Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sending more troops to Afghanistan unlikely to work.

Never mind that a British general back in October said that the Afghanistan war is not winnable (Brig. General Mark Careleton-Smith) and that the Taliban could be part of the country's long term solution (source here).   And never mind that the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper recently spoke to CNN and also stated that we aren't going to win the war simply by being there.  Never mind that the U.S alone currently has 142,000 soldiers in Iraq and is still not able to pacify that country.

History alone should be enough to tell us that Afghanistan just can't be turned into a democratic clone of a western state.  The Soviet Union tried for a decade, and as difficult as it was for them, it is even more difficult for the western countries now partly due to the experience that the Afghan fighters gathered (with U.S help) during the resistance to the Soviets.

As Samuel P. Huntington observed in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World order, Afghanistan was seen by the West as a victory for the free world, but for the Islamic world, it was a victory for Islam.  

The Islamic world successfully stood up to the Atheist Soviet Union and drove their forces out of Afghanistan.  Now, they are experienced at this and aren't ready to allow western Christian nations to "liberate" Afghanistan.

I'm sorry if I sound disloyal.  I'm not.  I support the idea of what Canadian forces are trying to do in Afghanistan, and much of what we are doing is actually really good for the local people.  But, that is beside the point.   Many  of the local people are seeing what we are doing as a threat to their Independence.  

In my view, we should be getting all of the parties at the table and try to get a peace agreement in place.  At the same time, we should begin pulling out.  Hopefully the rivalling groups can unite under a single leadership, and that is a question of concern, but the war is not going to be won.  

No amount of U.S soldiers will ever be enough and the more soldiers on the ground will just turn more and more of the locals off of the NATO forces and create more bitterness.

Barack Obama wants to increase the U.S presence in Afghanistan, while removing U.S presence from Iraq.  I think it's the wrong thing to do in the long run, though to pull out of the country safely, we'd probably need to increase the numbers in order to allow that to happen.

Obama is, whether we like it or not, forced to make some concessions to the military industrial complex.  I'm sure he knows what's happening in Afghanistan, but he can only fight so many battles at one time.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Could North Korean rhetoric be more than just threats?

While it's not unusual for North Korea to threaten it's neighbours, the talk issued from Pyongyang on Monday was harsh even for their standards. Not only did they state that any effort to prevent North Korea from launching a satellite into space (widely believed to be a cover for a nuclear test), but they threatened to shoot down South Korean passenger aircraft that approaches the demilitarized zone.

Yesterday, according to this article in the Globe and Mail , North Korea is vowing to take "every necessary measure" to protect itself against what it perceives as a U.S threat. Every year the United States and South Korea participate in military exercises that they claim are simply defensive in nature, but the North states are planning for an invasion of their Communist state.

What is really dangerous during this is that Pyongyang cut off all communications with Seoul. Every once in a while there are accidental firings across the border, usually not aimed at anyone in particular, but each one has the potential to escalate even in normal times. For it's part, South Korea has a standing policy to return every shot received with an equal response.

During the war games, even an accidental shot fired across the worlds most heavily armed border could spell absolute disaster. That is if the North doesn't decide to take the initiative and launch an attack on purpose.

Having lived in South Korea for several years, I realize that most people don't even expect that the possibility of conflict could happen, but I think that the perspective of the people in South Korea is very far from the perspective of the North Korean government.

South Korea is a prosperous, developed and peaceful country that has built itself up out of the ashes of Japanese occupation and a brutal internal war to become one of the world's largest economies in just a matter of decades. The North hasn't left the bunker mentality that they had since the war ended. They have not enjoyed the economic prosperity of the South; on the contrary. As the South grew, the North languished, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their mentality must be affected by the mass starvation and utter reliance upon foreign oil given in exchange for talks.

With South Korea holding back it's oil gifts until Pyongyang disables its nuclear program, the North might be thinking that this is its last chance to fight. A country that can't feed it's people, can't sustain it's rustbelt industries, and can't get access to oil cannot be much of a threat for long. I hope that they don't do anything stupid, but they might be seeing this as their last, best chance.

