КУПУЙ!

Станом на 16:00 котирування на міжбанківському валютному ринку становили 39 гривень 45–47 копійок за долар

Раніше Шмигаль заявив, що Кабінет міністрів 12 квітня дозволив місцевій владі звільняти бізнес від місцевих зборів

The U.S. military says large groups of drones and ground robots can be managed by just one person without added stress to the operator. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports, the technologies may be beneficial for civilian uses, too. VOA footage by Adam Greenbaum.

indianapolis, indiana — Semiconductors, or microchips, are critical to almost everything electronic used in the modern world. In 1990, the United States produced about 40% of the world’s semiconductors. As manufacturing migrated to Asia, U.S. production fell to about 12%.  

“During COVID, we got a wake-up call. It was like [a] Sputnik moment,” explained Mark Lundstrom, an engineer who has worked with microchips much of his life. 

The 2020 global coronavirus pandemic slowed production in Asia, creating a ripple through the global supply chain and leading to shortages of everything from phones to vehicles. Lundstrom said increasing U.S. reliance on foreign chip manufacturers exposed a major weakness. 

“We know that AI is going to transform society in the next several years, it requires extremely powerful chips. The most powerful leading-edge chips.” 

Today, Lundstrom is the acting dean of engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, a leader in cutting-edge semiconductor development, which has new importance amid the emerging field of artificial intelligence. 

“If we fall behind in AI, the consequences are enormous for the defense of our country, for our economic future,” Lundstrom told VOA. 

Amid the buzz of activity in a laboratory on Purdue’s campus, visitors can get a vision of what the future might look like in microchip technology. 

“The key metrics of the performance of the chips actually are the size of the transistors, the devices, which is the building block of the computer chips,” said Zhihong Chen, director of Purdue’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, where engineers work around the clock to push microchip technology into the future. 

“We are talking about a few atoms in each silicon transistor these days. And this is what this whole facility is about,” Chen said. “We are trying to make the next generation transistors better devices than current technologies. More powerful and more energy-efficient computer chips of the future.” 

Not just RVs anymore

Because of Purdue’s efforts, along with those on other university campuses in the state, Indiana believes it’s an attractive location for manufacturers looking to build new microchip facilities. 

“Purdue University alone, a top four-ranked engineering school, offers more engineers every year than the next top three,” said Eric Holcomb, Indiana’s Republican governor. “When you have access to that kind of talent, when you have access to the cost of doing business in the state of Indiana, that’s why people are increasingly saying, Indiana.” 

Holcomb is in the final year of his eight-year tenure in the state’s top position. He wants to transform Indiana beyond the recreational vehicle, or “RV capital” of the country.  

“We produce about plus-80% of all the RV production in North America in one state,” he told VOA. “We are not just living up to our reputation as being the number one manufacturing state per capita in America, but we are increasingly embracing the future of mobility in America.” 

Holcomb is spearheading an effort to make Indiana the next great technology center as the U.S. ramps up investment in domestic microchip development and manufacturing.  “If we want to compete globally, we have to get smarter and healthier and more equipped, and we have to continue to invest in our quality of place,” Holcomb told VOA in an interview. 

His vision is shared by other lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who co-sponsored the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, which commits more than $50 billion in federal funding for domestic microchip development. 

‘We are committed’

Indiana is now home to one of 31 designated U.S. technology and innovation hubs, helping it qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in grants designed to attract technology-driven businesses. 

“The signal that it sends to the rest of the world [is] that we are in it, we are committed, and we are focused,” said Holcomb. “We understand that economic development, economic security and national security complement one another.” 

Indiana’s efforts are paying off. 

In April, South Korean microchip manufacturer SK Hynix announced it was planning to build a $4 billion facility near Purdue University that would produce next-generation, high-bandwidth memory, or HBM chips, critical for artificial intelligence applications.  

The facility, slated to start operating in 2028, could create more than 1,000 new jobs. While U.S. chip manufacturer SkyWater also plans to invest nearly $2 billion in Indiana’s new LEAP Innovation District near Purdue, the state recently lost bidding to host chipmaker Intel, which selected Ohio for two new factories. 

“Companies tend to like to go to locations where there is already that infrastructure, where that supply chain is in place,” Purdue’s Lundstrom said. “That’s a challenge for us, because this is a new industry for us. So, we have a chicken-and- egg problem that we have to address, and we are beginning to address that.” 

Lundstrom said the CHIPS and Science Act and the federal money that comes with it are helping Indiana ramp up to compete with other U.S. locations already known for microchip development, such as Silicon Valley in California and Arizona. 

What could help Indiana gain an edge is its natural resources — plenty of land and water, and regular weather patterns, all crucial for the sensitive processes needed to manufacture microchips at large manufacturing centers. 

