If Women Ran Syria

16 October 2014

Syrian Women Know How to Defeat ISIS


Note: Names and identifying details of Syrian activists referenced in this article are withheld to ensure their safety.

To the Islamic State, Syrian women are slaves. To much of the rest of the world, they are victims.

It’s time we expose their real identity: an untapped resource for creating lasting peace. Listening to and implementing the ideas of women still living in Syria is key to weakening ISIS and stabilizing the region at large because, in many ways, they have a better track record laying the foundations for peace and democracy than any other group.

Over the last two years, we’ve worked side-by-side with Syrian women leaders as they propose concrete steps to end the war. Most recently, we brought several women representing large civil society networks to Washington, D.C., where they cautioned against the current approach of the international community – and proposed a very different blueprint for the region’s future.

More arms and more bombs, they said, are not the answer.

They insisted that the only way to fight this extremist threat is to return to the negotiating table and hash out a peaceful political transition to heal the divisions ripping Syria apart.

More: Where are all the women peacekeepers

“Oppression is the incubator of terrorism,” one woman told us as the group prepped for meetings with high-level officials in D.C. and New York. Her participation in peaceful protests during the early days of the revolution led to her two-month imprisonment in a four square meter room shared with 30 other women—yet she was adamant: “We cannot fight ISIS except through a political approach.”

During three-plus years of war, Syrian women have consistently led efforts to end the violence and mitigate suffering.

That women who’ve been hunted and tortured for their nonviolent activism still say “no more bombs” is remarkable. That their solutions are forward-looking and inclusive is unsurprising; we’ve seen similar approaches from women in conflicts all over the world. In Colombia, Northern Ireland, Uganda, and dozens of other places, women have been catalysts for sustainable, inclusive peace.

During three-plus years of war, Syrian women have consistently led efforts to end the violence and mitigate suffering. They’ve worked under the direst circumstances: dodging sniper bullets, evading arrest, surviving without adequate food or medicine. They’ve retained hope and determination in ways that most of us would find impossible.

That’s precisely why we must listen to them.

So what do they recommend? To create stability (which is kryptonite to extremists), Syrian women say three things must happen.

First, humanitarian aid must get to the millions in grave need. Almost three million people are registered as refugees in neighboring countries and over six million are displaced inside Syria. That’s in a country with a pre-war population of just under 18 million. Approximately half of the remaining inhabitants live in extreme poverty.

In response to this disaster, the UN made an urgent appeal for $2.28 billion just to meet the critical requirements of the internally displaced. So far, Member States have committed only $864 million—a little over one-third of the total. Last month, the UN was forced to cut the delivery of food aid by 40 percent.

Get the Weekly Wonk sent straight to your inbox.

Violent extremism thrives in areas where social services have all but disappeared. A woman who serves on the local council of an opposition-held town told us that she fears more of her neighbors may become radicalized because there’s no work, no education, and no other opportunities.

Women have been deeply involved in distributing and monitoring humanitarian aid in communities across Syria. Typically perceived as less of a threat, they’re able to smuggle supplies through checkpoints without being searched. This affords them first-hand witness of the different needs of zones under government, opposition, Islamic State, or other control. They’ve seen, for instance, that food baskets can’t get into areas blockaded by the regime; in these circumstances, cash transfers are more effective. To reach the greatest number of people, relief agencies should coordinate with civil society and devise humanitarian strategies that reflect these differences.

Second, international actors must encourage local pockets of stability. Beyond funding, a key barrier to humanitarian access is the ongoing violence. Besieged areas are the hardest to reach and most in need.

Here too, women have a solution. Though missing from most news reports, a number of local ceasefire arrangements have proliferated throughout the country, often negotiated by civil society actors. In the Damascus suburbs, a women’s group brokered a ceasefire between regime and opposition forces. For 40 days before fighting resumed, they were able to get essential supplies into the city.

More: Can women unlock Syria’s stalemate? 

Syrian women are now calling on the UN to not only track these local arrangements, but assign international monitors to ensure parties stick to them. Beyond opening channels for the passage of humanitarian aid, this may also help the parties come closer to an agreement to cease hostilities on the national level. This will require accountability, as these negotiations are all too often used as a tool of political manipulation.

As important is the construction of an inclusive peace process. One that engages women, but also others who have thus far been missing from the conversation…

Which brings us to the third, and potentially most important, step: The parties must return to internationally-mediated negotiations and agree on a political solution to the conflict. The last round of talks in Geneva failed, it’s true. But this is still the best solution to the burgeoning civil war and the opportunistic extremism that has followed it. Only a unified Syria can beat back the ISIS threat.

Convincing both parties to come back to the table won’t be easy. But Syrian women have identified concrete ideas that could help unite disparate factions by encouraging them to cooperate on mutually beneficial activities. For instance, the regime and opposition could coordinate the safe passage of university students between government- and nongovernment-controlled areas to allow them to resume their studies. The women also call on parties to prioritize construction of temporary housing for those displaced by the conflict on both sides. These actions could help cultivate trust between the regime and opposition and encourage popular support on all sides for renewed negotiations.

