FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Tuesday:  October 27, 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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Entries in India (30)

Monday
Jan142013

Millions of Hindu's take to the Ganges for Maha Kumbh Mela (REPORT) 

(Video, IndiaTV)

(Allahabad, India - The Maha Kumbh Mela began this morning with lakhs of devotees as well as ascetics and religious leaders of various orders converging on the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati in Allahabad for a holy dip on the occasion of Makar Sankranti.

The inaugural day of the two-month-long congregation, often described as the “greatest show on earth”, was marked by the first “Shahi Snan” of 13 “akharas” wherein Naga Sadhus - a martial order of ascetics who move about either naked or scantily clad with matted hair and ash smeared bodies - marched to Sangam in processions with their leaders perched atop ornately decorated elephants, horses and chariots and musical bands in attendance in a unique blend of austerity and opulence.

PHOTO: 'Nirvani Akhara' participates in the Shahi Snan/Indian Express)The first to move out were Mahanirvani and Atal Akharas, followed by Niranjani and Anand and then Joona, Awahan and Agni.

They are to be followed by Nirvani Ani, Digambar Ani and Nirmohi and Naya Udasin, Bara Udasin and Nirmal akharas in the same order fixed during the British period following a violent clash among ascetics of different akharas at a Kumbh congregation.

The akharas have been allotted fixed time, ranging from 30 minutes to about an hour depending upon the size of their respective procession, for bathing with routes for going to and returning from Sangam so separated as to ward off possibility of members of rival akharas coming in contact with each other.

Devotees from across the country had started pouring in since last evening and the influx continues despite cold weather and elaborate security arrangements on account of which devotees are being made to park their vehicles several kilometres away from the holy confluence and reach the Sangam on foot.

Vehicular traffic has been banned on most of the roads in the city from yesterday till tomorrow to facilitate movement of people.

(PHOTO: A group of the Alakh sadhus making way towards Akhara for taking alms at Sangam arriving for Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad/Brijesh Jaiswal)The “Shahi Snan”, which is a star attraction of the event, began at around 6 AM as curious, awestruck onlookers gathered on both sides of the over-a-kilometre-long road of metallic chequered plates on which the processions of “akharas” proceeded towards the Sangam.

The crowds were separated from the procession with the help of barriers.

Security personnel kept a steady, though anxious, watch on the movement of the “Naga sadhus” along the route, from watch towers and by monitoring CCTVs as their processions have sparked off violent clashes in the past.

The Mela, held every 12 years, will go on for next two months and will conclude on Maha Shivaratri on March 10.

The administration is expecting a nearly 10 per cent rise in pilgrims attending the mass Hindu pilgrimage this year compared to the previous Maha Kumbh held here in 2001.

Exceptionally large crowds are also expected on Mauni Amavasya (February 10, 3 crore) and Basant Panchmi (February 15, 1.9 crore).

Besides, spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev and Asaram Bapu, also have planned their visits.

The huge turnout of people, visits of high-profile gurus in addition to the presence of naga sanyasis have increased the pressure on police and administration for smooth functioning of the Kumbh Mela.

A lurking fear of a terrorist strike has further heightened the challenges in recent years.

(PHOTO: Devotees in boats as they gather at Sangam for taking baths on the auspicious occasion of Makar Sankaranti & the start of Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad/Brijesh Jaiswal)“More than 7,000 personnel of central paramilitary forces, including companies of the Rapid Action Force and the National Disaster Response Force, have been pressed into service,”  IGP (Allahabad) Alok Sharma, designated as the nodal officer for security arrangements during the Maha Kumbh, had said.

--- This article first appeared in The Hindu

Saturday
Dec222012

"Pointing the Finger" - (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: Newsxlive)

By Karan Thapar

(December 22, 2012) - Last week’s protests on the streets of Delhi against the despicable gang rape of a young 23-year-old girl were, no doubt, impressive but they missed the point. Rape doesn’t happen because the police permit it or are absent and unable to prevent it. Rape doesn’t happen because politicians won’t strengthen the law and are insensitive to the victims. Rape doesn’t happen because the courts are slow in meting out justice or the legal process humiliates the victims.  Rape happens because men rape.

That’s the key point the protests forgot.

Rape happens because Indian men don’t respect women and treat them as play-things. And let’s face it, this is a direct result of the way we bring up our men and the way we encourage them to think of women.

The problem begins with parenting. We treat boys like little Gods and daughters as a curse. And when I say we, I really mean mothers who spoil their sons whilst disregarding their daughters. Attitudes inculcated in childhood lead to adolescents, young men and, finally, adults treating women with disrespect and even violence. So the fault begins at home. It begins with our mums and dads. In fact, hurtful as it may sound, it begins with mum.

Saturday’s protestors, courageously facing teargas and water-cannons, should have first ventilated their anger on Indian men. When you hear of elderly women of 80, or baby girls of 3, who have been raped you have to ask: have Indian men become barbarians?

But the anger needs to go further. We need to focus on the way our families bring us up. We need to question the attitudes society encourages. In fact, we need to ask why do so many, who are capable of thinking for themselves, unthinkingly follow suit.

Pause and consider this: why do the police blame the victims before they start to prosecute the rapists? Why do they believe the way a woman is dressed, or the fact that she is out at night, invites rape? The answer is simple. It’s because we as a society do.

Here women are as much to blame as men. After all, it’s mothers and aunts who conclude from a young girl’s dress she’s behaving like a tart. They are the ones who claim that to be seen with a single man is to suggest you are available.

No doubt they’re like this because their mothers before them were the same. The danger is their daughters may not be different.

So I say to the tens of thousands, in fact tens of millions, demanding justice that you are perfectly right to do so but if you really want it question your brothers, uncles, fathers — indeed, question every male you know.

Then, question the society we live in but are also creatures of. We look upon the victims of rape as women who have been shamed. Actually, it’s the rapist who is shameful. But how do we move to a position where women who have been raped are treated with special care and honour whilst the rapist is made an outcast?

Our politicians and the police can’t provide the answers. They can’t show the way. We have to find it ourselves. By changing our thinking and attitudes. By changing the way we are.

So whilst I applaud the protestors, their dedication, energy and anger, I can’t help feel these should be better directed.

Views expressed by the author are personal and first appeared in the Hindustan Times.

Monday
Nov122012

This Diwali let's do small things with great love - (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: Diwali 101/National Geographic)

DIWALI FACTS:

- From darkness unto light is the message of Diwali (also known Deepavali); `The Festival of Lights'.

-  During Diwali, “light an oil lamp, sit quietly, shut your eyes, withdraw the senses, concentrate on this supreme light and illuminate the soul,” the message goes.

- The time of year is auspicious. Tradition sees practitioners buying gold and starting new bank accounts.

- The actual day of Diwali, calculated by the luni-solar Hindu calendar, falls this year on Tuesday, November 13. Each of the four days comprising the festival of Diwali is distinguished by a different tradition, but what remains true and constant is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness.

- The illumination of homes with lights and the skies with firecrackers is an expression of obedience to the heavens for the attainment of health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity.

- The festival holiday is celebrated in India, but also in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji.

-The day is usually celebrated with a `Ganga Snan' (a good shower) in the morning, prayers, donning new clothes, preparing good vegetarian food, sweets, cultural events at which a number of artists perform, house visits and exchanges of gifts.

By Rahul Verma

(November 13, 2012) - Diwali, the festival of lights and warmth, has different meanings for different people. It is a celebration full of festivities, illumination and lots and lots of sweets. It could be a long-awaited get-together for some friends and families, exchanging of gifts with relatives, friends or business interest to please them. While you are busy celebrating Diwali with sweets and lights, remember that festivals are not only about enjoying or partying with your friends or near and dear ones but also about spreading joy and warmth around and thinking about the deprived and make some contribution towards society according to your capabilities.

(PHOTO: An Indian girl tries to reach a lantern displayed for sale at roadside stalls, in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012/Rajesh Kumar SinghWhen everyone is in a festive mood there are some children in hospitals who wake up every morning with a hope that they will soon go home, but sometimes the days become months or years. When the whole world is busy in celebrating the festival of lights there are intravenous tubes that are running to their tiny bodies keeping them bound to the beds of the hospitals.

When we are planning lavish parties or buying white goods, children in hospitals dream of riding a bicycle or playing with friends in a playground and enjoying the festivities with their families.

Unfortunately it becomes a more heart-rending experience for children admitted to government hospitals as when their siblings and friends are enjoying at home they are required to live in hospitals which are in filthy conditions and grossly neglected and one can imagine how difficult it is for a child to come out of the mentality and trauma of being sick. When our children are busy in celebrating Diwali, there are some children who are sharing the same bed with two or three other kids, when every house is decorated with charming rangoli paintings with diyas, and colourful electric bulbs, they are left with a common sight of untidy bed sheets, general waste lying here and there in the corridors with disastrous toilet facilities. More worse is the attitude of the doctors and the sisters, who sometimes showers frustration of being working on a holiday in the hospital. In fact doctors are the most educated person in our society but in majority of the cases in Government hospitals their behavior with the patients is totally ignorant.

(PHOTO: Rangoli decorations, made using coloured powder, are popular during Diwali/Wikipedia)Parents are already in deep shock asking the same question again and again, `God why my child'? They hardly find any friend or a relative visiting them in the hospital when the duration of stay becomes a little longer, yes but for the courtesy sake they will surely call you some time with a message that please let them know if anything required. Also on weekends when they are going to a mall or to watch a movie they will definitely spare some time to meet you with the condition that the hospital `is on the way.

