2019
May
10
Friday

“Checks and balances.” It’s a phrase every schoolchild in the United States learns. The Constitution set up three branches of government with interlocking powers and responsibilities. To prevent tyranny, they’re supposed to check and balance each other.

But checking and balancing can be a contact sport. The system is designed to create some confrontation. That’s what we’re seeing now in the showdowns between President Donald Trump and Congress over access to Mr. Trump’s tax returns, the unredacted Mueller report, and other information.

Yes, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said we’re in a “constitutional crisis.” Many legal scholars might say that’s not where the nation is – yet.

It’s more a constitutional stress test. The House has subpoenaed an array of stuff. The White House has issued a blanket refusal, citing various grounds. The courts will step in as an arbiter. That’s a process all modern presidents would recognize.

It’s true that this time the stakes might be particularly high. By stonewalling on many requests at once, the Trump administration would put a general principle of relations between the branches at risk. If Mr. Trump loses in the courts, future presidents could face a permanent diminution of executive power. If he wins, it’s congressional oversight authority that would be diminished.

And events could indeed escalate to a crisis if the White House or Congress ignores judicial rulings.

But don’t push the panic button prematurely. At key points in America’s history democracy has proven more durable than our fears.

Now to our five stories for the day, which include a deep dive into the state of the Iran nuclear deal and a look at how the notion of family is changing in Zimbabwe.

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1. The EU stuck together on Brexit. Can it remain united?

The European Union can be an unruly bloc where diverse agendas make consensus challenging. But facing existential threat in Brexit, the member states stood as one throughout negotiations.

Peter
Ludovic Marin/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (r.) and French President Emmanuel Macron speak as they arrive for an informal meeting of European Union leaders in Sibiu, Romania, on May 9.

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Twenty-seven leaders of the European Union were in Romania this week, where they pledged to “always stand together.” In the face of the myriad issues that currently divide the bloc, that is an extremely ambitious goal. But when it came to negotiating the terms of Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the other 27 member states (EU27) have stood shoulder to shoulder for three years. Could that success be used to find solidarity on other key issues?

It may be challenging because of how unique Brexit is. EU policy negotiations are generally roundtable affairs at which each member state defends its interests before compromises with which everyone can agree are generally hammered out. Brexit was not like that. Those talks pitted the United Kingdom against the 27 remaining EU states. And all 27 were in agreement on the issues at stake in the “divorce” agreement governing London’s withdrawal.

But some remain hopeful that “There will be a Brexit dividend in terms of unity among the 27,” says one Brussels diplomat. “That’s what the EU is asking of itself: Let’s use this unity in other places too.”

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The EU stuck together on Brexit. Can it remain united?

When European Union leaders issued their blueprint for the future at a summit in Romania this week, they made their priorities plain.

“We will stay united, through thick and thin,” the 27 heads of government present pledged in the second of their 10 commitments, promising to “always stand together.”

In the face of the myriad issues that currently divide the EU, ranging from how to deal with the United States and China to the way in which the bloc should treat migrants, that is an extremely ambitious goal.

But on one critical challenge the EU has fulfilled its ambition: When it came to negotiating the terms of Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the other 27 member states (EU27) have stood shoulder to shoulder for three years.

Many in London had expected to be able to take advantage of European divisions to extract concessions from Brussels. It didn't work out like that. While British Prime Minister Theresa May is still struggling to win Parliament’s approval for the agreement, the EU got exactly the deal it wanted.

This raises a question: Could that success be used to find solidarity on other key issues?

The peculiarities of Brexit

“That’s what the EU is asking of itself: Let’s use this unity in other places too,” says one Brussels diplomat, who asked that her name not be used because she was not authorized to speak on the subject. And she is tempted to be hopeful. “There will be a Brexit dividend in terms of unity among the 27.”

Others, like Pierre Vimont, a former deputy chief of the EU diplomatic service, are more dubious. “Brexit was seen as an existential threat” to the EU, much graver than the routine differences of opinion that the union often wrestles with, he says. “It was the shock that persuaded all 27 that this time they needed to get their act together.”

“You can’t compare the Brexit negotiations with talks on any other EU policy,” says Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, a researcher at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank. “They are about something much more fundamental. The dynamic is unique.”

To start with, EU policy negotiations are generally roundtable affairs at which each member state defends its interests. Coalitions form, balances of power are struck, and compromises with which everyone can agree are generally hammered out.

Brexit was not like that. Those talks pitted the United Kingdom against the 27 remaining EU states. And those 27 were all in agreement from the start on the three issues that were at stake in the “divorce” agreement governing London’s withdrawal.

One question concerned money. In normal EU budget negotiations, the members that are net contributors have different interests from the poorer member states that are net beneficiaries. In the Brexit talks, all were on the same side with the same interest: ensuring the U.K. paid everything it owed.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuers
European Union leaders pose for a group photo during an informal meeting of European Union leaders in Sibiu, Romania, on May 9.

On the second issue, guaranteeing the rights of their citizens living in the U.K., all 27 governments were equally keen to be seen by their public as standing up strongly for their fellow citizens abroad.

And on the delicate issue of the Irish border, nobody wanted to run the risk of a return to civil strife in Northern Ireland that the reintroduction of a “hard” border could imply. Even when the border question became a sticking point, none of Ireland’s EU partners pressured Dublin to make concessions.