As important is the construction of an inclusive peace process. One that engages women, but also others who have thus far been missing from the conversation: the Kurds, Druze, youth, independent civil society networks, tribal leaders, and, yes, more radical elements like Jabhat al-Nusra, who can otherwise spoil the talks from the outside. Without this, no agreement stands a chance.

These three priorities—humanitarian relief, support for local ceasefires, and resumption of negotiations—are not the result of idealistic or wishful thinking. This is not an abstract call by Syrian women to “give peace a chance.” It’s a plea for policy approaches that are grounded in the lived experiences and long-term goals of the vast majority of the Syrian people.

Regional and global stability depend on the international community getting this right. Luckily for us, Syrian women—and civil society more broadly—know exactly what it will take to rebuild their country and undermine the ambitions of the Islamic State. Will we listen?

About the Author

Michelle Barsa
Michelle Barsa is Senior Manager for Policy at Inclusive Security Action, where she focuses on expanding the role for women in peace and security processes, particularly in Afghanistan and Syria.
Kristin Williams
Kristin Williams is Senior Writer and Program Officer at The Institute for Inclusive Security, where she calls attention to the most powerful, untapped resource for peace: women. She is also a contributor to New America's Global Gender Parity Initiative.

Frozen II : The Tech Industry’s Eggs

If you have children under the age of ten (or know anyone who does), you know at least one person who’s bought an Elsa costume for Halloween. But what if you’re a person for whom the word “frozen” doesn’t trigger lyrics but a melody of anxiety in your head about when or whether you’ll ever have kids?

Apple and Facebook attempted to address that anxiety this week, when they announced that they would pay for female employees to freeze their eggs. We asked a group of experts to react to the news: Is this is an important step to narrowing the tech industry’s big gender gap and empowering its female employees? Or is it a misguided policy that could be used to pressure women into making an unsafe and uninformed decision?


Liza Mundy, Director of the Breadwinning and Caregiving Program:

 Earlier this year the big tech firms issued (in some cases grudgingly) reports on the diversity and gender makeup of their workforces. When it comes to the inclusion of women they did not do well. Since then, some strategizing has clearly taken place about new ways to attract and retain women workers. I’d draw a direct line between those reports and policies like the coverage of egg freezing.

Among other things, this is a high-profile effort to attract female hires. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but I do worry that company-paid egg freezing contributes to an environment in which women are subtly expected to delay starting families. I’d put it in the category of other Silicon Valley perks, like ping-pong tables and fancy cafeteria food, that encourage workers to stay on the job. I was recently told by one high-up HR person at a major tech firm that they have trouble persuading men to take the paternity leave these companies famously offer, suggesting that the work environment is one where employees are reluctant to leave their desks. The egg-freezing perk I think may exacerbate a culture where people prioritize work over the messier, but deeply important, parts of life.

‪I’m all for choice and for giving women the same options men have, including, I guess, having kids at 45 and 50 and 60. But I also worry about romanticizing technology and the notion that there is a technical fix for everything. Egg freezing is not an advanced technology. It’s getting better, but there are not all that many success stories yet.

When it comes to attracting female employees, there are more important fixes. I’d rather read a headline that says, “Facebook and Apple achieve gender parity on their corporate boards.” Or “Facebook and Apple unveil massive, luxurious, amply staffed, ubiquitous, state-of-the-art on-site day care, setting off a national trend.” But I guess you have to start somewhere.

Stephanie Stark, author of “Egg Freezing for Every Woman”:

Facebook and Apple’s decision to pay for women to freeze their eggs and is an important tool in narrowing the tech gender gap.  Currently, women who want to be mothers may feel obliged to take advantage of a relatively narrow fertility window, particularly in comparison to men, by temporarily stepping out of their current career path to have children.   Egg freezing gives women more options for both their career and reproductive choices.

Apple and Facebook are very forward-thinking and have created a great benefit for women here.  I really believe this is going to generate some additional interest from women job applicants who want the option of freezing eggs and appreciate an employer who gets that it’s in everyone’s best interest to allow for coverage of this potentially life-changing technology.

Jeff Gillis, former Google employee, publisher imprint of “Egg Freezing For Every Woman” by Stephanie Stark ( her contribution is above):

Every woman Stephanie interviewed for her book who had undergone the procedure felt empowered and would recommend it to women who were in similar situations. Egg freezing seems to be as life-changing an option as birth control, and as empowering as any tenet in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” All of them say it gave them more options. And each of the women had different reasons for undergoing the procedure. Perhaps they weren’t in a relationship and were approaching their late 30s. Perhaps they were involved in their career, or had just gone through a break up. There are many reasons. By offering to cover costs, Facebook and Apple aren’t encouraging their female employees to freeze their eggs. Rather they’re being considerate about one of the most important aspects of a woman’s life – the reproductive aspect – and providing their employees with options.

