Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bringing innovation to small farmers

Research into agriculture has helped the developed world have more than enough food it has even helped booming nations such as India and the Philippines. Still, over a billion people in the under-developed world have not experienced the benefits of the food boom. So many food research experts are pleading the case of bringing the same innovations in farming to the many small farmers in the the third world.

From IPS, writer Paul Virgo talks about the great importance in helping small farmers.

"The developing world's agricultural research systems are currently insufficiently developmental-oriented," says an expert paper laying the foundations for a roadmap that will be approved at GCARD on how agricultural research should be transformed.

"Research organisations have generally not been good at integrating the needs and priorities of the poor in the work of researchers," the paper says. "Agricultural research and development efforts that engage farmers and build from the bottom up can release locked-up innovation, become responsive and effective, encourage many different pathways, and result in adequate food for all."

Smallholders need research to provide them with innovations - new farming and livestock breeding techniques and seeds - that are not only effective in increasing yields in a scenario made more difficult by climate change, but are also affordable, and appropriate to their skills and equipment.

Smallholders are often remarkably quick at changing their practices to adapt them to changing situations on the ground, such as rainfall patterns, and so feedback from them can be excellent input to shape scientific studies.

"Agricultural research plans need to allow for a genuine two-way flow of knowledge and information, between the scientists and the rural communities, including indigenous peoples, to ensure that our response to the needs and conditions in rural areas is truly comprehensive," IFAD President Kanayo Nwanze said at the conference.

Good agricultural research should also be increasingly interdisciplinary. Rural insurance and credit innovations are needed, for example, to encourage poor farmers, who are frequently reluctant to take loans for fear of not being able to repay in the event of bad weather or crop price changes, to invest in new resources.

An update from the Haitian donor conference

Here is a report from the Haitian donor conference that is being hosted today at the United Nations. The Haitian government released a rebuilding plan to the delegates at the conference. The rebuilding plan will take 18 months and needs 4 billion dollars to complete. So far the European Union has pledged 1.7 billion dollars, the U.S. 1.15 billion, and the World Bank $250 million.

From the BBC, we read more about the rebuilding plan. The link to the BBC article also contains some graphs that mark the progress in aid pledges.

The Haitian government and international officials have spent weeks putting together a plan for the country.

The first part of the plan is an 18-month project focusing on rebuilding destroyed infrastructure, government buildings, hospitals and schools - which is expected to cost almost $4bn.

Haitian President Rene Preval said he wanted to make education the focus of a new Haiti.

"I call on Haitians, both at home and abroad, to add their resources to those of our friends from the international community in order to transform Haiti to a place of knowledge," he said.

Officials estimate that a total of $11.5bn in aid will be needed for long-term reconstruction, which will involve strengthening institutions and refocusing the economy.

Mr Ban, the UN secretary general, described the plan as "concrete, specific and ambitious" and said he hoped it would build a "better future" for Haiti.

But he also urged donor nations not to forget a separate appeal for $1.44bn for food aid and shelter launched by the UN last month. He said just half had so far been pledged.

Aid agencies have warned that thousands are vulnerable to April rains and the hurricane season in June.

Haiti looks more like a war than a recovery

As the United Nations Haitian donor conference begins today in New York, delegates from throughout the world will talk about what the country should look like. An article from IPS today gives us an idea on what it looks like now, and it's far from where it should be. Writer Ansel Herz says that Haiti looks more like a war zone instead of a place of rebuilding and recovery.

On an empty road in Cite Militaire, an industrial zone across from the slums of Cite Soleil, a group of women are gathered around a single white sack of U.S. rice. The rice was handed out Monday morning at a food distribution by the Christian relief group World Vision.

According to witnesses, during the distribution U.N. peacekeeping troops sprayed tear gas on the crowd.

"Haitians know that's the way they act with us. They treat us like animals," said Lourette Elris, as she divided the rice amongst the women. "They gave us the food, we were on our way home, then the troops threw tear gas at us. We finished receiving the food, we weren't disorderly. "

Some 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, have occupied Haiti since 2004, including 7,000 soldiers of which the majority are Brazilian. The mission has been dogged by accusations of human rights violations.

"It's time to begin thinking about changing the nature of MINUSTAH's mission," Brazilian Defence Minister Nelson Jobim told the Brazilian newspaper O Estado after the January earthquake struck Haiti.

"MINUSTAH's mandate is to maintain the peace, that is, security, but the U.N. needs to realise that its mission is no longer solely to strengthen security but also to build the infrastructure," he said.

So far, there's no evidence of a shift in policy.

In Potay, a neighbourhood near downtown Port-Au-Prince, a dozen U.S. soldiers toting automatic weapons walked past men drinking beer on a stoop.

Wearing jeans and a black vest, Brital, one of Haiti's most well-known rappers with the Barikad Crew, watched them go past his collapsed home.

"I don't think we need soldiers with guns. We need engineers the most," he said. "I'd prefer to see soldiers who could educate instead of those with guns. Soldiers that can come and build roads, bridges, universities and hospitals."

A BrandAID for third-world artisans

There are many crafters and artisans in the under-developed world, but very few people get to see their work. What is missing for these artisans is a way into the global marketplace, many are cut from the the technology or the transportation that can help to sell their art. That is why many social business are springing up to give these artisans an global market. We learned of a new one today based in Canada called BrandAID.

From the Globe and Mail, writer Diane Jermyn interviews one of the BrandAid founders Tony Pigott. The Globe and Mail also has a great video that sums up the entire piece.

“Don't be confused,” says Tony Pigott, who is also president and chief executive officer of JWT, a communications and advertising agency in Toronto. “We're still in the startup stage, but BrandAID is a for-profit business, just one with a social conscience. Making a profit is essential to our future sustainability.”

With hooks like ‘Poverty needs marketing,' BrandAID uses disruptive ideas to attract attention and recruit investors. “There's a huge market for beautiful artisan goods, such as fashion, art and decor, but there's also a huge barrier for the artisans,” says Mr. Pigott. “They have no name, no brand.”

BrandAID makes money by selling the works – which have been pre-purchased at the artisans' asking price – online, at events and to major retailers. Profit is shared between the artisan partners, investors and the BrandAID Foundation. The artisans receive 35 per cent of the profit from the sale of the art, with 10 per cent of that amount channelled back to the artisans' community through the foundation.

Being market driven is not only important to investors but also to the artisans themselves, who want to do business, not ask for a handout, says Mr. Pigott.

He established BrandAID in 2008 with co-founders Cameron Brohman, a development expert who lived in Haiti for 25 years, New York film maker David Belle and Academy Award-winning Canadian screenwriter, producer and director Paul Haggis. Josh Brolin and Diane Lane are among the Hollywood celebrities who have helped spread the word about BrandAID.

Two Haitian communities served as tests for the business model: Croix de Bouquets, with its metal artists, and Jacmel and its papier mâché crafters. Today the focus in Haiti is on rebuilding those communities, which were hit hard by the recent earthquake.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

UN: Afghanistan corruption abuses human rights

A new United Nations report says that the Afghanistan government has widespread corruption that takes a large share of the security aid flowing into the nation. The UN report calls on the world to focus more on long term help for the nation instead of short term security. The corruption increases the poverty felt in Afghanistan, and the UN says it is an abuse of human rights.

From the BBC, we find more of the report's claims.

"The [Afghan] government is often unable to deliver basic services, such as security, food or shelter," the 26-page UN report says.

It stresses that "widespread corruption further limits access to services for a large proportion of the population", blaming Afghan officials of advancing their own interests at the expense of the general public.

It notes that Afghanistan still has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world and the third highest rate of child mortality.

"Only 23% of the population have access to safe drinking water and only 24% above the age of 15 can read and write," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the office of the UN human rights commissioner.

"And basically the main conclusion is that the abuse of power is the key driver of poverty in Afghanistan, vested interests frequently shape the public agenda whether in relations to law, policy or the allocation of resources," Mr Colville said.

The document says abusive power structures should be tackled as a matter of urgency.

A new Kids Count report for Maine

A new Kids Count report for the state of Maine finds an increase in the number of children living in poverty. The report from the Maine Children's Alliance also found an increase in children smoking tobacco cigarettes.

