Thursday, June 30, 2011

Video: Drought displaces Somalis

From Reuters, this video details the current drought in the Horn of Africa. People from Somalia are beginning to flee the drought stricken area to look for food and water.

You will need a current version of Flash to view this content.

Click here to download the latest Flash player.

A tale of two children fleeing the Ivory Coast

Once the armed conflict in the Ivory Coast began, people began to flee the country to safety. The armed conflict in Cote d'Ivoire began earlier this year when two political rivals contested an election and took to fighting to gain power. 175,800 people crossed into Liberia alone and that does not include the many who escaped into other neighboring countries. To this day, most of those people stay in refugee camps operated by the United Nations and the International Red Cross.

From the Guardian, writer Liz Ford has this story of two children who had to flee to a camp without their parents.

It was when armed men appeared in town that 13-year-old Israel Gbehe knew it was time to run.

The town of Toulepleu in Guiglo county, Ivory Coast, was under attack. Israel didn't know if the fighters were supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, the country's deposed president, or Alassane Ouattara, his successor. What he did know was that he needed to find his five-year-old sister, Pacifique, and join the crowd of people fleeing the town and heading to the Liberian border.

"I just saw armed men that came to the town. I didn't have time to see my family," says Israel, who at the time was living with relatives in the town while he and his sister attended school. "We walked through the bush back to my parents house, but when we got there I didn't see my parents. We met other people escaping to Liberia so we joined them."

The next day Israel and Pacifique were at a UN refugee transit point in the north-east of Liberia and eventually transferred to Bahn refugee camp in Nimba county.

That was in March. By the end of May, Israel had still not heard from his parents or knew their whereabouts.

Israel and Pacifique are among more than 2,000 children now at Bahn camp, situated 52km from the Ivory Coast border. The camp was built in January in an attempt to ease the pressure on the border towns that were filling up with Ivorians fleeing post-election violence. Bahn is built to accommodate 15,000 people, although by May only around 5,000 had arrived. The majority of people have chosen instead to stay a little closer to home, and in many cases have been offered shelter in the homes of Liberians living in villages dotted along the border (Liberian families are returning the favour for the support they received from Ivorians when they were forced to escape civil war).

Mobile health care driving into Namibia

In sparsely populated areas of the under-developed world, going for medical attention is often avoided. The trip to a medical facility can be a very long one. The trip could take all day and you may even have to walk the entire distance if you have no access to other transportation. So many never seek help for chronic issues until they become life threatening. In Namibia; one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, a new private-public partnership works to bring medical care to the people with a truck.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Servaas van den Bosch introduces us to the mobile clinics operated by Pharm Access.

To fill this gap in primary healthcare provision Dutch non-governmental organisation PharmAccess, together with the health ministry and the private sector have started a mobile clinic in one of the most remote regions of Namibia, in rural Otjozondjupa.

The project called Mister Sister has converted trucks into mobile clinics, receives medicine, vaccines and consumables from the health ministry, and funding from a growing complement of corporate sponsors.

"Mister Sister addresses an extremely important and often not recognised problem," remarked professor Rich Feeley from Boston University and advisor to the project at the project’s launch in mid-June. "Even when the costs are free, getting to the healthcare facilities is a problem."

In June the first Mister Sister mobile clinic commenced its month-long route along farms in the rural Otjozondjupa Region some 100 kilometres (km) from the capital Windhoek. Ultimately the service will operate three mobile clinics with a budget of 230,000 dollars each per year.

The average distance to a clinic in Namibia is 69km, to a doctor 99km, hospitals are approximately 107km away and for a dentist one travels 170km. But these are averages. In a country roughly the size of Pakistan, but with only two million inhabitants, having to travel 200km to access healthcare is no exception.

Though classified as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank, Namibia has the world’s highest income inequality on record and only 15 percent of its people have medical health insurance.

"Private insurers will only service the insured. We wanted to put in place a system that delivered unified care. Farm workers and their dependants have free access to our healthcare, while for teachers or police officers at roadblocks we can claim the treatment from their insurance companies," said Ingrid de Beer, Namibian general manager of PharmAccess in Namibia.

She adds that the system is unique in the way it brings public and private players together. De Beer: "It doesn’t make sense to have a private and a public system servicing the same population. Instead PharmAccess runs the service, with contributions in kind from the government and monetary input from the employers."

Video: UN extends DRC mission for another year

From Al Jazeera, a video about the United Nations extending their peacekeeping efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo by another year.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New rust resistant wheat hopes to improve food security

Scientists say they have developed a new wheat strain that is resistant to the disease UG99. The new strain of wheat could prove important in proving food security around the world. Wheat is very susceptible to the effects of climate change while rice and maize yields might be able to improve. A failed wheat harvest in Russia is one of the contributing factors to the record high food prices we are seeing now.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Soumya Karlamangla describes the disease and the hopes that scientists have for the new wheat strain.

Ug99, a virulent strain of wheat stem rust discovered over a decade ago, could potentially damage up to 90 percent of the world’s wheat crop, particularly as changing climatic patterns carry it to new regions, the scientists warned. That is a serious problem as world demand for food is surging, particularly as incomes and appetites grow in emerging giants like China and India.

But new varieties should help defuse the threat, say the scientists, who have been working to stay one step ahead of the pest.

“Stem rust is devastating - it’s the source of the great biblical plagues,” said Ronnie Coffman, principal investigator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project, an effort aiming to combat wheat crop diseases, and director of International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.


Since it was discovered in East Africa in 1998, Ug99 has been detected in nearly a dozen nations in Africa and the Middle East. It is a dangerous epidemic; in the early 1950s, a major outbreak of stem rust destroyed 40 percent of North America’s spring wheat crop.

Now, scientists aim to create and distribute resistant strains before the disease makes its way to the world’s breadbaskets located throughout Africa, North and South America, the Indian subcontinent and Australia.

With progress on new varieties well advanced, Coffman said, the main challenge will be getting farmers in areas yet to be affected by stem rust to plant the resistant varieties.

The new varieties offer some side benefits: an increase in crop yields of 15 percent and resistance to yellow rust, a less damaging pest that is currently hurting crop yields in Africa and the Middle East.

Coffman hopes these added factors will help win over governments and farmers. If not, a reduction in the production of wheat - the world’s most widely grown crop and the number one staple for a third of the world’s population - could wreak havoc on the already tight global food supply.

Drought in Horn of Africa close to famine stage

The United Nations is calling the world's attention to the latest drought to hit Africa. The drought is concentrated in the eastern Horn of Africa, which includes the countries of Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia. Officials are calling this the worst drought to hit the region in over 60 years.

From the Guardian, this Reuters article records the UN announcement on the drought.

"Two consecutive poor rainy seasons have resulted in one of the driest years since 1950/51 in many pastoral zones," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told a media briefing. "There is no likelihood of improvement until 2012".

Food prices have risen substantially in the region, pushing many moderately poor households over the edge.

