Monday, February 28, 2011

A possible silver lining to the high food prices

One silver lining could be found from the high food prices for farmers in the west. The high prices are motivating them to plant more crops this year. The farmers hope to capitalize on the high prices this year with a bumper crop and a bumper income. The extra food that it will yield should be more than plenty to feed the world, if they can afford it.

From NPR, reporter John Ydstie files a story that analyzed the high food prices.

Bad weather may have set the stage for this spike in grain prices, but Greg Page, president of the global food giant Cargill, says that while supplies are tight, prices have risen more than was necessary. He says that's partly because of instantaneous global communication.

"People read stories about food prices going up and/or food being short and there's a natural hoarding instinct, I think, wired into all of us and people buy that extra 5-pound bag of flour or 2-liter bottle of vegetable oil," Page says.

Multiply that by 100 million households, he says, and concern about a food shortage becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Governments got into the hoarding act, too, he says.

Greg Westland produces hard red spring wheat and soybeans on about 5,600 acres in Cando, N.D. The snow is still deep in North Dakota, but Westland is preparing for planting, spending days in his shop with his sons, prepping equipment. The high prices have convinced him to try to boost the number of bushels he produces per acre.

"We're adding more fertilizer, shooting for a 60-bushel hard red spring wheat crop up here and a 42-to-45-bushel soybean crop," Westland says.

Those yields would be about 20 percent above average. Cargill's Page says brisk fertilizer and seed sales indicate that farmers are responding.

"If nature gives them any collaboration at all I think we are clearly in a position to feed the world handsomely and actually to build some stocks this year based on the number of acres we would predict will be planted," he says.

Video: Libya's growing resistance

From Al Jazeera, a video about how the resistance is growing in Libya despite all of the violence.

Africa's lost billions and Mubarak's share

The international community made some moves today to seize the assets of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Mubarak family fortune almost equals the amount of development aid Egypt received since 1981. This has many questioning how much aid money goes right into the pockets of politicians and how it can be avoided in the future.

From the Guardian, writer Jonathan Glennie asks some more questions on why so little development aid goes into development.

The current spotlight on north African despots points to one of these alternatives. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's former president, has apparently managed to accumulate $70bn over the years. Libya's Muammar Gaddafi has something of that order as well, which makes Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the region's presidential pauper with a feeble $3.5bn to his name.

Since Mubarak assumed the presidency in 1981, Egypt has received $53.6bn in official development aid (about $80bn in today's money), according to figures from the World Bank's world development indicators. In other words, for every dollar Egypt has received in aid, Mubarak has managed to acrue roughly a dollar for himself, give or take a luxury yacht or two.

There are various ways to interpret this. You could say that, given the fungibility of money (ie the ease with which it can be moved within budget lines and bank accounts), donor countries have contributed indirectly to the Mubarak family's multi-billion dollar fortune. Alternatively, you might argue that the money would have been stifled anyway and that Egypt would therefore have been even worse off without foreign aid.

Of course, the primary purpose of aid to Egypt wasn't really for development, but to bolster a president playing what was seen as an important stabilising role in the region – so in that sense, aid worked and Mubarak's personal fortune was not a primary concern.

Whatever your take, the futility of seeing so much money siphoned out to offshore accounts (or onshore in the case of London and Switzerland) must give the development finance community pause for thought. We have so far only looked at one family's wealth; what about all the other officials in Egypt taking their piece of the pie?

Clearly, countries like Mali have vastly fewer resources than Egypt but on some estimates, African political elites hold between $700-800bn outside Africa (pdf). The fact that it is outside Africa is key. If they stole it and reinvested it in their own countries, while the impact on accountability and governance would still be severe, the economic consequences would be less so – it would still contribute to growth and capital formation.

Video: Food rots as Indians go hungry

From Al Jazeera, a video about waste within India's food system. Some Indian food rots within warehouses while many go hungry.

US puts pressure on Bangladesh to stop harassing Yunus

The US is putting pressure on the Bangladesh government to stop harassing Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. US diplomats have told Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to give Yunus time to find a successor at the bank and not force him out prematurely.

Bangladesh is calling for Yunus to step down from his microcredit bank Grammen. They say a Bangladeshi law prohibits people past a certain age from working in the country's financial sector. The law is rarely ever enforced but is being used against Yunus because he has somehow been made an enemy of the government.

From the paper New Age, writer David Bergman tells us more.

Hasina was told directly by US officials that a possible visit to Bangladesh early April by the US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, following her trip to Delhi, was contingent on a resolution of this high-profile crisis.

Hasina, who is planning to visit Washington in April to take part in the World Islamic Forum, has also been informed that she will not be given a meeting with the US president, Barack Obama, unless Yunus is personally agreeable to the terms of any compromise.

The prime minister’s press secretary Abul Kalam Azad said that he could not comment since he was unaware that these conversations had taken place. He added that he did not know that there was a possibility that Hilary Clinton might come to Bangladesh.

While many countries share US concerns about the Bangladesh government’s handling of the Grameen bank, no other country is known to have come close to the US in imposing these kinds of sanctions in support of Muhammad Yunus.

The government’s attack on Yunus has already resulted in the loss of some US financial support.

The US Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent US foreign aid agency funded by the US congress, decided in January against putting Bangladesh on its ‘threshold’ programme where countries must ‘demonstrate a commitment to just and democratic governance, investments in the people of a country, and economic freedom.’

Humayun Kabir, who until 2009 was the ambassador to the United States, told New Age, ‘Maintaining high-level contacts is important for both the countries as these are building blocks to the relationship which is a very important one for Bangladesh. United States is one of the country’s most important trading partner and a partner in security.’

Although Hasina has shown no signs of relenting, it is understood that discussions between Muhammad Yunus, the finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, and former Grameen Bank chairperson Rehman Sobhan, took place in Delhi over the last few days where they all attended the same conference.

‘Muhith has been told what the Grameen Bank wants. It is now in the minister’s hands,’ said a person privy to the conversations.

Video: African immigrants flee Libya

From Al Jazeera, a video about African immigrants fleeing into Tunisia to escape the violence in Libya.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Haiti: Resettlement Continues Despite the Challenges P

Next up in our series of posts from Concern Worldwide is a story on rebuilding efforts in Haiti. Concern US board member Kevin Fortuna reminds us to not forget about the need in Haiti.

We met at JFK airport just after sunrise, the six of us: two staffers from Concern Worldwide (a large international charity), three supporters, and me. We were all a little anxious, having digested both the recommended dosage of anti-malaria drugs as well as the federal security warnings that basically told us not to do what we were about to do.

The flight took less than three hours, about the length of time it takes to get from New York City to Miami. But instead of a first-world American city on the other side of that flight, we stepped off into a place the world has forgotten, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

When we deplaned in Port-au-Prince, we were greeted by an incongruous welcome: a band six-piece band performing a festive tune that sounded like a cross between calypso and salsa music. Though the music was enchanting and, in many ways, a fitting beginning to our trip, reality hit us when we left the airport. We were rushed into a waiting SUV and through the ruins of Haiti’s capital city to the first of many “camps” managed by Concern Worldwide.

This and all but one of the other camps we visited are what development workers call “spontaneous,” meaning they sprang up after the earthquakes in any open space where tents and makeshift structures could be erected on open land—including a private golf course, a soccer field and the grounds of a warehouse and trucking compound. At one camp we saw a medical tent that housed malnourished children and provided a safe space for their mothers to care for them under nurses’ supervision.
At another camp, we spent time in a child-friendly tent where kids were singing songs and learning about hygiene and safe drinking water. At the camp built on a soccer field, all four of the goal posts were incorporated as tent poles by residents of the camp.

This particular camp had seen some unrest and violence and the managing NGO had recruited camp residents to run security patrols near the water station. The threat of violence still hung in the air, and we could see it in the looks the security men exchanged with some adolescents nearby.

What’s remarkable is that there has not been far more violence. Haiti’s population is estimated to be a little more than 10 million people, and almost ten percent of them are jammed into the wreckage of its capital city. The country’s official unemployment rate is 80 percent, but we were told that it’s probably closer to 90 percent.

Haiti’s history has been cursed by unstable and often corrupt governments and an almost total lack of economic progress. Port-au-Prince is not so much a city anymore, but a demolition site. Structures are marked with serial numbers underneath a red, yellow or green dot. Green means that the structure is habitable, yellow means that it’s questionable and red means that it’s marked for demolition. We saw red dots everywhere.

Haiti had precious little hope prior to the earthquake, but now the people of Port-au-Prince face almost unimaginable hardship. No reliable sources of food and water, no permanent places to live, no jobs, and a government that has been slow to respond to a growing crisis. The NGO staffers we met in Haiti are some of the most unselfish and committed people I’ve ever met. The humility and generosity of spirit with which they approach their work is inspiring. But they admit that the main work of their operation is relief, sanitation, healthcare and education. They cannot solve Haiti’s more fundamental problems.

Our trip ended with a tour of Tabare Issa, a camp run by Concern which has quickly become a model for Haiti and the rest of the developing world. The beating heart of the camp is a sophisticated carpentry operation which assembles “transitional shelters” at a breakneck pace under the watchful eye of Concern staffer and civil engineer, Tom Dobbins.

Dobbins and his team recruited and trained a small staff of camp residents who now work efficiently enough to build up to fifteen shelters per day. These attractive wooden structures replace fragile tents, and Dobbins can’t build them fast enough. In stark contrast to the other camps we visited, Tabare Issa is teeming with life and hope. Children played on an adjacent soccer field (instead of using the goal posts as tent poles). Many shelters had private gardens and porches. The camp apparently has a long waiting list of applicants. In Tabare Issa, I saw proof positive of what I’d heard many times from Concern staffers: Haitians want to work, be productive, care for their families and achieve a measure of order and stability.

In America, we don’t hear much about Haiti anymore. Outside of occasional headlines about celebrity involvement from the likes of Sean Penn and Wyclef Jean, America has forgotten our next door neighbor. As we move further along into the New Year it’s a good time to think about our neighbors and reassess our priorities. Why is it that we hear so much about crises in the Middle East and other distant regions, and so little about our neighbor to the south? Children are dying preventable deaths in Haiti every day.

While it’s true that we don’t have an immediate national security interest at stake, surely we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to do more, to make Haiti a bigger part of our national dialog, get involved, to care more, to give more. I’m no exception: I learned about Haiti and traveled there only because I serve as a member of Concern’s U.S. Board of Directors.

Dominic MacSorley, Operations Director of Concern, recently said in a blog post that “Haiti is music.” And music was a hallmark of our trip, whether it was the musical greeting we got at the airport, or church hymns being belted out by an impromptu congregation in front of the ruins of a grand cathedral, or the songs of welcome sung in unison by the children packed into one of our host charity’s child-friendly tents. Music is transcendent; it’s about life and hope and dreams. MacSorley is correct: Haiti is Music. America—and the world—should listen to it.

Video: Starting South Sudan's job market

From Al Jazeera, a video about jump starting the job market in South Sudan.

Friday, February 25, 2011

MSF urges Libya to give priority to medical teams entering the country

Medecins Sans Frontieres says they are being prevented from entering Libya. Teams have flown into the airport in Tripoli but were not allowed into the country. MSF has been able to have one medical team cross the border from Egypt. With the violent clashes in recent days, many more medical professionals will be needed to treat all of the injured.

From this Medecins Sans Frontieres press release we read more about Libya's medical needs in the midst of political upheaval.

While a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical team inside Libya attempts to reach health facilities trying to cope with high numbers of injured people, additional MSF teams with medical supplies, including necessary surgical materials, remain blocked from entering the country.

Since the onset of violent clashes in Libya on February 17, MSF has been trying to position emergency personnel and supplies into the country by any means possible, including by land and air. Despite the urgent need for medical assistance in Libya, an MSF team carrying medical supplies, including kits for treating war-related injuries, has been blocked for two days at the Tunisian border. Another MSF team had reached Tripoli by airplane but was denied entry to the country and had to turn back.

"All information we receive points towards a critical situation in terms of medical care for the injured," said Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF’s director of operations. "We need to be working alongside Libyan health professionals to care for people who have been caught in the violent clashes over recent days. It is unacceptable that medical staff and supplies are kept away from people who need them."

The six-person MSF team that managed to cross from Egypt into Libya yesterday, with a truckload of medical supplies, is attempting to reach areas where health facilities have reported many wounded people and severe supply shortages, including the city of Benghazi, where the team arrived today. Travel by road to the capital, Tripoli, where medical needs are estimated to be immense, is said to be almost impossible for now due to insecurity.

As a medical humanitarian organization, MSF stresses that the integrity of medical structures, patients and medical staff need to be respected.

"Absolute priority must now be given to doctors and medical supplies, in order to provide urgently needed medical care and help to existing health facilities struggling to cope with the influx of wounded people," said Hehenkamp.

MSF continues to work on sending supplies and staff to Libya. A second truck with medical supplies, including surgical materials, is on its way to the Egyptian-Libyan border.

Video: Post-uprising Tunisia still struggling

From Al Jazeera, a video about how Tunisians have seen little change one month after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office.

Changing international aid with electronic transfers

We have talked before about how mobile banking can provide a wealth of benefits for those in poverty. An article that we found today introduces us to the possibilities that electronic banking technology can have for international aid.

It is now possible for donor governments to deposit their aid directly into the accounts of those on the "bottom of the pyramid" Electronic transfers can save the donor governments a lot of money and paperwork. The transfers also can cut down on corruption as the money goes through less people who could grab some of it.

From Slate Magazine, writer Henry Jackelen and Jamie Zimmerman introduce us to the possibilities.

Recent breakthroughs in mobile technology, such as biometric IDs and point-of-sale devices that act as portable registers for banking transactions, offer a simple but radical way to reform foreign aid: Donor governments could deliver electronic payments directly to the world's poor. With the click of a mouse, massive amounts of aid could be delivered directly to the poorest, quickly and accountably.

Today, foreign aid is typically measured not by the amount of aid that actually reaches the poor, but by merely adding up the amount spent. While there have been unquestionable successes, more than $2 trillion of aid has passed from rich to poor countries over the last half-century, and as William Easterly wrote in 2002, there has been remarkably little change in the "bureaucratic characteristics" of delivery, regardless of "numerous attempts at reform."

Two remarkable shifts happening inside developing countries suggest why delivering aid directly to the poor, via electronic transfer, is so promising. Starting around 15 years ago, Brazil, Mexico, and several other countries began to move away from paternalistic policies where the poorest citizens were given commodity aid such as food, and replaced them with a new kind of transfer: direct donations of cash. Many of these programs conditioned the transfers on children attending school, receiving vaccinations, etc., leading to a "created demand" for health and education and, in turn, pressure on governments to improve the quality of these services.

In a parallel shift, throughout the developing world countries are now moving away from cash payments delivered by armored car, post offices, or state lottery offices, to electronic payments directly into recipient bank accounts or through other methods like charge cards and mobile-phone payments.

Breakthroughs in mobile banking, branchless banking—that is, using retail shops as banking surrogates—debit cards and ATMs, and point-of-sale devices, used in conjunction with biometric identification tools such as iris and fingerprint scanners, hold the potential to enable massive, if not universal, provision of cost-effective and highly accessible bank accounts even to some of the most remote, economically excluded populations.

These two changes have already had a revolutionary effect. In Mexico, social transfers have been correlated with reducing poverty by 8.2 percent and closing the poverty gap, or the average wealth of the poor below the poverty line as a percentage of the poverty line, by 23.6 percent. In Brazil, where more than 12 million households receive an average of $55 a month under the Bolsa Familia program, these transfers help to explain the country's GDP growth and the rapid drop in inequality over the last decade. In many countries, recipients can receive their transfers electronically through ATM cards, mobile phones, or via direct deposits into bank accounts.

Invest in adolescents' education and training, urges UNICEF

From IRIN, a story about an appeal to invest in child education from UNICEF.

With the majority (88 percent) of the world's 1.2 billion adolescents living in developing countries, investing in their education and training could break entrenched cycles of poverty and inequality, says the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) 2011 State of the World’s Children report.

“We need to focus more attention now on reaching adolescents - especially adolescent girls - investing in education, health and other measures to engage them in the process of improving their own lives,” Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, said in a statement issued at the launch of the report, Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity, on 25 February.

Lake said: "Adolescence is a pivot point – an opportunity to consolidate the gains we have made in early childhood or risk seeing those gains wiped out."

In Nairobi, UNICEF's regional director for eastern and southern Africa, Elhadj As Sy, told IRIN: "Africa has the largest proportion of children, adolescents and young people in the world. Almost half its population is younger than 18 years and almost two-thirds are younger than 25 years.

"As the gap between rich and poor, men and women, urban and rural keeps widening, and inequality generates a 'nothing to lose' generation, paying more attention to adolescents and young people is especially critical for the African nations. ."

According to UNICEF, strong investments during the last two decades have resulted in "enormous gains" for young children up to the age of 10, with a 33 percent drop in the global under-five mortality rate.

"On the other hand, there have been fewer gains in areas critically affecting adolescents. More than 70 million adolescents of lower secondary [school] age are currently out of school, and on a global level, girls still lag behind boys in secondary school participation," UNICEF said in a statement. "Without education, adolescents cannot develop the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the risks of exploitation, abuse and violence that are at their height during the second decade of life."

Among the challenges facing today's adolescents, UNICEF said, are health risks such as injury, eating disorders, substance abuse and mental health issues - "it is estimated that around one in every five adolescents suffers from a mental health or behavioural problem".


The agency said global challenges facing adolescents include the current bout of economic turmoil, climate change and environmental degradation, explosive urbanization and migration, ageing societies, the rising costs of healthcare and escalating humanitarian crises.

To enable adolescents to effectively deal with these challenges, UNICEF recommends improved data collection to increase the understanding of adolescents’ situation; investing in education and training to lift adolescents out of poverty; expanding opportunities for youth to participate and voice their opinion; promoting laws, policies and programmes that protect the rights of adolescents, and stepping up the fight against poverty and inequality through child-sensitive programmes to prevent adolescents from being prematurely catapulted into adulthood.

Lake said: "Millions of young people around the world are waiting for greater action by all of us. Giving all young people the tools they need to improve their own lives will foster a generation of economically independent citizens who are fully engaged in civic life and able to actively contribute to their communities."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Will the protests spread to Saudi Arabia?

When we talk about the protests in the Middle East and North Africa we often wonder how much further they will spread. Many worry that the demonstrations and overthrows will spread to Saudi Arabia. The country sits atop a fifth of the world's oil reserves so any political unrest could make today's gas prices look cheap.

Although there are some grumblings by the people of Saudi Arabia, the king there is very popular. King Abdullah on Wednesday opened up the kingdom's pocket book by announcing a 135 billion social welfare package. This package is an attempt to calm people who might protest over inequality.

from this Associated Press article that we found at the San Francisco Chronicle, writer Tarek El-Tablawy describes the package to us.

The total cost was estimated at 135 billion Saudi riyals ($36 billion), but this was not largesse. Saudi Arabia clearly wants no part of the revolts and bloodshed sweeping the already unsettled Arab world.

Saudi officials are "pumping in huge amounts of money into areas where it will have an obvious trickle-down by addressing issues like housing shortages," said John Sfakianakis, chief economist for the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Banque Saudi Fransi. "It has, really, a social welfare purpose to it."

The most prominent step was the injection of 40 billion riyals ($10.7 billion) into a fund that provides interest-free loans for Saudis to buy or build homes. The move could help reduce an 18-year waiting list for Saudis to qualify for a loan, Sfakianakis said.

Another 15 billion riyals ($4 billion) was being put into the General Housing Authority's budget, while the Saudi Credit & Savings Bank was to get 30 billion riyals ($8 billion) in capital. The bank provides loans for marriage and setting up a business, among other things, and is supported by the Saudi government.

Other measures included a 15 percent cost of living adjustment for government workers, a year of unemployment assistance for youth and nearly doubling to 15 individuals the size of families that are eligible for state aid. The government also will write off the debts of people who had borrowed from the development fund and later died.

While Saudi Arabia has been mostly spared the unrest rippling through the Middle East, a robust protest movement has risen up in its tiny neighbor, Bahrain, which like others around the region is centered on calls for representative government and relief from poverty and unemployment.

Read more:

NPR has this analysis on why revolt in Saudi Arabia is possible but unlikely. Writer Kevin Beesley says that many people see King Abdullah as a reformer.

NPR correspondent Deborah Amos is in Saudi Arabia and says the reason is simple: "The king is extremely popular, among young people and with reformers, too, unlike [former President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt, and [former President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali in Tunisia, who were deeply, deeply hated. They see [the king] as a reformer, and the changes he's introduced in the last two years have been startling."

The reasons behind the unrest that led to successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and protests in Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere, vary from country to country. But there are three fundamental factors that nearly all have in common: economic deprivation, youth unemployment and political frustration.

Saudi Arabia has all those problems, and more. With its massive oil wealth, the kingdom is one of the world's richest countries, but the money is not distributed evenly. There are many wealthy Saudis and an estimated 6,000 royal princes, but the average national income is around $20,000 a year and many Saudis live on the poverty line.

"Inflation has hit Saudis hard," Amos says. "There have been sharp increases in food prices, and you need two salaries to get by."

Most estimates put unemployment in Saudi Arabia at around 10 percent. But like nearly all Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is experiencing a massive "youth bump" in its population — about two-thirds of the population is younger than 29 — and the unemployment rate for young people is thought to be around 40 percent.

Like the other oil-rich Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has invested billions in education, including sending students to universities in the United States, England and Australia. Now all of these graduates, especially an entire generation of well-educated young women, are looking for ways to use their education — and there are limited opportunities for them.

Video: Gadhafi Forces Strike Back in Libya

From the Associated Press, a video about a new wave of violence in Libya.

Cambodia attempts to strictly regulate NGOs

Cambodia has drafted a law that will impose strict regulations on Non-Governmental Organizations that operate in the country. If passed, the law will give Cambodia the ability to shut down NGOs without any chance to appeal. The law has been broadly criticized as a move to restrict public freedom.

From Reuters, writer Prak Chan Thul describes the bill and how this is part of a troubling trend in Cambodia.

Cambodia says it wants to regulate more than 3,000 foreign and local NGOs and civil society groups, but opponents argue the law will give the state powers to shut them down for no reason and with no right of appeal.

The draft follows the passage of draconian laws in the past 18 months that increased punishment for defamation and placed restrictions on protests. Rights groups say that is designed to intimidate government critics and the political opposition.

Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the law would give the Interior Ministry "boundless discretition" to disband any body it disagreed with and many organisations would be unable to meet registration requirements.

"Such a result will have chilling repercussions for the freedom of association and expression of ordinary people and will significantly reduce the democratic space in Cambodia," he said. Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest countries, is enjoying an unprecedented period of stability and economic growth after decades of civil war.

But critics and aid donors say its democratic credentials are still lagging those of other Asian countries and that its human rights record is worsening.

Video: Setback to Gaddafi's African dream

From Al Jazeera, a video on the African Union's position on Gaddafi's slaying of his own people.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Social business could play a big role in the Middle East and North Africa

With the political change sweeping through the Middle East, people are beginning to ask "now what?" If the protests stem from a lack of an economic opportunity and a lack of a political voice, what is the best way to give to those things to the masses.

Suzi Sosa of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin says that social business could be one of the answers. The dual aims of profit and social benefit that these type of businesses bring can help give the people of the Middle East what they need. Soza's latest op-ed piece was found at INC Magazine.

Social entrepreneurship can be a powerful solution for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. By blending both financial sustainability (profits) with a prioritization of social impact, social enterprises will contribute to both economic revitalization and social reconstruction. Social entrepreneurship is also particularly well suited to youth. It not only taps into the desire for independence and self-actualization, but it is also relevant for a generation whose worldview incorporates a sense of responsibility that goes significantly beyond immediate family and self.

Social entrepreneurship provides a "third way" that can productively balance the desire for greater social equity with the need for rapid economic growth. At the macroeconomic level, social entrepreneurship deploys a stakeholder model that not only provides more robust checks-and-balances in the system but also more fairly distributes profits and benefits and adds greater emphasis to long-term planning. For example, in social entrepreneurship, instead of just focusing on shareholders, the enterprise governs itself by taking into account a network of stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, investors, the community, and the environment. In the MENA region many states governed from a semi-socialist approach while informal economies practiced unregulated capitalism. Social entrepreneurship can balance wealth creation with equity and fairness and can provide greater accountability without the overbearing bureaucracy and regulation that inhibits growth.

Finally, social entrepreneurship is a powerful solution because it contributes to the reduction of social and environmental problems without having to rely on charity or public funding. For example, in Egypt there are virtually no public resources to fund social programs. Currently, Egypt's public debt is more than 80 percent of GDP and government spending on education is less than 4 percent of GDP. The national GDP per capita is a meager $6,000 per year, leaving more than 20 percent of the country living in poverty. The only hope of achieving sustainable, scalable solutions to pressing social and environmental problems is to create enterprises that can provide for the public good while being financially sustainable and scalable on their own.

The MENA region is already home to some impressive social entrepreneurs. Synergos recently recognized 22 Arab World Social Innovators, including Kamal Mouzawak, a Lebanese social entrepreneur who founded two enterprises, Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet—both focused on the economic empowerment of rural farmers by providing profitable opportunities for them to sell their goods. In the Palestinian territories, Mohammed Kilany and Lana Hijazi founded Souktel, a social enterprise that leverages mobile networks and SMS messaging to connect unemployed Palestinians to job opportunities for an affordable monthly fee.

Video: Parts of Libya Fall, Army Base Abandoned

From the Associated Press, a video about the beginning of the fall of Libya.

Another critical year in Niger

Niger suffered through a severe food shortage last year. Over half of the country faced starvation and malnutrition. The harvests that came late that year did help food security, but Niger needs another good harvest in 2011 to ward any further trouble.

From the Mail and Guardian, Philippe Latour of Medecins Sans Frontieres talks about how one of their health clinics helped out during the famine.

Gueza's Integrated Health Centre is one of the few concrete buildings in the village. There are few consultations and MSF has packed up its outpatient nutrition education and rehabilitation centre for cases of severe malnutrition.

It is hard to imagine that three months ago some 300 children were treated by the MSF team here. It is the young Mamane Bashir, the centre manager, who greets me.

Malnutrition exacerbated by malaria
"The rains came very early this year and the malnutrition situation was exacerbated by malaria, which hit the weakest children. Last August we treated around 600 children, compared with just a hundred or so in August 2009. This is also linked to MSF's presence, which ensured that the medicines and therapeutic foods didn't run out," says Bashir.

In Zinder and Magaria, the main towns in this region of Niger, at the end of December, there were still some 200 children in the intensive hospitalisation centres set up for the serious cases of malnutrition. However, these facilities -- rows of beds under large tents -- now seem relatively empty. At the height of the nutritional crisis, in August and September, more than 800 children were treated there, the majority of them on the brink of death.

Kelima, 32 years old and a mother of four, took her youngest child, Djamilou, aged 15 months, to the Zinder centre in early December. The MSF doctor diagnosed him with severe anaemia combined with malaria. After being given a drip and then fed therapeutic foods, he gradually gained weight. Two weeks later he is smiling and waving his hands when spoken to.

"Soon we'll be able to go back to the village" says Kelima. "But this year, it was really too difficult to feed the children; there were only a few handfuls of millet for the whole family."

"Unfortunately, 2010 was the year that broke every record," says Dr Moïse Moussa Gabrial, head of the Magaria centre. "Since January 2010 we've seen more than 6 200 children. At the end of August, we had around 500 hospitalised children. We had planned to recruit and train medical staff, but the situation was so bad that we had to hire people locally and train them on the job.

"At the height of the malnutrition crisis, 280 people were working for MSF at the intensive malnutrition centre. And tragically, we saw the deaths of many children -- 133 in September alone -- who had arrived in a desperate nutritional state and were often suffering from malaria."

Video: Foreigners Flee Libya, Unrest Hits World Markets

From the Associated Press, a video about Libyans fleeing the country and the effect of the uprising on world markets.

One in ten Northern Ireland children in poverty

Save the Children says that one in ten children living in Northern Ireland are in relative poverty. That amounts to 40,000 children who are unable to be properly cared for.

From the BBC, we find out more about the statistics from Save the Children.

Head of Save the Children in Northern Ireland Fergus Cooper said that number would rise in 2011.

He said cuts in the executive's spending would begin to take effect and result in job losses.

He suggested that unless the government takes urgent action many more children will fall into severe poverty.

"Families are getting by on less than £7,000 a year for a lone parent with one child and less than £12,500 for a couple with two children," he said.

The Northern Ireland figures are part of a UK-wide report, Severe Child Poverty: An Update, commissioned by Save the Children from the New Policy Institute, which reveals that 1.6m children across the UK live in the deepest poverty, a figure the charity said is "unacceptably high".

The report also revealed that in Northern Ireland there is a higher likelihood of severe poverty among children in households where no-one is employed. About 29% of children in workless families are affected by severe poverty compared to around 4% of children in families where at least one parent works.

The figures also show that the risk is far higher among children living in lone parent households. And they indicate that the problem is worse in western counties with severe child poverty standing at 12%, compared to 7% in the east and a level of 5% in Belfast.

Video: Defiant Gaddafi vows to 'fight on'

From Al Jazeera, a video about the latest developments in Libya.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How development policy falls short with the Middle East protests

The countries now doing the rioting in the Middle East are some of the best performers in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The same countries also perform well on the World Bank's Human Development Index. This might contradict what we and many others have been saying about the protest being all about lack of jobs and lack of money.

According to Alasdair McWilliam of the Overseas Development Institute, the protests do center around inequality. In his piece for the Guardian, McWilliam says the protests are fueled by an economic inequality not easily measured by the UN or World Bank.

Unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds in the Middle East is the highest in the world, at more than 25%. However, about two-thirds of the region's population is now below 24 years of age. The ever-greater numbers of high school and university graduates are not being absorbed into the economy, while the private sector is not generating enough skilled positions. Employers, meanwhile, complain of poor education quality and low graduate skills.

Tertiary enrolment – school leavers going to higher education – in Egypt has risen from 14% to 28% since 1990, and in Tunisia from 8% to 34%. Egyptian high school graduates account for 42% of the workforce, but 80% of the unemployed. According to the global employment trends from the International Labour Organisation, Arab countries need to generate more than 50 million jobs in the next decade just to stabilise employment. These conditions have created a large body of disaffected youth, a boiling pot of frustration that is now spilling over at governments that have failed to provide employment opportunities.

The reasons for unrest aren't all economic. Increases in literacy and education, alongside urbanisation and the expansion of the media, have extended political consciousness and broadened demands for political participation. Despite national increases in living standards, the region's repressive, authoritarian regimes are often plagued by corruption and nepotism. Dani Rodrik, a development economist, points out that economic growth does not buy stability unless political institutions mature at the same time. This shows that widely used measures of development such as the MDGs and the HDI are, by themselves, insufficient to determine development priorities: much greater attention needs to be played to inequality, but not only inequality of income.

Middle Eastern countries have had, at least until recently, one of the most equal income distributions in the world. Egypt, for example, registered a Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) of 32 in 2005, far lower than the 47 achieved by the US in the same year. This suggests that access to gainful employment and acute inequalities in political power also need to be considered.

Better coordination could save lives of mothers in Lesotho

From IRIN, a story about a new program that targets the worst performing Millennium Development Goals in Lesotho.

A new joint programme is changing the way the Lesotho government and its development partners deliver aid by getting different government departments, UN agencies and civil society organizations working together to help mothers and their families.

Tens of thousands of Basotho already depend on food and agricultural assistance as well as free HIV/AIDS treatment, but the country is no closer to achieving a number of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and progress on some has reversed.

Over half the population lives in extreme poverty, an estimated 23 percent of adults are infected with HIV, and for every 100,000 live births, 1,155 women died during or after delivery in 2009; up from 762 in 2004.

