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Thursday:  July 24, 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 United Nations (8)

Saturday
Mar102012

The Continuing Saga of UN Impunity (BLOG/REPORT)  

By Kristen Saloomey

Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey meets a family of children who lost their father – and his income – to cholera [ Ben Moran]

The United Nations is no stranger to scandal.

There are the wayward peacekeeping troops who take advantage of the vulnerable people they are supposed to be protecting and commit rape and sexual abuse. Think: Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of  Congo.

Then there’s corruption, as happened in the Oil-for-Food Programme. While that programme was enacted in 1995 to stop Iraqi children from starving under international sanctions, it is better known for lining the pockets of UN officials.

And, finally, there are times when the UN, plain and simply, messes up. Like when the UN’s gross negligence apparently caused a cholera epidemic to sweep through Haiti starting in 2010. 

That is the allegation of two legal organisations who have filed a complaint seeking damages on the part of more than 5,000 Haitians who suffered sickness or losses.

Nepalese peacekeepers

The lawsuit reflects what many Haitians believe and what several scientific studies support - that  Nepalese peacekeepers who were not effectively screened for the disease imported it to the country and allowed it to spread through their improper disposal of sewage.

The recurring issue in all of these scandals is the inability to hold the UN accountable for its crimes and misdeeds. As the only organisation with the power to set international law, the UN is also, in fact, above the very laws it claims to represent.

It’s not supposed to be that way. True, the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, signed in 1946, grants immunity from prosecution for UN employees in their host country. But it also highlights the importance of accountability for the UN, as a bulwark for human rights and the rule of law.

In criminal cases, it falls to the country of the accused UN employee to pursue charges.

Review and reimbursement

When it comes to civil claims, the UN tends to handle them at the local level. A UN helicopter blew the roof off of your grass hut? A UN truck ran over your cow? There’s a procedure for reviewing your claim and reimbursing you.

But some complaints are so large, and so expensive, they get sent back to the legal department at UN headquarters in New York. And the bigger the complaint, the more likely it is to disappear in the ether above the thirty-eighth floor of the Secretariat Building.

Here’s another example. Since 2005, 143 displaced Roma have been going after the UN Mission in Kosovo for failing to relocate them from UN-administered land that was known to contain poisonous lead.

The case has been tossed out of two European courts, even though in 2009 the Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Commission determined the admissibility of  the complainants’ legal petition, which also charges gross negligence.

In Haiti, cholera victims have called on the UN to establish a “standing claims commission” to hear their case.

Such a commission is required under the Status of Forces Agreement the UN signs with every country where it sends peacekeepers.

And yet the UN cannot point to a single time in its 60 year history that such a commission has been formed.

The UN has been “studying” the Haitian complaint for nearly five months.

Government's stand

One problem, according to legal experts, is that the Haitian government refuses to back the claim of its citizens.

"We are not focused on blaming people here. We are focused on solving the situation," President Michel Martelly said when asked about the complaint recently.

Haiti's government depends largely on the UN for donations and the provision of many basic civil services. Given its dependence, Martelly’s reluctance to press the UN is perhaps not surprising. Nor is the fact that Haiti has been home to so many UN scandals.

That is also precisely why advocates say it is so important to give victims their day in court. They are asking the UN not only to pay damages to victims, but also apologise and help fix the country’s woefully inept water sanitation system.

"They promote human rights," explained Mario Joseph, a Haitian lawyer representing the victims, "[yet] they deny the rights of the Haitian people."

Benedict Moran contributed to this blog

- Originally published on AlJazeera under Creative Commons License 

Tuesday
Feb142012

UNEP Report Says World Soil Management is Key to Food, Water, Climate Future

(PHOTO: Soil, side by side/Treehugger) (HN, 2/14/2012) - According to the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Year Book 2012 released Monday on the eve of the 12th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, 24% of the global land area has already suffered declines in health and productivity over the past quarter century as a result of unsustainable industrial land-use and dramatic improvements in the way the world manages its precious soils will be key to food, water and climate security in the 21st century.

WHY? Soils contain huge quantities of carbon in the form of organic matter that in turn binds the nutrients needed for plant growth and allows rainfall to penetrate into underground aquifers.

Since the 19th century, an estimated 60% of the carbon stored in soils and vegetation has been lost as a result of land use changes, such as, clearing land for agriculture and cities and by some estimates, the top one metre of the world's soils store around 2,200 Gigatonnes (or, a billion tonnes) of carbon; three times the current level held in the atmosphere.