A UN map of food security in the eastern Horn of Africa shows large swathes of central Kenya and Somalia in the emergency category, one phase before what the UN classifies as catastrophe/famine – the fifth and worst category.

Child malnutrition rates in the worst affected areas are more than double the emergency threshold of 15 per cent and are expected to rise further. High mortality rates among children are also reported.

Brazil works to keep AIDS drug price low

Generic versions of the anti-retroviral drugs given to AIDS patients have been a big help in reducing the number of deaths from the disease. The inexpensive generic versions of the ARV drugs can be distributed to more people who need them at a lower cost. Despite the lifesaving benefit, the governments of rich nations often try to block access to the generic versions of the drugs. They do this to protect the interest of the pharmaceutical companies that hold patents for ARVs.

From the Inter Press Service we take another look at this battle over bringing ARV drugs to the people from the viewpoint of Brazil. Writer Elizabeth Whitman says Brazil has been able to produce generic ARVs for their health program and is fighting in the free trade arena to keep doing so.

Generic drugs worldwide have played a significant role in HIV treatment because they are more affordable than brand-name drugs. They have also served as competition to bring down the price of non- generics.

The problem is that developed countries with corporations that hold patents for ARV medicines have often resisted the production of generic drugs by pushing for stricter intellectual property rights, such as longer patent terms, in free trade agreements and other negotiations.

But a study conducted by Oxfam on a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Jordan concluded that the TRIPS-plus rules in the agreement had contributed to increases in medicine prices, and that the rules "will delay or prevent use of public health safeguards to reduce he price of new medicines in the future."

Developing countries less able to afford expensive brand name drugs have pushed back, taking advantage of flexibilities - fairly and legally - within the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. One of the flexibilities allows governments to issue compulsory licenses to manufacture or import generic versions of drugs for public health purposes.

Brazil has been a leader in taking advantage of these flexibilities, and its efforts have paid off. In the early 2000s, a WTO panel ruled that for the Brazilian government to allow Brazilian firms to copy patented foreign pharmaceutical products and sell them as generics was acceptable, and did not violate the TRIPS agreement, according to Roy Nelson, associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

The European Union and the United States have fought most diligently for stricter intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS plus provisions. TRIPS plus provisions were a hot topic of debate during the High Level Meeting on AIDS held at the United Nations in New York at the beginning of this month.

These additional restrictions have proved a stumbling block in other arenas as well. Specifically, free trade negotiations between the EU and Mercosur, a bloc of Latin American countries, stalled yet again last week.

According to Scripintelligence, a news, analysis, and data provider for the pharmaceutical industry, and MercoPress, a South Atlantic news agency, Mercosur countries, Brazil included, are reluctant to accept EU demands for stricter patent rights, although this concern was not the only cause reason negotiations failed to proceed.

"Negotiations between Mercosur and the EU to suspend tariff and nontariff barriers between the economic blocs may inhibit local production of drugs, especially generics," Padilha told IPS. In order to ensure the affordability of HIV/AIDS drugs, the Brazilian government, he said, "adopts strategies for negotiating prices" with companies holding drug patents.

Myanmar Government open to microcredit expansion

From IRIN, a story about a statement from Myanmar's President about expanding microcredit services that has aid and credit workers in the country excited.

Myanmar President Thein Sein’s statement in May that a sustainable microfinance system should be established has sparked interest among aid workers and those already involved in the country’s embryonic microfinance system.

The president made the announcement at a rural development and poverty alleviation workshop where he acknowledged the country’s poor are concentrated outside the cities and in need of assistance.

“We expect [from the president’s statement] that we would be able to work more broadly in the future,” said Maung Maung, general manager of international NGO Pact which recently hosted Myanmar’s largest microfinance project. As of March, Pact had 478,404 clients in 22 townships from three zones - Delta, Dry and Shan.

More than 85 percent of rural households in Myanmar rely on loans from multiple sources to meet basic needs, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which brought microcredit lending to the country in 1997.

“The need for credit in the rural economy is substantial,” Akbar Usmani, acting UNDP resident representative, told IRIN. He estimated the present demand for loans in rural Myanmar at around US$340-471 million per year.

Current microfinance activities in Myanmar are conducted on the basis of specific authorizations provided to microfinance actors. These take the form of a set of Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) signed by the various microfinance actors with their line-ministry.

Microfinance is, therefore, not yet mainstreamed into a regulated financial sector, but is rather authorized on a case-by-case basis by the government. There is no specific microfinance regulation in Myanmar, according to a 2010 microfinance industry report published by France-based NGO ACTED and the Banking with the Poor Network in collaboration with the Foundation for Development Cooperation.

Both Maung Maung and the UNDP’s Usmani agreed that a strengthened legal framework could fortify and sustain microfinance lending in this agriculture-based country, where 70 percent of the population live in rural areas and about 26 percent below the poverty line, according to UNDP’s country-wide survey conducted in 2009 to 2010.

Guessing game

Still, no one knows what form the rules and regulations will take, and agencies are wondering how the government will amend current restrictions on lending from financial institutions. A law passed in 1990 forbade both state and privately-owned banks from providing uncollateralized credit.

This means all bank credit has to be backed by either real estate or by a fixed deposit account, which always worries agencies that rely on donor funds to run their projects.

“How can we borrow money from the [local] banks, when we have nothing to collateralize?” said Nyunt Hlaing, executive committee member of Myanmar Business Executives Association, which is one of the local groups engaging in the microfinance sector. “This is a big challenge in expanding and sustaining the projects for the long-run.”

In the absence of access to institutional credit from the private and public banks, the rural poor rely on relatives, friends, moneylenders and pawn shops for small loans which charge interest rates as high as 60-200 percent a year.

UNDP introduced microfinance to Myanmar in 1997 using the Grameen model of group-based lending in which typically a small group takes on the responsibility of repaying the debt. The initiative was originally implemented through several sub-organizations, but in 2006, Pact took over all of UNDP's microfinance programmes.

Several other government-sponsored groups, semi-governmental organizations and local and international NGOs have microfinance projects thanks to individual MoUs with the government.

There are institutional microfinancing lenders in 46 of the country's 330 townships, and according to UNDP, only 10 percent of Myanmar’s demand has been met.

Experts and economists believe that poverty could be effectively reduced if modern rules and regulations are implemented for the microfinancing sector.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Malaria drug research funding quadrupled over 16 years

The research group Policy Cures has a new analysis of malaria drug research and development that brings some encouraging news. The report says that funding for research has quadrupled over the last 16 years. Policy Cures says the huge influx of funding has helped to develop many possible drugs for the disease. The non-profit group recommends that current funding levels continue. They warn that a drop in donations could prevent those drugs from ever reaching those infected with malaria.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Kate Kelland unpacks the study on malaria research for us.

The malaria product pipeline currently includes almost 50 drug development projects, one vaccine candidate in late-stage testing -- an experimental shot called RTS,S from GlaxoSmithKline -- and dozens of other vaccine candidates in various stages of development, the report said.

