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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

July
21
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Americans are paying closer attention to national politics. 

A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent say they are focusing more since the presidential election.

Are national politicians paying enough attention to Americans? Washington has been inward-looking – the investigating of the investigators, the prospect of presidential self-pardon, today’s drama on the White House communications team, with Sean Spicer resigning as press secretary.

Yes, some work is getting done, six months into the new administration. Just yesterday the federal government reported that it had shut down two major online black markets. But is there enough looking outward – and ahead? On Wednesday, Axios reported that a House subcommittee was scrambling to pull together “an unheralded but consequential hearing” aimed at trying to get regulations in place ahead of the autonomous-car boom. Drones will need attention, too. A sobering report this week projected a staggering global volume of plastic waste by 2050.

A debt ceiling is coming up fast. So is debate over tax reform. A Fox News graphic Tuesday paraphrased the president on health care: “Eventually we will get something done.”

That would get Americans’ attention. 

Now to our five stories for today. 

1. Should Feds be able to seize property, without conviction?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be adding to his hard-liner credentials with his push on civil asset forfeiture. But that’s contributing to a broader rift in the GOP over law and order. Patrik Jonsson and Henry Gass report.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe practice of civil asset forfeiture – police seizing someone’s property without charging them with a crime – has many critics on the right and left. But this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rolling back Obama-era reforms designed to prevent the innocent from losing their property. Thirteen states have banned the practice, but the new federal guidelines mean that police in those states may be able to circumvent state law. In that way, legal experts say, Mr. Sessions is testing the extent to which Republicans will weigh rock-ribbed conservative principles that equate property to citizenship with a return to a controversial drug war philosophy that conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote earlier this year has “led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” “Conservatives have always thought property rights were the most fundamental of human rights, because the property on which you stand and use to take care of yourself and your family is your independent basis for citizenship,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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1. Should Feds be able to seize property, without conviction?

Should the government be able to take your money, car, or home without charging you with a crime?

That’s the question at the heart of the debate around the attorney general’s decision this week to expand the use of civil asset forfeiture.

For Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a “careful” plan to expand the program amounts to a common-sense approach to support law enforcement and weaken criminal enterprises amid an uptick in violent crime.

But for thousands of Americans caught up in a program that has seized some $29 billion in cash and assets in the past decade, strong-arming by law-enforcement agents has left them shaken and wondering what part of the United States Constitution supports the taking of personal property without a conviction, says attorney Dan Alban.

Democrats and civil libertarians have been up in arms about such seizures for years, saying the war-on-drugs-era tactic creates absurd incentives that have in many cases resulted in “policing for profit,” as the nonprofit Institute for Justice found in a 2015 report.

But for Mr. Sessions and the Trump administration, a more direct challenge may come from inside an already fractured GOP coalition, where opposition is growing on several fronts – and Congress is eyeing three bills to reform the program. Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul, of Utah and Kentucky respectively, have both criticized the DOJ's new direction on civil asset forfeiture.

Civil asset forfeiture “reflects a cleavage that exists in the Republican Party between those focused more on law and order and those more concerned with civil liberties ... and it adds an extra element of conflict within the party at a time when the party already has its share of internal infighting,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

Among the changes, announced Wednesday, the Justice Department rolled back Obama-era reforms designed to prevent the innocent from losing their property without a warrant or charge. Thirteen states have banned the practice, but the new federal guidelines mean that police in those states may be able to circumvent state law by turning to the federal government, who would then return 80 percent of the monies seized to the police department.

In that way, Sessions is testing the extent to which Republicans will weigh rock-ribbed conservative principles that equate property to citizenship with a return to a controversial drug war philosophy that conservative US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote earlier this year has “led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”

“Conservatives have always thought property rights were the most fundamental of human rights, because the property on which you stand and use to take care of yourself and your family is your independent basis for citizenship,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “But you can imagine that some fiscal conservatives would say, ‘I don’t want to tax good people [to fund drug interdiction] so I’m going to tax the bad guys through this civil asset forfeiture process.’ ”

The civil asset forfeiture program has its roots in 17th-century maritime law, with pirates and smugglers as the original targets. But in 1984, as the war on drugs geared up, Congress began sharing proceeds from such seizures with law enforcement agencies. The intent was to hobble drug kingpins by seizing illegal profits, even if there wasn’t yet enough evidence for a warrant.

