Long-elusive Philippines peace accord reflects exhaustion

Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in southern Philippines
With 150,000 dead from decades of religious and ethnic fighting and no family in the southern Philippines free of fear they could be the next slain, Filipinos and their fractious leaders have run out of energy for rebellion.

A road map to peace unveiled this week by the Philippine government and the main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been hailed by Muslims and Catholics alike as a glimmer of hope that an end is in sight to bloody clashes that have racked the islands since the 1960s. The deal also eases Western concern that foreign Islamic militants could be drawn to remote Philippine jungle camps, already the scene of kidnappings and beheadings.

GlobalFocusUnder the accord to be signed Sunday in Manila, the rebels would eventually enjoy self-rule over a yet-to-be-defined territorial entity to be called  Bangsamoro, or Moro Nation. They would also have more control over the region's rich tropical forests and oil and gas reserves.

The agreement lays out a four-year transition to autonomy for the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. But huge hurdles remain to be cleared: How does the government integrate Islamic rebels into the mainly Catholic ranks of the national armed forces? Which areas of the ethnically diverse south will be included in the new state? Will sharia law be invoked in Bangsamoro, and can it realistically be applied only to the Muslim population, as proposed during the internationally mediated negotiations?

The most perplexing question may be how police and soldiers can disarm the legions of gun-toting rebels and resisters who constitute the only law in much of the south's remote mountains and jungles.

Having weathered dictatorship, corruption and conflict for much of the 66 years they have been independent, Filipinos are eager to answer those daunting questions, relief officials and analysts say.

The agreement reached this week is less the product of strategic give-and-take during years of negotiations than a white flag of surrender to exhaustion sent up by both the government and the rebels. That is the view of Albert Santoli, president of the Asia America Initiative that for more than a decade has provided relief to the tens of thousands of Filipinos who have fled the fighting.

"People are tired of killing each other. They're tired of never knowing if they're going to have to flee their homes," Santoli said. He pointed to the relative harmony in refugee camps that shelter internally displaced Muslims and Christians together as grounds for confidence that Filipinos are eager to work for peace.

Although he views a 2016 target for creating Bangsamoro as unrealistic, Santoli said the deadline may motivate young Filipinos to take advantage of the apparent sincerity of President Benigno Aquino III to broker an end to the fighting.

"The hope is that if everyone is committed to the process that things will get better, that they'll be able to create an attitude of cooperation among youth," Santoli said. "But in practical terms, it will take a generation."

Michael Buehler, Philippines expert for the Asia Society and a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, sees the potential for success in this latest peace effort of the post-World War II era.

"Mindanao is one of the most resource-rich parts of the country," which is its blessing and its curse, Buehler said. The decades of fighting have prevented the south from tapping its valuable tropical woods, minerals and fuels. They have also provided cover for backdoor deals between business interests in the north and southern provincial kingpins who often have sway over the rebels in their fiefdoms.

"Very often Manila has had a divide-and-rule approach to problems in the south," Buehler said. If autonomy looks to be getting in the way of deals cut on the sidelines of the conflict, "that could provide incentive for them to undermine the peace plan," Buehler said of the de facto rural power brokers unlikely to be eager to step aside for Islamic rebel leaders. 

Still, the new plan is seen as a serious effort to integrate Muslims who have long felt like outsiders in the Catholic-dominated state, said Gerard Finin, a senior fellow at Honolulu's East West Center who has traveled and worked in the Philippines since the 1970s.

He sees two major challenges ahead, though. The mediators -- which include the United States, Europe, Malaysia and other Muslim nations -- must strive to keep the rebels unified behind the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders during the difficult negotiations ahead. And all must remain vigilant, Finin said, in protecting any new Bangsamoro government from being undermined by the multitude of political, economic and tribal conflicts of interest fueling the violence.

"There are still many big questions to be answered," Finin said. "But things are looking better today than they have for some time."


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Photo: Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels patrol inside their base at Camp Darapan on the island of Mindanao in 2011. The rebels and other unauthorized gunmen would be disarmed under a peace plan to be signed Sunday in Manila. Credit: Ted Aljibe / AFP/Getty Images


As 'Chavismo' sputters, a charismatic challenger woos Venezuelans

Henrique Capriles has united and mobilized opposition forces
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has loomed larger than life over his oil-rich country for nearly 14 years, doling out healthcare and houses and university admissions to supporters of his “Bolivarian Revolution” aimed at creating history’s first affluent socialist state.

