When Giants Fail


May 8, 2017

When Giants Fail

What business has learned from Clayton Christensen.

Researchers or Corporate Allies? Think Tanks Blur the Line


August 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — As Lennar Corporation, one of the nation’s largest home builders, pushed ahead with an $8 billion plan to revitalize a barren swath of San Francisco, it found a trusted voice to vouch for its work: the Brookings Institution, the most prestigious think tank in the world.

The new $100 million office of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. Credit Greg Kahn for The New York Times

“This can become a productive, mutually beneficial relationship,” Bruce Katz, a Brookings vice president, wrote to Lennar in July 2010. The ultimate benefit for Brookings: $400,000 in donations from Lennar’s different divisions.

The think tank began to aggressively promote the project, San Francisco’s biggest redevelopment effort since its recovery from the 1906 earthquake, and later offered to help Lennar, a publicly traded company, “engage with national media to develop stories that highlight Lennar’s innovative approach.”

And Brookings went further. It named Kofi Bonner, the Lennar executive in charge of the San Francisco development, as a senior fellow — an enviable credential he used to advance the company’s efforts. “He would be a trusted adviser,” an internal Brookings memo said in 2014 as the think tank sought one $100,000 donation from Lennar.

Think tanks, which position themselves as “universities without students,” have power in government policy debates because they are seen as researchers independent of moneyed interests. But in the chase for funds, think tanks are pushing agendas important to corporate donors, at times blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists. And they are doing so while reaping the benefits of their tax-exempt status, sometimes without disclosing their connections to corporate interests.

Thousands of pages of internal memos and confidential correspondence between Brookings and other donors — like JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank; K.K.R., the global investment firm; Microsoft, the software giant; and Hitachi, the Japanese conglomerate — show that financial support often came with assurances from Brookings that it would provide “donation benefits,” including setting up events featuring corporate executives with government officials, according to documents obtained by The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Similar arrangements exist at many think tanks. On issues as varied as military sales to foreign countries, international trade, highway management systems and real estate development, think tanks have frequently become vehicles for corporate influence and branding campaigns.

“This is about giant corporations who figured out that by spending, hey, a few tens of millions of dollars, if they can influence outcomes here in Washington, they can make billions of dollars,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, a frequent critic of undisclosed Wall Street donations to think tanks.

Washington has seen a proliferation of think tanks, particularly small institutions with narrow interests tied to specific industries. At the same time, the brand names of the field have experienced explosive growth. Brookings’s annual budget has doubled in the last decade, to $100 million. The American Enterprise Institute is spending at least $80 million on a new headquarters in Washington, not far from where the Center for Strategic and International Studies built a $100 million office tower.

The shift has occurred as non-profits in general have been under increasing pressure from their donors to meet specific goals. But for think tanks, that pressure can threaten their standing as independent arbiters in policy debates in Congress, the White House and the news media.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the greatest generation, in the post-World War II era of philanthropy, where they said, gosh, ‘Here is $1 million; spend it how you wish,’” Kimberly Churches, the Managing Director at Brookings, said in an interview.

Think tank executives reject any suggestion that they are tools of corporate influence campaigns and say they are simply teaming up with donors that have similar goals, like helping cities with economic development.

“We do not compromise our integrity,” said Martin S. Indyk, Brookings’s Executive Vice President. “We maintain our core values of quality, independence, as well as impact.”

But he acknowledged that the arrangement to appoint the Lennar executive as a senior fellow had created the “appearance of a conflict of interest.” And he said that Brookings, in the interest of transparency, had recently decided to prohibit corporations or corporate-backed foundations from making anonymous contributions.

At think tanks like Brookings, the majority of reports and events, with titles like “Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America” or “India at the Global High Table,” have no obvious link to corporate donors.

Still, the benefits afforded to corporations looking to cloak themselves with the authority of think tanks are strikingly evident, according to a review of documents from more than a dozen institutions.

The likely conclusions of some think tank reports, documents show, are discussed with donors — or even potential ones — before the research is complete. Drafts of the studies have been shared with donors whose opinions have then helped shape final reports. Donors have outlined how the resulting scholarship will be used as part of broader lobbying efforts. The think tanks also help donors promote their corporate brands, as Brookings does with JPMorgan Chase, whose $15.5 million contribution is the largest by a private corporation in the institution’s history.

Despite these benefits, corporations can write off the donations as charitable contributions. Some tax experts say these arrangements may amount to improper subsidies by taxpayers if think tanks are providing specific services.

“People think of think tanks as do-gooders, uncompromised and not bought like others in the political class,” said Bill Goodfellow, the executive director of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “But it’s absurd to suggest that donors don’t have influence. The danger is we in the think tank world are being corrupted in the same way as the political world. And all of us should be worried about it.”

A group of Democratic state attorneys general is investigating whether Exxon Mobil worked with certain think tanks in past decades to cover up its understanding of fossil fuels’ impact on climate change, in part by financing reports questioning the science, a suggestion the company rejects.

Executives at Brookings, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and other think tanks say they have systems in place to ensure that their reports are based on scholars’ independent conclusions.

“We strongly believe in our model of seeking solutions to some of our country’s most difficult problems,” John J. Hamre, the chief executive at C.S.I.S., said in a written reply to questions. “We gather stakeholders, vet ideas, find areas of agreement and highlight areas of disagreement.”

Yet researchers at think tanks are seeing corporate influence firsthand. Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington, said she had been quizzed by potential donors as she tried to raise money for research on the military’s use of armed drones.

“‘Are you going to say drones are bad?’” she recalled one potential financial backer asking. “‘We are not interested in funding something that says drones are bad.’”

Donations and Rewards

The confidential Brookings spreadsheet had an unassuming title: Corporate Overviews Tracking. It listed nearly 90 corporations, from Alcoa to Wells Fargo, providing a glimpse of the vast electronic file that Brookings maintained on donors and prospects, and the benefits it might offer.

The database, along with thousands of pages of emails, solicitations for money and memos on meetings with corporate officials, highlighted Brookings’s practice of assuring that donors would see results from their contributions.

The Brookings Institution, which operates on a $100 million annual budget, twice what it was a decade ago.Credit: Greg Kahn for The New York Times

The files included company priorities and a tally of donations. General Electric wanted to fund work on rail networks and clean energy programs — both critical parts of its business — and Brookings then featured G.E. executives, joined by officials from the White House and Congress, at events that focused on these industries.

