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Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: God's Own Country

Kochi (Cochin)—In the 1990s, the wordsmiths in New Delhi struck upon “Incredible India” as the advertising shorthand for the world’s most populous democracy. Not to be outdone, Kerala’s rulers rebranded their state “God’s Own Country,” a slogan now seen everywhere. But three thoughts occurred to us after spending ten days traveling through Kerala:
  1. That the apostrophe should appear at the end of the first word, given the plurality of divinities in this intriguing state;
  2. That among these deities is the Marxist god that demonstrably failed the former Soviet empire; and
  3. That communism here has half-succeeded and half-failed in interesting ways.
Much has been written about Kerala’s quality of life, its achievements in literacy, health, and empowerment of women. But we found that God's Own Country is also vulnerable to mortal misjudgments and adverse external forces. As we learned in Mumbai, access to jobs is a major source of communal strife. In Kerala, the lack of jobs for educated citizens is an omnipresent challenge. Unemployment in the state hovers around 25 percent, depending on how and whom you count; roughly twice as many women as men are jobless. Moreover, Kerala has no industrial base. Workers are unionized and wages are high compared to neighboring Tamil Nadu. Land is in short supply and expensive; consumer goods are imported. Jumbo-sized billboards pepper the landscape; television commercials interrupt programming—a Mad Man’s delight. Print journalism flourishes, and people are well informed and opinionated. But in the words of a friendly critic, “Keralites know their rights, but not their obligations.” On our journey we have seen several attempts to mitigate the relentless consumer pressure on a weak economic base by promoting ecotourism, nurturing manufacturing cooperatives founded a half- century ago, and disbursing micro-loans to seed small businesses. The intentions are admirable; the limitations severe. Early on, we visited a popular tourist destination, the hill station of Ponmudi, nearly three hours by car from the capital, Trivandrum. But whereas the ancient Romans excelled at constructing ruler-straight roads, Keralites have produced what must be among the world’s greatest collections of hairpin turns (22 in the final stretch). On leveler terrain, public and private buses, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars hurtle through roads blocked by armies of pedestrians, cows, protest demonstrators, and the occasional temple elephant accompanied by his or her mahouts. A recent cover story from India Today noted that India has the highest number of road accidents in the world: by last count, 13 every hour, 114,590 a year.  Safety aside, public transport is sluggish, inadequate, and subject to periodic strikes. This infrastructure is palpably inhospitable to large-scale ecotourism. As a headline in The Hindu puts it, India is a country “Where the Pedestrian Is a Third-Class Citizen.” Sidewalks are a rarity in Kerala. 

Jodi Liss: Omar Bongo and the Big Vegetables

Every student of International Relations Theory 101 gets treated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Parable of the Stag Hunt. You remember the tale: two hunters are sent into the woods looking for a stag to feed their starving village. To bag the animal, they must independently choose to work together or each can choose to snare a rabbit for themselves (which can be accomplished alone). In the end, they choose the lesser task: feasting as the villagers starve, foregoing the uncertain rewards of cooperation for more immediate, assured ends. Rousseau’s parable illustrates the all-too-prevalent triumph of self-interest over group loyalty. But it's also a perfect metaphor for corruption. Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon died last week. Few in the West had heard of him until his obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Gabon is a small but oil-rich country on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and Bongo, who ruled for 41 years, was one of the smoother, most clever oil despots the world has ever seen. He sustained his power not by overt violence but by co-opting enemies and, allegedly, running a network of spies and informants. Gabon is a former French colony, and Bongo played on that nation's guilt and need for oil to keep in the West's good books. He and his family amassed a fortune on what should have been a civil servant’s salary. No one was fooled. Everyone knows Bongo’s story is scarcely unique in the developing world. Yet what Omar Bongo did is almost beside the point—it’s what he didn’t do in 41 years that matters. Simply put, he didn’t bother to create a functioning country. For years, we've heard the truism that developing countries needed Western aid to build successful economies. But has it worked? Despite billions in loans and gifts to developing nations, poverty is still rampant, especially in Africa. Since the beginning of the Cold War, international aid was often a fig leaf for payoffs and bribes to dictators to keep them in one camp or another. Rarely did the money spent trickle down to the people who needed it most. Economists now debate whether the West should continue to lend or give aid money to developing countries in the hopes that it will eventually help matters, or whether it just abets corruption and makes things worse. But dozens of countries haven’t truly needed aid....

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