From Maine Public Broadcasting, this Associated Press story gives us the new statistics.

The percentage of Maine kids living in poverty rose to nearly 22 percent in 2008, up from 19.4 percent the year before. That's according to the latest annual "Kids Count" report released today at a State House news conference by the Maine Children's Alliance. Moreover, the Alliance says, 38 percent of all Maine children are living in low-income households.

The Alliance's President Dean Crocker says that's a major cause for concern. "Childhood poverty is strongly associated with many problems in later life, including low achievement in school, chronic health problems, and arrests for criminal offenses," he says in a statement.

The report also found that there are about 17,000 children in Maine without health insurance, though the state's 6 percent uninsured rate for kids is still half the national rate of 12 percent.

Microcredit, an important tool in Bolivia

While it's clear that microcredit by itself can not lift the poor out of poverty, it an important tool to help. If a poor person without collateral wants to get a loan so they sell more produce at their market stand, or buy a few more heads of cattle, they can do so without being taken advantage of.

From the Democracy Center, this blog post written by Adam Kemmis Betty profiles one such micro borrower. Betty works for microcredit banks in Boliva, and his work has him meet many borrowers. Betty draws some conclusions on microcredit and it's use as one big peace of the puzzle to fight poverty.

The real value of microfinance might be more subtle. A groundbreaking study published in 2009, which put together detailed financial diaries for over 250 families, shows that for someone such as Rosa, whose income and expenses are not only low but also seasonal and unpredictable, day-to-day cash flow management can be very complex.

Rosa, like most people in her economic position, needs to carefully manage her finances to ensure that she has enough to pay for everyday necessities, her journeys to the tropics, and to cover larger one-time expenses. Both savings and loans are important financial tools for poor households to have the money they need in hand when they need it, given the bumpiness of when they have income. This is one of the key values of MFI credit as opposed to informal sources.

In the end, is microcredit a magic wand that ends poverty? Not based on the current evidence, to be sure. But as in most markets, the real test of a product's value is whether there is a demand for it. Despite the high costs, the impoverished themselves clearly see a value in microfinance, as evidenced by strong demand and high repayment rates.

Twenty years of microfinance in Bolivia has not eradicated poverty, not by a long shot. But it has provided a large number of the country's poor with access to more reliable, and cheaper credit then they would have been able to obtain otherwise. And as a result many people have managed to lift themselves at least a little higher on the economic ladder as a result.

Haiti donors conference tomorrow

Tomorrow the United Nations will host delegates of over 100 countries to talk about Haiti. The UN hopes to gather more pledges of aid to rebuild Haiti from the countries attending the meeting. Many of the countries are willing to pledge more money, but wonder if Haiti can handle the money correctly.

From the Miami Herald, reporter Jacqueline Charles, gets some quotes from possible donors and frustrated Haitians.

“There is a lot of goodwill to give money. That's not the problem,'' said Ciro De Falco, coordinator of the Inter-American Development Bank's Haiti Task Force. ``The real challenge is execution, implementation.''

The Washington-based IDB recently became the latest in a string of donors including the United States, to forgive much of Haiti's $1.2 billion in foreign debt after the Jan. 12, 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Concerned that Haiti may not be able to spend all of the $11.5 billion it says it needs over the next 18 months to rebuild -- or that nations may be unwilling to provide as much -- donors have set a target of $3.9 billion.

``I have always said, `You can put all the money you want into a country, but you are not going to reach sustainable growth until you have all of the appropriate institutions and rules of the game: people can borrow, people can settle disputes, companies are assured they can take out profits,'' De Falco added. ``All of these things need to be put in place in order to have success.''

``We've never had someone who stood up and ask us, `What do we want for Haiti?'' Clifford Stellot, a grassroots activist in Port-au-Prince said recently.
Jocelyn McCalla, a former head of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York, understands his fellow Haitians' pessimism.

``They have felt unempowered for so long that they can't believe that their time has come, that the world is ready to do their bidding,'' said McCalla, now senior adviser to Leslie Voltaire, the Haitian government official who serves as liasion to Clinton's U.N. office.

If Haitians are weary of believing that the New York gathering could transform Haiti, it is because it feels like an old familiar movie with a not so happy ending.
Last year after much fanfare, donors meeting in Washington pledged $519 million in foreign aid to Haiti. By the time the quake struck, killing more than 200,000 and toppling an equal number of buildings, only 12 percent had been disbursed, according to Clinton's U.N. office.

Read more:

Monday, March 29, 2010

An update on the Global Agricultural Conference

From the Voice of America, an update on the Global Agricultural Conference.

The first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development continues today in Montpellier, France. About one thousand participants are meeting to find ways of ensuring food security for a rapidly growing world population.

The conference, also known as GCARD, follows the twin crises of soaring food prices in poor countries and the global recession. It aims to come up with concrete action plans to present to the G8 that would boost agricultural investment on many levels.

Action, not words

GCARD is first hearing from senior policymakers from governments, international aid agencies and others on the scale of agricultural investment needed. Among them is Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD.

“Let me say at the outset that I firmly believe that results and impact are what count. I have said it on previous occasions and I will say it again today. Declarations, commitments and speeches don’t feed hungry people,” he says.

He says the scale of the challenge is “significant.”

“There are more than one billion poor and hungry people in the world today. That’s about one in six people of today’s population compared with a marginally better one in seven 10 years ago. Transforming the bleak future of these poor women and men is no mean feat. Indeed, volatile food prices, population growth, low agricultural productivity and the potentially devastating effects of climate change make it a particularly daunting challenge.”

Why agriculture suffered

The IFAD president says over the past 30 years, agricultural productivity in developing countries has been “stagnant or in decline.” He blames it on years of under-investment.

“We all know that overseas development assistance allocated to agriculture dropped from 18 percent in 1978 to just over four percent in 2008,” he says.

The amount of money spent by developing countries on agriculture during that same period also dropped sharply. Nwanze says the decline was as much as a third in Africa and two-thirds in Asia and Latin America. But nature plays a role as well.

“As for climate change, severe water shortages are predicted to affect between 75 and 250 million people by 2020. And Africa, where approximately 95 percent of agriculture depends on rainfall, is particularly vulnerable,” he says.

Climate change can be reversed, in part, he says, through reforestation programs, better land management and the rehabilitation of degraded crop and pasture land. But he says agricultural research is fundamental to meeting these challenges.

“Agricultural research can ensure that a smallholder, the fisher person, the pastoralists, the forest dweller and the herder are provided with the means to adapt to climate change. It can ensure that poor, rural people, whose lives and livelihoods, depend on the earth’s productive capacity, have the means to produce more and to produce it better,” he says.

Agricultural and rural development key to fighting poverty

Nwanze says, “GDP growth generated by agriculture has been shown to be at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.”

In recent years, more attention is being paid to the importance of smallholder farms. IFAD estimates 500 million smallholder farms worldwide are supporting two billion people -- one third of the world’s population.

Nwanze says with more support, smallholder farmers can increase their productivity to produce a food surplus. He says smallholders can become big business.

“Rural agri-business can drive economic growth. Rural agri-businesses can provide a career opportunity for youth. And rural agri-businesses can mean a pathway out of poverty,” he says.

There has been much controversy and opposition over the use of genetically modified crops as a means of boosting productivity. Earlier this year, in Mexico, an international conference noted the importance of bio-technology. But it also recognized the potential risks to nutrition and biodiversity.

The IFAD leader says 2010 has been deemed the International Year of Biodiversity.

“So this is a timely opportunity to remind the world how agricultural biodiversity can improve productivity and nutrition, enhance livelihoods, respond to environmental challenges and deliver food security,” he says.

Last July, the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, issued a statement saying, “There is an urgent need for decisive action to free humankind from hunger and poverty. Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue on the political agenda.”

The Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development runs through March 31st.

Sub-Saharan Africa behind on meeting MDGs

A new Global Monitoring Report conducted by the United Nations says that Sub-Saharan Africa still has a long way to got to meet the Millennium Development Goals. While great strides in reducing poverty in Asia may help reach the targets for the full world, Sub-Saharan Africa has not made much improvement.

