Interpress News Service

Were UN Plans to Ban Nukes Pre-empted by Trump?

19 January 2017 - 6:16pm

A UN meeting on the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton

By Andy Hazel
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

UN member states wanting to ban nuclear weapons may make little headway in 2017, after US President-elect Donald Trump pre-empted their agreement by proposing to expand the United States nuclear arsenal.

In one of their final decisions of 2016, the UN General Assembly agreed to hold a conference in March 2017 to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

123 the UN’s 193 member states supported the General Assembly resolution which initiated the conference. Notable votes against the resolution included: France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Russia, The United Kingdom and the United States. Aside from China, which abstained, the no votes included all of the countries permitted to possess nuclear weapons under the current UN non-proliferation treaty which was adopted in 1968.

"This treaty will be negotiated with or without US support, so I don't see Trump having a significant impact," -- Beatrice Kihn, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The 1968 treaty bans all UN member states except China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States from owning nuclear weapons and commits those states to eventually eliminating their atomic arsenals, pledges that have been ignored. Iraq, North Korea, Iran (and, unofficially, Israel) have all violated the treaty by developing nuclear weapons, and it is widely seen as requiring renegotiation to be effective. Should Donald Trump pursue his ambitions, it could put the treaty in jeopardy.

However the resolution – which was adopted on 23 December – was foreshadowed by a tweet by President-elect Donald Trump on 22 December where he stated: “United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes”. Trump also mentioned that dismantling Obama’s long-negotiated Iran nuclear agreement was his “number one priority”.

Some have seen these comments as an act of assertion aimed at strengthening his negotiating position upon arriving in the Oval Office, as Trump has already reversed his position on issues to which he pledged support.

Beatrice Kihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has described these statements as ‘nuclear-sabre rattling’ and the challenge to implementing the treaty as imperative.

“The Obama administration was very hostile to the idea of a ban treaty,” Kihn told IPS, despite Obama’s comments to the contrary, “and there’s no expectation that Trump will be more friendly. This treaty will be negotiated with or without US support, so I don’t see Trump having a significant impact. However, his rhetoric should definitely serve as a motivation for all of us. It’s a signal that the nuclear-armed states are not interested in real progress.”

Chief among the issues that would comprise a treaty is the Iranian nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a long-negotiated tool many on the Security Council are seeking to protect.

Kihn and representatives from other non-proliferation organisations are awaiting clearer statements from Trump’s administration before establishing their strategies, an approach that may have worked when dealing with previous administrations but may face unprecedented difficulty today. Trump has spoken before about the value of being unpredictable when it comes to nuclear weapons as a means to keep other leaders, both friends and enemies, keen to appease.

Unpredictability is also the hallmark of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un. In his New Year’s address, Kim warned that North Korean engineers were in the “final stage” of preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. Provoking a disbelieving response from Trump and more cautious tones from China and South Korea.

The most recent attempt at a nonproliferation review treaty in 2015 was unsuccessful, largely because of the failure of efforts to engage Iran and Israel. Both countries still absorb a disproportionate amount of the efforts to implement a treaty.

In an address to the IAEA Conference Commit to Further Strengthening Nuclear Security, Director General Yukiya Amano reinforced the socioeconomic value of nuclear technology as not remaining the preserve of wealthy countries. “Terrorists and criminals will try to exploit any vulnerability in the global nuclear security system, and any country could become the target of an attack. That is why effective international cooperation is vital.”

According to the findings of a congressional study into international arms sales that found that the sale of global arms dropped in 2015 to $80bn from 2014’s $89bn with the US responsible for around half of all sales.

Over the next decade, the United States is expected to spend around half a trillion dollars on maintenance and upkeep of delivery systems of its nuclear weapons armoury, considerably larger than the Department of Defence claims is required to deter a nuclear attack.

“The treaty needs a strong and clear prohibition on use and possession of nuclear weapons but it will be a challenge to make sure the prohibition will cover other relevant activities too,” says Kihn, “such as assistance to other states not party to the treaty.”

“It will also be a lot of work to get as many states as possible to engage in the negotiations and sign it. And of course a real challenge will be the implementation of the treaty, once it’s in place – we need to make sure the treaty has a real impact.”

The conference is scheduled to run from March 27-31.

Social Networks in Mexico Both Fuel and Fight Discontent

19 January 2017 - 2:38pm

The social networks have played an important role in citizens’ initiatives to organise protests against the gas price hike in Mexico and in the government’s strategy to curb cyber-activism. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

The scene in the video is simple: a bearded man with a determined look on his face sitting in front of a white wall witha portrait of Emiliano Zapata, symbol of the Mexican revolution.

“Mexicans to the battle cry, the moment has come to overthrow the corrupt political system we are under, it is now or never. We will show what we are made of. With just two steps we will be able to write a new history, which our children and grandchildren will also enjoy,” lawyer Amín Cholác says emphatically.

In the video titled “Mexicans to the cry of: Peña out!,” Cholác urges people to take part in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience against the rise in fuel prices adopted Jan. 1 by the government of conservative President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“I made this video because we cannot stand it anymore, this country cannot take it any longer,” the founder of the non-governmental organisation Dos Valles Valientes, who lives in the southern state of Chiapas, told IPS.

The video has thousands of views on Youtube, and in other video networks, and has also spread over Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp.

“It has been well received, people from all over the country have joined, they have communicated via social networks or by phone. But I have also been threatened, they put an image of hitmen, they insulted my mother, but if I had been scared, I wouldn’t have done it,” said Cholác.

The activist, whose organisation fights increases in electricity rates, said “the networks are a double-edged sword. They have worked extraordinarily well for us, because they are very accessible and cheap. Whatsapp reaches every corner, as do text messages.”

But activists are also threatened through the networks, said Cholác, whose Facebook account was cloned twice. “I opened another one, and I promised myself that for every Facebook account that was cloned, I would open three,” he said.

The video’s wide dissemination reflects the growing use of the Internet in Mexico to drive political and social movements, such as the resistance to fuel price increases. But the social networks also serve to promote counter-attacks against citizen initiatives by the political powers-that-be and the spreading of misinformation and propaganda by the other side.

The up to 20 per cent hike in fuel prices unleashed the latent social discontent, with dozens of protests, looting of shops, roadblocks, and blockades of border crossings throughout the country, as well as a wave of lawsuits filed by trade unions and organisations of farmers, students and shopkeepers.

The simultaneous price rises for fuel, electricity and cooking gas were a spark in a climate of discontent over the public perception of growing impunity, corruption and social inequality.

The protests, which have waned somewhat but show no signs of stopping, have led to at least six deaths, the arrests of 1,500 people, and the looting of dozens of stores.


Topics addressed by accounts implicated in the dissemination of fear messages in the social networks to neutralise the protests against the fuel price hikes in Mexico, which were also promoted over the same networks. Credit: Courtesy of Rossana Reguillo

“The protests in response to the price rises arose from spontaneous calls disseminated on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. A call started to circulate for people to not fill their gas tanks for three days, and around new year’s day the calls for protests started, mainly along the border,” said Alberto Escorcia, with the group Loquesigue TV.

On Jan. 4, the group published an analysis of the rumours and calls to violence, which were fed by 650 Twitter accounts and more than 7,600 messages – allegedly false accounts used to fight back against the protests.

As a result of the group’s publications, Escorcia received threats, he told IPS.

According to a study carried out last year, in 2015 Internet penetration in Mexico was 59 per cent, in a population of 122 million, in spite of there being almost one mobile phone per inhabitant. This is an indication of the relative power of digital democracy in this country.

Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter are the social networks preferred by Mexicans.

“Between Jan. 2 and 3 the ‘gasolinazo’ (the price rise) was going to be an important trending topic, because it is a noble theme, in the sense that it attracts a variety of sectors and affects society as a whole,” expert Rossana Reguillo told IPS.

“But on Jan. 4, the countertrend started. ‘Bots’ and ‘trolls’ gained visibility, giving rise to other trends. The (protests against the) gasolinazo started to lose ground,” said Reguillo, the head of the interdisciplinary laboratory Signa Lab, at the private Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education.

The lab examined Twitter and detected more than 10,000 accounts involved in the dissemination of some 15,000 messages aimed at neutralising the social unrest. Standing out in this effort were the online groups Legión Hulk and SomosSecta100tifika (which translates into ‘We are a scientific sect‘). The latter promotes the trending topic #GolpeDeEstadoMx (Pro Coup D’etat Mexico).

This counteroffensive shows how the citizens‘ online mobilisation triggers a response from the powers under attack, as well as threats against activists, such as the ones received by Cholác and Escorcia.

“We have found a pattern of fear-mongering and anonymous calls similar to what we saw ahead of the inauguration of Peña Nieto (in December 2012), when weeks before, rumours of looting began to circulate,” said Escorcia.

In his opinion, “this time there was greater damage, because the fear of going out and the encouragement for people to get involved in the looting spread from the web to the streets,” he said.

A precedent to this was the reaction sparked by the notorious quote by then Attorney-General Jesús Murillo, who said “I´ve had enough“ in November 2014, referring to the unresolved case of the forced disappearance in September of that year of 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero.

That expression generated the trending topic on Twitter #YaMeCansé (“I‘ve had enough“), as well as an attempt to neutralise it.

A study “On the influence of social bots in online protests; Preliminary findings of a Mexican case study“, published last September by academics from Mexico and the United States, concluded that there was an important presence of bots, which simulate human beings, affecting discussions online about the case of the missing students.

This phenomenon is widespread, and in Latin America the experts consulted by IPS mention in particular the case of Brazil, during the lengthy process that lead to former president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office, in August 2016.

Their hypothesis is that companies dedicated to these services work for governments and political parties to silence online dissent.

In the case of Mexico, Escorcia said “there are companies that generate anything from online attacks to fake news items and political campaigns, which have worked for all kinds of organisations: left-wing, right-wing, and obviously for the PRI,” the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party.

For Reguillo, who has also been a victim of social network attacks on several occasions, the main question is who is behind this cyber activity.

“There is money involved here, it’s not a group of young people who say ‘let‘s crash the web‘. There is a clear strategy to silence debate, to invade the public space and turn Twitter into a battlefield. They destabilise the space for discussion,” she commented.

“Nobody can stop this. People have become aware and are protesting,” said Cholác, who is calling for mass demonstrations on Feb. 5.

Another fuel price hike scheduled for early February will spark further online battles.

Related Articles

Right to Information Dead on Arrival at UN

19 January 2017 - 1:32pm

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

The 193-member UN General Assembly has been dragging its feet on a proposal that has been kicked around the corridors of the United Nations for over 10 years: a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) providing journalists the “right to information” in a sprawling bureaucracy protective of its turf.

Ironically, nearly 100 countries – all of them UN member states – have approved some form of national legislation recognizing the right to information (RTI) within their own borders but still seem unenthusiastic in extending it to the press corps at the United Nations.

The US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which dates back to 1967, has provided the public and the press the right to request access to records from any federal agency—and has been described as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government”.

In the US, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

In Australia, the legislation is known as Right2Know; in Bangladesh, the Right to Information (RTI) Resources Centre provides resources for those seeking to file a request with government agencies; in Japan, the Citizens’ Centre for Information Disclosure offers help to those interested in filing requests; in India, the Right to Information: a Citizen Gateway is the portal for RTI; Canada’s Access to Information Act came into force in 1983 and Kenya’s Access to Information Act was adopted in August 2016, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD).

The strongest law among the new countries on the RTI Rating is that of Sri Lanka, which scores 121 points, putting the country in 9th place globally, says CLD.

The passage of this law means that every country in South Asia apart from Bhutan now has an RTI law. The region is generally a strong performer, with every country scoring over 100 points except Pakistan, which continues to languish near the bottom of the rating, according to CLD.

And Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 has been described as the “oldest in the world.”

Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who headed the Department of Public Information (DPI), which provides media accreditation and doles out free office space to UN-based journalists, told IPS the right to information is an integral part of U.N. principles.

But providing that right—even the basic information available in the public domain– has been stymied both by member states and the UN bureaucracy, he added.

He pointed out that the need to “inform the peoples” of the United Nations is implicitly indicated in the Charter.

But implementing it was “a basic issue I had experienced throughout my work, with both certain government officials– including those publicly claiming open channels– and many senior U.N. Secretariat colleagues”.

Those who believed “Information is Power” were very hesitant, to what they perceived was sharing their authority with a wider public, said Sanbar who served under five different UN Secretaries-General.