There are also many new insecticide ingredients for mosquito control and a new generation of simple, rapid, and highly sensitive diagnostic tests, it said.

"In the coming years, the fruits of this unprecedented investment in malaria research and development could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives," said Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of Roll Back Malaria (RBM), which commissioned the report. "This robust product pipeline gives us hope that eradication of malaria is possible."

She added that cutting funding now would be "a foolish waste of a historic opportunity." The total available for R&D in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, was $612 million.

The report assessed progress against the R&D funding goals in a Global Malaria Action Plan set out by RBM in 2008, and estimated what would be needed in the coming decade to deliver the tools required to control, eliminate and eventually eradicate malaria.

It found that sustained, relatively modest increases are needed to boost annual funding to $690 million by 2015, and then called for a larger jump in 2016 to $785 million.

Aid dependency vs growing tax dollars

One of the shortcomings of international aid is that growing economies still receive money long after they need it. China and India still receive some dollars from other nations even though their own tax dollars can now fully fund their governments.

Jonathan Glennie from the Guardian attended a presentation from the lead tax collector for Uganda. Allen Kagina talked about how international aid money should be used to help the recipient country become self-sufficient instead of dependent.

Allen Kagina, commissioner general at the Uganda Revenue Authority, came to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) this month to give a presentation on the need to transform tax collection to, in her words, "wean Uganda off aid". Her message was clear: we need to use aid to support processes of improved tax collection, rather than allow it to substitute for the mobilising of domestic resources.

As an economy grows, as Uganda's is, a country will gradually rely less on aid as a proportion of gross national income. But that doesn't necessarily mean the government sector will reduce its dependency on aid. Some countries receive little aid as a proportion of GNI, but maintain heavy reliance on aid inputs in social and other sectors because tough political decisions on tax are not made.

The challenges in Uganda (and elsewhere) are many, and include, in Kagina's analysis: the difficulty of taxing the informal sector; the limited capacity of fiscal administrations; the slow pace of adoption of better IT; a low tax base coupled with tax evasion and fraud; the disproportional representation of some stakeholders in the tax base through the use of incentives; and a low savings ratio relative to investment requirements. So there are no easy answers.

Nevertheless, according to Kagina (who says she would welcome independent research to verify this, if anyone is interested), tax revenue has increased as a proportion of government expenditure from 55.2% in 2005 to 67.9% in 2010. Some successful reforms have included the introduction of one-stop border posts that harmonise immigration procedures, reduce transaction costs and duplication of efforts, enhance border security and increase revenue.

Kagina argues that domestic resource mobilisation is "potentially the biggest source of long-term financing for sustainable development and it is the lifeblood of all state governance, such as the provision of public goods and services". Aid still fills a gap, so rather than calling for an abrupt end to it, she asks: Is foreign aid to Africa promoting the strengthening of tax administration or simply having a substitution effect?

The Food and Agriculture Organization elects a new chief

The Food and Agriculture Organization elected a new chief yesterday. The 191 member nations voted to select Brazilian Josè Graziano da Silva to succeed Jacques Diouf. Many food security advocates applaud the appointment because of his experience in leading agricultural reforms in the fast growing country of Brazil.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Sabina Zaccaro gives us some background on de Silva.

The new chief succeeds Senegalese Jacques Diouf, who was first elected in 1993. The new director-general takes over in January 2012 and will remain in charge until July 2015. Following a recently revised rule, he is only eligible for one additional four-year term, while Diouf has been elected to three consecutive six-year terms.

Economist Jose Graziano da Silva, who was FAO's regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, had served as food security minister under former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In that position, he played a key role in the "Zero Hunger" government initiative that brought about a significant decrease in malnutrition in Brazil.

Working closely with civil society, and recognising the central role of women in agriculture, the programme contributed to lifting an estimated 24 million people out of extreme poverty, and to reducing malnutrition by 25 percent in the country, according to official figures.

Graziano's past success gives hope to civil society organisations, who largely expect an era of consultation and inclusion.

"By supporting smallholder agriculture, Brazil is tackling hunger successfully. We expect Graziano to bring the same approach to the FAO," Marco de Ponte, secretary general of ActionAid Italy, told IPS.

"In the Diouf era the common thinking was that transferring technical knowledge in agriculture was enough to fight hunger," de Ponte said. "But hunger is largely determined by political choices related to the food market, and hunger grows where you have unfair access to production."

Video: Poverty worsens Afghan drug abuse surge

From Al Jazeera, a video about opium addiction in Afghanistan.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Train attack targets Southern Sudanese returning home

An Arab militia group hailing from Northern Sudan attacked a train carrying southern Sudanese nationals. The people attacked were returning to Southern Sudan for the declaration of independence this July 9th. One person died in the latest battle that has flared up since the South voted to become independent earlier this year.

Northern Arab forces have been attacking the African Nubian tribe who live in along the new boarder of north and South Sudan.

From the BBC, we read more about the continued fighting in Sudan.

A UN spokeswoman said the train was attacked by Misseriya gunmen in South Kordofan state on Sunday, although this was denied by a Misseriya leader.

At least 70,000 people have fled recent fighting in South Kordofan, which borders South Sudan.

Tension has been rising ahead of the south's independence next month.

Another 100,000 people have been forced from their homes after fighting in the disputed town of Abyei, near South Kordofan.

"A train transport of southern Sudanese returnees going from Kosti to Wau was attacked by Misseriya militia," said UN spokeswoman Hua Jiang.

However, Misseriya leader Mohamed Omer al-Ansary said the attack had been carried out by rebels in the neighbouring region of Darfur, where a separate conflict broke out in 2003.

Poverty and malnutrition on the sisal plantations of Madagascar

From IRIN, a story about the battle against malnutrition in Madagascar.

At the Centre for Treatment of Acute Malnutrition with Complications (CRENI) in the town of Amboasary Sud in the Anosy region of southeastern Madagascar, Samina Tahiaritsoa, 20, cradles her son, Lambo, 3, who still weighs less than six kilograms after 10 days at the centre.

According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), two out of three Malagasy live in poverty and 50 percent of children younger than five have stunted growth due to malnutrition.

Tahiaritsoa is nine months pregnant with her third child, but has only a tiny bump to show for it. Her US$15 salary from working 10 days a month on a local sisal plantation must support the 20 members of her household, who get by on one small bowl of corn each a day and eat meat just once a month when she gets paid.

Already one of the world's poorest nations, Madagascar’s protracted political crisis has deepened poverty. In the drought-prone south, the increasingly unpredictable climate is pushing the risk of acute malnutrition among children even higher, particularly during the "lean season" between October and March when food is scarce.

"When you have a drought, an emergency, prices of food go up and a child doesn't get fed, or gets fed very little over a short period of time," said UNICEF spokesperson, Shantha Bloemen.

Prices of cattle and goats fall during a drought, as households sell off their livestock and eventually resort to consuming seeds and tamarind mixed with ash to survive.

