Monday, January 31, 2011

Guest Voices: So she can be Somebody Tomorrow

Next up in our series of posts from Concern Worldwide is a story on education programs in Liberia. A part of Concern's operations in the country include schools in remote villages with teacher training programs.

When a girl starts school in Liberia, she arrives full of enthusiasm and hope. Squeezing onto a bench with children her age—under a corrugated roof, in a make-shift building—she looks to her teacher ready to learn. But, without books to read from, a desk to lean on or a pencil to hold, progress is slow. Her teacher is an untrained, unqualified, unpaid volunteer. He struggles to control the overcrowded class and yearns for a curriculum to follow, textbooks to use or a decent blackboard to write on.

Concern Liberia is working to address these issues in 30 remote schools in Grand Bassa County. Constructing classrooms, separate toilets for boys and girls and providing furniture is just the start. Textbooks and other essential learning items like blackboards, pencils and copybooks are also being distributed.

To address the shortage of trained teachers available, Concern has posted Teacher Trainers in several rural communities across Grand Bassa to provide on-the-job training and support for primary school teachers. By providing textbooks, tutoring and courses in teaching methodology, literacy and numeracy, the gaps in their own education can be effectively bridged.

Ida Hughes approached Concern about becoming a teaching assistant when she heard about our education program. Her eight children (5 boys and 3 girls) attend a Concern-supported primary school in the rural community of Fortsville. Ida never had the opportunity to complete her own education and knows plenty about the consequences. She puts her children through school with meager earnings from rice production and charcoal, which she makes from chopped wood.

Ida explains how she was forced to abandon her education: “At grade seven my foster parents stopped sponsoring me in school. They told me that they were not in a position to support another person’s child to complete high school.”

Not long ago, Ida joined Concern’s program as a teaching assistant. Today she supports teachers in the classroom, and attends basic courses to improve her own academic skills. She has high hopes to sit the Liberian national examinations and is determined to realize her dream to enrol in a teacher training college.

Liberia is still recovering from a brutal 14-year civil war that destroyed lives, schools and homes. Providing education opportunities for young girls and boys is essential to securing the country’s economic recovery and to affording Liberia the opportunity to lift itself out of poverty. Children need safe learning environments free from corporal punishment and sexual exploitation and abuse – especially girls. Concern is working to address the inadequacies of a system that in 2008 revealed an abysmally low net enrollment rate of just 33 percent for primary school: that’s 67 percent of primary school aged children out of school.

When I visited Tepenneh last week, I was reminded about Concern’s effectiveness in providing safe learning spaces for girls. The old school building, a makeshift one-room structure made out of mud and stone is on the verge of collapse. Accompanied by a crowd of giggling children, I visited the site where Concern is building a new school with six classrooms, equipped with separate toilets for boys and girls. The importance of doing this can’t be overestimated. Girls are placed in danger of sexual assault when they have no safe toilets and have to share toilets with boys and men, or when they have to leave the school grounds to use the bush. Rape and sexual violence is a serious problem in post-conflict Liberia and Concern has prioritized making primary schools as safe as possible so children can learn free from danger of assault. For now, Concern is providing teaching and learning materials and training teachers in Tepenneh, but I look forward to April when we hand the new school building over to the community.

Girls’ education is hampered by the common belief in Liberia that girls are less intelligent than boys—a falsehood most devastatingly apparent in the lack of support demonstrated by parents. Unfortunately in Liberia, a girl’s education pays few tangible dividends and she ultimately becomes the ‘property’ of the family into which she marries. In addition, gender based violence and sexual exploitation by male teachers and fellow classmates severely limit enrollment and retention.

Concern is working with communities to encourage parents to send their children to school, especially girls. More importantly, Concern is supporting communities to know about their children’s rights and to become aware of the importance of gender equality. Parents and children are learning about the newly-introduced Liberian Code of Conduct for Teachers. Community members have translated the code into Liberian English so that parents and children can understand it better. One rule simply said “Teachers must not make love to students or pregnate students”. Now parents can report abuses in confidence to ensure their children are protected while at school.

Together with the Ministry of Education, Concern is working in rural schools to ensure that every girl has a brighter future, so she can “be someone tomorrow”.

135 Venezuelans being treated for cholera infections from the Dominican Republic

Venezuelans who were in the Dominican Republic for a wedding have brought cholera back home.Venezuelan health officials say they were infected with the Haitian strain of the disease. The Haitian cholera spilled over into the Dominican as the two nations share an island together. 135 Venezuelans are being treated for the disease.

From this AFP article that we found at Google News, we find out more about the spread of cholera from the Haiti.

"At the moment we have not had a single case of someone being contaminated in Venezuela," Health Minister Eugenia Sader told Globovision.

Authorities have said those being treated were part of a group of 452 Venezuelans who traveled to the Dominican Republic for a wedding earlier this month, and Sader said the government has been calling them "one by one."

Besides the cholera patients in Caracas, another 12 Venezuelans infected with the bacteria were still in the Dominican Republic and four others traveled on to Spain, Mexico and the United States.

The government has called on all the guests to report for testing even if they are showing no signs of the diarrheal disease, and has been warning the general public through media advertisements and a hygiene campaign.

Venezuela has had no cholera in a decade, and health officials have emphasized that it is crucial to gain control of the outbreak in the first 24 to 48 hours to prevent the imported bacteria from becoming established here.

Video: Egypt protesters increase pressure

From Al Jazerra, a video on thousands of people gathering at Egypt's Tahrir Square. Protesters are calling for a million people to file into the square. The Egyptian army and police have withdrawn from the area.

Poverty as a cause of the Middle East protests

All of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa engulfed with protests have many things in common. The protests were all started because the people have no jobs and no money. They see an elite ruling class grabbing all of the wealth for themselves. This leads the people to the streets, and any success seen in other countries helps their resolve.

From this Associated Press article that we found at MSNBC, writer Brian Murphy offers this analysis on why being poor is a major cause of the protests.

Just days before fleeing Tunisia, the embattled leader went on national television to promise 300,000 new jobs over two years.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak did much the same Saturday as riots gripped Cairo and other cities: offering more economic opportunities in a country where half the people live on less than $2 a day.

The pledges-under-siege have something else in common: an acknowledgment that the unprecedented anger on Arab streets is at its core a long-brewing rage against decades of economic imbalances that have rewarded the political elite and left many others on the margins.

With startling speed — less than two months since the first protests in Tunisia — underscored the wobbly condition of the systems used by some Arab regimes to hold power since the 1980s or earlier. The once formidable mix of economic cronyism and hard-line policing — which authorities sometime claim was needed to fight Islamic hard-liners or possible Israeli spies — now appears under serious strain from societies pushing back against the old matrix.

Mubarak and other Arab leaders have only to look to Cairo's streets: a population of 18 million with about half under 30 years old and no longer content to have a modest civil servant job as their top aspiration.

One protester in Cairo waved a hand-drawn copy of his university diploma amid clouds of tear gas and shouted what may best sum up the complexities of the domino-style unrest in a single word: Jobs.

"They are taking us lightly and they don't feel our frustration," said another protester, homemaker Sadat Abdel Salam. "This is an uprising of the people and we will not shut up again."

The narrative of economic injustice has surrounded the protests from the beginning.

"The regimes and the leaders are the ones under fire, but it's really about despair over the future," said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "The faces of this include the young man with a university degree who cannot find work or the mother who has trouble feeding her family."

Tunisia's mutiny that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was touched off by a struggling 26-year-old university graduate who lit himself on fire after police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart in December. Apparent copycat self-immolations quickly spread to Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.

Video: Egyptians Hike Up Pressure on Mubarak to Quit

From the Associated Press, a video on the seventh day of protests in Egypt.

Cattle rustling increases with Kenyan drought

Cases of cattle rustling has increased in northern Kenya. With recent drought causing the deaths and thinning of many herds, some farmers take to stealing to replenish their stock. In response, the Kenyan government has begun an electronic tagging program to better track cattle.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Abjata Khalif describes the need for more security for Kenyan cattle farmers.

