How It Works

Oct. 15 2014 2:12 PM

What Can We Learn From How Nigeria Contained Ebola? Not That Much.

Nigeria and Senegal could be declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in a few days, after clearing the requisite 42-day period with no new cases. In all, 20 people were infected in Nigeria with eight fatalities. Only one person in Senegal became infected, but that victim has recovered.

The news is cause for a cautious sigh of relief, if not total celebration. Though the global outbreak is still far from contained, the prospect of it getting loose in Lagos—Africa’s largest city and a major international commercial center—was one of the more terrifying scenarios we’ve had to contemplate over the last few weeks.

The success these countries had in containing the outbreak is going to prompt some discussion of what lessons can be learned for other places fighting Ebola. The Financial Times attributes Nigeria’s achievement to a “rare national effort that saw the Lagos state government, federal institutions, the private sector, and global non-governmental organizations all pulling in the same direction to defeat the disease.” That national effort included a presidential decree that gave officials access to phone records and a strict system to monitor potential cases, one that involved tracking down more than 800 people who may have had contact with the infected.

But arguably, Nigeria didn’t actually do a very impressive job. A single Liberian man, who traveled to Nigeria in July, infected 11 hospital staff in the time between his admission to a hospital and when his test results were received. There might have been more infections if not for a doctors’ strike that reduced the number of people who came in contact with him. One doctor told the New York Times, “At the time, nobody was prepared for it.”

The advantage Nigeria had was that its outbreak began with this one man, who was immediately taken from the airport to a clinic, at a time when Ebola was already a crisis. By contrast, international agencies and authorities in the three countries at the epicenter of the outbreak—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—didn’t wake up to the severity of the disease until dozens were already infected.

Rather than demonstrating the effectiveness of any particular method of Ebola control, the case of Nigeria, and the less severe case of Senegal, confirm what we’ve known about the disease from the beginning. Despite its high mortality rate, Ebola is relatively difficult to transmit from person to person, and under normal circumstances, it’s relatively easy to contain with common-sense public health measures: isolating those infected, limiting the exposure of health care workers, and tracking those who may have come in contact with them. For a variety of reasons, this was not done in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea until it was too late.

Despite early lapses, Nigeria—a country that’s not known for reliable public institutions or health care infrastructure—was able to get the outbreak under control. And despite the early lapses in Dallas, the U.S. should be able to do the same.

Of course, that's not much comfort if you live in one of the countries where it’s already out of control. 

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Oct. 13 2014 3:10 PM

Vladimir Putin’s Tiger Is Lost in China

If you happen to be traipsing about China’s Heilongjiang province and come across a lost-looking Siberian tiger, the Kremlin would like it back.

Kuzya, a tiger that was personally released back into the wild by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has caused something of an international incident by wading across the Amur River that separates Russia from China.* Russian authorities, who have tracked Kuzya’s 300-mile wanderings by radio transmitter, are worried about his safety in China, where poached tiger carcasses can fetch up to $10,000 on the black market. There are also concerns that he won’t make it back into Russia before winter turns the river into impassable icy slush.

There are only about 400 to 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild, and their protection has been a passion project for Putin. (It’s a cause that dovetails nicely with the president’s penchant for manly outdoor photo ops.) Kuzya was part of a group of cubs that were rescued after their mother was killed by a poacher. Putin presided over their release into the wild at an event in May.

The Siberian tiger is particularly endangered in China, where there are thought to be only a few dozen left. At a time when the two countries are emphasizing close ties amid strained relations between Russia and the West, it would be extremely embarrassing for China if anything were to happen to “Putin’s tiger.” Chinese authorities have set up more than 60 cameras in hopes of spotting him, and may have gotten their first lead in the case on Saturday, when hair, feces, and tracks were spotted in far northeastern Heilongjiang. But there are now also worries that Kuzya’s sister, Ilona, may be headed for the border in an area more heavily inhabited by people.

Despite all the jokes about Kuzya defecting or attempting to annex northern China on Putin’s behalf, the tigers, of course, don’t realize what country they’re in. It’s not unusual for them to move back and forth across the river in search of food.

