Urban Master Plan: Cities Built from Scratch

Reading Time: 7 minutes


From Paris to Rome, Alexandria to Benghazi, and Tokyo to Beijing, cities tend to be perceived as old creations, with hundreds if not thousands of years of age, that grew naturally throughout the course of history. Usually built with military purposes in mind, or taking advantage of natural geographical conditions, a significant number of today’s major metropolises have followed this pattern, showing their evolution through their centuries-old buildings, monuments, and traditions. 

Nevertheless, a not so insignificant number of recent populational centers have been built following detailed masterplans with years of planning and significant financial commitment.  While some have arguably successfully transitioned into well-established cities, others may have been left abandoned as a reminder that a successful urban center is much more than just a cluster of buildings. These initiatives can broadly be categorized depending on the issue they intended to address – Politics, Environment and Economic development – and the motive for their success or failure most often results from how relevant this issue was and how well it was tackled.


One of the most common reasonings for planning a new city has to do with the need for the creation of a neutral capital city that has a more central position to the country’s population distribution. 

Washington DC, established in 1790 by the Residence Act, had its location defined as a compromise between the opposing forces of the expanding United States at the time. In what came to be known as the Compromise of 1790, Alexander Hamilton, aligned with the northerner states, agreed to move the capital to the states of Maryland and Virginia in an exchange with Thomas Jefferson, aligned with the southerner states. The deal paved the way for the establishment of the 100 square mile (256 square kilometers) new capital. While having its size diminished (following the decision of the area formerly belonging to Virginia to rejoin the state), with a population greater than 700 thousand, a strong economy, and continuing to serve its original purpose of capital of the United States, Washington DC is certainly a success story. 

Washington’s original design

Other planned capital cities that stood the test of times include Canberra – created in the middle of the two largest and rivaling Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne – and Brasilia – in a push to develop Brazil’s interior region.

However, Egypt’s successive failed attempts to move its capital away from Cairo – to Nasr city, New Cairo, and even the 10th of Ramadan, a city shaped and sized similarly to the original DC – show that there is room to fail. The country is now planning yet another capital move, to the still-in-construction “New Administrative Capital”. Situated roughly 45km east of Cairo, this new multi-billion-dollar project has officially been initiated to alleviate congestion in the current capital, currently boasting a population of 22 million people. Nevertheless, some have pointed out that the significant potential financial gains by the military and construction industries may be the true motive behind the move. By planning to increase the distance between government buildings and the masses at Cairo, the move has also given rise to allegations that, in truth, this is an attempt by President Al-Sisi to hold on to power, attempting to prevent a repetition of the events of the Arab Spring. 


protection from environmental issues in an existing important city, or simply a need to experiment with innovative sustainable ideas, have also fueled the creation of new urban areas across the globe.

Jakarta, Southeast Asia´s most populous city, is currently facing severe flooding problems, with the coastal city sinking as much as 25cm per year in some districts. This is far from a recent issue, however, going way back and beginning with the arrival of the Dutch in the XVII century. As an attempt to emulate the urban planning found in the Netherlands at the time, the existing settlements were torn down and a new one was built with a heavy use of canals. These canals, however, due to lack of upkeep, eventually clogged up and turned out to be a channel of disease-spreading, forcing the Europeans to relocate further south, where a system of pipes to distribute clean water was introduced. These pipes, nevertheless, took decades to reach the canal region, and even today don’t reach more than half of the city’s population. This particular circumstance left many with no option but to pump water directly from subterranean aquifers, ultimately sinking the city in the process

Furthermore, the city has consistently ranked among the worst polluted areas worldwide. Heavy traffic due to high population density and low public transport use, as well as the existence of several coal fired plants in the city outskirts, have all contributed for the city to register “unhealthy air” days for more than half of the 2019 calendar year. A move to the brand-new Nusantara, more than 1000km away from Jakarta, powered by renewable energies, plans to fix most of these issues.

Map of Batavia (current Jakarta)

Across the continent, in the Middle East, the EAU have been building the city of Masdaraimed to be the first zero emissions city, in an effort to test the limits of urban sustainability. The green efforts started right in the construction phase, through the reuse and recycling of waste material. The city is also striving to be completely powered by renewable energy. The urban space was designed with buildings close together, providing protection from the desert heath. Additionally, The Masdar City wind tower, a modern spin on the traditional Arabic “barjeet”, is expected to reduce electricity needs throughout the whole city.  

While effectively an experiment in urban sustainability, having Siemens and the International Renewable Energy Agency relocating their Middle East headquarters to the city are certainly important anchors for Masdar to achieve its goals of housing 50 thousand people and succeed as not just a test-trial, but as an overall functioning city. 


Oftentimes, the urban landscape is shaped purely by economic efforts to develop a region and guarantee better living standards

One such case is Malaysia’s Cyberjaya, aiming to emulate Silicon Valley’s success. Launched in 1997, the city was envisioned as “a space for startups to create and innovate; for students to pursue dreams of changing lives with technology; for tech giants to make new discoveries; for small businesses to conquer the world one market at a time”. Flexible repayment schemes and competitive rental rates were among the vast number of incentives offered to attract talent. More than 20 years onwards, having attracted the likes of Shell, DHL, Dell and HP, and with a population of 85 thousand people, some have called the initiative a success. Critics, however, point out the dominance of low-level employment, with the city’s residents mostly employed in call centers for global firms as opposed to the promised innovative and highly specialized tech outlook.

On another spectrum, pure financial motives can lead to vanity projects, as exemplified by Azerbaijan’s Khazar Islands. As the brainchild of billionaire Ibrahim Ibrahimov, it was projected to include luxury apartments and villas, a yacht club, a Formula One track, and even what was to be the tallest building in the world – the Azerbaijan Tower. In a country where GDP per capita is barely above the 5000 US$ mark, with a project such as this one accounting for a price tag of 100 billion US$, many have criticized the endeavor due to its lack of meaningful contribution for the development of the country. The lavish undertaking ultimately failed due to lack of funding, with construction coming to a stop in 2015 just four years after work had begun, a striking reminder that an ambitious plan and piles of cash may not be enough to support the creation of a brand-new metropolis.


Moving away from the historical trends of organic development, there has been a growing trend of planning cities from scratch, with politics, the environment and economics coming up as the top motivators for such blueprints. These fresh creations, with varying degrees of success, come to show that planned projects of huge scale are in fact possible. Nevertheless, in many occasions, pure financial availability or political power are not sufficient to sustain them. Besides needing to address a real issue, these projects, like any urban area, need to create the right set of conditions to attract people and businesses, in order to successfully make the transition from just an idealized setting into an actual living space.  

Sources: Washington DC, Britannica, Ellis, Joseph J. (2000). “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation”, Statista, Davison, G. (2001). “Canberra” From “The Oxford Companion to Australian History”. In Oxford University Press., Cairo Observer, Aljazeera, Channel News Asia, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Arab News, Masdar, Diário de Notícias, World Bank, IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), Wired, Plaza London, Harris-Brandts, Suzanne; Gogishvili, David. (2018). “Architectural rumors: unrealized megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan and their politico-economic uses. In Eurasian Geography and Economics, Armenian Weekly, Azer News.

Manuel Rocha

Leonor Cunha

The death of Roe v. Wade and what it means for abortion in the United States

Reading time: 6 minutes

The decision is not official yet but according to an unprecedented leak of the Supreme Court of the United States, the 1973 decision on the Roe v. Wade judicial case that gave the right to women in America to have an abortion is about to be overturned. The overturn of the decision on this landmark case does not mean women will lose the right to have an abortion everywhere; it instead means that the Federal States will be free to set their abortion laws. However, it is estimated that half the women of reproductive-age live in US states that will further restrict or outright ban abortions if the Roe v. Wade decision is overturned. 

