This blog is for those wanting to keep up to date on all the work that the Vermont Council on World Affairs is doing around the world.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Infrastructure on the Cheap(er)...

Written by Eric Hanson, VCWA Board Member

There are not too many cities that can build expensive subways or other mass transit systems today. China may be the exception but the rest of the urban world is stuck with impossible parking and bumper to bumper rush hour commutes. 

But there are rays of hope. Curitiba the capital of the Southern Brazilian state of Parana is a very progressive place. As early as the 1960s it started designing a fast bus solution that is now being copied by others. On a recent trip to Colombia and Ecuador I saw versions of the Curitiba system in Bogota, Medellin and Quito. 

Curitiba went the ‘modest initiative’ route, closing off some streets to traffic and creating fast bus corridors from the downtown to the suburbs. The buses run very frequently as often as every 90 seconds in rush hour.

In addition, they redesigned the on-off experience (see picture below). They raised the bus station from ground level to a height where you just walk into the bus, like a subway. Also, they put in a pre-boarding pay systems so there is no on board collection of fares. You pay when you enter the station. When the bus arrives people get in and out and the bus is off again within 15 to 20 seconds. There is one ticket price ($0.25 or $0.75 U.S. depending on Bogota, Medellin or Quito) no matter how far you travel. Finally they integrated the city’s trains, trams and gondolas (spectacular views) with the buses so everything runs on one coordinated system.

The whole thing works but it does require a lot of planning (deciding which streets to close off) and figuring out where the best corridors are. The systems in Bogota, Quito and Medellin are such a success that at rush hour you are packed in like a Tokyo subway. But you get where you are going fast!

Anyone who visits a big city in a developing country has to come away wondering how much pollution all those long haul trucks, buses, motorcycles and cars with no emission controls produce. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 15% of all worldwide man made carbon dioxide is caused by transportation.  More rapid transit systems like Curitiba, Quito, Medellin and Bogota, along with (and this is a big if) better emission controls on those pollution belching buses, would go a long way to improving everyone’s lives.

The Road Less Travelled

Written by Eric Hanson, VCWA Board member

Colombia and Ecuador are not the most popular South American tourist pick. They don’t have the same allure as Carnival in Rio, or Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. But they still have a lot to offer. With diverse climatic regions (ranging from the Amazon to 19,000 foot volcanos to Pacific coast beaches) they are “biodiversity hotspots.” Colombia has more plant and animal species per square kilometer than any other country in the world. And then of course there are all the Spanish Churches, Aztec and Incan ruins and vibrant cities.

Colombia has recovered from the worst of the drug days of the 1990s (even though you can still visit the Pablo Escobar museum in Medellin!). A peace treaty with the FARC is now in the works. Both countries have oil which is both a blessing and a curse. Too much black gold means you can put off the heavy lifting of nation building. Oil is the major export in the region. Colombia is doing better now than Ecuador dealing with the decline in crude prices but both countries are stable and managing. 

I spent 12 days in Bogota, Medellin and Quito and all three are worth a second visit. I am a Lonely Planet guidebook aficionado and they describe well all the sights and sounds. I will add two offbeat observations here. The first is about money. Colombia uses the peso which has depreciated about 25% the past year against the dollar. This makes their coffee and oil exports more profitable but also means imports from the developed world are pricier. Ecuador does not have its own currency. It dollarized back in 2000. This means they use the same bills and coins we do here in the U.S. (They also enthusiastically use the Sacajawea dollar coin, something that has not caught on here). Dollarizing has pluses and minuses. The plus is that investors are assured of a stable currency. No chance of a local currency collapse in Ecuador. But the downside is dollarization ties many prices and interest rates to the U.S. A gallon of gas and the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac are about the same in Quito as in the U.S. This is fine for the wealthy but not for the poor. There is a lot of shopping now by Ecuadorians across the Colombian border. Prices are cheaper there. Diapers have replaced cocaine as the trade of choice so to speak!

