FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Monday:  July 28, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Thursday
Jul192012

AIDS deaths worldwide drop as access to drugs improves (REPORT) 

(Video: UNAIDS)

Fewer people infected with HIV globally are dying as more of them get access to crucial antiretroviral drugs, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the United Nations AIDS program said on Wednesday.

The United Nations estimates that about 34 million people are living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. In a report released ahead of the International AIDS Society's 2012 annual meeting set for next week in Washington, D.C., it said that the number of worldwide AIDS-related deaths fell to 1.7 million last year from some 1.8 million in 2010. AIDS deaths peaked at 2.3 million in 2005.

The decline has been fueled by greater access to medications that help more people live with the disease. An estimated 8 million people in lower-income countries are receiving antiretroviral drugs, and the United Nations has set a target to raise that to 15 million by 2015.

Funding for HIV prevention and treatment totaled $16.8 billion last year. Of that amount, $8.2 billion came from international sources including the United States, which donated 48 percent of it. The amount of money spent by poor and middle-income countries reached $8.6 billion last year, surpassing international investment for the first time. The UN estimates that another $5 billion is needed to reach its 2015 goals.

The UN is also talking with pharmaceutical companies about how to improve access to lower-cost versions of simpler HIV treatments that combine several drugs in a single pill.

(MAP: Global AIDS Infections, 2010/Payvand) "We need innovation which will reduce the cost of medicine," Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said during a telephone interview. "If we want to maintain people on second-and third-line medicine it will not be possible with the price of the drugs we have today."

Paul De Lay, UNAIDS deputy executive director, speaking a briefing in Geneva, said overall progress in treating the disease could be jeopardized by a surge in infection seen in smaller patient groups, including in Eastern Europe and the United States.

"We are looking at an epidemic that's going to last another 40 to 50 years to get down to what we would consider the lowest possible number of infections," De Lay said.

"It reminds us that prevention must be sustained, just the way we talk about sustaining treatment. Until we have a vaccine this is still going to have to be part of all countries' health programs," he said.

Public health officials are considering wider use of HIV medications in people who are not infected with the virus but have a high risk of contracting it. Earlier this week, US health regulators for the first time approved use of Gilead Sciences Inc's Truvada drug for preventing HIV.

Such antiretroviral drugs, also sold by companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co, are designed to keep the virus that causes AIDS in check by suppressing viral replication in the blood.

Researchers are also working on using HIV-fighting antibodies to prevent infection, and they say their efforts could yield a licensed vaccine.

In the meantime, treating more people infected with HIV remains a priority. UNAIDS estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, a region encompassing countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, 31 percent fewer people died from AIDS-related causes in 2011 compared with 2005.

The region "has actually been able to scale up more than other parts of the world, more than Eastern Europe and Central Asia, more than North Africa and the Middle East, and even more than Asia, with a 62 percent coverage rate of people eligible for treatment able to access treatment," said Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, director of the HIV Department at the World Health Organization.

Access to therapy also led to lower rates of AIDS-related deaths in Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania.

In Western and Central Europe, as well as North America, where antiretroviral therapy is extensively available, the combined number of AIDS-related deaths has varied little over the past decade, totaling about 29,000 last year, according to the United Nations.

Death rates were also stable in Asia at an estimated 330,000, while AIDS-related deaths continued to rise in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

New infections among children declined for the second year in a row amid focused efforts to protect them and their mothers against HIV. About 330,000 children were newly infected with HIV in 2011, down from 570,000 in 2003

- This article originally appeared in the Buenos Aires Herald. From July 22-27, 2012 AIDS 2012 will take place in Washington D.C. The international AIDS conference is the largest gathering of AIDS activists, scientists and experts this year.

Wednesday
Jul112012

A Soft Coup in South America (PERSPECTIVE) 

(GRAPH: The region still has some distance to go on democracy as seen in the hurried impeachment in ParaguayThe HinduBy Jorge Heine

The questionable removal of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay by the country’s Senate, nine months before the end of his five-year-term in April 2013, raises questions about the state of democracy in South America, much as the coup in Honduras did three years ago for Central America. For a region with a recent transition to democracy, this is worrisome. For a country like Paraguay, dominated until 2008 by 61 years of uninterrupted rule by the Colorado party of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), that veritable archetype of the Latin American dictator, this is especially so.

Twenty-odd years into democratic transition and consolidation in Latin America, we were hearing that democracy had stabilized, that the concern was no longer of coups, but of the quality of democracy and the latter’s ability to deliver the goods and services citizens expected. Free and fair elections were taking place, alternation in power was the rule and civil liberties and press freedom were respected. The real challenge now, we were told, was how to move from these “low-intensity democracies”, to governments that ensured not just the respect of political and civil rights, but also those of social and economic ones.

Latin America’s economic boom over the past decade and the social policies of some governments around the region were starting to make that happen, in a part of the world that continues to have the most unequal distribution of income anywhere.

A tad premature

As it turns out, those self-congratulatory pats on the back were a tad premature. On the most basic procedural aspects of democracy, the respect of the will of the people and of the mandate they give to their top leader, i.e., the President, the region has some way to go, as evidenced by what happened to Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and now Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. In parliamentary systems, governments come and go, depending on parliamentary majorities. Not in presidential systems. Presidents are elected for fixed terms, which they are supposed to complete, unless something truly extraordinary happens and/or he or she commits egregious constitutional violations.

(Video: Thousands of people flooded the streets of Asuncion, after the Paraguayan Senate voted to remove President Fernando Lugo from office/Russia Today)

Much has been made of the fact that this could not be called a “parliamentary coup” because there were overwhelming majorities voting against the President both in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies. Yes, the Constitution of Paraguay is poorly worded. It allows for articles of impeachment against the President for poor performance, which basically means whatever any given majority wants it to mean. Yet, impeaching the head of state is no small matter.

Following proper procedures is thus of the essence. That is what the rule of law is all about. The notion that you could give the President less than a day to prepare his defense, and a mere two hours to present it - as the Paraguayan Senate did when Mr. Lugo had asked for a couple of weeks to do so - stretches credulity. Yet, that is exactly what happened. When asked why the rush, Federico Franco, President Lugo’s VP and now his successor said “to avoid civil war”. If you believe that, you will believe anything. Paraguay is no closer to civil war than Switzerland is. It is South America’s second poorest country, very conservative, with many issues, but certainly not on the verge of civil war.

To read the articles of impeachment against President Lugo is to peruse a list of "humdrum" administrative situations, not very different from those faced by any government around the world on a bad (or even a good) day. The trigger that led to the impeachment was a confrontation between the police and landless peasants over a land occupation, a critical question in agrarian Paraguay. A number of peasants and policemen were killed, and the President, as governments tend to do, replaced both the minister of the interior and the police chief. Nothing surprising — yet a few days later, the head of state found himself out of office, as a result of the golpeachment, as it was called in Brazil (with “golpe”, for coup).

The bottom line is that Mr. Lugo, a former man of the cloth, known as “the bishop of the poor”, and not one to share in the customs and habits of the Paraguayan elite (no ties and pinstripe suits for him), a provincial and unsophisticated lot as it is, was disliked by the parliamentarians, who decided to get rid of him. The bearded, Mao-suit clad, liberation-theology-supporting priest just wasn’t their type, no matter what the people wanted. And this leads to the alleged reason for his highly irregular ouster, that is, “poor performance”.

Legitimacy in performance

In addition to legitimacy of origin — that is, being elected in free and fair elections — the issue of legitimacy in the performance of governmental functions has come to the fore in the region.

Given the ups and downs of the Latin American economies, highly dependent on the international business cycle, economic and social crises have sometimes led to the premature termination of governments unable to cope. From 1995 to 2005, Ecuador went through seven or eight Presidents, as did Bolivia. Argentina did not do too badly, with three Presidents in one week at the height of its economic crisis in 2000-2001.

So, how did Paraguay fare under President Lugo? Was the country going down the drain, to “hell in a hand-basket” under the ministrations of the good bishop?

Well, not really. Although hit, like every other country, by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, in 2010, the Paraguayan economy grew 14.5%, one of the highest rates in the world, comparable to the rates clocked by Singapore or some of the Gulf Emirates, and Paraguay’s highest in 30 years. It grew again at 6% in 2011, and prospects are upbeat for this year as well. In other words, the country is booming, and doing better than it ever did in the past. This is largely driven by the cultivation of soya, of which Paraguay has become the fourth largest producer in the world, with 8.4 million tonnes in 2011, and some $1.5 billion in exports, much of it to China.

President Lugo, aware of the significance of the Indian market for soya as well, had visited India in May. It is said that soya has become so significant that it has replaced smuggling as Paraguay’s main economic activity.

The last thing that could be said of Mr. Lugo is that he mismanaged the economy. If anything, he was much too cautious in the handling of social demands, and too accommodating to established interests. Though he had promised land reform, and his approval ratings were at 84% in the early days of his government (as opposed to 17% for his outgoing predecessor) he was unable to make headway on it, not surprising in a country as conservative as Paraguay.

Paraguay’s neighbours, which tried to prevent the crisis, realised full well the implications of it. Many have withdrawn their ambassadors from Asunción, in some cases for consultations, others permanently. In a Mercosur summit meeting in Mendoza, Argentina, a week later, chaired by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and with the attendance of the Presidents of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and others, Paraguay was suspended from that regional entity, as per the democracy clause of the treaty.

A committee to oversee the human rights situation in the country and the road to the April 2013 presidential elections was established. From Asunción, Mr. Franco replied that Paraguay might leave Mercosur and Unasur for good, and sign an FTA with the United States instead.