From a number of South Korean and U.S military people with whom I've spoken, I gather that they very much expect that the South's lines would be overrun very quickly. That is until Northern forces were to reach the perimeter of Seoul when the North would begin to weaken. They could get off a good deal of explosives, but South Korean counter strikes could eliminate the North's ability to launch missiles and aircraft very quickly. Though the South has a much smaller military force, it's military is well equipped, modern and has fuel. The North's force simply could not endure a sustained conflict.

Perhaps they (North Korea) are thinking that the U.S is too busy in other places to respond, or that Barack Obama is a pacifist who wouldn't want to sacrifice lives in order to defend South Korea. On the contrary. Defence of South Korea is a top priority for the U.S and any administration which failed to honour it's commitment would risk alienating many U.S allies and much of the U.S public. It would be along the lines of the U.S failing to defend a NATO member.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Biological governance

Interested now in the concept of biologically based governance.  This stems from the ideas of Dee Hock (of Visa) who coined the term "chaordic" when talking of visa as having the maximum chaotic behaviour with the minimum of order needed to produce stability.  The idea is that nature is very chaotic, yet also has a certain level of order and left to itself is stable.  Without any order, there would be no stability, though with too much order, there would be nothing but creativeness, no diversity, no free thinking, no freedom, and non-sustainability in the long run.

Companies that are too hierarchical destroy human dignitity and create unhealthy governance structures while a pure anarchy would have trouble getting anything done.  The goal in building "organizations based on bilogical precepts, not mechanical concepts" is to create something with "infinite durability, malleability, and diversity" (Hock).  

Here is a link to the text of a presentation that I gave on this matter.  A bit complex and abstract, but interesting:

Below is the slide show presentation that went with the text:  

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Abhisit to U.S: Back off, or else...

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told a visiting U.S business declaration that if the U.S takes action on Thailand for what the U.S believes is Thailand's failure to protect intellectual property, there will be consequences.

He stated that the government pays close attention to WTO regulations and is in compliance.  The relevant section in WTO regulations deals with Compulsory Licences (CL).  CL allows for developing countries to bypass patents on prescription medication in order to purchase them from a generic manufacturer at a much lower price.  

As I mentioned earlier, Thailand has previously issued CLs for several HIV medications, and a cancer medication that it deems to costly to purchase at the regular price.  Thailand has also sought to negotiate lower prices from the intellectual property holding companies themselves.  According to Dr. Monkhol Na Songkla, in the interview I posted below, these companies were not even willing to negotiate until Thailand began issuing CLs.  

According to this article in the Bangkok Post, Prime Minister Abhisit stated that 
"I have sent a clear signal," Mr Abhisit said. "If the US decides that the situation has worsened, I think it will produce a negative impact."There will be pressure from our society to expand CL if they treat us that way."

From some research conducted by the World Bank, it's possible to get an idea of how much Thailand will be spending on the HIV medications within the next 25 years.  The numbers are very high, and for Thailand's anti-retroviral therapy for people living with HIV/AIDS to be sustainable, they need to find cheaper sources of medication.  

U.S diplomatic style is to push and push until you get what you want.  Unfortunately for  the U.S, they do not have the record of subtle coercion that made both Rome and Britain great.  Partly because the U.S often comes across as ignorant of local issues and unable to really act outside of a narrowly defined "war on terror".  

The U.S is risking it's position in South East Asia by not engaging with the most important local issues, and also by using strong tactics on a matter that could be seen as one with a humanitarian leaning.  

My solution for the U.S?  Enroll diplomats in a Chinese university or offer the Chinese government a contract to train them.  China's influence and soft power is record enough.  

Monday, March 2, 2009

"Let them live a little bit longer...let them die with some dignity"

I've been attempting to do some HIV research over the past few months and every so often I dig up something which might be of interest to my reader(s).   Dr. Monkhol Na Songkla, of whom I've written before was interviewed in 2007 regarding his government's (the interim government appointed after the 2006 coup) decision to issue mandatory licenses for a few prescription medications.  I thought I'd include some parts of this interview, conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of the Asia Society:

Mongkol Na Songkhla is the Minister of Public Health in Thailand. He has served in the Ministry of Public Health since his appointment on October 9, 2006. Dr. Mongkol Na Songkhla spoke with Asia Society's Nermeen Shaikh during a visit to New York where he joined a press conference with President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation to announce a global pooled procurement of anti-retroviral drugs.