From Business Day, writer Iheanyi Nwachukwu breaks down the report for each of the MDGs, our snippet only contains the first four goals.

The new poverty data (preliminary) as contained in the regional progress on the MDGs show that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell from 41.7 percent (1.8 billion people) in 1990 to 25.7 percent (1.4 billion) in 2005, and at this pace the MDG target of halving extreme poverty would be met at the global level by 2015. The East Asia and Pacific region has made dramatic progress in reducing poverty—from 56 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2005. South Asia has cut its poverty rate from 51 percent to 40 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has not shown a consistent downward trend in poverty reduction over time and the number of poor individuals has increased substantially.

According to the report, for this region (SSA) there are serious shortfalls in fighting hunger and malnutrition, which has long been the “forgotten MDG.” The prevalence of undernourishment (percent of the population that is undernourished) has only declined from 20 percent in 1992 to 16 percent in 2004. The recent hike in food prices is eroding the limited gains in reducing hunger.

On the first MDG which targets the reduction of extreme poverty and hunger by half, there are serious shortfalls in fighting hunger. On current trends, the human development MDGs are unlikely to be met. Prospects are gravest for the goals of reducing child and maternal mortality, but shortfalls are also likely in other MDGs such as primary school completion The East Asia and Pacific region has made dramatic progress in reducing poverty—from 56 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2005. South Asia has cut its poverty rate from 51 percent to 40 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has not shown a consistent downward trend in poverty reduction over time and the number of poor individuals has increased substantially.

For goal two, which is to achieve universal primary education, progress on this goal has been widespread. “In East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, the primary completion rate is at or close to 100 percent though some countries in these regions are not on track. Middle East and North Africa is on track to achieve this target. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are both not on track to achieve the target, but some countries in these regions have made substantial progress.”

On promoting gender equality and empower women. “Substantial progress has been made in reducing gender disparity in primary and secondary education. South Asia has made the most progress. Middle East and North Africa has also made strides in reducing gender disparity, as has Sub-Saharan Africa.” According to the Global Monitoring Report (GMR), the greatest disparity in girls-to-boys schooling is found in regions with the lowest primary completion rates and lowest average incomes. “All regions except Sub-Saharan Africa are broadly on track to meet the gender parity target, even if some countries in the regions are off track.”

What of goal four? This is to reduce child mortality. GMR said that despite progress, under-five mortality rates remain unacceptably high. “With a child mortality rate of 157 deaths per 1000 live births, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about half of the deaths of children under five in the developing world. The HIV/AIDS epidemic and civil conflicts have hampered the region’s progress in reducing child mortality. The regions closest to achieving the under-five mortality target are Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe and Central Asia, but even in these regions, over half the countries are not on track.”

Video: Memphis Tennessee becomes US hunger capital

The city of Memphis, Tennessee has the poor distinction of being the hungriest part of America. A new Gallup survey found that a greater percentage of those in Memphis can not afford to buy food than anywhere else in the US.

First, from McClatchy Newspapers this video tells the story of a couple of Memphis residents who have fallen on hard times.

Now some of the facts and factors behind Memphis' new distinction from McClatchy Newspapers reporter Shashank Bengali.

As more and more Americans struggle to pay their bills, a recent survey co-sponsored by Gallup found that 26 percent of people in greater Memphis couldn't afford to buy the food their families needed at some point over the previous 12 months, the highest rate in the nation.

The nationwide recession has compounded the region's economic woes, which experts say stem from the steady decline of family farms, a shortage of skilled workers and few major employers. Slammed with job losses, many middle-class families such as the Caleses find themselves forced to choose whether to pay their house, car, utilities and medical bills — or buy groceries.

"We have seen need grow at certain times, but we have never seen a national economy like this," said Susan Sanford, who's headed the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis for the past two decades. "And we have never seen so many middle-class people lose their jobs and have to depend on emergency food assistance."

Last year, some 186,500 people in 31 Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee counties that surround Memphis relied on agencies for their next meals, a 28 percent increase from four years ago, the food bank reported. Paradoxically, the region also suffers from high rates of obesity, which experts say is the result of families eating cheaper and less nutritious food.

"It's no surprise that this is a very poor area," Sanford said. "But I never would have expected to be No. 1 in food insecurity in the entire country."

Read more:

The Modern-Day Slavery Museum

A new museum is making the case that slavery has not ended in America. The Modern-Day Slavery Museum is making stops across Florida to show the story of captive farm-workers in the state. The museum concentrates on the conditions of tomato farms in Florida, where some of the workers are held captive against their will, fed drugs instead of a paycheck and beaten into staying.

From this article from "The Nation" that we found at NPR, writer Katrina Vanden Heuvel describes what is in the museum curated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The bulk of the museum is housed inside of a 24-foot box truck — a replica of the one used by the Navarrete family in Immokalee to hold twelve farmworkers captive from 2005 to 2007. The workers were beaten, chained and imprisoned inside of the truck, and forced to urinate and defecate in the corners. US Attorney Doug Molloy called the operation "slavery, plain and simple."

Inside of the truck visitors learn about seven cases of farm labor servitude in Florida successfully prosecuted by the US Department of Justice over the past 15 years. Workers were held against their will through threats, drugs, beatings, shootings, and pistol-whippings. These cases meet the high standard of proof and definition of slavery under federal laws and resulted in the liberation of over 1000 farmworkers — CIW worked with federal and local authorities during the investigation and prosecution of six of the seven cases.

Barry Eastabrook described his experience in the truck for The Atlantic: "Inside, the vehicle was stacked high with cardboard tomato cartons. The floor was chipped and scuffed. There was a plywood sorting table — which doubled as a 'bed' for the workers. But what stays with me was the heat. Outside, the day was chilly and overcast, but inside the truck, even with the cargo door all the way open, the temperature became borderline unbearable. The stale air was uncomfortable to breathe. Sweat soaked the back of my shirt. And I was in there for less than five minutes, not two and a half years."

But it's not just the contemporary slavery examples one finds inside the box truck that educates the visitors. The museum is designed to look at the history of slavery and forced labor — the evolution of it — and the fact that there has never been a period in Florida agriculture when there wasn't some form of forced labor. The exhibit was vetted by historians, slavery experts, economists and other academics, including Nation editorial board member Eric Foner who said, "A century and a half after the Civil War, forms of slavery continue to exist in the world, including in the United States. This Mobile Museum brings to light this modern tragedy and should inspire us to take action against it."

Before entering the truck, the museumgoer is given a booklet and sees two large exhibits which provide historical context — examining slavery from Spanish settlement through Edward R. Murrow's acclaimed CBS documentary Harvest of Shame in 1960. Forms of slavery include chattel slavery, the convict-lease system through 1923, and debt peonage.

Another display plays a 1993 60 Minutes piece on Wardell Williams, a former crew leader in Florida who kept workers in debt while also supplying some with drugs and alcohol.

Inside of the truck the seven cases are described powerfully through the use of primary sources — court documents, indictments, criminal complaints, testimony. Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez held 400 workers under the watch of armed guards and assaulted — even shot — those who tried to escape. Abel Cuello held more than 30 tomato workers in two trailers in the isolated swampland west of Immokalee. Once out of prison, Cuello was able to resume supplying labor to Ag-Mart Farms in Florida and North Carolina. Michael Lee recruited homeless US citizens to harvest oranges, creating debt through loans for rent, food, cigarettes, and cocaine. Ramiro and Juan Ramos had a workforce of over 700 farmworkers and threatened with death those who tried to leave. They also pistol-whipped and assaulted at gunpoint van service drivers who gave rides to farmworkers leaving the area. Ronald Evans also recruited homeless citizens throughout the southeast with promises of good jobs and housing, then kept them in a labor camp surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. He also made sure they were perpetually indebted to him, deducting money from their pay for food, rent, crack cocaine, and alcohol.

