of unimaginable colours that artists can only aspire to create through their limited palettes. Dhaka, the noisy, overcrowded megapolis can be enchanting at times, especially during late springtime when the Krishnochura trees (the Flame of the Forest) bloom all over with their fiery flowers.

I almost canceled the trip thinking that a walk in the park might be a better alternative to the usual South Asian gluttony. Quite soon, I arrived at the meeting point having rationalised my proclivity for indulgence.

Little did I know that the meeting point was nowhere but at the doorstep of Dhaka’s underbelly, the easy to ignore Bihari camp. Not until I had reached there had I realised how the wounds of 1971 were festering for hundreds and thousands of men, women and children who have waited for all these years to attain identity and citizenship of Pakistan.

As if it were a curse, the Pakistani state soon forgot about their existence as its ethnic politics dominated the policy commitments of Bhutto. And for the Bangladeshis these were the “traitors” who continued to wave Pakistani flags when the vast majority of East Pakistanis revolted against the excesses and the might of Pakistan army following the infamous and mischievous army action of 1971.

In a few minutes I had all but forgotten about the famous Mustaqeem kebabs and parathas and forced Ronny to take me inside the camp. Very soon I realised I did not need any Bangla-speaking guide as the ghetto was Urdu speaking, and portraits of Pakistani leaders and flags could still be spotted despite the passage of three and a half decades. Ronny knew the locals and found his younger friends, child workers and idle youth who took charge of our little tour.

Shamed by guilt and excited by the real experience, I wandered the smelly, open-drained and dark streets of the ghetto. I have frequented other slums but this one was special for it reeked of the contemporary elite politics, bloodshed and cold inhumanity that Pakistanis are shy of confronting. The living conditions would put any half-concerned South Asian to shame. The homes for most of the families comprised tiny little rooms, with all the belongings and large families concentrated in the inner space. No proper toilets and water supply – as if civilization had taken a backseat here.

The tragedy of these stateless people was immense and of an in-your-face variety. Such moments can only be experienced – readings and theorisations rarely help. Mohammadpur is just one of the 116 camps all over Bangladesh set up immediately after the Liberation War of 1971, euphemistically referred to as the “Fall of Dhaka” in our textbooks. How did all this happen?

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user BeyondBorders under a Creative Commons license.

October 9, 2008
Vietnam resuscitates dying rivers

The Mekong River, the 7th-longest river in Asia, flows through Vietnam.

On Wednesday, Vietnamese government authorities fined the Taiwanese-owned condiment company Vedan $7.7 million dollars for polluting a river in the southern part of Vietnam after an investigation uncovered over a dozen tanks discharging waste. The investigation raised concerns about environmental regulation.

To Kim Lien is a Program Manager for The Asia Foundation in Hanoi and writes for the In Asia blog. Lien discusses Vietnam’s economic boom and subsequent pollution of Vietnam’s rivers because of lax environmental law enforcement.

In Vietnam: A Race to Save the Dying Rivers

Over the past few weeks, Vietnam’s dying rivers have been the subject of intense media and public outcry. Reports indicate that Vedan, a Taiwanese company, which produces monosodium glutamate, has inflicted significant environmental damage for over a decade to the Thi Vai River. The Thi Vai River’s destruction has severe consequences. Many Vietnamese are dependent on aquacultural production; their livelihoods along the river have been destroyed. Ships can no longer anchor at Go Dau port in Dong Nai province because of pollution damage — and the port is losing revenue.  The river is also the source of drinking water for many, which seriously affects public health.

The Thi Vai River, 76 kilometers long, winds from Nhon Tho Village of Dong Nai’s Long Thanh Province, to Tan Thanh District of Ba Ria–Vung Tau Province and the Can Gio District of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) before pouring into the Eastern Sea. Given its geography and area of approximately 300 square kilometers, the Thi Vai River has become a receptacle for discharged waste water from HCMC, Bien Hoa Town, and Dong Nai Province. According to the Vietnam Environmental Protection Agency (VEPA), the river receives daily some 34,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater discharged from nearly 200 companies operating along the basin.  While Vedan was not the only company discharging waste water into the Thi Vai River, the scale of the pollution by Vedan — aided by the company’s systematic effort to elude Vietnam’s environmental regulations — was enormous, which is why media attention is so focused on it. Yet the Vedan example raises questions about how dozens of other companies are also polluting the rest of Vietnams major waterways, such as the To Lich, Nhue Day, Sai Gon, and Dong Nai rivers, and what can be done to salvage them — and prevent future damage.