“Because we’re looking at negative trends in these areas, we discussed with the government and I think there was consensus that there was something we weren’t doing right," said Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie, the UN resident coordinator in Lesotho.

Starting in June 2010, the joint programme began targeting the four worst performing MDGs - those relating to the eradication of poverty and hunger, to reducing child and maternal mortality and combating HIV - in the four worst performing of Lesotho's 10 districts. The best chance of success, everyone agreed, was to focus interventions on helping mothers. Research has shown that improving their lives has a knock-on effect on other family members.

The programme also tries to address the lack of coordination and wasted resources that have plagued aid delivery in the past.

Joint assessments

Take for example Mphu Mopeli*, who is seven months pregnant with her fifth child and living with HIV. Her only income comes from collecting and selling firewood to her neighbours and the small amount her two sons earn working as herd boys. Like many others in her district of Thaba-Tseka, one of Lesotho’s most remote and impoverished areas, she might not make it without outside help.

Previously, that help would have come, if it came at all, from various sources - the local clinic, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), and extension officers from the Ministry of Agriculture. Mopeli may have been listed as a beneficiary by all of these organizations who would have visited her in separate vehicles, asked her similar questions and never shared her responses with one another.

Now various UN agencies and government departments are teaming up to carry out joint assessments and agree on the same group of beneficiaries to receive a comprehensive set of services.

The health department is working with partners including the World Health Organization and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to identify pregnant, breast-feeding and HIV-positive mothers and their infants who are in need of food rations from the WFP. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) together with the Ministry of Agriculture makes sure the same women receive seeds, tools and advice on how to grow vegetables and raise chickens that may eventually eradicate the need for food assistance.

Eventually, some of the women will receive training on how to start small businesses that could permanently lift them and their families out of poverty.

"The concentration of complementary activities in a given location for a given population is something we’ve never attempted in a development context," said the UN’s Eziakonwa-Onochie. "The goal is to have greater impact because when you programme in bits and pieces, you miss important components and it's not sustainable or complete."

More efficient

She added that the new approach was also more efficient because it allowed for the sharing of skills and resources. In Thaba-Tseka, officials from the ministries of agriculture and health, as well as from the FAO, WFP and NGO Caritas have formed a nutrition team.

"We've tried to mix people from different backgrounds," explained Washi Mokati, WFP head of office for the district. "Previously, different organizations were building keyhole gardens [small raised vegetable gardens] in different styles; now we're bringing similar practices together."

Mokati added that the programme is still in its infancy and faces challenges. The new level of coordination requires "lots of meetings and not everyone attends".

In charge of coordinating those meetings, both at national and district level, is the Food and Nutrition Coordination Office (FNCO), a government entity that previously had an uncertain role as one of many government departments dealing with nutrition.

"This programme has reaffirmed our coordinating role," said FNCO director Masekonyela Sebotsa. "Our role is bringing everyone together so we work as a team, because often in government each ministry is doing its own work.

"Now you might see [officials from] the Ministry of Health and [the Ministry of] Agriculture travelling in one car; now we work as one."

Although the UN is funding the programme until December 2012 as part of its "Delivering as One" initiative aimed at encouraging UN agencies to deliver development assistance in a more coordinated way, Eziakonwa-Onochie said their role had mainly be "catalytical".

By 2012, the programme should have yielded enough results and best practices for government to decide whether to take over and replicate it in other districts.

"It needs to be rooted in a national budget," Eziakonwa-Onochie told IRIN, "otherwise we run the risk of starting something that fizzles out."

Theft from Indian food rationing program labeled "the mother of all scams"

A massive network of corruption is about to be prosecuted in India. An government aid program that gives a ration of food and fuel to those below the poverty line has seen system wide graft since it began. Observers say the amount of food and fuel stolen amounts to $27 billion UK. To give a glimpse at the scope of the corruption, an entire jail would have to be built if all suspected are found guilty.

From the BBC, writer Geeta Pandey tells us about the massive corruptible system.

Officials say massive quantities of food grains and fuel, meant to be distributed through the public distribution system or to be given to the poor under welfare schemes like food-for-work and school meals for poor children, have been stolen over the years and sold on the open market.

This is being investigated by India's federal police and there are countless pages of court documents setting out the extent of the deception.

The scale is immense. It involves thousands of officials from top-level bureaucrats to middle-level officers to ground-level workers. It also involves thousands of transporters, village council leaders and fair-price shop owners.

"The subsidised supplies were siphoned off and sold in the open markets at much higher rates. In government records, they were shown to have been distributed among the people," says Vishwanath Chaturvedi, who filed a petition in court in 2005 demanding that those involved be punished.

In a recent order, the judges described the corruption in Uttar Pradesh as "alarming" and said the "administration has failed to disburse food to the poor and down-trodden".

The court ordered the investigating agencies to go after the guilty regardless of their position and the power they wielded.

Mr Chaturvedi's complaint was based on the report of the government's food cell, a police unit set up to examine corruption in food supplies, which covered a period of 19 months from April 2004 to October 2005.

A short distance away in Pachdeora village, several people line up to show me their BPL cards. I ask them if they have been getting regular supplies. "Off and on," they say. In the current month though, no one got any kerosene.

Vinod Kumar Singh of NGO Roji Roti Sangathan, who has been working on the issues of food security and jobs in the area since 2005, says: "If they are lucky, they receive ration once in three months."

Bondo, Kenya grapples with shortages of water and health services

From IRIN, a story about shortages of water and health services in western Kenya.

Bondo constituency in Nyanza Province, western Kenya, has the least amount of rainfall annually in the region, even though it is not classified as arid or even semi-arid, forcing residents to walk long distances in search of water.

"The dry conditions throughout the year mean that farmers do not harvest the maximum of the crops they plant and this in turn leads to widespread poverty in an already poor region of Nyanza," Pascal Babu, a farmer and trader in Bondo, told IRIN. "I walk up to 5km daily to get water for my herd of cows; that is why I trade in glass on the side because I cannot survive on farming alone."

For years, Babu and other residents of Barchando in Bondo relied on a water pan in their village but this is now just a tiny pond.

"Many of us have to deal with water-related diseases such as typhoid and cholera and livestock diseases are also common," a neighbour of Babu’s, who declined to be named, said. "Our understanding is that water projects require the government or the water ministry's decision to be implemented; if you are not politically correct, your area may not benefit. This was the case for Nyanza for many years."

Bondo receives an annual average of 800mm rainfall, according to the Kenya Meteorological Department, the lowest in the province, whose residents depend on fishing in Lake Victoria and farming crops such as rice, sugar cane, sorghum and millet.

Ayub Shaka, the assistant director at the Department, told IRIN on 22 February that Bondo, in line with other parts of the country that traditionally received low rainfall, was more affected by the La Niña phenomenon, which is responsible for the serious drought conditions being experienced in northern, eastern and southern parts of the country.

"Areas of the country that normally receive slightly more rainfall are not as badly affected as those, including Bondo and Suba in Nyanza, that usually receive little rainfall,” Shaka said.

According to Alfred Okeyo Adongo, head of Sustainable Aid in Africa International (SANA), an NGO that deals with water services, the situation is "grim" in terms of access to water across the whole province.

"In Bondo, the situation is pathetic; SANA has received a request to develop a proposal for water provision for Bondo and we are in the process of undertaking it," Adongo said. "It is sad and dangerous when women wake up at 4am or 5am to walk long distances in search of water."

Adongo said a consequence is poor sanitation, especially for school-children. "In Nyanza, you have situations where 80 school-children use one latrine when the ideal situation should be one latrine for 30 girls and one latrine for 35 boys."

SANA has in the past supported 12 water pans in Bondo. Adongo said the NGO is undertaking four school-based water projects targeting 22 schools in Muhoroni and Nyatike districts.

Sparse health services

Julius Oliech, the district medical officer, told IRIN the health service coverage remained a challenge as the district had only one main hospital serving 161,450 people. The hospital is supplemented by a sub-district hospital and 32 dispensaries, he said.

"There are only two doctors for the whole population; the rest of the medical staff include 80 nurses and 20 clinical officers," he said. "Ideally, the district should have at least four doctors, 40 clinical officers and 120 nurses."

Low public awareness is another challenge in the provision of health services in Bondo.

"The number of patients accessing family planning services is still about 50 percent, despite outreach activities being carried out during public barazas [community meetings], health dialogue days and the setting-up of community units to encourage people to seek health services," Oliech said.

The most common diseases in Bondo are malaria and HIV/Aids. According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, malaria remains the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the country, with close to 70 percent (24 million) of the population at risk of infection.

Oliech said the HIV/Aids prevalence rate for Bondo was 23.6 percent against a national prevalence rate of 7.4 percent.

He added that other health threats included diarrhoeal diseases and upper respiratory tract infections.

However, Oliech said efforts were ongoing to improve health services. Distribution of mosquito nets had been increased and the district could "soon" achieve universal coverage.

He said HIV/Aids services were being decentralized and counselling and testing made available in most medical facilities in the district.

Iraq; an oil curse and a corruption curse

Of all of the countries that have the "resource curse" Iraq is amongst the worst. A fifth of all Iraqis live below the country's poverty line. This is despite unimaginable wealth underneath their feet with the vast oil reserves.

Iraqi government officials believe that the poverty level will decrease over time with the policies they have in place. But observers say as long as the government is full of corruption there will be no dropping of the poverty line.

From this Reuters story that we found at Ahram Online, we find out more about the poverty situation in Iraq.

"Poverty in Iraq is shallow," Deputy Planning Minister Mehdi al-Alak says during an interview in his office on the banks of the Tigris river. "Most people are close to the poverty line ... so if policies and procedures are followed, the rate will decline."

"It is not very difficult (to reduce poverty) in Iraq."

On paper, he would seem to be correct: the country's vast energy stores -- Iraq has the fourth-highest level of proven oil reserves in the world -- all but guarantee it will have a steady and increasing source of income for decades to come.

The country was not always grappling with such a problem. A UN report released at the beginning of the year notes that, "In the past, Iraq was regarded as one of the most developed countries in the Middle East," but the organisation's Arab Human Development Report rated Iraq 17th out of 21 regional countries in terms of human development in 2005.

"Wars and sanctions have contributed to a marked deterioration in Iraqis' standard of living in recent years," this year's UN report noted.

But experts lament that Iraq still has glaring problems that make it difficult to envision poverty levels declining at the rate the government hopes, from 22 percent now to 16 percent by 2015.

"Even though it is shallow and a wide segment of the population could be brought out of the poverty margin, unless there are sustainable measures, they will easily fall back," says Khalid Muhammed Khalid, an Amman-based Iraq programme analyst with the United Nations Development Programme.

Khalid notes widespread graft -- Transparency International rates Iraq as the world's fourth-most corrupt country -- and insufficient expertise among officials, especially at local and provincial levels, mean poverty alleviation could take longer than expected.

He adds that wider reforms will be needed rather than simply increasing people's incomes to better combat poverty.

"If you do not provide proper health, education and infrastructure services, then what is the meaning of more money?" he asks.

Cash payments to thousands of vulnerable Syrian families

From IRIN, a story about a new cash payment program in Syria.

Syria's decision to make cash payments to thousands of vulnerable families and reduce some taxes could help stem food insecurity and rising poverty, but many still do not have enough to eat, say experts.

Payments have begun to be made from a new fund designed to help 420,000 vulnerable families. The National Social Aid Fund has been in the pipeline for several years, was set up in January and made its first payments on 13 February.

Two days later, the government reduced duties on a range of basic foodstuffs including rice, tea, powdered milk, coffee and bananas. It also lowered taxes on vegetable oil, margarine, unroasted coffee and sugar.

Shortly after the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January, the government also announced a 72 percent rise in heating fuel subsidies for public sector employees.

"Traditionally the Middle East and North Africa has been relatively food secure,” said Arne Oshaug, a nutrition and food security expert at Akershus University College in Norway. “But many countries now produce less and rely on imports which are subject to price fluctuations.”

This is beginning to affect more affluent people too. An index of food vulnerability by Nomura, a Japanese investment house, found that on average 47.9 percent of household income is spent on food in Syria.

"When people spend so much of their income on food, a slight variation in the price can upset their ability to eat enough to avoid hunger,” said Oshaug.

Syria is faced with decreasing oil reserves and a growing population, limiting its options. Food prices have been rising and at the same time some subsidies, such as on fuel, have decreased.

"It's very hard to survive,” said one herder on the outskirts of Damascus. “We can barely afford the basics of tea, bread and sugar.”

Poverty, drought

In 2005, a UN report found that 30 percent of Syrians lived below the poverty line, and of these, 11.4 percent below the subsistence level.

The situation has since deteriorated, in part due to several years of drought. In a 27 January report, UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food Oliver de Schutter estimated the number of people who may be food insecure at 3.7 million.

"Since 2006, the country has endured four consecutive droughts," Schutter noted. "The drought of 2007-08 was particularly devastating, placing additional burdens on the country.

Although rainfall in 2009 and 2010 has been greater than in the three previous years, it was poorly distributed. While the impact on pasture land was positive, crops failed in the rain-fed areas of the most vulnerable agro-climatic zones."

In the northeastern region, he added, drought had resulted in significant losses particularly in the governorates of Al Hasakah, Dayr Az Zawr and Al Raqqah.

In January, the World Food Programme (WFP) and government emergency drought response was extended until May after the UN found food insecurity was an enduring problem.

"There is a situation of food insecurity in the drought-affected areas,” said Selly Muzammil, World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman in Syria. “Our latest assessment shows 25 percent of the rural population in the five surveyed governorates are experiencing food insecurity.”

The situation has been further aggravated by the yellow rust crop disease and adverse weather, which have reduced agricultural output, causing Syria to turn to imports. According to Agriculture Ministry figures, wheat, barley and cotton yields fell last year by 17, 20 and 28 percent respectively.

Safety nets

Experts said the situation could lead to chronic food insecurity and also hit the economy. "Malnutrition and learning impairment are just two possible consequences,” said Oshaug, adding: “Research has shown that food insecurity is directly linked to a reduction in a country's GDP.”

Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that countries in the Middle East need to focus on inclusive growth and targeted help for the poor.

In an interview with IMF Survey magazine, Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia department, said the authorities in the region had announced expenditure increases of up to 3 percent of GDP since the recent unrest began in Tunisia.

But he warned that efforts must be sustainable."To address the fiscal constraint without necessarily reducing other important expenditures, it is important to improve and modernize existing safety nets,” he said.

More funding, better targeting

Humanitarian agencies said more money was needed to tackle food security in Syria. WFP’s emergency funding appeal for the country fell short of its target.

A lack of funds last year meant it could only distribute food to 215,000 of the 300,000 beneficiaries targeted. Some 2,000 children were being given food supplements to prevent stunting.

Experts said it may also be necessary to target interventions in a better way. "We need to rethink development support in general,” said Oshaug. “There needs to be a greater focus on people's needs rather than what politicians are willing to do.”

Another area Syria needs to tackle is unemployment. Officially at 11-12 percent, independent economic analysts say it is running at 20 percent. The number of new job openings is believed not to be keeping pace with rising demand.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Child cash benefit programs in Argentina

Argentina produces plenty of enough food to feed all of its people. They produce so much that everyone could be fed 10 times over. Still, over 750,000 Argentinian children are malnourished.

A cash transfer program has just started in Argentina and social experts are debating its effects. Some question if it has helped to reduce child malnutrition, or if the program needs to be extended to help more.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Marcela Valente takes a look at the cash transfer program in Argentina.

A little more than a year after the creation of a cash transfer programme to poor families with children under 18, experts are debating the reach, positive impacts and limitations of the subsidy.

The universal child benefit, which went into effect in December 2009, provides a monthly payment of 220 pesos (55 dollars) per child to parents who are unemployed, work in the informal economy or are domestic workers -- in other words, all parents who do not have access to the government's family allowance scheme that already covered workers in the formal economy.

The benefit, which reaches 3.5 million children, is conditional on school attendance and regular medical check-ups and vaccinations.

A family can receive the subsidy for up to five children -- an amount that is close to the official minimum monthly wage.