Thailand has been at the center of a controversy over affordable access to medication because of its recent decision to pursue generic versions of patented pharmaceuticals. As a member of the World Trade Organization, Thailand is obligated to abide by the rules and regulations in the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). TRIPS sets a minimum international standard for forms of intellectual property such as patent pharmaceuticals. Compulsory licensing is a flexibility of TRIPS that permits all member countries to manufacture generic alternatives of patented pharmaceuticals to increase accessibility to affordable medicine. Thailand's universal healthcare system is one of the country's strengths, but the country lacks affordable access to high priced antiretroviral HIV treatment and medications for priority health conditions such as cancer, hypertension, and heart disease. Dr. Mongkol Na Songkhla defends his government's contentious policy and talks about the critical issues that plague Thailand's healthcare system.

Thank you very much, Your Excellency, for your time. I'd like to begin by asking you what the key issues are that you have confronted as you have assumed the leadership of the Ministry of Health. There are issues having to do with access to medicine, to clean water, and of course the spread of HIV/AIDS. Right now you just spoke about an aging population as well. What would you say are the highest priorities?

The highest priority right now is to respond to the top causes of death in the Thai population. The first one is HIV, the second one is cardiovascular disease, the third one is cancer, the fourth one is accidents, and the fifth one is chronic diseases associated with aging.

Moving to one of the initiatives that you have been responsible for, could you just explain for our audience, many of whom will not be familiar with this, what the importance of compulsory licensing is? First of all, what does it mean, and second of all, why is it relevant in terms of access to medicine for people in countries like Thailand?

Access to essential drugs is not possible for all people. There are problems with the national health insurance plan. We provide health services free of charge for the Thai people. There are three main schemes to achieve this. First, about 48 million people are under the Social Welfare scheme, and the budget is provided by the central government. Another five million are part of the Civil Servant Medical Benefit Scheme. The last group is the Social Security scheme, which includes nine million private and temporary public employees. In these three schemes, the budgets come mostly from the central government and are paid to private or public hospitals. However, in spite of increases in the budget, it is not enough to cope with the rapid increase in demand. For high-priced patented drugs, the central government cannot shoulder the costs, especially for some second line HIV drugs, cancer drugs, chronic disease medications, or even hemodialysis-they cannot shoulder it.

So you can see that even though we try to provide health services free of charge for people, it's actually not for everyone because the budget is not enough. Some people can use health services with payment from their own pocket. It is possible for rich people; they have access. But more than 80 per cent cannot access necessary drugs such as carcinoma drugs and second line HIV drugs. We know that the patent holder invests a lot for each medicine but actually the percentage who can access patented drugs is only 20 or 25 per cent. These are the groups of people who are paying for the research and development costs. The rest of the people who have no access do not contribute at all to the research and development cost, as they cannot pay for the patented drugs. How can we take care of the other 80 per cent of the people who are left behind? So we decided to try to find the generic alternative to serve these neglected people. Actually, we never disturbed the current consumer of patented drugs - those 20 per cent of people who can afford to pay out of pocket to get access to these drugs. They will never change, they will never switch from the original drug to a generic drug. These are well-off people who receive their services from the private sector and pay out of pocket, and also civil servants whom the government pays for their high price patented drugs, as well as about two million foreign patients a year.

But we only want to share the patent. We are very willing to buy the original drug for neglected people from patent holders if they want to compete with the generic drug in this new market for 80 per cent of Thais-paid by the government budget not out of pocket. We tried to negotiate with them officially for more than two years and unofficially for more than four years. But it's never a success.

Why is it not successful? What are the main problems?