UNICEF supports 49 centres for treating severe malnutrition across the island. A chart at the CRENI in Amboasary Sud shows that around a third of the 130 admissions in 2010 occurred between March and May (the end of the lean season), but local doctors say drought is a cyclical problem affecting the region every few years, while other longstanding social and economic problems are a constant threat to food security.

Children are admitted to the CRENI after weight-for-height measurements determine they are suffering from acute malnutrition. Another centre for acute malnutrition without complications (CRENAS) is attached to the health clinic in Amboasary Sud.

Bloemen said chronic malnutrition is usually caused by poor feeding practices over a period of time, like not exclusively breastfeeding for the first two years of a child's life, or a lack of protein and other nutritious foods in their diet.

"They'll grow, they won't die, but they basically won't ever grow to their proper full size, and it can affect their mental development," she said.

"Above all, it's the poverty that's causing this," said CRENI's head doctor, Samuel Rasaivaonirina, adding that most wage earners support an average household of 10 people on just $10 a month.

They usually earn this paltry living either from small-scale farming or working on the sisal plantation that stretches for kilometres outside the town and has remained in the hands of its French owners since Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960. In an area with over 220,000 people, the plantation takes up 80 percent of arable land in five of the 16 communes (villages).

"The people in these five communes are always poor, always in difficulty. Even in prosperous times for the rest of our region, they are food insecure," said district doctor Andry Rabetsivahiny. "The proof is that in our CRENAS, almost 70 percent of the children admitted come from the sisal-growing areas."

Clinic staff and community health workers trained to identify malnutrition refer children to the CRENAS, from where the most severe cases and those with complications are sent to the CRENI. Rasaivaonirina said children normally spent 10 days in the CRENI and after gaining sufficient weight, were moved back to CRENAS, where mothers and children are provided with support and education.

They also receive supplies of Plumpy'nut - a ready-to-use therapeutic food - to take home. This highly nutritious peanut paste containing micronutrients plays a vital role in an area where 60 percent of the people live more than 5km from the nearest health centre.

Lambo’s severely malnourished state has made him vulnerable to a diarrhoeal infection and he has lost weight since entering the CRENI nine days ago. He will need a course of antibiotics before he can make progress and be discharged. Such complications, which are common in children whose immune systems have been weakened by malnutrition, can quickly lead to death if left untreated.

Rabetsivahiny noted that local "fady", or taboos relating to eating certain foods, has contributed to widespread protein deficiency in an area where meat is an unaffordable luxury for most.

"Children are forbidden from eating eggs and chicken, and sweet potatoes can only be eaten as soon as they are dug up," he said. Chickens are considered "dirty", and eggs are believed to make women and children mute.

He added that men in the area often have numerous partners and are considered wealthy according to how many children they father. The result is large families, often headed by single mothers who struggle to earn enough money to support their children.

Tahiaritsoa was only able to breastfeed Lambo and her other child for two months before going back to work at the plantation. Now, with another child on the way, it seems even less likely she will be able to feed her ever-expanding family.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

G-20 comes up with an action plan to deal with food prices

On Thursday, the agricultural ministers of the world's 20 largest economies met to deal with surging food prices. While it is encouraging that there was discussion, the action plan they came up with falls short of what many advocates for the poor were hoping for.

From the Guardian, writer Mark Tran reports from the meetings in Paris.

The French agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, called agreement on a 24-page action plan unveiled in Paris as a "tour de force" and a victory against hunger in the world.

Analysts and campaigners were less enthusiastic at the outcome, which followed two days of talks in the French capital. "The plan of action tries to address the symptoms of price volatility on agricultural markets," said Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, "but it fails to address the causes."

De Schutter argued that food markets are highly dependent on energy markets, irresponsible mandates to increase the production and use of biofuels, and speculation that cannot be reduced to investors manipulating prices but which is the result of the "financialisation" of the commodities markets.

A key element of the action plan is a call for more transparency in commodity markets linked to an early warning system – an agricultural market information system – that would collect information on stocks, and the supply and demand of crops. Le Maire said India and China, which have been reluctant to provide such information on grounds of national security, would be given more time to come up the data.

The action plan encourages the private sector to come forward with this information, but there is no compulsion on big traders like Cargill and Bunge to release data, and they may be less than forthcoming on grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Video: Samburu starvation

From NTV Kenya, a video about a drought in the Samburu region that has claimed three lives.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Spiraling inflation in Northern Sudan

Northern Sudan is experiencing a rapid inflation of prices for basic goods. In fact, the beginnings of the inflation can be traced back to when the northern government signed the cease fire with the south. With the Sudanese Pound not as valuable as before, people are already feeling the economic impact of the south's succession and the vast oil reserves they take with them

From the Inter Press Service, writer Reem Abbas has this account of people feeling the economic pinch.

At the time, one Sudanese pound was equal to 2.30 dollars and life was considerably cheaper. The Sudanese economy was booming due to high oil prices and increasing foreign investment.

In the years following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, new jobs were created, cafes were bustling with customers and young professionals were able to buy cars in instalments and travel to Cairo or Dubai or Kuala Lumpur for holidays.

"No one is traveling now, people are trying to save their money for worse days. Tickets were much cheaper a few months ago, but now the prices are up 25 percent," said Maha Ali*, an employee at a travel agency in downtown Khartoum.

Ali used to make a lot of money from commissions when she brought customers to the agency. Now it is a struggle to convince people to travel, especially when some airlines only accept dollars and reject the constantly fluctuating Sudanese pound.

The economy changed in November 2010. The North Sudan government claimed that Sudan lacked foreign currency and the Sudanese minister of finance and national economy, Mahmoud Hassanein, was quoted saying that the country’s people consumed more than the country produced and this caused the rise in prices.

In early January 2011, southern Sudanese voted in a referendum in favour of secession from the north and this set in motion the beginnings of an economic crisis in Sudan. Currently North and South Sudan equally share the profits of the oil found in the south. But this will change when South Sudan becomes independent.

But North Sudan began to feel the impact of the secession even before the referendum. Prices skyrocketed as a result of inflation and salaries remained the same or even decreased.

Video: The maize puzzle

From NTV Kenya, a video on a shortage of maize in Kenya and how government may have ignored signs that led to it.

New study questions the effectiveness of a TB vaccine

A new clinical study calls into question the use of a new tuberculosis vaccine for national vaccination programs. The vaccine MVA85A was found to be less effective in treating TB when compared alongside vaccinations for other diseases.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Kate Kelland unpacks the study for us.

Martin Ota of the Medical Research Council Laboratories in Banjul, Gambia, who led the study, said the data should help doctors work out the best way to integrate the MVA85A into infant immunisation programmes in the future.

"We have a real opportunity to make sure that children are protected ... against tuberculosis by introducing effective and well-timed immunisation programmes," he said in a statement about the study. "This can only be achieved with robust information gathered from well-conducted clinical trials."

