Friday, May 28, 2010

Guest Voices: The Lifechanging Business of Small Ideas: Rabbits become Lifeline in Malawi

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, a story about a rabbit farming program in Malawi that helps small-farmers when other crops fail. The story was written by Joseph Scott, who works as a Communications Officer for Concern in Malawi.

As the rains mercilessly pound the small village of Chikanga – Stefano and his neighbours hope that, this season, their crops will make it.

The rainfall pattern of the last two farming seasons has been unpredictable, with rains disappearing mid-season and leaving any crops to the mercy of the sun.

After two hours of thunderous downpours, Stefano, a father of five from Lilongwe, goes out to survey his rabbit kraal and chicken pen, dodging the children playing and shouting all around him.

Unlike the past years, Stefano has a sense of calm and security. Whether there are going to be floods, drought, or normal rainfall, he is better positioned than ever before to withstand potential disaster.

Stefano was living a difficult life before Concern reached him and helped him fortify his source of income through a rabbit farming project run in partnership with a local organization called Hope for the Heart

Through this project and others, Concern aims to improve the lives of extremely poor households in Lilongwe by providing them with a more reliable means of managing their own resources and a stable livelihood. Currently, 50 households are benefiting from the program and Stefano’s is one of them.

“When I went to receive the rabbits, I just did it for formality sake. All my hopes were dashed by the negative things my neighbors were saying. I started believing more in what people were saying, and how I would fail, that in what I could achieve from the project,” he recalls.

But circumstances forced him to invest more faith in his own potential.

Earlier this year, Stefano was struck by double tragedy. His maize crop withered as rains abruptly stopped during the flowering stage. Within the space of a few months, his sister died, leaving behind three children. As the only living uncle, Stefano took on the responsibility of their upbringing.

“I had no food, no money or anything to give to my now larger family. I knew being given the rabbits was an act of God. He gave me something small so that I should think big,” he said.

“I followed all the instruction on rabbit farming and within a few months,” said Stefano, “the rabbits gave birth.”

“When the rabbits came of age I sold some, and from the proceeds I managed to get money to buy things on the market like soap and maize meal to feed my family.”

From the income, Stefano now has twenty rabbits, two goats, and one pig with nine offspring. He has managed to increase crop production during the rainy season by using manure from the livestock and now cultivates low land using irrigation during the dry season.

“One small idea led to another,” he explained brimming with pride. “Never before had I dreamed of gardening, but now I have one. Some of the vegetables I use to feed my rabbits, some I use for food, and the rest I sell.”

“Those neighbors who were discouraging me are now the ones coming to me for advice on how to start a rabbit project. They can see that my life has changed for the better,” says Stefano.

Maloto Amos, Stefabo’s wife agrees: “We could not even manage to feed the children two times a day most of the year. But now we have changed the situation around: we can feed the children and send them to school thanks to the inspiration and training, as well as the support provided by the program. Even if Concern left us tomorrow our family could continue to grow more food and increase its assets.’’

Poverty News Blog on social networks

Our Facebook group hasn't had any new members in some time, so we figured this was a good spot to give it a little plug.

Each of our posts are linked onto the group wall. So if we understand how Facebook works correctly, when you join the group, each post will show up on your news feed. Until of course you get tired of it cluttering your feed and you choose to block us, which we wouldn't recommend.

Anyone who is a part of the Facebook group has an open invite to participate or start any on-topic discussions on the group message board. You can join our Facebook group by hitting this link. Being a part of the group is a great way to get our attention, because, we admit, we sort of have a Facebook addiction.

Poverty News Blog is also on Twitter. We link each and every post onto the Twitter page. You may also see some strange tweet of us trying to get someone's attention, retweets of other items we find interesting, or updates on our schedule. You can follow us by heading to this link.

It's a holiday weekend in the United States, and to celebrate we are having company stay with us. So in an effort to be a "good host", you won't see any posts from us until Tuesday. Have fun!

Scientist to study how poverty effects brain development

A scientist from our home state of Michigan will conduct research to see how poverty effects the brain. Using new imaging technology Dr. James Swain will be able to determine how the stress and disadvantages of poverty shape a child's brain development.

From the Detroit News, writer Anne McIlroy asks Swain about his experiment.

The University of Michigan researcher will use imaging technologies to compare the structure and function of brains of young adults from families with low socioeconomic status to those who are middle-class.

He knows the work has the potential to be controversial, but he hopes it will eventually lead to new teaching methods or early-childhood interventions that would help children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families succeed at school and in life.

"That would be the dream, to inform social policy," Swain said.

He and other neuroscientists are building on preliminary evidence that suggests the chronic stress of living in an impoverished household, among other factors, can have an impact on the developing brain.

Studies suggest low socioeconomic status may affect several areas of the brain, including the circuitry involved in language, memory and in executive functions, a set of skills that help us focus on a problem and solve it.

His volunteers are 52 young adults that one of his colleagues, Gary Evans at Cornell University, has been tracking since they were in their mothers' wombs. Half of them grew up in poverty, the other half in working or middle-class homes.

As early as next month, Swain will begin two days of brain imaging and tests for each volunteer. He will assess language skills and memory and study how their brains react to pictures of scary faces, and whether that reaction changes when they are stressed. (He'll stress them by asking them to do mental arithmetic in front of strangers.)

From The Detroit News:

Number of high poverty schools in US increases

A new study tells us that there has been an increase in the U.S. school districts that can be called "high-poverty" districts. The districts receive that determination based on the number of students who ask for free or reduced price school lunches. A school is called a "high-poverty" school if three quarters of it's students are enrolled in the reduced lunch program.

From the Boston Globe, writer Christine Armario gives us a breakdown of the numbers and what it could mean for those students.

The US Department of Education report released yesterday found that the percent of high poverty schools rose from 12 percent to 17 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school years, even before the current recession was fully felt.

By comparison, the overall poverty rate for children increased from 17 percent to 18 percent, leading researchers to believe that that a higher percentage of poor children were signing up for the meal program.

In all, there were 16,122 schools considered high-poverty.

Students at these schools face a number of disadvantages:

■ They are less likely to graduate from high school; on average, 68 percent of 12th-grade students in high poverty schools graduated with a diploma in 2007-2008, compared with 91 percent at low poverty schools.

■ After graduating from a high poverty school, 28 percent enrolled in a four-year institution, compared with 52 percent of graduates from low poverty schools.

Muhammad Yunus on tour talking about social business

Muhammad Yunus is on a speaking tour to promote his new book "Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing Needs" (looks like my summer reading list just got altered). In his new book, Yunus describes some social businesses that he created in cooperation with Adidas, Dannon Yogurt and others. Yunus says any social problem can be helped by creating a social business to counter it, because such a business does not focus on profit but on increasing social welfare.

From the blog Next Million, writer Nilima Achwal sums up the idea of social business quite well. Achwal also gives us a couple of proposals from Yunus on fixing problems in US health care and Haiti.

Social business, as defined by Yunus, is a venture whose sole mission is to create a positive impact on society through its good or service, and is thoroughly sustainable, or covers its costs. All profits are re-invested into the company in order to expand and create a greater impact. As with any market-based approach, social businesses increase their efficiency and quality through competition, but on the basis of social impact rather than profit. Social businesses, by the nature of being businesses, can scale up quickly and solve the world's problems.

Yunus envisions a world in which social businesses and for-profit companies thrive side-by-side. Instead of donating to charities, people will have the option to invest in a social business, creating more lasting change than donating to a charity, whose work may be limited by its dependence on funding. Soon, there will emerge a "social stock market" that functions alongside the traditional stock market. Since humans are multi-dimensional beings with aspirations other than just getting rich, unlike the one-dimensional profit-seeking drones as painted by traditional economic theory, most people will invest in both stock markets and choose social businesses on the basis of the social impact they create. There will be no dividends in the social stock market, only the satisfaction of helping to change the world.

Yunus even applies his social business concept to seemingly insurmountable challenges. He suggests placing 5% of a welfare fund into a social business venture fund to encourage those on welfare to start social businesses or devising businesses that serve those who need healthcare in the US. He also champions placing 10-15% of charity to Haiti in a social business fund to encourage sustainable solutions and set a precedent for future crisis situations. He declares that solving these challenges is "all about how to use our creative mind."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A couple of studies concerning AIDS

If you haven't seen the documentary "The Lazarus Effect" please do so. It shows the effect that Anti-Retroviral drugs can have on those who are HIV-positive. The film shows skinny, weak, sickly people, then returns a couple of months later to show the same people stronger, healthier and with a lot more weight. The film is available on YouTube, we linked to it on this prior post.

One of the heartbreaking aspects of the film is the stats that show that many who are HIV-positive will never receive the drugs. A couple of studies released today emphasize the impact that ARV drugs have. One shows the benefits, another shows how many will lose those benefits due to funding cut backs.

