Thursday, August 25, 2011

Video: Waterborne diseases grip Somali refugee camps

couldn't resist... ;-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We are done here.

After doing this blog for over 5 years I think I am ready to stop. My wife and I will have another child on the way in November. I don't know how I will be able to continue blogging with two kids continually tugging at me to get off of the computer, it's hard enough with one. If anyone would like to take over, write a comment below with your offer.

In the meantime, we will post below a widget of my news reader shared items to provide links to poverty news we find.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

World Bank minister accused of corruption in Egypt

A minister at the World Bank has been accused of corruption by the courts in Egypt. Mahmoud Mohieldin was an investment manager in Egypt until he was appointed to the World Bank in 2010. During his time in Egypt, he cooperated with Hosni Mubarak on some of the shady deals and corruption that helped to line the rulling pockets.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Emad Mekay gives us more details.

Mohieldin was one of a three-member team that led the country’s deeply unpopular economic polices that included an aggressive privatisation programme and drastic cuts to government expenditures on subsidies and the social sector.

The team included Foreign Trade and Industry Minister Rashid Muhammad Rashid and Economy Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali. Both are now on the run outside of Egypt after Egyptian courts found them guilty of corruption, misuse of public funds and profiteering.

Numerous allegations of business misconduct have been filed with the Egyptian General Prosecution Office against Mohieldin. He has also been the subject of dozens of local articles that question his role in ‘sweetheart deals’ involving the sale of public assets at below market rates. Seven other ministers who worked with Mohieldin are now serving prison terms for corruption while others are facing similar investigations.

Mohieldin, who travelled to Egypt several times from the start of his World Bank tenure until the revolution began on Jan. 25, hasn’t set foot in Egypt since the country started a series of probes into widespread corruption under Mubarak.

GAP said it was seeking Mohieldin’s financial disclosure records from the World Bank after it became clear that he is the subject of controversy in Egypt and at the international level.

GAP maintains that the bank’s response of publishing abbreviated forms of the documents will "not suffice to clarify the questions that now surround the alleged business conduct of Mr. Mohieldin as Egypt’s former Investment Minister."

Scientists work on mosquito breeding to control malaria

Scientists have just concluded a study that tries to change breeding habits of mosquitoes that carry the malaria virus. Scientists had female mosquitoes breed with sperm-less male mosquitoes to see if it would eventually thin out the number of females that carry the disease.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Kate Kelland explains the study that was conducted at Imperial College London.

In a study to see how these mosquitoes would fare when trying to get a mate, they found that female mosquitoes cannot tell if the males they mate with are fertile, or spermless and therefore unable to fertilise the females' eggs.

The researchers said findings suggest that in future it might be possible to control the size of the malaria-carrying mosquito population by introducing a genetic change that makes males sterile. Female mosquitoes would then unknowingly mate with the modified males and fail to produce any offspring.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that affects up to 300 million people and kills nearly 800,000 every year. Its threat is greatest in Africa, where the World Health Organisation says a child dies of malaria about every 45 seconds.

Public health experts are working towards the eventual global eradication of malaria, but progress is slow and there is a constant need for better and cheaper ways to get there.

"In the fight against malaria, many hope that the ability to genetically control the mosquito vector will one day be a key part of our armoury," said Flaminia Catteruccia from Imperial's life sciences department, who led the study.

But she added that for these currently theoretical control ideas to work in practice, scientists have to establish whether the insects would continue to mate as normal, unaware that their sexual mechanisms had been tampered with.

North Koreans escape from hunger

From IRIN, a story about North Koreans fleeing the food shortages within their country.

Thailand is fast becoming a transit country for North Koreans fleeing severe food shortages and poverty, authorities say.

Thousands now make their way along the more than 5,000km, often-dangerous route, through China and Laos to the kingdom en route to South Korea.

Since 2004, when just 46 North Korean asylum seekers were reported by Thailand's Immigration Bureau, the numbers have jumped to nearly 2,500 in 2010.