“It was most evident that when I launched the now uncontested website www.un.org, a number of powerful Under-Secretaries-General (USGs) and Permanent Representatives cautioned me against “telling everyone what was happening” (in the UN system) and refused to authorize any funds.”

“I had to raise a team of DPI volunteers in my office, operating from within the existing budget, to go ahead and eventually offer computers loaned from an outside source, to certain delegations to realize it was more convenient for them to access news releases than having to send one of their staffers daily to the building to collect material from the third floor.“

Eventually, everyone joined in, and the site is now recognized as one of the ten best official sites worldwide.

“We had a similar difficulty in prodding for International World Press Freedom Day through the General Assembly. It seems that even those with the best of intentions– since delegates represent official governments that view free press with cautious monitoring– are usually weary of opening a potentially vulnerable issue,” said Sanbar, author of the recently-released “Inside the U.N. in a Leaderless World’.

Matthew Lee, an investigative UN-based journalist who has been pursuing the story for over 10 years, told IPS he has been virtually fighting a losing battle.

“When I first got to the UN in late 2005, I noticed there was no FOIA. After asking around about it, I got then Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Management, Christopher Burnham, to say he would work on it. But he left. So I asked his replacement at Under-Secretary-General, Alicia Barcena, who said she would work on it. She never did.”

The UN Secretariat, he said, has continued to blame the General Assembly. But the Secretariat could easily adopt its own policy, for example, to disclose who pays for UN Secretary-General’s travel.

Asked about the FOIA, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS last year: “The secretary-general supports the idea of transparency. But this would be an issue for member states.”
Barbara Crossette, a former UN Bureau Chief for the New York Times and currently contributing editor and writer for PassBlue, an online publication covering the UN, told IPS: “I think you are right, to be sceptical about getting anything like this through the General Assembly. Or for that matter that the Security Council would be cooperative, if asked for information.”

As you would know, a lot of people who have worked in DPI see the General Assembly – and the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) in particular — as loathe to promote the sharing of information, even in the current setup, and assume that not enough countries would back making access to it a right, she noted.

“A FOIA would be a godsend to would-be spies. And how would it be legally crafted, I wonder?. It would be interesting to know if places like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have these policies.”

The new Secretary–General Antonio Guterres’ team “is supposed to be writing a new communications policy for the UN — making it more open and effective in outreach generally. But I don’t know if that will include journalists.”

In one of her recent pieces in PassBlue, Crossette said the DPI is also completely hamstrung by its mandate, officials acknowledge, and the head of the office, who ranks as Under Secretary-General, is not chosen primarily for his or her media skills, but is often a political appointee with little or no journalism experience.

He or she must work under tight budgetary conditions deliberately framed to not give the department the tools it needs, she added.

Sinha Ratnatunga, editor-in- chief of the Sunday Times, a major weekly newspaper in Sri Lanka, told IPS the RTI law was passed by parliament last June; signed into law by the Speaker in August and becomes operational on February 4 (independence Day).

“However, there is a provision to ‘stagger’ its implementation if the government isn’t ready”, he pointed out.

“In any event the law must be operational whether the government is ready or not by August 4 (one year after the Speaker signed it into law). But the government is rather silent on how prepared they are for February 4 which is hardly a fortnight or so away”, said Ratnatunga , Deputy Chairman, of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and Board Member of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA).

He said the law is pretty progressive but many people, including journalists “are pretty clueless about its power and reach and what difference it can make to empowering citizens and journalists in the quest of good governance.”

He said there’s a whole exercise of educating public servants, appointing Information Officers, educating the journalists and the citizenry ahead.

“Yes, the law took 12 plus years in the making, but the most difficult process of educating the country on the potential of the law lies ahead.”

“Hopefully, the media will play the role of whistleblower, but fewer journalists are now interested in investigative journalism; so we have to wait and see if all the trouble in bringing the law was worth it, after all,” he declared.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Is Globalisation Reversible?

19 January 2017 - 11:22am

By Biru Paksha Paul
Jan 19 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Over every summer, I leave the US to visit my village in Nalitabari where I look after construction work and run an online class for the students of mainly upstate New York. This is called globalisation. Sometimes I go to the Garo Hills branching from Meghalaya, or travel by boat on the river of Vogai while responding to important emails or checking my balance after a mobile transaction – a scene beyond imagination in Bangladesh some 30 years back. All thanks to globalisation.

Of late, we are wasting more and more energy carrying out a confused propaganda against globalisation, claiming that it is in reverse gear. However, it never was and it never will be. The issue is how we see and define globalisation. The main strength of globalisation comes from technology that does not regress – whether we like it or not. The two major events on the global stage last year, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, seem to have once again solidified the conviction of those who have been anti-globalisation since long. But that is a misinterpretation of these two victories, which mainly banked on anti-immigration sentiments and some mistakes in state policies of the respective governments.

Many critics are now extremely hyperactive in their fight against globalisation, some of whom are Nobel laureates. Of course, they present facts but often these facts are honey-coated with their biases and prejudice. But globalisation has many wings; it is a comprehensive, complex dynamic. And only labour migration cannot explain the whole story. Among other dominant determinants are capital, technology, knowledge, and above all human psychology that helps us understand and learn about different cultures. Capital flows from one side of the globe to the other in a couple of seconds, and so do knowledge and technology. Resisting this phenomenon by a simple display of ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ is nearly impossible.

But why would we resist globalisation? It goes against the basic Darwinian motion of evolution. No one would like to get back to the age of clumsy typewriters when computers are readily available. I witnessed the death of two upstate New York cities, Endicott and Cortland, because they could not swim upstream against globalisation and the principles of profit maximisation. Cortland was noted as the origin of a world-class typewriter company, Smith Corona, whose slogan was ‘commitment for excellence.’ But any excellence that is myopic or does not figure in technological growth is doomed to perish.

Endicott, the birthplace of IBM, saw jobs being outsourced to China and India, and could do nothing to hold them back, because the company treated the whole world as a single village for the sake of greater output and profit. Basic economic laws have empowered globalisation to keep on moving. No mighty commander was able to dictate this march. Had it been possible for any force to block this forward motion, the US could have done that to save millions of jobs outsourced to other countries in the last 20 years. And a large segment of US businesses would rather outsource their jobs to further their cost-lowering drive.

It is better to brainstorm which institutions we need to build to face the growing challenges of globalisation rather than blindly believe that some ‘saviours’ will reverse globalisation to protect the inefficient local mills and factories. Businesses are the main force behind global integration. Capital travels from one country to another for the sake of a better interest rate. Modern kabuliwalas are around and we need to deal with them for direct portfolio investment. There is no point in waiting for the kind-hearted kabuliwala of a Rabindranath Tagore story; people like him are no longer a part of this world order.

Noted Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati initially believed in socialist closed-type planning, but later turned into a globalisation guru. His student and Nobel Laureate of Economics Paul Krugman believes that the good side of the big monopolistic competition that has spread over the world can guarantee lowest prices. Hence, fighting Walmart becomes almost impossible for local small businesses.

Some of us might be confused to see a drop in inter-country labour migration, which we immediately credit to a reversal of globalisation. New apps of Microsoft in Seattle can instantly be downloaded in Rangamati. But capital movements depend on how we handle a myriad of rules and regulations that we have bureaucratically built over time. The movement of labour is even more complicated, and therefore, the slowest. Capital does not have any choice, but workers have religion, taste, language barriers, and above all, family bonds. Hence, uprooting workers from one culture and asking them to adopt another is difficult. Capital from one country and workstations at various countries build a style, which makes globalisation even more sustainable today.

In the early 1990s, many were opposed to three terms: globalisation, liberalisation, and free market economy. Some critics bundle all three items together and associate a similar (negative) connotation to all of them. Needless to mention, all three terms differ slightly in their meaning. Liberalisation mainly refers to the easing of trade; the main rationale of a free market economy is efficient pricing; but globalisation mainly refers to global travelling of capital, labour, and technology – a prerequisite that eases global integration of production and consumption. Tagore’s hope for a borderless world is definitely far from reality, but inter-country dependence, as proposed by David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, is inevitable – and so is globalisation.

The writer is Associate Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Cortland.
E-mail: birupakshapaul@gmail.com

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

World Focus on Disappearances

19 January 2017 - 11:16am

By I.A. Rehman
Jan 19 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

THE government might have been surprised at some foreign governments’ expressions of concern at the enforced disappearance of five social activists/ bloggers. Instead of taking umbrage, it should look for the causes of friendly countries’ uneasiness.

I.A. Rehman

Hitherto, security concerns have enabled Pakistan to escape censure for enforced disappearances through a policy of denial. The five activists now in the news do not belong to any conflict zone (like Fata/ Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) or the home ground of insurgents (Balochistan) or crypto-separatists/ nationalists (Sindh). There is no reason in Punjab for anyone to flout the law. Hence, gross violation of basic rights causes widespread concern.

Besides, the international community has been watching enforced disappearances in Pakistan for many years.

In 2012, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Pakistan and made several recommendations, including calls for ratification of the convention on disappearances and criminalisation of enforced disappearances. In its report in July 2016, the WGEID regretted that most of its recommendations had not been implemented.

Pakistan’s third universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council is due.

Pakistan has also been asked to explain some issues arising from its initial report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. With reference to Articles 6, 7 and 9 of the covenant (the right to life, freedom from torture, and the right to liberty and security of person). Pakistan has been asked to “provide information on the measures taken to address the large number of allegations of enforced disappearance … comment on allegations that the practice of enforced disappearance is often used to target political or human rights activists. Please indicate what steps have been taken to implement the December 2013 judgement of the Supreme Court in the case of Mohabat Shah … Please provide information on the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, including on its mandate, power, composition and financial and human resources…”.

This year, Pakistan’s third universal periodic review at the Human Rights Council is due. Questions will be raised about implementation of the recommendations made after the 2012 review. Four recommendations relating to disappearances were made and Pakistan accepted all of them. Two recommendations that called for criminalisation of enforced disappearance and the strengthening of the Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances were included in the list of suggestions that “have already been implemented or [are] in the process of implementation”.

None of these recommendations have been implemented. It is not difficult to imagine the situation Pakistan will face at the coming universal periodic review. The government could say it does not mind becoming a pariah in the world. That will not harm any foreign party; only the people of Pakistan will be left to mourn the loss of their rights.

The government has itself to blame for the embarrassment it is going to face, for it had ample time to prevent it.

Six years ago, a commission of three retired judges found evidence of the intelligence agencies’ involvement in enforced disappearances and deplored the “uncivilised method adopted by the police and agencies’ personnel for arresting the victims” and denying them any contact with their families during their detention. The commission also recommended a fairly reasonable way out.

“In order to put an end to the issue of enforced disappearances/ missing persons,” the commission said, “the intelligence agencies should be restrained from arbitrarily arresting and detaining anyone without due process of law. Generally, it would be appropriate if the government evolves a mechanism for intelligence agencies to share information and leave it to the police to make arrests and proceed under the relevant law.”

What has prevented the government from accepting this sane piece of advice?

In January 2012, the Justice Saqib Nisar commission on the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad also tried to help the government. “If the agencies conduct their activities completely beyond the purview of the law, and without maintaining any sense of transparency and accountability in their conduct,” the commission said, “they risk losing their most precious strategic asset — the trust of the people, whose security they are supposed to ensure. Currently, it seems that we would be better off with more accountability than we presently have even when it means a little less of secrecy.”

Further, the commission suggested a mechanism for the accountability of intelligence agencies at three levels; “within the agency and before the minister-in-charge; before a Parliamentary Committee (and thus parliament and the public); and before a judicial forum”.

Now the Senate has forwarded to the government the draft of a law to regulate the working of intelligence agencies and declared that, if the government failed to sponsor the proposed legislation, it would be introduced in the house as a private member’s bill.

The government may ask itself a simple question: why does every attempt to probe the issue of enforced disappearance lead to calls for making the intelligence agencies accountable?

We are told now that the police are investigating a complaint that the five bloggers have been guilty of blasphemy. This reminds one of the strictures passed by the commission of 2010 on the police officers who were involved in such affairs and found guilty of “intellectual dishonesty by registering fake FIRs against the persons picked up by the intelligence agencies and handed over to the police after a long time”.

If those who picked up the five bloggers had good reason to deprive them of their right to liberty, they should have informed their families, allowed them to contact their counsel and produced them in a court of law within 24 hours, or explained the reasons for failing to do so. The foreign governments, the parliamentarians, and civil society are mature enough to respect proceedings held according to due process, and would only demand in such cases a fair trial and punishment of the guilty in proportion to the severity of their offence.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Trump Trade Strategy Unclear

19 January 2017 - 10:55am

Now that Donald Trump has announced that he will take the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, an increase in US trade protectionism is expected, possibly triggering serious trade conflicts with unpredictable consequences. Credit: IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

US President-elect Donald Trump has announced that he will take the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement on the first day of his presidency in January 2017. Now, it is widely expected that Trump’s presidency will increase US trade protectionism, and consequently by others in retaliation, possibly triggering serious trade conflicts with difficult to predict consequences.

After decades of denial by ‘free trade’ advocates, it is now widely agreed that many manufacturing jobs in the US have been lost to both automation and offshore relocation by US corporations. Free trade agreements (FTAs) are also being blamed for the US’s large trade deficits.

Trump trade strategy?

With the global economic slowdown of the last eight years associated by many with the slowdown of trade expansion, the surprise election of President-elect Trump has become the subject of much speculation and some dire predictions. Many are concerned that Trump has made various contrarian pronouncements on FTAs, while his appointments to trade related portfolios seem to contradict his trade rhetoric.

In early December 2016, the Wall Street Journal noted the unexpectedly high number of TPP advocates joining the Trump administration to serve in trade-related capacities. Although the hopes of some TPP advocates of a last-minute reprieve are probably misplaced, there is no indication that some amended version, perhaps with a different name, will not eventually emerge in its place.

If President-elect Trump lives up to his campaign rhetoric, other plurilateral free trade agreements will also be affected. Trump has referred to the TPP and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as disasters for the US, and has vowed to renegotiate NAFTA. His announced preference for negotiating “fair” bilateral trade deals favourable to the US has not given much comfort to prospective negotiation partners.

And while Trump’s main preoccupations have been with US manufacturing jobs and the related international trade in goods, he is also expected to promote US corporate interests more generally, e.g., on intellectual property, financial liberalization, investor rights and dispute settlement.

Already, most US FTAs include ‘non-trade issues’, many of which have raised costs to consumers, e.g., by further strengthening intellectual property monopolies typically held by powerful transnational corporations, whose chief executives seem likely to be very influential in the new administration.

Currency manipulation
During the presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Trump accused China of being a “currency manipulator”, despite market consensus that the Chinese renminbi has been reasonably aligned for some time. Under US law, evidence of currency manipulation could be grounds to impose additional tariffs on imports from a country so deemed by the Treasury Department. Aware that this could exacerbate trade conflicts, President Obama avoided pressure to do so from many Congress members, lobbyists and economists.

However, Trump can easily revise this position on some pretext or other, by taking trade or other retaliatory actions against China on the ostensible grounds of alleged currency manipulation which would contravene World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, allowing China to successfully take a case against the US to the WTO for such an illegal action.

WTO trade rules abused
Trump has also threatened to impose tariffs of as much as 45% on imports from China and Mexico! But while an across-the-board tariff hike is unlikely, as it is prohibited by the WTO, the new administration is likely to consider invoking WTO trade-remedy actions on products from China, Mexico and other countries by claiming they are being dumped or subsidized. This has already happened, e.g., with solar panels and wind turbines from China, raising the costs of renewable energy, and thus undermining the global warming mitigation effort.

To be sure, WTO trade remedy rules have long been widely abused for protectionist purposes. A country can impose high tariffs on an imported item from another country by claiming its price has been artificially depressed or subsidized by the government in order to export – or ‘dump’ – them at a price lower than the domestic price. No deterrent is imposed against the offending country even if a WTO dispute settlement panel rules that the ostensibly anti-dumping tariff-raising action was wrongly taken, even though the exporting country has lost considerable export earnings in the interim.

Furthermore, similar actions can be repeated without impunity with no threat of penalty. Such ostensible trade-remedy actions are more likely than blatant tariff walls. These may, in turn, trigger retaliatory counter-actions by aggrieved governments, potentially leading to a spiral of trade protectionism, i.e., trade warfare.

Fair trade?
It is unclear how the new administration views FTAs more generally. The President-elect’s objection to the TPP and NAFTA focuses on the goods trade, and the loss of manufacturing jobs due to cheaper imports, often brought in by the same companies which have chosen to relocate production capacities abroad, and are already mobilizing to resist actions which may jeopardize their profits.
This view does not seem to recognize that technological change, particularly with automation, has been the major source of job losses. Many jobs remaining in the US have higher skill requirements, with fewer employees producing more goods with less labour-intensive techniques.

“Fair trade” will be subject to self-serving interpretations by the governments concerned, arguably further undermining trade multilateralism. While freer trade has undoubtedly improved consumer welfare with cheaper imports, it has seen some deindustrialization in the North and industrialization in the South in recent decades with important employment consequences which have been a major source of the current discontent over globalization.

Trade growth slower
To be sure, the trade growth slowdown following the 2008 financial crisis suggests that the U-turn has already taken place after an extraordinary period of trade expansion due to much greater international specialization with the popularization of international value chains.

In December 2015, Obama’s United States Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman threatened the already difficult Doha Round of WTO trade negotiations by trying to introduce TPP issues which had been kept off the agenda from the outset of the ostensibly Development Round after the Seattle WTO ministerial walkout of 1999.

Perhaps most worryingly, there has been no indication so far that the next US administration will not undermine multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of the WTO. Trump’s much-trumpeted preference for bilateral deals favourable to the US is likely to test trade multilateralism as never before.

But President-elect Trump also has a penchant for the unpredictable, and may yet surprise the world with a new commitment to trade multilateralism to advance consumer, producer, and development interests for all.

Pacific Islanders Call for U.S. Solidarity on Climate Change

19 January 2017 - 8:24am

Higher tides and coastal erosion are encroaching on homes and community buildings in Siar village, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

The new political power of business magnate Donald Trump, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20 as the 45th President of the United States, will have ramifications for every global region, including the Pacific Islands.

Pacific leaders who are witnessing rising seas, coastal erosion and severe natural disasters in the region are alert to the new president’s declared scepticism about climate change and the contributing factor of human activities. His proposed policy changes include cutting international climate funding and pushing ahead fossil fuel projects.“It is sad for us who rely on the United States to do the right thing and to hear the president embarking on the opposite path, which is ensuring our destruction.” -- Reverend Tafue Lusama

They say the United States’ solidarity on climate change action is vital to protecting people in developing and industrialised nations from climate-driven disasters, environmental degradation and poverty.

There are 22 Pacific Island states and territories and 35 percent of the region’s population of about 10 million people lives below the poverty line. One of the most vulnerable to climate change is the Polynesian nation of Tuvalu, home to about 10,000 people spread over nine low lying coral islands.

“Tuvalu is among the poorest in the world, it is isolated, small and low in elevation. All aspects of life, from protecting our small land to food security, from our marine resources to our traditional gardens are being impacted by climate change. All the adaptation measures that need to be put in place need international climate funding. With Trump’s intended withdrawal pathway, our survival is denied and justice is ignored,” Reverend Tafue Lusama, General Secretary of the Tuvalu Christian Church and global advocate for climate action, told IPS.

Trump’s 100-day action plan, issued during last year’s presidential campaign, claims it will tackle government corruption, accountability and waste and improve the lives of U.S. citizens who have been marginalised by globalisation and ‘special interests’ of the political elite.

But his intended actions include cancelling billions in payments to United Nations climate change programmes, aimed at assisting the most vulnerable people in developing countries, and approving energy projects, worth trillions of dollars, involving shale, oil, natural gas and coal in the United States in a bid to boost domestic jobs.

Last December, 800 scientists and energy experts worldwide wrote an open letter to the then president-elect encouraging him to remain steadfast to policies put forward during the Barack Obama administration such as reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, which in association with industrial processes accounts for 65 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and supporting renewable energy development.

“It is sad for us who rely on the United States to do the right thing and to hear the President embarking on the opposite path, which is ensuring our destruction,” Reverend Lusama added.

London-based Chatham House claims that a key success of the COP21 climate change conference in Paris in 2015 was the supportive ‘alignment’ of the United States, the second largest emitter accounting for 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Here the United States joined the High Ambition Coalition, a grouping of countries committed to rigorous climate targets, which was instrumental in driving consensus that global warming should be kept lower than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Increased global warming could be disastrous for Pacific Island states with many already facing a further rise in sea levels, extremely high daily temperatures and ocean acidification this century, reports the Pacific Climate Change Science Program.

In 2015 the region was hit by a severe El Nino climate cycle which ‘forced people to walk for days seeking sustenance…and, in some cases, to become severely weakened or die from malnutrition,’ Caritas reports. In Papua New Guinea, 2.7 million people, or 36 percent of the population, struggled with lack of food and water as prolonged drought conditions caused water sources to dry up and food crops to fail.

And a consequence of more severe natural disasters in the region is that their arc of impact can be greater.

“Kiribati is one country in the world that is very safe from any disaster….[but] during Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu [in 2015] and Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji [in 2016], the effects also reached Kiribati, which has never happened in the past,” Pelenise Alofa, National Co-ordinator of the Kiribati Climate Action Network, told IPS.

The economic toll of natural disasters is well beyond the capacity of Kiribati, a Least Developed Country with the third lowest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world in a ranking of 195 countries by the World Bank.

“It is not in a position to meet its own adaptation needs because the climate change problems are too enormous for a small country like Kiribati to have enough resources to meet the problem head on,” Alofa said.

The economic burden extends to replacing coastal buildings at risk of climate change and extreme weather, which would cost an estimated total of 22 billion dollars for 12 Pacific Island nations, claims the University of New England in Australia. The risk is very high in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, where more than 95 percent of built infrastructure is located within 500 metres of a coastline.

Recently several Pacific Island countries benefitted from the United Nations-administered Green Climate Fund (GCF), the largest multilateral climate fund dedicated to assisting developing countries cope with climate change. Three grants, ranging from 22 million to 57 million dollars, were awarded for a multiple Pacific nation renewable energy programme, to enable Vanuatu to develop climate information services and Samoa to pursue integrated flood management.

But the GCF, to which the United States, its largest benefactor, has committed 3.5 billion dollars, could suffer if Trump follows through on his promise, given that international pledges currently total 10.3 billion.

Ahead of the next United Nations climate change conference, to be chaired by Fiji in Bonn, Germany, in November, Pacific Island leaders are keen that President Trump visits the region. President Bainimarama has already invited him to Fiji and the Reverend Lusama would like him to also “visit Tuvalu to witness firsthand the proof which is so obvious to the naked eye of climate change impacts.”

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Trump’s UN Pick: “UN Could Benefit from a Fresh Set of Eyes”

18 January 2017 - 4:46pm

Samantha Power, outgoing Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the UN, addressing the council after a controversial vote on Israeli Settlements in December 2016. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias.

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 18 2017 (IPS)

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, nominated to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the UN, outlined her vision of a strong U.S. role in the human rights institution at a confirmation hearing today.

Noting her potential role as a “fresh set of eyes” and an “outsider,” Haley highlighted the need for a strong U.S. leadership position at the UN.

“When America fails to lead, the world becomes a dangerous place. And when the world becomes more dangerous, the American people become more vulnerable,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that she will bring back the U.S.’ “indispensable voice of freedom.”

When asked about Russia, Haley expressed caution in trusting them but suggested that their government could be an asset.

“Russia is trying to show their muscle right now…and we have to continue to be very strong back. We need to let them know that we are not okay with what happened in Ukraine and Crimea and what is happening in Syria, but we are also going to tell them that we do need their help with ISIS,” she said.

In her last major speech, current U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power similarly noted U.S. interest in solving problems and cooperating with Russia, but expressed dire concerns over Russia’s “aggressive and destabilizing actions” in Crimea, Syria and its interferences in numerous governments.

“Russia’s actions are not standing up a new world order. They are tearing down the one that exists. This is what we are fighting against—having defeated the forces of fascism and communism, we now confront the forces of authoritarianism and nihilism,” she said.

During her hearing, Haley acknowledged that Russia violated the international order when it invaded Crimea and its actions in Syria constitute war crimes, and that she supports preserving sanctions against the government. She also noted the need to stand up to any and all countries that attempts to interfere with the U.S.

This represents what could be perceived as a break with President-elect Trump who has previously denied intelligence pointing to Russian involvement in the recent U.S. elections.

In recent comments, President-elect Trump also suggested easing sanctions against Russia in return for a deal to reduce nuclear weapons. He additionally criticised the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), calling it “obsolete.”

When asked about these comments, Haley again differentiated her position from Trump’s:

“It is important that we have alliances…I think as we continue to talk to him about these alliances and how they can be helpful and strategic, I do anticipate he will listen to all of us and hopefully we can get him to see it the way we see it,” she said.

“I’m going to control the part that I can,” she continued.

Haley also blasted the UN for what she described as its “biased” position on Israel during the hearing, stating: “Nowhere has the UN’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than its bias against our close ally Israel.”

Like President-elect Trump, Haley particularly criticised the recent passage of a Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, calling it a “terrible mistake” that makes a peace agreement even harder to achieve.

During the vote in December, the U.S. broke with long-standing foreign policy towards Israel by abstaining, rather than vetoing. The other 14 members of the 15 member council all voted for the

Haley vowed to never abstain when the UN takes action that comes in direct conflict with U.S. interests, including actions against Israel.

She highlighted the need for UN reforms, stating that the goal is to “create an international body that better serves the American people.” To bring about changes, Haley suggested using U.S. funding as leverage.

“We are a generous nation but we must ask ourselves what good is being accomplished by this disproportionate contribution. Are we getting what we paid for?” she asked. She pointed to the Human Rights Council as an example, questioning their role in supporting and promoting human rights while countries such as Cuba and China are members.

The U.S. currently contributes 22 percent of the UN’s budget.

Recent legislation proposed by two U.S. Republican Senators would see the United States withdraw its funding not only to the UN Secretariat but also to the entire UN-system, including UNICEF, the UN Development Program and UN Women.

Though initially stating that she would not “shy away” from withdrawing U.S. funds to achieve reforms, Haley later backtracked and said that she does not support a “slash and burn” approach in terms of pulling funding from the UN when there are undesirable outcomes, but rather use funds as leverage to help make agencies more effective.

Haley is a South Carolina-born daughter of Indian immigrants and is the first female and first minority governor of her state. She gained national attention after calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state’s Capitol. Haley will replace Ambassador Power as the only woman on the 15-member council.

Christian leaders praise UAE’s Tolerance strategy, promise to contribute

18 January 2017 - 9:07am

H.E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of State for Tolerance (C), stands for a group photo, with the participants of the Gulf Christian Fellowship meeting 2017, on Sir Bani Yas Island. - ( Mohamed Al Suwaidi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )

By Emirates News Agency (WAM)
SIR BANI YAS, UAE, Jan 18 2017 (WAM)

The UAE’s Minister of State for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, has invited leaders of the country’s Christian communities to play their part in contributing to the promotion of the country’s recently-announced National Programme for Tolerance.

She was speaking during a free-ranging discussion with participants in the annual meeting of the Gulf Christian Fellowship, GCF, on the UAE’s western island of Sir Bani Yas yesterday.

The visit was jointly organised by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and the National Programme for Tolerance.

The Minister outlined to participants in the meeting the pillars of the country’s philosophy of tolerance, as outlined in the National Programme.

It was built, she said, on a combination of the Islamic faith, the UAE Constitution, the legacy of the country’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and the ethics that underpin UAE society. It also included, she noted, the UAE’s heritage, as reflected through archaeology and history, the fundamental elements of human nature and the shared, common values of humanity.

“As we work in the Emirates to promote our commitment to, and understanding of, the philosophy of tolerance in all walks of life, we encourage those from expatriate communities, of all origins and beliefs, to play their part in helping us to strengthen our tolerant society,” Sheikha Lubna said. “We invite you, as leaders of the varied Christian communities in the UAE to encourage your communities to play their part Every day must be tolerance day. Be positive, open to all you meet, live and work with, and be enriched by every person in our diverse society.” In response, Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic for the UAE, Oman and Yemen for the Catholic Church, thanked Sheikha Lubna and asked her to pass the gratitude of participants in the meeting to His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose support had made it possible for the meeting to take place.

H.E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of State for Tolerance speaks at the Gulf Christian Fellowship meeting 2017, on Sir Bani Yas Island.

He went on to comment on the significance of Sir Bani Yas and its ancient Christian monastery in terms of events in the wider region.

“The visit to Sir Bani Yas Island has a deep meaning for me. That we are visiting the Island under the patronage of the Minister of State for Tolerance underlines the importance. The discovery of the Christian monastery at Sir Bani Yas reminds us that Christianity was present in the region very early and coexisted with Islam for a long period. This is a strong sign for what is again happening in recent times, thanks to the open-minded rulers of the UAE.”

“Looking at what is happening in the wider region, I have noticed,” Bishop Hinder said, “that where there is radicalism, one of the first things is to eradicate the memory of the others, as we have seen in Palmyra and in other places. And when I heard about the reaction of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan when he heard about the presence of the old monastery on this island, he had just the opposite reaction: to maintain this site in the memory of the history of this country. I think that this is important for all of us. It also points,” he said, “to the fact that there is a history that has common roots, not only here on this island, but in the whole region.”

“We, the expatriate Christians in the UAE, want to contribute to a society which shows that religions even in their diversity must not be a reason for war but can be a strong sign of building up justice and peace,” Bishop Hinder added.

“We are grateful for the hospitality we enjoy and willing to contribute our part so that the UAE remains a model of tolerance and mutual respect, founded in our common belief in God, which is for us all a constant incentive for goodness I can only pray that this is reflected in other parts, as I am also Bishop also for Yemen, I know that it can be tragic when people are no more able to accept one another, and we have to learn to exercise this every day.”

In another comment, Archbishop Makarios, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Qatar, said that the GCF was “encouraged and enthusiastic about the steps that the UAE National Programme for Tolerance has taken toward promoting ethics and human values in terms of religious co-existence, in particular, its recognition of Christian heritage in this region and giving it its rightful place in the historical narrative.”

H.E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of State for Tolerance (2nd from L) with participants at the Gulf Christian Fellowship meeting 2017, on Sir Bani Yas Island.

“To educate the world about the rich diversity that characterised this land long ago, is to do justice to those who came before us, and to set a critical example for our brothers and sisters around the world,” he added.

“At a time of violent tumult in the Middle East, which has devastated the vibrant cultural, ethnic, and religious tapestry, the Christian communities are willing to work in our respective capacities and locations, in conjunction with the National Programme for Tolerance to promote this region as a beacon of hope and tolerance,” he said. “We hope that all people of good will may visit the ancient Monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island to see the interaction between Christian and Muslim, and to witness the potential of humanity when mutual respect is our foundation.

The Very Reverend Mesrob Sarkissian, UAE and Qatar representative for the Catholicos of the Armenian Church, described the meeting as ‘extraordinary.’ Thanking His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed for facilitating the visit to Sir Bani Yas, he added, “I would like to express my gratitude to the UAE government and leaders for their hospitality and for the respect they offer to the Christian communities in the region, and for the freedom that we enjoy to worship God through our churches. The UAE is a model country because of the way it provides land to Christian communities so that they may build their places of worship.”

In subsequent discussion, one participant commented that, “The value of tolerance is simple to understand but so elusive when putting it into practice. I was not prepared for the breadth and boldness of the National Programme for Toleranc +e. The UAE’s plan to strategically and intentionally implement the value of tolerance was deeply encouraging.”

The Gulf Christian Fellowship, founded in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in 2012, brings together leaders from a wide range of Christian churches, drawn from the five main groups of Christianity, the Catholic, the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox, the Episcopal Churches and the Anglicans.

In a statement issued after the meeting, the GCF Executive Committee said, “Leaders of Churches in the GCC countries welcome opportunities to increase cooperation between our Churches, and between peoples of different religious and social traditions within the incredibly diverse mix of nationalities who find themselves living and working in the Gulf. Although each ethnic and religious grouping strongly desires to be understood by others, the leaders of the Churches are working together to encourage movements toward mutual understanding, peaceful coexistence and strengthening the social dynamics that make up the societies where we live. The annual meeting of the Gulf Churches Fellowship is greatly facilitated by the intentional and direct policies of the UAE government regarding tolerance of non-Muslims living in the country, for which we are very grateful.”

The statement added, “We hail the efforts of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, for his vision and commitment to building a society where the value of tolerance is not just mere talk but is a lived and shared experience. Giving thanks to God, we continue to pray for God’s blessings on the wise leadership of the nation with thanksgiving.”

The meeting was attended by over thirty participants from the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Among them were several archbishops and bishops, including Dr. Joseph, the Metropolitan of the Indian-based Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, Archbishop Nathaniel, Patriarchal-Vicar in the Gulf of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Bishop Khoury Gregorios, Greek Orthodox Bishop in the Emirates, and Bishop Michael Lewis, Anglican Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf.

Other denominations present included the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church, the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church in America.

Lubna, Christian leaders visit Sir Bani Yas monastery

18 January 2017 - 8:22am

The Gulf Christian leaders at the Sir Bani Yas monastery site (Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority)

By Emirates News Agency (WAM)
SIR BANI YAS, UAE, Jan 18 2017 (WAM)

The UAE’s Minister of State for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, and around 30 Christian leaders from the Gulf, yesterday visited the site of the early Christian monastery on Abu Dhabi’s western island of Sir Bani Yas. The visit was the first part of a day of discussions on ways in which Christian communities in the Emirates can contribute to the promotion of the UAE government’s Tolerance Agenda.

The clergymen, including several archbishops and bishops, were drawn from a total of nine different denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Evangelical Church, the Reformed Church in America, the Coptic and Greek Orthodox Churches, the Mar Thoma Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church.

On arrival at the site of the monastery, they were briefed by archaeologists working for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, TCA Abu Dhabi, which is responsible for investigations into and the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

While at the site, the visitors performed an impromptu prayer.

“This site is a symbol of the diversity we have in the UAE,” Sheikha Lubna told the visitors. “Nations develop and flourish when they accept differences and work on their similarities.”

“The emphasis being placed on this site is evidence of the commitment of the UAE towards its archaeology and history, particularly for sites such as this which represent our values of tolerance, co-existence and peace,” she added.

Early excavations at the Sir Bani Yas monastery (Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority)

“We greatly appreciate the opportunity to visit this important site,” Archbishop Nathaniel , Patriarchal-Vicar for the Arabian Gulf of the Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East of the Syrian Orthodox Church, commented. “Not only does it provide evidence of the presence of Christianity in the UAE just before and during the early years of Islam, but the way in which the leaders of the United Arab Emirates are devoting so much attention to its excavation and conservation is testimony to the way in which they, and the whole of the UAE, are devoted to the promotion of religious tolerance and freedom of worship today.”

Commenting on the significance of the visit, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, TCA Abu Dhabi, said, “The archaeological sites on Sir Bani Yas Island which were part of the Church of the East, dated to the 7th and 8th century CE/AD, attest to the long history of religious tolerance in the UAE. The monastery and church are one of dozens of archaeological and heritage sites in this part of the country and this rich and unique history contribute to the cultural heritage of the coast and islands of Abu Dhabi.

“The excavations at the monastery and church, undertaken by TCA Abu Dhabi archaeologists, form part of a major publication of all archaeological and heritage sites on Sir Bani Yas, and have provided an excellent opportunity to engage and train a younger generation of Emirati archaeologists. They will be at the forefront of future work at the site and in so doing will play a critical role in investigating their country’s heritage.”

The site of the monastery was first identified in 1992 during a survey undertaken by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, on the instructions of former UAE President, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Studies of the finds from the excavations as well as other research suggests that the Sir Bani Yas church and monastery may have been founded some time in the early to mid- 7th Century CE, at a time when, prior to the coming of Islam, Christianity was present throughout eastern Arabia. Although there is evidence in ancient documents of the historical presence of Christianity in the UAE, the Sir Bani Yas monastery is, so far, the first physical evidence to have been discovered.

It is believed to have been part of a network of churches and monasteries spread throughout the Arabian Gulf at the time, with other sites having been found in Kuwait (Akaz and Al Qusur on Failaka Island), Saudi Arabia (Jubail) and Iran (Kharg Island).

Early excavations at the Sir Bani Yas monastery in 1995 (Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority)

During the excavations at the Sir Bani Yas site, finds of particular importance were a number of plaster friezes that would formerly have decorated the church. Studies suggest that these date back to the mid-7th to 8th Century CE. The weathered surface of some of the pieces indicates they were used externally on the building although others were probably used inside the church. Some pieces have Christian crosses on them while others depict flowing scrolls connecting palm leaves and grapes. Decorations of this type are known to belong to the architectural style of the Church of the East, one of the Eastern group of churches.

Founded in the 5th Century CE, the Church of the East spread throughout Iraq and Iran, down through the Arabian Gulf and away to India. It also expanded throughout Central Asia as far as western China before beginning to decline in the 14th Century CE.

Three successor churches survive today, although much reduced in numbers, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Ancient Church of the East. They all use the Syriac language in their services.

The particular significance of the Sir Bani Yas site, and the plaster objects uncovered during the excavations, stems from their date and context, which roughly coincides with the beginning of Islam’s spread into southeastern Arabia. The discovery of the church and monastery, along with its series of associated courtyard houses and other buildings, is evidence that a significant Christian community was living on Sir Bani Yas at this time, living side by side with the country’s Muslim inhabitants. This reflects a prevailing spirit of religious tolerance and the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities. The excavations at the site have shown that it was eventually abandoned, with the buildings eventually collapsing.

Following the initial discovery, the late Sheikh Zayed personally encouraged the continued archaeological excavation and preservation of this internationally important site. Today, it is a central focus of plans by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority to promote Sir Bani Yas not only as a key element in the UAE’s cultural heritage but also as a tourist destination.

Other sites for tourists are also being developed on the island.

Sir Bani Yas, which has recently opened a dedicated terminal for cruise ships, is also home to a large collection of endangered species of animals, originally established by Sheikh Zayed, with special safari-type excursions for tourists through the island’s wildlife park.

Inequality (III): Less Employment… and More ‘Junk’ Jobs

18 January 2017 - 1:39am

Cost of a plate of beans in Switzerland: 0.4 per cent of daily income. Cost of same meal in Malawi: 41 per cent of daily income, according to new World Food Programme (WFP) data. Photo: WFP West Africa

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Jan 18 2017 (IPS)

While just eight men are enjoying their huge wealth, equivalent to that of half the world, new forecasts project darker shadows by predicting rising unemployment rates, more precarious jobs and worsening social inequality. To start with, there will be more than 1.4 billion people employed in vulnerable working conditions.

Throughout 2017, global unemployment is expected to rise by 3.4 million due to deteriorating labour market conditions in emerging countries –particularly those in Latin America and the Caribbean, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) warns in a new report.

Meantime, unemployment is expected to fall in developed countries – especially in Northern, Southern, and Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, ILO says in its World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2017.

1 in 2 Workers Employed in Vulnerable Conditions

In addition, the figure of 1.4 billion people who are employed in vulnerable working conditions is not expected to decrease. That number represents 42 per cent of all employment for 2017, warns the report, which was released on January 12, 2017.

“Almost one in two workers in emerging countries are in vulnerable forms of employment, rising to more than four in five workers in developing countries,” said Steven Tobin, ILO Senior Economist and lead author of the report.

On this, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, said “We are facing the twin challenge of repairing the damage caused by the global economic and social crisis and creating quality jobs for the tens of millions of new labour market entrants every year…”

According to the report, global gross domestic product (GDP) growth reached a six-year low last year, well below the rate that was projected in 2015.

“Forecasters continue to revise their 2017 predictions downwards and uncertainty about the global economy persists, generating worry among experts that the economy will be unable to employ a sufficient number of people and that growth will not lead to inclusive and shared benefits.”

Since 2009, the percentage of the working-age population willing to migrate abroad for work has risen in almost every region in the world. That trend was most prominent in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Arab States, it notes.

The report also points out a number of social inequalities that are creating barriers to growth and prosperity.

Gender gaps in particular are affecting the labour market, ILO notes, and gives specific examples: in Northern Africa, women in the labour force are twice as likely as men to be unemployed. “That gap is wider still for women in Arab States. “

Many young Albanian workers are returning home after losing their jobs abroad due to the economic crisis. For many of them, re-entering the local labour market is a daunting task. An ILO-UNDP project helped them address that challenge. Photo: United Nations.

Discontent, Unrest

As a result of these and other social inequalities across a wide range of demographics, the ILO estimates that the risk of social unrest or discontent is growing in almost all regions.

“Economic growth continues to disappoint and underperform – both in terms of levels and the degree of inclusion. This paints a worrisome picture for the global economy and its ability to generate enough jobs,” said Ryder.

“Persistent high levels of vulnerable forms of employment combined with clear lack of progress in job quality – even in countries where aggregate figures are improving – are alarming…”

ILO called for international cooperation and a coordinated effort to provide fiscal stimuli and public investments to provide an immediate jump-start to the global economy and eliminate an anticipated rise in unemployment for two million people.

On Jan. 16, Oxfam International released a major report — ‘An economy for the 99 per cent’ — on the state of growingly deepening inequality worldwide.

On the specific case of employment, it says: “Across the world, people are being left behind. Their wages are stagnating yet corporate bosses take home million dollar bonuses; their health and education services are cut while corporations and the super-rich dodge their taxes; their voices are ignored as governments sing to the tune of big business and a wealthy elite”.

Young women and men in Tunisia, motivated by issues such as lack of opportunities for employment and low standards of living, took to the streets in 2011 in hopes of securing better futures for themselves. Since then, Tunisia has undergone a number of political and social changes. The labour market however has only worsened, further deteriorating chances of formal employment for youth in particular. Photo: United Nations

What Is Behind the Widening Gap?

Asked what is behind this increasingly worsening inequality, Anna Ratcliff, OXFAM’s International’s Media officer, Inequality and “Even It Up Campaign,” said to IPS: “The benefits of economic growth are not shared equally across our societies.

“The vast majority of income generated in the past thirty years has accrued to the owners of capital, and to those at the top of society. Workers have seen their wages stagnate in many countries across the globe, and in many other countries their wages have not risen anywhere near as fast as returns to the owners of capital.”

Ratcliff explained to IPS that in order to maximise returns to their wealthy shareholders, big corporations are dodging taxes, driving down wages for their workers and the prices paid to producers, investing less in their business, and spending billions lobbying government to write the rules in their favour.

As a result, erosions in pensions, labour rights and secure work are common across the world, and hit women and the young hardest because tend to be the ones who are concentrated in precarious jobs, on very low pay, she warned.

“If we don’t tackle inequality, workers across the world will pay the price in terms of increasing insecurity and lower wages.”

The Poor Pay Far More than the Rich for a Hot Meal

Should all the above not be enough, new United Nations data shows that a simple bowl of food in Malawi is much more expensive than that same meal in Davos, Switzerland, once adjustments have been made to take into account one’s average daily income.

That is what research by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) revealed. The analysis is part of a new initiative by the WFP called ‘Hot Dinner Data’ which was made public on Jan. 13, just before the Jan. 17 opening of the annual World Economic Forum, a summit of political and economic leaders that takes place in Davos.

“The Hot Dinner Data analysis aims to hold a new mirror up to the world – one which illustrates the distortions in the purchasing power of the rich and the poor as they try to meet their basic food needs,” announced Arif Husain, Chief Economist of WFP.

‘Hot Dinner Data’ reveals that people in the developing world pay as much as 100 times more for a basic plate of food than those who live in wealthier nations. In the most extreme circumstances – for example, in regions under conflict – the cost can be 300 times higher.

For example, it says, a bowl of bean stew – a standard nutritious meal throughout regions and cultures – would cost a person in Switzerland 0.88 Swiss Francs (CHF), or an average 0.41 per cent of their daily income.

“That cost would be 100 times more in Malawi, where a person would need to spend 41 per cent of their daily income to purchase the same meal. In India and Nicaragua, it would be roughly 10 to 15 times more expensive than in Switzerland.”

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UN Meeting Says No to Anti-Muslim Hatred

17 January 2017 - 6:49pm

Anti-muslim hatred has been particularly targeted at women. Credit: UN Photo/Tobin Jones

By Andy Hazel
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 17 2017 (IPS)

The rise in anti-muslim attitudes around the world prompted a special UN meeting Tuesday, just days before the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump whose controversial policies have drawn on anti-Muslim sentiments.

As if to illustrate just how easily noble intentions are misinterpreted, co-opted and misused, the event’s hashtag #No2Hatred was quickly taken over by nefarious social media actors and became an outlet for angry political diatribe.

“Anti-muslim hatred does not occur in a vacuum,” said David Saperstein, American Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom at the event. “The rise of xenophobia across the world creates challenges that focus our attention and the data leaves us no doubt that this is happening.”

Saperstein quoted studies showing a massive rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence, France has seen a 223 percent increase in attacks on Muslims between 2014 and 2015, the British investigative group TELL MAMA reported a 326 percent increase in abuse and public attacks on Muslims in the UK over the same period. A 2016 study found 72 percent of  Hungarians admit to a negative view of Muslims."Most Muslim hate crime is against women and I would encourage everyone to consider the gender-specific aspects to this violence," -- Richard Arbeiter, the Director-General, Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion, Global Affairs Canada.

“Underreporting is a very serious structural problem that obscures these numbers. The silencing effect is enormous and we must resolve to confront this,” Saperstein said.

“I sincerely regret just how necessary these deliberations have become,” said Richard Arbeiter, the Director-General, Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion, Global Affairs Canada. “Most Muslim hate crime is against women and I would encourage everyone to consider the gender-specific aspects to this violence.”

Panels looked at civil society building how governments could best combat anti-Muslim discrimination, and positive narratives to promote inclusion. Several topics recurred for discussion; how best to engage with political actors and organisations of different beliefs, and how to counter misinformation online.

The American Jewish Committee’s Muslim-Jewish relations director, Mr Robert Silverman reinforced the idea of creating powerful messages by finding alliances and shared priorities with unlikely groups.

“Too often initiatives result in people speaking within bubbles to each other. In a country like the United States or in a place like Europe, we need to get out of our bubbles and reach out to the unlikely and unorthodox partners.”

“You should focus on the common ground,” he continued. “Don’t try to bring in an issue like climate change. Just focus narrowly on the common grounds.”

European Commission Coordinator on Combating anti-Muslim hatred David Friggieri outlined his meeting with the heads of Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google where “open and frank discussion” lead to the enforcement of the European Union’s free speech laws in an effort to counter anti-Muslim sentiment. The ‘red line’ agreed to by the companies and the European law, he told IPS, was one of incitement.

“We have a law prohibiting incitement to violence or hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity or nationality,” said Friggieri. “We are monitoring the situation with them every few months. We have had our first monitoring and there are some improvements but we look forward to seeing more.”

“In terms of the really bad type of hate speech such as incitement to violence, we look at: how are they taking it down? How long before they take it down? What responses does the company give to individuals who notify and to trusted flaggers? Ultimately the aim is to take down (from the internet) the worst type of incitement to violence.”

In a similar effort to address the recent increase in hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric, Moiz Bokhari, advisor to the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation spoke of the Center for Dialogue, Peace and Understanding a newly established website that provides foundations to deconstruct dangerous narratives. The site is aimed at addressing the potential for crimes, radicalisation and to “counter all types of radical extremist discourse in order to delegitimise the violent and manipulative acts committed in the name of religion, ideology or claims of cultural superiority.”

 The High Level Forum on Combating Anti-Muslim Discrimination and Hatred was dominated by discussion of how to address anti-Muslim sentiment and increase the  message of tolerance and inclusion. The forum was convened by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations and the Permanent Missions of the United States and Canada.

UN Secretary General Antònio Guterres used his introductory address to reaffirm the recently-launched initiative Together – Respect, Safety and Dignity for All. An outcome from the Summit for Refugees, the strategy is designed to strengthen the bonds between refugees migrants and host countries and communities.

Speakers throughout the day highlighted bipartisan interfaith success stories: the Canadian town that raised money to rebuild a mosque that had been burned down following the Paris terror attacks, the Norwegian mosque that was protected from attack by Oslo’s Jewish community, the power of positive stories of Muslims in the news and popular culture, and the success of Sadiq Khan who overcame a campaign rife with xenophobic rhetoric to become the first Muslim Mayor of London.

“Politics is moving against us, but local politics not so much,” said Catherine Orsborn, director of interfaith anti-Islamophobia campaign group Shoulder to Shoulder.

Several panellists highlighted the importance of establishing relationships with local political and law enforcement agencies so that any future instances Islamophobia could be dealt with more effectively.

Friends of Europe’s Director Europe and Geopolitics Alfiaz Vaiya ended the discussion on civil society and coalition building with an optimistic note: “The political climate is very toxic, but it’s about politicians being able to sell and be confident in selling a strong narrative on inclusion and diversity. I think youth are the way forward, we see how they vote we see how they follow progressive trends and we should encourage more youth to get involved in conversations like this.”

It’s Time We Get Serious About Organic Farming

17 January 2017 - 1:31pm

By Ken Cook
Jan 17 2017 (IPS)

Conventional farming and food production practices in this country are creating serious environmental and public health problems. Every day, an industrial farming system spinning out of control confronts all Americans with serious challenges. Among these are the explosion in toxic algae blooms in sensitive waterways, cancer-causing pesticides on foods we feed our children, the rapid spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and, of course, contaminated drinking water, all courtesy of corporate agribusiness.

Thankfully, we have an alternative: organic.

Study after study shows organic food is better for our health, and organic farming is better for our environment.

Organic milk has higher concentrations of beneficial nutrients than its conventional counterpart, and organic foods can have higher levels of antioxidants and far fewer, if any, pesticide residues than conventionally grown crops. In addition to the notable consumer benefits, organic farming consumes far less energy and can reduce water pollutionincrease biodiversitypromote healthy soils and sequester significantly more carbon than conventional farming.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been advocating for organic food and farming for more than two decades, with much of our research documenting how the practices and finished products of both conventional and organic agriculture influence our health and the environment.

Despite years of double-digit growth, far outstripping that seen in the conventional food sector, the number of certified organic farms in the U.S. is struggling to keep pace with soaring consumer demand
In that time, I have worked alongside many pioneers and have seen organic farming grow from a fledgling movement available to few, into a nearly $40 billion a year industry. Organic is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. food industry with some of the country’s largest retailers struggling to keep up with customer demand and keep their store shelves stocked.

Despite years of double-digit growth, far outstripping that seen in the conventional food sector, the number of certified organic farms in the U.S. is struggling to keep pace with soaring consumer demand. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2012, fewer than 1 percent of American farms were classified as organic. This has forced many organic food companies in the U.S. to turn to foreign suppliers to meet customer demand.

There is no reason why we cannot be meeting the surging demand for organic foods here at home, growing and producing it ourselves. However, if we are going to grow more organic food in this country we will need more organic farmers. That means recruiting new farmers, and helping existing farmers transition to organic.

Easier said than done.

We will need to provide farmers with technical assistance to help them transition to organic. We will also need to invest in more science and research to ensure that organic and transitioning farmers are armed with high yielding, regionally adapted seeds, designed with organic systems in mind.

Now, you don’t have to be a D.C. lobbyist or congressional staffer to know that the purse strings on Capitol Hill have been pulled tight in recent years, and funds supporting agriculture are tethered closely to the interests of Big Ag, not organic. While EWG will continue to call on Congress to make serious investments in organic in the next farm bill, there is a lot that can be accomplished in the interim if the organic community pools its resources, and approves an organic research and promotions program.

That is why EWG supports the organic check-off program.

The principle of a check-off program is simple: Producers of a particular commodity pool their resources, and collectively invest in research and promotion of that commodity. These programs are authorized by Congress and directed by industry-driven boards overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While this sounds simple, it hasn’t always worked out in the best interest of producers.

EWG is fully aware that farmers have been burned by past check-off programs, and we are glad that so many in the organic community have been part of productive discussions about the organic check-off currently under consideration. After all of those discussions one thing is clear: The organic check-off is not your father’s check-off.

It is the first such program that is not based on a specific commodity, but rather on the notion that if everyone pitches in a little, the organic community can address its shared research, education and promotion needs together.

With the funds raised every year from the check-off, the organic community would be able to provide transitioning farmers with greater technical assistance and training to bring more acres into organic production. It would also be able to fill in the research gaps left every year by limited federal research dollars that all too often skew toward outdated and damaging industrial farming practices. And, the check-off will ensure that the organic sector has an opportunity to educate consumers about organic and promote its benefits in the same way that major commodities like milk and pork were able to do with the “Got Milk?” and “Pork. The Other White Meat” campaigns, respectively.

To be clear, both Congress and organic food companies will also have to do their parts to increase funding for research and promotion of organic in the years to come. But that shouldn’t stop the organic community from supporting the organic check-off program and taking organic to the next level.

After all, EWG not only believes that organic farming can help feed the world, we believe that organic systems and practices may be the only way to do so sustainably. However, the footprint of organic on the agricultural landscape and in Americans’ shopping carts must grow significantly if we are to realize organic’s full potential to feed the planet in ways that enhance the environment and public health.

I hope you will join me in supporting the GRO Organic campaign to make this a reality.

This story was originally published by Food Tank

 

For a Cleaner World

17 January 2017 - 10:31am

By Dr. Shamshad Akhtar
Jan 17 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

The Asia-Pacific region is at a turning point in its energy trajectory. The energy solutions that have fuelled growth in the region over the past few decades are no longer compatible with the sustainable development aspirations of our nations and people. In transitioning to a new era of sustainable energy, policymakers across the region face complex decisions. Supplies must be secure and affordable, and they must fill the energy access gap which leaves half a billion people across the region without access to electricity. At the same time, mitigating the local impacts of energy generation and use will be vital in resolving problems such as the air pollution choking our cities and the global consequences of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Solutions exist, but only through regional cooperation and integration can Asia and the Pacific transition to sustainable energy in time to meet the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Goals.

Countries have committed to moving towards a more diverse and low carbon energy mix through the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, fossil fuels stubbornly remain a major part of the regional energy mix, making up three-quarters of electricity generation. Unless the region’s countries work together to accelerate the incorporation of sustainable energy into their strategies, business-as-usual approaches will result in a continuation of fossil fuel use and associated impacts.

While some countries suffer from energy shortages which limit their economic and social development, others enjoy energy surpluses, such as hydropower and natural gas. Trading these resources through new cross-border power grids, drawing on renewable energy when possible, as well as gas pipeline infrastructure, can open up enormous opportunities for both economic growth and decarbonisation.

The energy technology renaissance, already underway in some countries, is playing a vital role in the transition. New technologies are reducing the cost of clean energy and renewable power. Smart grids and electric vehicles are rapidly gaining market share. Since 2010, the cost of solar power generation has declined by 58 percent (http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_Power_to_Chang…. pdf), with the cost of wind power down by one-third. The International Renewable Energy Agency projects cost reductions of 59 percent in solar power and 12 percent in wind power within 10 years, edging below fossil fuel electricity costs in most Asia-Pacific countries. Advances in long-distance power transmission technologies enable the linking of renewable energy resource-rich areas such as the Gobi Desert, Central Asia and far eastern Russia, with distant population centers. Asia-Pacific has emerged as an engine for clean energy, both as a manufacturing centre for renewable energy technologies and as the leading region for deployment, with USD 160 billion invested in renewables in 2015.

On the demand side, energy efficiency technologies have an important role to play in energy transition. Better energy efficiency is a key driver in decoupling energy use and GDP growth in many economies. With 15 percent of the world’s electricity consumed by lighting (https://www.energy.gov/articles/rise-and-shine-lighting-world-10-billion…), efficient LED lighting technology, which consumes up to 85 percent less energy, will make substantial savings. Energy storage technologies for vehicles and power applications have also leapt ahead, offering flexibility in power usage and balancing variable electricity generation from renewables. Here again, regional cooperation, technology transfer and south-south collaboration will play a vital role in the transition.

Despite these encouraging developments, the success of the energy transition will require sustained commitment at national and regional levels through better policies, incentives and allocation of investments. The inertia of the existing energy sector is considerable, with its long-lived assets and entrenched institutional arrangements. Regional cooperation, through sharing of policy experiences, building capacity and mobilising finance can play a significant role in assisting countries to implement their own energy sector reforms and capture the many co-benefits. The importance of regional energy cooperation is evident in the transboundary nature of many prominent energy challenges – improving regional energy security, managing air pollution and establishing cross-border energy infrastructure. ASEAN, South Asian and Central Asian countries, as well as China, Russia and Mongolia are already embracing cross-border energy connectivity. Initiatives such as the CASA 1000 and the ASEAN Power Grid will allow low carbon energy from gas, hydropower, solar or wind to be traded across borders. Long-term regional dialogue is required to further develop these complex and infrastructure-intensive initiatives.

Connecting countries, finding regional solutions and promoting regional standards and guidelines has been at the core of the work of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific for the past 70 years. We recognise the need for regional energy cooperation, and with the support of our member States established an intergovernmental Committee on Energy that will meet for the first time in Bangkok from January 17-19. Through the Committee, countries will help to map out key regional energy solutions for the region, such as accelerating uptake of renewables and energy efficiency, establishing cross-border energy connectivity, promoting regional approaches to energy security, and providing modern energy access throughout the region to ensure a sustainable energy future for all. Through regional cooperation and integration I am confident that the countries of Asia-Pacific region can transform their energy trajectories to better serve their people, the region and the planet.

The writer is a Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Cpec: Lessons from History

17 January 2017 - 9:54am

By Anjum Altaf
Jan 17 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

How does one get a grip on the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its associated investments without any hard information except for the hype? In the absence of any mechanism for credible evaluation I suggest we hold it up against a historical parallel and see what emerges by way of tentative conclusions. Some discussion grounded in real experience may be better than taking sides in the dark.

Anjum Altaf

Around the turn of the 20th century, the British invested vast sums of money in the part of the subcontinent that now comprises Pakistan. Amongst these investments were the network of canals and barrages, the post and telegraph, and roads and railways. All included it would have likely added up in real terms to be bigger than the $56 billion associated with CPEC.

What came of all that investment and what economic transformations did it sustain? At the macro level, Pakistan remains a desperately poor country with around a third of its population struggling to survive below the poverty line. Almost half the population is functionally illiterate without access to safe water and sanitation or adequate healthcare. Stunting, malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality are at levels considered unacceptable in the rest of the world.

The sobering conclusion would be that even if the investments had huge economic payoffs, extremely venal governance ensured that while some people became phenomenally rich very few of the benefits trickled down to the majority in any meaningful sense.

What came of all the colonial-era investment and what economic transformations did it sustain?

Notwithstanding the issues of governance and distribution, which remain as critical now as then, the question remains: did the investments have huge economic payoffs? Even to speculate intelligently on the question one would need to disaggregate the investments and consider them separately.

Take the canal colonies and the barrages. I believe most people would accept that the outcomes were positive and significant. One can assess the outcomes in terms of crop outputs, crop yields, employment created, or incomes generated for farming households.

Next, consider the railways where the comparisons become more interesting. The link between Karachi and Peshawar via Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan, Lahore, and Rawalpindi can be considered the central artery of the Pakistani economy capable of transporting people and products efficiently and economically. Once again, I believe there would be agreement that the outcomes were positive and the payoffs significant.

Now consider some other investments in the railways that turned out differently. Among these were the links between Peshawar and Landikotal on the Afghanistan border, the link between Quetta and Chaman that was intended to have been extended to Kandahar in Afghanistan, and the Trans-Balochistan railroad from Quetta to Zahedan, inside Iran.

All these could be considered as economic corridors of their time. Even if they were not intended as such, they could have become so after the independence of Pakistan. The Trans-Balochistan railroad extended 455 miles (732 kilometres) with 38 stops linking very friendly countries between which much trade was possible. Indeed, under the Regional Cooperation for Development there was the possibility of extending the link to Turkey and thereby into Europe, an opening with immense economic potential. Today, the Peshawar-Landikotal link is inoperative, and the Quetta-Zahedan link operates on a nominal frequency of twice a month. None of these corridors had any transformative impact on the local or national economies.

Take roads as another example. The British upgraded and extended the Grand Trunk Road, an ancient trade route linking populated habitations, to great and sustained benefit. Contrast the limited economic impact of the more recent Lahore-Peshawar motorway. The equally recent Karakoram and Thar-Karachi highways have had virtually no significant transformative impacts on the local economies except to make it easier for local labour to migrate to more prosperous areas for employment.

Some tentative conclusions can be adduced. For investments to yield economic benefits, it seems a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for them to either generate employment or to connect populated locations at relatively comparable levels of economic development. The historical evidence suggests that routing corridors through sparsely populated territory even with associated investments that create very few jobs is unlikely to be transformative. And linking disproportionately developed areas without prior complementary investments may just accelerate a drain of people and resources from the less developed regions.

It is indeed possible that investments in roads in some sparsely populated areas, eg, in the northern areas or along the Makran coast, would pay off economically if as a result a significant inflow of people is facilitated as would be the case with a major boost to tourism. But such prospects are scarce given Pakistan’s security conditions and increasing social conservatism.

It will no doubt be argued that the unsuccessful rail corridors mentioned here were not made by the British for economic but for strategic military purposes and therefore comparisons with CPEC are invalid. However, as mentioned before, there was nothing to prevent the conversion of the readymade investments to economic purposes after 1947. There was significant trade potential both with Afghanistan and Iran and the latter was a very friendly country at the time. The shrivelling of the corridors should prompt serious questions inquiring what went wrong after all the investments were made.

At the same time it could be argued that CPEC is an equally strategic initiative of the Chinese presented as one with transformative economic payoff for Pakistan. The latter remains to be demonstrated independently and objectively. The historical evidence cautions that mere hand-waving is not enough.

One should also consider what might be the fate of CPEC if relations with China turn sour in the future. This may seem a far-fetched concern at this time but the evolution of the relationship with Iran should provide a reality check. Pakistan’s abysmal relations with all its primary neighbours do not leave much room for complacency and demand a credible fall-back alternative.

If the national objective is to further the development of the lagging provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it might be better to think in terms of employment-generating investments in the regional economies much as the canal colonies created jobs in the Punjab in the 20th century. It might make more sense for economic corridors to follow and not precede such investments.

The writer is a Fellow at the Centre for Development Policy Research in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Inequality (II): “It Will Take 170 Years for Women to Be Paid as Men Are”

17 January 2017 - 1:28am

Infrastructure across Liberia, including electricity installations, was destroyed during the country's protracted civil war (1989-2003). Above, girls in the town of Totota in Bong County walk past homes that are being demolished as the government rebuilds roadways. Photo: UN Women

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Jan 17 2017 (IPS)

While just eight individuals, all of them men, own the same wealth as 3.6 billion people — half of world’s total population — it will take 170 years for women to be paid the same as men, warns a new major report on inequality.

Oxfam International’s report, ‘An economy for the 99 per cent’, which was released on Jan.16, shows that the gap between rich and poor is “far greater than had been feared.”

In it, OXFAM warns that women, who are often employed in low pay sectors, face high levels of discrimination in the workplace, and who take on a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work, often find themselves at the bottom of the pile.

“On current trends it will take 170 years for women to be paid the same as men.”Agricultural yields would rise by almost a third if women had the same access to resources as men” – EU Commissioner

‘An economy for the 99 per cent’ also reveals how big business and the super-rich are fuelling the inequality crisis, adds OXFAM, an international confederation of 19 organisations working in more than 90 countries.

Oxfam interviewed women working in a garment factory in Vietnam who work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and still struggle to get by on the 1 dollar an hour they earn producing clothes for some of the world’s biggest fashion brands.

“The CEOs of these companies are some of the highest paid people in the world.”

Why?

IPS interviewed Anna Ratcliff, OXFAM’s International’s Media officer, Inequality and “Even It Up Campaign”.

“Around the world, women make up the majority of those in the worst-paid and least secure jobs, while shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for unpaid care work. This is not an accident; our current economic model depends on this supply of cheap or free labour.“

When public services are cut because big business and wealthy individuals don’t pay their fair share of taxes, Ratcliff told IPS, it is often women who are hit hardest – for example when education isn’t free, it is girls who tend to miss out.

“Women face discrimination at a household and institutional level, with political and economic elites dominated by men – all 8 of the richest people are men and 89 percent of all billionaires are men.”

According to Ratcliff, economies must be managed to ensure that women have the same economic opportunities as men.

“For example, by ensuring equal access to education, by providing better and more affordable child care services, by investing in basic infrastructure and services, and by challenging social norms about the role of women in our societies.”

Women farmers in Uganda need both better hand tools and access to animal traction. Photo: IFAD

If Women Had the Same Resources As Men…

Being among the poorest of the poor, and in spite of their critical contributions and of making up half of agriculture workers, rural women and farmers are major victims of inequality.

“If women had the same access to resources as men, there would be up to 150 million fewer hungry people in the world, ” said Neven Mimica, European Union Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, at a recent high-level event co-organised by four UN specialised bodies, the European Commission and the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

“It is often said that if you educate a woman, you educate a whole generation. The same is true when we empower women across the board — not only through access to knowledge, but also to resources, to equal opportunities, and by giving them a voice… Yet current statistics suggest that the world is falling short on this score.”

The European Commissioner went on to say that agricultural yields would rise by almost a third if women had the same access to resources as men.

“As a result, there would be up to 150 million fewer hungry people in the world. And we know that children have significantly better prospects for the future when their mothers are healthy, wealthy and educated. Especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”

Women, Half of Agriculture Workers, But…

In developing countries, women make up 45 per cent of the agricultural labour force, ranging from 20 per cent in Latin America to up to 60 per cent in parts of Africa and Asia, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

“And they are harder workers — in Africa and Asia and the Pacific, women typically work 12-13 hours more than men per week.”

Across all regions, women are less likely than men to own or control land, and their plots often are of poorer quality. Less than 20 per cent of the world’s landholders are women.

“Women farmers generate productivity gains. And women reinvest up to 90 per cent of their earnings back into their households — that’s money spent on nutrition, food, healthcare, school, and income-generating activities — helping to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.”

With this data in hand, José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director General, assured at last month’s high-level meeting that achieving gender equality and empowering women “is not only the right thing to do but is a critical ingredient in the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition.”

The meeting was co-organised by FAO, the European Commission and the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP) and UN Women.

At it, Graziano da Silva affirmed that “Women are the backbone of our work in agriculture,” noting that they comprise 45 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, with that figure rising to 60 per cent in parts of Africa and Asia.

These numbers underscore the importance of ensuring that rural women enjoy a level playing field, according to the FAO Director-General

Close That Gender Gap!

In her remarks, Gabriela Matecná, Slovak Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and President of the Council of the European Union over last year‘s second semester, said, “the gender gap imposes significant costs on society, in terms of lost agricultural output, food security and economic growth.”

Although nearly half the world’s agricultural labour force is female, she noted, women own less than 20 per cent of agricultural land. At the same time, 60 per cent of chronically hungry people on the planet are women or girls.

“When you invest in a man, you invest in an individual. When you invest in a woman, you invest in a community,” noted for his part IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze.

“We see time and time again that gender equality opens doors for entire communities to strengthen their food and nutrition security and to improve their social and economic well-being,” he said, adding: “Empowering rural women is indeed empowering humanity.”

“It is only through empowering women farmers that we can unlock the power of global food systems. Supporting them is essential in creating resilience, building stronger businesses, and advancing food security in the long term,” Denise Brown, Director of Emergencies at World Food Programme (WFP), stated.

And Maria Noel Vaeza, Director of Programs at UN Women, said: “Closing the gender gaps in agriculture can provide multiple development dividends, including gender equality for rural women, food security and poverty reduction, improved climate management and peaceful societies.”

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Why Institutions Are so Important for Growth

16 January 2017 - 9:13am

By Biru Paksha Paul
Jan 16 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

In 1900, Argentina looked like a promising country with respectable growth. It was queueing to be an industrialised country like many other western European nations. However, financial markets, the legal system, stock exchange, and the central bank were not ready with up-to-date regulations and, more importantly, their enforcement. Argentina turned out to be unfortunate for not being able to keep the pace of other European nations which had better institutions in place. Argentina’s per capita income is now USD 14,000, far below the mark of USD 40,000 which it should have enjoyed right now like its other comparable European peers.

Ivory Coast and Mexico had similar periods of promising growth even until the end of the 1970s, but both of them soon plunged into zero or negative growth. Ivory Coast was a role model to many African countries, but the country failed to understand that its institutions, such as the public administration, property rights, and law enforcement, must be ahead of African standards. Abidjan, its economic capital, is slightly less congested than Dhaka, reflecting a failure of street discipline. After independence in 1960, Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) grew almost at 10 percent for the first 20 years – the highest of Africa’s non-oil exporting countries. But average growth since the early 1980s until now has remained in the doldrums of 2 percent or so.

A once growth champion can thus turn into a case of growth disaster, alerting us that growth may cascade down like spring water anytime if the society fails to build adequate institutions. There are many stories in the world to remind us that we should fix our institutions at a faster pace to keep our growth going. Otherwise, challenges, as faced by countries like Argentina, Mexico, or Ivory Coast won’t be a surprise. It is imperative to clarify first what the term ‘institutions’ means.

The term, ‘institutions,’ has different meanings in different disciplines. But when we speak of it in relation to growth, we usually refer to the definition of institutional economics. Although ‘institutions’ and ‘organisations’ may appear the same, in reality they aren’t. Institutions are a set of consistent rules that shape the behaviour of organisations and individuals in a society. They can be formal, such as constitutions, laws, regulations, contracts, and procedures. Norms, values, and traditions are informal institutions. Since values, traditions, and laws are often interwoven, institutions give us a much bigger width and depth than a simple set or rules.

There are four key sectors such as finance, education, justice, and public administration, where institutions play the most effective role in promoting growth in a society. If a rule is broken, it’s often both an institutional and organisational failure. Dhaka is a thriving city representing 35 percent of the country’s GDP. Different studies state that Dhaka’s mobility impediments owing to traffic congestion are taking a toll of USD 1 to 3 billion from the nation’s potential income. Thus, we are losing almost 1 percentage point of growth each year. This is partly an infrastructural constraint and heavily an institutional problem, because rules aren’t there. Laws aren’t enforced even if they are there. Defective institutions are in place. A recent report by Brac’s Institute of Governance and Development states that 40 percent of Dhaka’s traffic jam can be removed without any engineering effort, but by enforcing street laws.

Opening an organisation isn’t enough to ensure proper institutions – just like opening the Board of Investment didn’t guarantee enough comfort to foreigners to jump into Bangladesh. The newly formed Bangladesh Investment Development Authority ((BIDA) has taken a different approach. It is examining why Bangladesh’s position in the ease of doing business is so poor – 176 out of 190 countries. The target BIDA has taken is to bring down the number to at least 99. Here the authority is directly addressing the institutional problems that are actually preventing foreigners to flow in. And that is how a nation can build institutions.

The medicines of growth economics, as suggested in textbooks are not new, but they don’t work without institutions. Imagine a case where a patient with physical injuries approaches two different physicians separately. Doctor A prescribes antibiotics and pain relievers. Doctor B emphasises on therapy but prescribes lesser antibiotics and pain pills. Who is better is hard to say, but Doctor B appears to have kept the patient’s less medicated recovery and therefore long-term welfare in mind. Institutions provide long-term sustainability of growth to a nation. Otherwise, growth gets out of steam at some point.

When there is no good rule to drive in the street, there is a legal gap. But when the law is there without any regard from the public, there is an enforcement gap. These two gaps must be filled before defining institutions. When we see vehicles of some powerful officials being driven on the wrong side of the road, it sends a signal to many that institutions are not in place. Institutions mean laws not in books but in real action.

Bangladesh has investment opportunities as well as a bundle of fiscal and monetary policies which are, at least in theory, no less accommodative than those in Vietnam. Then why is Vietnam attracting FDIs equivalent to 5 percent of its GDP while ours is less than 1 percent? Simply put, institutions in Bangladesh are not as well-prepared and accessible as they are in Vietnam. It’s high time to look at improving institutions for Bangladesh just to make sure that we want to maintain this growth momentum. Bangladesh can’t afford the similar fate of growth as experienced by Ivory Coast, Mexico, or Argentina.

The writer is Associate Professor of Economics at the State University of New York in Cortland.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Born Disadvantaged

16 January 2017 - 9:05am

By Hajrah Mumtaz
Jan 16 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

At the age of around three, the daughter of a domestic worker in Karachi started to inexplicably lose weight. After months of ignoring the issue, the mother finally approached her employer, whose first question was whether the child got enough to eat and if her diet was a balanced one.

Hajrah Mumtaz

The mother explained that the child more or less got enough lentils and vegetables, though there was little meat because of the cost — and that even when there was meat, such as on Eid, it tended to go to her sons, because they were older and “needed it more”. The girl was born with low birth weight, and in the first couple of years of her life, when the mother was unemployed, did not get enough to eat because the family was struggling financially. Things were better now with her current job.

Upon being taken to a doctor, it was revealed that the child was suffering from various deficiencies, including vitamin and iodine. The medic also explained that the girl was probably a victim of intergenerational malnutrition given that this was the case with the bulk of the poor in the country. The vitamin deficiencies could be compensated for, he said, but the adverse effects of malnutrition that had already impacted the child in utero and in the crucial first two years of her life — physical stunting, slower cognitive development etc — were permanent.

Over 9m Pakistani children experience chronic malnutrition.

