Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

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A Lost Boy Grows Up, by Kevin Sack, the New York Times Magazine

Jacob Mach, one of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" granted refugee status in 2001, is learning the hard truth about social mobility in America.

It did not take long for Jacob to realize that the streets were not, in fact, paved with gold. "All I knew was that America was the greatest thing in the world," he recalled. "Nobody knew how people struggle in America."

This new life would require new thinking. There was no such thing as ambition back in the village, where each generation of boys tended their families' cattle and crops just as the last did. But in Georgia, Jacob felt he had little choice but to buy fully into the American dream. Traversing Atlanta's sprawl by bus and train and foot, he worked the evening shift at a Publix, unpacking produce, and then the night shift at a Hilton, stocking minibars, at $7.50 an hour. He often found no more than four hours for sleep and snatched naps when he could. Once, regrettably, it was while he was stopped at a red light behind a bus, and his foot slipped off the brake.

God delivered him through all of this, Jacob believed. And while he often questioned why he had been chosen for such testing, he now had a degree of confidence that God would reward his faith by steadying his quivering trigger finger. In Philippians 4:13, it says that all things were possible through Christ, and so between rounds, he bowed his head. "God, you are the powerful God that gives us strength and abilities," he prayed in the clipped, formal English he learned in the camps. "I am going to do this in your name." 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Passion of Dan Choi, by Gabriel Arana, American Prospect

He was the poster boy for the movement to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Now what?

With the plastic animal balanced on his head, Dan grabs the microphone from the corner and holds it close. He pulls back his shoulders and raises his chin, his square jaw protruding over the mic, gaze locked in as if he's standing at attention. Thirty-two years old, he's not as jacked as he was during his Army days, but he's still fit-muscular shoulders and a broad chest that tapers into a narrow waist. In the lambent glow of the blank television screen, he's striking. His hair is shaved on the sides military--style, his expression grim. It's easy to see why, four years ago, Dan Choi may have been the most famous gay person in America. But then the spell breaks. "Welcome to the Delilah show!" Dan exclaims as the plastic hippo falls to the ground, and he breaks out into a parody of Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

For 21 months-between his debut on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009 and the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2010-Dan Choi was not just the best-known spokesperson for the movement to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." He was its emblem. A West Point graduate, a combat veteran, a fluent Arabic speaker, he was the kind of soldier the military should have been promoting instead of kicking out. In interviews and at press conferences, he was articulate and passionate, charming and funny.

"The issue needed a voice and a face to get the attention of the media, the military, and Washington," says Nathaniel Frank, a historian at New York University and author of Unfriendly Fire, the pre-eminent account of gays serving under "don't ask, don't tell." "Dan Choi had a good understanding of political theater, a passionate attachment to his role as an activist, and a strong sense of righteous anger that he was unwilling to let go of."


Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets, by Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone

How two alienated, angry geeks broke the story of the year.

"There are few writers out there who are as passionate about communicating uncomfortable truths," Snowden, who was one of Greenwald's longtime readers, tells me in an e-mail. "Glenn tells the truth no matter the cost, and that matters."

The same, of course, could be said of Snowden, who, from the moment he revealed himself as the source of the leaks, has baffled the mainstream critics who've tried to make sense of him. "The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, who held up Snowden as one of "an apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

To the likes of Brooks, Snowden was a disconcerting mystery; Glenn Greenwald, though, got him right away. "He had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary," Greenwald says. "He didn't even have a high school diploma. But he was going to change the world - and I knew that." And, Greenwald also believed, so would he.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

The AIDS Granny in Exile, by Kathleen McLaughlin, Buzzfeed

In the '90s, a gynecologist named Gao Yaojie exposed the horrifying cause of an AIDS epidemic in rural China - and the government's cover-up. Now 85, she lives by herself in New York.