Vietnam has enjoyed over a decade of strong economic growth, but a legacy of simultaneous environmental neglect is becoming glaringly evident. The government and the people of Vietnam both clearly want sustainable development, but the current approach and existing institutions are proving problematic. What is referred to as the “three pillar approach” to development — economic, environmental and social development — permeates most government documents, reports, and policies, but is rendered meaningless in practice. The required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process in investment projects, for example, is overwhelmed by economic considerations. As a result, land use permits for specific locations are frequently issued to investors before an initial environmental examination or full-scale EIA has been conducted.  As Vietnam’s economy grows at a breakneck pace, many Vietnamese are worried about the potential trade-off between economic development and the environment.  While the government proclaims attention to both, the first priority is the economy. Now, environmental pollution is threatening to undercut economic gains. Negative effects on human health, water and soil are causing losses in agricultural and aquacultural production among other revenue sources.  Environmentalists and citizens alike are extremely concerned.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user flydime under a Creative Commons license.

October 6, 2008
Media speculate on Russia’s new Cold War


Tanks in Gori, Georgia.

Russia has made headlines with its invasion of Georgia, arms sales to Iran and oil and military dealings with Venezuela. The country’s actions have triggered some media outlets to speculate on a new Cold War.

Greg Weeks is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and blogs at Two Weeks Notice, where he discusses Russia’s relationship with Latin America and it’s position in this new chapter — or not — of the Cold War narrative.

Russia and Latin America

The media is playing up the idea that we might be entering a new Cold War of some sort, which among other things entails deep Russian involvement in Latin America. Russia is playing this up, with Venezuela deals and military maneuvers, discussion of a closer relationship with Bolivia, and rumors about Cuba. Boz had a good recent post on the topic.

There is one point, however, that I never see mentioned but which is important and has historical precedent: Russia is primarily interested in the United States, and so all of these alliances are contingent upon relations with the U.S. If U.S.-Russia relations improved, Putin would feel no compunction about backing off and/or ignoring promises he’s made to Latin American leaders. The Soviets screwed Fidel Castro and humiliated him more than once. Putin doesn’t care about Latin America. He is not trying to “compete” in any significant way in the hemisphere, and likely won’t in the future either.

If I were a Latin American president, therefore, I would hop on the bandwagon as quickly as possible and get some goodies before they’re gone. My hunch is that Hugo Chávez is well aware, and so is successfully milking the situation while it lasts. I doubt he has any illusions about brotherhood with Russia (or Iran, for that matter). Thomas Shannon, who has been one of the few people in the Bush administration to talk sense about Latin America, argues that Russia-Venezuela ties are no threat and “aren’t likely to endure.”

So let’s see what signals the next administration sends to Russia. That will tell us a lot about what Russia does next in Latin America.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user onewmphoto under a Creative Commons license.

October 3, 2008
Vote for most notable Russian is contested

A statue of Josef Stalin in Moscow.

This year, the Russia TV channel began the “Name of Russia” project where people vote on the most notable personalities of Russian history. The 13th century prince Alexander Nevsky eventually won, although the contest generated controversy around the prominent placement of Joseph Stalin in the ratings.

Victor Yasmann is an analyst for Radio Free Europe‘s Russian Service and writes about the contest organizers’ political motivations and Russia’s perception of its own history.

Russia Again Demonstrates Its Past Is Unpredictable

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once said that it doesn’t matter who votes, but who counts the votes. This axiom of the “father of nations” would seem perfectly applicable to the “Name of Russia” project, which was created in order to determine the most outstanding personalities of Russian history. It all began when the project’s sponsor, the Rossia state television channel, asked Internet users to choose from a list of 500 nominees the 12 names that most fully symbolize the country.