That, explains the EU diplomat, is because “the issue was a perfect way of demonstrating” to Euroskeptics across the continent, who question whether EU membership has any benefits, “that solidarity can have teeth and effect.”

The way the EU27 went about the negotiations also bolstered their unity. The European Council, made up of member governments, set the negotiating priorities. The European Commission, comprising the bureaucracy, took charge of the talks and named a negotiator, Michel Barnier, who went out of his way to keep national capitals and the European parliament closely informed of his progress. All three institutions worked unusually closely together through their respective working groups.

On the other side of the channel, in London, officials dithered over their goals and their methods, astonishing EU diplomats who expected them to be consummate negotiators. “The U.K. made it very easy [for the EU to maintain its unity] by finding it so difficult to come up with its own position,” says Jonathan Faull, a Briton and former spokesman for the European Commission. “The U.K. could have fought back, but it gave up.”

Whether it will be so easy to maintain unity in the planned next phase of negotiations – over Britain’s trade relationship with the EU – remains to be seen. Lots of detailed issues on which countries have widely differing interests will need to be discussed, and while the commission has always run trade talks with third countries, negotiations with London will also encompass defense and security issues, fisheries, aviation, research, and extradition, among many other areas.

The difficulty of reconciliation

Most observers expect solidarity to stick. “The upsides of unity are obvious,” says the diplomat. But making it stick during internal EU debates on other topics will be hard simply because of the way members’ interests diverge.

Southern nations where most migrants arrive want to deal with them differently from northern nations where they are headed. Populist governments in Italy, Hungary, and elsewhere are challenging Europe’s traditional liberal values. Some EU members are deeply suspicious of China’s intentions on the continent while others are anxious to attract Chinese investment.

“There are many positions on which direction the EU should take and at what speed, and it is very difficult to reconcile them all,” says Eric Maurice, head of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation, named for one of the founding fathers of the EU.

That is not to say the EU cannot agree on anything. In the face of concerns about Chinese influence, the EU parliament recently approved a continent-wide screening process for all Chinese investments in sensitive sectors, for example. Last year the EU applied a state-of-the-art data protection regime it had developed over five years of negotiations.

The European Commission pointed out last month that compromises had been agreed to by consensus for 90% of the new legislation it had proposed and member states had approved over the past five years.

If Brexit holds a lesson for the future, suggests Mr. Vimont, it is that the EU’s key institutions – commission, council, and parliament – can work well together to build unity. But national politics too often get in the way.

“There are solutions to problems like migration that are acceptable to almost everyone,” Mr. Vimont says. “But politicians such as Matteo Salvini in Italy or Viktor Orbán in Hungary can win votes by stirring up fear of migrants.

“Only when Europe’s leaders are ready to set aside politics will solutions be found,” he suggests. “That makes it difficult.”

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2. Sanctions, threats, deadlines: How the Iran nuclear deal is faring

The Iran nuclear deal was a singular accomplishment for Presidents Obama and Rouhani. But for President Trump it’s always been a “bad deal.” Now he’s testing the impact of new sanctions and putting pressure on Europe too.

Peter

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President Donald Trump is waging a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that includes sanctions targeting its oil exports and, most recently, a naval deployment portrayed as a “clear and unmistakable warning” in response to perceived threats. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s economy is contracting, by a forecast 6% this year after 4% in 2018.

Where does that leave the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, which saw Iran dramatically restrict its program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions but from which President Trump withdrew a year ago? On May 8 President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would suspend the sale of surplus enriched uranium and heavy water and gave European powers, Russia, and China 60 days to buck U.S. pressure and ensure that Iran receives the financial normalization the deal provides.

If they fail, he said, Iran will consider higher levels of enrichment and expand again its nuclear infrastructure, likely making the deal fall apart. The European Union said it would “reject any ultimatum” and voiced “regret” over the U.S. sanctions. Iran has set a path for incremental escalation but has chosen steps that, analysts say, can be easily reversed.

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Sanctions, threats, deadlines: How the Iran nuclear deal is faring

Headlines shout daily about escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. The Trump White House, hardening a “maximum pressure” campaign of increased sanctions and hostile rhetoric, is now portraying the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group as a “clear and unmistakable warning” to Iran.

The optics would seem to suggest that, exactly one year after the U.S. withdrew unilaterally from the Iran nuclear deal, a new war in the Middle East hangs in the balance. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says he does not expect a war but that the Trump administration is “putting things in place for accidents to happen.” In the standoff, psychological operations are paramount.

Where does that leave the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, struck between Iran and six world powers, which saw Iran dramatically restrict its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions?

Is the nuclear deal fraying?

Despite the U.S. withdrawal, Iran has until now upheld its side of the nuclear bargain – mothballing thousands of centrifuges, exporting most of its stockpile of enriched uranium, and retooling its most sensitive nuclear sites.

Its compliance has been confirmed by more than a dozen reports by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency.

But on May 8 President Hassan Rouhani, while declaring that Iran did not want to leave the agreement, said Iran would suspend the sale of surplus enriched uranium and heavy water – items capped under the deal because large quantities can be used for nuclear weapons. Just days earlier, the U.S. revoked waivers for countries to purchase excess production, thereby making compliance by Tehran extremely difficult.

And Mr. Rouhani gave European powers, Russia, and China – all parties to the deal that still support it – 60 days to buck U.S. pressure and ensure that Iran receives the financial normalization the deal provides. If they fail, he said, Iran will consider higher levels of enrichment and expand again its nuclear infrastructure – steps that would make the deal fall apart.

Iran has set a path for incremental escalation. But analysts say Iran has chosen steps that, so far, remain within the deal and can be easily reversed.

“Iran has opted for minimum retaliatory measures in response to U.S. maximum pressure,” notes the International Crisis Group. “The agreement’s erosion could well pick up pace in the next few months as Washington doubles down on its sanctions and Iran digs in.”

Are U.S. sanctions and pressure on Iran working?

Claiming that the “horrible” nuclear deal “is broken beyond repair,” President Donald Trump on May 8 marked the anniversary of his withdrawal by adding sanctions on Iranian metal exports.

In the past month, he said, the U.S. has “increased the pressure on Iran tenfold” by taking steps to force Iran’s oil exports to zero and threatening allies and adversaries alike to end business with Iran. It has designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization and aims to turn frequent economic protests into a broader, regime-changing uprising.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s recession-hit economy is shrinking. It estimates GDP will contract by 6% this year, after diminishing by 4% in 2018.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
An Iranian worker cuts a steel roll at the Mobarakeh Steel Complex, some 280 miles south of the capital, Tehran, in May 2012. President Donald Trump has ordered new sanctions targeting Iran's steel, aluminum, copper, and iron sectors, which provide foreign currency earnings for the nation's sagging economy.

The U.S. says it will further increase sanctions until Iran “fundamentally alters its conduct.” Yet while they clearly have a crippling effect – inflation quadrupled in the past year, the currency has hit record lows, and foreign investment has all but disappeared – Iran’s policies remain.

“Iran’s behavior hasn’t changed in any way,” Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said in a media call. She noted Iran’s continued regional role, work on missiles, and now its restarting of “some small aspects” of its nuclear program. “If anything,” she says, the U.S. pressure campaign “is further entrenching Iranian behavior.”

What does Iran’s ultimatum to Europe mean?

The Europeans are caught between the White House desire to strangle Iran’s economy and Iran’s demand that it reap benefits promised by the nuclear deal.

On May 9 the European Union called on Iran to “refrain from any escalatory steps” and said it would “reject any ultimatum.” The EU also noted “regret” that the U.S. reimposed sanctions.

But Iran is wary of Europe, noting the monthslong delay in opening a new payment mechanism launched in January, designed to enable “legitimate” trade in pharmaceuticals and food, for example, which would bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran.

What does the U.S. naval deployment indicate?

The National Security Council announced the carrier group deployment on May 5 as a response to what it called “troubling and escalatory” actions by Iran. U.S. officials suggested they had fresh intelligence that pro-Iran proxies are newly imperiling American troops in the region and that Iran was moving short-range missile onto boats in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, the U.S. Navy carrier group had been set to sail to the Middle East a month earlier, on a routine deployment. And Israeli media reported that the intelligence cited by Washington had come from an Israeli delegation two weeks earlier, during which the Mossad “drew several scenarios for what the Iranians might be planning.”

Iran dismissed the threat as “psychological warfare.” Still, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad to brief Iraqi officials on threats to U.S. personnel from Iran-backed Shiite militias there and to warn of a robust response.

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3. In Florida, vouchers win ground, but courts may have ultimate say

School choice is a rallying cry for Republicans and the Trump administration. Florida is leading the voucher charge at the state level and could be an indicator of how increasingly conservative courts will test constitutional boundaries.

Peter
Lynne Sladky/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill into law at the William A. Kirlew Junior Academy in Miami Gardens, Florida, May 9. The law creates a new voucher program for thousands of students that will allow them to attend private and religious schools using public tax funds.

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When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new voucher bill into law on Thursday, it added more school choice options for families in the Sunshine State.

The private school portion of a previous voucher effort was struck down by Florida’s Supreme Court in 2006. But after his election last fall, Governor DeSantis named three conservative jurists to the state’s highest court, creating an all-Republican-nominated top bench that could act as a shield for legal challenges to this new law. In that way, Florida’s decision to test constitutional boundaries infuses a larger national debate about school reform – and the very nature of “public” schools.

“There’s always a bigger picture, but I feel like if you have vouchers, [the courts should] leave it alone,” says Chikara Parks, a Florida mom of four school-aged children using vouchers. “Let the people who need help, let us get it. Let us do what we need to do to give our children the same exact education that your children are getting. It shouldn’t be about anything else.” 

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In Florida, vouchers win ground, but courts may have ultimate say

Chikara Parks is a registered Democrat and a “huge fan of public schools.” The single mom of four school-aged children is also a fan of vouchers.

Ms. Parks, who is African American, has, with the help of Florida’s tax credit scholarship for families with limited resources, parlayed her children’s struggle in public schools to success at two private schools, Mount Zion Christian Academy and Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg.

The choice and autonomy have been empowering, she says, for her children – and for herself as a single mom. “It’s hard for some people to know their worth and know what they are able to do [for their kids],” she says by phone. “Vouchers help parents to understand that and be more heard, and that is an amazing thing.”

Ms. Parks has become an outspoken advocate for a growing constituency across the U.S. and specifically in Florida, where a constitutional battle over the approach is brewing.

On Thursday Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that expands the state’s use of vouchers, which allow taxpayer dollars to fund tuition at private and religious schools. The legislation creates 18,000 new vouchers with a ceiling of $77,250 of household income per year – firmly middle class in a state with low taxes and a low cost of living.

In 2006, the private-school portion of a previous effort was struck down by Florida’s Supreme Court. But after his election last fall, Governor DeSantis named three conservative jurists to the state’s highest court, creating an all-Republican-nominated top bench that could act as a shield for legal challenges to this new law. In that way, Florida’s decision to test constitutional boundaries infuses a larger national debate about school reform – and the very nature of “public” schools.

The new test reflects “a more clear-cut partisan divide in the courts, where courts have traditionally tended to rule simply on questions of church and state and where now conservatives ... see this as a matter of economic freedom, of making a choice,” says Christopher Lubienski, who studies school choice policy at Indiana University Bloomington.

The problem, adds Professor Lubienski, is that the political push for vouchers “has been accompanied by an ideological pushback against oversight. That’s why I wouldn’t call [Florida’s approach] a laboratory as much as pushing the envelope. ‘Laboratory’ implies that they are interested in what the results are. Here it’s more about seeing how far they can push it and play it out in the courts.”

Given a growing focus on kitchen-table issues by both parties, Florida’s legal test of equity, achievement, and accountability is likely to resonate across much of middle America going into the 2020 election.

The state’s voucher expansion marks “a tremendous moment of uncertainty [for U.S. schools],” says Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of 50CAN, a national school choice organization. “After all, we have been working our way down a series of policy ideas since the Clinton administration, and we have learned a lot. The world changes. The politics of the world change. We are relooking at our assumptions.”

Momentum in the courts

The issue has been intensified by a rightward shift on the U.S. Supreme Court that could have implications on issues ranging from school choice to abortion rights. Adding fuel to the fire, the Trump administration is pushing for a federal tax credit scholarship for families to attend alternate schools.

Unlikely to pass muster in a Democrat-controlled House, the prospect of expanding choice is already creating an uneasy alliance of Republicans with low-income moms like Ms. Parks, as well as white urban liberals who support choice programs because they don’t want to send their kids to struggling – and often majority black and Hispanic – neighborhood schools. 

“More choices and more freedom in education will ultimately mean better experiences and more excellence at every school,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a gathering of education journalists during a question-and-answer session in Baltimore this week.

“I often cite Florida as a really great example,” she said, adding that even the students staying in neighborhood schools are doing better “because having competition and having comparisons forces [those schools] to do some things they wouldn’t have done previously.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that a voucher program, because it was part of a state’s overall effort to provide an education to all children, was religiously neutral. Four years later, the Florida Supreme Court sidestepped the question of taxpayer dollars going to religious institutions when striking down part of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. It instead focused on a “uniformity” of education requirement that it deemed precluded state funding of private schools.

Today, Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program may see a different fate, conservatives hope.

“The majority of the state Supreme Court now sees their role differently than the previous majority,” Jeb Bush, the former governor who led the state’s early school choice efforts, said in a recent podcast with the Tampa Bay Times. In that interview, he also called the voucher expansion “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Growing demand amid objections

Milwaukee pioneered the first modern school choice program in 1990, and 18 states currently offer some form of tax credit scholarship. Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana have made some of the biggest forays into choice, which today represents a mix of tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, and homeschooling. The Democratic Party and teachers unions have historically opposed voucher programs, arguing they are a backdoor way to destabilize, even destroy, public schools by rerouting their source of taxpayer funding to private, often religious, schools.

No program, however, rivals the one in the key presidential swing state of Florida. In 1996, Mr. Bush’s bid began with four charter schools. Today, it involves $700 million a year spent on a dizzyingly diversified school landscape, large parts of which are only lightly regulated by the Department of Education. An estimated 1.6 million of Florida’s students – 47 percent of school-age children – now attend a school outside their zone.

Unable to directly fund private schools, Florida lawmakers built a massive scholarship system of corporation-funded tax credits that has now fallen short, leaving some 13,000 low-income students across the state waiting for a $7,700 year check to attend a private school. The new law is expected to offer them some relief.

“What we are seeing in Florida is the blossoming of the idea that different kids learn in different ways and also the realization that every school is not going to be perfect,” says Jon East, a former St. Petersburg Times journalist and current policy advisor to Step Up For Students, an advocacy group.

Weighing vouchers and equity

In-depth studies of school choice systems in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere have shown mixed results. 

A 2017 analysis by Martin Carnoy, an education professor and economist at Stanford University, found scant evidence that students who receive vouchers do better on tests than their public school peers. To Professor Carnoy, that suggested “an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs.”

The big questions turned on the future of not just of those students attending private institutions, but what happens to the public schools. The Florida Education Association, which represents state teachers, is planning a May 18 statewide summit in Orlando to discuss what the organization says in a statement is an “attack” on public education that involves a “massive new giveaway of public funds ... to unaccountable institutions.”

Data has shown that voucher students tend to be more college-going, according to Northwestern University economist David Figlio, one of the nation’s top voucher policy experts. Professor Figlio also notes that emerging data from Florida and elsewhere shows vouchers have “modestly positive” effects on student outcomes. Proponents note that Florida was the only state to show improvements in three of four core competencies in the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Given those dynamics, Professor Figlio says the voucher expansion may ultimately say less about church-state separation and more about oversight.

“Can we as a society tolerate using public funds to send kids to relatively crappy private schools?” says Professor Figlio, author of several studies on choice policy.

For Ms. Parks, the parent, the battle over school choice addresses “something deeper” than politics. She says vouchers have given her a sense of true equity – that her children’s futures are as important as those whose families have more resources and influence.

“I just feel like with the whole Democrat versus Republican thing, there’s too much energy put into it,” she says. “There’s always a bigger picture, but I feel like if you have vouchers, [the courts should] leave it alone. Let the people who need help, let us get it. Let us do what we need to do to give our children the same exact education that your children are getting. It shouldn’t be about anything else.” 

Staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo contributed reporting from Baltimore.

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4. Zimbabwe tries to sell parents on a new idea: adoption

Who counts as family? The stakes of that question are especially high in Zimbabwe, where twin crises are stretching people’s ability to take in orphaned relatives – and testing cultural taboos against adoption.

Peter

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When Joyce and Phanuel Nhika ran out of money to feed their grandchildren three meals a day, they tried to make a game out of it. 101, they called it – just one of the challenges of raising the three children on Mr. Nhika’s pension of $2.25 per month after the children’s parents died.

That’s a common arrangement in Zimbabwe, where the twin crises of HIV/AIDS and massive economic downturn have left many children orphaned and family members struggling to take them in. Indeed, adoptions within families are so taken for granted here that most people don’t think of them as adoptions.

Adopting strangers’ children, on the other hand, is “frowned upon by our culture,” says Stanislaus Sanyangowe, the deputy director for child protection services at the Ministry of Public Service, Labour, and Social Welfare. Between 2015 and 2018, only 27 children were adopted domestically in the entire country, he says. Many people fear that adoption risks breaking traditional protections afforded by the ancestors of each person’s family clan.

But the ministry is pushing to shift that number, as Zimbabwe’s traditional arrangements for taking in relatives’ children are stretched to their limits.

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Zimbabwe tries to sell parents on a new idea: adoption

It is August, and Zimbabwean farmers are preparing for a new growing season. In a sprawling exhibition park in the capital city, tens of thousands have converged for the country’s biggest agriculture show.

But tucked amid the booths showcasing tractors and produce is a display advertising something very different: how to adopt a child.

For the past few years, the country’s Ministry of Public Service, Labour, and Social Welfare has set up a display here in hopes of meeting prospective adopters amid the crowds shopping seed packets and dairy cows.

But it’s slow going. All day, fair visitors stream past the booth without stopping. The issue, officials say, isn’t that Zimbabweans don’t care about abandoned children. Indeed, adoptions within families are so stitched into the culture here that most people don’t even think of them as adoptions at all. But try to convince many Zimbabweans to adopt a child who isn’t related to them, and you quickly hit a wall.

That kind of adoption is “frowned upon by our culture,” says Stanislaus Sanyangowe, the deputy director for child protection services at the ministry. Many Zimbabweans fear that bringing an outsider into your family risks breaking traditional protections afforded by ancestors. Between 2015 and 2018, only 27 children were adopted domestically in the entire country, and 14 more internationally, Mr. Sanyangowe says.

But as Zimbabwe has been pummeled by the twin crises of HIV/AIDS and a massive economic decline, the country’s informal systems for absorbing orphaned children within families have been pushed to their limits. And that has led officials to make a push to change minds about adoption.

“You know you can also give a homeless child a home, take a child off the streets very easily?” one of the officers explains to a visitor at the booth.

Uuumm kuti ngozi igozosara yopedza vana?” she replies. “So that avenging spirits will wipe out a whole generation?”

She walks away without picking up a flyer.

When lunch costs too much

When Joyce and Phanuel Nhika stopped having the money to feed their three grandchildren lunch each day, they tried to make a game of it. 101, they called it. One breakfast, zero lunch, one dinner.

But it wasn’t fun. Not for Joyce, not for Phanuel, and certainly not for the children, who needed to eat to take their antiretrovirals – daily medicines to keep HIV from progressing to AIDS.

Still, there wasn’t much of a choice. Since the couple’s son and daughter both died in 2007 after being diagnosed with AIDS, they have been caring for their children’s children, a common arrangement in a country where 13.3% of the adult population is living with HIV and 430,000 children have lost one or both parents to the disease, according to UNAIDS. All five of them live on Mr. Nhika’s monthly pension, which is worth about $2.25, as well as occasional supplements from another of the couple’s children.

Their story is revealing. Like many families here, the Nhikas desperately want to care for the orphaned children in their extended family. But also like many, their slim resources are being pushed to a breaking point.

The result in many parts of Zimbabwe is a rise in the number of children who need homes beyond the confines of their extended families. In 2016, approximately 4,000 Zimbabwean children lived in orphanages, according to local media reports citing the Department of Social Welfare, and many more lived in youth-headed households. Zimbabwe has more than 300,000 of these, according to the most recently available UNICEF statistics, from 2012. 

Many Zimbabweans feel strong sympathy for these children, observers say, but also worry that adopting outside the family means severing spiritual ties that hold a family together.

“Paperwork for adoption only means you have adopted the body, not the soul,” says Friday Chisanyu, the president of the Zimbabwe National Practitioners Association, an umbrella group for traditional healers.

There’s an important logic to that belief, says Tafataona Mahoso, a former government media spokesman and historian who for many years hosted a popular TV show on Zimbabwean culture called “Zvavanhu,” or “Of the People.”

Families in this part of the world, he notes, consider themselves part of a particular clan, identified by its totem, which is often an animal or bird symbol.

“Totems came up as a system to identify different bloodlines,” says Dr. Mahoso, adding that they prevent people from the same families from intermarrying. “But the intention was never to make it so rigid that you can’t absorb strangers.”

But for most families, the idea of adoption outside their own family remains difficult to absorb. So the ministry is distributing information on adoption everywhere from megachurch services to food aid disbursements. It is hard to convince people to change deeply held beliefs by handing out flyers, Mr. Sanyangowe notes, but without funding for bigger programs, the ministry has few other options.

‘God gave me the beautiful girls’

For now, however, people like Mary Muchando, who asked that the Monitor use a pseudonym to protect her privacy, are still an exception here.

Ms. Muchando, a teacher at an elite private school in the capital, has two adopted daughters. One came to her from within her extended family and another she adopted after the girl was found abandoned on a Harare street. So far, she says, her family and friends have been nothing but supportive of the decision. But the stigma of infertility and adoption means she was not comfortable with having her real name published in this story.

Still, she says she is nothing but proud of the family she has created.

“I realized that some are given [children] biologically through their womb, but God gave me the beautiful girls” through a different channel, she says.

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5. ‘Lion King’ ... again? Nostalgia drives Disney’s live-action blitz.

Pop culture is awash in sameness, especially in family films. As Disney announces more live-action remakes, will recycling be rewarded, or will a demand for creativity prevail? 

Peter
Disney
Disney’s live-action version of ‘The Lion King,’ due in July, features the voices of John Oliver as Zazu the bird, JD McCrary as the Young Simba, and James Earl Jones as Simba’s father, Mufasa (not pictured). Other remakes on the way include ‘Aladdin’ and ’Lady and the Tramp.’

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As parents of a certain generation can attest, there are limits to how many times one can hear “Hakuna Matata.” But Disney is banking on families not giving up on favorites like “The Lion King” just yet as it unfurls a slate of live-action remakes that will fill theaters for the next few years. Call it the circle of franchise life.

Upcoming releases announced this week include new versions of “Lady and the Tramp” and “Cruella” (as in de Vil, the kidnapper of “101 Dalmatians”). They join “Aladdin,” due this month, followed by “The Lion King” in July. The onslaught highlights the thin line between repurposing beloved properties and diluting their value through overexposure. Can Disney thrive on a business model increasingly geared toward recycling rather than creating new stories?  

“If you don’t keep these older intellectual properties alive, then no one will know what they are,” says Jerry Beck, an animation historian. “Disney, on a business level, is looking at ‘How do we freshen “Dumbo” for today’s audience? When people come to Disneyland they see the “Dumbo” ride. They don’t know what “Dumbo” is. We’re now reintroducing it to them.’”

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‘Lion King’ ... again? Nostalgia drives Disney’s live-action blitz.

In the remake of “The Lion King,” a baboon walks to the prow of a rock jutting above an African savanna. Herds of animals look up. The baboon triumphantly holds a lion cub aloft. It’s an iconic shot familiar to anyone who’s seen the classic 1994 animated film. The difference this time is that the animals look as real as those in a nature documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. That is, until the warthog and meerkat start to sing.

Like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Dumbo,” and this month’s “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” has been remade as a photo-real animation movie. Call it the circle of franchise life. Disney’s slate of upcoming releases announced this week includes live-action remakes of “Lady and the Tramp” and “Cruella” (as in de Vil, the kidnapper of “101 Dalmatians”). But there’s a thin line between repurposing beloved properties and diluting their value through overexposure. Can the company thrive on a business model increasingly geared toward recycling rather than creating new stories?

“If you don’t keep these older intellectual properties alive, then no one will know what they are,” says Jerry Beck, a historian of animated movies and a former studio executive with Disney TV. “Disney, on a business level, is looking at ‘How do we freshen “Dumbo” for today’s audience? When people come to Disneyland they see the “Dumbo” ride. They don’t know what “Dumbo” is. We’re now reintroducing it to them.’”

Disney/AP
Eva Green stars as a trapeze artist in Disney's ‘Dumbo,’ released in March. The film, directed by Tim Burton and featuring actors Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton, underperformed at the box office.

Some stories hardly require reintroduction. “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and most notably Julie Taymor’s puppet version of “The Lion King” have been translated into long-running stage musicals. Numerous animated movies have also been adapted for Disney on Ice (which was rather apt for “Frozen”).

“They’re able to take these stories and put them through all kinds of distribution channels,” says David Bossert, an artist and author who previously worked at The Walt Disney Company for 32 years, “whether it’s doing a television show, doing the live-action version, doing stage productions, doing books, doing games, doing attractions at the parks.”

Millennial driven 

As computer effects technology has improved, the company has channeled its properties into a new iteration: re-creating hand-drawn classics in a photorealistic style, which combines animation techniques and live-action methods. First came “The Jungle Book,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” and “Maleficent” (a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” starring Angelina Jolie as Disney’s most high-cheeked villain).

“Beauty and the Beast” (2017) kicked off a new phase of adapting movies originally released when millennials were still children. That generation will now be taking its own kids to see touchstones such as the Will Smith vehicle “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Remakes of “Mulan” and “The Little Mermaid” are also in reportedly in production.

“Millennials were the first generation that had children’s media that was of a certain quality that you can revisit it as an adult and be like ‘Oh wow, this is still really good,’” says film critic Lindsay Ellis, who dissects pop culture on her popular YouTube channel. “Millennials are like ‘Yeah, I want to see this movie from my childhood remade with photorealistic lions.’”

Ty Burr, film critic for The Boston Globe, worries that this summer’s “The Lion King” will be a shot-for-shot replica of the original movie. James Earl Jones even reprises the role of Mufasa that he first voiced in the 1994 movie. Offering audiences “the same thing, but ‘better,’” is the enemy of creativity, Mr. Burr says.

“Any cultural artifact you watched when you are young enough to be in footie pajamas, you will never ever have any critical distance on, and you want it to remain the same forever,” he says. “It certainly includes ‘The Lion King.’ I have talked with people, with men in their 30s, who think that is the greatest movie ever made, seriously, because it rocked their world when they were 5, and it can’t change.”

But as many parents can attest, there are limits to how many times one can hear “Hakuna Matata” – the “Let It Go” of its day. It became the theme song to the spinoff “Timon & Pumbaa” TV show. Disney also released two cheaply animated sequels to “The Lion King” that came closer to killing off Simba than Scar ever did. At the time, Disney was cashing in on the home-video craze of the 1990s by releasing low-quality follow-ups to movies such as “Aladdin,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Little Mermaid.” So much for happily ever after. But by 2005’s “Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch” – whose title is a case of truth in advertising – the poor quality sequels had tarnished the brand of precious Disney assets.

“That was just their way of squeezing the orange for a little more juice,” says Mr. Beck, who teaches animation history at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia. “When John Lasseter took over Disney Animation, he was quite adamant about ‘no more of that.’ It was one of the first things they stopped doing. Is that better than these live-action remakes? You know, in a way this is the same thing. It’s just done on a much bigger budget and a greater scale.”

Do-over for outdated elements

Mr. Beck sees the potential for both risks and rewards in live-action remakes. You get only one shot doing a live-action remake, he says. If a remake underperforms at the box office, as “Dumbo” has, it risks undermining the value of that property. Then again, he says that live-action remakes could offer an opportunity to improve upon lesser-known box-office failures. For instance, fresh versions of “The Black Cauldron” and “The Sword in the Stone” might be a good fit for today’s fantasy-movie craze. (The latter is reportedly in the works for the Disney+ streaming service with a script by “Game of Thrones” writer Bryan Cogman.) 

The remakes also offer Disney an opportunity for a do-over of outdated or offensive elements from the originals. The princess in “Aladdin” no longer resembles a belly dancer with midriff-baring outfits. “Lady and the Tramp,” which will debut on Disney+, ditched “The Siamese Cat Song” with its Asian stereotypes. “Dumbo” omits the bird with stereotypical African American features who was named Jim Crow. Plus, the baby elephant doesn’t get drunk on champagne as in the earlier iteration.

For now, the Walt Disney Company is focusing on upgrading its best-known properties. Disney may be able to bank on being too big to fail because its generation-spanning characters and library of movies are so deeply embedded in global culture. But analysts say it would be prudent to continue to develop new tales in the hope of discovering the next “Frozen.”

“I do still think that there is room for original stories to be told and new properties to be developed,” says Mr. Bossert, whose visual effects work encompassed films such as “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and “Fantasia 2000.” “The success of Disney is all about the fact that they tell great stories with endearing characters. There’s a level of quality that goes into that. And you look at the films over the years, and they’re films that will stand the test of time.”

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The Monitor's View

A door for peace in rising US-Iran tensions

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By the looks of it, Iran and the United States are as poised for conflict as ever. Hard-liners in both countries appear to be itching for a fight with no wiggle room for compromise. But as we said, that’s the looks of it.

The latest escalation of tensions was Iran’s threat on Wednesday to partially pull out of a 2015 nuclear pact and resume higher enrichment of uranium unless it gets sanctions relief from Europe. The threat came soon after the U.S. beefed up its military forces in the region, claiming new threats against American troops by Iran or its supporters.

These moves might seem like a winner-take-all approach by both sides. The U.S. seeks regime change in Tehran while Iran seeks to oust both the U.S. and Israel from the Middle East.

The problem with this picture is that Iran has quietly kept a door open for direct or indirect talks with the U.S. Some sort of deal is still an option.

As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently told an Iranian newspaper, “Any achievements we had [during the past 40 years] in foreign policy were the result of negotiations.”

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A door for peace in rising US-Iran tensions

By the looks of it, Iran and the United States are as poised for conflict as ever. Hard-liners in both countries appear to be itching for a fight with no wiggle room for compromise. But as we said, that’s the looks of it.