But, as I wrote for Foreign Policy back in 2010, animals are sometimes aware of international borders. The most famous case is probably that of the Ahornia deer, the last Europeans still living inside the Iron Curtain. The deer live in the forests along the German-Czech border, now a nature preserve. During the Cold War, though, an electrified fence demarcated the border between what was then West Germany and Czechoslovakia. The fence is long gone, but more than 20 years later, the deer still won’t cross where it once stood.

Animals can establish a kind of national identity as well. Researchers at the University of Haifa have observed that Israeli gerbils behave far more cautiously than their counterparts who live just a few miles away in Jordan. This is likely due to the more industrialized agriculture on the Israeli side of the border.

Hopefully Kuzya, then, can make it back to friendlier environs before experiencing too much in the way of physical danger or culture shock.

*Correction, Oct. 13, 2014: This post originally misspelled Amur River.

Oct. 13 2014 10:24 AM

Did Russia Really Boost Its Birthrate by Promising New Mothers Prize Money and Refrigerators?

Russia is hardly the only country with worries about population decline—birthrates are falling below the replacement fertility rate in nearly every industrialized country in the world. Russia, though, has faced a significantly more dramatic demographic bust than most places. Thanks to a combination of low fertility, high mortality rates, and emigration, the Russian population declined by about 4 percent in the 20 years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. And, this being Russia after all, discussions of the issue tend to take on a tone of bleak existential despair.

In 2006, Vladimir Putin described population decline as the country’s “most urgent problem.” In 2007, the government introduced a program to pay $11,000 to mothers who have more than one child. That same year, the AP reported on families being given days off from work (and potentially winning “money, cars, refrigerators, and other prizes”) in exchange for making babies. In 2011, Putin announced an additional $53 billion in government expenditures to boost the birthrate. And on a darker note, Putin has used the population crisis as a justification for the government’s hostility to homosexuality.

But here’s the thing: The Russian population isn’t shrinking anymore. In fact, in 2009 it started slowly growing, largely due to migration and decreasing mortality. In 2012, the number of births exceeded the number of deaths for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, causing Putin to smirk, “Our women know what to do, and when.” Though still low, Russia’s fertility rate of 1.7 children per women is higher than the EU average.

So does this mean, as Putin put it, that the “demographic programs enacted in the past decade are, thank God, working”?

I put that question to Sergei Zakharov, a demography specialist at the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics. In short, he’s not buying it.

First of all, the population gains are likely to be short-lived. “In the next 10-20 years we will have an enormous decrease in the number of potential mothers and fathers,” he says. “There’s a very small cohort approaching reproductive age.” Young women born in the immediate post-Communist period of the early 1990s are starting to have babies of their own, but there simply aren’t that many of them. He notes that “the low birthrates of the ’90s were also an echo of the previous wave initiated by the Second World War,” during which tens of millions of Russians, many of them young people, were killed.

Russia has also taken steps to improve its life expentancy, which for men is an alarming 60.1 years. (At least that’s up from 59 a few years ago.) Anecdotally, Moscow does feel like a healthier place than when I was here nine years ago. There are fewer people smoking, and less public drinking, thanks in part to some recently passed laws. Joggers used to be the object of mockery and derision. Now they’re a fairly common sight in parks.

But even if new policies can, as promised, boost life expectancy to 74, demographic reality is again not in Russia’s favor. “Those who were born in the 1950s and ’60s are approaching retirement age,” notes Zakharov. “We’ve actually been very successful at decreasing out mortality rates, but nevertheless, the number of deaths will decrease. We’ll have a bigger life expectancy but more people will die just because of numbers.” He adds: “Until the middle of this century, I think we have very little chance of maintaining the population.”

Zakharov says it’s “too early to say” whether the maternity payments, which some in the government are now pushing to cancel amid the country’s budget crisis, are actually having that much of an effect. Most of the big recent increases in fertility have been in rural areas where the birthrate was already relatively high. In the remote Central Asian region of Tuva, the birthrate is about five children per woman—comparable to that of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Zakharov notes—but most families in Russia’s large cities are still sticking with one or two kids. For one thing, $11,000 isn’t going to get you very far in cities as expensive as Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Zakharov notes that it’s common for nationalist governments like Russia’s to make population growth a major public priority. But, he adds, “It’s very well-known that there is not any instrument that can change the ideal family size. It’s very difficult to do.” Patriotic duty or no, people are going to have the number of kids they want to have.