Figure 1: Pro-life protesters in front of the Supreme Court Building in Washington DC.
Picture from New York Times.

Before we dive into the consequences of what the end of the Roe v. Wade decision will mean for the United States, let us quickly look at the history of abortion in America and explain what exactly was the Roe v. Wade decision.

History of abortion in the United States

For much of American history, states did not regulate abortion before something called “fetal quickening”, the point in the pregnancy where the movement of the fetus can be detected in the womb. Well into the 19th century, abortions were widely practiced in the United States. Before the American Civil later in the second half of the 19th century, nearly 100% of women’s reproductive healthcare was done by women (midwives). This meant popular ethics regarding abortion and common law was grounded in the female experience of their own bodies.

The creation of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 started the push to outlaw abortion. The AMA argued that abortion was immoral and that “quickening” was irrelevant because, after fertilization, a new human life would take place if no one interrupted its development. Many also argued that abortions lead to a declining birthrate of white protestant women, meaning it had to be outlawed to prevent the “browning” of America. The AMA was eventually successful, and by 1880, every US state had introduced criminal abortion laws.

Despite the criminalization of abortion, women continued to have them. It is estimated that there were up to 1.2 million abortions each year after 1880. Practitioners did their work behind closed doors or in private homes. The procedure became unsafe, and it was responsible for one-fifth of all recorded maternal deaths in 1930.

Attitudes towards abortion began to shift in the 1960s as people started to push for the liberalization of reproductive laws. In 1970, Hawaii, New York, Alaska, and Washington State were the first states to legalize abortion. However, the biggest shock came in January 1973 when the Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, in which it decided that the restrictive states’ regulations on abortion were unconstitutional.

Figure 2: Protest for the legalization of abortion before Roe v. Wade.
Picture from Time Magazine.

Roe v. Wade explained

The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case started when a young Texan woman named “Jane Roe” (her real name was Norma McCorvey)  wanted to have an abortion in 1969. At the time, abortion was illegal in Texas except to save the woman’s life. Since Jane Roe was not a risk, she tried unsuccessfully to get an illegal abortion and was approached by two attorneys that wanted to challenge anti-abortion laws. On the other side was the district attorney of Dallas, Henry Wade,  who enforced the Texas abortion law and was later sued by Roe. The case eventually went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and on January the 22nd of 1973, the court struck down the Texas’ law. The court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy in the 14th amendment superseded a state’s right to ban abortion. Abortion was now legal everywhere in the United States.

Figure 3: Norma McCorvey, also known as Jane Roe.
Picture from New Yorker.

What happened after 1973?

In 1973, the majority of the population supported the legalization of abortion; however, the Supreme Court Decision fueled a movement against abortion within the more religious and conservative electorate. While initially anti-abortion Americans were evenly divided between the two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, over the years, the Republican party adopted the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision as one of its biggest political platforms. Their plan was simple, the party had to nominate enough conservative judges to the Supreme Court until there was a majority to overturn the 1973’s decision. Although it was simple, the plan was not easy to accomplish; Judges on the Supreme Court serve for life, and replacements have to be nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. However, between 2016 and 2020, the Republicans managed to nominate three conservative judges to the Supreme Court (out of a total of nine), which added to the three conservative judges already on the court. Although it is not yet officially known, it is expected that at least five of these six conservative judges have decided to overturn Roe v. Wade on their decision in the current case on abortion “Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization”.

The consequences of overruling Roe v. Wade

If the rumors are true and the Supreme Court decision is indeed overruled, it is expected that over half the states will prohibit all or virtually all abortions. Twelve states have “trigger laws” that have been designed to automatically ban abortion in the event Roe v. Wade is overruled. The likelihood of Congress passing federal laws to protect abortion access is very low since it would the support of ten Republican Senators to pass. Wealthier women will be able to travel to states where abortion is legal but poor women and teenagers will likely face the choice between an unsafe abortion or an unwanted child. The New York Times estimates that 34 million women of reproductive age live in states at risk of losing access to abortion.

Figure 4: Picture from Fortune


It is impossible to predict the social and political consequences the overruling of the 1973 landmark decision will have on America. According to recent polls, a large majority of the US population does not support overturning Roe v. Wade, and with the midterms around the corner, the Republican party is expected to face some backlash from voters for its role in ending the nationwide right of abortion. However, it is unlikely that the backlash will be large enough for Democrats to gain ten Senate seats from the Republicans needed to establish a Federal law on abortion. So if Roe v. Wade is indeed overruled, the landscape of abortion rights in America will change for decades to come.

Figure 5: Large shift in the polls after the leak from the Supreme Court came out.
Picture from PBS News Hour.

Sources: PBS Newshour, New York Times, Times, Fortune, Washington Post, Healthline, CNN, The Guardian, The New Yorker

André Rodrigues

Maria Mendes Silva

João Sande e Castro

Natalie Enzelmüller

Far-right extremists in the Ukraine conflict

Reading time: 5 minutes

The Russian offensive in Ukraine is posing detrimental consequences to many of its stakeholders. While media coverage has initially largely focused on the daily unfolding of the events directly related to the war, attention has increasingly been drawn to another subject for concern: individuals from around the globe with far-right ideals are leveraging the war to join militia groups that are in alignment with their political views, increasing their social and political influence. With the increase of far-right thinking and the support these political ideologies have received over the last decade across Europe and beyond, it is particularly important to be aware of the movements that are currently happening, what their consequences could be, and if, as well as how, the institutions are proceeding against them.

What is happening?

What we are currently seeing is an inflow of far-right groups into Ukraine and increased support for those that are there for positioning themselves as major protagonists on the stage of the war. Here, the Ukrainian military unit Azov, which holds a central role in an extensive global network of extremist groups, appears to be the most influential. The group was formed in 2014 out of volunteers from the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang and the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly. Both of these had xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideologies which were evidenced in reports of physical assaults on migrants and people who were opposed to their views. Azov’s volunteers act as fighters in their “National Militia“ vigilante force which has its own military training bases and access to a wide array of weaponry. They are now receiving extensive transnational support which is transforming Ukraine into a hub for the global far-right-oriented minds. Azov has been attracting young men from anywhere in their global network who want to join their training units to gain in-combat fighting experience and engage in their ideology. While the FBI estimates a total of 17,000 foreign individuals to have come to Ukraine in the last six years with these motivations, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister claims another 20,000 fighters to have arrived in Ukraine since the outbreak of the war with a large proportion of them joining for related purposes.

Veterans of the Azov Batallion at a demonstration in 2020 demanding President Zelenskyjs’ resignation.

Ever since the group was born out of an interest to defend Ukraine against Russia, it has been accused internationally of fostering neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. In 2019, voices from US congress members have called for the US State Department to classify the group as a foreign terrorist organisation for “recruiting, radicalising, and training American citizens”. Despite lawmakers noting that “the link between Azov and acts of terror in America is clear“, this has never happened. Facebook’s ban of users in support of or representing the group in 2016 was lifted the day Russia launched its invasion to allow praise for Azov concerning its contribution to defending Ukraine. This reflects the shift in perception of Azov as it is taking on a definitive role in the war against Russia.