First on the cutbacks, Medecins Sans Frontieres says that funding cutbacks can undermine the progress made and kill many people. This summary of the report comes from the National Post and Reuters writer Kate Kelland.

Major donors include the United States, the World Bank, the health funding agency UNITAID, and backers of the Global Fund.

"How can we give up the fight halfway and pretend that the crisis is over?" said Mit Philips, a health policy analyst for MSF and one of the authors of the report.

"There is a real risk that many ... will die within the next few years if necessary steps are not taken now."

An estimated 33 million people around the world are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and more than half of the 9.5 million people who need AIDS drugs cannot get them, according to the United Nations.

The MSF report said that the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief, known as PEPFAR, cut its budget for buying AIDS drugs in 2009 and 2010 and froze its overall HIV/AIDS budget.

The Global Fund, the largest funding body in the fight against HIV/AIDS, is also facing shortfalls. The United States, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany have said all they will be cutting their contributions.

Read more:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have released a study that shows that ARV drugs can help stop transmission of HIV between sexual partners. This unpacking of the study comes from Bloomberg Business Week and writer Simeon Bennett.

Only one of the 349 infected heterosexual patients who started treatment passed the virus to someone else, an international team of researchers wrote today in the journal Lancet. That corresponds to a transmission rate of 0.37 infections in every 100 patients per year among those who started therapy, compared with a rate of 2.24 infections among those who didn’t. A study of the effect of HIV drugs on transmission over a longer time period is under way, they said.

Today’s research, which was also funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, supports a study that suggested the spread of HIV in hard-hit African nations could be cut by 95 percent in a decade if all those infected started taking medicines immediately. That so-called test-and-treat theory has been disputed in other mathematical models that say those projections are based on flawed on assumptions.

A shortage of blood in Egypt

From IRIN, a story about a shortage in blood donations that threatens patient health in Egypt.

Outside downtown Cairo’s teeming Ramses train station, the crowd studiously ignores the health official, despite his repeated pleas for travellers to spare a few minutes to donate blood in a nearby minivan.

“Thousands of patients badly need blood in hospitals across our country,” Ahmed Abbas told IRIN.

A few kilometres away, Amira Mohamed, 10, is in Abulreesh Children’s Hospital, suffering from beta thalassaemia, a genetic blood disorder that reduces the production of haemoglobin. Her survival depends on monthly blood transfusions, which are expensive and increasingly hard to come by.

Her mother, Huda Shoeb, pays 100-700 Egyptian pounds (US$18-127) every month to buy her a bag of blood. “Nothing else can be done,” she says. “It was a bit easier to find blood in the past, but now things are difficult. You’ve got to pay a lot for it.”

While Egypt’s population has grown to just over 80 million in 2010, the number of blood donors has fallen sharply in recent years, according to health experts, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients.

“The problem is that supply has dropped, but demand has not dropped in the same way,” said Fatem Muftah, head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre, which manages a network of 24 such centres across the nation. “A drop in supply will eventually harm patients everywhere.”


Every day, the centres send out 70 fully-equipped blood donation minivans but they come back with a collective average of 2,000 units of blood (about 900 litres), 30 percent less than what the nation’s hospitals require. If they could increase collection to 3,000 units of blood a day, which would equate to 1.1 million units annually, demand would be satisfied, Muftah said.

“A large swath of the population stopped donating blood a long time ago,” Muftah said. “They think they will be harmed if they donate blood.”

Medical experts say there are various reasons behind the drop, including malnutrition, which has become common in Egypt.

“Malnutrition is an undeniable reality,” said Nelly Sedki, a blood expert. “How can an undernourished person donate blood?”

A report by the Health Ministry and the UN Development Programme in 2009 said almost a third of Egyptian children were malnourished. Another report said 23 percent of Egyptians lived below the poverty line.

Blood donations started to come under public scrutiny in 2007 when a local company was accused of providing the Health Ministry with defective blood. A Cairo criminal court will issue a verdict on 17 July to bring the case to an end, but many ordinary Egyptians have been deterred from donating blood as a result.

Hepatitis C

This has made life tough for Amira, whose mother must make several calls every month to find the blood her daughter needs.

The situation faced by some 150,000 hepatitis C patients needing regular transfusions is even worse, experts say. Nearly 10 percent of the population is infected with the hepatitis C virus, according to the Health Ministry.

“Around 2 percent of these people need blood transfusions on a regular basis,” Wahid Doss, head of Egypt’s National Institute for Liver and Communicable Diseases, said. “These people suffer the most because of the inadequacy of donated blood.”

The deficit and a ban on imports have led to an unprecedented rise in the price of blood. Hospitals sometimes pressurise relatives of patients to donate blood if they have the same blood type.

Amnesty calls on governments to be held accountable

Amnesty International has released the latest installment of their annual "The State of the World's Human Rights." This year Amnesty is calling on governments to held accountable for human rights abuses. Further, they say that governments must be held into account for not pulling their people out of poverty, not improving access to health care and education, and not meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Katie Nguyen recieved some quotes from Amnesty. Alert Net also has this companion piece that gathers some of the statistics in the report.

"Rights to food, education, health and housing are out of their reach, and they cannot claim them due to the non-existent, corrupt or discriminatory justice systems," Amnesty's interim secretary-general Claudio Cordone wrote in the report.

"This is shown by mass forced evictions of people from their homes, whether in African countries such as Angola, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, or the Roma in European countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Romania and Serbia. The result: the poor are driven deeper into poverty."

Adding its voice to concerns about the ability of countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were drawn up in 2000 by 189 heads of state, Amnesty said governments were falling far short of the targets and that new thinking was needed.

It said to stand a better chance of meeting the targets for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and providing access to affordable essential medicines, the targets should be based on legal commitments governments have made to meet basic human rights.

"When it comes to the Millennium Development Goals we see that the rights that are embedded in those goals are still not really enforceable," Cordone told AlertNet in an interview.

"So, for example, you cannot go to court in most parts of the world to say 'I've been kicked out of my house, I've been evicted wrongfully, I need compensation'."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Israel is now a developed nation, but poverty is still widespread

Israel is about to enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD entry for Israel means that the world will recognize the country as a developed economy instead of an emerging one. The new classification will help it's stature with foreign investors. Despite the new designation for Israel, poverty still looms large within it's population.

From this AFP article that we found at Google News, writer Steve Weizman gives us these new statistics for Israel.

By the OECD's definition, 20 percent of Israel's population of 7.6 million currently live below the poverty line -- more than in any member state.

And about 40 percent of people of working age have no jobs, compared to about 33 percent in OECD countries, the organisation reported in January.

This is largely due to cultural traditions among Israel's large Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish minorities -- each of which has low participation in the workforce but higher than average birthrates.

"All told, nearly half of children entering primary school belong to one or other of these communities," the OECD said.

"Israel will have to take action on a number of fronts including education, training, childcare, support for jobseekers and working conditions if it is to ensure these children do not inherit their parents? economic disadvantage," the OECD said.

Jerusalem's Taub Center for Social Policy Studies said the current trend must change, or Israel will find it hard to survive.

"In order for tomorrow's adults to be employed 30 years from now, then today's pupils need to receive an education befitting the needs of a modern economy," it said last week.

New violent protests in Haiti

We we're hoping that violent protests wouldn't begin to flare up in Haiti, but if you leave people squatting in tents long enough, then it's bound to happen.

Protests against the Haitian government and armed peacekeepers turned violent in Haiti on Monday. Rocks were thrown at the armed peacekeepers and they responded by spraying tear gas into the tent villages.

From IPS, writer Ansel Herz reports from from the Port-au-Prince tent camps that surround the Haitian capital palace.

Three volunteer doctors from the NGO Partners in Health who were working in the emergency room of the General Hospital said they treated at least six individuals with wounds from rubber bullets.

"They were bleeding," Sarah McMillan, a doctor from New Hampshire, told IPS. "There was a little girl with a big laceration on her face. It needed about 10 stitches. She'll probably have a scar."

Thousands of families are crowded into the public squares in the Champs du Mars zone around the palace, after the earthquake killed at least 200,000 people and drove nearly two million from destroyed neighbourhoods.

A coalition of political organisations called Tet Kole, Haitian Creole for "Heads Together", has staged protests in the area for the past month, demanding the resignation of President René Préval over his handling of the post-earthquake crisis.

The walls of the Faculty of Ethnology school are dotted with graffiti denouncing Préval and the United Nations. Students said they gave Brazilian peacekeeping troops stationed in jeeps outside the campus the middle finger sign late Monday afternoon.

When the troops tried to enter the campus, angrily calling students thieves and vagabonds, the students showered them with rocks. As the soldiers fled, they fired three bullet rounds in the air and one of them struck the front-facing wall of the school, students said.

When the troops returned in bigger vehicles, Frantz Mathieu Junior said he ran to hide in a bathroom, but the soldiers kicked the thin wooden door open. Junior said he was forced to the ground and kicked repeatedly, then taken away. He says he was force-fed while in detention.