Thailand is the easiest route to access and the most accommodating, compared with Mongolia or Vietnam, where border security is tighter and in some cases, those fleeing have been sent back to face harsh punishment.

The trend is likely to continue, judging by a recent report by the World Food Programme (WFP), citing a bitter winter, crop loss, and lack of resources to secure cereal supplies from outside the country.

"We are at a crossroads right now: if we manage to get food into the country we can reach thousands of hungry children and their mothers on time," Claudia von Roehl, WFP country director, told IRIN from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "Our primary concern is for those who are most vulnerable to food shortages - children, mothers and the elderly."

Government rations - mainly cereals, maize and rice - provide only about a third of people's daily food needs; some families are already resorting to negative survival strategies, including cutting down on the size and number of meals, the UN food agency reports.

In recent months, the government has distributed between 150-200 grams per person per day, while the full ration is close to 600g.

Eating grass

One young women just arriving in Thailand said her family in North Korea had cut down to one meal a day.

"We never had any days that we felt full in our stomach. Many times we cut the grass in the forest to eat."

The soft-spoken 26-year-old former teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, began her exodus six years ago, by crossing the 526km Tumen River into China and then spending five years working to pay off the smuggler fees that made her escape possible.

Local Chiang Rai Police Chief Potsawee Chotienchaikun has talked to many of the asylum-seekers who regularly surrender themselves to authorities after reaching the Mekong River.

Thailand's reputation as a safe port of entry for North Koreans has spread by word of mouth, he believes.

"I think the people who have escaped in the past have made contact with their friends in North Korea and told them where it is safe to go. The South Koreans welcome the people because they are the same nationality, they speak the same language and the South Koreans have enough resources to take care of them."

Those resources reportedly include an initial re-settlement subsidy of six million won (US$5,330) per person and housing assistance.

But despite the fact that part of the subsidy goes straight into the hands of the traffickers who orchestrated the escape, the overall benefits seem to outweigh the losses.

"Here in Thailand it's quite clear that every North Korean who has arrived is being considered by the South Korean embassy and is being sent to South Korea," says the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, Phil Robertson.

"There's a system here that works in terms of North Koreans who can reach their destination."

But the root of the problem remains the scarce food resources in North Korea, an isolated nation of more than 24 million; Robertson hopes the country will continue to allow in teams to assess the situation.

"We would continue to press for the advancement and openness that we've seen to be made permanent because people should not be allowed to starve."

Meanwhile, for the lucky few, the sight of the smiling Buddha on the Thai side of the Mekong River is a sign of hope.

"When I crossed into Thailand, I was very happy. My life is safe now and I realize that I have survived," said the former teacher.

According to media reports cited by North Korean Economy Watch, a weblog on North Korean economic issues, more than 20,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce. The number does not account for the estimated tens of thousands hiding in China.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Catastrophe in the Congo; of American making

One obscure provision in the US Wall Street market bailout law has had a big impact on theRepublic of Congo economy. A Sunday op-ed piece in the New York Times says that the provision has harmed the fortunes of the most vulnerable in the Congo.

The author of the op-ed is David Aronson, a freelance writer who blogs at Congo Resources. Aronson says that one part of the Frank-Dodd act of 2010 has hurt small miners in the DRC. Companies now must make sure that minerals they buy for computers and cell phones don't benefit the warlords of the Congo. The law has had an unintended effect of stopping mining operations in the Congo. Many poor laborers depended on their mining jobs for a small income.

From the New York Times piece, Aronson traveled to the Congo to illustrate the harmful effects of the law.

Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank law has had unintended and devastating consequences, as I saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo this summer. The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones.

The smelting companies that used to buy from eastern Congo have stopped. No one wants to be tarred with financing African warlords — especially the glamorous high-tech firms like Apple and Intel that are often the ultimate buyers of these minerals. It’s easier to sidestep Congo than to sort out the complexities of Congolese politics — especially when minerals are readily available from other, safer countries.

For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.

