Interpress News Service

Demand for Lower Peacekeeping Dues to Pit US Against UN

18 April 2017 - 11:04am

A memorial service for a UN peacekeeper, Corp. Khalid El Hasnaoui of Morocco, April 20, 2016, in the Central African Republic. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, above, leads the mission there. Credit: UN PHOTO

By Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

The Trump administration, buoyed by a powerful anti-internationalist movement among conservative Republicans in the United States Congress, is headed for a new confrontation with the United Nations over who decides how much the US should pay for peacekeeping.

With a tentative US budget deadline of April 28 fast approaching, it is almost certain that American arrears will mount again, after the Obama administration closed the funding gap.

At the same time, a broad campaign against UN peacekeeping, reflecting current thinking in the US government, is also being waged in the Security Council by Ambassador Nikki Haley.

In her short time on the Council, she has never missed an opportunity to declare that the US will pay no more than 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget, down from about 28 percent. Haley, whose formal education is in accountancy, has also said that she will be looking hard at UN peacekeeping missions to cut costs, although this is still part of a learning curve for her.

Until recently, Haley seemed surprised to hear that troop-contributing countries were compensated by the UN for use of their soldiers.

The US position today is part of an historical cycle of standoffs that began in the 1980s and peaked during the administration of Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. That is when an earlier wave of anti-internationalism, led most prominently by the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, exerted its influence.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms reveled in disparaging and insulting the UN, while forcing a politically weakened Clinton to make significant changes in US institutions working in international affairs, including the abolition of an independent Arms Control Agency.

At the time, the US contribution to the annual peacekeeping budget was assessed by the UN at about 31 percent, down from just under 40 percent assessed in the early years of the world body. In 1995, however, Congress passed a law putting a cap of 25 percent on payment of UN peacekeeping dues, and arrears in hundreds of millions of dollars began to accumulate.

By 1999, when the US was in danger of losing its vote in the UN General Assembly, the Helms-Biden agreement (Joseph Biden, a senator then, was the ranking Democrat on the committee) set up a timetable to start paying $926 million in arrears to the UN and other international organizations.

The UN-US calculations and gaps have seesawed ever since. In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, the US cap was raised several times by Congress as arrears were being reduced. In fact, when Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, the US budget cap on payments was higher, at 27.1 percent, than the UN assessment of 25.9 percent.

At the end of the Obama years, the US payment ceiling was set at 28.57 percent, according to figures from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The UN assessment stood a little lower, at 28.3 percent.

Payments to the UN are drawn from sections of the US State Department budget, which Trump has promised to slash by about 31 percent, a figure that Congress, which writes the budget, is likely to oppose — or temper. The UN’s peacekeeping budget for 2016-2017 was $7.2 billion to $7.89 billion, depending on whose figures are used.

A Republican-led Congress — especially the House of Representative — could argue that all the adjustments made over the years were one-off annual temporary measures that merely tinkered with the 1995 law capping US payments to peacekeeping at 25 percent. Along those lines, all that Congress would have to do is reaffirm the 1995 legislation to meet Trump’s 25 percent. The US would automatically fall back into default.

To describe the process by which the UN sets assessment and dues scales as Byzantine would be making it sound easy. It starts with the UN Charter, which mandated in Article 17 that all member nations contribute to budget expenses. There has been no dispute since 2000 over US dues to the UN’s regular operating budget, for which the US is assessed 22 percent, the highest payment of any nation. The American issue is with peacekeeping dues only.

In assessing peacekeeping rates, the central role is played by the 18-member UN General Assembly Committee on Contributions (separate from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the ACABQ, which a previous Take a Look report on the US-UN budget crisis erroneously said was responsible).

Peacekeeping dues are calculated from the base of each nation’s regular budget assessments. A number of factors are then taken into account, including the strength of the national economy, measured in gross national income (GNI) and GNI per capita. Some poor countries receive a discount on their regular budget rate.

The biggest discounts go to least-developed countries (LDCs) , which get 90 percent knocked off their regular budget rate when peacekeeping dues are decided. Countries with high per capita income get no discount.

The permanent five members of the Security Council, or P5 — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — are a special case. Those nations, which can veto or alter proposed peacekeeping resolutions and other measures in the Council, are assessed at a premium rate.

This means that the sum of all discounts given to other countries are added pro rata to the regular budget rates of the P5 to determine what they will be charged for peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping rates and discounts may be recalculated and changed only every three years by the General Assembly, based on advice from the Committee on Contributions. The next major review takes place in 2018. Until then, annual “technical” reviews are held. The 2017 session for this year’s review is in June.

The US government will have to adhere to these timetables and work with the UN in New York throughout the coming months. But as the rules stand now, no major changes can be made on rates until the next three-year review.

The US will remain the world’s largest economy during this period, and there will not be much sympathy around the UN for the Trump administration as the dues argument burgeons. The US already pays less than it should because of previous budget deals.

Even before the Trump cuts kick in, only 1.4 percent of the US federal budget is devoted to foreign aid of all kinds. Within that total, American peacekeeping and regular budget dues to the UN combined account for a minuscule 0.2 percent of the US national budget.

(Brought to IPS readers courtesy of PassBlue, online independent coverage of the UN, a project of the Ralph Bunche Institute, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center)

Politicians Hijack Macedonia

18 April 2017 - 8:28am

Thousands of people gather daily in the center of Skopje, Macedonia to express their support for the president. Credit: Aleksandra Jolkina/IPS

By Frank Mulder
SKOPJE, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

The political crisis in Macedonia is deepening. With the president and former coalition preventing the formation of a new government, the state threatens to disintegrate in a climate of corruption and nationalism.

The television is turned up loud in a hamburger shop in a suburb of Skopje called Šutka. The ethnic Albanian owner and his workers follow the parliamentary debate live. Their faces, however, are full of contempt. While the owner is preparing an impressively filled bread for less than a euro, he shakes his head despondently."Let's be open: the dispute with the EU about the name is partly the reason for all this mess." --Aleksander Kržalovski

“Those politicians are only getting more and more nationalistic,” one of his clients explains.

Outside we hear the call to prayer. The majority of the people here in Šutka are Muslim. A Roma woman with red-streaked hair is selling ten euro jeans from her market stall. A man with a fluffy salafi-like beard and prayer trousers sells knick-knacks ranging from facial masks and incense sticks to Albanian Korans from beneath a Zlatan Dab Pilsener umbrella.

Filibuster

It looks like nonsensical chatter, what happens on television, but it’s not. What we see is a so-called filibuster, which means politicians preventing any decision-making by just keeping on talking. The right-wing party VMRO-DPNME doesn’t want the social democrats to form a government because that would grant the Albanian minority too many rights.

This has had a disastrous effect on the small Balkan country, which a few years ago was still a promising economy. Since the collapse of Yugoslavia there haven’t been any serious tensions between the Macedonian orthodox majority (about one and a half million) and the Albanian Muslim minority (about half a million), except for limited clashes in 2001.

But corruption has grown since then, along with nationalist rhetoric. In this climate a kind of mini-Watergate scandal has broken out, starting two years ago. Leaked secret service documents showed that ruling VMRO politicians had tapped the phone conversations of 20,000 people, for dubious ends. The country burst out in revolt. Finally, last December, after protests and diplomatic pressure, new elections were held.

VMRO won most of the seats again. Yet, they didn’t manage to form a coalition. The quarrelling Albanian parties, brought together by Albania, decided to strike a coalition deal with the social democrats. To which President Gjorge Ivanov, member of the VMRO, responded with a veto, and the VMRO parliamentarians with a filibuster. Their motive is, they say, that the new coalition wants to accept Albanian as official language, and they will not allow this to happen.

‘Captured state’

“It went very well in Macedonia,” says Samuel Žbogar, ambassador on behalf of the European Union in Skopje. “But the last few years we’ve seen a serious backsliding. We call it a ‘captured state’. Independent institutions like the judiciary are used by politicians.”

The European Union itself is partly to be blamed for the misery. For years, Macedonia has been tempted to enact reforms with a carrot called EU Membership, but year after year Greece has demanded that the country change its name first, for fear of territorial claims on its own Macedonia province.

“People feel deeply hurt,” a source within the European representation in the country says. “They have long been a EU candidate member but are overtaken by other countries.” It is an invitation for countries like Russia to step into the void, although this consists more of vocal instead of financial support – so far.

Fake majority

Thousands of people, mostly grey-haired, gather daily in the center of Skopje to express their support for the president. “Ma-ke-donia! Ma-ke-donia!” they chant, waving red-yellow flags and whipped up by nationalist songs.

“We reject the fake majority of the social democrats and the Albanian parties,” says one young demonstrator, dressed in red and yellow and wearing a 130-year-old cap from anti-Ottoman rebels. He smells strongly of of alcohol but is sure about his case. “The Albanian parties are directed by Albania. We can’t let a neighboring country decide what happens here, can we? They want to create a Great Albania. They want the Macedonian country to disappear. We cannot let this happen.”

This is nonsense, says Nasser Selmani, an ethnic Albanian and president of the Association of Journalists in Macedonia. “I am a Macedonian, this is my country. I don’t belong to Albania, I belong here.” Yet others have more to lose if the state should collapse, he explains. “We have Albania with which we have good relations. But what do the ethnic Macedonians have? Do you think there is anyone who would acknowledge their identity? Greece and Bulgaria won’t.”

The breakdown of the state is not unthinkable. Because of the stalemate, the necessary decisions can’t be made anymore. In a few months, local elections are scheduled. If they don’t take place, the local authorities lose their legitimacy, too.

What also will end in June is the mandate of the Special Prosecutor researching the wiretapping scandal. This is the real reason that politicians have hijacked the country, insiders say. They want to escape prosecution by any means possible.

“They are using the fear of Albanians for their own interest,” says Selmani. “They are using more and more nationalist language. The orthodox church is also promoting this. The cathedral in Skopje is even the gathering place for the daily protests.”

Conservatives

In the big cathedral, however, beneath beautiful icons, all looks peaceful. Evening prayer is silently attended by not more than four people. Even among orthodox believers the Macedonian church, which has declared itself independent from the Serbian orthodoxy, is known as a very nationalistic branch. But demonstrators are not there.

A young orthodox priest in Skopje is willing to explain what he thinks about the current crisis, if only on the basis of anonymity. He serves tea with pieces of Turkish fruit. “We have a separation between church and state. We don’t call for demonstrations here and we don’t give any voting advice. That’s forbidden. But if you ask me personally, I’m against Albanian as an official language. I originally come from a region without Albanians. What if all public servants would be obliged to speak Albanian because it’s an official language? That would be impossible. Our only language is Macedonian.”

On the wall behind the black-robed priest there is a small Macedonian flag with an orange-black Saint George Ribbon, a Russian nationalist symbol. When I ask him what he hopes what will happen, he says, “I hope the crisis will soon be over. That we can live in peace with each other again, without politics being between the people.” The priest doesn’t seem radical, rather very conservative.

Alexander

Through the window of a restaurant in Skopje I look down at the paragon of nationalistic Balkan kitsch, made possible by millions of taxpayers’ money. Between the statues of the Macedonian hero Alexander the Great, to the left, and the Father of Alexander, to the right, we see nobody less than the mother of Alexander, in fourfold. Alexander in her belly, Alexander at her breast, Alexander on her lap, and Alexander around her neck. It’s all completely over the top. It’s the way the current leaders want to bring the people together, at least the ethnic Macedonians.

Inside the restaurant I have a conversation with Aleksander Kržalovski, leader of the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation, which is the second largest NGO of the country and funder of many small NGOs. He is critical of the current nationalistic wave, he says.

“But it doesn’t make sense to demonize the more conservative population. Many left-wing organisations are very radical. They don’t want to work with fascists, they say. We, instead, believe in cooperation. It’s necessary to bridge the divide between different groups.

“To be honest, it’s unfair to blame right-wing politicians for everything,” Kržalovski continued. “The social democrats use very polarizing rhetoric as well. And many Albanians show no respect for the progress we’ve seen, the rights they have got. Many don’t want to wave the Macedonian flag or sing the national anthem. That raises suspicion. Some people have seen their house burnt down by ethnic Albanians three times, in 2001. And now they see them having a much higher birth rate. It’s understandable that people have fear.”

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept corruption, he says. “Impunity has to end now, that’s very important. But let’s not blame one party. And let’s be open: the dispute with the EU about the name is partly the reason for all this mess. We see that reflected in the diminishing support for the EU in the polls that we do. The EU clearly hasn’t done the job.”

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Typical Cuban Sweet – a Symbol of the Post-Hurricane Challenge to Agriculture

18 April 2017 - 3:01am

Vendor Raulises Ramírez is up early to sell the typical coconut cones which he made the previous day, alongside the La Farola highway into the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BARACOA, Cuba, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

Early in the day, when a gentle dew moistens the ground and vegetation in the mountains of eastern Cuba, street vendor Raulises Ramírez sets up his rustic stand next to the La Farola highway and displays his cone-shaped coconut sweets.

“These will maybe be the last ones… the cones will disappear, because the hurricane brought down all the coconut palms in Baracoa,” the 52-year-old private entrepreneur told IPS. He makes a living in Cuba’s oldest city selling this traditional sweet made of coconut, honey, fruits and spices, wrapped in the fibrous cone-shaped palm leaf.

“Look at all this!“ exclaimed Ramírez, pointing to the ground next to the highway littered with the trunks of coconut palm trees knocked down or bent by Hurricane Matthew, which hit Baracoa and other parts of eastern Cuba on Oct. 4-5, 2016.

He expects to continue making his sweets for a while longer thanks to his reserves. His main customers are Cubans who pay the equivalent of 25 cents of a dollar for each “cucurucho” or coconut cone, a typical sweet of this municipality, with an agricultural sector based on coconut and cacao, among other products.“We have to provide the local population with support to produce staple crops and provide new sources of income, until the commercial perennial crops begin to produce.” -- Theodor Friedrich

When his coconut reserves are finished, he will have to look for a different source of income than the one that has sustained his family for the last five years. “The tourists like to buy dried fruit,” he said, referring to the growing influx of foreign visitors in the area.

Ramírez’s situation is in some way similar to that of the entire agri-food sector in this municipality with a population of 81,700, which is facing a tough challenge: recovering their main long-cycle crops that were ravaged by the strongest hurricane ever registered in the province of Guantánamo, where Baracoa is located.

“We estimate the shortest possible time for coconut production to recover is four years, while cacao will take two and a half years. But reforestation will take many more years, between 15 and 20,” said Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez, referring to the fundamental components of local economic development: cacao, coconut, coffee and forestry products.

In the affected territories in Guantánamo, agriculture was among the hardest-hit sectors, with 70,574 hectares damaged. According to official reports, 27 per cent of the cacao, coconut and coffee plantations and 67 per cent of the forest heritage was lost.

The hurricane damaged 35,681 hectares of the main crops in this mountainous coastal municipality. Only four per cent of the vast plantations of coconut palm trees are still standing, which were used to obtain part of the seeds vital to the recovery effort.

A beach along the coast of Baracoa, where coconut trees were damaged by Hurricane Matthew – a serious problem in this city in eastern Cuba, since coconuts are one of the main local agricultural products. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“In small areas on the outskirts of the city some coconut palm trees still remain on private farms and in people’s yards, which are the source of the coconuts vendors are using to make their cones, but the state-run factory is not producing any,” Rodríguez said, about the temporary disappearance of this symbol of Baracoa.

The factory, the only one that made coconut cones and distributed them in the provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Holguín, is now producing tomatoes and fruit brought from other parts of the country. The cocoa industry is still active, even producing several by-products, thanks to reserves of cacao.

So far, only 3,576 hectares of forestry, coconut, coffee, cacao and fruit plantations have been recuperated, since the authorities are putting a priority on “the areas dedicated to short-cycle crops to quickly obtain food, such as vegetables and fruits for domestic consumption,” said the mayor in an exclusive interview with IPS.

“Baracoa, the cacao capital” reads an enormous poster at the entrance to this city founded 505 years ago by Spanish colonialists. Alongside coconut cone vendors like Ramírez, men and women sell big scoops of home-made dark chocolate along the La Farola highway.
Hurricane Matthew thwarted a project to create production chains based on coconut and cacao, with investments to foment cultivation of the crops and modernise the food industry in the municipality. The initiative hoped to tap into other potential sources of income, especially using coconuts.

The current production based on coconut and cacao does not cover domestic demand in this country of 11.2 million, nor demand from international tourists, who reached the record number of four million in 2016.

Baracoa Mayor Luis Sánchez Rodríguez shows IPS the impact on Cuba’s oldest city of Hurricane Matthew, and explains the measures adopted to reactivate production in the main agricultural. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Meanwhile, we have to provide the local population with support to produce staple crops and provide new sources of income, until the commercial perennial crops begin to produce,” advised Theodor Friedrich, representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cuba.

He told IPS that to this end, FAO is supporting several initiatives for agricultural and food production recovery in the area affected by Matthew, through two projects financed by the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and FAO resources. In addition, it is awaiting the approval of a bigger third project financed by a donor.

“There is an urgent need to recover the most commercial crops, to avoid delaying this process,” said Friedrich, an agronomist who advocates the need of restoring them with resilience to future climate shocks.

“In part, these crops can be used to intersperse food crops and integrate new crops with their corresponding value chains,” he said.

In the case of the territories affected by the hurricane, and together with the local authorities, FAO promotes the proposal to plant drumstick or horseradish trees (moringa oleifera) among the perennial crops, a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree which provides a micronutrient-rich ingredient used to fortify food and animal feed, while also offering a natural fertiliser for the soil.

This initiative can strengthen small industries in the area involved in the manufacturing of fortified foods and in livestock production. “It will increase the production and availability of high value-added foods, while at the same time providing a financial income to farming families,” said the FAO representative.

The government of Baracoa also identifies another economic option for local residents.

“Tourism is the most feasible alternative, because the recovery of agriculture will take some time, even though there is a programme for agro-industrial development,” said Mayor Sánchez. “After Matthew, visits here by local and international tourists fell, but now we are experiencing a surge.”
In the area, government-run hotels and other lodgings offer at total of 275 rooms, and another 367 rooms are available in 283 private houses, where the number of rooms offered has climbed to cater to the current tourism boom.

Near Baracoa’s seafront, retiree Dolores Yamilé Selva’s hostel, which she has run since 1998, is full. She believes that there is still untapped tourism potential in the area. “The tourists that come to our town, mainly from Europe, is interested in our natural surroundings,” she told IPS.

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Disease Burden Growing as Vector Insects Adapt to Climate Change

17 April 2017 - 8:02pm

Dry drains will reduce the numbers of mosquitoes breeding, but now the Aedes aegypti mosquito is going underground to breed underground in available water and flying to feed. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

By Zadie Neufville
KINGSTON, Jamaica, Apr 18 2017 (IPS)

There were surprised gasps when University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor John Agard told journalists at an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in late November 2016 that mosquitoes were not only living longer, but were “breeding in septic tanks underground”.

For many, it explained why months of fogging at the height of Zika and Chikungunya outbreaks had done little to reduce mosquito populations in their various countries. The revelation also made it clear that climate change would force scientists and environmental health professionals to spend more time studying new breeding cycles and finding new control techniques for vector insects.“Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission." --Dr. Moritz Kraemar

Jump to March 31, 2017 when the UWI and the government of Jamaica opened the new Mosquito Control and Research Unit at the Mona Campus in Kingston, to investigate new ways to manage and eradicate mosquitoes. Its existence is an acknowledgement that the region is looking for improved management and control strategies.

Agard was reporting on a study by the late Dave Chadee, a co-author on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and UWI professor. The study examined evolutionary changes in the life cycle of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the yellow and dengue fevers as well as the chikungunya and Zika viruses.

“We found out that in higher temperatures, the mosquito’s breeding cycle shortens. They go through more cycles during the season and they produce more offspring. The mosquitoes, however, are a little smaller,” Agard told journalists.

Even more worrisome were Chadee’s findings on the longevity of the “evolved” mosquitoes – 100 days instead of the 30 days they were previously thought to survive. The study also found that mosquitoes that survived longer than 90 days could produce eggs and offspring that were born transmitters, raising new concerns.

Alarming as these findings were, they were only the latest on the evolutionary strategies of vector insect populations in the Caribbean. A study published in February 2016 revealed that the triatomino (or vinchuca), the vector insects for Chagas disease, were breeding twice a year instead of only in the rainy season. And before that in 2011, Barbadian Environmental officers found mosquitoes breeding in junction boxes underground.

Sebastian Gourbiere, the researcher who led the Chagas study, pointed to the need for regional governments to re-examine their vector control methods if they are to effectively fight these diseases.

“The practical limitations that the dual threat poses outweigh the capabilities of local vector teams,” he said in response to questions about the control of Chagas disease.

Caribbean scientists and governments had already been warned. The IPCC’s AR 5 (2013) acknowledged the sensitivity of human health to shifts in weather patterns and other aspects of the changing climate.

“Until mid-century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist. New conditions may emerge under climate change, and existing diseases may extend their range into areas that are presently unaffected,” the report said.

Gourbiere agrees with Agard and other regional researchers that there is need for solutions that are primarily focused on vector controls: eradication and effective controls of the Aedes aegypti could also eliminate the diseases they spread.

The failure of the newest vector control strategies also forced health professionals to revisit the old, but proven techniques developed with the guidance of researchers like Chadee, whose work on dengue and yellow fever, malaria and most recently the Zika virus had helped to guide the development of mosquito control, surveillance and control strategies in the Caribbean.

And while Zika brought with it several other serious complications like microcephaly, which affects babies born to women infected by the virus, and Guillain Barré Syndrome, the threats also exposed more serious concerns. The rapid spread of the viruses opened the eyes of regional governments to the challenges of emerging diseases and of epidemics like ebola and H1N1.

But it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that raised concerns about the status and possible effects of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) – a group of communicable diseases including the Zika virus – which affect more than a billion people in 149 countries each year but for which there are no treatments.

NTDs include Dengue, Chic-V and Chagas Disease and until the last outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 6,000 people, Ebola was among them. In the previous 26 outbreaks between 1976 and 2013, only 1,716 people in sub-Saharan African nations were infected, WHO data showed.

Now the Caribbean is changing its approach to the study and control of vector insects. So while there are no widespread infections of Chagas disease, UWI is preparing to begin its own studies on the triatomino and the disease it transmits.

An addition to UWI’s Task Force formed just over a year ago to “aggressively eliminate” breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Mosquito Unit is expected to build on Professor Chadee’s groundbreaking research.

“From dealing with the consequences of Chikungunya, Dengue and Zika on our population to managing the potentially harmful effects of newly discovered viruses, the benefits of establishing a unit like this will produce significant rewards in the protection of national and regional health,” UWI Mona Professor Archibald McDonald said at the launch.

Zika had been infecting thousands of people in Asia and Africa for decades before it made its devastating appearance in Brazil and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Zika also made its way to the US and several European nations in 2016, before being confirmed in Thailand on Sept 30.

Not surprising, as in its 3rd AR, and most recently in the 5th AR the IPCC projected increases in threats to human health, particularly in lower income populations of mainly tropical and sub-tropical countries. Those findings are also supported by more recent independent studies including Mapping global environmental suitability for Zika virus, published by the University of Oxford (UK) in February 2016.

By combining climate data, mosquito prevalence and the socio-economic makeup of each region, researchers found the likelihood of the Zika virus gaining a foothold worldwide to be “extremely high”. The team led by Moritz Kraemer also concluded that Zika alone could infect more than a third of the world’s population.

The findings noted that shifts in the breeding patterns of the Aedes family of mosquitos allowed it to take advantage of newly ‘favourable conditions’ resulting from climate change. The environmentally suitable areas now stretch from the Caribbean to areas of South America; large portions of the United States to sizeable areas of sub-Saharan Africa; more than two million square miles of India “from its northwest regions through to Bangladesh and Myanmar”; the Indochina region, southeast China and Indonesia and includes roughly 250,000 square miles of Australia.

“Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission,” Dr. Kraemar said.

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes’ efficiency at spreading diseases in urban areas and population densities are believed to be the main factors driving the rapid spread of the Zika virus. Other studies have found the Zika virus in 19 species of the Aedes family, with the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) – which has now spread its range to Europe –  likely another efficient vector.

Back in the Caribbean, Chadee’s findings on the adaptation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito from clean water breeders to breeding in available waters is expected to drive the development of regional strategies that are better suited to the evolving environment of a changing climate.

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Time Is of the Essence as Storm Clouds Gather over the Korean Peninsula

17 April 2017 - 2:15am

By Editor, The Manila Times, Philippines
Apr 17 2017 (Manila Times)

In his observations of life cycles under the heavens, King Solomon of ancient Israel noted 14 dichotomies from birth and death to war and peace. His point was to show the world that God has a plan for everyone and that each cycle is an opportunity to realize that without Him it is impossible to discover lasting solutions to the problems of life and living on earth.

Here is how Solomon, regarded by bible scholars as the wisest man who ever lived, described the cycles of life (Tyndale Life Application Study Bible, New International Version):

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heaven:

“a time to be born and a time to die,
“a time to plant and a time to uproot,
“a time to kill and a time to heal,
“a time to tear down and a time to build,
“a time to weep and a time to laugh,
“a time to mourn and a time to dance,
“a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
“a time embrace and a time to refrain,”
“a time to search and a time to give up,
“a time to keep and a time to throw away,
“a time to tear and a time to mend,
“a time to be silence and a time to speak,
“a time to love and a time to hate,
“a time for war and a time for peace.”

Judging by the latest US military actions, Washington seems to have set the tone for belligerent days ahead, reflecting the confrontational stance of President Donald J. Trump, the elected leader of the most powerful nation in the world in terms of its economy and military might.

China’s foreign affairs ministry has noted the tit for tat between Pyongyang and Washington, labelling it a gathering of storm clouds over the stand-off between North Korea and the US, warning of how volatile the situation is, a situation that may soon precipitate an armed conflict between a belligerent Trump and an equally truculent North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

With the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group sailing towards the Korean Peninsula, China is scrambling to resolve the situation diplomatically, especially after Kim displayed his armaments in Pyongyang to mark the 105th anniversary of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founding President of North Korea on Saturday. Apparently, Beijing, the backer of Pyongyang, does not want war raging in its own backyard. Especially since Trump’s mettle in dealing with provocations from recalcitrant states has been tested in the last two weeks after Washington unleashed 59 Tomahawk missiles in Syria and dropped a 21,000-lb non-nuclear bomb over Afghanistan.

South Korea will definitely be involved. A staunch ally of the US, the South hosts some 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deployed in 15 military bases. Japan’s National Security Council is now brainstorming how to evacuate some 57,000 Japanese citizens in the South, and deal with a new wave of boat people from North Korea washing up along its western coast should war break out.

Around 63,000 Filipinos live and work in South Korea. The Philippine government must start formulating strategies on how to evacuate its citizens from Seoul and other cities, so that when the time comes it will not be a time to mourn but a time for celebration for a country that takes care of its people, whoever and wherever they are in the world. Time is of the essence.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

“We Can’t Protest So We Pray”: Anguish in Amhara During Ethiopia’s State of Emergency 

16 April 2017 - 8:02pm

Woman and child outside a Gonder church with crosses marked in ash on their foreheads. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By James Jeffrey
BAHIR DAR, Apr 17 2017 (IPS)

As dawn breaks in Bahir Dar, men prepare boats beside Lake Tana to take to its island monasteries the tourists that are starting to return.

Meanwhile, traffic flows across the same bridge spanning the Blue Nile that six months ago was crossed by a huge but peaceful protest march.“They were waiting for an excuse to shoot.” --Priest in Bahir Dar

But only a mile farther the march ended in the shooting of unarmed protesters by security forces, leaving Bahir Dar stunned for months.

Events last August in the prominent Amhara cities of Bahir Dar (the region’s capital) and Gonder (the former historical seat of Ethiopian rule) signalled the spreading of the original Oromo protests to Ethiopia’s second most populace region.

By October 9, following further disasters and unrest, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party declared a six-month state of emergency, which was extended at the end of this March for another four months.

Ethiopian national flags and regional Amhara flags flutter along the bridge over the Blue Nile on the road going east from Bahir Dar that the protesters took last year. A mile on from the bridge the peaceful march descended into tragedy with shots fired into the crowd. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

On the surface, the state of emergency’s measures including arbitrary arrests, curfews, bans on public assembly, and media and Internet restrictions appear to have been successful in Amhara.

Now shops are open and streets are busy, following months when the cities were flooded with military personal, and everyday life ground to a halt as locals closed shops and businesses in a gesture of passive resistance.

Speaking to residents, however, it’s clear discontent hasn’t abated. Frustrations have grown for many due to what’s deemed gross governmental oppression. But almost everyone agrees that for now, with the state of emergency in place, there’s not much more they can do.

“Now it’s the fasting period before Easter, so people are praying even more and saying: Where are you God? Did you forget this land?” says Stefanos, who works in Gonder’s tourism industry, and didn’t want to give his name due to fear of arrest by the Command Post, the administrative body coordinating the state of emergency.

“Because people can’t protest, they are praying harder than ever.”

The four-month extension to the state of emergency contains less sweeping powers than before. Now police need warrants to arrest suspects or search their homes, and detention without trial has officially been ended. But grievances remain about what happened before.

“Someone will come and say they are with the Command Post and just tell you to go with them—you have no option but to obey,” Dawit, working in Gonder’s tourism industry, says of hundreds of locals arrested. “No one has any insurance of life.”

Outside Gonder churches, beggars line streets hoping for alms. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Locals recall how if young men gathered in too large a group they risked getting arrested.

“The regime has imprisoned, tortured and abused 20, 000-plus young people and killed hundreds more in order to restore a semblance of order,” says Alemante Selassie, emeritus law professor at the College of William & Mary and Ethiopia analyst. “Repression is the least effective means of creating real order in any society where there is a fundamental breach of trust between people and their rulers.”

Across Gondar, many unemployed men seek distraction by chewing the plant khat, a stimulant that motivates animated conversation about security force abuses and the dire local economic situation.

“If you kill your own people how are you a soldier—you are a terrorist,” says 32-year old Tesfaye, chomping on khat leaves. “I became a soldier to protect my people. This government has forgotten me since I left after seven years fighting in Somalia. I’ve been trying to get a job here for five months.”

Beyond such revulsion and frustration, some claim the state of emergency has had other psychological impacts.

“Continued fear and distrust of the [ruling] regime by the Ethiopian people,” says Tewodrose Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America. “Continued loss of hope for a better form a government where basic human rights of the Ethiopians are respected.”

For many the memories of what happened during protests last summer are still raw, especially for Bahir Dar residents.

Tens of thousands gathered in Bahir Dar’s centre on August 7 before marching along the main northeast-running road out of the city toward the Blue Nile River, carrying palm tree leaves and other greenery as symbols of peace.

After crossing the bridge there are various versions about what happened next.

Some say a protester attempted to replace Ethiopia’s current federal national flag flying outside a government building with the older, pan-Ethiopian nationalistic flag—now banned in Amhara—an argument ensued and the guard shot the protester.

Others say that protesters threw stones at the building—the guard fired warning shots in the air—then protesters tried entering the compound—the guard fired at them.

But there is less uncertainly about what happened next.

“Security forces suddenly emerged from buildings and shot into the march for no reason,” says an Ethiopian priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They were waiting for an excuse to shoot.”

It’s estimated 27 died that day, the death toll rising to 52 by the end of the week. A total of 227 civilians have died during unrest in the Amhara region, according to government figures, while others claim it’s much higher.

“Two people on my right side dropped dead,” says 23-year-old Haile, marching that day. “One had been shot in the head, one in the heart.”

Such violence was unprecedented for Bahir Dar, a popular tourist location, known for its tranquil lake and laid-back atmosphere.

“The city went into shock for months,” says the Ethiopian priest.

But as the months have passed, normal daily life has gradually reasserted itself.

“People are tired of the trouble and want to get on with their lives,” says Tesfaye, a tour operator. “But, then again, in a couple of years, who knows.”

Many criticise the government for failing to address long-term structural frictions between Ethiopia’s proclaimed federal constitution and an actual centralist developmental state model, as well as failing to resolve—with some saying it actively stokes—increasing ethnic tensions.

“Three years ago I went to university and no one cared where you were from,” says Haile, a telecommunication engineer in Bahir Dar. “Now Amhara and Tigray students are fighting with each other.”

“Federalism is good and bad,” says Haile’s friend Joseph, who is half Tigrayan and half Amhara. “Ethiopia has all these different groups proud of their languages and cultures. But [on the other hand] even though my father is Tigray, I can’t go and work in Tigray because I don’t speak Tigrayan.”

Joseph pauses to consider, before continuing.

“This government has kept the country together, if they disappeared we would be like Somalia,” he says. “All the opposition does is protest, protest, they can’t do anything else.”

Finding such a view in Gonder is much harder.

“The government has a chance for peace but they don’t have the mental skills to achieve it,” says tourist guide Teklemariam. “If protests happen again they will be worse.”

The main road between Gonder and Bahir Dar winds up and down steep hillsides, surrounded by mountains, cliffs and tight valleys stretching to the horizon.

Ethiopia’s vertiginous topography has challenged foreign invaders for centuries. But it’s potentially a headache for domestic rulers too, added to which militarism is a traditional virtue in the Amhara region.

In Gonder, men talk admiringly of an Amhara resistance movement which conducted hit-and-run attacks on soldiers when they occupied the city, before withdrawing into the surrounding mountains.

“The farmers are ready to die for their land,” the Ethiopian priest says. “It’s all they have known, they have never been away from here.”

According to Gonder locals, armed farmers have been fighting Ethiopian security forces for months.

“I saw dozens of soldiers at Gonder’s hospital with bullet and knife wounds,” says Henok, a student nurse, who took part in the protests. “The government controls the urban but not the rural areas.”

Off the main streets in Gonder, Ethiopia, poverty becomes starker. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Young men like Henok talk passionately of Colonel Demeke Zewudud, a key member of Amhara resistance arrested by the government in 2016, and even more so about Gobe Malke, one of the leaders of the farmer insurrection until he was killed this February, allegedly at the hands of his cousin in the government’s payroll.

“If the government wants a true and real form of stabilization, then it should allow for a true representative form of governance so all people have the representation they need and deserve,” Tewodrose says.

“But the concern of the TPLF is the perception from the international community, so they can continue to receive and misuse foreign aid.”

In his role with the Amhara Association of America, Tewodrose presented a report to a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing March 9 about “Democracy Under Threat in Ethiopia”. The report also detailed 500 security forces killed during fighting in Amhara—Gonder locals claim many more.

“Before I die I just want to see Ethiopia growing peacefully and not divided by tribes,” says 65-year-old grandmother Indeshash, housebound in Gonder due to ongoing leg problems. “If my legs worked I would have protested.”

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Rising Dragon, Wounded Eagle

16 April 2017 - 9:52am

By Munir Akram
Apr 16 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

When China`s former vice premier, Qian Qichen, was asked 20 years ago about the future of Sino-US relations, he reportedly responded: `They [Sino-US relations] will never be as good as they should be; and never be as bad as they can be.` This prognosis holds true today for the world`s `most important bilateral relationship`.

Munir Akram

The largest and second-largest economies are now deeply intertwined and interdependent through trade, supply chains and finance. But the fortunes of the Chinese dragon have been rising; the power of the American eagle has been dented by long wars and economic profligacy. The Greek historian, Thucydides, postulated that when an established power faces a rising one, a clash is almost inevitable.

In its final years, the Obama administration seemed to be rushing towards the Thucydides Trap. Obama`s `pivot to Asia` consisted of: an ef fort to build a string of US alliances around China`s periphery from Japan to India; the deployment of two-thirds of US naval power to the Pacific; a challenge to China`s maritime claims in the South China Sea; and China`s exclusion from the Trans Pacinc(trade)Partnership.

Prospects for Sino-US relations worsened with Donald Trump`s campaign rhetoric against China and threats to slap punitive tariffs on its exports and declare it a `currency manipulator`. In justifying his unprecedented call with Taiwan`s leader, Trump threatened to discard the One China policy unless China agreed to trade concessions.

Tensions were further heightened when the incoming US secretary of state asserted that the US could deny China access to its claims in the South China Sea.

Since then, the Trump administration has walked back, slowly, from its most extreme positions. US Defence Secretary Mattis assured that the South China Sea disputes would have to be resolved through negotiations. In a carefully choreographed call with the Chinese president, Trump af firmed continued US adherence to the One China policy.

The recent Trump-Xi summit in Mar-a-Lago was expected to determine the direction of US-China relations. Although the summit was overshadowedby the US missile strikes against Syria, there was no acrimony, and agreement was reached on a highlevel security dialogue and a 100-day plan to address trade.

However, uncertainty persists due to Trump`s unpredictability. He will not declare China a `currency manipulator`. But Trump has now linked the trade talks to China`s help on North Korea.

In his tweets, President Trump has repeatedly urged China to resolve the threat f rom North Korea `or the US will`. The US deployment of a US carrier group towards the Korean Peninsula has escalated tensions. But the US is unlikely to conduct a pre-emptive or punitive strike against North Korea (à la Syria) given Pyongyang`s capacity for a devastating response. And, the `window` for such a strike is likely to close shortly if, as expected, the leftwing candidate wins the South Korean presidency and rules out the use of force.

China shares the US aim of denuclearising North Korea, and is deeply angered by Kim Jong-un`s provocative nuclear and missile tests and indifference to China`s wider interests. China is likely to support intensified Security Council sanctions against North Korea, including an embargo on oil sales, if it continues its tests. Yet, China is unlikely to intensify pressure to the extent of triggering the collapse of the North Korean economy or the Pyongyang regime. This could lead to war, massive refugee flows into China and possible absorption of North Korea by the South, bringing US troops to China`s border.

Under the circumstances, the best option may be a resumption of the five plus one (US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea plus North Korea) dialogue; a de facto `acceptance` of North Korea`s nuclear capabilities; and a f reeze on its nuclear and missile development in exchange for economic aid and assurances of regime survival. Even this outcome will be dif ficult to negotiate.

Given the Korean crisis, it is fortunate that, at least so f ar, the US has not revived the provocative challenge to China in the South China Sea. Absent US intervention, China will probably display flexibility and offer economic cooperation to its Southeast Asian neighbours to resolve maritime disputes. The peaceful resolution of the SouthChina Sea disputes would remove a major source of potential Sino-US friction and confrontation.

Apart from Korea, trade is the other headline issue for Trump in dealing with China. For its part, Beijing wants a more balanced trade relationship with the US, and a reduction of the $300 billion bilateral trade surplus, through trade expansion rather than restriction. To this end, it appears willing to facilitate US agricultural, services and other exports and to stimulate domestic demand in China. But it will also urge the US to lif t the wideranging restrictions on the sale of advanced technological goods and services to China as one way of correcting the trade imbalance.

Xi`s economic trump card may be an offer of Chinese participation in Trump`s plan to restore and modernise America`s aging infrastructure.

China has the finance, expertise and recent experience to make a significant contribution. If Trump`s plans for tax breaks are stalled, he may welcome China`s contribution.

Such cooperation on infrastructure may open the door to US participation in China`s path-breaking One Belt, One Road initiative which its media has dubbed as `Globalisation 2.0`. China has invited US participation in the project. It could be extremely lucrative for US corporations and industry.

A first step in this direction may be active US participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor endeavour. The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are already financing some CPEC-related projects in Pakistan. American companies are also involved as equipment suppliers for power plants and financial, technical and legal consultants in various projects.

Ever since it arranged Henry Kissinger`s clandestine trip to China in 1971, Pakistan has had a significant stake in the preservation of positive Sino-US relations. Today, if a great power consensus can be achieved on a strategy for stability in Afghanistan and counterterrorism, Pakistan can become the geographical locus for economic and strategic cooperation between the world`s two primary powers. The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

IMF Reforms and the Path to Development

16 April 2017 - 2:23am

By the Editorial Desk, Sri Lanka Sunday Times
Apr 16 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

A delegation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was in Colombo this week ahead of a planned but now postponed visit by its head Christine Lagarde, to discuss Sri Lanka’s worsening economic situation. With the country in dire straits with an acute foreign exchange and debt crisis, the IMF’s reform menu for stabilising the economy, one can be certain, will be the standard road map the institution has for developing countries.

Markets must be allowed to work properly, it will say, meaning increasing interest rates, faster currency depreciation, and permitting loss-making enterprises such as the Electricity Board (CEB) and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) to raise rates, fast-tracking revenue measures, more cuts in expenditure and for the State to sell its assets like the Hilton and upcoming Hyatt Hotels, Water’s Edge and Lanka Hospitals.

Sri Lanka has always skirted by through dependence on foreign aid and loans (bilateral and the likes of the IMF). IMF programmes have been part and parcel of the Sri Lankan economy for decades, and the current programme was not entirely due to any impending foreign exchange or balance of payment crisis but an attempt to get a seal of good housekeeping on the macro economy and to follow a consistent policy to increase revenue and restructure foreign debt.

One crucial element on the debt side is to convert US Dollars eight (8) billion of Chinese debt into equity starting with the Hambantota PPP (Public-Private Partnership) and for others to follow and for them to start generating revenue. The Colombo International Financial Centre (Port City) is a medium-term project that will take two years for landfilling and five years to build – whoever finances the infrastructure.

Related to this will be how the foreign exchange reserves and the rapidly depreciating exchange rate are managed. The need to attract more FDIs (Foreign Direct Investment) and more market access through Free Trade Agreements; expanding the tax base through a new Inland Revenue Act are imperative. Getting financial corruption under control with the same wheeler-dealers back in the game with the Yahapalana Government’s key players distorting decisions to feed corruption; and converting all the IPS, Harvard, McKinsey and Baker & Mckenzie work into a medium to long-term programme that is predictable and consistent are the fundamentals needed to fix what’s wrong in Sri Lanka. But indeed, that is a tall order.

A Fuel Formula – a formula that may see a price rise if world crude oil prices exceed a certain level; an Electricity Formula – a move that may see a rise in electricity prices – if the IMF’s formula is accepted (it has been pointed out that the CEB’s overdraft is in the region of Rs. 11 billion); and talks on the debt ratio vis-a-vis GDP i.e. the rising foreign debt as a percentage of the country’s income, were on the table.

In the IMF’s jargon, reforms will impose short-term costs but the economy will recover through medium-term gains, meaning lower income groups will face the brunt of this adjustment in the short-term, but benefits will trickle through to them in the medium-term, say beyond 2019 or 2020. By then, this Government will be facing impending elections, (along with the probability of dealing with a severe external debt crisis in 2019, and possible calls for wage increases) and is almost likely to abandon stabilisation measures and propose a ‘populist’ agenda, whatever that means.

The IMF is lending a paltry sum not exceeding $500 million a year totaling $1,500 million over the 2016-2019 period. Sri Lanka’s repayment needs, due to commercial borrowing of the previous Administration, banks and state-owned enterprises, are a minimum of $1,500 million a year annually from 2017 onwards. The IMF facility will only cover part of this repayment and for the balance we are told by the IMF, to borrow at high interest rates through syndicated loans or international bonds.

Resorting to foreign commercial loans or allowing foreign investors to buy in the domestic bond market is, in general, a recipe for future financial crisis. The IMF programme seems badly negotiated by not taking this factor fully into account compared to the previous Rajapaksa regime’s effort in raising $2,600 million from the IMF. That regime, on the other hand, frittered away the $2,600 million in record time leaving the present Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration to pick up the pieces.

IMF measures are probably unavoidable once a crisis strikes. However, the pain imposed on the poor and leaving growth mechanisms to the market inevitably lead to retrogression in policy execution. So the IMF support cycle repeats itself once in few years.

Preventing the crisis from occurring is the key. A widening budget deficit, pressure on the balance of payments, an overheating economy all are clearly tell-tale signs of economic mismanagement. The Government’s inability to recognise such signals emanating from a mal-functioning economy early, and to take prompt corrective actions have led it into the IMF’s arms. However, averting the crisis is only one side of the coin. Realising a diversified export base is the other side as our rate of growth is constrained by the size of the deficit in the balance of payments.

The current and or any future Government will have to find ways to overcome the commercial debt hangover inherited from the exploits of the last Government’s financial wizards. Over the next decade every year from 2017, the Government will face a mini or major crisis: it must fund large roll-over repayments, try to maintain stability while achieving realistic growth rates, if it is to avoid further doses of IMF medicine. A tough task to pull off, for any Government.

How has the current Government faced up to these gigantic tasks? We have a Finance Ministry and a Central Bank at odds touting the theory of twin deficits and flexible exchange rate as mantra. The Prime Minister, who has put forward elaborate plans over the last two years, wants new institutions, complementary laws or committees to solve emerging issues. We have a President fond of setting up reconciliation committees for each minor problem ranging from lottery ticket margins, licence payments on vehicles and recognition of SAITM degrees — and an economic vision rooted in the 1970s.

The scorecard is not encouraging. In this dark scenario, the Joint Opposition is gleefully awaiting its turn in 2020 or earlier to impose its authoritarian ‘home-grown’ economic and political philosophies on the suffering population.

A bleak future awaits Sri Lanka unless the Government rolls up its sleeves and comes up with a coherent strategy and implements it expeditiously. IMF support, if required, will be peripheral to this exercise.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

Mind the Treatment Gap

14 April 2017 - 1:51pm

getty images/ istock photo

By Vani S. Kulkarni and Raghav Gaiha
PHILADELPHIA AND NEW DELHI, Apr 14 2017 (IPS)

Implementation of the Mental Healthcare Act will require a restructuring of health-care services
The Mental Healthcare Bill, 2016, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on March 27, 2017, has been hailed as a momentous reform. According to the Bill, every person will have the right to access mental health care operated or funded by the government; good quality and affordable health care; equality of treatment and protection from inhuman practices; access to legal services; and right to complain against coercion and cruelty. The Bill also empowers a mentally ill person to choose a treatment and her/his nominated representative, decriminalises attempted suicide, prohibits the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to mentally ill adults without the use of muscle relaxants and anaesthesia, and contains provisions for care, treatment and rehabilitation for those who have experienced severe stress and attempted suicide. While these are laudable and ambitious objectives as they address major concerns of mental health care, there have been some critiques drawing attention to the lack of funds, trained personnel, and insufficient emphasis on community care. The ground reality, however, suggests that these objectives are not just overambitious but an overkill.

Poor infrastructure, low funds
The Global Burden of Disease Study shows that in 2013, 50% of all disease burden in India was caused by non-communicable diseases, while mental disorders accounted for about 6% of the total disease burden. A third of this is due to depression, which also significantly contributes to suicide and ischaemic heart disease. Worse, suicide is a leading cause of death in people in India aged 15-29.

Vani S. Kulkarni

There are only 43 government-run mental hospitals across all of India to provide services to more than 70 million people living with mental disorders. There are 0.30 psychiatrists, 0.17 nurses, and 0.05 psychologists per 1,00,000 mentally ill patients in the country. The case of the Bareilly mental hospital — one of three major mental hospitals in Uttar Pradesh — is stunning. In this hospital, 350 patients can be admitted and around 200 patients can attend the out-patient department every day. But all these patients would be at the mercy of only one psychiatrist!

At the macro level, the proposed health expenditure of 1.2% of GDP in the Budget for 2017-18 is among the lowest in the world. In real terms, public health expenditure has consistently declined since 2013-14. Of the total health budget, a mere 1-2% is spent on mental health.

But this is a small part of the explanation of the inadequacy and abysmal quality of mental health services in India. Underlying this deplorable state of affairs is a pervasive perception that those with mental illnesses are pathological or even criminal; hence they do not deserve the type of rehabilitation given to those with physical ailments. Besides, the treatment gap (the difference between those suffering from mental illnesses and those seeking medical/psychiatric care) is widened because of the social stigma attached to such illnesses. In fact, many poor people hide their illnesses and endanger their lives. Others argue that it is not so much stigma but ignorance and lack of knowledge, myths, and supernatural beliefs that impede treatment. Women typically face larger treatment gaps as they are vulnerable to violence, sexual abuse and inhuman treatment.

Raghav Gaiha

Ethnographic evidence from the Human Rights Watch Report 2014 relating to women inpatients is gruesome. Deepali, a woman with a perceived psychosocial disability, said: “The nurse would sometimes forcefully put the pills in my mouth and stroke my throat to send them down, the way I feed my dogs… I woke up one night and I couldn’t move; my body was in intense physical pain. A nurse came and jabbed an injection into my body, without even taking off my clothes. You are treated worse than animals.”

Often, all women and girls were admitted without their consent and, as the team left, they cried out in despair, “send me home” or “take me home”. Unable to cope with mentally ill relatives, families often abandon them in mental hospitals and elsewhere. In one case, a woman who was declared “fit for discharge” in the 1990s was still in the institution as of August 2013 because of lack of alternative resettlement options for her.

Some women were not even informed that ECT was being administered. Psychiatric nurses admitted that ECT was administered not just on violent and suicidal patients but also on new admissions who tend to be unmanageable.

Women and girls with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities in institutions are often subject to not just physical and verbal abuse but also sexual violence. Some women went to a hospital for three months and returned one month pregnant. Not a single FIR was filed.

Government hospitals refuse to admit “mentally ill” persons in the ICU on the grounds that this facility could be put to better use. A woman suffering from breast cancer for two-three years was denied treatment and subsequently died.

Shift to community-based care
An emphatic case could be made for shifting from institutional care to community-based care for people suffering from mental disorders. A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, 2017 offers corroborative evidence from VISHRAM (the Vidharbha Stress and Health Programme), which is a community-based mental health initiative. The reduction in the treatment gap was due to increased supply of mental health services through front-line workers and their collaborative linkage with the physicians and psychiatrists in the facilities, as well as increased demand for mental health services due to improved mental health literacy. The substantial reduction in the median cost of care resulted from availability of general as well as specialist services in the village itself.

Whether legislation such as the Mental Healthcare Bill help overcome supply and demand barriers seems highly unlikely, as the root causes lie in pervasive negative attitudes, massive neglect of mental health care, rampant abuse and unchecked inhuman practices, and weak redressal and enforcement mechanisms. The Bill seeks to address major lacunae in mental health care and is thus an important step forward. However, its implementation will require substantially larger public resources and, more importantly, restructuring of mental healthcare services with a key role for the community in their provision, rapid expansion of mental health literacy, effective monitoring and enforcement of the objectives envisioned in it. With limited awareness of these challenges, and with a slight risk of exaggeration, the Bill is an overkill.

This opinion editorial was first published in The Hindu

Climate Impact on Caribbean Coral Reefs May Be Mitigated If…

14 April 2017 - 10:43am

Cahuita National Park, on Costa Rica's eastern Caribbean coast, is suffering a process of coastal erosion which is shrinking its beaches, while the coral reefs underwater are also feeling the impact of climate change. Credit: Diego Arguedas/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
CAHUITA, Costa Rica, Apr 14 2017 (IPS)

A few dozen metres from the Caribbean beach of Puerto Vargas, where you can barely see the white foam of the waves breaking offshore, is the coral reef that is the central figure of the ocean front of the Cahuita National Park in Costa Rica.

Puerto Vargas is known for the shrinking of its once long beach, as a result of erosion. The coast has lost dozens of metres in a matter of a few years, which has had an effect on tourists and on the nesting of sea turtles that used to come to lay their eggs.

Just as the beaches have been affected, there have been effects under water, in this area of the eastern province of Limón, which runs along the the country’s Caribbean coast from north to south.“We can test which corals are more resistant to the future conditions and that way we can create stronger ecosystems based on survivors that will tolerate the conditions that lie ahead.” -- Dave Vaughan

“The impact of the rise in sea level and changes in temperatures also affect the coral ecosystems,” Patricia Madrigal, Costa Rica’s vice minister of environment, told IPS.

The waters of the Caribbean sea are particularly fertile for corals, but the warming of the waters and acidification due to climate change threaten to wipe out these ecosystems, which serve as environmental and economic drivers for coastal regions.

The most visible effect is the coral bleaching phenomenon, which is a clear symptom that corals are sick. This happens when corals experience stress and expel a photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, that live in their tissues, producing oxygen in a symbiotic relationship. The algae are responsible for the colors of coral reefs, so when they are expelled, the reefs turn white, and the coral is destined to die.
According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2015, there is clear evidence that 80 per cent of coral reefs in the Caribbean have bleached, and 40 per cent died during a critical period in 2005.

This is a recurring phenomenon all over the world. The report projected that 75 per cent of coral reefs in the world would suffer severe bleaching by the middle of this century, if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed.

The coral reefs in the Caribbean make up about seven per cent of the world’s total, but play a key role in the economies of many coastal communities in the region.

The conservation of coral reefs goes beyond defending biodiversity. Coral reefs provide a living to nearly one billion people, offer protection by buffering coastal communities against storms and heavy swells, and bring in billions of dollars a year from tourism and fishing.

Because of this, experts from Costa Rica and the rest of the Caribbean region are calling for a halt to activities that cause global warming, such as the use of fossil fuels, and for research into how to restore coral reefs.

However, Caribbean countries should also think about reducing pollution, said biologist Lenin Corrales, head of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre´s (CATIE) Environmental Modeling Laboratory.

A reef in an underwater mountain area in Coiba National Park, Panama. Credit: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

“How do you maintain the resilience of coral reefs? By not dumping sediments or agrochemicals on them. A sick coral reef is more easily going to suffer other problems,” Corrales told IPS at CATIE´s headquarters.

This argument is well-known in badly managed coastal areas: marine ecosystems suffer because of human activities on land and poor health makes them more vulnerable to other ailments.

In fact, an academic study published in 2012 showed that coral degradation along Panama’s Caribbean coast began before global warming gained momentum in the last few decades. Researchers blame deforestation and overfishing.

In terms of preparing for climate change, this means a step back: it is not possible to protect against future global warming ecosystems that the countries of the region have been undermining for decades.

The sediments as a result of deforestation or poor agricultural practices prevent the growth of corals, while overfishing affects certain species key to controlling algae that infest the reefs.

“Many of the fish that are eaten in the Caribbean are herbivorous and are the ones that control the populations of macroalgae that damage the coral,” said Corrales.

“With the herbivorous fish gone, in addition to the higher temperatures, the algae have a heyday,” said the expert.

A report published in 2014 by several organisations, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), notes that the absence of crucial herbivorous fish such as the parrotfish jeopardises the region’s coral reefs.

How long will these undersea riches last? No one knows for sure. All scenarios project severe impacts in the following decades, after many reefs suffered critical damage from the 2015 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather phenomenon.

That is why experts such as Corrales warn that far from expecting an increase of one to two degrees Celsius as some scenarios project, fast changes in temperature should be considered, such as those associated with El Niño.

“People think that biodiversity is not going to die until the climate changes; but really biodiversity, and in this case coral reefs, are already suffering from thermal stress,” said the biologist.

When a coral reef spends 12 weeks with temperatures one degree higher than usual, it can suffer irreversible processes, he pointed out.
As the average sea level rises, it is more likely for the threshold to be reached, but even before that point it is also dangerous for coral. Stopping global warming does not guarantee a future for coral reefs, but it does give them better opportunities.

A possible way forward is being developed by the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key, in the U.S. state of Florida, where researchers are growing corals in controlled environments to later reintroduce them in the ocean, as is done with seedlings from a greenhouse in reforestation efforts.

“We can test which corals are more resistant to the future conditions and that way we can create stronger ecosystems based on survivors that will tolerate the conditions that lie ahead,” Dave Vaughan, the head of the lab, told IPS in an interview by phone.

The team headed by Vaughan reintroduced 20,000 small corals to degraded areas of the reefs, in a process that will accelerate the recovery of these ecosystems.

In 2015, the lab received an investment of 5.1 million dollars to make Vaughan´s ambition possible: reintroducing one million coral fragments in the next five to ten years.

However, Vaughan himself admits that this is a mitigation measure to buy time. The real task to fight against climate change is reducing the emissions that cause the greenhouse effect.

“Coral restoration may gain us 10, 50 or 100 years, but if the temperature in the oceans keeps rising, there will not be much hope,” he said.

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ACP: One Billion People to Speak To Europe with One Voice

14 April 2017 - 10:07am

Map of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) member states. Author: Cflm001. Public Domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Apr 14 2017 (IPS)

Seventy-nine countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, which are home to around one billon people, will speak with one voice as they prepare to negotiate a major partnership agreement with the European Union (500 million inhabitants) in May.

The decision, announced by the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) informs that the group will negotiate as a single bloc with the European Union (EU) the new accord expected to come out of the ACP-EU ministerial meeting, scheduled for 4-5 May 2017 in Brussels.

The new accord will follow on the current ACP-EU Partnership Agreement (also known as the Cotonou Agreement), which covers trade, development cooperation and political dialogue between the two parties until 2020.“The ultimate aim is to facilitate poverty eradication, sustainable development and improve the livelihoods of the one billion people that live in our countries,” ACP secretary general Dr. Patrick I. Gomes.

The Cotonou Agreement 2000 was signed in Cotonou, Benin on 23 June 2000 and was revised both on 2005 and 2010. In it, both blocs of countries affirmed their commitment to work together towards the achievement of the objectives of poverty eradication, sustainable development and the gradual integration of the ACP countries into the world economy.

They also asserted their resolve to make, through their cooperation, a significant contribution to the economic, social and cultural development of the ACP states and to the greater well-being of their population, helping them facing the challenges of globalisation and strengthening the ACP-EU Partnership in the effort to give the process of globalisation a stronger social dimension;

The two bloc reaffirmed their willingness to revitalise their special relationship and to implement a comprehensive and integrated approach for a strengthened partnership based on political dialogue, development cooperation and economic and trade relations.

Regarding the expected new agreement, representatives from the ACP and the EU have already agreed on several major issues to discuss at the upcoming joint ministerial council meetings.

There is “a clear common interest in aligning future ACP-EU cooperation to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals,” the Brussels-based ACP secretariat added.

Improving the Livelihoods of One Billion People

Dr. Patrick I. Gomes. Credit: ACP

“These basic principles highlight the importance the ACP Group places on negotiating [with the EU] as a unified entity, aiming for a mature political partnership based on mutual respect,” stated ACP secretary general Dr. Patrick I. Gomes of Guyana.

“The ultimate aim is to facilitate poverty eradication, sustainable development and improve the livelihoods of the one billion people that live in our countries, added Gomes, who was elected for this key post in December 2014, had served as Guyana’s Ambassador to Belgium and the European Community and as Guyana’s representative to the World Trade Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

South Sudan, the youngest world nation, is expected to join the ACP group, raising to 80 the number of its member countries.

Climate Change, Migration, Private Sector, Finance and Economy

According to the ACP, the key issues on the agenda of the ACP-EU Joint Council of Ministers are:
— The implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals remains a top priority, and both ACP and EU sides agree that cooperation between the two parties should align with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals.
— Climate change is also high on the agenda, being a concrete area where ACP and EU collaboration has enabled the global community to forge an international coalition, and paved the way for achieving the historic Paris Agreement. Continued cooperation is envisaged, including the development of effective programs and actions under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF).
— The future relations between ACP and EU countries is a fundamental issue in the lead up to negotiations for a renewed partnership agreement to follow the current ACP-EU framework, which expires in 2020. The ACP Group intends to negotiate as a unified entity, supporting a legally binding agreement with a dedicated development finance mechanism.
— Discussions on migration will look at the progress of the Valetta Action Plan as well as the EU Trust Fund for Africa, with the primary goal of assisting African countries to help stem migratory flows to Europe.
On this, the ACP has highlighted synergies with the ACP-EU Dialogue on Migration, while also underlining trends in the Caribbean and Pacific regions, particularly in relation to human trafficking, smuggling of migrants, and high cost of remittances.
— Both the EU and ACP recognise the importance of private sector development. Ministers will consider the progress made under the Joint ACP-EU Cooperation Framework for Private Sector Development Support.
— As far as development finance cooperation, talks will focus on aspects related to implementing the SDGs, the status of the European Development Funds and the implementation of the ACP Investment Facility.
— Finally, economic issues such as trade cooperation (including the state of play of the ACP-EU regional Economic Partnership Agreements – EPAS), the European External Investment Plan and perspectives of the Investment Facility, round up the main part of the agenda.