Having the support of an employer when it comes to egg freezing can increase the career-span and contribution potential of an invested female employee – a plus for both the company and the employee. At the end of the day, employees are the lifeblood of a company. Making them happy attracts more good employees and makes the current ones happier and better performing. It’s a virtuous cycle. This perk falls in that area. Egg freezing gives women more control in life and allows them more time to excel in a career they’re passionate about. In short, it just gives them options.

Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society:

Egg freezing is an option all right – but one that is risky, invasive, and highly unreliable.

Egg retrieval itself is neither simple nor safe. It involves weeks of injections with powerful hormones, some used off-label, to hyper-stimulate your ovaries. Nausea, bloating and discomfort are common; more serious reactions requiring hospitalization – including severe pain, intra-abdominal bleeding, and ovarian torsion – occur at low but, for an elective procedure, not negligible rates. Deaths, fortunately rare, have been reported.

Some studies suggest that egg retrieval is associated with higher rates of infertility and cancer. But shockingly, though the fertility industry has harvested eggs for decades, experts acknowledge that there haven’t been enough follow-up studies to ascertain the extent of these longer-term risks.

Nor are frozen eggs necessarily benign for the children who result from them. The chemicals used in the freezing process are toxic, but no one knows whether they’re absorbed by embryos, or whether that might cause problems as children get older.

And of course using those frozen eggs means trying to get pregnant via IVF, with its attendant higher rates of multiple pregnancies, cesarean sections, stillbirths and fetal anomalies.

What about the reliability of egg freezing? If your plan is work now and live later, will you be able to thaw your eggs and take home a baby? According to a 2013 meta-analysis, the new improved flash-freezing method fails 70% of the time among women age 30 and close to 90% of the time in women age 40.

Even the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, whose members have a financial interest in promoting expensive new fertility procedures, explicitly discourages egg freezing for elective, non-medical reasons.

Women working for companies that offer egg freezing may experience this “benefit” as pressure more than empowerment. And egg freezing is at best – for a lucky minority – an individualized high-tech fix for what is fundamentally a social problem that should be addressed by family-friendly workplace policies. Sadly, Facebook and Apple are endorsing a technique that puts their employees’ health at risk, and that could actually make it more difficult for them to have children.

Brigid Schulte, 2012 New America Fellow, Washington Post staff writer:

The news from Apple and Facebook was met with a swarm of media coverage buzzing that this was the latest in the “perks arms race” to attract talent. Yet, to me, the satirical Onion had perhaps the best perspective: “I’ll be proud to show my children the browser plug-in that’s the reason they’re 9 and not 14,” said one fictional programmer.

High-tech firms, with the kind of high-paying jobs that will only become more in demand as the world turns ever-more digital, are notoriously white and Asian male, according to their own internal audits. The culture values those who work such long hours that they sometimes sleep under their desks. Yahoo employees once sported T-shirts, “90 Hours a week and Loving it.”

That “hero mindset,” according to a report by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, is the result of bad management by boy geniuses with somewhat awkward social skills. It is also “sending the message that those who have family responsibilities need not apply.” As do the new policies that support egg freezing.

This message seems to me to be pretty loud and clear: Instead of analyzing work flow, what makes for excellent work, and their own work cultures, these high-tech companies are acquiescing to the exhausting, unsustainable status quo. They won’t, can’t or don’t want to change the way they expect people to work in technology. So you, dearie, must use said technology to change the way you expect to live. Offering to freeze women’s eggs may be a nod to current reality, but it’s truly a shame if that’s really the best Silicon Valley has to offer women and men who want to both work in this fascinating, rewarding and highly compensated field, and have families while they still can.

(The above is an excerpt from a piece Schulte wrote for the Washington Post). 

How A Sex Scandal Changed Democracy


New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

One week of presidential politics in the spring of 1987 changed political journalism forever and not for the better. So says noted political writer (and alumnus of three presidential campaign trails) Matt Bai in his new book, All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. On this episode, Bai speaks with Schmidt Family Fellow Christopher Leonard to tell us how Gary Hart’s failed presidential bid fundamentally shaped this modern age of political tabloid journalism and what he thinks that means for the future of democracy.


The New Extremist Incubator

By E.K.

Editor’s Note: The author is a Beirut-based journalist who, due to security concerns, prefers to be identified with initials.

Being a foot soldier in the Lebanese Armed Forces surely ranks high on the list of unenviable professions. Aside from trying to maintain calm along the country’s perennially hot borders with both Israel and Syria, the Lebanese army has been repeatedly targeted by suicide bombers from radical Sunni groups over the past year.