A barrel-chested former paratrooper who has tapped Venezuela's oil revenues to court a loyal following among the country’s poor, Chavez has handily outpolled disorganized opponents in past elections and harnessed people power to defeat a 2001 coup d’etat and win a recall vote three years later.

GlobalFocusBut much of the revolutionary fire that stirred the masses into a political phenomenon known as Chavismo has gone out of the cancer-stricken president. For the first time since his 1998 election victory, he faces a viable competitor with a message of unity and a track record of efficient management as governor of the state that surrounds Caracas.

Few neutral observers are yet convinced that Chavez will fall to Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles in Sunday’s presidential election. They are as dubious of polls showing the 40-year-old challenger with a slight edge as they are of the Chavez-commissioned surveys depicting the incumbent at least 10 percentage points ahead. 

Still, there is a solidifying impression among political analysts that Chavez's "missions" to eradicate illiteracy, improve healthcare, provide government jobs and build housing for the homeless have benefited too few for the vast sums squandered on the programs. A Reuters news agency report this week on its investigation into the opaque ledgers of a massive slush fund under Chavez's control identified more than $100 billion in off-budget spending over the last seven years.

While the social programs are popular and have made dents in poverty and illiteracy, Venezuelans are tiring of unfulfilled promises after 14 years, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. He believes that Chavez "has run his course."

Violent crime has skyrocketed -- including at least two fatal shootings of Capriles supporters at campaign events this week. Infrastructure is crumbling, as seen in deadly refinery explosions this summer. Power shortages afflict much of the country, and "there is a sense that Chavez's rhetoric has lost its magic," Shifter said.

A cult of personality enveloped Chavez through most of his presidency, with his visage ubiquitous on posters and billboards. Broadcast media have been obliged to carry every one of his 2,300 speeches. If aired end to end 24/7, they would run for 72 days, according to the calculations of two prominent Latin American statesmen in a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The report, by career Chilean diplomat Genaro Arriagada and former Mexican Federal Electoral Institute chief Jose Woldenberg, also noted that Venezuela’s high-tech balloting machines that identify voters by fingerprint are suspected by a third of the population -– and a majority of Chavez supporters -- of creating a record of how they voted, despite official demonstrations to the contrary.

Voters in line for new housing or other government perqs fear they'll be bumped from the waiting lists if they are found to have voted for the opposition, said Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and now president of the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla.

Hugo Chavez campaigning Tuesday"What is true is not as important as what people think is true," Shapiro said of voters' enduring  suspicions that their votes won't be secret.

Opinion polls in Venezuela are a poor gauge of voter intentions, said Shapiro, who wouldn't hazard a guess as to whether an end to the Chavez era might be on the horizon.

"What I do know is that Capriles has run a terrific campaign. Chavez has been president for 14 years, and in any country a certain weariness sets in," Shapiro said. "While Chavez is a very good campaigner, he clearly is not as vigorous as in past campaigns."

Chavez, 58, has had three cancer operations in Cuba in 15 months and often has been absent, uncharacteristically, from the public spotlight.

The 40-year-old Capriles, by contrast, has projected a dynamic image, plunging headlong into Chavista territory to assure the poor that as president he would maintain popular social programs but run them better.

"Capriles has been extremely smart in his campaign, in a way that would suggest there's not going to be a period of vengeance against Chavez supporters in the government," Shifter said. "The mistake the opposition has made in the past is saying that everything Chavez has done is bad."

It remains to be seen whether the young governor's message is strong enough to overcome the considerable powers of incumbency, with Chavez in control of the airwaves and the oil treasure chest, Shifter said. There are also concerns about whether a Capriles victory would be respected by Chavez loyalists on the electoral council, in the courts and among the armed forces.

"Capriles is the new generation," whether he wins this time or not, Shifter said. "People are obviously responding to his message and giving him a serious look."


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Photo: Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, at a campaign rally on Monday, has united the country's scattered opposition forces to confront President Hugo Chavez with the first serious challenge of his 14-year tenure in Miraflores Palace. Credit: Leo Ramirez / AFP/GettyImages

Insert: President Hugo Chavez, at a campaign rally in Yaracui state on Tuesday, still draws enthusiastic crowds but has been less in the public spotlight this election year because of long absences for cancer treatment in Cuba. Credit: Juan Barreto / AFP/GettyImages

North Korea farmers to test regime appetite for reform

Kim Jong Un visits Pyongyang agricultural institue
Bountiful cucumbers, tomatoes and oranges grown in tiny backyard gardens kept private farmers' markets in business in the Soviet Union and served as a constant reminder that, by contrast, massive state-run farming collectives were pitifully inefficient.