Standard childhood vaccinations are routinely given in developing countries as part of a plan known as the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI).

It includes vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, as well as the current vaccine for TB, Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG). The plan helps boost vaccine coverage by cutting the need for repeated visits to health clinics, which are often difficult to get to in poor, rural areas.

Although BCG protects against severe forms of TB in childhood, increasing rates of the disease in adults suggest its effect is not long-lasting.

TB is currently a worldwide pandemic that kills around 1.7 million people a year. The infection is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis and destroys patients' lung tissue, causing them to cough up the bacteria, which then spread through the air and can be inhaled by others.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Video: 'Uncontacted' tribe found in Brazil's Amazon

This is sort of off topic, but we found it fascinating. From Al Jazeera, this video shows a newly discovered Brazilian indigenous tribe that has never been contacted by the outside world before.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

India makes an effort to employ rescued sex trafficking victims

India was recently declared as one of the top five most dangerous places for women due to the amount of human trafficking for sex that runs through the country. An article today shows of one government effort to rehabilitate the victims and to give them employment after they are rescued.

From this Press Trust of India article that we found at the Hindustan Times, we read of more details about the trafficking rescue program.

Fifty young trafficked women are now working as security guards at a government-run school here and some corporate houses after the CRPF offered to train them, giving them a chance to start life afresh. "Over 50 young women were given security training by the CRPF at Burmu in Ranchi district," Sanja y Kumar Mishra, state coordinator of Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children and Women, said.
Most of the women have now found employment as security guards at the government-run Kasturba Girls School while some corporate houses have also engaged them in their projects, he said.

Besides these 50 women, many other trafficked girls in the state have now have a better life after undergoing training.

19-year-old Sahita, who was lured to Delhi on the promise of a job and made to work for hours as a domestic help, has now a better life after being rehabilitated as a housekeeper in a hotel here in Jharkhand's capital.

"I was made to work for 14 to 16 hours a day. I was not allowed to go out. I was virtually imprisoned and taken sexually advantage of till I was rescued by a NGO in 2008," said Sahita.

Schoolgirls catch gold fever in Madagascar

From IRIN, a story about young girls from Madagascar skipping class to pan for gold.

There is a touch of gold fever in the small western Madagascan town of Ankavandra and schoolgirls are being affected.

Rural poverty coupled with record world gold prices is proving an irresistible pull for young girls in and around Ankavandra who are being lured away from class and into the foothills of the central plateau area by the promise of a few flecks of gold.

Nearly every day a group of five girls, all related and aged 8-15, wake at dawn to begin a two-hour brisk walk up steep goat tracks to one of the many tributaries of the River Manambolo. As they draw closer to their destination their numbers swell to about 20 people, as parents with young children and other groups of girls, some appearing to be as young as five, join them.

On their heads - and to protect them from the scorching sun - they place the gold-panning bowls, which are made locally of wood and cost the equivalent of about US$5 each.

Cattle thieves (`Dahalo’) in search of `zebu’, Madagascar’s distinctive hump-backed cattle, frequent these hills, but so far there have been no reports of them switching into the gold-panning trade.

The girls, who asked not be named, told IRIN they were by no means the only ones from the district engaged in gold panning. “Girls do this because the boys usually have to look after the `zebu’,” they said.

The work is physically demanding. The sides of the river bank are hacked out with shovels and iron bars and the soil and rocks piled onto the wooden bowls, which are then taken to the nearby stream to be panned.

During the couple of hours IRIN spent with the girls, they probably dug out a couple of hundred kilograms of mud each, and never stopped for a break. They spend about six hours a day panning, and with the travelling time that makes for a more than 10-hour working day. They brought no food with them.

Mining permits

According to Madagascar’s mining code, gold panners have to purchase an annual permit for a few dollars, while gold dealers collecting the gold pay about US$50 for an annual permit. These taxes are supposed to go into district coffers for the improvement of local services, but the girls IRIN spoke to said they had never paid any dues.

The website of Paris-based mineral exploration company Zamarat Mining, which has established a local subsidiary, Zamarat Mining Madagascar, estimates there are about 150,000 gold panners in the country, producing 3-4 tons of gold annually, although it acknowledged “gold smuggling is a major problem.”

The UN Development Programme Human Development Index, which ranks Madagascar at 135 out of 169 countries, estimates nearly 70 percent of the island’s 20 million people live on US$1.25 a day or less.

In their best week in the past few years the girls made about US$14 each, working a six day week - more than double what they could have earned doing other menial tasks like washing clothes.

The girls say they do the work with their parents’ blessing and the proceeds are used to buy clothes and food.

A gold fragment half the size of a rice grain still arouses great excitement among the panners. The gold is sold at general trading stores in Ankavandra for 70,000 Malagasy ariary (US$36.50) a gram; the minimum quantity they can sell is one tenth of a gram.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kenyan businesswomen having trouble accessing the Women Enterprise Fund

Established in 2006, the Women Enterprise Fund was set up by the Kenyan government to give microcredit loans to women. The WEF was funded with 3.7 million dollars available to give to the women that banks wouldn't do businesses with. Banks would avoid the small businesswomen because of lack of education or collateral. Despite the goal by the fund to be more accessible, women are still having trouble getting the loans.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Miriam Gathigah describes the trouble that women are having.

But meeting the requirements has not been an easy task for some women. Stella Omollo from Nyanza region was only able to access the fund after a long wait.

"It is true there are women who want the money but can’t meet the requirements. There are those who have no idea what a business plan is and run whatever business they have as a way of life and not really with a business mindset," Omollo says.

Omollo also did not know how to draw up a business plan until she asked her nephew, a college student, to help her. Omollo, however, says it is the responsibility of the fund officials to ensure that women are adequately trained and know how to access the funds.

"Indeed we are trained before accessing the money, but the information is generally inadequate and only benefits women who are quick to understand issues. Most of the target group for the fund have no proper education and are in the informal sector," Omollo says.

Wambui agrees: "What’s the point of a one-off session for women in the informal sector? We need consistent training, perhaps once every three months to keep us on track."

When the fund started each of the 210 constituencies in the country were allocated the equivalent of 12,000 dollars; but this has now been doubled to meet demand through an increased national budgetary allocation.

The Fund's CEO, Samuel Wainaina, has heard the complaints about women having a hard time accessing the money available.

"There have been complaints relating to lack of information on where to access disbursed funds, particularly among rural women. There is need for more information," Wainaina admits.

700,000 Serbians living below the country's poverty line

The Serbian government has just conducted a survey on household incomes and found a large number are below the poverty line. 700,000 people in Serbia are below the country's poverty line of less than 80 euros a month. To make matters worse, the Serbian government is having trouble being able to afford giving all of those people aid.

From The Turkish Weekly, Bojana Milovanovic gives us more statistics about the poor in Serbia.

