The Stories You Missed in 2010

Ten events and trends that were overlooked this year, but may be leading the headlines in 2011.


The Indonesian Tiger

While economists debate whether China or India will dominate the world economy of the 21st century, another rising Asian power is quietly entering the picture. Relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis, Indonesia’s economy was projected to grow at a healthy 6.1 percent clip in 2010 and 6.3 percent next year, one of the fastest rates in Asia (and the world). What’s more, its per capita GDP is projected to increase almost 20 percent in the next two years. Since 2009, Indonesia has had Asia’s second-best-performing stock market. A number of analysts are now suggesting that the BRIC grouping might soon need to add another I.

Part of the growth is driven by the country’s abundant natural resources — it is a major exporter of timber, coal, and silver — but Indonesia’s manufacturing sector is growing as well. Chinese clothing and furniture companies, which prospered by making goods for the American market, are now increasingly moving production to Indonesia, taking advantage of a free trade agreement between the two countries, which is just now coming into effect.

A peaceful and orderly presidential election last year reassured international markets of the country’s political stability, and Indonesia’s foreign direct investment increased 34 percent this year to $3.7 billion in the second quarter.

Some obstacles remain, of course. The country’s banking sector is still fairly undeveloped (though ironically this helped Indonesia avoid the worst of the market crash). Poor infrastructure and official corruption also continue to hamper development in many parts of the country, though arguably this is the case in China and India as well. Indonesia also has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates, though it pledged a two-year moratorium on logging in May.

The country still has a poverty rate of around 14 percent, which increased slightly this year due to the financial crisis, but Deutsche Bank projects that 52 million Indonesians will enter the middle class in the next five years, a development with potentially monumental consequences. And it’s not just an economic story: Indonesia stands a good chance of becoming the world’s first Muslim and democratic superpower.


The (Other) Long Road to Afghanistan

Nine years and two U.S. presidents in, the war effort in Afghanistan has never appeared more difficult. And if fighting the fast-metastasizing insurgency and keeping the government in Kabul in line weren’t difficult enough, just getting supplies into the country is emerging as a major challenge.

NATO’s main supply route into Afghanistan has come under increasing threat from border closures on the Pakistani side and lethal Taliban attacks, meaning that international forces are likely to rely even more on what the United States calls its “Northern Distribution Network” to reinforce the 150,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan. But the route, a series of long supply lines snaking through the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, comes with its own, largely overlooked, set of headaches as political disputes, corruption, poor infrastructure, and security concerns continue to put supply lines at risk — as 2010 viscerally showed.

In April, NATO supplies coming in through Kyrgyzstan’s Manas transit center were held up by political unrest and then again by a tax dispute over the base in May. But even before that, the system was showing signs of trouble. Goods traveling by rail through Uzbekistan typically experience a 20-day delay at the Uzbek-Afghan border while waiting for inspection. (The U.S. Defense Department told Defense News in March that it had been reduced from 30 days, though shipping companies report that it can be cut to as few as seven for the right bribe.)

Then there are local political feuds to contend with. In May, thousands of rail carriages, containing badly needed fuel and food for NATO troops, were held up at the Uzbek-Tajik border by Uzbekistan’s national railroad. The company blamed technical problems, but it is widely suspected that Tashkent was trying to block building materials from reaching a hydroelectric plant being built on the Tajik side, which Uzbeks think will divert water away from their farmland.

Even during the best of times, bottlenecks are inevitable. Trucks are forced to crowd onto the single bridge over the Amu Darya River that separates Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan or use one of the hastily constructed barges put in by NATO. In June, 3,500 fuel tanks were languishing on the Uzbek side of the river. A new rail bridge won’t be finished until next year at the earliest.

And that doesn’t even factor in the region’s fast-deteriorating security situation. Northern Afghanistan was once one of the country’s most peaceful regions. But Taliban activity has been increasing in the area, and fuel tankers crossing into Kunduz province have been hijacked by militants. Experts worry that the strengthening Islamist militant movements in Central Asian countries could begin to target the supply lines as well.

With unstable Pakistan to the east and actively hostile Iran to the west, NATO commanders had little choice but to cut deals with Russia and Central Asian autocrats to open up the northern route. Already, the White House says the Northern Distribution Network accounts for nearly 30 percent of ground supplies delivered to U.S. troops in Afghanistan — the rest still comes in through Pakistan. But it’s quickly becoming clear that looking north might not be the answer.