My second observation has to do with art and panhandling. Colombia and Ecuador are full of street musicians, rappers, break dancers, etc. But there are still surprises (picture below) Two street performers here tie a rope to a telephone pole and when the light turns red they run across and connect the rope to a hook on the other side. One performer jumps up on the rope and starts juggling. The other mounts a unicycle, balances a ball on his head and juggles with the other. They do this for 20 seconds or so, then jump down, disconnect the rope and run through traffic collecting money. I have seen a lot of street performances – but not this. Needless to say I left a BIG tip.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

NPR: Bill Mares Discusses Immigration

I’m on the board of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, a 65-year old group founded by, among others, Vermont Sen. Warren G. Austin the first American ambassador to the U.N.
Our goal is to bring “Vermont to the world and the world to Vermont" through public forums and programs – like hosting federally sponsored foreign visitors who wish to study such topics as women in politics, social entrepreneurship and cultural heritage preservation. So far this year we’ve hosted 140 guests from more than 100 countries.
Most recently, our programs have mainly centered on the international refugee crisis - from co-sponsoring a concert to benefit Syrian refugees, to a Belgian speaker on cross-cultural management and diversity issues, only one week after the Brussels attacks.
Our annual meeting speaker was the head of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Vermont. This October we’ll host Robert S. Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, and through other programming and events, hope to join the Mayor of Rutland in welcoming the Syrian refugees.
This focus on immigration inspired me to re-read Vermont historian Vince Feeney's excellent book about Irish immigration to Vermont. And I also dusted off a classic work on immigration called The Uprooted, by Oscar Handlin – a book I’d last read in college.
Handlin is generally recognized as the founder of immigration studies. He wrote compellingly about emigration to the U.S. up to World War One of the first 35 million from West, Central and Eastern Europe - my grandfather among them.
Along the way, Handlin noted one of great ironies of American history - that just as the American frontier was closing the U.S. launched its own empire abroad, from Cuba to the Philippines. In fact, English poet Rudyard Kipling dedicated his poem "The White Man's Burden" to the U.S. – about the same time domestic academics were launching a eugenics movement aimed at so-called "lesser races".
By today's perspective the book is incomplete because it doesn't spend much time on Asian immigration, the vast numbers of Hispanic immigrants, or war refugees of the ‘60s.
On the micro level, too, times are different. My grandfather fled to America to avoid being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. A new Council board member is Midhat Hadjic, who fled Serbian bullets and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian Civil War.
But certainly the opening of Handlin’s book still rings true. "Once I thought to write a history of immigrants in America,” he wrote. “Then I discovered that immigrants were American history."

Monday, September 5, 2016

Rejecting Ignorance: Advice and Sources Promoting a Well-Rounded, Rational World View

This post was written by Chelsea Beaulieu, Chelsea is a graduate student in International Relations. She is enthusiastic about maintaining a global connection while in Vermont by being a volunteer for VCWA, contributing to the organization’s blog and other projects.


With all that is going on around the world-- an increase in lone-wolf terror attacks; the refugee crisis in Europe; heightened tension in the South China Sea; and seemingly never-ending conflict in the Middle East-- it is important to be literate in the constantly evolving international climate. Geographically distant news likely has a much stronger impact on our lives than we expect, and staying informed in a way that is rational and fact-based is crucial. This is why I am writing this post: to help you become knowledgeable about how to responsibly consume news media, as well as by providing credible source options covering international events.

Now, I know there is no such thing as a truly objective perspective-- as much of an effort as an outlet makes, the news will always have at least a minimal slant, and people will always have their beliefs and biases-- but we can do our best to gather as much factual information as possible from various less-biased news outlets. This information will allow us to make informed opinions, affording us a rational understanding of how world affairs affect our nation and its citizens. With the upcoming presidential election, this topic is more salient than ever.

This year, the United States was ranked number 41 in the World Press Freedom Index, which (if you couldn’t guess by the name) ranks the freedom of the press in each nation around the world. The U.S. ranking isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. Unfortunately, access to uncensored news is not as simple as tuning the TV to your favorite network station. Americans who want to be informed and desire a well rounded perspective need to do a bit more legwork than say, someone from Finland (ranked #1) or a citizen of Uruguay (ranked #20).

I’ve made it a bit easier for you to go about what may seem like a daunting task of untangling credible sources and assessing and analysing them in a way that will allow you to garner a full perspective of events going on in our world. Below you will find some tips on being a responsible news consumer, followed by suggestions of credible and fact-based sources that I recommend.