The pastor at one church told me that women were giving birth at home because they couldn’t afford the $20 or so for the maternity clinic. Children are dropping out of school because parents can’t pay the fees. Remote mining towns are virtually cut off from the outside world because the planes that once provisioned them no longer land. Most worrying, a crop disease periodically decimates the region’s staple, cassava. Villagers who relied on their mining income to buy food when harvests failed are beginning to go hungry.

Meanwhile, the law is benefiting some of the very people it was meant to single out. The chief beneficiary is Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is nicknamed The Terminator and is sought by the International Criminal Court. Ostensibly a member of the Congolese Army, he is in fact a freelance killer with his own ethnic Tutsi militia, which provides “security” to traders smuggling minerals across the border to neighboring Rwanda.

Number of drought-displaced arriving in Mogadishu "dropping"

From IRIN, a story about the famine in the Horn of Africa. Humanitarian workers in the region say the number of people fleeing Somalia for the refugee camps is beginning to drop.

Humanitarian officials say the number of drought-displaced families arriving in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, has dropped in the past two weeks as more and more families cross the border into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, while others go to the Al-Shabab-controlled town of Baidoa, in the south-central Bay region.

"Between 15 June and 15 July, we had about 500 families reaching Mogadishu every day but the number has since decreased to about 250 families daily," said Ahmed Abdi Muhumed, a programme manager for Muslim Aid in Somalia, a UK-based NGO.

Muhumed said Baidoa, 250km northwest of Mogadishu, was now home to between 6,000 and 7,000 drought-displaced families. Baidoa, capital of the Bay region, is the third-largest town in the country, after Mogadishu and Kismayo.

So far, Muhumed said, the NGO Islamic Relief and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) were the only two aid organizations active in Baidoa. He added that Muslim Aid would begin operations there this week.

"We have assessed and found that between five and 10 children are dying in Baidoa daily due to starvation and diseases including malnutrition and diarrhoea; we are going to start food distribution and feeding this week," Muhumed said.

According to the UN, an estimated 300,000 people are in humanitarian emergency in Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions in south-central Somalia, two of five regions the UN has categorized as experiencing famine.

Muhumed said at least 150,000 out of the 300,000 people were at risk of starvation.

Nearer Mogadishu, in an area known as 50km, thousands of families are also at risk of starvation, according to Muslim Aid.

Muhumed said: "In the first days of our operations in and around Mogadishu, we found that many people preferred going to main urban centres, so we divided our operation into two: first, in 50km we distributed food and shelter to 2,000 families, then we distributed food to 3,000 families in camps for the internally displaced in Mogadishu."


The situation is deteriorating in the Afgoye corridor, west of Mogadishu, where up to 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have sought refuge.

"The drought displacement has caused a livelihood emergency in Afgoye corridor because the numbers of new arrivals are so high and this has made the situation difficult even for the displaced who have been here for long," Muhumed said.

Al-Shabab authorities in Baidoa recently told journalists that only US$3,000 was needed to feed the drought-affected in the town, adding that Somalis in the diaspora had sent some money to help the vulnerable families.

At the same time, members of the Transitional Federal Parliament of Somalia in Bay and Bakool regions have expressed concern about the humanitarian crisis in their areas.

"We know that about 6,000-7,000 families are now in Baidoa; they have nothing," Mohamed Abdi Ganay, an MP from Bay region, said. "Most of the people are from Ufurow, Qansah-Dheere, Dinsor and Bakool areas. The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Crescent] has distributed food to 780 families but many others are still suffering."

Speaking on behalf of MPs from the two regions, Ganay said they were calling on Al-Shabab to allow humanitarian agencies access to the drought-displaced in the Bay and Bakool regions.

"So far, this access has not been granted; we are discussing with the government to see if we can find solutions," he said.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Investigation finds Ethiopia using aid as a weapon

Ethiopia has received some praise for its aid distribution during the recent famine. Some say that food distribution operated by the government has helped to soften the impact of the drought.