In this era of smart phones, and gadgets it is true that we are progressing, getting sophisticated but perhaps our society is also loosing morality and ethics, there is are very few who are really concerned about destitute section of the society.

While we are busy celebrating Diwali with sweets and lights, we should remember that festivals are about spreading joy around and can always make some contribution towards the society according to our capabilities.

Diwali is an excellent time to start thinking about helping other people, especially who are in urgent need of support and care. This could include providing food, clothing and toys for families to enable them to experience the joys of the Diwali festival. Giving warmth, love and hope. That's what Diwali should be all about.

(PHOTO: Hindu holy men, sit in tractors as they arrive ahead of the Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad, India, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012/Rajesh Kumar Singh)Perhaps we are living in this misconception that spending hundreds thousands on God shall make him happy. Little children battling with life threatening diseases does not require too much but your smile along with few sweets or packets of crayons or a drawing book can bring instant smile on their face, it also boost the morale of the parents, some kind words of yours work as miracle to them.

So let's celebrate this Diwali as a festival of kindness and spread smiles and happiness around by visiting some children in hospitals with, remember what Mother Teresa said "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

- This opinion piece first appeared in The Times of India. Rahul Verma is co-founder of Uday Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to children with birth defects.

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.

Wednesday
May022012

Morocco Rethinks Child Marriage After Girl Forced to Marry Rapist Commits Suicide (REPORT) 

(PHOTO: Child marriage is practice in many countries. Here in India, children advocate against it./Bikya Masr)By Abderrahim El Ouali

(Casablanca, MOROCCO) - The widespread practice of marrying minors continues to be one of the most incendiary legal and political issues in Morocco today, causing open confrontations between hard-line Islamists and moderates throughout the country.

Speaking on national television last month, Mohammed Abdenabawi, an official of the Ministry of Justice, declared that 30,000 minor girls are married every year – roughly 10 percent of the 300,000 marriages recorded every year in this country of 32 million inhabitants.

The phenomenon is widespread, the consequences for young women and girls severe, and the efforts of civil society sustained, though maintaining momentum against a tide of cultural and religious conservatism is challenging.

(PHOTO: A woman holding a photo of Amina Filali/WOMEN.COM)A campaign to gather one million signatures to forbid the marriage of minors is already in progress, sparked by the death of Amina Filali, a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide by taking rat poison in March after being forced to marry her rapist due to an interpretation of Moroccan law;  the rapist was allowed to avoid prosecution by marrying his victim.

Supposedly to protect family and female "honour", a court evoked legislation in the penal and family codes to force Filali to marry the man 10 years older than she who forced her, at knifepoint, to submit to him.

Both the court case and Filali’s suicide opened the floodgates to a deluge of public debate and activism around the issue, which had hitherto been a taboo topic in traditional Moroccan society.

Jamal Rhmani, a member of the opposition Socialist Union for Popular Forces and former Minister of Employment, told IPS, "The campaign has gathered more than 780,000 signatures up to now."

Despite being a member of the political opposition and one of the lead organizers of the campaign to ban marriage of minors, Rhmani sees his involvement in activism first and foremost from his perspective as the father of a 14-year-old daughter.

"Before being a politician, I am a father. We cannot be indifferent to what is happening around us," he explained.

Activists, rights groups and members of the opposition have been clamoring for the abolition of article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, which allows rapists to get off scott-free if they agree to marry their victims; as well as articles 20 and 21 of the family code, which allows the marriage of minor girls.

(PHOTO: In Yemen, 52% of girls are married before 18/SANA) But the root of the problem runs deep, and will require more systemic change than the abolition of one or two laws

"The culprit is archaic jurisprudence implemented by ignoramuses," Chakib Khettou, a citizen of Casablanca, told IPS, referring to the Muslim law allowing the marriage of girls older than nine years, according to traditional law.

Back in 2008, Sheik Mohamed El Maghrawi, a well-known Moroccan Muslim scholar, published a Fatwa reiterating families’ right to marry off their daughters over the age of nine. His position provoked a major scandal but the scholar suffered no consequences.

During a press conference in the city of Marrakesh last April, El Maghrawi even expressed his attachment to his position, "based on the Quran and the words of the Prophet" according to him.

However, opposition to this particular reading of Sharia’a law has become widespread.

Ahmed Faridi, a teacher who holds a licence degree in Sharia’a law, told to IPS, "Nothing in the Quran allows marrying a nine-year-old girl," he explained. Even if it turns out that the Prophet of Islam himself had married a minor girl, "he is in that case an exception and cannot be a rule," Faridi stressed.

Traditionalists won’t let go

Minister of Justice and Liberties, Mustapha Erramid, is not as moderate as some of the activists pushing for the marriage ban.

In a national televised address last March, the Minister said, "The marriage of minor girls is not forbidden by the law."

(PHOTO: Women protesting in Rabat after Filali died/MoroccoWorld)A lawyer by trade, Erramid is "tolerant" towards the amendment of article 475 of the penal code, but refused to speak about the amendment of articles 20 and 21 of the family code.

The Islamist Minister hinted that demonstrations similar to those held against the National Plan for Women’s Integration in Development, enacted under the socialist government of Abderrahmane Youssoufi in 1999, were not far off.

Back then, thousands of Islamists hailing from the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) took to the streets of Casablanca against Youssoufi’s plan to include women in political and economic development, which they judged as "incompatible" with Sharia’a because it forbade polygamy and fixed the minimum age of marriage for women at 18 years old.

Still, current members of parliament are not too worried that today’s activism will see such a vehement reaction by conservatives.

"A national debate on this subject is at present necessary to amend the penal code and the code of the family. A legislative initiative is already being taken by the socialist group in parliament to guarantee more protection to minor girls," Rhmani said.

The second chamber of parliament held a meeting on the subject last week. The president of the chamber, Mohamed Cheikh Biadilah, said the proposed amendments should be viewed in "the spirit of the new constitution", adopted during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, which "commits the State to guarantee the social and economic rights of the family" and "to protect minors (regardless) of their family or social position" and "forbids any shape of discrimination based on gender."

Biadilah also said, "The legislative power has the obligation to intervene every time it notices that a law has become incompatible with the development of the society."

"All the laws that go against the dignity of women must be amended or even abolished", said the president of the Chamber of Councilors in Moroccan parliament.

--This article originally appeared in InterPress Service

RELATED:  In India, 16 Year Old girl says no to child marriage

Monday
Apr162012

Nigeria: World Bank Presidency - US vs the World? (PERSPECTIVE) 

By Yemi Ajayi

(PHOTO: Dr. Jim Yong Kim, new World Bank President/Dartmouth College) *Since this article posted on Monday, the World Bank board voted to confirm Jim Yong Kim as the next World Bank President. He will start his tenure on June 30 when Robert Zoellick steps down from this same post.

The race for the World Bank presidency will enter the homestretch Monday when the bank's 25-member executive board votes on who succeeds its outgoing president, Robert Zoellick.

It is a defining race for the Bretton Woods institution (comprising the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) founded in 1944. It is also a race that has assumed the character of a clash between an arcane tradition and the quest for change in the way the international finance institution with the official goal of fighting poverty picks its president.

In the race for the World Bank presidency were initially three candidates: Nigeria's Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Colombian Minister of Finance, Jose Antonio Ocampo and a public health expert and president of Dartmouth College in the United States, Jim Yong Kim. The number was reduced to two last Friday with Ocampo's withdrawal for the post.

However, the candidates are merely instruments in a proxy war between Washington and its European allies, which has traditionally produced the president and the rest of the world that is clamouring for a paradigm shift in how the leadership of the World Bank emerges.

The clamour has pitted the rest of the world against the US, which is out to defend its tradition of producing the World Bank president since foundation.

(PHOTO: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria/NigeriaMailOnline)For US President Barack Obama, he cannot afford to fail where his predecessors had succeeded. Losing out in the jostling for the post, especially in a crucial election year, is to hand the Republicans the ammunition to make a bid at undoing his attempt to renew his tenancy at the White House.

Withdrawing from the race last Friday, Ocampo, in a letter to the World Bank, said he was doing so because "it is clear that this is becoming no longer a competition on the merits of the candidates, but a political exercise."

"For me, as an economist and as a Colombian, it has been a great honour to participate in this first open competition for the presidency of the World Bank... to facilitate the desired unity of the emerging and developing economies around a candidate, today (last Friday) I am retiring from the race to support the minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who I wish the best of luck in this final stage."

If it were going to be a straight fight based on merit on a level playing field for the candidates, Okonjo-Iweala could start preparing her handover notes for her successor in Nigeria and return to the organization where she was managing director before her call to national duty last year.

Even though she was reluctant to join the race some weeks ago, her candidacy has gathered rave endorsements from the media at home and abroad, 35 former World Bank economists and managers, Africa and other developing nations since she threw her traditional headgear into the ring.

She is the official candidate of Africa and its allies who have canvassed the argument that someone with high-flying credentials and requisite experience like hers is better placed to make the World Bank deliver on its goals of helping developing nations to improve on their peoples' wellbeing.

Since March when Obama picked him as the US candidate for the post, Kim has come under global scrutiny. Despite his credentials and achievements, especially in public health, including his stint as a director of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization, he is considered as one who lacks the "appropriate finance and economic credentials" to lead the World Bank.

(PHOTO: Jose Antonio Ocampo of Colombia/Columbia Univ) In contrast, Okonjo-Iweala has institutional knowledge, hands-on experience in development economics and public finance and has proven to be reform minded. In her first appointment as Nigeria's Minister of Finance, she superintended over the country's historical debt relief, an exercise that earned her global accolades; spearheaded the reform of the public sector in Nigeria leading to greater transparency and the monetization policy of the federal government; and championed the creation of the Excess Crude Account that largely provided a buffer for Nigeria during the global economic crisis between 2008 and 2009.