The students showed IPS on Tuesday the cracks in the wooden door and the bullet hole next to a second-storey window. After Junior was taken on Monday, they took to the streets in an angry protest, throwing more rocks.

The opposition protests continued Tuesday afternoon in Chanmas. Scores of U.N. troops and Haitian police ringed the national palace with barricades. The demonstrators accuse President Préval of seeking to grab power by extending his mandate past the original end date. Parliament approved the extension.

Some are also upset with the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission, which directs the spending of nearly 10 billion dollars in aid money. A majority of the commission members are foreigners, though Préval has a final veto on all decisions.

"If they want to suppress the protest, why didn't they shoot the gas at the school where the students are?" asked Malia Villa, an organiser with the Haitian women's group KONFAVIV, who fled the Chanmas area Monday night. "How can they shoot it in the middle of the camp, where we have children and families? They say they're here for security in the country, but how can the government work with them now when they do this?"

"We can't continue to tolerate this anymore. It's revolting to us," she told IPS, throwing up her hands.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

G-7 aid goals from 2005 still not met

The ONE Campaign has issued a new report that shows the progress the G-7 has made in fulfilling it aid commitment made in 2005. The G-7 promised to double it's aid to Africa that year, so far only 61 percent of proposed total has been delivered.

From the Toronto Star, writer Tonda MacCharles summaries the reports result and ONE's hopes for the upcoming G-8 summit.

The group reported Tuesday that the G7 countries (the G8 group minus Russia) will, by the end of the year, have delivered 61 per cent of the 2005 pledge to double aid to sub-Saharan Africa, said David Lane, president of ONE.

If Italy—which “failed dismally” to deliver on its commitments —is taken out of the mix, the other richest economies have delivered on 75 per cent of the overall pledges, said Lane.

“These commitments have made a dramatic difference,” he said.

He pointed to an extra 257 million children who have been vaccinated, saving the lives of 5.4 million children under age 5 who would have otherwise died from preventable diseases. In addition, 200 million insecticide-treated bed nets were distributed to combat malaria, halving malaria deaths in some countries. Nearly three million more people are now being treated with antiviral drugs to fight the ravages of HIV-AIDS.

But Lane warned there are signs the politicized debate in Canada over the Conservative government’s decision not to fund safe, legal abortions has stalled momentum at the negotiating tables behind the scenes in the lead-up to the G8 summit next month.

“It feels like a stumbling block right now,” said David Lane, president of ONE. “My point is that those in responsible positions ought to find a way to deal with it so they do not stop the momentum moving toward the G8.”

Lane said Canadian negotiators put forward “two main centrepieces heading into this summit... accountability where there’s been a lot of progress” and maternal child health, where there have been “misgivings in the councils that prepare for the meeting where there’s a little bit less clear way forward and a less clear momentum.”

War produces 50,000 Sri Lankan widowers

The recent war in Sri Lanka created a nation of widowed parents who fear for their family's security. As their husbands and sons died or disappeared in the war, the women now have to find employment and safety without them. A recent survey finds that there 50,000 such widows on the east side of Sri Lanka.

From the IPS, writer Suvendrini Kakuchi talks about the survey from an advocacy group representing the Sri Lankan widows.

Indeed, a year since the bloody ethnic conflict ended in May 2009, research conducted by local women’s groups on the plight of the South Asian island state’s war-affected women shows employment and security are their top priorities as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Many of them lost their husbands to the war, because they were either killed or went missing during the almost 30-year conflict with the Tamil secessionists.

A report compiled by the Association of War-Affected Women (AWAW) in August 2009 following a visit to the Jaffna peninsula and the east coast showed women continued to feel vulnerable and feared the heavy military presence in their areas.

AWAW represents some 2,000 women across Sri Lanka whose sons or husbands were either disabled or killed during the war against the LTTE rebels, who were fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.

The women surveyed by AWAW also voiced their desperate need for economic stability so they could provide for their young children and elderly parents. Many of them had neither high school nor college education while others were younger women who had gone into computer training but still lacked jobs.

"Providing better conditions for women to rebuild their lives as well as giving them a voice in postwar development must take priority as the Sri Lankan government moves into a large-scale resettlement and reconciliation process," said Visakha Dharmadasa, head of AWAW.

Government estimates some 50,000 war widows are living on the east coast, including Trincomalee in the north and Batticoloa and Ampare districts farther south.

Widows usually receive around 250 dollars as a one-time settlement and an extra 100 dollars from the state when they can produce their husbands’ death certificates. On a monthly basis, they also get food rations that barely cover their basic needs.

A majority of the widows are Tamils, followed by Muslim and Sinhalese ethnic groups, and belong to rural farming or fishing communities, where poverty and malnutrition are major problems.

"The Lazarus Effect" documentary film

From the Join Red channel on You Tube, the documentary that aired on HBO last night, "The Lazarus Effect."

Some examples of Bolsa Familia helping people in Brazil

A Brazilian program that is getting a lot of attention worldwide is "Bolsa Familia," or the Family Grant, as it's known in English. Bolsa Familia is a conditional cash transfer program, meaning that poor residents of Brazil will receive some money from the government as long as their children stay in school and are kept in good health.

From the BBC, writer Gary Duffy gives us a couple of examples of people benefiting from Bolsa Familia.

"I think it is good and it helps a lot," says Francineide.

"When the money comes it is always better because there are many families in Brazil that depend on it, and even though it is a small amount, it makes a big difference."
Continue reading the main story Ruti Cunha

The new baby is Francineide's second child, and the monthly assistance she receives from Bolsa Familia will now rise to $66.

It helps to supplement the meagre income she gets from selling vegetables.

Further up the road, her father Joao works on a small plot of land and also receives a helping hand from the state in the form of low interest loans.

Critics say the family grant his daughter receives offers financial help, but no clear route to escape from poverty.

Now Bolsa Familia is being tied in to existing projects which target small investors in both the countryside and the city.

Joao is using the money, which he gets from a scheme known as AgroAmigo administered by the state-run Bank of the North-East, to buy the materials he needs.

"It helps me to get water, to buy seeds," he says.

"In the past we used to collect them but you can't do that any more. And this money helps to make things better."

Monday, May 24, 2010

The role of microcredit in Haiti after the earthquake

Right after the January earthquake, microcredit banks in Haiti went quickly back to work. Some of the banks gave their clients some cash to get by after the earthquake. All of the banks went to try to find their clients, first of all, to make sure they didn't perish. But also to try to renegotiate the loans so the tragedy didn't force them into default.

Microcredit is a big help to a large sector of the Haitian economy. Over 80 percent of business are small self-proprietorships. The kind of little businesses that may not have the collateral to get a loan from an established bank.

From the Miami Times, writer Niala Boodhoo tells us about the work of one of our favorite microcredit banks, Fonkoze.

Fonkoze is the largest microfinance organization in Haiti, as measured by the number of its clients, who are spread primarily outside of Port-au-Prince in the countryside.

Like the Grameen Bank, nonprofit Fonkoze describes itself as the bank of Haiti's poor: It has 200,000 saving accounts as well as 45,000 loans, and has just also help launch a new pilot website, Zafèn, which it hopes will connect especially the Haitian Diaspora directly to business owners in Haiti who are looking for loans.

``We believe there is a staircase out of poverty,'' said director Anne Hastings, inside Fonkoze's new temporary headquarters in Port-au-Prince. The bank's permanent headquarters were destroyed by the earthquake, along with several other branches, including at the earthquake's epicenter in Leogande, where Fonkoze brought in a mobile unit to provide banking.

One of the main walls inside the branch at Cabaret, just outside of Port-au-Prince, has a huge crack. Workers strung up tarps and took their laptops outside where clients like Paul are being served.

``I started working with Fonkoze to get a little bit of money,'' said Paul, as she stood outside near one of the tarps.

Paul was describing the bank's first-tier loan program, which they call Ti Kredi, or little credit, loans as small as $25. She eventually moved into the second tier, forming a group with other women who manage a $1,000 loan together. Those groups meet regularly for literacy and business training.

Since the earthquake Fonkoze has focused, as Hastings said, on getting its clients back on the staircase.

For years Fonkoze has partnered with Haiti's Alternative Insurance Company to also offer microinsurance in each loan, so if that the loan holder dies, not only is the loan forgiven, but the family is given a small indemnity to help with funeral costs.

The two were about to introduce a catastrophic microinsurance program just before the earthquake. They decided they would treat all of Fonkoze's loan clients as if they were enrolled in the program, resulting in 17,000 loan clients affected by the earthquake having their loans forgiven. Clients also received a 5,000 gourde ($128) indemnity.

``I think insurance is there to improve the quality of lives of individuals,'' said AIC President Olivier Barrau, who started the microinsurance program with Fonkoze in 2007, and said it is designed to help educate all Haitians, who are chronically underinsured, about how insurance should be not just a financial, but social tool.

Read more:

Does the World Bank control the food security discussion?

Most everyone agrees that we need to help the under-developed world to grow more food, but the debate is on which way to do it. A recent summit in Dublin exposed the divide on how to increase food security as some civil service groups did not participate in the summit.

Those who refused to attend blame the World Bank and the G-8 for the current food crisis. They say that the rich nations and their banks have helped to cause the problem of food insecurity by dumping their surplus grain on the poor nations.

In a commentary from the Huffington Post, Eric Holt Gimenez from the Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy explains the division in food security solutions. Gimenez gives a dizzying away of acronyms of governing bodies in his explanation, so we encourage you to read the full commentary for more background.

Most of the participants in the Dialogue (as well as many of the organizers, and possibly even Dr. Nabarro himself) agreed with the need to curb global markets and prioritize investments in agroecology over GMOs. Most wanted agriculture out of the WTO and believe Southern countries need to protect their farmers from the U.S. and E.U's decades-long policy of dumping surplus grain on their national markets. Everyone is against land-grabbing and the spread of agrofuels. The IAASTD was frequently invoked.

But it became very clear that the Dialogue would not get the High Level Task Force to drop their assumptions. In their view, the global market is the solution rather than the cause of hunger, and prioritize the private sector rather than public institutions. The Task Force has yet to seriously address the rash of land-grabbing and seems unable to come to agreement on how to control the expansion of agrofuels. Despite the Dublin Dialogue, the HLTF is unwilling (or unable) to allow civil society--the thousands of farmers organizations and CSOs actually working on the ground--to play a lead role in the fight against hunger. Everything is up for dialogue, but as it turns out, few things can actually be negotiated.

This is because Mr. Nabarro and the High Level Task Force (a self-admitted team of bureaucrats with no budgetary or decision-making power), for all their good intentions, cannot stray far from the mandates of the World Bank--who was conspicuously absent from the Dialogue. To do so would result in the rejection of the CFA. By whom? Most likely by the GAFSPF--The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program.

The GAFSPF is the multilateral trust-fund being set up by the U.S., Canada and Spain under the leadership of the World Bank to span the gap between the $40 billion a year needed to end hunger, the $20 billion promised by the G-8 countries, and the $14 billion that is actually forthcoming on these promises. The GAFSPF Framework Document of December 2009 is based on the Bank's 2007 World Development Report on Agriculture. In direct opposition to the IAASTD (which the Bank funded but now refuses to support) the 2007 Development Report recommends more global trade and more public money for the spread of new agricultural technologies, simply stated: signing the Doha Round and spreading GMOs across the Global South. It also laments that regions like sub Saharan Africa will need to experience significant "land mobility", which a euphemism for forcing small farmers off the land. Unable to win the Global South's support for these positions at the summits in Rome, Madrid, d'Aquila and Pittsburg, the formation of the GAFSPF reflects a strategic move by the Bank to shift the locus of the war on hunger from Rome and New York to Washington--firmly under the control of the World Bank. In the image of World Bank operations, the GAFSPF will divide support between the public and private sector, with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in charge of long and short term loans, credit guarantees and equity to support private sector activities. In typical World Bank fashion, the results of the GAFSPF will never be directly measured in terms of reducing the number of hungry people or measurable improvements to livelihoods. Rather, success will be measured by the numbers of people participating in GAFSPF-supported programs. The heroic assumption is that doing more of the same--i.e., free markets & technology packages--with more people, will end hunger.

Natalie Portman talks about microcredit

You know Nataile Portman from such films as the Star Wars trilogy and Closer, but she also an ambassador to FINCA International. FINCA is the Foundation for International Community Assistance, a group that provides microcredit loans to women in the under-developed world. Portman is especially interested in how microfinance can help women, and she believes it can be one of the answers in beating poverty.

As a part of a series of stories on microcredit, Radio Netherlands conducted this e-mail interview with Portman.

1. Do you think that microfinance is the answer to solving poverty?
Poverty is a complex issue for which a broad array of interventions need to be employed. Key interventions, in my opinion, include access to education, the ability for women to have control over their bodies and reproduction, access to the very basic human requirements of food, shelter and healthcare, and the means to provide financially for one's family.

When I was first researching the types of interventions that can provide the most positive outcomes for the poor, I learned that women make up 70 percent of the world’s poorest citizens. I saw that microfinance provides the world's poorest citizens, especially women, with access to capital. In doing so, they are able to take control of their lives, determine how they can best use their talent and creativity to create their own jobs, acquire the assets that will allow them to move from dependence to self-sufficiency, and ensure that their children can look forward to a better, more prosperous future.
So, while I don’t think microfinance is the only solution to poverty, I do believe it is one of the key tools that can make a huge difference in the lives of individuals, their families and their communities.

2. Who profits from microfinance?
Many people profit from microfinance. First and foremost, clients and their families profit because the added income generated by small businesses allows mothers to purchase more, and more nutritious, food. It provides the means for them to take their children to the doctor when they are ill and purchase medicine, if needed. Microentrepreneurs can improve their homes, adding a roof or another room, or a latrine. But most importantly, the added income more often than not allows children to start, or remain in school, which is the best way for them to lift themselves out of poverty as they grow.

FINCA’s client assessment research findings show that mothers use their added income to pay for their children’s school fees before they make additional improvements to the family situation. In addition, communities profit because more of their population become productive members of society, and generate revenue that can support local programs.

National governments profit because of the jobs and income generated at local levels that bolster national economies. Microfinance organizations can profit because, once their programs reach self-sustainability, the income generated can be put back into their programs, allowing them to reach more clients, more quickly with larger portfolios of loan capital.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Out of work? start volunteering

If there was a positive to come from the global recession, it's that some of the jobless it created began working on solving social ills. They either took on new professions with non-profits, started their own social business, or used the time between jobs to volunteer.

From the Sacramento Bee, writer Stephen Magagnini profiles some of the new philanthropy start-ups in the area. Magagnini says there are more non-profits in the Sacramento area than ever before.

The battle to save the world often is launched from checkbooks in Roseville, Granite Bay, Folsom or Davis, whose residents have consistently ranked among California's most generous in recent years, based on IRS reports.

While the recession has cut into a steady rise in charitable contributions seen through 2008, experts say more out-of-work Americans are joining the fight.

The real estate crash spurred West Sacramento "eco-urban" developer Levi Benkert and his family to move to Ethiopia in May 2009 to rescue orphans.

The value of his development projects had declined so much "that investors and lenders were not willing to continue to put money in when there was no prospect of profit," Benkert, 28, said via e-mail. "It felt like the whole world was crashing in on us."

So Benkert went on a reconnaissance mission to Ethiopia and learned of the plight of orphans there. On his return to Sacramento, he created the nonprofit Drawn From Water and partnered with the Rock of Roseville church. Then Benkert, his wife, Jessie, and children – Nickoli, 9, Luella, 6, and Ruth, 3 – moved to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

From there, they drive 17 hours south of the capital to an orphanage in Jinka, a town of about 30,000, to immerse themselves for two to three weeks at a time in the daily lives of the orphans. They are working on arranging U.S. adoptions for some, which Benkert said will start in June.

At first, the family was overwhelmed.

"When you pick up a new child who's severely malnourished and might not make it through the night it affects you in ways you never knew back home," Benkert said via e-mail.

So far, the family has helped rescue 21 children from remote tribes that Benkert said thought they were cursed and needed to die. He said tribal leaders agreed to send the children to the orphanage.

"Emotionally it's taxing, but rewarding like nothing else on earth," Benkert wrote. "Our kids are attached to the children in the orphanage and we love them all like they were our own. That feeling is something I wish everyone in the world could experience."

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Guest Voices: Creating Safe Spaces for Earthquake-Affected Children: At Play in Place de la Paix, Haiti

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, a story about finding ways to let kids play amidst the homeless chaos in Haiti. This post was written by Mark Jafar, Vice President of Corporate Communications at MTV Networks.

Walk around the edges of the sunken tent settlement at Place de la Paix in Port-au-Prince, and it’s nearly impossible to tell that this was a soccer stadium just four months ago.

The grass is gone entirely, replaced by bare earth and debris. There are no goal nets or benches, just shelters made of tarp, cardboard, and rusted scraps of sheet metal.

And where kids and adults once gathered to watch soccer matches or to kick a ball across the field, an estimated 8,000 displaced people are now living in shocking, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, often with nothing but a few pieces of plastic sheeting to shelter them from the rains, which are heavy this time of year.

Over 1.5 million people were made homeless by the earthquake—and they have sought shelter in literally any open space available in Port-au-Prince—many are living on the street. Another 8,000 people are crowded into what was a public square adjacent to the soccer field, making Place de la Paix (“place of peace”), one of Port-au-Prince’s largest and most densely populated makeshift settlements.