In April 1996, Gao, then 69, was called from retirement to consult on a difficult case. A 42-year-old woman, Ms. Ba, had had ovarian surgery and was not getting better: Her stomach was bloated, she had a high fever and strange lesions on her skin. She grew sicker and her doctors were stumped. After finding no routine infection or illness, Gao demanded an AIDS test for the young mother.

Gao knew from her work that AIDS had entered Henan, the heartland Chinese province. Yet her colleagues scoffed: How could a simple farmer have AIDS? China had only a handful of confirmed cases. The government said AIDS was a disease of foreigners, spread through illicit drugs and promiscuous sex.

Gao insisted on a test. The results came back; Ms. Ba had AIDS. Her husband and children tested negative, which puzzled the doctors further. The patient was not a drug addict nor a prostitute, so Gao began to investigate. She determined the source was a government blood bank - Ms. Ba's post-surgical blood transfusion infected her with HIV. "I realized the seriousness of the problem," Gao later wrote. "If the blood in the blood bank carried the AIDS virus, then these victims would not be a small number."


Hack Tibet, by Jonathan Kaiman, Foreign Policy

Welcome to Dharamsala, ground zero in China's cyberwar.

Welcome to Dharamsala, population 20,000 and one of the most hacked places in the world. This small city in India's lush Himalayan foothills is home to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader; the Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA (formerly called the Tibetan government in exile); and a host of Tibetan media outlets and nongovernmental organizations, some of which the Chinese government classifies as terrorist groups. The Dalai Lama fled here in 1959 after communist troops violently suppressed an uprising in Lhasa, now the capital of western China's Tibetan Autonomous Region. India embraced the Dalai Lama as a token of religious diversity, and tens of thousands of refugees followed suit. About 130,000 Tibetans live in exile, according to a 2009 census; Dharamsala is the closest thing they have to a political capital.

Illustration by Josh Cochran


Peace Economics

Why Syria must rein in unemployment, food prices, and corruption to ensure a stable future.

This background paper was created in preparation for the PeaceGame, a program co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace on Dec. 9-10, 2013. For more information, please go to www.peace-game.com.

The Arab Spring rebellions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria raise a crucial question for analysts: Why did authoritarian or kleptocratic rulers lose control over their polities? For decades, these rulers were able to use a combination of repressive and redistributive policies in order to maintain social order. Why did that order break down?

While to date the answers to that question have largely focused on the rising power of internal opposition groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, alongside the power of new social media to spur political mobilization, serious economic analysis of the underpinnings of these conflicts has been in somewhat shorter supply. Yet clearly, all these rebellions have some economic themes in common, including high levels of unemployment -- especially among the bulging youth population -- reduced levels of growth, falling productivity in the agriculture sector, and real or suppressed inflation. No matter the ultimate outcome of these rebellions, regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa will need to confront the failures of their long-standing state-led and oil-fueled development model.

As a result of its ongoing civil war, Syria in particular is now faced with a dire social and economic environment. It is estimated that half of all Syrians now live in poverty, with 4.4 million in extreme poverty. Approximately 2.3 million jobs have been lost, affecting an additional 10 million dependents, and economic losses are estimated at between $60-$80 billion, or 40 percent of the country's GDP.

The current crisis has much to do with economic problems that predated the conflict -- namely, the fact that economic decisions made by the Syrian state over the past three decades reflected ineffective "social market" polices. The long-standing Baath party first ruled by President Hafez al-Assad and taken over in 2000 by his son, Bashar al-Assad, has operated mostly as a centrally planned economy, but one that operated mainly to the benefit of the minority Alawite elite. For a long while, an unwritten peace between the government and the people was kept so long as the government could engage in a sufficient level of redistribution to make the costs of rebellion higher than the benefits. However, when the economy faced shortfalls in some of crucial areas -- as it did with the 2006-2011 food shortages, when agricultural output declined -- the government could not maintain that social compact.