But “what history has taught is that the more you expand government power, the more of that power is used, and that’s what’s happened so far with asset forfeiture,” says former US Attorney Brett Tolman. “It can only become a bigger problem now.”

Take Philadelphia, where prosecutors seized more than 1,200 homes between 2002 and 2012, forcing many homeowners – some on fixed budgets – into complicated hearings to prove their innocence. A lawsuit by the homeowners received class-action status in April.

Such seizures exploded by 4,667 percent between 1986 and 2014, going from $93.7 million to $4.5 billion. In Texas, which leads the nation in the practice, an average of 14 percent of police budgets come from civil asset forfeitures, many of which are not tied to criminal convictions.

A sheriff weighs in

For sheriffs like A.J. Louderback in Jackson County in south Texas, it is an invaluable program.

Asset forfeiture, when done correctly, “weakens the criminal organizations when you take their money, and it strengthens our law enforcement when we can ... use it to further our effort against crime,” says Sheriff Louderback, legislative affairs director for the Sheriffs Association of Texas. “We should not be making it easier for them to facilitate crimes against our nation.”

Despite President Trump's recent public admonition of Sessions on recusing himself from the Russia probe, the two share a stalwart support for law enforcement.

“Jeff Sessions is a Southern conservative, so [he adheres to] the principles of small government and low taxes. But a robust police presence to protect the property owners and job creators from the takers and the criminal elements is a big part of his world view, not completely disassociated from Trump’s immigration program,” says Jillson.

Safeguards

To be sure, the new plan includes safeguards that will make it harder for police to justif the seizure of anything less than $10,000 and offer other transparencies aimed at curbing abuse.

But such assurances don’t go far enough for many conservatives. Groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union, the libertarian Institute for Justice, Americans for Prosperity, and the Goldwater Institute all urged Sessions in a letter to forego the practice.

“Even as forfeitures themselves have grown, the sort of drug warrior mentality behind it has shrunk, except for some in law enforcement who still think it’s a 1980s drug war, where everybody we suspect of being a drug dealer is a drug dealer, and it’s a bunch of bad guys versus us,” says Mr. Alban, an attorney for the Institute for Justice.

Sessions' reliance on 1980s strategies conflicts with findings of numerous investigations into how such policies play out in the real world.

In Sunrise, Fla., a small drug interdiction team paid themselves more than $1 million overtime directly through cash seized on the streets. In Tennessee, law enforcement primarily focused on drug mules leaving the state on westbound lanes in order to seize cash proceeds – rather than stopping drug-laden vehicles coming east into the state, an investigation by a local TV station found.

In 2015, New Mexico joined 12 states that have banned such forfeitures without a criminal conviction, underscoring bipartisan opposition around the country. There, a Las Cruces prosecutor made headlines when he urged police officers at a seminar to look for fancy houses and cars to seize, in order to pad local budgets.

“It feels like we’re back in the ’80s,” says Emily Kaltenbach, a senior director for the Drug Policy Alliance, who worked on the New Mexico reforms.

The Supreme Court has said, “individual freedom finds tangible expression in property rights.” But the high court has for the most part upheld civil asset forfeiture, though it has grown, given Justice Thomas's comment, suspicious of the practice more recently.

Congress is weighing several options. The most basic reform on the table would be to allow seizures only after conviction, and where proceeds would not go to local police departments, but into the US Treasury’s general fund.

Mr. Tolman believes the new policy could spur bipartisan justice reform in Washington.

There will be “political fallout and that fallout is Congress saying that we’re not just going to trust that this gets applied in a careful manner,” says Tolman, who is associated with Right on Crime, a Texas-based criminal justice initiative. “I think this is the attorney general overplaying a hand.”

