Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Death and Texas
Debunking a New AIDS Myth

LAW & JUSTICE
Death and Texas

A British national on death row in Texas since 1987 is holding out hope for mercy just days before his February 4 execution date. Reuters reports that John “Jackie” Elliott will die by lethal injection unless his high-profile British supporters — including parliament members, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, and the Anglican Bishop of London — can persuade Governor Rick Perry with their pleas for clemency.

Additionally, according to David Rose of The Observer, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and other top officials have “reiterated Britain’s opposition to America’s use of the death penalty and urged Perry to delay the execution so [DNA] tests could be performed.” “Elliott’s problem,” suggests Rose,

“is that it is only now, after he has exhausted all normal state and federal appeals, that anyone has subjected his case to serious investigation. His legal team, aided by the death penalty charity Reprieve, has unearthed evidence that casts doubt on the prosecution case.”

Elliott’s attorneys are attempting to gain time in order to perform DNA tests that were not permitted during the original trial and, therefore, never carried out. Among many flaws in the Texas legal system, activists have criticized a state statute which requires new evidence to be filed within 30 days of the end of a trial.

HEALTH
Debunking a New AIDS Myth

In a controversial piece just published in Rolling Stone Magazine, Gregory Freeman alleges that a new underground trend is sweeping the gay world, in which young men intentionally seek — via internet circles — to become infected with the HIV virus. Freeman observes:

“While the rest of the world fights the AIDS epidemic and most people fear HIV infection, this subculture celebrates the virus and eroticizes it. HIV-infected semen is treated like liquid gold.”

These “bug chasers,” writes Freeman, openly dismiss condoms and safe sex, “rebelling against what they see as the dogma of safe-sex education.” He asserts that these men now represent 25 percent of new HIV cases in the US.

The article has since reaped loads of criticism. Among others, Ellen Sorkin of The Washington Times notes that the central medical sources for the story dispute the quotes that Freeman attributes to them. While each expert acknowledges the existence of a small and marginal group of men who do intentionally infect themselves, none stands behind Freeman’s large numbers. Spokeswoman Shana Krochmal for San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project also cried foul: “We know this is a relatively uncommon behavior…The numbers in the story are inaccurate.”

Small Chips, Large Stakes
The Holy Land’s Eco-Nightmare

ENVIRONMENT
Small Chips, Large Stakes

Contrary to the industry’s reputation for stream-lined cleanliness, a new study suggests that the manufacturing of computer chips is “a massively wasteful process and one that may be dumping an unknown level of toxic chemicals back into the environment,” reports David Akin in the Globe and Mail. The study, conducted by Eric Williams at the United Nations University in Japan, raises serious concerns about the environmental sustainability of chip production, a gigantic industry whose products are terrifically mass-produced because of each chip’s short lifespan. Williams announced in December that,

“Microchips themselves are small, valuable and have a wide variety of applications, which naively suggests that they deliver large benefits to society with negligible environmental impact…On the other hand, the semiconductor industry uses hundreds, even thousands of chemicals, many in significant quantities and many of them toxic.”

According to Akin, residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico who live in the shadow of Intel’s chip production facility have recently become sick because of increased levels of factory-wrought air pollution. Additionally, the EPA informed residents of Mountain View, California (at the center of Silicon Valley) that trichloroethylene — a toxic solvent used for chip production — was 65 times normal in parts of the city.

Stephen Hesse also observes in the Japan Times that the 21st century idea of “dematerialization” — “the notion that progress in technology offers radical cuts in the quantity of materials and energy needed to produce goods and services” — is likely just a myth. The use of secondary materials for the production of chips — especially noxious fossil fuels — is quite disproportionate to the end result: “630 times the mass of the final product.” Williams explains:

“The main thing that strikes me is that making a microchip uses far more chemicals and energy than its small size belies, so much so that the micro-product has a macro-environmental impact. This also makes microchips and the computers that contain them qualitatively different from other appliances or products such as refrigerators or automobiles.”

“For a car, environmental performance is mostly about fuel-efficiency and emissions standards. For a computer, the main strategies are reduction of energy used in production and for consumers to maximize a machine’s lifetime. The former is a challenge for the private sector, while the latter requires awareness and cooperation from the general public.”

Of course, the health dangers posed by the semiconductor industry aren’t news to Mother Jones readers. Susan Stranahan reported on the issue almost a year ago.