The Syrian government's failure to provide for the basic needs of its growing population helped spark the current revolt. In particular, increasing food and fuel prices on the one hand, coupled with rising unemployment on the other, led to an eroding sense of economic security. The Assad regime had staked its legitimacy and credibility on creating this security; its failure to do so has undermined its authority.

Post-conflict Syria will continue to face severe structural and economic challenges. The state-dominated economy will need to give way to the private sector, which has been stunted by the regime. High levels of unemployment and underemployment will need to be confronted, along with high prices for basic goods and services. In brief, Syria will require both economic transformation and economic reconstruction.

Getting to that point will involve addressing several critical issues:

Demography versus economy. Over the past few decades, the basic social contract of the Syrian state was to provide jobs and affordable food to its growing population. However, as population growth has outpaced economic growth (coupled with a drought causing unemployment and food prices to rise), this promise has not been sustainable. For instance, the rising population has been met with a reduction in social services like health care, and unemployment has risen from approximately 8 percent in 2010 to nearly 50 percent today. As a result of an enlarged public sector, educational investments have been relatively high (consistent with other oil-rich states). However, with few jobs available outside the state sector, this has created a growing problem of underemployment and resentment among the youth.

Drought and agriculture. Agricultural production and jobs have been a priority for Syrian economic and social policy. However, losses in this sector have culminated over the past decade and created a situation for economic hardship and conflict leading up to the March 2011 riots. Between 2006-2011, a five-and-a-half year drought that crippled 60 percent of agricultural land and up to 85 percent of livestock in some regions, caused food shortages and price hikes. The drought caused a wave of unemployment (an estimated 800,000 rural workers have lost their jobs in agriculture) and induced migration from rural to urban areas. Further, they caused a huge spike in food prices, and studies have linked sharp increases in food prices to civil unrest.

Compounding the situation, conflict has disrupted agriculture production in essential food items, such as wheat, barley, and vegetable produce, by 50 percent. However the drought in Syria was not random; scientists believe that climate change is largely responsible and a new reality for the region, as it's estimated that rain-fed crops will decline up to 57 percent by 2050.

Oil. With oil rents comprising of roughly 20 percent of GDP over the past decade, oil revenues have provided the funds for an enlarged government presence, crowding out private sector activities. The oil industry has nearly collapsed since 2011 -- production has fallen by 5 percent -- and the economy as a whole is expected to become a net importer of oil, perhaps as early as 2015. The recent decline is due to the seizure of oil wells by rebel groups, heightened transportation costs, and international sanctions banning trade. Moreover, EU and U.S. sanctions against oil exports are estimated to cost $400 million in losses each month.

Corruption. Since 2003, corruption in Syria is estimated to have grown significantly, as measured by the Corruptions Perceptions Index, rising from 49 to 81 on a scale of 100. Regime insiders, such as Assad family members and close friends, have benefited from the government's central control over the Syrian economy and judicial system, thanks in part to the awarding non-competitive contracts. For example, one businessman has had control over the telecommunications industry with Syriatel alongside prominent stakes in free-trade zones, banks, and other enterprises since Bashar al-Assad, who is his cousin, took over the regime.

In the face of these challenges, however, there are also critical opportunities.

Funding the opposition. Private donors, many based in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, have helped fund and strengthen various opposition groups. These fundraising activities target Sunnis to help overturn the government from Shiite and Alawite sects, and the promise of creating a Sunni Islamist state in Syria is a major "selling point" among supporters. As a consequence of this robust fundraising, extremist sects may have gained relative strength against western strategic interests. It is important for the United States and its Western allies to take a careful look at financial flows into the opposition and how these may influence the internal balance of power.

Private enterprise. The social market regime in Syria has suffocated opportunities for small, middle-size, and other private business enterprises. For instance, since 1960, the government has nationalized major enterprises, and little credit has been available for those private sector firms that remained in business (this is the general pattern in many oil-producing states in the Middle East). To the extent that a private sector remained, it was largely controlled by a small group of people related to the Assad regime. Not surprisingly, the World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business" score for Syria is 147, well below the regional average of 107. Rebuilding the private sector will be a core task of the Syrian regime in future.