The latest escalation of tensions was Iran’s threat on Wednesday to partially pull out of a 2015 nuclear pact and resume higher enrichment of uranium unless it gets sanctions relief from Europe. The threat came soon after the U.S. beefed up its military forces in the region, claiming new threats against American troops by Iran or its supporters.

In addition, President Donald Trump stepped up his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. He also tightened the screws on countries doing business with Iran. A year ago he pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, citing its main flaw: The deal does not protect Israel or U.S. allies in the Mideast from threats by Iran other than its now-suspended program to build a nuclear weapon.

For its part, Iran keeps consolidating its influence, spending heavily on military proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza. Forty years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran feels it is reaching a much-desired dominance in the region.

All these moves might seem like a winner-take-all approach by both sides. The U.S. seeks regime change in Tehran while Iran seeks to oust both the U.S. and Israel from the Middle East.

The problem with this picture is that Iran has quietly kept a door open for direct or indirect talks with the U.S. Some sort of deal is still an option.

Last month, for example, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to hold talks with the U.S. And the local press in Iran continually takes note of offers by neighboring Oman to mediate between the U.S. and Iran. Perceived as a neutral player, Oman was key in 2012 to bringing the U.S. and Iran together for talks that led to the nuclear pact.

As Mr. Zarif recently told an Iranian newspaper, “Any achievements we had [during the past 40 years] in foreign policy were the result of negotiations.”

Oman’s very identity serves as a reminder of what peace can look like in the region. It is an island of stability. Its ruling sultanate includes officials who set a priority on listening to all sides and then offering to mediate with selfless interest. Last month, for example, its foreign minister called on Arab nations to reduce Israel’s “fears for its future” in the region.

Oman’s diplomats say their strategy is to first understand a foreign country as “though we were as them, to see the world through their eyes.” When Iran and the U.S. are ready to avoid a major conflict, Oman will be there to mediate again. The looks of a potential war can be deceiving.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Learn more about love

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Today’s contributor shares how a growing understanding of God as Love has showed her how we can all express a more tender, patient, and effective mothering love for others as well as for our children.

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Learn more about love

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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My toddler was really getting the hang of her balance bike as she glided down the street. But as she veered toward the middle of the road, I asked her to move to the sidewalk.

“No!” she shouted. When I asked her again, her “no” got louder. And as I insisted once more, she screamed for all to hear: “No! I hate you! You’re not my best friend!”

Earlier that week, she had held my hand, looked up, and told me with a smile, “Mommy, you’re my best friend.” I had felt my heart melt. But hearing those words on the street, I wondered whether my heart might break.

I was surprised to find that it didn’t.

Instead, as I paused, I found myself moved – by love – to say: “You don’t have to be my best friend, but I am your mother. I am here to care for you and keep you safe. And no matter what, I will always love you.”

I felt at peace and was able to calmly bring her to the sidewalk. At that very moment a car came careening around the corner, and I was relieved we were safe.

Years later, I’ve thought back to that experience, because it’s helped me learn more about what elevates us and protects us today. It brought to mind where Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, said in her “Message to The Mother Church for 1902”: “When loving, we learn that ‘God is Love;’ ... No person can heal or reform mankind unless he is actuated by love and good will towards men” (p. 8).

Being “actuated by love” was a good way to describe what happened. I felt this unstoppable love that went beyond any sort of personal mothering trait. It confirmed for me the power the Bible describes as the Love that is God, the divine Mother of all.

This love isn’t exclusive to mothers. As children of God, we all naturally reflect God’s mothering love. And as we learn more about God by loving – by letting God’s love guide us – we find that we are able to rise above anything unlike Love.

These words by St. John put it poetically: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (I John 4:7, 8).

I’ve found it so helpful to learn through Christian Science that this divine Love is also Spirit, another way to describe God. The qualities of divine Love are spiritual and therefore unlimited, not held by one person and not another, because all of us as children of God express this same Spirit and are actually spiritual. As we feel and act on this spirit of Love, we begin to see and experience the tender, loving protection that comes from God, who holds all of Her precious children safe in Her care.

That day on the street, I could see past my daughter’s outburst because I didn’t see it as part of her naturally loving, spiritual nature. This more spiritual view showed me to some degree that anything unlike God, Love, has no legitimate power, which is why I didn’t feel hurt. Instead, I felt an overwhelming love welling up within me that I realized must have come from divine Love. This love allowed me to accomplish what I needed to do to protect my daughter – it moved me to care more tenderly, interact more patiently, and love more deeply.

All of us, as parents or otherwise, can be “actuated by love” in defense of, and for the protection of, those around us. Discovering more of the love of God and learning to follow Love’s impulses, we feel the power that enables us to be constructive, productive, and healing.

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Viewfinder

Help is on the way

Anupam Nath/AP
Rescuers help a baby wild elephant trapped in water hyacinth cross the wetland in Guwahati, India, May 10. The elephant had gotten stuck after it was separated from a herd. Local residents also stopped traffic and a train so the little elephant could get safely across to its home in the forest of the Deepor Beel wildlife sanctuary.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 13th, 2019 )

Have a great weekend. Come back Monday. With professional athletes commanding salaries in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it raises a question: Is this just what the market will bear, or are society’s values out of whack?

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May 10, 2019
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