But the job is not thankless. After winning a five-day battle against Islamist fighters in the Lebanese town of Arsal, the army has enjoyed massive public support. Since the early August clashes, flags bearing the armed forces insignia have appeared in window displays and on car decals across the country. Rivaling politicians repeat pro-army mantras at public appearances and nightly talk shows.

At a time when political divisions in the country run so deep that Parliament has been unable to elect a president for months, there is a real—and perhaps not unfounded—sense that the army is the only thing keeping Lebanon together during this precarious time. But there is also a darker side to this hawkish pride. In their efforts to protect Lebanon from the very real threat of terrorism, the Lebanese Army is actually contributing to the radicalization of some Syrian refugees.

More: 7 articles to read on ISIL

Whether you live in the U.S. or in Lebanon, chances are you haven’t heard about this story because the Lebanese media have been observing an effective blackout on any negative coverage of the LAF since August. Anyone who raises questions about the army’s tactics, particularly its use of force against Syrian refugees, is silenced. After posting a tweet criticizing the army, Al Jazeera TV host Faisal al-Qassem was sued for slander by a group of Lebanese lawyers, and the network’s Beirut offices were stormed by dozens of pro-army civilian protesters.

In their efforts to protect Lebanon from the very real threat of terrorism, the Lebanese Army is actually contributing to the radicalization of some Syrian refugees.

Important stories are not being told. One is that the seemingly ironclad public support for the army may be eroding. While the army has focused on staunching Sunni extremism, the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah has received a tacit blessing from the authorities. Despite Lebanon’s official policy of dissociation from the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah fighters cross the border and battle alongside Bashar Assad with impunity. The LAF is either unable or unwilling (or both) to stop them.

Perceiving a double standard, some Sunnis (both Lebanese and Syrian) have stepped up anti-army rhetoric. Last week at least two LAF positions in North Lebanon were attacked. At army checkpoints, boy-faced soldiers scan cars for bombs with fear in their eyes.

While its almost impossible to fathom the conditions brave members of the LAF face every day, it is unacceptable and unwise for the army to apply prejudicial policies.

Another story is that of  LAF’s questionable and decidedly heavy-handed methods to maintain security in Lebanon.

Since members of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra emerged from the badlands and Syrian refugee camps surrounding the remote town of Arsal in August, the LAF has been trying to purge the area of militants and rescue more than 20 servicemen still held captive by the groups.

Still, the army’s harsh tactics are both shortsighted, unproductive and dangerous.

Mass arrests of Syrian boys and men, from ages 15 to 60, have gone largely unreported in the Lebanese press. Hundreds of men have been summarily rounded up in refugee camps and taken in for questioning. Several have reported being severely beaten while in custody.

A young Syrian refugee, just 12-years-old, told me how he was taken from the streets of Aral and beaten in a shack by uniformed members of the army. He was only freed when an elderly Lebanese man happened to hear his screams and chastised the soldiers for beating a helpless boy.

A twenty-year old man who was arrested at an army checkpoint said 10 soldiers beat him before he was released without charge.

Slaughter: Don’t fight in Iraq and ignore Syria. 

Others reported that the Lebanese army had use tanks to steamroll vehicles and property belonging to refugees during recent raids.

There is no question that Lebanon faces a dire security situation compounded by the presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, who now comprise more than 20 percent of the population.

Lebanon’s abject failure to manage the refugee crisis has contributed to heightened security concerns. As there are no official camps for refugees in Lebanon, Syrians are scattered in rented homes and haphazard tented settlements across the country. In this chaotic landscape it has become difficult for the army to distinguish between innocent refugees and fighters.

Still, the army’s harsh tactics are both shortsighted, unproductive and dangerous. Several Syrian refugees in the town of Arsal told me that after facing “humiliation” at the hands of the Lebanese army, many young men are turning towards Islamist groups operating in the area, including ISIS and Jabat al Nusra.

Young men, one refugee explained, would rather “die an honorable death” fighting alongside the Islamists than suffer indignity at the hands of the Lebanese army.

A commander of the Free Syrian army based in Arsal told me that he had recently seen his cousin, bloody and beaten, in a video circulating online. The cousin had been detained and later released by the army several days prior.

“He had nothing to do with ISIS,” the commander told me. “But he will now.”

The Future of Campaign Finance

By  election day, an estimated $200 million in “dark money” will have flowed into the 2014 mid-term elections, more than any other election season when Presidential elections are factored out. But after two recent Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United v F.E.C., and McCutcheon v F.E.C., what will the future of campaign finance hold? In a Google Hangout this week, two experts answered your questions on a broad range of topics, including what influence dark money has on elections, and if the two recent Supreme Court decisions really had an impact. Watch the whole conversation above.


Mark Schmitt

Director of the Political Reform Program at New America

Katherine Mangu-Ward

Managing Editor of Reason


Fuzz Hogan

Managing Editor at New America

The Euro-Apprentice


At last, unemployment is easing. But the latest low rate – hovering below 6 percent –obscures a deeper, longer-term problem: “skills mismatches” in the labor force that will only worsen in years to come. According to the most recent figures, 9.3 million Americans are unemployed – but 4.8 million jobs stand empty because employers can’t find people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man new machines and manage new processes.