In 2004, Brookings established its Metropolitan Policy Program, devised to stimulate economic growth in cities. As the country was emerging from recession, Brookings bolstered its ties to corporate donors in 2010 by naming Marek Gootman, a lobbyist from Patton Boggs, as its first director of strategic partnerships. He was assigned to work with “a national network of elected, business and civic leaders engaged in city and metropolitan area policy development and implementation.”

From the start, the program blended a variety of insights on urban matters, including from corporate, nonprofit and government sources. And Mr. Indyk noted that any reports issued were made public.

Donations to the program exploded, from $4.3 million in 2005 to $12.5 million in 2013, nearly 20 percent of Brookings’s overall program spending that year.

K.K.R., after starting special funds around 2010 to invest in real estate and other infrastructure projects, donated $450,000 to Brookings, some of it as the institution agreed to set up meetings for a top K.K.R. executive with community leaders in Philadelphia and Detroit, where the company was considering real estate projects. Brookings separately produced a report, published on K.K.R.’s website, promoting one of the company’s infrastructure projects in New Jersey, after the company executive suggested such a piece.

In advance of a 2014 event Brookings officials attended with corporate executives including Henry R. Kravis, a co-chairman of K.K.R., one memo marked as confidential noted: “K.K.R. has given a total of $350K to Brookings. Last gift came in on 3/27/2014 for $150K to Metro; Henry has donated $75K to Brookings, most going to the individual unrestricted fund.”

The tally demonstrates the important distinction that Brookings makes between “unrestricted” donations, which the think tank can spend on any research, and project-based funding restricted to specific topics that the donor has a particular interest in.

Lennar joined Brookings’s Metropolitan Leadership Council, established for the program’s top donors, in July 2010. That month, the company won approval to redevelop Hunters Point in San Francisco, turning the area into a more than 700-acre mix of housing, education and commercial development.

Brookings would later name the project one of the three most “transformative investments in the United States.”

The San Francisco project generated controversy from the beginning, with critics concerned about toxic waste left by the former Navy shipyard.

Lennar joined with Brookings as protests were escalating in 2010. One complaint, filed by area residents with the Environmental Protection Agency, said the San Francisco Health Department was “conspiring with Lennar Corporation to conceal the health threats of asbestos-laden dust.” The company was busy at the time looking for investors to help it complete the project, known as the San Francisco Shipyard.

A spokesman for Lennar, Glenn Bunting, disputed claims that the company had donated to Brookings out of self-interest — and said the alliance was not related to the protests.

“There was nothing needed in the way of assistance for Lennar to ‘buy’ from Brookings,” Mr. Bunting said in an email. Brookings, though, continued to promote the project.

“San Francisco’s Shipyard project is both physically and economically transformative for the Bay Area and globally significant,” Mr. Katz, the Brookings vice president, said in a news release issued by San Francisco’s mayor in 2011 as Lennar’s hunt for major investors intensified. “This project promises to set a new paradigm for successfully conceiving, financing and delivering transformative infrastructure projects in the United States.”

Follow-up memos were more explicit: Brookings, as it sought an additional $50,000 from Lennar in 2014, said it was prepared to “use our convening power, research expertise, network connections and knowledge of innovative practices to help further drive the ultimate impact and success” of Lennar’s project and to “provide public validation of San Francisco’s efforts through national and local media coverage.”

The think tank soon delivered.

Mr. Katz made appearances alongside Mr. Bonner, the Lennar executive, to promote the project to government officials and business leaders in California. In 2014, around the time the think tank sought an additional round of money from Lennar, Brookings invited its new nonresident senior fellow, Mr. Bonner, who has a master’s degree in architecture and is a former government planner for several California cities, to appear at an event at its headquarters.

“I am working in San Francisco in a fabulous property,” Mr. Bonner said at the event, referring to Lennar’s Shipyard project.

In March, at an international conference of real estate developers and investors in Cannes, France, Lennar sponsored a session in which Brookings researchers helped the company highlight the Shipyard.

“Kofi is what I would describe as the quintessential city builder,” Julie Wagner, a Brookings nonresident senior fellow, said as she introduced Mr. Bonner at an event where projects with no connection to donors were also featured.

At least some of the $400,000 Lennar has donated to Brookings since 2010 has come from its SunStreet Energy division, which sells rooftop solar systems, at the same time that Brookings’s metropolitan program has published research on the rooftop solar industry.

Martin S. Indyk, the Brookings Institution’s Executive Vice President, said the think tank’s collaboration with Lennar to redevelop Hunters Point in San Francisco reflected a shared goal to revitalize cities. “We do not compromise our integrity,” he said. Credit T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Mr. Indyk said the collaboration simply reflected shared goals of revitalizing cities. Brookings scholars promoted other real estate projects, he said, involving local governments, universities or even developers that were not donors — including one in Detroit backed by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, and one in Seattle backed by Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft.

But Mr. Indyk acknowledged that naming Mr. Bonner, who declined to be interviewed, a Brookings nonresident scholar had “created the impression that because Lennar was giving money, he was getting the title.” His post, which was unpaid, was not renewed.

Hitachi has been another large donor to the metropolitan program, giving a total of $1.8 million to Brookings over the last decade, according to Brookings documents. The think tank reviewed the company’s corporate marketing and sales strategy targeting the United States, an internal memo shows. Brookings also organized public events that featured top Obama administration officials and allowed Hitachi executives to promote their products.

“Metro has held nine meetings and several conference calls in the past six months with executives from Hitachi’s water, transportation and data business lines and are collaborating more fully on defining what it means to be a ‘Smart City,’” a confidential Brookings memo said.

Officials at Brookings said they had not lobbied for Hitachi, and they provided examples of reports that they said included conclusions challenging the company’s position. “Helping a corporation’s for-profit agenda is not in any way our agenda,” Ms. Churches, the Managing Director, said.

Yet Ms. Churches also said the contract language with donors like Lennar and Hitachi was “inelegant,” although not improper. When asked if the documents read like a fee-for-service agreement, she said, “It could be misconstrued.”

Mr. Indyk said Brookings had recently changed its policies so that “today, there is no way in which those words would be used in our documents.”