By Patrik Jonsson and Henry Gass
Staff writers
( 1254 words )
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2. How UN reform could speed humanitarian progress

What happens to global relief work if the United States eases off its financing and leadership? Not much, if the United Nations can succeed in its effort to become more nimble, and then accelerates toward its goals. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadWith everything the 21st century offers, humanity should be doing even better. That, in a nutshell, is the perspective of the new UN secretary-general, António Guterres, who, even as he acknowledges the progress made in improving peoples’ lives, is impatient for more. Senior UN officials point to the adoption in 2000 of basic development goals that have given countries a taste of what can be accomplished. Since 1990, extreme poverty has declined by well more than half; more children – notably girls – are going to school; and diseases are being eradicated. Still, Mr. Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, advocates reforms to peel away decades of accumulated bureaucracy. The rate of progress is too slow, he repeatedly asserts. Conflicts are allowed to set back too many countries and destroy too many lives. “The secretary-general is impatient with progress because he has an experience with the urgency of achieving progress,” says Thomas Gass, an assistant secretary-general. “But he’s not the only one.… I think the member states have seen what they have already accomplished; there is a sense of a window of opportunity to go farther and accomplish more, and that is energizing.”

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2. How UN reform could speed humanitarian progress

António Guterres, who took over as United Nations secretary-general early this year, acknowledges that the world community has made encouraging progress in improving people’s lives over recent decades.

Since 1990, extreme poverty has declined by well more than half; more children – notably girls – are going to school and staying there longer; and fearsome diseases are being eradicated. And famine, while still a devastating by-product of man-made instability, has largely been eliminated within poor yet stable countries.

Just two examples: Malaysia reduced poverty levels from about half the population in 1970 to under 10 percent in 2000, allowing the country to focus on eradicating poverty by 2030. And Ethiopia, devastated by drought-caused famine in 1984, improved governance and crisis intervention so that by last year, when drought again struck, the crisis did not escalate to famine levels.

Still, Mr. Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and past head of the UN’s refugee agency, is dissatisfied. The rate of that progress is too slow, he repeatedly asserts, and conflicts are allowed to set back too many countries and destroy too many lives when preventive intervention might have averted the loss.

In other words, with everything the 21st century offers, we should be doing even better.

Consequently, Guterres has taken the helm of the UN more as a disrupter than a tweaker. He is moving forward with a reform agenda that aims to peel away decades of accumulated bureaucratic practices, shift from top-down to bottom-up management of humanitarian and development programs, and empower local political leaders and UN representatives at the expense of higher-level bureaucrats.

And Guterres is doing this at a moment when the United States, which has spearheaded UN activities since the world body’s creation in 1945, is pulling back from its global leadership role and cutting its UN funding.

So far, the Trump administration is showing signs of strong support for robust humanitarian assistance, UN officials say, but less enthusiasm for maintaining levels of support for long-term development programs.

Efficiency and agility

Still, in some ways the new US stance fits with the Guterres goals of greater efficiency and agility, and of enabling UN member states, in particular poor and least-developed countries, to do more for themselves.

But what sets apart the Guterres vision for UN reform is that it is presented not as a necessary evil in an era of tightening resources. Rather, it is a necessary and positive element of the effort to accelerate the attainment of those universal goals, such as ending extreme poverty and avoidable infant mortality, and educating all the world’s children.

“This is an institution that over its 70 years of existence has not been able to reform itself, but now with Guterres we have at the top someone saying that changing how we do things wouldn’t just be a nice thing, but is in fact essential if we want to continue the progress in development,” says Ursula Mueller, the UN’s new assistant-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Even as a candidate for the UN’s top job, and then upon taking the helm in January, Guterres has not shied away from designating a top-heavy and clogged bureaucracy as part of the problem.

The UN “needs to be nimble, efficient, and effective. It must focus more on delivery and less on process, more on people and less on bureaucracy,” he said after taking the oath of office before the 193-member General Assembly of UN nations. Looking at UN rules and regulations, he said, “one might think some of them were designed to prevent, rather than enable, the effective delivery of our mandates” to secure global peace and prosperity.

An appetite for progress

One thing Guterres has going in his favor: He is not alone with his impatience to see the world community accelerate the rate at which it addresses humanity’s core challenges and improves more people’s lives.

For some senior UN officials, it is in fact the progress the world has made since UN member countries adopted a set of basic development goals in 2000 that has given a taste of what can be accomplished. That, they say, has fed a growing determination to do more, faster.

“The secretary-general is impatient with progress because he has experience with the urgency of achieving progress,” says Thomas Gass, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs, referring to Guterres’s decade as high commissioner for refugees.