Trade and investment. Prior to 2011, Syria began adopting relatively more liberalized economic policies in line with IMF recommendations and its application to become a member of the World Trade Organization. Without a robust private sector, however, these policies had little effect on economic performance. Since the conflict, Syrian exports dropped from approximately $2 billion in 2011 to $95 million in 2013. Rebuilding trade and Syria's participation in the regional and global economies is a major task for post-war reconstruction.

Rebuild financial markets. Strengthening Syria's financial markets will provide the conditions for greater foreign investment, credit, controlling inflation, and debt financing. Such activities will not be possible without first strengthening the currency regime. Currently, $1 is worth 138 Syrian pounds, which reflects a highly devalued currency that has fallen heavily since 2011(nearly 75 percent). Several factors are responsible, such as decreased availability and consequently higher prices in food (an over 200 percent price increase), transportation (nearly 250 percent), and energy (more than 300 percent). In an attempt to keep its value, the Central Bank of Syria and the Syrian government banned the use of foreign currency or the exchange of Syrian pounds.

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On the economic front, the pathways to peace in Syria begin with restoring basic services and giving immediate attention and aid to humanitarian and refugee relief efforts. Recent efforts to unfreeze foreign bank accounts to supply food essentials to Syrians in need should be furthered. The new regime should support capacity-building and development programs for a variety of job areas, especially non-public-sector jobs.

Longer-term pathways that are critical for peace include reversing the Assad regime's economic policies, rebuilding infrastructure and institutions, and countering the war economy. Rebuilding the basics, such as roads, homes, and places for health care and education, are desperately needed. As a result of the war, it estimated that 3,000 schools servicing half of all students were damaged. Many health care and medical workers have become refugees and are unable to support the local needs. For instance, the ratio of doctors to patients has dropped by approximately 84 percent. The rebuilding of destroyed homes alone would cost at least $28 million in construction and energy costs.

Post-conflict, construction-led growth to rebuild Syria's depleted capital stock will be helpful, but this will require mobilizing foreign investment from a range of private- and public-sector actors. Along these lines, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency estimates that it will take 30 years for Syria to recover to 2010 pre-war levels.

Since 2011, a war economy has developed in Syria; to what extent this has shifted the control of economic resources remains unclear. To be sure, rebels have gained control of some cities and towns that produce oil and agricultural goods, which are sources for government revenue and employment. The shift in control has been a reason for "field burning" by government forces in rebel-controlled areas as a type of economic warfare. The war economy will also manifest itself in the high costs that the regime faces as it pays for its military from diminished coffers. The likely economic effects include a lack of jobs for the civilian population, a weak currency, an increasingly informal or black-market economy, and closed trade routes.

Escaping from this new economic structure will prove challenging, as those who have profited from illicit activities may not have a large interest in supporting a postwar reform process. The situation is comparable to that of Lebanon's civil war and the war economy it created. Because of the profits associated with the conflict, moving away from a war-time economy required offering a more profitable alternative to the various armed groups. This meant sharing and empowering militias and rebels to have a stake in post-conflict reconstruction, lest they act to undermine a fragile peace.

Mechanisms to make the shift from a war to a peace economy could include job creation; scaling back the public sector; investment support for non-oil, private-sector development; the rebuilding of social safety nets; and limiting direct subsidies.

Major players that have an economic interest in a peaceful Syria include neighboring Lebanon -- a major trading partner interested in regional stability and in the potential for this outcome to weaken Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia is also of interest; a more Sunni-tolerant government could be a major ally in dealings with Iran and can provide considerable financial support for post-conflict development. Other regional winners would include Israel and Turkey.

But most prominently, the average Syrian has the most to gain from a peaceful outcome.

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