However, the plan is not actually universal: 2.8 million children and teenagers are not covered by it, for different reasons.

Sociologist Gabriela Agosto, director of the Asociación Civil Observatorio Social, told IPS that the universal child benefit "is an incentive for education and health care, but does not substantially modify access to food.

"The benefit generates a transfer of income, but in and of itself it does not correct a key deficit, child malnutrition, because chronic poverty cannot be turned around with this alone: targeted policies are needed," she said.

Agosto referred to the cases of severe malnutrition and even deaths among indigenous children that are periodically reported in provinces in northern Argentina like Salta, Formosa, Chaco and Misiones, the country's poorest provinces.

Video: Mideast Unrest Spreads in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya

From the Associated Press, a video that summarizes the latest developments in the widespread Middle East protests.

Bono weighs in on Africa's future

U2 singer Bono believes that the future is bright for Africa. The celebrity activist says that Africa will soon become an economic powerhouse that may even eclipse China.

From the Guardian, writer John Mulholland inverviews Bono on his optimistic outlook for the continent.

Most people are saying that the 21st century will be China's. You say that it will be Africa's. Why?

Well, go talk to the Chinese. Why are they pumping so much investment into Africa? Why are they creating such a huge presence in Africa? They know where the future is. Ask them.

You know, these African lions are going to be a match for the Asian tigers. If the right economic plans are made and civic society can keep the vision honest, it will make our interest irrelevant. I never felt so good to feel so useless. These African lions will put us out of business.

I look at Mo Ibrahim and, although he might be an elder statesman, I see him as the new voice of Africa. People like him, they are drowning out our voices and so they should.

And so the future of aid in Africa is?

We mustn't forget that in general aid budgets are under threat, although thankfully not in the UK. And we mustn't forget that people's lives are dependent on it in the near term. And smart aid gets great results. A global alliance for vaccines has averted more than 5 million deaths this last decade and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria saves more than 4,000 lives a day. It's just about getting the balance right for the future and ensuring our smart aid today builds self-sustaining systems for the future .

And in terms of aid, let's remember the good stories that came out of debt cancellation and the Gleneagles promises. Let's not forget these success stories. In most cases, as verified by the World Bank, Africa's governments spent that money wisely and pulled millions of people out of poverty and despair. And that has helped destroy the mythology that money is wasted.

But we mustn't forget that there are concrete things we can do to speed Africa's path to the future, things that don't involve money. As part of the global grassroots Publish What You Pay coalition, ONE has lately been focusing on the extractive industries. We've seen the rush to extract oil, gas and minerals from poorer countries across the world. Our concern is how best to protect those countries and ensure citizens benefit. How to stop them going down the road of other countries suffering from the resource curse. How can you do that?

So the movement we're part of lobbied for an amendment to a finance bill in the US last year, to make legally sure that companies that are taking resources out of Africa have to disclose what they pay governments for the right to do that.

Now we're seeing leaders in Europe catching on, with Sarkozy telling me he'll push this at the EU. We're also looking for British leadership on this. Our mission is to make this a global requirement. So eventually there'll be no place to hide, and civil society groups will be able to challenge their government if the money they are making from the nations' resources isn't being used in the right way. Mo Ibrahim has said that this deal is bigger than debt cancellation for Africa. I'm proud to support the "publish what you pay" campaign that has been leading this issue for years.

Video: Yemen: Saleh Calls for Talks, Protests Continue

From the Associated Press, a video on the continuing political unrest in Yemen.

Providing protection from natural disaters with microinsurance

With the number of natural disasters increasing across the globe, microinsurance programs have begun to reach out to help the poor. Microinsurance sells low cost insurance that those who only make a dollar a day can afford. Still in its infancy, microinsurance still has a lot of people to reach, and has been met with a lot of skepticism by those who are approached for policies.

From the Guardian, writer Annie Kelly introduces us to the concept of microinsurance.

Microinsurance, low-cost insurance policies that cover the lives, health, crops and property of the most vulnerable, are being seen as a central way of providing social protection to the increasing numbers of people affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and drought.

A recent report by the German insurance giant Munich Re calculated that 2010 was the second worst year for disasters since 1980. It reported that 950 global catastrophes had amounted to overall losses of around $130bn. Of this, only around $37bn was insured. For example, only 1% of the $14bn of property damage caused by Haiti's massive earthquake was covered by insurance.

At the Bonn climate change talks in 2008, microinsurance was touted as a central component of climate change adaptation measures in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Yet while microinsurance has seen increasing success in Africa and Asia, it has so far failed to make significant inroads into the Latin American market. But this could be changing.

The Colombian offices of insurance companies such as Liberty and ESA have told journalists that they are seeing a spike in the number of people taking out microinsurance policies. ESA says it is selling more than 60,000 microinsurance policies a month, mostly health , for around $1 a month.

There are hopes that microinsurance could offer some form of social protection in other countries across the region. A government-backed scheme run by Peruvian insurance company La Positiva targets over one-third of Peru's 9 million rural population, offering micro-life insurance at a marginal cost of the income generated by a family's annual harvest.

The cost of the insurance, which is between $0.5 and $2 a month, is added to the water irrigation price already paid by the farmers. Brazil and Mexico have also been identified as huge markets for growth, with millions of potential customers.

Iraq's government vows to improve food aid system

From IRIN, a story about Iraq making changes to the country's food aid system.

The Iraqi government has pledged to improve the state-run food aid system in the wake of sporadic protests and long-standing discontent over the quality and targeting of the rations provided.

“We are working hard to improve the food ration system this year and to offer it with all [five] items, not just some of them,” Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki told a press conference on 17 February. “We have adopted a number of measures that can help us tackle this issue which we are following closely.”

In a move designed to outflank discontent in the wake of demonstrations in Iraq inspired by the momentous demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, Al-Maliki on 15 February announced the postponement of the purchase of 18 F-16 fighter jets from the USA, and the use of the money saved to improve food rations.

“We need these fighter jets as we are working to boost security, but we also need money to improve the food ration system, so we decided to postpone the [jet fighter] purchase,” he said, adding that about US$1 billion earmarked for the jets would now be spent on subsidized food handouts.

Al-Maliki said the government had also decided to decentralize management of the of the state food ration system by allowing local government in the 18 provinces to import, store and distribute the relevant food items.

The distribution, he added, would be targeted at the most vulnerable.

“Fodder ration”

Many Iraqis complain that only some of the rations are delivered, or they arrive in poor condition, and there have been a number of protests against poor quality rations, unemployment, corruption and feeble public services.

“It’s a fodder ration not a food ration,” said one banner brandished by demonstrators in Iraq’s southern province of Wasit on 16 February. “We are sitting on billions of barrels of oil, but we can’t find anything to eat,” said another.

Iraq’s food rationing system, known as the Public Distribution System (PDS), was set up in 1995 as part of the UN’s oil-for-food programme following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. More than half of Iraq's 29 million people depend on it, according to the Trade Ministry.

At the end of 2009, the monthly PDS parcels contained rice (3kg per person); sugar (2kg per person); cooking oil (1.25kg or one litre per person); flour (9kg per person); milk for adults (250g per person); tea (200g per person); beans (250g per person); children's milk (1.8kg per child); soap (250g per person); detergents (500g per person); and tomato paste (500g per person).

In 2010, the government reduced the number of items to five: flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil and children’s milk - in the same quantities. But recipients have been receiving two or three items at a time. Al-Maliki said they would now receive all the five.

According to the Planning Ministry, about 25 percent of the population lives below the country’s poverty line, and unemployment is about 30 percent.

Meanwhile, oil revenues, which make up about 95 percent of Iraq’s revenue, have risen sharply in recent months giving ammunition to those calling for the government to spend more on PDS.

According to the Trade Ministry, about US$3 billion was spent on PDS in 2010. The Ministry is asking for $5 billion to be earmarked for PDS in this year’s budget which is yet to be approved by parliament.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Zieback County the poorest county in the US

A county is South Dakota made  headlines across the world this week. Ziebach County made news because of its persistent poverty which claims over 60 percent of the population. The unemployment rate soars even further during the winter to over to 90 percent. That is because the economy is mostly construction jobs and during the harsh winters a lot of those workers are laid off. Even during the summer, there is not enough work or business for most of the people.

From the UKs Daily Mail, we find out more about Zieback County.

‘Many, many people make these grand generalizations about our communities and poverty and ”Why don't people just do something, and how come they can't?”’ said Eileen Briggs, executive director of Tribal Ventures, a development group started by the tribe. ‘It's much more complicated than that.’

The Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, created in 1889, consists almost entirely of agricultural land in Ziebach and neighbouring Dewey County. It has no casino and no oil reserves or available natural resources.

Most towns in Ziebach County are just clusters of homes between cattle ranches. Families live in dilapidated houses or run-down trailers. Multi-coloured patches of siding show where repairs were made as cheaply as possible.

Families fortunate enough to have leases to tribal land can make money by raising cattle. Opportunities are scarce for almost everyone else.

The few people who have jobs usually have to drive up to 80 miles to tribal headquarters. The nearest major population centres are Rapid City and Bismarck, each a trip of 150 miles or more.

Basic services can be vulnerable. The tribe's primary health clinic doesn't have a CT scanner or a maternity ward. An ice storm last year knocked out power and water in places for weeks. And in winter, the gravel roads that connect much of the reservation can become impassable with snow and ice.

Nearly six decades after the reservation was created, the federal government began building a dam on the Missouri River, but the project caused flooding that washed away more than 100,000 acres of Indian land. After the flooding, the small town of Eagle Butte became home to the tribal headquarters and the centre of the reservation's economy.

‘There are things that have happened to us over many, many generations that you just can't fix in three or four years,’ said Kevin Keckler, the tribe's chairman. ‘We were put here by the government, and we had a little piece of land and basically told to succeed here.’

But prosperity never came. The county has been at or near the top of the poverty rankings for at least a decade. In 2009, the census defined poverty as a single person making less than $11,000 a year or a family of four making less than $22,000 a year.

Eagle Butte has few businesses and the handful that do exist struggle to stay afloat. The town has just one major grocery store, the Lakota Thrifty Mart, which is owned by the tribe. There's also a Dairy Queen, a Taco John's and a handful of small cafes. There's no bowling alley, no cinema.

Video: Partners in Health gives shelter

From Partners in Health, a video about a housing project in Rwanda.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lesotho's government is learning to do more with less

From IRIN, a story about a sharp revenue cut for Lesotho's government.

The Lesotho government has warned its citizens to prepare for a difficult year ahead as the tiny, land-locked country absorbs the effects of the global economic slowdown, including a sharp decline in crucial revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU).

For years, Lesotho has depended on receipts from SACU - a 100-year-old customs union made up of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho - for up to 60 percent of its budget.

The global economic crisis saw Lesotho's share of SACU revenue decline by about 50 percent in the 2010-11 financial year and while those revenues are expected to recover somewhat this financial year, the amount entering the national coffers will continue to decrease as the government repays a deficit owed to the Union.

“The scenario is bad because the country is dependent to a great extent on external sources like SACU which is not very healthy," said Alka Bhatia, an economic adviser with the UN Development Programme in Lesotho.

In a budget speech on 14 February, Finance Minister Timothy Thahane summarized Lesotho's dire financial situation. Not only have government revenues declined, he said, but "Lesotho’s economic growth has shrunk; unemployment, especially among the youth, has increased; our exports have contracted; and, Basotho mine workers in South Africa have been retrenched… This turmoil has placed Lesotho and its people between a rock and a hard place. We must make hard choices."

Analysts fear those choices may include cuts in social spending which would be particularly devastating for a country where about 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 23 percent of adults are infected with HIV.

Speaking to IRIN just ahead of the budget speech, head of economic policy in the Ministry of Finance Motena Ts'olo said expenditure cuts would not include reductions in health and education budgets. Nor would public sector jobs be cut as they have in Swaziland, another country struggling to come to terms with its heavy reliance on SACU receipts.

"Obviously, when there's not enough revenue resources, you can't do things as quickly as you want to do them," said Ts'olo.

She added that significant damage to crops and infrastructure resulting from recent heavy rains is likely to compound the country's financial problems over the coming year. The Disaster Management Authority has estimated the cost of responding to the flood damage at US$68.5 million.

In his budget speech, Thahane said the social protection budget would actually increase by 7 percent and public servants would receive a 5 percent salary increase, although there would be a freeze on all new public service posts.

Progress halted on MDGs

Thahane acknowledged that the lack of resources resulting from the global economic crisis had halted Lesotho's progress on some of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those relating to reductions in child and maternal mortality, combating HIV and TB and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Noting that this year's budget had been the most difficult the government had ever had to put together, he said: "The time has come when we must all learn to do more with less for the sake of our country."

Earlier this month, the government announced that it was about to begin the process of developing a National Strategic Development Plan that will come into effect in April 2012 and run for five years.

In part, the plan will aim to wake the country up from what Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili described as the "deep slumber" that SACU revenue had lulled it into.

"[We] need to move away from this dependency on the SACU revenue towards internally generated revenue," said Ts'olo.

She added that the country was also too dependent on the textile industry, which employed over 45,000 Basotho but had suffered significant losses in recent years due to the economic crisis and lowered demand from its sole market - the USA.

"We need to diversify away from textiles into other areas," she said, suggesting that tourism was one sector that could be expanded and the export of local products like sandstone was another.

Risk of cholera still high in rural Haiti

The United Nations has made another appeal for donor countries to contribute to fighting cholera in Haiti. Along with the appeal, the UN gives us an update on the spread of the disease.

The UN says that rural areas of Haiti are still at a high risk of getting cholera. Nationwide, the contamination risk has significantly lowered since its peak of late last year.

From this Associated Press article that we found at Google News, we hear more from the UN on the Haiti's status.

The mixed picture comes from Haitian government figures citing 231,070 reported cases and 4,549 deaths since the epidemic began in October.

National mortality rates from cholera are down to 2 percent, from as high as 9 percent earlier, but in some rural areas, more than one-in-ten people who contract the disease die.

In Haiti's Sud Est region, the mortality rate hit 10.7 percent as of Feb. 9, while in Nippes it was 6.7 percent and in the Grande Anse region, 5.9 percent. The rate should be under 1 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's there (in rural areas) that we absolutely have to strengthen our efforts," said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. humanitarian coordination office. "For that we need money."

The U.N. also is concerned about the possible spread of the disease during Haiti's upcoming Carnival season.

The U.N. has asked for $175 million to deal with Haiti's cholera outbreak, much of which is distributed to local partners and non-governmental organizations to carry out aid work. So far, however, donors have provided only $80 million.

Video: Swat road links being restored

From Al Jazeera, a video on the effort to restore bridges that were destroyed in last year's Pakistan flooding.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Colombia, the world leader in displacement from political violence

More people are forced to flee their homes in Colombia than any other nation in the world. According to the United Nations refugee agency, Colombia has more displaced people than Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the forced displacement occurred during a decades old political armed conflict.

Most of the people who were displaced in Colombia had their own farms and comfortable lifestyles. Once they are forced out they are introduced to poverty, with over 70 percent living below the poverty line.

From the Inter Press Service, writer Helda Martínez gives us some more statistics of the displaced within Colombia.

Some 5.2 million people were displaced from rural areas of this South American country between 1985 and 2010, according to a report released Wednesday by the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).

This figure confirms that Colombia still heads the list of countries with the greatest number of people forced to flee their homes by political violence, as indicated in 2009 by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

The study "Consolidation of What? Report on Displacement, Armed Conflict and Human Rights in Colombia in 2010" was completed in the final stretch of the government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the authors say.

"Unlike his predecessor, President (Juan Manuel) Santos is fomenting social and political dialogue, including the question of peace on his agenda, and vindicating the victims," they stress.

"It is early to know whether the shift will be permanent," but the hope is to achieve "a non-military solution to the conflict that has been bleeding this country dry" since the early 1960s, the report says.

In the last 25 years, the war has forced "11.4 percent of the population to change their residence, because their lives, physical integrity or freedom were threatened," says the 140-page report, published in Spanish.

Half of the total population of internally displaced persons fled their homes during Uribe's two four-year terms in office.