The conditions in which these many thousands of people are living are squalid and shocking.

But on the edge of the camp is an unexpected bright spot: a children’s slide, a tiny merry-go-round, a colorful mural—and children gathered together, singing and playing.

This is part of Concern Worldwide’s emergency response program in Port-au-Prince: in the midst of some of the largest makeshift camps, Concern has set up education interventions for earthquake-affected children in “Child-Friendly Spaces.” These are, essentially, transitional classrooms, many in large tents or existing structures, that offer a refuge and a safe learning space for children made homeless by the earthquake. The Child Friendly Spaces are reaching close to 2,000 earthquake-affected children—giving them instruction in basic reading and writing, as well as arts, crafts and music. The Concern program also provides psychosocial support to these vulnerable children whose lives have been disrupted by trauma and shock. The Child Friendly Spaces offers a vital sense of safety and stability, and connect the children with a reliable routine that brings a sense of normalcy back into their lives

“The idea is to create a space where kids can be kids, and continue to receive education as the schools reopen,” says Dominic MacSorley, Operations Director for Concern Worldwide US and Emergency Coordinator for Concern Worldwide.

The Child-Friendly Spaces are staffed by animateurs, local educators with training in music, drama, and art hired by Concern to create a transitional curriculum that provides basic learning until the children can be placed in formal education programs and schools.

At Place de la Paix, the team of twelve animateurs is supervised by Jasmin Asline, a member of Concern’s Education team. “When they arrive, they’re quiet, reserved. But slowly they get more comfortable and social,” says Jasmin. “We’re patient, we play with them, we teach them love and unity.”

Annette Ambroisa, 41, has seen changes in her daughters, Farline, (6), and Fedeline, (2), since they’ve started coming to the Concern program:
“They’re happier, they’re learning something new every day, and they’re able to stay clean,” she says, which is difficult but critical in Place de la Paix.
“I like the way they work with the kids,” she says of Concern’s staff. “And (the kids) like coming.”

Concern’s Child-Friendly Space in Place de la Paix camp serves 200 children in the mornings and another 200 in the afternoons, all of whom come dressed in the best clothing they have left.

Education is highly valued in Haiti. Programs like this provide more than education; they are also a means of preserving families’ dignity.

At Place de la Paix, the voices of children fill the Concern tent with call-and-response songs, and the room is alive as kids bounce up and down underneath hearts and guitars cut from construction paper that hang from the ceiling.
The tunes are familiar – “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” for instance, and a few old Haitian gospel songs.

The lyrics, however, are brand new, written by the animateurs to help the children work through the stress and uncertainty that accompanies everyday life here. “Thank You, Concern. Thank You, UNICEF” is among the most popular refrains.

But their favorite song, according to Jasmin?

“Space for the Little Children.”

HIV-positive mom, with 6 HIV-positive children

Wow, this story is heartbreaking. New Vision reporter Nigel Nassar visited a mother of nine children who is HIV-positive. Six of her nine children are also HIV-positive. We found the article at All Africa.

Nakitende and some of her children outside the shack which could collapse any time

Agnes Nakitende is HIV-positive. Six of her nine children also have the virus. At just 33, she is weather-beaten, you would think she was a 50-year-old.

The man I asked for directions to her place referred to her as "the woman who was cursed!" Nakitende lives in Kirwanyi village, Seeta Nazigo, Mukono district.

She confirms that many refer to her that way, then breaks down sobbing: "Why me, Lord?"

For close to a decade, she and her late husband Alfred Malinga, a police constable, had been using local herbs to treat what they thought was syphillis.

But when her husband's nails started rotting; the skin changing colour and developing a gooey rash, Nakitende took him to hospital. That was April 2009.

The two had lived together for 16 years with plans to marry legally.

An HIV test showed that the virus had 'eaten up' a big proportion of Malinga's white blood cells. The anti-retroviral drugs administered over the subsequent four months did not help.

On September 8, 2009 at a health centre in Mukono, the ailing Malinga asked the nurse to call in his wife who was six months pregnant with their ninth child.

"He held my hand onto his chest and asked me to feel his heartbeat dwindle.

With tears running down my cheeks, I slipped into his deathbed beside him and put my arms around him, just when he whispered, 'take good care of my children', and went silent," Nakitende recalls.

Now, four months since Nakitende found out that her children were HIV-positive, the sick, helpless mother, is not sure what to feed them on. She is jobless, yet her husband died broke.

This is a case of HIV/AIDS amidst abject poverty. And this poverty threatens to claim their lives even before AIDS does.

If it turns out that the other three children are also HIV-positive (God forbid), it will be a family of 10, waiting to die if they are not helped.

Nakitende and her children live in a dilapidated shack on the low lying slopes of Mirembe hill. They moved here just days before Malinga breathed his last, having been evicted from a rental in the neighbourhood for non-payment.

All the money was going towards Malinga's treatment. Malinga had saved sh2m from his meagre income as a police constable and bought this small plot of land.

He and Nakitende had planned to rear pigs and chicken for commercial purposes in case they got start-up capital in the future.

Supported by mud walls on one end and dry banana leaves on another, the wobbly shack looks like it will collapse any time.

Children going to schools in the neighbourhood call Nakitende's children "kids from a piggery."

The shack does not have a door. Nakitende says dogs, monkeys, snakes and other wild animals are a common sight in the shack. By God's grace, they have never hurt any of her children.

In what she turns into a joke, she cites an incident when she got back from the garden and found her two-year-old baby feeding all the potatoes they had kept for lunch to a monkey. "That day we went without food."

The partly grass-thatched roof leaks. When it rains, it gets water-logged, becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes, exposing the children to malaria.

On this visit, only the four little ones, aged between four months and seven years, were at home.

The other five, aged between nine and 15, had gone out to run errands around the village so they could earn some money to buy food for the family. When the children are unsuccessful, the family eats boiled leaves, or goes days without food.

"We used to beg from neighbours, but they have also got fed up of us," Nakitende says, adding that she cannot wait for the maize she recently planted to yield.

At this point, Nakitende is overcome by emotion and suddenly stops talking. The hardened façade is betrayed by tears rushing down her cheeks.

Now, all Nakitende has turned to for help is God. A born-again Christian, Nakitende, who attends the neighbouring Zion Church, says something happens when she prays.

"Like last night when I had nothing to give the children, I prayed two hours for a miracle and here you are," she says to me. "This money you have given us, though you call it little, will take us for some days, and hopefully, the story you're going to write will turn up a Good Samaritan."

She says her church's pastor, David Musoke, has helped her with food, as well as giving her lots of spiritual uplifting.

She is now on anti-retroviral therapy.

As we conclude, Nakitende says a prayer to send me off on a journey of about 35km back to Kampala, before she starts peeling sweet potatoes. And while she is at it, the four children around, some emaciated, huddle around her - all hungry and waiting for the food.

I cannot help but wonder what will happen to these children should Nakitende pass away.

Food shortages in western Nepal

From IRIN, the story of food shortages in the western hills of Nepal.

Food security for more than 600,000 people in the western hills of Nepal is set to deteriorate, aid agencies warn.

With already low agricultural production in the more food-insecure areas, inflation is exacerbating matters further.

“A lot of villagers are opting for more desperate coping mechanisms,” Richard Ragan, country representative for the World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN in Kathmandu.

Many villagers are already reducing the number of meals they eat each day, cutting portions, or migrating to urban areas or India for work, he said.

“In a desperate attempt to buy food, families are even selling their livestock and household assets and the out-migration [to Nepali cities and India] has increased already by 40 percent,” Ragan said.

Typifying that reality is Chattra Bahadur Chettri, a farmer from the western district of Bajura working in the Nepalese capital.

“I came here with my children to avoid any more hardship,” the 50-year-old said.

Food inflation

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the cost of staple food items such as rice, pulses and wheat is as high or even higher than at the peak of the international food crisis in August 2008.

Rice, a staple part of the Nepalese diet, has increased from US$0.34 per kg in 2008 to over $0.50 this year, local traders say.

With no increase in income and unemployment on the rise, even a slight increase in price has a knock-on effect on people’s purchasing power, WFP notes.

Food inflation is already up by 20 percent, the Federation of Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industries reported, leaving food increasingly unaffordable for poorer families, many of whom live on less than $1 a day.

As one of the poorest nations in the world, 31 percent of the country’s 28 million inhabitants live below the national poverty line with each person surviving on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank.

More than 80 percent of the people living in rural areas depend mostly on subsistence farming for their livelihoods, according to the FAO.

Worst areas

Bajura, nearly 500km northwest of the capital, is regarded as the most food-insecure district, according to the Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NeKSAP) initiated by government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and WFP.

The district was badly affected by drought in 2009 when there was no rain for six months from August to January.

NeKSAP frequently analyses information on household food security, markets and nutrition in more remote regions through its district networks.

