Interpress News Service

Half a Century of Struggle Against Underdevelopment

3 March 2017 - 5:00am

This oped was written by the Argentinian journalist Pablo Piacentini, cofounder of IPS to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the agency. IPS is republishing it now to celebrate his life. Piacentini passed away in Rome on March 1.

By Pablo Piacentini
ROME, Mar 3 2017 (IPS)

The idea of creating Inter Press Service (IPS) arose in the early 1960s in response to awareness that a vacuum existed in the world of journalism, which had two basic aspects.

Firstly, there was a marked imbalance in international information sources. World news production was concentrated in the largest industrialised countries and dominated by a few powerful agencies and syndicates in the global North.

By contrast, there was a lack of information about developing countries in the South and elsewhere; there was hardly any information about their political, economic and social realities, except when natural disasters occurred, and what little was reported was culturally prejudiced against these countries. In other words, not much of an image and a poor image at that.A journalist specialised in development issues must be able to look at and analyse information and reality from the “other side.” In spite of globalisation and the revolution in communications, this “other side” continues to be unknown and disregarded, and occupies a marginal position in the international information universe

Secondly, there was an overall shortage of analysis and explanation of the processes behind news events and a lack of in-depth journalistic genres such as features, opinion articles and investigative journalism among the agencies.

Agencies published mainly ‘spot’ news, that is, brief pieces with the bare news facts and little background. Clearly this type of journalism did not lend itself to covering development-related issues.

When reporting an epidemic or a catastrophe in a Third World country, spot news items merely describe the facts and disseminate broadcast striking images. What they generally do not do is make an effort to answer questions such as why diseases that have disappeared or are well under control in the North should cause such terrible regional pandemics in less developed countries, or why a major earthquake in Los Angeles or Japan should cause much less damage and fewer deaths than a smaller earthquake in Haiti.

Superficiality and bias still predominate in international journalism.

While it is true that contextualised analytical information started to appear in the op-ed (“opposite the editorial page”) section of Anglo-Saxon newspapers, the analysis and commentary they offered concentrated on the countries of the North and their interests.

Today the number of op-eds that appear is much greater than in the 1960s, but the predominant focus continues to be on the North.

This type of top-down, North-centred journalism served the interests of industrialised countries, prolonging and extending their global domination and the subordination of non-industrialised countries that export commodities with little or no added value.

This unequal structure of global information affected developing countries negatively. For example, because of the image created by scanty and distorted information, it was unlikely that the owners of expanding businesses in a Northern country would decide to set up a factory in a country of the South.

After all, they knew little or nothing about these countries and, given the type of reporting about them that they were accustomed to, assumed that they were uncivilised and dangerous, with unreliable judicial systems, lack of infrastructure, and so on.

Obviously, few took the risk, and investments were most frequently North-North, reinforcing development in developed countries and underdevelopment in underdeveloped countries.

Pablo Piacentini

In the 1960s, those of us who created IPS set ourselves the goal of working to correct the biased, unequal and distorted image of the world projected by international agencies in those days.

Political geography and economics were certainly quite different then. Countries like Brazil, which is now an emerging power, used to be offhandedly dismissed with the quip: “It’s the country of the future – and always will be.”

At the time, decolonisation was under way in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Latin America was politically independent but economically dependent. The Non-Aligned Movement was created in 1961.

IPS never set out to present a “positive” image of the countries of the South by glossing over or turning a blind eye to the very real problems, such as corruption. Instead, we wished to present an objective view, integrating information about the South, its viewpoints and interests, into the global information media.

This implied a different approach to looking at the world and doing journalism. It meant looking at it from the viewpoint of the realities of the South and its social and economic problems.

Let me give an example which has a direct link to development.

The media tend to dwell on what they present as the negative consequences of commodity price rises: they cause inflation, are costly for consumers and their families, and distort the world economy. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the industrialised countries that import cheap raw materials and transform them into manufactured goods as the basis for expanding their businesses and competing in the global marketplace.

It is true that steep and sudden price increases for some commodities can create problems in the international economy, as well as affect the population of some poor countries that have to import these raw materials.

But generalised and constant complaints about commodities price increases fail to take into account the statistically proven secular trend towards a decline in commodity prices (with the exception of oil since 1973) compared with those of manufactured goods.

IPS’s editorial policy is to provide news and analyses that show how, in the absence of fair prices and proper remuneration for their commodities, and unless more value is added to agricultural and mineral products, poor countries reliant on commodity exports cannot overcome underdevelopment and poverty.