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

The Great “Perv Scanner” Backlash

When the U.S. Transportation Security Administration accelerated the rollout of full-body scanners following last year’s attempted Christmas Day “underwear bombing” in Detroit, it dismissed passengers’ privacy fears by assuring Americans that the images taken by the scanners — which reveal scandalously detailed contours of passengers’ bodies beneath their clothes — cannot be stored and that the officers viewing them will never see the actual passengers.

These assurances were undermined in January when a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a privacy advocacy group revealed that the agency had in fact specified that the machines be able to store images when running in “test mode” and should allow the “high-speed transfer of image data” if needed. A later FOIA request revealed that the U.S. Marshals Service had stored approximately 35,000 images from a full-body scanner at a Florida courthouse. Nonetheless, the scanners, which cost $130,000 to $170,000 each, have now been installed in 58 U.S. airports — as well as in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Nigeria — and are being tested in several other countries.

Sure enough, reports of abuse started coming out almost immediately. At Miami’s airport, one screener attacked a colleague in the parking lot in May after being repeatedly mocked about the size of his genitals during a scanner training exercise, the Miami Herald reported. In March, police issued a harassment warning against a Heathrow Airport employee for allegedly taking an image of a female colleague. That same month, two Muslim women became the first passengers to be prevented from boarding a plane at Heathrow after refusing to go through the machine. (U.S. airports give travelers the option of a physical pat-down if they aren’t comfortable with the scanner.) The Nigerian media has reported that off-duty employees at Lagos’s airport got around the privacy rules by watching passengers go into the scanner and then running to the control room to view the images of them.

In September, Italy became the first country to drop the scanners after several months of testing, deciding that they were no more effective than normal scans and that procedures to ensure passenger privacy slowed down airport lines. But given that security officials don’t remove security procedures too often — nine* years after Richard Reid, Americans are still taking their shoes off — world travelers will probably have to continue checking their modesty along with their bags.

*This corrects the text in the print edition, which states “seven years.”

Joern Pollex/Getty Images

Africa Goes Nuclear

Self-taught African teenagers building windmills may get good coverage in the Western media, but African governments are increasingly looking elsewhere to meet their growing energy needs: nuclear power. There are currently only two nuclear power plants on the African continent, both in South Africa, but they’re likely to have company soon.

In March, Senegal became the latest African country to pledge to build a nuclear power plant by the end of this decade, and former colonial power France has already offered technical assistance. Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Uganda are also hoping to have plants online by the decade’s end in response to rising fuel costs and overtaxed electricity grids. And booming South Africa is looking to add to its nuclear capacity with at least six new plants by 2023.

Africa has around 18 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium, but technology and nuclear know-how are in shorter supply and countries including China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea have begun exporting nuclear technology there.

Some countries going nuclear are likely to raise eyebrows in Washington. In 2008, Nigeria reached a deal under which it will receive nuclear technology and assistance from Iran. And Niger, which produces much of the uranium that powers reactors in the West but is struggling to contain a domestic insurgency and increasing Islamist militant activity, has held talks with South Africa about developing its own nuclear capacity. (Those plans were likely put on hold by a military coup this year.)

For now, Africa has the lowest per capita energy use of any continent and makes up only 3 percent of global energy consumption. But that is set to increase dramatically over the next decade, boosted by population growth and urbanization. A nuclear Africa might make some Western environmentalists (not to mention nonproliferation advocates) uncomfortable, but lighting up a dark continent is going to take more than good intentions.


The Lamb Chop Boom

Forget gold and oil. Investors looking to beat the recession in the next decade might want to consider hitting the open range and starting a sheep farm. In 2010, Australian rams began selling for more than $100 a head for the first time in history as dwindling stocks sent mutton prices soaring. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is forecasting a 300,000-ton shortage in the global lamb supply over the next five years. That’s bad news for the growing number of consumers in the Middle East and Asia with a taste for lamb, but a windfall for long-struggling farmers in Australia and New Zealand, the world’s two largest sheep producers.

Several factors account for the global sheep shortage. Farmers in the United States have largely gotten out of the ovine game, and the country’s stock has fallen from 64 million sheep to just 6 million since the end of World War II. British farmers have also cut back on sheep production since the 2001 hoof-and-mouth scare. In Australia, falling wool prices in the 1990s and crippling droughts hit the industry hard.

At the same time, global demand for sheep meat has grown along with the glittering wealth of the Persian Gulf — Saudi Arabia and Kuwait alone now account for more than half of Australia’s sheep exports. In the lead-up to Ramadan, with its traditionally sheep-centric iftar feasts to break the fast, Australian sheep prices go up each year by as much as 77 percent.