Patent holders did not want to negotiate when we tried to find out their thoughts about making their drugs accessible to more people. They haven't agreed to talk. We have the paper to confirm that the negotiations fail every time. For the last two years they set up a subcommittee to negotiate officially and before that unofficially. Even officially during the last two years, the report back to the Ministry has shown failure because no company or patent holder wants to talk about lowering the price or sharing drugs with poor people. When they saw the report and after discussions with lawyers, many groups were concerned. So we decided to announce our intention to implement compulsory licensing on a few patented drugs. We made the first announcement for one first line anti-retroviral drug Efavirenz, and the second announcement for Lopinavir/Ritonavir (Kaletra), then the third one for an anti-platelet drug, Clopidogrel (Plavix). But actually right now after the announcement only one item was put into practice, Efavirenz. Negotiations are now going on: two years before they never wanted to sit down to talk with us and right now they are coming to sit and talk. But one of the companies requested that we abolish the compulsory licensing announcement before negotiations. We cannot go back on our announcement. An announcement is an announcement. Our announcement was not put into practice; it was made to allow for negotiations. The announcement will be put into action if and when the negotiations fail, and we need to buy the drugs.

Do you think that governments either in the North or in the South can play any role in persuading pharmaceutical companies to permit licensing under particular conditions? In other words, what role do you see for governments to play?

I think that we already have that under international law, namely the regulation under TRIPS flexibility. All member countries should try to strongly support every country to use the TRIPS flexibility in cases of necessity, in only some cases, even though there are so many patented drugs. There are very few items that need and can be implemented under compulsory licensing. Not more than that. Given the costs, we just really try to allow our low-income people to live a little bit longer and I think that no one wants to do compulsory licensing for a cosmetic drug or something like that. It's only for life saving drugs.

What has Thailand's experience been?

In Thailand, I do not think that we have enough people who can conduct comprehensive drug research. With malaria drugs they tried to do research for many years and the same with Dengue Hemorrhagic fever, but they only achieved some progress. They have to collaborate in research with other countries. We do not have enough scientists and budget for research and development.

So the last question Your Excellency: as my colleague Betsy mentioned, one of Thailand's leading HIV advocates and former Public Health Minister Mechai Viravaidya has just been appointed to design a new federal HIV prevention plan that will target the country's youth. Could you comment on the significance of this?

It is significant because he has so many tactics to tackle HIV/AIDS. He especially knows the nature of young people. I don't think that anyone knows a better way of dealing with young people than Senator Mechai. After his appointment he launched a condom for children. So many people were excited, but also criticized him for children condoms. Actually, children condoms are not really put into use, but I know he wants to educate the young people from the beginning.

From what age?

Six or seven. In kindergarten, everyone knows about condoms and the benefits of condoms. Children can become acquainted with prevention, which is very helpful for their life in the future.

That's extremely impressive at such a young age. Are there any countries that have started sex education at that age?

Not yet. You see that Senator Mechai Viravaidya has a lot of tactics! I am so glad that he accepted our invitation.

Is there anything else you would like to add before we close?

I would like to ask the rich countries from the North to cooperate with countries in the South-to take care of poor people. Let them live a little bit longer, save their lives, and let them die with some dignity. Don't let them die without any treatment. Especially in Thailand, there are so many cases of cancer when patients have to die without any medicine because the hospital refuses to treat them with very high priced patented drugs. For some chronic leukemia, a tablet per day costs 4,000 Thai Baht, and you can multiply it by 365 to get the figure for a year [$US 120 per day or $US 44,000 per year].

Some of them have to turn to herbal medicine that has no proven effectiveness. There are no studies, just only believing or faith that it can help. Finally they die without any modern medicine. There are so many cases like this. I used to work in the rural areas, and I saw so many cases. I just ask for kindness from rich countries to pay some attention to granting humanity to poor people. That's all.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

What do Thailand and Visa have in common?

I've been reading some material regarding corporate governance (which has some connection to public administration).  One of the case studies was on Visa International and how it developed into something almost like a cooperative.  

The writer stated that Visa operates as a "chaord" meaning the maximum level of chaos and the minimum level of order to achieve stability.

In many ways, that is exactly what Thailand is.  Even when the airports and government offices were seized last year and no one knew who, if anyone was in charge, the country kept functioning.  The civil service kept going to work, even though they didn't really have ministers in charge of their departments, and the wheels kept turning.  

In so many other ways the image of Thailand as chaordic really fits.  The roads are wild, but most people get to their destination at some point.  The police take bribes, but crime is usually kept under control with serious offenders arrested eventually, and the education system seems to work, even though it appers to lack coordination.