Notwithstanding his diminished credentials, Kim, by some quixotic arrangement, is most likely to succeed Zoellick who bows out on June 30 after a five-year term during which the bank provided over $247 billion to help developing countries boost growth and overcome poverty. His being the US candidate, which some analysts have described as a "wrong call," guarantees him victory under the weighted voting system that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are calling for a review.

Under the voting system, the US, which is the bank's largest shareholder, Europe and Japan control 54 per cent of the votes. The trio has formed an alliance which ensures that the bloc votes are delivered to the US' candidate. Europe is under obligation to back the US as repayment for its support in always ensuring that the headship of the International Monetary Fund, is held by the continent under an informal pact.

According to reports at the weekend, so far, US, Russia, Canada and Japan are lining up behind Kim alongside Spain, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea. This follows a move last Friday by the US members on the World Bank executive board to block the board from transparently assessing the outcome of the interviews of the three candidates, which took place earlier last week.

With Ocampo's withdrawal for Okonjo-Iweala, his backers - Brazil and Argentina - may team up with the three African constituencies to vote for the Nigerian minister.

However, the straw poll held by the bank's board last Friday before Ocampo's withdrawal, showed that Kim was guaranteed 36 per cent of the votes, Okonjo-Iweala about five per cent and six per cent for Ocampo. The votes reflect the voting rights of the countries or regions backing each of the candidates.

The undecided were the European Union with 29.2 per cent; India, 4.6 per cent; China, 3.4 per cent; Switzerland, 3.0 per cent; Saudi Arabia, 2.4 per cent; and Asia, 9.5 per cent bloc votes.

Monday's decision by the bank's executive board was some three weeks ago clearly encapsulated for the members by the Financial Times. The newspaper in an editorial on March 27, in which it endorsed the candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala, said: "In this less than ideal world, Mr. Kim's appointment seems inevitable. But if the Bank's shareholders wanted the best president, they would opt for Ms. Okonjo-Iweala."

Will the board heed the voice of reason as the World Bank, for the first time in its 68 years of existence, chooses between candidates?

Well, if the Nigerian minister loses, as that fact cannot be discounted, given the high stakes politics, she can take solace in the immortal word of American journalist and writer, Damon Runyon, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong...."

--- This editorial originally appeared in AllAfrica HERE

Thursday
Apr052012

The Dangers of Journalism (REPORT) 

(Video 25 years of Reporters Without Borders)

(HN, 4/5/12) - Yesterday's suicide bombing at the newly opened National Theater of Somalia is now believed to have killed four people, including the nation's Olympics chief and FIFA head among them; just as a ceremony began in celebration of the Somali National Television's one-year anniversary.

It was meant  to be a moment of lightness in the much darkness Somalia has experienced in 25-plus years of unrest, famine, and chaos.

It also - again - highlighted the dangerous situations global journalists contend with - even at an afternoon cultural event - to tell the story.

(PHOTO: Advocates in Sri Lanka/JNEWS) Journalism, on any stage, is never safe.

Various reports say that at least 10 journalists - four of them women - were seriously injured when the blast ripped through the  theater 5 minutes into a speech by the Somali Prime Minister, Abdiwelli Mohamed.

Witnesses said they believed the bomber had been a female who mingled with the crowd before detonating. The explosion killed 4 people.  The nation's Olympics chief and FIFA head among them.

The Al-Shabaab militant group has taken responsibility.

The hurt reporters are named as (SEE PHOTOS HERE):  Said Shire Warsame of Shabelle TV, Ahmed Ali Kahiye of Radio Kulmiye; Ayaan Abdi (female) of S24 TV/Somalie 24  and Hamdi Mohamed Hassan Hiis (female) of Somali Channel TV; Deeqa Mohamed (female) of the state-run Radio Mogadishu/ Radio Mogadiscio; Mohamed Noor and Mohamed Sharif of Radio Bar-kulan; Somali National Television staffers and Abdulkadir Mohamed Hassan, and freelance journalists Suleiman Sheikh Ismail and Mulki Hassan Haile (female) of Royal TV.

Reporters Without Borders in Paris said, “We condemn this despicable attack in the strongest possible terms and our thoughts are with the many victims,”

By all accounts, being `on assignment' can sometimes mean life or death for a journalist - and not always glamorous. 

DEATH AND IMPRISONMENT

In its annual "Attacks on the Press" report, the New York-based Committee  to Protect Journalists (CPJ) detailed intimidation and deaths to journalists. 

Imprisonments of reporters worldwide shot up more than 20% to its highest level since the mid-1990s in 2011, according to the annual survey - an increase driven largely by widespread jailings across the Middle East and North Africa;  finding, 179 writers, editors, and photojournalists behind bars on December 1.  More than 34 higher than in 2010.

Additionally Iran was the world’s worst jailer, with 42 journalists behind bars. Eritrea, China, Burma, Vietnam, Syria, and Turkey also ranked among the world’s worst.

Losing their lives in 2011 were 46 journalists who were killed in the line of work around the world - undertaking dangerous assignments such as covering street protests and civil strife which reached a record level last year (2 more than 2010) as political unrest swept the Arab world. 

Reporters Without Borders puts that number at 66; and a tally by Switzerland Press Emblem Campaign says the total is as high as 106.

Photographers and camera operators made up about 40% of the overall death toll and noted an increase in the deaths of Internet journalists - who rarely have appeared in the totals before - with nine killed last year.

(Video of the moment of blast in Somalia yesterday, captured - via The Guardian)

BY  GEOGRAPHY 

Country-by-country, in 2011, Pakistan had the most deaths with seven, while Libya and Iraq followed with five each, and Mexico had three.

So far in 2012, the most hazardous duty ranks are:  Syria- 7, Somalia-3, India-2, Nigeria-2, Thailand-1, Pakistan-1, Brazil-2, Bangladesh-2, Afghanistan-1, Philippines-1

By all accounts approximately 22 journalists have died this year alone.  

They are:

Ali Ahmed Abdi, Radio Galkayo, Puntlandi - 3/4/12 in Galkayo, Somalia

Rajesh Mishra, Media Raj - 3/4/12 in Rewa, India

Abukar Hassan Mohamoud, Somaliweyn Radio - 2/28/12 in Mogadishu, Somalia

Anas al-Tarsha, Freelance - 2/24/12 in Homs, Syria

Rémi Ochlik, Freelance - 2/22/12 in Homs, Syria

Marie Colvin, Sunday Times - 2/22/12 in Homs, Syria

Rami al-Sayed, Freelance - 2/21/12 in Homs, Syria

Mario Randolfo Lopes, Vassouras na Net - 2/9/12 in Barra do Piraí, Brazil

Mazhar Tayyara, Freelance - 2/4/12 in Homs, Syria

Hassan Osman Abdi, Shabelle Media Network - 1/28/12 in Mogadishu, Somalia

Enenche Akogwu, Channels TV - 1/20/12 in Kano, Nigeria

Mukarram Khan Aatif, Freelance - 1/17/12 in Shabqadar, Pakistan

Wisut "Ae" Tangwittayaporn, Inside Phuket - 1/12/12 in Phuket, Thailand

Gilles Jacquier, France 2  - 1/11/12 in Homs, Syria

Samid Khan Bahadarzai, Melma Radio - 2/21/12  in Orgun, Afghanistan

Chandrika Rai, Navbharat, The Hitavada - 2/18/12 in Umaria, India

Paulo Roberto Rodrigues, Jornal Da Praça, Mercosul - 2/12/12 in Ponta Porá, Brazil

Meherun Runi, ATN Bangla Television - 2/1112 in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Golam Mustofa Sarowar, Maasranga Television - 2/11/12 in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Nansok Sallah, Highland FM - 1/18/12 in Jos, Nigeria

Christopher Guarin, Radyo Mo Nationwide/Tatak - 1/5/12 in General Santos City, Philippines

Shukri Abu al-Burghul, Al-Thawra/Radio Damascus - 1/3/12 in Damascus, Syria

-- HUMNEWS

Monday
Apr022012

India: Leading the way on polio, energy innovation (PERSPECTIVE) 

(PHOTO: Polio victims in Kishanganj, India/TOPNEWS.IN) By N R Narayana Murthy and Ted Turner

India celebrated an historic milestone earlier this month when the World Health Organisation announced there had been no new cases of wild polio virus for one year.

That leaves only three polio endemic countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

To understand the scope of this achievement, consider that 20% of all births worldwide today are in India. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), one child is born here every 20 seconds, and each has to be vaccinated in order to completely wipe out polio - from the most rural outposts to shanty towns in urban hubs and everywhere in between.

The achievement is a validation of the work of the United Nations, the public and private partners of the Global Polio Eradication initiative, the Indian government, and the people of India, all of whom united to solve what seemed like an insurmountable problem.

The victory over polio is also evidence that fast-growing nations like India can embrace economic development and sustainable development at the same time. India`s transformation on many fronts gives us reason to believe that nations can overcome disease and environmental degradation to become healthier, wealthier, and more environmentally sustainable.

It is estimated that India will soon surpass China as the world`s most populous country. As India grows, it is bringing millions of people out of poverty and into an emerging middle class. How India grows can show the world that harnessing innovative technologies, using sustainable energy sources, and engaging a young generation is a proven path to prosperity.

India is working with the UN to tackle these issues on a global scale. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is championing two new initiatives - Every Woman Every Child and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative - because access to energy and improving women and children`s health are fundamental to achieving all our development goals. India is an example of how a commitment to these two goals leads to results.

A bright future for India begins with increased efforts to promote safe motherhood. According to USAID, today, India accounts for more maternal deaths than any other country in the world; avoidable complications during pregnancy and childbirth kill approximately 67,000 Indian women annually. These unfortunate statistics are a reality in part because many Indian mothers are still in their teens; nearly one-third of all women deliver a child before the age of 20.

The Indian government has committed to promoting maternal health and family planning, pledging to spend $3.5 billion per year on improving health services, especially women`s and children`s health. India`s ministry of health has announced it is strengthening efforts in the 264 districts that account for nearly 70% of all infant and maternal deaths. The government is implementing a Mother and Child Tracking System, which tracks every pregnant woman by name for the provision of timely antenatal care, institutional delivery and postnatal care, and immunizations for newborns.

Innovations in health are being matched with a bold effort to find new sources of energy to meet India`s growing demand. According to the UN, more than 280 million people in India lack access to electricity, and millions more suffer from unreliable and intermittent service. When Indians don`t have access to energy, they cannot improve their health and economic opportunity.

(GRAPH: Solar roof water heater/Watersystemz.com)In Bangalore, rooftops are dotted with solar-powered water heaters - now mandatory on all new structures. Underserved communities are experimenting with clean energy solutions. The UN Foundation, for example, through its Practitioner Network for Energy Access, is working with a range of businesses and civil society organizations in India to catalyze the delivery of micro-grid and stand-alone energy solutions to communities that lack access to electricity.

In India`s rural communities, clean burning cookstoves can provide a safer way for millions of people who live off the electricity grid to cook meals without emitting harmful smoke into their homes. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has extended an invitation to the Indian government, as a leader on this issue, to be a leading national implementing partner in scaling up the market for clean cookstoves and fuels.

India`s leadership on sustainable energy is crucial because developing countries around the world want to replicate India`s success. India is now developing ways to bypass the plight of many developed countries, which rely excessively on a fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure. It also helps India fulfill its obligations to future generations for clean, sustainable energy sources.

India will have the opportunity to showcase its progress to the world in June when delegates from around the world gather in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  As governments and civil society groups gather to talk about the future we all want, there are lessons to be learned from India`s approach to development and innovation.

To be sure, India`s embrace of sustainable development will take decades to realize. The size and scale of its challenges are enormous. But India doesn`t accept these challenges as intractable, and neither should the world. There is impressive evidence that India can achieve both economic development and sustainability at the same time. That`s good news for India and good news for the world.

-- Murthy is an industrialist and Turner is a media entrepreneur and philanthropist. This opinion piece first ran in the Times of India.

 

Friday
Mar302012

BRICS 4th Meeting: `Non-West, Not Anti-West' (REPORT)  

(Video via IBTIMES)

Top emerging economies, coming under the banner of BRICS, on Thursday criticized the West for financial mismanagement, called for a "merit-based" selection of the next World Bank chief, rued the slow pace of reforms in the International Monetary Fund, declared that dialogue was the only way to a peaceful resolution in Syria and Iran, but failed to go beyond motherhood statements and give the bloc a meaningful push.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries took baby steps towards facilitating intra-BRICS trade and investment in local currency, but failed to reach any agreement on a BRICS development bank. They signed an agreement to extend credits in local currencies under the BRICS Interbank Cooperation Mechanism.

However, the suggestion for a BRICS Development Bank was pushed to a later date, since there were major differences among the members.

Spreading themselves beyond economics, the BRICS members articulated an alternative political vision with regard to current international issues.

(PHOTO: BRICS summit handout of leader photo op; l to r, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, India's Manmohan Singh, China's Hu Jintao, South Africa's Jacob Zuma) "The views were more non-West, than anti-West", explained an official. While these were mainly broad-brush positions on current events, their importance lay in the fact that five emerging global leaders actually sat across the table to agree on these points.

In a statement at the end of the plenary session, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "The world is passing through uncertain times. The rapid recovery of the BRICS economies from the financial crisis highlighted their role as growth drivers of the global economy. Our cooperation is intended to explore meaningful partnerships for common development, address global challenges together and contribute to furthering world peace, stability and security."

In its Delhi Declaration, BRICS members opposed violence as a way of resolving political crises in other countries. "Global interests would best be served by dealing with the crisis through peaceful means that encourage broad national dialogues..." On Syria, BRICS supported the Arab League and special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

On Iran, they observed, "We recognize Iran's right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy consistent with its international obligations, and support resolution of the issues involved through political and diplomatic means and dialogue between the parties concerned, including between the IAEA and Iran and in accordance with the provisions of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions."

The BRICS nations put their might behind Afghanistan, saying it needed "time, development assistance and cooperation, preferential access to world markets, foreign investment and a clear end-state strategy."  Israel was rapped on the knuckles for its settlement policy, but BRICS advocated direct negotiations with the Palestinians. The underlying theme was a repudiation of the western developed countries' approach, without actually getting into the details.

In an action plan, BRICS leaders agreed to meet before United Nations General Assembly meeting every September, much like the Non-Aligned Movement and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meetings; regular gatherings of finance ministers, central bank governors, trade ministers, national security advisers, etc.

(PHOTO: BRICS handout of finance ministers shaking hands in cooperation)But underneath the camaraderie and the determination to strike a different path, serious differences exist. On the economic front, it would be a tussle between India and China, while Russia is pushing the political agenda, particularly on Iran and Syria, where BRICS supported the Russian viewpoint. India and Brazil pushed through their joint pitch for reform of the UN Security Council, which China has not been enthusiastic about, although Russia supports it.

While the BRICS joint statement blamed the Eurozone crisis for the state of the global economy, Indian officials saw this as a way of deflecting criticism of China manipulating its own currency, which also leads to a lot of distortions.

The BRICS development bank too has been kicked down the road, because India still has many reservations. The PM, in fact, preferred to focus on improving the World Bank rather than creating a new institution, as China does.

"We must address the important issue of expanding the capital base of the World Bank and other multinational development banks to enable these institutions to perform their appropriate role in financing infrastructure development," the declaration read.

Indian finance officials see the BRICS Bank idea primarily as a way of legitimizing the use of Chinese currency overseas. Second, they feel that any BRICS bank would essentially be a Chinese bank, because none of the other countries have the financial depth to fuel such an institution. India wants the global financial architecture to change, but at a much slower pace. South Africa supports the Bank, but Brazil cannot, because it already funds the Latin American development bank.

On the election of the next chief of the World Bank, the five countries did not even attempt to find a consensus candidate that could have been an alternative to the Korean-American chosen by the US.

The G20 received a unanimous thumbs-up as a forum for global financial governance and agreed to coordinate positions at the body. Russian president Medvedev said, "We confirmed all agreements on our cooperation in updating the international currency and financial system. One of the goals here is to renovate the IMF. We analyzed the situation in the world economics and came to an agreement on a further coordination of actions within our organization, including preparation for the next G20 summit."

South African president Jacob Zuma made a spirited call for including the development concerns of sub-Saharan Africa in the BRICS development plans. "We feel that Africa is being treated with respect. There is no feeling that people are looking down on our continent."

--- This article first appeared in the Times of India

Related:          BRICS nations stepping up innovation to improve healthcare: Study

Related:          BRICS: Not bound by ‘unilateral’ sanctions on Iran

Related:          BRICS countries call for World Bank Presidency voting review

Related:          Protests outside Hu Jintao's hotel

Wednesday
Mar282012

In India, Empower the Health-Care Consumer with Knowledge (PERSPECTIVE) 

(PHOTO: `The Prescription' - Health education must be expanded to create awareness of secondary prevention, the working of the health-care system & the importance of health insurance/K. Gopinathan)By Poongothai Aladi Aruna

To enjoy the fruits of economic reforms holistically, it is mandatory for India to focus on health education.

A couple of years ago, two incidents made me realize that the importance of health education - as an invaluable tool, key to preventive and diagnostic health care - is poorly understood. The first was when a group of women instigated by higher officials in their beedi company made a representation to me that they were against the government's idea of a logo with a skull stating “smoking is injurious to health” on the beedi packets they produce, as that would be detrimental to their livelihood.  The second was during the Assembly session when an elected member requested the then transport minister to go easy on government drivers reprimanded for drunken or rash driving.

These two case scenarios are not straightforward livelihood issues but are rather complex with a negative impact on the health, economic, and social well-being of our country. Health education is very often construed to be within the realms of sanitation, hygiene, maternal and childcare, yet even in these areas the impact of health education is incomplete and patchy. In developed countries, health education is a key component of the healthcare system and the budget.

Empowering the health-care consumer with the knowledge to understand the health-care system and to question health-care providers should be the goal of health literacy programs.

(PHOTO: Open sewage is often the main water supply in Africa/HUMNEWS)Inadequate sanitation, sub-optimal reproductive health and prevalence of life-threatening infectious diseases were all global phenomena a few hundred years ago. Industrialization and affluence alone did not contribute to optimal human development indicators in developed nations but intensive social engineering through vigorous health education programs contributed to these positive changes. India with its inherent diversity, paradoxes and its recently acquired economic prosperity, has to battle with communicable, non-communicable illnesses and psychosocial disorders.

A rise in road traffic accidents, illnesses related to alcohol, tobacco consumption and psychosocial disorders are increasingly affecting the most productive age group of our country. The long-term repercussions of these preventable deaths can become a huge burden to the nation's economy. Hence there is an urgent need not to restrict health education to primary prevention but expand it to create awareness of secondary prevention, the working of the health-care system, the importance of health insurance, etc.

For positive behavioral changes

To combat these public health problems with our limited health resources and to obtain maximum gain it is essential to create an innovative health education policy that would lead to intrinsic positive behavioral changes amid our general populace. Health education leads to empowerment and emancipation of health-care consumers resulting in a standardised quality health-care system.

Postgraduate, graduate and diploma courses on health education with adequate job opportunities should be created for health educators. Research suggests that an improvement in health literacy has a positive effect on the nation's economy.  A World Bank report indicates that the economic impact of inadequate sanitation in India in 2006 was Rs.1.7 trillion, and in 2010, Rs.2.4 trillion.

(PHOTO: Interestingemails.com) The Planning Commission of India states that India accounts for 9.5 per cent of the total 1.2 million deaths from road traffic accidents, incurring an annual loss of Rs.550 billion. If just these public health problems alone can result in a loss of several trillion rupees, the amount of both direct and indirect losses to the exchequer will be an unimaginable sum when the remaining diseases are calculated.

Undoubtedly the economic reforms have uplifted millions from poverty, but one major illness, an unexpected death or severe injury from a road traffic accident will push them back to their below the poverty (starting) line. Cost-benefit analysis, cost-effective analysis and cost utility analysis are useful and powerful tools for decision making.

To enjoy the fruits of economic reforms holistically, it is mandatory for India to focus on health education, as the huge savings will enable us to achieve the millennium development goals that would in turn lead to the creation of an effective social security system on a par or even superior to what is there in the developed nations. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “it is health that is real wealth, and not pieces of gold or silver.”

---This opinion editorial originally appeared in The Hindu. The author is a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in India; and a former Tamil Nadu Minister.

Tuesday
Mar062012

African wax material: All the rage, but where's the money going? (PERSPECTIVE)

Credit: Jennifer Micheals House of Style/NigeriaBy Melinda Ozongwu

*NOTE:  Africa Fashion Week begins today and runs March 7-10, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa. You can find a schedule and watch a live stream of the shows, HERE.     

The material that we call African print or wax is a multi-million dollar business. As African as these textiles are, the Dutch companies that produce and sell the majority of our fine wax and lace materials are benefiting off an African industry and potentially destroying its authenticity. And we, the African customer, are part of the problem.

I was once given six yards of beautiful Dutch wax material. It was a kaleidoscope of colour, rich with texture and print. It’s amazing how a few yards of material can be so powerful. If you’ve ever stepped in a room filled with rolls of Dutch wax, Ankara, Hollandaise or African fabric you know what I’m talking about. Wearing this heavily patterned, bold, rich fabric is a transformative experience. Since then I have worn African wax not in traditional attire but in beautifully constructed, modern pieces that are very much in trend. 

With celebrities like Beyoncé and Kelis wearing clothes by African designers like Lisa Folawiyo (Jewel by Lisa), as well as being introduced to our designers, a growing number of people are being exposed to the beauty and versatility of the African fabric. 

American designer Maya Lakes’ Boxing Kitten line is rich with African print and worn by celebrities like Erykah Badu, Rihanna and Solange Knowles. Her burlesque-inspired designs make good use of the vibrancy of the print and the structure of the material.

Arise magazine editor and author of New African Fashion, Helen Jennings points out that, “Having that calibre of celebrity wear designs by African designers, made from an African fabric, helps that fabric to be taken seriously alongside others such as silk, leather and satin.” 

So business ought to be booming for local manufacturers of African wax material, for local consumption and for the export market. But here’s the thing, Africa is importing wax material and other “African” textiles made solely by non-African manufacturers.

CREDIT: Jennifer Micheals House of Style/NigeriaThe popular “African print” textile manufacturer Vlisco aren’t hiding their origin. Their trademark is ‘Veritable Wax Hollandais’ meaning “Real Dutch Wax”. They aren’t lying about their brand; it isn’t one of those “Made in America” but really Made in Mexico things. It’s Dutch, and it’s manufactured exclusively in Holland. The company’s two other brands Woodin and Uniwax do produce in Africa as well as Holland, but they all fall under the same umbrella. 

The Vlisco company’s website has a meet-the-employees page with some very positive testimonials from staff, ranging from production managers to quality controllers. I’m no PR specialist but I know that a testimonial from an African would be good right about here. With over a dozen designers in the company not a single one is African. "We don't try to make our designs African," says Vlisco’s creative director Henk Bremer, "but there seems to be a click with Dutch design. I think it is because West Africans like innovation and novelty."

I would contest that statement. The first country Vlisco exported to was the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), they imitated their traditional handmade batik designs and saturated the market with them. Were those also Dutch designs? I highly doubt that you could look at any Vlisco print and see Dutch design. Wax material is as African as a tulip is Dutch.  

In 2006, 75% of the wax on the African market carried Vlisco designs (Source: Vlisco; click on 2006 in the timeline). The company disputed the figure, claiming they’d fallen victim to the copycats. (Counterfeiting is a real problem across Africa; copycats will duplicate any good product at half the price or even less.)

Forget the obvious Nike and Gucci imitations from India and China; we are seeing fake wood and metal plastic-coated beads that are made in China being used in locally made jewellery. And though certain African countries like Cameroon are enforcing their copyright laws, seized goods often reappear on the market making it an increasingly difficult problem to tackle.) 

Vlisco’s strategy in combating the copycats was to shorten turnaround times and rebrand. They also extended their product line to include accessories and shoes. Despite their efforts you can still buy replicas at a quarter of the price of the “original”, the only difference being that these are Made in China. By making their brand more visible, showing at fashion shows, increasing their advertising, and opening flagship stores on the continent they continue to flourish and grow despite the copycats. 

(PHOTO: Funky wax/ThisIsAfrica)But while Vlisco enjoys a €100-million annual turnover, what becomes of authentic African prints and fabrics? What becomes of our local textile industry? Vlisco were pushed out of Indonesia by a government that understood the need to protect their local industry. They did so by levying high import duties on textiles. That was in the 1900s. This is standard practice by countries all over the world when one of their industries is developing. But in 2012, our local governments don't appear to be doing much to protect our textile industries. Since individual brands don’t yet have the budgets to advertise like Vlisco, our governments shouldn’t only be protecting the local industry they should be supporting it, not selling off all our raw materials and leaving us with a poor foundation on which to develop high quality goods. 

Our countries are flooded with imports of second-hand clothing from all over the world, and our respective governments let this happen too. But the importation of second-hand clothes  is even more detrimental to our textile industries than anything a company like Vlisco could do. Our manufacturers can never compete with a pair of second-hand jeans that sells for $1. 

When design houses like Burberry and Michael Kors start showcasing African print motifs and African-inspired fabrics, these are stepping stones to the growth in mainstream popularity of our patterns and fabrics. But with things as they are right now, increased exposure to African fabrics equals increased sales only for non-African companies like Vlisco. 

(PHOTO: Used clothing bound for Africa/ThisIsAfrica) I am not a fan of supporting African products for no other reason than that they’re African products. It has to make sense, the products have to be of good quality and the prices have to be within reason. We might not be there with products in certain industries, but we are with textiles; we have beautiful prints of good quality. There is no denying the fantastic job Vlisco is doing for itself. If we can’t change much else, we should at least look at ourselves as consumers. We are paying premium prices for Dutch wax and missing something more authentic that’s right under our noses. And in doing so we continue to discredit our product, dilute its history and wreck the potential future of our craft.

I think it’s high time we took back our tulips. 

-- Reproduced with permission from This is Africa. You can follow Melinda Ozongwu on Twitter @melindaembrace

Friday
Mar022012

UN-Leashing the Power of Women (REPORT) 

(PHOTO: Kate Holt, IRIN) (HN, March 2, 2012) -- This week, the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women opened on Monday at United Nations Headquarters in New York. It's special focus? The development of `Rural Women'. 

For the next two weeks, leaders - men and women alike - are meeting  to focus on women's visibility, contributions, and empowerment, in poverty and hunger eradication, development, climate change adaptation, conflict resolution, gender inequality, technology and energy access, and ending female genital mutilation and sex slavery.

The session, led by Chile's former President and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, is also preparing the agenda for the UN Rio+20 Conference that Brazil will host in June. The Commission was established by ECOSOC resolution 11, June 21, 1946; just a year after the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945. Of the 160 signatories, only 4 were women - Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic), Virginia Gildersleeve (United States), Bertha Lutz (Brazil) and Wu Yi-Fang (China).

(PHOTO: Minerva Bernardino/Archive) The Commission's mandate was expanded in 1987 to include the functions of promoting the objectives of equality, development and peace at the national, sub regional, regional and global levels. Following the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, the General Assembly mandated the Commission to integrate into its program a follow-up process to the Conference, regularly reviewing the critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action and to develop its catalytic role in mainstreaming a gender perspective in United Nations activities.

45 member states of the UN serve as members of the Commission at any one time. The Commission consists of one representative from each country elected by the Council on the basis of equitable geographical distribution: 13 members from Africa; 11 from Asia; 9 from Latin America and Caribbean; 8 from Western Europe and other States and 4 from Eastern Europe. Members are elected for a period of 4 years(SEE BELOW FOR FULL LIST)

In her opening speech to delegates, UN Deputy Secretary General Aisha-Rose Migiro welcomed attendees from around the world which included government officials, rural women, representatives of the UN and civil society; the media and the private sector to review progress, share experiences, good practices, analyze gaps and agree on actions to empower rural women.

(PHOTO: Opening session of the 56th UN Women's Conference/UN News Centre) Migiro, called for `systematic and comprehensive strategies' to empower women and girls in rural areas as `key agents of change' by maximizing their `potential to combat extreme poverty and hunger for themselves'.   "If rural women had equal access to productive resources", she said, "Agricultural yields would rise and hunger would decline".

Further, "They are leaders, producers, entrepreneurs and service providers, and their contributions are vital to the well-being of families, communities and economies, and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals".

World population demographics put the number of women and men in the world as roughly equal (with men just slightly ahead by a few hundred million). The idea is that women are becoming the most effective catalysts of sustainable development, and they must be supported.  

Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), said empowering women, "Requires a transformation in the way governments devise budgets and make and enforce laws, policies and land rights; including trade and agricultural policies, and how businesses invest and operate.  Private sector partnerships are crucial”, she said.

"Let us be clear. This is not just hurting the women.  It is hurting all of us”, said Bachelet.  "It's a matter of human rights, equality and justice on behalf of women.  

According to a UN Women's report released last week, rural women and girls comprise 1 in 4 people worldwide and they constitute a large share of the agricultural workforce.

(PHOTO: UN Multimedia) The gathering squarely noted that not only do women face gender inequality - despite progress; they also face blowback from Mother Nature too. How to bring women online while also creating sustainable solutions is a major focus of the conference.   

Some 86% of the global rural population of both genders derives a livelihood from agriculture,  with an estimated 1.3 billion people engaged in small scale farming or working as `landless laborers'.  Increasingly, almost 70% of agriculture laborers are women, producing the majority of global food grown; while playing key roles in rural economic activities, such as planting crops, saving seeds and selling their produce. Not to mention, performing virtually 100% of household labor.

In South Sudan, women farmers are working with a host of civil society groups like the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Norwegian People's Aid, Catholic Relief Services and Concern Worldwide, organizing themselves to engage in climate-resilient crop production and sustainable pursuits like goat rearing and bee keeping.  The women grow food drought-tolerant crops such as cereals, legumes, sorghum, bulrush or pearl millet and vegetables in order to improve their children’s overall nutrition and bring in a small, market-based income.

In Mexico, rural women have organized themselves to struggle against financial and environmental crises. In many cases, local NGOs have assisted in this process by building formal structures and developing capacities.  39% of Mexican households are rural.

(GRAPH: Poverty in the world, darker is worse/PRB.ORG)But still, generally worldwide, women continue to face lower mobility, less access to training, market information, and financial resources.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, rural women can tap just 5% of the services and facilities  including bank credits, public services, welfare, employment and the market; a mere 3% of the $7.5bn in official allocations for rural advancement and agriculture between 2008-2009 were assigned to gender equity.  Additionally, rural women constitute one-fourth of the world’s population and while women have equal property ownership rights in 115 countries and have equal inheritance rights in 93, gender disparities in land holdings persist worldwide."

The conference platform posits that if rural women had equal access to productive tools such as seeds, tools, and fertilizer; and laws were loosened -  agricultural yields would rise by up to 4% and there would be 100 million to 150 million fewer hungry people worldwide.  

Mobile is Key

Mobile phones are changing lives and strengthening economic enterprises, providing information about credit, markets, weather updates, transportation or health services - changing the way rural women and men obtain services and conduct business. 

In a recent global survey, 93% of women reported feeling safer because of their mobile phone, 85% reported feeling more independent, and 41% reported having increased income and professional opportunities.

(PHOTO: UNH WC Superhero/UNH) Sisters Doing it For Themselves

Women on the ground in the global South aren't waiting. They are already busy deploying a combination of indigenous techniques and adaptive agricultural methods to stave off the impacts of climate change, and in June on the eve of the Rio+20 Summit, UN Women will join the Government of Brazil in convening a high-level meeting on women and sustainable development.

It All Starts With Education

"Women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people," the UN said and, "Just 39% of rural girls attend secondary school". Far fewer than rural boys (45%), urban girls (59%) and urban boys (60%).  A lack of a high school education can mean poverty and even earlier death, and even a lack of local schools is a reason fewer girls attend high school. 

"Data from 68 countries indicates that a woman’s education is a key factor in determining a child’s survival," according to UN statistics. "Every additional year of primary school increases girls’ eventual wages by 10–20 percent. It also encourages them to marry later and have fewer children, and leaves them less vulnerable to violence."

(GRAPH: Girls, Women global education levels/PRB.ORG) If Women Ruled The World There Would Be No War

In a study of 24 major peace processes since 1992, UN Women  found that women composed only 2.5% of peace signatories, 3.2% of mediators, 5.5% of witnesses and 7.6% of negotiators.  

War is always most devastating to women and children who are often the victims of rape, abuse, and sexual slavery during and after conflict.   But when women's interests are not represented at the negotiation tables, in the post-resolution restructuring process, or in the governance bodies established after the war, the interests of children and families are almost always omitted from discussions.  The UN recognized this 12 years ago when it voted to "ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels; urging governments to `adopt a `gender perspective'".

For instance, in Egypt, rural women are receiving identity cards so they can obtain social services, and are able to vote and can have a say in shaping the future of their country.  In India, more than a million women are now members of local village councils.  This has changed their lives for the better, and also the lives around them.

(PHOTO: Martine Perret)From Costa Rica to Rwanda, where quotas have been used, more women are in positions of decision-making. They are using their voices to secure land rights, to understand political processes, to engage with governance and policy issues, to tackle domestic violence, to improve healthcare and employment, and to demand accountability.  

But in other parts of the world, a recent study which covered 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific showed that the proportion of elected representatives in rural councils who are women ranged only from 0.6 percent to 37%.

In her speech UN Women's Bachelet pointed the finger at her own organization, the UN too, saying, "Here in the United Nations, we must lead by example. From 2007 through 2010, the UN experienced an unprecedented increase in women at the most senior levels - from 17% to 29% at the Under-Secretary-General level, and from 20% to 25% at the Secretariat at the Assistant Secretary General level".

Last December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Member States to take concrete steps to increase the political participation and leadership of women, including the follow through on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Labor Organization conventions,  the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the report on the Social Protection Floor, that UN Women launched last year.

(PHOTO: FAO) Still, despite all the progress of the global women's empowerment movement, many conference speakers have lamented the need to `reality-check' the situation by reminding delegates that currently in the world: "925 million people were chronically hungry, of whom 60 percent were women.  Moreover, 884 million people in the world lack access to potable drinking water; 2.6 billion people do not have access to sufficient sanitation facilities; and 1 billion people do not have adequate access to roads and transportation systems."

What future will we leave our children?

The African Women’s Decade (2010-2020) is a bold political initiative that aims to put women at the centre of development on the continent. Launched in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2010, with roots traceable to the UN First World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975. However, the disheartening reality is that very few women in Africa actually know about the Women’s Decade and the policies set out to be implemented during this decade.   

What's clear from this 56th Conference on Women is that women worldwide want change, they want to have their voice be heard, and they are impatient for equality and solutions to their own problems.  Out of sheer survival, many women are taking circumstance into their own hands and making progress despite the world.

Because these life situations, cannot stand:  In Afghanistan - 87% of women are illiterate; in  Pakistan 90% of women face domestic violence and more than 1,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year according to the Human Rights Commission.  In the DRC  420,000 women are raped every year; while in India, 100 million people, mostly woman and girls are victims of traffickers.

Before they go though from UN Headquarters next week, the commission will agree on urgent actions needed to make a real difference in the lives of millions of rural women by making recommendations for other policy forums, such as the Rio+20 and, they will celebrate International Women's Day on March 8th.  A celebration indeed.  

Full List of Current UN Women's Commission Members:

Argentina, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Central African Republic, China, Colombia, Comoros, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Guinea, Haiti, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mongolia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Philippines, South Korea, Russia, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Thailand, US, Uruguay, Zimbabwe.

---- HUMNEWS (c) 2012

Tuesday
Feb072012

Sweeter Kisses? Hershey Commits to Fair Trade, Responsible Cocoa, Uses Innovative Technology 

(HN, 2/7/2012) -- Last week The Hershey Company announced it was expanding its programs to improve living standards and supply chain efficiencies for cocoa producing communities in West Africa by investing $10 million over the next five years.  By 2017, the Company says its public and private partnerships will directly benefit 750,000 African cocoa farmers and over two million people in cocoa communities across the region by focusing on two important groups – cocoa farmers and those they say who `love Hershey’s products’.

HUMNEWS spoke with Andy McCormick, VP of Public Affairs for The Hershey Company about the investment and what it would mean to Hershey’s farmers.  McCormick, who grew up in Pennsylvania and now leads Communications, PR and Corporate Social Responsibility efforts for the Company has also worked in Ghana as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and knows West Africa well.  He calls his tenure at Hershey’s a `happy coincidence’.   McCormick also serves on the boards of the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Initiative – both global bodies designed to regulate and offer solutions in cocoa production.

Hershey’s announcement comes 10 years since major international chocolate companies, including Hershey, committed to ending child labor, forced labor and trafficking in their cocoa supply chain by signing the Harkin-Engel Protocol, commonly known as the Cocoa Protocol in September 2001.  A decade later, although both Hershey and its public and private partners have invested in developing new agricultural practices that are helping West African farmers double the yield on their cocoa farms, which in turn increases their family’s income - hundreds of thousands of children continue to labor in hazardous conditions in West Africa, particularly in the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

The US Department of Labor has also noted five West African nations which may still be producing cocoa tainted by forced and/or child labor. To address the problem they’ve created a partnership which includes Hershey as well as other partners include USAID, USDA, Cote d’Ivoire Cocoa Committee, numerous local and global NGOs, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called the Framework of Action to significantly reduce the worst forms of child labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast by 2020.  