‘Growing the Economy’

When JPMorgan offered a major donation to the metropolitan program in 2011, Brookings created the Global Cities Initiative, complete with a new logo that called it a “joint project of Brookings and JPMorgan Chase.”

The project was premised on a common interest between the bank and the think tank. Brookings wanted to promote economic growth in cities by encouraging international trade, and JPMorgan wanted to gain new business by offering loans to companies in the same markets.

In contract documents, Brookings emphasized that it would control the conclusions of its reports and said it would “not directly or indirectly communicate with any party” to help get JPMorgan business.

Mr. Indyk and executives from JPMorgan said the company and the think tank simply agreed on a worthy agenda.

“This was about growing the economy, and we are incredibly proud of the results of this initiative,” said Peter Scher, the head of the corporate responsibility program at JPMorgan. “We believe it’s had a huge impact in more than 30 cities that are involved.”

At the same time, hundreds of pages of memos — status reports to JPMorgan, internal reports by Brookings staff to prepare for meetings with top bank executives, and formal documents soliciting more money — make clear that Brookings saw the Global Cities Initiative as a branding effort that could help JPMorgan bankers bolster their standing in cities.

“Bottom line: Growing metro economies is good for the nation and for JPMC; also, many U.S. cities are JPMC clients — motivation to support them and their clients,” said one Brookings document dated July 2011, as officials from the think tank met with top bank executives to discuss a planned donation that eventually totaled $15 million.

The Global Cities Initiative, another document written by a Brookings senior fellow explained, “must mean a marriage between JPMC corporate interests” and “Brookings continued thought leadership.”

JPMorgan, in a document dated a month before the agreement was signed, said the pending donation to Brookings “deepens/extends relationships with important client base among business and civic leaders both in the U.S. and abroad.”

And Brookings was ready to do its part.

“Our events, which in part target these audiences,” said an internal 2014 Brookings memo, referring to the Global Cities Initiative and federal and state leaders, “have yielded 100+ media hits, with 97% of them referencing GCI and 90% referencing JPMorgan; by the end of this year, we will have held events in 13 domestic markets and 9 international markets.”

At times, Brookings officials seemed worried they were not doing enough for the bank.

“No one wants to create overt marketing opportunities for JPMC, but we need to carve out roles and thought leadership opportunity for market presidents,” said a 2013 Brookings memo, referring to a dinner with the bank’s executives. “We need to do a better job tying it back to JPMC.”

It remains difficult to assess whether the relationship helped the bank’s business, but Mr. Scher said that was not the goal.

“If the Global Cities Initiative strengthens the economic competitiveness of cities, it’s a win for small businesses, job creation and everyone involved in these communities, including us,” Mr. Scher said in a statement.

Donations from the corporations to Brookings are tax exempt based on the premise that the think tank’s work benefits the public good, not a company’s bottom line.

But two lawyers who specialize in non-profit law — Miranda Perry Fleischer, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, and Clifford Perlman, a partner at a New York-based firm — said Brookings’s agreements raised questions.

“Tax deductions are subsidies that are paid for by all taxpayers,” Ms. Fleischer said. “And the reason the subsidy is provided is that the charitable organization is supposed to be doing something for the public good, not that specifically benefits the private individual or corporation in the form of providing them goods or services.”

Mr. Indyk said that opinion was “totally unfounded,” noting that Brookings had retained its own lawyers to review the documents and found no problems.

“Brookings’s conclusion that all of these activities it engaged in with these donors primarily benefited the public rather than the donors is consistent with the applicable federal tax standards,” Douglas Varley, one of the lawyers for Brookings, said in a statement.

Close Partnerships

Other think tanks have been even more closely aligned with corporate agendas.

FedEx teamed up with the Atlantic Council — a think tank that focuses on international relations, with annual revenue that has surged to $21 million from $2 million in the last decade — to build support for a free-trade agreement the company hoped would increase business.

Six months before the Atlantic Council report was issued, FedEx and the think tank worked on plans to use the report as a lobbying tool.

“The impact and reach of the report would be maximized by a rollout event” including a “public report launch with member(s) of Congress from one of the relevant committees,” said a two-page summary drafted by the Atlantic Council months before the study had been completed.

FedEx and the Atlantic Council, working with the European American Chamber of Commerce, also told companies being asked to participate in the study that the goal was to “emphasize the positive impact that a comprehensive agreement would have on American and European small businesses.”

When the report came out in late 2014, its conclusions mirrored arguments FedEx had been aggressively pushing on Capitol Hill, including recommending a reduction in trans-Atlantic tariffs and allowing more duty-free shipments.

An executive vice president at FedEx, Rajesh Subramaniam, attended an event at Atlantic Council headquarters in Washington to celebrate the release of the final report. So did a key supporter, Representative Erik Paulsen, Republican of Minnesota.

“This is very exciting,” Mr. Subramaniam said at the event, referring to the potential for more trade. “The upside opportunity is quite large.”

Frederick Kempe, the Atlantic Council president, said that FedEx had donated just $20,000 to help fund the effort and that the staff at the Atlantic Council had handled the research.

“There is no doubt the work of think tanks has more credibility than the work of lobbyists, but the only way we preserve it is through intellectual independence,” Mr. Kempe said.

‘We Do Not Lobby’

A Predator drone manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. General Atomics helped fund a study that led the United States to ease restrictions on sales of drones to governments overseas.Credit.Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

General Atomics, the California-based manufacturer of Predator drones, had a clear problem. Prospects for sales were falling as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wound down. The company wanted the Obama administration to change its policy to allow for sales to other countries, a lucrative proposition.

“When the budgets are going down in the U.S., you would like to be able to export more,” Frank Pace, the president of the company’s aircraft systems group, told a Reuters reporter in late 2013 at an air show in Dubai.

At about that time, the industry turned to the Center for Strategic and International Studies for help, providing money that the think tank used to conduct a study on drone policy, including exports.

While defense contracting giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing have cumulatively donated at least $77 million since 2010 to two dozen think tanks, disclosure records show, General Atomics’s contribution to the Center for Strategic and International Studies was quite small — in the tens of thousands of dollars.

C.S.I.S. set up confidential meetings at its headquarters with company representatives, inviting top officials from the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, the State Department and the office of the defense secretary, according to emails and other documents obtained by The Times through open records requests.

“Our series will be unique in convening a much broader group of stakeholders than is typical,” Samuel J. Brannen, the think tank’s lead scholar, wrote in an email to Aaron W. Jost, one of the State Department officials in charge of regulating drone exports.