The Midwestern state of Indiana aspires to become the next great technology center as the United States ramps up investment in domestic microchip development and manufacturing. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from Indianapolis. Videographer: Kane Farabaugh, Adam Greenbaum

Станом на 16:00 котирування на міжбанківському валютному ринку становили 39 гривень 22–27 копійок за долар, це на 18 і 21 копійку відповідно більше за рівень закриття торгів 10 квітня

Також українські урядовці «запропонували Словаччині внести зміни до угод про статус низки пропускних пунктів на кордоні»

London — Environmental and human rights activists are calling on the Nigerian government to withhold approval of plans by the London-based oil giant Shell to sell off its operations in the Niger Delta, unless the oil giant does more to tackle pollution in the region caused by the industry.

For decades, foreign energy firms have extracted hydrocarbons from the Niger Delta, and Shell is by far the biggest investor. It has earned the companies — and the Nigerian government — billions of dollars. Locals, however, have long complained of massive environmental damage.

“You can’t grow crops. You can’t drink the water. You can’t fish because the fish are dying or they’re dead,” said Florence Kayemba, Nigeria director at the civil society group Stakeholder Democracy Network, based in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta.

Shell Oil announced in January it is pulling out of its onshore and shallow water operations the region. It intends to sell its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), to Renaissance, a consortium of five mainly local firms. The sale would include existing mining licenses and infrastructure. Shell says it is part of a plan to transition away from fossil fuels.

Civil society groups say Shell must do more to clean up the environment before it leaves. A recent report by a Dutch organization, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, or SOMO, warned the divestment plan is a “ticking time bomb.”

“Communities fear that, once Shell exits, they will never see their environment restored or receive compensation for lost livelihoods,” the SOMO report said. “Most people in the Delta depend on farming and fishing, occupations that are impossible when the soil and waterways are deeply contaminated.”

Florence Kayemba of the Stakeholder Democracy Network, which contributed to the SOMO report, told VOA that the Nigerian government must scrutinize the sale more closely.

“We are very concerned about the legacy of pollution being left behind by Shell — not only Shell but also other oil companies that have divested their assets from the Niger Delta,” she said.

“We believe that it’s very important for the federal government to look into these issues, because the oil is not going to flow forever,” Kayemba added. “You will have a post-oil Nigeria. You will have a post-oil Niger Delta. And we need to have an environment that is functional.”

Oil companies like Shell have often blamed theft and sabotage for oil spills, a claim contested by environmental groups. Locals also seek to make money from unlicensed small-scale production known as “artisanal refining,” according to Kayemba.

“What you have is a situation where artisanal oil refining is just reinforcing what has been happening,” she said. “And yet that pollution had already existed. So, by the time you get to disentangle this, it becomes really difficult. Who is to blame who?”

A report commissioned in May 2023 by Bayelsa State, one of the major oil producing regions in the Niger Delta, estimated that it would cost some $12 billion to clean up decades-old oil spills in the state over a 12-year period. It blamed Shell and the Italian oil firm ENI for most of the damage.

Both Shell and ENI dispute the findings.

The SOMO report claims Shell is now selling its operations to domestic companies that may not have the capability to deal with the aging infrastructure and legacy of oil exploration.

“Shell is selling its oil blocks and infrastructure as going concerns to companies that appear, in several cases, to lack the finances and willingness both to deal with the old and damaged infrastructure and to undertake responsible closure and decommissioning when this becomes necessary,” the report said.

“Shell’s exit exposes the communities of the Niger Delta to major ongoing risks to their environment, health, and human rights, long after the oil industry ceases and likely for generations to come,” it added.

In a statement to VOA, Shell said that “Onshore divestments by international energy companies are part of a wider reconfiguration of the Nigerian oil and gas sector in which, after decades of capability building, domestic companies are playing an increasingly important role in helping the country to deliver its aspirations for the sector.”

“As divestments occur, mandatory submissions to the Federal Government allow the regulators to apply scrutiny across a wide range of issues and recommend approval of these divestments, provided they meet all requirements,” the statement said.

Shell added that it will continue to deploy its “technical expertise” under the terms of the sale to the new buyers.

The Nigerian government has indicated it intends to approve Shell’s divestment plans. Heineken Lokpobiri, Nigeria’s petroleum minister, told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the government is committed to “fostering a business-friendly environment” in the sector.

“On the part of the government, once we get the necessary documents, we will not waste time to give the necessary considerations and consent,” Lokpobiri said at Davos January 18, according to Reuters.

