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It’s who you know, not what you know

MD Staff

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Rattana LaoRattana Lao is a recipient of the Ananda Mahidol Scholarship. She has a doctorate in Comparative and International Education (Political Science) from Columbia University’s Teachers College and is currently a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education. Her 230-page book, A Critical Study of Thailand’s Higher Education Reforms: The Culture of Borrowing, published by Routledge, will be launched at Thammasat on Aug 18.

The 31-year-old spoke to Spectrum about Thailand’s “selective borrowing”, the value of controversial quality assessments in higher education and the patronage system.

I understand that your book is mainly based on your postgraduate thesis. Can you explain more?

My thesis was interested broadly in external forces such as globalisation, how these forces influence policymaking, and the state response. With that broad theoretical question, I looked at Thai education as a case study. I received the Tokyo Foundation scholarship to investigate this large theme. When I came back to Thailand to interview higher education policymakers, it became clear that quality assessments (QA) had become a contested issue. Everyone was talking about QA, so I became interested in what it was, and whether it has an effect on education quality.

I went to 12 universities in four regions to interview deans, rectors, academics and staff; all the policymakers. “Why not use it? It’s an international standard, everyone has it,” they would say. At first I thought their answers were very simple, but then I began to research the history of Thailand’s educational development.

What issues do you explore in the book, and how does it expand from your original thesis?

At Hong Kong University, I saw a call for a book proposal on critical studies of Asian education. It got me thinking I could maybe adopt my dissertation, so I took academic leave last year to write the book. The dissertation became 30% of the book. I also looked at different policies in higher education. I researched internationalisation and why our ranking is still so low. If we are copying everyone else, why are we still falling behind?

How is Thailand’s education sector influenced by the West?

Since the time of King Chulalongkorn, we’ve wanted to be like the West; to be like Oxford and Cambridge. Lots of our princes went to France and England 100 years ago and came back with the idea that higher learning should emulate the Western style. But it became clear we don’t just copy 100%; we selectively choose what we want. I call it selective borrowing.

For example, Thai education used to be in temples. When Western education came, Vajiravudh College sought to emulate English boarding schools, but the architecture was still Thai. Whether it’s worse or not is a different issue, the point is that it’s a half-hearted adoption.

We are so influenced by the West, but the Thai culture of patronage is so prevalent that the Western influence doesn’t matter at the end of the day. We want to have a better global ranking, but in the higher education sector you begin to see that Thai characteristics are still there in the networks that exist. Thainess is still very prevalent and that Thainess is a seniority culture, a patronage system, connections and cliques.

05844There is a perception among the Thai public that Ananda Mahidol recipients have the endorsement of the Thai elite. Is this true in your case?

I know that connections work in Thailand. During my interviews for the book, senior rectors and university policymakers would often say, “If you want a position at my university, contact me when you graduate.” I did not contact them because I believe the patronage system is killing Thailand and don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I applied to three Thai universities where I knew no one. The first sent me an email and said they would contact me if my qualifications were good enough. The second had put out an open call for a job. When I applied they said they were no longer looking for an applicant because they had someone else in mind. In the case of the third, everyone told me I would have to go and see two people if I wanted to work in this particular faculty. I applied without going to see anyone. What is the point of going to see these people if you have all the qualifications? Despite every reform that Thailand has tried to implement, the patronage system is embedded in every level of higher education to the point that modernity is a joke.

What does that mean?

The current situation is like a feudal system in the name of higher education. Maybe I’m really not good enough, but everyone told me that if I wanted to get a job, I’d have to speak to someone. Then what’s the point of having a degree? This kind of system discourages hard work, productivity and honesty. Once you get accepted, you become a luk nong, or junior, to that person, and you’re indebted for life. It’s disgusting.

My rejections show that even if you get a good scholarship, it doesn’t matter. What matters is who you know.

How does politics play a role in Thailand’s education system?