As a think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies did not file a lobbying report, but the goals of the effort were clear.

“Political obstacles to export,” read the agenda of one of the closed-door “working group” meetings organized by Mr. Brannen that included Tom Rice, a lobbyist in General Atomics’s Washington office, on the invitation lists, the emails show.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, drone makers that were major C.S.I.S. contributors, were also invited to attend the sessions, the emails show. The meetings and research culminated with a report released in February 2014 that reflected the industry’s priorities.

“I came out strongly in support of export,” Mr. Brannen, the lead author of the center’s study, wrote in an email to Kenneth B. Handelman, the deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls.

But the effort did not stop there. Mr. Brannen initiated meetings with Defense Department officials and congressional staff to push for the recommendations, which also included setting up a new Pentagon office to give more focus to acquisition and deployment of drones. The center also stressed the need to ease export limits at a conference it hosted at its headquarters featuring top officials from the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps.

Mr. Brannen, who has since left C.S.I.S., declined to comment. The think tank insisted that its efforts to influence administration policy were not lobbying.

“C.S.I.S. will not represent any donor before any government office or entity, including congressional lawmakers and executive branch officials,” Mr. Hamre, the Chief Executive, said in his statement to The Times. “We do not lobby.”

One thing is clear: The result was a victory for General Atomics.

In February 2015, almost one year after the C.S.I.S. report was issued, the State Department announced a clarification of its rules, easing final approval that month for General Atomics’s long-planned sale of unarmed Predator drones to the United Arab Emirates, the first such sale to a non-NATO nation. The think tank report was just one of many voices pushing for the change.

A State Department spokesman said that while the government officials involved in the review had received opinions from think tanks and industry officials, “at the end of the day, this is a considered U.S. government policy.”

Huntington Ingalls Industries had an equally clear objective: to create an elaborate public relations and lobbying campaign to convince Congress that the nation needed to confront an emerging threat from China by building more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — at a cost of about $11 billion each. The clear beneficiary? Huntington, the lone builder of the ships.

As part of a broader communications effort, Huntington helped finance a think tank report that enhanced the company’s argument for more funding. Bryan McGrath, a former naval officer who had commanded a guided-missile destroyer, approached Huntington Ingalls and offered to write a study on a fee-for-service basis as a private industry expert. The company turned down his offer.

Later, after he had joined the Hudson Institute and helped create the Center for American Seapower, he approached Huntington officials again, and they were interested.

“A think tank has more prestige,” Mr. McGrath said.

Huntington Ingalls paid $100,000 to fund the work, a critical commitment for Mr. McGrath, who said he was paid by Hudson only if he could successfully solicit donations to support his research. Mr. McGrath said he had always been a strong proponent of aircraft carriers — so the company was not buying his opinion.

“The Hudson Center makes no secret about being very pro-sea power,” he said. “If a company came that wanted us to write a piece that advocated for something other than that, the answer would be no.”

In exchange for Huntington Ingalls’s support, company officials were given regular briefings on the research and the opportunity to suggest revisions to early drafts, Mr. McGrath said.

“We have an iterative process already laid out in which we will sit down with them and go through drafts and discuss where we are going,” Mr. McGrath said. He added that he had not accepted all of the company’s suggestions.

The report was released in October at the Rayburn House Office Building. Mr. McGrath received an introduction from one of the industry’s most important boosters, Representative J. Randy Forbes, Republican of Virginia, the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees the Navy.

The report did not mention that Huntington Ingalls had helped pay for it. Asked about the failure to disclose the contribution, John P. Walters, Hudson’s chief operating officer, called it a mistake. The report was subsequently revised — months after it was released and the congressional event held — to disclose the donation.

A second industry-funded report, prepared by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, came out a month later with a similar urgent call for more money to build more ships and to base more ships abroad, although it did not mention that it had been funded by the Navy League of the United States, a nonprofit group whose large corporate donors include Huntington Ingalls.

“This report is yet another important tool for Navy Leaguers to use in the field when educating local leaders and lawmakers,” Skip Witunski, the Navy League president, wrote to the group’s members late last year.

The strategy — lining up think tank reports as lobbying tools that echoed each other — was backed up with a series of letters to the editor, dozens of posts on Twitter and Facebook, and op-ed pieces.

Mr. McGrath said he, too, wondered if this storm of industry-funded work might be threatening the integrity of the process. “I see a lot of stuff that comes out in Washington,” Mr. McGrath said, “and I got to scratch my head and say, ‘That guy must be on the payroll.’”

Brooke Williams is a reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which collaborated with The New York Times on this series. Audrey Stuart contributed reporting from Cannes, France. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Fix The Education System and Stop Talking Politics


July 22, 2016

COMMENT: Mr. Ng, you are being very generous in praising Rural Development Minister Ismail Sabri for making a self serving remark on the quality of our graduates.

My friends and I have been discussing this matter over many years. What makes him special to deserve your praise? He just stated the obvious and what is worse he is part and parcel of the very corrupt UMNO system that sought to produce Malay graduates who are mediocre and weak so they can be cadres to serve  and perpetuate the UMNO patronage system.

There is no political will to deal with this serious national crisis. Employing foreign consultants to produce glossy reports with buzz words and worn out cliches will not help us. Ask former Minister of Education and sacked Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin what he did with the Educational Blueprint he commissioned when he was in power.

Let us not waste taxpayers money when there is no will to fix the system which has failed to produce employable graduates. So stop heaping praise on this minister who is part of this malaise. You are only compromising your integrity.–Din Merican

Fix The Education System  and Stop Talking Politics

by Scott Ng

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

There must be the political will to recognise the failures of the system and to address them.

It’s been a long time since a cabinet minister issued a statement that no reasonable person can find fault with. And of all people, it was Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob who surprised us this week when he said something worthy of applause.

Ismail did right in ticking off university graduates for expecting the government to hire them. As it is, we already have a bloated civil service, and continuing to spoonfeed so many school leavers and university graduates is just not a viable option.

But then again, it is because our education system spoon-feeds our children that they cannot stand on their own when they go out into the working world. Ismail was probably being too idealistic when he said that “the government provides people with an education so that they can become those who provide others with jobs.”