If Russia wants its population to grow, then encouraging procreation will probably not be sufficient. But Putin’s government has other tools in its arsenal. Assuming the recent annexation of Crimea sticks, the country just acquired an additional 2.4 million Russians.

I recently traveled to Russia thanks to a grant from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.

Oct. 10 2014 8:53 AM

Don’t Reduce Malala Yousafzai to a Cuddly Caricature of the “Bravest Girl in the World”

Earlier this week, I argued that the Nobel Peace Prize should go to nobody, “as an acknowledgment that the most notable eruptions of violence have been so grimly predictable, the result of years of individual and collective failures by governments and international institutions.” Despite that sentiment, I certainly don’t object to the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s prize to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for, as the announcement put it, “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

The most surprising thing about the award may be how unsurprising it is. The last few peace prizes—particularly the ones given to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last year, the EU in 2012, and Barack Obama in 2009—have been unexpected curveballs. Yousafzai, by contrast, was mentioned as a strong favorite in nearly every story leading up to Friday’s prize announcement.

The 17-year-old, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for campaigning for girls’ education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, has become an international household name, particularly following her high-profile speech to the United Nations last year, and has authored a best-selling memoir.

Satyarthi, a 60-year-old campaigner against child labor in India, is much less well-known. He’s known for mounting raids on factories employing children—sometimes facing down armed guards—as well as running a rehabilitation center for liberated children, organizing the Global March Against Child Labour, and setting up a certification system to ensure that carpets are made without child labor.

While Yousafzai and Satyarthi are both admirable and inspiring figures, I think it’s worth stepping back and assessing the Nobel committee’s mission. In its early years, the Nobel Peace Prize was most often given to honor a specific accomplishment in peacemaking—a treaty drafted or a conflict ended. (This is why some individuals not exactly known for their pacifism—Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger to name a couple—have peace prizes.) But overall, it’s more often been given to individuals involved in the struggle against a particular pressing problem or injustice. (Think Al Gore or Aung San Suu Kyi.) This year is obviously an example of this second type of prize.

While the (somewhat inexplicable) prestige of the Nobel can certainly bring attention to worthy individuals, there’s less evidence to suggest it helps their causes. For instance, the prize given to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010 has probably made it less likely that Chinese authorities will let him out of prison.

Some also find the western media’s fascination with Yousafzai a little troubling. When she was passed over for the prize last year, blogger and technology researcher Zeynep Tufekci argued in a widely read post that in the Malala narrative “our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore.” Whereas, she continued, “what the world is desperately lacking, and the Nobel Committee, for once, rewarded, is the kind of boring, institutional work of peace that advances the lives of people.”

There is something irritatingly smug and condescending about some of the coverage of “the bravest girl in the world.” It was a particular low point when, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said “I want to adopt you” to a young woman who’s spoken very publicly about the support she’s received from her father—a pretty brave guy in his own right.

But that’s our problem, not hers. My guess is that someone’s who’s comfortable telling the president of the United States to his face that his military policies are fueling terrorism isn’t going to let herself be reduced to a cuddly caricature. And in any case, it was probably wise for the Nobel committee to pair the very young global celebrity with a relatively unheralded activist with years of work behind him.

The committee gave its last two awards to institutions—the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the European Union—and not particularly popular ones at that. In a year in which governments and international institutions seemed particularly ineffectual in dealing with mounting violence and instability, giving the award to individuals seems appropriate. Dividing the peace prize between an Indian and a Pakistani also seems like a deliberate statement at a time when tensions are once again escalating between the perennial adversaries.

So, congratulations to the Nobel committee: If you were going to give the award to someone, you could have done a lot worse.

Oct. 9 2014 4:01 PM

Kim Jong-un Hasn’t Been Seen for 37 Days. Where Could the North Korean Leader Possibly Be?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public since Sept. 3. The state propaganda machine that normally meticulously documents his presence at rallies, parades, party meetings, and lubricant factories has been conspicuously silent. This naturally has led to rampant speculation about what he’s up to.

There are reports that he’s suffering from an undisclosed illness. He has been seen limping lately. Gout has been mentioned as a possible affliction for the rotund leader.

Oct. 8 2014 2:36 PM

Why Kobani Matters

The latest focal point of the Syrian civil war is Kobani, a small city near the Turkish border where ISIS militants have been battling Kurdish forces since mid-September. ISIS flags are reportedly now flying over parts of the city, which has been under control of local Kurdish forces since 2012. U.S. airstrikes don’t appear to have done much to stop the Islamic State’s advance, and U.S. officials now say the city is on the verge of falling.


This is important for geographical, humanitarian, and political reasons. If Kobani falls, it will give ISIS control of a wide swath of the Syria-Turkey border, putting it one step closer to establishing the “state” implied in its name. Taking Kobani would also establish a corridor linking the group’s de facto capital in the eastern city of Raqqa with Aleppo in the west. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is also probably its most important battlefield. It’s the opposition rebels’ last major urban stronghold, but they’ve been besieged for months by both Syrian government forces and ISIS. If it falls, it will be both a humanitarian catastrophe for the city’s 2 million people and a devastating blow to the non-ISIS rebels.

Oct. 8 2014 12:08 PM

Top Russian Officials Are Starting to Realize That the Country’s Economy Is in Big Trouble

MOSCOW—You wouldn’t know it from the Chanel boutiques and Maserati dealerships lining the boulevards inside Moscow’s Garden Ring, but economic conditions in Russia are becoming dire. The ruble has weakened to record lows not seen since the 1990s, capital is bleeding out of the country for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, and the economy is projected to grow a piddling 0.5 percent this year.


You wouldn’t realize any of this from the statements of Russia’s president. At a forum last week, Vladimir Putin ensured investors that the country has enough reserves to implement all of its budget proposals, including an upcoming $20 billion increase in military spending next year. The president certainly seemed confident, telling investors that Russia’s “strategic course remains unchanged” and that he foresees “a country that is strong, flourishing, free, and open to the world.”

Oct. 6 2014 11:44 PM

This Year’s Nobel Peace Prize Winner: Nobody

There’s no shortage of awards and prizes out there for diplomacy, peacemaking, and humanitarian achievement. But for whatever reason, the one that will be handed out this Friday, bestowed by a committee selected by the Norwegian parliament in honor of the man who invented dynamite, is considered the most important and most deserving of media attention.


The Norwegian Nobel Committee has made some bad calls in the past (Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, and Teddy Roosevelt come to mind), and there’s also not much evidence to suggest that the prize does anything to promote peace. At its best, though, the Nobel Prize’s media spotlight gives the committee the opportunity to highlight important issues: climate change in 2007, women’s rights in 2011, and the elimination of chemical weapons last year.


This year the prize committee could best serve its mission by giving the prize to the person who most deserves it: nobody. Such a move would highlight that this has been a particularly violent year around the world. More importantly, it would serve as an acknowledgment that the most notable eruptions of violence have been so grimly predictable, the result of years of individual and collective failures by governments and international institutions.

Oct. 3 2014 11:00 AM

Send in the Thugs: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution Faces a Time-Honored Tactic

It was pretty apparent from the beginning that China’s government was unlikely to back down in the face of the protesters in Hong Kong. Compromise would send a signal to citizens of the territory as well as opposition groups in the mainland that causing unrest can bring results.


But it seemed possible that Beijing would simply wait a while for the movement to run out of steam. Another potential option was to try to placate the protesters by throwing Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, C.Y. Leung, under the bus without backing down on the protesters’ central demands, which concern the long-promised transition to full electoral democracy.

Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM

Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland

The New York Times reports today that dozens of people have been arrested throughout mainland China for showing solidarity with the protests unfolding in Hong Kong. These included participants in a public demonstration in a park in Guangzhou as well as a number of people who posted material online, including those taking part in a viral “Going Bald for Hong Kong” campaign.