Many communications researchers have recognised IPS’s contribution to developing a more analytical and appropriate journalism for focusing on and understanding economic, social and political processes, as well as contributing to greater knowledge of the problems faced by countries of the South.

Journalists addressing development issues need, in the first place, to undertake critical analysis of the content of news circulating in the information arena.

Then they must analyse economic and social issues from the “other point of view”, that of marginalised and oppressed people, and of poor countries unable to lift themselves out of underdevelopment because of unfavourable terms of trade, agricultural protectionism, and so on.

They must understand how and why some emerging countries are succeeding in overcoming underdevelopment, and what role can be played by international cooperation.

They also need to examine whether the countries of the North and the international institutions they control are imposing conditions on bilateral or multilateral agreements that actually perpetuate unequal development.

World economic geography and politics may have changed greatly since the 1960s, and new information technologies may have revolutionised the media of today, but these remain some important areas in which imbalanced and discriminatory news treatment is evident.

In conclusion, a journalist specialised in development issues must be able to look at and analyse information and reality from the “other side.” In spite of globalisation and the revolution in communications, this “other side” continues to be unknown and disregarded, and occupies a marginal position in the international information universe.

An appreciation of the true dimensions of the above issues, the contrast between them and the information and analysis we are fed daily by the predominant media virtually all over the world – not only in the North, but also many by media in the South – leads to the obvious conclusion that there is a crying need for unbiased global journalism to help correct North-South imbalance.

To this arduous task and still far-off goal, IPS has devoted its wholehearted efforts over the past half century.

Pablo Piacentini, born in Buenos Aires, cofounded IPS-Inter Press Service in 1964. Having served as Editorial Director, Chief Editor and then Director of the Economics Service, until six months ago Piacentini headed the IPS Columnist Service.


Seven Scaring Facts About Widening Gender Gap

3 March 2017 - 1:28am

A resident of Rabaable village in Somalia fetches water with the help of her daughters. The villages well was recently rehabilitated by UNICEF. Credit: UNICEF Somalia/Sebastian Rich

By IPS World Desk
ROME, Mar 3 2017 (IPS)

Women across the globe are facing new threats, which risk dismantling decades of hard-won rights and derailing the effort to end extreme poverty, an international confederation of civil society organisations has revealed ahead of International Women’s Day pm March 8.

The renewal of the global gag rule restricting US funding for family planning services is the latest of a number of new threats that will have a huge effect on the world’s poorest women, OXFAM international on March 2 warned in its new report ‘An economy that works for women‘.

It comes as progress towards women’s equality risks going into reverse, something that will make it impossible for world leaders to end extreme poverty by 2030, it adds.

“At current rates, the time it will take to close the 23 per cent global pay gap between men and women stands at 170 years – 52 years longer than it would have done just a year ago. And, over the past five years, donor funding directly to women’s rights organisations has more than halved. All of this risks putting women’s rights in reverse.“
“Women still carry out between two to 10 times more unpaid care work than men,” OECD

On this, the Head of Oxfam’s Even It Up campaign, Deepak Xavier, said that across the world, many of the basic human rights women have secured over the last few decades are at risk.

“Everyone has a part to play in ensuring this rollback on women’s rights does not happen. Recognizing that women and girls are equal to men and boys is crucial in the fight against poverty and inequality.”

The new Oxfam’s report launched on March 2, ‘An economy that works for women‘, outlines the importance of paid work as a vital route out of poverty for women.

Yet gender inequality in the economy is now back to where it stood in 2008 and millions of women around the world continue to face low wages, a lack of decent, secure jobs and a heavy and unequal responsibility for unpaid care work, such as housework and childcare, OXFAM reports.

“Even in countries where the distribution is the most equal, it is estimated that women still carry out at least twice as much unpaid care work than men with an estimated global value of 10 trillion dollars per year – more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of India, Japan and Brazil combined.”

Rural women: a driving force against hunger, malnutrition and poverty. Credit: FAO

“Studies also show that inequality in economic terms costs women in developing countries 9 trillion dollars a year; a sum that would not only benefit women but would unlock new spending power for their families and produce a boost to the economy as a whole.”

This International Women’s Day, OXFAM calls for people around the world to stand up for women’s equal right to safe, decent, fairly paid work and a world free from the injustice of poverty.