GlobalFocusIn China, agricultural reforms were the crucial kick-start to the communist giant's three-decade transition from a centrally planned economy to one driven by market forces. And unlike their cohorts in Moscow, the Chinese leadership managed the rural revolution without losing its grip on political power.

North Korea's communist leadership is now reported by recent visitors to be experimenting with smaller-sized farming cooperatives and incentives for expanding food production by letting farmers keep and sell more of what they grow.

The dilemma faced by the Pyongyang regime, say academics who scrutinize the hermetic state, is whether opening the agricultural sector will rescue the economy, as it did in China, or whet North Koreans' appetite for more opportunity and political choice, thereby bringing down one-party rule, as it did in the Soviet Union.

No proclamations of radical change to combat persistent food shortages came out of Tuesday's session of the Supreme People's Assembly, a rubber-stamp parliament of 687 deputies all aligned with new leader Kim Jong Un. But veteran Korea watchers say they wouldn't expect a dramatic gesture.

"They can do that without trumpeting it," Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Institute at UC San Diego, said of the market reforms quietly introduced this summer at local and regional cooperative meetings. "That comports with the style I would expect to see, that the leadership is not going to stand up and make bold pronouncements that they're moving in a new direction."

Significant among the changes that will apply to next month's harvest,  Haggard said, is the government's revised formula for splitting crops between growers and the state. Farmers previously kept a small share of their output for their own consumption and delivered the rest to the government for distribution to the cities, but they now will be able to keep -- and presumably sell at market prices -- all produce in excess of an upfront quota for the state.

"The idea is that farmers are then incentivized to put in additional work to produce more, if they believe the quota will hold," Haggard said. "One thing we worry about is if they have shortages, the regime might be tempted to walk in and say that they can't have hunger in the military and will seize what they need."

There is also uncertainty over how willing the regime is to let the market determine food prices, as the government also talks of imposing price controls to rein in inflation, said Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.

Armstrong has been tracking what he calls a "bottom-up market reform" since the 1990s and sees significant parts of the economy now operating outside state control. Black markets flourish for scarce consumer goods smuggled in from China. Barter is a common means of commerce, independent of the won's fluctuating value. Underpaid professionals and craftsmen surreptitiously peddle their talents to monied elites in the capital and other major cities, Armstrong said.

Although Kim's leadership would want to prevent the rise of an entrepreneurial class that could challenge its monopoly on political power, Armstrong said, he still sees the most promising signs in more than a decade that the regime is eager to redirect investment from military to civilian pursuits.

Since he assumed power nine months ago, Kim has altered the image of the leadership with more speeches and public appearances  than his father, Kim Jong Il, made in 18 years as leader. He has weeded out some of the stodgier generals in the military hierarchy and promoted younger officers to positions of power, analysts note. And he is the first in the Kim dynasty, installed by his grandfather Kim Il Sung at the nation's founding, to introduce Western entertainment and attend performances with his fashionably dressed wife.

Victor Cha, head of Korean scholarship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, heralds the signals of change as "encouraging" but adds that reform has been attempted in the past only to be rescinded later.

"The dilemma for them is that real reform means loosening political controls and allowing opening, which a young, leadership-in-transition, is afraid to do," Cha said of Kim Jong Un.

The young leader's father introduced modest agricultural reforms in 2002 but revoked them three years later, reverting to an isolationist posture amid condemnation of North Korea's nuclear aspirations. He again embraced a quixotic policy of food self-sufficiency, refusing foreign humanitarian aid despite persistent malnutrition, the country's dearth of arable land and vulnerability to floods and mudslides.

Cha applauds the latest reform measures, not because he thinks they herald the kind of charismatic top-down transformation executed by China's Deng Xiaoping, "but because each time they allow for some economic incentivization in the market, they pull it back again at their own peril."


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Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a recent visit to the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute. Since Kim assumed the leadership nine months ago, he has quietly introduced some market-oriented agricultural reforms in hope of boosting crop outputs and easing chronic food shortages. Credit: Korea Central News Agency 

World of woe, little hope of relief, await U.N. General Assembly

General Assembly session on Syria in August
When 120 world leaders and their entourages gather at the United Nations this week, the woes of the world will be onstage in all their tragic detail: a civil war in Syria, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, reignited ethnic conflicts in Africa and uphill battles against poverty and global warming.