(PHOTO: A female cocoa farmer/SOURCETRUST)By making its pledge last week, Hershey is following on other initiatives in recent years that it and other major cocoa producers have committed to in order to clean up the cocoa industry.  UNICEF estimates 600,000 children work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and that 35,000 are victims of trafficking;  children carrying machetes or pesticide equipment used in cocoa work has been widely reported on.

McCormick acknowledges that, We are a growing global business and we have had criticism in the past. But, we try to listen constructively and are working to strike a balance between our business strategy and our values, and we keep learning.”  He goes on to say, “At Hershey we’ve already been working to address child labor issues in West Africa, and we all recognize that more needs to be done.”  

The Company has formed partnerships with the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, and Fair Trade Certified and commits to production of `certified cocoa’, which Eric Servat of the Rainforest Alliance’s cocoa program says, “Is almost doubling every year”.   

“Certified cocoa is currently under 2% of the market,” says Andy McCormick, “But it’s growing by a large margin and we believe that by 2020 that will increase to about 15-20% of market share”. 

All of the certification partners require farmers to comply with International Labor Organization standards, which includes a ban on child labor.

In fact, chocolate is big business and accounts for an annual $83 billion in global sales.  Certified cocoa is actually worth more and growers can make $0.10 more per kilogram for certified cocoa, but it’s just a start for poor farmers who often don’t have enough money to even send their children to school.

(PHOTO: A cocoa farmer in Ghana using Cocoalink/Hershey) Hershey, a 100 year old company and one of the world’s leading chocolate companies, has worked with farmers and development organizations for more than 50 years and Andy McCormick says, “Because cocoa farms are family farms where on average 5 family members work and live, improving farming methods to be more modern, sustainable and safe will increase West African cocoa output by 50%; increasing family income.  In turn, doing so will increase school attendance and improve community health”.

Addressing the needs of cocoa farmers and the chocolate producing supply chain is becoming not just a humanitarian issue but also is necessary action due to the impact of climate change on growers.  Global cocoa production is primarily done by the 10 member countries of COPAL (The Cocoa Producers Alliance) - namely Brazil, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Gabon, Ghana, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe and Togo who account for approximately 75% of total world cocoa production; almost 70% in West Africa alone grown on 2 million small family farms.  The crop is labor-intensive and only grows in equatorial climates.

Hershey’s Andy McCormick says that, “Climate change has been causing desertification in parts of West Africa where cocoa is grown, and as the desert squeezes out fertile lands – in Ghana in particular – that’s starting to have an impact on harvests. We are talking with the farmers about this and about varieties of cocoa which grow more efficiently by instituting new programs”.  He adds, “Weekly rainfall moves the cocoa market right now”.  

Cocoa prices have risen since the start of the year by almost 15% with some of the highest prices seen since 1977, as the annual weather phenomenon called the `Harmattan’ - which brings a dry, dusty and cold trade wind in West Africa from the Sahara desert to the Gulf of Guinea from the end of November to the middle of March - has been most severe this year.  Though, meteorological forecasts show that the Harmattan will dissipate shortly and the rainy season will begin.

(PHOTO: Cocoa farmers in Ghana/Hershey)One such innovative program aimed at addressing farmer’s growth needs is CocoaLink. Started in 2011 in Ghana by Hershey, the World Cocoa Foundation, the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG), Dream Oval and World Education, CocoaLink leverages Ghana's mobile phone infrastructure (almost 80% saturation) to connect more than 8,000 cocoa farmers and community members in 15 villages with practical agricultural and social information that will help them increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods. The program has the potential to reach more than 100,000 by 2014.

Farmers and community leaders receive, at no charge, voice and SMS text messages that include information on improving farming practices, farm safety, child labor, health, crop disease prevention, post-harvest production and crop marketing.  Farmers can also share their own information and receive answers to specific cocoa-farming questions from peers and experts.

In October of last year Hershey said it would enhance CocoaLink to include information about disease prevention and would provide cell phones and solar chargers for women farmers in rural villages by partnering with the nonprofit organization Malaria No More to leverage CocoaLink to help save lives and decrease malaria deaths in Africa by 2015.   The Company instituted an internal smart phone recycling program, collecting more than 500 smart phones no longer being used by Hershey’s U.S. employees and redeployed them to women across Ghanaian cocoa communities.  Ghana accounts for about 20% of world cocoa production, making it the country’s single largest non-oil foreign exchange earner beside oil.

Last week in making its announcement Hershey said it would expand the CocoaLink program to farmers in the Ivory Coast to further grow crop yields, provide education and support to farmers, their families and communities.  The Ivory Coast is the source of more than 1/3 of the world's cocoa supply and has approximately 600,000 cocoa farmers; industry data indicates that about half are already using mobile phones.  Cocoa makes up 15% of Ivory Coast’s GDP and 40% of its export revenues. Hershey’s initiative adds to the eight-month-old government's plan to overhaul the cocoa industry in the country and is a condition for debt relief from the International Monetary Fund.

In its latest output report on the sector, Marex Spectron a London based analyst group said that world 2011-2012 cocoa output will be short 94,000 tons, which is a change from its November estimate of a small global surplus.  Not all of this impact is due to climate change however, though Marex noted weather conditions in December and January in Ivory Coast and Ghana were dry compared to a much wetter 2010-2011 season which saw a record cocoa surplus of 417,000 tons.  Much higher cocoa demand globally is also driving production needs – and inevitably will increase costs for chocolate products.  Hershey has said its own costs should remain higher in 2012 and recently raised prices on its candies.

(PHOTO: Learning about cocoa farming/Hershey) The International Cocoa Organization estimates that Asian demand for chocolate would grow 10% in 2012, with strong growth in China, Indonesia and India; with Europe remaining the world’s largest cocoa buyer.

This is why in making its announcement last week, Hershey also established the `Hershey Learn to Grow’ farm program along with its partner Source Trust. Launching in Ghana the initiative will provide local farmers with information on best practices in sustainable cocoa farming as growth in demand intensifies, and consumers call for more responsible growing standards.  For example by supplying farmers with technologies such as high-yield seedlings, better planting and pruning practices, organic fertilization and biocontrol of insect pests, farmers can increase output and therefore, income – even while climate change takes hold.  

Additionally, the effort will create a farmer and family development center in the heart of Ghana’s central cocoa region where during the day the schoolchildren will use the computer lab for learning and in the evening the farmers will use the lab for cocoa learning. Hershey is also working with technology partner Cisco to use `telepresence’ for distance education purposes.

The initiative will involve more than 5,000 cocoa community members, more than 1,000 farm families, establish 25 community-based farmer organizations and will build technology centers that will be used to teach improved agricultural, environmental, social and business practices; provide access to planting materials as well as finance for farm inputs; and support GPS mapping of farm acreage so that farmers will use the right amount of fertilizers and pesticides for maximum yield and sustainability - with the goal to double productivity yield and farm income over four years.

(PHOTO: Cocoa farming/Hershey) By doing this Hershey hopes to assist the Government of Ghana to meet the goals of Ghana’s 2009-2015 National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor (WFCL), associated with achieving the international Millennium Development Goals by 2015. 

“Creating sustainability throughout our supply chain is our goal,” says Andy McCormick. “Milton Hershey was a master of building business and we know that you’re only as successful as the communities you’re in.  Our future is intimately connected to the growing regions and people we work with. Our scientists and farmers are excited to be working on the ground together to make things better.”

Further says McCormick, “The issue of rural youth and their job prospects-we think our interaction with farmers, school systems and young people to `skill build’ can really make a long term positive contribution to kids’ lives and we’re very excited about playing a constructive role”.

Consumers win too as Hershey will address their demands to bring to market for the first time, 100% Rainforest Alliance certified chocolate products later this year.  The first sweet treats will be the Hershey’s Bliss® chocolate bar available in the United States; and later Latin America and Africa where the Company is working with the Rainforest Alliance to source cocoa from certified farms for Hershey’s premium brand, Dagoba®.

Rainforest Alliance Certified farms have met comprehensive sustainability standards that protect the environment and ensure the safety and well-being of workers, their families and communities. Additionally, Rainforest Alliance inspectors will monitor and audit practices on farms supplying certified beans to Hershey, to include instances of unsafe or illegal child labor and use training programs to increase school attendance. These programs will be coordinated with industry and government initiatives.

Hershey made their investment announcement just days before a planned protest group which included the The International Labor Rights Forum and was started last year by Change.org called the `Raise the Bar, Hershey! Campaign’ which was to run a high profile commercial challenging Hershey’s labor practices during the US Super Bowl Game after collecting over 100,000 petition signatures.

In a statement, the group said, `This commitment is a welcome first step for Hershey to improve its supply chain accountability. This commitment also demonstrates that The Hershey Company acknowledges the severity of the labor abuses that taint the West African cocoa sector and the members of the Raise the Bar, Hershey! Campaign congratulate Hershey on this first step to achieve greater supply chain accountability and hope that it will be the beginning of comprehensive supply chain traceability and certified child-labor free Hershey chocolate products.’

In making the commitment to better global cocoa standards Hershey Company President and CEO, J.P. Bilbrey, said, “Hershey is extending our commitment with new programs to drive long-term change in cocoa villages where families will benefit from our investments in education, health and economic opportunities. Our global consumers want The Hershey Company to be a leader in responsible business practices and in finding smart ways to benefit cocoa communities. We are excited and humbled by this opportunity to create positive change in West Africa”.

Hershey says it will regularly update its progress on these programs through its Corporate Social Responsibility public reporting.   

Will all of this mean sweeter `Kisses’? Stay tuned…..