“If I don’t find any work here, we will go to India after selling my goats and house,” said Chettri, who explained that many villagers like him were now intent on leaving their homes and moving to other districts where food was more readily available.

Already 87 percent of Bajura’s population (nearly 125,000) is food-insecure.

In Humla, another remote hill district, 700km northwest of the capital, nearly 85 percent of its population (almost 50,000) is suffering from food insecurity, NeKSAP estimates.

Other vulnerable districts include Mugu, Kalikot, Jumla, Dailekh, Accham, Doti, Bajhang, Darchula and Baitadi.

“These are the areas which already suffer from very low agricultural production and the situation has been made worse by food inflation,” Narendra Khadga Chettri, director of Support Activities for Poor Producers of Nepal, said.

With monsoon rains expected in June and lasting until September, there is now concern about the risks of landslides and floods - more external shocks in what is already a precarious food situation, according to the FAO.

The Darfur Stoves Project

The Darfur Stove is a simple, highly efficient stove that uses only a fraction of the wood for cooking food. They are called Darfur Stoves because they are distributed for use in the refugee camps for former residents of Darfur. Whenever women leave the camps to gather firewood, they run the risk of being attacked, so the stoves provide a way to lessen the danger. The non-profit Darfur Stoves Project has teamed with US AID to distribute the stoves to throughout the camps.

From Triple Pundit, we find this interview with Andrée Sosler from the project. Writer Tori Okner asks Sosler about cooperation with other fuel saving stoves.

3p: On the Darfur Stoves Project website, you link to other fuel-efficient stoves. Do you consider those firms or organization competitors or collaborators?

Sosler: Historically, it’s been a very competitive field. However, there seems to be a new focus on sharing information and learning from one another. For example, on the recent trip to Haiti, we spoke with the folks from StoveTec and offered to take two of their stoves along in order to garner feedback. In exchange, we sent them a Berkeley-Darfur stove to test. In Haiti, we’re asking what other projects are currently on the ground? What markets are they focusing on? We’ll target our stove to the underserved constituency. Competition can be good; it can also be a detriment. We aren’t claiming our stove is better for every situation. We hope TISS can become a resource portal for stove information.

3p: The Darfur-Berkeley stove is for sale, not for aid donation. Can you expand on the value associated with an item bought versus donated?

Sosler: One of the things that drew me to the Darfur Stoves Project was the very strong belief that giving something away for free is a disservice to the people who need it. This philosophy stems from the importance of establishing a feedback mechanism. When you give something away you can do impact assessment and surveys, but you may not get good feedback on how valued your product is. That said, we just delivered 1,000 stoves for free. The ultimate goal is to negotiate with our partners to set a subsidized price above the price of scrap metal.

3p: The Berkeley-Darfur Stove is said to last about five years. The desire to minimize environmental degradation is an impetus behind the project- how has that shaped stove design?

Sosler: First, the stove is designed to use as little firewood as possible. In a lab without wind, it decreases the use of wood by 72%. In the field we think that shifts to 50% (we are currently conducting impact assessment surveys to study this), so the Berkeley-Darfur Stove is at least twice as efficient as cooking on an open fire. In terms of lifecycle though, as the organization grows, we would like to get a sense of the overall carbon footprint of the stove.

3p: In a 2008 interview with the Wharton Journal, you said, “My passion is to develop market-oriented solutions to poverty.” Is that still true? Any amendments or qualifications?

Sosler: Still true. I really believe that a feedback mechanism is crucial and lacking in many elements of international development. Yet, now that I’m working in an extreme humanitarian situation, I recognize that a fully functional market (as it would be defined at Wharton, or by most business schools) is not always optimal. When the goal is worldwide and less focused on those left behind, I would push for more sustainable businesses. I really do think that market solutions to poverty are the way forward.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A proposal to distribute "the pill" worldwide

The U.S. recently celebrated 50 years of "the pill" the developed world's most popular contraceptive. It's something that most people in the under-developed world have never even heard of. In fact, large families are a status symbol in many parts of Africa. Parents will also have many children because the chances of those children dying are great, thay hope that a few of them will make it.

In his latest op-ed piece, Nicholas Kristof talks about a new study from the Guttmacher Institute. The study proposes distributing "the pill" to the women of the under-developed world. To start our snippet of this op-ed that we found at the New York Times, Kristof introduces us to one mother who doesn't want to get pregnant.

Here in Kinshasa, we met Emilie Lunda, 25, who had nearly died during childbirth a few days earlier. Doctors saved her life, but her baby died. And she is still recuperating in a hospital and doesn’t know how she will pay the bill.

“I didn’t want to get pregnant,” Emilie told us here in the Congolese capital. “I was afraid of getting pregnant.” But she had never heard of birth control.

In rural parts of Congo Republic, the other Congo to the north, we found that even when people had heard of contraception, they often regarded it as unaffordable.

America’s widely respected Guttmacher Institute, which conducts research on reproductive health, says that 215 million women around the world are sexually active and don’t want to become pregnant — but are not using modern forms of contraception.

Making contraception available to all these women worldwide would cost less than $4 billion, Guttmacher said in an important study published last year. That’s about what the United States is spending every two weeks on our military force in Afghanistan.

What’s more, each dollar spent on contraception would actually reduce total medical spending by $1.40 by reducing sums spent on unplanned births and abortions, the study said.

If contraception were broadly available in poor countries, the report said, more than 50 million unwanted pregnancies could be averted annually. One result would be 25 million fewer abortions per year. Another would be saving the lives of as many as 150,000 women who now die annually in childbirth.

Family planning has stalled since the 1980s. Republican administrations cut off all American financing for the United Nations Population Fund, the main international agency supporting family-planning programs. Paradoxically, conservative hostility to some family-planning programs almost certainly resulted in more abortions.

The morning after the Bangkok protests

This story from IRIN gives us an analysis of the recent violence in Thailand, and how poverty helped to stimulate the violence.

Bangkok residents are picking up the pieces after weeks of protests ended in rioting and bloodshed on 19 May.

Protesters spent nearly two months in fortified camps before consolidating their position in a 3 sqkm area in the city’s commercial district. On 19 May, the Thai army launched a crackdown to end the stand-off, leaving parts of the city centre badly scarred.

Since mid-March, thousands of anti-government protesters - known as "Red Shirts" because of their clothing - had gathered in the city to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in December 2008 following a special parliamentary vote.

As residents awoke on 20 May, parts of the city were littered with burned tyres, broken glass and rubbish, while more than 24 buildings had been set ablaze by angry protesters, including the stock exchange, banks and one of Southeast Asia’s largest shopping malls.

Ruined businesses

The conflict has caused millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses, and after weeks with few customers, many residents are feeling the squeeze.

Aanchit used to net between US$25 and $50 per day selling food from his stall on Rama IV Road until the demonstrators occupied the street.

“The protest ruined my business,” he told IRIN. “My cart got burned last night when the [Red Shirts] retreated and set fire to the building,” he says, pointing to a low-rise gutted by fire and guarded by troops.

The once bustling thoroughfare is covered in soot from burnt tyres and lined with scorched buildings, their plastic signs often melted and hanging like candle wax.

His wife Amboy says the business is their lifeblood and their only hope of their children escaping poverty.

“We do not have a nice house, but we want out children to have better,” Aanchit says, adding that his savings will be largely used up after the food cart is repaired.

The conflict meant visitors avoided the area as offices shut businesses and embassies closed their doors altogether.

“When people don't go to work, that means they don't take lunch breaks and I don't earn an income,” said the father of four. The loss has left him with mixed feelings about the protest movement.

Pitched battles

“I like Thaksin [Shinawatra, former prime minister, ousted in a coup], but I think this demonstration went on too long. I think the protesters should have accepted a compromise,” says Pornchai, who hails from the Red Shirt stronghold of Isaan.

Two nights ago, his street was the site of pitched battles between security forces and protesters, with Red Shirts seen shooting homemade weapons at troops.

Houses and shops were hit by army sniper fire from a nearby high rise, causing thousands of dollars in damage and forcing many residents to flee for their lives.

Chong, 55, was forced to leave after demonstrators set fire to tyres on the street and said they were preparing to detonate a petroleum truck. At about midnight, protesters ran down the road banging on doors and screaming for residents to leave.

“I will probably spend about a month's income repairing my home ... It is difficult because I am already in debt,” she said, pointing to the bullet holes through her second storey window. “I would have never thought that snipers would be shooting into my front room,” said the mother of four.

Livelihood threatened

During the night, the violence was scattered in pockets throughout the city, affecting everyone from wealthy mall owners to poor street vendors.

One of the worst-hit areas was Ratchaprasong, an upmarket shopping district in Bangkok’s commercial heart. For mall staff, almost two months without work has meant the loss of much-needed earnings.

“I have not been to work since the protests started ... My wife is back in the village and I have not sent her money for almost four weeks,” said Krasong, who has a child with respiratory problems.