The report states some kinds of agriculture processes have triggered soil erosion rates at 100 times greater than the rates at which nature can form soil and by 2030, without changes in the way land is managed, over 20% of habitats such as forests, peatlands and grasslands in developing countries alone could be converted to cropland which also aggravate losses of vital ecosystem services and biodiversity.

There could also be profound implications for climate change as amounts of this carbon could be released to the atmosphere, aggravating global warming linked to the burning of fossil fuels and points to the world's peatlands as an area of special concern. WHY?  The draining of super carbon-rich peatlands is currently producing more than 2 Gigatonnes of CO2 emissions annually; equal to around 6% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and is happening at a rate 20 times greater than the rate at which the peat, and thus the carbon, is accumulated.

The Year Book, launched 4 months in advance of the Rio+20 Summit, highlights another issue of emerging global concern - the challenges of decommissioning the growing numbers of end-of-life nuclear power reactors.

There are plans to close up to 80 civilian nuclear power reactors in the next 10 years, as the first generations of reactors reach the end of their `design lives’. So far in world history, 138 civilian nuclear power reactors have been shut down in 19 countries, including 28 in the United States, 27 in the United Kingdom, 27 in Germany, 12 in France, 9 in Japan and 5 in the Russian Federation.

Decommissioning has only been completed for 17 of them, so far but events such as the tragedy of the tsunami that struck Fukushima and its nearby nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011 has caused heightened concern.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of developing countries have built or are considering building nuclear power plants, including the United States which just announced at least 2 new reactors to be built on February 4.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director said: "The Year Book spotlights the challenges, but also the choices, nations need to consider to deliver a sustainable 21st century and urgently improve management of world's soils and the decommissioning of nuclear power reactors".

"Superficially they may seem separate and unconnected issues, but both go to the heart of several fundamental questions: how the world will feed and fuel itself while combating climate change and handling hazardous wastes," he added.  "The thin skin of soil on the Earth's surface is often one of those forgotten ecosystems but it is among the most important to the future survival of humanity. Improved, sustainable management such as no-till policies can assist in productive agriculture without draining peatlands," said Mr. Steiner.

Across the globe, there are examples of how multiple benefits can be delivered through effective management of soil carbon. In Kenya, the World Bank's BioCarbon Fund is providing the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project with US $350,000 to pay smallholder farmers to improve their agricultural practices, to increase both food security and soil carbon sequestration.

From Dakar to Djibouti, the `Great Green Wall’ initiative is a massive forestation project creating a 15 km wide strip of trees and other vegetation along a 7000 km transect to improve carbon sequestration, stabilize soils and conserve soil moisture amongst others.

In China, similar approaches are being monitored to assess whether land degradation in arid areas can be reversed.  In Brazil, changes in crop production and rotation practices have been found to have significant effects on soil carbon stocks and conversion to no-till techniques in soybean, maize and related crop systems resulted in a decrease of soil carbon degradation. And in Argentina, significant increases in soil carbon stocks have also been achieved, where farmers changed to no-till systems, along with enhanced benefits in water retention, infiltration and erosion prevention.  The UNEP Year Book 2012 is available at: http://www.unep.org

--- HUMNEWS

Saturday
Jan282012

Syria: A Call to Arms 

By Zeina Khodr in the Middle East 

Their calls were not heard - or more accurately a divided international community could not agree on a tough UN resolution that would lead to such action.

This Friday the slogan was: "We have the right to defend ourselves". It was a clear message to the world that they are ready to fight this battle, "with or without your help",  activists told me. 

Omar, who is originally from Homs but who is living in exile in Istanbul told me: "This is our right ... It is our right to take up arms and we are not going to shy away from this any longer. We are being killed. We waited for any action from the Arab League and the United Nations and none was forthcoming. All they have been doing is stalling and that has given the regime time to crush the revolution." 

Omar explained that military councils are now being set up in governorates across Syria. It is part of efforts to organise a command structure. Councils that will be made up of civilians as well as army defectors. "Yes, civilians who want to hold weapons are joining our struggle," he said.

And, it seems they now have the full backing of the main political opposition, the Syrian National Council. "The SNC is now mapping who the groups are on the ground in Syria and Turkey," council spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said, adding that the SNC is ready to give money and equipment to the fighters in Syria

It is a change in policy especially since it was only this month when the SNC decided to cooperate more closely with the Free Syrian Army command to reorganise loosely-structured units fighting under its umbrella.