About 730,000 Serbs are unemployed and around 50,000 frequent soup kitchens, courtesy of the Red Cross, the database showed. With some of the highest levels of poverty found in rural areas, migration to towns has become increasingly heavy, resulting in 42,000 single-member village households.

Many of Serbia's elderly are struggling to make ends meet, even as age and declining strength make them less able to cope. More than 300,000 pensioners live off of about 110 euros per month.

"My pension is [around] 120 euros, just enough to cover my bills. I would starve if it were not for my daughter," Biljana Stosic, 63, a pensioner from Belgrade, told SETimes.

Even for younger people, finding or keeping a job in Serbia is a challenge. For those over 55, it can become nearly impossible. As many as 95% of the unemployed in that age bracket have been unable to locate work after their former employers shut down or cut back on personnel.

An ugly armed conflict in Sudan

We have focused so much on food security lately that some of the humanitarian crises have not had much space on this blog. A post from the Texas in Africa blog this morning reminded us that there is no greater crisis that in Sudan. Since the beginning of June, the mostly Arab northern Sudan government has targeted attacks against the African Nuba tribe. Half a million people have fled the fighting since it began and 3,000 people have disappeared.

From the Guardian, writer Julie Flint gives us this assessment of this truly ugly conflict.

The fighting has significantly increased the chances that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war six years ago will collapse, reigniting a north-south war and ending all hopes of peaceful partition when oil-rich South Sudan formally declares itself independent on 9 July.

Many Nuba fought alongside the southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the 22-year war. As black Africans within the Arabised north of Sudan, their hope was that the "New Sudan" promised by the SPLA would end their marginalisation and win respect for Nuba languages, religious observances and culture. The war that began in the 1980s in the Nuba region of South Kordofan was not just a footnote to the war in the south, it was a civil war in its own right, a deep-rooted indigenous rebellion that prompted a declaration of jihad by the Khartoum government in January 1992. Villages were burnt, livestock raided, food stores destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Nuba forced into "peace camps". But the Nuba were short-changed in the CPA. It denied them self-rule and, crucially, did not specify what would happen to the 30,000-strong Nuba rebel army enrolled in the SPLA.

On 5 June, as the Sudanese government army prepared to "control" – disarm – Nuba fighters, fighting erupted in South Kordofan's capital, Kadugli, and spread quickly across most of the region. The battle for Kadugli became a street-by-street war of attrition: Khartoum piled in brigades of regulars and irregulars, and the SPLA relentlessly mortared the army's divisional headquarters.

UN reports seen by the Observer state that "human rights abuses are commonplace and part of the strategy" in the new Nuba war. There are "door-to-door searches, presumably for SPLA elements"; "wide-scale exactions against unarmed civilians with specific targeting of African tribes"; looting of relief offices and warehouses; and "sightings of cattle-trucks with people sitting on their floors, with sentries guarding them".

"They take the young men," one official said. "Are they going to detain them and feed them and give them water for months? I don't think so."

Four days into the war, the United Nations Mission in Sudan (Unmis) warned in an internal report that a humanitarian crisis was already developing "of a magnitude that Unmis… is not sufficiently prepared to counter and the UN agencies are unprepared to deal with".

On Thursday the Nuba leader, Abdelaziz Adam al-Hilu, told African Union (AU) mediators frantically crafting a ceasefire agreement that more than 3,000 people have disappeared – either killed or their whereabouts unknown – "because they are Nuba or belong to the SPLA". He said 400,000-500,000 have been displaced, in a population of approximately 2.5 million, and more than 50 towns had been bombed.

Timor-Leste; On the way up but still a long way to go

From IRIN, a story about the rising international profile of the little country Timor-Leste.

As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a stable political system and improving education infrastructure, Timor-Leste is gradually raising its profile in the region, leaders say.

The fledgling nation’s candidacy for the 10-member Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks a milestone in its post-conflict recovery, but widespread social issues continue to hamper a country still recovering from decades of Indonesian rule.

“We have made tremendous progress in the past nine years of our independence since 2002. The country today is at peace as never before,” President Jose Manuel Ramos-Horta told IRIN. “We are on the right track, and when we join ASEAN, I am certain that we will be an asset, and not a burden.”

About 180,000 people died in sporadic unrest during Indonesia’s 24-year colonization of the country, according to East Timor Action Network (ETAN), a local human rights NGO. Seventy percent of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed in 1999 when Indonesia and anti-independence militias went on a killing spree after a majority voted for independence in a referendum. In 2002 more than 150,000 people were displaced by political turmoil, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Stable for nearly two parliamentary terms, Timor-Leste has a dynamic democratic system with nine opposition parties. Indonesia, ASEAN’s acting chair in 2011, is a staunch supporter of Timor-Leste’s candidacy for membership.

“Timor is being built from scratch and had to develop the skills among its own people and these things take a long time. They [Timorese] are still mid-way and have made tremendous advances,” Luis Constantino, country director for the World Bank in Timor-Leste, told IRIN from Dili.

Poverty persists

Timor-Leste has climbed 11 places in the UN Development Programme’s human development index since 2005, and now ranks at 120 out of 169 countries. Poverty decreased by 9 percent in the past three years.

However, “severe capacity gaps” in Timor-Leste’s population remain a stumbling block for post-conflict recovery, according to UNDP’s most recent Country Programme for Timor-Leste. Forty-one percent of the Timor-Leste’s 1.1 million people live on less than US$1 per day. Additionally, 43 percent are highly food insecure or at risk of becoming so, according to the assessment.

More than half of all under-five children are malnourished, and Timor-Leste has the third highest child malnutrition rate in the world after Yemen and Afghanistan, according to the country’s 2009 Demographic Health Survey.

The birth rate is continuing to increase, with an average of 5.4 births per woman. Two out of five deaths in women aged 15-49 happen in childbirth.

In 2007, nearly half the adult population was illiterate, says the World Bank.

More than 72 percent of children now attend lower secondary school (grades 7-9) compared to less than 55 percent in 2007, reports the World Bank, which has built 637 schools in the past decade. Primary school enrolment has jumped from 63 percent only a few years ago to 85 percent in 2011. While access to education has improved, the country still has a long way to go, said the World Bank’s Constantino. “There is a huge gap between what it should be, and is, but you can already see positive results in the numbers,” he said.

Timor-Leste currently has observer status in ASEAN, and hopes to become a member before 2015. Increased dialogue with its neighbours could usher in the changes Timor-Leste needs to see, experts say.

Many ASEAN member countries were at a less developed stage than Timor-Leste when they joined the organization, said Siriya Chindawongse, director of ASEAN Division One in Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Timor-Leste’s destiny is tied to Southeast Asia, and they will benefit from trade links and economic interaction in the region, although integration into the economy will take time,” he added.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bolivia considers new law to improve food security

Bolivian government is considering putting more money into making the country more food secure. 25 years ago most of what Bolivia ate was grown within its borders, now they import most of their food. Some features of the law include preserving Bolivia's agricultural diversity and developing its own seeds.