The Nigerian Ministry for Petroleum Resources did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

In the port of Benguela on Angola’s Pacific coast, fishermen and fish traders are struggling to make ends meet. They say their catch is getting smaller and they blame illegal fishing by Chinese  trawlers. For Joao Marcos, Barbara Santos has this report.  (Mayra de Lassalette contributed)

Inexpensive first-person view – or radio controlled – drones have become a powerful weapon in Ukraine’s war against Russian invaders. As the country presses the West for more military aid, many Ukrainian civilians are stepping in to help by making homemade attack drones. Lesia Bakalets has the story from Kyiv.

Голова ФДМ також анонсував аукціони квартир російського олігарха Михайла Шелкова та співробітника російської окупаційної адміністрації Володимира Сальдо

Київ працює над створенням Компенсаційної комісії та Компенсаційного фонду, який має наповнюватися за рахунок конфіскованих активів Росії, розповів прем’єр

Washington; Flagstaff, Arizona — President Joe Biden on Monday announced a $6.6 billion grant to Taiwan’s top chip manufacturer to produce semiconductors in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona, which includes a third facility that will bring the foreign tech giant’s investment in the state to $65 billion.

Biden said the move aims to perk up a decades-old slump in American chip manufacturing. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which is based in the Chinese-claimed island, claims more than half of the global market share in chip manufacturing.

The new facility, Biden said, will put the U.S. on track to produce 20% of the world’s leading-edge semiconductors by 2030.

“I was determined to turn that around, and thanks to my CHIPS and Science Act — a key part of my Investing in America agenda — semiconductor manufacturing and jobs are making a comeback,” Biden said in a statement.

U.S. production of this American-born technology has fallen steeply in recent decades, said Andy Wang, dean of engineering at Northern Arizona University.

“As a nation, we used to produce 40% of microchips for the whole world,” he told VOA. “Now, we produce less than 10%.”

A single semiconductor transistor is smaller than a grain of sand. But billions of them, packed neatly together, can connect the world through a mobile phone, control sophisticated weapons of war and satellites that orbit the Earth, and someday may even drive a car.

The immense value of these tiny chips has fueled fierce competition between the U.S. and China.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has taken several steps to hamper China’s efforts to build its own chip industry. Those include export controls and new rules to prevent “foreign countries of concern” — which it said includes China, Iran, North Korea and Russia — from benefiting from funding from the CHIPS and Science Act.

While analysts are divided over whether Taiwan’s dominance of this critical industry makes it more or less vulnerable to Chinese aggression, they agree it confers the island significant global status.

“It is debatable what, if any, role Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing prowess plays in deterrence,” said David Sacks, an analyst who focuses on U.S.-China relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What is not debatable is how devastating an attack on Taiwan would be for the global economy.”

Biden did not mention U.S. adversaries in his statement, but he noted the impact of Monday’s announcement, saying it “represent(s) a broader story for semiconductor manufacturing that’s made in America and with the strong support of America’s leading technology firms to build the products we rely on every day.”

VOA met with engineers in the new technological hub state, who said the legislation addresses a key weakness in American chip manufacturing.

“We’ve just gotten in the cycle of the last 15 to 20 years, where innovation has slowed down,” said Todd Achilles, who teaches innovation, strategy and policy analysis at the University of California-Berkeley. “It’s all about financial results, investor payouts and stock buybacks. And we’ve lost that innovation muscle. And the CHIPS Act — pulling that together with the CHIPS Act — is the perfect opportunity to restore that.”

The White House says this new investment could create 25,000 construction and manufacturing jobs. Academics say they’re churning out workers at a rapid pace, but that still, America lacks talent.

“Our engineering college is the largest in the country, with over 33,000 enrolled students, and still we’re hearing from companies across the semiconductor industry that they’re not able to get the talent they need in time,” Zachary Holman, vice dean for research and innovation at Arizona State University, told VOA.

And as the American industry stretches to keep pace, it races a technical trend known as t: that the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles about every two years. As a result, cutting-edge chips get ever smaller as they grow in computing power.

TSMC in 2022 broke ground on a facility that makes the smallest chip currently available, coming in at 3 nanometers — that’s just wider than a strand of DNA.

Reporter Levi Stallings contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.

President Joe Biden on Monday announced a $6.6 billion grant to Taiwan’s top chip manufacturer for semiconductor manufacturing in Arizona, which includes a third facility that will bring the tech giant’s investment in the state to $65 billion. VOA’s White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington, with reporter Levi Stallings in Flagstaff, Arizona.

WILMINGTON, Del. — The Biden administration pledged on Monday to provide up to $6.6 billion so that a Taiwanese semiconductor giant can expand the facilities it is already building in Arizona and better ensure that the most-advanced microchips are produced domestically for the first time. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the funding for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. means the company can expand on its existing plans for two facilities in Phoenix and add a third, newly announced production hub. 