An undercover investigation has called into question just how equally the food is given out. The BBC has found that people who vote for or support the opposition political party are often passed over for aid.

From the BBC, we find out more about what the investigation uncovered.

Our reporters visited one village in southern Ethiopia with a population of about 1,700 adults.

Despite being surrounded by other communities which are well fed and prosperous, this village, which cannot be named for fear of reprisals, is starving. We were told that in the two weeks prior to our team's arrival five adults and 10 children had died.

Lying on the floor, too exhausted to stand, and flanked by her three-year-old son whose stomach is bloated by malnutrition, one woman described how her family had not eaten for four days.

"We are living day to day on the grace of God," she said.

Another three-year-old boy lay in his grandmother's lap, listless and barely moving as he stared into space.

"We are just waiting on the crop, if we have one meal a day we will survive until the harvest, beyond that there is no hope for us," the grandmother said.


In another village 30 km (19 miles) away it was a similar story.

There our team met Yenee, a widow who along with her seven children is surviving by begging, eating leaves and scavenging scraps from the bins in the nearest town.

"The situation is desperate," she said. "We have been abandoned... It is a matter of chance if we live or die."

The two villages sit just 15km (9 miles) either side of a major town, surrounded by other communities where the populations are well fed and healthy. They are in desperate need, but no-one is helping.

According to local opposition members they are being punished for failing to vote for the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which Mr Meles leads.

Further north a group of farmers alienated by Mr Meles' government met the BBC/Bureau team at a secret location on the edge of a remote village.

One farmer described how he had been ostracised for failing to support EPRDF: "Because of our political views we face great intimidation. We are denied the right to fertiliser and seeds because of political ideology," he said.

Cuba: a development success story

Cuba has 100% literacy and is one of the healthiest countries in the world. This surprises many who say it could never be possible in a centralized communist government. Despite the entire world telling them they are doing it wrong, Cuba is still one of the world's greatest success stories.

Jonathan Glennie has posted another essay on the Guardian's Poverty Matters Blog that pokes more holes in development theory. Hot of the heals of his post where he said "development is essentially amoral" Glennie describes how the success in Cuba poses more development challenges.

It is easy to get seduced by Cuba's impressive development indicators and its assertions of idealist possibilities. The statistics are certainly dramatic, as Overseas Development Institute research emphasised last year. And Fidel Castro has certainly contributed as many wise and progressive thoughts to the world as he has unfortunate ramblings. But there are serious problems at the heart of the Cuban development model that have been left unaddressed for far too long.

Castro's leadership was the key factor in rapidly rising living standards for the poorest. In 1958, under the Batista dictatorship, half of Cuba's children did not attend school. The literacy campaign begun by Castro in 1961 led, in 1970, to Unesco declaring Cuba the country with the highest primary and secondary school enrolment in Latin America. These development gains, among others, have continued to this day.

But there have been two broad consequences. First, a generation of educated young people aspire to more in terms of living standards and life chances than their parents ever did. It is no coincidence that the older generation is more uncritically supportive of the revolution than the young – it knows what Cuba was like before.

Second, state-led development and investment is costly, especially when the international context becomes less favourable. Relying on goodwill, volunteering and accumulated capital has worked perhaps longer than anyone anticipated, but eventually wealth must be created and that, as the critics have always maintained, means a platform for the private sector to grow.

So it is better late than never that Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother, has finally bowed to pressure and taken two major reforms through the national assembly. First, travel restrictions will be loosened, making it much easier for Cubans to travel abroad. And second, authorisation and encouragement will be given to small businesses. These follow on from other reforms and are part of a gradual but significant shift in Cuban development theory intended to strengthen a weak economy.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Tropical Storm Emily bears down on Haiti's tent dwellers

In a city where a large population still live in tents, a tropical storm can be very threatening. That is the reality now for those that still live in the tent camps in Part-au-Prince, Haiti.