“I had difficulty affording medical care when I was working, so it is even worse now,” he said outside the posh Central Mall.

By midday (5am GMT), the once gleaming shopping complex was still smouldering, meaning staff like Krasong are unlikely to be back to work for months.

“I will have to find a new job, but with the economy like this, I may have to go back home.”

Since the protests began, at least 75 people have been killed and more than 1,000 have been injured.

As of 20 May, the Thai government is maintaining an emergency decree across 50 percent of the country’s provinces to respond to and help prevent the outbreak of further protests and violence.

A Bangkok-wide curfew from 21:00 until 05:00 is in effect until 22 May.

New study says climate change will not increase malaria

A new scientific study says that malaria will not increase with climate change. The study printed in the journal Nature, says that current methods of fighting malaria should continue. The researches recommend not letting climate change enter the discussion when talking about dealing with malaria.

From the Montreal Gazette, CamWest News service writer Mark Ivpe tells us more about the study.

"The investment in fighting malaria that is taking place right now will far outweigh the effects caused by the nudge of climate change," said Pete Gething, an epidemiologist with Oxford University and lead author of the study.

Malaria infection takes place when a person is bitten by an anopheles mosquito infected with a single-cell parasite called plasmodium. Once the parasite enters the bloodstream, it matures and multiplies. In just a few hours, it can destroy thousands of red blood cells, leading to severe anemia and sometimes death.

The researchers' theory was based on work using the various modelling studies that predict the spread of malaria due to climate change. First, they entered data collected during the 20th century, when global temperatures showed a steady rise similar to what is expected with global warming.

Based on those models, areas where malaria is endemic should have expanded - instead, the disease showed a steady decline.

The researchers concluded that modern efforts to fight the disease, combined with improving socio-economic conditions in the developing world, could outweigh the effects of global warming by as much as tenfold.

"We need to focus on dealing with the disease with our current tools," Gething said. "Climate change doesn't need to come into the discussion. It's just a distraction."

Lea Berrang Ford, an epidemiologist at McGill University, said the study's findings might prove correct, but it takes an optimistic view of international development.

"If you believe that conditions in places where malaria is a problem are getting better, then I agree, climate change might not have that big an effect," she said. "But a pessimist might ask, are things getting better?"

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Supporting female farmers with more data

Women in Africa make up 60 percent of the agricultural workforce, and they grow between 60 to 80 percent of the food. Yet the female farmers don't know who each other are, and have little cooperative opportunities to help each other out. This is due in part because a lack of data on women growing food, not even the governments and NGOs know who they are.

From the IPS, writer Mantoe Phakathi introduces us to a new data collection tool that might help the female farmers to network efforts.

African governments now have the tools to conduct such surveys, thanks to the FAO. The U.N. agency has devised an Agri-Gender Statistics Toolkit that will help countries gather more information on differences between men and women in agriculture and contribute to agricultural development.

Launched in April, the toolkit provides the analytical framework needed to collect data on the nature of women and men’s agricultural work, their access to resources and exposure to food insecurity.

"With more specific information, policy makers can provide greater support to those who lack access and control over agricultural resources and help women to achieve greater equality and food security," said Diana Tempelman, toolkit author and FAO senior officer for gender and development.

Tempelman emphasised that sex-disaggregated data collection is a new area that has been developing based on an increasing understanding of the relevance of knowing the impact of gender relations on individual, family and national development.

The fact that the toolkit was developed in response to a request from the African Commission on Agricultural Statistics (AFCAS) is a positive sign that governments are recognising the contributions of both women and men to agricultural development and the need for planning that takes this into consideration.

Although there has always been data on men and women, this has mainly been collected for the purposes of determining the sex and age composition of populations, education, health, certain sections of formal employment and other sectors.

"But there is scope for improving the availability of socio-economic data reflecting all men and women’s involvement in development and their specific constraints and opportunities," said Tempelman.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Comment: how much microcredit is too much?

The detractors of micro-credit often point to clients becoming over indebted, or having more than one micro-loan out from multiple providers. Responsible micro-credit banks are trying to address the issue. An essay in the Huffington Post today gives one take on answering this issue.

Elisabeth Rhyne from the Center for Financial Inclusivness points out that overindebedness is often hard to determine in the under-developed world. Rhyne says one way to answer this problem is by determining the about of sacrifices one makes to pay off the loan.

Overindebtedness is sometimes equated with multiple borrowing. In many markets where microfinance has grown fast, microlenders crowd in to compete with one another to reach a finite number of customers. In these settings, poor clients often take loans from several competing lenders. Some may even use one loan to pay off another. Is that overindebtedness? Not necessarily.

Middle class people often juggle credit cards, mortgages, car and school loans successfully, and the same goes for the poor. A pathbreaking book published in 2009, Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day, reveals that the vast majority of the world's poor lead complex financial lives. They continually tap relatives, employers, savings clubs, and informal moneylenders to keep their financial lives on track.

It is not uncommon for a poor household in Bangladesh or South Africa to "turn over" -- borrow, lend, deposit, withdraw -- ten times the net household worth in the course of a year. Rapid turnover is necessary in large part because the incomes of the poor tend to be uneven and unstable as well as low. They need financial intermediation to tide them over periods of little or no income.

If poor people already have many financial arrangements at a time, then multiple loans from microlenders are not alone evidence of a problem. It's the stress in debt stress that needs to be examined.

The definition of overindebtedness I favor, developed in dialogue with Richard Rosenberg of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, who has explored the question in depth on the CGAP blog, revolves around the idea of sacrifice. If a family has to make sacrifices that significantly affect their quality of life, or if a micro-business has to make sacrifices that reduce its income generating capability, that's debt stress.

Many people get into debt stress at some points in their lives. They scrimp on groceries for a couple of weeks to have the cash for next month's loan payment. Or they miss loan payments because a lingering illness keeps them away from their business. That's acute overindebtedness. While acute debt stress can be serious, some temporary overindebtedness is a normal part of the ups and downs of life; it might not mean that a person has borrowed too much.

UN efforts to fight tuberculosis are not working

A new study published in the UK medical journal "The Lancet" says that the the way the World Health Organization fights tuberculosis is ineffective. There are more cases of TB that at any other time in history and the disease resulted in 2 million deaths last year. The journal article is calling on the WHO to use new tactics to fight the disease in addition to prescribing drugs to patients.

From this Associated Press article that we found at Google News, writer Maria Cheng tells us more about what "The Lancet" has to say.

For years, the World Health Organization and partners have fought TB largely with a program where health workers watch patients take their drugs — even though the agency acknowledged in a 2008 report that this treatment program didn't significantly curb TB spread.

Experts said TB isn't only a medical problem, but is intertwined with poverty, as it spreads widely among people living in overcrowded, dirty places. They said TB programs need to go beyond health and include other sectors like housing, education and transportation.

Some officials questioned whether continued U.N. programs could even combat TB. "The main priority for TB control is improved living conditions and economic growth, which is outside the control of the U.N.," said Philip Stevens, a health policy expert at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank. "TB cannot be tackled in isolation."

Stevens said the global health community also needs to be more vigilant about the drugs they buy for TB programs. According to a 2007 report from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, half of the drugs the fund bought for poor countries didn't comply with their own drug quality standards.

Dr. Mario Raviglione, head of WHO's TB department, said the recent fall in TB was "very minor" and that the agency was trying to understand how better to fight the epidemic.

Still, WHO said their basic TB programs cured more than 36 million people between 1995 and 2008, and saved up to 6 million from dying of the potentially fatal lung disease.

UN considers how to keep girls in school

From the Voice of America, the United Nations discusses new ways to keep girls in school at a recent educators conference.

Scholars, aid workers, and government officials from 22 countries are in Dakar this week for the U.N. Girls' Education Initiative's global conference aimed at finding new ways to get and keep girls in school.

The UN Children's Fund estimates that nearly 72 million children of primary school age were not enrolled in school in 2007. More than half of those not in school are girls, and more than two-thirds of them are in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.

In the last decade, enrollment has increased and the gender gap in schools has closed in many regions, but UNICEF's Executive Director, Anthony Lake, says there is still much work to be done. "Unless we all work harder, there may still be 56 million children out of school in 2015. 56 million lives blighted. 56 million development opportunities wasted. All of our development work -- child survival, maternal and child health, child protection -- all of it in the most disadvantaged communities hinges on educating girls, as well as boys. It is the only way to make sustainable progress, sustainable economic development," he said.

Lake is one of 200 scholars, government officials, civil society workers and development partners in Dakar this week for a conference organized by the UN Girls' Education Initiative, an international partnership aimed at achieving gender equality and universal primary school education by 2015.

UNICEF's Lake said even in Senegal, where the number of public schools has doubled in the last decade, there is still work to be done to achieve gender equality in schools.

