Updates on Some Past Posts: Kurdistan Oil/One Laptop Per Child/Zimbabwe

Stephen DeAngelis

October 21, 2009

A number of developments have occurred that touch on stories I’ve written about in the past. For the next couple of days, I will provide updates on those posts. This will be the first in that series. The updates will cover a number of unrelated subjects so they will be something of a hodgepodge. I’ve grouped them together, however, because individually the updates weren’t significant enough to dedicate a single post to them. Let’s get started.

Kurdistan Oil

The first posts I would like to provide the latest information on are Update on the Middle East’s Kurdish Region and Pipelines, Oil, and Iraq’s Future. In these two posts, I talked about the good news that oil extracted from the Kurdish region of Iraq was being pumped into a pipeline controlled by the central Iraqi government that flows into Turkey. It was a promising sign of cooperation between the central government and the Kurdistan regional government. The oil started flowing in June, but the good will didn’t last long [“Kurdistan Halts Oil Exports,” by Timothy Williams, New York Times, 13 October 2009]. According to Williams:

“The semiautonomous Kurdish region has reopened a rift with the central government after announcing that it had halted all petroleum exports from Kurdistan until Baghdad pays the international companies that are pumping oil in the region. Oil extracted in Kurdistan can be exported only through Iraqi government pipelines running to Turkey, giving Baghdad a stranglehold on the transport of oil produced there. At the same time, the government needs all the revenue it can get to pay for a host of pressing needs. … Kurdistan’s minister of natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, said in a letter dated Oct. 9 and posted on the Kurdish government’s Web site … that the decision to stop exports had been made in concert with the two international companies now extracting oil there. ‘We have jointly agreed that no free oil will be pumped for export, and payments have to be made,’ Dr. Hawrami wrote in the letter. ‘We will only resume exports with guaranteed payments.’ Kurdistan has awarded more than 30 contracts to international oil companies during the past few years over the objections of Baghdad, which has barred international companies working in Kurdistan from competing for oil contracts in the rest of Iraq.”

Although the two governments are likely to come to an agreement, the fact that the good will expressed at the ceremony opening the pipelines to Kurdish region oil was so short-lived is distressing. This was a win-win for both governments. Since all revenues the oil pipelines goes directly into the central government’s coffers, the KRG was left with little choice other than halting the flow of oil since oil companies in the region expect to get paid on a reasonable schedule.

One Laptop Per Child

I first wrote about the program called One Laptop Per Child in December 2006 in a post entitled Connecting the Poor. I wrote a follow-up post a year later entitled Laptops in Peru. The Economist recently published an article that provides an update on how the program is doing in Uruguay [“Laptops for all,” 3 October 2009 print issue].

“Nearly all of Uruguay’s 380,000 primary-school pupils have now received a simple and cheap XO laptop, a model developed by One Laptop Per Child, an NGO based in Massachusetts. The government hopes this will help poorer and disadvantaged children do better in school while also improving the overall standard of education. These ambitions will be tested for the first time later this month when every Uruguayan seven-year-old will take online exams in a range of academic subjects. The rest of the world should be intrigued: the first country in Latin America to provide free, compulsory schooling will become the first, globally, to find out whether furnishing a whole generation with laptops is a worthwhile investment. (Peru, a bigger, poorer and less homogenous country, is trying something similar.) … But is this the best use of the money? There have been several glitches. The first 50,000 laptops arrived loaded with software in English, not Spanish. In Escuela 95, up to half of the students in some classes have broken their machines, usually by cracking the screen or snapping the antennae that pick up a Wi-Fi signal. When poor, rural children wreck theirs, they often prefer to keep their new status symbol clutched to their chests than risk the postal service not returning it promptly from the central maintenance centre. The biggest technical problem is connectivity. The government reported last month that in 70% of primary schools only half the laptops can go online at the same time. Two out of five rural schools have no connection, and will have to bus their students elsewhere for the exam. Many of Uruguay’s teachers, a rather elderly bunch, find it hard to cope with new technology. Sceptics would rather the government concentrate on making teachers more accountable. But most admit the laptops are worth a try.”

