2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 16, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Finding resilience

Once you see the word, you start seeing it everywhere: resilience. If 2020 was the year of turmoil, 2021 might well be the year of resilience. There’s the need for individual resilience amid the pandemic or natural disasters, and there’s a push to build a broader resilience in communities and countries – helping them weather climate change, political dysfunction, or economic shocks.

In that spirit, this week we launch our newest project, Finding Resilience. It seeks out where resilience is operating and chronicles how people are finding it in themselves and their neighbors. In doing so, we’re also making a statement: Resilience is not about teeth-gritted willpower. Nor does resilience accept the tragic or unjust conditions that kindle it. Resilience is essential to progress. 

In some cases, maybe a solution emerges. In others, the challenges might remain. But resilience is about finding growth and meaningful victories even amid tribulation. It is the beginning of change. Take our recent stories about seniors finding renewal and the Bronx leaning on a deep sense of community during the pandemic. Or our “Stronger” podcast on women who reinvented themselves despite the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact. Today, former Monitor Editor Marshall Ingwerson weighs in with a column on collective resilience after Hurricane Ida. 

Our founder, Mary Baker Eddy, said the Monitor must “bless all mankind.” In Finding Resilience, we hope to offer evidence that the strength and confidence to move forward is already in all of us. You can find our Finding Resilience stories in the weeks ahead here

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A deeper look

Is Joe Manchin holding democracy hostage? His colleagues won’t say.

What is Sen. Joe Manchin thinking? The Democrat holds the fate of President Joe Biden’s signature bill in his hands. But don’t expect that to faze him – or influence him.

Mark

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Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin arguably has more influence in Washington right now than the other prominent Joe, who resides at the White House. The president’s key priorities have been bundled in a budget that Senate Democrats can pass through a process known as reconciliation – but only if every single one of them votes yes. And the West Virginian senator has made clear that his vote is far from guaranteed.

A framework for the bill outlines major investments in education, health care, and combating climate change. Mr. Manchin, who hails from a coal state that voted for President Donald Trump by a margin of 39 percentage points in 2020, has signaled his opposition to its $3.5 trillion price tag at a time of rising inflation.

Many Democratic voters feel it is not only unfair, but also undemocratic for a senator who represents just 1.8 million voters to hold such sway. Indeed, beyond the debate over progressive priorities lies a deeper question: Is democracy well served when a single senator can wield so much power?

“If there’s anyone who’s going to be in that position, I’m glad that he is there,” says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “It shows, however, the fragility of the institution.”

Is Joe Manchin holding democracy hostage? His colleagues won’t say.

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Tom Brenner/Reuters/File
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia speaks to reporters before attending a meeting on infrastructure on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 23, 2021.

Inside the air-conditioned halls of the august U.S. Capitol, reporters and lawmakers alike are jockeying for a word with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the fiscally conservative Democrat who is threatening to hold up his party’s $3.5 trillion signature budget bill.

Outside, in the sweltering September sun, protester Cathy Hook is demanding he answer a simple question: “Which side are you on?” 

Walking past the Capitol in jeans and hiking boots with her sister, sweat beading on their brows after attending a voting rights rally, Ms. Hook calls Senator Manchin “the main obstacle” to the Democratic agenda, which the party is struggling to advance – despite controlling the House, Senate, and White House. 

If the Democrats are unable to get anything done with that rare hold on power, she says, “We will not have democracy. We barely have it now.”

With an evenly divided Senate, Mr. Manchin arguably has more influence in Washington at the moment than the other prominent Joe, who resides at the White House. The president’s key priorities have been bundled in a budget that the Democrats can pass without a single Republican vote through a fast-track process known as reconciliation – but only if every single one of them votes yes. And Mr. Manchin has made clear that his vote is far from guaranteed. 

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Cathy Hook, who has been protesting in the nation’s capital for decades, wants Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to answer a simple question: "Which side are you on?" She and her sister attended a voting rights rally Sept. 14, while inside the Capitol senators jockeyed for a word with Senator Manchin, who opposes his party’s proposal to spend $3.5 trillion on social reforms at a time of ballooning national debt.

A preliminary framework for the bill outlined major investments in education, such as universal pre-K and free community college; in health care, including expanding Medicare benefits to cover dental, vision, and hearing, and lowering the eligibility age; in border security and legalizing “qualified” immigrants; and in combating climate change, including transitioning the federal fleet of vehicles to electric and funding low-income solar power. The framework proposed a $3.5 trillion price tag to be “fully offset by a combination of new tax revenues, health care savings, and long-term economic growth.” The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated, however, that the true cost could be as high as $5.5 trillion per decade. 

Mr. Manchin, the sole Democratic member of Congress from a state that is the nation’s No. 2 coal producer and that voted for President Donald Trump by a margin of 39 percentage points in 2020, recently signaled his opposition to such an expensive bill at a time of rising inflation and ballooning national debt. Earlier this year, he opposed the party’s premier voting rights bill (though he now supports a different version), and he has refused to scrap the filibuster, preventing Senate Democrats from passing most bills without cajoling at least 10 Republicans to join them.

Many Democratic voters feel it is not only deeply unfair, but also undemocratic for a senator who represents just 1.8 million voters – from one of the whitest states in an increasingly diverse nation – to hold such sway. Indeed, beyond the debate over expanding Medicare benefits, child care subsidies, or other progressive priorities, and beyond the speculation about whether Mr. Manchin is grandstanding or acting from deep-rooted conviction, lies a deeper question: Is democracy well served when a single senator can wield so much power?