Tropical Storm Emily was near the south coast of the island this morning, and threatened to pass over Haiti this afternoon. The storm so far has caused flooding and damage to homes for Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

From the Associated Press, writer Trenton Daniel explains the treat the storm poses for the Haiti's homeless.

In Haiti, about 600,000 people are still in flimsy tents and shanties because of the January 2010 earthquake, strong winds whipped through palm trees in the capital while heavier rains fell further north, damaging homes as well as a cholera treatment center, said Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, the country's civil defense director. But there were no reports of deaths.

In the capital, which has most of those left homeless by the earthquake, the rain was relatively light so far, but the government evacuated a few families from a camp for quake victims to a school that is being used as a storm shelter, said Jean-Joseph Edgard, an administrator in Haiti's Civil Protection Department.

There was reason for concern. A slow-moving storm in June triggered mudslides and floods in Haiti and killed at least 28 people. Widespread poverty makes it difficult for people to take even the most basic precautions.

Joceline Alcide stashed her two children' birth certificates and school papers in little plastic bags that aid groups handed out. It was her only means to protect herself.

"There really isn't much more we can do. We just got these bags," the 39-year-old Alcide said, standing outside her teepee-like tarp shelter.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Shell admits to two Niger Delta oil spills

It is estimated that there are six oil spills a day in the Niger Delta. The spills often go unreported, so most of them never get cleaned up. The oil industry blames sabotage for most of the spills, and that does happen in some cases. A recent class action lawsuit filed in the UK forced Shell oil to admit liability for one spill from 2008.

From the Guardian, writer John Vidal talks about the forced admission. A photo gallery of some of the damage the spill left behind can be found here.

Papers seen by the Guardian show that following a class action suit in London over the past four months, the company has accepted responsibility for the 2008 double rupture of the Bodo-Bonny trans-Niger pipeline that pumps 120,000 barrels of oil a day though the community.

Ogoniland is a small region of the Niger delta which threw out Shell in 1994 for its pollution but then saw eight of its leaders, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed by the government.

The crude oil that gushed unchecked from the two Bodo spills, which occurred within months of each other, in 2008 has clearly devastated the 20 sq km network of creeks and inlets on which Bodo and as many as 30 other smaller settlements depend for food, water and fuel.

No attempt has been made to clean up the oil, which has collected on the creek sides, washes in and out on the tides and has seeped deep into the water table and farmland.

According to the communities in Bodo, in two years the company has only offered £3,500 together with 50 bags of rice, 50 bags of beans and a few cartons of sugar, tomatoes and groundnut oil. The offers were rejected as "insulting, provocative and beggarly" by the chiefs of Bodo, but later accepted on legal advice.

Shell's acceptance of full liability for the spills follows a class action suit bought on behalf of communities by London law firm Leigh Day and Co, which represented the Ivory Coast community that suffered health damage following the dumping of toxic waste by a ship leased to multinational oil company Trafigura in 2006.

Video: Miniature lab can diagnose disease in the field

From the Nature Video Channel, a video about a great innovation that can improve health diagnosis in the fields of under-developed countries. A lab as small as a cell phone can test for several diseases at once, and bring back results in as little as twenty minutes.

Video: Desperate Indonesians Turn to Rail 'therapy'

From the Associated Press, a video about poor Indonesians taking to the rails to find a cure for health problems.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A rising south, led by India and China

As the economies of India and China boomed, so has their investment into other nations. The two emerging powers have kept most of those investments south of the equator to other under-developed nations. That investment is great for moving people out of poverty, and those interested in development applaud it. Still what can be done to make sure it continues to grow, and that it does so fairly?

From the Guardian, this commentary by Thomas Elhaut from the at the International Fund for Agricultural tries to answer the question.

Some have argued that the emerging economies can put the global economy on a higher growth trajectory, but this is over-optimistic. The former have their own domestic challenges and their economic cycles remain vulnerable to, and synchronised with, the north. For example, while China's performance in tackling food insecurity and malnutrition is laudable and sets a good example for other developing countries to emulate, there are still 150 million people living below the poverty line in the country.
A key concern for development agencies and policymakers is how to extend and sustain rapid expansion of south-south trade and investment flows in pursuit of lasting development gains. Tapping the potential of south-south economic relations requires more than passive reliance on market forces and private initiative. Creating policy space for government action and regional policy co-ordination is crucial.