Our education system doesn’t place enough emphasis on leadership, let alone creative and critical thinking and soft skills like public speaking and other forms of communication. As many graduates have found, the working world is quick to disabuse them of the notion that their grades mean anything more than ink scrawls on paper.

Employers look for more than just a 4.0 GPA. They want people who are problem solvers, who are capable of leading when necessary and who can communicate effectively.

The argument around education gets very politicised on the issue of employability, especially when it comes to English proficiency, but it cannot be argued that we severely lag behind in recognising the importance of soft skills in the professional world.

There is, indeed, a lack of urgency in addressing the problems in our education system.We certainly cannot continue to spoon-feed our students. They must be taught to fish, not just to eat. Not only must the education system teach them employable skills; it must also instill in them the belief that education must continue throughout one’s lifetime. Our education system must in fact teach them how to keep on educating themselves once they leave their institutions of learning.

If the government truly wants our graduates to begin fending for themselves and to be competitive, then it must recognise that the modern world demands more than just good grades. The government must have the political will to recognise the failures of our education system and to address them.

Obama’s Vietnam “Legacy” Trip: A Reality


May 23, 2016

Obama’s Vietnam “Legacy” Trip: A Reality 

By Greg Rushford

Air Force One touched down yesterday evening in Hanoi. The White House and influential Washington think-tank scholars are spinning President Barack Obama’s three-day Vietnam visit as a “legacy” moment, validating the president’s “pivot” to Asia. Expect much warm talk of how America is forging ever-closer economic- and security ties with a modernizing Vietnam. Expect the usual heartwarming television images of happy people -including peasants toiling in lush rice fields, wearing their iconic conical hats.

Don’t expect any admissions from Vietnamese Communist leaders of the suffering they continue to inflict upon some of their country’s best citizens. As former prisoner of conscience Cu Huy Ha Vu rightly notes, today’s Vietnam is “a kleptocracy.” Intrepid pro-democracy advocates stand in the way.

Courageous men like Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, and Tran Vu Anh Binh, three of Vietnam’s 100-plus current political prisoners. They languish behind bars, while some Washington insiders have averted their eyes.

Some of those insiders are Southeast Asian analysts who work inside the gleaming $100 million headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just a few minutes from the White House – and who have undisclosed sidelines as business consultants. They know that to speak forthrightly on Vietnam’s shameful human rights record would threaten their easy access to senior communist officials. Their corporate benefactors who depend upon that political access to win lucrative business contracts in Vietnam could lose the big bucks.

Ernest Z. Bower President & CEO, Bower  Asia Group,  is widely recognized as one of the strongest proponents for close ties between the United States and Asia. In recognition of his work, the King of Malaysia has awarded him the Darjah Panglima Jasa Negara (PJN), pronouncing him holder of the title Datuk in Malaysia.  The president of the Philippines also awarded him the rank of Lakan, or Commander, for his service to the Philippines.  Ernie is currently the United States Chair of the Advisory Council on Competitiveness for the Vietnamese Prime Minister and serves on the boards of the Special Olympics, American Australian Education & Leadership Foundation, the Institute for Religion & Public Policy, the United States-New Zealand Council and the Board of Advisors of the United States-Indonesia Society.

Moreover, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States has a team of $30,000-a-month Washington lobbyists on his payroll. Their assignment is basically not to let awkward questions about political prisoners interfere with enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese commercial- and security ties, especially the sale of lethal weapons to fend off Chinese maritime intimidation.

One wonders what Dieu, Hoa, and Binh, locked away in their cells, would have to say – if they were free to speak. Dieu, a devout Catholic citizen journalist, has been imprisoned since 2011. He committed the “crime” of exercising free speech. Dieu has been living “in hell” – beaten, humiliated, and treated like a “slave” for refusing to wear a uniform with the word “criminal” – his brother has told Radio Free Asia. Hoa, also a blogger whose crime was his free speech, has been incarcerated since 2011. Binh, a songwriter, lost his liberty in 2012. His crime was writing music that offended the Communist Party. While Binh’s term is scheduled to end next year, Dieu and Hoa could languish behind bars until 2024.

All three men are associated with the Viet Tan, a U.S.-based political party that is highly effective in using the social media to advocate democratic freedoms of speech and assembly. The Viet Tan reaches a wide audience, both inside Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. For its skilled high-tech advocacy, the Hanoi’s feared Ministry of Public Security brands Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.

Binh, Hoa and Dieu were amongst a group of 17 political prisoners who have been represented by Stanford law professor Allen Weiner, a former high-powered U.S. State Department official. Weiner won a United Nations panel determination that his clients – all either Viet Tan members, supporters or friends – had been unjustly imprisoned. While 14 of Weiner’s clients have been released, that’s unfortunately not quite a happy ending. “Some of those who have been released, however, continue to suffer severe harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Vietnamese security services,” Weiner reports. “They continue to pay a heavy price.”

That’s the sort of glaring injustice that no credible analyst of today’s Vietnam would want to downplay. Meet CSIS Asia analyst Murray Hiebert (pic  above)- a man who doesn’t deny that Vietnam has human rights issues, yet is careful never to use clear language that would anger senior Vietnamese officials.

Nine months ago, I brought Allen Weiner’s brave clients to Hiebert’s attention, asking if perhaps this would be an opportunity to highlight the injustice by holding a public forum. The CSIS analyst brushed off the inquiry – at the time I had not realized that CSIS has never held such an event. He also declined to say whether he agreed with Hanoi’s characterization of the Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.

(The White House and State Department are better informed than CSIS. Not only do they respect the Viet Tan for its peaceable advocacy, but Obama’s national security officials have maintained close ties with the Viet Tan leadership. Radio Free Asia reported that on May 17 representatives of the Viet Tan, along with other respected Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates including Boat People SOS and Vietnam for Progress, were briefed on Obama’s upcoming Vietnam trip in the White House on May 17.)

A few weeks ago, Hiebert once again did not respond to a request to be interviewed on the imprisoned Viet Tan supporters. I then tried to register for a May 17 press briefing that Hiebert and two other CSIS scholars held on the Obama visit. I had hoped to ask about Binh, Hoa and Dieu. But CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz – who also had not responded to a recent e-mail inquiry – denied me admission, asserting that the event was “oversubscribed.”

