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WAWDT: The “Muslim ban” breaks the “security triangle”

Certainly the biggest “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) policy decision among many under the new administration so far is Executive Order (EO) 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” but widely known as the “Muslim ban.” (The latter term is controversial, but seems appropriate based on its perceived effect, background, related discussions, and related statements.)

A lot has been written about this issue, and the courts have so far examined the several problems with this EO, so there is no need for me to recapitulate all the arguments. On the whole, however, it does seem to me that the EO does nothing beyond what current exhaustive vetting procedures already do to achieve its stated premise – keeping America safer. And furthermore, it seems that among its many secondary effects may very well be dynamics making this country and the world less safe. As such it will certainly put Americans overseas, as well as people associated with the US in other countries, at risk. We’ve already heard of impact on working relations of US troops with Iraqi military, and there is the obvious dilemma presented to people who have worked with Americans as interpreters.

The “security triangle”

Part of the reason this EO cannot achieve its ostensible aim of greater safety, and may actually accomplish the opposite, is that it effectively  knocks out one corner of the so-called “security triangle”: acceptance. The security triangle is a concept based on recognition that “security” has several dimensions, and highlights three complementary factors:

  • Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
  • Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
  • Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.

With this EO, the administration seems to be putting all its chips on protection, supported by deterrence, no matter what the cost in terms of diminished acceptance. That is, not reducing the threat worldwide, while trying to reduce exposure to potential risk by keeping broad demographics (country, religion) out of the US, which in turn may actually augment and energize the threat.

The security triangle model emerged from the international humanitarian community around 2000,1 but I would argue that it is more broadly applicable to national security concerns in the context of terrorism and so-called asymmetrical conflict. Keep in mind that many humanitarian operations are conducted in environments that are unstable or involve conflict, and attacks on humanitarian workers have become more frequent. So this model, and identification of its three elements, comes out of experience.

The triangle itself apparently caused confusion as some saw it as asking organizations situate themselves in relation to the three elements (as if a trade-off).2 The revised edition of Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8) downplayed the triangle, but still discussed its three elements at length.3 The main point therefore remains, and that is that a combination of approaches addressing acceptance, protection, and deterrence, is essential to assuring safety and security, while at the same time maintaining the good relations essential to effective work in these contexts. The exact mix will depend on the situation, but it is interesting that 2010 GPR8 notes that despite increased security risks in many parts of the world, acceptance turns out to be the most important factor:

Given their mission and values, aid organisations find acceptance by far the most appealing security strategy. Indeed, acceptance can and should be the foundation of all security strategies. But acceptance will not be effective against all threats. (GPR8, p. 56)

So what are the implications of all this for national policies that affect international relations?

Acceptance & “soft power”

Historically, the US government has had a whole range of messages, initiatives, and structures from “winning hearts and minds” to public diplomacy, and from USAID’s clasped hands to Peace Corps, aimed in different ways at cultivating positive images of the country. These arguably are analogous to the strategic concern of development and humanitarian organizations with “acceptance” in communities where they work. Scaling up to the level of the international system is tricky, but the US is a member of the community of nations, and its actions can affect how it is “accepted” by other nations and most importantly for this discussion, their populations.

The range of messages mentioned above also fit under the cultivation of “soft power” – “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” And indeed, at least one article in the wake of EO 13769 asks how the Muslim ban might broadly undercut American soft power. One might tentatively consider “acceptance,” an element of a security strategy, as being a benefit of soft power. That would mean a diminishing of soft power would be reflected in lower acceptance and higher threat levels.

Pres. Trump has spoken on several occasions about wanting as immigrants “people who love us….” Well such love doesn’t just happen, and it can be lost through accumulation of negative perceptions. Policy decisions that in effect tell citizens of whole countries or members of a religion that they are not wanted (even if “temporarily”) are going to have a negative effect on love, acceptance, soft power, and ultimately security (on top of legal and moral questions about such measures). And all that is, or at least was, avoidable.

Better to have a policy begins with recognizing the strengths of existing practice, then carefully evaluates what gaps if any may exist, reviews these and measures to address them with appropriate experts in and out of government, and finally plans how to implement the measures with attention to avoiding unwanted negative secondary effects.

(See “Security triangle” without the triangle, for more on acceptance-protection-deterrence.)