Politics is not just about national politics, elections and political parties, but it’s about power, and power exists everywhere in everyday life. In higher education, the powerful use their positions and authority against the powerless. And the powerless in this case are academics. Those who adapt to the system get ahead. Those who are in the lab and write academic papers might not necessarily be the ones rewarded.

The politics of higher education is about how rectors, deans and administrators use their positions to advance their agenda at the expense of academic freedom.

Progressive academics who question the status quo are less likely to get funded. For example, if you’re interested in democracy and the role of the state, funding agencies already know you’re going to criticise them. It’s not healthy for the production of knowledge and academic excellence.

It sounds like you have lost hope in Thailand’s educational system. Do we still have a chance to recover?

There is still some hope, but that hope is very dim. My six months of experience at Thammasat University has been self-evident in showing that the patronage system is ingrained at every level. But how can we expect education to change when education in itself is about connections, not meritocracy? Then what’s the incentive to learn?

I am not feeling hopeless but I am very discouraged. Six months in, the system has sapped a lot of my positive energy. We talk about international standards and rankings, but everyday work is full of nonsense. It’s all about who endorses your faculty, who is in your network, who you are bound to. That discourages the acquisition of knowledge and stifles the debate of ideas.

There has been a public movement against quality assessments in Thailand. Are they that bad?

There are some good parts to QAs. But the system that we have is too complicated. It requires you to do so much for so little. Quality assessments are not there for quality education.

Then what are they for?

They are there for bureaucracy. It’s all for having paperwork for paperwork’s sake. For example, how many papers you publish per year is quantity, not quality. Assessments are supposed to be a tool to assess whether you have quality or not. But Thai people do QA for QA’s sake. They think that if they do QA they have quality, which is not true. We’ve ended up paying so much attention to QA.

Should the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment — the core agency responsible for external quality assessments — be abolished?

No. But I believe we should abolish the law that enforces QA. The situation is that all universities have to have internal and external quality assessments under the Education Act. QA is too hard for new universities and too easy for universities such as Chulalongkorn. The majority of universities in Thailand struggle to meet the minimum requirements of QA. We should abolish the law, but Onesqa can still function and do QA for whoever wants it. Onesqa isn’t the problem. The problem is with the system.

What projects are you currently working on?

In 2011, I set up a group called “Unite Thailand”. It was based on the idea that colour in Thailand has been politicised. You can only wear red or yellow. I’m frustrated by the symbolism. You might be wearing the colour green today, for example, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily like the military. To assume that would be an over-simplification. Thai children use colours to have fun. Thai adults use colour to kill the nation.

Unite Thailand has held 14 camps for more than 2,000 students since 2011. In the beginning we wanted students to be free from political colours. Now we don’t really care about it and just want them to have fun.

(*) Amp Rattana Lao is a member of Advisory Board of Modern Diplomacy.

 

First published by Bangkok Post

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What Were Shapers Shaping at the SHAPE APAC 2018?

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Photo: Career Mentorship series organized by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub

Just over a week ago over 150 young people across Asia-Pacific gathered in Bangkok for four days in an event dubbed as SHAPE APAC 2018. For outsiders little was known about what was to happen. For Global Shapers that are now 7,000 strong globally the event was one not to be missed. The event was organised by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub, an activity largely by and for fellow Global Shapers Community, a volunteer initiative of the World Economic Forum. The Bangkok Hub has been in existence since 2012 just before the first World Economic Forum in ASEAN held in the same year. The past years have seen many changes including in leadership and collective power of young people to contribute for “the greater good”. That said, as the Hub is evolving out of the SHAPE APAC, which is in many ways its tipping point, the question it is being presented is: to what extent can the power of this autonomous collective– run completely voluntarily and without external funding, and now bigger than ever –turn into positive energy that results in lasting change to the outside community, precisely those they are meant to serve? So I made a conscious effort to sit Raghav Mettakhun, the current lead of the Bangkok Hub, down to share his thoughts and vision for Bangkok. Let’s see what we get out of this conversation.