“These are the chips that underpin all artificial intelligence, and they are the chips that are the necessary components for the technologies that we need to underpin our economy,” Raimondo said on a call with reporters, adding that they were vital to the “21st century military and national security apparatus.” 

The funding is tied to a sweeping 2022 law that President Joe Biden has celebrated and which is designed to revive U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. Known as the CHIPS and Science Act, the $280 billion package is aimed at sharpening the U.S. edge in military technology and manufacturing while minimizing the kinds of supply disruptions that occurred in 2021, after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when a shortage of chips stalled factory assembly lines and fueled inflation. 

The Biden administration has promised tens of billions of dollars to support construction of U.S. chip foundries and reduce reliance on Asian suppliers, which Washington sees as a security weakness. 

“Semiconductors – those tiny chips smaller than the tip of your finger – power everything from smartphones to cars to satellites and weapons systems,” Biden said in a statement. “TSMC’s renewed commitment to the United States, and its investment in Arizona represent a broader story for semiconductor manufacturing that’s made in America and with the strong support of America’s leading technology firms to build the products we rely on every day.” 

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. produces nearly all of the leading-edge microchips in the world and plans to eventually do so in the U.S. 

It began construction of its first facility in Phoenix in 2021, and started work on a second hub last year, with the company increasing its total investment in both projects to $40 billion. The third facility should be producing microchips by the end of the decade and will see the company’s commitment increase to a total of $65 billion, Raimondo said. 

The investments would put the U.S. on track to produce roughly 20% of the world’s leading-edge chips by 2030, and Raimondo said they should help create 6,000 manufacturing jobs and 20,000 construction jobs, as well as thousands of new positions more indirectly tied to assorted suppliers in chip-related industries tied to Arizona projects. 

The potential incentives announced Monday include $50 million to help train the workforce in Arizona to be better equipped to work in the new facilities. Additionally, approximately $5 billion of proposed loans would be available through the CHIPS and Science Act. 

“TSMC’s commitment to manufacture leading-edge chips in Arizona marks a new chapter for America’s semiconductor industry,” Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters. 

The announcement came as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is traveling in China. Senior administration officials were asked on the call with reporters if the Biden administration gave China a head’s up on the coming investment, given the delicate geopolitics surrounding Taiwan. The officials said only that their focus in making Monday’s announcement was solely on advancing U.S. manufacturing. 

“We are thrilled by the progress of our Arizona site to date,” C.C. Wei, CEO of TSMC, said in a statement, “And are committed to its long-term success.” 

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — The Cambodian government is pushing ahead with a cybercrime law experts say could be wielded to further curtail freedom of speech amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent. 

The cybercrime draft is the third controversial internet law authorities have pursued in the past year as the government, led by new Prime Minister Hun Manet, seeks greater oversight of internet activities. 

Obtained by VOA in both English and Khmer language versions, the latest draft of the cybercrime law is marked “confidential” and contains 55 articles. It lays out various offenses punishable by fines and jail time, including defamation, using “insulting, derogatory or rude language,” and sharing “false information” that could harm Cambodia’s public order and “traditional culture.”  

The law would also allow authorities to collect and record internet traffic data, in real time, of people under investigation for crimes, and would criminalize online material that “depicts any act or activity … intended to stimulate sexual desire” as pornography. 

Digital rights and legal experts who reviewed the law told VOA that its vague language, wide-ranging categories of prosecutable speech and lack of protections for citizens fall short of international standards, instead providing the government more tools to jail dissenters, opposition members, women and LGBTQ+ people. 

Although in the works since 2016, earlier drafts of the law, which sparked similar criticism, have not leaked since 2020 and 2021. Authorities hope to enact the law by the end of the year. 

“This cybercrime bill offers the government even more power to go after people expressing dissent,” Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology at the human rights organization Freedom House, told VOA.  

“These vague provisions around defamation, insults and disinformation are ripe for abuse, and we know that Cambodian authorities have deployed similarly vague criminal provisions in other contexts,” Vesteinsson said. 

Cambodian law already considers defamation a criminal offense, but the cybercrime draft would make it punishable by jail time up to six months, plus a fine of up to $5,000. The “false information” clause — defined as sharing information that “intentionally harms national defense, national security, relations with other countries, economy, public order, or causes discrimination, or affects traditional culture” — carries a three- to five-year sentence and fine of up to $25,000. 

Daron Tan, associate international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, told VOA the defamation and false information articles do not comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party, and that the United Nations Human Rights Committee is “very clear that imprisonment is never the appropriate penalty for defamation.” 

“It’s a step very much in the wrong direction,” Tan said. “We are very worried that this would expand the laws that the government can use against its critics.” 