"The museum has made it possible to lay out our argument about slavery from A to Z, in a sort of irrefutable package of completely documented and totally unimpeachable facts," says CIW staff member Greg Asbed. "And when you can see the whole history and evolution of four hundred years of forced labor in Florida's fields assembled in one place, then all the false assumptions about what drives modern-day slavery just fall away. It's not workers' immigration status today, or a few rogue bosses, but the fact that farmworkers have always been Florida's poorest, most powerless workers. Poverty and powerlessness is the one constant that runs like a thread through all the history. In short, you see, it's not about who's on the job today. It's about the job itself."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Video: a pediatric clinic in Mali from MSF

From Medecins Sans Frontieres, this video shows the work at a pediatric clinic in Mali.

Agriculture expansion in Indonesia under fire

From IRIN, a plan by Indonesia to to develop a commercial food estate has drawn criticism.

The Indonesian government's plan to develop a food estate in Papua has come in for heavy criticism for potentially marginalizing small farmers and threatening the environment.

The government hopes the 1.6 million hectare Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate in Merauke District will turn Indonesia into one of the world's biggest food producers.

The project will need between 50 and 60 trillion rupiah (US$5.5 billion-$6.6 billion) in initial investment and is expected to create thousands of jobs, Deputy Agriculture Minister Bayu Krisnamurthi said.

Some 36 local and foreign companies have expressed interest and the government will spend between 2.5 and three trillion rupiah on infrastructure, he said.

"We need major investors to come in first," Krisnamurthi told reporters this month.

Crops to be grown include rice, sugar cane, soya beans and maize, he said.

NGO activists have rejected the plan, saying the estate could bring more harm than benefit to the local population.

"Food is not just a commercial commodity but is also a basic human right, and leaving food provision to the private sector can hinder people's access to food because corporations are driven by profit," Elisha Kartini, an activist from the Indonesian Farmer Union (SPI), told IRIN.

The Papua region, comprising most of the western half of the island of New Guinea, is divided into two provinces – Papua and West Papua. They are the poorest of Indonesia’s 32 provinces, with 35 percent of its 2.6 million inhabitants living below the poverty line, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, against a national poverty rate of 14.15 percent in 2009.


Indonesia's leading environmental group, Walhi, warned that the project would amount to a land grab and cause local farmers to suffer because they would be unable to compete with major corporations.

"The foundation of our food security is still vulnerable," Muhammad Islah, Walhi's water and food campaigner, told IRIN

"Farmers are still struggling with scarcity of land in the face of market liberalization and government policy unfavourable to small farmers," he said.

"If this project goes ahead, it would amount to legalised land-grabbing when domestic and foreign businesses are allowed to compete with small farmers."

Agriculture Minister Suswono said Indonesian companies would control interests in the estate and foreign ownership would be limited to 49 percent.

Deputy Minister Krisnamurthi said the estate was expected to contribute one million metric tonnes in rice production annually and between 800,000 and 1.2 million metric tonnes of sugar. Indonesia produces about 60 million tonnes of rice annually.

Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Radjasa said the project would start this year but details were still being worked out and tried to allay fears that it would damage the environment.

"We have to really make use of idle land, so forest areas must remain intact and deforested areas will be converted into plantation areas," he said.

Environmental threat

But Walhi warned that the estate would threaten the ecosystem and its ecological balance.

"Large-scale land conversions in Merauke, which consists of predominantly low-lying land and marshes, could cause it to lose its land areas," Walhi said in a statement. "The decrease in forest and water catchment areas could result in a faster intrusion of sea water to the land."

The West Papua Advocacy Team, a Papuan pressure group, said the plan entailed an expansion of Merauke's population of some 175,000 people to up to 800,000.

The group warned that the project would likely involve a state-supported inflow of non-Papuans along the lines of decades of "transmigration policies" adopted by the government of former president Suharto.

The policy has in the past been blamed for ethnic conflict in the Indonesian part of Borneo and Sumatra islands.

"That conflict has arisen as local populations are marginalized in their own homelands as government supports programmes that favour the internal migrants to the disadvantage of locals," the group said in a statement.

"There is growing opposition to the scheme from small-scale Papuan farmers who say they fear their traditional livelihoods will be threatened by the large-scale, state-subsidized commercialization of agriculture," it added.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Guest Voices: Concern Worldwide building schools in Ethiopia

Here is a look at efforts to improve education in Ethiopia by Concern International. Getinet Leweyehu is the manager of Concern's education program in Ethiopia. Getinet describes how the construction of the schools close to villages can help improve the children's eduction. Concern is also participating in a unique fund raiser today called Twestival Global.

The Impact of education on children’s lives in Ethiopia

by Getinet Leweyehu

Schools are constructed nearer to children’s homes in rural Ethiopia

Aster Arba, aged nine, lives in the remote and rural village of Duguna Fango, about 450 kilometers southwest of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Before Concern intervened, Aster and her friends would walk eight kilometers every day back and forth to school.

In fact, they walked barefoot in extreme heat, and risked being raped and abducted, or attacked by wild animals. When I first saw the area, I was humbled by how difficult it was for a young child to travel to school in this extremely hot climate over such distances.

In response to the difficulties of these children, Concern and our partner organization WRDA began construction on basic education schools in villages that didn’t have any. Today, Aster and her friends attend school within walking distance from their homes.

During our regular monitoring visits to these schools, I met with the children who are clearly learning better and are far happier with their new situation. When I spoke with one of their teachers, Zinash, she explained that the sense of freedom thanks to the proximity of the school, made children attend classes regularly, which in turn has contributed to a marked improvement in their performance at school.

Vulnerable children benefit from basic education in Addis Ababa
Often in Ethiopia, children, and especially girls, migrate to urban areas in search of better lives and educational opportunities. In lots of cases, these children are either entirely uneducated or have dropped out of school after one or two years. Out-of-school children are forced to work as housemaids, and can be easily fall prone to child labor and sexual exploitation.

Others have to support their families running small businesses and wind up on the streets as petty traders. In these cases, there is no money or time for them to attend formal schools. Others still are orphaned due to HIV and AIDS, and do not have the opportunity to go to school. When I meet and speak to these children, I see that Concern’s support has given them hope. They have purpose and clearly feel accepted. Without help, I know that many of the girls would face a future of prostitution and the boys would become delinquent.

Concern has responded to their needs by collaborating with three local organizations in Addis Ababa in running schools with a flexible schedule, which allows very poor children to attend classes at times appropriate for them. The lessons are designed to streamline children back into formal education within three years, which enables them to complete the first education cycle of Ethiopia’s formal education system. To meet that goal, Concern provides free education materials, books and school uniforms and pays the teachers’ salaries. As a teacher myself, I am happy to work with Concern to reach these children and their teachers.

Experience has shown that the children thrive, not just because they are receiving an education, but because they feel a sense of acceptance and receive due recognition from their teachers and peers. In the last nine years (2002-2010), Concern and six partner organizations in three different regions of Ethiopia have established 22 schools where more than 15,000 vulnerable children (50 percent of them girls), who were not able to go to formal schools, have attended the first education cycle education, the basis for continuing in Ethiopia’s formal schooling system.

Getinet Leweyehu has been working for Concern since 2007 and has managed the education program for Concern Ethiopia. Now, in his role as Education Advisor, Getinet is driven by the commitment to help enable rural children to acquire basic education skills and to provide a bright future full of hope to vulnerable out-of-school girls in urban areas. Concern Worldwide is this year’s Twestival Global recipient in recognition of its work in education.

Video: providing tuition with CAMFED

The BBC is doing a great series on social business and charities, it's latest installment features the education concern CAMFED. Founded in 1993, CAMFED has helped over 500,000 African girls finish their education.

Many countries in Africa do not provide free education, so for many parents the costs are out of reach. Instead of paying for the schooling they would rather have the girls stay at home or help watch the other children. Camfed ensures that girls can stay in school by enabling their families and paying tuition.

From the BBC, here is the feature on CAMFED from Alvin's Guide to Good Business.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

New poverty stats for Washington D.C.

A group of poverty-fighting organizations in the Washington D.C. area say that one in five of the residents live below the poverty line. The report also says that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening in the district. Washington D.C. also has a higher rate of child poverty than the nation's average, as one in three children are in poverty.