First of all, could you share what SHAPE APAC is all about?

SHAPE APAC 2018 was tasked to bring together Global Shapers from the region under a specific theme. There are 7 more SHAPEs organised annually in other parts of the world map. Our main drive was to connect, empower and inspire young people to initiate impactful projects in their home communities. We selected Green Evolution and Sustainable Lifestyle as a theme as we wanted to raise awareness of the impact of their daily lives on the communities they live in. Participants chose a track that was most relevant to them. We had ‘Blockchain and Smart Energy‘, ‘Sustainable Cities‘ and ‘Future of Food’. We also included filed visits in and near Bangkok to expose participants to sustainability issues in real life contexts. Some of these activities included visiting local neighborhoods looking at how local residents have coped with rapid urbanization and tourism growth. Another one was at local fishing communities in Samutsangkram during which participants had the chance to participate in community lifestyles in the coastal mangrove ecology.

Photo: SHAPE APAC participants at Portuguese Embassy, Bangkok Thailand

Why was sustainability chosen for SHAPE APAC 2018 – what is its significance?

Since 1987 when the term ‘sustainability’ was formally put forward as an agenda to guide the global development, it has transcended from a political rhetoric into fields of business and lifestyles. These were amplified due to recent events related to climate change – record temperature and floods in Japan, tsunami and earthquake in Indonesia, drought in China, you name it. Not only environmental effects but social and economic issues too. Bringing my passion in the environment, we also integrated the resource minimization aspect to it where everyone was encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles as SHAPE APAC is the first ever single-use plastics-free event.As Bangkok Hub, we realised that these issues should be priorities for young people and they too should have a role to play in driving the change. In shaping SHAPE APAC, we were contemplating over how Global Shapers can make a difference. Our key objective is to get them inspired and implement related projects in their communities.

How were you initially involved in sustainability issues yourself…what was your personal background?

Although I was born and lived in the city almost my entire life I must admit that I’d always lived in the bubble, a pretty big and thick one. I came from a middle-class background where my family is managing a textile business in Bangkok for the past 50 years. I was educated in a private all-boys Catholic school and an international school before heading off to the UK for university for a degree in Environmental Science – the subject that have raised eyebrows of many Asian parents, a subject that is unlikely to bring substantial income comparing to Engineering, Law or Medicine. I have been labelled into so many different things from my surface-level background. I am by no means an expert on the issue but my willingness to make change remains the same. For me, sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, not using plastic bags and straws in the name of saving the world but viewing life and business from the ground up, seeing what we can change, what impact we can make in our community in Bangkok. Let’s try not to fall into the trend and abuse the buzzword that can sometimes lead to greenwashing.

So building on from this big SHAPE experience, which was somewhat a “gamechanger” for Bangkok Hub? What’s the Hub’s gameplan in relation to sustainability issues looking ahead?

As many previous SHAPE organisers have said, organising SHAPE is either make or break. I am sure that everyone in my team would agree with me that it is the former. We became closer than ever before. Continuing on from SHAPE APAC, we will bring topics of SHAPE APAC’s tracks to integrate into existing projects from now, at least for the year ahead. We plan to seek collaboration from neighbouring Hubs and roll out some of these projects. Maybe I am over ambitious but I think it is not impossible. I have seen positivity from participants attending, and I am sure many will be more than willing to lend us a hand to impact a couple of hundred to many thousands! One of specific plans I have in mind include implementing tree plantation and monitoring across cities in ASEAN, educating locals on compost, and blockchain 101 for beginners.

Let’s zoom out just a little bit. So Bangkok Hub has been existing for six years now? What do you think is special about the Hub and the Community itself?

