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Protesters display placards during a rally at the US Embassy against a visit of US President Barack Obama Wednesday, April 23, 2014 in Manila, Philippines. Obama arrives in Manila on Monday for an overnight stop after visiting Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

Security tops agenda for Obama's Philippines visit

By Joseph SchatzCorrespondent / 04.24.14

For President Obama and the Philippines, it’s better late than never.

More than six months after the federal government shutdown led the president to cancel a swing through the Asia-Pacific region – setting off alarm bells in Asian capitals – Obama will touch down in Manila Monday, April 28, for the last leg of his four-nation Asian tour that begins this week.

The visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines are designed to show the continuing US commitment to the region amid China’s rising might. A long-standing treaty ally of the United States, the Philippines has been on the front line of China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea, and has called for regional intervention.

“I think Obama has to go there for purely political reasons,” says our correspondent on the ground in the region, and show the Philippines that “this is still a priority for the US, despite Ukraine, despite the Middle East.”

As part of his visit. Obama will view a new electronic vehicle produced in the Philippines and backed by a US company, the White House said earlier this week. 

But unlike some of his other visits in the region, there is not expected to be much of a business component to Obama’s Manila trip.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.

Palestinian mobile company Wataniya is pictured in Ramallah, West Bank, in July 2013. Faltering peace talks with Israel delayed Wataniya's plan to launch a second cellular service, including a 3-G network, in Gaza. (Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor)

Diplomatic fallout thwarts Gaza telecoms rollout

By Elizabeth DickinsonCorrespondent / 04.22.14

From tech engineers and software designers to teenagers and businessmen, many in Gaza were eagerly awaiting a shipment earlier this month from Palestinian mobile company Wataniya. The cargo included long-coveted technology to set up a 3G mobile network, the first of its kind in the occupied territory.

A sizable part of that shipment, though, never made it. On April 2, as peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian authorities seemed close to breakdown, Wataniya Palestine CEO Fayez Husseini told the Financial Times that the steel and cement it needed to build its network infrastructure “were not allowed in.”

The block delays Wataniya’s ability to bring its services to Gaza – services that many had hoped would invigorate the local telecom market by introducing much-needed competition. The only mobile operator in Gaza at the moment, the Palestine Cellular Communications Co., known simply as Jawwal, “is not bad, but doesn’t offer many services for its clients,” says our correspondent in Gaza.

This case has been particularly frustrating for Gazans, many of whom argue that their IT sector is inherently impaired by inferior networks. Jawwal’s prices are higher than elsewhere in the region, “because of the lack of a true competitor,” our reporter says. “People were expecting for Wataniya to start working here so as to get more offers from both companies as well as low prices for the services they get.”

Mobile services like phone banking, which are taking off in some of the world’s poor, rural communities, aren’t on offer in Gaza. Nascent IT entrepreneurs battle power cuts and slow Internet service to conduct business – delays that make them uncompetitive within the region.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.

An Afghan farmer uses an interpreter to talk to a US military member. (Julie Jacobson/AP/File)

Good Reads: From Afghan interpreters, to Internet battles, to submarine history

By Staff writer / 04.19.14

As American troops pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is leaving behind thousands of interpreters and fixers to live with countrymen who view them as traitors, writes Paul Solotaroff in Men’s Journal. In 2008 and 2009, Congress opened the door for more than 33,000 Iraqis and Afghans to find asylum in the US, but these special visas are notoriously hard to claim. “Just 15 percent of the Iraqi slots were granted in the first four years...,” says Mr. Solotaroff. “In Afghanistan, the figure was unfathomably low: Only a handful of visas a year came through between 2008 and 2012.”