This country’s shocking figures on malnutrition and high rates of stunting have been in the headlines for several years now. Even so, there seems to be little understanding of the problem and the scale at which it is putting successive generations at a significant disadvantage.

Intergenerational malnutrition occurs when the effects of chronic malnutrition play out over successive generations: undernourished girls become undernourished mothers whose children are therefore also undernourished, both during pregnancy and later because of poverty. Of these, the girls — already born and raised weaker than their potential — will go on to become malnourished mothers. The effects are compounded and aggregate.

On top of this is not just the discrimination girls face food-wise at the hands of the male members of the family (‘the boys need it more’ logic), but also the fact that many girls are married off far too early and have little say in when they should bear children.

According to the World Food Programme, globally malnourished mothers give birth to somewhere around 17 million underweight infants every year. Of these, the ones that survive infancy face compromised health and cognitive development all through their lives. The same source says that at a worldwide level, maternal malnutrition accounts for 20 per cent of child stunting. Referring specifically to Pakistan, the National Nutrition Survey 2011 tells us that 44pc of children in the country suffer stunted growth — according to the UN the third highest number in the world.

This translates into 9.6m Pakistani children that have experienced chronic nutritional deprivation in utero or during early childhood. Stunting and slow cognitive development translate to persons less able to work to their full potential later in life, thus deepening the poverty cycle. The effects of in utero malnutrition can be compensated for to some extent in early life, but after age two or so, by when some 80pc of the brain’s capacity has already developed, the deficiencies have become permanent.

If this presents a frightening lens through which to view the predicament in which millions of Pakistan’s poor find themselves, consider an old bit of research on poverty of which I was recently reminded. In 2013, the prestigious Science magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science carried a ground-breaking lens through which to study financial stress.

It showed that poverty, in and of itself, significantly hurts people’s ability to make well-thought-out decisions and, as a single factor, imposes a mental burden comparable to losing a dozen IQ points.

In other words, the stress of it is such that people’s ability and judgement to decide wisely is significantly impeded, because the short-term gains are so urgently needed and long-term ones seem so impossible. Poverty, as the article notes, directly impedes cognitive function. One of the authors of the study, Eldar Shafir, commented in an interview back then that “All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they are inhabiting”.

Put these pieces of research together and the future looks grim indeed: on the one hand, there are millions labouring on despite poor cognitive development; on the other, the very context of poverty could be leading to poor decision-making. Hence, perhaps, the very slow pace of success in Pakistan’s intervention initiatives — and there have been several over the decades — to lift millions out of poverty and improve lives.

The writer is a member of staff.
hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Kenya Can Lead the Way to Universal Health Care in Africa

16 January 2017 - 6:14am

The UN in Kenya works with the Keyan Government and partners to ensure health services are delivered where they are most needed. (Credit: UNDP Kenya/James Ochweri)

By Siddharth Chatterjee
NAIROBI, Jan 16 2017 (IPS)

Consider this: every year, nearly one million Kenyans are pushed below the poverty line as a result of unaffordable health care expenses.

For many Kenyan families, the cost of health care is as distressing as the onset of illness and access to treatment. A majority of the population at risk can hardly afford the costs associated with basic health care and when faced with life threatening conditions, it is a double tragedy-inability to access health care and lack of resources to pay for the services.

According to the World Health Organisation, a large percentage of poor households in Kenya cannot afford health care without serious financial constraints as most are dependent on out of pocket payments to pay for services.  Nearly four out of every five Kenyans have no access to medical insurance, thus a large part of the population is excluded from quality health care services.

In 2015, UN Member States endorsed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), expected to guide the development agenda through 2030. The endorsement of the SDG 3 – Good health and wellbeing; formally enshrined Universal Health Coverage (UHC) as a development priority for all countries.

UHC has the potential to transform the lives of millions of Kenyans—guaranteeing access to lifesaving health services while helping individuals and families avoid crippling health expenses and the poverty trap.

Nearly four out of every five Kenyans have no access to medical insurance, thus a large part of the population is excluded from quality health care services.
The situation is not unique to Kenya, but also a case in point for many other developing countries. As a result, UHC has been identified as a key development goal for enhancing countries’ health systems globally.  It is an all-encompassing development issue, including as it does, the full spectrum of essential, quality health services from health promotion to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation as well as palliative care.

Protecting people from the consequences of out-of-pocket health expenditure, which in Kenya forms about a fifth of family spending, is critical. It reduces the risk of people using up their life savings, selling of assets, or borrowing, threatening the financial future of their families as out of pocket health expenditure is also the most inequitable and inefficient.

However, achieving UHC is a formidable challenge because Africa as a continent requires about 50 percent more doctors to achieve UHC, compared to Europe which needs only about 3 percent more. The continent still lags far behind the rest of the world in provision of basic health care services such as immunisation, water and sanitation as well as family planning.

Much of the problem lies with the low prioritisation of health. Less than ten countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have met the Abuja declaration committing to allocate 15 percent of their annual government spending on provision of health care.

Kenya is one of the countries that is yet to reach the Abuja threshold, but several indicators show that the country can be an inspiration for the rest of the continent in achieving UHC by 2030.

One of the steps in the right direction is the government’s move to eliminate payments for primary and maternal health services in public facilities. This has led to tangible improvements in maternal and child health, with maternal mortality ratio falling from 488 to 362 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2008 and 2014.

With consensus that maternal health is a major driver of overall health and economic development, the Government of Kenya in partnership with the United Nations family and the World Bank, with strong support from the governments of the United States of America, United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Denmark and Norway who have focussed on counties with the highest maternal and child deaths. Significant gains have also been made as a result of the First Lady of Kenya’s Beyond Zero campaign.

Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Global Health and Health Care at the World Economic Forum, remarked that, “Kenya’s efforts has led to an innovative public-private partnership mechanism that has the potential of building business models that will offer the best of both public and private sector in scaling-up the delivery public health services in low-resource settings”.

Another positive direction is the devolution of health – a constitutional change that shifted responsibility for healthcare provision to county governments. This seeks to achieve universal coverage by bringing health decisions closer to citizens, ensuring efficient and equitable resource distribution, thereby improving access to health facilities as well as services.

Recent changes to the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) has expanded the coverage for formal sector employees by adding outpatient care and a new initiative specially targeting informal sector has recently been introduced. The new national scheme offers a comprehensive family cover for US$ 60 (6000 Kenyan Shillings) covering both outpatient and inpatient services. New initiatives such as health insurance subsidies for the poor, severely disabled and elderly will help to bring more vulnerable people under comprehensive health insurance cover.

Kenya is already a leader in technological innovation.  This is a capability that must be harnessed to improve health systems to help bring down costs of delivering health care services through telemedicine, reducing inefficiencies in provider payment systems and generating better data.

These improvements could significantly help ameliorate the financial stress that is currently the most significant barrier to achievement of UHC. Some studies have shown that technical efficiency is a big flaw in Kenya’s health facilities, with one reporting that public dispensaries are operating at only 47 percent efficiency.

Kenya is part of various initiatives for developing sustainable financing for health services such as the Global Financing Facility, a partnership that will catalyse greater investments in health services, with a particular focus on women, adolescents and children.

The momentum is already with the country and in keeping with the spirit of the SDGs, Kenya must lead in the moral imperative of ensuring that none of the people who cannot pay for health care are left behind.

Kenya can undoubtedly lead the way in achieving universal health care.

Inequality (I): Half of World’s Wealth, in the Pockets of Just Eight Men

16 January 2017 - 1:17am

Credit: Marianela Jarroud / IPS

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Jan 16 2017 (IPS)

Just eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, according to a major new report by an international confederation of 19 organisations working in more than 90 countries.

Oxfam International’s report, ‘An economy for the 99 per cent’, which was released on Jan.16, shows that the gap between rich and poor is “far greater than had been feared.”

“The richest are accumulating wealth at such an astonishing rate that the world could see its first trillionaire in just 25 years. To put this figure in perspective – you would need to spend 1 million dollars every day for 2738 years to spend 1 trillion dollars.”****These Are the World’s 8 Richest People:

1. Bill Gates: America founder of Microsoft (net worth $75 billion)
2. Amancio Ortega: Spanish founder of Inditex which owns the Zara fashion chain (net worth $67 billion)
3. Warren Buffett: American CEO and largest shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway (net worth $60.8 billion)
4. Carlos Slim Helu: Mexican owner of Grupo Carso (net worth: $50 billion)
5. Jeff Bezos: American founder, chairman and chief executive of Amazon (net worth: $45.2 billion)
6. Mark Zuckerberg: American chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Facebook (net worth $44.6 billion)
7. Larry Ellison: American co-founder and CEO of Oracle (net worth $43.6 billion)
8. Michael Bloomberg: American founder, owner and CEO of Bloomberg LP (net worth: $40 billion)

Oxfam’s calculations are based on global wealth distribution data provided by the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data book 2016.

The wealth of the world’s richest people was calculated using Forbes' billionaires list last published in March 2016.

The report details how big business and the super-rich are fuelling the inequality crisis by dodging taxes, driving down wages and using their power to influence politics.

“New and better data on the distribution of global wealth – particularly in India and China – indicates that the poorest half of the world has less wealth than had been previously thought.”

Had this new data been available last year, the report adds, it would have shown that nine billionaires owned the same wealth as the poorest half of the planet, and not 62, as Oxfam calculated at the time.

Obscene!

On this, Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said: “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when 1 in 10 people survive on less than 2 dollars a day. Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.

“Across the world, people are being left behind. Their wages are stagnating yet corporate bosses take home million dollar bonuses; their health and education services are cut while corporations and the super-rich dodge their taxes; their voices are ignored as governments sing to the tune of big business and a wealthy elite.”

Oxfam’s report shows “how our broken economies are funnelling wealth to a rich elite at the expense of the poorest in society, the majority of who are women.” (See Part II of IPS series).

Tax Dodging

OXFAM’s report also tackles the critical issue of tax dodging.

Corporate tax dodging, it informs, costs poor countries at least 100 billion dollars every year.

“This is enough money to provide an education for the 124 million children who aren’t in school and fund healthcare interventions that could prevent the deaths of at least six million children every year.”

The report outlines how the super-rich use a network of tax havens to avoid paying their fair share of tax and an army of wealth managers to secure returns on their investments that would not be available to ordinary savers.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the super-rich are not ‘self-made’. Oxfam analysis shows over half the world’s billionaires either inherited their wealth or accumulated it through industries, which are prone to corruption and cronyism.

It also demonstrates how big business and the super-rich use their money and connections to ensure government policy works for them.

World Income Inequality in Focus at UNU-WIDER – United Nations University. Photo: Ted McGrath. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (cropped).

A Human Economy?

“Governments are not helpless in the face of technological change and market forces. If politicians stop obsessing with GDP [Gross Domestic Product], and focus on delivering for all their citizens and not just a wealthy few, a better future is possible for everyone.”

Oxfam’s blueprint for a more human economy includes a series of measures that should be adopted by governments to end the extreme concentration of wealth to end poverty.

These include increasing taxes on both wealth and high incomes to ensure a more level playing field, and to generate funds needed to invest in healthcare, education and job creation; to work together to ensure workers are paid a decent wage; and to put a stop to tax dodging and the race to the bottom on corporate tax.

These steps also include supporting companies that benefit their workers and society rather than just their shareholders.

As well, governments should ensure economies work for women, and must help to dismantle the barriers to women’s economic progress such as access to education and the unfair burden of unpaid care work.

Does Anybody Care?

Here, a key question arises: national governments, the UN, the EU, and major civil society and human rights organisations, all know about the on-going, obscene inequality. How come that nothing effective has been done do far to prevent it or at least reduce it?

On this, Anna Ratcliff, OXFAM’s International’s Media officer, Inequality and “Even It Up Campaign,” comments to IPS that “tackling inequality properly will mean breaking with the economic model we have been following for thirty years.”

“It will also mean taking on and overcoming the powerful interests of the super-rich and corporations who are benefiting from the status quo. So it is not surprising that despite global outcry at the inequality crisis, very little has changed.”

Nevertheless, says Ratcliff, some governments are bucking the trend, and managing to reduce inequality, listening to the demands of the majority not the minority.

Asked for specific examples, Ratcliff says that some governments, like Namibia’s, have managed to decrease inequality by taxing the rich more and spending it on things such as free secondary education that help reduce the gap between rich and poor.

“These countries show that another world is possible, if we can reject this broken economic model and stop the undue influence of the rich.”

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