One solution has enchanted employers, educators and policymakers on both sides of the aisle: European-style apprenticeship. The Obama administration is about to announce $100 million worth of apprenticeship grants – and wants to spend another $6 billion over the next four years. Meanwhile, lawmakers as different as Democrat Sen. Cory Booker and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have expressed interest in the idea.

Americans should proceed with caution.

I’ve just come back from Germany, where I visited some half dozen apprenticeship programs at brand-name companies like Daimler, Siemens and Bosch, and the metaphor I came away with is a native tree – flourishing, productive, highly adapted to its local climate zone – but unlikely to take root or grow in a climate as different as the U.S. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t adapt the German model. But it’s not going to be quick or easy.

The first thing you notice about German apprenticeships: employer and employee still respect practical work. German firms don’t view dual training as something for struggling students or at-risk youth.

America has its own tradition of apprenticeship going back many years. But like most kinds of vocational education, it fell out of fashion in recent decades – a victim of our obsession with college and concern to avoid anything that resembles tracking. Today in the U.S., less than 5 percent of young people train as apprentices, the overwhelming majority in the construction trades. In Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent – in fields as diverse as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking and hospitality. And in Europe, what’s often called “dual training” is a highly respected career path.

Dual training captures the idea at the heart of every apprenticeship: trainees split their days between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job training at a company. The theory they learn in class is reinforced by the practice at work. They also learn work habits and responsibility and, if all goes well, absorb the culture of the company. Trainees are paid for their time, including in class. The arrangement lasts for two to four years, depending on the sector. And both employer and employee generally hope it will lead to a permanent job – for employers, apprentices are a crucial talent pool.

More: Why General Assembly could be the future of higher education 

The first thing you notice about German apprenticeships: employer and employee still respect practical work. German firms don’t view dual training as something for struggling students or at-risk youth. “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility,” an HR manager at Deutsche Bank told the group I was with, organized by an offshoot of the Goethe Institute. “I do this because I need talent.” So too at Bosch. “Building world-class diesel parts is hard,” the executive in charge of the program explained. “We’re very careful about who we hire. We’re looking for quality.” As for trainees, they learn quickly enough: a mistake on the factory floor is a million-dollar mistake – and they grow up fast, learning not just skills but responsibility. No wonder apprenticeship is popular: at the John Deere plant in Mannheim, 3100 young people apply each year for 60 slots, at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, it’s 22,000 applicants for 425 places.

The second thing you notice: both employers and employees want more from an apprenticeship than short-term training. Our group heard the same thing in plant after plant: we’re teaching more than skills. “In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws,” one educator told us. “We don’t need workers for that. What we need are people who can solve problems” – skilled, thoughtful, self-reliant employees who understand the company’s goals and methods and can improvise when things go wrong or when they see an opportunity to make something work better.

Get the Weekly Wonk sent straight to your inbox.

A final virtue of the German system: its surprising flexibility. Skeptical Americans worry that the European model requires tracking, and it’s true, German children choose at age 10 between an academic high school, a vocational track or something in between. But it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity for trainees to switch tracks later on. They can go back to school to specialize further or earn a master craftsman’s certificate or train as a trainer in the company’s apprenticeship program – and many do. What education reformers call “lifelong learning” is still a distant dream for most Americans. In Germany, it’s a reality.

So where’s the rub? Why is it likely to be hard for Americans to transplant the German model? It starts with cost. Each German company has a different way of calculating the bill, but the figures range from $25,000 per apprentice to more than $80,000. It’s likely to be more expensive still in the U.S., where firms will have to build programs from scratch, pay school tuition – in Germany, the state pays – and in many cases funnel money into local high schools and community colleges to transform them into effective training partners. The apprenticeship program at the Siemens USA plant in Charlotte, NC, reportedly spends some $170,000 per apprentice. And even the most generous policy proposals on the table in Washington would cover only a fraction of these costs. In the U.S. as in Germany, the lion’s share will fall to business.

This issue came up at nearly every stop on the tour, we Americans asking about what costs mean for ROI and the Germans telling us to look beyond ROI to the longer-term benefits, for the company and society. Ultimately, of course, they’re right. But it’s hard to imagine many American firms, generally focused on short-term financial gain, building the kind of in-house training centers we saw at every German plant: immaculate, state-the-art facilities, complete with robots, the latest computerized machining tools and a raft of uniformed instructors overseeing busy trainees.

The final obstacle is arguably the biggest: American attitudes toward practical skills and what Germans still unabashedly call “blue-collar” work.