----Joy DiBenedetto, HUMNEWS

Monday
Jan302012

`Resilient People, Resilient Planet': New UN Report says World is running out of time, resources. 

(PHOTO: Global Greenhouse Warming.com)(HN/January 30, 2012) - A high level Global Sustainability panel organized by the UN released its report on resilient sustainability for both people and the planet today in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The report release by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon comes on the sidelines of the 18th ordinary African Union Summit which opened here this weekend.

The report says a “Future Worth Choosing” must be based on true costs to people and the environment and that the world is running out of time to create real solutions to ensure there is enough food, water and energy to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population expected to reach 9 billion by 2040 from 7 billion now, and the number of middle-class consumers which will increase by 3 billion over the next 20 years.  As a result, demand for resources will rise exponentially.

Even by 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food, 45 % more energy and 30 % more water, according to U.N. estimates, at a time when a changing environment is creating new limits to supply. The report warns that if the world fails to tackle these problems, it risks sending up to 3 billion people into poverty.

"The current global development model is unsustainable. To achieve sustainability, a transformation of the global economy is required," the report said.

There are 20 million more undernourished people now than in 2000; 5.2 million hectares of forest are lost per year - an area the size of Costa Rica; 85 percent of all fish stocks are over-exploited or depleted; and carbon dioxide emissions have risen 38 percent between 1990 and 2009, which heightens the risk of sea level rise and more extreme weather.

Among the panel's goals for governments is to agree on a set of sustainable development goals which would complement the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) by 2015 and create a framework for action.

(PHOTO: File) The 22 member panel, established by the Secretary-General in August 2010 to formulate a new blueprint for sustainable development and low-carbon prosperity, was co-chaired by Finnish President Tarja Halonen and South African President Jacob Zuma.  The final report contains 56 recommendations to put sustainable development into practice and to mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible.  “Resilient People, Resilient Planet” calls for the integration of social and environmental costs in how the world prices and measures economic activities. It also calls for a set of sustainable development indicators that go beyond the traditional approach of Gross Domestic Product and recommends that Governments develop and apply a set of Sustainable Development Goals that can mobilize global action and help monitor progress.

The Secretary-General, in receiving the Panel’s report, stated that sustainable development is a top priority for his second term of office. “We need to chart a new, more sustainable course for the future, one that strengthens equality and economic growth while protecting our planet,” said the Secretary-General.  The report of provides a timely contribution to preparations for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil in June 2012.

Addressing the Secretary-General via video, co-chair President Halonen stressed the importance of placing people at the center of achieving sustainable development. “Eradication of poverty and improving equity must remain priorities for the world community,” noted President Halonen. “The Panel has concluded that empowering women and ensuring a greater role for them in the economy is critical for sustainable development.”

(GRAPH: EOLSS.COM)Among the panel’s other recommendations they said that governments should work with partners to create an "evergreen revolution," which would at least double productivity while reducing resource use and avoiding further biodiversity losses, the report said.  Water and marine ecosystems should be managed more efficiently and there should be universal access to affordable sustainable energy by 2030.  Carbon and natural resource pricing should be established through taxation, regulation or emissions trading schemes by 2020 and fossil fuel subsidies should also be phased out by that time. National fiscal and credit systems should be reformed to provide long-term incentives for sustainable practices as well as disincentives for unsustainable ones. Sovereign wealth and public pension funds, as well as development banks and export credit agencies should apply sustainable development criteria to their investment decisions, and governments or stock market watchdogs should revise regulations to encourage their use.  Science should be behind environmental progress and the UN should consider naming a chief scientific adviser or board to advise the organization, and calls on the Secretary-General to lead efforts to produce a regular Global Sustainable Development Outlook report that integrates knowledge across sectors and institutions

The 22 members of the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability included current and former heads of states, ministers, and representatives of the private sector and civil society.  In addition to the Co-chairs, the Panel included Sheikh Abdallah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates; Hajiya Amina Az-Zubai, Former Senior Special Assistant and Adviser to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals; Ali Babacan, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey; James Laurence Balsillie, former Co-Chief Executive Officer of Research in Motion; Alexander Bedritsky, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, Special Envoy for Climate; Gro Harlem Brundtland, Former Prime Minister of Norway; Micheline Calmy-Rey, Former President and former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Switzerland; Julia Carabias Lillo, Former Secretary of the Environment of Mexico; Gunilla Carlsson, Minister for International Development Cooperation of Sweden; Luisa Dias Diogo, Member of Parliament and former Prime Minister of Mozambique; Han Seung-soo, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Green Growth Institute and former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea; Yukio Hatoyama, former Prime Minister of Japan; Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action; Cristina Narbona Ruiz, former Minister of the Environment of Spain, Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Rural Development of India, Susan E. Rice, United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Kevin Rudd, Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Prime Minister of Australia; Freundel Stuart, Prime Minister of Barbados; Izabella Mônica Vieira Teixeira, Minister of the Environment of Brazil, and Zheng Guoguang; Administrator of the China Meteorological Administration. Mr. Janos Pasztor was an ex-officio member as Executive Secretary of the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability.

The full report is available at www.un.org/gsp.

---HUMNEWS

Friday
Jan202012

Caribbean-Charisma: UK/CARICOM Forum Open's Today, Other Nations Pursue Regional Opportunities 

St. George, Grenada - Photo courtesy of portang/via flickr(HN, January 20, 2012) -- The seventh biennial UK-Caribbean Forum begins today in St. George, Grenada under the theme of “Sustainable Growth Towards Prosperity”.

The forum is held for the purpose of what has been described as “establishing priority areas for cooperation, discussing key area of concern and proposing mechanisms to facilitate greater collaboration” between Britain and CARICOM nations, this year’s agenda has been organized around three main sub themes: Economic Resilience, Security and the Environment.  

Held at the level of Foreign Ministers, the Meeting is co-chaired by the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague and the Chair of the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Dr. the Hon. Timothy Harris, Foreign Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis.

British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has highlighted the major role of private sector investment in these difficult economic times saying, “the private sector is the engine of growth for our economies”

The UK is a major investor in the Caribbean – BG has recently made a large investment in Trinidad and Tabago, and Pinewood Studios are building a state of the art film studio in the Dominican Republic with local partners Grupo Vinci.

“There are however more business opportunities available, which is why I am being accompanied by Nick Baird, Chief Executive of UK Trade and Investment, and will lead a discussion with a rage of UK and Caribbean businesses at the Forum, “ said Hague.

The British foreign official hailed a ‘new era’ for UK-Caribbean relations, as for the first time in its seven iterations of the Forum, the Dominican Republic, one of the fastest-growing countries in the area, Haiti and Suriname will also take part, and observers will include British Caribbean Overseas Territories, including Bermuda, Canada, Australia and the USA.

He went on to say, “When I became Foreign Secretary I was determined to reinvigorate the UK’s relationships with its partners across the Caribbean. This year’s Forum has afforded me my first opportunity to demonstrate this commitment in concrete terms, by hearing firsthand the value of our relationships and how we can improve them.

Hague noted that around one and a half million British tourists visited the Caribbean in 2010, and tourism is a key plank of the economy, but, the Forum was set up in part to emphasise other vital links

CARICOM members, keen to discuss Hague’s expressed interest in forging a new relationship that reflects “changes in the global environment” of the 21st century, are also looking to discuss some sensitive issues of concern in the Caribbean region - ranging from problems being encountered on the arrival in the UK by CARICOM nationals on legitimate businesses to:

- The recent threat by the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron to review allocation of aid to countries the he thinks “openly discriminate” against gays and lesbians; and

- The level of aid flows for depressed and vulnerable economies and the related prevailing dispute over British-imposed Air Passenger Duty (APD) levy on passengers traveling to the Caribbean from airports in the UK, that has pushed some stakeholders of the region’s vital tourism industry, to consider legal action unless there is a practical solution.

The forum, is also expected to find the CARICOM-member states in a more determined mood to collectively pursue a relevant “aid for trade” strategy with the UK which remains a major development donor in the region.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been playing a key role in facilitating such a strategy which was the topic of a teleconference that was organized last October by the Trade Policy Unit of the Castries-based Secretariat of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

The new Secretary General of the CARICOM Secretariat, Irwin LaRocque, will most likely be in a better position to advance discussion on the need for timely delivery of "aid for trade" resources by the region's traditional external partners (including the UK), a matter that was addressed last July at the Third Global Review of Aid for Trade in Geneva.

Speaking then in his capacity as Assistant Secretary General for Trade and Economic Integration, LaRocque had emphasized the importance of this region's international development partners being sensitized to the imperatives of "timely delivery" of aid resources to comparatively small and vulnerable regional economies.

Hague has given assurance that he is not about to "throw away all of the strong bonds that tie the UK and the Caribbean region together…"

Such an assurance at this time, when the global economic crisis and more specifically the deepening "Eurozone financial woes" combine to further negatively impact on the economies of the Caribbean, the British Foreign Secretary is undoubtedly also conscious of the growing importance being attached by the two Asian economic giants: China and India, in doing business with the Caribbean region.

The Chinese spread of trade and economic relations from Jamaica in the northern sub-region to Guyana on the South American mainland would hardly have escaped the attention of either the UK or its closest ally, the USA, where successive administrations in Washington, so often still treat relations with the Caribbean as operating in a so-called "American lake".

While the vigorous initiatives by China to deepen trade and economic ties with the Caribbean on favorable terms, cannot be divorced from longer-term political objectives as an emerging world power under constant scrutiny by the USA, UK and their NATO allies; it is also becoming evident that India is likewise increasingly competing for business and friendship in the Caribbean-Latin American sphere.

- HUMNEWS Staff