ENVIRONMENT
The Holy Land’s Eco-Nightmare

More than two years into the Intifada, news of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s human toll has become depressingly familiar. Less well-known, however, is the environmental catastrophe brewing in the Palestinian Territories.

Beset by drastic shortages of water and land, an exploding population and weak environmental regulations, the West Bank and Gaza had plenty of environmental problems even before the Intifada began. According to a new United Nations study, though, the situation has worsened dramatically since the reignition of hostilities in September 2000, Environment News Service reports. Now, the closures and curfews of Israel’s military occupation and the near-collapse of the Palestinian Authority — coupled with a total breakdown in communication between the two sides — are adding up to an environmental nightmare.

Some members of the UN team expressed hope that the study might get the warring sides talking again — at least about environmental issues. Without a peace deal, however, the prognosis remains grim: “But the team’s report acknowledges that ‘many long term environmental solutions cannot become reality without a peace process for the region.'”

Bush at Mid-Term
A Self-Defeating Boycott?

POLITICS
Bush at Mid-Term

With his State of the Union address last night, George W. Bush marked the halfway point of his presidency. Two years on, pundits differ on the true character of Bush’s time in office thus far: Is he a principled leader, a dangerous, right-wing ideologue or simply a cagey political hardballer? Regardless, almost all agree that the genial doofus of campaign 2000 is gone.

Like many observers, the London Independent‘s Rupert Cornwell sees dark clouds on the horizon. Noting increasing domestic opposition to the White House’s rush to war and flagging approval ratings, Cornwell writes that “ George W Bush is in trouble.”

“Today cracks have appeared in the façade. Not gaping cracks to be sure, but ones that if not swiftly repaired could yet bring down the Bush edifice. They are visible in tumbling consumer confidence, the Trent Lott affair which tarred the Republicans’ image on race, the growing unease at the prospect of war in the Gulf — and in the polls.

Mr Bush’s problem is that he is trying to achieve two goals which are irreconcilable: to unite a sceptical country behind him in launching an unprovoked war, and pursue nakedly partisan domestic policies — not just over the economy. Mr Bush wants to further privatise health care, one day even social security. He seems oblivious to the collapse of US public finances — from a federal surplus of $250bn two years ago to a similar deficit this year.”

Reaching a similar conclusion, E.J. Dionne observes that Bush — like Ronald Reagan, his ideological lodestone — is as opportunistic politically as he is conservative socially.

“Politically, he wants to use the authority he gained after 9/11 to achieve a historic realignment to the benefit of the Republican Party. If that means using war and domestic security to batter the Democrats in the midterm congressional elections, so be it. If Democrats are now bitter, it’s their problem, not his.

Domestically, he is pursuing a more ambitious conservative agenda than Ronald Reagan ever did. Bush is determined to do two things: First, tilt the tax code toward the interests of the well-off — or, as Bush would see it, toward investors and entrepreneurs; and, second, create a long-term hole in the federal budget that will, over time, force deep cuts in domestic programs. If Bush wanted an economic ‘stimulus’ plan that would shower the maximum number of benefits on the smallest number of the most financially comfortable Americans, he could hardly have done better than his proposal to eliminate the taxation of most dividends.”

Working for Change‘s Geov Parrish, meanwhile, offers up a laundry list of White House sins — reserving special scorn for the Democrats who let it happen.

” … in the two years of his presidency — and particularly the 15 months since 9/11 — Bush has turned American government, and America’s role in the world, upside down. It’s more than the headline items, like the childish bellicosity and the massive tax breaks for the obscenely rich. Every day, far away from the public eye, the Bush Administration has been busy remaking America’s relationship to the world and Americans’ relationship to our government.

Regulatory and judicial appointments; end runs around Congress through arbitrary rule changes; unprecedented expansion of police and secret agency powers, at the expense of both civil liberties and the Constitution itself; a direct bid to make evangelical Christianity our governing religion; runaway spending which, combined with the tax cuts, amounts not just to class warfare but to a massive, and wildly successful, wealth transfer scheme. Examples of each of these threads of the Bush crusade, and many more, ooze out of Washington each day. And the Democrats, almost without exception, have either cowered or applauded.”

Others wonder if Bush Jr. will follow in his father’s footsteps, dragged down by economic doldrums. As Linda Feldman notes in The Christian Science Monitor, though the current president’s worldview might bear more resemblance to Reagan than his father, comparisons with Bush pére are unavoidable.