This raises an interesting question. Should the United States, the alleged champion of democracy worldwide, embrace and sign FTAs with countries that are forced to leave regional integration schemes for violating the democratic clause? The equanimity with which the U.S. State Department reacted to the soft coup in Paraguay (“We urge all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles” (sic)) hints that, after legitimising the coup in Honduras, and accepting without as much as a blink the ouster of President Lugo in Paraguay, the defence of democracy and the rule of law in the Americas is not a high priority in Washington these days.

(Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario. His book, with Andrew Cooper, Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.)

Thursday
Jun282012

Rio+20 and the road ahead (PERSPECTIVE) 

(PHOTO: Protestors in Rio de Janeiro at Rio+20 last week/YnetNewsBy Antonio Patriota

Rio+20 is a landmark for the future. As more than 190 countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro last week for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, we witnessed a historic moment. The recent global crisis shows that old-fashioned views about development are misleading. It is now time to rethink the very foundations of how we consider development, wellbeing and wealth.

Over the past four decades, the world has increasingly realized that our natural resources are under serious pressure.

A growing awareness of the need to ensure sustainability has led a new generation to consider the requirements of sustainable development in its decisions to produce or consume. This is no small achievement. Rio 1992 was a major step forward. Important legal texts on key issues were adopted. These conventions ensured important progress that we must maintain and build on.

We now face a complex challenge. Protecting the environment is not enough. We need to encourage public and private decision-makers to incorporate environmental and social concerns into economic planning and growth strategies. This will require a new thinking from policymakers, experts, business people, project managers and many other public and private actors in order to plan and implement sustainable development initiatives.

From now on, a three-dimensional approach to development is crucial, one that combines social, economic and environmental concerns. Rio+20 is the launch pad for this new development model. This is why one of the main topics of Rio+20 was to build consensus around the need for "sustainable development goals". They offer a blueprint for international cooperation on sustainable development for years to come.

In order to achieve this result, Brazil decided to adopt new methods. Innovative tools for multilateral meetings were introduced, bringing national governments and global civil society together. Through an online platform, more than 1 million votes were cast, expressing views on 10 issues related to the conference. Topics ranged from energy and water to sustainable cities and food security. During four days in Rio, sharing the venue of the summit, experts, businessmen, activists and journalists engaged in live debates and streamlined the proposals that will be handed to the heads of state and government. It was so successful that the United Nations is now considering turning this initiative into a standard practice for future summits.

Rio+20 involves an assessment of the past 20 years and allows for a look into the next few decades. We are confident that this message will echo through the years, fostering new initiatives which can lead to a more sustainable future for all.

-- Antonio Patriota is minister of external relations, Brazil. The views expressed by the author are personal. This commentary originally appeared HERE in the Hindustan Times.

Monday
Jun112012

In Northern Myanmar, Kachin Refugees Are Victims of the New Asia (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: Irrawaddy News, August, 2011)

By Rowan Jacobsen

LAIZA, Myanmar—Jangma Pri Seng was in the paddy fields, harvesting rice far from her house, when she heard the artillery shells exploding in the distance. Though her stomach always sunk at the sound of explosions, at first she didn’t panic. It was November 2011, five months since the Burmese army had broken a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and invaded Kachin State, the jagged northern tip of Myanmar that is home to ethnic Kachin like Jangma. For five months, the residents of Nangkyu, Jangma’s village, had been listening to explosions in the hills as the KIO fought desperately to keep the army out of its territory. Several times they had fled into the jungle as the fighting neared, but always Nangkyu had been left alone.

Still, as the only Kachin village in an area dominated by ethnic Shan villages, they knew they were a target. The Burmese authorities, convinced the village was harboring KIO soldiers, had ordered them not to leave the village without permission, and had made a list of all members of the village. No outsiders were allowed to enter. One man caught on the road between villages was arrested and beaten. It was a grim way to live, but as long as they obeyed, they survived.

(PHOTO: Je Yang Refugee Camp/Mizzima)Yet that November evening, when Jangma and her fellow villagers returned exhausted from the fields, they walked into a nightmare. More than twenty artillery shells had struck Nangkyu. Many houses were burning or obliterated. The oldest and youngest citizens of Nangkyu were hiding terrified in the remaining houses. Jangma found her four young children, who were unharmed. Miraculously, no one in the village had been killed, but the animals had not been so lucky. A pigsty had been ripped apart by a direct hit, scattering pig remains across the smoking ground.

And the army was very near.

Jangma and the rest of the villagers immediately grabbed whatever things they could carry and ran into the jungle. They had heard what had happened to other villages that didn’t. “If we had stayed any longer, we’d be dead now,” she says. They hid in the jungle for the next three days, trying to figure out what to do. “It was terrifying. Most people hadn’t brought anything but the clothes they were wearing. We didn’t have enough food. And we could hear troops everywhere. We couldn’t make a sound. We couldn’t even let the kids cry.” Eventually, they made some calls on cell phones to relatives and some friendly Shan neighbors, and a motor-scooter convoy came to the rescue, slipping around the army positions.

They loaded three to four people on each scooter. Jangma helped her 108-year-old grandmother onto a scooter with another villager behind her, holding her tight. In that position, they made the tortuous eight-hour journey over rutted dirt roads to Laiza, capital of the KIO, where they finally collapsed in one of the bursting refugee camps filling the Laiza countryside.

A UNIQUE CULTURE CAUGHT BETWEEN MYANMAR AND CHINA

(PHOTO: A young girl walks the corridor at N Hkawng Pa camp in Kachin State/Francis Wade) Walk through any of the refugee camps in KIO territory, and you will find endless stories like Jangma’s. For nearly a year now, Myanmar’s notorious military, which has kept a stranglehold on its citizens since it seized power in a 1962 coup, has been trying to squeeze the life out of the KIO, which has controlled much of Kachin State during those same 50 years.

Though unrecognized by any nation, the KIO has functioned as an independent micro-state. It collects taxes and generates additional income through government-owned mining and logging businesses. It operates immigration departments, police departments, fire departments, drug treatment centers, hydropower plants, bottled-water plants, free schools, free hospitals, Kachin cultural programs, and, of course, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

It has been a lifeline for the Kachin people, who originated in the mountains of Tibet, before migrating centuries ago across the border to Northeast India and eventually occupying the rugged borderlands between India, Myanmar, and China. Despite the lines on the map, the two million Kachin of the region are united by their unique language, religion, and culture. That culture was allowed to flourish in Kachin State, the northernmost region of Myanmar, where the terrain was so rugged and difficult to cultivate that it held no interest for the Burmese, who live in the fertile tropical river plains of southern Myanmar.

(PHOTO: Je Yang Camp/Rowan Jacobsen)Yet now, even as Myanmar opens up to the world and tries to parlay its democratization into an easing of international sanctions and an increase in financial support, it has decided to exterminate the KIO and take brutal control over Kachin State. The timing seems strange, until one understands that Kachin State has transformed from worthless backwater to one of the key geopolitical spots on the planet. The Burmese regime plans to fuel its metamorphosis into a Southeast Asian powerhouse with a series of highways, oil and gas pipelines, and some of the largest hydroelectric dams the world has ever seen, all built in Kachin State. When completed, they will link landlocked sections of India and China with Myanmar’s ports on the Bay of Bengal, and create a new energy-rich nexus for the New Asia, centered right in northern Myanmar. The only thing standing in the way is the Kachin people.

Across Kachin State, villages like Nangkyu are being emptied as the KIA is driven back to its core territory, a 100-mile strip of land along the border with China. As the NGO Human Rights Watch documented in a March 20 report, the army has murdered civilians, tortured men suspected of being KIA members, and raped women. It has ransacked churches, burned entire villages to the ground, killed livestock, and pillaged food supplies. With resupply routes along Myanmar’s crumbling roads difficult at best, the 146 Burmese battalions in the region must feed themselves. It’s no coincidence that the wave of attacks intensified right around harvest time in November. And then there is the most insidious part of the army’s plan: What better way to paralyze your enemy than by sending wave after wave of its own people, hungry and penniless, onto its doorstep?

(PHOTO: A UN convoy on its way to Kachin State in April/UN)Of the 75,000 refugees, mostly Kachin, who have fled the Burmese army since its June invasion, about 40,000 are sheltering in KIO-operated camps. Another 20,000 are living in camps run by the government. The other 15,000 are off the map, likely hiding somewhere in China. Other than two minor exceptions, the government has prevented United Nations relief convoys from reaching the refugees in KIO territory. Some speculate that this is because the government fears the KIO being seen as a caretaker of the refugees, rather than the “insurgents” it labels them. Others believe that the goal is to stress the KIO’s limited resources to the breaking point.

CAMP LIFE

For all the trauma suffered by its residents, Je Yang Camp, the largest of the refugee camps, is a surprisingly pleasant place. 5,764 people, about half under the age of sixteen, live along the banks of the Je Yang River in peace and security, if not exactly comfort. This is a testament to the KIO, which has been anticipating a Burmese offensive for years. A refugee committee was already in place, emergency supplies stockpiled, and land for the main camp had already been chosen, so when the refugees began pouring out of the jungle into Laiza last summer, they were ready.

The KIO had previously donated a large tract of land along the Je Yang River to the Roman Catholic Church to be a wildlife sanctuary - badly needed in this state, whose fabulous hardwood forests are being cut and shipped to supply China’s building boom. Now the church turned around and donated the land back to the KIO, which went to work building bamboo huts, outhouses, and wells. When the first refugees arrived on June 27, two weeks after the fighting had started, they were assigned huts and broken up into village blocks, delineated by a grid of dirt footpaths. Block leaders were chosen. People volunteered for administrative, health, and religious committees. The new people began building huts for the next arrivals.