Credit: ACP

A set of several basic points have been outlined to guide member states in preparing for negotiations to reshape relations with the EU after 2020:

1) The ACP Group of States is committed to remain united as an inter-governmental organisation;
2) As a unified trans-regional entity, the ACP Group will negotiate a successor agreement to the ACP-EU Cotonou Partnership Agreement;
3) Formally structured relations with regional and continental groupings of developing countries will be an important aspect of the negotiations;
4) Principles and mechanisms for inclusive policy formulation, decision-making and programme implementation with Non-State Actors will be given serious consideration during the negotiations;
5) The substantive thematic areas and pillars of an ACP-EU post-Cotonou Agreement are (i) Trade, Investment, Industrialisation and Services; (ii) Development Cooperation, Technology, Science and Innovation/Research; and (iii) Political dialogue and Advocacy;
6) An ACP-EU post-Cotonou Agreement should maintain the core geographic and geopolitical character of the ACP Group structured in six regions of Central, East, Southern and West Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific, while being open to different types of association with other developing countries;
7) The negotiation process is envisaged as leading to a legally binding agreement;
8) A dedicated development finance mechanism is to be included within a negotiation framework for an ACP-EU post-Cotonou Agreement.

In addition, the ACP Group informed that it will also advocate for “preferential trading agreements” that are development-oriented, as well as structural support for debt management, trade facilitation and innovative development financing, especially for members with Middle Income status.

The ACP Group´s main objectives are: sustainable development of its member-States and their gradual integration into the global economy, which entails making poverty reduction a matter of priority and establishing a new, fairer, and more equitable world order, and the coordination of the activities of the ACP Group in the framework of the implementation of ACP-EC Partnership Agreements.

Other key objectives are the consolidation of unity and solidarity among ACP States, as well as understanding among their peoples, and the establishment and consolidation of peace and stability in a free and democratic society.

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Caribbean Pursues Green Growth Despite Uncertain Times

14 April 2017 - 9:24am

A wind farm in Curacao. In late 2015, Caribbean countries joined a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels and shift to renewable energies such as wind and solar power. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Apr 14 2017 (IPS)

Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours are continuing to press ahead with their climate change agenda and push the concept of renewable energy despite the new position taken by the United States.

This was made clear by the Minister of the Environment and Drainage in Barbados, Dr. Denis Lowe, against the background of the position taken by U.S. President Donald Trump that climate change is a “hoax”, and his subsequent push for the revitalisation of the coal industry, and the issuance of an Executive Order to restart the Dakota Access Pipeline.“We stand ready to do what needs to be done." --Dr. Denis Lowe

“The moment has come. The President of the United States of America has determined that climate change is really a hoax, and that any notion about climate change science is based on false belief, and that there is no clear justification that this phenomenon called climate change exists,” Lowe said.

However, the Environment Minister pointed out that while Trump was “decrying” the legitimacy of climate change, 2016 was already being labelled as the warmest ocean temperature year.

“The impact of that accelerated warmth of the earth, according to American environmentalists, is the Michigan coastline, Lake Michigan. Evidence has been produced to show that the impact of climate change has affected that whole seaboard area, including the erosion of beaches along the Illinois Coast. This is a fact as reported,” he said.

Dr. Lowe cautioned that the new US position spelled “bad news” for the Caribbean.

He warned that the new position could see a significant reduction in funding from the United States to the United Nations system, which was the primary driver of the climate change fight.

“Institutions like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund will be impacted. The Adaptation Fund will be affected, and all of the other activities driven by US-donated funding will be impacted,” he pointed out.

But Lowe stressed that the region could not allow itself to be “hemmed in” by what might or might not occur relating to international funding.

He gave the assurance that his Ministry and Government would continue “to plough” ahead and look for unique ways to fund the island’s coastal rehabilitation and green energy programmes.

“We stand ready to do what needs to be done. Our Ministry continues to work with our stakeholders to look for ways to continue to press ahead with our climate change agenda,” Lowe said.

“We ask Barbadians from all walks of life to assist us in adopting and practising habits that would reduce the impacts of climate change on us as it relates to our water supply, our conservation effort, and our preservation efforts in terms of our spaces around the island that would be of importance,” he added.

Meanwhile, New York-based syndicated columnist Rebecca Theodore, who has written extensively on climate change and renewable energy in the Caribbean, said while President Trump seeks for a revitalisation of the coal industry in the United States, this will need more than government policy in Washington to be implemented.

“First, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are much more price-viable than coal. The demand for jobs in renewable energy is going up while for coal it’s rapidly going down,” Theodore told IPS.

“Secondly, the moral arguments and market forces in which the production of coal as an energy source are interlaced cannot be ignored. Carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants are the leading cause of death in many places and continue to be a hazard to public health.

“Thirdly, if the Clean Power Plan is to achieve its aims of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, then there must be a reduction in coal consumption,” Theodore added.

She also noted that carbon pollution from power plants is one of the major causes of climate change.

“It follows that if the United States must continue the fight in the global efforts to address climate change then the goal must be centered on cheap natural gas and the installation of renewable energy plants, Theodore told IPS.

“There must be options for investment in renewable energy, natural gas and shifting away from   coal-fired power.”

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) said a significant portion of the 13 billion dollars it will be lending this year has been earmarked for agriculture, climate change and renewable energy projects.

IDB Executive Director Jerry Butler noted that the issue of renewable energy has been a constant focus for the institution.

“We are going to lend 13 billion dollars and of that amount we’ve carved out 30 percent of it for climate change, agriculture and renewable energy. In fact, 20 percent of that 13 billion in the Americas will be devoted to climate change and renewable energy,” Butler said.

“I think we are putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to us as a partner with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and us as a partner with the other entities that work with us.”

Highlighting the IDB’s commitment to the region, Butler noted that even though the Eastern Caribbean States are not members of the bank, through its lending to the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), countries in the sub-region have not been left out.

“For example, the more than 80 million dollars that’s devoted to geothermal exploration, Grenada will be the first beneficiary in the Eastern Caribbean,” he said.

“And our focus on the Caribbean is not stopping – whether it be smart financing programmes in Barbados, whether it be programmes associated with renewable energy and energy efficiency in Jamaica, or whether it be programmes in Guyana off-grid or on-grid – we try to do everything that we can to bring resources, technology, intelligence and at the same time best practices to everything that we do when it comes to the topic of renewable energy.”

Butler said the IDB believes that the sustainability, the competitiveness and the job-creation potential of the Caribbean can be unlocked “if there is a considered focus on weaning ourselves off the dependence on foreign fuels for generation” and focusing on “producing its own indigenous type of energy”.

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A Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons Is in the Making

14 April 2017 - 9:19am

Image by The Official Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Photostream – flickr.com

By Sergio Duarte
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 14 2017 (IPS)

The nine possessors of nuclear weapons and most of their allies chose to ignore the negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.

This unprecedented initiative resulted from a proposal by South Africa, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico and Nigeria and was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2016 by an overwhelming majority.

The first Session, from 27 to 31 March, ended on an optimistic tone. There was wide convergence of views on the core prohibitions relating to stockpiling, use, deployment, acquisition, development and production of nuclear weapons.

Sergio Duarte

Other questions such as verification of compliance, clauses for accession by nuclear-armed and other States, timelines for elimination of stockpiles and the relationship of the new instrument with existing treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), among others, will be further discussed during the second Session, from June 15 to July 7, when the President of the Conference will introduce her draft. The future instrument may soon be opened to the signature of States.

It is clear that these negotiations will not bring about a sudden shift in the mindsets of the nine governments that threaten the rest of the world with the willingness to use the most cruel, indiscriminate and destructive weapon ever invented.

It is undeniable, however, that even at this early stage public opinion in many countries have begun to pay attention to the potential impact of a prohibition treaty through press articles and analyses in specialized publications.

The mantra “a world free of nuclear weapons” has become the stated and uncontroverted objective of the community of nations.

Opponents of a ban argue that such an agreement would impede or at least render more difficult efforts for reductions of atomic arsenals under the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and that a treaty to which the current nuclear powers choose not to adhere would not bring about any tangible results in reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons.

They consider that negotiating a prohibition is “premature” and even counterproductive as it risks unraveling the disarmament architecture put together over the past decades.

Supporters, for their part, contend that a ban treaty would establish a clear legal standard rejecting nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds and would enable States to formalize such a rejection besides enhancing the stigma against those weapons.

They add that it would reaffirm their unacceptability and incompatibility with universally recognized principles of international law and would re-state and strengthen commitments assumed under other treaties. It would enhance, not detract from such commitments.

They hope that it will set into motion a trend toward further specific agreements on nuclear disarmament.

In fact, one of the major challenges for the universality and full effectiveness of a ban treaty is precisely how to design a mechanism that will ensure the possibility, in a second stage, of adherence of States currently under the “umbrella” of nuclear-armed powers and ultimately the adherence of the latter themselves.

Before we can hail a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons as a worthwhile accomplishment or dismiss it as futile, the two sets of arguments must be checked against the results that the treaty may bring about in the short, medium and long run.

If the ban proves at least to be a positive ingredient to infuse life and energy into the moribund multilateral disarmament machinery or to create viable alternative, but not conflicting paths we may consider it useful and justifiable. If not, it will simply fall into oblivion or at best remain as a monument to human fallibility.

The push for negotiations on a nuclear arms ban treaty grew out of years of mounting frustration over the lack of progress in efforts under the NPT regime.

Whether or not parties to that instrument, possessors of nuclear weapons have displayed little or no inclination to fulfill the commitment enshrined in its Article VI, which requires all its Parties “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”.

Possessors are currently engaged in a new round of the nuclear arms race as they seek to enhance the destructive power, accuracy and range of their weapons. As a result, confidence in their real motives and intentions waned in recent years.

In the recent past, a new and powerful force helped to propel forward the drive to finalize a treaty banning nuclear weapons and brought this matter to the forefront of the preoccupations of a large majority of States.

The collective conscience of humankind has increasingly taken to heart the unanimous concern expressed at the 2010 Review Conference of Parties to the NPT over the catastrophic consequences of nuclear detonations as well as the conclusions of three international Conferences held in 2013 and 2014 on such consequences.

In 2015 a large majority of States supported the humanitarian pledge to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear armament. Civil society organizations contributed studies and discussion forums that helped shape specific, realistic proposals.

The thrust of the movement to ban nuclear weapons is not directed against any State in particular, but against the inhuman nature of nuclear weapons themselves and their disastrous effects on populations and the environment.

The movement does not advocate unilateral disarmament but rather good faith compliance with treaty commitments and with imperatives dictated by humanitarian international law and the universal principles of civilized behavior.

Accordingly, it does not discriminate against “good” or “bad” possessors, whether these are States or non-State actors. No country should be allowed to possess the means to annihilate whole populations and render the planet uninhabitable under the pretense that this would somehow protect their own security.

In his vote in the legal suit brought last year before the International Court of Justice by the Marshall Islands against the nine countries possessing nuclear weapons Judge Cançado Trindade stated: “A world with arsenals of nuclear weapons, like ours, is bound to destroy its past, dangerously threatens the present, and has no future at all. Nuclear weapons pave the way into nothingness”.

It is time for mankind as a whole to act decisively in defense of its own survival.

This article originally appeared Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 April 2017: TMS: A Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons Is in the Making.