The main roadblock, according to Solotaroff, seems to be trepidation from the State Department, which has trouble fully vetting applicants amid the ongoing conflict in their home countries. The article focuses on Army Reserve Capt. Matt Zeller and his multi-year fight to secure asylum for Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who saved the lives of at least five Americans. Frustrated by the slow pace, Zeller reached out to an acquaintance at the State Department who said “that the Taliban had seen the news stories about [Mr.] Shinwari and phoned a lie to an anonymous-tip line that he worked for them,” writes Solotaroff. After three congressmen leaned on the State Department and Shinwari underwent multiple polygraph tests with the CIA, he eventually received a visa for him and his family.

Living under a broadband monopoly

People in London may choose from as many as eight different high-speed Internet providers. However, Rachel Margolis in Brooklyn, N.Y., has one. Time Warner Cable services her apartment building – period. If her connection speeds slow to a crawl, Ms. Margolis has only two recourses: go without cable Internet or move to a new place.

“We actually know the exact day that [the United States] chose to go down this path,” says Zoe Chase of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. “March 14, 2002.” Back then, the Federal Communications Commission needed to decide, What is the Internet? Is it essentially an extension of our existing phone network, or is it something different? Under US law, phone companies must rent out their lines to anyone that wants to reach a customer’s home. The FCC decided in 2002 that Internet providers do not need to follow this rule. Critics of the decision say large swaths of the US must now live under a broadband monopoly. This was not the intent. The FCC wanted companies to compete with each other by building ever-faster Internet connections, but lobbying, future policy decisions, and the huge expense of building out a better network largely derailed these good intentions.

Confessions of an Israeli sniper

The Jewish Daily Forward ran an essay from a former Israeli soldier about his final days as a military sniper. While this is clearly a one-sided tale, the author, who does not give his real name but is identified as an American grandson of a Holocaust survivor living in Israel, talks frankly of his mixed emotions about hunting alleged terrorists near the Gaza border. He wants to perform well, but doing so means opening fire on people who have no chance of fighting back. “I don’t understand the seeming lack of fear I see in the men we target,” he writes. “They get shot at and come right back.”

Discovery of ancient tools

Humans arrived in South America thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to a controversial new study. A rock shelter in Brazil held primitive stone tools that researchers believe date back 22,000 years, during the height of the last ice age.

If corroborated, this finding would rewrite our understanding of early human history. For decades, archaeologists pointed to 13,000-year-old spear points in New Mexico as the earliest evidence of humans in the Americas. Since then, dig sites in Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia suggest even earlier origins, perhaps 15,000 years old.

The new research, submitted by a team from Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3 University in France, has drawn skepticism. Scientists had previously found ancient human footprints in Mexico, only to discover later that they were not footprints at all. Similarly, rock shelters can be misleading, writes Michael Marshall in New Scientist. Fallen, shattered rocks can appear to be crafted tools. But the French team says the 113 unearthed tools were made from stones not found at the site. The materials must have traveled at least 15 miles to arrive at this location.

The first submarine

Submarines date back much earlier than German U-boats and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. In a brief history of humankind’s underwater adventures, Amanda Green of Popular Mechanics traced the origins back to 1620, when a Dutch engineer convinced the English Royal Navy to build three steerable submarines out of wood and greased leather. A dozen oarsmen breathed through snorkel tubes for three hours as they rowed a dozen miles from Westminster to Greenwich and back.

While these first journeys ventured just 15 feet below the water’s surface, the US military has now devised a submarine-launched aerial drone that fires from a torpedo tube, bursts out of the waves, and then takes flight.

Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers walk past the Paloch oil field facility during the visit of Stephen Dhieu Dau, South Sudan's minister of petroleum, in Paloch, Upper Nile State, last month. By contrast, rebel violence has shut down oil production in Unity State. (Andreea Campeanu/Reuters/File)

Rebels in South Sudan state massacre hundreds, hit oil industry

By Julie BainCorrespondent / 04.18.14

The conflict in South Sudan is deepening with rebels loyal to South Sudan’s former deputy president taking control of the capital of Unity State, Bentiu, on April 14, ordering oil companies to shut down operations and evacuate their workers. Since previous fighting had already idled oil production in the state, the biggest business impact of the takeover was on a new oil refinery under construction.