The implications and dangers

With this overview of the situation at hand, it becomes clear that there are certain risks implicated as these far-right groups gain traction. Mainly, foreign fighters may become radicalised by groups like Azov and return home with weapons, and military and tactical combat experience. Some of the Western neo-Nazis and white nationalists that are going to fight in the war want to turn the country into an ultra-nationalist ethno-state and use it as a role model to expand their ideas across the world. Their objective is not focused on defending Ukraine but rather on spreading their own ideology. Just like in the Syrian conflict, the fragile situation Ukraine could be exploited as an opportunity for extremists to become trained for launching terrorist attacks in the West upon returning. Lessons from the past show that the West has provided military assistance that unintentionally landed in the wrong hands: In the 1980s, the US supported the Islamist guerrilla fighting the Soviets in the Soviet-Afghan War during which Afghanistan became the plotting and training ground for future radical Islamic terrorist attacks on the West. While NATO is equipping Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, there is a risk of a similar chain of events unfolding uncontrollably. It is unlikely that all of the foreign volunteers arriving in Ukraine have such political motivations, but there is clear evidence for extremists being attracted due to viewing the war as an ideal training ground to wage race or guerrilla wars back in their home countries.

International responses

Some efforts to address this problem have been launched in the countries from where fighters are coming. Germany has seen a sharp rise in neo-Nazism over the last years and the ongoing war has become a highly discussed topic on far-right channels. However, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution takes the stance that while many young men are active on related social media channels, very few have left for Ukraine. Yet, passports of extremists who have been identified with intentions to fight in the war are being seized to prevent them from leaving the country. The UK has implemented measures to position Counter-terrorism police at major airports for identity checks and to question travellers about their reasons for travel. Similarly, American Counter-terrorism officials are paying more attention to travellers after reports of at least half a dozen known neo-Nazis having gone to Ukraine in early February and even more since the invasion began. Overall, there are some government responses to the threat but effective solutions by the EU, NATO, or ONU are yet to be implemented. In an age where democratic values are being challenged by the rise of right-wing parties and extremist thinking, these international organisations must show a strong hand to stop radicalisation and extremist behaviour in its’ tracks.

Sources: Time, Aljazeera, MSNBC, Washington Post, World Politics Review, DW

André Rodrigues

Maria Mendes Silva

João Sande e Castro

Natalie Enzelmüller 

The Forgotten War in Ethiopia

Reading time: 6 minutes

Being one of the few countries which have originally never been colonised by Europeans, Ethiopia has a rich history, one where many ethnic groups have coexisted for centuries together. This coexistence, however, has not always been peaceful. With over 80 different ethnicities living in Ethiopia today, the cultural differences within the country have caused a war in its northern regions which where historically inhabited by one of its many peoples: the Tigrayans. This war has a complex background which one must be familiar with in order to better understand the motivations that have led to its offset.

Recent History of Ethiopia and Tigray

The group at the heart of the struggle in Ethiopia is called the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or simply the TPLF. It was founded by a dozen young men from Tigray, a mountainous northern region of Ethiopia, under the principles of Marxism-Leninism and national liberation and particularly as a force of rebellion against the Ethiopian state. Within 5 years, the TPLF grew steadily, aided by its ability to nullify other Tigrayan opposition and by the increasing dissatisfaction against the Derg, the military Junta that ruled Ethiopia at the time.

By the late 1980’s, the TPLF emerged as the leader of a political coalition formed by other dissident armed rebel factions called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and, on the 28th of May 1991, the TPLF troops, with the support of Eritrea, seized the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Thus, the Derg was overthrown and the 36-year-old Meles Zenawi, the TPLF and EPRDF president, became the leader of the country. This allowed the Tigrayans, a minority that today constitutes 6% of the Ethiopian population, to dominate its intelligence services and military forces.

Ethiopia and Tigray’s position in Africa

This new coalition government reformed the country by introducing an ethnicity-based federal state which saw the country develop rapidly with massive infrastructure investment and stable economic growth. In addition, the old Marxist-Leninist line was abandoned by the TPLF, as with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the new government pivoted towards closer cooperation with the US. Nonetheless, there was still active suppression of dissident groups, which due to the state’s closeness to the US and the EU as an ally tended to be ignored by western institutions.

After Meles’ death in 2012, however, general dissatisfaction with the government progressively grew, especially among the two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and the Amhara, comprising around 35% and 27% of the current Ethiopian population. Eventually, after years of protests, representatives of the two communities joined forces to remove the TPLF from power: their goal was to get Abiy Ahmed, of mixed Oromo-Amharic parentage, appointed as prime minister, which happened in April 2018. With his victory, the goal became clear: to drain the TPLF’s power and influence in Ethiopia.

In a short period of time TPLF officials were sacked from key security posts and generals were arrested with important changes being introduced to counter the Tigrayan dominance of the armed forces. Furthermore, old political prisoners who opposed the TPLF were freed from the secret prisons, exiled dissidents were welcomed home, many public enterprises were privatised and restrictions on the media were reduced.

Meles Zenawi – former President (1991-1995) and Prime-Minister (1995-2012) of Ethiopia
Abiy Ahmed – current Prime-Minister of Ethiopia (2018-present)

In July 2018, Abiy Ahmed signed a peace deal with Eritrea, which was an important blow to the TPLF’s ambitions, as the old Meres government had previously engaged in conflict with the Eritreans. This deal won Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize since it not only ended the ongoing border-conflict between the nations but also allowed for the restoration of diplomatic ties and movement of goods and people between the two countries.

However, in the summer of 2020 tensions between the current government and TPLF had exponentially risen after their refusal to hand over wanted fugitives as well as to join the new political party set up to replace the old ruling coalition – the Prosperity Party. Furthermore, with the removal of Tigrayan military leaders from the federal army of Ethiopia many TPLF-influenced military battalions retreated to Tigray.

War Breakout

The increase in hostilities between the TPLF and the Federal Government lead to the war-offsetting events that occurred during the night of the 3rd of November 2020: the TPLF-lead militias launched a pre-emptive attack against multiple military bases of the Federal Government in Tigray, notably against the Northern Command Units of the Ethiopian army. The national officers and soldiers that were captured were assassinated by the TPLF militias, with the remaining troops fleeing to Eritrea causing enormous outrage across Ethiopia. It was this act of aggression that officially marked the beginning of the Tigray War.

Consequently, Abiy Ahmed’s government mobilized the Federal Army towards Tigray to try and pacify the region as soon as possible. However, less than five days into the war there were already multiple reports of ethnic killings: the Tigrayans claimed that they were being attacked by the Amhara military and the Amharas asserted that they were being targeted by the Tigrayan militias. Furthermore, on the 14th of November the TPLF fired rockets at different airports in Eritrea, bringing them into the conflict, causing more military forces to be involved in it.

TPLF’s 2021 summer offensive’s extent

Initially, it seemed that the Federal Government’s offensive had succeeded: they managed to capture Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, on the 28th of November 2020, along with the Eastern part of Tigray. However, the TPLF was able to recapture the capital on the 29th of June 2021 and they launched a vast offensive which saw them recapture most of Tigray and pushing south, seizing various Amharic cities in July.

In October 2021, the Ethiopian government launched a new offensive against the advances of the TPLF, managing to recapture the Amharic cities that had been occupied and leaving the TPLF controlled territories to almost exclusively the Tigray region. As of March 2022, this is believed to be the current state of territorial distribution.

It is also important to mention the humanitarian consequences of this conflict: over 400,000 people were thrown into famine, with approximately 2.5 million people, both Tigrayans and Amharas, being displaced of their homes in the first year alone. In Tigray, currently over 83% of the population has no food security, with many services, such as the banking and communication zones, being unavailable. Overall, it is believed that over 9.4 million people have been negatively affected by this conflict.

