Vietnam

I met Taymor  Kamrany in 2003, just over a year after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan had ousted the Taliban. We were both in Kabul, working on a USAID program to improve the environment for business and help government institutions rebuild their capacity to support a market economy. It was not an easy task. I was working with the management and staff of the Export Department of the Ministry of Commerce. Apart from the Head, a man in his fifties who had worked in the ministry throughout all the upheavals of the previous 30 years, no one in the Department could speak any foreign language. Though Afghanistan had once a thriving export economy – until the civil war of the 1990s, it was the world’s largest exporter of raisins, which were the most delicious I have ever eaten – its productive capacity was largely destroyed, its fields strewn with landmines, its best and brightest long ago departed. I was there for just a month, but in spite of these daunting challenges facing the country,  I sensed a lot of optimism among both Afghans and foreigners.

Taymor, an Afghan-American, born in Afghanistan and relocated with his family to the U.S. when he was a small child, was bright, ambitious, idealistic, and very American in demeanor and outlook. Apart from speaking Dari, the main language of Kabul and the northern part of the country, and having some relatives he visited from time to time, he seemed to be little more at home there than I did. After we had each left Afghanistan, I learned that he had entered an MBA program at the University of Southern California, and still later that he was working for one of the Big 4 consulting firms. Then we more or less lost touch. But most people never prune their e-mail address books, so a while ago I received  a broadcast e-mail from Taymor, linking to an article he wrote, which is published on the web site of the Middle East Institute, entitled Afghanistan 2002-2012: A Decade of Progress and Hope. No question mark. [click to continue…]

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If any event could illustrate the fragility of the BRICS conceit, it is the recent blackout in India, which left as many as 600 million people without power for up to two days. More than anything else, it reveals the sorry state of India’s governance. Yes, there are some extenuating circumstances: an unusually hot and dry monsoon season, which has reduced the available flow in hydroelectric plants while also causing the wealthy to use more power to run their air conditioners, while at the same time farmers are using more power to run pumps bringing up irrigation water from deep wells.

But the real story is under-investment in power generation, in coal production, and in transmission and distribution infrastructure, which in turn are attributable to monopoly pricing, hugely inefficient subsidies, endemic corruption, and political stagnation. The power outage was unique only in its extent and duration. Businesses, households, and public institutions all rely on diesel generators, which to a large extent have gone from a backup to the primary source of electricity, as “load shedding” – the system of rolling blackouts that utilities impose to reduce the strain on an overtaxed network, which often deprive whole areas of a city of power for as much as 14 hours a day. The event, and the global publicity it has attracted, has put a dent in India’s self-image as a nascent superpower. India has nuclear weapons and a space program – it launched a lunar probe in 2008 and has announced plans to send an orbiter to Mars next year – but it can’t keep the lights on. [click to continue…]

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The global bank HSBC, in its Business Without Borders newsletter,  tells us that while the past decade was all about the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – we are now in the decade of what it has dubbed the CIVETS, which stands for Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa, a set of countries “whose rising middle class, young populations and rapid growth rates make the BRICs look dull in comparison.” I have previously made the point – that BRIC, while a useful shorthand for a set of big emerging economies, makes no sense as an actual group, even as BRIC summits have taken place (in which South Africa was invited to join, adding the “s” to make up BRICS) and BRICS investment funds have been established. There is little, if anything in the way of common features or shared interests to unite the BRICs countries. Russia and China are authoritarian states, while Brazil and India are noisy democracies. Brazil and South Africa, both big agricultural exporters seeking freer trade, have little in common with India, which protects its farmers with high tariff barriers. Russia, whose economy is based largely on energy exports, has little in common with China, a net oil importer. China, with over 1.3 billion people, is more than 25 times bigger than South Africa, population 50 million.  But the BRICS are a model of solidarity when compared to the CIVETS.