“But he’s not the only one who is impatient,” he adds. “I think the member states have seen what they have already accomplished, there is a sense of a window of opportunity to go farther and accomplish more, and that is energizing.”

The measurable progress the world made in accomplishing basic goals like reducing extreme poverty and hunger was part of the impetus for the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 – aiming among other things to “end poverty and hunger” by 2030.

Guterres is seeking to use those ambitious goals to make the case for his reform agenda.

“The clock is ticking,” he said this week in issuing the annual report on progress toward reaching global goals. “The rate of progress in many areas is far slower than needed to meet the targets by 2030.”

Decentralized authority

The report shows that despite impressive gains in reducing poverty, hundreds of millions of people are still destitute. Between 2000 and 2015, global maternal mortality declined by 37 percent and the mortality rate among children under five fell by 44 percent. Still, in 2015 some 303,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirth, and nearly 6 million children under age 5 died.

Moreover, while overall development assistance increased, bilateral assistance to the world’s least-developed countries actually fell by nearly 10 percent – suggesting a potential onslaught of donor fatigue.

Guterres has some ideas for addressing the gaps and speeding up progress. One is a “funding compact” that would pair sustained and even increased spending for development programs with commitments from receiving entities, including countries, to achieve greater efficiency, “value for money,” and verifiable reporting of results.

Another proposal is to empower UN country representatives in the field by shifting greater authority to the experts on the ground and away from the UN’s centralized bureaucracies.

Some UN agencies and countries have been cool to these ideas, but others – particularly the least-developed countries the changes are designed to benefit – have shown enthusiastic support.

“There are a lot of silos and overlaps in the UN agencies and at the country level, and the secretary-general’s reform process is designed to address that,” says Masud Bin Momen, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the UN, who is also chair of the General Assembly’s Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group.

In what is very likely music to donor countries’ ears, he adds that “the role of the UN is to help with strategies and help coordinate efforts, but at the end of the day it’s the national governments that are responsible for their own programs and development progress. We are responsible for achieving these goals.”

'Window of opportunity'

Guterres says there is “no time to lose” to make the changes necessary to facilitate more rapid progress on the UN’s 2030 goals, and many UN officials and outside experts concur that he is right about that, for a number of reasons.

For one, a new secretary-general, like a president, tends to benefit from a honeymoon period to get things done, some say. Others note that unforeseen crises tend to come along to throw things off course.

“When Ban [Ki-moon] came in, no one knew then that the Syria crisis would burst on the scene and end up dominating directly and indirectly so much of the international agenda,” says UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq, referring to Guterres’s predecessor. “I think [Guterres] knows he needs to strike while he can.”

Then there is the “window of opportunity” that Mr. Gass, the assistant secretary-general, says has been opened by what he sees as a period of “extraordinary multilateralism” that he dates from the emergency response to the 2008 financial crisis to the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development goals and the Paris Climate Accord.

But Gass cautions that the world, in its impatience for progress, is not going to wait for the UN to reform itself. He insists that other entities – public and private, from countries to business, universities, and groups of teachers and farmers – are already pressing ahead to achieve the goals of eliminating poverty and hunger and enhancing every individual’s right to pursue fulfillment.

“The reform effort is part of it, but the larger global community’s pursuit of what is really a universal plan to improve people’s lives won’t wait for the reform of the UN system,” he says.

“Everybody wants better institutions to help them along, and that puts positive pressure on the reform efforts,” Gass says. “But this broad and very diverse push forward towards these universal goals is not going to wait to see whether the UN reform happens or not.”

By Howard LaFranchi
Staff writer
( 1458 words )
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3. Into an epicenter of drought, famine, and fortitude

In her 32 years at the Monitor, Melanie Stetson Freeman has worked on assignment in more than 70 countries. She covered 9/11, and ventured into Afghanistan a few years after that. This work was different. Shooting images and video for our forthcoming series on famine was not only challenging logistically but also, in her words, “one of the hardest trips, emotionally, I’ve ever taken.” In Ethiopia she battled a closed-door bureaucracy for access. In Madagascar, an island that much of the world associates with lemurs, she was confronted with widespread child malnutrition. Mel – and the Monitor reporters alongside her – also found hope. Our series begins Monday. This video offers a preview.

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Point of Progress

What's going right

4. Scout troop for homeless girls to expand its embrace

A local movement that started small early this year is now positioned to ramp up over the next few years – and to answer a question that nags at many of those living in shelters: "Where do I belong?"

A member of Troop 6000, which meets at a shelter in the New York borough of Queens, receives a pin. The troop was the first in New York specifically designed to give the city's estimated 6,000 homeless girls a sense of community.
Caption
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Courtesy of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer's office
 

The 30 Sec. ReadTroop 6000 started at a homeless shelter in the New York borough of Queens in February with eight girls. Now, it stands poised to bring in more than 500 new members in the next year. New York officials announced that the state’s first troop for homeless girls would receive about $1 million over the next three years to expand to 14 homeless shelters. The idea comes at a particularly volatile time. The homeless shelter population hit an all-time high in New York City in 2016, putting pressure on a system already strained. The troop is part of a number of efforts the city has recently started to meet the needs of homeless children, who make up nearly 40 percent of the more than 60,000 people in the city’s shelter system, officials say. “For young people living in shelters, the real question is, Where do I belong?” says New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. Scout Karina Burgess said at a press conference that Troop 6000 was teaching her “the true meaning of being a sister to every Girl Scout, and how to emotionally support others. Now more girls just like me will be able to participate and get the same.”

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4. Scout troop for homeless girls to expand its embrace

When New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer attended the first meeting of Girl Scout Troop 6000 in his district in western Queens this year, he hadn’t the slightest inkling that the small group of girls gathering here would have such an impact.

As the first Girl Scout troop in New York designed specifically for homeless girls, Troop 6000 began in February as a modest effort to help bring a sense of community, if not normalcy, to the 100 families with children who lived in a Queens shelter in his district.

Only eight girls attended that first meeting in the old breakfast nook of the converted budget hotel in Long Island City. Yet the idea to bring a Girl Scout troop to a family shelter became a symbol for the city’s larger efforts to rethink its efforts to help the homeless, including those to maintain “community anchors” for families that had lost their homes, such as churches and schools.

“For young people living in shelters, the real question is, Where do I belong? What is home?” says Council Member Van Bramer, the Democratic majority leader and former Boy Scout whose six sisters attended Girl Scout troops. “They ask themselves, to whom am I attached?”

At that first meeting, he was there to pin merit badges on the uniforms of those who had already finished the module for first-aid skills. “That was before they became media stars,” he laughs, noting how quickly the idea began to spread. After news stories and TV appearances, including on ABC’s “The View,” people around the world began to donate to the Girl Scouts of Greater New York.  

And now Troop 6000 stands poised to bring in more than 500 new members in the next year. Last week, New York officials announced that the nascent Girl Scout troop for homeless girls would receive about $1 million over the next three years to expand to 14 homeless shelters throughout New York.

“What I mainly see with them is just pure leadership,” said Giselle Burgess, the program manager for Troop 6000 – and a working mother of five children living at the shelter in Queens. “From the smallest ones that we have to the oldest ones, they get the job done,” she said at a press conference announcing the expansion.

The idea came at a particularly volatile time. The homeless shelter population hit an all-time high in New York City in 2016, putting pressure on a system already strained. Beset by critics and the resignation of a key expert on homelessness, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio scrambled to respond, even after unveiling a five-year plan to open 90 new shelters and shore up a system now housing over 60,000 New Yorkers.

Like a number of New York families, Ms. Burgess, who was a community engagement specialist for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, became homeless after her rented apartment in Queens' Flushing neighborhood was sold to make way for condos. The city placed her and her children in a facility in Brooklyn at first, but moved them to the shelter in Queens, near her children’s schools, as it began to emphasize keeping community anchors in place for homeless families.

The troop is part of a number of efforts the city has recently started to meet the needs of homeless children, who make up nearly 40 percent of the people the city’s shelter system, officials say.

Yet the idea for Troop 6000 took shape as some in New York’s communities, especially in Queens, began to protest the city’s plans to open new shelters.

“I think one of the most incredible impacts that we were able to see is that Troop 6000 gave people an opportunity to challenge what they stereotypically have in their minds about homelessness – and the faces of the homeless,” says Meridith Maskara, the incoming chief operating officer of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, who worked with Van Bramer to make the idea a reality.

