#97 The G|O Briefing, May 12, 2022
New accusations about Geneva's bogus 'universities' - Can the WTO help avert a catastrophic global food crisis?
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, with reports of massive levels of agricultural plunder by Russian troops in Ukraine, threats by Russia to block exports of fertilizers, and with food at the center of the (dis)information war between Russia and the US, we look at how the crisis further complicates discussions on agriculture at the World Trade Organization, a few weeks short of its June Ministerial Conference (MC12).
Seen from here, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how anything of substance can be achieved in any of the Geneva fora in this moment of acute polarization and increasing tensions. And once again, the poorest of the poorest, who bear no responsibility for the sorry state of the world, will be paying the highest price.
We also have a follow-up investigation on our previous report on bogus universities in Geneva, with testimony from a student from Cameroon, and an academic researcher puzzled that Switzerland appears to have an unfortunately laissez-faire approach to regulating and certifying private educational institutions. "Swiss authorities are doing a major disservice to their quality institutions by allowing this to go on,” the expert tells The G|O.
With a few more thoughts on the current moment, it’s all below. As always, thank you for reading us.
WILL THE WTO BE ABLE TO PROTECT THE POOREST FROM A LOOMING GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS?
By Jamil Chade
The agricultural debate will take center stage at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) June Ministerial conference (MC12), and its dynamics will be shaped, in form but above all in substance, by the war in Ukraine.
Since the WTO operates by consensus, few trade experts and WTO watchers here expect that the body will be able to take any strong action given the depth of the rift within the international community.
However, with a looming global food crisis, there is an urgent need to find an agreement and a clear danger in not doing so. Negotiators here say that pressure on the conference will be high: On trial during MC12 is the organization’s ability to reach an agreement despite the profound tensions created by the war and Russia’s new status as a pariah state.
According to the latest WTO prediction, the conflict has not only created a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions but has also dealt a severe blow to the global economy.
“The brunt of the suffering and destruction are being felt by the people of Ukraine themselves, but the costs in terms of reduced trade and output are likely to be felt by people around the world through higher food and energy prices and reduced availability of goods exported by Russia and Ukraine,” according to a Secretariat note.
“Poorer countries are at high risk from the war, since they tend to spend a larger fraction of their incomes on food compared to richer countries,” it continues. “This could impact political stability.”
While Russia and Ukraine represent a relatively small share of overall world trade and output, in a technical note published in April, the WTO indicates that the two countries are “important suppliers of essential products, notably food and energy. […] Both countries supplied around 25 per cent of wheat, 15 per cent of barley and 45 per cent of sunflower product exports in 2019.”
Reduced shipments of grains and other foodstuffs will increase global prices of agricultural goods, a situation that will have negative consequences for food security in poorer regions. According to the WTO, Africa and the Middle East are the most vulnerable regions, as they import over 50 per cent of their cereal needs from Ukraine and Russia. In total, 35 countries in Africa import food and 22 import fertilizer from Ukraine, Russia, or both.
Some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are facing the possibility of price hikes of up to 50–85% for wheat as a result of the war’s impact on grain shipments from the region. “The current crisis is likely to exacerbate international food insecurity at a time when food prices are already historically high due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors,” the WTO’s Secretariat warns.
The Ukrainian crisis is giving another dimension to a long-running debate on agricultural subsidies, also scheduled to be debated in June. One of the main concerns now revolves around public stockholding of food. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how fast the food situation can deteriorate, and in the last few months, countries like India and Indonesia have advocated that MC12 should authorize governments to enlarge stockpiled supplies beyond the limits set in previous agreements. New Delhi also insists that a compromise on this matter should be reached before any other chapter of the agriculture trade negotiations is opened.
But for South America, New Zealand, Canada, and other major agricultural powers, this could lead to an unacceptable increase in subsidies, which would, in the end, further impact food prices.
With the risk of a global shortage looming, the debate has taken on a new urgency, but it has also hardened the positions of some countries. India and Indonesia, for example, claim that increasing food stocks would reduce the risk of famine in the event of war.
Opponents of the proposal reject the argument. It is not market distortion or state interference that will prevent famine, but open markets, claim the representatives of Latin American countries. In a clear split within the BRICS, India is accused of dangerous hypocrisy: it claims to act in defense of the poor, but the country maintains high tariff barriers for the import of agricultural products, harming African exports of grain that could be decisive for the continent's economies.