Chea Pov, the deputy head of Cambodia’s National Police and former director of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Cybercrime Department that is overseeing the drafting process, told VOA the law “doesn’t restrict your rights” and claimed the U.S. companies which reviewed it “didn’t raise concerns.”  

Google, Meta and Amazon, which the government has said were involved in drafting the law, did not respond to requests for comment. 

“If you say something based on evidence, there is no problem,” Pov said. “But if there is no evidence, [you] defame others, which is also stated in the criminal law … we don’t regard this as a restriction.”  

The law also makes it illegal to use technology to display, trade, produce or disseminate pornography, or to advertise a “product or service mixed with pornography” online. Pornography is defined as anything that “describes a genital or depicts any act or activity involving a sexual organ or any part of the human body, animal, or object … or other similar pornography that is intended to stimulate sexual desire or cause sexual excitement.” 

Experts say this broad category is likely to be disproportionately deployed against women and LGBTQ+ people. 

Cambodian authorities have often rebuked or arrested women for dressing “too sexily” on social media, singing sexual songs or using suggestive speech. In 2020, an online clothes and cosmetics seller received a six-month suspended sentence after posting provocative photos; in another incident, a policewoman was forced to publicly apologize for posting photos of herself breastfeeding. 

Naly Pilorge, outreach director at Cambodian human rights organization Licadho, told VOA the draft law “could lead to more rights violations against women in the country.” 

“This vague definition of ‘pornography’ poses a serious threat to any woman whose online activity the government decides may ‘cause sexual excitement,’” Pilorge said. “The draft law does not acknowledge any legitimate artistic or educational purposes to depict or describe sexual organs, posing another threat to freedom of expression.” 

In March, authorities said they hosted civil society organizations to revisit the draft. They plan to complete the drafting process and send the law to Parliament for passage before the end of the year, according to Pov, the deputy head of police. 

Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, told VOA “there was no consultation on each article” at the recent meeting. 

“The NGO representatives were unable to analyze and present their inputs,” said Saroeun, echoing concerns about its contents. “How is it [possible]? We need to debate on this.” 

The cybercrime law has resurfaced as the government works to complete two other draft internet laws, one covering cybersecurity and the other personal data protection. Experts have critiqued the drafts as providing expanded police powers to seize computer systems and making citizens’ data vulnerable to hacking and surveillance. 

Authorities have also sought to create a national internet gateway that would require traffic to run through centralized government servers, though the status of that project has been unclear since early 2022 when the government said it faced delays. 

KEAN SVAY, KANDAL PROVINCE, Cambodia — Five years ago, Lun Sam Ath took out a $12,000 loan to build a new wooden house and repay a previous loan that she had used to buy a motorbike.

The 45-year-old mother of five owed $200 a month to Amret, one of the country’s largest microfinance institutions (MFI), which she figured she could repay with help from her older daughter’s earnings from a garment factory job. But then her husband contracted hepatitis, and treatment was costly.

After her husband died, Lun Sam Ath, who made about $180 a month in a garment factory, fell behind on payments. So, she decided to sell their house — along with a 10-by-20-meter plot of land. But with Cambodia experiencing a post-COVID real estate slump, it remains unsold.

The MFI credit officers seeking repayment started pressuring Lun Sam Ath.

“They would come to my home with several people, three to five motorbikes, and also bring the village chief with them,” she said during a recent interview with VOA Khmer.

She couldn’t handle the stress and shame. Last June she abandoned her home and rented a room for $40 a month, living with her three younger children, ages 9 to 14.

In February, she moved to the capital, Phnom Penh, where she sells face masks on the street. She screens phone calls “since I am afraid the bank agents will call me” she said. “They [the MFI] can take my land and sell it now to pay off the loan.”

Lun Sam Ath’s loan was one of nearly 2 million outstanding microfinance loans in Cambodia as of the end of 2023, according to the Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA). Cambodia’s population is about 16.5 million, and researchers say the ratio of microfinance loans per person is the world’s highest.

The MFI sector was once hailed as a key tool for lifting Cambodians out of poverty by injecting capital into small businesses or farms unsuitable for traditional loans. Instead, thousands of Cambodians found themselves in a debt trap, taking out increasingly burdensome loans to pay back other loans, and taking increasingly extreme measures to escape the cycle of indebtedness. Substantial research conducted in Cambodia and in other developing nations found that while microloans helped many, especially women, the small loans have also made lives, like Lun Sam Ath’s, worse.

Advocates say the MFIs in Cambodia frequently fail to clearly explain the risks of these loans to borrowers, who are often financially illiterate and use their land as collateral.

Two local rights groups, Licadho and Equitable Cambodia, released a report, Debt Threats: A Quantitative Study of Microloan Borrowers in Cambodia, based on a survey of 717 households in Kampong Speu province, which is about 50 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

“Widespread over-indebtedness has led to significant numbers of serious human rights abuses,” the study said.