The article points out that the $250/computer and the estimated $21/computer annual maintenance cost represents less than 5 percent of the total educational budget. That seems like a small price to pay to get technology into the hands of children. My suspicion is that the experiment will result in educational improvements but will also have a much broader and beneficial impact on Uruguay’s economic future.

Zimbabwe

In a post entitled Zimbabwe Remains a Conundrum, I noted that some political analysts were urging the international community to work through the office of Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister, to bring international aid to Zimbabwe’s people. I concluded that “the way forward in Zimbabwe is not clear cut — that’s why the country remains a conundrum.” In mid-October, however, Tsvangirai temporarily pulled out of the uneasy coalition government [“Zimbabwe Opposition Boycotts Unity Government,” by Celia W. Dugger and Caiphas Chimhete, New York Times, 16 October 2009].

“Eight months after entering a power-sharing deal with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai announced … that he and his party would boycott cabinet meetings and withdraw from dealing with Mr. Mugabe’s party, in the biggest breach yet in the transitional government. … The catalyst for this step was the jailing … of Roy Bennett, Mr. Tsvangirai’s deputy agriculture minister-designate, a white farmer who is scheduled to stand trial Monday on three-year-old terrorism charges that his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, says are fabricated. But even after Mr. Bennett was granted bail … officials in his party said their decision to disengage had not changed.”

Bennett’s arrest was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Mr. Tsvangirai laid out a broad array of grievances. He accused Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, of selectively using the law to punish his legislators, putting 16,000 members of its youth militia on the government payroll and remilitarizing the countryside on bases used in last year’s discredited election to organize a campaign of terror against his supporters. Although he stopped short of quitting the government, Mr. Tsvangirai warned that if the crisis was not resolved and a working relationship restored, he would call for elections supervised by the United Nations.”

Those helping keep Mugabe in power don’t appear fazed by Tsvangirai’s threats.

“A former ZANU-PF information minister, Jonathan Moyo, who recently rejoined Mr. Mugabe’s party, said … that the M.D.C.’s decision to disengage would reduce the party and the prime minister to political irrelevance.”

Mr. Tsvangirai’s actions, however, are aimed more at influencing foreign powers than internal political powers.

“Mr. Tsvangirai’s strategy appears to be in part an effort to get senior political leaders in the African Union and the Southern African Development Community — guarantors of the power-sharing deal — to put pressure on Mr. Mugabe to act in a more conciliatory manner. But the move also reflects rising anger in the ranks of the Movement for Democratic Change.”

The U.S. Government responded to the latest news with sympathy, but not much else. “U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Washington understood ‘the frustration’ of Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, and called on Mr. Mugabe to make the powersharing agreement work” [“Leader leaves coalition temporarily,” Associated Press, Augusta Chronicle, 17 October 2009]. If Mr. Tsvangirai hoped to create a crisis for Mugabe, it hasn’t worked so far. “Robert Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba … said the president was too busy to address the crisis in his unity government” [“Zimbabwe’s PM seeks help from regional leaders,” Associated Press, 19 October 2009]. For his part, Tsvangirai left on a junket to the “Congo, Mozambique, Angola and South Africa to seek ‘understanding and rescue.'”

It would be great if all updates could be positive, but that is an unreasonable hope. Look between the lines of the bad news, however, and you might find some good news. Take, for example, the KRG’s insistence that the Iraqi central government pay what is owed to oil companies. That should be seen in a positive light. Oil companies, like all other businesses, can’t continue to operate if customers don’t pay up. I’m reminded of the old adage “I’d rather owe it to you than cheat you out of it.” Of course, businesses don’t want to be cheated but they also can’t succeed if all their profits are tied up in accounts receivable. Even the news out of Zimbabwe is not all bad. The latest crisis may yet produce some pressure on Mugabe’s government to make the unity government work — although I’m not holding my breath.