“I’m a good friend of Joe’s, so if there’s anyone who’s going to be in that position, I’m glad that he is there,” says Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. “It shows, however, the fragility of the institution.”

To Senator Collins, a longtime champion of bipartisanship, it’s concerning that the center has become such a lonely place in the Senate. It’s not so much that Mr. Manchin has moved away from his party, as that his party has moved away from him as it has come to embrace more progressive policies. 

Critics on the left say he is a relic of a clubby system that still often operates like an old boys’ network. In particular, they criticize his refusal to scrap the filibuster, which was historically used by Southern lawmakers to block civil rights bills. Without the filibuster, Democrats could capitalize on their party’s rare trifecta of power to advance sweeping reforms, many of which are aimed to help minority and working-class Americans.

In an April op-ed for The Washington Post, Mr. Manchin – one of only three Democrats to vote against scrapping the filibuster for Cabinet appointees and federal judges when his party was last in power – argued that the procedure is crucial for maintaining democracy because it preserves a voice for rural Americans and promotes bipartisan cooperation that leads to more robust and lasting solutions. “The truth is, my Democratic friends do not have all the answers and my Republican friends do not, either,” he wrote. 

For now, however, Senate rules are Senate rules, and Democratic senators speak carefully when asked about voters’ frustrations that Mr. Manchin is holding up their agenda. 

“We’re all working on it right now,” says Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, power-walking back toward the Senate office buildings after a vote. “We all understand the urgency of getting through the kind of changes our country needs – from child care to fighting climate change. And no one has given up on anyone.”

“Mountaineers are always free”

On Tuesday, Mr. Manchin – a 6-foot-3-inch former football player – strode up the central aisle of the Senate to cast a vote, then ambled to the dais where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was presiding over the chamber. “What’s going on?” he asked, before kneeling next to her leather swivel chair for a tête-à-tête. He held out several long fingers, as if counting off; Senator Sinema of Arizona, the only other Democrat to publicly express reservations about the price tag of the reconciliation bill, tapped her fingers on the desk. 

In front of her was a chart of the chamber, with senators’ seats fanned out in a semicircle – Republicans on her left, Democrats on her right. She and Mr. Manchin occupy just two of those 100 seats. But in the unique math of the Senate, they in many ways have more influence than all the other 98 senators combined on this budget reconciliation bill. 

On Wednesday, each had private meetings at the White House with President Joe Biden, a veteran of the Senate who is exerting his presidential power to try to corral the Democratic caucus into unified action. 

Mr. Biden succeeded in persuading Mr. Manchin to vote for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in the spring, but not without scaling back the expansion of unemployment benefits. He may succeed this time, too, but there will likely be a price. 

Mr. Manchin, noting that Congress has already approved $5.4 trillion in spending – some of which has yet to be spent – has expressed reservations about rushing through a mammoth bill before duly considering what American needs remain unmet, and how best to pay for them.

Critics say his resistance – particularly to the climate initiatives in the bill, including transitioning away from fossil fuels – is driven largely by ties to the energy industry. As the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, from a state where coal and natural gas play a pivotal role in the economy, he is the recipient of substantial campaign donations from energy companies and interest groups, according to the campaign finance website opensecrets.org

Some see in Mr. Manchin the same independent streak his state is famous for, summed up in the motto they chose after breaking away from Virginia: Montani semper liberi – “Mountaineers are always free.” In colorful language, he’s happy to tell anyone who will listen that he doesn’t care if he gets reelected, and he won’t vote for something he doesn’t like or can’t explain. It may help that he’s well into his 70s and has already held just about every political office but the presidency: state legislator, state senator, West Virginia secretary of state, governor, and now U.S. senator. Those who have watched his long political career say it’s vintage Joe to take a tough stand – and it has nothing to do with a desire to hold the limelight.

“What we’re reading about and observing in West Virginia is the Joe Manchin we’ve known all these years. He hasn’t changed a lick,” says Mayor Steve Williams of Huntington, West Virginia, who has known Mr. Manchin since they served together in the state legislature decades ago. 

“Joe is going to do what he believes is right for this nation,” Mayor Williams says. “Anybody who’s saying that it’s anything other than that is just revealing that they do not know Joe Manchin.”

The only Democrat who can win in West Virginia?

Mr. Manchin is the only elected Democrat in federal or statewide office left standing in West Virginia, which has undergone a dramatic shift in recent decades from a working-class Democratic stronghold to deep-red territory. It voted for Mr. Trump by wider margins than almost any other state in both 2016 and 2020. While many liberal elites disdain such bastions of Trump support, Mr. Manchin stands up for his constituents, acknowledging “all they’ve contributed to this great country.” 

“A lot of good people,” he says. “I want to make sure they’re respected and represented.” 

He’s also unabashed about making friends – and deals – with Republicans. When his father, a furniture store owner, needed help from his congressman to get a small-business loan, he confessed to the GOP congressman that he’d voted for his opponent. The congressman, Arch Moore, helped him anyway – and the family never forgot it. Today, Mr. Manchin serves alongside Mr. Moore’s daughter, GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. 

“The people of West Virginia really like it when they see the two of us working together – that’s the most positive feedback I get,” she says, noting their work together on the Senate’s infrastructure package, which now awaits passage in the House. “We’re interested in getting things done. And we’re tough, so if it gets a little rough, we’re able to handle that.”

Mr. Manchin has carved out one of Washington’s few spaces for bipartisan socializing, hosting dinners and cruises on his houseboat, Almost Heaven, where he lives while in the capital. Mr. Manchin has leaned in hard to the image of a moderate deal-maker with friends on both sides of the aisle, a last vestige of civility and compromise in an increasingly gridlocked institution that has seen its public support drop to the single digits.  