Another challenge, if anything more difficult, has to do with the centralization of the German system and the role the state plays in regulating what happens in private companies. What makes dual training work, every manager told us, are the standardized occupational profiles, or curricula, developed by the federal government in collaboration with employers, educators and union representatives. Every young machinist training anywhere in Germany learns the same skills in the same order on the same timetable as every other machinist. This is good for apprentices: it guarantees high-quality programs where trainees learn more than one company’s methods, making it possible for those who wish to switch jobs later on. But it’s hard to imagine this level of state control or business-labor cooperation in the U.S.

The final obstacle is arguably the biggest: American attitudes toward practical skills and what Germans still unabashedly call “blue-collar” work. Attitudes are changing in Germany too. Globalization has brought the bachelor’s degree, unknown until recently, and with it, a new, broader interest in attending college. But there’s little sign that the growth in BA’s is undermining apprenticeship. And in both settings, university and dual training, it’s agreed that the purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs. In America, we’re not sure – we’re committed to the idea of education that prepares people for life and suspicious of anything that smacks of training.

More: What will the future of education look like? 

Many German educators we met on the tour had advice for Americans interested in importing apprenticeship. “You don’t have to take the whole bouquet,” one vocational education teacher told us. “Make sure the first experiments succeed,” someone else advised. But ultimately, no German expert is likely to have the answer for the United States. The adaptations and adjustments are going to have to come from within, and they aren’t as simple as it sometimes seemed in the heady discussions on our trip – Americans aren’t simply going to jettison old attitudes and decide, for example, that long-term gains, however broad, should trump short-term ROI.

This doesn’t mean the system can’t be adapted – if we start with our eyes open and a full understanding of the differences between the two countries. What’s likely to drive programs, in the U.S. as in Germany, is the need for talent. “German companies want to train,” one trade association executive told us, “because they know the schools can’t do it. Especially in today’s tech economy, vocational schools alone can’t prepare the workers we need.” The American HR managers in our group nodded grimly – this was something they understood from experience. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but no one could deny it – or what it implies for the future of training.

About the Author

Tamar Jacoby
Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners in favor of immigration reform, and president of Opportunity America, a new think tank and policy shop working to promote economic mobility. She is also a former Schwartz Fellow at New America.  

Compete to Connect


If you live in an American city, chances are you’re getting a raw deal — paying more for broadband, and yet getting slower service, than your urban counterparts around the world. Part of the reason is that the urban broadband market in the U.S. is effectively a duopoly, as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) noted last month. Without competition, there’s less incentive for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to increase speeds, improve service, or slash prices. What’s a city to do?

Bigger cities in the U.S. have relied almost exclusively on private companies to deliver broadband to residents, but the shine has come off this apple in recent years. Early on, the phone and cable companies leveraged their existing wires to squelch competition and dominate the broadband market. In the mid-2000s, cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco hoped companies like EarthLink or MetroFi would deliver citywide Wi-Fi to disrupt the ISP duopoly, but they didn’t. Verizon and AT&T have rolled out some fiber-optic upgrades, but they have passed over many cities and neighborhoods. As a sign of desperation, one mayor threw himself in a freezing lake in a failed attempt to get Google to build a fiber-optic network in his town.

Taking the opposite approach, nearly 400 local governments have chosen to become public ISPs, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. If the FCC strikes down a series of state bans on municipal broadband, hundreds more cities may pursue this model, but it is unlikely this solution will work for major metros where two companies have already built networks and acquired customers. The cities to try this route so far have generally been ones that the national ISPs have passed over; the largest cities with municipal networks are Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., with populations of roughly 170,000 and 125,000 respectively. Many smaller cities will not have the technical capacity or political will to take this leap.

More: 6 articles to read on Net Neutrality

Instead of getting caught between views of broadband as a wholly public utility or as a totally private amenity, big cities need to cultivate private-sector, non-profit, and cooperative broadband solutions neighborhood by neighborhood. The key is providing an “open access” network — infrastructure that multiple service providers can use without each having to invest in their own citywide network. Cities can piece a network like this together the way they accumulate park land and affordable housing: through requirements on private developers and strategic use of public assets.

The citywide open-access network connects to the Internet backbone, then to key points in neighborhoods, like our libraries, firehouses, schools, and media centers. (Many cities already operate “institutional networks” that connect these community anchors, but they cannot use them to deliver Internet service per agreements with the cable companies.) The network doesn’t offer Internet service, merely the opportunity to move data from one point in the city to another point at very low cost. Whether the data is heading to or coming from the Internet isn’t the city’s concern.

The price of Internet bandwidth varies widely across a city, as does the possible speed. Right now, it’s only universities, major financial corporations, some hospitals, and Big Internet that get access to the speed and volume pricing of the backbone. It should be more like getting a street vendor license or a hack license, and open to that level of entrepreneurial effort. And those top speeds should not be available only in a central business district, but also in at least one spot in every neighborhood.

Broadband is an essential service. Municipal governments have both a moral obligation and an economic motivation to connect all residents, but the ways for them to do this will vary from town to town.