While the briefing room was indeed rather crowded, even full, according to people who were present, Schwartz found room for Vietnam Television. VTV is a Hanoi-controlled media tool that the Communist Party finds useful for spreading the party line. These days, VTV’s best “scoop” has been in warning Vietnamese independent journalists – and specifically the Viet Tan – to stay away from linking corrupt communist officials to a Taiwanese steel mill that somehow obtained environmental clearance to discharge toxic wastes into the sea, which has resulted in a massive fish kill.

(At the May 17 CSIS briefing, a Television Vietnam correspondent asked if the next American president would continue Obama’s “pivot” to Asia – which at least drew laughter. It is perhaps also worth noting that while “journalists” from Vietnam Television are welcome to peddle their propaganda in the United States, authorities in Hanoi continue to jam Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service. And while the BBC is free to broadcast its English-language programs in Vietnam, the BBC’s celebrated Vietnamese Language Service frequently has run into problems.)

As it turns out, CSIS has a history of making life uncomfortable for guests at the think tank’s public events who might pose awkward questions. On May 24, 2015, former political prisoner Ha Vu angered the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, by asking how Vietnam justified persecuting its political prisoners. Vinh, visibly upset, retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners – which was pretty rich, considering that at that moment, the ambassador was busy trying to avoid making eye contact with one of Vietnam’s most famous political prisoners.

Moreover, CSIS analyst Hiebert, who chaired the panel, did not challenge the ambassador’s absurd claim. (The CSIS event discussed a study on U.S.-Vietnamese relations that Hiebert had co-authored; that study had not disclosed that the Vietnamese government had secretly financed it, Hiebert subsequently admitted to me.)

And last July, Hiebert went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Vietnamese security officials when Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong spoke at CSIS. Hiebert summoned a guard, escorting Dr. Binh Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American physician, from the premises. Hiebert apologized to Binh, who had been invited, but said that the communist security officials insisted that she be ejected (for details see: How Hanoi Buys Influence in Washington, D.C., www.rushfordreport.com).

Turns out that there are other reasons to doubt Hiebert’s independence. While his official CSIS bio does not disclose it, Hiebert is also a senior advisor to a prominent business consultancy, the Bower Group Asia.

Conflicted interests

Hiebert’s boss at CSIS, Ernie Bower, runs the Bower Group Asia. “Our clients include the world’s best global enterprises,” the BGA website proclaims. “We understand the nexus between politics and economics.” Bower has more than 60 employees in his Washington, D.C. headquarters and in 21 Asian countries (including Vietnam). Another CSIS analyst, Chris Johnson, is a BGA managing director for China. Like Hiebert, Johnson does not disclose his business affiliations on his CSIS website.

Bower, who formerly chaired the CSIS Southeast Studies chair, responded angrily last year when I asked him which was his real day job: CSIS or his business consultancy. He said he was “saddened” that I had suggested he appeared to have conflicts of interest. But perhaps aware that others might also wonder, Bower now identifies himself on the CSIS website as a “non-resident” advisor. The chair remains vacant. CSIS spokesman Schwartz and John Hamre, the think tank’s CEO and one of Washington’s most acclaimed fundraisers, have not responded to persistent inquiries to explain the apparent conflicts.

Here’s how the conflict works:

At CSIS Hiebert has advocated the TPP trade deal. The Bower Group is actively seeking TPP business.

Hiebert has strongly contended that the U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness, and should be lifted. Lockheed, which wants to sell Hanoi its P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules surveillance planes, has a seat on Hiebert’s CSIS board. So does Boeing, which has been peddling its P-8 Poseidon military surveillance aircraft in Hanoi. Imagine how the giant defense contractors would feel if the money they dole out to CSIS would be used to shine a spotlight on issues involving corruption and human-rights abuses in Vietnam.

Coca-Cola, a Bower Group client, got into Laos a few years ago, thanks to Ernie Bower’s understanding of “the nexus” between business and politics. Coke also has a seat on the CSIS Southeast Asia Board.

Chevron, another major CSIS benefactor, also has a representative on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Hiebert authored a November 2014 column for the Wall Street Journal defending Chevron in bitter litigation the oil giant had in Indonesia. In his column, Hiebert identified himself only as a CSIS analyst. Then Ernie Bower got busy on the Bower Group’s Facebook page, touting the Journal piece: “BGA’s Murray Hiebert provides much-needed analysis of the court case against Chevron in Indonesia” in the Wall Street Journal. [Full disclosure: I have been an occasional contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition for more than two decades.]

In recent months, Hiebert has been quoted widely by major news outlets including CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, Forbes, Politico, the Financial Times, the Washington Times, and the Voice of America – always only identified as a CSIS analyst. Readers would not know that Hiebert also works for a business consultancy. They would not know that corporations that fund Hiebert’s CSIS programs have serious financial interests at stake.

One wire-service report that quoted Hiebert about Vietnam’s new top leadership was picked up by the New York Times in April. This gave Ernie Bower another opportunity to twitter to his clients about how “BGA Senior Advisor Murray Hiebert” had made the pages of the Times.

And earlier today, CNN quoted Hiebert’s approving views of enhanced U.S. weapons sales to Vietnam, identifying him only as a CSIS scholar. Viewers were not aware that this “scholar” is funded at CSIS by major U.S. defense contractors, and has taken money from the Vietnamese government for co-authoring a study that called for the lifting of the U.S. weapons embargo to that country. Nor would viewers know that Hiebert also works for the Bower Group, which also touts its interest in facilitating arms deals.

A little digging illustrates how Bower mixes his CSIS affiliations with business. In 2014, for example, Bower opened some important doors in Washington to a Manila wheeler-dealer named Antonio “Tony Boy” Cojuangco. Tony Boy also sits on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Bower brought him to town as the head of an “eminent persons” group – such flattery can go a long way in certain Asian circles.

CSIS arranged appointments for the Filipino eminences in the White House, the Export-Import Bank, on Capitol Hill and of course at CSIS headquarters, where they had a scheduled appointment with the think tank’s president, John Hamre. That was during the day. That night, the Bower Group hosted a lavish dinner for Tony Boy and his associates at the posh Jefferson Hotel. Bower, Hiebert, Chris Johnson, and other CSIS/Bower Group operatives were present. To judge from photos I’ve seen, it was a good night all around, lubricated by bottles of Pomerol. (Hamre has not responded to repeated requests to comment. On the CSIS website, the CSIS head asserts that some unnamed journalists who have questioned CSIS ethical practices have ignored evidence to the contrary that he has provided.)