Rakouba refugee camp, which is housing people who fled the conflict in Tigray

A peaceful resolution?

It remains unclear whether a peaceful resolution is possible: the fierce fighting between both forces indicates that the cost of one force capitulating to another is great expenditure of military lives. However, the distrust that has been built over this year and a half regarding the accusations of atrocities and war crimes from both sides has resulted in calls for peace being barely acknowledged by the leaders of both parties.

Additionally, the introduction of a third-party mediator seems unlikely: whilst the TPLF lead-government used to be an important regional ally of the United States, Ethiopia’s recent integration into the Belt-and-Road initiative means that external geopolitical forces might already be influencing this conflict, preventing them from making an impartial assessment of it. Meanwhile, millions of lives will remain affected by this war, a war whose humanitarian impact cannot and must not be ignored. 

Sources: The Guardian, BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, DW, Foreign Policy Magazine

André Rodrigues

Natalie Enzelmüller

Maria Mendes Silva

The Vaccination Mandate Crisis

Reading time: 5 minutes

As of November 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred over 250 million cases and taken the lives of over 5 million worldwide. Though it has been two years since the first reported case of this new strand of the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus, its impacts have not stopped leaving their mark: countries are reporting or anticipating a fifth wave of infection; others are on the verge of a renewed national lockdown, and others, still, are urging towards a third dose of the vaccine for risk groups.

It seems the world might yet need to adapt to this ever-evolving health crisis. The glimmer of hope in recent times has come in the form of a Digital COVID Certificate, which indicates either full vaccination, immunisation (due to recent recovery), or negative test result. It provides support in ensuring restrictions can be lifted in a coordinated manner. Among other scenarios, it exempts the holder from free movement restrictions and enables larger capacity inside closed venues. As of late, countries have considered and begun to impose vaccination mandates as a labour requirement, which is being met with mixed responses.

Figure 1: Digital COVID Certificate becomes more widely compulsory for entry into closed venues and crowded spaces.
Picture from Public Health.

In the United States, where an average of about 1,100 – mostly unvaccinated – Americans are dying daily from COVID-19, President Joe Biden has declared such a mandate. It states workers at U.S. companies with at least 100 employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly starting the 4th of January 2022 – affecting around 84 million workers. Workers in healthcare facilities and nursing homes, participating in the Medicare and Medicaid government healthcare programs, are also required to get their shots. Failure to comply is expected to trigger fines of about $14,000 per violation, with a chance to increase. Washington’s declaration was met almost immediately with opposition from Florida, Iowa, and Indiana governors, who argued infringement on individual freedom. Lawyers and companies, opposing the federal vaccination mandate, have been successful in interrupting its implementation, following an Appeal’s Court ruling. Nonetheless, there seems to be majority support of the vaccine mandates among citizens, with only about 1% of the total workforce refusing to comply with these measures.

Figure 2: Protests in the US ensure Washington’s decision to impose vaccination mandates for firms with more than 100 workers.
Picture from Reuters

In Europe, however a similar majority public support, these mandates have been met by a larger labour force and populace opposition.

Italy, the first European country to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for healthcare workers and where vaccination rates stand at around 85%, has seen an increase in the periodicity, size and hostility of protests. The country’s Green Pass, compulsory for all employees as well as customers at all public or private sector workplaces, has been accused of undermining individual freedoms and of damaging the economy by the centre-right block. This sentiment seems to be growing among the general populace since Italy’s health ministry extended the use of the Covid-19 health pass system until March of 2022, led by a significant increase in positive cases week-on-week.

Similarly, attempts to mandate vaccination in France have been met with public backlash. In July of 2021, President Emmanuel Macron issued an ultimatum for public and private healthcare workers to be vaccinated. In September, still, tens of thousands remained unvaccinated and about 3000 workers were suspended without pay. Correspondingly, the immunity passport requirement was met with protests in Paris, Marseille, and other cities: some citing anti-vax sentiments; others pro-liberty; and others, still fed up with Macron. Nevertheless, the administration has not backed down from its efforts. Unlike the US, French courts say the “health pass” is constitutional, showing less judicial system resistance.

In contrast, the UK has not yet issued a mandate, requiring health workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 only by April of 2022. Though it might still be early to measure its impact, the high NHS staff vaccination rate – at around 90% – and the majority of public support in both Tory and Labour voters, would indicate low resignation from workers in protests.

Figure 3: Healthcare officials defend freedom of choice against mandatory vaccination.
Picture from New York Times.

Thus, the question arises as to the legitimacy of said mandates. The large debate centres around the right to freedom of choice. The majority advocates a utilitarian approach, claiming personal choice should not interfere with the wellbeing of the collective. Few preach freedom, equating vaccine mandates to a form of tyranny and oppression and evoking the Human Rights Act, which states any individual has the right to body autonomy and to refuse any medical treatment.

The latter holds that – though not a direct match to forced vaccination – the resulting social and economic conditions are indirect coercion mechanisms. The prohibition from entry into establishments and weakened job positions impairs return to normality.

Additionally, recent studies by Goldman economists estimate vaccination mandates may result in lower employment in the short run, resulting in refusal to comply.

Many argue, however, that this argument is used to mask the true driver of vaccine resistance: politics. One example can be found in US politics, where a successful vaccination campaign could mean a successful Biden administration, spurring the desire for agitation.

The utilitarian school of thought stands on the benefits of vaccination, defending vaccination compulsion against many diseases has been taking place for generations now and that the upsides outweigh any freedom of choice objection. Scientific testing and recent developments have provided evidence that (1) unvaccinated people are in higher risk of contraction, (2) are more infectious, and (3) are more likely to require hospitalisation, placing additional stress on the health care system. Mandates would, therefore, be expected to improve public health, decrease total infections and diminish contagion rates.

Furthermore, supporters are of the opinion that the predicted short-run unemployment will be more than offset by economic recovery and relaunching. During periods of high infection and death rates, consumption and spending fall, resulting in output contraction and lower employment rates. Thus, long-run recovery is possible only after the resolution of the public health crisis.

Though possibly not ideal, vaccination mandates have emerged as the contemporary solution to the two-year-long public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some view these measures as an attack on freedom of choice, the majority acceptance and support has driven its implementation from political debate to reality. It remains only to be seen if these mandates will enable the return to normality.

Sources: New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, France24, BBC, ABC News, NPR, CNBC, Politico

Afonso Monteiro

Hugo Canau

João Sande e Castro

André Rodrigues

Maria Silva

Is Biden in trouble?

Reading time: 7 minutes

It has been almost 11 months since Joe Biden took the oath of office and replaced Donald Trump as President of the United States. The early success of the coronavirus vaccination process and a rapid economic recovery from the sharp decline in GDP experienced in 2020 due to the government-imposed lockdowns, made most political commentators think the new President was on his away to an easy political year. So why has Biden’s popularity plummeted over the last few months and why did his party loose the gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state governed by the Democrats for the last 12 years and on which Biden beat Trump by more than 10 percentage points?

Figure 1: Decline of Biden’s approval rating and increase of his disapproval ranting over the last few months.
Picture: 538

Anus horribilis?

Contrary to what was initially predicted, Joe Biden’s first year in office has been marked by a number of serious setbacks. Over the rest of the article, I will focus on 3 that are believed to be causing the increase in discontent with the new President and his party.

Vaccination hesitancy

On April 30th, the President’s promise to deliver 100 million vaccines on his first 100 days was met two times over and around 46% of the population had already received at least one dose of the vaccine, a percentage twice as high as that of the EU and six times that of the rest of the world. Daily new Covid cases and deaths were on a decline and a return to normal was on the horizon.