GlobalFocusWhat is likely to be in short supply at the General Assembly are fresh ideas for resolving the kaleidoscope of crises afflicting the planet. The U.N. Security Council has been hamstrung by internal conflicts among its permanent members in devising effective intervention in the Syrian bloodletting, and a colossal conference on sustainable development hosted by the world body three months ago was widely viewed as unproductive.

The Middle East and its myriad security challenges are expected to dominate the marathon of speeches beginning Tuesday, especially against the backdrop of worldwide Muslim outrage over an amateur video made by U.S.-based Christian zealots depicting the Prophet Muhammad as vile and sadistic.

Violent protests over the 14-minute film clip flared earlier this month after a version of "The Innocence of Muslims" was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. Conservative Islamists, some backed by Al Qaeda-aligned holy warriors, have attacked U.S. and other Western embassies and businesses across the Islamic crescent spanning the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. In the worst of the violence on Sept. 11, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. On Friday, the Muslim sabbath, enraged demonstrators clashed with police in Pakistan, killing at least 18 people.

Continue reading »

Solutions to poverty, population growth, global warming [Google+ Hangout]

As experts from three continents convene this week at UC Berkeley to discuss rapid population growth, climate change and other intractable problems, The Times will hold a live online video discussion -- via Google+ Hangout -- Thursday on potential solutions.

The newspaper explored such issues around the world in its recent five-part series on population growth in the developing world. Among other topics, the "Beyond 7 Billion" series examined chronic hunger and mass migration in East Africa -- trends that Dr. Malcolm Potts believes will soon extend across the Sahel, an arid region of Africa just below the Sahara desert.

LIVE VIDEO DISCUSSION: Join us at 3:30 p.m. Thursday

"What you've been seeing from Somalia is going to happen in all those countries, all the way across from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean," said Potts, a UC Berkeley professor of public health. "You've just seen a fraction of what's going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years."

Potts, who co-organized the conference focused on the Sahel region, will join The Times at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time Thursday to discuss solutions to the problems facing this part of Africa and other impoverished nations with soaring populations. He will be joined by Dr. Ndola Prata of UC Berkeley, William Ryerson of the Population Media Center and Fatima Adamu from Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, Nigeria.

We invite you to join the conversation by posting comments or questions below, on The Times’ Facebook and Google Plus pages, or on Twitter using the #asklatimes hashtag.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Somalia refugees, driven from their land by sectarian violence and drought, gather outside the United Nations' camps in eastern Kenya. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Aid groups question Group of 8 plan to fight African hunger

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A plan to improve agriculture in poor countries through private investment won a tepid welcome Friday from humanitarian agencies, which said the Group of 8 major industrialized nations should stick to its previous commitment to donate $7.3 billion a year.

The G-8's New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition announced Friday to fight global hunger calls on multinational corporations to invest $3 billion in agriculture in developing countries, mainly in Africa. But aid agencies questioned whether the money would reach the small farms that grow most of the continent's food.

With more than half Africa’s population living on $1.25 a day and a quarter suffering chronic hunger, fostering a “green revolution” across the continent is seen as the way to lift populations out of poverty and to provide adequate nutrition.

But global climate change has hit hard in many African countries, making some farm areas marginal and forcing food prices up. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, increasing the intense pressure on food resources.

Continue reading »

Turning poor Guatemalan kids into photographers -- 21 years later

  With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, photographer Nancy McGirr began a program known now as Fotokids and taught children who scavenged at the garbage dumps of Guatemala City to photograph their surroundings
GUATEMALA CITY -- It began at a toxic garbage dump, Central America's largest and most dangerous.

Nancy McGirr, a Guatemala-based American photojournalist and veteran of Reuters news agency, one day surveyed the burning plastic, cardboard houses, gardens of sewage and thousands of people scavenging for food at the 40-acre dump in Guatemala City. Many of them were children who pursued her, eager to look through her camera lens.

"The thought occurred to me: If they had the camera, what would they see through that lens?" McGirr recalled.

That was more than 20 years ago.

With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, McGirr armed a program known now as Fotokids (and originally as "Out of the Dump") and taught children from the dump to photograph their surroundings, taking in everything, censoring nothing.

