Who Were the Biggest Winners (and Losers) in the Olympics?

The opening ceremony for London. 2012.

The conclusion of the 2012 Olympic Games in London offers an opportunity to reflect on the distribution of medals amongst participating countries. Most will look no further than the medal count standings to determine the most dominant countries in athletics. But is that an accurate way to judge a nation’s true performance? Many would argue that a casual glance at the medal winnings is unfairly skewed towards the bigger countries with larger populations, resources, and Olympic delegations. In response, analysts have taken into account numerous variables such as GDP, population, inflation, growth rate, unemployment, labor force, health expenditures, ex-host, and team size to provide adjusted indicators of Olympic success. Continue reading

You Didn’t Think That: Intellectual Property Rights

To protect physical property, the process is relatively straightforward: guard what you own, and don’t let another person walk away with it. Intellectual property (IP), however, is an entirely different matter; because IP is the creation of the mind that is manifested in inventions or artistic works, it is something that can be stolen without a physical heist. As such, it is much easier to steal an intellectual idea or work and profit from the illicit redistribution.

Intellectual property rights: the protection of ideas.

Developed countries with established markets and effective legal institutions are usually able to defend the intellectual property rights (IPR) of their citizens through a combination of patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Should an individual transgress on another’s work, they may be held liable for the costs in a judicial setting, providing a deterrent against the behavior. But the situation becomes much more complicated when transgressing party is outside the jurisdiction of the country in which the IP is protected. Treaties and bilateral cooperation do exist, but their enforcement can be particularly difficult in developing countries that lack the resources or willpower to prevent IP theft on an international scale.

Because of the gaps in enforcement, the vast majority of intellectual property thefts go unprosecuted. The International Chamber of Commerce has estimated that IP theft is responsible for a $500-600 billion loss each year, a 5-7 percent of world trade volumes. The biggest losers are industrialized nations with large entertainment industries, but developing countries are hurt as well. Developed countries lose access to foreign markets and potential buyers, while emerging economies are set back in their attempts to establish their own trademarks, brands, and innovations. Continue reading

Digital Dumping: The Growing Problem of E-waste

In an era of rapidly progressing technology, there is a constant demand for the latest and greatest electronics. Be it phones, computers, televisions, or any other electronic device, it is not long before a product becomes obsolete and is replaced with a newer one. These outdated devices, known as electronic waste or e-waste, are left to be disposed in one manner or another. By a large margin, it is the fastest growing waste stream globally and is posed for significant growth in coming years.

Annually, some 53 million tons of e-waste are produced, predominately by developed nations with large amounts of disposable income. A majority of the waste is simply thrown away, but an increasing amount is being recycled.  Recent estimates have found that about 20 percent of the waste is properly recycled. What happens to the rest? Much of the waste finds its way to developing countries, particularly nations in Africa and Asia.

A child in Ghana’s capital, Accra, searching for e-waste.

Like many other services in emerging economies, it is far less costly to break down e-waste into its reusable components than it would be in the country that produced it. The problem is that with lower environmental standards and fewer safety regulations, the recycling of e-waste can cause serious health and environmental challenges. Electronic products are laced with a plethora of toxic materials such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and mercury. To extract the reusable materials, workers typically burn the waste or dissolve it in acid, usually with little or no protection. In essence, 21st century toxics are managed by labor that uses 17th century technology.

The impact on local populations has been devastating. Frequently, the toxic materials find their way into the air, water, and soil, poisoning the workers that recycle the waste. Communities that have large e-waste recycling operations have seen significant increases in respiratory illnesses, birth defects, developmental damage, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. The problem is further complicated by the fact that much of the recycling work is done by children, leaving them at-risk for illnesses other occupations do not have. Continue reading

Can Merit-Based Aid Encourage Better Behavior?

Foreign aid plays a critical role in the international sphere. If it is given in a prudent manner, it can provide much needed disaster relief, stimulate economic growth, save lives, and provide a better future for developing countries. Developmental assistance is by no means a cure-all for poor countries, but it can do a world of good.

The inevitable outcome of foreign aid?

At the same time, however, the regime that governs foreign aid is not perfect. One of the strongest criticisms of foreign aid is that it can actually hinder development, subsidizing inefficiency and fueling corruption. The argument holds a certain degree of validity: if foreign aid is not given in a manner that promotes good governance and economic development, it can do more harm than good. On many occasions, aid has been given to undemocratic countries, propping up autocratic regimes. Critics of aid programs are quick to point to misuses of aid under Mubarak’s Egypt, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or Sen’s Cambodia.