“But what’s striking is how the two central issues he faces – Iraq and the economy — strongly echo those of the first President Bush, and, as with his father, could make or break his reelection. A fainter echo is also sounding on whom Mr. Bush might nominate for the Supreme Court, as speculation mounts over a vacancy this year.

Still, analysts agree, Bush is more conservative than his father, who came of age under Eisenhower Republicanism and its hallmarks of cooperation, moderation, and an acceptance of the foundations of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The son came of age in the Reagan era, marked by efforts to prune government — with the exception of the Defense Department. Bush’s ultimate support for the Department of Homeland Security fits the Reagan mold — though he initially resisted a new bureaucracy.”

Indeed, Sandy Grady writes in one of four pieces on Bush’s record in USA Today, his slavish devotion to tax cuts, homeland security and destroying Saddam doesn’t exactly qualify as the “ Vision Thing” his father so famously lacked.

“Of course, pursuing Saddam Hussein and cutting taxes for the wealthy hardly compare as an overarching vision with Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ or Lincoln’s mystic union. Americans, impressed by his leadership in the war on terror, still give Bush high marks as a visionary. But Bush’s problem is that the post-9/11 flag-waving fervor is fading in a lackluster economy. Haunting polls show that Bush, like his father, is increasingly seen as out of touch with people’s lives.

The second President George Bush seems driven by his three myopic passions. Time and history will decide whether the son, like the father, will be foiled by the Vision Thing.”

Meanwhile, The Times of London’s Roland Watson characterizes Bush as, above all, a consummate politician who knows how to turn problems to his advantage.

“Bush’s signature foreign policy has been rendered incoherent by North Korea, which has shown the limits to threats of pre-emption, but his domestic success is down to sharp, gut instinct. He knows when to take a stand, as shown by his knifing of Trent Lott, whose racist gaffe cost him the Senate leadership, and how to stroke the social traditionalists while mouthing his message of inclusiveness to swing voters.

He knows when to compromise, and when to be shameless, abandoning his opposition to the creation of a Homeland Security Department, stealing the Democrat idea and championing it as his own. And he is also a smart strategist. Much of his disputed tax plan may benefit the richest 1 per cent, but 19 per cent of Americans believe they are in that 1 per cent, and a further 20 per cent expect to be one day. In other words, nearly 40 per cent of Americans think they have a direct interest in Bush’s fiscal values, regardless of what the details look like once they have emerged from the Senate.”

Not everyone, of course, is angry about the state of the union under Bush. Tom Schatz, writing in The National Review, urges Bush to push ahead with his conservative agenda by making drastic cuts in federal spending.

“The president has acted boldly to stimulate economic growth — in his State of the Union address he should pair his tax-cut proposal with an equally audacious government reform agenda to restructure government and cut budget waste once and for all, or risk losing the mantle of fiscal responsibility.”

Finally, Michael Medved attributes Bush’s startling success to his personality — qualities which would also make him a successful reality show contestant, Medved writes in USA Today.

“The winners in programs such as Survivor don’t tend to be the smartest or most aggressive members of the tribe; they are, rather, the ones who manage to get along, assemble a winning team and charm their colleagues in the midst of high-stakes rivalry. Bush fits this mold perfectly.

Like any popular contestant on a reality show, Bush conveys the sense of an ordinary guy suddenly forced into unnatural, extraordinary circumstances – particularly after 9/11. His durable popularity rests on the fact that he hasn’t puffed himself up as the great anything. In the spirit of populist television, he understands that the public wants likability more than lordliness, the feeling of a decent, reliable fellow from next door rather than a superhuman candidate for Rushmore. He’s the Good Neighbor President, and in this age of increasingly bizarre reality shows (and world events), his handlers hope that this will prevent the bemused public from voting him off the island.”

LAW & JUSTICE
A Self-Defeating Boycott?

Almost two years into a large-scale boycott called by Cincinnati’s embattled black community, some are arguing that the impact has been far worse on the black community than on the city’s flawed policies. “The effect on the city’s roughly 45 percent black population has been profound,” suggests Steve Miller of the Washington Times. As local industries already falter because of the slow economy, the cancellation of conventions, performances, and other events in town has helped lead to numerous layoffs and increased economic hardship within the community. Notable for civic and private organizations, Cincinnati’s hotel occupancy rate stands among the nation’s lowest. The boycott “is absolutely disproportionately affecting the city’s African-American population,” remarked Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, the city’s top-ranking black official.