Similar projects have already been carried out in 22 countries around the world, and in none of them did the selection process produce any particular conflicts. That is because these countries have come to terms with their pasts. Therefore, the British — as might have been expected — voted for Winston Churchill, the Americans selected Ronald Reagan, South Africans endorsed Nelson Mandela, and Germans picked Conrad Adenauer. The German case is interesting because the competition organizers there published a list of ineligible people that included all the leaders of the Nazi regime.

In Russia — the country with an unpredictable past — everything was different. The project organizers clearly manipulated the voting in such a way that the competition and its results were undermined.

By the middle of the summer, Stalin was leading in the voting, a fact that produced consternation among the organizers and their masters in the Kremlin. But the fact was that Stalin was the choice of this forward-leaning audience of Internet users, none of whom, of course, lived under the dictator.

And this fact surprised no one. In the great cultural counterrevolution that has been going on in Russia over the last decade or more, Stalin’s name was long ago rehabilitated and has even become a fundamental element of the current system’s ideology of national revanche. All you have to do is walk into any bookstore to see whole shelves of books devoted to the father of nations, approximately three-quarters of which are paeans to the dictator. Around the same time, a new history textbook by Aleksandr Filippov and others appeared that called Stalin “an effective manager” and whitewashed the Great Terror as “a rational tool for the development of the country.”

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user chill under a Creative Commons license.

October 1, 2008
Journalists not to blame for Somali pirate glory



AUDIO: Rob Crilly of The Christian Science Monitor discusses international efforts by America and Russia to combat Somali pirates.


CLICK on the image above for a complete interactive map from ICC Commercial Crime Services.

Somalia said today that it will allow foreign powers to use force against pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian ship as the pirates continue to face off with U.S. warships.

Rob Crilly is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi. He has written for The Times, The Irish Times, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman and The Christian Science Monitor. Crilly’s blog “African Safari” appears on the blog network “From the Frontline.”

It’s All Our Fault

It’s starting to look as if the problems in Somalia are all down to the inability of journalists to cover the conflict there properly – rather than say the complete hash of things made by the country’s neighbours, the United Nations’ and donors’ misguided attempts to prop up an unpopular government of warlords, and the repeated attempts of the US to solve the problem by bombing a stone-age country back to the, erm, stone age.

Hot on the heels of Kenya’s angry accusations that journalists were buying the terrorists’ propaganda, comes a rather snippy press release from Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN Special Representative for Somalia.

Mr Ould-Abdallah called on the media to treat the pirates’ actions as unlawful activities and use the same judgment as they would in other regions of the world. He said journalists should not allow themselves to be used to broadcast messages from the pirates or help glorify their actions.

I’m tempted to respond that UN officials should use the same judgment as they would in other regions of the world when welcoming peace agreements between two sides who have lied their way to the negotiating table and have no interest in laying down their weapons, and who don’t even control the insurgents or Ethiopian troops responsible for wreaking havoc on the ground. But that would be childish.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

October 1, 2008
Georgia conflict forgets women’s health needs

Irene is 21 years old, 9 months pregnant and lives in a tent city in Gori, Georgia.

Some 128,000 Georgians were displaced following the Georgia-Russia conflict that began in August.

Louise Lee-Jones is a Worldfocus contributing blogger and guest columnist for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She reports from Georgia about the challenges facing Georgian youth and women, who have fled their homes following the recent fighting. On the Pulitzer Center’s blog, “Untold Stories,” she writes about the Georgian women left without adequate reproductive health services.

The Forgotten Women of Gori

Irene smiles shyly as she waits to be seen in the small tent that is the reproductive health clinic in Gori Tent City. She is 21 years old and is nine months pregnant with her first baby. Her baby is due in the next few weeks and she wants to have it in the hospital when the time comes. Fortunately, the hospital in Gori wasn’t destroyed unlike many others in the areas to the north of the city.