The hub has come pretty far since our founding curator Nick Pisalyaput, Director of Sasin Entrepreneurship Center, who was nominated by the Global Shapers Community in 2012.  What is special about the hub is the members – its utmost important composition that keep the Hub going. Our members came from all walks of life and nationalities, from a hotel owner, social enterprise leaders, to human rights expert and food connoisseur. Our hub is more diverse than ever before with a common goal of adding value to making Bangkok a better city to live for all. We look for young people who are passionate, driven and committed.

Photo: Some of Global Shapers Bangkok Hub 2018

I think that what we do should at least resonate with the World Economic Forum’s vision which is ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’. Not only do we look for talented young individuals but we also look for those with exceptional level of integrity and service mind because without the will to serve the community, especially on a voluntary basis, members can be easily distracted by their full-time job and other priorities.It is really important especially in the volunteer setting that members get to know each other. Projects are best executed when there is trust, and teamwork is an absolute vital. Previously members were mostly from recommendations and referrals within our network of friends but now we strive to be more inclusive, what I mean is people with whom we are less likely to cross path in our daily lives. My aim is also to recruit more volunteers from the creative sector to enhance our diversity – with this could create comprehensive projects with greater impact.

Any final thoughts you want to share?

My vision is to educate and empower local communities to be more aware of the impact we are currently making in their daily lives – and how we could make a real difference. Resilience and adaptability are the keywords I would like to emphasise during my tenure in leading the Hub. For example, how we could live our lives sustainably through technological disruptions, demanding skill sets, increasing stress, higher cost of living but not higher income and climate change. The Hub will plan to create mini-projects led by Hub members e.g. mental health, environment, career planning, blockchain technology and sustainable fashion while we would concurrently drive a bigger project at the same time. Actually, we will have the meeting in a few weeks’ time to discuss next steps in more detail. So, let’s see.

It seems that the Hub’s ambition is still running high under the current leadership. Like any other human structures, it seems that leadership is one of the key ingredients in shaping the overall direction and success for the Hub. However, the definition of success for Bangkok Hub should derive not from its members benefiting from the structure itself, but how much impact it truly creates on the community they live in. I suppose there is only one way to find out! If anything, SHAPE APAC 2018 was an instance of what young people can achieve when they come to work together and a reminder of the reason that a structure such as Global Shapers Community exists. To hear more about Bangkok Hub or support the group you already know how to find them!

The SHAPE APAC 2018 summit was sponsored by Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage and Thai Beverage PCL. Also supported by SPCG, Tesco Lotus, TCEB, Six Network, Alvaascé, Makkha Spa and 192 Logistics.

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Reforming the Faith: Indonesia’s battle for the soul of Islam

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Nahdlatul Ulama, with 94 million members the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, is bent on reforming Islam.

The powerful Indonesian conservative and nationalist group that operates madrassahs or religious seminaries across the archipelago has taken on the ambitious task of reintroducing ijtihad or legal interpretation to Islam as it stands to enhance its political clout with its spiritual leader, Ma’ruf Amin, slated to become vice president as the running mate of incumbent President Joko Widodo in elections scheduled for next April.

In a 40-page document, argued in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence and scheduled for publication in the coming days, Nahdlatul Ulama’s powerful young adults wing, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, spells out a framework for what it sees as a humanitarian interpretation of Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic in nature.

The initiative is designed to counter what many in Nahdlatul Ulama, founded in 1926 in opposition to Wahhabism, see as Islam’s foremost challenge; the rise of radical Islam. The group that boasts a two million-strong private militia defines as radical not only militants and jihadists but any expression of political Islam and asserts that it is struggling against the weaponization of the faith.

While it stands a good chance of impacting Islamic discourse in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, it is likely to face an uphill battle in making substantial headway beyond Indonesia despite its links to major Muslim organizations in India, the United States and elsewhere. It also could encounter opposition from the group’s more conservative factions.

Mr. Amin, the vice-presidential candidate, is widely viewed as a conservative who as issued fatwas against minorities, including one in 2005 denouncing Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed by Muslims as heretics. Violent attacks on Ahmadis by extremists have since escalated with mob killings and the razing to the ground of their homes.