Australia’s sheep stock has now fallen to an all-time low — around 71 million head. Sheep once sold for as little as 50 cents each during a glut in the 1980s, but today some breeds of ewe can sell for as much as $200 a pop. In Britain, lamb prices have increased as much as 20 percent this year, and in Saudi Arabia, this year’s sheep shortage led to increased demand for beef and camel meat. With more sheep for dinner and fewer for sweaters, wool prices also hit a 14-year high over the summer.

Australia and New Zealand still dominate the world sheep trade, though China is gaining quickly. But because sheep can take years to raise and are expensive to maintain, the global market is unlikely to respond to the increased demand anytime soon. The future, for these countries, is looking mighty woolly.


The End of the One-Child Policy

After much speculation that it was on the verge of being abolished, China announced in September that the country’s controversial family-planning law — known as the “one-child policy” — would continue for the foreseeable future.

But the reality is that the policy no longer applies to the vast majority of the population. Numbers are hard to come by, but Chinese media estimate that because restrictions were relaxed in many parts of the country in 2007, only 36 percent of Chinese now live in areas where the policy is still in effect.

The real figure is probably much lower, as exceptions to the rule now abound. In some cities, for example, couples are allowed an extra child if both parents are only children — an increasing number after 30 years of the one-child rule. And it also doesn’t apply to China’s 55 ethnic minorities, which together account for about 8 percent of the population.

In the largely urban areas where the policy is still in place, increasing income levels are making it irrelevant as many well-to-do parents choose just to pay the fines (which are calculated as a percentage of the family’s income but are often not strictly enforced) or bribe willing officials. Traveling to Hong Kong, where the law is not in effect, to give birth is another popular option.

Ever since it was imposed in 1979 to counteract Mao Zedong’s disastrous family-promotion policies during the Great Leap Forward, the one-child policy has had a dramatic effect on China, leading to its current crisis of an utterly different sort. The country today has a huge surplus of 32 million extra men, due to a cultural preference for boys, and a fertility rate around 1.5 children per woman, below replacement level. In 20 years, 30 percent of China’s urban population will be elderly, and unless the policy is loosened, the country is headed for a demographic mismatch that makes America’s baby boom look like nothing much.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Good News from the Amazon

From the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the U.S. failure to pass a climate bill to the toxic sludge in Hungary, most of the environmental news of 2010 was discouraging, if not horrifying. But developments in the Brazilian Amazon could be one small cause for optimism. Satellite images from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research show that the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian rain forest slowed by nearly half in 2010 and was 85 percent lower than in 2004. This means that Brazil has met its commitment to reduce deforestation by 80 percent a decade ahead of schedule.

A bit of perspective is needed. This year Brazil still burned down a Luxembourg-sized swath of a forest that provides 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. But as Nature‘s website pointed out in September, in terms of reduced carbon output, Brazil’s deforestation drop is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon the United States plans to save by 2020. The trend could also be evidence that new Brazilian initiatives — like Green Arch, which provides economic incentives for locals previously dependent on timber for their livelihood — as well as increased enforcement, are starting to pay dividends. Skeptics point out that most of the reduction has occurred during the global financial crisis — the country’s industrial production fell 5.5 percent in 2009 — though the trend has continued as the economy has picked back up.

Outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s environmental legacy is hardly unblemished. It also includes the controversial Belo Monte Amazonian dam, which will be the world’s third-largest when it’s completed but promises to flood more than 160 square miles of forest and uproot tens of thousands of indigenous people.

Even so, Brazilians are remarkably concerned about the environment. Eighty percent say environmental issues should be prioritized, whether or not it leads to a slower economy. And the Green Party’s surprisingly strong finish in the recent presidential election might be a sign that this rising superpower isn’t looking to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors.


Tribal Drug Warfare

As drug violence in northern Mexico spins out of control and the U.S. state of Arizona pushes forward with its controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants, tensions have never been higher on America’s southwestern border. A third nation in the region, the Tohono O’odham reservation, hasn’t escaped unscathed either.

Tohono O’odham territory straddles the U.S.-Mexico border and is ideal for smugglers, with only a cattle fence separating the two countries. As the U.S. government built up security on the rest of the border during the 1990s and especially after 9/11, the cartels have increasingly targeted the relatively insecure passage through the reservation, where around 65 tribal police officers are responsible for patrolling a territory the size of the state of Connecticut. Between 5 and 10 percent of marijuana produced in Mexico is now smuggled through the reservation (about 1,000 to 2,000 tons of pot per year), according to the U.S. Justice Department, and the insular nation has been forced to invite in federal drug enforcement agents. (The St. Regis Mohawk reservation in upstate New York plays a similar role for the Canadian marijuana trade.) The trade has been a windfall for some tribe members, who can earn $2,000 from the cartels for a 45-minute drive across the border, as a smuggler told McClatchy Newspapers.