Irene fled her home with her husband and his family when the fighting between the Russian and Georgian forces came too close for comfort. Fearing for their lives, they fled first to her husband’s sister’s house and then to a camp for displaced people. The camp is near their home in Gori and they’ve been living there for the last month. “We are all staying together in one tent, with other people” says Irene. “There are eight of us in one tent. It is ok, but noisy and there’s no privacy,” she adds.

I’ve come to Georgia as part of a fact finding delegation from the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development to assess the reproductive health needs of the displaced people in the region.

Most of the delegation is made up of MPs and MEPs but I am representing Marie Stopes International (MSI).

So why was MSI included? MSI, together with Columbia University, coordinates a multi agency, multi country programme which brings together 10 leading service delivery and advocacy organisations to scale up comprehensive reproductive health services in crisis settings. The programme, known as the Reproductive Health Access, Information and Services in Emergencies (RAISE) Initiative, helps refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and returnees in crisis areas such as Colombia, Northern Uganda, and Darfur in Sudan.

The reproductive health needs of displaced people are often neglected, even once the immediate priorities have been addressed. Yet failure to address these needs at the outset of an emergency stores up problems for women and the broader population.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of MSI/RAISE/Louise Lee-Jones.

September 29, 2008
Belarus election shuts out opposition


Protesters march in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Vitaliy Voznyak, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes about Eastern European politics for The 8th Circle. He discusses Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Belarus, in which opposition candidates failed to win any seats.

Going through the motions: Belarus stages parliamentary elections

The title deliberately uses the word stages.  Omitting this verb may lead to a false conclusion that having elections is a sign that perhaps life in Belarus, a dictatorship bordering the EU, is not as bad as they say.  Well, it is.  I want to avoid going into a cliché account of Belarus’ political system and recent history which you will likely find in a number of newspaper dispatches next week.

Instead, below is a translation from posts by Olga By (the “last name” is clearly adopted from the country’s ISO two letter code or similarly the internet top-level domain .by).  Olga is a blogger based in Minsk, Belarus.  Below is her commentary on what is taking place in her country.

Tomorrow, we’ll have elections to the parliament.  I won’t go.  The falsification is already conducted openly, shocking even those members of the electoral commission who retained at least some amounts of integrity (sovesti).  The election precincts are working since Tuesday – the so-called “early voting.”  For this part of the “election,” students, military personnel, prisoners, patients, etc. were forcefully rounded up to vote.  Literally using force.  They threatened them with work dismissals, expulsion from home, failure to pass exams and other joys of life.  I am not making this up, honestly.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Antonis SHEN under a Creative Commons license.

September 26, 2008
Fighting corruption in Jordan by Danish example

King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein of Jordan speaks at the World Economic Forum.

Thomas Fouad Lund-Sørensen is the Danish ambassador to Jordan, keeps a blog and contributes to 7iber, a Jordanian citizen journalism portal.

Fighting Corruption In Jordan: Learning From The Danish Experience

Transparency International (TI) publicized its anti-corruption index for 2008 this week. The eight most non-corrupt countries have something in common. They are small-sized economies with no natural resources. They are all heavily dependent on their ability to trade and engage with foreign countries. And they are all well established Rule-of-Law societies. Why do I say that? Because this is where Jordan should be and not further down the rankings.

Let’s have a look at my own country, Denmark that once again topped the ranking of non-corrupt countries. There are a number of reasons for that. First, and foremost, the Danish society has through the years developed a widespread culture against corruption. Starting in the 17th century, corruption was made a criminal offense and enforced rather strictly. The next major achievement came during the 1920’s where a code on public servants that guaranteed a reasonable salary, job security and pension in particular for the lower echelons was adopted, and corruption laws came under review. Today, it is morally and utterly unacceptable to provide or receive anything that could resemble corruption. An example – trying to bribe your way out of a speeding ticket or into a construction permit will certainly get you an extra criminal charge on your neck.

To read more, visit the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photos courtesy of Flickr users World Economic Forum and chrispknight under a Creative Commons license.

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