From the Washington Post, writer Tim Craig gives us more from the report.

The study, undertaken by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute on behalf of a coalition of more than 40 local organizations, concludes that last year the District experienced its biggest single-year increase in poverty since 1995.

Based on unemployment rates and other data, the coalition estimates that the city has 106,500 residents -- up 11,000 in a year -- living at or below the poverty rate, which in 2009 was $21,800 for a family of four.

"With D.C.'s unemployment rate of 12 percent, it's very likely poverty is also on the rise in 2010 and a decline could be a long way away," said Jenny Reed, a policy analyst at the institute.

The coalition notes that the District's official rate won't be known until more census income data are released later in the year. But the report is designed to sway the political debate in the District this year, when voters will elect a mayor, a D.C. Council chairman and six council members.

The institute, DC Appleseed, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and more than three dozen other organizations have teamed to form Defeat Poverty DC. The group hopes to force candidates and elected officials to make combating poverty a central focus of their campaigns.

"D.C. has struggled with this persistent poverty for years and years," said Michael Edwards, the campaign director for Defeat Poverty DC. "We are going to be looking for elected officials to identify how they would address these issues and bring us back down.

A mobile school for villages that herd livestock

For the wandering villages of Kenya, it's hard to bring children to a school building. For these herding villages go where there is grass and water for their animals. When an area dries up, they pack up the village and move. So instead of building schools, Kenyan public education have a teacher embedded in the village who moves with it.

From the BBC, writer Will Ross proifles one such teacher and how he has to be creative in his teaching. The link to the story also contains a video that shows the classroom under a tree.

With no walls to display any visual aids the teacher, Hassan Farah, had pinned a few posters to the twigs of the tree to help with the English lesson.

"We had more posters up yesterday," he says.

"But it rained last night and a few were washed away."

The children operate a shift system - lessons in the early morning are followed by a stint looking after the animals and then they return for another class in the late afternoon.

These children no longer have to make a choice between their nomadic lifestyle and an education - they can do both.

"I really enjoy this job as I am from the same community and I want to help these children," says Mr Farah, who teaches a total of 57 students - two-thirds of them boys.

"If it was not for me they would not have gone to school."

Outdoor lessons do throw up the occasional unexpected problem.

Halfway through the class, one young boy started screaming and clutching his right foot.

"He was stung by a scorpion and most of them here are poisonous," says Mr Farah.

"But with our traditional medicine he'll be all right in a couple of hours."

The future of health care in.... Haiti

A pair of health professionals in Haiti are deeply troubled for the future of health care in their country. Jerry and Marlon Bitar not only established their own private practice in Haiti, but also a free clinic for those in poverty. As the medical aid from the earthquake begins to leave, the Bitars' wonder what if any health care will take it's place. Any survivors who where customers of the Bitar's private practice now use their free clinic, some even live there.

From the Washington Post, writer Lois Romano interviewed the pair on their concerns for the future.

But as the immediate crisis starts to wane, more and more patients with maladies unrelated to the earthquake are turning to international health-care teams led by the World Health Organization, raising concerns about Haiti's ability to care for its own once the relief teams pull out and need for rehabilitation and long-term care grows.

The Bitars ask what appears to be a simple question: How can the country's medical structure be rebuilt when hundreds of humanitarian teams are still providing health care for free? The surgeons say they have no income -- not from the poor and not from their private practice. For one, 700,000 people are now homeless with no access to funds. For another, the hospitals, the Bitars and others say, are finding it hard to compete with the visitors. With no end in sight, some of the nation's doctors have already left, and others are considering leaving.

"We have not been able to make payroll for two months," Jerry Bitar said.

Marlon added: "I am very worried that many of our good doctors will leave. The humanitarian hospitals, they don't ask for any money. Yesterday, I went to one and saw two of my private-paying patients getting treatment there."

Indisputably, international organizations are carrying the Haitian health-care system today -- and will continue into the indefinite future. Many Haitian health-care providers were among the 230,000 killed in the earthquake, and others have not shown up for work, dealing with their own losses. The nursing school at the University Hospital collapsed during exams and killed essentially an entire first-year class of nursing students.

"It is a very difficult situation," said Thomas D. Kirsch, a professor at the Johns Hopkins medical school and an expert in developing-world health issues who was recently in Haiti. "If these organizations pulled out, the system would be worse than ever, and as long as there is free care available, that's where the Haitians will go and the Haitian doctors will have no business. . . . There must be a well-planned transition period to subsidize the Haitian health-care system, have [nongovernmental organizations] work directly with Haitian providers, and to train sufficient providers and nurses to be able to meet the population's needs."

Global Agriculture Conference preview

From the Voice of America, a preview of the upcoming Global Conference on Agriculture Research for Development.

On Sunday (March 28th), the first Global Conference on Agriculture Research for Development opens in Montpellier, France. The meeting aims to address the challenges to food security, including high prices, poverty and climate change. On the eve of the conference, a new report’s been released on how to help meet those challenges.

The report is funded by many international organizations and development agencies. The lead author of the report, Uma Lele, is a former World Bank senior adviser. She calls the meeting a great opportunity for change and says not since the early 1970s has the need for agricultural reforms been so great.

“Until 2007, there were declining real commodity prices, production was increasing and there was generally a sense that we were accomplishing something. I think the food price increases of 2007 and the financial crisis of 2008 really jogged people into action…that there had been a great sense of complacency about investment in agricultural research and development,” she says.

An opportunity for chang

The report, Transforming Agricultural Research for Development, outlines the problems facing the expected 1,000 participants at the Montpellier meeting.

“Lots of poor people. Nearly a billion people are food insecure today. The Millennium Development Goals are not likely to be reached by 2015. So I think the world communities and those who are concerned about poverty are saying that this is a wonderful time again to try and do some which is similar to what happened when the CGIAR was formed,” she says.

Forty years ago, widespread fears of famine and hunger in poor countries led to the creation of CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. It’s an international partnership whose mission is to “achieve sustainable food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through scientific research in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, policy, and environment.”

CGIAR recently implemented some reforms it says will revitalize it to meet new challenges.

Nevertheless, Lele says new thinking and “radical changes” are needed in 2010.

“I think there is a general consensus in the scientific community that they have done good research, but they really have not had poverty reduction directly on their minds,” she says.

She says new technologies “need to be mobilized to benefit the poor.”

Also, G8 countries are no longer the only major players. Emerging economies, such as India and China, now have greater roles in development, contributing to scientific and technological advances. And with more players, there’s more competition for resources, land and bio-fuels.

Lele says, “So the idea is to bring them all together to see whether collectively they can address these problems better than just working in a very fragmented environment.”

Talk is cheap

Lele estimates it will cost about $80 billion dollars a year to implement all the reforms needed to ensure food security for a rapidly growing world population. That’s double what’s been spent before. But the former World Bank senior adviser warns it’s not enough to make funding pledges.

“G8 countries have pledged $20 billion over the next three years, for instance. You know, in the past, these pledges haven’t materialized. So I think one of the first things that should happen is the pledges should materialize. That’s the least that can happen,” she says.

And she says national governments must not only do a better job of investing in domestic agriculture, they must also increase those investments.

“Climate change and commodity prices and all these things now require that we spend a lot more resources to address problems, which are going to be much more complicated in the future than they have been in the past,” she says.

The new report says global population will reach nine billion by 2050, up from the current six billion. Most of the increase is expected in developing countries.

The first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development runs from March 28th through the 31st.

Be A Number, and donate a t-shirt

We learned about a great new social business that is based upon the concept of TOMS Shoes. Every time you buy a t-shirt from Be A Number, they donate a shirt to a child in need.

21 year-old college student Kevin Hershock started Be A Number after deciding what he wanted to do with his life. Hershock decided we wanted to do more than just help himself. Be a Number is based right down the road from your humble blogger here in Michigan.

From the Battle Creek Enquirer, writer Sarah Lambert describes the business and tells us about their first mass t-shirt giving coming up this weekend.

That night, Hershock designed a T-shirt with a simple logo on the front and back. He decided that each shirt would have an order number on it, and that a second shirt with a corresponding number would go to an impoverished child somewhere in the world.