The early success of the vaccination process was, however, hiding the effect of the large vaccination hesitance in the country. According to a poll conducted for The Economist, around 30% of the population does not want to be vaccinated or is unsure, the highest rate in the developed world. Once those willing to get the jab received their doses, the US vaccination rates plummeted, creating the perfect ground for the new Delta Variant to hit the US in a dramatic way. Daily covid cases and deaths increased tenfold and new poorly communicated restrictions had to be imposed to halt the spread of the virus. For someone who had ran on a platform of bringing the coronavirus pandemic “under control”, this return to restrictions and rise in deaths was seen as failure by the President, and has resulted on sharp decline of his approval on handling covid from 63% to 49% in just six months.   

Figure 2: Anti-vacination protest.
Picture: Daily Beast

Evacuation of Afghanistan

When Biden became President the war in Afghanistan was already the longest conflict in US history. After 2448 US servicemen deaths, a cost of $2.3 trillion (around $7000 per American), and 19 years of conflict, the Taliban maintained a significant and growing presence in Afghanistan. The war had become very unpopular among voters, and both 2020 candidates ran on ending the war. In February of 2020, Trump stroke a deal with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan, and on April the 14th, despite a strong push from the Pentagon to remain until the Afghan security forces could assert themselves against the Taliban, Biden delivered on the deal and announced the US would pull all troops out of the country by September 11th.

As the American troops began to be pulled out, the Taliban went on the offensive and made rapid gains on the country. As the world saw the Afghan struggling to push back on the Taliban offensive, Biden defended his decision by saying it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would ever take control, but a little over a month later the Afghan government fled the country and the Taliban were entering Kabul virtually unopposed.

Once the government fell, the NATO forces organized a massive airlift of nationals, embassy staff, and Afghan citizens who worked with coalition forces. The chaos and panic that ensued at the Hamid Karzai international airport following weeks was broadcasted all around the globe, with heartbreaking pictures of desperate people hanging on to wheels of planes and falling to their deaths as they took off.

Although these awful images were already a stain on Biden’s Afghan policy of redrawing all troops, the worse episode came on August 26th when a suicide bomber and gunmen from ISIS targeted a gate at the airport where thousands of people were crowing trying to find a way out of the country. A total of 182 people lost their lives, 13 of them being US servicemen. Despite the chaos of the evacuation, by August 30th the US last military airplane took off with the last remaining troops, officially ending the 19th year military intervention. Over the 17 days that followed the fall of Kabul, the US and its allies evacuated over 120 thousand people out of the country. This success was not, however, enough to offset the horrifying scenes broadcasted from the airport over the next few days, with a poll by ABC News showing that 60% of Americans disapproved Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.  

Figure 3: Biden receives bodies of us servicemen killed in the airport terrorist attack at Dover Airbase.
Picture: The Times

Gridlock in Biden’s agenda

On the 2020 elections, Biden’s Democratic party not only won the Presidency but also won a majority in the Senate and maintained their majority in the lower house, the House of Representatives. It is although important to note that the majority held in the House of Representatives, also known as just the House, was cut down to just 9 seats, the lowest majority held by any party since 2000. In the Senate, the Democrats are tied with the Republicans with 50 seats each, but Vice President Kamala Harris can also vote in the Senate which gives the party control of this chamber as well. Although a bill needs 60 votes to be passed by the Senate, the Democrats can use a special rule to avoid this called “Reconciliation” and approve certain legislations with just 51 votes.

These two razor thin majorities in congress have made it very hard for the President to move forward with his legislative agenda without having every single senator and all but 4 congressmen on board. The long and complicated negations have severely delayed two important bills, a $1.2 trillion bill that aims at modernizing the country’s infrastructure and a social spending $3.5 trillion social spending bill combines major initiatives on the economy, education, social welfare, climate change and foreign policy. These two bills are highly popular among voters, with a Quinnipiac poll giving them a 60% approval, however, the party infighting between moderate and progressive Democrats has delayed the passage of this bills for months.

This deadlock in congress and failure to deliver on electoral promises has created an image of an incompetent party and President, and according to a Emerson College poll, a plurality of voters now want Republicans to regain control of both the Senate and the House in next year’s midterm elections. If this were to happen, Biden would have little to no chance of moving forward with any of his legislative agenda as Republicans would try to block any Democratic bills.

Troubling times

There are several other reasons for Biden’s fall in popularity among the American public: the slower than expected economic recovery, the fears of inflation or maybe it is just normal for Presidents to see their approval rates decrease as their “honeymoon” period wears off. Whatever the reason is, it seems to be a big problem for Democrats even though the 2024 elections are still three years away. One should note, however, that even despite the fall in support, Biden’s most likely opponent, Trump, is even more unpopular than the current President. This was seen in Virginia, a state Biden won easily in 2020, where the Republican Glenn Youngkin won the state’s gubernatorial election, but he did so by distancing himself from Trump and focusing on local issues. Also, Afghanistan will most likely not be on people’s minds by then, and the current gridlock in congress seems to be coming to an end, as congress has finally passed the infrastructure bill and is moving closer to find a consensus on the 3.5 trillion social spending one. The signs are not good for Democrats coming into next year’s midterm elections, and current projections show they will lose the majority they currently hold in both chambers of congress, but a lot can still happen in one year, and especially in three.

Sources: The Atlantic, Our World in Data, NPR, 538, Daily Beast, New York Times.

João Sande e Castro

Turbulent times in Afghanistan

Reading time: 5 minutes

The retreat of NATO forces from Afghanistan in late August 2021 was no surprise by any means: the Doha Agreement that had been signed in early 2020, between the US and Taliban, had long foresighted this event. Nonetheless, the quickness with which the Taliban managed to seize the territories of the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan left much of the world in awe. Who was this new political force, one that in days could defeat an entire nation?

History of the Taliban

The Taliban, meaning a group of students in Pashto, one of the many languages of Afghanistan, emerged as a political identity out of the englobing Mujahideen warriors who, with the financial backing of the US, China, Pakistan and others opposed the soviet aligned Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. With the Soviet retreat in the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, followed by the DRA collapse in 1992, the path was clear for the Mujahideen to take control of the nation.

Unfortunately for them, the different political movements who fought under their banner failed to settle their differences and, without the existence of their common foe, the DRA, a new civil war erupted. It was amidst this chaos, in late 1994, that the Taliban emerged, as a new group mainly encompassed by students from different madrasas, schools focused on the teaching of Islam, of the region. With their conquest of Kabul in 1996, they became the de facto rulers of the country, forming the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

This dominance lasted until 2001, when the American-led NATO forces invaded the country under the pretext of the Taliban government allowing the creation of terrorist training camps, led by Osama Bin-Laden’s AL-Qaeda, in their nation. After being ousted out of power, it was only now, in August of 2021, that the group has managed to reclaim political power over the region.

Figure 1 – Picture in a British Journal depicting Osama Bin-Laden and the Mujahideen in their fight against the DRA

Political Structure  

As one can imagine, this series of conflicts and civil wars severely impacted the country, with much of it needing reconstruction. As such, it is not surprising that in the first conference after the reconquest of Kabul the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that there would be no purges of supporters of the old regime, to guarantee stability to the local population. Nonetheless, NATO-aligned intelligence servers have warned about the risk of collaborators of the previous government being persecuted by the Taliban.

