Archive for the ‘Culture & Society’ Category

Children peek out from their makeshift shelter in Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan tore through eastern and central Philippines on November 10th

Children peek out from their makeshift shelter in Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan tore through eastern and central Philippines on November 10th

Weather forecasters had given warning before Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines that the storm was extraordinarily powerful. That it was extraordinarily destructive became clear to all when the typhoon landed on the east coast November 8th. Three days later it has become apparent that the storm was also extraordinarily deadly; the survivors will require an colossal relief effort just to stay alive.

Before the typhoon landed, meteorologists had detected wind speeds of 313kph (194mph) near the centre, gusting up to 378kph, making it one of the strongest storms ever recorded. It whipped up giant waves that crashed ashore. Between them, the wind and waves ploughed through coastal communities, crushing buildings as if they were cardboard, tossing boats and cars around like toys and sweeping people to their deaths. The storm charged across the middle of country from east to west, drenching everything in its path with driving rain. Homes and crops that the wind failed to destroy were left at the mercy of flooding and landslides brought on by the rain.

A picture of the amount of death and destruction caused began to emerge only after the storm had swept out over the South China Sea, heading towards Vietnam. Witnesses spoke of corpses littering the wrecked city of Tacloban, on the east coast, which felt the full force of the storm. They spoke of dazed survivors wandering streets strewn with debris, begging for help. “From the shore and moving a kilometre inland, there are no structures standing. It was like a tsunami,” said the interior secretary, Manuel Roxas, after inspecting the destruction from a helicopter. “I don’t know how to describe what I saw.”

The responsible authorities were powerless to find out the extent of the disaster, let alone bring relief. In Tacloban and elsewhere, the electricity supply, the water supply and telephone communications were among the first casualties. The local authorities were unable to help survivors as public servants were unable to report for duty. Fallen trees and power lines had blocked roads and floods had swept away bridges. More out-of-the-way places were beyond help. Read more…

As published in on November 11, 2013.



It is unclear whether a system that is geared to growth can also provide clean air and water

By Gideon Rachman


Foreign commentators and local bloggers regularly predict that China is heading for an economic and political crisis. But the country’s leaders are in strikingly confident mood. They believe that China can keep growing at more than 7 per cent a year for at least another decade. That would mean the country’s economy – already the second-largest in the world – would double in size. And, depending on the assumptions you make about US growth and exchange rates, it would probably mean that China becomes the world’s largest economy by 2020.

Nobody embodies the leadership’s confidence better than the burly, imposing figure of Xi Jinping, China’s president. Last week, I was part of a group of foreign visitors – brought together by the 21st century Council, a think-tank – who met the Chinese leader in Beijing. Mr Xi’s manner is warmer and less formal than that of Hu Jintao, his slightly robotic predecessor. Yet the staging of the meeting had faint echoes of Chinese history, in which foreign barbarians paid tribute to the leader of the Middle Kingdom.

The president sat in an armchair in a cavernous meeting room in the Great Hall of the People, with a vast mural of the Great Wall of China behind him. Arranged in a semi-circle in front of him was a group of former presidents and prime ministers from other nations, including Gordon Brown of Britain and Mario Monti from Italy. In the semi-circle behind them were some western business leaders, and a smattering of “thinkers”. President Xi started his remarks by pronouncing himself “deeply moved by the sincerity you have shown”. He then proceeded to give a confident presentation of his vision for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

In remarks that were widely picked up by the Chinese media, Mr Xi dismissed the idea that China risks falling into a “middle-income trap” that stalls its development and said he was confident that rapid growth could continue, without the need for further stimulus measures.

Exactly how China will sustain its growth and strengthen its global position is, however, the subject of intense discussion among the country’s leadership – as became clear in a series of other meetings arranged for our group with top military, diplomatic and economic policy makers. Read more…

As published in on November 4, 2013.



In his engaging and timely presentation last week, Prof. Ansari discussed how ideology, nationalism and Iranian mythology were intricately intertwined. The Persian civilization is several millennia old and Iranians are immensely proud of their heritage. Indeed Iranian nationalism today is just as much about Islam as it is about Iranian mythology and early civilization. Prof. Ansari mentioned the important historical figure of King Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire in around 600 BC. Having originated from Persis, roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Fars, Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. King Cyrus, was obviously, not Muslim.

Prof. Ansari also mentioned the mythical figure of Kaveh, a blacksmith who led a popular uprising against a ruthless foreign ruler, Zahhāk. Kaveh is still today very much part of the Iranian identity, even though, again, he has nothing to do with Islam.