It found 6.1% of households had sold land to repay a debt, while about 3% of households had a child drop out of school specifically due to a loan, often to start working to help repayment.

The study, released in August, also found a spike in people increasing their borrowing to repay other loans. In 2012, 3.45% of loans went to repaying existing loans, which increased to 34.8% of loans in 2022.

Am Sam Ath, operations director at Licadho, called for urgent intervention from MFIs and the government to protect borrowers. But he said loan officers employed by MFIs were often perpetuating the problem.

Rather than approving loans for income-generating activities, these institutions were issuing loans for house repairs, medical expenses or repaying other loans.

And Cambodia is seeing increasing reports of credit officers resorting to intimidation or other unscrupulous tactics to compel borrowers to repay their debt, Am Sam Ath told VOA Khmer in January.

That month, the CMA released a study touting the “transformative impact” of microfinance loans.

Kaing Tongngy, a spokesperson for the association, said there were more than 2 million borrowers across the country, “so it is unavoidable that some clients were unable to pay.”

The CMA impact study, conducted by development research agency M-CRIL, found that 31% of the 3,200 microfinance borrowers surveyed experienced substantial economic benefit and life improvements, while 36% reported some improvement over the past five years.

And while nearly 6% of borrowers had reported selling some land over the past five years, 20% reported purchases of some land, according to the CMA report.

Licadho’s Am Sam Ath said the CMA study “focused mostly on positive work of MFIs, but little on negatives.” He and other like-minded advocates want to see “solutions and improvements in the sector.”

The growth of MFIs has been staggering. Starting with about 50,000 clients and a total loan portfolio of more than $3 million in 1995, the microfinance sector provided loans to 2.1 million households with a portfolio of $9.4 billion by the end of 2022, according to the CMA. That accounts for more than 30% of Cambodia’s estimated GDP of $29.96 billion.

MFIs often tout the relatively high repayment rates as proof of the industry’s health. The National Bank of Cambodia in 2022 reported a sectorwide non-performing loan rate of just 2.5%. But researchers from Cambodia and Singapore said an obsession with “portfolio quality” was masking the true cost to individual borrowers.

“These indicators hide how people are juggling debt from informal lenders to repay their loans. Consequently, claims about the social impact of microfinance are based on a flawed understanding of household borrowing practices,” said their report, released last year with a grant from the National University of Singapore.

“Lenders not only fail to measure the impact of their services, but they also have a conflict of interest in reporting on the abuses that their services have caused. So long as repayment rates are considered an indicator of success, then the risks associated with juggling debt are likely to increase,” it added.

According to a report by the National Bank of Cambodia, its officials have imposed fines or taken other administrative actions against MFIs that fail to follow existing regulations.

Cambodia’s microfinance industry is being investigated by the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) watchdog’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), because of the reports of forced land sales and other human rights violations from advocacy organizations.

CAO is reviewing six of Cambodia’s top IFC-funded microfinance institutions including Amret, which issued Lun Sam Ath’s loan. It declined to comment on her case in an email to VOA on March 16.

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — In the suburbs of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, lucrative strawberry farming is supplanting traditional crops like cabbage and lettuce and has become a top export to neighboring countries.

Prized as “red gold” in the Sahel, strawberry crops brought in some $3.3 million from 2019 to 2020, according to agricultural support program PAPEA.

In their January to April season, strawberries “take the place of other crops,” Yiwendenda Tiemtore, a farmer in the working-class Boulmiougou district on the city outskirts, told AFP.

Tiemtore has been busy harvesting the red fruit since dawn, before temperatures rise to 40 degrees Celsius.

He harvests about 25 to 30 kilograms of Burkina’s popular strawberry varieties, “selva” and “camarosa,” every three days, watering his plots from wells.

Cultivating strawberries, which thrive on ample sunlight and water, might come as a surprise in this semi-arid West African country.

But Burkina Faso leads the region’s strawberry production, growing about 2,000 tons a year.

Despite being prized by local customers, more than half is exported to neighboring countries.

“We receive orders from abroad, particularly from Ivory Coast, Niger and Ghana,” said market gardener Madi Compaore, who specializes in strawberries and trains local growers.

“Demand is constantly rising and the prices are good.”

In season, strawberries tend to be sold at a higher price than other fruit and vegetables, fetching $5 per kilogram.

Production has remained strong despite insecurity in the country, including from jihadi violence and the repercussions of two coups in 2022.

As well as in Ouagadougou, strawberry production is prominent in Bobo-Dioulasso — Burkina’s second city — even though “the sector’s not very well organized” there, Compaore said.