“He has been extremely successful at finding that middle ground and threading the political needle,” says Hoppy Kercheval, a prominent broadcaster who hosts West Virginia’s MetroNews Talkline.

With three years to go in his term, Mr. Manchin’s approval ratings in his state are above water, with 42% of West Virginia voters approving of his job performance and 37% disapproving in one recent survey. But that’s lower than Senator Capito’s approval rating of 52%, and far lower than GOP Gov. Jim Justice’s, at 61%. Many pundits say Mr. Manchin is almost certainly the last Democrat who could ever be elected senator in West Virginia today.

Still, some activists say Democrats are setting their sights too low. 

“People spend lots of time and money and oxygen saying that nothing can change, that Senator Manchin is the best we can hope for,” says Stephen Smith, who ran as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2020, losing in the primary by 6 points. “It is exactly that kind of thinking that leads to a situation where we in West Virginia are completely unrepresented by either political party.”

Mr. Smith, who co-founded WV Can’t Wait, a grassroots movement to “win a people’s government” in the state, sees Mr. Manchin as part of a class of entrenched politicians from both parties who have utterly failed to change the trajectory of a state that has seen its population drop. West Virginia has one of the highest poverty rates in America and the lowest life expectancy, and faces an ongoing opioid epidemic and an HIV outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled the most concerning in the nation. 

“We’ve got no problem with an elected official being powerful. Lord knows it’s been a long time since West Virginia has had any influence over the national debate,” adds Mr. Smith. “But we do have a problem when they use that power to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.” 

More going on behind the scenes

Democrats point out that while it’s true they can’t pass their budget without Mr. Manchin’s support (unless they somehow get a Republican on board instead), that’s also the case for every single member of the Senate. And there’s more going on behind the scenes than may be readily apparent. 

“All 50 of us have complete veto power over this. Some want to negotiate in public, and some negotiate in private – but we all have the exact same ability to say, I need to see this, I don’t want to see that,” says Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who sits on the Budget Committee headed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is spearheading the bill. “Joe may be more public in his negotiation, but we’re all negotiating the things we care about.”

Speaking of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Kaine notes that he “is trying to carry out 50 negotiations at the same time.”

That’s not a job Texas Sen. John Cornyn envies, having been the Republican whip who had to corral the GOP caucus in support of its 2017 tax bill, which was also passed through budget reconciliation. 

“I can tell you it was a heavy, heavy lift, just to get everybody within our own caucus on the same page,” Senator Cornyn says. “So I’m sort of enjoying watching our Democratic friends try to pull this thing off.” 

Appearing on CNN last weekend, Senator Sanders offered a typically blunt salvo, saying Mr. Manchin’s call for a much lower price tag was “absolutely not acceptable.”

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to the president, to the American people, or to the overwhelming majority of the Democratic caucus,” said Mr. Sanders, who had initially wanted nearly $6 trillion in spending. “I believe we’re going to all sit down and work together and come up with a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which deals with the enormously unmet needs of working families.”

For the most part, however, Mr. Manchin’s Democratic colleagues are treading carefully. It may not be only the budget bill they’re worried about. Some were around in 2001 – in another evenly divided Senate – when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont abruptly decided to leave the GOP, throwing control of the chamber to Democrats. 

“I’m working closely with Chairman Manchin,” says Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who chairs the Finance Committee, when asked about Democratic voters who are frustrated that Mr. Manchin is wielding so much influence over the reconciliation bill. 

“We’re continuing to have conversations,” says Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who serves on the Budget Committee.

California Sen. Alex Padilla goes a bit further: “I think Democratic voters should know that there are a lot of Democratic senators working on Joe Manchin,” he says, “starting with reminding him that it’s not just about how much we want to invest, but that we can do so in a fiscally responsible way.”  

As Senator Warren said, no one has given up on anyone. They can’t afford to. 

Why end of Afghan war is not end of US-led nation building

After Iraq and Afghanistan, nation building as a U.S. military enterprise is out of favor. But the desire to export democracy and social norms is deeply rooted.

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Afghan girls study at school, before the Taliban regained power last month. The U.S. will not abandon efforts to export its values, say experts, even in the wake of failure in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington will likely not back such projects with major military force.

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When President Joe Biden defended the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said it marked the end of “major military operations to remake other countries.”

It may be a long time until the next U.S. invasion of a foreign country aimed at regime change, requiring a lot of boots on the ground in a hostile environment to build a new society. But that almost certainly does not mean the end of American-led nation building.

In the future, Washington is likely to undertake such efforts only when the fighting is over, to support a peace process, for example. It will rely more on civilian development experts, and less on soldiers or military contractors. The U.S. government will limit its ambitions to areas of priority to national security, and will have to be sure of political support both at home and in the receiving country.

Nation building may be out of favor now, but it will be back, says Christopher Ankersen, a former security adviser to the United Nations. Because “frankly,” he says, “it remains in our interest to help create those stable states.”

Why end of Afghan war is not end of US-led nation building

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In his speech last month marking the close of America’s Afghanistan War, President Joe Biden said the decision meant the end of major military operations “to remake other countries.”

It sounded like a knell, tolling the demise of an era of American nation building.

Over: the impulse to make democracies out of autocracies, as former President George W. Bush aimed for in launching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No more: the stabilization and institution-building initiatives of the sort ordered by former President Bill Clinton in Bosnia, Liberia, and elsewhere.

But is American-led nation building really ready for the history books? The answer, say many international development experts and former officials, is almost certainly not.

“We’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth between nation building – in my view better called state building – and … periods of the state-building fatigue we’re seeing now in the American public and others around the world,” says Christopher Ankersen, a former security adviser to the United Nations system.

“But that pendulum will swing back because the instinct for the U.S. and the West is still … to intervene to assist nations in building a stable and benevolent and just state,” adds Professor Ankersen, who now teaches transnational security at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “And, frankly, because it remains in our interest to help create those stable states.”

Higher profile for USAID

Indeed, one clue as to why the United States won’t turn its back on all nation building came in another decision Mr. Biden made in April, when he named former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power to head the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In announcing Ambassador Power’s appointment, Mr. Biden said the human rights and anti-genocide crusader would also be joining the National Security Council’s principals’ table – the first formal inclusion of the USAID administrator in the NSC and the first time the missions of international development and national security have been so closely linked.

The decision underscored what some longtime international affairs experts like former Reagan White House national security staffer Henry Nau have emphasized in the face of Afghanistan post-mortems: Nation building will go on because it will continue to be in America’s national security interest to strengthen unstable and failed states.

At the same time, others say, in an era of mass migrations – look no further than the U.S. southern border – it will remain in the national interest to help foreign governments and their citizens develop the tools to build secure, healthy, and fulfilling lives at home.

Odelyn Joseph/AP
USAID Administrator Samantha Power speaks during a visit to Haiti. She is the first USAID chief to be given a seat on the National Security Council, signaling a new focus on the importance of international development to U.S. security.

“We’ve heard this ‘never again’ in regards to nation building before,” says James Dobbins, who served in three administrations as special envoy to unstable states including Afghanistan, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia.

Most often, as is true now, this “highly negative assessment” of nation building is reserved for “the regime-change versions and forced-entry operations that require heavy boots on the ground” in hostile environments, says Mr. Dobbins, distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Virginia.

“But there’s another version that has often involved peace-keeping in the aftermath of conflict and is more about assisting a country in moving on, satisfying basic needs, and developing the institutions that enable people to build better lives,” as in the Balkans, Panama, or Sierra Leone, he says. “That is a form of nation building with a pretty good batting average.”

Learning from failures

Nation building may have a bad name at the moment in the wake of the messy and in many ways disheartening withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the U.S. has also learned some important lessons from the experience that will serve it and the international community in the future, some experts say.

“Nation building doesn’t work when you’re in a country that is in a civil war, where the political divisions are so sharp that the focus is on security and quelling violence,” says J. Brian Atwood, who served as USAID administrator in the Clinton administration.

“I don’t see too many situations where a military-dominated nation-building mission is going to work or where we’re going to resort to that anytime soon,” he adds. “You end up dominating and bullying, but successful development work is a partnership where you have enough trust for the two [sides] to work together.”

The nation-building “partnership” is not just between states, but also involves third parties such as multilateral development agencies and nongovernmental organizations. And a key reason nation-building efforts will continue is that the NGOs on the ground in places like Afghanistan say they are in for the long haul regardless of how the pendulum swings in Washington or elsewhere.

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after his 2020 election victory. The collapse of his government last month, as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, offered striking evidence of the limits to U.S. military-backed nation building.

“Nation building doesn’t end when there are certain representatives who leave the country on a plane,” says Marianne O’Grady, Afghanistan country director for CARE.

“A very large part of nation building is keeping the spirit alive no matter who is in charge [in the country]” and “with or without the support of various people at any one time,” she adds. “The NGO world is there to fill some of the gaps, build new stairs on the building a country is constructing, and we’re going to continue doing that despite the bumps in the road.”

Less reliance on contractors

Other lessons the U.S. and others are likely to learn from the Afghanistan experience: Future nation-building missions must take into account political will (both at home and in the receiving country) and limits on resources. And they are likely to be limited to areas of priority to national security – no more grandiose missions in what experts call “peripheral regions.”

“Obama’s intervention in Libya was a regime-change mission, but it did not result in a nation-building effort because Libya was not central to U.S. national security and … there was no appetite for it,” says NYU’s Professor Ankersen. “We will continue to see efforts if a country is interested in development,” he adds, “maybe has a peace process or post-conflict reconciliation going, but no belligerent parties opposing the outside assistance.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, civilian contractors did a lot of the nation-building work. Mr. Atwood expects to see less of that in future, in part due to sharp criticism of some contractors’ actions, and also because Ambassador Power is pressing to beef up USAID to allow for more U.S. development representatives on the ground.

“I think we’ve gone too far towards contractors in recent years, we’ve had too many experiences where some haven’t been efficient or others didn’t fulfill the task they were assigned,” says Mr. Atwood, a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Thomas Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

“We should be sending more of our own expert talent to the field, working with people on the ground to build local ownership,” he adds.

Rivalry with China

Noting that President Biden continues to push his democracy agenda, Rand’s Mr. Dobbins says he also expects to see the U.S. ratchet up the elements of nation-building work that aim to strengthen the rules-based order both within countries and internationally – especially as competition with China for commercial and trade partners heats up.

“There’s definitely a competition between those who believe in rules and respect for international law and democracy, and those who don’t care whether their partners are dictatorships or abuse their populations,” he says. “The U.S. is going to continue to look to build partnerships that respect both the international rules of the road and human rights.”

Ms. O’Grady of CARE says it would be “wonderful” to see American development experts returning to Kabul to fill the building that USAID has left vacant. But whether or not that happens anytime soon, she is confident that the nation-building work the international community has pursued in Afghanistan for more than two decades will continue.

“We are facing a struggle right now in terms of understanding how we can deliver girls’ education with the unknowns of the new government,” she says, citing one example.

But calling on existing partnerships and “figuring out together how we can continue this really important work is what growing a nation together means,” she adds. It’s that “commitment over time that brings communities forward,” she says, “and that [commitment] isn’t going anywhere.”

Madagascar nears a first: Famine caused by climate rather than war

Climate-related drought has pushed Madagascar to the brink of famine, serving as a global warning. How Madagascar handles its crisis could be a model of adaptation.

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Children eat a porridge made of rice, marrow, dried shrimp, carrots, oil, and iodized salt during a nutrition class for mothers by local nonprofit Asa Soa, on May 30, 2017, in Antsirabe, Madagascar. Nearly half of all children in Madagascar are chronically malnourished.

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All modern famines are human-caused, typically the result of conflicts that displace people and cut off access to food. In southern Madagascar, though, the trigger for its food crisis is four years of successive droughts in a country in which most people live on less than $2 a day. 

Activists say that Madagascar’s crisis is grave, though it is not unfixable. Communities need better ways to treat and store water and to forecast extreme weather, as well as a greater say in how the international community responds to such crises.

The severity of the situation, which is affecting more than 1.5 million people, has already raised the profile of Madagascar and its exposure to global warming. 

“When you are hopelessly relying on the weather to bring you your livelihood, your food production, your life, and that lets you down for four years, it pushes you to an extreme situation,” says Shelley Thakral, a spokesperson for the World Food Program. 

Madagascar nears a first: Famine caused by climate rather than war

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When Madagascan climate activist Christina Kolo got the chance in April to speak to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, she wanted him to know two things.

First, people in Madagascar were already suffering as a result of climate change, which had made their weather more extreme and pushed millions toward hunger.

But if they were among climate change’s first victims, she then told him, they could also be on the frontlines of the fight to help the world adapt to it.

“Most often in international media we see calls for more food, more aid to help people who are suffering” in countries like Madagascar, she says. But while humanitarian aid is important, “we also want solidarity,” she adds.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A farmer plows his field with a zebu team to plant sweet potatoes, on May 24, 2017, in Amboro, Madagascar. The area has experienced repeated droughts.

Rains have failed in parts of southern Madagascar for five out of the past six years, leading the U.N. to warn that the region is on the brink of the world’s first “climate change famine.” Experts say its crisis should be a warning to the rest of the world as average temperatures rise and weather becomes more extreme and unpredictable. But for activists like Ms. Kolo, how Madagascar handles the crisis could also be a model for a more resilient world.

She and others working in drought-stricken regions of the southern African island nation say that while Madagascar’s crisis is grave, it is not unfixable. People there need better ways to treat and store water and to forecast extreme weather and, where possible, plant alternative crops. They also want a bigger say in how international decisions about their crises are made.

But those solutions hinge on people in richer nations not seeing hungry people in places like Madagascar as “statistics, from a small faraway country,” Ms. Kolo says, but as real people suffering as a result of a global crisis.

“This is about the collective moral responsibility we have around climate change,” says Shelley Thakral, a spokesperson for the World Food Program (WFP) in southern Africa. “It’s countries like Madagascar that have borne the heavy plight of cyclones and other climate shocks despite having done almost nothing to contribute to climate change.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Men haul water up from a private, Japanese-supported well outside town, on May 24, 2017, in Ambovombe, Madagascar. Selling water is big business amid persistent drought.

From conflict to climate

All modern famines are human-caused. And for decades, they have mostly been made by conflict. Countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen have had famines – a global classification for severe starvation crises – when people fled violence and lost access to food supplies.

What makes the situation in Madagascar unique, Ms. Thakral says, is that war has played no role in its hunger crisis. Instead, in a country where three-quarters of people live on less than $2 a day, several years of devastatingly dry weather have withered the food crops on which communities depend.

“When you are hopelessly relying on the weather to bring you your livelihood, your food production, your life, and that lets you down for four years, it pushes you to an extreme situation,” she says.

As of August, 14,000 people in the far south of Madagascar were living in “famine-like conditions,” according to WFP surveys, and another 1.5 million were at great risk of falling into this category. Many people are surviving on cactus and other wild plants.

The region’s successive droughts aren’t a direct result of climate change, but their effects have been cranked up by rising temperatures and climate volatility, says Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which works on early warning systems for extreme weather events.

“Climate change amplifies natural changes and has contributed to the drought in Madagascar,” he says.

Knowing that, he says, he and other researchers are creating new models for drought forecasting, which have already helped to predict recent droughts in southern and eastern Africa. That, in turn, makes it easier to get emergency food and resources to those places before it is too late.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A woman walks down a road through rice paddies, on May 29, 2017, in Ambohitrimanjaka, Madagascar. Rice is a staple crop, but many families are malnourished because they can't afford a diverse diet.

Gender issues at the fore

In Madagascar, nonprofit organizations are helping communities build better water storage and treatment options, which could help mitigate future droughts.

Ms. Kolo’s organization, Ecofeminism Madagascar, focuses on how weather crises increase violence against women, and what to do about it. As in many rural societies, the task of water collection often falls on women and girls, and when drought forces them to scour more remote places, the risk of violence goes up. Moreover, when families are desperate for fewer mouths to feed, they may opt to marry off young girls.  

“Climate change and gender issues are very closely related,” she says.

Ms. Kolo often attends international conferences and works with climate movements in other parts of the world, which she says is important for building a shared sense of responsibility around crises in places like Madagascar.

“For me, it’s not the time to say to people in the ‘Global North’ anymore that they must feel guilty,” she says. “But they must make demands on people in power where they live, who have the power to make change for the world. It’s time for them to show us some solidarity.” 

Finding Resilience

A lesson from Hurricane Ida that is changing the world

We know the power of individual resilience in the face of difficulty. But Hurricane Ida revealed how New Orleans has become more resilient collectively. It’s a more common story than you might think.

Mark
Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate/AP
Donrell Breaux, center, helps roofing contractors install a temporary roof on a home in New Orleans East, Sept. 8, 2021. FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are overseeing this Blue Roof program to help homeowners recover from the damage cause by Hurricane Ida.

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The stories of individual resilience in the wake of Hurricane Ida have been well told – neighbor helping neighbor, heroism from responders, and support from across the nation. But the story of a new, collective resilience needs to be told, too.

Ida has been covered as an example and a warning of the rising violence of climate change. And that’s an important context. But here’s another: Even as climate events become more dangerously frequent and potent, human societies have actually become safer – dramatically safer. By one measure, climate-related events killed 130 times more people worldwide in the 1920s than today.

New Orleans shows why. Katrina killed more than 1,800 people. The breaching of the levees put 80% of the city underwater and was nearly an existential threat to New Orleans. But after Ida struck last month, the now-fortified levees held.

Only big, complex teams – directed through the institutions we’ve developed over centuries – can achieve what New Orleans accomplished in the past 16 years. Individual learning can be a flashlight for families, communities, organizations, nations. But it is collective learning, what we achieve together, that changes the world.

A lesson from Hurricane Ida that is changing the world

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In the weeks since Hurricane Ida landed at New Orleans, it has illustrated two very different stories. One is the rising violence of the changing climate. The other, which is only now fully emerging, is the human resilience that has already made the world far safer.

New storms are already forming in the Gulf of Mexico, but the aftermath of Hurricane Ida is now entering what we might call the resilience zone. It can be the most testing, and telling, phase.

As part of the Monitor’s Finding Resilience project, here is a tale of two cities: The New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago and the New Orleans hit by Hurricane Ida late last month. 

They were not identical storms. Ida struck with less sweeping girth than Katrina but more sheer force. They weren’t all that different, either.

But they hit a different New Orleans. Katrina killed more than 1,800 people. The breaching of the levees put 80% of the city underwater. The blow was nearly existential to New Orleans as we knew it. Three in 10 residents vacated, many permanently. 

After Ida struck last month, the now-fortified levees held against the surge. The toll in fatalities in Louisiana is at 28. A similar number died in New Jersey as Ida-driven rain flooded the Northeast. The scale of damage and heartbreak is so vastly different that clearly Louisiana is more robust and storm-hardy than in 2005. The population had even grown back in New Orleans, recently surpassing its pre-Katrina numbers.

The effects of human resilience

Ida has been covered as an example and a warning of the rising violence of climate change, making hurricanes stronger, floods higher, and fires bigger and more frequent in the dry West. And that’s an important context. 

But here’s another: Even as climate events become more dangerously frequent and potent, humanity has actually become safer – dramatically safer.

The economist Bjorn Lomborg finds that the number of people killed worldwide by climate-related events in the 1920s, a century ago, was 27 times higher than the number killed over the decade ending 2019. Corrected for the far higher global population today, the death rate a century ago was more than 130 times what it is today.

Dr. Lomborg’s point is that when we assess the costs, the dangers, and the difficulties that climate change implies, human resilience and ingenuity is a nontrivial factor. So far, in fact, it has been an overwhelming factor.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Pieces of the levee lie flattened near a New Orleans East neighborhood, Sept. 20, 2005. The neighborhood was wiped out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when a barge broke through the levee, sending a 30-foot wave of water into the area.

A term like resilience can risk sounding a little minimizing and reductive – just a personal character trait. It is much more than that.

Those who have been through a hurricane strike report that it is after the winds have gone quiet, the ground dried, and the sun shining in steamy afternoons, only then have they arrived at the hard part – the exhausting building back, the forging ahead, the relaunch into forward motion.

Same goes for those facing the gray, weightless ash of the West’s massive wildfires, or Afghans recalculating their course after fundamentalist warlords swept back over their country, or Germans after July’s crushing floods, or Haitians struggling out from under a presidential assassination, a city-crushing earthquake, and a drenching tropical storm in the space of a single month. 

It’s the months after that can take the real fortitude to push back against a grim exhaustion.

Many of the efforts to resuscitate post-Katrina New Orleans were deeply personal, with families making remarkable sacrifices to rebuild the economy and education, much less the roads, bridges, and buildings of the city itself.

So resilience is a matter of spirit, of finding the heart to come back. But its structure, the ladder resilience climbs, is learning. We pick ourselves up, we learn what we need to learn, and we get to work.

Aiming bigger

And it’s not just person-by-person resilience that drives the kind of change we have seen. It’s collective. Only big, complex teams can achieve what New Orleans accomplished in the past 16 years. The scale of the investment, the engineering, the overlapping interests, the cross-cutting visions and values – only politics can put all that together and sort all that out.

That’s counterintuitive in a time where politics is scorned as a divisive and inflammatory form of cultural theater, a little like professional wrestling but not as harmless. 

Yet humankind has made the world, per Mr. Lomborg’s numbers, more than 99% safer against natural disasters in the last century by scaling resilience. And we do that through the institutions we use to work together. 

The only way we can learn and then act on as massive a scale as demanded of New Orleans is through the institutions we’ve developed over centuries – whether it’s a city council, a police department, a university, an engineering association, a religious denomination, a news organization, a Supreme Court, or an updated building code.

It’s the lack of robust institutions that reduce resilience in a country like Haiti – where such institutions were undermined by Western powers for centuries – to a more individual matter. Anyone who has visited the nation has witnessed the sheer energy and unoppressed vitality of the people that crowd the streets of Port au Prince. The spirit is there, but it’s a resilience on foot, a personal challenge, and not yet a resilience that can collectively build safety from the next natural disaster.

Individual learning can be a flashlight for families, communities, organizations, nations. But it is collective learning, what we achieve together, that holds real power. In fact, civilization itself could be defined as collective learning.

That makes the resilience shown by New Orleans more than just a story of individual grit, but of what we, even in this raucously, ridiculously divided country, can do together.

Marshall Ingwerson is a former editor of the Monitor.

Essay

What a childhood prank taught me about people

The most valuable lessons in school may not be what’s in the curriculum, but what one learns along the way.

Mark
Linda Bleck

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Miss Baugh taught seventh-grade social studies. She was scary. Meanwhile, I had just discovered cheap prank props. When I ran out of victims at home, I brought one to school.

Before Miss Baugh got to class, I opened her grade book and placed an ink bottle painted to look as though it had overturned, with a shiny black metal “puddle.” When Miss Baugh came in and saw it, she gave a little cry.

Success! I thought. And then I realized I’d set in motion something over which I had no control.

Miss Baugh tried to blot the ink with a paper towel and found it was fake. She looked up. 

“Who did this?” she said. 

I meekly raised my hand. I couldn’t help it. I’ve always been compulsively honest. 

Miss Baugh fixed me with her stare.

And then, she laughed. “Well, it certainly fooled me!” she said.

For a moment, a sweet little old lady appeared right where Miss Baugh stood – before the drill sergeant returned.  

If even Miss Baugh had a warm human heart, I reasoned, other crusty people probably do, too. I’ve happily proved that hypothesis many times since, the best lesson I learned in social studies.

What a childhood prank taught me about people

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Miss Baugh taught seventh-grade social studies, which covered state and local government minutiae. She was the kind of teacher that just about everyone has had at least once: scary. Her reputation was not unlike that of Dracula. When my peers learned that I was in her class, they looked at me as though I were bound for the gallows.

Miss Baugh brooked no nonsense. She drilled us and grilled us and taught us to take school seriously. She also introduced to us the concept of “extra credit” for a correct response to a spontaneous question – and a withering frown for an incorrect one.

Miss Baugh had been teaching for a long time and knew how to intimidate even the boys who typically sprawled in the back row. They did not sprawl in her classroom. She had her bluff in on all of us, and I was as intimidated as anyone.

But I also had a life outside of school and had just discovered cheap props for pranks that I could play on long-suffering friends and family. One such prop had two parts: an ink bottle painted to look as though it had overturned, and a piece of shiny black metal shaped like a puddle. It didn’t take long to run out of people to fool at home, so I took my props to school.

Of all the people I could have pranked, inexplicably I chose Miss Baugh. At the beginning of the class period, before she’d returned to her classroom, I dared to approach her desk.

I opened her grade book (what was I thinking?) and placed the bottle and blob on one of the pages, proudly noting that it truly did look like spilled ink!

Then I went to my desk and waited for the fun. I wasn’t disappointed. When Miss Baugh saw the bottle and blob, she let out a little cry and looked for something to wipe up the ink with.

The prank had succeeded way beyond my expectations. But then the realization began to set in that I had put something in motion over which I had no control. The unraveling began when Miss Baugh tried to blot the ink with a paper towel and discovered that it was just a piece of black metal. She picked up the “puddle,” then the bottle, and examined them.

She looked up. Her eyes swept the classroom with a deadly gaze. Some of my classmates who had seen me set up the fake spill carefully avoided looking at me, so as not to give me away. Or maybe they just didn’t want to witness the carnage that would surely ensue.

Then came the inevitable question: 

“Who did this?”

After a few pounding throbs in my throat, I meekly raised my hand. All of my life I’ve been afflicted with compulsive honesty. I couldn’t help fessing up. Besides, I wanted my bottle and puddle back.

Miss Baugh fixed me with a stare that struck terror in my heart – as well as in the hearts of my classmates. 

And then, most unexpectedly, she laughed. 

“Well, it certainly fooled me!” she said.

She returned the prank pieces to me, and for a few seconds a sweet little old lady appeared right where Miss Baugh stood.

In the blink of an eye, however, the drill sergeant returned, and we got back to learning about the state legislature or some such. 

But something had changed – for me, anyway. I glimpsed that, if even the likes of Miss Baugh had a warm human being beneath that crusty facade, then other crusty people probably do, too. And I’ve happily proved that hypothesis many times since then.

That may have been the most valuable lesson I learned in seventh-grade social studies – and the most enduring extra credit I received.

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How a dinner in Paris guards Europe’s values

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When the leaders of France and Germany hold a working dinner tonight at Elysée Palace in Paris, much of what the European Union stands for will be on the table. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dinner will be her last official tête-à-tête with French President Emmanuel Macron. She steps down after the Sept. 26 elections in Germany. During her 16 years in office – and after consulting with four different French presidents – Ms. Merkel has made sure the bloc’s two most powerful economies work in tandem to protect Europe’s postwar project of peace.

France, especially under Mr. Macron, has had a strong vision for Europe’s future, such as his idea of a military force to match the United States’. Germany, especially under Ms. Merkel, seeks to simply defend and solidify the EU against internal rifts. The two leaders have accepted a co-responsibility to overcome their differences, resulting in their nickname “Merkron.” Their respect toward each other and ability to speak as one reflect the very qualities that have suppressed the kind of militant nationalism that led to two world wars and then a need for the EU.

How a dinner in Paris guards Europe’s values

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a ceremony in Paris on Nov. 11, 2018.

When the leaders of France and Germany hold a working dinner tonight at Elysée Palace in Paris, much of what the European Union stands for will be on the table. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dinner will be her last official tête-à-tête with French President Emmanuel Macron. She steps down after the Sept. 26 elections in Germany. During her 16 years in office – and after consulting with four different French presidents – Ms. Merkel has made sure the bloc’s two most powerful economies work in tandem to protect Europe’s postwar project of peace.

The future of the 27-nation union so depends on French-German consensus that two of the leading candidates to replace Ms. Merkel in Berlin visited Mr. Macron in recent days to show their pro-EU credentials. And she has done such a good job at keeping the EU unified during difficult crises that a plurality of the French would choose her as EU president over Mr. Macron, according to a recent poll.

Yet the same poll also found most Germans do not see their country as the EU’s leading power. It is precisely this odd-couple harmony between Europe’s two giants that helps the EU remain a beacon for democratic values.

France, especially under Mr. Macron, has had a strong vision for Europe’s future, such as his idea of a military force to match the United States’. Germany, especially under Ms. Merkel, seeks to simply defend and solidify the EU against internal rifts, such as Brexit and the euro crisis. The two leaders have accepted a co-responsibility to overcome their differences, resulting in their nickname “Merkron.”

Their respect toward each other and ability to speak as one reflect the very qualities that have suppressed the kind of militant nationalism that led to two world wars and then the need for the EU. Their dinner tonight will focus on a few tough issues, such as Afghanistan and a terrorist threat in North Africa. Tackling those issues will be made easier by leaders who practice active peacemaking between their countries.

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.

Digging deeper

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Willingness to go beyond a surface-level view of existence and seek God’s truth opens the door to treasures of inspiration and healing.

Digging deeper

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I once heard a story about a big treasure chest that was buried at the bottom of a deep hole. Then the hole was filled up halfway with dirt, and another, smaller chest was placed on top before the hole was filled the rest of the way. So if someone found the spot, they would dig down a ways and, upon discovering the little chest, believe they’d found the whole fortune. But if they’d only dug deeper, they would have found an even more valuable treasure!

The approach we take in our view of the world can be sort of like that, too. As we get further beyond the surface of materiality and dig into spiritual truth, deeper and deeper, we come upon invaluable concepts that are truly life-changing. It is so very rewarding to dig into the wonder of heaven in Spirit, God, present right here and now.

One way to think of this is the way Jesus put it – to seek “first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). The great value of seeking to know the kingdom of God more than I’d ever done before was proven to me when I was injured while mountain climbing. In the following weeks, I prayed and dug into the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” (the textbook of Christian Science) diligently, learning more about God’s nature as perfectly good.

As I patiently continued to dig even more deeply into the spiritual truths I was learning about, I came upon a treasure that was bigger than I’d ever imagined: the realization that immortality is not something reserved for some distant future time. God has gifted us with immortality right here and now. God creates and maintains us, not as mortals with only hints of inner spirituality, but forever as the entirely spiritual and immortal offspring of the Divine.

I could tell that this glimpse of spiritual reality was priceless because I just loved to keep thinking about it! Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). It was a joy to give my all for this treasure – to more deeply get to know God as our caring, loving Parent.

Not only did this transform the way I viewed myself, it was externalized in what I then experienced. Within a day or so, I found myself healed completely and loving mountain climbing even more.

Speaking of God, a hymn in the “Christian Science Hymnal” says,

We come today to bring Him praise
Not for such gifts alone,
But for the higher, deeper ways
In which His love is shown.
(Laura Lee Randall, No. 342, © CSBD)

With praise and gratitude, we can humbly cherish our deeper spiritual gains, revealed as we hunger for God’s spiritual gifts and ways. We’re so much more than physicality. We can accept Jesus’ invitation to release our claims to materiality, and thus find “treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Sometimes the treasure of faultless spiritual immortality may seem hidden pretty deep. But that doesn’t dilute even the smallest amount the momentous fact that it is always there.

“When we realize that Life is Spirit, never in nor of matter,” writes Mrs. Eddy in Science and Health, “this understanding will expand into self-completeness, finding all in God, good, and needing no other consciousness” (p. 264). As God’s children, we’re all inherently capable of having this realization. We can treasure what we learn about our God-given potential, Christian healing, and spiritual renewal as we dig for truth. Each deep, enlightening inspiration along the way, even if it appears to be modest, is more valuable than all the jewels and gold on Earth.

Looking for more timely inspiration like this? Sign up for the free weekly newsletters for this column or the Christian Science Sentinel, a sister publication of the Monitor.

Viewfinder

Park ’n’ garden

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Miniature gardens sit on unused taxis parked in Bangkok, Sept. 16, 2021. Taxi fleets in Thailand are giving new meaning to the term “rooftop garden,” as they utilize the roofs of cabs idled by the coronavirus crisis to serve as small vegetable plots and raise awareness about the plight of out-of-work drivers.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when Scott Peterson looks at what it’s like to be a journalist under the Taliban. Many have left, but some have stayed, risking beatings and worse to tell Afghans’ stories.

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