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ISN Insights: Look Back, Week Ahead

The new ISN Insights week starts today, photo: Caro's Lines/flickr

Last week, ISN Insights looked at:

This week, we’ll be looking at: the anti-UN momentum in the US Congress, NATO-Russia relations, the reform process in Libya, the Domodevo bombing and much more.

Make sure to tune in each day for the newest ISN Insights package. And if you’re an active Twitter or Facebook user, look us up and become a follower/fan!

Social Media Musings, Southeast Asian Edition

Foreign policy: Still behind walls or more open to the people? photo: tbSMITH/flickr

As the highly contested treasure trove of the State Department WikiLeak just keeps giving and giving, an interesting and under reported cable came to light earlier this week. It had to do, quite unexpectedly, with the social media strategy of the US State Department and specifically, the US Embassy’s social media efforts in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Jakarta? You ask. Yes, interestingly enough the US mission in the growing Southeast Asian archipelago nation is the most active of all in this ‘new’ and rapidly evolving field of public diplomacy. With more than 300,000 ‘Likers’ on Facebook at present and an impressive presence on Twitter and Youtube, the US  mission in Jakarta was in a push to get a significantly bigger budget for its social media outreach in advance of President Obama’s November 2010 visit, the leaked cable reveals. Although the cable reveals nothing particularly controversial, it gives interesting insights into the growing importance of social media in America’s outreach efforts in highly connected developing countries, particularly in Asia. It also provides insights into the growing, albeit not openly publicized, funding involved in spreading the message about the US, its leadership and about its policies in the region by directly and interactively reaching out to a younger generation, active on Facebook and other social media channels. And the strategy seems to be working- in less than a year, the number of Likers on their Facebook page has grown six-fold, from 50,000 to 300,000 and the number of Twitter followers from 1,000 to more than 16,000, with regular interaction from fans of both services.

This development begs a lot of interesting questions about the future of public diplomacy:

  • Are other diplomatic missions, even just other US missions around the world, taking note of the Jakarta Embassy’s success?
  • Is there something unique and special about the Indonesian environment where social media-focused outreach efforts find particularly fertile ground beyond Obama’s personal connection to the country?
  • Is the ‘soft power’ message that they are getting out uniquely suited to the kind of informal, multisensory interactivity that services such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube represent and do these provide a highly fertile new ground for such ‘persuasive’ activities and the building of soft power across the world?
  • Is social media changing the landscape of public diplomacy drastically and for good and what might its long-term effects be?
  • Does this finally bring foreign relations closer to the people and their concerns or is it simply a veil behind which business-as-usual continues (the highly fortified US embassy in Jakarta, seen above, is a powerful reminder of this metaphorical paradox)?

For more information on this fascinating topic, check out our recent ISN Insights package on E-Diplomacy and look out for an article coming up in February on the specific impact that social media is having on foreign relations.

South America’s Anomaly

Artistic support for "Boss" Dési Bouterse. Photo: Nicholas Laughlin/Flickr

Suriname is not a country which often features in international news. Located on South America’s northern coast between Guyana and French Guiana, many people often forget this former Dutch colony even exists. Being out of the media spotlight has allowed what some might consider unusual developments to occur.

Whilst most states which have experienced military coups and dictatorships celebrate the removal of authoritarian rulers, Suriname went in the opposite direction. After having conceded defeat to Ronald Venetiaan in the 1991 elections after ten years in power, former military ruler Dési Bouterse left the armed forces and instead founded the National Democratic Party (NDP). In July 2010, just under twenty years after being ousted from government, Bouterse was duly elected President of Suriname.

Having gained a taste for power during his decade-long rule in the 1980s, he apparently embraced political life and, rather than instigate another coup, he put himself to the vote. His political campaign targeted the youth demographic, using Bob Marley tracks at his rallies. This age group is especially important for Bouterse as they were not alive when the “December 1982” killings took place, for which he has been on trial since 2007. That a former dictator wanted for murder is now President may lead some to question whether there was underhand political chicanery involved. » More

What’s Behind the Microfinance Backlash?

Enter the loansharks, photo: _Teb/flickr

The prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina’s request for an investigation into the activities of the Grameen Bank (the Nobel Prize winning microfinance initiative), has revealed that something has been going wrong with the promising  development approach of microfinance. For years, the collection of critical voices was been increasing and growing louder.

What were once considered isolated issues seem to point to chronic (and perhaps systemic)  problems. Politicians now seem to feel compelled to draw attention to them, with some even going so far as to encourage people not to repay their loans.  It is unclear, however, if the tide is truly turning against microfinance and existing problems are becoming systemic, or if these problems are mostly isolated.

A closer look at some of the complaints and allegations reveals the following major flaws:

Poverty and indebtedness

The original intention underlying the strategy of providing micro loans to the poor, was to support the small business efforts and low-scale entrepreneurial efforts of people living at or below the poverty line. In this area, microfinance still remains very successful and is highly regarded. This approach was envisioned as a way to bring development aid directly to to those activities that could become productive and expand economic activity. The benefit was to cut out the “middle man” (government and other agencies) where aid money could be redirected from those who most needed it.

However, where the results of microfinance become less positive (and the intentions blurred) is where microfinance services provide loans to individuals for non-productive activities. Critics have noted that microfinance providers provide loans to those who qualify, even when these individuals want to buy consumable commercial goods or other necessities. In broad terms, this is a simple banking transaction. But, one of the consequences is that for those who cannot afford repayment and will not generate additional income from their activities which the transaction supports, microfinance can add the additional burden of indebtedness.

Getting rich off the poor?

Until recently, the microfinance activities of NGOs were completely unregulated, although this is beginning to change. Over a decade ago, efforts to monitor activities on an international level  centered around protecting microlenders from failing and offering them other support. But, increasingly, national regulatory bodies are being created to take a much more active role in the industry.

As microfinance organizations began generating high returns and moving beyond merely sustaining their activities but also successfully generating profits,  microfinance began to appeal to the commercial sector. According to the New York Times, the microfinance sector is one of the fastest growing areas of banking. Major global financial institutions have begun to create packages of securities that include (and in some cases are based on) microfinance loans. (Which frankly begs the question: Could a micro lending boom be followed by a micro lending crunch?) Even the American retail chain Walmark reportedly quickly moved to gain a share of the microfinance business by acquiring a banking license to offer micro loans at its retail stores in Mexico in 2007. » More

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Keyword In Focus: Space

The forgotten frontier? photo: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/flickr

One of they key commons of tomorrow and an out-of-sight battleground for geopolitical rivalries and national aggrandizement, space deserves a lot more attention than it gets. To put the spotlight on this overlooked issue, we present to you the ISN Digital Library holdings on the keyword ‘Space‘- let us know what you found particularly interesting and enjoy exploring the true frontier of international affairs.

Some highlights include:

  • Another ESPI paper on how to combat piracy using space applications.
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