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Survivors of Sex Abuse Say UN Neglected Them

14 April 2017 - 8:39am

Shocking new revelations about what happened to children sexually abused in the Central African Republic by peacekeepers were revealed in a Code Blue Campaign press conference April 12. Credit: SVT

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 14 2017 (IPS)

Several survivors who were sexually abused by peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) continue to be neglected by the UN, an investigative team has found.

Three years after cases of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeeping forces in CAR became public, a Swedish film team located a number of survivors who have said that the UN’s children agency (UNICEF) promised support never arrived.

“The exposure isn’t that these atrocities were committed against the kids, but that they were then promised support and just vanished,” Co-Director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign Paula Donovan told IPS.

The organization first documented the cases of sexual abuse by French peacekeeping troops in 2015, causing public outrage. Children between the ages of 8 and 15, who were living in a refugee camp at the time, reported that they were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food and other goods. Fourteen French soldiers reportedly were suspected of being involved.

After speaking to UNICEF representative in CAR who said that the children are cared for and followed up with, investigative reporter Karin Mattisson and her team spoke to children who said otherwise. One such survivor is Martha who became pregnant and contracted HIV by a peacekeeping soldier when she was 14-years-old.

“Initially, UNICEF said that they would make sure that the soldier was imprisoned and take care of the mother and baby to help us. But then, nothing, no one came to visit. It was left to us to take care of the child,” her friend said. Martha said that all they received was a “present” of money equivalent to US$15, a bag of rice, milk and sugar. Meanwhile, the peacekeeper was sent home and it is uncertain if any punitive action was taken.

Two boys, who were also sexually abused and provided testimony to the UN’s initial investigation, similarly claimed that they did not receive any help. “We are trying to get it together on our own. We pick up water for people, we wash cars—that is how we have lived since then.”

In response to the allegations, UNICEF spokesperson Najwa Mekki told IPS that the agency has provided assistance to children whose cases they are aware of and that they have scaled up their reporting procedures, victim assistance, and staff capacity since 2015.

“We are following up on the children identified in the Swedish TV programme, providing assistance when appropriate, and will continue to give the necessary support to any victim of sexual exploitation and abuse who comes forward or is brought to our attention,” she told IPS.

Former Under-Secretary General and High Representative of the UN Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, who is also involved in the Code Blue Campaign, noted that UN bureaucracy often stands in the way of action by preventing clear and concise information on such cases to travel up the chain of command.

“Finally when it reaches the Secretary General, [information] is already absolutely diluted,” he told IPS. And without complete evidence, any investigation becomes a “sham inquiry,” Chowdhury added.

Despite steps taken by the UN to address the scandal in 2015, including the creation of a review panel which characterized the UN’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse as a “gross institutional failure,” little to no punitive action has been taken.

Most recently in January, a French investigation into the cases closed without anyone being charged. Senior UN officials accused of abuse of authority for suppressing information rather than reporting cases have also remained largely untouched, Donovan said, adding that the initial “gross institutional failure” has only continued.

“Justice is being delayed and it is being denied,” Chowdhury told IPS.

Donovan also pointed to the problematic use of “UN insiders” in addressing the issue due to concerns of their own legacy and reputation.

“The people who are part of the problem have been tasked with the solution…they don’t want to come forward and say ‘here’s what is so broken and so awful about the UN and I’ve decided to fix it’ because they presided over all of it,” she told IPS.

Early this year, Secretary-General António Guterres announced the creation of a task force to investigate UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse. Among those in the task force is former Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jane Holl Lute and Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ Military Adviser Lieutenant General Carlos Humberto Loitey.

Chowdhury said that no task force will help.

“If it is with UN insiders…they will not do anything to put their own into this abuse,” he told IPS.

Both Donovan and Chowdhury called for a special courts mechanism to deal with sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping forces. Chowdhury also highlighted the need for a independent unit to conduct inquiries and report cases which may help bring about more punitive action against perpetrators whose actions are often shielded by their colleagues.

“The UN needs to save itself from itself,” Donovan told IPS.

Havoc in Haor

14 April 2017 - 1:52am

Farmers taking away half-ripe Boro paddy in a boat on Tuesday after a flash flood inundated a field in Habiganj's Baniachong upazila. The only thing they can do now with the paddy is use it as fodder. Early flash floods have destroyed crops in over one lakh hectares of land in the country's northeastern haor areas. Photo: Mintu Deshwara

By Pinaki Roy, Dwoha Chowdhury and Mintu Deshwara
Apr 14 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Farmers in the northeastern backswamp are all too familiar with flash floods. Rice paddies grown just once a year in this vast haor remain at the mercy of nature.

But thousands of growers in this wetland ecosystem had never experienced flash floods striking this early as in this season, completely destroying paddies in over one lakh hectares of land.

Experts said flash floods usually wreak havoc here in the haors in April but this time crops went under water on March 27. They attributed the phenomenon to climate change.

The flash floods submerged the wetland of Sylhet, Sunamganj, Habiganj, Netrokona, Kishoreganj, Brahmanbaria and Moulvibazar.

Losing the only crop of the year, many farmers in Sunamganj, Kishoreganj, Netrakona, Habiganj and in some other northeastern districts are now selling their cattle and other valuables while many others are leaving their homes for nearby towns to find manual work.

Rashid Ali from Damodar Api village in Dakshin Sunamganj usually sells around eight tons of rice grown in over 10 acres of land. But this year he could not harvest even a kilogram.

A farmer trying to sort out the remains of his submerged Boro crops to use them as fodder at a village in South Sunamganj. Photo: Mintu Deshwara/ Sheikh Nasir


“I had seven cows. But I have already sold four of them to repay loans that I took to cultivate rice. I am not sure how would I run my family now,” he told The Daily Star.

Farmers from other haor regions also started selling their cattle to tide over the crisis.

Mohammad Mainuddin, 50, member of Sizadpur union in Habiganj’s Baniachong upazila, said he had never seen such early flash floods in that region.

“This is the worst situation we can remember. Many people in our village harvest 20 tons of Boro rice every year. But this time they would not harvest even a handful of rice,” he said.

Mainuddin explains, the farmers mostly cultivate two kinds of Boro crop that they were supposed to harvest in the last week of Chaitra and the first week of Baishakh (second and third week of April). But this year the flash flood hit 15 to 20 days early destroying all the mature paddies in the field.

Another farmer holding some crops after cutting them from an inundated field in Habiganj’s Baniachong upazila. Photo: Mintu Deshwara/ Sheikh Nasir

EARLY FLASH FLOOD

Prof AKM Sailful Islam of the Institute of Water and Flood Management at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) said when the water level of the Surma river at Sunamganj station of Bangladesh Water Development Board (WDB) crosses the 6.5 metre-mark during March-April, they consider it as the beginning of flash flood.

He said all the other flash floods since 2000 hit the Haor areas in mid April and by then the farmers were able to harvest a major portion of the Boro crops.

“Last year, the flash flood hit on April 17, but this year the flash flood came on March 27,” Prof Saiful said.

He attributed change in season from climate change to this early flash flood. The intensity and frequency of extreme weather has been changing also due to climate change, he said.

“We were not prepared for the situation as well. There are news reports many of the embankments in the haor area were either not repaired or remained damaged.

“So we were not prepared for it,” the professor said.

Again, the department of meteorology or Flood Forecasting Warning System doesn’t have any special warning system for flash flood.

Samarendra Karmakar, a meteorologists and an ex-director of Bangladesh met office, also pointed to climate variability for this year’s early flash flood.

“This year flash flood took place earlier than usual. But nobody can exactly say why this climate variability happens.”

This year easterly low pressure was active and sub tropical high in the Bay of Bengal was weak that caused rainfall in the Himalayan region in India, he said as a possible explanation.

HOW MUCH CROPS DESTROYED

Zahidul Haque, deputy director at the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) in Sunamganj, said farmers in the haor area of the district cultivated Boro crops in some 1.6 lakh hectares in the district. Of them, around 1.13 lakh hectares have been submerged while crops in about one lakh hectare have been completely destroyed.

“Our estimation says farmers would face a loss of Tk 1 lakh for per hectare of land,” he said.

The department is yet to estimate the total amount of financial loss in the area, said Manzurul Hannan, director general of DAE. He said farmers cultivated Boro rice in 4.5 lakh hectares of haor this year and an estimated 1.41 lakh hectares went under water.

However, data collected by our correspondents from the district agricultural offices shows around 2.5 lakh hectares of land was submerged in the flash floods.

Asked, he expressed his hope that the government, despite this havoc, would be able to reach its target of Boro harvest this year due to a good yield in other places of the country.

Boro contributes 55 percent to the annual rice output and was cultivated in 48 lakh hectares of land. Last year, total 1 crore and 89 lakh tonnes of Boro rice was produced in the country.

[Our Mymensingh correspondent contributed to this report]

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Climate Funds for World’s Poorest Slow to Materialise

14 April 2017 - 12:44am
Climate change is making poor countries poorer, yet funding meant to address its economic consequences has been slow to materialise. Instead funding bodies are choosing to invest in green energy projects in middle-income countries. The trend continued last week when the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a new multilateral financing body set up to fund climate change […]

Financing Key to Reaching Everyone, Everywhere with Water & Sanitation

13 April 2017 - 1:30pm

Credit: UN Photo

By John Garrett
LONDON, Apr 13 2017 (IPS)

Eighteen months ago, UN member-states pledged a new set of goals on eradicating extreme poverty and creating a fairer, more sustainable planet by 2030. This week, we have alarming evidence that at least one of those goals – Sustainable Development Goal 6, to reach everyone everywhere with access to water and sanitation – is already in peril.

The UN Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) report produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed a huge gap in financing with over 80% of developing countries reporting that they have insufficient resources to meet their national targets.

Globally, the World Bank estimates that as much as £114 billion is required annually, around three times current levels – to meet the UN Global Goals’ ambitions to reach everyone, everywhere with safely-managed water and sanitation.

Some 663 million people in the world are without an ‘improved’ source of water and millions more are drinking water which may be contaminated after collection; nearly 2.4 billion people in the world are without access to decent sanitation, and the resulting health crises kill 315,000 young children each year.

Soberingly, new aid commitments from donors for water and sanitation have fallen by 21% since 2012, from US$ 10.4 billion to US$ 8.2 billion in 2015. Also of major concern is the continuing ineffective targeting of aid. GLAAS reported one country in Europe – Ukraine — received the equivalent of more than half of the aid commitment for water and sanitation to all of Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015.

Closing this financial gap will require increased levels of domestic and international finance for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), from both public and private sources.

However, given the scale of the financial challenge, there remains a strong need for international aid.

This is all the more important given the additional challenges faced by many developing countries from growing populations, rapid urbanisation, water scarcity and climate change.

Among other findings in this regular report card on water and sanitation financing:
• Sub-Saharan Africa is home to half of the world’s people living without access to clean water, yet they received only US$1.7 billion, or 20% of all water and sanitation aid, in 2015. This is down from 38% in 2012.
• Some 85% of the global population without access to improved sanitation or drinking-water from an improved source live in three regions: Central and Southern Asia, East and South-eastern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, aid commitments to these three regions were only 48% of global overseas development aid for water and sanitation in 2015.
• Non-governmental projects and funding are greater than government spending on water and sanitation in many countries, demonstrating the critical need for continued international aid, as well as efforts to create greater domestic revenues and stronger government systems.
• Sanitation spending is still half that of spending on water, despite there being 2.4 billion people – or one in three of the world’s population – without access.

These are alarming trends. Water, sanitation and hygiene programmes are critical for good health, education and improved livelihoods, providing an essential building block for the eradication of poverty. For every £1 invested, an estimated £4 is returned through improved health and productivity.

Yet we see by the GLAAS report’s findings that the majority of developing countries do not have enough money to achieve their targets on water and sanitation access and that aid commitments are actually falling.

WaterAid has called for overseas development aid to water, sanitation and hygiene to at least double from current levels by 2020, with an emphasis on grant financing, and for it to be targeted to areas of greatest need.

We want to see the volume of development aid spent on water, sanitation and hygiene increased. But just as importantly, we want to see it spent well.

An essential component of aid is ensuring countries have support to plan for water and sanitation services today and in the long-term, with appropriate financing for maintenance and staff training. Without these changes, many countries will be seriously off track on SDG 6 even at this early stage.