He said girls in one Dakar school explained to him some of the daily challenges they face, such as the lack of bathrooms in the school, bullying from boys, and a lack of textbooks.

At the week-long conference, participants are focusing on three primary roadblocks to getting and keeping girls in school: violence, poverty and the poor quality of education being offered.

Though school enrollment has increased in recent years, experts say improved access to education must go hand-in-hand with improved quality.

Ann-Therese Ndong-Jatta is director of UNESCO's Regional Bureau for Education in Africa. She said we need to modify outdated curriculum and improve instruction methods, such as teaching African children in their native languages, not simply in English or French.

"The donors are pumping in a lot of resources," Ndong-Jatta explained. "Civil society is working on access but the truth is 75 percent of the children fail. How do we ensure that what children learn benefits them and would guarantee jobs? What we have today is a situation where children themselves shy away from continuing to secondary school because there is no future."

To ensure that a child stays in school and succeeds in school, she said, education must be useful.

May Rihani, from the U.N. Girl's Education Initiative's Global Advisory Committee, gave an unlikely example from a "life skills" curriculum being used in Mali. "One of the lessons is about diarrhea. Diarrhea is about quality of education because it's relevant, because the child would learn in the school about diarrhea and will go tell the mother. The mother would recognize that this education is important to her and to her family and would want the child to continue to go to school," she stated.

UNICEF says girls who are educated can not only contribute to their families and their communities, but are also at lower risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and diseases, like HIV/AIDS.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report says an additional $16 billion in annual funding would be needed to achieve universal primary school education by 2015.

Minnesota community gives Cameroon girl an education

In our feel good story of the day, we learn of a Cameroon native who was taken in by a Minnesota community. Bright Nfor is receiving an education in the U.S., thanks to the fund-raising efforts of churches in Hawley, Minnesota. The current round of fund-raising is sending Nfor to college. Nfor hopes to study law and return to Cameroon after graduation.

From In Fourm, writer Mila Koumpilova tells us how Nfor arrived in the states.

“It’s been so wonderful to see how the community has embraced Bright,” said Tom Olson, a pastor in rural Hawley. “People see it as a concrete way they can help Africa help itself.”

Olson befriended Bright’s family during his 15 years as a missionary in Africa. Her father, a baker, and mom, a seamstress, pass on their trades to people living in poverty to help them become self-sufficient. They are also active in HIV education and prevention.

A couple of years ago, Bright’s father, Silas, visited Olson in Hawley. He let it slip to Mike Martin, the high school principal, that he’d always wanted to see his eldest daughter go to school in America.

“Wouldn’t it be kind of neat if we gave him his wish?” Martin thought.

So Martin tracked down an exchange student program and, along with his wife, Kate, offered to host Bright. Folks in town threw a hog roast and collected pledges to run the Fargo Marathon, raising more than $8,000 for Bright’s travel expenses.

So last August, Bright arrived in town, “all by myself, just little me.” She noticed she walked a little more slowly and dressed a little more warmly than her new classmates. She had to explain occasionally she doesn’t live in a jungle and doesn’t have a pet lion.

But, “It was not hard fitting in at all,” says Bright, strikingly poised and unfailingly upbeat. “I got accepted from the first day I walked into the school.”

Bright was eager to try everything: She rode a combine, walked on a frozen lake, made a video of a blizzard and drove a snowmobile, crashing into a small tree. She ran cross country and made the third-quarter honor roll.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

World Health Organization report on the Gaza Strip blockade

From IRIN, a new World Health Organization report gives us the latest stats on health conditions within the Gaza Strip. The report documents how the blockade against the area has effected health, poverty and employment.

With a failing economy, rising unemployment and deteriorating power, sanitation and health facilities, the health of Gaza’s population continues to worsen, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report. In contrast, modest improvements have been made in the West Bank.

As a consequence of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, 98 percent of industrial operations have been shut down since 2007 and there are acute shortages of fuel, cash, cooking gas and other basic supplies.

“We are telling everybody not to build walls all around Gaza. That’s what we have been saying loud and clear,” Filippo Grandi, commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), told IRIN. “If Gaza gets encircled by walls everywhere, it can only explode. This is almost a law of physics. And that would be a catastrophe for everybody around - for the Egyptians, for the Israelis and for the region as a whole.”

He said the most important thing was to continue negotiating with the Israelis for full access of supplies to be granted legally - through crossings not illegal tunnels.

Import ban

The ban on imports of building materials has prevented the rebuilding of some 6,400 homes destroyed or severely damaged by Israel’s military operation in Gaza in 2008-2009 and prevented the construction of some 7,500 homes to cater for an expanding population. Some 3,500 families are still displaced.

“The Israeli position is that they must be absolutely sure that anything that goes into Gaza through the crossings on the Israeli side is for civilian and humanitarian purposes,” said UNRWA’s Grandi. “The UN has developed extensive tools to monitor [imports], and we have shared this with the Israelis to approve. If they want, we can offer all the guarantees in the world. Our problem is that in spite of all this assistance we cannot import.”

Water-related health problems are widespread in the Strip because of the blockade and Israel’s military operation in Gaza, which destroyed water and sanitation infrastructure, including reservoirs, wells, and thousands of kilometres of piping.

“Gaza is not a refugee camp in a small remote place. It’s a city of one and a half million people with the needs of a developed urban environment that is used to certain standards. It needs certain standards of maintenance. This is what is happening with the water supplies, with sanitation. We’re very worried about that and the Egyptians and the Israelis should be too. Everybody should be worried because contaminated water has no borders,” said Grandi.

An electricity crisis continues in Gaza with the network only able to meet 70 percent of demand due to insufficient money to buy fuel for the Gaza power plant, and a lack of spare parts which is causing technical failures.

In contrast the West Bank economy appears to be growing since the beginning of 2009, partly due to an influx of donor assistance but also because Israel has eased movement restrictions there, and an improved security environment has led to increased investor confidence and more economic activity.

Unemployment, poverty

Unemployment in occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) decreased marginally in the third quarter of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008, to 31.4 percent, though unemployment among young people stood at 67 percent. Just one in seven women were working, and 70 percent of families were living on less than US$1 a day in May 2008, said the WHO report.

In the third quarter of 2008, 51 percent of Palestinians lived below the poverty line (56 percent for Gazans and 48 percent for those in the West Bank), with 19 percent living in extreme poverty.

In the second half of 2008, one third of West Bank households and 71 percent of Gaza households received food assistance, with food accounting for roughly half total household expenditures - making families highly vulnerable to food price fluctuations. In May 2008, 56 percent of Gazans and 25 percent of West Bank residents were deemed food insecure by the UN. Chronic malnutrition has risen in Gaza over the past few years to reach 10.2 percent.

That comes at a time when UNRWA - responsible for providing assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the oPt - is projecting a 25 percent shortfall in its core budget. “UNRWA is a very massive machine to feed and unfortunately, although our donations increase, in fact they don’t increase fast enough to meet the needs,” Grandi said.


Healthcare services have generally improved in the West Bank over the past year because of eased movement restrictions and the efforts of the Palestinian Ministry of Health with the support of donors and other stakeholders. However, the impact of Israel’s “Separation Wall” and the difficulties of access to hospitals in east Jerusalem, where nearly 50 percent of Health Ministry referrals were to in 2009, remain areas of concern.

In Gaza, Israel’s blockade is debilitating the healthcare system, limiting medical supplies and the training of medical personnel and preventing serious medical cases from travelling outside the Strip for specialized treatment.

Israel’s 2008-2009 military operation damaged 15 of the Strip’s 27 hospitals and damaged or destroyed 43 of its 110 primary health care facilities, none of which have been repaired or rebuilt because of the construction materials ban. Some 15-20 percent of essential medicines are commonly out of stock and there are shortages of essential spare parts for many items of medical equipment, the WHO report said.

As a result, the steady decline in the infant mortality rate in recent decades has stalled over the past few years and may have even risen in Gaza, which has a mortality rate around 30 percent higher than in the West Bank. Watery diarrhoea, acute bloody diarrhoea and viral hepatitis are the major causes of morbidity among reportable infectious diseases in the Strip.

Reliable data on maternal mortality and morbidity trends were generally not available.

“Very often journalists ask me whether I define the crisis in Gaza as humanitarian and I give this reply: It’s far beyond humanitarian. It’s much more serious,” said Grandi. “You can address a humanitarian crisis with medicines and food; this is far more serious. It’s a crisis of the economy first of all - people are very poor. It’s a crisis of the institutions and it’s a crisis of the infrastructure. This requires years to fix.”

The WHO report, released on 13 May, was the result of a fact-finding mission to assess the health and economic situation in oPt in response to Resolution WHA62.2, adopted on 21 May 2009 at the 62nd World Health Assembly, which called, among other things on Israel to “lift immediately the closure in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly the closure of the crossing points of the occupied Gaza Strip that are causing the serious shortage of medicines and medical supplies”.