There is a great need for investments to move food from countries rich in arable lands to those with growing numbers of consumers and little food production capacity. For this to happen, agricultural markets and trade policies at the global, regional and sub-regional level need urgent improvement and reform.

Investment and trade among developing countries should set a good example of how to create win-win solutions. But we must take it to the next level by discussing how policies, institutional conditions and the right kinds of environments can further promote successful south-south co-operation. Specifically, as incomes and demand for food have grown, agriculture has begun attracting substantially larger investment flows, but the benefits to smallholders and others in some of the poorest recipient countries in the region (eg Laos and Cambodia) remain uncertain. It is imperative that these investments are geared to serve local needs better and to strengthen production capacity.

Above all, competitive rivalry for scarce resources must turn into co-operative ventures with larger payoffs to both emerging economic powers and those lagging behind. An overemphasis on short-term macro-economic balances must yield to a longer-term vision for shared growth and prosperity. A key lesson learned from China and India's success in poverty reduction is that domestic factors play a crucial role while market integration creates new opportunities for growth. Fiscal decentralisation in China, for example, accelerated growth and poverty reduction.

A Haitian company returns its expertise to Africa

The Inter Press Service has a great story today about a green energy company that is based in Haiti. ENERSA makes solar powered street lamps using small solar panels to power each light. The company employs people that live in the biggest slum of Port-au-Prince.

IPS writer Peter Costantini tagged along with a couple of ENERSA's founders as they traveled to Senegal to cooperate with another green energy company. Click on the link to the full story to read more about how the Haitian entrepreneurs learned about their ancestry in Africa during the trip.

A Senegalese firm specialising in solar-power installations, KAYER, had invited Noël and technician Frantz Derosier to visit the westernmost nation of West Africa to teach their employees how to fabricate their own photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight into electricity.

Noël is co-founder, along with his partner Alex Georges, of ENERSA - Énergies Renouvelables, S.A. (Renewable Energies, Inc.). Derosier is one of their 20-odd employees. ENERSA manufactures solar streetlamps and other solar-energy equipment using PV panels that they build from scratch. They count around a thousand such lights installed in over 50 municipalities all over Haiti.

After the catastrophic earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, which knocked out electrical power across the Port-au-Prince area, these lamps were the only public light sources for some localities. The temblor also destroyed much of ENERSA's physical plant, but all the employees survived and the firm was able to restart production within a few months.

During the nine days Noël and Derosier were in Senegal, a former French colony like Haiti, they conducted a week of training sessions with KAYER in the headquarters of a peasant farmers' confederation in the town of Mekhe, about 100 kilometres inland from Dakar, the capital.

The sessions resulted in the first solar panels "made in Senegal". The ongoing collaboration, according to ENERSA, will cover the conception and manufacturing in Senegal of solar products, including solar streetlights.

Derosier and nearly all the other ENERSA employees are young men from Cité Soleil, the biggest bidonville (shantytown) in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where jobs are prized rarities. ENERSA trained them for several weeks in electronics and metal fabrication skills, and pays them wages well above the going rate in Haiti, where the majority tries to survive on a dollar or two a day.

A microcredit business model change that might be crisis ending

The microfinance crisis in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has really hurt the reputation and earnings of the lending institutions. In addition, it has cut off the only way that the poor could obtain access to credit.

A new law that is about to be passed in India may help put microcredit back into operation. Before the law takes effect, one of the microcredit lenders has found a little change in the business model that might also help.

From Wall Street Journal, writer Paul Beckett describes the change that the company BASIX is beginning to use.