Donors of aid are well aware of the fact and have taken measures to guard against potential abuses. The most popular response has been conditionality, the practice of linking the disbursement of aid to a set of predetermined conditions. Countries that do not meet the minimum thresholds for market reforms and human rights protection may find themselves in danger of losing their aid. While it’s a good idea in theory, it hasn’t been very effective: as it turns out, ex ante conditionality gives little leverage over recipient countries and the conditions are often ignored. Aid donors such as the U.S. are often timid to cut aid because the recipients are pivotal parts of national security strategies and pulling the trigger would produce an unwanted backlash. Continue reading

Ethanol’s Hunger Games

Severe drought in the Midwest has resulted in widespread crop failure, causing spikes in food prices. Already, the costs of basic food commodities have shot to new highs: this week, corn traded at $8.14 a bushel, a new record. Food prices are expected to continue increasing as the effects of the drought deplete existing food supplies. While the drought is the primary cause of the recent shocks in the food market, there is also an underlying policy that has artificially bolstered the market prices for years.

The scheduled increases in ethanol production mandated by Congress.

Ethanol and its mandated use by the federal government have put significant pressure on already strained market prices. This year alone, 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol are required by law to be blended with gasoline as part of the Renewable Fuel Standards Program. That amount represents about half of the U.S. corn crop to be harvested this year.

Crafted with the best intentions, the program is part of a broader effort to reduce foreign oil consumption and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. To some extent, the two objectives can be considered successful from certain perspectives. Slowly, but surely, consumption of foreign oil has decreased, thanks in large part to the increasing use of ethanol. Also, when ethanol is compared directly to gasoline, it does produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, when greenhouse gases released during ethanol production are not considered. Continue reading

Reverse Perestroika: Russian Regulation of NGOs

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Over the course of the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that unleashed a new wave of regulations on the nation’s 220,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Passed by the upper house of parliament earlier in July, the legislation will force NGOs that engage in “political activity” and receive funding from abroad to register with the government and file detailed reports of the organization’s activities. Failure to comply with the provisions carry fines up to $9,000 or 2 years in prison. The measures have revived the controversy concerning the transparency of the Russian government and its commitment to democratic institutions.

A reaction to some of the largest anti-government protests since the fall of the USSR, the law was intentionally designed to restrict and suppress opposition political activity, a long-term goal of Putin’s United Russia party. The government, marred by allegations of electoral fraud and widespread corruption, intentionally designed the policy to restrict certain avenues of political speech and expression. Like the recent NGO bans and regulations in Egypt, Libya, and Zimbabwe, Russia’s NGO law will weaken dissent and the establishment of viable competition in the political arena. Continue reading

Emerging Trends in the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic

In anticipation of the XIX International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington DC next week, UNAIDS released its much-anticipated AIDS report. Together we will End AIDS is a comprehensive 140-page report, reflecting on the global status of HIV/AIDS, current responses to the virus, and concludes with a series of recommendations for future action. The observations of the report were mixed: it found some commendable efforts to combat AIDS in many parts of the world, but found other areas that need considerable improvement.

Better access to treatment has prolonged the survival of AIDS victims.

First, the good news: there was a decline in the rate of new infections, resulting in fewer deaths from AIDS-related causes. In 2005, the virus killed 2.3 million; in 2011, the number of deaths dropped to 1.7 million. The reason attributed to these improvements was increased public and private expenditures in HIV treatment and prevention, a sum total that amounted to $16.8 billion, much of it focused on providing increased access to life-sustaining pharmaceuticals. In the short span of two years, the number of people on HIV drugs has surged 21%, adding some 8 million people to the ranks of the treated.

A particularly encouraging case has been that of Botswana. Only a decade ago, the situation in the Sub-Saharan African nation was dire: 37% of the adult population was infected with AIDS, and treatment options were severely limited. In response to the crisis, the Botswana government formed partnerships with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Center for Disease ControlMerck, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Now, 95% of Botswana Citizens that need treatment have access to drugs, and the Botswana government has been able to assume a greater amount of responsibility for the costs. Continue reading