Interpress News Service

Depressed? Let’s Talk

3 April 2017 - 1:49am

Depression causes persistent sadness, a loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy and an inability to carry out daily activities. Credit: WHO

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Apr 3 2017 (IPS)

Just three weeks after celebrating the International Day of Happiness, the United Nations now asks you the following questions: do you feel like life is not worth living? Are you living with somebody with depression? Do you know someone who may be considering suicide?

Not that the world body all of a sudden wants to spoil your happiness—it is just that depression affects people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all countries, and as many as over 300 million people worldwide, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“These new figures are a wake-up call for all countries to re-think their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a news release.

Depression causes mental anguish and impacts on people’s ability to carry out even the simplest everyday tasks, with sometimes devastating consequences for relationships with family and friends and the ability to earn a living. At worst, WHO adds, depression can lead to suicide, now the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.

Credit: WHO

No wonder then that the World Health Day on 7 April provides everybody –depressed or not– with a special opportunity to mobilise action around a specific health topic of concern to people all over the world.

Understandably then, the theme of 2017 World Health Day campaign is Depression: Let’s Talk.

In spite of these warnings, not all news is bad news. A better understanding of what depression is, and how it can be prevented and treated, will help reduce the stigma associated with the condition, and lead to more people seeking help.

What Is Depression All About?

To start with, the world health body explains what depression is all about: it is an illness characterised by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for at least two weeks.

In addition, people with depression normally have several of the following: a loss of energy; a change in appetite; sleeping more or less; anxiety; reduced concentration; indecisiveness; restlessness; feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness; and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Credit: WHO

But do not panic–depression is something that can happen to anybody, it is not a sign of weakness, and more importantly: it is treatable, with talking therapies or antidepressant medication or a combination of these.

Fine then. Now that the world leading body specialised in health issues assures once and again that much can be done to prevent and treat depression, you may ask what to do to overcome this bad feeling?

Stop Prejudice, Discrimination, Stigma

One of the first steps is to address issues around prejudice and discrimination. “The continuing stigma associated with mental illness was the reason why we decided to name our campaign Depression: let’s talk,” said Dr Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO.

“For someone living with depression, talking to a person they trust is often the first step towards treatment and recovery.”

There is also the need to increase investment–in many countries, there is no, or very little, support available for people with mental health disorders. Even in high-income countries, nearly 50 per cent of people with depression do not get treatment.

On average, just 3 per cent of government health budgets is invested in mental health, varying from less than 1% in low-income countries to 5 per cent in high-income countries.

Credit: WHO

On top of this, WHO reminds that investment in mental health makes economic sense–every 1 dollar invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of 4 dollars in better health and ability to work.

What to Do to Prevent Depression

To begin with, WHO recommends to talk to someone you trust about your feelings. Most people feel better after talking to someone who cares about them.

Should this not be enough, then seek professional help–your local health-care worker or doctor is a good place to start.

Meantime, keep up with activities that you used to enjoy when you were well; stay connected, keep in contact with family and friends; exercise regularly, even if it’s just a short walk, and stick to regular eating and sleeping habits.

As importantly, don’t by shy—just accept that you might have depression and adjust your expectations. You may not be able to accomplish as much as you do usually.

And, of course, void or restrict alcohol intake and refrain from using illicit drugs–they can worsen depression.

As you see, depression can be treated. And it goes without saying that if you think you have depression, all you need is to just seek help.

It goes without saying that the best recommendation would be not to feel depressed! But!

Come on, it is not the end of the world!

Autism Awareness

2 April 2017 - 11:30am

By Rukhsana Shah
Apr 2 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

April is the cruellest month of the year, wrote T.S. Eliot. It is a month of painful rebirth, but also a time of immense possibilities, when each being has the chance to blossom. It is thus very aptly the month that hosts World Autism Awareness Day today, April 2.

Rukhsana Shah

The pain of discovering that the child you have given birth to is on the autism spectrum then struggling with their condition and facing a world of critical peers, doctors, educators and government functionaries needs to be leavened by sympathy and kindness. A recent US study found that a very high percentage of mothers of autistic children suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. If this is true for the world`s richest country, which provides extensive support structures, what must the travails be of women in Pakistan whose children are diagnosed with autism? First, diagnosis itself is dif ficult, because mothers looking for answers from doctors are often not even aware of what autism is.

And particularly in smaller cities and towns, doctors often can`t diagnose autism, let alone advise parents, as it barely factors in their medical education and very few universities concentrate on the subject.

Since the incidence of autism is growing at a phenomenal rate at home and abroad, the existing structures of knowledge -including medical curricula need to be revised to include a thorough understanding of specific developmental disorders. Help, care and research centres for autism should be set up at all institutions where psychology, developmental paediatrics and neurology are being taught, while public and private schools must set up resource rooms and train teachers to enable these children to attend mainstream schools.

Second, autism is still not officially recognisedinPakistan. Even the National Institute of SpecialEducation`s signboardinIslamabad continues to read as the centre for `mentally retarded` children. This is despite the fact that the Capital Administration and Development Division minister inaugurated a seminar on autism awareness last year, while in 2014 the day was commemorated at President House. Many eminent persons, including the chief ministers of Punjab and Sindh, have children or grandchildren with autism, so why aren`t things changing? Not only must all disability laws be amended to include autism and other developmental disabilities, the federal government must also legislate for inclusive education as mandated by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that was ratified by Pakistan in 2011.

Third, there is no autism prevalence data availableinPakistan. In the1998nationalcensus, only 2.4 per cent disability was reported,while the worldwide figure according to the UN is 15pc. Only four categories of disability are identified and reported blind, deaf, physical disabilities and `mental retardation` and that term does not differentiate between the various intellectual and learning disabilities. So there is no data on the burgeoning number of people with autism and related disorders, with the result that teachers and caregivers are not properly trained to deal with them, closing the doors on their education and rehabilitation forever.

With a new census under way, it is imperative that the government collects relevant information on all types of disabilities among the population, as well as disaggregated data since most girls and women with disabilities remain unreported. The government should use state-of-the-art technology for enumeration and tabulation of data, including aerial photography, GPS and digitisation tools.

Fourth, budgetary allocations for education, access, rehabilitation and employment of persons with disabilities are abysmally low in all the provinces. Only 1pc of children with disabilities are able to attend any kind ofschool (less in higher education), while children and adults with autism have no future in the existing scenario.

So far, the only schools for autism have been estab-lished by parents themselves, with limited financial and human resources, while some `professionals` have set up `therapy` centres exploiting desperate parents by charging exorbitantly for dubious `treatments`.

The provincial governments must set up autism centres for early intervention, education, management and therapy in the absence of inclusive education systems.

Separate funds must be allocated not only for infrastructure, but also for continuous capacity building and training. The existing network of doctors, psychologists, nurses, Lady Health Workers, school health and nutrition supervisors, government schools, union councils and community-based organisations must be utilised to create such f acilities in at least all major cities. And finally, residential homes and community centres must be established for adults with autism with help from the corporate sector to inculcate independent living, provide vocational training (including cooking and computer skills), and provide sheltered and assisted employment.

The writer is a former federal secretary.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Sri Lanka and the born-again Commonwealth

2 April 2017 - 10:10am

By the Editorial Desk, Sri Lanka Sunday Times
Apr 2 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

Interestingly, if not ironically, the British Government having voted to exit the European Union (EU) in accordance with the wishes of a majority of its people, is now looking forward – or maybe looking back – at the Commonwealth once again.

The 53-nation Commonwealth, the third largest global grouping, next only to the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement, was often contemptuously dismissed as a club living in the somewhat inglorious past of the British Empire serving neither man nor beast. And then, Britain, the primus inter pares in this club, itself dumped the Commonwealth for a new and more attractive bride – the EU, until it found that was a mistake.

Marking Commonwealth Day last Monday, a day long forgotten except by the titular head of the group, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of a “truly global Britain”, a clear reference to looking beyond Europe – and re-engaging with other countries, mainly the Commonwealth of nations.

The week before, Trade Ministers from 35 of the 52 member-states, including Sri Lanka’s Trade Ministers met in London. (Yes; we have two Trade Ministers). The fact that the Commonwealth Trade Ministers were meeting for only the first time since 2005 spoke for itself.

Sri Lanka’s International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama gave a sound-bite to the media on the sidelines of the meeting saying it was the right time “for a new Commonwealth trading bloc”. Unfortunately, we have no further information on what this ‘new Commonwealth bloc’ is until the Minister enlightens us.

Britain’s decision to sideline its age-old trading partners in the Commonwealth was recognised at that very meeting and the country was asked, not necessarily to beg forgiveness, but to re-approach with “a degree of humility” old partners who were cast aside.

As Britain moved away from the Commonwealth (its funding dried up so much that the Commonwealth Press Union once known as the Empire Press Union, had to fold up, one day short of a hundred years of existence), so did the other Commonwealth countries move away from Britain. They had to seek new trading partners. Many countries found a great new economic partner — China.

China has spread its tentacles — and its influence far and wide, especially in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa where much of the Commonwealth membership is. As everyone knows, Sri Lanka too has had to look to China in recent years for economic succor, though not necessarily in trade.

Last year, Sri Lankan exports plummeted by as much as 3 percent and this decline continues despite what was an anticipated prognosis that a new pro-West Government in 2015 would attract more markets abroad. With its mainstay, garments only showing a marginal increase, and the EU still keeping Sri Lanka waiting for the GSP+ concessions, the country’s Balance of Payment problems have aggravated. The domino effect on the ordinary citizen is felt by inflation topping income levels and the resultant rise in the Cost of Living.

With the rupee continuing to slide to the US dollar, some expecting it to hit Rs. 160 sooner than later, all imported items will be costlier. Economic analysts point out that if the Sri Lankan consumer, especially the growing middle class, is forced to cut back on his or her lifestyle, it would have a knock-on effect on foreign investors who will not see Sri Lanka as a worthwhile market to invest in. The only attraction then in Sri Lanka would be for manufacturers seeking re-export facilities to third countries.

Our Economic analyst, Dr. Nimal Sandaratne, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank said last week in his column that Sri Lanka’s crisis is because of “the fundamental weaknesses in the trade balance, capital outflows, the non-realisation of expected inflows of Chinese capital and inadequate foreign investment”. Our exports earnings are only a little over a half of our import bill.

Many economic analysts blame inconsistent statements and actions by the National Unity Government for the lack of investor confidence in Sri Lanka. UNP Ministers and SLFP Ministers talk differently on economic policy leading to confusion all round. Unable to articulate their intentions properly, coupled with a veil of secrecy in what the pro-free market UNP Ministers want to do has given rise to suspicion that a cabal is dictating the Government’s economic agenda. This in turn, has met with objections from SLFP Ministers, including the President. SLFP Ministers more comfortable with an outdated pro-centralised economy are often tripping up the UNP Ministers, the result being the Government is going nowhere.

Sri Lanka is not ‘the only girl on the beach’ anymore. Many other countries have already made inroads into markets which Sri Lanka long thrived on; tea, apparels, tourism and while some of these newly emerging countries have already forged into diversified fields like electronics, Sri Lanka stagnates. Free Trade Agreements with Singapore, China etc., controversial as they are, still remain on the drawing boards and an FTA + called ETCA with India has already raised an anti-Indian bogey.

Going back to Britain’s Commonwealth ‘Born Again’ strategy, it is pertinent to note that while it calls for a return to the past, an all-party parliamentary group for Tamils (Sri Lankan Tamils only, it seems) just late last month slammed the Government of Sri Lanka for slow progress in post-war reconciliation and the setting up of a war crimes tribunal with foreign judges via the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in Geneva.

The British Government, with its Lilliputian allies like Macedonia and Montenegro, who have nothing to do with Sri Lanka are now the new promoters of Resolution 30/1 in Geneva. Only MP Ian Paisley defended Sri Lanka in the House of Commons committee saying when Britain rejects an international inquiry into ‘Bloody Sunday’ or the Iraqi invasion, it runs the risk of being hypocritical in asking others to hold international inquiries. To a lesser degree, the former foreign affairs state minister Sir Hugo Swire said that the very fact that the parliamentary group was for the interests of the Tamils in Sri Lanka displayed how anti-integration the British Parliament might be seen to be and added that what all Sri Lankan communities want right now is “economic prosperity”.

Last month, Sri Lanka marked 69 years of Independence from Britain, but it has not sunk into many British MPs that the writ of Westminster no longer holds sway over this country. Maybe, they are only pandering to some of their constituents, but the British Government will have to make a call on wanting to do business with its old Commonwealth partners, while hauling some of them over the coals at the same time.

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

People With Autism Have Right to Autonomy Too

1 April 2017 - 11:20pm

Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, gives the keynote address during a special event held to mark World Autism Awareness Day. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Lyndal Rowlands

Guardianship laws meant to protect people with autism actually deprive them of their basic rights and autonomy, according to experts on a UN panel.

When people with autism turn 18, their parents or other caregivers are encouraged to legally become their guardians. However, as Zoe Gross an autism self-advocate says the practice deprives people with autism of the ability to influence their own lives.

Gross was one of several panelists at a special event held to ahead of World Autism Awareness Day on the theme ‘Toward Autonomy and Self-Determination” at UN headquarters in New York on Friday.

The laws affect all aspects of a persons life, says Gross:

“Where you live, where you work, who you spend time with, whether you want to get married or have children, even whether to have medical procedures.”

“Regardless of whether your guardian is acting in your best interests or not, if you are under guardianship you don’t have access to the same rights that most adults take for granted,” -- Zoe Gross, Autism Self Advocate.

In some states, people under guardianship lose the right to vote while in extreme cases Gross says that people under guardianship have been forced to undergo involuntary sterilisation.

“Regardless of whether your guardian is acting in your best interests or not, if you are under guardianship you don’t have access to the same rights that most adults take for granted,” said Gross, who is Director of Operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

Theresia Degener, Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities spoke strongly against guardianship, also described as substituted decision making at the event.

“Substituted decision-making is a human rights violation,” said Degener. “It is called protection but it is oppression.”

“Guardianship laws are a harmful traditional legal practice coming from the north and it is now widespread all over the world and it must be repealed.”

Also speaking at the event, Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge spoke about how people with autism have difficulties with social relationships and communication but also need need respect and acceptance for their differences.

Baron-Cohen described how people with autism report feeling that even those they are close to may take advantage of their social naivety or different communication skills.

Baron-Cohen also emphasised that autism is a reflection of “neurodiversity, that our brains are not all wired the same.”

He also emphasised the potential positive sides of autism.

“Autism Is not a disease in the classical sense because it invariably leads to disability it also often leads to talent for example in excellent attention to detail and excellent ability to spot patterns.”

Baron-Cohen said that it was impossible to separate a discussion about independence and autonomy for people with autism from a discussion of their human rights.

“All people with autism, like all people with a disability, have legal capacity even if they need support to make decisions and need safe-guarding,” said Baron-Cohen.

“Legal capacity and equal recognition before the law are inherent rights that people with autism enjoy on an equal basis with other members of our societies,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrres in a statement.

“Let us ensure that we make available the necessary accommodations and support persons with autism with access to the support they need and choose so they will be empowered to face the key milestones in every person’s life, such as deciding where and with whom to live, whether to get married and to establish a family, what type of work to pursue and how to manage their personal finances.”

“When they enjoy equal opportunity for self determination and autonomy, people with autism will be empowered to make an even stronger positive impact on our shared future.”

Brazilian Dam Causes Too Much or Too Little Water in Amazon Villages

1 April 2017 - 5:42pm

A chicken coop in the village of Miratu, flooded because the Xingu River rose much more than was announced by Norte Energía, the company that built and operates the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, whose main reservoir is some 20 km upstream from the Juruna community in Brazil’s northern Amazon jungle region. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
ALTAMIRA, Brazil, Apr 1 2017 (IPS)

The Juruna indigenous village of Miratu mourned the death of Jarliel twice: once on October 26, when he drowned in the Xingu River, and the second time when the sacred burial ground was flooded by an unexpected rise in the river that crosses Brazil’s Amazon region.

Their cries are also of outrage against the Norte Energía company, the concession-holder for the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which determines the water flow in the Volta Grande stretch of the Xingu River, a 100-km area divided in three municipalities, with five indigenous villages along the riverbanks.

Jarliel Juruna, 20, was very good at what he did: catch ornamental fish, which have been increasingly scarce since the dam was inaugurated in November 2015. Apparently the need to dive deeper and deeper to find fish and help support his family contributed to the fatal accident, according to his siblings Jailson and Bel.

The company had ensured that the rise in water level in that area would be moderate, since the flow was divided between the Volta Grande and a canal built to feed the main Belo Monte generating plant, near the end of the curve in the river known as Volta Grande or Big Bend.

The markers showing how high the water would rise were surpassed early this year, due to heavy rains and a limited diversion of the water to be used by the hydroelectric plant, which will be the third largest in the world in terms of capacity once it is completed in 2019.

The unexpected rise also caused material losses. Boats and equipment were carried away by the high water. “My manioc crop was flooded, even though it was on land higher than the markers,” said Aristeu Freitas da Silva, a villager in Ilha da Fazenda.

Despite the excess of water, this village of 50 families is suffering a lack of drinking water.

“The river is dirty, we drink water from a well that we dug. The three wells drilled by Norte Energía don’t work because the water pump broke eight months ago,” said Miguel Carneiro de Sousa, a boatman hired by the municipality to ferry students to a nearby school.

The school in Ilha da Fazenda only goes up to fourth grade, and in Brazil education is compulsory up to the ninth grade.

Bel Juruna, a Juruna indigenous leader from the village of Miratu along the Volta Grande of the Xingu River. The 25-year-old woman is an impressive voice in the defence of indigenous rights, against the Belo Monte hydropower plant and inefficient government authorities, in this territory in Brazil’s Amazon region. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Deiby Cardoso, deputy mayor of Senador José Porfirio, one of the municipalities in Volta Grande, admitted that water supply is a municipal responsibility, and promised that the problem would be resolved by late April.

He did so during a Mar. 21 public hearing organised by the public prosecutor’s office in the city of Altamira, to address problems affecting Volta Grande. IPS attended the hearing as part of a one-week tour of riverbank and indigenous villages in this area.

Taking over the Xingu River for energy purposes, to the detriment of its traditional users, such as indigenous and riverine peoples, has cost Norte Energía many obligations and complaints in its area of influence in the northern state of Pará, where local people sometimes confuse its role with that of the government.

The company is required to carry out a plan for compensation and mitigation of social and environmental impacts, with conditional targets, and the number of complaints about non-compliance is increasing.

Local residents of Ilha da Fazenda had reasons to complain at the hearing. The health post is filthy and abandoned, the ambulance boat has a broken motor, and the electricity produced by the village generator is only available from 6:00 to 10:00 PM.

The deputy mayor accepted the complaints about the delays, which he said were due to the short period that the municipal government has been in power, since January.

The unkempt health post in Ilha da Fazenda, one of the villages on the banks of the Xingu River affected by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, in the state of Pará in Brazil’s Amazon region. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

But holding the key to the Xingu River, opening or closing spillways and activating or shutting off its turbines, Norte Energía dictates the water level downstream, especially in the Volta Grande. At the hearing, it seemed clear that they do it without considering the human and environmental impacts.

“The water level drops and rises all of a sudden, without warning,” complained Bel Juruna, a 25-year-old community leader and defender of indigenous peoples’ rights who talked to IPS during the visit to the village of Miratu.

“These abrupt fluctuations in the volume of water released in the Volta Grande produce changes in the water level in the river that confuse the aquatic fauna, disoriented by the availability of space to feed and breed,” said ecologist Juarez Pezzuti, a professor at the Federal University of Pará.

And once the hydroelectric plant starts to operate normally, the water flow will be permanently reduced, he added.

The local people are informed daily, through phones installed by the company in many houses, about the volume of water that enters Volta Grande. But this information about cubic metres per second means nothing to them.

“The information has to be useful,” adding the water level in the river in each village, the local indigenous people told the authorities present at the hearing, who included prosecutors, public defenders and heads of the environmental and indigenous affairs agencies.

There is a “failure of communication” that Energía Norte needs to fix, it was agreed during the hearing, where there were no representatives of the company.

Indigenous houses, practically submerged by the unexpected rise of the Xingu River. These traditional houses of the Juruna people give support to the “canoada”, a tourist and political event that the native people organize each September along the Volta Grande, in the northern Amazon state of Pará in Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Safety of navigation is another demand by the Juruna and Arara native people, who live on the banks of the Volta Grande. The damming of the river exacerbated the “banzeiros” (turbulence or rapids), which have already caused one death, early this year.

The local indigenous peoples are demanding large vessels, one for each of the five villages, to cross the reservoir to Altamira, the capital of the Medio Xingú region, without the risks that threaten their small boats.

They are also asking for support equipment for the most turbulent stretches of the Volta Grande, from August to November, when small dangerous rocky islands emerge due to the low water level.

The reduced water flow has made navigation difficult in the Volta Grande, the traditional transport route used by local people, increasing the need for land transport.

An access road to the routes that lead to Altamira is a chief demand of the Arara people.

“It was a condition of the building permit for Belo Monte, to this day unfulfilled. We have been waiting for that road since 2012,” protested José Carlos Arara, leader of the village of Guary-Duan.

They rejected the handing over of a Base of Operations that Norte Energía built for the National Indian Foundation, the state body for the defence of indigenous rights, to protect their territory. “With no land access, we won’t accept the base, because it will be incomplete,” said Arara, supported by leaders of other villages.

To improve territorial protection and the participation of indigenous people in the committees that deal with indigenous issues and those involving Volta Grande within the programmes of compensation and mitigation of impacts of Belo Monte is another common demand, submitted to the hearing in a letter signed by the Arara and Juruna people.

The need for protection was stressed by Bebere Bemaral Xikrin, head of the association of the Xikrin people, from the Trincheira-Bacajá indigenous land.

Since mid-2016, the waters of the Bacajá River have been dirty, which has killed off fish. The reason is the “garimpo” or informal surface mining along tributary rivers of the Bacajá, on the outskirts of the Xikrin territory.

And things will get worse with the construction of a road to bring in machinery for the garimpeiros or informal miners, if the Protection Plan, which was to be ready in 2011 “but hasn’t made it from paper to reality, is not fully implemented soon,” said Bebere Bemaral.

The Xikrin people do not live along the Volta Grande, but everything that happens in that stretch of the Xingu River affects the Bacajá, a tributary of the Xingu, which this people depend on for survival, he explained.

The rivers which were the lifeblood of local indigenous and riverine people became a risk factor with the implementation of a hydropower megaproject, to which could be added the Belo Sun mining project, also on the banks of the Volta Grande.

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IPS Interviews FAO DG on appointment of David Beasley as WFP head

1 April 2017 - 5:06am

José Graziano da Silva. Credit: FAO

By IPS World Desk
ROME, Apr 1 2017 (IPS)

As widely known, the key objective of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is to eradicate hunger and malnutrition by 2030, as established with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals two years ago.

The two other Rome-based Agencies, partners of FAO in this endeavor, have both recently seen a change in their leaderships : the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP). On February 14, Gilbert Houngbo, former Prime Minister of Togo, was elected by the members states of IFAD as its President, and will take over on 1 April.

In the case of WFP, a joint programme of the United Nations and FAO, the UN Secretary-General and FAO Director-General led the selection process to identify the best candidate to serve as the new head of the largest humanitarian agency for food assistance and food aid. On March 29, the former Governor of South Carolina, David Beasley, was formally announced as the Executive Director of WFP after endorsement by the WFP Executive Board.

In this exclusive interview, FAO Director-General, Jose Graziano da Silva, shares with IPS his experience of carrying out this important task.

IPS : How do you feel about David Beasley’s nomination? Did you have a chance to speak to him after the final decision ?

Graziano da Silva: It was a very good outcome. David has outstanding credentials for the position, as he brings his extensive experience in liaising with key government and business leaders around the world and in leading peacebuilding missions and development efforts, working with foreign leaders. I truly hope we can continue the excellent collaboration between FAO and WFP undertaken under the leadership of the outgoing Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, and enhance it even further. Through our collective efforts and a twin-track approach, of emergency food assistance and delivering livelihoods, we must work together to keep people alive and help them to build resilience during a food crisis, ultimately eradicating hunger.

After the announcement of his selection, we had a fruitful telephone conversation and exchanged messages through the social networks. In a message from his Facebook post, he thanked me and SG Antonio Guterres for his appointment, and said he will increase efforts for “expanding the public and private partnerships (…) getting food and assistancee to those who so desperately need it”. FAO stands ready to support and collaborate with him in this regard. I feel that he is very excited about his new job, and I look forward to welcoming him in Rome.

IPS : How do you see the collaboration between FAO and WFP unfolding with a new leadership, particularly at this critical time of food security crisis?

Graziano da Silva: The precarious conditions of many countries in terms of food security, as well as the current famines, make it more urgent now than ever that the Rome Based Agencies work together.

We are faced with an unprecedented situation in the world today with South Sudan experiencing famine and three other countries – Yemen, northeastern Nigeria and Somalia – facing the threat of famine. Our task is not only to ensure that the people survive today but that they can live with dignity tomorrow.

If people abandon their lands, they lose their livelihoods, food production declines – thereby worsening not only their situation, but the food security of the country for many years to come.

Together the Rome Based Agencies (FAO, IFAD, WFP) need to undertake a twin-track approach, providing food assistance and simultaneously offering livelihood support and income opportunities.

FAO for its part will provide all its support to the of the new WFP Executive Director in order to tackle the many challenges of emergency assistance and providing relief around the globe. I shall also extend all support to the new President of IFAD.

IPS: Can you tell us more about Beasley’s nomination process ? Could you share with us your experience during the selection exercise and its implications

Graziano da Silva: As WFP is a joint autonomous subsidiary programme of the UN and FAO, its Executive Director is appointed by the Secretary-General of the UN and the Director-General of FAO, after consultation with the Executive Board of WFP.

Throughout this appointment process, the UNSG and I have been fully aware of the importance of ensuring a fully transparent process. The Executive Board was consulted on the proposed appointment, at the end on the process.

I am particularly proud to have taken part in this process, in close coordination with the Executive Office of the SG. I am very pleased to have been involved in this process, especially as WFP is the largest humanitarian agency for food aid in a world where many lives are at risk during one of the worst food crises in 70 years.

IPS: Could you give us more details about the process of selection itself?

Graziano da Silva: A call for nominations and applications was issued and was open from 14 to 28 February 2017, followed by a formal communication circulated to the Member States calling for candidates. The vacancy announcement was also posted on the FAO’s website and the UN SG’s senior level vacancies web page.

In total, 23 candidatures from 14 countries were received (5 women, 18 men), out of which 19 were individual applications (4 women, 15 men) and four were nominations from Member States (1 woman, 3 men). After review, 6 candidates (1 woman, 5 men) were short-listed and interviewed.

IPS : What was the criteria used for recommendations were made? Can you take us through some of the steps undertaken to ensure proper evaluation was done in this process?

Graziano da Silva: The evaluation panel composed of the UN Deputy Secretary-General and the Chief of Cabinet of the UN SG, as well as the FAO Deputy Director-General for Programmes and the FAO Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the Deputy Director-General for Operations. They focused on four areas for the interview: background, strengths and weaknesses of the candidate; strategic vision and work programme; previous experience in building partnerships with key stakeholders; and management and leadership expertise.

Positive Signs as Asia-pacific Moves Towards Global Development Goals

31 March 2017 - 12:13pm

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

By Shamshad Akhtar
BANGKOK, Thailand, Mar 31 2017 (IPS)

With just over a year since the adoption of a historic blueprint to end poverty and protect the planet, positive signs have already started to emerge among countries in the Asia-Pacific region as they push ahead with the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Shamshad Akhtar

It is encouraging to note that most countries in the region have made serious attempts to domesticate the landmark global action-plan by developing national sustainable development strategies– a first and crucial step if we are to fully realize the ambitious targets set out in the landmark agreement.

Steady economic growth over the past year has seen a decline in poverty and an improvement in the quality of life. A bright spot worth highlighting is the progress on gender equality. Gender parity has been achieved in primary education, and maternal mortality rates have been brought down across the region with the exception of certain pockets. For example, maternal mortality dropped by 64 per cent in South Asia from 1990 to 2015 and by 57 per cent in the Pacific over the same period.

Notwithstanding these incremental gains, a number of outstanding challenges remain which if not effectively addressed may scuttle our collective efforts.

A joint study undertaken by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) reveals that some 400 million people in Asia and the Pacific continue to live in extreme income poverty and more than one in four people experience poverty in multiple dimensions that impact their health, education, and standard of living. South Asia is the worst affected with 15 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty, and 86 per cent residing in rural areas where income diversification opportunities are limited and challenges of poor natural resource management persist. Of equal concern is the rise in income inequality within countries. The challenge is to ensure that prosperity is felt by all, and not just a fortunate few.

With 12 per cent of the population, or 490 million people, still undernourished in our region, ending hunger and poverty will heavily depend on introducing sustainable food production systems and more resilient agricultural practices. Despite reductions in infant mortality rates, children in low income countries are still nearly nine times more likely to die before reaching the age of one than those in high income countries.

Enhancing the health of citizens will also require expansion of coverage of health services in many countries. This means increasing government spending on health, as per capita government spending is as low as $4 per person in low income economies of our region.

Despite progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment made in Asia and the Pacific on several fronts, significant gaps still remain. Women continue to be paid less and are more likely to find themselves in vulnerable employment with low wages, no formal contracts or labour rights and minimal social protection. In 2015, the gender pay gap in the region as a whole reached an astounding 20 per cent.

As a whole, the region has also experienced declining biodiversity levels – a major source of distress for Pacific island economies – where the value of fish caught in the territorial waters of some small island developing States is worth up to three times their GDP. Future risks to ocean resources are further underscored by the fact that 40 per cent of our oceans are heavily affected by unsustainable practices.

Finally, the Asia-Pacific region faces a high infrastructure deficit. At the same time, demand pressures will grow as the urban population will swell by 50 million each year, aggravating congestion, air pollution and waste management.

Needless to say, these challenges must be urgently addressed. Strong continued leadership, knowledge sharing and UN system collaboration, are pivotal tools that will move us all closer to realizing the aspirations set out by the 2030 Agenda. The dynamism and development track record of our region lends us hope that we can achieve balanced economic, social and environmental development by pursuing the right blend of rebalancing to revive domestic and regional demand.

ESCAP remains committed to strengthening the capacity of countries, so that they can embrace integrated strategies to confront the multidimensional facets of poverty, and promote the opportunity for prosperity for all.

This week ESCAP held the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD 2017) in Bangkok from 28-31 March, which brought together senior representatives from across the region to define a road map that will support member States’ implementation of the 2030 Agenda over the next 15 years.

We are all working to come up with concrete measures that will enhance the region’s achievement of the SDGs to deal with multidimensional poverty, which when considered raises the level of the vulnerable population in Asia and the Pacific region to 900 million. Forums like these are key to marshalling the international support required to achieve this ambitious agenda. Progressing the SDGs in Asia and the Pacific is central to achieving the global 2030 Agenda. We have the opportunity for action now.

Indonesian Farmers Weather Climate Change with Conservation Agriculture

31 March 2017 - 9:27am

Aquaponics in Indonesia: Bumina and Yumina systems use an integrated farming technique combining vegetables, fruits and fish. Credit: FAO

By Kanis Dursin
JAKARTA, Mar 31 2017 (IPS)

Fifty-two-year-old farmer Theresia Loda was effusive when asked how conservation agriculture has changed her economic situation.

“My corn harvest has increased fourfold per season since I started practicing conservation agriculture,” Loda told IPS by phone from Kalimbu Ndara Mane Village, Wejewa sub-district in Southwest Sumba District, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) province, around a two-hour flight east of the capital Jakarta.“For us, the most important aspect is the increase in productivity, profitability, and resilience to climate change.” --Mark Smulders of FAO

Conservation agriculture encourages farmers to keep soil disturbance at a minimum. Instead of ploughing the field, farmers dig permanent planting holes and use compost instead of chemical fertilizer. They are also urged to grow cover crops such as legumes, and to rotate crops.

Loda started practicing conservation agriculture on a 2,800 square meter plot in early 2015. In the first season, she harvested around 500 kilograms of maize, compared to between 100 and 150 kilograms using traditional techniques. Her harvest soared up to 800 kilograms in the second season, before it went down to 600 kilograms in the October 2016-February 2017 season.

The widow and mother of 10 said she sold the maize to local people and used the money to send her children to school. In 2016, she sent her fifth child to study in a nursing academy in Malang, East Java province, one year after he graduated from senior high school.

Loda’s first and third children dropped out of school in grade five, while the second and fourth finished senior high school but were not able to go to academy or university due to financial constraints. Her sixth to ten children are still in senior high, junior high, and elementary schools.

In 2016, Loda, who separated from her second husband in 2010, used part of her maize income to buy piglets and rent a paddy field in order to augment her income. Her first husband passed away in 1994.

“I just sold two pigs to pay my fifth child’s tuition in Malang. Next week, we will harvest rice from our farm for the first time,” said Loda.

Mikhaela Imakulata, a 45-year-old farmer in Sikka District, shared Loda’s sentiment.

“We harvested around 2.6 tons in the first season, compared to 2.1 tons when using the traditional method,” the mother of two told IPS from Maumere, the capital of Sikka District, on Mar. 24.

Imakulata said she and her husband cultivated an area of over 1,100 square meters. Aside from corn, they also planted a wide range of bean varieties as cover crops.

“We just planted maize again immediately after we harvested the first planting. We want to find out how the weather will affect the crop,” she said.

Mark Smulders, FAO Representative for Indonesia and Timor Leste. Credit: Kanis Dursin/IPS

Loda and Imakulata are two of almost 13,000 smallholder farmers in NTT and West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) who practice and benefit from conservation agriculture the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) introduced there in 2013 as part of its priority program of reducing disaster risks caused by changing climate in the country.

According to Ujang Suparman, FAO national project manager for NTT and NTB, conservation agriculture projects were also implemented in West Sumba, Central Sumba, East Suma, Sabu, Malaka, Timor Tengah Utara, Timor Tengah Selatan, Alor, Lembata, Nagekeo, and Ende, West Lombok, Central Lombok, East Lombok, North Lombok, and West Sumbaw.

“Smallholder famers in NTT and NTB are among the poorest in Indonesia. They are prone to the impacts of climate change, especially long dry spells and irregular rainfall,” Mark Smulders, FAO representative for Indonesia and Timor Leste, told IPS in an interview in Jakarta.

According to Smulders, conservation agriculture is a win-win situation. “On one hand, we conserve the soil, which means we protect the soil from the sun, preserve the moisture, bring in organic materials, and on the other hand, farmers boost production and at the same time are better protected against climate change,” he said.

Data provided by FAO Indonesia and Timor Leste show conservation agriculture has proven to increase maize yield from an average of 2.1 metric tons to 4.3 metric tons per hectare.

“For us, the most important aspect is the increase in productivity, profitability, and resilience to climate change,” said Smulders.

Aside from conservation agriculture, FAO Indonesia and Timor Leste also encouraged farmers here to try integrated rice-fish farming, locally known as mina padi, where part of the irrigated rice field is turned into fish ponds.

According to Smulders, while mina padi is quite different from conservation agriculture, both are trying to intensify production using an ecosystem approach with far less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“What we do in mina padi is we take part of the rice field and make it into fish ponds. But fish also swim in between the rice and eat all the pests, fertilize the rice with their feces, and in the end we get better yields, better income, and better nutrition because farmers do not only eat rice they harvest but also the fish,” said Smulders.

Around 37 percent of children under five in Indonesia are stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition in the first five years of their life. On top of that, some 20 million people, or almost eight percent of the country’s population of 260 million, simply do not have access to the basic dietary energy that they need.

“We would like to put emphasis on a healthy diet from the farm to the table. We would like to see farmers produce a healthy diet, not just rice but other products as well,” Smulders said.

Sigit Paryono, a 46-year-old farmer in Sleman District, Yogyakarta, said his net income has risen significantly since joining FAO’s mina padi program in 2015.

“I used to earn between 38 dollars and 76 dollars per 1,000 square meters, now around 226 dollars,” said Sigit, who claimed to have a half-hectare of rice field.

Sigit said since joining FAO’s program in 2015, he has earned enough money to buy another 5,000 square meters of rice field. “I also sent my two children to universities,” he said.

“I hope FAO would help farmers in post-harvest processing. We want to sell mina padi rice and fish ourselves but we cannot do it without any help from others,” Sigit said.

Pramono, head of the Food Security Division, Sleman Agriculture and Fishery Agency, said mina padi works for both commodities. Rice benefits from food leftovers and fish feces as fertilizers, while fish benefit from pests that serve as their food.

“With pests eaten by fish and their feces serving as fertilizer, farmers need no pesticides or chemical fertilizers,” said Pramono.

He said his office introduced the embryo of mina padi to local farmers in 2011. “In 2015, with financial assistance from FAO, they were able to form a cluster of 25 hectares of rice field. At least 20 percent of the rice field is allocated for fish ponds,” said Pramono.

“While planted rice fields decrease by 20 percent, yields increase by 30 percent on average. On top of that, farmers still harvest between two to five tons of fish per hectare,” Promono told IPS.

“Many young factory workers have resigned to participate in mina padi cultivation,” said Pramono, adding “The future of rice production is strong again now that young farmers are entering the sector.”

Rice-fish farming was also experimented with in West Sumatra province.

Smulders said both conservation agriculture and mina padi were in line with the Indonesian government’s plan to create over 1,000 organic villages. “All three techniques, including integrated pest management, could be useful technics to promote organic farming,” he said.

He also said that his office is having discussions with the central government on how to scale up conservation agriculture and rice-fish farming areas.

“We feel we don’t have the capacity. We have demonstrated the good practice. Now, we want the government to invest. It’s a good thing to promote the two,” Smulders said.

FAO, according to Smulders, would focus on how to minimize post-harvest losses through improved storage. Too often, he said, farmers sell corn and rice at harvest time so prices are low.

“We are planning to work on a storage facility” so farmers can keep their commodities and sell them at higher prices several months later, Smulders said.

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Journalism in Nicaragua under Siege

30 March 2017 - 6:37pm

The offices of La Prensa, the oldest newspaper in Nicaragua and the leading media outlet critical of the Daniel Ortega administration, has suffered negative economic consequences as a result, as have other opposition outlets. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Mar 30 2017 (IPS)

During the 161st session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an empty chair across from the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanzas, sums up the Nicaraguan government’s relationship with this issue in the country: absence.

At the Mar. 15-22 meeting of the IACHR, an independent Organisation of American States (OAS) body, only Cuba, the United States and Nicaragua were absent from the debate in the review and complaints session, which in the case of Nicaragua dealt with freedom of expression.

It was the third time this Central American country abstained from participating, which according to experts on freedom of expression and journalism conveys a “disregard” by the government towards the media and journalists, ever since leftist President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, after governing the country in the 1980s.

Adrián Uriarte, the dean of the social sciences department in the University of Commercial Sciences, said “freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and goes beyond the media.”

The academic explained to IPS a set of indicators he created to determine the degree of freedom of expression in a country.

The first “refers to the exercise of this right in different social areas: home, community, media, school, church, and now social networks,” while the second “has to do with the exercise of this right in public spaces: protests, demonstrations, marches,” he said.

The third involves “a citizen’s right to demand accountability from the government and the powers-that-be, including the media.”"This can be measured by the lack of access to information, zero interviews, zero advertising from the state, control over tax exemptions, and control of social and labour institutions to exert administrative pressure on owners of media outlets.” -- Adrián Uriarte

The fourth relates to “the right to seek and access public information; and the fifth indicator has to do with the exercise of this right in writing, by radio or television, which of course is directly linked to freedom of the press.”

This country “has good grades in the first indicators, in terms of freedom of expression, mostly because in Nicaragua internet use is not yet regulated, and as a result, social networks have become the main new public spaces where citizens exercise their right to freedom of expression,” said Uriarte.

“But journalists and the media are ironically the group that exercises freedom of expression the least in Nicaragua. I would say actually that this is the area where self-censorship is practiced the most,” said the academic.

In Uriarte’s view, the government of Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who became vice president in January, “has a sectarian vision of freedom of the press.”

“There are public policies aimed at promoting technological development and access to information and advertising for public and private media outlets, but which have ties, according to investigative reporting, to the current administration,” he said.

“On balance, we can say that in Nicaragua those who suffer a lack of freedom of expression are private media outlets not influenced by the state,” said Uriarte.

“The most visible form has been denial of this right,” he said.

This “can be measured by the lack of access to information, zero interviews, zero advertising from the state, control over tax exemptions, and control of social and labour institutions to exert administrative pressure on owners of media outlets.”

“It is also seen in the cancelation of private spaces in local newscasts, removal of technical equipment from local radio stations, which has naturally led to the closure of private spaces of opinion due to a lack of economic sustainability for many journalists.”

Newspaper and radio reporter Juan Rodríguez has experienced firsthand the consequences of being considered an “opposition journalist”.

“In 2007 I was communications and press officer for the Executive Secretariat of the National System for Disaster Prevention and Care, when the Sandinista government came into power and they cancelled my contract with no legal justification. They fired me because they suspected that I belonged to the right-wing media,” he told IPS.

Since then, Rodríguez has got around a series of barriers and a lack of institutional support to make radio programmes, while complaining about political harassment for having headed the independent Association of Journalists of Nicaragua.

Journalist Luis Galeano, director of the local radio and television programme Café con Voz, put it like this: “As a journalist I always work thinking whether tomorrow we are going to be able to go on the air.” His programme, broadcast by a local TV station and a network of community radios, is not yet considered “opposition”, but Galeano is worried that any day now the authorities will apply pressure to remove it from the air.

“I don’t know whether the government will all of a sudden get annoyed with what I say or do in my programme and order its closure, or whether business people are going to request that my programme be shut down, or whether they will pressure the few business people that support the media to stop backing us. The truth is that I live in constant worry about whether or not I will remain on the air,” he said.

Dozens of journalists have complained about the same sense of uncertainty, to Nicaraguan human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Arce with the non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre.

Freedom of expression, according to the United Nations, is based on “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.” In the current situation this right is not guaranteed for individual citizens, collectives or independent journalists, due to a secretive government policy,” Arce told IPS.

According to the activist, the 2007 policy is based on the strict control of public information and manifests itself as a gag order for civil servants.

For Arce, the problem of freedom of expression is exacerbated by government control of the media. This, in his opinion, “runs counter to the government’s obligation to promote pluralism and independence in the media.”

In this Central American nation of 6.2 million people, in 2007 there was only one TV channel and one radio station in the hands of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) , another state-owned station and two other pro-government stations, as well as several others close to the government.

In 2017, according to Arce, more than 80 per cent of the radio stations, TV channels, print media and on-line programmes are under the control of the FSLN, controlled by family members, political operators and like-minded journalists, although some occasionally declare themselves publicly as independent.

“As an advocate, the biggest problem is the lack of information of the institutions and the fact that that many people avoid speaking out because they fear retaliation from the government,” he said.

Arce said the absence of the government in the continental forums to debate on freedom of expression is shown not only by the empty chairs during the 161st session of the IACHR, but also in the countless pronouncements of international bodies on violations of human rights and other universal rights.

To illustrate, Arce mentioned U.N. criticisms in its Universal Periodic Review on Nicaragua in 2014, and other reports issued since 2008 by the U.S. State Department, the European Parliament, the OAS, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Inter American Press Association, Freedom House, and Amnesty International, among others.

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Two UN Experts Found Dead in DRC, Search Continues for Interpreter, Drivers

30 March 2017 - 5:05pm

The UN flag flying half-mast. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

The bodies of two UN experts have been found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) two weeks after their team went missing.

Among the remains found were American Michael Sharp and Swede Zaida Catalan who were members of the U.N. Group of Experts which reports to the Security Council on the Congolese conflict, arms trafficking, rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. The two experts along with their interpreter and 3 drivers went missing on 12 March while investigating violence and alleged human rights abuses outside of the city of Kananga in the Kasai-Central province. 

Secretary-General António Guterres said that he was “deeply saddened” by the events, stating: “Michael and Zaida lost their lives seeking to understand the causes of conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to help bring peace to the country and its people.”

DRC has been marred by insecurity since 1994 when the Rwandan genocide and an influx of refugees plunged the country into the deadliest conflict in African history, killing almost 5 million civilians. 

Though the country declared peace in 2003, there has been a resurgence in violence in recent months. According to Human Rights Watch, protests erupted across the country when President Joseph Kabila stayed in power despite the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in December 2016. 

Government security forces have since repressed opponents, allegedly killing over 50 people and jailing hundreds of opposition leaders and supporters. 

Meanwhile, clashes between government forces and local militias escalated in various parts of the country, including in the Kasai region which has experienced some of the worst violence. 

Over 400 people have been killed and 200,000 displaced from their homes in the Kasai region since August. Security forces have purportedly used excessive force, “unnecessarily firing” on alleged militia members including women and children, said Human Rights Watch. Two dozen mass graves have also been reported.

While speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley expressed concerns over the country’s violence and human rights violations, stating that the Congolese government is “corrupt” and “preys on its citizens.” 

“The UN peacekeeping mission…is aiding a government that is inflicting predatory behavior against its own people. We should have the decency and common sense to end this,” she continued. 

The Congolese government has reportedly blamed the UN team’s deaths on the Kamuina Nsapu, a local insurgent group that has clashed with government forces since its leader was killed six months ago. 

DRC government spokesperson Lambert Mende stated that the remains of Congolese interpreter Betu Tshintela was also found alongside Sharp and Catalan. Three other local staff still remain missing, including the team’s driver Isaac Kabuayi.

“The search is ongoing,” UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS regarding the missing personnel.  

Secretary-General also called on a thorough examination on the deaths of the UN experts. “The United Nations will do everything possible to ensure that justice is done,” he stated. 

Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes Muthoni Wanyeki called on the DRC government to also conduct investigations, stating that the deaths should serve as a “reminder of the urgent need to end the violence in Kasai Province.” 

Human Rights Watch highlighted the need to ensure the implementation of a Catholic Church-mediated agreement signed at the end of 2016 which includes a clear commitment that President Kabila will not seek a third term and that presidential elections will be held before the end of 2017. 

“The [Human Rights Council’s] engagement now is critical to help protect civilians from further violence, press for accountability for serious abuses, and ensure that timely, credible elections are held to build a more democratic and rights-respecting country,” the organisation said. 

Sharp, 34, had been in the DRC for five years, first working as the Eastern Congo Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee. 

Catalan, 36, was a Swedish politician for the Green Party and later worked in the West Bank and Afghanistan prior to joining the UN Group of Experts.

Eritrean-born journalist Dawit Isaak awarded UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2017

30 March 2017 - 4:26pm

PARIS, Mar 30 2017 (UNESCO)

Dawit Isaak, an imprisoned Eritreann-Swedish journalist, has been chosen to receive the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Mr. Isaak was arrested in a crackdown on the media that occurred in September 2001. The last time he was heard from was in 2005. His present location is unknown.

An independent international jury of media professionals recommended unanimously Mr. Isaak in recognition of his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression, and the recommendation was endorsed by the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

“Defending fundamental freedoms calls for determination and courage – it calls for fearless advocates,” said Irrina Bokova. “This is the legacy of Guillermo Cano, and the message we send today with this decision to highlight the work of Dawit Isaak.”

“Dawit Isaak joins a long list of courageous journalists who have persevered to shed light in the dark spaces; keeping their communities informed against all odds,” said Cilla Benkö, President of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2017 Jury. “Some have given their lives in the pursuit of truth. Many have been imprisoned. Dawit Isaak has spent nearly 16 years in jail, without charge or trial. I sincerely hope that with this award the world will say, “˜Free Dawit Isaak Now.'”

Dawit Isaak, a playwright, journalist and writer, moved to Sweden in 1987, where he later became a citizen and went into self-imposed exile. After the independence of Eritrea, he returned to his homeland to become one of the founders and reporters of Setit, the first independent newspaper in the country. He was known for his critical and insightful reporting.

The Prize will be awarded during the celebration of World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, hosted in Jakarta, Indonesia this year in the presence of the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo.

Created by UNESCO’s Executive Board in 1997, the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honours a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and, or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, and especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.

The $25,000 Prize is named in honour of Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogotá, on 17 December 1986. It is funded by the Cano Foundation (Colombia) and the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation (Finland).

Dubai 1977, Dubai Now

30 March 2017 - 10:33am

By Felino A. Palafox, JR.
Mar 30 2017 (Manila Times)

Christmas of 1976 was a turning point in my life. It was the afternoon that Sultan Khalifa of Dubai personally met me at the Mandarin Hotel. He said that His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, had sent him around the world to look for planners to help plan, design, and develop Dubai and transform it from the Third World to the First.


If I remember correctly, I first came across Dubai in an article in my uncle’s encyclopedia. It said it had zero percent paved roads, and it even misspelled the country as “Dibai”. Back in 1976, I was the senior planner for the World Bank-funded MMETROPLAN. When the words climate change adaptability, resiliency, and disaster risk reduction were not yet globally known, the plan for Metro Manila already included these. The plan also included a modern mass transit system of Light Rail and buses, and by 1981 Metro Manila was one of the first countries in Asia to have a light rail transit.

While Sultan Khalifa was presenting the goals and vision for the development of Dubai, in my mind, I was thinking about what would I do in Dubai. Back then, Manila was probably 50 years ahead of Dubai in terms of infrastructure, paved roads, transportation and airports. Today, the Philippines is probably about 50 to 100 years behind Dubai in terms of planning and infrastructure.

During the conversation, one thing that Sultan Khalifa said stood out, as these were the specific instructions of the late founder of “Modern Dubai,” His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. “Design Dubai as if there is no oil. Plan a city for two million people (in 1977 the population was 270,000). Create a garden city out of the desert. Travel around the world and take the best practices that we can adopt. Make Dubai a pacesetter city in the Middle East and North Africa in 15 years; bring Dubai from the Third to the First World.”

After finishing the MMETROPLAN, I went to Dubai and brought with me the envisioned Metro Manila as one of the models for the emirate city. I was the only Southeast Asian and Filipino, and I brought with me my family. My daughter, Karima, was the first Filipino born in Dubai.

Looking back today, after 40 years, what has happened to Dubai?

What I learned from Dubai
It only takes one generation to transform a country. The first instruction of His Highness Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum was to travel around the world to copy and take inspiration from the best practices of First World cities and countries. He said: “Dubai will run out of oil, design Dubai as if there is no oil.” So, we needed to find models that would make Dubai globally competitive in other industries and non-dependent on oil. My colleagues went to the more famous cities: London, Paris, and New York. I, on the other hand, visited the new emerging fastest growing cities which became First World in less than 15 years. I went to cities such as San Francisco, Hong Kong, Zurich, Singapore and Geneva. From these so-called instant cities, my colleagues and I adapted and copied the global best practices, and learned from their mistakes.

In 1977, the population of Dubai was only 200,000. But the instruction we were instructed to design Dubai to accommodate two million people as well as build mega airport and mega seaports. By the 1980s Dubai was building seaports for the ships that were never built, airports for the tourists and industries that were yet to come. We were importing garden soil from Pakistan, irrigation from Germany, and flowers from Holland. Dubai quickly became a garden in the desert. Today, it has more landscaping than Metro Manila. In less than eight years, the Dubai port became one of the most important ports in the region, most especially during the Gulf War.

Five types of infrastructure
There are five types of infrastructure, and Dubai had adopted all. These are soft (ease of doing business and policies), hard (roads and highways), progressive (mass transport, airports and seaports), institutional (government centers and places for institutional memory and continuity), and green/sustainable infrastructure.

The ruler of Dubai told us that, “what is good for business is good for Dubai”. He emphasized the importance of the ease of doing business. The permits should be signed immediately; if there are objections from the council, they have two weeks to explain why it will not be signed. Government offices also avoided having desks with drawers, and conversations should be kept short. Today, it is encouraged for all permits be done electronically so that everything is well-documented.

Five ingredients of development success

Whenever I share inspirations from other countries, many will downplay the possibilities. Some will say that the Philippines is different, that won’t work, etc. But a good question to ask is, have we ever tried? A friend of mine said that the problem for some Filipinos is that for every solution that you suggest they will find problems.

After my experience in Dubai, I was inspired to come home to the Philippines during the mid-1980s. I saw the possibilities; in terms of resources, the quality of education and current infrastructure then, the Philippines had more than enough to become a First World nation. But I believe that the Philippines still has the chance!

After visiting more than 2,000 cities in 67 countries, and having worked in 39 countries, I have come to the conclusion that there are five ingredients of successful cities: visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance.

Let us learn from Dubai, and from global best practices.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

Combating the Global Threat to Public Health

30 March 2017 - 10:18am

By Zubair Khaled Huq
Mar 30 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

As can be seen by global reports, in the vast majority of cases where antimicrobials are used, the microorganisms have found a way to evade or resist the antimicrobial agent. Resistance occurs wherever antimicrobials are used — in the community, on the farm, and in healthcare. Antibiotic resistance is a public health problem of increasing magnitude, and finding effective solutions to address this problem is critical.

Source: vearsa

Infections with resistant bacteria were first reported over 67 years ago. Antimicrobial is a general term for the drugs, chemicals, or other substances that either kill or slow the growth of microbes. Among the antimicrobial agents in use today there are antibiotic drugs (which kill bacteria), antiviral agents (which kill viruses), antifungal agents (which kill fungi), and antiparisitic drugs (which kill parasites). An antibiotic is a type of antimicrobial agent made from a mold or a bacterium that kills, or slows the growth of other microbes, specifically bacteria.

Early on the problem was often overlooked, because if one antibiotic did not treat the infection, another was usually available. Since then, infections with resistant bacteria have become more common in healthcare and community settings, and many bacteria have become resistant to more than one type or class of antibiotics. Consequently, doctors and nurses today are faced with treating infections where antibiotic options are very limited, and in some cases, where no effective antibiotics exist.

The use of antibiotics at any time in any setting puts biological pressure on bacteria that promote the development of resistance. When antibiotics are needed to prevent or treat disease, they should always be used. But research has shown that as much as 50 percent of the time, antibiotics are prescribed when they are not needed or are misused (for example, a patient is given the wrong dose). This inappropriate use of antibiotics unnecessarily promotes antibiotic resistance.

A reason why the use of antibiotic is so high is poor understanding and awareness of the differences between bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, and of the proper use and value of antibiotics. Especially in Bangladesh, antibiotics are very often unnecessarily prescribed. Too many antibiotics are prescribed for viral infections such as colds, flu and diarrhea. Unfortunately, public misconceptions regarding the effectiveness of antibiotics are often perpetuated by print and electronic media, where, until recently, antibiotics would be indiscriminately recommended.

Through the use of generic terms such as ‘germs’ and ‘bugs’, in a recent report the World Health Organisation (WHO) focused on determining the rate of antibiotic resistance to seven bacteria responsible for many common infections, including pneumonia, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, gonorrhea and sepsis. Their findings were worrying. The report revealed that resistance to common bacteria has reached “alarming” levels in many parts of the world, with some regions already out of treatment options for common infections. In fact, it has been found that resistance to carbapenem antibiotics used to tackle Klebsiella pneumoniae – the bacteria responsible for hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia and infections in newborns – has spread to all parts of the globe.

Antibiotic resistance occurs as part of a natural process in which bacteria evolve; this process can be slowed but not completely stopped. Therefore, new antibiotics will always be needed to keep up with resistant bacteria, as will new tests to track the development of resistance. But developing new antibiotics alone will not be enough to tackle resistance to these drugs. There needs to be a drastic change in the way antibiotics are prescribed by doctors and used by patients, since this has been a key contributor to resistance. WHO recommends that patients only use antibiotics when they are prescribed the drugs by a doctor. Furthermore, patients should take the full prescription, even if they are feeling stronger, and they should never share antibiotics with others or use leftover antibiotics. When it comes to healthcare workers, WHO states they should only prescribe antibiotics when patients truly need them, and should ensure that they are prescribing the correct antibiotic to treat the illness. One way of tackling antibiotic resistance is to prevent infection, thereby reducing the amount of antibiotics that have to be used. How do we prevent infections, you ask? There are a number of ways: immunisation, infection prevention actions in healthcare settings, safe food preparation and handling and general hand washing. Also, basic research on antimicrobial resistance on a national level is a must.

With the growing development of antibiotic resistance, it is imperative that we no longer take the availability of effective antibiotics for granted. As a nation, we must respond to this growing problem, and our response needs to be multifaceted, addressing all disciplines.

The writer is a medical practitioner.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

CT made easy

30 March 2017 - 10:04am

By Asad Durrani
Mar 30 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

Terrorists operate in small groups, at times individually, and can blend in with the masses. Unconstrained by time and space, they can pick and choose between a wide range of soft targets. They can network with others of their ilk and are often supported by forces, domestic and foreign, inimical to the state or its system. With all these assets, and easy access to modern technology and means of communication, the terrorist of today can be very nexible and evasive.

Asad Durrani

Over time, intelligence agencies like the ISI and the IB may get a reasonably accurate big picture, but real-time information to track down the perpetrators is hard to get. (The special branch of police with its countrywide presence could have helped but has long been ignored.) In rare cases when we do get `actionable intelligence`, clandestine means are best suited to nab the culprits. Such operations, however, require immaculate planning, deliberate execution, and plenty of patience. Even when successful, they eliminate only some individuals but not the malaise that motivates them to commit acts of terrorism. To tackle the root causes, besides political and administrative tools, sustained civic action is needed. Assuming that we know how to go about it, it would still be a long drawn process.

The problem is that when a major terrorist attack occurs, or a series of them as it happens here every now and then, people want a rapid response. The state then has to do something, or at least be seen to be doing something. The principles of counterterrorism (CT) are then short-circuited in every country. Let`s take our own example.

North Waziristan had to be depopulated because the militants were too deeply embedded in the people (too bad that Karachi and Lahore cannot be evacuated).

Indeed there was no way to ensure that the culprits would not slip out and live to fight another day. When they did, again something had to be done. So we cracked down on the Afghan refugees. For four decades we had hosted millions of them. Besides serving a humanitarian cause, it was an investment in a neighbourly relationship.

But now that we were running out of easy options, throwing them out happened to be doable. And although the terrorists if any amongst them would have relocated in good time, the powers that be could still claim `firm action`.

We may criticise America, Israel and India for using massive force against population centres that produce ever more militants, but when bombing our tribal areas, even the mention of `collateral damage`was taboo. Does it really matter that unlike the above-mentioned villains, we were shelling our own people; and does anyone have any idea how many of them lost their kith and kin, and indeed whatever property they had? Just because we did not have the time and patience to follow the first principle of counter-insurgency: employ force only to facilitate use of nonmilitary means. The outcry over `Pakhtun profiling` was admittedly a bit over the top, but in some crude form and at some local level it did take place, probably to satisfy someone`s itch for some action. If it netted any terrorists, I do not know, but it did provide all the right fuel to all the wrong quarters.

I may not have any idea how many potential bombers were deterred or pre-empted at the checkposts now more or less a permanent fixture of our landscape but I am grateful that none of them blew themselves up when hundreds of vehicles crawl through the barriers. At least one cannot charge the security establishment of doingnothing.

Before the Afghan refugees became our favourite p u n c h i n g bag, it was the madressahs that took most of theflal( for being `nurseries of terrorism`.

According to statistics compiled by researchers like the political scientist Robert Pape, less than one-fifth of those involved in terrorist attacks had been to madressahs, and over two-thirds had studied up to college and beyond. But as we cannot ban any universities, the seminaries will remain our expedient explanation of the jihadi mindset.

Of course nothing comes close to a nonremedy to fight the menace of terrorism than our latest gimmick `the terrorists have been brainwashed, so let`s read to them another narrative`. Anyone who believes that those committed to a cause deeply enough to blow themselves up could be reprogrammed by a mantra, obviously has no idea what `de-radicalisation` entails: plenty of sustained and thoughtful action.

But where even a National Action Plan has not brought about any movement where it actually matters in the civil society a narrative is all that we have.

And if that too did not work, we could always hold a cricket match to show that our CT was working.

The writer is a former head of the ISI.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Developing Nations Support Proposed New Global Compact on Migrants

30 March 2017 - 9:51am

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 30 2017 (IPS/G77)

The Group of 77, joined by China, has extended its strong support for a proposed new global compact on migrants.

The UN General Assembly, which approved the relevant resolution last month, will soon begin a preparatory process for inter-governmental negotiations for “a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.”

The proposal is expected to be adopted at an inter-governmental conference on international migration in 2018.

The Group told the Fifth Committee it fully supports the provision of the resources requested by the Secretary-General, including additional resource requirements in the amount of $1,244,700 for 2017 under the programme budget for the biennium 2016-2017.

The Group said it recalls all mandates approved by the resolution 71/1, entitled “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants”, which launched the process of intergovernmental negotiations for the adoption the proposed global compact.

As part of the preparatory process, the President of the General Assembly (PGA) will organize a series of informal thematic sessions between April 2017 and November 2017, as well as four days of informal interactive multi-stakeholder hearings between April 2017 and June 2018.

The organizational arrangements for the preparatory process have been agreed and the resolution on them will be formally adopted soon in the UN General Assembly.

Although the resolution is pending formal adoption by the Assembly, the PGA is initiating the process for relevant stakeholders to apply to participate in the process, in consideration that the preparatory process is envisioned to begin in April 2017.

The final modalities of the preparatory process remain subject to the formal adoption of the resolution.

Transformative Adaptation to Climate Change

30 March 2017 - 9:43am

Source: bloglines72py

By Saleemul Huq
Mar 30 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

The subject of adaptation to climate change has gone through two major phases already and is now on its third phase.

The first phase was about identifying and stopping “maladaptation” to the future impacts of climate change. This was based on initial vulnerability assessments in each country, and identifying policies and actions that instead of reducing vulnerability were in fact enhancing vulnerability to climate change impacts, such as building on floodplains that would be flooded more frequently in future due to climate change. A major portion of this phase, of vulnerability assessments, has already been completed in most countries, and steps to prevent further maladaptations are now in place.

The second phase of adaptation to climate change, which is still underway, looks at current and planned investments in different sectors of countries, adding investments and actions to make them more adaptive to the adverse impacts of climate change. This phase is called “incremental adaptation”, and cities and countries around the world are currently focusing on this phase of adaptation.

The third phase, which is still in the stage of theory rather than implementation, is the notion of “transformational adaptation”, which means going well beyond just incremental adaptation to manage the additional risks due to climate change to make transformational changes.

I will share below some thoughts on how Bangladesh can become perhaps the world’s first country to carry out transformational adaptation at scale.

First, let me start with the more conventional incremental adaptation phase where we have already identified the low lying coastal zones of the country as being the most vulnerable to possible salinity intrusion due to sea level rise, affecting millions of people living there. Another associated vulnerability to those millions of people forced to drink saline water is that young women, particularly pregnant mothers, are especially vulnerable to high blood pressure which can lead to problems at childbirth. Therefore, the immediate (incremental) adaptation is to provide fresh and safe drinking water to these people, especially to young women.

However, we can also start to think about moving beyond simply looking at girls as victims of climate change but rather as potential agents of change, not only for themselves and their respective families but for the entire country. This can be done if we formulate a priority programme of investment in education (not just quantity but also quality), that can enhance the skills of the girls of Bangladesh (with a focus on the coastal zone). This will enable them to obtain gainful employment in towns and cities inland away from the coast.

There is one other corollary that will need to be done at the same time; investing in creating educational and job opportunities in around a dozen towns further inland so that girls can study or work within their own communities.

Thus, over the next decade or so, the young girls of today can become agents for enhancing Bangladesh’s resilience to climate change through transformational adaptation. The women of Bangladesh over the last several decades have already contributed to a transformation through their education and family planning awareness programmes to bring down the population growth rate from over 3 percent to less than 2 percent over a single generation. With the right kind of investment and support, the girls of today can help the subsequent transformation of the country over the next generation.

The writer is Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Secret Companies Allow Corrupt Cash to Flood Key Real Estate Markets

30 March 2017 - 8:33am

"Caution Bribe Coming Through." March in Washington, DC, April 13, 2013, by Represent.Us. Credit: Djembayz. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

By IPS World Desk
ROME/BERLIN, Mar 30 2017 (IPS)

The governments of Australia, Canada, the UK and the US need to close glaring legal loopholes to prevent the corrupt elite from laundering the proceeds of grand corruption in their local real estate markets, a major anti-corruption watchdog urges.

The Berlin-based Transparency International (TI), a global anti-corruption movement working in over 100 countries, on March 29 issued a new report, Doors Wide Open: Corruption and Real Estate in Key Markets, in which it identifies the 10 main problems related to real estate and money laundering in those four countries and makes recommendations on how to address them.

The report focuses on four countries that are known hot-spots for the corrupt to invest and launder money.

“Governments must close the loopholes that allow corrupt politicians, civil servants and business executives to be able to hide stolen wealth through the purchase of expensive houses in London, New York, Sydney and Vancouver,” said José Ugaz, Chair of Transparency International.

“The failure to deliver on their anti-corruption commitments feeds poverty and inequality while the corrupt enjoy lives of luxury,” Ugaz added.

Real estate has long provided a way for individuals to secretly launder or invest stolen money and other illicitly gained funds, TI informs, adding that according to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), real estate accounted for up to 30 per cent of criminal assets confiscated worldwide between 2011 and 2013.

“Not only do expensive apartments in New York, London or Sydney raise the social status of their owners and allow them to live in luxury, they are also an easy and convenient place to hide hundreds of millions of dollars from criminal investigators, tax authorities or others tracking criminal behaviour and the proceeds of crime.”

Failure to Detect, Prevent Money Laundering in Real State

The international anti-corruption group found that despite anti-corruption promises by government in the countries covered in the report, current rules and practices have failed to detect and prevent money laundering in the real estate sector.

“Strikingly, Australia, Canada and the US rely almost exclusively on banks to stop money laundering, even though a slew of middlemen including real estate agents, accountants, tax planners, lawyers and others participate in deal-making.“

This makes all-cash deals, which do not require the involvement of a bank and which represent a significant proportion of high-end sales made to overseas investors, especially difficult to track, says TI.

Only the UK requires that checks are made on people selling real estate in order to identify suspicious activity and identify the real owners of the property.

However, TI emphasises that the same checks by real estate agents are not required on the buyers – where the highest risk of money laundering exists – leaving a gaping hole in the sector’s defences against corrupt money.

The report also finds that offshore companies pose a serious risk in all four countries because they are able to purchase property without needing to disclose any information relating to who ultimately owns and controls them to any government authority. The UK has committed to establish a registry to collect and publish this information.

None of the countries analysed have tests in place for professionals working in the real estate sector in order to assess whether they are aware of their anti-money laundering obligations, TI informs and adds that very little information is published regarding any sanctions applied to real estate agents, lawyers, accountants and notaries for facilitating money laundering into the real estate sector.

Transparency International makes the following recommendations:
• Governments should require all middlemen to identify and keep records of the real, beneficial owners of legal entities, trusts and other legal arrangements in real estate sales.
• Governments should require that both domestic and foreign politically-exposed-persons, their family members and close associates purchasing property be automatically identified as high-risk clients. Additional preventive measures such as enhanced due diligence should be implemented.
• Governments should require foreign companies that wish to purchase property to provide beneficial ownership information. This information should be kept in a central beneficial ownership registry and made available to competent authorities and the public in open data format.
• Governments should require real estate agents to register with a designated public authority for anti-money laundering supervision in order to operate in the real estate sector, and be tested to show they know the rules. Anti-money laundering training should be made compulsory upon registration.
• Governments and professional associations should introduce rules requiring lawyers, accountants and other professionals who are not registered with the relevant anti-money laundering supervisor to be prohibited from engaging in real estate deals.

Click here to access both the full report and the full list of the top 10 money laundering loopholes.

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Autism in Bangladesh: Reducing Discrimination Through Innovation

30 March 2017 - 8:13am

Children's Cultural Program / Town Hall Meeting. Dec 14, 2015. Shilpakala Academy. Organized by Parents Forum for the Differently Able. A short play by nearly 30 children and youth with NDDs. Over 100 parents took part in the meeting asking a whole variety of questions and expressing their concerns related to NDDs.

By Saima Wazed Hossain
DHAKA, Mar 30 2017 (IPS)

Within the last 5 years, thanks to political support and national education, autism awareness in Bangladesh has grown immensely. Due to a lack of funds and resources, providing full comprehensive evidence based services for those in need is not yet possible, but with a continuation of our current progression, it is certainly an attainable goal. Credit for our tremendous success in providing public awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by families with autism is ultimately, thanks to the dedication and resilience of those very families.

Our mission for families began in the 1990s with the implementation of comprehensive disability policies along with the formation of national forums and disability organizations.

Since 2008, World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd is recognized and celebrated with a national event in Bangladesh. This event has involved a cultural show performed by PWD’s with our Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the guest of honor. Individuals and organizations were recognized for their work, while getting an opportunity to interact with the Prime Minister to express any concerns.

Despite progression of autism awareness in the population, the real turning point for change in South Asia came with the international conference on autism organized in Dhaka on July 25th 2011. What differentiated this conference from others in the region was the integration of various individuals from scientific, personal, and political backgrounds. The presence of prominent political figures such as, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as well as many other First Ladies and ministers from the region, allowed our conference to be truly unique.

Saima Wazed Hossain

This event brought about an unprecedented change in the societal attitudes about autism and disability. Since then, previously rejected newspaper articles by parents and experts began to be regularly published in Bangladesh daily papers. Talk show discussions on health matters included the topic of disability. The word ‘autism’, which did not exist in our language has now become a household term, and frequently, if unfortunately, used as a synonym for disability — or as we say in Bangla ‘protibondhi’.

The conference was followed by the formation of 4 task forces comprised of parents and experts in the field. Additionally, I appeared in numerous television interviews where I described autism and shared a personal message to end discrimination and shame. At the recommendation of the task force, a parents’ forum was established followed by the formation of a national steering committee in 2013, comprised of 8 ministries headed by the highest non-elected government officials, which are supported by senior advisors and technical experts. This multi-faceted approach prioritized the need for early screening and intervention, supportive educational programs, employment training, and social safety net programs. This sent an important message to stakeholders and policy makers explaining how there is no easily addressed solution to autism which could be implemented by altering existing medical practices. Instead, a multi sectorial life span approach would be required to create a more cost-effective, sustainable and supportive program catering to families’ needs.

The complexity of autism and other NDD’s pose a significant challenge when trying to balance the development of medical services while creating socioeconomic opportunities for an individual’s unique skillset. The primary task of mitigating the tremendous emotional, social and financial ordeal for families remains a persistent challenge.
The last four years of multi-sectorial planning by the National Steering Committee has enabled the inclusion of disability in the government’s development and economic planning. With significant political support, the primary stakeholders, i.e. individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD) and their families continue to play a significant role in shaping policies and implementing programs. This involvement of several ministries ensures significant awareness for autism and all disability matters; however, our unique and comprehensive approach is challenged by a limited growth in human resource development and the lack of a mechanism for monitoring the efficacy of projects and fund disbursement to ensure sustainable evidence-based programs particularly in the social sector.

Global awareness and enhanced understanding of autism has resulted in increased diagnosis, demand for treatment and development of innovative approaches; many of which remain isolated to research settings or unpublishable in scientific journals. Additionally, due to the high cost and copyright laws many programs in low resources countries remain similarly isolated and unshared. Moreover, programs requiring linkages between existing infrastructures with inter and intra-disciplinary collaboration are a particular challenge for developing countries. Hence why we urgently need a mechanism by which the challenges and success stories of these individuals can be shared among both disability organizations and governments so it may provide further knowledge on effective, sustainable programs and assist in decision making.

The complexity of autism and other NDD’s pose a significant challenge when trying to balance the development of medical services while creating socioeconomic opportunities for an individual’s unique skillset. The primary task of mitigating the tremendous emotional, social and financial ordeal for families remains a persistent challenge.

This April, Shuchona Foundation with WHO-SEARO is paving the way towards implementation of international resolutions on autism by organizing a conference in Bhutan for the ministries of Health and Family Welfare of Bhutan and Bangladesh. Experts, self-advocates, caregivers and policy makers will meet for 3 days in Thimphu (visit to discuss identification and interventions methods, issues on education and employment and help develop a collaborative comprehensive plan for low resource settings that all countries can emulate.

Saima Wazed Hossain is a Specialist in School Psychology, Chairperson of the Bangladesh National Advisory Committee for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders as well as a Member of the World Health Organization’s Expert Advisory Panel on Mental Health.


How a Devastating Hurricane Led to St. Vincent’s First Sustainability School

29 March 2017 - 8:02pm

Director of Richmond Vale Academy in St. Vincent Stina Herberg explains how compost is produced using vegetation, cardboard, and animal droppings. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

By Kenton X. Chance
KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, Mar 30 2017 (IPS)

In the 1980s, an institution for troubled Danish youth and a vocational school for Vincentians was built in Richmond Vale, an agricultural district on the northwestern tip of St. Vincent.

It was hoped that spending time at Richmond Vale Academy would help the Danish youth to see the world from a different perspective. However, for a number of reasons, the concept didn’t pan out, the school closed and a farm was developed in its place.“It was both emotional and scary to hear these huge trees drop...That was a very big eye-opener for me.” --Stina Herberg, director of Richmond Vale Academy

In 2000, the first attempts were made to re-start the academy, which has been in full operation since 2007. Today, Richmond Vale Academy attracts young people from around the world who are troubled by poverty and what is going on with the Earth’s climate and want to do something about it.

The not-for-profit institution had previously focused mainly on poverty alleviation, with an emphasis on service in Africa. However, in 2010, Hurricane Tomas — the latest recorded tropical cyclone on a calendar year to strike the Windward Islands — passed to the north of St. Vincent, where the academy is located, and St. Lucia.

“That was a very big eye-opener for me,” Stina Herberg, director of Richmond Vale Academy, told IPS. “We were, of course, very worried but that was my very first meeting with climate change, I would say.”

The storm, which impacted St. Vincent on Oct. 30, left hundreds of homes without roofs, and, in addition to significant damage to homes and public infrastructure, destroyed about 90 per cent of banana cultivation, then an important crop for the local economy.

At Richmond Vale Academy, Herberg, her staff and their students listened as the tropical cyclone destroyed huge, decades-old trees. “It was both emotional and scary to hear these huge trees drop: you would hear it, like you put matches up and they just came down.”

The academy’s banana cultivation, which had taken three years to get to the point where it met the standards necessary for exportation to England, was also ruined.

“Three years of work was destroyed in seven hours,” Herberg said of the impact on the academy, adding, “but for other farmers, it was their lifetime’s work.

“So that caused us to ask a lot of questions. Yes, there were always hurricanes, but why are they more frequent? So it set us off to do a lot more research about climate change, about pollution, and we got a lot of eye-opening experiences.”

The research led to the St. Vincent Climate Compliance Conference 2012-2021, which aims to make St. Vincent and the Grenadines one of the first nations to become “climate compliant”.

The programme brings together local students as well as students from Europe, North America, South America, other parts of the Caribbean and Asia for programmes of one, three or six months duration, in which they learn about global warming, its causes and consequences.

The programme offers firsthand knowledge, as students can go directly into the nearby communities such as the village of Fitz Hughes or the town of Chateaubelair to see the impact on housing, public infrastructure, and the physical environment of severe weather events resulting from climate change.

However, the major focus of the programme is on “climate compliance”, which might be more frequently referred to as adaptation measures.

“Because if you going to talk about getting ready for climate change, if you are not doing it yourself, if you are going to tell people ‘I think it is a good idea to go organic. It is good for the soil, to plant trees’ — if you are not doing it for yourself, when you are speaking to other people it will be less effective,” Herberg said.

The academy has developed models and used its own farm to demonstrate ways in which the population can move away from carbon-based fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming.

For example, the academy set up a bio-gas facility that shows that mixing 1.5 kilogrammes of kitchen waste with 50 litres of water can produce fuel for five hours a day in a country where liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is the main fuel used for cooking.

“It is suitable as a model that can be used by families in villages,” Herberg said of the academy’s biogas facility.

“We cannot make hydropower plants, we cannot build geothermal power plants. Governments have a variety of plans for that, so we have to see what can we do. We are promoting solar, and also the biogas,” she said, adding that Richmond Vale Academy has secured funding to set up five biogas facilities in western St. Vincent.

“So, it mitigates because it is a renewable gas and you can produce it yourself. You don’t need transport from China or Venezuela or from the United States or wherever.”

The biogas production process results in slurry that can be used as fertilizer. “The important thing is that people know there are alternatives. I don’t think we can get everybody on biogas. I doubt that. But what is important is that we open up and say these are the options,” Herberg explains.

While potable water is almost always available on St. Vincent Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a water-stressed country as there are no rivers and no municipal supply of water in the Grenadines, an archipelago.

However, even on St. Vincent Island, with its rivers, streams, and springs, the dry season, which runs from December to May, can be especially punishing for farmers, only 7 per cent of whom have irrigation.

Richmond Vale Academy has developed a system for collecting rainwater for washing, showers, and toilets. The excess water from this system collects in a reservoir and is used for irrigation. Small fish are placed in the catchment to prevent mosquitos from breeding in it.

Further, the academy has, over the years, phased out chemical fertilizers from its farm. In explaining the link between organic farming and mitigating against climate change, Herberg tells IPS that as the climate changes, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is expected to have more periods without rain, and when the rains come, they are expected to be heavier over shorter periods.

Most of the nation’s farmers are still engaged in mono-cropping and use chemical fertilizer in their production. “The chemicals break down the soil structure, so it gets sandy, it gets dry, so then when you get some rain and the rain is heavier, it just washes away the soil,” Herberg said, adding that this leads to flooding and landslides.

“So, the way that we are farming, it is very dangerous for the future. If you look at the big picture of biodiversity, the planet’s biodiversity is what’s keeping the temperature [stable]. If you take away the biodiversity by making cities, chopping down the rainforest, whatever we decide to do to change the balance of nature, we cannot maintain a stable temperature,” she said.

She also spoke about deforestation to convert lands to agricultural and houses use. “We need to have trees that will give us shade, we need to have trees to shelter us from the heavy rains, so the farming has to change for us to get ready to live with climate change. We have to change the way we farm. Monocropping has no future.”

An important part of any discussion about adapting to climate change is the extent to which actions that have proven successful can be multiplied and scaled up.

“I’m quite optimistic and I think that St. Vincent, as it is a small country, it is easy to get around. There is consensus that we need to be more sustainable and go organic and focus on renewable energy. And I actually think that it is going to happen: that we are going to get geothermal energy, improve our hydro stations and then more people will get on to solar. So we will be one of the first countries in the Caribbean that will be nearly everything on renewable energy within a very reasonable time – maybe 10 years,” Herberg predicted.

She added that while Costa Rica is ahead of the region, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a good example in the 15-member Caribbean Community of what can be done to adapt to and mitigate against climate change. “We are not ahead in organic agriculture yet,” she said, but added that there are “some outstanding examples”.

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A Special Learning Journey Cut Short

29 March 2017 - 4:08pm

Students at the St Pius X Resource Centre in Malawi for children with physical and developmental disabilities. Credit: Charity Chimungu Phiri/IPS

By Charity Chimungu Phiri
BLANTYRE, Malawi, Mar 29 2017 (IPS)

When building a house, it’s critical to lay a strong foundation. The same applies to education, with studies showing that children who attend early learning centers perform better in school than those who do not.

In Malawi, a 2003 national survey found that only 18.8 percent of school-age children with disabilities were attending class. More than twice as many of the same age group without disabilities (41.1 percent) attended school. This was mainly attributed to the lack of a disability-friendly environment."Since many children come from poor families, parents are often faced with the dilemma of choosing which child to send to secondary school, bearing in mind that the one with difficulties needs special care." --teacher Miriam Chimtengo

More parents are now sending their young ones to such special preschools, some as little as two years old. This kind of early intervention is especially critical for children with learning disabilities such as autism.

Most autistic children are diagnosed late in Malawi due to the lack of specialist doctors and caregivers, but also failure by their parents, guardians and teachers to recognize that the child has learning difficulties.

James Botolo* lives in one of the suburbs of Blantyre and has a 10-year-old autistic son named Chikondi*.

“For so long, we never could figure out what was wrong with our son. Of course he didn’t like to play with his siblings at home and times he could talk to himself but we never thought it was anything. But what mainly bothered us was that he never did well in school, so we kept moving him from one private school to another. One day I met someone who alerted me that my son could have a learning problem,” he said.

Autistic children often lack socialization skills, are hyperactive, struggle to pay attention and sometimes react to things by crying or hurting themselves.

Chikondi is now in standard two at the St. Pius X Resource Centre, a school for children with physical and developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, hearing impairment, and blindness.

Currently in Malawi, there are over 40 resource learning centers for children with various disabilities.

Miriam Chimtengo, 38, is a specialist teacher at St. Pius X, where she teaches a class of about 27 students (16 full time).

Chimtengo, who holds a diploma in Special Needs Education, told IPS that there are major gaps in the social support system for the families of children with learning challenges.

Even though we’re laying this good foundation for the children, for most of them their education does not go further. The parents bring the children to us here at primary school where they will start noticing the changes, but after the child finishes standard 8, they just keep them at home…so all this work at the grassroots level is not sustained.”

According to Chimtengo, there are limited resources for a child with learning difficulties to further their education.

“Since many children come from poor families, parents are often faced with the dilemma of choosing which child to send to secondary school, bearing in mind that the one with difficulties needs special care, special learning materials, full supervision and assistance, which might be hard to provide,” she said.

“Some parents also believe they can better take care of their child alone at home than at school where they will not be around to protect their child.”

Chimtengo said that those with physical disabilities such as visual impairments, deafness and limited limb mobility are more likely to go further in school than children with mental/emotional issues such as autism.

The other contributing factor is that there are no free services for poor families who wish to send their mentally challenged children to behavioral therapy. Only physiotherapy is free in government hospitals and at SOS Villages.

“For example, here in my class I have children whom upon assessment we recommended that they go for therapy, but only those parents who are financially better off have put up their kids in therapy…we have been lobbying with the government to make links with such specialists so that they are available for all children regardless of their financial standing,”

This scenario automatically puts a child with a learning disability at a disadvantage to later further their education or secure a job.

There are limited spaces offered to youth with disabilities in national vocational training schools in Malawi. They only take in a certain number, which is far below the actual population in need.

In other private vocational training facilities, the prerequisite for entry is a Malawi School Certificate of Education-MSCE (equivalent to a high school diploma), which many children with mental disabilities find hard to earn.

The Living Conditions study of 2013 found that many youths with various disabilities were frustrated with the large gap in the provision of vocational training services, as well as some other services such as welfare, assistive devices and counseling.

In 2015, the government launched a program called Community Technical Colleges aimed at helping poor children, including those with disabilities and lacking high school diplomas, gain access to tertiary education.

International experts on autism advise parents with learning difficulties to take a leading role to ensure that their child secures some form of employment.

The website Autism Speaks says it is important to encourage the child to network at community and family events to meet potential employers.

“Encourage your son or daughter to think about their hopes, dreams, interests and strengths as a way to start planning for employment. One of the most valuable resources for adults with autism is peer support and mentoring.”

The other challenge in educating children with special needs in Malawi is lack of specialists both in the education and health sectors. For the whole of the capital Blantyre, there is only one neurological doctor who sees patients twice a week at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.

There are many special education teachers, but are scattered across the country.

“Literature says that one special needs teacher should attend to five kids. But because of the increase of children, we’re teaching more than that. This is challenging because different disabilities have different needs,” said Chimtengo, the special needs teacher at St Pius X.

“It means in one lesson I should try to capture all the needs of every student, which takes a lot of time and effort. Our colleagues in the normal classes teach a class, but for us we teach individuals who need to be taught the things repetitively. We call it repetition and drilling,” she said.

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