(PHOTO: Lazing Lu, is a 108-year-old refugee in Laiza/Rowan Jacobsen) Today, Je Yang Camp is a case study in how order can arise from chaos, a living embodiment of the Gilligan’s Island fantasy that an entire society can be built if you have enough bamboo. There are bamboo houses, restaurants, marketplaces, clinics, schools, administrative centers, and weaving centers. There is bamboo furniture and bamboo pigsties. The bamboo Baptist church holds 600 people. Now there is also a concrete stage, a concrete well, and a concrete micro-hydro installation in the river that generates enough power to light the Christmas lights in the church and to power a handful of computers. Acres of gardens line a terraced hillside.

Gaggles of boys splash in the river all day.

Jangma Pri Seng spends her days cooking food, cleaning their shack, which, like most shakcs in the camp, houses three families, each squeezed into a ten-foot square room, and caring for her four children and her grandmother, Lazing Lu, who is an unexpected source of comic relief.

“DID YOU LIKE RIDING ON THE SCOOTER?” Jangma shouts in the deaf woman’s ear.

“I don’t remember,” she responds. “Was that the thing with all the shaking?”

“DO YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO OUR VILLAGE?”

“No! I can’t walk that far.”

“DO YOU LIKE IT HERE IN THE CAMP?”

“I have nothing to do,” the old woman responds, pausing with perfect timing before breaking into a toothless grin. “It’s so relaxing!”

Part of the reason the camp is so peaceful, says camp director Hting Nam Ja, is because drugs and alcohol are banned. The main evening entertainment is at the churches, which hold a service every night. And every night, people pack into them, sing a few hymns in the Kachin language, and then 5,764 people settle down for an amazingly early and quiet night.

(PHOTO: Camps on hillsides in Kachin State, April/UN)Yet the pleasantness is misleading, says Hting. Just around the corner are the monsoons, the endless rains and winds that last all summer. “What we have won’t survive the rainy season,” he says. The blue tarps tacked to roofs with bamboo strips will be shredded by the winds. “We need corrugated tin. But most of all, we need food and medicine. We have plenty of rice that people have donated, but we have almost no protein. Soon, there will be malnutrition. And when the rains come, so do the waterborne infectious diseases.” The charming, dusty footpaths will become mudpits. The firewood will smolder. And, over everything, looms the constant threat of the Burmese. “Yes, I worry that the army will come,” says Hting. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The refugees also have little choice. They know that, if the army comes, there will be nowhere to run this time. Even if there is a ceasefire, they couldn’t easily return to their villages; having missed the harvest and lost their livestock, they would have no food. Many of them from outlying villages, having been harassed by Burmese soldiers for years, have begun to savor the safety and freedom of living in KIO territory. A few have begun murmuring that—if the KIO survives—it would be nice to see Je Yang take that final step and transform into a permanent town.

Jangma, too, has no illusions about returning to her village anytime soon. “I have no idea how long we’ll stay,” she says, fighting back tears. “I miss my home, I miss being self-sufficient, and I really miss my animals. It’s not perfect here. But we’re out of the rain, we’re not starving, and we’re safe. That’s such a relief. For so long, I had to worry all the time.” When asked if she’d like to send a message to the outside world, she pauses, trying to think of something good, then finally gives up with a shake of her head. “Just have pity on us,” she says.

-- Rowan Jacobsen is the author of five books, including Fruitless Fall, American Terror, and Shadows on the Gulf. His Outside Magazine story "Heart of Dark Chocolate" received the 2011 Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for Best Adventure Travel Story of the Year, and his Outside piece "Spill Seekers" appears in the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing collection. He lives in Vermont.  He is currently a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation  studying in Northeast India and Northern Myanmar during 2012. His commentary originally appeared HERE.

Sunday
Jun032012

Current Revolutions Will Unleash Enormous Energy (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: The Arab Spring, Documentary, RT)

By Khalifa Rashid Al Shaali

Youth in the Arab world inherited false values from older generation but refused to accept them. Despite the lapse of a year-and-a-half since the eruption of the popular revolutions in many Arab countries - including Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria among others - some still cast doubts that these revolutions are driven by foreign forces and are not spontaneous reactions by Arab masses, who revolted against tyrannical regimes.

These doubts are baseless and amount to conspiracy theories. They reflect disbelief in the ability of Arab masses to revolt against their autocratic regimes. Not only ordinary people but also some highly educated people believe in conspiracy theories that the Arabs’ enemy is behind these revolutions, trying to wreak havoc in the region. This theory undoubtedly belittles the Arab masses and limits their role to being mere tools in the hands of western powers, which seek to destabilize the Arab region.

(PHOTO: Flags of the Arab World/CARNEGIE)Those who cast doubts can’t believe that the young people are the ones behind mass demonstrations that have swept the Arab world, and that they are still demanding change.

But it is not surprising that the youth, who have the modern tools of communication and networking with the outside world, have managed to achieve what the older generations failed to.  

They succeeded in leading masses in many Arab countries and, moreover, they have gone beyond all our expectations.

They made the use of technology to organize street protests and address the outside world in the language it understands.

We must acknowledge the superiority of today’s generation, which inherited our false values but refused to accept them after realizing they would only lead to more humiliations.

The Arab youth sought to realize their dreams of dignity, freedom and social justice. They went further by demanding the end of their ruling regimes and a comprehensive restructuring of the old system. Most revolutions began peacefully, with the young protestors adopting a peaceful revolutionary approach and only demanding reforms. Yet, the stubbornness of ruling regimes, which denied their demands, prompted the revolutionaries to ask for more.

(PHOTO: Arab Youth make their voice heard/DAILYSTAR)There were many reasons behind the outbreak of the revolutions. The youth have been suffering from unemployment, injustice, oppression, and this led many of them to immigrate from their countries in “coffin boats”, sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to an unknown world, risking their lives in the course of the journey.

Those who were not able to immigrate tried to bring about change under the banner of reform. But their demands were denied and the prevailing political and social culture across most Arab countries prohibited them from expressing themselves in public, and engaging meaningfully in civic and political activity.

Young Arab talent has been wasted for the most part in recent history. But this is now starting to change, after people took the initiative to change their status.

The explosion of youth anger and determination to change their world were the impetus for the revolutions across the Arab world.

(PHOTO: Arab youth unemployment is some of highest in the world/BikyaMasr)The current revolutions will undoubtedly unleash enormous energy and talent that have been bottled up in the minds, bodies and spirits of the youth across the region.

Arab youth initiated this historic transformation across the Middle East because they had always carried within them the determination to break free of the constraints that their societies and their governments had imposed on them for so many decades.

(PHOTO: Young people learning technology/ASHOKAARAB)The young people are the ones who lead today’s battle and will definitely win it since they have the will and determination, while the older generations must acknowledge the superiority of the young and accept their leadership in this battle for change.

We, the older generation, should admit our mistakes and give way to the youth before it is too late and give the younger generation their right to lead Arab societies towards a better future and catch up with the modern world.

It is true that the senior generation do not have the tools and the will for change that can help advance the Arab nation. History reminds us that they earlier failed, and do not have the ability to do it now.

Hence, the older generation must pass the torch on to the youth.

--- Dr Khalifa Rashid Al Sha’ali is an Emirati writer who specialises in legal affairs. This commentary originally appeared in GulfNews.

Monday
May282012

Dear Kara: War, What is it Good For? One Man's Journey (PROFILE)

(PHOTO: Paul Giannone in a room with unexploded ordinances in Angola/P. Giannone)(HN, 5/28/12) - Monday is Memorial Day in the United States.  Around the world other countries also celebrate their version of honoring the fallen; such as Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries (Australia, Barbados, Bermuda, Canada, India, Kenya, Mauritius, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK) on November 11th; and similar ceremonies take place in France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland.

Though, these days come once a year and help us to remember the brave and courageous  who died in the pursuit of justice, freedom and truth in the past - we must remember that war continues to exist with us in the world today.  It remains a factor - more so than ever in global history - all around us as conflict, indiscriminate killing, and terrorism. 

According to statistics gathered from Wars Around the World at least 51 global nations and armed guerilla groups are engaged in 335 active `hot' war.  This is more wars than the entire world has countries in it.

Africa, currently has 24 countries involved in hostile actions; with places such as Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan being the hottest spots.  In Asia, 14 countries are engaged in confrontations including Afghanistan, Burma-Myanmar, and PakistanEurope has experienced battle almost continuously since ancient times, and currently has 8 nations involved in confrontation.  The Middle East, on daily newspapers front pages every day, has 8 countries battling warfare in hotspots such as Iraq, Israel, Syria, Turkey, and YemenAnd the Americas, the most peaceful of world regions has 5 nation's including Colombia, and Mexico on the hot list.

But where has war in the world gotten us?  As a 1969 Vietnam protest song called "War" sung by vocalist Edwin Starr asked, "War, What is it Good For?"

HUMNEWS asked this question to the author of a poignantly honest and sometimes disturbingly real memoir `Dear Kara: One Man's Journey From War to War'.  Paul Giannone wrote the book as a lifelong letter to his daughter Kara who was born in 1993. A 26-year career emergency responder, planner and public health administrator Giannone began his professional work as a US Army Public Health Advisor in Vietnam 1969-1970 where he did two tours of duty.

From there, he then went on to years of working in conflict zones as a health worker including Iran (before the US embargo related to hostages was imposed in the late 1970's), Afghanistan, Sudan, Cambodia, Albania, Pakistan, and Sierra Leone among other nations.

EARLY YEARS

Giannone grew up in the small upstate New York town of Auburn. When Paul was 11, his father died of brain cancer and the family was plunged into instantaneous poverty. His mother had to work in factories just to keep the family going, finally seeing Paul enter college.  But, feeling no direction and flunking out he joined the Army - as many did - in 1969.

He didn't want to shoot anyone, and so joined the medical corps in the civil affairs unit of the Army instead. As a kid, Giannone played toys and guns and watched John Wayne movies - which, as Paul says, "Didn't show American soldiers screaming. Then you get to Vietnam and that's not the case."

What Giannone saw in the Vietnam war were high caliber bullets being used which essentially "tear your body apart".  And he learned he was "good at getting things done in difficult  situations".

(PHOTO: An An Duong boy injured in Vietnam fighting/P. Giannone)

AFTER VIETNAM

Seeing the impact of war on humanity up close and personal in Vietnam changed Giannone. When he returned to the United States in 1971 he vigorously pursued his Bachelor of Science degree in Community Health Services from the State University of New York at Brockport, graduating with honors in 1974. He then went on to achieve a Masters Degree in Public Health with a concentration in Population and Family Planning from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1976.

Giannone's first work assignment out of graduate school was in Iran as an analyst for the University of Iran's, all Iranian, disease control team. He had wanted an oversees appointment so that he could 'see the world differently' than he had seen it in Vietnam which he thought was "a political fluke not to be repeated".

But what he saw in Iran "shocked me" says Paul. "The US government was not paying attention to the people on local levels in villages and towns. I would actually observe the Shah's government fomenting dissent among the people there, encouraging conflict.  It was disturbing."

After being evacuated from Iran, Paul learned that  the Vietnamese “boat people” exodus from Vietnam was headline news.  Paul volunteered for the U.S. Indochinese Refugee Program because he wanted to do whatever he could to help a people that he had grown to love.  He also wanted to see if he could find the Vietnamese public health staff he had worked with in Hue City.  Paul became Director of refugee screening operations in Singapore designed to determine what country the “boat people” would be resettled.  Paul saw the refugee program evolve before his eyes as the program was  dealing less with refugees and more with economic migrants.  Data collected by Paul and others indicated that the program was rampant with immigration and welfare fraud and more ominous was the program was actually resettling North Vietnamese civilians, former NVA infantry, Viet Cong and political party members.  This information was reported to President Reagan at the White House and the reaction was that his immediate supervisor was fired and they were told by the Secretary of State Haig to cover the story up.

Paul went on to work with “real” refugees in Africa and then home to upstate New York.  Paul was demoralized.  Two times he had volunteered to his government to help Vietnamese.  First as a soldier and later as a civilian and both times he was lied to and betrayed. Giannone began writing the first part of his book in 1982.    It was just my complete feeling that the reasons for the Vietnam War and then how the US was dealing with the boat people” For two months, he cranked out his thoughts and then just put them away. 

Giannone then set about to use his public health skills for a global greater good, working for humanitarian organizations such as CARE, the American Red Cross and Family Health International - running emergency response and refugee relief operations in Singapore, Sudan, Albania, and Pakistan; AIDS/HIV intervention research in Thailand and the Philippines; family planning research and institutional capacity building in Egypt, Kenya, Turkey and Pakistan; and disaster response in the US among other work.  

(PHOTO: Paul Giannone in teh Rwanda jungle with staff/P. Giannone) In the meantime, Paul's daughter Kara was born in 1993 and though his heart was at home, he was often missing for important events in her life over the years, as war zones and those in need of help kept calling worldwide. He began writing his book again for Kara in case he was killed in a war zone.

WHAT DID YOUR WORK IN GLOBAL PUBLIC HEALTH TEACH YOU ABOUT THE STATE OF OUR HEALTH SYSTEMS?

Generally in public health we need systems. Often  developing nations lack strong management systems, and a collective and sustained effort is often hard to accomplish.  Ironically, as compared to war, which many use as a way to galvanize opinion and consensus - public health is a really great unifier of people.  We can all get behind the idea that we need to address the pandemic flu or polio, for instance.

TRAVELLING THE WORLD FROM ONE WAR ZONE TO ANOTHER, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE WORLD AT LARGE THAT THE PUBLIC CAN LEARN FROM YOU?

To all the places I went,  I went as a manager or a coordinator and my lens was that of being a public health worker - and an American.  I have learned that all people around the world want to have dignity and work; and they all love their children and respect the elderly.  They all want to survive and keep their families safe. Most people want to give back to the world, and many of them have some form of community service that they do.  With human beings, that's what keeps them going as I've seen it. 

A while back I saw some data  indicating that American citizens believe that 27% of the US government budget goes to foreign aid in other countries and that's why some people say we shouldn't be helping those in need around the world.  Yes, we definitely need to be helping our own, but in reality the figure on US foreign aid is more like 1% and if we can help people help themselves, we have to do it.  None of the people I ever met wanted handouts.  

AS A PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIAL, WERE YOU ABLE TO OBSERVE THE IMPACT OF CONFLICT MORE GENERALLY?  WHAT DID PEOPLE TELL YOU?

(PHOTO: In traditional dress with colleagues in Sudan/P. GiannoneI was in Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990's, working with women who were a credit to their gender and a credit to the human race. They stood up as best they could to survive and it was an amazing thing to watch.  In our CARE refugee camp in Albania we had women coming in for colds or coughs to our clinics telling us they had been gang-raped while leaving Kosovo. There, I had a little girl come up to me to say that she was there because she knew that with the Americans present she wouldn't raped. 

In Sudan - I was there to work with local officials in an area so remote they told me that the means of communications was drums and runners. We would drop in by light plane and the pilot would say something like, "See you in 4 days if you make it".  That was during the 1990's and the people there asked me why hadn't President Clinton signed the global landmine treaty - even the most remote people in the world work to keep themselves informed!  And it's not just an `oh by the way' kind of information that they seek, it's a life and death situation for them. They knew about the landmine bill and what the US was doing with it!  I'm always surprised by how much people know when I meet them in far off places.

I also learned that we don't spend enough time listening to farmers, people on the ground and local community leaders.  We as Americans, but we as the world in general.  It's part of why we  fail overseas.  We have this idea that somehow trickle-down economics is going to work in the developing world, when it doesn’t even work in America,  and somehow the aid or influence we exert will somehow find its way from Kabul or Lagos to the village level without us addressing it. It doesn't work that way.

(PHOTO: The author in Vietnam holding a baby in 1969/P. Giannone)For instance, between Iraq and Afghanistan we can't account for 6 billion dollars. We need to drop the term superpower in the US and we need to become `Super Partners'. The US is still looked at in many ways as a country to help out but I don't think our strategy should be about  `boots on the ground' anymore.  More flip-flops and sneakers, less boots.

YOU WROTE THIS AS A LESSON TO KARA BUT ITS ALSO YOUR MEMOIR, WHAT DO YOU THINK BOTH KARA AND THE PUBLIC CAN TAKE AWAY FROM IT?

The experiences that I've had have dissolved prejudices - we're just one people striving for life and organization trying to do good.

On the bad side - I have seen the bad side. Yes, there are people like terrorists. There is brutal innocent and needless killing and maiming.  There are people who use their wealth to gain while others suffer.  And for the US there is a failure in our foreign policy - we have to do what we should do and learn from our mistakes and grow.

We are experiencing more frequent, intense disasters and complex emergencies globally. Addressing these must be about building coalitions.  We must look at culture and politics in the places we work in around the world and learn.  For instance, if anyone had done research on the culture and religion of Iraq - no one would have ever have said yes to the US going in there.

YOU'VE SEEN CONFLICT FROM BOTH THE HUMAN SIDE, THE HEALTH SIDE, AND THE CONFLICT SIDE FOR YEARS.  HOW HAS THE WORLD CHANGED IN THAT TIME?

In my time the world has gotten much more violent. Finally African tribal society is changing and people are taking a better life into their own hands but it is a rough journey for them. In the Middle East we're having the Arab Spring. An advance in technology and the flow of information has led to both a positive and a negative situation.  Our number one priority should be about getting the global terrorists we're dealing with now.  Then, the economy, education, environment, healthcare - we have to deal with these. They are no longer nice to have's they are have to haves.

(PHOTO: Landmine areas in Cambodia/P. Giannone)

And there's a new war we don't seem to be picking up on here in the US - we're fighting for how we spell "democracy" -  either with a big `D' or a little `d'.  The last 3 to 4 years people are talking about rewriting the constitution, dropping the separation between church and state, re-writing history, controlling woman’s rights. These are dangerous roads to go down.

HOW DID KARA REACT TO A BOOK BEARING HER NAME?

Kara was very quiet about the book, but I hope she was impressed. She did just graduate from high school this weekend and I am impressed by her!  I wanted the book to give her some insight into the work I was doing and why I couldn't be there in her early years.

AFTER ALL YOU'VE DONE AND LEARNED, WHAT DO YOU HOPE YOUR LEGACY IS?

My contribution now is teaching public health professionals - particularly in the military - how you do this kind of very necessary work around the world That would be a legacy I would want to leave behind.

(PHOTO: The author) 

At 64 Paul Giannone resides in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Kate and daughter Kara.  He is currently the Deputy Director, Global Disease Detection and Emergency Response in the Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The opinions expressed in this interview and in his book ‘Dear Kara One Man’s Journey From War to War” are not endorsed by, nor are policies of the US Government, Health and Human Services and/or the Center for Disease Control.  Further the stories and events that Paul Giannone discusses occurred before he became a federal government employee.

- HUMNEWS

Thursday
May242012

Two Worlds, One Climate (PERSPECTIVE) 

 

(Video Modeling Climate/FrontierScientists)

By Peter Passell

Climate change, we are often told, is everyone's problem. And without a lot of help containing greenhouse gas emissions from rapidly growing emerging market countries (not to mention a host of wannabes), the prospects of avoiding disaster are small to nil. Now you tell us, retort policymakers in the have-less countries: How convenient of you to discover virtue only after two centuries of growth and unfettered carbon emissions. Since you were the ones to get us into this mess, it's your job to get us out. (The United States' what-me-worry posture on climate change does not, of course, make the West's efforts to co-opt the moral high ground any more convincing.)

This clash of wills is a bit more nuanced than that, but not much. Almost all the net growth in greenhouse gas emissions for the last two decades - and more than half the total emissions today - is coming from the developing world. What's more, most of the cheap opportunities for reducing emissions are to be found in the same countries. But as a matter of equity, it's hard to argue with "you've had your turn, now it's ours." And it's equally hard to see how the stalemate will be resolved before the world goes to hell in a plague of locusts (in some places, literally).

(PHOTO: Trucks carrying waste in China/FP)The carbon emissions stats by country are startling, and would be even more startling if we had comprehensive numbers for years since 2009.  Carbon emissions from OECD countries grew by 8% between 1990 and 2009, while emissions from the rest of the world grew by 73% (albeit from a smaller base). Breaking down the latter by country: China's emissions were up 207%, India's by 173%, Indonesia's by 165%, Vietnam's 563% (!!) and the Middle East's by 171%.

If you have any doubts about where the emissions containment opportunities lie, consider this:  In 2009, non-OECD countries generated four times as much carbon emissions per unit of GDP (at prevailing exchange rates) as OECD countries. Granted, these numbers don't look as bad if GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power rather than exchange rates. But this is one of the few instances in which GDP comparisons at international exchange rates probably make more sense, because they offer better insight into a future in which consumption patterns across countries are likely to converge; that not-so-distant day when Indians drive cars to work instead of riding bicycles, and virtually everyone who experiences winter in emerging-market countries takes the chill off with central heating.

But those focused on social justice rather than efficiency point to yet another set of numbers. While most developing countries waste fossil fuel because their heating, cooking, lighting and motorized transportation depend on older, fuel-guzzling technologies, they are still too poor to consume enough in total to leave much of a carbon footprint.  Indeed, emissions per person in non-OECD countries are just 30% that of OECD countries.

(GRAPH: Carbon cycle in the atmosphere/WikipediaBolivians, for example, emitted 1,300 kilos of CO2 per person in 2009, compared to 16,900 kilos per person in the United States. Resident of tropical Nigeria emitted a mere 266 kilos each, compared to 9,000 each in tropical Singapore. All told, those living in poor - and middle-income countries do emit more than half of all carbon emissions - but only because there are so many of them.

There's another element here that distinguishes developed from developing countries. If, as expected, climate change brings rising sea levels and more severe weather of every sort -  droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornados - the rich countries will muddle through with dykes, crops redesigned to survive drought, more air conditioning and the like. It will be expensive, but manageable, unless global warming triggers truly destabilizing changes, like the release of vast quantities of methane gas from now-frozen arctic tundra.

But the rich countries' travails may well be poor countries' damnation: the inundation of Pacific islands, catastrophic storm surges on the Bengal plain, the collapse of farm yields in semi-arid parts of Africa, and the spread of insect-vectored disease in the warmer, wetter parts. So, fair or not, poor countries have every reason to make emissions priority-one, right?

Maybe, and maybe not. The iconoclastic, Nobel Prize winning economist Tom Schelling has long argued that our interests diverge from theirs. What poor countries need most, he says, is to invest in economic growth, which will give them the income to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Roads must be paved to prevent the isolation of rural areas in heavy rains; sea walls must be built to protect coastal cities; canals must be dug to irrigate drought-prone land; emergency infrastructure must be created to minimize loss of life in weather-related disasters.

So poor countries would be foolish to divert scarce capital to emissions containment, which has only a "second-order" impact on their own welfare. Spending a dollar would, in effect, generate two cents' worth of benefits for themselves, and 98 cents' worth for the rest of the world.

(PHOTO: A climate demonstration in Oslo, Norway during 2010 global meeting/RNIf all this sounds like a recipe for righteous posturing and diplomatic delay, go to the head of the class. Environmental policymakers and pundits, who once expected to build on the foundation of the Kyoto Treaty to create a truly collective effort to contain emissions, are now thinking smaller. The European Union, for example, is going its own way, investing heavily in emissions reduction in hope that others will be shamed into following its lead.

The containment part is more or less working: European emissions declined by 12% between 1990 and 2009. But the shame part isn't. China is reducing emissions per unit of GDP, mostly as a consequence of adding productive capacity that is far more energy-efficient than "legacy" capacity. But it is nonetheless widening its lead as emitter number one because the GDP is growing so rapidly. And there is no sign that the other big emerging market economies are planning to mend their emitting ways.

Must we then just accept the reality that the developing half of the global economy won't lend a hand in climate change containment? The rich countries might bully where blandishments fail, by imposing tariffs, for example, on imports that are less than green. Might, but probably won't: The United States, in particular, is in no position (geopolitical or financial) to complicate its relationships with either China or India. Besides, it's far from clear that such tariffs would meet the standards of the World Trade Organization.

(PHOTO: Drought/GreenguideA more plausible option - one that appeals in terms of both economic efficiency and social justice - would be to buy their cooperation. Europe already has in place incentives for businesses to invest in emissions-sparing activities in developing countries: For example, paying landowners in Africa to sequester carbon by growing trees on scrubland. By the same token, one could imagine western governments paying their counterparts in the tropics to lock up forest land that would otherwise give way to logging and grazing.

But the scale of such initiatives is probably limited by the inherent accounting ambiguities. How would you know, for example, that the forest wouldn't be preserved, anyway? Even more to the point, how would one verify that a government, paid to build natural-gas-fired power plants rather than coal ones, would have gone that way without the incentive?

Arguably, the most promising approach to gaining the cooperation of emerging market countries lies in innovation. It wouldn't take much persuasion to get developing countries to adopt technologies that are climate-friendlier if they are also cheaper than emissions-as-usual.

(PHOTO: Floods in Dhaka, Bangladesh/B24One could certainly imagine government-subsidized R&D that cut the cost of solar panels by 90%, or transformed the hydrogen-producing artificial leaf into a viable source of fuel.

The idea of a global grand bargain in which emerging market countries would join the west in an ambitious, cost-minimizing containment program is dead. The best hope, at least for now, is a pragmatic search for common ground, one that appeals to the angels but relies on self-interest.

A decade late and a trillion dollars short, you say? To paraphrase a former secretary of defense, you go to war with the army you've got, not the one you'd like to have.

- This Commentary originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Wednesday
May232012

Malaria spread feared as WHO releases action plan to tackle global spread of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes (REPORT) 

(Video World Malaria Day, 2012/WHO)

By Amy Maxmen

The war to bring malaria to heel has made slow but steady progress during the past decade, with the overall mortality rate dropping by more than 25% since 2000. A key factor in this progress has been improved control of mosquitoes, which transmit the Plasmodium parasite — a potent killer that claimed an estimated 655,000 lives in 2010 alone. But health officials fear that the spread of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes could bring about a resurgence of the disease. To help combat this threat, on May 15, the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a strategic plan to curb the spread of resistance.

“We don’t want to wait for failures to happen,” says David Brandling-Bennett, the senior adviser for infectious diseases at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, who advised on the document.

Such failures could reverse the recent drop in malaria mortality credited to insecticide spraying in the home and coating of bed nets, which save about 220,000 children’s lives each year, according to the WHO. Insecticide resistance could also result in as many as 26 million further cases a year, the organization predicts, costing an extra US $30 million to $60 million annually for tests and medicines.

The WHO report says that insecticide-resistant mosquitoes already inhabit 64 malaria-ridden countries (see map).

The problem is particularly acute in sub-Saharan African countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia and Uganda, where mosquitoes are frequently resistant to compounds known as pyrethroids and even to the organochloride DDT, venerable tools of mosquito control. Because they are extremely safe for children, effective against mosquitoes and affordable, pyrethroids are the only insecticides used to treat bed nets, as well as the first choice for household spraying.

Health authorities in Somalia, Sudan and Turkey have also reported sporadic resistance to the two other classes of insecticides recommended by the WHO for safe and effective household spraying: carbamates and organophosphates. Resistance has probably evolved several times independently, and is now spreading as extensive use of pyrethroids and other insecticides favors resistant mosquitoes. “In 2004, there were pockets of resistance in Africa, and now there are pockets of susceptibility,” says Janet Hemingway, chief executive of the Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC), a product-development partnership based in the United Kingdom.

(MAP: Global malaria map, 2012/WHO) Among other things, the WHO recommends rotating the classes of pesticides used to spray houses, and developing safe and effective non-pyrethroid insecticides that can be used to treat bed nets. To implement all of the WHO’s suggestions would cost $200 million - on top of the $6 billion that the WHO requested last year to fund existing malaria-control programs. Rob Newman, director of the Global Malaria Program at the WHO, hopes that the report will draw more funds to the table as donors grasp the situation. “If we can stop pyrethroid resistance from spreading, it will be cheaper in the long run,” Newman says.

“In 2004, there were pockets of resistance in Africa, and now there are pockets of susceptibility.”

But the two largest players in malaria aid - the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the US President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) - have not yet pledged additional money to fight resistance. Their spending on mosquito control is already high - in 2009, 39% of the Global Fund’s malaria expenditures went towards insecticide-treated bed nets and household spraying, as did 59% of the PMI’s in 2010.  

For now, pyrethroids are the only class of insecticides approved by the WHO for bed nets, and where spraying is concerned they are less costly than the alternatives. Vestergaard Frandsen, a company based in Lausanne, Switzerland, says that it has in the pipeline a bed net coated with a non-pyrethroid insecticide - one that does not belong to any of the four WHO-approved classes - and that the company expects to bring this to market within the next five years. It is also one of several companies partnering with the IVCC to create innovative mosquito-control products.

(PHOTO: Malaria `home test'/NoProphalactics)In the meantime, health officials may be able to keep malaria at bay by swapping insecticides. The report notes that in Colombia, for instance, mosquitoes regained susceptibility to pyrethroids after five years of treatment with an organophosphate. But some African countries lack the surveillance needed to spur such an approach. To address that deficiency, the report urges that a global database be set up to track the spread of resistance, and that entomologists be trained and hired at surveillance stations. That could prove the most challenging goal of all.

“Nobody wants to fund capacity building,” says Newman. “Donors would rather say they purchased $10,000 in bed nets than pay a salary.”

African ministers of health realize the need to manage resistance but can’t do much without outside funds, explains Maureen Coetzee, a medical entomologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. “In some countries, malaria control means one person sitting in one room, and he’s lucky if he’s got a chair,” she says.

- This report originally appeared by Amy Maxmen at Nature.

Tuesday
May222012

Egypt's Historic Presidential Election Is Taking Place (FACTBOX)

 

(Video: VOA reports on Egypt's youth vote)

CAIRO – Egypt is going to polling stations on Wednesday, May 23, in the first free election to pick a replacement for former president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular revolution last year.

Here are some details of the election:

When will the vote take place?

The first round takes place on Wednesday and Thursday, with about 50 million of Egypt's 82 million people eligible to vote.

According to the official schedule, counting will be completed on Saturday, followed by a period for appeals. The first-round result will be formally announced on May 29. If any candidate gains more than 50% of the votes in the first leg, he wins outright. That seems unlikely, so a run-off between the top two vote-getters is expected to go ahead on June 16 and 17, with the result due on June 21.

Turnout was about 60% in the parliamentary election. Some analysts expect that figure to be exceeded in this vote.

Who are the candidates?

(PHOTO: Campaign posters in Cairo/OnIslam)Thirteen candidates entered the race after the election committee disqualified 10 for failing to meet requirements. Among those ejected was Mubarak's former spy chief - and briefly his vice president - Omar Suleiman, as well as a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now fielding reserve candidate Mohamed Mursi. There are now 12 in the race after one withdrew.

The other main contenders are the liberal former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who is one of the best-known names in the race, Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Abul-Futuh who has appealed to voters ranging from liberals to Salafis; and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander, aviation minister and, in the final days of Mubarak's rule, prime minister. Most other candidates are viewed as well down the field, although leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy has been gaining popularity with his down-to-earth style.

There was one woman in the race - Bothaina Kamel - an Egyptian television anchor, activist, and politician. She is a long time pro-democracy advocate whose professional career has been marked by repeated conflict with authorities. In June 2011 she announced her candidacy for the Egyptian presidency, although she did not receive enough signatures to make the ballot.

Who will win?

Opinion polling is a novelty in Egypt where votes in Mubarak's era were widely rigged and the outcome a foregone conclusion. So the reliability of the widely varying polls published in newspapers is untested. Moussa, Abul-Futuh, Mursi, Shafiq and Sabahy all appear to have a chance of getting into the second round, but the contest is wide open.

How did Egypt choose a president in the past?

(PHOTO: Women clap & chant as presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh enters the conference hall in Cairo, 5/15/2012-VOA)Mubarak, then vice-president, came to power when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Sadat, previously vice-president, had also taken over from Gamal Abdel Nasser when he died in 1970. For most of his three decades in power, Mubarak was confirmed in office by single-candidate referendums. Turnout was usually very low.

In 2005, under US pressure to open up, Egypt staged a multi-candidate election but the rules made it impossible for anyone to stage a realistic challenge. The result, to no one's surprise, was a sweeping victory for Mubarak. He would have faced another election in 2011, when many wondered if he would step down in favor of his son Gamal. But a mass uprising ended Mubarak's rule in February last year and the former president and his two sons are now on trial.

Who will monitor the race?

Some of the pro-democracy groups that witnessed Egypt's parliamentary election have ceased to function because of a judicial crackdown linked to allegations of illegal foreign funding.

Three international groups received licenses to monitor the presidential vote, fewer than in the legislative election. They are the US-based Carter Center, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa and an Arab network for election monitoring, alongside several local bodies such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Alam Gdeed (New World) and Lessa Shayfenkum (We Are Still Watching You). International monitors said they cannot give a full assessment of the vote when it happens, because they were blocked from witnessing most of the campaign.

-- A version of this article originally appeared at OnIslam.

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Friday
May182012

#DearG8: Summit must focus on food security (PERSPECTIVE) 

 

(Video: An explanation of food insecurity/British Red Cross)

By Shenggen Fan

As the G8 leaders meet in the United States this week, agriculture and food security must be at the forefront of the discussions, and ways to prevent price volatility, including halting grain-based biofuels production, establishing grain reserves for emergency use, eliminating food export bans and increasing the transparency of food and agricultural market information - should be addressed.

Most importantly, the G8 leaders should fulfill their commitments on global food security.

In 2009, G8 leaders made considerable financial commitments to global agriculture and food security, pledging to mobilize $22 billion over three years through a coordinated, comprehensive strategy focused on sustainable agriculture development. But as of May 2011, it was estimated that only 22 percent of these commitments had been disbursed.

In addition to the G8 leaders, the heads of states from Ethiopia, Ghana, Benin and Tanzania will take part in the summit discussions. The direct participation by these African leaders underscores the seriousness of the food security situation on the continent, where more than 220 million people are undernourished. Millions suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, a total of 100 million women and children are iron deficient, and 33 million children have Vitamin A deficiencies. The 2011 Global Hunger Index, a combined measure of the proportion of undernourishment, child malnutrition, and child mortality, shows that Sub-Saharan Africa is home to all the countries with "extremely alarming" scores and many of the countries with "alarming" scores.

In addition, it is projected that smallholder farmers, particularly those living in the highland areas and semi-arid savannahs in Sub-Saharan Africa, face increasing natural resource scarcity risks, including land degradation, which can cost as much as 10 percent of national GDP. Many parts of the region are extremely vulnerable to both man-made and natural shocks. Last year, more than 13 million people were affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa. This year more than 15 million people across seven countries in the Sahel region are already suffering from severe food insecurity or at risk.

It is crucial that developed countries take action to fight starvation in Africa. The cost of hunger is high, and the damage is irreversible.

For over three decades now, the International Food Policy Research Institute has been engaged in promoting the transformation of smallholder agriculture across Africa through evidence-based research and support to country-driven development initiatives. Priority areas include: building capacity for agricultural and food policy analysis and supporting country-led development strategies; improving nutrition along value chains to increase poor people's access to nutritious foods and increasing the availability, access, and intake of nutrient-rich, biofortified staple foods for the poor; resilience-enhancing schemes such as productive social safety nets, weather insurance index, and other risk management tools that help reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience to shocks and contribute to overall long-term growth and prosperity.

Technological innovations such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and biofortification are crucial to increasing agricultural productivity, building resilience to weather-related shocks, enhancing the nutritional value of food crops, and ensuring food safety. Biotechnology has great potential to improve crop yield, nutrition and resilience to weather, which will be even more frequent in the future due to climate change.

As the world's population increases, there is enormous pressure on the planet's ecosystems. The most reasonable solution to feeding the ever-growing population is sustainably producing more food on the existing land. Scaled-up investments in science and technology and support for improved country capacities are essential to accelerate progress and achieve development objectives. While the governments of developing countries have taken important steps to boost food security-related investments, support from the G8 countries remains critical.

- This commentary first appeared at XinhuaNet

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Private sector organizations commit to support the G8 food security agenda

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Wednesday
May162012

Despite Progress, Millions at Risk as UN Releases Africa Human Development Report (NEWS) 


(Video UNDP)

By Shout Africa

Aid provided to Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger is insufficient, the medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said today. Since late January, nearly 160,000 Malians have fled their country for camps in neighboring nations. Instability persists in Mali, leaving little hope that the refugees will be able to return soon. On top of that, another imminent threat looms: the rainy season, which will further complicate the deployment of aid.

MSF is working in camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, and is concerned that the impending rainy season and the current shortage of aid will worsen the problem significantly. “MSF calls on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) to increase and speed up the distribution of aid in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger before the rainy season makes aid distribution even more difficult,” says Malik Allaouna, MSF director of operations.

In the makeshift Mauritanian camp of Mbéra, located in the middle of the desert, residents share one latrine for 220 people. They receive only 11 liters of water per person per day and the food distributed by the WFP does not meet the specific nutritional needs of children.

“We received four kilograms of rice – the quality is mediocre and it’s full of pebbles – two cups of oil and two cups of sugar for 10 days,” says one person in Mbéra camp. “They’ve given us just a single ration since we arrived.”

(MAP: LongWarjournal) In Burkina Faso, where MSF is working in four camps, the organization notes that food supplies are distributed inappropriately. “The same quantity is distributed without regard for the number of people in a family,” says Mohamed El Moktar, a refugee at the Gandafabou camp. “We are seven people. After two days, we have nothing left.”

Living conditions are significantly below international aid standards and render people who are already weakened by a very long journey even more vulnerable to illness. Most of the diseases treated during MSF’s medical consultations in the camps are directly related to poor living conditions.

At MSF’s treatment centre in Mbéra, four out of every 10 patients are suffering from respiratory infections and two out of 10 for diarrhea. The next most common ailments are skin infections and malnutrition. Since the organization started working in Mbéra, more than 500 children have been treated for malnutrition.

“Food insecurity is a threat both for the Malian refugees and for the host communities, which are already suffering from poor harvests,” adds Mr. Allaouna. “Only food distribution, in sufficient quantity and quality, will prevent children’s nutritional condition from further deteriorating.”

In Burkina Faso, MSF is working in the Ferrerio, Gandafabou, Dibissi and Ngatourou-Niénié camps. In Mauritania, in Mbéra, Fassala and Bassikounou; and in Niger, it is active in the communities of Mangaïzé, Abala, Chinagodrarand Yassan.

- This article originally appeared on Shout Africa

Monday
May142012

Historic Brazil, Mexico Droughts Cause Distress, Economic Conflict (REPORT) 

(Video IBNTimes)

(HN, 5/14/12) - In Brazil the worst drought in 30 years is underway in the country's  poor north-eastern region, destroying crops and prompting officials to limit water use in the 266 districts that have declared a state of emergency.  Lakes have dried up, forcing thousands of families who live in remote areas to walk miles in order to pick up water.

The agriculture secretary in the town of Maracas, Gilmar Rocha, said the drought problems have become constant in the region.  "The local neighborhood of Porto Alegre, is located close to the Contas' river, and we use the river's water in our homes. But the river is drying up and the problems are constant now," he said.

As a result of the drought, ranchers have been struggling to feed and water cattle while farmers have been left to watch their crops shrivel into the dusty soil.  Forty-two-year-old Jose Oliveira de Sousa, who works at a raft station in the district of Maracas, said many of his colleagues have been left unemployed as a result of the drought.

"Everyone is going through a big crisis because of the drought. Our jobs have been taken away from us, from the fishermen to the farmers to the boat and raft operators," he said.

According to weather experts, the drought may last up to October. The drought in the Southern hemisphere is caused by La Nina, which is cooling equatorial Pacific waters.

- By Marisa Krystian originally for IBNTimes

(PHOTO: A northern Mexico river location/El Universal) In Mexico a cold and dry winter in the north of the country has exacerbated conditions there with reports of widespread famine, escalating food prices and extreme dry conditions that have forced the Mexican government to truck drinking water to nearly a half million residents in remote villages across six northern states where lakes and ground wells have run dry.

In addition, Mexican aid workers have been offering food rations throughout the winter to more than 2 million residents who are desperately clinging to life in a region that is experiencing its driest period on record. 

The drought is credited with destroying some 7.5 million acres of cultivable land in 2011 and is responsible for $1.18 billion in lost harvests and has destroyed about 60,000 head of cattle and weakened 2 million more causing a substantial spike in food prices.

Officials say acute food and grain shortages caused Mexico’s imports to soar 35% last year and they could go even higher in 2012 as conditions worsen.

Dr. Mark Welch, grain marketing economist with Texas AgriLife Extension in College Station, says while Texas is not a big corn producing state, he thinks shortages for grain and food corn will cause many US growers to look hard at market potential in Mexico in the months ahead.

“We have been watching corn imports trend higher in Mexico over the last 25 years, but the recent spike related to the drought there is significant as it is not just yellow corn that is in demand, but white corn for food,” Welch says.

In Mexico the shortage of white corn is marked by higher food prices and a shortage in tortillas, a food staple for Mexican families.

(MAP: El Universal) “And this is not the first time we have seen an extreme shortage. The last time was in 2008 when corn shortages caused a tortilla crisis that resulted in riots and price limit controls by federal authorities,” he added.

Welch says even if drought conditions improve in Northern Mexico over the summer months, the trend for white corn imports are expected to trend upward.

“The demand for grain corn may be directly associated with the drought in Northern Mexico. Once conditions improve there we will see Mexican grain corn imports leveling off. But white corn imports have been trending up for several years, and it could be that a growing population base is driving demand - and I expect that to continue,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mexico continues to struggle with more than just grain shortages as a result of dry conditions. The 2011 price of beans has doubled in just over a year, and consumers are feeling the pinch in other food staples. On a whole, prices for basic foods—including beans, tortillas, vegetable oil, meat and dairy - rose 45% in 2011, and since October last year prices have exploded another 35%.

While the situation is most dire in the impoverished areas of the north, metropolitan areas including highly industrialized Monterrey are also feeling the squeeze. Recently the Mexican Red Cross estimated that some two million people are chronically hungry in the state of Nuevo Leon.

The crisis is becoming a political thorn in the side of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. While Mexico grows substantial food crops for export to the US - some $21 billion last year - it is struggling to grow enough for its resident population, a problem some argue is being driven by greed from Mexico’s upper class.

Economists say Mexico will continue to struggle with becoming more sustainable and self-sufficient, but drought conditions will continue to complicate those efforts until substantial rains fall.

-- A version of this article by Logan Hawkes appeared in the Southwest Farm Press

Friday
May112012

"Rise of the Lilliputians" (REPORT) 

(Video AJE reports on the most recent `Non-Aligned Movement' summit in 2009, Sharm el-Sheikh/Egypt)

By Colum Lynch

They are called the S-5, or the "Small Five", a group of small and middling UN member states that have been informally meeting since 2005 to try and chip away at the unchecked powers of the P-5, the UN's dominant, permanent five members of the Security Council.

And they are heading for a confrontation next week with the five big powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- over an initiative in the General Assembly aimed at pressing the P-5 to voluntarily cede some of their powers.

On May 16, the S-5 will press for a vote on a resolution before the UN General Assembly that calls on the veto wielding powers to refrain "from using a veto to block council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity." It also requests that in cases where a permanent member ignored the General Assembly's advice and exercises its veto, it should at least explain why it did so.

(PHOTO: Jordan's Ambassador to the UN, Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad)The push for a vote comes at a time when the UN Security Council has faced criticism for acting too slowly to contain the escalating violence, and in the wake of two key powers, Russia and China, having cast vetoes twice to block an Arab League initiative aimed at ending the violence in Syria and that would force President Bashar al-Assad from power. Russia, which has argued that its diplomatic strategy stands a better chance of lessening the violence, has been among the sharpest critics of the S-5 initiative, characterizing it as an affront to Moscow, according to a senior diplomat involved in the negotiations.

The veto power has long been a source of resentment among the UN's broader membership, who believe that it places the big powers above the law, shielding them and their friends from the edicts they routinely enforce on the rest of the world.

But for the United States, Russia, and other big powers, the veto represents the most important check on international intrusion into their spheres of influence by a sometimes unsympathetic majority. The United States, for instance, has routinely used its veto power to shield Israel from Security Council measures demanding it show greater restraint in its dealings with the Palestinians.

China and Russia, meanwhile, have exercised the veto to block condemnation of friendly countries, including Myanmar and Zimbabwe, from condemnation for committing rights abuses.

A number of economic heavyweights and emerging powers, including Brazil, Germany, Japan, India, Nigeria, and South Africa, have been clamoring for a greater say in the council's deliberations, leading to several proposals that would expand the 15-nation Security Council and grant a number of rising powers a permanent seat.

The S-5 -- Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland -- realize that they have no hope of ever becoming big powers with permanent seats on the council. So they have devoted their efforts to pushing for reforms in the way the 15-nation council does business.

(PHOO: Switzerland's Ambassador to the UN, Paul Seger) Indeed, their recommendations on the use of the veto are a part of a broader menu of suggestions, including more P-5 consultations with states that aren't serving in the Security Council, that they intend to put before the General Assembly as a way to encourage reforms in the way the council works.

The sponsors say they are confident that they will have support from more than 100 of the assembly's 193 member states. But the P-5 have made it clear they want nothing to do with it, arguing that the UN Charter intended the victorious powers of World War II to manage threats to international security. While the vote would not be legally binding it could serve to ramp up political pressure on the big powers to change.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and top diplomats from Britain, China, France, and Russia met with the S-5 on Wednesday in an effort to get them to back down.

Rice also pointed out that there were many other countries, not only the P-5, that have expressed opposition to a General Assembly vote. Another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote -- saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council.

Rice, who did most of the talking, told the group that while they recognize their pioneering effort to reform the council, their resolution would actually undercut the efforts to make the council more transparent. Rice asked them not go ahead with the resolution, according to Paul Seger, Switzerland's UN ambassador.

"They tell us don't put that resolution to a vote; it's infringing on the prerogatives of the Security Council, it's disruptive and could jeopardize the overall reform of the Security Council," Seger told Turtle Bay. "My sense is that they are afraid that certain prerogatives, certain acquired rights, are being questioned for the first time."

Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's UN ambassador, told Turtle Bay that the UN Security Council has undertaken many of the reforms being sought by the S-5, but their decision to bring the matter before the General Assembly would likely result in a "divisive vote that sets back the overall cause of reform."

"The Security Council must be always able to adapt and operate with flexibility in order fulfill its responsibilities under the Charter to meet the evolving challenges to international peace and security," he added in a statement. "But for that effectiveness and adaptability, it needs to be confident in its own decisions and procedures. It ultimately must remain the master of its own rules of procedure, as stated in the UN Charter."

Seger and other members of the S-5 say they are not looking for a fight -- but they also say it's unfair for the Security Council to ask other states to send their peacekeepers into harm's way, as Switzerland has in Syria, without including them in informal council deliberations on the situation there. The group, meanwhile, has marshaled a series of legal and political arguments to bolster its case that the majority of UN membership should have some role in advising the 15-nation council. They invoked Article 10 of the U.N. Charter, which permits the UN General Assembly to make recommendations to the Security Council, except in cases where the council is managing an international "dispute or situation".

Jordan's UN ambassador, Prince Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, told Turtle Bay that there is also a legal case to be made that the UN Charter itself places limits on the rights of the council's permanent members to veto council action aimed at preventing mass killings. He argued that while the council bears "primary responsibility" for the maintenance of peace and security it also requires decisions be made in "conformity with the principle of justice and international law." Genocide and mass slaughter, he said, are certainly not in conformity with those principles, he said.

(PHOTO: Russia's Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin)"We don't want to go up against the P-5," Seger added. "We don't question the right of the veto we only ask them kindly: Would you consider not using the veto in situations of atrocities, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide?"

Seger, who also serves as chairman of the UN peace-building commission for Burundi, recalled an invitation to brief the Security Council on a visit he had made to that Central African country. He briefed the council on his findings, and then was asked to leave as the council went behind closed doors for its own discussions on the matter.

"I asked Churkin, 'could I maybe just sit there, be a resource person?'" Seger said, referring to Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin. "He said, 'No. We cannot open the council consultations to outsiders: It's never been done and it will never be done in the future.'"

- This article first appeared on Colum Lynch's `Turtle Bay' page on Foreign Policy. Follow the writer on Twitter @columlynch

Thursday
May102012

‘Bitter Seeds’ documentary reveals tragic toll of GMOs in India (FILM REVIEW) 

(Video `Bitter Seeds' trailer)

By Claire Thompson

When home-front battles over GMO labeling, beekeeping, and the Farm Bill get heated, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that Big Ag’s influence extends far beyond US borders. Micha Peled’s documentary Bitter Seeds is a stark reminder of that fact. The final film in Peled’s “globalization trilogy,” Bitter Seeds exposes the havoc Monsanto has wreaked on rural farming communities in India, and serves as a fierce rebuttal to the claim that genetically modified seeds can save the developing world.

The film follows a plucky 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, whose father was one of the quarter-million farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last 16 years. As Grist and others have reported, the motivations for these suicides follow a familiar pattern: Farmers become trapped in a cycle of debt trying to make a living growing Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton. They always live close to the edge, but one season’s ruined crop can dash hopes of ever paying back their loans, much less enabling their families to get ahead. Manjusha’s father, like many other suicide victims, killed himself by drinking the pesticide he spreads on his crops.

(PHOTO: GMO global protests/SchoolFood) Why is Monsanto seen as responsible for these farmers’ desperation? The company began selling Bt cotton in India in 2004, after a US challenge at the WTO forced India to adopt seed patenting, effectively allowing Monsanto to monopolize the market. Bt cotton seeds were - and still are - advertised heavily to illiterate Indian farmers, who have bought the company’s promises of high yields and the material wealth they bring. What the farmers didn’t know until it was too late is those seeds require an expensive regimen of pesticides, and must be fertilized and watered according to precise timetables. And since these farmers lack irrigation systems, and must instead depend on not-always-predictable rainfall, it’s incredibly difficult to control the success or failure of any year’s crops.

As farmers bought the Bt cotton in droves, the conventional seed they’d been using -  which needed only cow dung as fertilizer - disappeared in as little as one season. Now, in communities like Manjusha’s, it’s virtually impossible to buy anything but Monsanto’s seed.

Manjusha, the film’s protagonist, goes looking for answers after her father commits suicide.

To pay for seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer, farmers must take out loans, but most banks refuse to deal with them, so instead they turn to moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates. Many farmers have nothing to offer as collateral besides their land. If a crop fails and they can’t pay back the loans, they lose everything.

The film offers a glimmer of hope in Manjusha, an aspiring journalist in a world where farmers’ daughters aren’t exactly encouraged to pursue independent careers. Scenes of her first earnest attempts at reporting are intimate and touching (“I had other questions to ask, but I forgot”), and her commitment to telling the story of her family’s and her community’s struggle always shines through her nervousness. This appealing heroine makes a story of global manipulation more personal, and thus more devastating.

(PHOTO: Nobel Prize recipient Vandana Shiva/DW)Piece by piece, Bitter Seeds lays out the bleak situation in India, using interviews with all players, from condescending seed sales reps and callous Monsanto execs, to activist Vandana Shiva, to farmers, their families, and village old-timers who remember when life as an Indian cotton farmer was not so bitter.

Proponents hail GMO crops as a triumph of science over nature that could provide a solution to world hunger. But this film reveals a society of farmers whose way of life, and very lives, are threatened. If GMOs have any benefits, it would be hard to convince me that they outweigh the human costs portrayed in Bitter Seeds.

-- This commentary originally appeared on GRIST.

Tuesday
May082012

The WHO must reform for its own health (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video WHO video for World Health Day, April 7, 2012)

By Tikki Pang and Laurie Garrett

The World Health Organization (WHO) is facing an unprecedented crisis that threatens its position as the premier international health agency. To ensure its leading role, it must rethink its internal governance and revamp its financing mechanisms.

The World Health Organization was born in the bifurcated Cold War world in 1948, and every aspect of its charter, mission and organizational structure was molded by diplomatic tensions between NATO and the USSR. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the new emerging market superpowers, the WHO finds itself trying to straddle a global dynamic for which it was not designed.

Indeed, the WHO now finds itself marginalized in a crowded global health landscape characterized by poor coordination among multiple players. It is no longer the only major actor. At the same time, it faces an internal crisis, with major budget shortfalls and staff layoffs that have resulted in the organization embarking on the most radical reforms in its 64-year history. But the changes do not go far enough. A recent dialogue on WHO reform that we participated in, held by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in February, identified several key challenges that should be addressed by the agency.

(GRAPH: Flag of the WHO) First and foremost, the WHO should refocus on its original aim of being primarily a 'knowledge broker' that gives advice and information about best practices but stops short of directly implementing programs. It should convene negotiations resulting in internationally binding legal agreements and monitor their implementation. Some of its most successful achievements - such as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the International Health Regulations and the International Classification of Diseases - fall into this category.

The means by which such agreements are reached has changed, and the organization needs to adapt. In 1948, the WHO acted as a knowledge-and-standards broker between states, working almost exclusively with ministries of health and government leaders. In the twenty-first century, however, the WHO's credibility and relevance depend on its ability to exert a normative influence through the Internet, informing the global citizenry about all aspects of health - from relevant treaties to drug safety to disease outbreaks. Currently, the organization's website, is nearly impossible to navigate, akin to a well-stocked library with no catalog system. It needs an overhaul to be useful to the global citizenry.

The WHO not only needs to better communicate and coordinate with its global partners; it also needs to make improvements within, starting with its internal governance. The organization must enhance the relationship between its Geneva headquarters and its powerful regional offices. Guidance from Geneva is sometimes ignored, even contradicted, by the regional directors and their offices. Although the WHO was born with a clear top-down leadership structure, it has morphed over the decades into something closer to a partnership: Geneva 'suggests' policies that its regional partners may accept, ignore or amend. It is often difficult to tell whether the tail is wagging the dog. For example, the Pan American Health Organization, which is one of the regional offices of the WHO, may choose to design and implement a Chagas disease eradication strategy having sought little or no input from Geneva. To avoid tensions, the organization should more clearly apportion 'core' versus 'support' roles played by the various parties.

(PHOTO: Dr. Margaret Chan is the Director-General of WHO, appointed by the World Health Assembly on 9 November 2006/WHO)The internal changes must also involve improved finances. In 1990, the agency was by far the largest player on the global health field, with an annual budget of nearly $1.2 billion; the next biggest budget at the time was that of US government global health programs, which totaled $850 million. By 2010, the WHO's budget, after years of increases, fell back to that 1990 level, making it the fourth largest spender in the global health landscape, behind the now-mammoth $7.5 billion US program, the $3 billion Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the $2.2 billion collective pile of smaller nongovernmental organizations. This year, the WHO seems to be falling further behind in the hierarchy, trailing the GAVI Alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Until recently, the WHO garnered more than 80% of its budget in the form of voluntary donations, largely given by the wealthiest countries for earmarked programs. The agency's core support is derived from proportional levies on member nations, which have remained unchanged for years despite the rising costs of WHO operations. Moreover, the WHO's revenues are received in US dollars, but its Geneva operational and payroll costs must be met in Swiss francs. Because the WHO has not practiced currency hedging, a 32% increase in the value of the franc against the dollar, as occurred in 2011, cannot be accommodated without severe institutional fiscal pain.

In addition to practicing currency hedging, the WHO must identify a range of financing innovations with a goal of increasing institutional resilience. Such financing mechanisms may include, for example, the establishment of an endowment fund, a multiyear financing framework, or the use of a Robin Hood tax, which reaps financing from miniscule taxation of very large currency transactions. Both of these options were highlighted by a 5 April report from a consultative expert working group convened by the WHO.

And, like any multibillion-dollar company, the WHO should have an effective 'marketing' strategy built around rigorous, external evaluations that demonstrate the value of its activities.

The world needs an aggressive and scientifically solid health leader. Governance and the setting of normative standards cannot be accomplished with a slew of loosely connected health initiatives, nongovernmental organizations and bilateral programs. The only entity with a charter, a legislative body and a mandate to fill that role is the WHO, and it must do so decisively.

--- This commentary originally appeared in NATURE.  Tikki Pang is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and former director of Research Policy & Cooperation at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.  Laurie Garrett is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, NY, USA.