Hershock's company was inspired by TOMS Shoes, a company that pledges that for every pair of shoes a customer buys, a child in need gets a pair.

Be A Number's name comes from a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

People try to avoid being just a number, Hershock said. They try to stand out. But in this case, being a number is just enough to spark a change in the world.

In the six months since he scribbled down the logo designs, Hershock already has sold 500 shirts at $20 a piece, he said.

The first batch of matching shirts, with the order numbers one to 250, will go to needy children this weekend, Hershock said. Hershock's first drop-off will be Saturday. He and his friend Elizabeth Bonner are driving the shirts to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Forty-nine percent of people living in Pine Ridge were below the poverty level in 2000 and the median household income there in 1999 was $20,170, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The median household income in the United States in that period was $50,046.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sachs on mobile technology at the Millennium Villages

In his latest commentary, Jeffrey Sachs highlights the great advances information and mobile technology have made in improving the lives of those in the under-developed world. In this piece that we found at Scientific American, Sachs cites a couple of examples that he found at the Millennium Villages.

On a recent trip to Africa, I saw two simple but powerful examples of lifesaving protocols enabled by mobile phones. In the Ghanaian village of Bonsaaso, part of the Millennium Village Project, a simple phone-based system is lowering maternal mortality during childbirth. Community health workers (CHWs) with basic training, a skilled midwife, an ambulance driver and a receiving hospital use mobile phones to coordinate as a team. Ever more deliveries now take place in the clinic rather than at home; in the event of complications, the mother is whisked to a receiving hospital about 10 miles away. Mobile phone connectivity among community, clinic, ambulance and hospital makes possible a once unthinkable degree of coordination.

In the Kenyan village of Sauri, also part of the Millennium Village Project, CHWs are pioneering the application of expert systems for malaria control. In the past, suspected malaria patients had to walk or be carried to a clinic, often miles away, have a blood smear read under a microscope by a trained technician and, if positive, receive a prescription. With clinics few and far between and with trained technicians and microscopes even scarcer, untreated, lethal malaria ran rampant.

In the new approach, CHWs visit households on the lookout for fevers that may signify malaria. They carry rapid diagnostic tests that examine a drop of blood for the presence of the malaria pathogen. Then they send an SMS (short service message) text with the patient’s ID and the test results. Seconds later an automated text response informs the health worker of the proper course of treatment, if any. The system can also send reminders about any follow-up treatments or scheduled clinic visits for the patient. The new system of malaria control includes insecticide-treated bed nets made to last for five years and a new generation of combination drugs based on a traditional Chinese herbal treatment, artemisinin.

This full set of tools constitutes a remarkably effective malaria-control system. Already a partial deployment of the system is reducing the malaria burden dramatically in several parts of Africa. Modest international financial support could greatly accelerate the deployment of the full system, and if it were scaled up throughout Africa, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved annually at around $7 per person a year in the malaria-transmission zones.

Low cost pneumonia vaccine deal officially announced

The GAVI Alliance officially announced the deal that will bring thousands of pneumonia vaccines to the under-developed world. The GAVI Alliance negotiated a deal with drug makers Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline to provide the vaccines at a reduced cost. The drug companies are guarantied a small profit even with the lower price and a new market.

This deal has already been mentioned in the press but the formal announcement was made today.

From the New York Times, writer Andrew Pollack gives more details on the deal.

Under the agreement, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline will provide up to 300 million doses each of their vaccines over a 10-year period. The price for the first 20 percent of the supply will be $7 a dose. Then the price will drop to $3.50 a dose for the remainder. The vaccines would be paid for by donations raised by GAVI and by the governments of the countries that ordered the vaccines.

In Western markets, the pneumococcal vaccines sell for $54 to $108 a dose.

“For the price of a Starbucks latte, developing countries are going to be able to buy a dose of a life-saving vaccine,” said Orin Levine, director of the international vaccine access center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has worked with GAVI.

But Tido von Schoen-Angerer, who directs the essential medicines program at the international group Doctors Without Borders, said that even with the discounts, “it’s still quite an expensive vaccine in a developing country context.” With at least three doses required, the price would initially be $21 per patient.

The agreement is the first example of GAVI’s program called advance market commitments, in which donor money is used to essentially guarantee a market for vaccine companies if they undertake development of vaccines for poor countries, or if the companies agree to build extra capacity to supply those markets with an existing vaccine.

Such a strategy, if it works, might be particularly useful in spurring companies to develop vaccines for diseases like malaria, for which virtually the entire market would be in developing countries.

New book says Britain has eased child poverty in last decade

A new book says that Britain has a better record in reducing child poverty than the United States or the rest of Europe. The book says that Britain has been able to improve child poverty during the past decade, while everywhere else has rising or constant numbers.

From the Guardian, writer Randeep Ramesh introduces us to the new book and it's author.

Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work at Columbia University, spent a year examining Labour's record and found it had turned the tide of child poverty in a way that was "larger and more sustained than in the United States". Her book, Britain's War on ­Poverty, shows that the number of children in "absolute poverty" had fallen by 1.7 million since 1999. Latest figures show 13.4% of British children remained in "absolute poverty" whereas in the US the figure was approaching 20%.

Prof Waldfogel, who spent the last year at the London School of Economics, said she was bemused by the political debate over "broken Britain". She said: "It's just not right. Progress in the United States stalled in 2000 and then child poverty rises again. The gloom and doom about the state of children and families in Britain is not justified by the data."

Relative poverty, says Waldfogel, has risen but this is due to the wealthiest in society seeing incomes balloon – leaving the rest behind. However, redistribution had provided real benefits for the poor.

Sustaining government spending would be difficult in the recession, she admitted, but the solution was to shift the burden by increasing the minimum wage or lengthening working hours.

In international terms, Britain's ranking of "wellbeing of young people" also improved: compared with other rich nations, this measure saw the UK move up from 17th place in 2001 to 12th in 2006.

"Flying Vaccinators" against malaria

Researches say they can turn the mosquito from a killer into a "flying vaccinator." Scientists in Japan have genetically modified a mosquito with a vaccine that prevents skin sores. So they believe they can soon modify the mosquito to inoculate against malaria, instead of carrying the disease.

From this AFP story hosted at Google News, we find this further explanation.

A new study shows real promise for turning the reviled insects into heroes by genetically modifying them to make them "flying vaccinators", according to scientists at Jichi Medical University north of Tokyo.

The researchers have already genetically modified a mosquito species so that its saliva contains a protein that acts as a vaccine against leishmaniasis, a sandfly-borne disease that triggers terrible skin sores and can be fatal.

The team confirmed that mice bitten by the transgenic mosquito developed an antibody to the disease, meaning they had built up immunity, said Shigeto Yoshida, the associate professor who has led the research.

Similarly the mosquitoes could be used to help combat malaria, perhaps a decade from now, said the malaria expert.

"What's good is that they don't charge you for vaccinations," Yoshida told AFP by telephone on Wednesday.

"You would be vaccinated without even noticing. You wouldn't need any drug and you wouldn't need to show up at a designated place for mass vaccinations."

Repeat bites would only strengthen the immunity, he said.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A recap of World Water Day

Yesterday was World Water Day, as leaders throughout the world took some time to address and discuss water use issues. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made remarks to the National Geographic Society yesterday, where she said that the water crisis is a central issue to US foreign policy.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Matthew Berger gives us some background on World Water Day which began in 1992.

Eighteen years later, those crises are only becoming more immediate. Glaciers and snow packs in the Himalayas and East Africa are disappearing, as are the rivers and streams into which they feed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that 75 to 250 million people in Africa will suffer increased water stress due to the climatic changes by 2020.

But climate change is only part of the equation. A booming global population, poor sanitation, and unsustainable agricultural and household water use all contribute to strain the water cycle that sustains life on Earth, putting both the quantity and quality of the planet's most important resource in danger.

The World Health Organisation says that water scarcity affects one in three people on every continent and that one-fifth of people live in areas where water is physically scarce. Another quarter of the world's population face water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure to transport water from river and aquifers.