Figure 2 – Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, in his first conference after retaking Kabul

Furthermore, the Taliban quickly announced the creation and dissolution of new ministries for the nation. Headed by Mohammad Akhund, who had previously worked as the Foreign Minister of the country in the ‘90s, 11 men have been appointed to guide the nation within the framework of Sharia law. One of these men, however, has particularly raised concerns among western nations: Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Having been appointed as the new interior minister, who is responsible for the organization of the police and internal security, Haqqani is the leader of the Haqqani network, an organization that has been accused to have had links with al-Qaeda in the past, according to American sources. He is also on the FBI’s most-wanted list, leading to increased concerns regarding the maintenance of human rights in the country. 

Human Rights Concerns

Having already ruled the nation in the 1990s, many analysts have already drawn attention to the previously alleged violation of human rights by this group: in 1996, the Islamic group had prohibited women from studying or working due to concerns over their security. This ban lasted until the administration was toppled in 2001.

Furthermore, the EU and the US have criticized the lack of representation of women in the new Afghani government, claiming that this new institution ought to preserve the rights of existing minorities. Likewise, the former leader of the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs, which was dissolved by the Taliban, Hasina Safi, has requested international donors to only provide foreign aid to the country on its commitments to respect women’s rights.

Figure 3  – Afghan women protesting in Herat

As a response, the spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has asserted that there was still the possibility of having women appointed to the new cabinet and that “women will be afforded all their rights, whether it is at work or other activities, as they’re a key part of society. We are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam”.

In addition, the new higher-education minister has said women will be allowed to get an education, but women and men had to attend different universities. Likewise, female students would only be taught by female teachers, with the same teachers not being allowed to teach male students. While this would be an improvement over the previous state of affairs, it is unclear whether in the eyes of international entities this would be enough.

External Relations

The opinion of foreign entities might prove to be crucial to the development of the Afghani society, as the Taliban have inherited a country whose economy is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid, therefore keeping positive relations with their neighbours will be a must. To the northeast, the winds seem to have been favourable to the Taliban, as the People’s Republic of China has announced a 31 million dollars’ worth foreign aid donation, including 3 million Covid vaccines to the Afghan people.

Figure 4 – Taliban and Chinese representatives in a joined meeting in Tianjin

Likewise, Vladimir Putin proclaimed his willingness to cooperate with the new Afghan administration, as “Russia is not interested in the disintegration of Afghanistan. If this happens, then there will be no one to talk to”. In a joint meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Putin echoed Xi’s call for all regional capitals to increase their cooperation on sharing information on potential terrorist organizations. Finally, the fact that Pakistan was one of the only countries that formally recognized the Taliban government in the ‘90s indicates that both countries will continue their long history of cooperation.

There will be many challenges for the Afghan people in the nearby future, as their country is in dire need of political stability and reconstruction. With a median age of 18, one can only hope that the newer generations can guide the country to a sustainable future. It’s time that the Graveyard of empires stops being the graveyard of its people and becomes a blossoming and prosperous sovereign society.

Sources: Stanford, Human Rights Watch, New Cabinet, Chinese Aid, Putin Cooperation

Afonso Monteiro

André Rodrigues

Hugo Canau

João Sande e Castro

US Prision

Reading time: 6 minutes

The US has the largest prison population in the world, as well as the largest prison population per capita. The incarceration rate in the US is six times higher than the EU average, while the sentence times are on average three times longer than in the EU.

These statistics came as a consequence of decades of policies and has increased the disparities between the United States and other economically developed countries. According to academic and activist Angela Davis, as mass incarceration has increased, the prison system has shifted from being about criminality towards economic factors.

US’s mass incarceration problem

In June 1971, President Nixon declared officially a “War on Drugs”, stating that drug abuse was the US’ “public enemy number one”. This followed a sharp increase in recreational drug use in the 1960s and marked a key moment in the development of the US Prison System.  Nixon increased the funding of drug-control agencies and proposed strict sentances for drug crimes.

The critical moment, however, came during Reagan’s second term, where a bi-partisan Congress approved the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law substantially increased the number of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences. It also penalized disproportionately drugs that were typically associated with the black community, such as crack cocaine, as compared to drugs that were typically associated with white communities such as powder cocaine. The act, for example, mandated a minimum sentence of 5 years without parole for the possession of 5 grams of crack, while the same sentence would only be applied for 500 grams of powdered cocaine.

As expected, following the approval of this Act, there was a sharp increase in drug offense imprisonment, as well as an increase in the racial disproportion of said arrestees. The number of incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses increased from approximately 50.000 in 1980, to 400.000 in 1997.

Comparison between systems

The European Prison rules are a set of legally non-binding standards drawn up by the Council of Europe. The members of the Council include all countries in continental Europe, except Belarus and Kosovo, and countries are expected to comply with its rules.

The main difference between the American Prison System and the largest European Prison Systems is their general goal. Germany’s Prison Act states, for example, that “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release”, while the American Prison System focuses on punishing inmates. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, the prison system has responded to escalating crime rates by enacting highly punitive policies and laws. This has led to great disparity in incarceration rates, the European average in 2018 was 103,2 prisoners per 100.000 people, whereas in the US this number reached 655 prisoners per 100.000 in 2019.

In Europe, prisoners keep their right to vote, are allowed to receive welfare benefits and in some instances get the chance to spend some time away from prison (not uncommon in the Netherlands for prisoners to go home for the weekends). Family visits in the US happen in guarded visiting rooms, the prisoners generally forfeit their right to vote and (in some states) are not allowed to serve as juries.

In the US, little consideration is given to minor offenders, with some States trialling teenagers as young as 16 as adults. In some European countries, those under 21 are trialed in youth courts as to consider developing morals and psychologically or if crimes are considered “typically juvenile”.

Figure 1: Aftermath of a prison riot in California in 2009

The Economics of the American Prison System

The total annual expenditure of the US government on prisons and jails amounts to $84.6 billion, and, after adjusting for inflation, has quadrupled since 1982. There are therefore people with significant economic interests in maintaining mass incarceration. CoreCivic, the US’ second largest private corrections company, is traded at the NYSE and is a component of the S&P600. From 1999 to 2010, CoreCivic spent on average $1.4 million per year on lobbying on a federal and state level. An August 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice asserts that privately operated federal facilities are less safe and more punitive than other federal prisons.

Recently, these companies have come under fire and are even facing lawsuits as allegations of forced and underpaid labor came to light. These reports allege that these companies are exploiting people who are in vulnerable situations to reap profits. The hourly pay for inmates working in the US can vary anywhere from $0.09 to $4.90, depending on the State, while four States do not pay inmates any form of salary. This only decreases their chances of success once they are released, as they have little to no savings, and oftentimes are ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps.

Former inmates also face significant difficulties when trying to reenter the job market, as they face unemployment rates approximately five times higher than the general US population. This employer discrimination also affects disproportionately people of color and women. Formerly incarcerated black women face hardships finding employment, as their unemployment rate is almost seven times higher, at 43,6%, than the unemployment rate of their general population peers. The racial disproportionality regarding the incarcerated population, as well as the disadvantages they face once out of the Prison System will perpetuates racial inequalities, affecting particularly minority communities.

Figure 2: Prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary working at a farm

The consequences of mass incarceration

The consequences of mass incarceration go far beyond the financial impact, they affect individuals and communities all over the US. A prison sentence oftentimes has the opposite effect of what it is intended to achieve. Instead of being rehabilitated and ready to integrate society, many former prisoners fall into a cycle of crime after their release, due to either being pulled into gang activity within the prison walls, or turning to illegal activities due to financial need. Mandatory sentencing has doomed the lives of people charged with low-level offenses, punishing them for the rest of their lives.

According to a research conducted by the Congressional Research Service, on average, over a five-year period, 76,6% of released inmates will return to prison.