Livestock herding is the main livelihood and source of income in northern Kenya, and the hike in cattle thefts threatens to ignite cross-community reprisals and raids that could set the stage for a surge in ethnic fighting in the region. Settled Kenyan communities that live in regions bordering the pastoral areas of northeastern and eastern Kenya have complained that cattle rustling incidents are surging during drought periods.

Besides hitting settled communities, armed rustlers waylay and attack pastoralist communities moving with large herds of livestock across the border into Somalia and Ethiopia. Herders who stay behind in their own remote, drought-hit villages with small numbers of animals also have fallen prey to attacks.

According Adan Garad, executive director of the Wagalla Centre for Peace and Human Rights, a Wajir-based community organization focused on pastoralist rights issues, livestock theft has been reported in all the pastoral districts of Wajir, Moyale, Marsabit and Sabarwawa.

“Cases of cattle rustling are increasing in these areas and we have received numerous cases from affected pastoralist communities. In the past, the communities used to practice cattle rustling as it was permitted by their culture. But now people are using cattle rustling as mean of restocking back to what they lost to prolonged droughts,” Garad said.

“In the past, communities in northern Kenya witnessed sporadic cases of insecurity but the prolonged drought and changing weather pattern is causing a spiral and increased cases of armed assaults that will see many lives lost and thousands of livestock lost,” he warned.

So far, 36 cases of cattle rustling have been reported in areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Kenya that are inhabited by pastoralists, he said. All the cases involved arms raids.

Video: Prisoners escape Egypt prisons

From Al Jazeera, a video on the mass jail breaks occurring amidst the chaos in Egypt.

New Zimbabwe poverty line at $467 a month

The poverty line in Zimbabwe rose eight percent to $467 per month according to a new report. The Zimbabwe statistics bureau issued used the report ahead of a planned strike by the nation's government workers. Most government workers only have a monthly income of 200 dollars, less than half of the poverty line.

From this Canadian Press article that we found at Google News, we find out more about upcoming protest and what caused the poor economy in Zimbabwe.

The nation's 240,000 civil servants, teachers and government workers are planning to strike to protest average monthly incomes of around $200. With massive unemployment, most Zimbabweans survive on the equivalent of about $1 a day. Two million people are set to receive food aid in coming months, according to the United Nations.

The former regional breadbasket is struggling to emerge from political gridlock, economic collapse and international isolation and sanctions after President Robert Mugabe ordered the seizures of thousands of white-owned farms in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy.

In its latest bulletin, the agency Zimstat said a family of five needed a monthly income of $467 if it was to be defined as "not poor" and able to meet its basic needs.

It said in December that family needed to spend nearly $150 on food alone to consume a minimum number of calories to stay healthy. Other expenses included housing, clothing, transportation and education and health care.

The report did not account for one expense that appears to have become a necessity even for the poorest of the poor: mobile phones. Street vendors say they need phones to help them eke out a living buying and selling their wares.

A state regulatory body said more than two-thirds of the population — even beggars and street children — own 7 million mobile phones and that inexpensive Chinese-made phones have clogged the nation's three mobile networks.

Video: US Set to Fly Thousands of Americans From Egypt

From the Associated Press, a video on US efforts to fly citizens out of Egypt.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Video: Davos Leaders: Save the Euro, and the Planet

From the Associated Press, a video on the World Economic Forum happening in Switzerland.

Pros and Cons of a new Microcredit Summit Campaign report

A new study from the Microcredit Summit Campaign says microcredit has helped 1.8 million Bangladeshi families out of poverty. The new study has its share of both fans and critics, and we found both in a couple of different stories today.

First the con viewpoint... from Sify we learn about the experts who rejected the study. 

Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, the Chairman of the Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) that loans money to microcredit agencies in Bangladesh, said his studies in 2006-2007 showed that only seven percent of micro-borrowers were able to rise above the poverty line.

"In this latest study, only ten percent of people have moved up, leaving the other 90 percent where they are. We cannot conclude that a whole lot has been achieved," he added.

In the recent past, serious charges have emerged about microfinance borrowers taking on multiple loans and too much debt, coercive collection practices by microfinance staff, and even suicides among borrowers who were unable to meet their payments.

India's multi-billion dollar industry was on the brink of a mass default until all major banks in the country agreed to continue lending to microfinance firms.

Meanwhile, Vancouver Sun writer Dan Cayo applauds the results of the study.

The worst floods ever in one of the world's most flood-prone countries, a serious food crisis, governance problems ranging from corruption to incompetence to instability, Bangladesh has been no stranger to hard times over the past two decades.

Yet during this difficult period for what has long been one of the poorest countries on earth, 1.8 million families whose earning power was bolstered by microcredit were able to cross the $1.25-a-day threshold that defines abject poverty. By doing so they dragged nearly 10 million of the country's 160 million people up to a level of living that's at least a little bit better.

A report documenting these numbers, prepared for the Microcredit Summit Campaign, doesn't claim direct cause-and-effect between microcredit and this solid progress.

In other words, some of these people -- maybe all of them, though I very much doubt it -- might have moved beyond the worst of poverty anyway.

Read more:

Finally the press release from the Microcredit Summit Campaign gives us more details on the report's conclusions. You can download the full report from this link.

Nearly 2 million Bangladeshi households involved in microfinance — including almost 10 million family members, on net — rose above the US$1.25 a day threshold between 1990 and 2008. These figures were released in a report by the Microcredit Summit Campaign today.

A survey of more than 4,000 Bangladeshi households, led by Sajjad Zohir of the Dhaka-based Economic Research Group, found that a dramatic number of families moved out of poverty between 1990 and 1997, but that a massive flood in 1998 and the food and fuel crisis of 2008 were the likely cause for millions of families to fall below the $1.25 a day threshold during that later period. Even with these setbacks, on net nearly 10 million people rose above poverty.

The Microcredit Summit Campaign report closely mirrors the findings of official country-level research in Bangladesh with the national Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) estimating that 10.62 million Bangladeshis left hardcore poverty between 1990 and 2005. Zohir, the report’s author writes, “[O]ur estimate seems quite in line with the national level poverty findings.”

“While the Bangladesh survey was not designed to assign causality, it is very significant that the number of microfinance clients who left poverty closely links to the national data on poverty reduction,” said Microcredit Summit Campaign Director Sam Daley-Harris. “The majority of poverty in Bangladesh is in rural areas and so are the majority of microfinance clients.”

This good news comes during a difficult time for the microfinance sector. In recent years, microfinance programs have seen growing questions about their effectiveness. Several randomized controlled trials (RCTs) matched microfinance clients with control groups and showed no movement out of poverty in the group receiving the microloans. But these studies, touted for their rigor, have been met with questions of their own.

“Two of the problems I have with the RCTs that have been done to date are that they haven’t studied programs that are known for their deep commitment to ending poverty, and they typically cover a 12- to 18-month period, which is too short a time for real change to take place,” said Chris Dunford, President of Freedom from Hunger. “We have to remember that not all microfinance programs are the same. This new study from Bangladesh includes a large number of clients from BRAC and Grameen Bank, two Bangladeshi institutions known for their groundbreaking efforts to end rural poverty.”

Another setback for microfinance came in the wake of a tremendously successful initial public offering (IPO) in 2010 by SKS, an Indian microfinance program based in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Soon after the IPO’s success, serious charges began to emerge in the state about microfinance borrowers taking on multiple loans and too much debt, coercive collection practices by microfinance staff and even suicides spurred by these challenges.

“There are quite a few people who believe that microfinance has lost its way,” said Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation. “This Bangladesh survey reminds us that, even in the most difficult circumstances, major progress can be made. Bangladesh is not the ‘bottomless basket case’ that then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called it 35 years ago. It is instead a teacher to the rest of the world, with its civil society leading the way.”

The Bangladesh survey was administered between February and August 2009.

Download the report online:

Microcredit Summit Campaign:

The Microcredit Summit Campaign is a project of RESULTS Educational Fund, a U.S. based advocacy organization committed to creating the will to eliminate poverty. The Campaign was launched in 1997 and in 2007 surpassed its original goal of reaching 100 million poorest families with credit for self-employment and other financial and business services. The next Global Microcredit Summit will be held November 14-17, 2011 in Valladolid, Spain.

Economic Research Group:

The Economic Research Group (ERG) is a not-for-profit organization based in Bangladesh and was established to promote education and research with a view to improving social economic justice. ERG seeks to bridge the gap between academic research and policy analysis within Bangladesh and other countries of South and Southeast Asia. Through its work, ERG also aims to extend the frontier of knowledge on developing economies through analytical research and discussion of views on contemporary economic issues.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Still a humanitarian need in Pakistan six months after floods

Most of the people displaced from the Pakistan floods six months ago have returned to their villages. One area in south Pakistan called the Sindh province still has many people in camps still waiting for the flood to recede. Six months later, only half of those people have received any sort of sturdy shelter.

From Reuters AlertNet, writer Megan Rowling describes the continued humanitarian need in Pakistan.

Donors have contributed just over 56 percent of the $1.96 billion requested by the Pakistani government, the United Nations and other aid groups for their relief and early recovery operations, due to continue until October. Breaking that down, only 39 percent of the $322 million needed for emergency and interim shelter has been provided.

Emergency shelter in the form of a tent or two plastic tarpaulins has been distributed to some 864,400 households, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But that means roughly half the 1.75 million families whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the floods have yet to receive assistance to put even a flimsy roof over their heads.

"Shelter remains a concern area, and we have not been able to provide it to 100 percent of people," said Brigadier Sajid Naeem, who heads up the operations unit of the government's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). "There is a huge shortage of funding from donors. All the facilities that were destroyed have to be rebuilt on a permanent basis ... but we still need money for transitional and temporary shelters."

The monsoon floods - which happened over several weeks starting late last July, moving from the north to the south of the country mainly along the Indus River - inundated more than one-fifth of Pakistan's territory, killed nearly 2,000 people, and affected some 18 million to 20 million, of whom 14 million required immediate humanitarian aid.

Overall, around 95 percent of the 10 million people who were displaced by the flooding at its worst point have gone back to their villages, according to the government.

But aid workers say the humanitarian situation remains particularly difficult in the south, in Sindh and eastern Balochistan, where around 150,000 people are still living in camps because the flood waters have yet to evaporate. On top of that, some 200,000 people are living more or less out in the open near their uninhabitable homes, according to Manuel Bessler, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Pakistan.

"They are living in makeshift camps and we are trying to support them by building latrines and getting food to them," he told AlertNet. "This is quite concerning for us because they are scattered and difficult to assist."

Video: Mass Egypt Anti-government Protest Planned

From the Associated Press, a video on a massive protest planned for Egypt tomorrow.

Tunisian inspired protests spread into Yemen

The government protests continue to spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia is still in the middle of it as protesters demand more reforms. The rioting in Egypt has entered a second day. Now the protest begin in a new country, this time in Yemen the Middle East's poorest country.

From this Associated Press article that we found at WTEN, we find out more about the opposition demands.

"We will not accept anything less than the president leaving," said independent parliamentarian Ahmed Hashid.

Opposition leaders called for more demonstrations on Friday.

"We'll only be happy when we hear the words 'I understand you' from the president," Hashid said, invoking a statement issued by Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before he fled the country.

Saleh has tried to defuse simmering tensions by raising salaries for the army and by denying opponents' claims he plans to install his son as his successor.

After the Tunisian turmoil, he ordered income taxes slashed in half and instructed his government to control prices. He deployed anti-riot police and soldiers to several key areas in the capital, Sanaa, and its surroundings to prevent riots.

That hasn't stopped critics of his rule from taking to the streets in days of protests calling for him to step down, a red line that few dissenters had previously dared to cross.

Nearly half of Yemen's population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day and doesn't have access to proper sanitation. Less than a tenth of the roads are paved. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes by conflict, flooding the cities.

The government is riddled with corruption, has little control outside the capital, and its main source of income - oil - could run dry in a decade.

Video: Sri Lanka search for missing continues

From Al Jazeera, a video on the search for Sri Lanka people who have been missing since the end of last year's civil war.

Solar lamps as an empowering tool

Evans Wadongo ruined his eyes due to kerosene smoke. The kerosene was needed in his Kenyan boyhood home to provide light and heat. Evans would huddle next to the lamp to complete his school homework. The damage to his eyes didn't stand in the way of Evans finding a solution to avoid the same plight for others. Evans has started a non-profit that gives the solar lamps to Kenyan villagers.

From this AFP story that we found at Yahoo, we find out how Evans Wadongo provides more than light for Kenyan villagers. Evans was also profiled at CNN Heroes.

Some 15,000 lamps have been turned out since production started in 2004, and Wadongo says his goal is to hit 100,000 by 2015.

"I started in the village where I grew up and I saw kids going from primary into high school," he told AFP.

He has no time for Kenya's political class, accusing them of "wanting people to remain poor so that they can stay in power".

For Wadongo, the lamps are not an end in themselves, but rather "a way to lift people out of poverty."

He and his team from the "Use Solar, Save Lives" project start by identifying impoverished communities that rely for lighting on kerosene lamps -- when they can afford the fuel. They hand out 30 lamps to a community association, often a women's group, and encourage the locality to pool the money each family has saved by no longer buying kerosene.

When the fund accumulates the group can use it for a project, such as fish farming or rabbit breeding.

Nomadic communities get a special model of lamp for easier transport.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gates and Gulf Prince grant money for child vaccines

$100 million dollars has been pledged from two of the world's richest men to provide vaccines. Children in Pakistan and Afghanistan will receive vaccines with the grant money supplied by Bill Gates and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The money pledged will buy and distribute vaccines for polio, pneumonia, and other childhood diseases.

From Reuters, writer Reed Stevenson has more on the announcement.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan will each give $50 million to provide vaccinations for five common but deadly childhood diseases, as well as pneumonia, to 5 million children in Afghanistan.

A third of the funds will be used to get the polio vaccine to as many as 35 million children in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"It's a milestone," Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Corp, said in an interview. "We haven't had a joint thing like this in the region."

Gates said the initiative would take advantage of the United Arab Emirates' familiarity with delivering aid to two countries hit by violence and natural disasters. One in four Afghan children dies before their fifth birthday.

"There is no reason why the challenges facing the people of Afghanistan should be compounded by the devastating impact of preventable diseases, and particularly those affecting children," Sheikh Mohammed said in an emailed statement.

Video: southern Sudan faces a Kala Azar epidemic

From Medecins Sans Frontieres, a video on a possible Kala Azar epidemic for the soon to be independent Southern Sudan.

Brookings: number of people in poverty drops below one billion

A new report from the Brookings Institution gives us some very good news that has gone largely unreported in the press. The rise of India and China's economies over the past decade has made a major impact of the number of people living in poverty. The huge populations within the two countries accounted for a huge drop in the number of poor people. India and China alone dropped the world's poverty population by two thirds. According to the Bookings Institution there are now 878 million people living in poverty, compared to over one billion in 2005.

From a Washington Post op-ed piece announcing the report, Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz summarize the conclusions. A download of the full report is available here.

Yet on one issue our understanding remains impervious to this new reality: the state of global poverty. Our sense of this topic remains firmly rooted in the year 2005 - the last year for which the World Bank has produced data on the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day. Thus we are routinely told that "today," 1.37 billion people around the world are poor, including 456 million in India and 208 million in China, but such figures are six years out of date.

A lot has changed in the past six years. The economies of the developing world have expanded 50 percent in real terms, despite the Great Recession. Moreover, growth has been particularly high in countries with large numbers of poor people. India and China, of course, but also Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Uganda, Mozambique and Uzbekistan - nine countries that were collectively home to nearly two-thirds of the world's poor in 2005 - are all experiencing phenomenal economic advances.

In the new Brookings Institution report "Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015," we updated the World Bank's official $1.25-a-day figures to reveal how the global poverty landscape has changed with the emergence of developing countries. We estimate that between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world's poor fell to 878 million people. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals established the target of halving the rate of global poverty between 1990 and 2015; this was probably achieved by 2008, some seven years ahead of schedule. Moreover, using forecasts of per capita consumption growth, we predict that by 2015, fewer than 600 million people will remain poor. At that point, the 1990 poverty rate will have been halved and then halved again.

The decline in poverty is happening in all the world's regions and most of its countries, though at varying speeds. The emerging markets of Asia are recording the greatest successes; the two regional giants, China and India, are likely to account for three-quarters of the global reduction between 2005 and 2015. Over this period, Asia's share of the world's poor is anticipated to fall from two-thirds to one-third, while Africa's share is expected to rise to nearly 60 percent. Yet Africa, too, is making advances; we estimate that in 2008 its poverty rate dropped below the 50 percent mark for the first time. By 2015, African poverty is projected to fall below 40 percent, a feat China did not achieve until the mid-1990s.

Video: Mass Protest Against Egypt Leader

From the Associated Press, some raw footage of the protests in Egypt.

Four people killed in Egypt protests

Two of the major factors that are fueling the protests in the Middle East and North Africa are poverty and corruption. The people protesting want more economic opportunity and don't like the fact that the ones in power are the only ones making money with bribes and graft.

The protests have spread into Egypt and what is happening in that country has really caught the attention of the west. Overnight, four protesters died as the police started to use force against the people.

From IC Scotland, we read more about the protesting that turned deadly.
The two protesters were killed during a demonstration in the city of Suez. The official said one of them had respiratory problems and died as a result of tear gas inhalation and the other was killed by a rock thrown during the protest.

The policeman died during the protest in Cairo. The official said he was hit in the head by a rock.

Throughout the day, police blasted crowds with water cannons and set upon them with batons and acrid clouds of tear gas in an attempt to clear demonstrators crying out "Down with Mubarak" and demanding an end to Egypt's grinding poverty, corruption, unemployment and police abuses.

Tuesday's demonstration, the largest Egypt has seen for years, began peacefully, with police showing unusual restraint in what appeared to be a calculated strategy by the government to avoid further sullying the image of a security apparatus widely criticised as corrupt and violent.

With discontent growing over economic woes, and the toppling of Tunisia's president still resonating in the region, Egypt's government - which normally responds with swift retribution to any dissent - needed to tread carefully.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Introducing MYC4, auctions for low-interest microcredit lenders

The website MYC4 may have found a good solution to the problem of high interest microcredit loans. MYC4 lets lenders compete in an online action for the right to give a loan to a small African business. The lender with the lowest interest rate wins the auction.

From CNN, reporter Max Foster interviews Tim Vang one of the founders of MYC4.

Video: Tunisian politicians meet amid protests

From Al Jazeera, a video on politician efforts to calm the protesters in Tunisia.

Video: Manila Bus Blast Leaves 4 Dead

From the Associated Press, a video on a bus bombing in the Philippines.

Poverty fuels secession bid by Western Zambian Province

From IRIN, a story on another secession bid, this time in western Zambia.

High poverty levels and the skewed distribution of resources in Zambia's poorest province is stirring secession talk - with an ethnic dimension.

"The tensions in Western Province are a consequence of the neglect that the place has suffered in terms of socio-economic and infrastructure development," Thomas Mabwe, head of Development Studies at the Zambia Open University, told IRIN.

"Poverty levels in Western Province are the highest in the country, and there is very little to show in terms of infrastructure development. So, to some extent, people are just reacting to that under-development of their region," he said.

Earlier this month Mungu, the capital of Western Province, saw protests demanding independence for the region: Violent clashes with security forces left three dead, including a nine-year-old child, and 12 others were hospitalized.

The protests started with a poster and flier campaign by a group calling themselves the Black Bulls, which urged all of the province's "non-inhabitants" (non-Lozi) to leave the province by 15 January 2011, or risk being hacked to death.

Western Province is home to the Lozi-speaking people, one of the biggest of Zambia’s 73 ethnic groups. The minority Nkoyas and Mbunda ethnic groups in the province were classed as "non-inhabitants" in the poster campaign.

Police have arrested 24 Lozi-speaking people and charged them with treason, an offence that carries the death penalty.

Colonial treaty

Western Province was a British Protectorate known as Barotseland [Land of the Lozi people] while the remainder of Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia, was administered as a British colony.

Ahead of independence (1964) and to facilitate a unitary state, the two territories were united by a pact known as the Barotse Agreement, which among other things, called for equal distribution of resources.

"The Government of the Republic of Zambia shall have the same general responsibility for providing financial support for the administration and economic development of Barotseland as it has for other parts of the Republic and shall ensure that, in discharge of this responsibility, Barotseland is treated fairly and equitably in relation to other parts of the Republic," said the 1964 Barotse Agreement signed by Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda; Northern Rhodesia’s last governor, Evelyn Hone; and the then Lozi king Mwanawina Lewanika.

In October 2010, the government removed the Barotse Agreement from the new draft constitution, which immediately led to widespread protests in the province.

Grace Muyangana, leader of the Barotse Freedom Movement which is calling for the province's independence, led a campaign to pull down the national flag from public institutions and boycott the 24 October Independence Day celebrations.

"There is nothing independent about us [the Lozis]; we are not free. We will continue [with protests] because what we want is our nation [Barotseland]," she told local media at the time.

Western Province social indicators show poverty levels at 84 percent, against the national average of 64 percent, an indicator that has remained unchanged in six national surveys conducted by the government’s Central Statistical Office since 1991, the year multi-party politics was re-introduced in Zambia.

While 19 percent of Zambian households have access to electricity, only 3.5 percent of families in Western Province have it, and 53.4 percent of the province’s households have no toilets.

The province has no industry to speak of and the South African chain store, Shoprite Checkers, represents the only foreign investment in the region, with fishing being the predominant economic activity for the 700,000 inhabitants.

Paul Duffy, a Roman Catholic Church missionary in the province for 25 years, told IRIN: "People keep hearing promises from government leaders, especially during election campaigns and they vote for them [government leaders] expecting those developmental programmes to be implemented. The people are still waiting for action."

"The solution to this problem [in Western Province] is for the government to pay attention to the particular issues of development in the province," said Mabwe of the Zambia Open University.

Lee Habasonda, executive director of the regional governance watchdog, the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), warned government against down-playing the issue and called for dialogue.

"The approach taken by those calling for the Barotseland restoration [secession] and the government has a distabilizing effect on Zambia as a unitary state. The protesters should not call for secession or chase away non-Lozi speaking people because they are endangering other Lozi people who are outside Western Province."

"This can undermine national security. Government should call for dialogue and hear the issues that the people have or else we may end up with a state of emergency which is never good in a democratic country," Habasonda told IRIN.


National elections are scheduled for this year and analysts fear if the Western Province issue remains unresolved it could become a flashpoint for election violence.

Stanley Mhango, president of Foundation Democratic Process, an elections and good governance watchdog, commented: "This can greatly compromise our 2011 general elections because it has the capacity to create anarchy in the country; people should be aware that it is easy to lose peace and stability but very difficult to restore it."

President Rupiah Banda pipped presidential challenger and leader of the Patriotic Front (PF) Michael Sata to the post by a 2 percent margin, after a presidential snap-election was called in the wake of President Levy Mwanawasa's death (August 2008), although Sata garnered virtually no votes in Western Province.

Sata has backed calls for the recognition of the Barotse Agreement and its re-inclusion into the national constitution.

"The Barotse Agreement is still a valid agreement. How can you ignore an agreement that was signed, sealed and delivered almost 47 years ago? There is no honest person who can deny the existence and validity of the Barotse Agreement. I am ready to spend two months in Barotseland to help fight for their rights," he told local media in the aftermath of the protests in Western Province.

"The PF government will honour the Barotse Agreement without hesitation because we have no problems with it. We see nothing wrong with it," Sata, who opposed recognition of the same agreement when a cabinet minister in Chiluba’s government, said.

Banda has dismissed claims of lopsided development in Western Province, but conceded that the region may have been neglected.

"Yes, we haven’t done everything. It’s impossible to do everything at one time. That would be like magic. We have started on the path to the development of our country. Our country was in [a] shambles for a long time. Our party has begun to attend to these problems," Banda told a public meeting on 15 January in Luapula, northern Zambia.

"We are rebuilding the hospitals in our country, including in Western Province. We can’t build all of them at one time. I wish I was a magician because then I would strike once and all the hospitals would germinate; [but] we can’t do that."

Banda said the situation had been brought firmly under control and his administration would "ensure that precious province known as Western Province remains part and parcel of our country".

Monday, January 24, 2011

New rotavirus vaccine to reduce cost to poor

A new version of the rotavirus vaccine is being developed that will help to reduce the cost to the poor. Vaccines need to be kept in cold-storage to prevent from spoiling which really makes shipping and distribution costs expensive. A partnership between Merck and Britain's Wellcome Trust is developing a new technology to do away with cold-storage. This new vaccine will even be available in oral strips. Rotavirus is one of the leading killers of children throughout the under-developed world.

From Reuters AlertNet, writer Kate Kelland describes the new technology.

Hilleman Laboratories, an India-based joint venture set up on a not-for-profit basis in 2009, said the vaccine will aim to protect against diarrhoea-causing rotavirus infections and will be based on thin strips or granules that dissolve in the mouth and can be easily transported, stored and administered.

Diarrhoea is one of the top two killers of children under five worldwide, and rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhoeal disease in children. Each year, rotavirus-related diarrhoea kills more than 500,000 children and is the cause of many millions more needing hospital treatment.

Vaccines are often the best hope for tackling many diseases in poor countries, but in many cases they are either too expensive or unsuited to tropical conditions.

Currently available rotavirus shots, made by Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline , need to be kept in cold storage -- making their transportation and delivery complex and costly.

Akshay Goel, Hilleman's chief scientific officer, told Reuters in a telephone interview the researchers would be looking specifically at heat stability, ease of administration, package size and low cost as key features of the vaccine.

The team are also working with Medicine in Need (MEND), an international non-profit organisation which specialises in advanced drug and vaccine delivery technologies.

"Many first-generation vaccines have not been developed with the specific needs of countries with poor infrastructure for vaccine delivery in mind," said Altaf Lal, Hilleman's chief executive. He said Hilleman hoped to be ready with a product within four years which could then be manufactured by drugmakers and sold at an affordable price to developing countries.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between 10 and 50 percent of vaccines may be wasted globally every year due to cold storage, shipping and other logistical problems.

Video: Tunisian Protests Spread to Algeria, Yemen

From the Associated Press, a video on the protests from Tunisia spreading into other countries.

Cholera slowing in Haiti, but could surge again this spring

The cholera epidemic in Haiti seems to be slowing. The number of new cases has fallen sharply from the height of the outbreak. Medical professionals warn that there could be another surge in  cholera cases this spring. The rainy season to come could bring flooding of dirty water contaminated with cholera. So far 4,000 people have died of this cholera outbreak.

From this Associated Press article hosted at Google News, we receive an update from Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors working in Haiti.

"The general situation is improving. It's clear," Stefano Zannini, chief of mission for the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said Sunday. "The problem is that the possible development of the epidemic is unpredictable. It is impossible to say whether the situation will continue stabilizing."

Any progress on controlling disease would be rare bit of good news for Haiti, which is passing through a particularly gloomy period. The country is on edge amid a political crisis over a disputed presidential election, and could see more of the violent protests that paralyzed cities and hampered cholera treatment in December. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands are still homeless from last year's earthquake, and a much-reviled former dictator suddenly returned and took up residence in the past week.

Zannini, whose group is contemplating scaling back its more than 40 cholera treatment centers, was unable to muster even cautious optimism regarding the disease. The best he could say was that he was happy new cases and deaths are decreasing to levels not seen since soon after the disease emerged in October.

"I would not be optimistic," he said in an interview with The Associated Press at his Port-au-Prince office.

For the moment, at least, the statistics are moving in the right direction. The number of new cases has dropped to about 4,700 per week, down from more than 12,000 per week in November, and the trend is downward in all 10 of Haiti's departments, or regions, according to the Health Ministry's latest bulletin, released Thursday. The only places it appears to be still rising are in a few isolated spots in the northwest and south.

Some 40 patients a day are still coming to the Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Saint Marc, where the disease first exploded, but that's a third of what it was in December and there hasn't been a death in six weeks, said field coordinator Oscar Sanchez Rey.

"Is this is the end? Nobody really knows, but the situation is better," Sanchez said as he took a break from treating patients, including a family of six that all came down with the disease together. He cautioned that even though fewer people are getting sick, the center's work is still critical: "If no one is treating patients, they are going to die, because it's a lethal disease."

Lilane Estime, 42, tried to sleep on a wooden bench as doctors attended to three of her children. She said all four had piled onto a motorcycle taxi and traveled an hour along a dusty coastal road to reach the clinic. Seemingly healthy, she said she could feel cholera inside her, though she hadn't gotten sick yet.

"If there's a disease going around killing people, you're going to be scared," Estime said.

Somali refugees; From a life of fear to a life in limbo

From IRIN, a story on the long period that Somali refugees spend away from home.

Fleeing Somalia may mean an end to dodging bullets and living in fear, but for many Somalis who manage to cross the border into Kenya, it is also the start of a long and difficult journey as a refugee.

"We have refugees who have been in Kenya since 1991," said Salam Shahin, registration officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee complex, home to more than 300,000 people, mainly Somalis.

"On average, more than 5,000 mainly Somalis seek asylum in Dadaab per month but only about 8,000 are processed for resettlement [annually]; and only around 3,000 are actually resettled to third countries every year."

Asylum-seekers have often experienced extreme hardships on the way to Dadaab. Sirad Tahilil, 65, has been in the camp for a year. She initially fled the southern coastal city of Kismayo after the Islamist Al-Shabab group killed her son-in-law. She travelled for days, avoiding Al-Shabab roadblocks, to reach the Kenyan border.

"I was with 30 other people, including eight members of my family, my very sick husband, and taking care of two grandchildren," Tahilil told IRIN. "We arrived in Amume [town on the Kenya-Somalia border]; the police asked us where we were going. We told them we wanted to go the [refugee] camps but they refused to let us in until we paid them money.

"Each of us paid 1,000 [Kenya] shillings [US$12.50] and the truck owners paid them KSh20,000 [$250]. We had no choice; it was either pay them or get caught by those we were running from.

"After we arrived at the refugee camp in Hagardheer [one of Dadaab's three camps], we stayed with relatives for a few days until we were registered by UNHCR."

The process begins with registering asylum-seekers, which is followed by an interview to determine refugee status.

"Refugees from south-central Somalia are granted refugee status on a prima facie basis on the grounds of the long-running conflict in the region; those from the more peaceful northern regions of Somaliland [self-declared republic in the northwest of Somalia] and Puntland [self-declared autonomous region in the northeast] must provide evidence of persecution under refugee law in order to be granted status," said Shahin.

Verifying asylum-seekers’ identities and places of origin is hugely difficult. UNHCR does what it can, and asylum-seekers are required to sign a document attesting to the truth of their statements.

With basic necessities in limited supply, it is vital to ensure only legitimate claimants are able to receive food and other supplies. Dadaab is in Kenya's arid northeast, where drought and extreme poverty mean thousands of Kenyan Somalis have also been known to attempt to claim refugee status.

"Any person claiming to be a refugee can register with UNHCR. The introduction of fingerprinting in 2007 prevented persons from holding more than one record," Shahin said. "Together with the government, we have run all fingerprints through their database to ensure no Kenyans are registered; we also now hold verification exercises regularly."

After registration, a ration card is given to each refugee, along with a proof of registration form and an ID card with the bearer's name, photo, fingerprint, place of origin and other pertinent information. The ration card entitles the holder to non-food items such as tents, soap, jerry cans and mosquito nets, and to a bi-monthly supply of food, depending on family size.

"We get food and shelter but the food is never enough. The biggest problem is health," Tahilil said. "Up to now, I have not had a doctor to see my husband. But at least I don't have to worry about someone coming to my house and shooting me or a member of my family."

An agonizing wait

In the meantime, Tahilil waits to be resettled, a process that can be excruciatingly long. Hodan Ali Hussein, now 30, has been in camps for more than 20 years.

"We took a boat from Kismayo to Mombasa [on Kenya's east coast]; I was around 10 years old," Hussein said. "They took us to a refugee camp called Utanga near Mombasa. My mother and I stayed in that camp until 1997 when it was closed and we were sent to Dadaab.

"I know no other life than the one in the refugee camp... the worst thing is not knowing whether you will ever get out of the camp. There is no one you can ask.

"We finally went through a resettlement process," she said. "I am hopeful that we will be resettled and my children will have a better childhood than I had."

Several countries receive refugees from Dadaab: the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and UK.

Resettlement lottery

Given that the number of annual arrivals vastly outstrips annual resettlements, UNHCR has to make some tough decisions when deciding who to put forward for consideration by resettlement country authorities.

"Somali households are chosen from the group of earliest arrivals - from the years 1991 and 1992 - using a computerized programme," Daniele Tessandori, UNHCR resettlement officer in Dadaab, said. "The programme chooses households on a random basis, ensuring that all blocks in each camp are given equal attention in the selection process.”

UNHCR estimates it will take up to eight years to consider all Somalis living in Kenya since 1991 and 1992 for resettlement. Not everyone will be lucky: individual refugees with acute protection issues are fast-tracked, regardless of nationality and date of arrival.

The camps are rife with rumours about the resettlement process, so UNHCR and the NGO, FilmAid, are developing a film to inform the refugees about the process and what they can realistically expect.

For Tahilil, who arrived a year ago, the prospect of resettlement remains remote. "I don't know whether I will get resettlement or not, but I am not optimistic because I found out that there are people who have been in the camps for over 20 years," she said.

Meanwhile, the stream of Somalis fleeing to Kenya continues unabated. According to UNHCR, there have been no new plot allocations for refugees since 2008; some newcomers stay with relatives, while more than 20,000 have spontaneously settled on the outskirts of the camps.

"There is tension with the host community as a result of the spontaneous settlements. Many of the refugees are living in flood-prone areas [and] congestion is increasing all the time," said Bettina Schulte, UNHCR external relations officer for Dadaab.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Guest Voices: Promoting Grassroots Recovery in Pakistan

Next up in our series of posts from Concern Worldwide is a story on the continued need in Pakistan. Even though the flooding in Pakistan took place over the summer, there is still a great need for recovery. Concern's Press Officer Joop Koopman visited Pakistan to describe a program that gets the citizens involved in the recovery.

Seen from the air, the greenness and neat outlines of the farm fields of Punjab stand in sharp contrast with Sindh Province, its much poorer and more desert-like neighbor to the south.

My colleague Susan Finucane and I are flying from Karachi on Pakistan’s southern coast into the Punjabi city of Multan, an historically significant garrison town in the heart of the country that is today a well-kept, clean-swept bustling city. The relative privilege of the place and the orderliness of local traffic are a far cry from the chaos of urban streets we have just left behind in Sindh.

The ordered lushness observed from altitude makes sense. Punjab is literally the ‘land of five rivers’, fertile, relatively affluent and crucial to Pakistan as a grower of wheat and other crops. A kind of cognitive dissonance takes hold.

Though it is not immediately evident from above, we know that the devastating floods of summer 2010 destroyed more than 1.7 million acres of crops. Punjab is still fertile but the planting and harvest cycle has been violently interrupted, and though the flood waters have mostly receded, the ravages of the disaster will be manifest in drastically reduced crop yields, and the threats of food shortage and disease.

Hundreds of villages were severely affected, leaving up to 6 million people in need of various forms of assistance. The picture gets clearer during a drive into the countryside, where many destroyed fields are in evidence. Far and wide the crops—cotton, wheat, corn—lay abandoned, grey and wilted.

We’re travelling through the largely rural district of Muzaffargah, whose entire population of more than 2.6 million people had to be evacuated in the wake of the flooding. It took the majority up to eight weeks or more to be able to return to their villages, finding most of their homes destroyed, their property washed away, their livestock killed.

A limited effort by the government as well as emergency response initiatives by international aid organizations relied on roadside distributions, which left families vulnerable to attacks and fraudulent behavior by what locals refer to as “professional” beneficiaries. Predatory practices also included the purchase of surviving livestock at cut rates, taking advantage of families’ urgent need to raise emergency cash.

For its part, Concern, banking on relationships with local NGOs, built up and formalized in the past five years or more, was able to distribute emergency supplies in the villages, in the heart of the communities themselves. “Our local partners are our ambassadors in the villages,” said Nauman Shahzad, a Concern program officer based in Multan.

Working through these partner organizations, whose leadership often has family ties in the very villages they serve, Concern also insists on the engagement of the communities themselves in determining the eligibility of beneficiaries. As a result, communities take ownership of the aid efforts, keeping an eye on the most vulnerable families in their midst.

Such is the case for the hamlet of Abas Khan, which is part of the 150 household village of Basti Daryai, where, after distributing emergency shelter materials in the early going, Concern is currently overseeing a comprehensive water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program. Administered by the Doaba Foundation, the program is part of a comprehensive approach that aims to safeguard health in the immediate term, while phasing in longer term recovery programs that will address damage done to infrastructure and crops.

Susan and I were honored guests at a community meeting, at which several local leaders gave a low-tech but very thorough and impressive overview of the program —hand-drawn charts and all.

The WASH program consists of latrines connected to septic tanks, hand-wash stations and hand-pumps replacing older pumps, some of which could not tap water deep enough to bypass polluted levels, while others were stolen after the 30-family hamlet’s initial evacuation. Strategically-placed brightly illustrated posters instruct locals about the benefits of hygiene, while a community-based WASH committee organizes regular refresher courses in the improvised village square.

The program has dramatically changed the lives of the local families, even as, naturally, their priorities are the reconstruction of their homes and the resumption of agriculture. “Before we had given little thought to hygiene in the home and in our environment,” says Imam Bakish (50), who is in charge of an extended household of 14, including his wife Pathanimai and nine children. “Our lives are much changed today,” he says; “we keep our bodies and our clothes clean and children are less frequently ill and adults are doing better as well.”In years past diseases caused by unsafe water prompted costly and burdensome journeys to obtain health care.

“There has been such a great change,” says Naseem, a 30-year-old mother of six; “we have gone to more than four [hygiene] sessions and are learning so much.” The program “has helped us a lot and made the village very happy,” she smiled.

Naseem and Imam, whose farming tools were destroyed by the floods that also made his customary plots inaccessible, long to return to work the land—Imam as a farmer and Naseem picking cotton. Only then will their families have a shot at building a new home.

For now, their prospects are good. The land now being reclaimed from the water will actually be more fertile than before. The flood waters deposited another layer of soil richly endowed with minerals that had been carried along as the flooding made its way down along the north-south axis of the country. Concern and its local partners are accordingly shifting focus and massive resources to livelihoods recovery and reviving agriculture across the district.

The difference between Grameen and most microcredit banks

The Grameen Bank was the first microcredit bank in the world. Many banks that followed operated quite differently than Grameen.

Grammen uses a system of peer groups to ensure re-payment. They also ask that borrowers that make steps to improve their savings, health and education. The banks that followed only made loans without making other "investments" into the lives of their borrowers.

From the Seattle weekly Crosscut, writer David Korten examines the differences.

In 1983 Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, universally cited as the inspiration and model for the global microcredit movement. His purpose was to improve the lives of millions of poor Bangladeshis by making small loans to poor women to fund income-generating microbusinesses.

The basis for the Grameen Bank’s worldwide renown lies in a number of key characteristics that are not widely understood.

* Most local branches are self-funded by deposits of their local members in taka, the Bangladesh national currency.
* By serving as a depository for its members, Grameen Bank allows the poor to build their own financial asset base.
* The bank extends loans to its members at a maximum interest rate of 20 percent, a fraction of what many other microlenders charge.
* Operating on a cooperative model, profits are redistributed to the Grameen Bank’s owner-members or are invested in community projects.

These features root the Grameen Bank in the community it serves and keep money, including interest payments, continuously circulating locally to facilitate productive local exchange and build real community wealth.

Microcredit programs seeking to replicate the Grameen model have spread rapidly across the globe. Most, however, replicate only the loan feature. Few provide their members with depository services or replicate the Grameen Bank’s other defining features, though these features are central to its commitment to community wealth building.

As microlending programs became increasingly focused on repayment rates and growing the size of their loan portfolios, they looked for new sources of capital to expand their reach. With encouragement from foreign philanthropists, many turned to foreign commercial equity investors. Since private equity conflicts with the nonprofit model, sometime around 2005 many nonprofit microcredit programs changed their status to for-profit enterprises and converted their philanthropic nonprofit assets into private for-profit assets.

One such micro-finance program was Compartamos in Mexico, which in 2007 launched an initial public stock offering. According to a New York Times article, it charged its borrowers an annual interest rate of near 90 percent, producing a return on equity of more than 40 percent, nearly three times the 15 percent average for Mexican commercial banks. This made Compartamos highly attractive to private equity investors. The public offering brought in $458 million, of which “private Mexican investors, including the bank’s top executives, pocketed $150 million.”
For the groups that turned to Wall Street for financing, the line between social purpose microcredit and predatory loan sharking began to disappear.

Another example is SKS Microfinance in India, whose initial public offering in August 2010 raised $358 million from international investors and yielded its founders stock options worth more than $40 million.

Yunus describes the consequences of such conversions and public sales:

To ensure that the small loans would be profitable for their shareholders, such banks needed to raise interest rates and engage in aggressive marketing and loan collection. The kind of empathy that had once been shown toward borrowers when the lenders were nonprofits disappeared.

Video: Kenyan youth map their home

From Al Jazeera, a story on mapping the slums of Kenya. People in the slums hope that mapping out the most dangerous areas will help to provide more security.

Friday, January 21, 2011

99 percent of Southern Sudan votes for independence

Officials say that almost everyone voted for independence in last weeks Southern Sudan referendum.  According to the commission in charge of counting the votes, 99 percent of voters chose to succeed from the north.

Most of the people who voted against independence were southerners who cast their ballots in the north. The commission feels that concern over the voters own safety led the people in the north to vote that way.

Southern Sudan received this right to vote for freedom from a 2005 peace deal that ended a long civil war.

From Reuters, writers Jason Benham and Jeremy Clarke detail the latest results from the historic vote.

The website for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission ( showed a 98.6 percent vote for secession, with more than 80 percent of the votes from the south counted, and 100 percent counted in other areas.

The commission earlier confirmed the turnout had passed the 60 percent mark needed to make the result binding.

Officials from the oil-producing south have so far given a measured response to the early results and warned voters not to stage early celebrations to avoid antagonising the north.

The calm, controlled mood in the southern capital Juba has been in sharp contrast to the jubilant scenes that greeted the start of voting, when campaign posters described independence as a liberation from war and northern oppression.

"This is the outcome we expected ... the results won't change much," the commission's deputy chairman Chan Reek Madut, a southerner, told Reuters.

The only area to show a majority for unity was a small pocket of voters in the northern Sudanese state of South Darfur. According to the figures, 63.2 percent of voters wanted to keep the country together and only 36.8 percent went for secession.

"It is not surprising because of the way they conducted their registration. Some people passed as southerners who were actually northerners from Darfur," said Madut.

Video: Argentinian farmers on strike

From Al Jazeera, a video on a farmers strike in Argentina.

1 million people could go hungry in Sri Lanka

Save The Children says that Sri Lanka is facing a food crisis caused by the recent flooding and is asking for donations to bring food into the region. 21 percent of the country's rice production has been destroyed by the flooding. 1 million people could be without food unless more is shipped into the flood victims. Save the Children warns that this will not only cause a food shortage but an employment shortage as farmers will not be able to work the fields this season.

From the Guardian, writer Karen McVeigh details the appeal for Sri Lanka.

More than 1 million people in the country are affected, with over half estimated to be facing food shortages and the threat of waterborne disease.

It is an enormous setback for an area that was only just beginning to recover from the decades-long war and the 2004 tsunami which killed 400,000 people and left 2.5 million homeless.

"The average ten-year-old in eastern Sri Lanka has lived through conflict, the tsunami and now risks facing a food crisis in the coming weeks caused by these floods," Gareth Owen, Save the Children's emergencies director, said.

"It is absolutely essential that the world does not wait until these children are starving to act.

"Many families in affected areas are facing a nightmare scenario in which both their food source and their livelihoods have been washed away by the rains. They need help to survive until the next harvest. It may not have been possible to prevent the floods, but we can avoid a food crisis if help is given to families now."

An estimated quarter of a million acres of agricultural land and more than 240,000 livestock are thought to have been lost when the east of the island was hit.

Video: Birthplace of Tunisia's revolution

From Al Jazeera, a video that shows some of the reasons why the people of Tunisia began to protest for political change.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Free trade agreement could harm access to vaccines

A new free trade agreement could hurt the development of low cost vaccines. The trade proposal between the EU and India could restrict Indian generic companies from making cheap generic vaccines.

India could soon agree to the pact to get more of the countries other products onto EU shelves. However, low coast vaccines could disappear from the under-developed world. A majority of drugs distributed in poor countries come from the generic firms in India.

From the Guardian, health writer Sarah Boseley gives us background on the posible agreement.

Back a few years, the argument over access to medicines was all about patents - the 20 years' copyright protection given to a pharmaceutical company so that it could recoup the millions of dollars it had invested in research and development. A World Trade Organisation agreement on intellectual property required all nations to respect patents - but campaigners won an exemption to allow generics firms to make cheap copies for poor countries.

Big Pharma was down, but not out. The big, research-based drug companies consider the generics companies a major threat to their profits. There is every sign that they are behind the clauses in the EU trade agreement that could end the flow of cheap copycat drugs in the developing world. The trade agreement asks for "data exclusivity" on drugs, for a period which may be five or may be ten years.

This stops generic companies in their tracks. At the moment, they can make a copy of a drug and all they have to do is demonstrate that it is bio-equivalent to the original - they don't have to do new trials. Their drug can be licensed on the basis of trials carried out by the original company. Data exclusivity would stop this happening. Unless the generics company carried out its own trials, it would not be permitted to market a copycat drug.

Does a delay of five or ten years matter? Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières consider it a matter of life and death. The obvious example is HIV/Aids. The virus mutates easily and fast. In rich countries, resistance has set in to one drug after another. Poor countries at the moment have generic copies of basic drugs, but as resistance spreads, new drugs will be needed. Patients will not be able to wait ten years for the data exclusivity on those new drugs to expire.

Is the Doha round delivering on poverty?

From IRIN, a story that examines if the Doha round of free trade talks is accomplishing anything to ease poverty.

Skepticism marked discussions at a just-ended global poverty summit in Johannesburg on whether the Doha Development Round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization could help reduce the number of poor people in developing countries.

The Doha talks, which began in 2001, are aimed at reducing barriers to market access throughout the world, with the development of poor countries at the heart of their agenda. They look at three main sectors - agriculture, intellectual property and services.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, the assistant secretary-general of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and a leading Malaysian economist, said it had been extremely difficult to measure any socio-economic benefits of such access.

He said studies in his country had shown that a paddy farmer’s child had better nutrition than the children of a rubber farmer who now had access to global markets.

Improving income levels did not automatically imply better lives for the poor in any country, as other factors such as the implementation of policies that benefit the poor within countries matter a lot more, said Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize-winning economist and chair of the Brooks World Poverty Institute, the organizers of the Johannesburg summit.

He cited the USA as an example of where gross domestic product had grown substantially but not filtered down to the poor, who were worse off than a decade ago. "It [high economic growth levels] had a trickle-up effect," said Stiglitz.


Over the past decade the Doha talks have failed to get developed countries to stop subsidizing their farmers and agricultural exports, something that directly threatens livelihoods and food security in the developing countries.

While some European Union (EU) countries have abolished or reduced agricultural subsidies, the USA has not. It reintroduced subsidies for cotton farmers in 2008, pointed out Bernard Hoekman, an international trade expert at the World Bank, severely affecting cotton farmers in West African countries like Benin, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso.

The Johannesburg summit called for the rapid elimination of export subsidies, especially for cotton, sugar, groundnuts, dairy products and fish.

Sundaram said sub-Saharan Africa did not stand to benefit from the Doha talks. He pointed out that many least developed countries (LDCs), most of them in Africa, lacked the capacity to compete in the global market.

Experts at the Johannesburg summit said Bangladesh and Cambodia were among the few LDCs to build a competitive edge - in their textile and clothing sectors.

LDCs are seeking duty and quota-free (DFQF) access to markets in developed countries at the Doha talks. “In practice, many advanced and emerging market economies have agreed to allow DFQF market access for LDC products under at least 97 percent of tariff lines. While the difference between 97 percent and 100 percent may seem insignificant, many LDCs export so few product categories that even a small number of exclusions can sharply limit the benefits of trade preference programs,” says the International Monetary Fund.

The Johannesburg summit called for the setting up of an annual reporting mechanism on DFQF.


The Doha talks are also discussing EU fishing industry subsidies which encourage European fishing beyond Europe - something that adversely affects the millions of African fishermen, said the World Bank's Hoekman. "If those subsidies are removed it will prevent overfishing, benefiting the poor fishing communities along the African coast and the environment."

The Johannesburg summit also called for improvements in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) to ease restrictions on labour mobility from LDCs in order to boost such sectors as health, education and call centres.

Not all doom

The Doha talks have made progress in some areas, for instance Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which provides minimum standards for intellectual property protection in sectors such as music and medicine, and led to the introduction of greater flexibility in the manufacture of drugs for public health services.

Also under Doha, the EU was forced to abolish preferential access to banana exporters in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries - benefiting LDCs which have preferential access under the EU's Everything But Arms regulation, said Hoekman.

The Johannesburg summit warned, however, that “the length of time that the [Doha] negotiations have taken threatens to render aspects of the agenda obsolete."

But now is the time to push for a conclusion on outstanding issues, said Hoekman, as the US Farm Bill, which covers agriculture subsidies and food aid, comes up for review in 2012.

US AID proposes cuts, but asks Congress not to cut any more

One political tussle in the US will have major implications for international development aid. President Obama has made development aid a big part of his strategy in foreign policy. Republicans recently voted into the House and Senate want to make big budget cuts and are eying development aid as a target.

In an interview with Reuters, head of US AID Rajiv Shah says he has made changes to the organization that will save taxpayers $65 million dollars. He is presenting the changes to Republicans in order to keep going with future plans to expand. Writer Andrew Quinn interviewed Shah on the changes and the hard sell he has to make to Congress.

"We're making those hard decisions and tough changes," Shah told Reuters in an interview, saying skeptics on Capitol Hill must be persuaded that overseas aid is an essential part of U.S. security strategy for coming decades.

"We need our partners on the Hill in both parties to recognize that, done well, development saves lives and improves economic opportunities, and needs to be elevated and not cut."

Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November and some, including the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have promised to take a tough new look at President Barack Obama's plan to nearly double the U.S. aid budget to $52 billion by 2015.

By contrast, the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal 2011 was more than $700 billion -- although U.S. military planners are also looking at spending cuts in the future as U.S. political leaders grapple with the ballooning deficits.

The administration has sought $52.8 billion to cover both State Department and foreign assistance in the 2011 fiscal year, about two-thirds of which is earmarked for aid spending, chiefly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Shah, in a speech on Wednesday, outlined steps USAID is taking to improve its balance sheet, including moving costly senior jobs from places such as Paris and Tokyo, reducing its real estate portfolio and doing more work with in-house experts rather than expensive contractors.

Administrative changes alone can save about $65 million in operating expenses, Shah said, adding that the "leaner, meaner" aid agency he is trying to create will ultimately be a more effective tool of U.S. foreign policy.

USAID is accelerating plans to "graduate" countries from U.S. assistance packages. The first of these, Montenegro, can expect to see U.S. development support end in 2012 and at least six others are also likely to see U.S. money dry up, he said.

Making the most of the next five years to meet the MDGs

From IRIN, a story on how to accelerate meeting the Millennium Development Goals in the next five years.

A decade after world leaders adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there is no consensus on what impact they have had on global poverty.

The academics, policy-makers, civil society activists and development workers who gathered in Johannesburg on 16-19 January for a summit on global poverty agreed that the MDGs have made a difference, but have fallen far short of the ambitious targets on poverty, education, health, gender equality and global partnership that 189 countries committed to achieving by 2015.

An estimated one billion people around the world regularly go to bed hungry and between 1.5 and two billion are thought to be living in poverty. HIV continues to claim thousands of lives every day and there has been little improvement in infant and maternal mortality rates. Meanwhile, inequality within and among countries has widened and foreign aid levels have declined during the past two years of the global financial crisis.

That is the glass-half-empty view of the MDGs. However, David Hulme, executive director of the University of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute, which organized the summit, takes a glass-half-full view. He argues that if countries and the international community accelerated their efforts on development over the next five years, the glass could reach three-quarters-full by 2015.

“The idea of the MDGs as a failure is definitely wrong, there has been progress,” he told journalists on 19 January.

Globally, there have been gains in terms of poverty reduction, life expectancy and education over the past decade, although it is unclear whether those gains can be attributed to the MDGs or to massive economic growth in countries like China and India.

However, a number of promises made by developed and developing countries to reduce poverty have not been kept and the mechanisms for holding leaders accountable are weak. Hulme and several other speakers commented on the over-emphasis on the role of aid as a driver of development.

“The focus ... needs to be on national development goals and supporting governments to reduce poverty, not just through funding but through knowledge exchange,” Hulme told participants.

Sakiko Fukudo-Parr of the New School University in New York described the MDGs as a valuable instrument for drawing attention to priorities, but cautioned that the eight goals ignored many pressing developmental priorities such as the need for structural transformation, job creation and to narrow the growing equality gap.

Another speaker, Sophie Harman of City University in London, agreed that while goal setting was important, “some things you just can’t measure”. The goal of gender equality, for example, could not be achieved by simply counting the number of female appointments in an organization.

With just four years to go, Hulme said it was time to begin discussions about what form a new set of goals might take. “The MDGs were a bare minimum,” he said. “We need another vehicle for the next decade with grander ambitions.”

In a statement, delegates called for the process of defining post-2015 goals to be led by the UN but to include participation from civil society, governments and the poor themselves. Fukudo-Parr said the new goals would need to reflect global concerns that have emerged over the last decade such as climate change, and correct elements missing from the previous goals, for example, mechanisms for holding governments to account.

Speaking to IRIN on the sidelines of the summit, Hulme said the MDGs had not fundamentally changed the way people thought of poverty as an inevitable feature of the world and that a global call to action was needed to change such thinking.

“Philanthropy will help,” he said, “but national governments have to do it.”