The smugglers are getting into the harder stuff as well. In May, tribal police arrested nine Tohono O’odham members after a five-month investigation during which undercover agents purchased 250 grams of cocaine. The number of tribe members arrested on drug charges has increased 60-fold over the last two decades. The smugglers, mainly from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, employ guides to shepherd them across the border. Most families in the area report having had at least one relative imprisoned on drug offenses, according to the New York Times.

The reservation is also a popular crossing spot for illegal immigrants, with often deadly consequences. In July alone, 44 migrants were found dead on Tohono O’odham territory. Tribal leaders also complain of the trash left in the desert by migrants passing through. Nonetheless, the Tohono O’odham council passed a resolution this summer condemning Arizona’s new immigration law, believing it would lead to discrimination against people of color in the state — regardless of what nation they come from.

U.S. Customs/Getty Images

Stem-Cell Tourism

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was lifting the U.S. restrictions on medical research using embryonic stem cells. Scientists think that the cells, some of which are controversially harvested from aborted human embryos, could potentially be used to treat conditions including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and spinal-cord injuries. But after eight years of the research ban and extensive testing still required — not to mention legal challenges from the Christian right — stem-cell treatments are still years away. Some patients have apparently decided not to wait.

In August, a panel of British stem-cell researchers issued a report warning of the explosive growth of stem-cell tourism — desperate patients traveling abroad to receive unproven and potentially dangerous treatments. Germany, China, Thailand, and Mexico, where the treatments are legal, are particularly popular destinations, according to the report, but the scientists say there might be as many as 700 clinics around the world providing stem-cell therapy.

Treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but regulations are often lax and the consequences can be tragic. In one case highlighted by the British experts, an Israeli boy seeking treatment for a spinal injury in Russia developed multiple tumors. In another, a 46-year-old woman undergoing treatment for lupus in Thailand died of kidney failure.

In June, Costa Rica, a popular destination for Americans seeking cheap medical treatments of all kinds, shut down an unauthorized stem-cell clinic operated by a U.S. entrepreneur that had attracted about 400 foreign patients since 2006, according to Reuters. (The government in San José was reportedly under heavy pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.) Clinical trials on the effectiveness of stem-cell treatments are still ambiguous, but plenty of patients were willing to come forward to support the clinic. One California woman who says she started to regain feeling in her legs after a $30,000 treatment for multiple sclerosis summed up the feelings of many patients, telling Reuters, “I didn’t have anything to lose.”


Terror Down South

On July 4, T.J. Joseph, a professor at a Christian college in the Indian state of Kerala, was returning home from church with his sister and mother when he was set upon by a group of men who cut off his right hand. Joseph’s crime was having given out an exam with a question deemed defamatory to the Prophet Mohammed. Five activists from an Islamic group, the Popular Front of India (PFI), were arrested in connection with the attack. Police raids on the PFI’s offices later turned up what they described as homemade bombs and pro-al Qaeda propaganda.

The attack’s brutality shocked Kerala, one of India’s most prosperous and best-educated regions and an area that, despite its religious diversity, has up until now seen little of the sectarian violence that has racked India’s north. While leaders of the state’s Muslim community — about a quarter of its population — were quick to condemn the attack, local media reported that PFI supporters clashed with police following the raids on their headquarters, and there were a series of unexplained sabotage attempts on trains and buses following the events.

Warning signs of a growing extremist movement have been present in Kerala for some time. Fighters from the region have been captured and killed in Kashmir. There have been reports of women being harassed and attacked on the street for going unveiled. Sharia courts — one of which is believed to have ordered the attack on Joseph — are reported to be gaining in influence throughout the region, with the Times of India reporting that at least 13 of them are now in operation. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Kerala is likely related to the state’s strong ties to the Persian Gulf, to which around 2 million Keralites have migrated for work, sending home billions of dollars in remittances every year.

Local authorities and the Indian media have sometimes let their paranoia about the trend get out of control: Last year, an official investigation was launched into dubious reports that fundamentalist men were waging a “love jihad,” luring young Hindu and Christian women into Islamic marriages. But as this summer’s events showed, the problem is a real one, and further sectarian violence is a real possibility. Another religious battleground is the last thing India needs.


Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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