Nontraditional Security Challenges in Asia

Image: IDSA

Asia’s rise as a locus of international financial and economic power only increases the need to better understand how changes in important structural factors impact security dynamics.  In that context, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses held its 14th annual Asian Security Conference in New Delhi this month. The goal of the gathering, entitled “Nontraditional Security Challenges – Today and Tomorrow,” is “to capture the complex issues involved in Asia’s emergence as the new locus of international affairs in the 21st century and India’s emergence as a factor in the continent’s evolving economic, political and security dynamics.”

The IDSA, an ISN Partner, is an Indian think tank devoted to the study of global strategic and security issues. The organization is funded by the Indian Ministry of Defense, but functions autonomously. It has brought together academics, policy analysts, and officials from government and multilateral organizations, from various Asian countries as well as other parts of the world every year since 1999 to debate upon issues pertaining to Asian affairs.

Opening remarks at the conference were made by IDSA Director General Dr. Arvind Gupta, with a keynote address by Shri Shivshankar Menon, the national Security Advisor to the Indian prime minister. A special address was given by Roza Otunbayeva, former president of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. This meeting addressed the issues of water security, climate change, natural disasters,  energy security, transnational crime, and financial and economic security. Each of these challenges has a related impact on food, water and energy resources, as well as implications for national economies and the movement of people, all of which fall between the short- and long-term and consequently are contributing factors to traditional security threats.

The IDSA is at the forefront of an effort to narrow the perception gap between about the relationship between non-traditional and traditional security issues. The hosting of this conference by an India-based organization is highlighted by the fact that India sits at the cross-roads of several important gateways to global power centers:  including for energy, economic and trade hubs, sea lanes of communication, and maritime power. This point was highlighted by Ajit Doval in the closing plenary session of the 2011 ISF here in Zurich.  Certainly in the case of Asia, the emergence of new threats and the changing context of regional security issues will increasingly become the centerpiece of policy and research agendas around the world.


Water Diplomacy

Rusty water tap. Photo: Eduardo Rodriguez/flickr

On 28 November 2011, the NCCR North-South Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) based in Bern and the ETH North-South Center based in Zurich sponsored a half-day conference, “Water diplomacy: transboundary rivers and international politics”  at the Museum of Natural History in Basel. It explored the theme of water as an instrument of diplomacy, in particular how water management can be used to solve diplomatic conflict and how diplomacy can solve water conflicts and improve resource management. The conference included 5 key presentations from experts with differing perspectives of how water issues can (and do) shape diplomacy, which was followed by a panel discussion with the presenters.

Peter Bosshard, the Policy Director of International Rivers, began with a discussion of the dominant issues regarding water use, availability, quality, and demand. He offered his perspective on whether water can be a vehicle for diplomacy, but noted that many issues still need to be resolved, especially in the areas of international law, water rights and water sector resilience.

Upcoming International Events

Security talks. Photo: Tim Wendel, ISN

Dear Reader,

It’s been almost a month since the 9th International Security Forum (ISF) came to a close. In case you need further political inspiration and don’t want to wait until the next ISF, here’s a brief list of upcoming international events for your calendar.

Cannes Water Symposium
29 June – 1 July 2011, Cannes, France

Since 1999, the Cannes Water Symposium has become a key International Forum on various issues related to water, the sea and sustainable development. The 13th annual conference will take place in the Palais des Festivals in Cannes and will gather professionals, scientists and political decision-makers — all specialists on Water and the Environment. The conference will comprise scientific and technological workshops on 1) developing innovative and clean harbors and waterways, 2) sanitation, and 3) water quality and health.

EU as a Global Actor: From the Inside Out: The Internal Development of the European Union and its Future Role in an Interdependent World
7 – 10 July 2011, Berlin, Germany

“The EU as a Global Actor” is an international conference held by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in cooperation with other leading organizations. The conference aims to consider the political, economic, and cultural development of the European Union, both as a regional organization and as a key player in global affairs. It aims to explore the challenges and opportunities facing the EU with respect to internal reform and growth, while also reflecting on the roles and responsibilities the organization faces on the global stage.

7th International Internet Law & Politics Conference 2011
11 – 12 July 2011, Barcelona, Spain

The 7th International Internet Law & Politics Conference (IDP, Internet, Derecho y Política), will focus on the current Net Neutrality debate and its consequences for the development of the Internet from both legal and political standpoints.

Food Crisis Looming?

Food crisis looming? photo: Peter Casier/WFP/flickr

A review of commodities reports and price indices over the last six months seems to point to a ripening of conditions that will likely spark a food crisis later this year.

The specific causes of the 2007-2008 food crisis are still debated, but it is clear that a combination of high oil prices, low food stocks, a low value of the US dollar, and market speculation, drove world food prices to an unprecedented level, sparking riots and unrest around the world. There are important similarities between observable conditions then and now.

Since the summer of 2010, there have been several important crop failures around the world and among major global grain producers, including: Argentina (drought), Australia (heavy rains may impact output), Canada (heavy rains); EU (dry conditions), Kazakhstan (drought), Pakistan (flooding), Russia (drought), Ukraine (drought), United States (drought). Moreover, South America experienced drought and dry conditions as result of La Nina, while China suffered from severe dry conditions and the rest of Asia experience delayed and erratic rains. In Southern Africa severe rains and flooding continue to cause problems.

According to the International Grains Council, “World production is expected to decline by 3.8 percent, to 1,726 million tons: the wheat estimate is lifted […] but the maize total is cut. By far the biggest fall in grains output was in drought affected Russia, with big reductions too in the EU, the US, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.”

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.