Cities can build these networks piece by piece, using “dig once” policies that coordinate infrastructure projects. If you are going to dig up the streets or lay new pipes for any purpose, the city should also install fiber-optic lines and conduits for future lines. As Columbia Telecommunications Corporation describes in their “Gigabit Communities” report, even if the local government doesn’t make immediate use of these assets, they can potentially lease access to private providers, lowering a company’s construction costs and minimizing disruptions for residents. Cities can be more aggressive in expanding the network with broadband-related requirements on new development, such as as rights of way for rooftop wireless links or a mandated fiber-optic tie-in, as we might require a developer to connect to sewage and water systems.

Any efforts to streamline construction or add zoning requirements should not be at the expense of due process, however. Local policymakers — even community boards and block captains — need a basic literacy in broadband deployment to serve their appropriate function of oversight and public participation.

Related: Netflix has taken on Comcast. Here is why you should care.

While cities can hope to connect every neighborhood, they need to target their effort where it is needed most or can do the most good. They can divide the city into more manageable-sized markets for issuing franchises to access city light poles, streets, and sewers. Google Fiber divided Kansas City into “fiberhoods” where a critical mass of committed subscribers would determine if the company would build to that area. Only later did they realize the level of outreach and organizing needed to promote broadband in chronically underserved areas. Cities can be more proactive, designating underserved areas as “broadband enterprise zones” where traditional economic development incentives such as tax breaks or loans help ISPs start or expand service. (My colleagues and I have proposed a methodology for identifying these zones and a model policy framework can be adapted from the Center for Social Inclusion’s concept of an “Energy Investment District.”) Low-income areas are already targeted for digital literacy programs, and occasionally for reduced service rates or other subsidies, but usually with the mistaken idea that the current service options are sufficient.

Even with no local government support, entrepreneurial providers like WasabiNet in St. Louis and BKFiber in Brooklyn are taking advantage of new wireless networking technologies to compete for customers in neighborhoods that have been chronically underserved. Community-based organizations like Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn and Allied Media Projects in Detroit are also constructing neighborhood-scale wireless networks, using free software and teaching tools developed with the Open Technology Institute, where I work. Instead of public property, these organizers build on their relationships with residents, churches and other partners to install equipment.

Red Hook Initiative’s project has boosted BKFiber by becoming a paying customer, raising the company’s profile in the community, and helping it gain access to various rooftops to place equipment. Community-based, sometimes rather informal projects face considerable organizational and regulatory challenges, but they are increasingly within reach for neighborhood associations or cooperatives wishing to sponsor hotspots, develop a resilient emergency communication system, or share connections to the Internet. Cities that wanted to see more of these projects could fund them as education or job training and provide access to city property, so long as the process for doing so was transparent and continued to incorporate community participation.

Broadband is an essential service. Municipal governments have both a moral obligation and an economic motivation to connect all residents, but the ways for them to do this will vary from town to town. Not all governments will become Internet service providers, but all should take an active role in ensuring a vibrant and competitive broadband marketplace for their residents. None can rest while the current duopoly remains in place.

This piece originally appeared in RealClearPolicy

About the Author

Joshua Breitbart
Joshua Breitbart is a senior research fellow for New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

Building a Democropolis

Frustration with state governments is a common feeling these days. Meanwhile, cities forging ahead, using digital technologies to transform citizens’ daily lives. Earlier this month, Harvard professor Susan Crawford spoke at New America with her colleague and co-author Stephen Goldsmith about their new book, The Responsive City, which explains how city leaders are using tech to jumpstart civic engagement. Find out how and why cities may be the future of democracy in the highlights from Susan Crawford’s remarks above.

More: How to prevent the next Ferguson

The Kobani Domino Effect


The fate of the embattled Syrian town of Kobani, located right on the border with Turkey, has become intertwined with Kurdish movement for independence – and perhaps even the future of other stateless ethnic and religious groups in the region.

Kurdish forces are barely holding off Islamic State forces advancing on the town, despite increasingly heavy U.S. bombing of IS positions. The Turks have not only prevented Kurdish fighters from resupplying the fighters in the town and reneged on promises to arm them, they have even held off on allowing U.S. planes from staging bombing runs from their Incirlik air base – the most logical and convenient staging ground for an effective air campaign to prevent the fall of Kobani.

Turkish Kurds have reacted with anger, violently clashing with police forces in Istanbul. The violent arm of the Kurdish independence movement had been in peace talks with the Turkish government. Those talks have broken down.

Despite a clear legal mandate from Turkey’s parliament authorizing military action in an overwhelming 298-98 vote, Turkish leaders have said it’s “unrealistic” that Turkey should intervene “alone.”

More: How hope for a Kurdish independent state vanished overnight

That’s a mockery of reality. With over 400,000 active duty personnel, almost double that of France, Turkey has one of the largest armies in NATO and the best equipped force in the region. Also, with U.S. airstrikes already in full swing, Turkey’s military would hardly be alone.