From the Guardian, writer Mattia Cabitza describes the new initiative to make Bolivia food secure.

The president is soon expected to sign the Law of Productive, Communal and Agricultural Revolution. The government says it will invest $500m (£308m) in sustainable policies that guarantee the local and self-sufficient production of high quality food, while preserving and respecting the country's immense biodiversity.

A key part of the proposals in this "food revolution" is Bolivia's intention to produce its own seeds.

"[They] are a major factor in food production," said Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed the draft law. "But in recent years we've seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That's why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds."

Bolivia hasn't been immune to the global volatility of food prices. Earlier this year, for example, it had to import sugar, after shortages led prices to double and sparked protests among consumers. Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.

Climate change, price speculation and foreign demand have taken much of the blame, but for Demetrio Pérez, president of Anapo, an association of more than 14,000 wheat, soya and corn producers in the country's fertile eastern plains, consumers are also too reliant on imports.

"We depend too much on Argentina and Brazil," Pérez said. "So what better way to produce our own seeds? If we use the latest technology and have a good harvest, prices can go down and we can convert Bolivia into an exporting country."

Video: UN Says Poor Countries Bear Brunt of Refugees

From the Associated Press, a video about a new report from the UN updating the state of refugees to mark World Refugee Day.

The challenge of making sure everyone receives the malaria vaccine

The malaria vaccine is due to make its debut within five years. The vaccine developed by Glaxo Smith Kline and the Malaria Vaccine Initiative is just beginning its first clinical trials. After development is done, the task will then shift to how government health ministries will successfully distribute the vaccinations.

From the Inter Press Service writers Joshua Kyalimpa and Terna Gyuse talked to health ministry officials in Uganda about their preparations for the new vaccine.

The debut of a first vaccine against malaria, for example, could now be less than five years away – final testing is under way in seven countries.

Yet developing an effective vaccine is only part of the challenge – effectively integrating it into public health will require careful planning and execution.

The recent history of Africa's immunisation programmes - from the re-emergence of polio in West and Central Africa, to the persistence of meningitis and infant pneumonia - is littered with promising solutions that have failed to have the expected impact. Against a background of poverty and conflict, vaccination campaigns have been hampered by weak infrastructure, insufficient staff or funding, and even popular resistance to vaccinations.

Across the continent, there is new attention to the practical requirements of effective immunisation campaigns. Dr Seraphine Adibaku, head of Uganda's malaria control programme, says his country has already started raising popular awareness of the coming availability of a malaria vaccine, with the most recent meeting of officials from the ministry of health and developers of the vaccine and other stake holders held in May.

"We are conscious not to cause excitement because it can lead to undesirable consequences but we have to tell the people that a vaccine could be here sooner than later," says Adibaku.

Uganda is banking on using infrastructure like ware houses and refrigerators from the Uganda National Expanded Program on Immunisation, which is already in place and has been used on previous immunisation programmes, to roll out the malaria vaccine. Adibaku says training will be given to vaccinators on handling the new vaccine with funding from GAVI, all of which shall be in line with the national vaccination policy.

Adibaku has questions about the vaccine: "We do not know yet for how long the vaccine will offer protection. Do you get protection for six months, one year, or for the rest of your life? These are some on the questions not answered yet."

He says for a vaccine to be effective, it should offer a high level of protection - between 80 and 90 percent - provide long-lasting resistance, and be affordable.

On this last point, Adibaku says a vaccine would be a potent new tool, but worries that high costs could leave poor countries like Uganda unable to make it available.

Is it time to build up food stockpiles again?

The record high food prices have stimulated a new debate on the use of government food reserves. The reserves were stockpiled by governments to help prevent shortages or big price jumps. The US stockpile is now at a record low due to concern about too much government intervention into the food market. Some say it is time for the stockpiles to be built up again because of the many weather related disruptions the world has suffered lately.

From the Nourishing the Planet blog, Epoch Times writer Kremena Krumova summarizes the disscusion of food reserves.

At the G-20 meeting last month in Rome, leaders discussed developing an emergency reserve system, aimed at servicing the most vulnerable countries.

Still, world powers could not reach a consensus on what French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire called, the “very last solution,” in a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Washington earlier this month.

Some of the sticking points mentioned by Le Maire are Brazil and Argentina’s desire to reduce price volatility, but at the same time willingness to allow commodity prices to keep rising. And China has found it difficult to accept the idea of increasing transparency in the markets, which is what a global reserve system would require.

Further discussions will be held at the next G-20 meeting in Paris, June 22-23. France currently holds the G-20 presidency and has been spearheading the effort.

Another option would be to agree to “virtual reserves,” which is based on shared and coordinated commitment for supplying food between participating countries. In this system, commodities would be bought in the futures market as hedges. In other words, they would be promissory, not actual budget expenditures.

The concept has its critics, however, who see it as an inferior option.

“Virtual reserves concept is flawed from the beginning. Countries need out-of-market, physical reserves,” argues Harwood D. Schaffer, research assistant professor at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

Schaffer says that the issue of food reserves is purely a question of politics.

“We can easily solve the problem with food production. What makes this hard to solve, are actually politics and ideology,” he said.

New study finds a connection between weather patterns and cholera

A new scientific study looked at the history of cholera outbreaks in Tanzania and found a correlation between the outbreak and preceding weather patterns. The researches found that a slight increase in temperature or rainfall was always followed by a surge of cholera cases just a few months later.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Daniela Hirschfeld unpacks the study and examines how it could improve prevention efforts.

"Our model, based on these two parameters, forecasted cases of cholera in Zanzibar well, and could act as a predictor for cholera outbreaks," Mohammad Ali, a researcher at the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, South Korea, and one of the authors of the study, told SciDev.Net.

Monthly cholera disease surveillance reports between 1997 and 2006 allowed the researchers to map epidemics over time. These epidemics were then compared with monthly environmental data for the same period, according to the study, published in June issue of The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Cholera outbreaks were closely associated with a rise in the monthly mean of minimum daily temperatures and rainfall levels, and this data could work as a reliable forecasting system for the disease, they concluded.

This would enable public health officials to prepare efficient and cost-effective interventions, such as vaccination programmes, to stem the outbreaks before they happen.

"We believe that these two climate variables — temperature and rainfall — can be applied as predictors in other regions," said Ali. "Now, we are working with the same type of data from Bangladesh. Our initial findings suggest that the amplification of cholera in this part of the world is also temperature driven."

But reliable data on cholera incidence is lacking in some developing countries, Ali added, making it impossible to develop similar forecasting models.

"I do not foresee that such a model could be developed in all countries," Ali said. "We can say, though, that neighbouring countries of Tanzania that have similar water and sanitation infrastructures may benefit from the model."

FAO says high prices do not mean a bigger supply

A new study raises some doubts that the record high food prices could bring an increase in food production. From IRIN, this story takes a look at the Agricultural Outlook report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Contrary to popular perception, the current high food prices will not see more money flowing into agriculture in the long term, warned a new forecast released ahead of a critical meeting of agriculture ministers in Paris on 22 and 23 June.