Last Thanksgiving, Ms. Maskara joined Van Bramer, Burgess, and other Girl Scout leaders at an event in Sunnyside in Queens, where Girl Scouts helped serve dinner to homeless women living in another converted hotel. “We had a brief discussion about homeless girls and homeless children, and we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a Girl Scout troop specifically for homeless girls living in shelters?” says Van Bramer.

As a Girl Scouts employee already living in a family shelter, Burgess suggested the converted hotel where she was staying. “When I moved to the shelter, I was already a troop leader in another location, so I figured why not bring a troop here?” she told reporters.

Together with officials from the city’s Department of Homeless Services, they put together a plan. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York covered the early costs, including the membership fees, starter kits with patches, pins, workbooks and vests, as well as monthly dues.

Residents at the shelter began to respond to the flyers announcing the new troop. Although there were only eight girls at the first meeting in February – including Burgess’s three daughters – there are now about 30 scouts in Troop 6000.

Burgess's daughter Karina, who was a Scout before her family became homeless, said at last week's press conference that Troop 6000 was teaching her “the true meaning of being a sister to every Girl Scout, and how to emotionally support others.”

“Now more girls just like me will be able to participate and get the same,” she said. In April, she told reporters, "We're like a pack. If one of us is down the rest of us will be there to pick them back up."

But challenges remain. Burgess and her five children, for example, live in a single room without kitchen facilities. “When you realize that there are hundreds of people – families with children living here at places like the Sleep Inn,” says Van Bramer, whose own familly lived in a hotel for a couple months when they lost their home in the 1970s, “you realize the fact that there is little here for them. There’s no room to play.”

Of the 287 people housed at the family shelter, 155 are under 18, officials say. Across the city, there are an estimated 6,000 girls living in homeless shelters. With the new grant, Maskara hopes that 1,500 new members could join new Troop 6000 chapters in the city’s five boroughs.

“You can already see the progression of the girls at the shelter – the sense of community, the belonging to something, getting people thinking about positive things, like leadership and change,” she says.

( 1090 words )
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5. Saving trees: the ethics of paying clear-cutters to stop

Eoin O’Carroll looked into a well-intentioned effort in Uganda to help preserve forest cover and found a complex case of economic and social justice. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadCould the solution to runaway deforestation be as simple as paying landowners not to cut down trees? The practice has long been employed to protect a variety of ecosystems. But skeptics have questioned the efficacy of such programs and cautioned that landowners could take the money with the promise of preserving a particular parcel of land and simply turn somewhere else to cut down trees. But a case study in Uganda conducted by economists at Northwestern University and published Thursday in the journal Science suggests that so-called payment for ecosystem services programs can, in fact, slow deforestation. What’s more, the researchers found no evidence that landowners who received payments shifted their deforestation to nearby land. The study raises hopes for similar efforts around the globe – particularly in the developing world, where strategies to address climate change can harm the livelihoods of already marginalized people. “I think our results should make us more optimistic that this approach will work elsewhere – and thus more willing to pursue it elsewhere and find out,” says study author Seema Jayachandran.

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5. Saving trees: the ethics of paying clear-cutters to stop

To safeguard forests, wetlands, estuaries, and other natural resources, policymakers have long employed a strategy that is at once straightforward and counterintuitive: pay landowners to leave their land alone.

But researchers have worried that such policies, known as payment for ecosystem services (PES), have two big pitfalls. First, how do we know that landowners wouldn’t have preserved their land anyway? And second, how do we know that they won’t just shift their land use to places not covered by the payments?

case study of such payments to landowners in Uganda, published Thursday in the journal Science, may help ease these concerns. A two-year experiment found that tree cover declined by about half as much in villages where landowners were offered payments compared to the villages where they weren’t, and it found no evidence that landowners who were paid to preserve their land shifted their deforestation to nearby land. The study raises hopes for similar efforts around the globe – particularly in the developing world, where strategies to address climate change can harm the livelihoods of already marginalized people. 

“I think our results should make us more optimistic that this approach will work elsewhere – and thus more willing to pursue it elsewhere and find out,” says Seema Jayachandran, an economics professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the study’s lead author.

Protecting forests plays a critical role in curbing climate change. As the paper’s authors note, between 2006 and 2015, land-use changes, mostly in the form of deforestation, were behind 9 percent of manmade carbon emissions worldwide, making it the second largest driver of emissions after fossil fuel combustion. 

How effective?

Uganda’s forests, in particular, are rich in biodiversity, home to half of Africa’s bird species, as well as the chimpanzee, humankind’s closest known living relative. 

Professor Jayachandran’s case study involved 121 villages in western Uganda, 60 of which were randomly selected for the PES program for two years. Landowners who opted into the program received 70,000 Ugandan shillings ($28 in 2012 dollars) each year for each hectare of land they left untouched.

Using satellite data and on-the-ground spot checks, Jayachandran and her colleagues found that tree cover declined by 4.2 percent during the study period in villages that received the payments, compared to 9.1 percent in the control villages. What’s more, they checked for possible evidence that the landowners were shifting their deforestation to nearby land, and found none.

“I was surprised by how well the program worked. I expected the PES program to slow down deforestation, but not by this much,” says Jayachandran.

Jayachandran and her colleagues conducted a cost-benefit analysis, comparing the payments with the negative costs of carbon emissions, as calculated by the US Environmental Protection Agency. They found that the benefits were 2.4 times the program costs, costs that are outweighed even if the landowners tried to make up for lost time by cutting down more trees after the program ended. 

“I think this study is very well executed and provides important and rigorous evidence on a policy topic that has received quite a lot of attention,” says Kelsey Jack an economist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who specializes in environmental and developmental economics.

Are PES programs just?

Payments for environmental services is not a new idea. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture’s conservation reserve program, started in 1985, pays farmers to take croplands out of production. The agency’s FY 2018 budget sets aside $2.1 billion for this program. PES programs have also been implemented to combat deforestation in Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico.

But are PES programs just? After all, they take revenue generated by labor and redistribute it to idle landowners.

Jayachandran notes that the typical forest owner in Uganda owns only a couple hectares, works his or her own land, and lives on $2 to $5 per day. They typically use the money from selling timber to pay for school fees or unexpected expenses such as hospital bills. But she acknowledged that the payments, by themselves, might increase inequality slightly because landowners are relatively well off within their communities.

“My recommendation to policy makers pursuing PES programs is to pair them with cash transfers to the very poor, those who don’t own forest,” she says. 

“Another alternative we might compare PES to is that we first redistribute the land and make sure everyone in the village owns an equal amount before offering incentives for forest conservation,” Jayachandran adds. “Or we roll back the system of private property ownership and make the forest communally owned.” 

Professor Jack says that when considering the environmental justice of PES, we should look at the bigger picture.

“Climate change is also pretty unjust,” she says, “so if PES turns out to be a cheap way to help avoid deforestation, then it should certainly be on the table, along with policies that help poor households become more resilient, and – ideally – richer.”

( 797 words )
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The Monitor's View

Poland’s challenge to EU values

 

The 30 Sec. ReadPoland’s government appears to be on a collision course with the European Union. Its ruling nationalist party is on track to end the independence of the courts, giving the ruling party the ability to influence cases, punish its opponents, and stay in power. The moves have led tens of thousands of Poles to take to the streets in protest, and shocked EU leaders. Street protests to save judicial independence, however, may not work. If the EU wants to stand up for rule of law in global affairs, as well as entice new members such as Ukraine to join, it must take a hard line with Poland. Both Poles and the EU must reassert equality before the law. Such a democratic principle helps unite Europe against the kind of inequality of rights that ignites war.

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Poland’s challenge to EU values

Poland’s government, elected in 2015 with 38 percent of the vote, appears to be on a collision course with the European Union. It has begun to pass bills that usurp the independence of the courts, giving the ruling party the ability to influence cases, punish its opponents, and stay in power. The sudden moves have led tens of thousands of Poles to take to the streets in protest. They have also shocked EU leaders, who never imagined a member state would violate a core principle of the Union. In fact, the EU has few tools to punish Poland.

One of the EU’s great triumphs is the spread of the idea that people should be treated equally before the law. This principle has helped Europe end a history of war rooted on the notion that ethnicity, religion, or class allows one group to be superior to the law while denying rights to others. In a twist on that theme, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party claims a democratic victory alone justifies an end to judicial independence, not to mention an end to the checks and balances built into a separation of powers. The nationalist party has also tried to clip media freedom and abortion rights. Those efforts have been mostly thwarted by mass outcry.