1. It appeared for instance in the first edition of Operational Security Management in Violent  Environments: A Field Manual for Aid Agencies (Good Practice Review 8, Humanitarian Practice Network, ODI, 2000; authored by Koenraad Van Brabant; p. 10). Daniel Paul’s article, “The Relevance of the Security Triangle: An Examination of Literature on Perspectives of Humanitarian Security,” cites some other literature.
2. This was the impression I had when I first learned of the security triangle in the early 2000s while on the Peace Corps staff in Niger. Peace Corps, like most development organizations, had traditionally relied primarily on acceptance, although without putting that label on it. But the changing environment worldwide required attention to protection (deterrence, beyond normal police protection, would in my opinion undermine the whole purpose).
3. Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (Good Practice Review 8 [revised edition], Commissioned and published by the Humanitarian Practice Network at ODI, 2010).


WAWDT: FCC turning off low-income access to broadband?

The item that prompted me to begin writing about “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) was a news report about the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to rescind authorization for 9 internet providers to provide subsidized broadband to low income households under the Lifeline program (CNN; The Hill; Gizmodo). This is not the biggest issue out there, but in the torrent of news, it was in a way one item too many.

The details are a bit complicated, but the immediate effect seems to run contrary to the new FCC commissioner Ajit Pai‘s stated desire to end the digital divide. The Lifeline program (FCC general & consumer pages) began in 1985 as a way of assuring telephone access to people otherwise unable to access essential communications services (such as poor and elderly). Internet broadband was added to the Lifeline program in March 2016, in recognition of the increasingly essential nature of broadband – such as for students who need good internet access for their schoolwork.

The 9 companies that had been granted this status so far (out of a total of 117 applicants listed on the FCC’s Lifeline Broadband Provider Petitions & Public Comment Periods page, accessed 4 Feb. 2017) have had their status downgraded to pending. They are, in the order they appeared on the list:

The timeline and final outcome are uncertain. According to the Washington Post,

By stopping companies … from accessing the Lifeline program, Pai may be signaling his intention to apply more restrictions to the Lifeline program, policy analysts said. One such restriction could be a strict cap on the program’s budget, which is indirectly funded through fees in the bills of telephone customers.

Expansion of the Lifeline program to include broadband seemed a positive way to address one aspect of increasing inequality – access to information via the internet. Its ending or curtailment would certainly be a loss. Hopefully this can be reinstated or otherwise moved forward again in a way that benefits eligible people.

The FCC has at least one other potential WAWDT item on its policy agenda – overturning net neutrality as a governing principle of the internet.


2017, year of “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT)

Asking “Why are we doing this?” is often a good reality check. Posing the question is sometimes a way of expressing doubts about a course of action. It is a question that has been coming to mind a lot in the wake of various policy decisions by the new administration in the US headed by Donald Trump, and by the new Congress.

SDG logoActually I find myself asking this question – often as “why are we undoing this?” – quite a bit. And this is the proper form of the question -not “why are they (un)doing this?”- if you think of this as being one nation. We’re in this together and need to ask appropriate  questions. So I don’t regard this as partisanship, but rather critical and dispassionate (as much as is possible when considering the human dimensions of some of these issues) reading of policy proposals and actions.

“Why are we doing this?” & refugees in Australia

So come to find out the president himself  has been asking “Why are we doing this?” in regard to the agreement with Australia (made by the previous administration, of Barack Obama) to receive 1200 refugees (refugees, not “illegal immigrants” as the president tweeted). One might also ask “Why are we undoing this?” if the president nixes the agreement.

To really ask “Why are we (un)doing this?” however, means more than just throwing out a challenge or dismissing a proposed or existing course of action. There are several items to consider, such as:

  • What are the anticipated benefits of the policy/action (and for who), or what problem does it propose to address?
  • What legal, diplomatic, ethical, or moral obligations come to bear in deciding on the policy/action?
  • How will this course of action lead to the desired outcome?
  • What are the costs of pursuing this course of action, or of not pursuing it?
  • What secondary effects might result from this course of action and the steps involved in actualizing it, or from not implementing it?

In general, it seems the previous administration prioritized humanitarian concerns and international cooperation in the context of understanding the US as a nation of immigrants, while the current administration seems to prioritize protection and national interests even at the expense of international agreements, with a more “nativist” conception of America. Also the previous administration seems to have been more positive-sum in its approach to issues, while the current one sees things more in zero-sum terms.

However, even when understanding general approaches and biases, specific issues need specific questions. What are the benefits of the agreement to settle these refugees in the US is a question that can be answered more narrowly or more broadly (such as local cost/benefit vs. a more stable world system). On the other hand, the benefits of canceling the agreement are framed in terms of keeping out people described as undesirable (though frankly the president’s characterization of these refugees as coming from “prisons” is evidently inaccurate, and the apparent reference to Australia exporting the “next Boston Bombers” is also off the mark). A range of obligations are relevant in this case, from moral (humanitarian) to diplomatic (since the agreement has been made) to safety (to the extent that these refugees may represent a risk). The question of costs of settling the refugees vs. nixing the agreement can be calculated in human, monetary, and diplomatic terms. The contrary concern appears to be that these refugees represent a risk or burden that the government should avoid is one probably misinformed based on experience – but in any event addressed by answering how vetting would take place as part of the process.

The secondary effects of such issues need more attention than they seem to be getting. In this case, refugees as immigrants can be seen as benefiting the country, as they have for generations, in terms both of contributions they and their descendants make, and our national image. But some see in these refugees and their descendants as potential threats – a perception that is at least debatable (and debated) considering the long history of immigrant communities in the US, and especially in light of the rigor of established vetting procedures. Globally, the ripple effects of keeping refugees in camps could, aside from holding people in inhuman conditions, have their own longer term security risks. There is also a cost to the image of America in treating refugees in general as potential criminals. Populations are moving, in response to various problems, often fleeing dire conditions. Responses to their plight and needs – in a world system where even stable areas are seeing social problems, climate change, and increasing economic inequality – will require more than raising barriers or opening doors.

Other “Why are we doing this?” issues

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of policy proposals and decisions that have me asking this question. Such that it is tempting to acronymize it as “WAWDT,” and use that as a tag. To the extent that time permits I hope to look at some of them with attention to specific questions such as those proposed above.

In trying to answer such questions, I believe one will find that there will be a pattern to assumptions driving these proposed changes, and that some of the responses – the answers to the specific questions about “Why are we doing this?” – will also recur. For instance, the president’s reaction to this group of refugees held by Australia shares some common elements with the controversial and much more widely directed Executive Order 13769 effectively banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the US.


CFP: Language, the SDGs, and Vulnerable Populations

SDG logoThe Study Group on Language at the United Nations, in cooperation with the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and the Center for Applied Linguistics, will again this year hold a two-day symposium (11-12 May 2017) on language and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I reproduce below the call for participation (CFP) based on versions seen on the Language Policy List and Linguist List. The contact person is Prof. Humphrey Tonkin. Note the call deadline of 28 February.

This blog previously featured the CFP for the April 2016 Language & SDGs symposium and its program. The Final Report of that symposium is available on the Study Group’s site.

Language, the Sustainable Development Goals, and Vulnerable Populations

New York, NY, USA • Thursday-Friday, May 11-12, 2017

What issues of language and communication are raised, or should be raised, by the efforts of the United Nations to reach the most vulnerable populations through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by the UN in 2015? Particular attention will be given to language issues surrounding refugees and their children, migrants, and minority communities.

When the UN General Assembly unanimously approved the 17 SDGs 2015-2030, proponents foresaw a comprehensive and cooperative effort extending beyond the United Nations and its Member States to incorporate civil society in general. The SDGs, they said, should “leave no one behind” and should emerge from a dialogue in which all parties collaborate in a spirit of equality. Moreover, the most vulnerable populations need to be first on the agenda.

These vulnerable populations speak a multiplicity of languages often little understood by development specialists, and they are often isolated or neglected, and unconnected to those who seek to help. Reaching them requires reaching across languages, and it implies listening to their concerns, freely expressed. Is the UN ready for such an effort? Though the SDGs are largely silent on language issues, sustainability requires two-way, democratic communication in multiple languages.

The world is witnessing the largest population movement since World War II: refugees who must be returned to their homes or resettled, displaced children who need education, migrants who must acquire new languages to become productive in new circumstances. In negotiating their way in foreign environments, they must deal with officials who often do not know their languages. The SDGs identify problems but say little about reaching these populations.

To carry out the SDGs through dialogue and understanding, we must reach vulnerable populations in languages they understand. Preserving cultural identity while communicating across languages must become a recognized issue: we must educate through languages young people understand, deliver health care comprehensibly, and reach refugees and migrants through comprehensible dialogue. Attaining all seventeen SDGs requires mutual comprehension at every level.

The Study Group on Language and the UN drew attention to the absence of language issues in formulating the SDGs through a symposium it organized in April 2016 and a subsequent report. We return to this topic in our 2017 symposium, but with special stress on vulnerable populations.

The organizers welcome proposals for 20-minute papers on topics linking the SDGs with vulnerable populations, such as:

  • Language as a factor in sustainable development
  • Language policy for refugees, migrants, and displaced populations
  • Language & migration
  • Language as it relates to race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, economic status, or other factors
  • Language & education of refugees and migrants
  • Language & quality education for vulnerable populations (Goal 4)
  • Language & mother-tongue education (Goal 4)
  • Language & gender equality (Goal 5)
  • Language & economic growth (Goal 8)
  • Language & reducing inequalities (Goal 10)
  • Language & peace & justice (Goal 16)
  • NGOs, language & vulnerable populations
  • UN language policy & implementation of the SDGs
  • The role of regional or minority languages
  • Language & stateless nations

Please send proposals (200 words or less, accompanied by a biography of approximately 50 words) to the chair of the symposium organizing committee, Prof. Humphrey Tonkin, at tonkin (at) hartford (dot) edu, by February 28, 2017.  The committee expects to make final decisions on the program by March 15.


International Anti-Corruption Day 2016

IADC 2016 logoInternational Anti-Corruption Day (IACD) has been marked annually on December 9 since 2003, the year in which the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). Having just returned from a short term contract with an anti-corruption effort in Mali, I thought it worth highlighting this issue on this day.

IACD was actually designated as Dec. 9 by the UNGA at the time of adoption of the UNCAC. It figures as part of a global anti-corruption campaign led by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the U.N. Development Program. IACD’s dedicated website is at anticorruptionday.org.

What is corruption?

Corruption is variously defined, but involves uses of power and/or money to achieve a desired but unethical and illegal (or at least extralegal) benefit. By its nature it involves someone in a position of authority seeking or able to confer the illicit benefit. As such it is not one thing but a range of practices that can occur in many contexts.

The simplest distinction is between a person in authority charging a fee or gift for a good or service that should be provided without charge, and a transaction between a private citizen and a person in authority to allow the former to get away with something unlawful (e.g., illegal goods, avoiding taxes or fines). One can also distinguish for example petty corruption (what an individual might encounter) from grand corruption (of the big money sort one might read about in the press), or systemic corruption (which is generalized and organized) from sporadic corruption (which may arise in diverse situations).

In fact, once one begins to consider details of specific situations, the taxonomy of corruption gets a lot more complex. Two organizations concerned with corruption offer glossaries of its various forms:

There is, as one would imagine, a significant amount written about corruption. Among bibliographies, Matthew Stephenson‘s extensive (197 page) “Bibliography on Corruption and Anti-Corruption” and Inge Amundsen and Odd-Helge Fjeldstad’s “Corruption – A selected and annotated bibliography” are of note.

Personally, having encountered corruption (mostly indirectly) in West Africa at various points over the last three decades, and trying to make sense of those experiences and qualitative data from research by the project with which I worked, I have found J-P. Olivier de Sardan‘s discussions of what he calls the “corruption complex” helpful (see for example “A Moral Economy of Corruption in Africa?“).


Settlements on Mars? Start in Earth’s deserts

Elon Musk’s introduction of SpaceX’s plans to go to Mars was long on the how to get there, but short on the “now what?” once passengers land. What would cities on Mars look like, and how would they solve the material and social challenges they would encounter from the moment they arrive at their destination?


    OXO Architectes “Tour des sables” concept

A practical place to start looking – and planning – would be Earth’s driest deserts. It’s not by whim that scenes in the 2015 movie The Martian were filmed in the barren Wadi Rum of southern Jordan. While no place on Earth is really comparable to Mars, the most arid areas are as close as one can get in many respects.

Urbanization in sparsely populated “deep deserts” – areas away from water sources where most ancient and modern desert cities are located – is a path we will have to consider in the wake of population growth and environmental change. But such urbanization will need to be much more concerned with water conservation and efficient protection from the harsh climate than say Las Vegas or Dubai.

The technologies necessary for creating sustainable communities in these harsh arid environments exist, such as solar and wind power, water recycling, thermal insulation, and food production in controlled and even vertical environments. Their combination and application in deep desert cities would have benefits for humanity on Earth – and potentially on Mars.

In fact, if SpaceX’s (or any other) Mars venture really is to take flight, its organizers would do well to have first collaborated on development of cities in deep deserts. Many technical issues could be worked out which could both be scaled on Earth and implemented in Mars colonies.

Examples of potential candidates for such collaboration might include the French architectural firm Manal Rachdi OXO Architectes which has a concept for a city-in-a-tower in the Moroccan Sahara, and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates which has a plan for a sustainable city in the desert there.

Beyond the relatively straightforward (which is not to say easy) engineering problems of getting to Mars or creating a sustainable built environment, are a range of social, cultural, linguistic, health, and governance issues that will arise where hundreds or thousands of people are housed in a more-or-less self-contained habitat. Better to have a practical experience dealing with such issues closer to home before attempting to do the same on an another planet.