These are not just humanitarian but security matters, Clinton said Wednesday. "And that's why President [Barack] Obama and I recognise that water issues are integral to the success of many of our major foreign policy initiatives."

She noted that addressing water shortages and quality is central to ensuring the "stability of young governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations depends in part on their ability to provide their people with access to water and sanitation."

Among the other specific initiatives that must take water issues into account, Clinton cited the Global Health Initiative, which commits 63 billion dollars over six years to improve children's health and fight preventable diseases in poorer countries, among other health goals.

The effects of poor water access or sanitation are well-known. A report from the U.N. Environment Programme released Monday said 1.8 million children under five years old die due to a lack of clean water. The report also said diarrhoea, mostly caused by dirty water, kills about 2.2 million people a year and that over half the world's hospital beds are occupied by those suffering "illnesses linked with contaminated water."

IADB forgives Haiti's past debts

Last night the Inter-American Development Bank announced that they world forgive Haiti all of it's past debts. The IADB held $479 million of the earthquake ravaged country's debt.

From this Associated Press article that we found at Forbes, we read more about the announcement.

Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno said the bank's board of governors voted to forgive the debt and will offer $2 billion in financing to the Caribbean nation over the next 10 years.

"This commitment is good news for all Haitians, and will help heal the wounds caused by the earthquake," Moreno said at the inauguration of the bank's annual meeting in the Caribbean coast resort of Cancun.

The IADB debt was the biggest single chunk of the $1.2 billion Haiti owed as of late January, according to figures of the International Monetary Fund.

Ugandan forces seize cattle from Kenyan herders

Cattle herders who crossed national borders to find green pasture have come into trouble with the Ugandan government. Instead of grass and water they found Ugandan forces seizing the cattle and accusing the headers of committing crimes. Now the families who depend on the cattle for their livelihoods now have to take international aid for food. The prospects of getting the cattle back is next to nothing.

From this Daily Nation article that we found at All Africa writer Dennis Odunga details this tragic story.

There are reports that up to 3,000 Kenyan herders are currently in Uganda with their animals. The pastoralists say the Uganda government is out to harass them, yet they are innocent.

"We can't all be criminals just because animals have been stolen and we happen to be on foreign soil," Mzee Chokaa says through an interpreter, Mr Richard Lokwang'a.

He is talking about a cattle raid in Uganda on January 28 that saw UPDF soldiers round up pastoralists, including some from Kenya, and confiscate their cattle. The Kenyan herders he, says, were ordered back home with nothing.

Herders' families are camping at Napitiro, Kalapat, Orolwo, Kodich, Konyao and Karameri areas in North Pokot District and are relying on relief supplies from the Kenya Red Cross Society, the government and other well-wishers.

Their children cannot go to school, most of which are far away from the camp. Education is no longer a priority as the children must help the families to gather wild fruits, which are their main food.

Their cattle, apart from providing milk, were also a source of meat and blood.

"The harsh climatic conditions in this area at this time force us to cross the border in search of pasture and water," Mr Samson Angirokwang says.

The families say that 14 people are unaccounted for, amid fears that they might have been shot dead during the confrontation with the UPDF soldiers.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Slums grow worldwide according to UN study

A new study from the United Nations finds a paradox in the number of people living in slums. China and India have been able to cut by a quarter the number of their people living in slums. Worldwide, the numbers are not so good, as slum-dwellers have grown by 55 million people.

From Reuters we find more statistics from the UN study.

The number of people living in shantytowns increased by 55 million to 827.6 million as population growth and migration from the countryside outstripped the effect of upward mobility in cities, the U.N.'s biennial report on cities found.

"The situation has improved over 10 years, but alas over the same period, the net increase of the urban poor is 55 million," Anna Tibaijuka, the executive director of the U.N. Habitat program, said in Rio de Janeiro.

The Brazilian city will next week host the World Urban Forum, a five-day U.N. conference on the state of the world's cities, where more than half the global population now lives.

Some 227 million people escaped slum conditions from 2000 to 2010, meaning that countries easily surpassed their collective target under the U.N. Millennium Development target, the report said.

Tibaijuka played down the achievement of beating the Millennium goal of pulling 100 million people out of poverty, calling it "totally inadequate." The Millennium goals include cutting extreme poverty, reducing child mortality and fighting epidemics by 2015.

Barring "drastic" action, the number of slum dwellers in the world's cities is expected to grow by 6 million a year over the next decade to hit 889 million by 2020, the report said.

OXFAM warns of poor rain season in West Africa

OXFAM is issuing an alert on a failed rainy season in West Africa. The humanitarian aid organization says that spotty rainfall during 2009 could lead to a severe food shortage. The worst hit area will be Niger where 8 million people could go hungry. OXFAM is issuing the alert now so that aid can begin to be brought into the area before the food shortages become severe.

From the OXFAM press release, we read more about the alert.

Almost 10 million people across the Sahel region of West Africa are threatened with a severe food shortage, international aid agency Oxfam said today. The worst affected country is Niger where 8 million people are at risk. Some 2 million people are threatened in Chad and a substantial number of people are expected to be affected in Mali in the coming months. Parts of Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also at risk.

The agency called upon developed countries to respond urgently to the early warning of impending disaster, citing delays during the Niger food crisis in 2005 that unnecessarily cost lives.

“We are witnessing an unfolding disaster which can be averted if the world acts swiftly. Five years ago the world ignored the warning signs from Niger, failed to act rapidly and lives were lost. The international community cannot make the same mistake and again condemn many children to an early death,” said Mamadou Biteye Oxfam’s West Africa Regional Director.

Irregular rains in 2009 have led to a severe lack of pasture, water and a poor harvest. In Niger, the harvest has fallen by 26 percent as compared with the previous year, and some areas, especially the Diffa in the east of country and Tillabéry to the west, have had no harvest at all. In Chad, harvests have fallen by 34 percent. The areas of Hadjer Lamis, Batha, Kanem, Guera regions and eastern Chad are expected to be hit hard, especially from June 2010. Overall, the harvest in the Sahel has decreased by 9 percent with great disparities between East and West Sahel.

Prices of cereals are high and increasing. Millet and sorghum prices are up to respectively 25 and 50 percent higher than a year ago in Niger. Rains are not expected until June and prices are expected to increase until the next harvest in September without a substantial aid effort.

Pastoralists are especially vulnerable as they depend on animals for their food and income. “With not enough fodder, herders are desperate to sell their animals, driving livestock prices lower and lower,” explains Hassane Baka, a representative of Oxfam’s partner AREN in Niger. “This means that for each animal sold on the market, pastoralists get less cereal with which to feed their families.”

Oxfam called on donors to respond to the government of Niger’s request for international humanitarian assistance. While the authorities have some food reserves, these are currently not sufficient. Up to $123 million was requested to fund the national response plan. The agency also called on donors to address increasing needs in Chad and Mali.

Oxfam also called on all countries in the region to keep their borders open. In 2005, the situation was made worse when neighboring countries closed their borders with Niger. This limited the availability of food and increased inflation. The agency also stressed the need for good coordination between governments, UN agencies, and local and international NGOs to ensure efficient aid delivery.

A summary of the health care expansion bill

Yesterday was a historic day in the states as the long-awaited, long-debated health care expansion bill was passed. The Associated Press is distributing a summary of what the bill contains.

For the purposes of our blog what is most important is the expansion itself. Now Medicaid will cover people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

Our snippet of the AP article comes from KPHO in Phoenix.

COST: $940 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

HOW MANY COVERED: 32 million uninsured. Major coverage expansion begins in 2014. When fully phased in, 95 percent of eligible Americans would have coverage, compared with 83 percent today.

INSURANCE MANDATE: Almost everyone is required to be insured or else pay a fine. There is an exemption for low-income people. Mandate takes effect in 2014.

INSURANCE MARKET REFORMS: Starting this year, insurers would be forbidden from placing lifetime dollar limits on policies, from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions, and from canceling policies because someone gets sick. Parents would be able to keep older kids on their coverage up to age 26. A new high-risk pool would offer coverage to uninsured people with medical problems until 2014, when the coverage expansion goes into high gear. Major consumer safeguards would also take effect in 2014. Insurers would be prohibited from denying coverage to people with medical problems or charging them more. Insurers could not charge women more.