Since the 1970s

“You might think it’s an oddity to grow strawberries in a Sahelian country like Burkina Faso, but it’s been a fixture since the 1970s,” Compaore added.

The practice began when a French expatriate introduced a few plants to his garden in the country. Now more and more people are growing them.

“It’s our red gold. It’s one of the most profitable crops for both growers and sellers,” he explained.

Seller Jacqueline Taonsa has no hesitation in swapping from apples and bananas to strawberries in season.

“With the heat, it’s hard to keep strawberries fresh for long,” said Taonsa, who cycles around Ouagadougou neighborhoods balancing a salad bowl on her head.

“So, we take quantities that can be sold quickly during the day,” she explained. That usually amounts to about 5 or 6 kilograms.

Adissa Tiemtore used to be a full-time fruit and vegetable seller.

She has mainly switched to selling woven loincloths now but takes up her strawberry business again in season because of the lucrative margins, as high as “200-300%.”

“I start strawberry selling again when they’re in season to make a bit of money and satisfy my former customers, who continue to ask for them,” she said.

“We go round the different growers depending on what day they’re harvesting. That way we get enough to sell every day during the three fruit-producing months,” she said.

The end of April spells the end of the bonanza. “We go back to our other activities, and we wait for next season,” Tiemtore said. 

PENTAGON — Russian microchip company AO PKK Milandr continued to provide microchips to the Russian armed forces at least several months after Russia invaded Ukraine, despite public denials by company director Alexey Novoselov of any connection with Russia’s military.

A formal letter obtained by VOA dated February 10, 2023, shows a sale request for 4,080 military grade microchips for the Russian military. The sale request was addressed from a deputy commander of the 546 military representation of the Russian Ministry of Defense and the commercial director of Russian manufacturer NPO Poisk to Milandr CEO S.V. Tarasenko for delivery by April 2023, more than a year into the war.

The letter instructs Milandr to provide three types of microchip components to NPO Poisk, a well-established Russian defense manufacturer that makes detonators for weapons used by the Russian Armed Forces.

“Each of these three circuits that you have in the table on the document, each one of them is classed as a military-grade component … and each of these is manufactured specifically by Milandr,” said Denys Karlovskyi, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. VOA shared the document with him to confirm its authenticity.

In addition to Milandr CEO Tarasenko, the letter is addressed to a commander of the Russian Defense Ministry’s 514 military representation of the Russian Ministry of Defense named I.A. Shvid.

Karlovskyi says this inclusion shows that Milandr, like Poisk, appears to have a Russian commander from the Defense Ministry’s oversight unit assigned to it — a clear indicator that a company is part of Russia’s defense industry.

Milandr, headquartered near Moscow in an area known as “Soviet Silicon Valley,” was sanctioned by the United States in November 2022, for its illegal procurement of microelectronic components using front companies.

In the statement announcing the 2022 sanctions against Milandr and more than three dozen other entities and individuals, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “The United States will continue to expose and disrupt the Kremlin’s military supply chains and deny Russia the equipment and technology it needs to wage its illegal war against Ukraine.”

Karlovskyi said that in Russia’s database of public contracts, Milandr is listed in more than 500 contracts, supplying numerous state-owned and military-grade enterprises, including Ural Optical Mechanical Plant, Concern Avtomatika and Izhevsk Electromechanical Plant, or IEMZ Kupol, which also have been sanctioned by the United States.

“It clearly suggests that this entity is a crucial node in Russia’s military supply chain,” Karlovskyi told VOA.

Novoselov, Milandr’s current director, told Bloomberg News last August that he was not aware of any connections to the Russian military.

“I don’t know any military persons who would be interested in our product,” he told Bloomberg in a phone interview, adding that the company mostly produces electric power meters.

The U.S. allegations are “like a fantasy,” he said. “The United States’ State Department, they suppose that every electronics business in Russia is focused on the military. I think that is funny.”

But a U.S. defense official told VOA that helping Russia’s military kill tens of thousands of people in an illegal invasion “is no laughing matter.”

“The company is fueling microchips for missiles and heavily armored vehicles that are used to continue the war in Ukraine,” said the defense official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivities of discussing U.S. intelligence.

Milandr’s co-founder Mikhail Pavlyuk was also sanctioned during the summer of 2022 for his involvement in microchip smuggling operations and was caught stealing from Milandr. Pavlyuk fled Russia and has claimed he was not involved.

Officials estimate that 500,000 Ukrainian and Russian troops have been killed or injured in the war, with tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians killed in the fighting.

