The World Today for January 23, 2018



Transfer Striker

The only African to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, in 1995, incoming Liberian President George Weah, now 51, is used to winning. But his inauguration on Monday was not so much a celebration of victory as the opening whistle of a new, more important and more difficult challenge.

“I do not promise you quick fixes or miracles. Instead, my pledge to you today is that my administration, with your help, will make steady and deliberate progress towards achieving the hopes and aspirations that you cherish in your heart for Mama Liberia,” Weah said in his inaugural speech.

Weah trounced incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai in the final round of presidential elections in December, and his inauguration marks the first peaceful transfer of power for Liberia since 1944, the New York Times reported. But the very characteristics that made the former soccer star popular with voters could spell trouble for his administration.

The key to Liberia’s impressive rebound from the assassinations of two presidents, two consecutive civil wars and the brutal reign of Charles Taylor – now in prison for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone – was the international savvy of departing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Having worked for the World Bank and the United Nations, she was a technocrat with a genius for securing economic aid and (to a lesser extent) deploying it.

Foreign aid amounts for more than half of Liberia’s gross national income, making it one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, according to the World Bank. And many believe Johnson Sirleaf herself was the primary reason the money poured in.

“I think a lot of it had to do with her competence and strategy. Once she came into office, donors lined up,” Steven Radelet, an economist at Georgetown University and former adviser to Johnson Sirleaf, told Reuters.

Even before Weah’s election, cracks had begun to show in the façade. Worldwide, high levels of foreign aid are notorious for undermining governments and encouraging corruption, and Liberia wasn’t entirely able to escape the same fate. Despite virtuous promises to route aid through government programs – seen as key to empowering the state – foreign money continued to go directly to aid projects: Only 12% of aid to Liberia in the 2015-16 fiscal year was “on-budget,” the Economist wrote. Meanwhile, Johnson Sirleaf made a crucial misstep in relinquishing her personal oversight of aid projects, resulting in a situation in which “few think Liberia’s government is in control,” the news magazine said.

Now, many fear that Weah – a comparative neophyte – will face difficulty matching his predecessor’s record in either attracting or deploying aid. Since his election as a senator in 2014, he has rarely attended parliament and he has not introduced or co-sponsored any legislation. His soccer career gave him valuable international experience, but he is a high-school dropout with little formal education – a fact that only seemed to endear him to voters.

Radelet told Reuters that some aid programs that ended last year had not been renewed because donors were anxious about the presidential transition, and he predicted that trend would likely continue. Meanwhile, Liberia’s young people – for whom Weah is a hero – are no longer satisfied by peace alone. They want an end to corruption and wholesale improvements in healthcare and education.

To deliver, Weah will need to perform some fancy footwork.



Moving On

US Vice President Mike Pence confirmed to the Israeli parliament that the US would press ahead with moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2019.

“In the weeks ahead our administration will advance its plan to open the United States embassy in Jerusalem, and that United States embassy will open before the end of next year,” Bloomberg quoted Pence as saying Monday.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appealed to Europe to recognize a Palestinian state and become an alternative sponsor of the peace process.

The Palestinian Authority has cut off contact with US officials since President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 declaration, and it is boycotting Pence on this trip.

Peppered with Biblical references, Pence’s speech “was more like an ecstatic sermon by an evangelist preacher traveling through the Holy Land” than that of a peace negotiator, opined Noa Landau in Haaretz.

Later, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised America’s new tough stance on Iran.


Strangers on a Train

Chinese police once again snatched up Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai, taking him into custody from a train bound for Beijing as two Swedish diplomats looked on.

As the train neared Beijing, plainclothes police officers boarded at a station and led Gui away, the New York Times quoted his daughter as saying. She didn’t provide additional details.

Gui was among five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared in 2015, when he vanished from his vacation home in Thailand. He later surfaced in China in police custody, where he was held for two years. He was formally freed from detention in October. But he has not been allowed to leave China, and must report regularly to the police.

The detention of the publishers was widely seen as proof that China would go to almost any length to quell criticism from those it views as its citizens – the pledge of “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong and China notwithstanding.


The Best Defense

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to avert the opening of a new front in the Syrian war on Monday in the wake of Turkey’s ground assault on the northern Syrian region of Afrin.

Speaking in London, Tillerson said the US recognized Turkey’s “legitimate concerns” for its security and its right to defend itself from terrorist elements. And he called for restraint from “both sides,” the BBC reported.

Previously, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed in a live television broadcast, “We will take no step back.” But Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag has said Turkey will cooperate with the US if it stops “arming terror groups and takes back weapons already given.”

The group in question is the Kurdish YPG militia, which the US has armed and supported as part of the fight against Islamic State. Turkey considers the YPG to be linked with local Kurdish separatists it says are terrorists, and over the weekend launched military operations to clear them from northern Syria.


Fashion Forward

Whoever said that fashion can’t be functional needs to take a trip to Berlin, where a pair of trendy sneakers can double as a public-transit ticket.

Berlin’s transit authority, in cooperation with Adidas, recently revealed a limited-edition line of sneakers that allow the wearer to travel free on subways, trams, buses, and ferries around most of the city for the rest of this year, CityLab reported.

Adorned with the iconic fabric pattern found on seats in Berlin’s public transit, the shoes are more expensive than your average kicks, at about $215 a pair. But they’re well worth it, considering that an annual transit pass in Berlin costs four times that amount, about $869.

But as with most fashion trends, this one’s going out of style pretty quickly: Adidas only made 500 pairs to be sold exclusively in two brick-and-mortar stores in the German capital.

Ride free, while supplies last.

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