Mr. Amin is also believed to have played a key role in last year’s mass protests that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, and led to his sentencing to two years in prison on charges of blasphemy against Islam.

The vice-presidential candidate appears to have since mellowed. In a recent speech in Singapore hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Mr. Amin projected himself as an advocate of an Islam that represents a middle way and stands for balance, tolerance, egalitarianism, non-discrimination, consultation, consensus and reform.

Mr. Amin’s speech appeared to be not out of sync with the reformist thinking of Ansor.

To achieve its goal, Ansor hopes to win Middle Eastern hearts and minds in a roundabout way by targeting European governments as well as the Trump administration in a bid to generate pressure on Arab regimes to promote a tolerant, pluralistic form of Islam rather than use the faith to garner legitimacy and enhance regional influence.

To further that goal, Yahya Staquf, a diminutive, soft-spoken general secretary of the group’s Supreme Council and a member of Mr. Widodo’s presidential advisory council, met in June with US Vice President Mike Pence and Reverend Johnnie Moore.

Mr Moore is an evangelist who in May was appointed by President Donald J. Trump as a member of the board of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mr. Staquf also paid in June a controversial visit to Israel where he met with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office trumpeted the meeting as an indication that “Arab countries and many Muslim countries (are) getting closer to Israel” despite Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians becoming with US backing more hard line. The meeting served to strengthen Nahdlatul Ulama’s relations with Mr. Trump’s evangelist, pro-Israel supporters.

While making significant inroads in the West, Nahdlatul Ulama risks being identified with autocrats like United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who strives to depoliticize Islam as a means of ensuring the survival of his regime. It also risks being tainted by its tactical association with Islamophobes and Christian fundamentalists who would project their alliance as Muslim justification of their perception of the evils of Islam.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s association could further bolster the position of evangelists locked into battle with expanding Islam along the 10th parallel, the front line between the two belief systems, with Nigeria and Boko Haram, the West African jihadist group, at its core.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms. That would likely lead to a weakening of their grip on power.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credibility in pushing a tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam rides in part on its willingness to subdue its own demons, first and foremost among which sectarianism manifested in deep-seated prejudice against Muslim sects, including Shiites and Ahmadis. That may be too tall an order in a country in which ultra-conservative Islam remains a social and political force.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s battlefields are as much at home as they are in the larger Muslim world. Proponents of the reform strategy chose to launch it under the auspices of the group’s young adults wing in an admission that not all of Nahdlatul Ulama’s members may embrace it.

Moreover, the group’s meetings at times coincide with clashes between its militia and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned non-violent organization that seeks to re-establish the caliphate.

The most recent clash occurred last week on the eve of a meeting in Yogyakarta of the Ansor-sponsored Global Unity Forum convened to stop the politicization of Islam. Attendees included Mr. Moore as well as Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi of the All India Imam Organization and imams from the United States.

Beyond militants in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama’s foremost rival is Turkey.

It is a battle that is shaped by the need to counter the fallout of a $100 billion, four decades-long Saudi public diplomacy campaign that enjoyed tacit Western support to anchor ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam in communities across the globe in a bid to dampen the appeal of post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal. The campaign created a breeding ground for more militant and violent strands of the faith.

The battle for the soul of Islam finds it most geopolitical expression in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as Iran. The battle with Turkey has come to a head with the killing earlier this month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to certify his divorce papers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drove the point home by exploiting the Khashoggi crisis to advise religious leaders that “Turkey with its cultural wealth, accretion of history and geographical location, has hosted diverse faiths in peace for centuries, and is the only country that can lead the Muslim world.”

If Nahdlatul Ulama couches its position in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence, Mr. Erdogan’s framework is history and geopolitics. “The Turkish president’s foreign policy strategy aims to make Muslims proud again. Under this vision, a reimagined and modernized version of the Ottoman past, the Turks are to lead Muslims to greatness,” said Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s focus may not be Middle Eastern geopolitics. Nevertheless, its strategy, if successful, would significantly impact the region’s political map. In attempting to do so, the group may find that the odds are humongous, if not insurmountable.

