What We're Watching: UK exam fiasco, Thai protests grow, GERD negotiations resume

What We're Watching: UK exam fiasco, Thai protests grow, GERD negotiations resume

The UK's exam fiasco: The UK Department of Education has landed Prime Minister Boris Johnson in hot water over a national scandal involving computer-generated "mock" test scores assigned to hundreds of thousands of high school students. A wave of "A-level" standardized exams (taken at the end of high school) were recently cancelled because of the coronavirus. But in order to assign students the scores that they would likely have gotten if they had taken the test, the UK's exam regulator, known as Ofqual, used an algorithm. (Algorithms in 2020, what could possibly go wrong?) The algorithm's reliance on two unsound key indicators — a school's past performance and students' results from primary school — placed high-achieving students at poorly-performing public schools at a massive disadvantage. Some 40 percent of students say the algorithm "downgraded" their results from teachers' assessments (teachers submitted their own assessed grades but they were not supposed to be taken into consideration). After hundreds of students took to the streets over the weekend, decrying Ofqual's mishandling, which they say messed up their university placements, authorities scrapped plans to use the algorithm and will now use a different system to determine final grades. Still, it's up to students to get in touch with universities to see if they still have a place. The situation is still extremely....messy.


Thai anti-government protests grow: At least 10,000 young activists took to Bangkok's streets on Sunday to rally against the Thai government. It was the largest protest the country has seen since 2014, when the military seized power in a coup, the 13th military coup in the country since the 1930s (Thailand has had more military coups than any other country in the world.) The youth-led movement has upended Thai politics in recent weeks by daring to question not only the role of the men in uniform but also that of the once-untouchable monarchy. It's an unprecedented show of defiance in Thailand, where any offense against the royal family can be punished with a long jail sentence. So far, however, the army has shown restraint in cracking down against the protesters — who demand fresh elections and a new constitution that curtails the powers of both the military and the monarchy — and only one prominent pro-democracy leader has been arrested. We're watching to see if the generals lose patience with the demonstrators in the days ahead.

More of these dam negotiations: This week, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan meet once again to try to reach an agreement on Nile River water rights involving the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia recently completed the mega-project, which is meant to boost the country's economy and turn it into a major electricity exporter. But downstream, Egypt and Sudan are worried that the dam will leave their farmers, industries, and households without enough water. They want a detailed and binding agreement that lays out exactly how much water Ethiopia can use, while Ethiopia's leaders want a more flexible accord. Tempers have flared over the issue, with both Egypt and Ethiopia threatening to go on a war footing in the past. Things are now coming to a head as Ethiopia begins filling the dam, over objections from Cairo and Khartoum. We're watching to see if there's any progress this week, or whether prospects for a deal before GERD gets going in earnest are as good as water over the dam. If so, the stage would be set for seasonal tensions over water that could quickly spiral from one year to the next.

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The European Union is, for better or worse, the most ambitious experiment in human history in institutionalized multinational cooperation. Its success depends on the willingness of its members to abide by its rules.

In recent years, the populist-nationalist governments of former Communist bloc members Hungary and Poland have flouted some of those rules in order to boost their own popularity with citizens suspicious of the EU's liberal values on issues like immigration and minority rights. In response, the EU has scolded these "illiberal" governments and threatened forceful action – so far without much effect.

The fight between EU institutions and Poland and Hungary has escalated.

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Some of the worst sectarian clashes since Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990) broke out in Beirut this week between supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, and Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. Shiite protesters were rallying against the state probe into the Beirut port blast, which occurred last year. They say authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. Below is our original piece on the Beirut port explosions published on August 5, 2020.


The twin explosions at Beirut's port on Tuesday were so powerful that the aftershocks reverberated as far as the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 150 miles away. The specter of fire and smoke was such that many suggested on social media that Beirut had experienced a nuclear blast.

In the days ahead, more details will come to light about why a deadly cache of materials was haphazardly stashed at a port warehouse, and why Lebanon's government failed to secure the site. So, what comes next for crisis-ridden Lebanon?

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

What does it actually mean to cut $1 trillion from the Democrats' $3.5 trillion social spending bill?

President Biden has proposed one of the most ambitious expansions of federal spending in recent memory. If he gets everything he wants, it would probably be the largest expansion of government since the Great Society, but he's not going to get everything he wants. Democrats have basically said they cannot do all $3.5 trillion in spending. They're probably going to end up around $2 trillion. So what gets cut? Well, we don't know yet. There's kind of two ways to go about this. They could either cut the number of programs that have been proposed, doing fewer things with more money on a permanent basis, or they could try to do more things, each program getting less money and potentially doing them on a temporary basis. So, a future Congress would have to extend it. What does this mean for you? Well, a lot of the money in here is designed to go directly to families, either in the form of cash payments, through the tax code, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, or subsidies for things like child care, early childhood education, and community college. And if you cut these things back, it means less money is going to go out the door to the American people. It also means less tax increases to finance it. So the implications of what's being proposed could actually end up being a big deal for a lot of Americans who would qualify for benefits under these new programs.

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How will artificial intelligence change the world and especially the job market by 2041? AI scientist Kai-fu Lee just wrote a book about precisely that, and he predicts it'll shake up almost every major industry. AI, he explains, will be most disruptive to many so-called "routine" occupations, but the damage may be reduced by shifting "empathetic" workers to jobs that require human empathy. Watch his interview on GZERO World with Ian Bremmer.

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Is a robot coming for your job? Kai-fu Lee explains AI

The Atlantic CEO Nick Thompson believes in tech firms doing business in China because connecting with people there is a huge social good for the world. But in demanding LinkedIn de-platform certain people, he says, the Chinese government crossed a line, and "you can't justify that."

Watch Ian Bremmer's interview with Nicholas Thompson in an upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television.

Sectarian clashes in Lebanon: As Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, were on their way to a protest in Beirut Thursday, gunfire broke out, evidently between Hezbollah militants and those of the Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. The protesters were rallying against the ongoing state probe into last year's devastating twin blasts at a Beirut port, saying that state authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. They have called for the dismissal of Judge Tarek Bitar — who is leading the probe and on Monday issued an arrest warrant for a prominent Shiite parliamentarian linked to Amal. Each side has blamed the other for starting the violence Thursday, which killed at least six people, injured dozens more, and threw the entire city into a panic. In a grim omen, the clashes, which are among the worst in recent years, erupted along one of the old front lines (dividing Muslim and Christian neighborhoods) of the 15-year sectarian civil war that devastated the country up until 1990. With the country mired in economic and political crises, the people of Lebanon can't seem to catch a break: just last week the country was plunged into complete darkness when its decrepit power grid ran out of fuel. Meanwhile, Najib Mikati, who became prime minister designate in July after months of political deadlock, declared a "day of mourning," but civil strife continues.

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35.4: The US has overtaken China as the country with the largest share of the world's Bitcoin mining networks, now accounting for 35.4 of the global mining presence. This comes after the Chinese government banned domestic cryptocurrency mining operations to promote its own digital yuan that would track every single transaction.

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