Agents of Influence

Speaking of influence peddling, if one looks closely, the Washington lobbyists on that $30,000-a-month retainer from Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh unwittingly illustrate how the official spin surrounding the Obama visit to Vietnam doesn’t tell the whole story.

The most recent foreign agent’s disclosure form that the Podesta Group has filed with the U.S. Department of Justice lists some of what the firm did to earn its $180,000 for the last six months of 2015. One is left wondering exactly what the lobbyists did to earn their keep.

The lobbyists disclosed only seven meetings, mostly with congressional aides. The only elected representative who met with Podesta representatives was Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year.

Rep. Salmon had already met with Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh earlier in the year and had been to Vietnam in May. The congressman already had supported an enhanced U.S.-Vietnam trade relationship.

Do the math: $180,000 for seven meetings. That’s about $25,000 a meeting, throwing in about 50 e-mails and five phone calls that the Podesta lobbying form mentions. David Adams, the Podesta lobbyist who has been working to facilitate the Obama visit to Vietnam this week, is a former close aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Asked what he had really done to each the money, Adams declined to comment.

This week, when the television screens show images of happy Vietnamese peasants with their conical hats, toiling in their rice paddies, think of David Adams. The average Vietnamese citizen would have to work 13 years to earn enough money to pay for just one $25,000 Podesta Group meeting with congressional aides.

From the days of French colonialism to the present Communist kleptocracy, the Vietnamese central government has always stolen from its poorest people.

Ambassador Vinh’s lobbyist Adams proudly styles himself as a part-time “gentleman farmer” in Virginia’s wine country. Wonder what those Vietnamese peasants would say, if they knew that their stooped labor is helping subsidize such a lifestyle?

Innovation, high performance and diversity


February 23, 2016

Innovation, high performance and diversity :Putting the puzzle pieces together

by Juliet Bourke*

*Ms. Bourke is a Partner in Human Capital at Deloitte. She brings over 20 years’ experience in human capital, management, and law to her work and is an internationally recognised author and speaker on the workplace, cultural change, leadership, and diversity. Ms. Bourke has received a number of awards for her leadership, is a member of Deloitte Australia’s Diversity Council, sits on the Australian School of Business’ HR Advisory Board, and has been listed in the Who’s Who of Australian Women since 2007. Juliet holds Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Laws, and Master of Laws degrees. You can follow her @JulietBourke.

 

Juliet Bourke previews insights from her new book “Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions.”

The discovery of DNA, the breaking of the German Enigma Code, the development of the Black-Scholes Options Pricing and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Seemingly disparate moments in science, war and economics – but there’s a unifying theme.

The DNA scientists came from the diverse disciplines of chemistry, biology and physics. The Enigma Code breakers comprised linguists, mathematicians and scientists. The Black-Scholes model blended economics, mathematics and heat transfer physics. Darwin, a geologist, relied heavily on Gould, an ornithologist, to understand the significance of the birds he had collected from the Galapagos Islands.

These all exemplify the insight Frans Johansson explored in his best- selling book, The Medici Effect: Breakthrough insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures. Each of these innovations sits at one, or more, of Johansson’s intersections and created a step change in our modern world. Applying the picture puzzle metaphor to Johansson’s insights,  diversity and team performance, the picture’s central image emerges. But the boundaries and background need to be filled in.

We can complete the picture if we can incorporate more of what we now know about the effects of gender and racial diversity on team dynamics, and the value of integrating individual’s different thinking models.

And if we can see the diversity picture more clearly, we can more confidently answer leadership questions such as: What mix of people enhances the performance of boards and executive teams, once capability has been established?

Smart teams: What makes them smart?

Consider this: In one corner, a small team easily completes a set of simple cognitive tasks set by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tasks involve “visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective judgements and negotiating over limited resources”. As soon as the simple tasks are completed the teams move onto solving other more complex tasks. In another corner, a different small team is still struggling with the same simple cognitive tasks. The researchers repeatedly saw this scenario confirmed during their observations of 699 people working in groups of two to five people.

What differentiated the groups? Why was one group ‘smarter’ than another? It wasn’t so much the individual intelligence of each of the group members, although that was important. Professor Woolley and her colleagues found that the smarter teams possessed collective intelligence, and it could be predicted by three factors.  The first factor was, the degree to which team members were socially sensitive, i.e their ability to read social cues such as when someone was perplexed.  The second factor was the degree to which the group practiced speaking in turns or was dominated by a few loud voices. Lastly the third factor was whether the group included women. The inclusion of women was important not because the women were extra smart, or had access to gender specific knowledge, but because women scored slightly better on the social sensitivity test.

This is an intriguing result, and one which helps to complete the picture by putting into place another of the diversity puzzle pieces.

Gender diversity makes a difference to team performance, but not simply because it ensures a team is accessing a broad pool of talent. Woolley’s research alludes to a more subtle value: gender diversity helps improves team dynamics.  This conclusion is supported by the work of other academics.

London Business School Professor Gratton and her colleagues found that feelings of psychological safety and experimentation were optimal in a group with 50:50 gender ratios. They found that the self-confidence of team members was optimal when the gender ratio was 60% women to 40% men. University of Illinois Professor Fairburn found that small groups of men and women were 9% more likely to transfer smiles between each other than all male groups. This is significant because mutual smiling promotes feelings of social bonding. And quite obviously, positive feelings of social connectedness are conducive to people sharing information, which in turn enables more thoughtful decision making.

Racial diversity: another piece of the puzzle

In small clusters of six, stock market traders in Singapore and Texas are deciding whether to buy or sell shares. Their task is to “calculate accurate prices for simulated stocks”  over ten trading periods that each last two minutes. After 2,022 market transactions, Columbia University Professor Levine and his colleagues  observed that some of the clusters only made a few pricing errors and traded accurately about 65% of the time. However, other clusters regularly overpriced, created pricing bubbles and traded accurately only 40% of the time.

What was the difference between the clusters of traders? Once again there’s a diversity connection: the successful Singaporean and Texan traders featured multi-ethnic/racial groups, not homogenous ones. With this the researchers concluded that visible racial diversity triggered stimulated uncertainty, bringing “cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation”.

With this yet another part of the puzzle falls into place, this one relating to racial diversity.