In a joint statement last week, the European Union, the United States, and two dozen other countries vowed to shore up global food security. They stressed “the urgency and importance of maintaining open and predictable agricultural markets and trade.” That, they say, would “ensure the continued flow of food, as well as products, services and inputs essential for agricultural and food production and supply chains.”
But these countries also “recognize the importance of exercising restraint in excessive stockpiling and hoarding of agricultural products affected by this crisis that are traditionally exported.”
One way out might be a commitment during the June Ministerial Conference to keep food and agriculture markets “open, predictable and transparent by not imposing unjustified trade restrictive measures on agricultural and agri-food products or key agricultural production inputs.” Furthermore, MC12 could insist that, contrary to the situation today, no export bans or restrictions should be applied on food purchased by the UN’s World Food Program for humanitarian purposes.
Brazil is also proposing what would amount to the creation of emergency corridors for food and fertilizers to countries most affected by the food crisis, particularly least developed countries (LDCs).
“MC12 should dedicate special attention to this issue and Brazil would like to propose a specific initiative to guarantee access to fertilizers,” the delegation stated. Fertilizer prices have reached all-time highs because of the war, threatening future harvests, a massive problem for Brazil. Russia has further jolted the markets, threatening to cut exports of fertilizers.
Meanwhile, the WTO projects that the crisis could reduce global GDP growth by 0.7–1.3 percentage points, bringing growth to somewhere between 3.1% and 3.7% for 2022. Global trade growth this year could also be cut almost in half from the 4.7% forecast by the WTO last October to between 2.4% and 3%.
- JC, with PHM
HOW GENEVA’S PRIVATE ‘UNIVERSITIES’ ARE SHAMELESSLY EXPLOITING THE GLOBAL SOUTH
By Sarah Zeines
Aggressive marketing in developing countries and taking advantage of ambitious overseas students are the bread and butter of many local private schools.
Their targets? Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—despite the difficulties in obtaining Swiss visas for students from these regions. One struggling woman from Cameroon tells The Geneva Observer that a local school with branches in various countries never reimbursed her payment of 7000 CHF, after the Canton’s immigration authorities refused to grant her entry.
Craig E. Klafter, who works for The National Association of Scholars in the US, has conducted extensive research on the global for-profit higher education market. He criticizes Switzerland’s laissez-faire approach, which comes at the expense of its historically pristine academic reputation.
Diane Djeufang Hameni is a broken woman. From her home in Douala, Cameroon, she curses the school at the origin of her troubles: “Wesford University Geneva”—she spits the words out as if they were poison.
In 2011, Wesford's then director, Philippe Munoz, had personally assured her in writing that she would receive a visa once she had made an initial payment of 7000 CHF—the first installment of the 25,000 CHF tuition fee for a two-year Master’s program. But the permission to come to Switzerland was never granted, and the money—a substantial amount in Cameroon—was never returned.
Diane’s social and financial downfall was not destiny. Before enrolling at Wesford University, the young woman was a successful legal aid at a firm in her own country. When she spotted the school’s Facebook advertisement for a study plan open to Cameroonian youth, back in 2011, she immediately saw an opportunity to climb the ranks. “I was already the first of my family to receive a university degree; a Master’s in corporate law. My idea was to get an additional degree in Geneva and then apply for a manager position at a bank in Douala,” she remembers. “My family scraped the money together to pay for my tuition. It was a group effort. They were investing in me because they believed in me. Now they are upset, and I have been unemployed for years.”
Days after Diane’s payment went through, the school sent her documents to fill out at the Swiss Embassy in Cameroon. “I waited seven months before I finally received a negative response,” she says angrily. “I then sent the proof that I had been denied entry to Switzerland, but I was never reimbursed by Wesford. My calls and e-mails were ignored.”
Alex Liénard, the school's current director, has not replied to our repeated requests for comment. It also appears that Wesford’s administrative situation is shaky. When the staff returned to work from holidays in February 2020, they found the premises empty, having received no notification of any issues. Shortly after, Liénard transferred contracts over to his competitor, Djawed Sangdel, who owns Swiss UMEF University. Professors’ hours and incomes were reduced to about 5% of what they had been previously. Wesford—which also has branches in France and Morocco—continues to answer calls and enroll students. French public records indicate that Liénard’s company went bankrupt in 2018.