The genesis of the boycott, explains Manning Marable in Denver’s Urban Spectrum, came in April of 2001, after an unarmed black teenager was killed by the police, the 15th killing of a black suspect by police in Cincinnati since 1995. The boycott was then initiated by a coalition of progressive groups, urging “celebrities, business and social groups, and others planning conferences or events in downtown Cincinnati to cancel their engagements.” It would end only when the city met “demands for neighborhood economic development, police accountability, support and enforcement of civil rights, and government and election reform.”

Those demands, says Marable, have so far not been answered. In fact, he continues, “[t]he city’s most recent tactic against the boycott has been to severely curtail regular police protection from Over-the-Rhine,” a poor neighborhood at the heart of the black community.

For more information on the boycott, the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati has a well-organized and informative web-site.

Speech One: The Union
Bush Style, Bush Substance?

POLITICS
Speech One: The Union

The overwhelming consensus on the President’s State of the Union address on Tuesday has been that the speech was divided into two distinct sections: Iraq and everything else. As briefly as each of the non-Iraq issues was discussed, pundits had no shortage of responses.

On matters of our national economic worries, Slate‘s William Saletan suggests that Bush essentially dodged the issue and claimed unfounded victories:

“Why didn’t Bush talk about the state of the union? Because the state of the union is nothing to talk about. The stock market is in the toilet. The economy is going nowhere. Unemployment is up. The deficit is out of control. Remember those State of the Union speeches Bill Clinton gave? The guy couldn’t stop quoting happy numbers. That’s one problem Bush doesn’t have.”

Furthermore, says Saletan, Bush has yet to make good on each of his claims: “His education bill remains unfunded. The corporate reforms he signed were watered down…And the economy is still a wreck.”

Referring to the President’s plans for further tax cuts, the editors of the Boston Globe observe that “it is disquieting to see him prescribe more of the medicine that has proved so impotent.” With “no visible impact except for ballooning deficits,” remarks The Globe, “[n]ow he wants to enact more tax cuts tilted even more to the wealthy.”

“Bush made a stirring promise not to ”pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, and other generations.” But the deficits that he has produced and that his new tax proposal would deepen are generational grand larceny.”

Or, as Richard Just of The American Prospect puts it,

“We’re now a decade and a half removed from the end of the Reagan presidency, but the best this administration can do when it comes to tax policy is trot out supply-side clichés and claim, implausibly, that reducing taxes on the wealthiest Americans is the best way to lower the national debt.”

Even the generally Bush-friendly Economist was not especially convinced by the President’s economic vision, acknowledging that tax cuts will succeed in pushing an already impressive national deficit “through the roof,” toward a new record of $300 billion this year. What’s more, the magazine allows, this administration has hardly kept its previous promises for economic growth and stability:

“But job creation was one of the key aims put forward in last year’s state-of-the-union address, and yet, in spite of the 2001 tax cuts and the stimulus package put together a year ago, the economy has lost more than 180,000 private-sector jobs in the past 12 months. Unemployment has risen to 6%.”

On health care, The New Republic found Bush to be surprisingly quiet on the issue, at a time when “[t]he entire health insurance system is breaking down and the country needs to make a choice about how to reinvent it.” The President failed to explain or justify his ideas, says TNR, and went so far as to offer misleading statements. Listening to Bush’s brief description of a good insurance policy,

“you might think the heart of his health care agenda was to move Americans out of managed care plans that restrict access to doctors and treatments. But Bush’s Medicare plan would do precisely the opposite. In order to get a prescription drug benefit, seniors would have to leave traditional Medicare–an old-fashioned, fee-for-service plan that allows seniors to see almost any doctor they want–and enroll in private, managed care networks. No HMO, no drug coverage.”

Instead of offering the specifics of his own vision, concludes TNR, the President instead chose to criticize rationed care — a practise very much a part of his own plan — and blast the idea of nationalized health care — a solution that no one is presently discussing within mainstream circles.