What is interesting is to see how Iranians today try to reconcile their mythical, historical and Islamic identities into one Iranian identity. It is not always easy to do so, and often some stretches of imagination are required. But all three elements are fundamental aspects of who an Iranian is today.

Prof. Ansari answered questions from the public with humor and candor. When asked about the window of opportunity that is currently being opened as a result of the rapprochement between President Rouhani and President Obama, he answered that this represented an opportunity but that one should be realistic. His recommendation to negotiators on both sides was that “one should not invent a person you want to talk to. Talk to the person you have in front of you.” He seemed a bit sceptical about the “tectonic shifts” some observers claim are taking place in Iran and US relations Regarding the desire for nuclear power in Iran, Prof. Ansari asserted that unlike popular belief, Iranians were much more preoccupied about Pakistan having the bomb than Israel.


By Faezeh Samanian

Gender discrimination is still an issue, especially in high office, but progress is being made.


Nearly 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, gender discrimination is still a challenging issue for Iran. On the one hand, the situation for Iranian women has improved considerably in many respects under the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). On the other, there is a clear and seemingly impregnable ceiling for women in administrative and government positions.

Iranian Women Under the Islamic Republic

In some ways, women have enjoyed significant gains under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowhere is this more true than in education. In 1976, on the eve of the Revolution, the female literacy rate was a mere 35 percent. Despite the turmoil of the revolution and the imposed war with Iraq, by 1986 this rate had risen to 52 percent. Today, Iranian girls between the ages of 15 and 24 enjoy near universal literacy.

These gains are also reflected in education levels, which have greatly improved as part of the IRI’s commitment to providing universal education. For example, the female enrollment rate for primary education institutions is actually higher than it is for males. Women also graduate from their primary education programs at the same rate as their male counterparts. And despite new restrictions on what they can study, Iranian women are also strong participants in secondary education, with the female general enrollment rate in secondary education about 86 percent of the male rate.

In many ways, the high female education rate also extends to employment, especially since 1992 when the High Council of the Cultural Revolution adopted a new set of employment policies for women. Although women are unemployed at a rate of roughly twice that of men, one-third of doctors, 60 percent of civil servants, and 80 percent of teachers in Iran are women, according to the British historian Michael Axworthy.

One area where Iranian women continue to face clear obstacles is in the upper reaches of the Iranian government. For example, around 30 women signed up to run for president earlier this year, but the Guardian Council – Iran’s constitutional watchdog – rejected their candidacies based solely on gender. As Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdii, a conservative cleric and member of the Guardian Council explained at the time, the “law does not approve” of women running for president. Read more…

As published by The Diplomat on September 22, 2013.


By Cameron Abadi


To state the obvious: Angela Merkel, who has just won a third term as German chancellor, isn’t very macho. Her preferred free-time pursuit is recreational nature walking. (Also, baking: she admitted during the campaign season that her husband was sometimes displeased by the paucity of crumbs atop her cakes.) She hardly ever indulges in public demonstrations of authority; she speaks softly, and mostly refrains from displays of emotion, except for occasional flashes of a nervous smile. As for body language, her signature gesture is the Merkel diamond, which seems laboratory-tested to avoid appearing confrontational.

Compare that, for a moment, with the testosterone-soaked state of U.S.-Russian diplomacy, which has devolved in recent weeks into a high-profile pissing match. Vladimir Putin raided U.S.-backed NGOs, while Barack Obama chided Putin’s posture; Putin extended asylum to America’s most-wanted fugitive, as Obama canceled a bilateral Moscow summit. For a while, it seemed as if the confrontation would have to be settled with a round of one-on-one basketball or some judo sparring. Eventually, they both managed to claim credit for averting war with Syria—Putin from the op-ed page of the one newspaper that Barack Obama professes to care about.

There was something transfixing about the display of presidential one-upsmanship; even Germans seemed more drawn to the Putin-Obama show than their own election campaign. But if Putin and Obama ever do manage to stop their reciprocal bouts of preening, they’d do well to consider cribbing from Merkel’s machismo-less political methods. There’s an argument to be made that it’s Merkel who is the Machiavelli of our day—better, and certainly shrewder, at power politics than any of her peers, including her colleagues in the White House and Kremlin.

Merkel’s quiet affect shouldn’t obscure her influence. Germany has more power today than at any time since World War II. Merkel is prima inter pares in the European Union, capable of determining the shape of the bailout packages given to the continent’s ailing economies and, thus, capable of determining the shape of their national economies for years on end. Even the ostensibly independent European Central Bank seems to take its directions from the chancellory in Berlin, afraid to get too far ahead of Merkel’s plans. Read more…

Cameron Abadi is Deputy Web Editor at Foreign Affairs.

As published in September 22, 2103.

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