SULLYING THE SWISS BRAND
Like many other local for-profit higher education facilities, Wesford takes advantage of the underprivileged. How? By launching branches in developing countries and funding intensive marketing on social media or through billboard campaigns in targeted geographical zones, essentially Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Because of the country’s lax higher education laws, Swiss private ‘universities’ are managed as corporate entities and abide by free-market laws. This is a legal loophole that has been compromising the Switzerland's long-running academic image for decades.
“Most Western countries regulate. Switzerland is pretty much the only one that does not practice some form of control over these private schools,” highlights Craig E. Klafter, former rector of The American University of Myanmar and researcher at The National Association of Scholars.
The Florida-based scholar published a paper in 2018 titled ‘International Student Recruitment Abuses’, which focused on institutions launched in Myanmar before the military coup. According to the expert, the for-profit private education market is a bigger problem in Switzerland than elsewhere: “British universities are regulated by The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. As for US universities, they have to answer to their institutional accreditors and relevant State authorities. Australia’s private universities are regulated by their states and by the federal government, even though they are mostly operating in Southeast Asia. Though I am sympathetic with the notion of a free market, we are talking about the Swiss higher education brand here. The profit-driven private schools abroad are the face of higher education in Switzerland throughout the world. Swiss authorities are doing a major disservice to their quality institutions by allowing this to go on.”
Federal accreditation organization Swissuniversities, the University of Geneva, and The Graduate Institute have not replied to our requests for comment.
TROUBLING INFORMATION ABOUT UBIS UNIVERSITY IN MYANMAR
In Myanmar, where Klafter initiated his investigations into academic malpractices, the problem is acute. Since the coup, most universities have closed. In the years prior to the military takeover, degrees were already a coveted commodity. “Students are desperate for high-quality education,” notes Klafter. “Most businesses in Myanmar will hire someone with a foreign qualification over a student from a public university. The unemployment rates for young people are at about 50%. A number which is reduced to 20% with a Myanmar public university degree, and 5% with a foreign degree.”
The programs come at a heavy price, however, and with reduced odds of success. “The average income in the country is about 3000 dollars a year,” Klafter points out. “What the schools tend to do is charge the students per course—anywhere from 300 to 500 dollars. Most individuals who enroll never earn the degree they’re aiming for. Also, students often lack sufficient English language skills to benefit from the courses. I have found that the average graduation rate of these schools in Myanmar is 8%. I do not doubt that similar numbers can be found in other places.”
Amongst the abusive institutions uncovered by the expert in Myanmar is UBIS University, a private Geneva-based for-profit institution owned by Hamilton White Group, LLC, an American investment firm. “The school markets itself internationally, particularly in the least developed or developing countries, as Swiss excellence,” says Klafter.
The issues at UBIS University—a partner of The Geneva School of Diplomacy, which was highlighted in our previous piece—are identical to those at other local schools; misleading claims, poor administrative structures, and inconsistent academic quality, to sum up a long list of student and staff grievances. “UBIS University lists the Council for Higher Education (CHEA) as an accreditor of theirs. This is simply not true,” insists Klafter. “CHEA does not accredit individual institutions. It is a membership organization of accreditors. The school has also teamed up with The University of Potomac, based in Washington DC. The University of Potomac has been on accreditor probation and is at risk of losing its accreditation and thus being forced to close.”
There is an additional problem, of a more severe nature, at the Geneva-based institution in Myanmar. “In 2017, UBIS had a contract with a single individual who was teaching all the courses needed for a UBIS MBA degree offered in Myanmar’s capital. I did some research on him and found out that he was forced out of his previous position and left the United States due to a statutory rape claim. Someone with this background would have never cleared a pre-employment background check typically undertaken by reputable Western universities.”
GETTING CLOSER TO SWITZERLAND
“Summer school in Geneva and an internationally accredited MBA. This program is a unique opportunity for Azerbaijani students.” This Facebook post by UBIS is one of many promises made by schools and posted on social media. Through frequent online marketing campaigns, the Canton’s private institutions imply that students will gain access to Geneva upon enrollment.
Despite the fact that many international students who attend the schools listed above never make it out of their home country, cultivating ties to Switzerland is a major selling point for the institutions. The Office cantonal de la population (OCP)—Geneva’s immigration authority—argued in their response to Diane Djeufang Hameni, the Cameroonian woman denied entry, that she “already had a Master’s degree” and as “a childless young woman might be tempted to further her stay” for economic gain.