With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, photographer Nancy McGirr began a program known now as Fotokids and taught children who scavenged at the garbage dumps of Guatemala City to photograph their surroundings

The Times first wrote about the project in 1993, shortly after it was launched. "The dump is a place where the stench is nauseating and inescapable, where vultures darken the sky and where disease breeds uncontrollably," The Times wrote.

The children's photos, it continued, "the result of something between creativity and serendipity, show the dramatic horrors of life at the dump -- the drunken scavengers, the wretched landscape of trash, the roosting vultures. But they also capture private moments of poignancy and joy, of young Indian girls dancing, of a wedding of an elderly couple, lifelong residents of the dump."

Today, the remarkable thing in a region of dashed promises and debilitating violence is that the program continues strong after achieving worldwide acclaim.

"I originally thought the project would last six months to a year, but it just took off," McGirr said.

McGirr, a San Francisco native who has also taken pictures for The Times, said her goal was to use photography to break the cycle of poverty. She soon realized the kids' snapshots could also be used as a teaching tool: showing them that they didn't have to be a part of a gang to be in a group and that cameras are a more effective weapon against poverty than guns.

From an initial six students who entered the after-school program in 1991, hundreds have passed through, receiving a camera, food, photography classes and education scholarships. One of the early sponsors was the Japanese photo giant Konica, which donated supplies, and the kids have had exhibits the world over.

"Of course they don't all go on to become photographers," McGirr said. "Photography just gives them a face and a platform" -- a tool that they might use to escape lives of perpetual poverty, drugs and gang violence.

More of the kids' snapshots can be seen at the Fotokids website.


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Upper photo: One of Nancy McGirr's young students, Marta, takes pictures in Antigua, Guatemala, alongside a professional news photographer from the Prensa Libre daily. Credit: Fotokids

Lower photo: A student poses with her camera. Credit: Fotokids




World's slum children in desperate need, UNICEF says [Video]

REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG -- You see them, night and day, in nearly every African city. They are ragged children dodging between the cars: beggars, shoeshine boys, teenage prostitutes, petty traders and porters carrying loads on their heads with thin, pinched faces and anxious eyes.

They tap on car windows, begging, and wait by the highway desperate to sell their goods.

Around half the people in the world live in cities and towns, a billion of them children, as the urban population spirals. Millions of children live in slums and shantytowns and they're dying of the same illnesses that kill the rural poor, according to UNICEF: hunger, diarrhea and disease caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding.

Many of the urban poor don't go to school, according to a UNICEF's report on the state of the world's children. Instead they work, often in dangerous or exploitative jobs. Some 115 million of the world's children work in hazardous jobs, the report said.

Like the rural poor, slum children often lack access to water, electricity and health facilities.

According to the report, the plight of the the urban poor has been overlooked, their poverty concealed in statistics that indicate that, on average, children in urban settings are better off.

"The hardships endured by children in poor urban communities are often concealed, and thus perpetuated, by the statistical averages on which development programs and decisions about resouce allocation are based. Because averages lump everyone in together, the poverty of some is obscured by the wealth of others," the report said.

Some 60% of urbanized Africans live in slums, and by 2020 the global slum population will reach 1.4 billion, mainly in Africa and Asia. In Nigeria, 50% of the population lives in cities and in South Africa, 62% have fled rural areas hoping to find jobs in cities and towns.

But they often meet not just unemployment, poverty and hunger, but precarious housing, forced to live in flimsy shacks or squalid rooms with no tenant rights.

Lack of food contributes to a third of the deaths of children under 5 years old annually, according to the report. A 2004 study of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that more than 40% of urban populations were undernourished and in several countries the figure was higher than 70%.

In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, two-thirds of the population lives in sprawling slums where the under-5 mortality rate is "alarming" the report said, at 151 per thousand live births.

"Poor water supply and sanitation, the use of hazardous cooking fuels in badly ventilated spaces, overcrowding and the need to pay for health services, which effectively puts them out of reach of the poor, are among the major underlying causes of under-5 deaths," the report said.

People in urban slums are often forced to pay street vendors for potable water, so the cost of water can be 50 times higher than for wealthy people in the same city. A study of Kenyan urban slum dwellers in 2009 showed that, with public health facilities almost nonexistent, people used unlicensed and ramshackle private clinics offering substandard treatment.

"When we think of poverty, the image that traditionally comes to mind is that of a child in a rural village,” said UNICEF Director Anthony Lake in a statement released with the report. “But today, an increasing number of children living in slums and shantytowns are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world, deprived of the most basic services and denied the right to thrive.