The street protests to save judicial independence, however, may not work. The EU is now seen as the best interlocutor. It has an option to curb funding for Poland. If the EU wants to stand up for rule of law in global affairs, as well as entice new members such as Ukraine to join, it must take a hard line with Poland, the EU’s sixth most populous member state.

Another possible corrective may be investors. Getting rid of judicial independence creates legal uncertainty for businesses and opens a door for cronyism and corruption. Poland’s economy could see a slowdown, forcing the public to renew its faith in the courts. Then the country could restore its reputation as a model reformer among the former Soviet bloc states admitted to the EU.

The government’s argument that any political party elected to office can dictate to the courts clearly runs counter to the Continent’s embrace of universal values, which originate in a Christian understanding of equality before God. Individual rights are not subject to democratic whims. Courts serve a grander purpose than politics to decide fairness, based on values embedded in a constitution.

By The Monitor's Editorial Board
( 399 words )
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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.

Choose love in the face of anger

 

Can we respond with love when someone is angry with us? That’s what contributor Ellen Wolf chose to do in a tense situation. When she prayed to see beyond the indignation expressed by a man at a business where she needed to drop something off – and decided to acknowledge and love the good in him – the result was a complete transformation of his attitude. Choosing love instead of reacting with anger or hate is to follow the example of Christ Jesus, and to be true to our identity as God’s children. Christly love heals and transforms, and we all have the ability to express it.

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Choose love in the face of anger

One time when I had a bag of documents that needed to be shredded before leaving town the next day, I called a shredding company that accepts drop-offs. However, I was caught off guard when the man I was speaking with quickly became irate because it was not a scheduled day for such drop-offs. With no effort to hide his indignation, he reluctantly agreed to help if I could get there within a half an hour. I said I would be there and thanked him.

When I hung up, I could feel this man’s intense anger so deeply that I was actually shaking. But I have learned in my life the great joy that comes from striving to meet antagonism with love and compassion. In particular, I am inspired to do so by the example of love that Christ Jesus epitomized.

I have found that the more I express this Christly love, and strive to see the good in my fellow man, the more opportunity there is to bless and be blessed. I wanted to look beyond the picture of an extremely agitated person and instead see God’s child, who is inherently pure, perfect, and innocent, full of joy and kindness. As I did so, it became clear to me that as God’s precious children, neither of us were capable of rankling each other or causing disruption.

With no time to spare, I vowed to uphold this line of reasoning and to forgive. I felt confident that would have an impact, and it did. The situation had completely turned around when I arrived at the shredding company. Not only was this individual genuinely welcoming, but he also “rolled out the red carpet” so to speak. He gave me a tour, shredded my papers, and encouraged me to come back and ask for his help anytime. I was very appreciative.

I was also in awe of the healing effect that naturally resulted from being Christlike, and seeing and accepting only the truth about man as God’s child. The impact was tangible, enriching both of us, as this dear man acknowledged. When I was leaving, he humbly let me know that he had been touched by our interaction. When I replied that I had been touched as well, he gave me a hug.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, defines Christ as “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 332). What if we all strove to open our hearts more to the compassionate, forgiving love this divine message brings us? The outcome would have to be more healing.

By Ellen J. Wolf
( 442 words )
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Toward a more swimmable city

Swimmers enjoy three new enclosures that were opened for use earlier this month along the Bassin de la Villette in Paris. The area, fed by water from a barge canal, uses filter mesh to keep out foreign objects. But improvements in urban water quality were essential. As the website CityLab reports: 'For years, the French capital has been promising to open up its urban waterways for safe, clean public swimming. This month, it’s done exactly that.'
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Charles Platiau/Reuters
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In Our Next Issue

( July 24th, 2017 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks, as always, for being here. Swing back around next week. Besides the start of the famine series that was hinted at above, we’re also working on a piece about how educators are finding ways to help refugee university students navigate Germany's demanding bureaucracy and academic requirements. 

With the debate over tax reform soon to kick into gear in Washington, here’s a weekend read from The Atlantic on Canadians’ more “transactional” approach to thinking about taxation. Essentially, you pay for what you get

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