The GLAAS report has been released ahead of the World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington D.C.

On 19-20 April, as part of the Spring Meetings, the Sanitation and Water for All partnership of more than 150 organisations will gather senior finance and water and sanitation ministers from around the world in high-level meetings, to monitor progress on delivering water and sanitation in their countries and call for further commitments.

The SWA partnership holds members accountable to delivering on four ‘collaborative behaviours’ required to successfully reach even a country’s poorest with sustainable access to water and sanitation: building sustainable financing strategies, strengthening country systems, enhancing government leadership, and using a common information and mutual accountability platform.

As a founding member of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, WaterAid is calling on ministers from both developing and donor nations to join the High-Level Meeting and deliver on their promises to reach everyone, everywhere with clean water and sanitation by 2030.

Progress is possible: in 2000, around 18% of the world’s population, or one billion people, had no access to even a basic, improved source of water. By 2015, this number had fallen to below 10%, or 663 million.

But those still without access are often hardest to reach – marginalised by poverty, remote or rural locations, age, gender, ethnicity or ability. Going the last mile on water, and extending this progress to sanitation, requires high-level commitment, and the will to turn commitment into action.

G77 Calls for Access & Benefit-Sharing of Marine Genetic Resources

13 April 2017 - 1:00pm

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 13 2017 (IPS)

The Group of 77 has strongly underlined the significance of marine genetic resources (MGRs) to the economies of developing nations.

Speaking on behalf of the Group of 77, joined by China, Luis Ona Garces of the Ecuadorean Mission to the UN told a meeting of the Preparatory Committee that the Group reaffirms the importance of access and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources and reiterates that the principle of common heritage of mankind must underpin the new regime governing MGRs of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

“Given its crosscutting nature, the principle should be at the core of the new instrument,” he added

The common heritage of mankind provides the legal foundation for a fair and equitable regime of conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Over the course of the past sessions, he said, the Group has continued to emphasize that marine biodiversity represents a potential, in terms of economic prosperity, and a challenge, in terms of conservation and global food security, for humanity as a whole.

“However, the ability and capacity of countries to benefit from the potential, and to address such challenges, is not equal, creating a situation in which some access, exploit and benefit from these resources without the concomitant obligation to share the benefits. It is important to work in a provision that define access and benefit sharing obligations and overall compliance,” he added.

“We are of the view that the benefits should be both monetary and nonmonetary. The non-monetary benefits should comprise of access to all forms of resources, data and related knowledge, transfer of technology and capacity building as well as facilitation of marine scientific research on MGRs of areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

The Group, he pointed out, “was also open to discuss the different modalities of monetary benefits on the basis– but would not be limited– to those mentioned in our written submission, which would make their sharing of benefit most effective and responsive to the protection and preservation of marine environment, and the needs and interests regarding marine scientific research as well as the development opportunities of the developing countries, including future generations.”

In this sense, a clearinghouse mechanism could be established and a protocol or code of conduct or guidelines could be developed within the said mechanism in order to ensure environmental protection compliance and ensure transparency in the use of marine genetic resources of areas beyond national jurisdiction, he declared.

Reflections on World Health Day

13 April 2017 - 12:04pm

The tension between monopoly for patent holders (usually the big drug companies) and access to medicines for all has become acute and there are social movements around the world, both in developing and developed countries, that are fighting for patient’s rights and against excessive monopolies by companies. Credit: Bigstock

By Martin Khor
PENANG, Apr 13 2017 (IPS)

What’s the most precious thing in the world which unfortunately we take for granted and realise it true value when it is impaired? Good health, of course.

That’s something many people must have reminded themselves as they celebrated World Health Day on 7 April.

Attaining good health and well-being may be a top priority goal, but achieving it is elusive for almost everyone, and next to impossible for the poor.

In the 1980s, the World Health Organisation’s Director-General Halfdan Mahler steered through a declaration with the popular slogan ‘Health for All by the year 2000’.

We crossed into the 21st century without realising that noble goal. Although health has improved in most countries, due mainly to cleaner water and sanitation, but also due to better treatment, much remains to be done.

In recent years, the slogan ‘Health for All’ has been strengthened by the recognition in the United Nations of health as a human right.  It has been further boosted by the adoption of the principle of universal healthcare.

This means that no one should be deprived of health care even they are too poor to afford it.  Unfortunately, while the prices of old medicines whose patents have expired have gone down, there are many newer medicines which are too expensive for the ordinary person to afford.

That’s because a company that owns the patent has a monopoly over the production and sale of the medicine. Since there are no competitors, the price can be skyrocketed to high or to even astronomical levels.  The patent normally lasts 20 years.

Martin Khor

For example, the prices of medicines for HIV-AIDS had been at the level of US$15,000 per person per year in the United States.  For most AIDS patients in Africa and other developing countries this meant they could just not afford them.

Since those medicines were not yet patented in India, because India had until 2005 to implement the TRIPs Agreement of the World Trade Organisation, an Indian drug company CIPLA, was able to sell and distribute a three-in-one combination drug for about US$300 per person per year. Later, the price levels of the generic producers fell further to about US$60.

Millions of lives around the world were saved by competitor generic companies which could sell the medicines at a more affordable price. Health agencies like the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria were set up to and took advantage of the falling prices to make AIDS medicines available to poor countries.

In recent years a similar storm has been brewing over the prices of new drugs for Hepatitis C, a life-threatening disease which millions around the world suffer from. One of the drugs, Sofosbuvir, which has an efficacy rate of 95% and with fewer side effects, but is being sold in the US for about US$85,000.

Some generic companies in India have been allowed by the patent-holding company to produce it and sell at their own price level, which is currently around US$200-400 per patient for a course of treatment. They sell these drugs in India and in lower income countries at these much cheaper prices.

But they are not allowed by the patent holder to sell in most middle income countries, so almost two million people in developing countries cannot have the medicine at the affordable price.

What can be done?

Whist the TRIPs Agreement mandates that patents have to be granted for genuine inventions, countries are also allowed to issue a compulsory licence or a government use licence to import or manufacture generic versions of the patented drug, if the original medicine is found to be too expensive.  Thus those countries taking this action can access affordable generic drugs.

The patent owner will receive a remuneration (usually a percentage of sales revenue) from the generic company or the government that is selling the generic product.

Countries can also carefully examine a company’s application for patents and reject those that are not genuine inventions, for example if a new patent is applied for a product with just trivial new features, including a different dosage or the use of the same drug for another disease.

The prices of medicines for HIV-AIDS had been at the level of US$15,000 per person per year in the United States. For most AIDS patients in Africa and other developing countries this meant they could just not afford them
In reality, there are many new medicines already in existence or coming on stream that are patented and therefore out of reach of most patients. This tension between monopoly for patent holders (usually the big drug companies) and access to medicines for all has become acute and there are social movements around the world, both in developing and developed countries, that are fighting for patient’s rights and against excessive monopolies by companies.

Another interesting recent development is the recognition that too much sugar consumed can lead to and has led to an epidemic of many ailments, such as obesity, heart problems, diabetes. The authorities in more and more countries are taking action to limit the sugar content for example of soft drinks. The WHO has guidelines on sugar consumption and on how to avoid excessive sugar in many foods, especially those taken by children.

For world health day, consumers should resolve to cut down on sugar in their drinks and food.

An emerging threat that endangers human life is the resistance of bacteria and other pathogens to antibiotics and other antimicrobials.

Many antibiotics can no longer work on an increasing number of patients in a wide range of ailments, including TB, malaria, gonorrhoea and stomach ailments. Diseases that were once easily cured are now developing resistance, meaning the drugs don’t work anymore.

We have stark warnings from top public health offices like the WHO Director General Margaret Chan and the United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Office Dame Sally Davies, that we are approaching a post antibiotic era. In the future, even a simple scratch on a child’s knee or infection during surgery could lead to death, according to these officials.

Last September, political leaders meeting at the UN General Assembly pledged to take serious action to deal with antibiotic resistance. A coordinating group from UN agencies and selected individuals has been formed to review the situation and to recommend further action.

Finally, the World Health Assembly May this year will be electing a new Director General for the WHO. There are three candidates from Pakistan, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom. May the successful candidate do a superb job in addressing all the ailments, diseases and problems in world health.

 

 

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Less sure

13 April 2017 - 11:31am

By Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi
Apr 13 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

“I’m 53 years old. The older I get the less sure I am about things I was sure about when I was 25 years old. I believed stocks for the long run was an unquestioned truth. I believed our economy was based on free market capitalism. I believed stock prices were based upon profits and cash flows. I believed a home was a place to live — not an investment. I believed the Catholic Church was run by good men doing good things. I believed journalists and the media were watchdogs working on behalf of the public. I believed our military was protecting our interests. I believed politicians legislated on behalf of the people. ….. Boy, was I dumbass” — from The Burning Platform blog post titled ‘What the hell is going on’.

Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi

I FIND that barring the Catholic Church comment, and ignoring the comment about the military for personal health reasons, I, and perhaps the majority belonging to my generation can very well relate to what is being said.

Curiously, however, the blogger is talking about America, a country which has a high literacy rate and has enjoyed genuine democracy for umpteen years. Accordingly, in my case, I am also now less sure that a democratic government is of the people, by the people, for the people.

Around 25 years ago, we did believe that stock prices were based upon profits and cash flows of the underlying companies, and that stocks were for the long run. Today, the realisation that Keynes got it right has sunk in, it is a casino. Truly an index dependent upon the wisdom of the crowds, acquired through unsolicited stealthily conveyed ‘tips’, cannot be a barometer for anything, let alone the economy.

Logically, if the stock market had anything to do with the real economy, at dizzying heights of 50,000, there should have been a related positive impact on per capita income. Frankly, I am less sure whether there would be any impact on the common man if the market was shut down.

Free market capitalism has not delivered all that it promised.

About 25 years ago, our economy was not based on free market capitalism but we had at that time decided to opt for Reganomics and Thatcherism. Over the years, we privatised, reduced tariffs facilitating free trade, deregulated foreign currency, enforced international copyrights and opened up almost all sectors for foreign investment.

Simultaneously, we reduced taxes on corporations and wealth pursuant to a complex theory which promised to raise all boats.

Admittedly, a particular segment benefited from all these free-market initiatives, which is why they, the upper-middle class, ferociously defends these initiatives; and the rich did get richer too in the process.

Overall, however, free market capitalism has not delivered all that it promised. Income inequality has increased exponentially, trade deficit has increased alarmingly, agriculture remains the primary driver of the economy, the debt trap is becoming unmanageable if it already isn’t, and let’s not even talk about load-shedding. Today, I am less sure that free market capitalism is the knight in shining armour it was portrayed to be.

Less than two decades ago probably, journalism in the strictest sense of the word was non-existent in Pakistan; for my money, if journalists and media are watchdogs working on behalf of the public, it still is non-existent. Notwithstanding that freedom of speech is rather overrated, in Pakistan, and perhaps the world over, calling a spade a spade is not a walk in the park. The powerful can go to any extent to keep the truth clouded. Truly, after a decade or so of free press, I am less sure whether media has any purpose beyond providing evening entertainment.

I am not less sure about the statement that politicians legislate on behalf of the people, even the thought is ab initio completely unbelievable. Leg¬isla¬tion of any kind has forever failed to increase investment in education, improve healthcare, provide justice and create sufficient honourable employment for the ever-increasing populace of Pakistan.

The largest city, and by far the biggest revenue earner for the government, is fast becoming a garbage heap and the majority of the city’s inhabitants struggle for access to clean drinking water. Forget Pakistan, curiously the one politician who promised to tax the rich and provide free college education, could not even get through the primaries in America. I am completely sure that the system is stacked against the public.

Faced with these uncertainties, I am less sure that the economic and political systems we follow lead to the Promised Land. Sadly, in hot pursuit of the roadrunner we don’t even realise that the cliff is fast approaching; for now, I can only hope that I am wrong, albeit less sure!

The writer is a chartered accountant based in Islamabad.
syed.bakhtiyarkazmi@gmail.com
Twitter: @LeAccountant
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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