MEDICAID: Expands the federal-state Medicaid insurance program for the poor to cover people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, $29,327 a year for a family of four. Childless adults would be covered for the first time, starting in 2014. The federal government would pay 100 percent of costs for covering newly eligible individuals through 2016. A special deal that would have given Nebraska 100 percent federal financing for newly eligible Medicaid recipients in perpetuity is eliminated. A different, one-time deal negotiated by Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu for her state, Louisiana, worth as much as $300 million, remains.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: Gradually closes the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit that seniors fall into once they have spent $2,830. Seniors who hit the gap this year will receive a $250 rebate. Beginning in 2011, seniors in the gap receive a discount on brand name drugs, initially 50 percent off. When the gap is completely eliminated in 2020, seniors will still be responsible for 25 percent of the cost of their medications until Medicare's catastrophic coverage kicks in.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Guest Voices: Concern education program in Nsanje, Malawi

Continuing with our guest blogging series, Poverty News Blog has begun a partnership with Concern Worldwide. Concern is a non-governmental humanitarian organization that tries to address the root causes of poverty to restore people's dignity. Concern also responds to emergency situations such as the recent earthquake in Haiti.

Our first guest post from Concern Worldwide comes from Joseph Scott. Currently working in Malawi, Scott files this story on how Concern's education program is helping to fulfill the dreams of children.

Concern education program in Nsanje, Malawi
By Joseph Scott

Martha is a shy yet intelligent twelve-year-old girl. This year, she was supposed to earn her primary school leaving certificate (PSLC). Her teachers believed she would make it to high school, as she had been the best student in her class since the first grade. Last school term, she was also at the top of her class.

Bursting with confidence, she eagerly presented her exam report card to her father. Like any other child who has done extremely well in class, Martha was expecting to be showered with praise. But that wasn’t to be; her father passively gazed at the piece of paper and folded it into his pocket.

What Martha didn’t know was that her father had already found a suitor in marriage for her, and that over the next few days, she would be the new housewife of a man old enough to be her grandfather. And for Martha, despite her excellent academic record, this was to be her last term in school.

In Nsanje, where Concern is working, this scenario has abruptly cut short the dreams of many young girls. Some 12 percent of all females in the country are aged between 6-13 years, and it is estimated that 74 percent of the population here live below the poverty line.

Poverty and traditional customs allow parents to marry off their daughters when they think they have come of age. Since the suitor pays a bride price, the trend is now that the younger the girl, the higher the bride price.

Like Martha, many young girls in Nsanje have been caught in this vicious trap. Their dreams, hopes and aspirations have been destroyed by these negative cultural practices or by the pervasive daughter- with-cash bartering.

Negative cultural practices, which unfortunately, are widespread, have been the major contributing factor in preventing girls from receiving an education. For instance, it is believed that girls will gain respect if they marry early and have children.

In Malawi, approximately 17 percent of girls drop out of school as a result of forced marriages, and schools are not safe for girls due to sexual abuse by male teachers and men at large.

In extreme cases, the girls are subjected to the “tsempho” belief. Parents will have their daughters married young as they fear that they will become pregnant outside marriage and have an abortion. This, according to the tsempho belief, will bring death to the family.

The situation has been going on for some time but not without its consequences. Currently, Nsanje is one of the districts in Malawi where the girl drop-out rate is far below the national average.

Despite the prevalence of the problem, few people have come out in the open to criticize these customs. Concern has been holding meetings with community leaders and education officials in the district to highlight these problems. We are in the process of drafting an education program that seeks to change the prevailing views on girl child education.

Results from the awareness meetings held so far by Concern, reveal that communities are now aware that educating girls is equally important to educating boys. Now there has been a call for urgent action from all sectors of the Nsanje society, something which will help to finally turn the situation around.

The overall goal of Concern’s five-year educational program in Malawi is to improve access to quality education—and to complete the primary education—of 18,736 children, primarily girls and those most vulnerable, in 25 schools. This program is new, but the need is great, and we know that it will result in huge tranformations in the lives of girls and the most vulnerable children, who deserve futures full of choices.

Joseph Scott is the Communications Officer for Concern Worldwide in Malawi, the international humanitarian agency. A journalist by trade, Joseph is also a photographer and videographer. He blogs regularly about Concern’s work in Malawi in the areas of health, livelihoods, emergency, and education. Footage that Joseph recently shot on site in Malawi will be broadcast on CNN this Sunday (March 21, 2010), as part of a special report on Twestival 2010. Concern Worldwide is this year’s Twestival Global recipient.

Cases of drug resistant tuberculosis reach new highs

A new report from the World Health Organization says that cases of drug resistant tuberculosis is running at an all time high. As the cases of TB resistant to drugs increase, it also increases the chances of tuberculosis spreading out of control. The highest levels of drug resistant TB cases are found just outside of the European union.

From the Guardian, writer Sarah Boseley gives us more details on the WHO report.

The report shows that one in four cases in parts of Russia are drug-resistant. The WHO estimates that 440,000 people worldwide had multi-drug-resistant forms of the disease (MDR-TB) in 2008, the last year for which there are complete figures, and that a third of them died. MDR-TB is defined as cases in which the two most commonly used and most effective drugs, isoniazid and rifampicin, do not kill the bacteria causing the disease.

More alarming is extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), which was first identified in 2006 in a small group of people with HIV in South Africa, almost all of whom died. It is resistant not only to the two basic drugs but also to the second-line antibiotics, including fluoroquinolone, amikacin, kanamycin and capreomycin.

In poor areas such as KwaZulu-Natal, where XDR-TB was first seen, aggressive chemotherapy treatment lasting two years, which can still save lives, is unavailable.

The report warns that not enough is known even about the extent of drug-resistant TB and that the cost of checking the spread of the disease will be high.

Not all countries have the surveillance systems to pick up cases of XDR-TB, but in the 40 that were able to submit data to the WHO, 5.4% of all their drug-resistant cases were XDR-TB. In eight countries, such strains accounted for 10% of all resistant cases. So far, 58 countries have confirmed at least one case of XDR-TB.

Drug resistance in general is running at an all-time high, at 3.6% of all TB cases. Almost half of all the cases are in China and India. In 2008, an estimated 150,000 people died of drug-resistant TB.

A couple of viewpoints on Pakistan

As a preview the upcoming US-Pakistan talks in Washington, we have a couple of viewpoints on the link between terrorism and poverty in Pakistan.

With many living in poverty in Pakistan some of those poor become easy recruits to the Al-Qeada and Taliban operations based there. Due to frustration and anger over their living conditions, they join groups who want to take violent action against those who they feel are keeping them poor. However, many military and state leaders say there is no link between poverty and terrorism.

The US gives 1.5 million dollars a year in humanitarian aid to Pakistan.

From CNN's Christine Amanpour show blog, we get two viewpoints of poverty and terrorism in Pakistan, first from Roshaneh Zafar, of the Kashf Foundation, and second from our favorite financier Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund. Writer Tom Evans summarised the show on Pakistan.

"I personally think that addressing poverty, which is Pakistan's biggest problem today, is going to combat in some ways the issue of security that we face," Roshaneh Zafar, founder and president of the Kashf Foundation told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

"We worked with 1 million poor families across Pakistan, and we've seen what happens, the change that happens." She said even small increases in family incomes can transform society, because parents can then put their children in private schools.

"[By] putting in micro-finance, which is the most sustainable way of providing aid to low-income households, we are beginning to see a silent revolution take place both in terms of children going to school, their ability to actually transcend their social backgrounds and become professionals," she said.

But Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, which invests in development projects in Pakistan and elsewhere, cited the example of the huge progress she said is being made in housing construction in Pakistan as a result of initiatives by nonprofit organizations.

"I think that's where we're going to start seeing real scale. And then there's the scale of the human imagination," she said.

"Then there's the scale of frameworks that start with trust and credibility that both the United States and the Pakistan government have as an opportunity to show that they're there, that they care and they can make things happen."