For the better part of nine months, the microfinance industry has been in paralysis because of restrictions put in place by the government of Andhra Pradesh, the state that was the center of micro-lending in India. Almost immediately, banks turned off the credit tap that allows microfinance lenders to operate, and borrowers abandoned the high repayment rates of the past and stopped paying.

And Vijay Mahajan, the chairman of BASIX, a company that specializes in micro-lending and other services targeted at the poor, warned that his microfinance operation is on the brink of folding.

Mr. Mahajan, however, is testing a new business model that may, if it catches on, provide something of a lifeline for the industry though it won’t solve all its problems.

The key move he has made is to establish a business within the BASIX Group that acts as a partner to banks rather than a borrower from banks. This is a tweak that doesn’t necessarily change much on the ground but changes tons in perception and viability. Under this model, the company stops being the originator of small loans to the poor, the definition of microfinance, and instead turns BASIX into a bank agent. Borrowers (BASIX lends to individuals and doesn’t use the group model favored by other lenders) won’t see much difference. They still will interact with BASIX representatives, who will be responsible for originating loans and collecting repayments.

But, critically, the BASIX representatives will be dispensing bank loans, rather than BASIX taking credit from banks onto its books and then assuming responsibility for the loans it issues. The bank will be able to set the interest rate and will pay BASIX a fee for handling the loan.

If the politicians of a particular state don’t like what they see, they will have to deal with a politically-connected, well-established bank — most likely government-owned — as well as possibly the Reserve Bank of India, rather than targeting small, politically lightweight microlenders. For microfinance companies, this model has the added advantage that the bank assumes the risk of default on the loan.

Mr. Mahajan told India Real Time that this bank partnership model represents a “desirable future” for the company. He declined to name the area where the company currently is using this structure (though we might hazard a wild guess) or to name bank partners.

But he said BASIX already has secured approval to lend out $56 million in bank capital. That contrasts with what he says is a total of just $5.6 million in bank loans to BASIX itself under the old model in the months since the crackdown in Andhra Pradesh in October made banks skittish about lending money to MFIs.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Opportunity gulf between Bedouin in Israel's Negev desert

From the IRIN, the story of another group of people within Israel who are under constant threat of seclusion.

More than 180,000 Bedouin live in Israel's Negev desert, but there is a big gap in terms of life opportunities between those Bedouin who live in 35 unrecognized villages, and those luckier ones for whom Israel has created seven towns or who live in seven officially recognized villages, say human rights workers.

Those in unrecognized villages face a constant threat of eviction, and are cut off from even basic services. Aside from the threats to their homes, not enough is being done by Israel to lift these Bedouin communities out of poverty, they say.

Amal Elsana Al Hajooj, a Bedouin woman living in the Negev and the director of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, explained to IRIN that unemployment and poverty rates among the Negev Bedouin in unrecognized villages are the highest in Israel:

"Residents of unrecognized villages have no status. They have no address, their Israeli IDs state only the name of their clan. They have no claim to land. Their communities have no water, electricity or roads. There are no education or health services.

"The Negev is the backyard of the state of Israel. We are struggling to get any investment here."

Al Hajooj says the situation is most difficult for Bedouin women who face the dual challenges of living as Bedouin in Israel but also as women in a patriarchal society, where 30 percent of families are polygamous.

The conditions for women living in unrecognized villages are dramatically worse than for their counterparts in Israeli-built Negev towns, she said. "Today 75 percent of the Bedouin students [largely from recognized Negev towns] in university are women. But in the unrecognized villages the situation is very different - 65 percent of girls are out of school because there are no schools."

The Israeli government's recent suing of the Bedouin residents of al-Araqib village in the Negev - for US$500,000 to cover the cost of repeatedly demolishing their homes - has sparked fresh debate over Israel's treatment of its Bedouin minority.

Claims by Bedouin residents that al-Araqib is built on ancestral land have been dismissed by Israel, which has carried out more than 20 demolition and eviction operations in the village since July 2010. Israel considers al-Araqib, along with 34 other Bedouin villages in the Negev, an illegal settlement built on state-owned land.