The effect on communities is also extensive, affecting primarily minority communities as these are the ones with the highest incarceration rates, even though they have similar drug usage and drug trafficking rates as white communities. Residents of neighborhoods with high incarceration rates face a disproportionate level of stress, due to a combination of disrupted family and social networks, as well as increased rates of crime and infectious diseases such as HIV. Furthermore, studies have shown that this also takes a toll on mental health, as one study concluded that “The effect of neighborhood-level incarceration on mental health is similar for individuals with and without a history of incarceration.”.

Mass incarceration has had a negative impact on individuals and society, the policy choices of the last 50 years have helped perpetuate racial inequalities in minority communities. One possible way to overcome this issue, would be to transform the American Prison System from a punitive one, into a rehabilitative Prison System, as seen throughout the EU. The question that remains is, when will American lawmakers tackle this issue, ensuring the American Prison System becomes an efficient tool for rehabilitating felons, making them ready to integrate society.

Sources: American Civil Liberties Union, History Channel, Reuters, NPR, sentencingproject.org

Afonso Monteiro

Hugo Canau

Christian Weber

100 days of Biden: Back to the Future?

Reading time: 7 minutes

Joe Biden has completed 100 days in office, a mark historically known to be thoroughly scrutinized by the American society and a key point to illustrate what the Administration has done so far, and what are their main goals and challenges ahead.

The 100 days mark is known to be a predictor of how well the Administration will perform during the 4-year span, and the first moment of analysis of approval ratings of the President compared to some of his predecessors.

A fast mover

Joe Biden has moved fast and steadily, with the Biden Administration issuing more executive orders than his predecessor Donald Trump. Executive orders include not only executive actions, but also reversals of predecessors’ actions.

Biden has issued 52 executive orders against 39 of Donald Trump and 34 of Barack Obama, in the same time period. Of those 52 executive actions, close to half, 24, have been reversals of orders executed by the Trump’s administration, mainly in the health and immigration sector.

The focus has been on tackling the biggest health crisis the United States has faced: The Coronavirus.

Figure 1: Joe Biden’s Executive Orders (First 100 days), Source: The White House; Graphic: Christopher Hickey, CNN

Immigration policies and equity have been two of the other key components where Joe Biden has invested his time, which can be explained by Donald Trump’s strongly opposing views on the matters.

Vaccination and SARS-CoV-2

Regarding vaccination, the President has set bigger goals as his tenure went forward. The initially set goal of 100 million vaccine shots was substituted by 220 million shots by the end of March, which was seen by many as an unrealistic goal. The truth is, according to official data from US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the goal has even been surpassed: 235 million vaccine shots have been administered during this period.

The increase has mainly been done through the information campaign that has been led by this Administration, which ensures the safety of the vaccines and its long and short-term benefits for the country. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) also included a strong funding component for vaccination, which cannot be understated in helping the country achieve its targeted goals.

The Administration has also pledged close to $4 billion to COVAX, the main program designed to achieve global vaccination.

Schools have been reopened slowly and the healthcare investment, fueled by the ARP, has reached all-time highs to fight the spread of the virus.

As a result, there has been a strong decrease in cases and deaths all around the country, which reduced the pressure on the American health institutions, as well as on the governors of each state, that were coping with challenges hard to overcome regarding Covid-19 measures.

Figure 2: Covid-19 cases from March 2020 to the 25th of May 2021, Source: CNN/CDC

Immigration: the great challenge ahead

Immigration was a strong topic of discussion during Biden’s campaign, as there was a general uncertainty to how the Democratic president was going to manage the strong stances the previous administration had towards border control and immigration in the country.

The strategy regarding immigration has mainly been to reverse what was done by Donald Trump, as there have been 10 reversals regarding the topic, more than in any other area of action of the Biden’s administration.

One of the key reversals was to the law passed by the previous administration that empowered the U.S authorities to rapidly expel migrant children caught at the border without their parents. The measure, which has been seen to have been crucial to improve the efficiency of the reunification process, has led to a raise in the number of children looking for their families at the borders of the country.

Despite the positive early results, the sheltering of children has been under fire by fellow democrats, as well as the increased strain on healthcare services, who reduced the number of beds destined to migrants by 40% due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The health situation of these children has been one of the main topics of American politics for the past few months and will certainly be an interesting topic to follow as it unfolds.

Economic Relief and Job Creation

The economic recovery in the United States due to the effects of SARS CoV-2 has generated the biggest stimulus plans the country has ever witnessed. 

The massive relief proposal, the American Rescue Plan, was approved last March and includes strong economic stimulus, such as $1,400 stimulus’ checks and a $15 increase in the federal minimum wage.

Some of the other measures include a federal income tax break and more than $350 billion to states and local governments, the latter being seen as a key turning point in the states’ fight against difficult challenges, such as the renters and child tax credit struggles.

A record number of jobs have been created by the Biden Administration in the first 100 days. More than 1.3 million jobs have been added, a record number that will likely keep rising due to the strong stimulus strategy that has been employed by the Administration.

The American Jobs Plan intends to increase that number. The 22.5 trillion dollars plan is not going to be only focused in traditional infrastructure (roads, railroads, bridges, among others) but also in electric vehicles, R&D, green economy and supply chains, just to name a few. It is important to highlight that bipartisan commitment in this matter is hard and tends to lower the original proposed value of the plan.

Figure 3: Job growth evolution, Source: BBC: Bureau of Labor Statistics

It is also important to state that future economic measures may not have Congress’ easy approval, as the expenditure is already achieving high numbers which may trigger a negative response by the conservative members of the Congress and the House.

Foreign Policy

Although many thought the US-China relationship was going to be the main discussion point of the Biden Administration regarding foreign policy, the President has overcome the topic by putting in place a measure that trumps it: the complete withdrawing of troops from Afghanistan until September 11, which marks the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, in New York.

The withdrawal of troops from the country was initiated by Barack Obama, and slightly reversed by Donald Trump but is now being fulfilled by Biden, as he looks to only keep in the country the crucial troops for American diplomats’ protection.

The strategy has, however, been thoroughly criticized by the conservative wing of American politics, as it is believed that it will undermine the strength of the United States position in the Middle East.

The Administration has also placed efforts on salvaging the US-Iran nuclear deal, with ongoing talks at a very early stage.

The position on Russia, a long-declared enemy, has also been strong and decisive, with the President expelling Russian diplomats in response to the SolarWinds attack and to the interference in the 2020 US elections. The president went even further accusing Vladimir Putin of being an “assassin” in a BBC’s official interview.

The efforts to restore policies regarding the environment have been headlined by the return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, even though no plan has yet been underlined to meet the goals of reducing carbon emissions.

In sum, President Biden has been active regarding foreign policy, which was seen as crucial to reverse Donald Trump’s stances on the matter.

Approval Ratings

Joe Biden has shown strong approval ratings, higher than Donald Trump’s 40% but still not matching his democratic counterpart, Barack Obama.

Of the 53% of adults that approve Biden’s first 100 days, 90% are democrats, 61% independents and just 9% republicans.

Coronavirus and the economic recovery seem to be the main booster of Biden’s public perception, as they represent the two main reasons for the approval rating of the 46th President of the United States.

What is further restraining the approval rating are two challenges that strongly lie ahead, as mentioned along the article: border patrol and immigration.

Figure 4: Presidential approval rating, Source: NBC News

In sum, Biden’s first 100 days have been eventful and challenging, due to the lack of unity in the Nation after the incidents at the nation’s Capitol. Many challenges lie ahead, such as bipartisan commitment in key issues, such as the America Jobs Plan, and diplomatic crisis such as Israel, Iran, or the EU. It will be interesting to see how the administration will fare in these matters.