On Monday, United Nations peacekeepers rescued 10 workers with Safinat, a Russian oil-refining company. Five workers were injured, two critically. The rebels said all the workers had to be evacuated in a week. This was followed by killings of civilians a few days later in the city with reports of hundreds massacred in a mosque.

The violence jeopardizes the oil industry’s immediate future in Unity State.

“The government of Unity State says the refinery is nearly completed and that it wants to restart oil production in July with the opening of the refinery. This would be very difficult now that the government [of South Sudan] is not in control of Bentiu,” ... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.

Syrian refugees, at the Mrajeeb Al Fhood refugee camp and others in Jordan, are receiving help, but the costs are overwhelming Jordan's economy. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters/File)

Refugee crisis threatens to topple Jordan's economy

By Elizabeth Dickinson / 04.17.14

Over the last two years, Jordan's budget deficit has risen by two-thirds, to $19 billion and 80 percent of gross domestic product. Economic growth has hovered at between 3 and 3.5 percent, a value that the central bank governor has said it won't surpass for the foreseeable future.

The bad news only gets worse with an explanation: Jordan is buckling under the burden of accepting more than half a million Syrian refugees in just three years' time. The way our correspondent in Amman sees it, Jordan faces two choices: "either economic collapse, or the country shuts its border" to the 800 or so Syrians who cross each day.

Both those options would be negatives for the business community. Collapse would cause widespread uncertainty in which business could quickly dry up as consumers pull in their horns, even if an international rescue package came relatively quickly. Social stability, already fragile because of antigovernment protests, risks unraveling further. Closing the border would cause less direct damage to the economy, but would make Jordan a pariah and dry up what little funding it is receiving for its humanitarian efforts.

When the Syrian conflict began, the international community besought neighboring countries to leave borders open. Jordan, which has a long history of accepting refugees – first from the Palestinian territories, then from Iraq – did just that.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook. 

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, right, and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski greet supporters during a campaign rally in Gevgelija, southeastern Macedonia, last month. Both men are expected to retain power after balloting April 27. (Boris Grdanoski/AP/File)

Macedonia's Gruevski looks set for double election win, but... (+video)

By Andrew MacDowellCorrespondent / 04.15.14

Macedonia’s government looks on course for a double election victory this month after incumbent conservative Gjorge Ivanov triumphed in the first round of presidential balloting on April 13. The second round on April 27 will coincide with a snap general election in which Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's party aims to secure reelection.

But Mr. Gruevski will face some tricky parliamentary arithmetic even if his party wins the vote as expected.

Polls forecast another win for Gruevski, which the success of his ally, Mr. Ivanov, seems to confirm. But if Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party does not secure an absolute parliamentary majority, it will need to cast around for a coalition partner. It is at loggerheads with the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) and is now estranged from the ethnic-Albanian DUI, its former governing partner. This leaves smaller parties or the DPA, another ethnic-Albanian party that is more hard-line – and thus antagonistic toward the ethnic-Slav VMRO-DPMNE – than the DUI. Thus, Gruevski may seek to patch up differences with his former partner.

If he remains prime minister, expect more of the same from Gruevski – further lobbying for NATO membership and a formal start to European Union accession negotiations, in the face of Greek opposition, as well as a pro-investment stance that has seen the World Bank rank Macedonia as the best business environment in the region.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook. 

A pro-Russia protester throws a tire on a barricade in front of a Ukrainian airbase in Kramatorsk April 15, 2014. If a Russian intervention is coming, it may depend on the calendar. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

How Easter, V-E day may affect Ukraine crisis

By Staff writer / 04.15.14

Many world stock exchanges fell Tuesday as traders kept an eye out for any signs that Russian tanks are about to roll into eastern Ukraine. But the calendar isn’t quite right for any major military moves by Russia, at least in the next week or so.