Organizing the CIVETS into a coherent group could be as difficult as, well, herding cats. Not inappropriate, since the word civet is also used to refer imprecisely to a number of cat-like creatures of different genii and species. The more fundamental problem is that CIVETS by necessity excludes certain countries that should merit inclusion but which don’t fit the linguistic straitjacket. According to the HSBC article, “the six countries in the group are posting growth rates higher than 5% — with the exception of Egypt and South Africa – and are trending upwards.  Lacking the size and heft of the BRICs, these upstarts nevertheless offer a more dynamic population base, with the average age being 27, soaring domestic consumption and more diverse opportunities for businesses seeking international expansion.” So why is Thailand (population 69 million, forecast 2012 GDP growth of more than 6.0 percent, median age 34) excluded? Egypt’s poor economic performance can be considered temporary fallout from the Arab Spring upheavals, but what about South Africa, which in the nearly 18 years since the advent of majority rule has chalked up an average annual GDP growth of 3.3 percent? For that matter, why exclude Bangladesh (150 million people, median age 23, GDP growth averaging 6.0 to 8.0 percent)? Or Nigeria (140 million people, average 6.9 percent GDP growth since 2005, median age 19)?

One problem with the CIVETS designation, which almost guarantees that it will never catch on, is that it’s hard to add new countries or eliminate laggards from the group without ruining the catchy acronym. This is why over a year ago I suggested replacing BRICS, CIVETS, and other similar groupings with a more flexible term, which allows for countries to be added or taken out as they fall behind or graduate, namely, BEEs, for Big Emerging Economies. The real standouts in that group could be called Killer BEEs. I’m still waiting for it to catch on.

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If existing parallels between the U.S. experience in Indochina and our current entanglement in Afghanistan weren’t already enough, the Afghanistan war (Operation Enduring Freedom) now has its own version of the My Lai massacre. The only surprise is that nothing like the Sunday murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant had previously occurred in 10 years of fighting.

For all his campaign promises to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and end our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama has pursued a course almost indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush. But of late, he has started to sound more like Richard Nixon. In a speech he gave yesterday in the Rose Garden, the President said, “So make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war.  We’re steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead, and that’s going to allow us to bring our troops home…And meanwhile, we will continue the work of devastating Al Qaeda’s leadership and denying them a safe haven…I am confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.” This sounds eerily like Nixon’s “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization of the war.”

It can’t be long before we are treated to images of American diplomats being helicoptered out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban move into the city. In 1972 we brought our troops home from Vietnam, under the pretext that the Vietnamese – and the Cambodians as well – could now shoulder the responsibility for their own defense. It took another three years before the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese Army seized Phnom Penh and Saigon, respectively during which corrupt governments in both countries, rather than trying to defend their people, engaged in an unseemly scramble to amass as much loot as they could before the party ended.

The Karzai government is easily the equal of Lon Nol’s Cambodian regime when it comes to incompetence and corruption, while the Afghan Army is, if anything, less capable than its historic Southeast Asian counterparts, and also infested with Taliban sympathizers. Once NATO forces withdraw, I suspect it will take far less than three years for the Taliban to take over. Tragically, that might be the best possible outcome, the worst being a return to all-out civil war between north and south.

It is time for us to leave. Now.

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Foxconn International Holdings, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronic components, made notorious last year by a rash of employee suicides at its Chinese factories, recently published its half-yearly financial results, which showed that its annual labor costs per employee have risen by a third over the past year, to $2,900.

Foxconn, 71% owned by Hon Hai Precision Industry of Taipei, and which also assembles products for Sony, Dell, and Hewlett Packard, employs an estimated 400,000 people at its two factories in Shenzhen (Hon Hai, with 800,000 employees, is the 10th-largest employer in the world). These people, most of them young, many of them women, work 11-hour shifts, seven days a week. According to the New York Times, Mr. Ma Xiangqiang, a 19-year-old Foxconn employee who jumped to his death from a Foxconn dormitory in January 2010, had worked 286 hours in the month prior to his suicide, including 112 hours of overtime, more than three times the legal limit. By all accounts, Foxconn is not a fun place to work, combining some of the worst features of military service, summer camp, and prison, but the problems facing Foxconn are far from unique. [click to continue…]

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