I asked Omar how they intend to wage war against a stronger and more sophisticated army. His answer was blunt: "Even if it requires us to smuggle weapons into the country we will do this. We are being killed. Whatever action we take to defend ourselves is justifiable."

As a divided world debates on what to do next in Syria, many in the opposition seem to have already made their decision - a decision not supported by all groups who fear that taking up arms would only give the state an excuse to hit harder.

Haytham Manna, a leading opposition figure, is wary of militarising the conflict. He advised the Arab League to hold talks with Russia before turning to the United Nations for intervention. "Russia would stand by Assad even more staunchly if it feels sidelined," he said.

There are fears miltiarising the conflict would lead to Syria sliding towards civil war. 

"The threshold has not yet been passed to speak of an armed conflict," Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operations for the Near and Middle East, said. 

The ICRC's legal criteria for civil war include an opposition that clearly controls territory and has a military structure with a clear chain of command. 

There may be many definitions for "civil war". But the actions on the ground show Syria is close to all-out war.

Originally published by AlJazeera under Creative Commons License  

Monday
Oct032011

Africa's Famine: Seeing is Believing (REPORT) 

By Peter Greste in Africa

Dadaab Refugee Camp, KENYA - As with most natural disasters, numbers swirl around the drought on the Horn of Africa like so many dust particles. 

They float up from the tyres of aid agency Land Cruisers in great billowing clouds; they blow in from donor conferences like a sandstorm sweeping in from the east; they get in your eyes, and cloud the air making it almost impossible to see through the statistics and understand what is really going on.

Consider a few of the big ones: in Somalia alone, four million people are still starving nationwide; three million of those live in the South. Of these, 750,000 people risk death in the next four months if they do not get aid immediately. 

According to the United Nations agency responsible for monitoring food supplies in Somalia, almost half a million children are suffering from "severe acute malnutrition". About 75 per cent of those are also in the south. 

More than 900,000 Somalis are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries - 90 per cent of them in Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya - already the biggest in the world - has 450,000 of them, and will almost certainly reach half a million by the end of the year. In Ethiopia, the camp in Dolo Ado has taken in 83,000 refugees in the last nine months. 

UN-estimated mortality rates among children under five are alarmingly high, with an average of 15.43 deaths per 10,000 individuals daily, well above the famine threshold of two deaths per 10,000 people per day.

The numbers are of course vital in describing the vast scale of this crisis. Without them, the logisticians trying to deal with it would never be able to get a handle on their jobs. 

But once you get on the ground and start seeing those towering numbers in terms of real people with tragic stories, the fog starts to clear a little, and you begin to get a sense of what it means in human terms.

'Tragedy and loss'

Think a bit more about those last set of figures. If you were in southern Somalia, and your five-year-old child was in a school of a thousand other children, malnutrition would be killing one or two of their classmates every single day. It would probably be only a matter of days before a friend of your child's would be among the dead. 

In just two months, 90 would have died, and at that rate there is a one-in-ten chance that your own child would have been among them. And that is just amongst the under-fives. When you consider the impact of this famine on the old and the frail; on illnesses attacking those with immune systems already weak with hunger; on the consequences of exhausting treks through the desert, death comes to almost every family in one way or another; often many times over.

This is not hypothetical. It is true of almost every one of the thousand people who walk into Dadaab every single day. 

Each has a name and a face and a chilling story of tragedy and loss.

Consider 70-year-old Rahma Ali Hussein and her sister Fatuma Mursal, who thinks she is 90. They lived with their extended family in Dinsor in the Bay region of southern Somalia. Like farmers everywhere, they hung on to the land, hoping they would be able to survive until the drought broke. 

But the al-Shabab fighters, who still govern over much of southern Somalia, kept out most donors and kept in civilians who wanted to flee. One by one, Rahma's and Fatuma's relatives died, until all that remained were the two resilient old sisters, their granddaughter, her child, and a couple of goats.

'Colossal' price

That was when they decided they had no choice but to risk al-Shabab's checkpoints and walk with the goats to Dadaab in neighbouring Kenya. Neither knew how far it was, but it would be two and a half months on foot before they would reach the refugee camp.

Once they arrived, they joined a queue, registered their presence, received a package of food and added their names to the refugee statistics.

I met them as another group of local refugees who had formed their own aid agency, replaced the tattered rags they arrived in with a new set of clothes and a few shreds of dignity. They told their story matter-of-factly, with flat unemotional voices as though it was not unusual; and in a way they were right. 

Their tale - or variations of it - has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the region, and so because of that, outsiders tend to see each one as nothing remarkable.

That seems to miss the point completely; the extraordinary thing is just how many of those tales are piled one on top of the other in a heap so big that it becomes impossible to see the detail. In the end, our eyes glaze over, we lose sight of what it all means and wind up looking only at colossal numbers again.

Of course, sometimes the numbers do reveal something important, and here is one set we ought to consider. In the summary of the same UN report that detailed the statistics I began with, there is a graph that compares the amount of money the UN reckons it needs for a particular part of the crisis, with the amount actually donated.

The numbers show that international donors have promised 119 per cent of the amount they need for food assistance - a lot more than is actually needed.

Almost all of the emergency food goes to distribution points in centres like Mogadishu and Daddab - places that draw people away from their homes and their fields, into huge camps where they are easy to reach. But food aid is high profile; it looks good on television news programmes at home, and often the money gets spent in the donors' own country buying food from farmers with their own powerful domestic lobbies.

But for less visible things like assistance for agriculture or education in Somalia that would actually encourage people to stay in their homes and so recover once the crisis has passed, the UN has received 29 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. 

For once, the numbers appear to speak for themselves.

Originally published by Al Jazeera under Creative Commons Licensing  

Tuesday
Sep202011

Does the US Have Leverage Over the PLO? (BLOG/REPORT)

By Gregg Carlstrom in the Middle East

Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: Olivier Pacteau via flicker) The Palestine Liberation Organisation seems to have passed the point of no return in its bid for full membership at the United Nations. Mahmoud Abbas could still abandon the bid - he will not formally submit the PLO's request until later this week - but that would be a politically ruinous move after his speech on Friday night.

Nonetheless, the United States and the European Union are still trying to convince Abbas to back down. There will be a few frantic meetings in New York this week ahead of Abbas' speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday.

The carrot they are offering him is the prospect of renewed negotiations with Israel, possibly with a timer attached: If talks do not go anywhere after, say, six months, the so-called Quartet would then endorse the PLO's bid for UN membership.

Abbas does not seem interested. As we reported on Saturday, it was one of these US proposals for renewed talks (which Nabil Shaath described as "useless") that convinced Abbas he needed to go to the Security Council.

That leaves sticks. The most compelling one, you would think, is the possibility that US lawmakers will slash aid to the Palestinian Authority, which depends heavily on foreign aid.

The US gave the PA roughly $470m last year, more than 10 per cent of the authority's budget. Various lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, have suggested cutting that aid after the UN vote. At a congressional hearing last week, Steve Chabot, a Republican congressman from Ohio, said "the question before this Congress will not be what portion of our aid will be cut, but rather what portion will remain".

But would Washington follow through on that threat?

Israel, after all, does not really want to undermine the Palestinian Authority, which provides security and basic services in the Palestinian-controlled parts of the occupied West Bank. If the sulta (as it is known) went bankrupt, the Israeli government would be responsible for those functions, something it cannot afford - especially now with hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets over socioeconomic problems.

Indeed, a number of high-ranking Israeli ministers, including defence minister Ehud Barak, have warned against punitive measures for exactly that reason. As Ha'aretz reported yesterday:

[Barak and others] warn that it could lead to violence and the cessation of security cooperation between the PA and Israel, and could, under certain circumstances, lead to the total collapse of the PA, throwing responsibility for all of the West Bank's inhabitants back on Israel.

Congress is usually quite responsive to Israeli concerns (to say the least). And even if Congress cuts aid to the PA, US President Barack Obama could reinstate it with an executive order.

So cutting aid to the PA seems like an empty threat. What does that leave? Not much, according to a summary of last week's congressional hearing, which was dominated by conservative and "pro-Israel" witnesses.

The most popular ideas were shutting the PLO's mission in Washington and auditing Abbas' personal finances, neither of which seems very compelling.

Abbas could still back down at the 11th hour. I have spoken with quite a few Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who expect that he will. But - in the absence of any compelling proposals from the Quartet and any real pressure from the US - it is hard to see why he would.

Originally published by Al Jazeera under Creative Commons Licensing 

Saturday
Jul302011

UN Calls for More Funds to Save Lives Across Horn of Africa (REPORT) 

According to the United Nations more than 12 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti are currently in need of humanitarian aid and that number is expected to rise. 

"If we are to avoid this crisis becoming an even bigger catastrophe, we must act now" said Valarie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which issued yesterday's appeal. 

The emergency is expected to persist for at least three to four months, and the number of people needing humanitarian assistance could increase by as much as 25 per cent, OCHA said, putting strain on the work of UN agencies.

An OCHA spokesperson said in Geneva that the request for funds lifts the Horn of Africa appeal to a total of $2.4 billion, of which $1 billion has been received so far.

OCHA reports that, driven by the worst drought in 60 years, some 1,300 new Somali refugees arrive daily in Kenya, several hundred more flee to Ethiopia and at least 1,000 others crowd into the capital, Mogadishu, fleeing not only drought but continued fighting between Government forces and rebels.

“Women and children are forced to walk weeks under gruelling conditions to reach safety, and are arriving in refugee camps in appalling health, overwhelming the already stretched capacity to respond,” the agency said.

The agency also said that outright famine, declared recently in two areas of southern Somalia, “could spread throughout the rest of the south within one or two months, if the humanitarian response did not increase in line with rising needs.”

Drought conditions in Kenya’s northern and north-eastern districts have deteriorated further after the poor March-June rains. The food crisis is expected to peak in August and September.

In Ethiopia, La Niña weather conditions have diminished two consecutive rainy seasons, resulting in rapidly deteriorating food security in lowlands of southern and south-eastern areas, as well as in parts of the central highlands. In Djibouti, the drought has forced growing numbers of pastoralists and people in rural areas to migrate to urban areas, where food insecurity is rising.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reported that its emergency airlifts were flying tons of specialized nutritional food for malnourished children in Mogadishu and other food supplies in southern Somalia, and it was continuing to feed more than 1.6 million people in Kenya.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said six flights and two ships have delivered more than 653 tons of corn soya blend, and about 230 tons of therapeutic food to treat severely malnourished children. It is also building up its food pipeline which already supports 500 nutrition centres in southern Somalia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was working to accommodate some 3,000 people who since Monday settled spontaneously on the edge of Dadaab refugee complex, already the world’s largest refugee camp.

A spokesperson said the refugee agency is “very concerned about the protection of civilians” in Mogadishu amid renewed fighting between pro- and anti-Government forces. An offensive by pro-Government forces has increased the risk to the capital’s citizens as well as the estimated 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had recently fled drought and famine in neighbouring regions.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, today welcomed the Somali parliament’s approval of a new Cabinet and said the new Government must “immediately” tackle the problems facing the country.

Augustine P. Mahiga said the formation of the Cabinet “sends a strong, constructive signal and represents a positive start for the new Somali administration.”

“The new Government must immediately tackle the most critical tasks with the objective of creating a national vision based on a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders and a focus on the delivery of services,” he said.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the WFP today issued a joint statement calling for a longer view of the humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa.

“Beyond the emergency, it will be necessary to put into place the long-term solutions needed to guarantee food security in the Horn of Africa. There will be no sustainable solution to the crisis without measures that enable the countries of the region to become food self-sufficient, develop food crop production and support pastoralism and massively reinvest in agriculture and livestock-raising in the region,” it said.

- UN News Center 

Monday
Oct252010

(REPORT) Benin suffering from the worst floods since 1963 

(Photo UN News) 

(HN, October 25, 2010) -- Nearly 700,000 people have been affected by severe flooding in the West African country of Benin and at least 60 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.

“Seasonal heavy rains have been hitting West Africa for several months and normally last until November,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a statement. “However, what has happened this year goes well beyond normal flooding for Benin.”

The deluge – the most extreme since 1963 – has had an impact on 51 out of 77 communes in the last five weeks. Along rivers and lakes, fragile huts have been submerged in up to two meters of water.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will begin airlifting supplies, including some 3000 tents, from its emergency stockpiles in Copenhagen.

Edwards said that while the UNHCR's normal work in Benin was with the refugee and asylum-seeking population of some 7,300, "we have been called upon to help with the emergency shelter needs of some of the homeless people in southern parts of the country where we have a presence.”  

Food production has also been badly hit by the floods. Elisabeth Byrs of the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said an appeal for funds and aid is being planned.
  
Experts had assessed needs for fresh water and purification measures, food and shelter, she added.

Earlier this month the U.N. reported that the floods affected 1.5 million people in regions in West and Central Africa with Benin being hit the worst. The floods have destroyed entire villages, killing more than 100 people in Nigeria alone. There have been 377 flood related deaths according to the report.

A cholera outbreak has added to the misery, with over 800 cases counted across Benin. In the aftermath of the flooding, Chad, Northern Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria are also facing serious cholera epidemics, according to the U.N.

The heavy floods are caused by torrential rains and high water level waters of the Niger and other rivers.