However, when Bush proposed a $15 billion plan for combatting the AIDS epidemic in Africa, he received considerably more unreserved praise. Left-leaning pundits have had little negative to say, and conservatives, such as The Weekly Standard‘s David Brooks, are quite proud:

“Bush demonstrated that he is not the shallow, rough-riding cowboy that so many Europeans imagine him to be. He is instead a man who understands the need to discipline the growth of government, but who also, when he sees the opportunity to do good, is willing to use government in limited but energetic ways. I thought the decision to launch a major initiative against AIDS in Africa was a noble gesture, exactly the kind of great undertaking that befits the United States.”

Another surprising announcement was a plan to sponsor research into alternatively fueled automobiles — ostensibly out of a desire for increased energy efficiency, environmental protection, and decreased reliance on foreign oil. James Ridgeway of Village Voice, however, was not biting. He cites some of the many environmental blows recently initiated by this administration: “more domestic drilling, cutting back on industrial pollution control, and a seemingly slick program to support the new hydrogen car.” Ridgeway quotes Sierra Club energy maven Daniel Becker: the hydrogen-powered vehicle program

“funnels millions to Detroit without requiring that they produce a single fuel-cell vehicle for the public to purchase. The auto industry is using the promise of future fuel cells as a shield against using existing technology to dramatically cut our oil dependence, and pollution, today. This technology is sitting on the shelf while Detroit dithers.”

In regard to addressing the country’s tremendous poverty and social problems, the President focused exclusively on the idea of charity and faith-based organizations. Ridgeway opines that this model is hopelessly outdated, a vision out of “Charles Dickens’s England”:

“Sweeping social ills into the closet, re-creating the utilitarian poorhouse mentality, and spending one afternoon a month at your favorite charity have again been deemed the best ways to enter the future.

Choice is out. Good manners are in. If you are pregnant, please try to wear nice clothes and don’t talk about your problems. Nobody said life was fair. Go to church. Remember, there are always handouts for the poor and distressed at Christmastime. As for the privileged, try to think about those less fortunate than yourself. Perhaps leave a doggy bag of leftovers on the church steps as you go home. You can’t imagine how much the hungry will appreciate it. If only they would try harder. After all, there are always openings at McDonald’s.

Ever since Reagan, the right-wing GOP revolutionaries have sought first to undermine, then destroy, what’s left of the Democrats’ New Deal social welfare programs. Bush is far more conservative than Reagan. His program pushes the conservative program steadily forward.”

POLITICS
Bush Style, Bush Substance?

Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, pundits agree, was classic Bush: black-and-white in its pronouncements, stark in its Old Testament-style moralism and nearly free of the niggling nuances that filled Bill Clinton’s speeches. It was also, many say, nearly substance-free.

As the London Independent‘s Rupert Cornwell notes, the speech — which sent a clear political message with every sentence — may have marked Bush’s maturation as an orator.

“Resolute yet caring. Moral yet compassionate. Conscious of his duty to the world, as well as to his own people. That was the image George Bush wanted to project on Tuesday, with war against Iraq perhaps just a few weeks away. And, early domestic reviews show, he largely succeeded.

The frat-brat has acquired, contrary to expectations, something close to gravitas. On Tuesday evening he was sombre, exuding determination, as he took his country to the brink of war.”

The editors of Minneapolis’ Star Tribune, for their part, found themselves wishing for a more sophisticated analysis of the challenges facing the country.

“In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans wanted moral courage and decisive leadership from their president, George W. Bush offered both and earned high marks from the electorate. Today, however, as they contemplate an anemic economy and an ambiguous world, Americans yearn for a more sophisticated and nuanced diagnosis of the perils they face. Tuesday night, in a State of the Union speech that was resolute if rather flat, Bush demonstrated that he is attempting the transition but hasn’t quite completed it.”

Similarly, Newsday‘s Marie Cocco wonders if the President’s lowest-common-denominator view of the world is the right prescription for such uncertain times.

“The people want only to know their jobs are safe, their children secure. They want their retirement account balances to bounce back somehow, someday. They look to the president for some assurance that the state of the union will be better this year than last. He can’t give it.

Sometimes a leader’s duty — his best chance at success — is to temper moral certitude with subtlety. The president seems not to see this.”

Others, like Slate‘s William Saletan, opined that the speech was largely substance-free.

“After a few words about his record on the economy, education, corporate responsibility, and homeland security, Bush spent the rest of the hour outlining plans and promises. It was the kind of speech a president gives when he’s been in office two weeks, not two years.”

Conservatives, however, were effusive in their praise. The National Review‘s Victor Davis Hanson, for one, declared that the President got the tone just right.