Ortal Tzabar, spokesperson for the Israel Lands Authority, told IRIN: "This case is not about demolitions; these people are criminals. This land has been deserted since 1950, when it was taken by Israel. We had even leased the land to other Bedouins for agricultural use and they chased them away.

"But their claim that the land belongs to them is now under investigation and if it is found they have any rights at all, they will be allowed to return."

In response, a spokesperson for Araqib residents, Awad Abu Freih, said: "The court [process] is going to take some time, the next hearing is not soon. It has been very exhausting.

"The government doesn't like us; they don't want us but this is our land. They have been using our land for over 60 years. We don't owe them any money. They should give us compensation."

Weaving centre

Khadra El Saneh is the director of Sidreh, the only NGO of its kind in Israel working to educate and promote the rights of Bedouin women. A mother of four, El Saneh overcame initial opposition from the traditional elements in her community to set up a weaving centre. The centre now employees 70 local women to make rugs that sell in boutiques across Israel and are exported as far afield as New York and Tokyo.

"Our aim is to empower women here with basic things. Bedouin women are at the lowest level of employment in Israeli society; 90 percent of Bedouin women living in recognized villages are illiterate. In unrecognized villages, that number is more like 100 percent.

"If a woman has education and economic empowerment, she can take more control, make decisions, be more useful to her society and her family."

In an effort to combat low literacy rates, Sidreh also runs courses teaching Arabic, Hebrew and English. Since it opened in 1998, 1,400 women 17-60 have graduated from its literacy course. It also offers community services, like early childcare.

Sidreh's weaving business was launched in 2007. The 70 women employed to spin wool, stitch and weave the rugs each earn on average 2000 NIS (US$586) a month. The organization is supported by a number of international and national aid agencies, including Oxfam, but has received no support from the state of Israel.

According to El Saneh, the solution to her community's education and employment crisis is simple: "If we have schools, girls can go to school. If we don't have schools, girls can't go. If a woman doesn't have skills, transport and basic logistics she can't open a business. If she has, she can.

New cash transfer program for pregnant mothers in India

One of the states within India will begin a new conditional cash transfer program. Pregnant mothers will receive a smart card with money to buy food during the pregnancy. The mother is then given another deposit at the time of birth and more for each vaccination the child receives.

From the Times of India, we find out more details about the new program.

The Tamil Nadu government will soon pay mothers who get their newborns vaccinated as per the immunization schedule.

Under the Muthulakshmi Reddy Scheme, each pregnant woman will get a smart card with her medical details. The health department will deposit Rs 4,000 to her bank account after she registers with a government healthcare unit. The money is intended to help her have nutritious food and avoid anaemia during pregnancy.

If the woman gives birth to her child at a government hospital, the state will deposit Rs 4,000 more in her bank account. If the mother takes the baby to the healthcare unit for all vaccinations, the health department will transfer another Rs 4,000 to her account after the 14th week.

Rains help the parched land, but add misery to refugees

There has been some rain in Somalia over the last couple of days but it has only added to the misery of those living in the refugee tent camps surrounding Mogadishu. The rain and wind have swept away a lot of the tents, leaving the people who were sleeping under them cold, wet and asking for more help.

From the Guardian, this Associated Press article gives us the latest update on the famine.

Suffering refugees said more aid was vital but agencies have limited reach in Somalia where Islamist militants, including the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab, are waging an insurgency against the country's weak UN-backed government.

"We are living in plight, we left our homes, lost our animals and farms so we ask everyone to help us to survive," Abdi Muse Abshir said.

Lul Hussein, a mother of five, said her family had a sleepless night after their makeshift home crumbled.

"We are starved and we don't have enough help," she said. "Who's helping us? No one! So we are already between death and bad life."

Al-Shabab, the most dangerous group among the militants al-Shabab, has barred major relief organisations from operating in the territories it controls.

The UN said tens of thousands of people have died in Somalia in areas held by the Islamist rebels because food aid could not reach them.