- HUM News Staff

Tuesday
Aug032010

“Broadband Liberation” (PERSPECTIVE) 

--- by Shashi Tharoor

NEW DELHI – In July, I was among 30 men and women from around the world – government ministers, bureaucrats, technologists, and strategic thinkers – who gathered at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva to discuss how broadband can transform the world for the better. This “Broadband Commission” met under the Chairmanship of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the Mexican communications mogul Carlos Slim.

The ITU, a United Nations body, established the Commission in partnership with UNESCO, and the joint chairmanship was no accident. The UN recognizes that if the information revolution is to advance further, it will take a public-private effort. As ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré has put it, “In the twenty-first century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water, and power.”

The Swiss writer and playwright Max Frisch once dismissed technology as “the art of arranging the world so that we need not experience it.” Today, however, technology is essential to effective participation in our world. And, although mankind cannot live by technology alone, the information revolution has liberated millions of people.

Information is liberating in the traditional political sense of the term: the spread of information has had a direct impact on the degree of accountability and transparency that governments must deliver if they are to survive.

It is also liberating economically. Information technologies are a cost-effective form of capital. Estonia and Costa Rica are well-known examples of how information-access strategies can help accelerate output growth and raise income levels.

Some of the least developed countries, such as Mali and Bangladesh, have shown how determined leadership and innovative approaches can, with international support, connect remote and rural areas to the Internet and mobile telephony, thereby helping to liberate subsistence farmers who were previously tied to local knowledge and local markets. Likewise, mobile networks are delivering health services to the most remote areas of India.

One successful UNESCO initiative is the creation of multipurpose community telecenters throughout the developing world, providing communication and information facilities – phone, fax, Internet, computers, audio-visual equipment – for a wide range of community uses. India’s Unique Identification Number project, under the capable stewardship of information-technology pioneer Nandan Nilekani, will enable access to government, banking, and insurance services at the grass-roots level.

There is no doubt that the Internet can be a democratizing tool. In some parts of the world – and certainly in most of the West – it already is, since large amounts of information are now accessible to almost anyone. But the stark reality of today’s world is that you can tell the rich from the poor by their Internet connections.

Indeed, economic development nowadays requires more than thinking only of the poverty line; one must also think of the high-speed digital line, the fiber-optic line – indeed, all the lines that exclude those who are not plugged into the possibilities of our world.

But the digital divide is no immutable gap. On the contrary, the technology gap between developed and developing countries, measured by levels of penetration by personal computers and information-technology and communications services, has narrowed markedly over the course of the past decade, with rapid growth in mobile phone and Internet use. The average level of Internet and mobile-phone penetration in the rich world in 1997  – 4.1 Internet users and 10.7 mobile phones per 100 inhabitants – was reached in developing countries only five years later.

By contrast, the average level of fixed-line telecommunication penetration in developing countries is nearly 50 years behind the levels of the West. Not surprisingly, it was in Africa – not Europe or America – where the cell phone first overtook the housebound handset. More Africans have become telecommunications users in the last four years than in the entire twentieth century.

The Indian story is even more remarkable. When I left India in 1975 for graduate studies in the United States, the country had roughly 600 million residents and just two million land-line telephones. Today, India holds the world record for the number of cell phones sold in a month –20 million – and for the most telephone connections made in a single month in any country in the history of telecommunications.

The growth in mobile-telephone technology demonstrates that the digital divide is shifting, and the focus of development efforts must change with it. India, for example, has 525 million mobile phone users and fewer than 150 million people with Internet access, so using mobile-phone technology as a tool of e-governance has become vital. This calls for creative means of effecting information transfer and making and receiving official payments by telephone.

Security is a key area of concern today in e-governance – both physical security, in an age of terrorism, and cyber security. Using technology to deliver security will become even more important in areas such as information sharing, disaster management, and data-privacy standards.

Information and communications technology is a powerful tool to address underdevelopment, isolation, poverty, and the lack of political accountability and political freedom. But people need access first and foremost. High-speed broadband Internet access can improve everything from transport management, environmental protection, and emergency services to health care, distance education, and agricultural productivity. Delivering these benefits to ever more people will require resources, international cooperation, and political will.

--- The author is a former Under Secretary General of the UN and former Minister of State for External Affairs in the Government of India. An award-winning novelist, he is currently a member of the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament.

Copyright:  Project Syndicate, 2010.  www.project-syndicate.org

For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:  http://media.blubrry.com/ps/media.libsyn.com/media/ps/tharoor22.mp3