Why Build Financially Inclusive Economies?

SEATTLE – The theme of this week’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, is “shaping an interconnected world,” and when leaders get down to business, many of the highest-profile topics – climate change, counter-terrorism, trade – will take center stage. But the attention received by a less well-known agenda item will be no less critical to ensuring global prosperity: digital financial inclusion.

Today, some two billion adults still lack access to even the most basic financial services. Digital financial inclusion is about broadening access to the formal economy by making electronic financial tools – like debit accounts that people can access on their mobile phones – affordable and available on a large scale.

When the poor start using these services, two things happen. First, they manage money more effectively – with new ways to save, make payments, access credit, or obtain insurance. Second, they spend less time taking care of simple financial transactions and more on productive work or running a small business of their own. Moreover, additional earnings and savings boost poor people’s resilience against financial shocks resulting from, say, an unexpected medical expense or a seasonal crop failure.

There is no shortage of evidence for the transformative effect of digital financial inclusion on economies. In Kenya, for example, “mobile money,” which allows users to transfer funds by text message, has helped an estimated 194,000 households escape extreme poverty. The breakthrough there was driven by changes in savings behavior and greater occupational choice, especially for women.

As more countries experience gains like these, the prospects for lasting economic growth improve dramatically. One recent study projected that broadening access to digital finance tools could increase developing countries’ GDP by an estimated $3.7 trillion by 2025.

But, in order to capitalize on the promise of greater financial inclusion, effective policies are needed at the national level. Last year, the G20 published “High-Level Principles for Digital Financial Inclusion,” which focuses on eight of the most successful strategies adopted by national governments around the world. A new G20 report published this spring probes those strategies further, and shows how to turn principles into action.

China has been a leader in this regard, demonstrating how to strike a balance between innovation and risk. When online payment services, like Alibaba’s Alipay, first emerged, regulators were faced with an entirely new category of financial provider. Rather than impose a battery of rules up front, they watched and learned to see what types of regulations were needed. This gave providers a chance to find their footing and evolve. That approach helped Alipay to become the world’s largest online payment platform.

Regulatory innovations elsewhere are solving another key challenge: the lack of personal identification for new account holders. This is a common problem in many developing countries, and has prevented hundreds of millions of people from signing up for financial services. To overcome this hurdle, Tanzania and Mexico implemented systems that require nothing more than a phone number to sign up for the most basic accounts. Programs in both countries have been successful; in Mexico, for example, more than nine million new accounts were opened in the first two years.

India, meanwhile, is launching a massive digital identification program that collects fingerprints and other biometric data. More than one billion digital profiles have been created since the program began six years ago; today, more than one-third of those profiles are linked to bank accounts.

Yet the most recent G20 report also highlights some challenges. For example, “interoperability” – the ability of customers to transact with one another even if they are using different platforms – is the norm in only a few markets today. Government action to address this would help increase customer convenience and lower operating costs for providers. Users with little or no experience navigating online payment systems would also benefit from the adoption of policies that improve financial literacy.

Overall, the G20 reports make clear that digital financial inclusion is a powerful tool for tackling poverty. But wealthier countries can benefit as well, because digital financial inclusion, when rolled out well, increases consumer activity and trade.

The G20, under China’s presidency last year, made improving access to digital financial services a global priority, and it will remain so under Germany’s tenure. This focus will help improve access to the global economy for the billions who need it most — especially the poor, the elderly, and women in developing countries.

The world is getting better at understanding the mechanics of financial inclusion, and the ways that digital technology can accelerate it. This is great news for the unbanked. But placing the topic on a summit agenda is not enough. To keep the innovation going, global challenges need localized solutions. As leaders in China, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries have already discovered, an economy that includes everyone benefits all. Mark Suzman is Chief Strategy Officer and President of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By Mark Suzman

Unlocking Girls’ Potential

NEW YORK – I recently visited a “girls club” – a safe space where adolescent girls come together with trained mentors to build their social networks and learn life skills – in the Tonk District of Rajasthan, India. As I arrived, I was greeted by a group of teenage girls bouncing along the road, so full of energy and laughter that I couldn’t help but smile, too. Just imagine, I thought, the potential of 600 million such girls.

History’s largest generation of girls aged 10-19 is here, ready to make its mark on the world. Governments, development organizations, and private institutions are eager to help them translate that youthful potential into an engine of creativity, economic growth, and social progress. But, on the path to such a future, girls continue to face major obstacles.

Some 170 million girls – almost one third of girls worldwide – are not enrolled in school. This is a major missed opportunity: for every year of forgone schooling, a girl’s potential income drops 10-20%. Yet there are major barriers to boosting school enrollment – beginning with the persistence of child marriage.

Every year, 15 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18 – one every two seconds – with early or forced child marriage affecting about a quarter of girls worldwide. Beyond increasing the probability that a girl will suffer violence, early marriage boosts girls’ chances of early pregnancy by 90%. The likely result is a larger family that demands more unpaid childcare, thereby undermining educational attainment and reinforcing the gender pay gap.

Girls who are married before age 18 also face a severe reduction in mobility, though they are not alone. A study in South Africa showed that, overall, girls face a drastic reduction in access to the public sphere – with spatial access falling from an area of 6.3 square miles to just 2.6 – when they reach puberty. Spatial access for boys, by contrast, more than doubles, from 3.8 square miles to 7.8, when they are seen as becoming men. Reduced mobility for girls puts them at risk of social isolation and limits their opportunities to build social capital.

As a result of these and other factors, only 47% of women in low- and middle-income countries are now in the labor force, compared to 79% of men. My research team estimates that if we cut the labor-force participation gap by just half – from 32 percentage points to 16% – GDP in the affected countries would increase by 15% in the first year alone, adding $4 trillion to global GDP.

Giving girls the skills and knowledge they need to become productive individuals who can participate in the twenty-first-century economy empowers them in all aspects of their lives, enabling them to contribute to their families, communities, and economies in ways they choose. It is the right thing to do for global development – and for girls and women themselves.

A growing number of governments, foundations, companies, and communities recognize this, and are now investing in girls’ health, education, and wellbeing. But considerable resources are being channeled toward ineffective approaches or – worse – programs that have been proved not to work. And too many well-meaning development actors regard girls as victims to be saved, rather than as the innovative, energetic game changers they are.

So how can we best expand opportunities for girls? We know, for example, that educating girls may be the most cost-effective investment for promoting economic development. We also know that girls, including those with children of their own, benefit considerably from access to sexual and reproductive information and services, which enable them to choose the size and structure of their families and ensure their own health and wellbeing.

But girls’ advocates – in governments, non-governmental organizations, and development and funding agencies – struggle daily with meeting these needs. And, despite recognizing the multifaceted and interconnected nature of girls’ needs, we often struggle in silos, working on the same problems without communicating with one another. This lack of effective coordination, collaboration, or knowledge sharing carries through to investments, which often end up narrowly focused on a single project, sector, or geographic area – often weakening their effectiveness.

That’s why the Population Council created the Girl Innovation, Research, and Learning (GIRL) Center, a kind of global knowledge hub for girl-centered research and programming. The GIRL Center, which I direct, aims to make the most of the world’s investments in girls, both by supporting evidence-based policies and by aligning the goals and priorities of various stakeholders.

To that end, we are building the world’s largest open data repository on adolescents, curating the Population Council’s records on more than 120,000 individuals of adolescent age, as well as data from other organizations working on girl-centered research and programs. The repository will enable rigorous analyses that provide policymakers with a deeper understanding of how girls’ lives and needs evolve during adolescence and which interventions are most effective for which groups (and under which conditions). It will also connect people from different disciplines and sectors united by the goal of promoting systemic changes that give adolescents, especially girls, the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Empowering girls to use their energies and talents to transform their societies will not be easy. The key is to pursue a comprehensive approach – one that recognizes the fundamental linkages among programs and objectives, takes advantage of proven solutions, and adopts a long-term perspective.

Thoai Ngo, the director of the Poverty, Gender, and Youth (PGY) Program at the Population Council, also directs the Council’s new Girl Innovation, Research and Learning (GIRL) Center.

By Thoai Ngo

Shaking Russia’s Weak Economic Hand

CAMBRIDGE – When Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his American counterpart, Donald Trump, at this week’s G20 summit in Hamburg, he will not be doing so from a position of economic strength. To be sure, despite the steep drop in oil prices that began three years ago, Russia has managed to escape a deep financial crisis. But while the economy is enjoying a modest rebound after two years of deep recession, the future no longer seems as promising as its leadership thought just five years ago. Barring serious economic and political reform, that bodes ill for Putin’s ability to realize his strategic ambitions for Russia.

Back in 2012, when Putin appeared onstage with the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman at a Moscow bank conference, Russia’s 1998 economic crisis seemed a distant memory. With oil prices well over $100 a barrel, the government’s coffers were bursting. So Putin could proudly contrast Russia’s government budget surplus with the large recession-driven deficits across the West. He surely delighted in having Russian audiences hear Krugman’s view that Western democracies had come up badly short in handling the global financial crisis.

In a different session, Russian academic economist Sergei Guriev (who later had to flee the country) argued that there was no hope for diversification of Russia’s resource-based economy as long as institutions such as courts were so weak. Too many key decisions rested with one man. Speaking in the same session, I emphasized that without fundamental reforms, a sharp drop in global energy prices would create profound problems.

Inevitably, that drop came, with prices plummeting from $119 in February 2012 (for Brent crude oil in Europe) to $27 in 2016. Even the current level (under $50 in early July 2017), is less than half the 2011-2012 peak. For a country that depends on oil and natural gas for the lion’s share of export revenue, the price collapse has been a massive blow, rippling through the economy.

The fact that Russia has avoided a financial crisis is remarkable – and largely due to the efforts of the Central Bank of Russia. Indeed, Elvira Nabiullina the CBR’s governor, has twice won international central banker of the year awards.

But the burden of adjustment has largely fallen on consumers, owing to a roughly 50% drop in the ruble’s value relative to the dollar; real wages and consumption both fell sharply. As one Russian put it to me, he used to take 1,000 rubles to the supermarket and come home with two bags; now he comes home with one.

The shock to the real economy has been severe, with Russia suffering a decline in output in 2015 and 2016 comparable to what the United States experienced during its 2008-2009 financial crisis, with the contraction in GDP totaling about 4%. Many firms went bankrupt, and in 2016 the International Monetary Fund estimated that almost 10% of all bank loans were non-performing (a figure that surely understates the severity of the situation).

In many cases, banks chose to relend funds rather than take losses onto their books or force politically connected firms into bankruptcy. At the same time, though, the CBR moved aggressively to force smaller banks to raise capital and write down bad loans (something European policymakers have taken forever to do). And, in the face of intense lobbying by powerful oligarchs, the CBR kept interest rates up to tame inflation, which had reached more than 15% but has since fallen to close to 4%.

Of course, Western sanctions, particularly restrictions on banks, have exacerbated the situation. But the media tend to over-emphasize this aspect of Russia’s economic woes. All countries that rely heavily on energy exports have suffered, especially those, like Russia, that have failed to diversify their economies.

In a Western democracy, an economic collapse on the scale experienced by Russia would have been extremely difficult to digest politically, as the global surge in populism demonstrates. Yet Putin has been able to remain firmly in control and, in all likelihood, will easily be able to engineer another landslide victory in the presidential election due in March 2018.

Russia’s state-owned media juggernaut has been able to turn Western sanctions into a scapegoat for the government’s own failures, and to whip up support for foreign adventurism – including the seizure of the Crimea, military intervention in Syria, and meddling in US elections. Most Russians, constantly manipulated by their country’s schools and media, are convinced that conditions are much worse in the West (a hyperbolic claim even in the era of “fake news”).

Unfortunately, such disinformation is hardly a recipe for generating reform. And, without reform, there is little reason to be optimistic about Russia’s long-run growth trend, given its poor demographic profile, weak institutions, and abject failure to diversify its economy, despite having an enormously talented and creative population.

Where will future growth come from? If the world continues to move toward a low-carbon future, Russia will confront an inevitable choice: launch economic and political reforms, or face continuing marginalization, with or without Western sanctions. No meeting between the US and Russian presidents can change that reality. Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist of the IMF, is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

By Kenneth Rogoff

Public Spheres for the Trump Age

BERKELEY – In many societies, universities are the main bastions of ideological and intellectual independence. We count on them to transmit our values to the young, and to support short- and long-run inquiries into the human condition. In Donald Trump’s America, they are more important than ever.

Unlike universities, for-profit media enterprises have never been up to the task of nurturing a robust “public sphere.” Inevitably, their coverage reflects enormous pressure to please the base – their advertisers or investors – or at least to avoid giving offense. That is why the American writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann – no stranger to journalism – ultimately put his trust in public intellectuals working in universities, think tanks, or other niches.

For most of the post-war era, the for-profit media’s structural deformities were relatively harmless. The far right, having unleashed Nazism and fascism on the world was in political exile. And the far left had its own albatross: “really existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc was murderous and unproductive.

This left only the North Atlantic triptych of political democracy, free markets, and social insurance. Technocratic debates about how to achieve the greatest good for the most people could proceed without the baggage of deranged ideologies. The West was living through the “end of ideology”; or, even more optimistically, the “end of history.”

But now we are confronting what Lawrence Summers calls “the challenges of the Trump era,” and the stakes could not be higher. In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Summers laments that universities, in particular, have failed to rise to today’s challenges.

For starters, Summers rightly calls for universities to do more to “recruit, admit, and educate economically disadvantaged students.” When universities accept only the well prepared, they are not just being lazy. They are also failing their students, faculty, and the communities they serve. Underprivileged students who are less prepared than their peers should not be blamed for the circumstances into which they were born.

In economic terms, it is a university’s job to maximize its educational “value added,” which means that it should seek out the students who stand to benefit the most from its services. And, once admitted, these students should be afforded what they need to complete their studies.

Summers is also right to find it “terrifying that the US now has its first post-rational president who denies science, proposes arithmetically unsound budgets, and embraces alternative facts.” Universities, Summers points out, should “be bulwarks for honest, open debate as a route towards greater truth.” Indeed, universities are venues for not just expressing but evaluating ideas. We should cultivate intellectual diversity; but we also must reject failed, unsound, or fraudulent ideas.

For this reason, university faculty and students may proffer any argument or idea that they deem worthy of further investigation. And they should be free to invite speakers who share their perspective. Summers is right that a university is no place for “giving a heckler’s veto to those who want to carry the day with the strength of their feeling rather than the force of their argument.”

And yet there is some conflict between rejecting failed ideas and maintaining intellectual diversity. One rule of thumb, offered 70 years ago by the historian Ernst Kantorowicz, is that those who advance an idea have an obligation to “their conscience and their God” to be sincere about it.

Consider the example Summers cites: Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College, which resulted in large student demonstrations. I saw Murray discuss his notorious book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, back in the mid-1990s, and I was not impressed. And since then, Murray’s ideas – especially his claims about IQ and race – have not been well received.

So, to my mind, if Murray was invited, he should be allowed to speak. But the Middlebury students who invited him also owe it to their consciences, their God, and the rest of us to explain in good faith why they think his ideas are still worthy of consideration.

One area where I disagree with Summers concerns his defense of meritocracy. Suggesting that meritocracy is an unalloyed good ignores the provenance of the term, which the sociologist Michael Young coined in his 1958 dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy.

Summers laments that college faculty are now being “trained that it is wrong and even racist to say that ‘America is a land of opportunity’ or that ‘meritocracy is a good thing.’” But whether such statements are objectionable depends on the context in which they are uttered. It is fine to encourage promising young people to work hard. But the meritocracy we have is an untrustworthy arbiter of individual worth, given how much it discriminates against those who, through no fault of their own, are not prepared to fulfill its criteria for success.

At this point in discussions about today’s universities, the term “safe space” often crops up. To be sure, universities should be safe spaces for exchanging and judging ideas, and for changing one’s mind in the face of new arguments and evidence. Summers, for his part, is right that “a liberal education that does not cause moments of acute discomfort is a failure.” But he errs in not acknowledging that some students experience acute discomfort by being made to feel as though they do not belong.

As communities of speech and debate, universities are vulnerable to disruption, which is why civility, as Summers rightly emphasizes, must be upheld. Moreover, campus turmoil is often perceived as a sign of societal disorder. Summers cites the historian Rick Perlstein to remind us that Ronald Reagan’s political rise in the 1960s partly reflected his “railing against” the student protests at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time. Summers suspects that campus radicalism is on the rise again, and that “the political effects will be about the same now as they were then.” Donald Trump, one suspects, is counting on it.

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By J. Bradford DeLong

One Hundred Years of Indebtedness

CAMBRIDGE – Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the Nobel laureate novelist most famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude, was native to Colombia. Nonetheless, as a master of magical realism, Garcia Márquez would have appreciated the Republic of Argentina’s recent combination of fact and fantasy. In mid-June, the finance ministry sold $2.75 billion worth of US dollar-denominated bonds that mature in one hundred years.

No doubt, Argentina’s new government has made enormous progress in short order. President Mauricio Macri’s administration has liberalized international capital flows, allowed the Argentine peso to move more flexibly in the foreign exchange market, worked to rationalize a crazy quilt of subsidies, and created a credible statistical authority from scratch. But there are many more promises to fulfill, including further dismantling of subsidies, trimming the government wage bill at the federal and provincial levels, bringing inflation down to single-digit levels, and making the pension system actuarially sound and fairer to younger people.

The right balance between confronting these issues upfront and setting gradual changes in motion is by no means evident. Coordination between the central and local governments has always been a source of strain especially, and the clock is ticking down to the next election. Making up the output lost in last year’s recession will take some time, a problem made more challenging by the economic dislocations in Argentina’s northern neighbor, Brazil.

On balance, Argentina’s political economy appears headed in the right direction. Still, one hundred years is a long time to contract about anything. And, in the previous 100-year period, Argentina’s governments defaulted on international debt on eight occasions, issued about a half-dozen currencies, engineered an episode of hyperinflation, and experimented with capital controls and confiscations. This checkered history of government intervention has left Argentina much worse off relative to the rest of the world: in 1916, the country had the world’s 12th largest GDP per capita (above that of Germany); today, it ranks 66th.

The trick to appreciating magical realism, however, is to keep in mind different perspectives. This is not really a story about a country with a fraught financial history willing to issue 100-year debt. Rather, it is a story about a country able to issue 100-year debt because global investors were willing to purchase $2.75 billion of it. Indeed, they were eager to do so: total tenders for the bonds were 3.5 times the volume sold.

At the end of the day, this is not about the character of the country, the maturity of the debt, or the size of the issue. It is about the coupon rate on the offering, 7.9%, which is considerably higher than most other plausible alternatives. Just as water finds its level in nature, capital finds its level in international finance: when interest rates are low in core markets, it flows to higher-yielding alternatives.

Without question (and without much precedent), interest rates are extraordinarily low in advanced economies, pulled down partly by the slowdown in longer-term output growth, but also as a consequence of official efforts. Two of the “big three” central banks, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan, have lowered their policy rates into negative territory and continue to add to their balance sheets. As for the third, the US Federal Reserve’s slow motion monetary tightening has just put the federal funds rate above 1%, and plans to pare the Fed’s asset holdings appear to be in the works. As the chart shows, almost one half of GDP in advanced economies is produced where policy rates are below 0.5%. Only a sliver of activity takes place where the policy rate is above 1.5%.

Official measures extend beyond the realm of central banks, too. In terms of the huge stock of foreign exchange reserves held worldwide, the public sector holds more US Treasury securities than the private sector.

These distortions encourage investors in money centers to scan the horizon for more attractive destinations. Argentina got their attention, but so, too, did Cyprus, another country that recently had a financial crisis. Likewise, capital has flowed into Iceland at such a rapid clip that the International Monetary Fund felt obliged to warn that, “overheating risks are a clear and present concern.”

In a pattern sharply etched in financial history, when a large volume of capital flows into small and shallow local financial markets, the exchange rate tends to appreciate, driving up asset prices. Favorable asset-price movements, in turn, improve national fiscal indicators and encourage domestic credit expansion, exacerbating structural weaknesses in the domestic banking sector.

Meanwhile, global financial institutions, seeking entry into a hot market, court local banks. Authorities all too often take such interest as a global vote of confidence, encouraging them to issue more debt. Given the current starting point, public debt will accumulate from a low base compared with advanced economies.

But it’s worth recalling that in the post-1945 period, fully one half of all defaults by emerging-market economies took place at debt-to-income levels below the Maastricht Treaty’s ceiling of 60%. Today, as the waves of market distortions from official policies in advanced economies break on emerging markets’ shores, constructing magical seawalls is not a solution. Carmen Reinhart is Professor of the International Financial System at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

By Carmen Reinhart

Supporting the Developing World’s Health Innovators

DHAKA – In 2012, the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases signaled a bold new vision for international cooperation, in which networking and globalization could underpin efforts in the global South to eradicate deadly diseases that disproportionately affect the poorest communities. The London Declaration – the largest global public-health collaboration to date – helped to foster trust in the rules-based global order that emerged after World War II.

But this hard-earned trust is now in grave danger as populist forces across the Western world take aim at their countries’ foreign-aid commitments. In particular, President Donald Trump has announced sweeping cuts to the United States’ international aid budget, in order to appease economically frustrated US voters who want their tax money spent at home. What this approach fails to recognize is that the long-term rewards of supporting medical research in the global South far outweigh the short-term costs.

As a Bangladeshi researcher at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), I have been intimately involved in local efforts to eradicate visceral leishmaniasis (VL, also known as kala-azar), one of the diseases covered by the London Declaration. Thanks to generous support from international donors, I have been able to conduct path-breaking research in the field.

Back in 2006, through research funded by the World Health Organization’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR), I found virtually no sandfly-control initiatives in place in districts where VL – spread by a single species of sandfly – was endemic. That realization was a wake-up call to policymakers and led to the initiation of sandfly-control efforts throughout the country.

Years later, as part of UBS Optimus Foundation-funded research into household-level insect-control methods, my team found that a novel technology – durable wall linings soaked with the insecticide deltamethrin – was effective at killing sandflies for up to a year after application. We are currently testing other durable insect-control solutions, including wall paints blended with three different insecticides.

This work has implications beyond VL – and beyond Bangladesh. Indoor spraying remains the most widely used method of household insect control worldwide. But in isolated rural communities, the solutions that we are researching may be more robust, convenient, and effective against not just sandflies, but also other kinds of disease-carrying insects, such as Zika-infected mosquitos.

I have also been engaged in research on novel types of VL transmission. After recovering from VL, many patients in Bangladesh go on to develop a condition known as macular post-kala-azar dermal leishmaniasis. In order to find out whether PKDL patients can act as a reservoir for VL – and therefore boost our capacity to eradicate the disease – my team and I have set up an insectarium to breed sterile sandflies.

Our insectarium – funded by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and the Spanish Foundation for International Cooperation – is one of just seven in the world (with the majority located in developed countries). It amounts to a permanent and valuable resource for research into vector control and disease transmission in Bangladesh.

Already, the insectarium has facilitated important progress. Recent pilot experiments showed that macular PKDL can act as a source of infection, with the results published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. We are also using the insectarium to test insecticide resistance and susceptibility in captive sandflies – research that will support the optimization of sandfly-control strategies throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Of course, a key element of any strategy to eradicate disease is early and effective diagnosis. When it comes to VL, standard diagnoses rely on the detection of circulating antibodies in blood or urine. But, because antibodies persist in the blood even after recovery, this method falsely identifies healthy, non-contagious patients as needing treatment. While a DNA-based diagnostic test provides more accurate results, the methods currently used rely on expensive equipment like thermal cyclers and functioning cold chains.

So my team went to work to develop a system for enabling DNA-based diagnosis in low-resource settings. Using an isothermal DNA amplification method, called recombinase polymerase amplification, we developed a cold-chain-independent method for detecting VL, which we then incorporated into a solar-powered mobile “lab suitcase” that can be used easily in rural settings.

We are now trying to repurpose that suitcase, so that it can also enable the diagnosis of typhoid fever and tuberculosis, further revolutionizing disease surveillance in poor and rural communities. In other words, the development of cold-chain-independent disease detection, like the rest of our research and innovations, has far-reaching implications for global health.

Yet all of the success we have achieved over the last two decades is now at risk. Donor agencies, facing reduced aid from major players like the US, could be forced to withdraw funding for the kind of research described here. With Bangladesh unable to pick up the slack, life-saving projects like ours will collapse; the long-term resources we have developed, from the insectarium to new diagnostic devices, will have to be abandoned; and the developing world’s poorest communities will suffer.

More is at stake than generosity. Aid donors accrue important benefits from financing scientific research in the global South, beginning with reinforcement of the trust that underpins the fragile international order on which we all depend. More directly, supporting the development of low-cost health innovations could play a vital role in reducing the now-colossal health-care expenditure of advanced countries like the US. Those savings could, in the long term, easily offset the cost of supporting the life-saving work of organizations like icddr,b.  Dinesh Mondal is a senior scientist in the Nutrition and Infection Interaction Research Unit at icddr,b.

By Dinesh Mondal

Ban Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

LONDON – Thirty-five years ago, as part of a global expedition, Charles Burton and I traveled across the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole, camping for three months on a fast-moving ice floe. It was, for us, a journey that defined our lives, and formed one leg of an enduring world record.

But another record, this one far less stable, belongs to the Arctic ice itself: by March of this year, it had shrunk to the smallest size ever recorded. The disappearance of polar ice is driven by the use of fossil fuels, which not only underpins global warming, but also has a more immediate effect, owing to widespread reliance on heavy fuel oil (HFO) to power ships. HFO is cheap and abundant, but it is also toxic and dirty. When ships navigate the Arctic, pollutants like sulphur oxide and black carbon are deposited onto the ice and snow. The pollutant accumulation accelerates snowmelt, which warms ocean waters and, in turn, creates a self-reinforcing cycle of more melting.

The world has an opportunity to reverse these trends this week, when the Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) meets in London. At that meeting, Canada, along with a number of Arctic and non-Arctic member states, will propose a strategy for limiting the use and transport of HFO by ships in the Arctic. It is imperative that every state in attendance supports this crucial measure to protect the fragile and fast-vanishing Arctic ecosystem.

HFO has been the “king of marine fuels” since the 1960s, but only in recent years has it come under increased scrutiny. In August 2011, it was banned from ships entering Antarctic waters, but Arctic states have been slower to move. In 2015, HFO accounted for nearly 60% of the marine fuel consumed by ships operating in the Arctic.

Economic considerations drive HFO’s popularity, but it is now widely understood that its environmental and human costs outweigh the benefits. When HFO is spilled in icy waters, it breaks down slowly and can devastate ecosystems and the livelihoods of those who depend on them. HFO is also a significant source of air pollution. The climate warming effects of black carbon, for example, are up to five times worse in the Arctic than they are at lower latitudes.

Alternative shipping fuels exist. Marine diesel oil and liquefied natural gas, for example, are cost effective and cleaner than HFO. What’s needed is the political will to enforce a transition to less-polluting options. For now, only limited HFO bans have been enacted, such as those enforced in the Southern Ocean and the waters around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. As Arctic ice recedes, new shipping lanes will open to larger vessels, bearing the flags of a larger number of states, making HFO regulations even more important. The Arctic Council has warned that more shipping traffic will increase the risk of catastrophic oil spills.

Some countries are already taking action. In 2016, the United States and Canada announced a “phase down” in the use of HFO in vessels operating in the Arctic. Many other countries quietly support this work. But passive support is not enough. Now that the IMO meeting is taking place, more countries must step forward and add their voice to the growing number of states calling for an HFO ban in the Arctic. The European Parliament, for its part, has already broadly supported such a move.

Momentum toward an HFO phase-out in the Arctic is building. The Danish Shipowners’ Association and the Arctic expedition cruise operator Hurtigruten are just two of the players calling for tighter regulations or an outright ban. Other shipping companies have highlighted the need for regulations to maintain a level playing field.

In January 2017, Hurtigruten joined the Clean Arctic Alliance to launch the Arctic Commitment. The initiative brings together shipping operators, polar explorers, NGOs, communities, and businesses to back an HFO phase-out, ahead of any increase in Arctic shipping, while urging the broader shipping industry to switch to alternative fuels. (I signed earlier this year.)

At this month’s Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting, IMO member states must build on the progress already made by supporting the HFO phase-out proposed by Canada. In particular, they must commit to enforcement of any resulting IMO measures, and to ensuring that the use of HFO is eventually banned from Arctic waters. We have time to append the record books on Arctic ice, but we must act fast.

Ranulph Fiennes is an English explorer, writer, and author. In August 1982, he and fellow explorer, Charles Burton, became the first people to complete a surface circumnavigation of the Earth’s poles.

By Ranulph Fiennes

Confronting Africa’s Water Challenge

BIDJAN – Water is essential for life, and yet it is scarce in many parts of the world. Owing to the effects of climate change, Africa is experiencing its worst drought since 1945, especially in Southern Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Northern Nigeria.

These fragile areas now need the global community’s support. We need to build resilient systems to ensure access to potable water for all people, and to improve water-delivery and sanitation provisions in Africa’s rapidly growing urban areas.

We should begin by expanding Africans’ capacity to harness wastewater. With investment and proper management, wastewater can become a sustainable source of wealth for many Africans, with added benefits for human health, agricultural productivity, and environmental sustainability.

Over the past six years, the African Development Bank has invested $3.3 billion in projects to expand access to water and improve sanitation, with around $2.2 billion of that going to urban services that reach at least 17 million people.

The AfDB supports an integrated urban water-management model (IUWM) that, in keeping with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6, enables communities to derive a sustainable income from management of urban liquid and solid waste.

IUWM efforts require a significant initial investment, and come with steep capital and operational costs. Only a few African cities collect and treat any more than 20% of the wastewater generated through centralized wastewater-management systems. The remaining 80% constitutes a huge untapped source of potentially valuable liquid and solid waste. With the right investment, foresight, and commitment, this underappreciated resource can create jobs and deliver sustainable growth.

Wastewater management is thus a central feature of the AfDB’s strategic priorities, known as the High 5s, which aim to improve Africans’ quality of life, boost public health, achieve gender equality, create jobs, and increase communities’ resilience to the effects of climate change. Water will also play a key role in reaching the High 5s’ industrialization and sustainable-farming objectives.

In Yaoundé, Cameroon, the AfDB helped to protect some 300,000 people and their property by reducing the frequency of floods from 15 incidents per year to just three. And with a $40 million sanitation project, the AfDB helped to lower the proportion of the city’s malaria-afflicted population from 16% to 12%.

In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the $23 million AfDB-funded Gourou Basin Integrated Watershed Management Project significantly reduced flooding throughout the Gourou Basin, and improved 2.8 million inhabitants’ livelihoods.

In Zimbabwe, after 4,300 people died in the 2008-2009 cholera pandemic, the AfDB and other donors supported the $43.6 million Urgent Water Supply and Sanitation Rehabilitation Project, which made emergency repairs to wastewater systems in urban areas, helping 2.5 million people.

All AfDB-supported wastewater-management systems follow sustainability strategies to ensure that they enhance economic gains, benefit local communities, and remain affordable. These projects also help countries to harness and use waste flows, by converting sewage to biogas and fertilizer.

Meanwhile, the AfDB’s African Water Facility (AWF) complements its project-finance work by attracting downstream investments in water infrastructure. In February, flooding and strong winds from Tropical Storm Dineo devastated the coast of Mozambique and had a severe impact on the local population. But just a few weeks later, the AWF launched a feasibility study to improve livelihoods and climate-change resilience throughout Mozambique’s Inhambane Province, where the storm struck.

In collaboration with the Global Water Partnership, the AWF is implementing IUWM systems in five African cities, including Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Marondera in Zimbabwe. In the DRC alone, IUWM systems can be expected to improve water delivery and sanitation for 17 million people by 2030.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also tapping into the AfDB’s expertise, by providing an $18 million grant to fund Phase II of the AfDB’s Urban Sanitation Program. This effort will help to develop business innovations for affordable and sustainable sanitation services in Africa, which could reach two million urban dwellers directly and another six million people through subsidiary projects.

Africa’s wastewater-management challenges are substantial and complex. But the AfDB is determined to provide opportunities that pay dividends for African communities – in public health, improved sanitation, economic development, and environmental protection.

Improving the quality of life for all Africans will require political commitment, public-private partnerships, and robust public involvement. With the High 5s framework, the AfDB is working to bring these three ingredients together.

All stakeholders – in Africa and internationally – must redouble our efforts to ensure clean, affordable water for all, and to support African countries suffering through a historic drought. We have a moral obligation to do so. After all, water means life.

Akinwumi Adesina is President of the African Development Bank.

The Real Side of Fake News

NEW YORK – Today’s digital devices and social networks deliver so much information that even the savviest consumer cannot evaluate all of it. We seem to be living in a version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance. But the future need not be the dystopia that the present seems to suggest.

The share of Americans who get their news from social media has grown rapidly in recent years, to 62% as of 2016. And yet, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, media, academic, technology, and publishing professionals have increasingly come to view the Internet as a cesspool of hate speech, anger, and trolls.

Much of what arrives on our digital doorstep these days is best described as “fake news”: hoax stories, propaganda, and other forms of misinformation. But while “fake news” is a useful label for a very real problem, it does not tell us if we are in fact living in a “post-truth” world; and, if so, whom we should hold responsible. To answer those questions, we need to examine the fake-news infrastructure.

Many of the anonymous political hobbyists and social hackers who are creating and disseminating fake news do so on Reddit. With 542 million monthly visitors (234 million unique users), Reddit is the fourth most visited website in the US, and eighth in the world, as of this month.

A casual observer who visits Reddit will find what looks like a Web 1.0 message board that is ridden with near-indecipherable jargon and acronyms, such as “HH,” “cucks,” “centipedes,” and “God Emperor of the Internet.” These are insider code words that did not emerge accidentally. They respectively refer to “Heil Hitler,” critics of the so-called alt-right, Trump supporters, and, of course, Trump himself.

Despite being wildly popular, Reddit is mentioned in mainstream media coverage only when its most controversial conversations boil over, as occurred in 2008, when a Reddit subpage (or subreddit) called “Jailbait” provided a platform for users to exchange child pornography. Following a public outcry, Reddit deleted the subreddit in 2011, as it did again when the public took notice of a subreddit about stalking women called “CreepShots.”

Still, misogyny and hate speech have continued to flow freely on the site. In an ugly masquerade of free speech, Reddit has hosted subreddits called “BeatingWomen,” “FatPeopleHate,” and “The Chimpire” (promoting racism). Most recently, a “Pizzagate” subreddit hosted conspiracy theorists claiming that Hillary Clinton ran a child pornography ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. When a Reddit user armed with an AR-15 arrived at the establishment and started firing off rounds, the media finally, but only temporarily, took notice of Reddit’s role in the fake-news phenomenon.

Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, for his part, doesn’t seem to spend much time worrying about the potential dangers posed by his website. When Ohanian delivered a keynote address at the popular SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this year, he didn’t talk about the line between free speech and hate speech. Nor did he mention the infamous subreddit “The_Donald,” which has more than 300,000 registered users, and may have played a critical role in electing Donald Trump. Instead, he spoke about a subreddit called “Shitty Watercolour,” and he declared “pseudonymity” to be the hallmark of freedom and uncensored speech. During an “Ask Me Anything” session after his speech, Ohanian took no questions about Pizzagate, “The_Donald,” or hate speech.

To be sure, Reddit isn’t the only supporter of the kind of online anonymity that allows users to distribute hate speech and fake news without consequences. And there are those who worry that cleaning up Reddit will only drive the trolls underground to less public sites like Voat. But while other large online platforms such as Facebook are taking steps to address the problem, Reddit remains defiant.

Reddit’s relative immunity from criticism may help to explain its indifference. As a top-ten site for US web traffic, it acts as a major conduit for media outlets, which use it to increase their page views, and thus their advertising revenues.

Reddit itself is owned by some familiar names. Its single largest shareholder is Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast; and its other investors include Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Sam Altman, Ron Conway, Snoop Dogg, Jared Leto, and Josh Kushner, the brother of White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. Sadly, none of these high-profile investors seems to have objected to Reddit’s hosting of subreddits called “WhiteNationalism,” “rapeisfun,” “BurningKids,” “cutefemalecorpses,” and so on.

Fake news is a symptom of a larger problem. With advertising revenues declining, media organizations are increasingly desperate for clicks. Most readers do not hesitate to share or re-tweet headlines that support their own biases and beliefs. And technology companies shrug and claim that they are “just a platform,” while they reap profits from the traffic that fake news brings in.

So, what can news consumers do to push back against fake news? For starters, we should be demanding that trusted media outlets avoid hosting their content on anonymous sites like Reddit. And we should apply more pressure on companies like Advance Publications to take responsibility for the sites they own and what happens there.

Above all, that means rolling back the culture of digital anonymity that facilitates hate speech and misinformation. Digital platforms should require those who espouse ideas and share information to sign their names to their output. Pseudonyms are for fiction writers.

Steven Rosenbaum is studying the fake news phenomenon as a member of the TED Residency in New York City. He is the author of Curation Nation, and the director of 7 Days in September, a documentary about the world after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

By Steven Rosenbaum

An IMF Bridge to Somewhere for Greece?

ZURICH – The International Monetary Fund has resurrected an old technique – commonly used in the 1980s during the Latin American debt crisis – that would allow Greece to avoid a payment default next month on debt owed to European creditors. The reprieve also gives the IMF and its European partners time to sort out their technical differences on the struggling country’s growth and budget outlook. But the Fund’s elegant compromise still leaves Greece under the shadow of an enormous debt overhang; reducing it requires that Europe find a way to set aside national politics and act on the basis of economic logic and necessity.

Europe and the IMF have been unable to reconcile two views of Greece’s debt sustainability, with the two sides’ differences spilling over into the public domain. Guided mainly by a cash-flow analysis, European authorities argue that low interest rates and long maturities have made the nation’s debt sustainable. But the Fund notes that, at almost 200% of GDP, Greece’s stock of debt deters investment and capital inflows. For the IMF, meaningful debt reduction is critical for generating the confidence and credibility needed to break Greece out of a prolonged period of impoverishment.

This is not the only area of disagreement between Greece’s two major creditors. They also differ on the realism of some key economic projections, including the important nexus between growth and the government budget, with Europe adopting a much more optimistic perspective.

For those of us who have been following the Greek economic tragedy for many years, much of the European view continues to defy economic logic – and for a simple reason: European politicians worry about the domestic political consequences of granting Greece debt relief, especially ahead of Germany’s federal election in September. Offering debt relief, it is feared, could undermine the credibility of governing parties and provide a boost to extremist movements.

To be sure, debt forgiveness is tricky, raising complicated issues of fairness and incentives. Yet, in some cases, there comes a time when refusal to forgive debt is more damaging. European officials know as well as the IMF does that Greece has long been at this stage, turning the country into a permanent “ward of the state” within a eurozone that does not accommodate this outcome well. But they seem unable to act.

With Europe and the IMF failing to agree, Greece has been robbed of the additional funding it needs to clear domestic arrears and meet its rather large external debt-service payments in July. Meanwhile, growth is languishing once again, despite the pickup in European economic performance as a whole. To overcome this bottleneck, the IMF has compromised, by reviving the practice of approving a financing program “in principle.”

An approval in principle signals the Fund’s endorsement of a country’s economic policy intentions. This can unlock other funding (in this case, from Europe). But the IMF refrains from actually disbursing its own loans, pending a more satisfactory outcome on overall financing assurances (in this case, proper debt relief for Greece).

It is a short-term compromise that acknowledges Europe’s political calendar and constraints, helps Greece avoid a summer default, and safeguards the IMF’s resources. The arrangement would shift more of the financing burden to Europe, where it properly belongs. And it even provides a signal of unity, despite the important disagreements that remain.

But this is nothing more than yet another temporary solution – or, to be less generous, the continuation of what has come to be known as the “extend and pretend” approach. While the immediate funding issue is indeed addressed, not enough is being done to put Greece on a realistic path of medium-term growth and financial viability. It also risks exposing the IMF to even heavier political pressure, accentuating legitimate questions about the uniformity of its treatment of member countries.

Having compromised, the IMF should now stick to its guns and refuse to make its arrangement for Greece operational until it is satisfied on both debt relief and technical assumptions. And, rather than declare victory, as they were inclined to do in a mid-June statement by eurozone finance ministers, European officials should treat this compromise as the next step in softening its increasingly untenable stance on Greek debt.

In the meantime, both sides would be well advised to undertake a careful analysis of previous experiences with programs that were approved in principle, rather than becoming immediately operational. When defined well, including by specifying a short period for the prospective shift to being fully operational, such programs can serve as a catalyst and conduit for relaxing a binding constraint on growth and financial viability. They need to be part of a constructive process. They do not work as standalone solutions.

Notwithstanding some bumps along the way, the succession of such programs in the 1980s helped avoid disruptive defaults, and culminated in meaningful reductions of debt and debt-service obligations, which helped several Latin American economies restore high growth and financial viability. A few years later, the process was repeated successfully in the debt-reduction programs for low-income countries under the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) initiative.

The grudging short-term compromise between the IMF and Europe comes after months of sometimes acrimonious discussions. For the sake of Greece, and for the credibility of their own future interactions, they should view it as a stepping-stone to the (long-delayed) definitive resolution of Greece’s economic and financial malaise. Greek citizens have waited, and suffered, long enough.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz, was Chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council and is the author of The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse.

By Mohamed A. El-Erian

We use cookies to improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you are giving consent to cookies being used. More details…