“Urbanization is a fact of life and we must invest more in cities, focusing greater attention on providing services to the children in greatest need,” Lake said.


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Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille resigns

  Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Haiti's political instability deepened Friday with the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Garry Conille, who took the job less than five months ago.

Conille was reportedly under enormous pressure from President Michel Martelly to quit. The two clashed over numerous issues, including the handling of millions of dollars in contracts for repair of damage from the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

Conille, a gynecologist who also served on Bill Clinton's Haiti reconstruction board, was Martelly's third choice to head the government. The first two were rejected by Haiti's Parliament. It was not yet clear who Martelly, a former pop singer, would nominate to replace Conille.

Haitians and others worried that Conille's departure will create a political vacuum as the country continues to struggle to recover from the quake and emerge from endemic poverty.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti warned that political crisis threatened to "undermine the proper functioning of institutions and the democratic process" (link in French).


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Photo: Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille speaks during his swearing-in ceremony in October in Port-au-Prince. Credit: Jean Jacques Augustin / European Pressphoto Agency 


How did Rwanda cut poverty so much?


This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The small African nation of Rwanda recently announced that it had cut poverty by 12% in six years, from 57% of its population to 45%. That equals roughly a million Rwandans emerging from poverty -- one of the most stunning drops in the world.

It's a remarkable achievement for Rwanda, which has emerged from civil war and a bloody ethnic genocide in the 1990s. How did it happen? The Times quizzed Paul Collier, director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, about the  numbers.

Are there any doubts that the drop is real?

No doubts; I know the economics professor who did the data analysis, and he is highly experienced and painstaking, so it is genuine.

How did Rwanda cut its poverty so much?

There were one or two helpful events, notably the rise in world coffee prices, which pumped money into the rural economy, but, of course, overall the global economy since 2005 has not provided an easy environment for success. Hence, most of the achievement is likely due to domestic policies.

Rwanda is the nearest that Africa gets to an East Asian-style “developmental state,” where the government gets serious about trying to grow the economy and where the president runs a tight ship within government built on performance rather than patronage.

There were strong supporting policies for the rural poor -- the “one cow” program [that distributed cows to poor households free of charge], which spread assets, and the improvements in health programs.

Alongside this, the economy was well managed, with inflation kept low, and the business environment improved, both of which helped the main city, Kigali, to grow. Growth in Kigali then spread benefits to rural areas -- the most successful rural districts were those closest to Kigali.

When you say well managed, what do you mean? What choices did the government make that were signs of good management?

Basically, [President Paul] Kagame built a culture of performance at the top of the civil service. Ministers were well paid, but set targets. If they missed the targets there were consequences. Each year, the government holds a whole-of-government retreat where these performances are reviewed: good performance rewarded, and poor performers required to explain themselves.

An example is the strategy to improve Rwanda's rating on the World Bank's “Doing Business” annual rating, where over the course of six years the country moved from around 140th to 60th in the world rankings. Each component of the ratings was assigned each year to an appropriate minister. So over time, a cadre of government officials has been built up who believe in their ability not just to strategize but to get things done.

What changes can you see now in Rwanda?

Some changes are obvious to the eye -- houses that now have tin roofs instead of thatch. Thatch may look prettier, but the world over, a decent roof is one of the first changes people make when they start the ascent out of poverty. Some of the changes are psychological -- a sense that things really can improve, and a sense that individual families can do something about their circumstances.

What can other countries learn from Rwanda -- or is its story so unique that it can't be copied?

They can learn a lot. If Rwanda can do this well, with all its disadvantages -- landlocked, legacy of conflict, no natural resources -- other African countries should be able to do even better.

Do you think Rwanda can continue to reduce poverty at the same rate in the coming years?

The government has now set its sights on getting the country to middle-income levels. This will require a change in the growth strategy. So far, growth has come primarily from doing better the things that Rwanda is doing already. To reach middle income, new activities will need to be introduced and the economy diversified. Rwanda needs pioneer investors and aid to support them with public infrastructure; I hope that it gets them. If it does, then, yes, poverty can continue to fall fast.

[For the Record, 7:59 a.m., Feb. 16: In an earlier version of the post, the Rwandan capital of Kigali was incorrectly spelled as Kigale.”]


Revolution might not be a cure for Egypt's extreme poverty

Poverty grew in Mexico to nearly half the population, study finds

Brazil state struggles with poverty despite rich natural resources

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A view of a village near Murambi Technical School in Rwanda in 2004. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times


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