Other researchers support this connection between racial diversity and behaviours such as curiosity and listening. Conversely, those studies also show that visible similarity stimulates feelings of comfort, confidence and assumptions of like-mindedness. Feelings which lead to faster, but ultimately sub-optimal, decision making.

Mental Models

Our own leadership and diversity research reveals a final puzzle piece: Namely individuals tend to over-emphasise one or two ways of solving problems, and to under-weight other relevant approaches. More disturbingly, we found that collectively 75% of senior leaders tend to spend much more time defining the outcomes they want to achieve and debating options (classified as the two dimensions of “outcomes” and “options”), and comparatively less time discussing risks, the implications for staff and customers, the process of implementation, and the evidence to justify and measure a solution (classified as the four dimensions of “risk”, “people”, “process” and “evidence”). Why? Because as individuals they were more likely to think that those two approaches were more important than the other four. And when the group was dominated by leaders with that bias, they formed a voting block which quietened the voices of leaders who approached problem solving in a different way.

Why does it matter? University of Michigan Professors Hong and Page calculated a 30% error rate when problems are solved via the application of one dominant approach – and conversely a 100% accuracy rate when five different approaches are applied.  This is not to suggest that collecting a widely diverse set of approaches is optimal; there is a ceiling. Too many approaches and a group will lose productivity as they spend time understanding another team member’s point of view.  Indeed, Hong and Page calculated that when nine approaches are considered, value starts to erode and the accuracy rating drops to 90%. In sum, Hong and Page defined the optimal number of problem solving approaches as between five and eight.

Our research confirms that of Hong and Page. When we have worked with leadership teams to deliberately attend to six more balanced approaches to problem solving (outcomes, options, people, process, risk and evidence), groups report that by reducing blind spots they were able to develop more robust solutions. Moreover, followers report greater faith in the ultimate solution.

The final word

So where do these puzzle pieces leave us in relation to the bigger picture? Johansson had already given us clarity about the importance of disciplined diversity to team performance. A central image. With these other studies we can lock in more of the indistinct background of racial and gender diversity, and even some of the smaller pieces about individual mental models. Together they form an interesting and realistic picture of how diverse teams deliver superior performance. A picture that is more nuanced than much of what is said about the nature of diversity and the inter-relationship between various elements.

Armed with this knowledge, diversity is no longer a puzzle. It is something leaders can pursue with great clarity, assurance and vigour. And with that, the likelihood that boards and executives will make smart and innovative decisions more consistently. Of course there’s more to be said about how inclusive leaders lead diverse groups to maximise their potential, but getting the who right is foundational.

Juliet Bourke is the author of “Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions” forthcoming February 2016 (Australian Institute of Company Directors).

Footnotes:

[1] Johansson, F., (2004) The Medici Effect: Breakthrough insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

[2] Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., and Malone, T, W., (2010) Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the  performance of human groups, Science, Vol 330, pp. 686-688.

[3] Gratton, L., Kelan, E., Voigt, A., and Wolfram H.J., (2007) Innovative potential: Men and women in teams The Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business, London Business School. 

[4] Levine, S. S., and Stark, D., (2015) Diversity makes you brighter. Op Ed. New York Times, December 9.

[5] Levine, S. S., Apfelbaum, E. P., Bernard, M., Bartelt, V. L., Zajac, E. J. and Stark, D., (2014) Ethnic diversity deflates price bubbles PNAS Early edition, http://www.pnas.org/content/111/52/18524 retrieved 19 November 2014.

[6] Hong, L, Page, S. E., and Riolo, M., (2012) Incentives, Information and Emergent Collective Accuracy, Managerial and Decision Economics, Vol 33, pp. 323-332.

[7] Bourke, J., and Dillon, B., (2015) Fast forward: Leading in a Brave New World of Diversity (Customers, Ideas and Talent) Future Inc, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.

http://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/human-capital/articles/creating-high-performing-leadership-teams.html

State Dept Accused of Watering Down Human Rights Ratings


August 14, 2015

by Common Dreams

US State Department 2014 Human Trafficking Report

State Dept Accused of Watering Down Human Rights Ratings to Advance Obama Trade Agenda

Reuters investigation shows American diplomats played politics with annual human trafficking report

by Lauren McCauley, staff writer

The U.S. State Department is being accused of playing politics with human rights after a damning new Reuters investigation published late Monday revealed that high level officials watered down the opinions of rights experts hired to evaluate nations’ human trafficking records seemingly to advance a number of the Obama administration’s key agenda items.

Exposing a “degree of intervention not previously known,” according to the investigation, there were 14 instances where senior American diplomats overruled the analyst opinions to inflate the record of “strategically important countries” for this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report, released last week.

John Kerry -HT

Among those cases, Malaysia had its status upgraded from the lowest level “Tier 3” to the “Tier 2 Watchlist,” which is one rung down from “Tier 2,” despite analysts finding no improvement in the country’s trafficking record. Rights observers charge that this was a deliberate move to pave the way for the passage of the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

In June, Congress passed a provision barring the U.S. from entering into trade agreements with “Tier 3” countries. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez (D), who had spearheaded that effort, issued a statement after the investigation was published, saying: “If true, the Reuters report further confirms what I, along with the human-rights community, have feared all along: The State Department’s trafficking report has been blatantly and intentionally politicized.”

Reuters reports:

Congressional sources and current and former State Department officials said experts in the [Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, or J/TIP] had recommended keeping Malaysia on Tier 3, highlighting a drop in human-trafficking convictions in the country to three last year from nine in 2013. They said, according to the sources, that some of Malaysia’s efforts to end forced labor amounted to promises rather than action.

The country has been cited for having a robust sex slavery industry as well as forced labor camps.Though the news of Malaysia’s pending status change first broke last month, human rights groups reiterated their discontent.

“The vultures circled,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division for Human Rights Watch, told Huffington Post. “What you are seeing is significant damage to the credibility of that report because of these political games played back in Washington.”

Other countries where the State Department issued such “inflated recommendations,” according to human rights analysts, included: China, India, Cuba, Mexico, and Uzbekistan.

Reuters notes that “while a Tier 3 ranking can trigger sanctions limiting access to aid…such action is frequently waived.” However, the real power of the trafficking report “is its ability to embarrass countries into action.”

Lawmakers, including Menendez, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are convening to review the State Department report.