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West Bank: Loss of contact with Israel affecting Palestinians | Palestine News



The decision by the Palestinian leadership to cut ties with the Israeli government is affecting many in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian leaders blocked contact three months ago in a protest against Israel’s threat to annex Palestinian land.

Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim reports.

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It’s time for the World Bank to scrap its Doing Business rankings | Coronavirus pandemic News




On March 29, at a virtual meeting hosted by the London School of Economics before the 2021 World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings, World Bank President David Malpass called for long-term, integrated strategies that emphasise “green, inclusive and resilient development” to tackle what he calls the COVID-19 “pandemic of inequality”. Underlining the importance of helping countries improve their readiness for future pandemics through policies supporting sustainable development, he urged policymakers to avoid repeating the “errors of the past”.

World Bank representatives reiterated the same discourse at the Spring Meetings and last week’s UN Financing for Development Forum. Yet, one of the Bank’s most powerful policy advice tools, the Doing Business rankings, continues to produce skewed policy prescriptions that obstruct developing countries’ pandemic recovery efforts and constrain their resilience to future crises.

For 17 years, political leaders and policymakers around the world have peered anxiously over the Bank’s annual Doing Business report. The Bank’s flagship publication ranks 190 economies on how easy and cheap it is for companies to do business there. The fewer regulations, the higher a country scores on the Doing Business index, increasing its chances of attracting foreign investment. According to the Bank, this leads to economic growth with trickle-down benefits to the population.

The report was launched in 2004 as the new face of the much-criticised Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), which were rooted in the idea that deregulation and privatisation encourage investment and boosts development and economic growth. There is now ample evidence of the negative consequences of SAPs, which were widely implemented through World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans in the 1980s and 90s. Although some of the Bank’s loan conditionalities have evolved with time, the same ideological preferences continue to be promoted under the Doing Business rankings to this day.

With the Doing Business index, the Bank made itself both the referee and the rule maker of its global benchmarking and investor-friendly policy reforms exercise. Governments that want to signal to the world that they are open for international business race each other to cut red tape and win a place on the Bank’s “top ten improvers” list. But this regulatory race to the bottom erodes worker and environmental protections in the meantime. The reports’ recommendations have concrete effects on shaping policy in developing countries.

Policies rewarded in the rankings include cutting corporate income taxes and contributions to employees’ retirement schemes in India; reducing social tax rates in Hungary and Kazakhstan, and completely abolishing social security contributions in Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Doing Business report discourages welfare and environmental protection. Bolivia and Trinidad and Tobago got a lower mark for raising social security contribution rates for employers, while Guatemala increased its score by relaxing requirements for environmental impact assessments and Vietnam gained points for scrapping environmental protection fees. Some countries, such as India and Indonesia, design national reforms with the sole intention of climbing up the rankings. Rwanda has an entire ministry devoted to this purpose.

India’s new laws to deregulate agricultural markets show how far governments can go to protect private investors’ interests and follow the World Bank’s policy prescriptions. Legal reforms which will affect 800 million Indians whose livelihoods depend on farming passed with no public debate. The largest ever farmer protests in response to it were met with paramilitary violence, arbitrary arrests and internet shutdowns.

The 2020 enactment of the Omnibus Law in Indonesia is another example of a package of reforms explicitly designed to help a country climb on the Doing Business ranking. Though the bill faced massive pushback from labour unions and social movements for its effects on workers’ rights and the environment, it received the World Bank’s unconditional endorsement.

A 2019 Cambridge University study clearly illustrated the outsized influence the Doing Business rankings have on investors. In an experiment, the researchers provided a group of investors with various economic and political indicators for a set of countries. They found that even when most other indicators looked positive, a low ranking on the Doing Business index caused investors to refrain from investing in a country. This finding begs the question: should the World Bank promote a deregulation blueprint that disproportionately serves firms with headquarters in the rich countries that govern it, at the expense of worker rights and climate and ecological sustainability in many developing countries?

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in her push for increasing corporate taxation, recently stated that competitiveness “is about making sure that governments have stable tax systems that raise sufficient revenue to invest in essential public goods and respond to crises”. And yet this is exactly what the World Bank, whose largest shareholder is the US, makes impossible to attain through the Doing Business recipe for attracting private investments.

Privatisation, outsourcing, and budget cuts have already undermined the capacities of countries to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. And inequality-boosting policies encouraged by the World Bank will continue to be harmful in the post-pandemic world. The erosion of social safety nets, deemed “burdensome” and “costly” by the Bank’s metrics, have affected 2.7 billion people facing unemployment and income loss.

Since its inception, the Doing Business index has been criticised by civil society organisations, academics, trade unions and the World Bank’s chief economist and an independent panel of experts.

In August 2020, the Bank was forced to suspend the publication due to “a number of irregularities”. An internal investigation concluded that undue pressure by Bank management over the Doing Business team to manipulate data in 2017 and 2019 led to altered results for Azerbaijan, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. An external panel has been tasked to undertake a comprehensive review of the Doing Business methodology, but the process so far has lacked transparency and accountability, with limited consultation with civil society.

As the Bank prepares to launch its Doing Business report for 2021, more than 360 civil society organisations, academics, former UN staff and independent experts from 80 countries have signed an open letter calling for an end to the Doing Business rankings and reports. If the World Bank is serious about building a resilient and inclusive recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it is time it aligns its discourse with its actions. Ditching the harmful Doing Business rankings would be a good place to start.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Pakistan-born ‘neo-Sufi’ singer breaks free from music traditions | Arts and Culture News




New York, United States – It is a music album born in an extraordinary time of strife. The artist was not only grappling with the challenge of creating music during a pandemic, but also with the death of her younger brother.

Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, out on Friday, reflects this pain but stands out for the power of her musical expression.

And that power has already been recognised. Pitchfork, a respected online music magazine, named her first single, Mohabbat, the Best New Track.

The 36-year-old singer had been making waves since 2018 when the United States’ NPR network called her song Lullaby one of the Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women+, and The New York Times included her song Island No 2 in its list of 25 best classical music tracks that year.

The musical style

The Pakistan-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s musical style is inspired by a diverse range of singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Reshma, and Abida Parveen – the “queen” of Sufi music. Sounds of Greek, Egyptian and Spanish idioms are also hauntingly intermingled.

The genre can best be defined as somewhere at the intersection of Sufi, Pakistani folk, jazz fusion and semi-classical.

“I didn’t want to call it any of these. It was none of those genres. At first, I coined it neo-Sufism because I had to call it something because people can’t place it and you get lost in the sauce,” Aftab told Al Jazeera.

“It came to me as a genre during the creation of my first album listening to Abida Parveen and reading a lot of [poet] Rumi.”

While categories in music still force terminologies such as “neo-Sufism”, Aftab now has the confidence to call it something else.

Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, releases on Friday [Courtesy of Arooj Aftab]

“It isn’t neo-Sufi any more,” she said. “I have more confidence in using a longer sentence to describe it.”

In a musical world where lyrics often get submerged in beats and melody, Aftab makes poetry her lead singer – a quintessential characteristic of her music.

The ghazals (a form of Urdu poetry) she sings, some celebrated for decades, have a neutral cadence in their renditions, where poetry shines independent of the musical accompaniment.

Think of the minimalistic and soulful structure of Norah Jones with an even less focus on accompanying instruments.

“She breaks free from the hard, traditional norm of subcontinental music and yet remains very deep in her interpretation of that music without being guilty of cultural appropriation,” Arieb Azhar, veteran musician and commentator on Sufi music, told Al Jazeera.


Aftab says she consciously planned stripping her music from any percussion in a self-effacing way.

Madan Gopal Singh, Sufi musician and cultural historian in India, says Aftab’s “voice grain has a languorous quality”.

“With it, she has broken the hierarchy between instrumentalisation and the emergence of voice so that the dignity of both remains, and that is unique,” Singh told Al Jazeera.

Singh comes from the Indian side of Punjab province while Aftab was born in Lahore on the Pakistani side.

But the two share a serendipitous connection with a song called Mohabbat (love). It is the song with which, recollects Singh, he charmed his wife into marrying him many decades ago.

The song was originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, a poet born in 1912 in Hoshiarpur in India’s Punjab. But Hoshiarpuri died in 1973 across the border, in Karachi.

His song has since gathered a cult-like following through the renditions of famous singers, including Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano, Jagjit Singh and more recently Papon.

For Singh, Aftab’s version is equally evocative.

“I love her rendition and the way she is thinking in her musical arrangement. I just wish she would look at the translations more attentively,” he said. “Then the song has potential for even more musical impact.”

The repetitive lyrics of Mohabbat – Mohabbat Karne Waale Kum Na Hongey (the number of people who love will never come down) – can have various interpretations.

“Arooj’s music is abstract enough and as abstract art, you are free to interpret it in any way you like,” said Azhar.

“It is an internalised emotion that she is projecting. One can’t say whether it is personal love or loss or political or a revolutionary expression?”

Arooj herself feels Mohabbat has many faces. She says, “Immortalising this song was a lifelong dream.”

“It could be a love song, breakup song, a political statement, a nostalgic memory. It has comforted me in so many different emotional moments,” she says, adding that the interpretation that resonated most was a “dissatisfaction with the world”.

The feeling that the song creates when you listen to it is of a “wallowing despair but that I’m OK. I am just disappointed in everyone and everything”, Aftab said.

As a young woman from Pakistan, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle [Daniel Hilsinger/Al Jazeera]

“In whichever place you look – Kashmir, India, Pakistan, the US, mass shootings, or Palestine, wherever you look, there is this unbelievable, inexcusable atrocity going on. So, Mohabbat is kind of like a ‘f*** you’ to the world.”

The struggle

As a young woman from Pakistan, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle. “In order to pursue the dream, I have sacrificed,” she says.

“Separating yourself from friends and family. It’s like self-exiling yourself because the situation doesn’t agree with you.”

In the US, she had to build a new support system, which included recruiting musicians for her album. Going to Berkeley College of Music in Boston, one of the best music schools in the world, also meant paying off student loans.

She also recollects moments where she had only $20 left in her bank account, or facing unruly audience members who misbehaved with her band’s musical equipment during a performance near Times Square.

“But it’s still been all worth it.”

Ahmer Naqwi, a Pakistani writer on popular culture, says “to do what Aftab did is quite unique” coming from a society like Pakistan.

“It is a remarkable story of Pakistani music that it keeps finding ways to thrive despite hostile financial and social obstacles,” he told Al Jazeera.

Subcontinental and global recognition

Musical and cultural experts believe Aftab’s new album has the promise to attain global recognition. But they also worry about America’s categorisation for awards like the Grammy’s.

Aftab’s music will likely fall in the US industry’s limited category of World Music.

“Grammy’s may not recognise her because they are limited in their categorisation but that doesn’t take away from the quality of her music,” said Azhar.

As for the subcontinent, and Pakistan in particular, Aftab’s music “isn’t suited for virality”, Naqwi said.

“Aftab’s music has great potential but it is difficult for me to divorce the reception of this album from the reality of Pakistani music right now. It is not a great reality.”

But Singh believes “no other musician from Pakistan is thinking like she is”.

“She has a huge future,” he said.

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