“The State of the Union address was understated, but it was still quite a revolutionary sort of speech (‘free people will set the course of history’). It was an elemental talk about life and death, good and evil — and the desire for allies, but the determination, if need be, to act alone. Somber tones without a note of triumphalism added to its power — helped by the president’s calls for idealistic foreign activism coupled with new domestic concerns. Americans like tough talk — but only if it is arises out of larger moral sensibilities.”

Similarly, The Weekly Standard‘s Terry Eastland gushed over Bush’s frequent invocations of religious faith.

“And on compassion, did you notice that enthusiastic interjection? ‘There is,’ Bush said, ‘power — wonder-working power — in the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people.’ It’s not unlike Bush to invoke words from a Christian hymn or to use them, as he did here, to push his faith-based initiative.

And his faith showed through in this State of the Union. At one point Bush, talking about drug recovery programs, said, ‘The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you.’ Bush knows ‘it’ once was he, and the solemn expression on his face suggests he was thinking just that as he spoke those words. (Bush has said he had a ‘drinking problem’ in the 1980s that ‘the power of prayer’ overcame.) Strikingly, though again not surprisingly, Bush’s faith was made plain at the very end of his speech, when he said, with a humility recalling Lincoln’s, ‘We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.'”

Finally, The Christian Science Monitor‘s David Cook notes one glaring omission: notably absent was any notion of shared sacrifice — a key part of the dialogue between Presidents and citizens in troubled times.

“However, the president did not issue any clear-cut call for sacrifice from the public at large, notes Monitor White House correspondent Linda Feldmann. ‘I was listening all the way through for any calls to sacrifice, and only heard about the sacrifices of our servicepeople,’ she said. ‘That’s a theme he has yet to develop fully in his addresses to the public since Sept. 11.'”

Murky on Mercury
Forgiving Ethiopia’s Debts

HEALTH
Murky on Mercury

Last fall, a United Nations group met to confront the threat posed by rising levels of mercury worldwide, deciding to adopt an international treaty limiting emissions of the highly toxic chemical. At the time, US negotiators agreed.

According to a leaked document, however, the Bush administration now plans to block the treaty at a UN meeting next month, Environment News Service‘s Cat Lazaroff reports. Although mercury in the earth’s air and water has increased 300 percent in the last century, Washington is arguing for “less action, less funding and less future discussion of the issue.” Instead, the administration now advocates voluntary compliance for large mercury polluters, such as coal-fired power plants. Not surprisingly, environmentalists are incensed:

“‘The U.S. agreed in Geneva that mercury is a serious worldwide pollutant that warrants international action,’ Bender said. ‘But out of the other side of their mouth, they’re saying they don’t want to do anything about it.'”

GLOBAL ECONOMY
Forgiving Ethiopia’s Debts

Famous during the 1980s for weathering years of debilitating famine, Ethiopia is now back in the news with yet another famine that, according to the United Nations, threatens 11 million people with starvation. The United States, eager to improve its image and keep up its international relationships at a time of tremendous criticism, has written off a $30 million debt from Ethiopia, reports Charlotte Denny of The Guardian. The debt relief is part of an international plan, initiated by the World Bank and IMF three years ago, to reduce impossible financial obligations in the Third World. The United Kingdom wrote off a comparable amount for Ethiopia in 2001, Denny notes, but Addis Ababa still has $5.4 billion of debt outstanding.

More contentious of late, however, have been a string of disputes between the Ethiopian government and some 40 international corporations that are trying to claim $500 million in compensation after their companies were nationalized by Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime in the 1970s. According to Paul Redfern of the East African Standard, the giant food conglomerate Nestlé has just agreed to a $1.5 million settlement in lieu of the $6 million that it had long demanded. Redfern writes that,

“Nestle, whose sales amounted to nearly $60 billion last year finally came to the conclusion that the issue was doing long-term public relations damage to the company and dropped the demand.

Aid agencies throughout Europe had lined up to criticise the multinational for its callousness at a time of famine across Ethiopia caused by the failure of the rains for a third year in a row. An estimated six million people are said to be in need of emergency food assistance and this number could rise to 15 million within the next three months.

Ethiopia has the lowest income per capita in the world. Its gross national income is roughly equivalent to what Nestle made in profits last year – $6.15 billion.”

This week’s settlement, adds Redfern, is notable because it demonstrates “that even big multi national companies [a]re not immune to public pressure.”