At The Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations (GSD), one Nigerian student has benefited from a seven-year student visa in the canton, despite failing to complete the Bachelor’s degree he came here for. “His family has money, which gets him special attention in the school’s administration,” says a former staff member. By Swiss law, a student must prove that they have housing and sufficient funds, in addition to being backed by a registered school. Student visas can run 8 years, but usually no longer, barring exceptions.
Laurent Paoliello, a communications advisor for the Department of Security, Population, and Health, which includes the OCP, says that “there is no legal basis for refusing students” enrolled at private for-profit schools. “The vast majority of private schools are not accredited by swissuniversities or Eduqua,” he adds.
Regulation is not on the cantonal policy agenda, for the time being at least. “I can very well imagine that certain schools or universities could be tempted to use the international aura of Geneva to attract students, including from developing countries,” notes Yves de Matteis, a parliamentary deputy and former member of the Higher Education Commission in Geneva. “It is clear that if the courses, training, or diplomas delivered (by these schools) lack the academic criteria required, the commission should deal with the issue in the framework of its parliamentary meetings.”
Tiziana Fantini, a communications advisor for The Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER), is aware of the problem but does not have sufficient jurisdiction to prevent it. “Often, intermediaries promote private institutions directly in the target countries and recruit on-site. Potential students completely trust these individuals and sign up for programs without doing any research.”
Information and communication are key when it comes to choosing a program, insists Fantini: “We often respond to information requests and we recommend always inquiring. We have raised awareness in our embassies abroad about the problem of [bogus] private schools. Generally speaking, a school’s accreditation according to the Federal Act on Funding and Coordination of the Swiss Higher Education Sector’s requirements is a good quality indicator.”
Neither Geneva Business School—which also runs campaigns in developing countries—nor UBIS have replied to The Geneva Observer’s repeated requests for comment.
SERGEI LAVROV’S CONVERSION
Does Sergei Lavrov, a very familiar face here in International Geneva, really believe what he says about the war in Ukraine? It is impossible to say, but what is clear, says Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to Nato, is that the consummate diplomat has completely lost his way.
“The conversations we've had over the years clash with your unofficial defense of a war of aggression and its tragic consequences, humanitarian and political,” he recently wrote to his former colleague, in an open letter published in the Italian press, after Lavrov criticized Italy’s support of harsh sanctions against Russia.
As Permanent Representative of Russia in the early 2000s, he says, Lavrov was “one of the most authoritative and listened to voices — even by those who did not agree with the positions you took. At the UN Headquarters, you moved like a fish in water. […] If we were having another face-to-face conversation today, I would ask you how you reconcile the multilateralism of your DNA with the invasion of Ukraine.”
Alluding to the UN Secretary General’s recent visit to Moscow, Stefanini writes: “It must have been a difficult meeting, because you had to defend your country in front of an interlocutor who did not come to Moscow as an adversary or enemy. The UN Secretary General does not represent a regional organization, like NATO or the EU. He is not partisan, and you know that very well. He represents a universal organization to which you have dedicated your energy and passion. Where is the multilateralism that we were proud of when we met, even though we were in opposite camps of the Cold War? Russia has forgotten the Charter, Italy has not.”
THE UN‘S “PERILOUS MOMENT”
As Michael Barnett reminded us last week, international cooperation was already in a state of crisis before Putin’s decision to go to war. The UN has been under severe strain for the last decade—a situation that last year prompted Antonio Guterres to launch an ambitious initiative to reinvigorate multilateralism. The result of this effort was published last fall, in a report entitled ‘Our Common Agenda’, mostly overlooked outside of the UN. Yet, it is arguably the most far-reaching endeavor conducted by the organization, involving consultations with more than 1.5 million people around the world, and with input provided by different levels of government, civil society, and a wide and diverse array of voices.
Another expert we spoke to recently, Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group, rightly referred to ‘Our Common Agenda’ in a lecture he gave at the Geneva Centre For Security Policy, arguing for a finely calibrated approach to reforming the system. His conclusion: “The UN is at a perilous moment—but peril can help one think harder.”
As the Michelin Guide might put it, both ‘Our Common Agenda’ and Gowan’s lecture are “worth the click.”
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Edited by: Dan Wheeler