“There are consequences to their actions, and the U.S. will persist to expose and disrupt the Kremlin’s supply chain,” the U.S. defense official said.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — The United States and China have agreed to hold talks and create two economic groups focused on a wide range of issues — including addressing American complaints about China’s economic model, growth in domestic and global economies and efforts against money laundering — according to a statement released Saturday by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The agreement comes on the second day of an official visit to China by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, during which she has urged Chinese leaders to change their domestic manufacturing policies.

The two sides are set to hold “intensive exchanges” on cultivating more balanced economic growth and combating money laundering.

Yellen said the efforts would establish a structure for Beijing and Washington to exchange views and address Chinese industrial overcapacity, its ability to supply more product than is demanded.

“I think the Chinese realize how concerned we are about the implications of their industrial strategy for the United States, for the potential to flood our markets with exports that make it difficult for American firms to compete,” she told journalists after the announcement Saturday.

Yellen was en route to Beijing after beginning her five-day visit in the southern city of Guangzhou, which is a key manufacturing and export center for China.

While the issue of China’s industrial overcapacity will not be resolved instantly, Yellen said Chinese officials understand it’s an “important issue” for Americans, adding that her exchanges with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng will facilitate a discussion around macroeconomic imbalances and their connection to overcapacity.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported Chinese officials “comprehensively responded” to the issue of industrial overcapacity raised by the Americans. “Both sides agreed to continue to maintain communication,” an official readout said.

The announcement came a day after Yellen urged Beijing to reform its trade practices and create “a healthy economic relationship” with the U.S. It also follows Chinese state media’s warning that Washington may consider rolling out more protectionist policies to shield U.S. companies.”

Some analysts say the announcement reflects Yellen’s effort to push forward on collaboration in areas the U.S. and China agreed on during U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s San Francisco summit last November.

“When Xi met Biden in November, they agreed to set up working groups, so Yellen is continuing to push that forward with the meeting,” Dexter Roberts, director of China affairs at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, told VOA by phone.

While he called the announcement a positive development, Roberts said he does not think Beijing and Washington will reach agreement on contentious trade issues during Yellen’s trip.

“There could be temporary things like China easing off on subsidizing electric vehicles a bit, but it’s unclear how either side is going to change what’s happening in a way that allows the tension over trade to lessen,” he said.

Beijing’s displeasure

While Washington highlighted threats posed by China’s industrial overcapacity, Beijing focused on its concerns about U.S. export controls on Chinese companies during the meeting between Yellen and He.

“The Chinese side expressed serious concerns over Washington’s restrictive economic and trade measures against China,” read the Chinese readout published by Xinhua.

Some experts say the United States and China could make progress on U.S. export restrictions on Chinese companies.

“Some U.S. businesses are calling for the government to remove some of the export restrictions, especially for chips [integrated circuits],” Victor Shih, director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California in San Diego, told VOA by phone.

Since China is either already making, or is on the cusp of making, some of the computer chips on the sanctions list, Shih said he thinks restricting U.S. companies from selling some of the chips to China will only hurt American interests. “It’s really not hurting China that much,” he said.

In addition to U.S. controls on exports to Chinese entities, Shih said the other big topic Chinese officials are likely to raise in meetings with Yellen is potential tariffs Washington may impose on Chinese products.

“Since China is the largest exporter in the world, it’s not in its interest for there to be a lot of tariffs around the world, especially for major importers like the U.S.,” he said, adding that talking to Washington about lowering tariffs and not enacting new ones will be an important agenda item for Beijing.

While she has not explicitly promised to impose new sanctions on Chinese products, Yellen said she would not rule out the possibility of adopting more measures to safeguard the American supply chain for electric vehicles, batteries or solar panels from heavily subsidized Chinese green energy products.

During a phone call Tuesday with Biden, Xi warned that if the United States is “adamant on containing China’s high-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, China is not going to sit back and watch.”

Bilateral communication

Despite persistent differences over contentious trade issues, Yellen and He underscored the importance for China and the U.S. to “properly respond to key concerns of the other side” to build a more cooperative economic relationship.

“It also remains crucial for the two largest economies to seek progress on global challenges like climate change and debt distress in emerging markets in developing countries, and to closely communicate on issues of concern such as overcapacity and national security-related economic actions,” Yellen said Friday.

Based on Yellen and He’s comments and signals from the Biden-Xi call Tuesday, some analysts say the U.S. and China will continue to put guard rails around the bilateral relationship to prevent it from further deteriorating.

“The two sides have come to the realization that they will have to live together, perhaps uncomfortably at times,” said Zhiqun Zhu, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Bucknell University.

While the relationship will remain highly competitive, Zhu said he thinks Beijing and Washington will “stay engaged and seek cooperation in areas of common interest.”

“Maintaining stability is the priority for both Xi and Biden now,” he said.

Yellen is scheduled to have meetings with other senior officials Sunday and Monday in Beijing.

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