It seems that Turkey is more afraid of Kurdish aspirations to self-rule than of an ISIS take-over of Kurdish lands. This may prove to be a historic miscalculation. For Kobani’s tragic fate could have a domino effect across the region –propelling the Kurds firmly on the path towards independence, and inspiring other groups to follow suit.

In truth, by failing to act, President Erdogan of Turkey may have cemented the Kurds’ conviction that independence is the only long-term goal that makes sense.

Analysts have long viewed the prospect of Kurdish independence as a threat to regional stability. Perhaps it is time to revisit this premise. With the potential fall of Kobani, all bets are off when it comes to the future of Turkish-Kurdish relations.

As the courageous new UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned of an impending “Srebrenica” style massacre (referencing the 1995 murder of some 8000 Bosniaks by Serbian militia forces), the Kurds in Turkey, who have been protesting for days, sometimes violently, against their government’s inaction in the face of danger, are beginning to voice greater faith that the only way for their people to defend themselves in the future is to rule themselves to begin with. In light of this recent deterioration, Masrour Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish intelligence chief, told The New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins: “We need our own laws, our own rules, our own country, and we are going to get them.” In truth, by failing to act, President Erdogan of Turkey may have cemented the Kurds’ conviction that independence is the only long-term goal that makes sense.

There you have it, the best possible argument for Kurdish independence, handed to them on a plate by Turkey’s president.

Kurdish self-rule has been a fact of life in Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And it was beginning to be a fact in Syria too, until ISIS launched its killers against Kurdish towns. Turkey had two choices:  help out and cultivate a positive relationship with the Kurds. Or watch Kobani burn.

Erdogan has chosen the latter. History helps explain why Turkey fears autonomous Kurdish regions on its borders with Iraq and Turkey. But it doesn’t justify it.

Get the Weekly Wonk sent straight to your inbox.

In principle, the international community already promised the Kurds an independent state in the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, following the end of World War I. In carving up the Ottoman Empire, the treaty recognized the Kurds’ right to statehood, but no state was ever established. The first problem was that the Kurds themselves disagreed on how to delineate their territory. And a large independent country called Kurdistan ended up not being so attractive to the allies after all, as they became busy carving up oil-rich “protectorates” all over the region.

After Kemal Ataturk’s rebellion managed to reclaim the entire Turkish Peninsula from the Western allies, a peace deal was signed in Lausanne, which no longer made any mention of a Kurdish state. Political convenience had  superseded the right of self determination for the Kurds, as indeed it had for other ethno-religious groups in the region.

More: We asked 6 experts how to defeat ISIL

The fact is that Arab domination in what are considered today to be Arab countries, from the very beginning, was established through the threat of the sword and the imposition of taxes and other measures against non-believers. The notion that “infidel women” could be enslaved, as proclaimed by ISIS in the latest volume of its “magazine” is not new. Before they converted to Islam, the Berbers of North Africa were well aware of the danger.

The Kurds are not the only group aspiring to self-rule. Remember, for example, the Druze of Southern Lebanon, the Chaldean and Nestorian Christians of Syria and Iraq, or even the Yazidis and the Zoroastrians. ISIS’ actions have given new legitimacy to the independent aspirations of all these groups.

Everybody should have the right to self-defense. If the states the Kurds live in won’t defend them, they will just have to declare one of their own.

And it has reminded us of the danger in standing by as the safety of one minority is compromised.

“Kobani has been besieged for 22 days, and we’ve been calling everybody to help, and everybody is seeing what’s going on,” said Salih Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which rules locally in Syria’s Kurdish region, during an interview with Foreign Policy’s David Kenner.  “So everybody will be responsible if a massacre happens.”

The same could be said of the Holocaust, which ultimately provided the impetus for the rebirth of the Israeli state. While the scale of the massacres in Syria, both by the regime and by ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, cannot compete with those of Adolf Hitler, the vile nature of them do. The Holocaust museum this week featured images of tortured and killed Syrians, to remind the world of the nature of the challenge confronting us there.

Everybody should have the right to self-defense. If the states the Kurds live in won’t defend them, they will just have to declare one of their own. Will it destabilize the region? Considering how unstable the region has already become, it may be far more destabilizing down the line to bet against the Kurds – one of the only consistent voices for ethnic and religious tolerance in the vicinity of ISIS.

About the Author

Michael Soussan
Michael Soussan, a former UN humanitarian worker and Adjunct assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, is the author of the classic satirical memoir “Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy” (Nation Books), which is being adapted to feature film. A media consultant, he is a partner at www.GoodLoopMedia.com.

Gaza’s Unseen Casualties

New America Fellow Brian Barber describes what you need to know about the Gaza Strip that you can’t see in photographs and don’t hear enough about in news coverage. He shot this image on his most recent trip to Gaza in October 2014.