For starters, talks between the US, the EU, Ukraine, and Russia are planned for Thursday in Geneva. Then comes the most important religious holiday on the Russian Orthodox calendar: Easter will be celebrated both in Russia and the West on April 20 this year.

“Most people think that Putin is not going to make a major military incursion before Easter of all holidays,” says our correspondent in Ukraine.

RECOMMENDED: Ukraine on the brink

However, one date to watch is May 8, V-E Day. The holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany “has incredible resonance, much more so in Russia than it does in the West." ... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook. 

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann, speaks to reporters at the State Department in Washington last week. By keeping talks going with the Palestinians, Israel hopes to avoid European sanctions or a boycott. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

Economic fallout for Israel if peace talks break down

By Elizabeth DickinsonCorrespondent / 04.14.14

In the court of public opinion, the verdict on a recent round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is already out: They're dead. Almost no one expects the parties to reach a "framework agreement" by a US-imposed deadline of April 29. "It looks like they're stuck," our correspondent in Jerusalem puts it plainly.

But from Israel's side, there is at least one quite convincing reason to try and keep the talks going past the end of the month. The economy is already jittery over the possibility that a boycott and sanctions campaign in Europe could gain momentum.

"We see some Israeli concern over the possible fallouts. Israel fears that if the negotiations do break down and they are the ones blamed for it, these kinds of boycott and sanctions arguments could get more traction," our correspondent explains.

The calls for economic measures against Israel have been around or years, but until recently, they seemed far fetched. That is slowly changing in Europe, where the movement has gained steam. Private investors, foundations, even pension funds have begun to pull some investments. The Palestinian authority has particularly asked supporters to boycott any Israeli products or firms located in settlements in the occupied territories.

That could accelerate if talks break down, our reporter says....  For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/File)

Good Reads: From Japan’s new stance, to women in science, to floating cities

By Staff writer / 04.12.14

The Russian gambit in Crimea has deeply affected geopolitical thinking beyond the United States and Europe. Japan, which had high hopes of negotiating a friendly settlement over Japanese islands seized by Russia at the end of World War II, now is bracing for life with a more aggressive neighbor to its west across the Sea of Japan. The result will “require Asian countries to strengthen their defenses and unite to demand adherence to international law,” writes Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister, on the website Project Syndicate.

Russia’s move may also embolden Japan’s other giant neighbor, China. “The days of an inward looking Japan are over,” Ms. Koike concludes. Japanese eyes have been opened to how events elsewhere in the world will affect Japan’s own security. The island nation already has signaled its new policy by becoming the largest donor to Ukraine, pledging $1.5 billion in economic aid, the most by any country, including the US.

How an engineer solves world problems

Despite his concerted effort to give away his money, Bill Gates keeps making more, with his net worth now around $76 billion, making him the richest person in the world. And no ultra-rich person has probably ever worked harder at shedding the moniker of the “idle rich.” In an extensive interview with Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone, Mr. Gates talks about his efforts to solve some of the most pressing problems in the world, including diseases that hold back progress in the developing world, such as polio. He attacks these problems as an engineer seeking to fix broken systems.

In his worldview, he fits into no easy political category. He agrees with Democrats that the wealthy could easily pay a much higher portion of their incomes in taxes. But like conservatives, he’s not convinced that governments know how to run programs efficiently, calling them “a pretty­ blunt instrument” prone to “not doing things very well.” US immigration laws need fixing: They “are bad – really, really bad.... [T]reatment of immigrants is one of the greatest injustices done in our government’s name.” The top three problems in the US that he says need fixing? Political deadlock, the education system, and health-care costs.

Getting girls to like code

The US needs more talent in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. A great source would be women, who traditionally have not shown much interest in STEM careers. Under its president, Maria Klawe, herself a computer scientist, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., has pioneered a three-step program to attract more women students to STEM studies, writes Manoush Zomorodi in Quartz, an online business journal.