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Indonesia: Balanced politics amid major powers

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In 2020, Russia and Indonesia will mark 70 years to the establishment of  diplomatic relations between the two countries. Given that the epicenter of the geopolitical activity is currently shifting towards the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), the role of Indonesia as the planet’s strategically important location increases.

Along with Russia, there are a number of other countries that are as keen on developing ties with Indonesia. One of them is Australia, which is particularly active due to its geographical location.

Indonesia and Australia boast a comprehensive bilateral strategic partnership agreement, which defines them as “strategic anchors of the Indo-Pacific Region”. According to tradition, each newly elected Australian Prime Minister pays his first foreign visit to Indonesia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who took office on August 24, 2018, kept the tradition as well.

In Jakarta, Morrison met with Indonesian partners to discuss the details of a strategic cooperation agreement, which envisages economic cooperation, security measures, exploitation of marine resources, ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific Region and social projects.

According to the Jakarta Maritime Policy Strategy (Global Maritime Fulcrum), Indonesia is regarded as the fulcrum between the Indian and the Pacific. Canberra also sees Jakarta as key to Australia’s defense strategy.

Indonesia’s territory embraces most of the archipelagoes north of Australia and these make a convenient springboard for a hypothetical threat to the Australian coast. In addition, Indonesia stands at the junction of marine and air routes from Australia to Europe and from Australia to Asia-Pacific countries. Joint naval exercises run by the Indonesian and Australian defense ministries account for 24% of the total, while 33% of the drills are held by the Air Forces, 30% by special services and special task forces, and 2% by the peacekeeping contingents.

Australia became the third country with which Jakarta signed a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement after the United States (2013) and China (2015). In 2017, the two parties signed the Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation, in 2018 – the Maritime Cooperation Action Plan, covering 85 areas with the participation of 17 Australian and 20 Indonesian departments and agencies.

Australia finds Indonesia more important than Indonesia finds Australia. As a single continent, Australia attaches particular importance to foreign policy with a view to ensure its national security. As for Indonesia, it has a more introverted policy. Being the largest island nation on the planet, Jakarta aims to guarantee its security through internal consolidation of the many islands that make up the Indonesian state.

Pursuing the policy of “non-alignment”, Indonesia seeks to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations. This becomes clear from the previous development of the Indonesian-Australian relations: Jakarta would quickly freeze projects with Canberra once it spotted a disproportionate presence of Australia in Indonesian politics.

That was the case in 1999 when Jakarta withdrew from the Security Agreement, signed in 1995, in 2013 when it suspended defense cooperation and cooperation between special services, and 2016 when it suspended the language training of military personnel.

For Indonesia, a multi-vector foreign policy is crucial for maintaining a healthy balance of power in the region. For this reason, Moscow is an attractive economic partner for Jakarta. That Russian-Indonesian contacts have been developing at fast pace can be concluded from the fact that there have been several meetings between the two countries’ presidents, that Russia has been supplying Indonesia with weapons, that the two countries’ armed forces have held joint exercises, that Indonesian representatives have participated in business forums in Russia and that the Russian capital has revealed in interest in Indonesia’s projects in the mining industry.

Jakarta and Moscow are considering prospects for the introduction of a free trade zone in Indonesia and the EEU. Indonesia is also ready to join the Chinese global infrastructure project “One Belt, One Road.”

Under the project, Chinese investments in the Indonesian transport infrastructure amount to $ 6 billion, which is clearly not enough for a rapid growth of transit of commodities and haulages from China and the Asia-Pacific countries through Indonesia. Indonesia’s medium-term economic development plan stipulates local financing at 63% (4). The rest should come from foreign investors, which could include Russia.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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