“Input costs, including that of fuel and fertilizer, have risen significantly - we anticipate global agriculture production to slow down in the next decade,” said Meritt Cluff, a senior economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and one of the authors of the Agricultural Outlook 2011-2020.

The Outlook - produced jointly by FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes all the major developed countries - has forecast in its last three editions that food prices will remain high for the next few decades.

Global agricultural production is projected to grow at 1.7 percent annually until 2020, compared to 2.6 percent during the previous decade. Slower growth is expected for most crops, especially oilseeds and coarse grains, which face higher production costs and slowing productivity.

FAO estimates that to meet projected demand over the next 40 years, farmers in developing countries need to double production.

The cost of nitrogen fertilizers and other farm chemicals is closely related to the crude oil price, which has jumped from about US$35 per barrel in 2000 to hovering around $100 per barrel today.

Besides the cost of agricultural inputs, pressure on resources such as water and land, and the higher risk of adverse weather are also contributing to the slow-down in food production.

“We need greater political will to make substantial investments into improving production of food grains to meet the rising demands in the future,” said Cluff.

An increase in the supply of major food grains such as wheat and rice could help bring food prices down somewhat. “We are not into a crisis of the proportions we faced in 2007/08. Yes, food prices are high, but the global supply of wheat and rice - the two major food grains - is not critical at the moment,” Cluff noted.

There is some concern over maize crops in US, which have been affected by floods. The US Department of Agriculture is expected to release final figures later in June. All food grain prices are now above those of 2010.

2010 ended with food prices at their highest since 2008, when the world was in the grip of a crisis sparked by very expensive staple grains. Cereal prices, especially of wheat, started climbing in the second half of 2010 as severe drought and fires slashed crop sizes in Russia and Ukraine, two of the world's largest producers. The price of wheat shot up by more than 70 percent. Economists said speculation and national policy responses were partly to blame for the for the price hikes.

Countries that do not produce enough to satisfy national demand and are net consumers have been hit not only by high food prices but by price volatility or fluctuations, said a new inter-agency report to the G20, Price Volatility in Food and Agriculture Markets: Policy Responses, coordinated by FAO and OECD on behalf of 10 international organizations.

The report proposes a list of policy responses to bring down food prices and tackle price shocks. It calls for the reduction or elimination of trade-distorting policies and the establishment of a new mechanism to improve information and transparency in agricultural production, consumption, stocks and trade.

Basic commodities like grains, sugar and oil experienced boom times between 2002 and 2008, attracting growing numbers of financial investors to the commodities futures exchange, a move dubbed the "financialization of commodity markets" by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), an intergovernmental body dealing with trade, investment and development issues.

The Intergovernmental Groups on Grain and Rice at FAO list the impact of financialization on the futures markets - along with poor market transparency, insufficient information about investors, unexpected changes triggered by national food security situations, panic buying and hoarding - among the root causes of harmful, rapid food price hikes. Russia announced a ban on exports in 2010, which also helped push up prices, economists said.

The absence of accurate reliable public information on food stocks, and the entry of unscrupulous commodities speculators have been cited among the major reasons for price swings. The US has already put in motion plans to curb speculation and “Other countries are also following suit,” said Cluff.

Price levels and volatility

Christopher Barrett, a food security expert who teaches development economics at Cornell University, New York, said there was a need to distinguish between high food prices and price volatility, because the way the food-price problem is cast affects policy response.

“Policies aimed at curbing food price volatility, such as export bans, price controls and price stabilization schemes, not only have a poor track record, they are misguided if policy-makers’ goal is to increase the welfare of the poor,” he said.

“Instead, policy-makers should consider policies that prevent sharp increases in food prices, such as removing barriers to international agricultural trade, and increased investment in scientific research on crop productivity improvement, on soil and water conservation, on reducing post-harvest losses that run to nearly 50 percent in many low-income countries, and on renewable energy sources that do not compete with food for land and harvests.’”

Barrett said the public discourse on food price volatility has been disappointing because political leaders, the media and popular commentators are commonly conflating rising food price levels with greater food price "volatility", which is best defined as variance around that level.

“The error is understandable because the two phenomena are indisputably correlated, but they are different things, and by conflating high food price levels and high price volatility, global leaders make some important errors,” he commented.

“First, while it is clear that food price levels are at historic highs, food price variability, although high these past few years, is not out of line with historical experience and is generally lower than in the 1970s. Although it is clear that the world faces historic food price highs, it is unclear that there is a similarly unprecedented food price volatility problem,” Barrett said.

“Second, the effects on the well-being of the poor of price levels, and of price volatility, differ. Rising food price levels hurt food consumers by reducing their purchasing power while benefiting food producers by increasing farm profits,” he pointed out.

“By contrast, food price volatility hurts food producers, who make irreversible investments in crop inputs at the start of the growing season, and routinely reduce such investments as food price risk increases” Barrett explained.

“But because food commodities are often substitutes for one another, and because changes in the prices of foodstuffs are not perfectly correlated, food consumers can adjust their food purchases so as to take advantage of relative price discounts. As a result, they commonly benefit from increased volatility around a price level,” he noted.

“Throughout the world, but especially in low-income countries, the poor are overwhelmingly net food buyers, so poverty increases as food price levels rise - but losses due to food price volatility fall mainly on relatively better-off large farmers, Barrett said.

“Perhaps not coincidentally, these same large farmers enjoy tremendous taxpayer-funded support programmes from G20 governments presently expressing concern about food price volatility.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Brazilians rising out of poverty feel less ashamed of ethnicity

Brazil has been one of the fastest growing economies in recent years. The growth has helped a lot of people climb out of poverty. Along with moving up the economic ladder, a lot of the shame and hopelessness associated with it has left those people as well. One unlikely place that boost in self-esteem is showing up in how people fill out census questions.

From this CNN story that we found at WPTZ, writer Mariano Castillo explains this phenomenon.

Although the birthrates of blacks and pardos -- the Brazilian term for mestizos, or people of mixed European and Native American heritage -- remain higher than for whites, experts don't cite that as the reason for the shift. Instead, they say that more Brazilians than ever are self-identifying as black or pardo, whereas in the past they would have checked off the box for "white."

"During this decade we have been noticing this increase in people declaring themselves black and pardo," Ana Saboia, a researcher at Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, or IBGE, told CNN. The institute oversees the census.

In the most recent census, 7.5% of Brazilians identified themselves as black, and 43% pardo.

The trend is in line with a national public discussion of race that has raised self-consciousness, she said.

Brazil is enjoying a period of growth that, despite the global economic downturn, has pulled thousands of people out of poverty. The rising incomes may be helping to dispel and reject associations that exist in Brazilian society between poverty and skin color.

"In the past, people would have been ashamed to say, 'I am mestizo,' or 'I am black,' because of the link to poverty," Saboia said.

Read more: