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Mekong: New photos reveal true scale of dam

Xayaburi Dam under construction, July 2015. (Taken from this PP presentation by Pöyry, posted on a Laos government site.)

In an Interpreter post on 14 December 2015 ('What's Happening on the Lower Reaches of the Mekong River?'), I referred to a YouTube video that gave a rare, relatively up-to-date view of the controversial Xayaburi dam being built on the Mekong by the Lao government. Shortly after the post was published, the video was taken down.

Now, in response to enquiries from a Cambodian NGO, I have made a further search to see what, if any, images are available that provide some sense of just how substantial the Xayaburi dam actually is and what construction has been achieved so far. This search has located a Powerpoint presentation by Poyry, the Finnish engineering firm working on the dam, which provides considerable detail for what had been achieved by July 2015 as well as providing a large amount of engineering detail.

As has been pointed out by various commentators in the past, there appears to be a clear conflict of interest in the fact that Poyry has played two roles in relation to the Xayaburi dam, both as the dam's supervising engineer and in providing a positive assessment of its compliance with calls to rework the dam's structure in the light of criticism from Cambodia, Vietnam and a range of NGOs. Some comment on this issue is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Any sense that the Xayaburi dam is a minor construction on the Mekong is eliminated in the Poyry Powerpoint presentation. Substantial in size and with untested measures designed to facilitate fish passing through the dam and to minimise the retention of sediment, there seems every reason for the concerns raised by critics to be taken seriously.

Pacific Island links: Russian arms in Fiji, Vanuatu's election result, PNG drought and more

By Alastair Davis, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

Aid & development links: Australian Aid Tracker, inequality quiz, Zika Virus, #Proudest100 and more

By Chloe Hickey-Jones, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • Last week the Development Policy Centre launched the Australian Aid Tracker, a primer website with all kinds of useful information, visualisations, trends, maps and graphs on Australia's aid program.
  • Analysis of the Aid Tracker data is also already underway, with the first piece of commentary from Ashlee Betteridge showing that our humanitarian efforts are coming up short. Currently, Australia is ranked 12th largest OECD provider of humanitarian assistance, although our rank is expected to drop after the 3% humanitarian aid funding cut in the last budget.
  • Start your Monday off with some development trivia and take the Guardian's Global Inequality Quiz. You can also take a quiz over at Devpolicy on your knowledge of Australian aid.
  • Today, the WHO International Health Regulations Emergency Committee will convene to discuss the Zika Virus. Research for the development of a vaccine, and new tools to control mosquito populations, are being prioritised. Slate takes it a step further, arguing that we should be aiming to eradicate all of the world's mosquitoes.
  • Edge's Question of the Year 2016 was 'What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news?' Steven Pinker's answer: that human progress is now quantifiable. He analyses the profound effect this 'feedback signal' has had on development over time. (h/t Max Roser).
  • On 26 January 2016, Campaign for Australian Aid linked up with comedian Tom Ballard to host the #Proudest100, pairing every song in the Hottest 100 to Australian aid efforts. Read WhyDev's analysis of this attempt to mobilise support and positively communicate foreign aid to a wider audience.
  • El Nino in 2016 is set to be the worst on record, with millions of people in Ethiopia, Haiti and Papua New Guinea already feeling the effects of ongoing drought and crop failure. Prices of staple food items (sugar, rice, cocoa, etc.) have increased by 5-10%.
  • Should our race for fast-paced connectivity and the 'fourth industrial revolution' be a priority for all when food and water sanitation are still not a guarantee? Ian Wishart considers that technology is an enabler but that should not necessarily mean it trumps basic needs in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
  • Malala Yousafai and Muzoon Almellehan share their thoughts on the $1.4 billion required to educate Syrian refugee children, saying that while this upfront cost is large, the cost of a lost generation would be higher.
  • This video of Syrian refugee children experiencing snow for the first time thanks to their Canadian sponsors is sure to put a smile on your face and cure Monday-itis:

Pacific Island links: First female leader, Vanuatu election, Fijian labour law, tourism in the Pacific and more

By Alastair Davis, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • The Marshall Islands parliament has elected Education Minister Dr Hilde Heine to replace Castor Nemra as President, the first female head of government in the Pacific.
  • Vanuatu held its snap election last week in the wake of an extraordinary corruption scandal, stretching the resources of the Electoral Commission.
  • Election results from the Vanuatu elections are almost in. Negotiations to form a coalition government will likely take several weeks, with a group of independents playing kingmaker.
  • The consequences of the US withdrawal from the South Pacific Tuna Treaty in 2017 are still uncertain, with a restructured treaty a priority for the Pacific Islands Forum.
  • Fijian labour law reforms are being reviewed by an International Labour Organisation delegation this week. Fijian trade unions say the country is at risk of becoming a 'rogue nation' if it doesn't meet international standards.
  • Secrecy surrounding the nature and content of Fiji’s receipt of a shipment of Russian arms has raised questions about both countries’ strategic intentions.
  • Air New Zealand and Qantas have both suspended flights to Port Vila, potentially damaging Vanuatu’s tourism industry which is still recovering from Cyclone Pam.
  • Meanwhile, this Asian Development Bank report on what the Pacific could learn from Southeast Asia in promoting sustainable tourism may be particularly relevant to Vanuatu this week.
  • Yoga is proving popular in Papa New Guinea and is having positive effects as part of prison rehabilitation programs.
  • Papua New Guinea born singer Ngaiire is the focus of this SBS piece on the experience of migrants in Australia:

Alliance management in the Turnbull Era: Is the vehicle fit for purpose?

Australian commentary [eg James Curran, Hugh White, Greg Sheridan, Tom Switzer] on Malcolm Turnbull’s inaugural visit to Washington last week was focused, naturally enough, on the dynamic that a new leader brings to the alliance.

Commander Adm. Harry Harris with Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull at Pearl Harbour (Photo courtesy PACOM Command)

Turnbull is well known to have his own world view and, at the very least, provides a stylistic contrast to Tony Abbott, who was widely, if not always accurately, portrayed as cravenly loyal to the US. So, it was inevitable that the premier would see his words and deeds in Washington scrutinised for evidence of greater 'independence'; that perennial itch within Australia’s foreign policy.

Turnbull’s visit was, by most accounts, successful on that score. The Prime Minister’s keynote address conveyed the impression of a supportive ally, especially in the fight against Islamic State, albeit led by someone whose loyalty is tempered by independent judgment and a willingness to offer as well as to receive advice, as demonstrated by Turnbull’s pitch for the US to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

If there were lingering American doubts raised by Canberra’s decision not to reinforce Australian forces committed to Iraq and Syria, despite a formal US request, they did not appear to tarnish Turnbull’s Beltway interactions. This may owe something to Turnbull’s less-noticed move, announced during a mid-January lightning visit to Kabul, to augment the ADF non-combat mission to Afghanistan by 20 personnel to 270.

The premier’s stop-off in Hawaii to visit the US Pacific Command (PACOM) en route home is also worth highlighting. PACOM’s outspoken chief, Admiral Harry Harris, has repeatedly called out Chinese misbehaviour in the South China Sea and elsewhere to the extent that he has sometimes appeared at odds with the Obama administration’s more cautious line. That the Prime Minister made time to visit PACOM, where Australia has a senior officer attached, sends a signal of institutional alliance solidarity and that he understands Australia’s future strategic challenges lie in Asia. However vexed Turnbull may be about the Thucydides trap in Sino-US relations, it also makes sense to have the ear of Sparta’s frontline commander, whoever the next commander-in-chief will be.

These calibrations suggest Turnbull can and will steer a smart course on alliance management. Such focused attention on Mr Turnbull, however, may encourage the easy perception that, with right leader in Canberra, the alliance will take care of itself. Little attention in last week’s commentary was given over to the mechanics of the alliance itself and the tests it faces ahead. It’s as if the co-driver and his presumed influence on route selection matter to the exclusion of the car.

That is because years of continuous coalition operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, regular joint exercises, and deepening institutional integration have fostered the perception of an alliance in good health, unencumbered by serious barriers to defence and intelligence cooperation. A few tweaks under the bonnet and she’ll be right.

At first glance, not much appears awry under the hood. While the US-Japan alliance recently acquired an alliance management coordination mechanism, Australian units are used to operating, in combat, under US command. Australian warships have been embedded into the US Seventh Fleet, while the US Marine presence augurs for an expanded American military footprint on Australian soil. Time and again, we are told that while there are no grounds for complacency, the alliance’s engine still fires on all cylinders. (OK, I really shouldn’t belabour the automotive metaphor).

However, in the run-up to Turnbull’s visit there was an illuminating revelation of discord in a National Interest article by Andrew Shearer and Michael Green, who have enough experience at the policy coalface to give them credibility as canaries. Four years after President Obama announced the rotation of up to 2500 US Marines through northern Australia — as the lead element of the US re-balance — Washington and Canberra remain at odds over who pays for their supporting facilities and infrastructure.

If the two allies cannot agree on something as basic as this, involving relatively modest sums of money, one has to wonder about the prospects.

Canberra will, before long, have to decide how actively to participate in ballistic missile defence (beyond the enabling role it already plays in hosting the joint facility at Pine Gap) – an issue that is already causing ructions in Washington’s alliance with South Korea. Then there was the Australian Defence department’s undoubted oversight in not informing the US about the sale of Darwin port to a Chinese state entity, despite its proximity to the US Marine presence. That looked something rather like complacency.

Prime Minister Turnbull may also have to contend with more domestic politics on alliance matters than he bargained for. Opposition spokesman Stephen Conroy’s entry into the debate on freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, effectively calling the government’s bluff by advocating for an Australian operational response, suggests a new willingness to test out the limits of bipartisan consensus on national security.

These hiccups and potential hurdles pose individual challenges to the alliance which effective political leadership can certainly help to overcome. But we also need to step back and reflect that the existing templates for alliance management were developed when the strategic focus of attention was in the Middle East, not Australia’s own region. Planning for defence contingencies in which Australia is required to fight alongside US forces in the Pacific theatre, (where the US has not engaged in a single combat operation since the Vietnam War), is an entirely different proposition, unsuited to ad hoc responses, or niche unit contributions of the kind that Canberra and the ADF have grown used to.

A scenario in which the US and China are fighting each other, or possibly even a more limited US armed intervention on the Korean peninsula, would also be far harder for Canberra to say 'no' to, as well as requiring a much a deeper degree of alliance integration and a bigger scale of military effort on Australia’s part than anything experienced for decades. Conflict, of course, is far from inevitable. But preparing and planning for high-intensity warfare in the Indo-Pacific is bound to take up an increasing amount of alliance bandwidth in the years ahead.

Tom Switzer’s commentary 'Turnbull the clear-eyed realist' was among the more perceptive analyses of the prime minister’s trip to Washington. However, even Switzer concedes, that where China is concerned, the best that Australia can probably hope for in the Turnbull era is to be a 'helpful passenger'. That being the case, it’s time to start thinking more about the car and the road ahead.

Big challenges ahead for Taiwan's President-elect Tsai Ing-Wen

A few days before the Taiwanese election, Chou Tzuyu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese performer was forced into a humiliating mea culpa on camera, apologising for the 'crime' of waving the Taiwanese national flag on a Korean TV show.

The visibly distressed teenager read a prepared script to atone. She said: 'There is only one China,' and 'the two sides of the strait are one, and I have always felt proud to be Chinese'. Mainland Chinese nationalist tabloids and netizens hailed the event as a great success over Taiwanese independence.

In Taiwan, however, the apology was greeted with dismay and anger. All three presidential candidates denounced the heavy-handed treatment and, more significantly, many younger Taiwanese used Saturday's election to vent their anger at the pro-Beijing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

In fact, some election analysts and commentators believe the ‘Tzuyu' factor turned the inevitable defeat of KMT into a rout. The pro-Independence Democratic Progress Party won a landslide victory with 56.1% of the vote meaning DPP leader Dr Tsai Ing-Wen will soon become the first female head-of-state in the Chinese-speaking world.

The KMT candidate Eric Chu, received just 30.1% of votes. The ruling party is deeply unpopular with the electorate and the approval rating for out-going President Ma Jing-jeou’s had dipped below 20%, thanks in large part to growing scepticism about President Ma’s China engagement policy.

The president-elect is riding high on the anti-KMT sentiment as well as the desire of the younger generation of Taiwanese to forge a new identity, one which is separate and distinct from the increasingly irrelevant notion of Republic of China on Taiwan.

Tsai’s party also has an absolute majority in the legislative yuan, the country’s parliament. The overwhelming popular mandate plus parliament majority means the incoming president has both political capital and  legislative freedom.

However, this could yet become a double-edged sword.  Among Tsai’s parliamentary colleagues are some whose desire for independence is stronger than her own. This group could team up with 'deep green' supporters of DPP in calling for a hard-line stance on the issue of sovereignty. As Douglas Paal, the vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former unofficial American ambassador to Taipei has warned, this 'could get messy’.

Tsai will have to walk a tightrope between reflecting and respecting the popular will in Taiwan while maintaining stable relations across the Taiwan Straits, which means observing the political fiction that Taiwan and the Mainland belong to the same mystical and inseparable China.

The new president will have not just Beijing to keep onside; Tsai has to get Washington to support her cross-strait policy too. The US is a key security guarantor of the country through the Taiwan Relations Act as well as supplier of arms. Paal argues it is in the US interest that Tsai 'continue the moderate, even conservative and reassuring approach to cross-strait affairs that she adopted before the election'.

To Tsai’s credit, she has adopted a much more constructive tone on the China policy than the previous DPP party leader and president Chen Shui-bian. His confrontational approach with Beijing generated considerable tensions between Taipei, Beijing and Washington. Even the Americans regarded him as a troublemaker. 

The bottom line for Beijing is that Tsai  has to come around to the so-called ‘1992 consensus', which says both Taiwan and Beijing recognise there is one China, but they can interpret it differently. The Chinese authorities have attached great importance to this formula, especially after the historic meeting between the outgoing President Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.

The president-elect has made it known she will not use the term ‘1992 consensus'. But it is not clear if that means she will not agree to the substance of the formula, which is about maintaining the legal fiction of 'One China’. Much hinges on her choice of language  and many will be listening carefully to both what she says and how she says it at the inauguration ceremony.

So far, Beijing has restrained from interfering or even commenting too much on Taiwan’s internal politics. However, if Tsai decides to take a more radical approach, we can expect a potentially hostile reaction from a more muscular and militarily confident Xi administration. We should bear in mind that Beijing passed an anti-secession law a decade ago that is aimed squarely at Taiwan.

So far, the evidence points toward a moderate and constructive approach by Tsai.  She won tacit approval of her cross-strait policy (as well as her candidacy) during a visit to Washington in 2015.

It may well be that Beijing will have to accept Tsai favouring a formula it likes less than the ‘1992 consensus.' Amid territorial disputes and other quarrels around the region, the last thing China is looking for is another hostile neighbour right on its door step.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Nekonomist

Aid & development links: $137 billion in 2014, power of philanthropists, refugees and more

  • The OECD has released full details of official aid flows for 2014. Foreign aid from OECD members totalled US$137.2 billion, a 1.2% increase in real terms over 2013. Less of that aid, however, appears to be going to the poorest countries. 
  • Annie Duflo, the Director of Innovations for Poverty Action, provides some tips to keep in mind when deciding to give to charity (h/t Devpolicy). 
  • A new report looking into philanthropic power and development, unsurprisingly, suggests that major private sector philanthropists are gaining increased influence on decision making and setting the global health and agriculture agenda. The Guardian has a summary here
  • The World Bank provides a review of Martin Ravallion’s new textbook The Economics of Poverty: History, Measurement, and Policy.  
  • This new publication on The Development Set looks critically at the development sector, the 'reductive seduction of other people’s problems' and the West’s naivety in thinking that it can fix many complex and often politically intractable problems in poor nations. 
  • Check out the distribution of humanity across the world (h/t Chris Blattman):

  • Michael Kent, founder and CEO of remittance firm Azimo, offers some bold predictions of how the cost of sending remittances is set to plummet. 
  • Vox discusses the stunning scope of the world’s refugee crisis, showing that one in every 122 people worldwide is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.
  • Lastly, the University of Western Sydney’s recent aid campaign, showcasing the amazing story of refugee turned graduate Deng Thiak, is going viral across the internet (or at least the part of the internet occupied by development wonks). Watch it below for some Monday inspiration:

Syria: The gift that keeps on giving

The official announcement today that the government would refuse a US request for additional assets to be deployed in the Middle East against Islamic State came as little surprise. These types of requests rarely come out of the blue, and it is likely that Washington was aware of what Canberra’s response would be before the request was sent. The Defence Minister signalled as much at the time that the request was received.

Of course an invitation to 40 countries indicates that the request was so broad and Australia’s contribution is already sufficient, so our refusal will have no consequence. At the same time, the statement indicates the ADF has increased its contribution to coalition staff from 20 to 30 personnel. Just as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ADF has used these large coalition campaigns to give middle and senior-ranking officers exposure to planning and operational staff functions at a higher level and in a more complex operating environment than we would normally experience. It is a low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff move. It is also testimony to the standard of ADF staff officers and the level of their integration with the US military that they are accepted into senior levels in such coalitions. 

Syria is proving to be a boon for foreign militaries in terms of exposing their personnel to the rigours of operational planning and execution. Russian forces are using it as a proving ground for a raft of in-service equipment, while Iran has been further developing its capability to conduct the type of ‘train, advise and assist’ missions with the Syrian military that the US has conducted with Iraqi and Afghan forces in the past.

For both the West and the East it seems, Syria is the kind of operational proving ground gift that keeps on giving.

Photo: Australian Defence Image Library

Pacific Island Links: Vanuatu election, PNG finances, a 'Facebook for fieldworkers', and more

By Alastair Davis, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program

  • The election campaign is underway in Vanuatu and the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Commonwealth have sent observer groups led by former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sir Francis Billy Hilly and former Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham respectively.
  • Staying in Vanuatu, while there are a wealth of parties and candidates contesting the election, female representation is low with only eight women among the 183 candidates announced to date.
  • This DevPolicy report examines the latest Papua New Guinea Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability assessment, the results of which underscore the need for a transparent and inclusive reform process.
  • PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has announced a cabinet reshuffle and signaled a renewed focus on the Bougainville independence referendum by adding the Bougainville Affairs portfolio to his PM duties.
  • 2015 Aus-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue participant, David Kitchnoge writes thoughtfully on the historical links between PNG and Australia, and the importance of capitalising on the agrarian strengths of PNG for development.
  • In the Solomon islands, a $3 million payout to ex-members of the Malaita Eagle Force militia has stirred up controversy and been roundly criticised by leaders associated with the rehabilitation process.
  • A 'Facebook for fieldworkers' has been launched to connect aidworkers, academics and journalists working in remote or difficult environments. The developer, researcher Dr Scott Flower, felt universities don't prepare graduates well enough after spending time in PNG.
  • The Indonesian government has revoked the visa application of a French journalist, Cyril Payen, who had produced a documentary on West Papua. Last year President Joko Widodo promised to open Papua up to foreign media.  
  • The Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pryke analyses what the latest IMF report on the PNG economy says about the cost of 2018’s APEC summit and actual levels of public debt.
  • The reconstruction effort in Vanuatu post cyclone Pam has an emphasis on traditional housing materials over bricks and mortar ( H/T Kirk Huffman).

The Big Short: A reminder of the danger of groupthink

Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling at The Big Short premiere.             Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

I’m looking forward to seeing The Big Short, which traces the stories of some who dared to doubt the US housing market before the global financial crisis. Friends and colleagues advise it does a great job of explaining some of the financial magic that caused the crisis, like subprime mortgages, securitisation and CDOs (collaterised debt obligations, in case you're wondering).

Back in 2008, the meltdown was a shock to most of us. I was shocked. I started at the Federal Reserve three weeks before Lehman Brothers went under. That's me at the time, in a rather nervous and stunned staff profile picture.

There were a lot of Fed employees walking around looking like that!

Why were economists shocked? Because many of us, including me, had got so many things spectacularly wrong.

Chief among the mistakes was the belief that the financial markets were relatively free of imperfections. I believed that Wall Street, and the other financial centres of the world, were populated with smart, sophisticated (and well paid) nerds working to channel savings toward the right investments while minimising risk. I thought all the complicated products and acronyms the financial sector dished up were an effective means of accomplishing that task. For example, I would have seen nothing wrong with this 2003 statement from Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Fed:

What we have found over the years in the marketplace is that derivatives have been an extraordinarily useful vehicle to transfer risk from those who shouldn’t be taking it to those who are willing to and are capable of doing so.

Except they weren’t. For example, Credit Default Swaps, a type of derivative, were central to the crisis.

The crisis, to me, shattered the perception of a near-perfect financial market. That was quite a strongly held belief at the time.

Before the GFC, in polite company it was not acceptable to talk of big market failures in finance. And that contributed to groupthink. No doubt some who thought about speaking up thought twice about doing so. They only had to look at the treatment of Raghuram Rajan, now Reserve Bank of India Governor, in 2005. Rajan presented a paper called 'Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?' He thought, in some respects, yes. In response, Larry Summers, one of the doyens of academia and US policymaking, apparently called him a Luddite.

The lesson? Being the contrarian in the room should be valued. I’m not talking about valuing argument for argument’s sake. But the world would have been a better place if more people had the courage of Rajan.

I think about this often. Organisations, and even entire academic disciplines, that do not tolerate dissent will make catastrophic mistakes. But everyone can play a role in stamping out groupthink, from the highest doyen and CEO to the lowest grad student and employee.