Tips on How to Responsibly Consume News:

It is incredibly important to consciously gather information from multiple news sources. I know it’s easy to tune to the same station on TV every day,  or get sucked into news that pops up on our sidebar on Facebook. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing to watch these channels or read these articles, but two things should be noted:

1. There is probably a lot more to the story that you’re seeing or reading, and there is definitely an angle imposed by the source that it comes from. Ask yourself: ‘Is there an agenda that this outlet/company/organization is trying to push? Is it associated with a specific political party or financial interest?’ It’s alright if the answer is yes, but being aware of the leaning of the story will give you a more critical eye to assess from, resulting in you gaining a more in depth knowledge of the issue. And if the topic of the story strongly impassions you, look for other sources that maybe come at it from a different direction; sources that delve a bit deeper with the research on the issue in question.

2. This brings me to my next point: We may think we are getting the whole picture when watch our favorite anchor on network TV or scroll through our social media feeds and click on news links from sources or friends we follow, but the truth is, everything we see is tailored to what we are already interested in. What appears to us only reinforces our current beliefs and tells us things we already know. This might make us feel better about the way we think, but it certainly isn’t teaching us anything, or even giving us the chance to credibly solidify our views.

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I challenge you to step outside of this personally curated swathe of information that pats us on the back for regurgitating incessantly repeated talking points, perpetuating apathy and ignorance surrounding critical events in our world. Take an hour a week to watch a news network that features programming from the other side. Follow someone you ardently disagree with. Their content may enrage you, but by creating time to read, dissect, and criticize a piece of media will better prepare you to argue your position when you inevitably cross into the taboo dinner table discussion of politics at your next family gathering. The content you consume may even challenge and effectively change your beliefs, and that is ok. More powerful and more impressive than a loud voice echoing soundbites that everyone has heard a million times is a passionate voice sharing well thought out and fact based arguments that make others stop and think, and reassess their own positions.

If you’re really ready to take the dive into rejecting the ignorance flowing from mainstream media, you can start by checking out the list of sources I’ve compiled below. The stories are generally meatier, supported by experts in the field, and either do not take a position, or allow for multiple perspectives on a topic, avoiding giving weight to one view over another.

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Credible Sources:

  1. PBS Newshour (available on TV, for online streaming, and in podcast form)
  • This is my personal favorite; I watch it pretty much every day. It’s a great overview of the day’s most important national and international news, and also features series of investigative reporting by award-winning journalists. A huge perk for me is that because it’s publicly funded, it’s commercial-free! Check your local PBS station for air-times. You can also live stream it online but if you miss it, you can always watch the previous episodes on their website, or listen to the podcast (links above) which are posted the day after airing.

  • Another one of my favorites, CFR is a nonpartisan organization, think tank, and publisher. It’s worth taking some time to explore the different parts of the website, which include background information on issues around the world with links to external sources, reports by senior fellows on important topics, and an interactive Conflict Tracker, which tracks conflict around the world based on its influence on the U.S.

  1. Al Jazeera (on TV and online)
  • One of the more mainstream news sources on this list, Al Jazeera is probably one of the least biased stations you can tune into on your TV, and their website covers many global topics, including an entire tab dedicated to ‘Human Rights”.

  • It should be noted that CSIS does have a specifically pro-U.S. leaning, but keeping that in mind, it is a bi-partisan policy research organization. The topics covered by the Center range from defense and security, to energy and sustainability, to human rights. You can find info through events analysis and commentary, expert reports, or even twelve individual podcast options, ranging from Russia, to terrorism, to energy and the environment.


  1. Reuters (online)

  • An independent organization dedicated to exposing human rights abuses around the globe, HRW is an impact-focused group. One of their more recent accomplishments was their significant role in investigating and assigning responsibility to the Syrian regime in the 2013 chemical attacks on its own people (watch the video showing how they did it here). It can be counted on to call out governments, leaders, organizations, and any other entity equally in an attempt to push for change towards a more just world.

This is just a shortlist of some of what I consider to be the most credible sources for the American consumer of international news, and I’m sure there are several more. Feel free to post in the comments if you have any others that you rely on!

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I’m hoping that the information and suggestions I’ve provided here will encourage you to branch out from your go-to sources that may be restricting your knowledge and understanding of world affairs. Informed people become engaged people, and engaged citizens foster a healthy democracy, which in turn benefits the people. What’s not to love about that?