It renamed esoteric-sounding computer science courses to sound more accessible and interesting, has arranged for women students to go on field trips to meet successful women working in tech fields, and created summer research programs that take place between freshman and sophomore years so the students can apply what they have learned. The result? The number of women pursuing computer science majors soared from 10 percent to 40 percent. Duke, Northwestern, and the University of California, Berkeley have also had success using similar schemes.

Floating utopias for a crowded planet

With sea levels on the rise, the once-fantastic idea of floating cities is getting a more serious hearing. While people have long lived on boats moored in city harbors, more formal floating neighborhoods are being developed in such places as London and Rotterdam, Netherlands, writes Jessa Gamble in Britain’s The Guardian.

The greatest need may be in the developing world: A Nigerian architect has designed floating houses that could provide homes for those now living in a slum. A floating school has already been built there. The most ambitious scheme? The “Freedom Ship” would be a mile-long, 3-million-ton barge with apartment buildings. It would tour the world, making stops just outside major ports, allowing onshore visits for its 40,000 permanent residents and 20,000 crew members. But is life on a fancy movable city feasible? “Many of our essential goods arrive by tanker anyway – a sea-based location would be all the more convenient,” she writes.

The best game of summer

With baseball returning to only recently defrosted northern US cities, the Boston Review has reprinted a classic essay on why America’s national pastime is “The Best of All Games.” Written in 1981 by the late John Rawls, an American philosopher and Harvard University professor, “The Best of All Games” recalls a conversation he had with another scholar, Harry Kalven. Among Mr. Kalven’s points: The dimensions of the baseball diamond (the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound and between the bases, etc.) have proved to be an ideal size to display an array of skills and “graceful exercise” in running, throwing, and batting, dimensions that have stood the test of time.

In baseball, unlike in sports such as football and basketball, players of average height or weight can be successful. And unlike in other sports, scoring is done without possessing the ball, creating simultaneous excitement both where the ball is in play and where the runner is trying to advance. Finally, Rawls wrote, winning doesn’t depend on time running out. This means that there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback. “The last of the ninth inning becomes one of the most potentially exciting parts of the game,” he says.

Luis Guillermo Solís, presidential candidate of the Citizens' Action Party (PAC), smiles during a walk in San Jose Friday, April 4, 2014. Solís is expected to cruise to victory in the run-off election on April 6 after his ruling party rival dropped out in a bizarre twist last month. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

Costa Rica's likely next president eyes small firms

By Correspondent / 04.05.14

If a presidential election takes place with only one candidate, can we still call it an election?

That’s the question facing Costa Rica after the ruling party’s candidate dropped out of the race last month after falling behind in polls, leaving only center-left challenger Luis Guillermo Solís campaigning for the second-round run-off Sunday (April 6), says our correspondent in San José. Both Solis and Johnny Araya will still appear on the ballot per electoral rules, but only Mr. Solís has actively campaigned in recent weeks. 

Solís is expected by all forecasts to win the presidency, but the greater risk now is whether he can also win the popular mandate.

“If nobody comes out to vote and Solís wins, that looks much worse than if many people showed up and Solís barely won,” says our correspondent.

There is also a risk that Solís supporters could feel overly confident, stay home, and not vote, which could raise the rate of absenteeism and give die-hard supporters of the ruling National Liberation Party’s Mr. Araya a chance to eke out a victory, adds our correspondent. It’s no wonder then that Solís has continued knocking on doors, paying for television spots, sitting for interviews, and publicly announcing a drive for more than 1 million votes – nearly half of total eligible voters.

Expect a President Solís to focus on boosting medium- and small-scale enterprise in Costa Rica, according to our correspondent. Solís has said that the country relies too heavily on foreign employers and exports rather than supporting local jobs with local businesses. But also don’t expect a sudden cold shoulder toward foreign investment, as Solís recognizes the value of US firms such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard who have turned this tiny Central American nation into a top global producer of microprocessors, adds our correspondent.

“He’s walking this line between wanting to court foreign business and finding a way to develop other sections of the economy left behind,” says our correspondent.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Global Outlook.

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