Miguel Ferreira

Miguel holds a Bachelors in Communication Sciences and is a NovaSBE Alumni. He previously worked as an external consultant for Câmara Municipal de Cascais and currently has a role of political consultant at Companhia de Consultadoria e Comunicação do Porto.

In September 2021, he will be integrating EY-Parthenon as a Consultant in the area of Public Policy.

He considers himself an avid reader with interests over public policies and political strategies.

Palestinian Election

Reading time: 7 minutes

For the first time since 2006, Palestinian citizens were expected to exercise their right to vote in legislative elections initially scheduled for the 22nd of May 2021. In a complex geopolitical territory located at a crossroads between Africa and Asia and with a past of Western influence, the opportunity to express their voice in the polls is a rare occasion for Palestinians. As it has been seen in current events, these elections are expected to trigger reactions from the international community and neighboring powers, notably Israel.

Modern Palestine’s complex past

Although the region of Palestine has long been controversial, regarded as the Holy Land by Christians, Jews and Muslims, the State of Palestine dates back to the 20th century.

Between 1896 and 1948, due to Zionist movement [1], and later to flee prosecution across Europe during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Jews re-settled on what was initially the Ottoman Empire and following the Empire’s fall, British Palestine, in a majorly Arab and Muslim populated area. The local Arab community, which started developing their identity as Palestinian Arabs, resisted the attempt of a national Jewish homeland, claiming the land was theirs. Arabs thought Britain would endorse them in return for their support against the Ottomans during the First World War [2], but Great Britain and France predicted instead an international division of the territory [3]. In 1947 and marking the fall of British rule, the United Nations (UN) proposed a partition plan to split the territory in two and grant the city of Jerusalem, disputed by both parties as their rightful capital, a special international status. While the Jewish community agreed to the plan, Palestinians feverishly opposed it, the scheme being interpreted by locals as “Europeans trying to steal their land”.

Figure 1: UN proposed division of territory between Israel and Palestine in 1947
Source: Vox

Two major conflicts in the 20th century were especially defining for Palestine. Firstly, the Arab-Israeli war (1948) opposed Israel to five Arab powers: Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, seeking to establish “a unified Arab Palestine”. Following the conflict, Israel controlled more than two-thirds of former British-ruled territory. Additionally, Jordan took over the West Bank while Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded with the objective of forming an Arab state in Palestine, largely comprised of the territories that had previously been British dominated and would now be illegitimately occupied by Israel. The second major event was the Six Day War (1967), which again resulted in significant land losses for Palestine to the benefit of Israel, who took over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Nonetheless, the PLO’s existence was recognized by the Israel through the Oslo Accords (1993), in exchange for Israel’s right to exist to be recognized by the PLO itself. Following these agreements, Yasser Arafat (PLO), Shimon Peres (Israel) and Yitzhak Tabin (Israel) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.

Palestinians wish to establish a State in a part or in all territory that is now occupied by Israel. Today, the State of Palestine is officially recognized by more than 135 UN powers (but not by the United States and Israel) and includes parts of modern Israel as well as the Gaza Strip, along the Mediterranean Coast, and the West Bank, which is located west of the Jordan River, although no international consensus regarding the borders has been achieved. Around 20% of the Israeli population identify as Arabs. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are home to a majorly Arab population, territories which are also disputed by Israel, although many Palestinians also live in neighboring countries like Lebanon.

Fatah, Hamas and the long-lasting division of Palestinians

For decades, Fatah, the major political party in the PLO, dominated Palestinian politics. Fatah leaders negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords that handed limited control of Palestinian territories from Israel to the new Palestinian Authority (PA). Since then, they have led the government through successive crises and peace deals with Israel and international parties.

In 1987, however, the opposition party Hamas was created on the pretext that Fatah and the PLO were too compromised with Israel. Hamas disagreed with many of the deals, and soon came to be seen by many as a threat to peace in the region, a violent extremist group who did not accept the existence of Israel and actively seeked its destruction. In 2003, Fatah negotiated with Israel under US President Bush’s “roadmap for peace” – a plan to end conflict in the region by creating a stable Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Hamas opposed.

In the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas won a surprising victory. With 74 out of the 132 seats in the Legislative Council, it could take control of most government positions. In response, the US and Israel imposed economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. They hoped these would destabilize the government, leading to new elections.

The formation of a Hamas government, in which Fatah refused to participate, led to an increase in hostility between both sides. These tensions quickly turned into incidents of violence between the supporters of the two groups, leading to dozens of deaths.

Figure 2: Hamas demonstrators clash with Palestinian Security Forces in the West Bank
Source: The Eletronic Intifada

In early 2007, Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to form a coalition government, in order to end violence in the streets and lift international sanctions against Palestine. However, it was just some months until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s leader, declared a state of emergency and dismissed the coalition, including the Hamas Prime Minister. Hamas, regarding the President’s actions as unconstitutional, formed an alternative government. A brief civil war erupted, with each party supported by different factions of the armed forces. These conflicts concluded with Hamas taking control of the Gaza strip, and Fatah having control of the West Bank.

Figure 3: Division of Palestinian State in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by Fatah
Source: ResearchGate

Since 2007, many attempts have been made to mend the conflict. Disagreements over holding elections led legislative and presidential votes to be postponed in both territories. Numerous talks and attempted deals between the two parties were unsuccessful. Most recently, in 2017, Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold new legislative elections in 2018, but these never occurred. On the West Bank, President Abbas announced elections would be held in 2019, but then postponed them.

Palestinian Elections – Dream or Reality?

In 2021, Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold legislative and presidential elections once more, later scheduling them for the 22nd of May. However, it was not long until Abbas postponed both indefinitely, allegedly due to uncertainty regarding Palestinians’ access to polls in East Jerusalem. In fact, just as in the 2006 elections, while Israel has control of the area, it has issued no formal announcement on whether it will allow elections to take place.

This postponement has been widely criticized not only by Hamas, but also by future voters, especially those under the age of 34, who have not yet been able to exercise their rights. Some believe Mr Abbas postponed the elections by fear of not having enough support, as he has seen his popularity shrink in polls. Having led the country for a decade over his initial mandate, new younger faces are now competing against him even within his the party. Both Fatah’s party member Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in jail, and Nasser Al-Qudwa, who is the nephew of Fatah’s founder, will compete against Abba, being a symbol of a younger generation who seeks to reshape the party’s values. However, Fatah still holds some advantage over Hamas in election polls, partly due to the latter’s mismanagement of Gaza, who has seen three destructive wars over the last 10 years.

Figure 4: Mural painting in Gaza City calling on people to vote for the 2021 elections
Source: BBC

15 years later, these elections could symbolize a reunion of Palestinians with democracy.

The delay will cause a great disappointment among Palestinians, most of (whom) hoped it was time to end the dividiond and bring about a change.

Talal Okal, Gaza analyst

In light of the previous events, what will these elections mean? Will they mark a turning point in Palestine’s history, or is history just repeating itself?

[1] According to Britannica, Zionism is a “Jewish nationalist movement supporting the creaton of a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews. [..]. Though Zionism originated in eastern and central Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, it is in many ways a continuation of the ancient attachment […] of the Jewish religion to the historical region of Palestine, where one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem was called Zion.”

[2] McMahon–Hussein Correspondence.

[3] Sykes–Picot Agreement.

Sources: Britannica, History, BBC, Vox, Albawaba, Aljazeera, Reuters, Washington Post, Financial Times, Oxford Journals, Brandeis University Publication

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