Seven Key Facts

The international aid confederation reports the following facts about the widening gender inequality:

1. Up to 23 per cent global pay gap between men and women according to the International Labour Organization’s ‘Women at Work: Trends 2016’.

2. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 estimates it will now take 170 years to close the 23 per cent global pay gap between men and women and gender inequality in the economy is now back to where it stood in 2008.

3. The global value of women’s unpaid care work each year is estimated at 10 trillion dollars according to McKinsey Global Institute report 2015.

4. The Global GDP in 2015 is estimated by the CIA World Factbook as 75.73 trillion dollars at the official exchange rate.

5. Up to 9 trillion dollars – annual cost of economic inequality to women in developing countries according to Action Aid’s Close the gap! The cost of inequality in women’s work report.

6. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) estimates that women still carry out between two to 10 times more unpaid care work than men: OECD stat Employment: ‘Time spent in paid and unpaid work, by sex.

7. On average in Asia women earn between 70 to 90 per cent of what men earn and carry out around 2.5 times the amount of unpaid care work that men do.

Women still carry out at least twice as much unpaid care work than men, OXFAM reports, adding that the current broken economic model, which is undermining gender equality and causing extreme economic inequality, urges the need for an economy that works for women.

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From El Nino Drought to Floods, Zimbabwe’s Double Trouble

2 March 2017 - 8:05pm

Even luxury homes in the Zimbabwean capital Harare were not spared by the raging floods of early 2017, perpetuating hunger in the Southern African nation after El Nino ravaged crops nationwide. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 3 2017 (IPS)

Dairai Churu, 53, sits with his chin cupped in his palms next to mounds of rubble from his destroyed makeshift home in the Caledonia informal settlement approximately 30 kilometers east of Harare, thanks to the floods that have inundated Zimbabwe since the end of last year.

Churu’s tragedy seems unending. From 2015 to mid-2016, the El Nino-induced drought also hit him hard, rendering his entire family hungry.“We are homeless, we are hungry. I don’t know what else to say.” -- farmer Dairai Churu

“I farm here. I have always planted maize here. All my crops in 2015 were wiped out by the El Nino heat and this year came the floods, which also suffocated all my maize and it means another drought for me and my family,” Churu told IPS.

Churu, his wife and four children now share a plastic tent which they erected after their makeshift three-room home was destroyed by the floods in February this year.

“We are homeless, we are hungry. I don’t know what else to say,” Churu said.

Zimbabwe has not been spared the severe droughts and floods triggered by one of the strongest El Niño weather events ever recorded in the country’s history, which have left nearly 100 million people in Southern Africa, Asia and Latin America facing food and water shortages and vulnerable to diseases, including the Zika virus, according to UN bodies and international aid agencies.

With drought amidst the floods across many parts of this Southern African nation, the Poverty Reduction Forum Trust (PRFT) has been on record in the media here saying most Zimbabwean urban residents are relying on urban agriculture for sustenance owing to poverty.

PRFT is a civil society organisation that brings together non-governmental organisations, government, the private sector and academics here in Zimbabwe to discuss poverty issues and advocate for pro-poor policies.

Even government has been jittery as floods rocked the entire nation.

“Not all people are going to harvest enough this year. The floods have come with their own effects, drowning crops that many had planted and anticipated bumper harvests. Some greater part of the population here will certainly need food aid as they already face hunger,” a senior government official in Zimbabwe’s Agriculture Ministry told IPS on condition of anonymity for professional reasons.

For the mounting floods here, experts have also piled the blame on the after-effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon.

“El Niño conditions, which are a result of a natural warming of Pacific Ocean waters, lead to droughts, floods and more frequent cyclones across the world every few years. This year’s floods, which are a direct effect of the El Nino weather, are the worst in 35 years and are now even worsening and bearing impacts on farming, health and livelihoods in developing countries like Zimbabwe,” Eldred Nhemachema, a meteorological expert based in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, told IPS.

Consequently, this Southern African nation this year declared a national emergency, as harvests here face devastation from the floods resulting in soaring food prices countrywide, according to the UN World Food Programme.

The UN-WFP has also been on record reporting that Zimbabwe’s staple maize crop of 742,000 tonnes is down 53 percent from 2014-15, according to data from the Southern African Development Community.

The floods have prompted Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate to recommend that a state of disaster be declared in the country’s southern provinces, where one person was killed by the floods while hundreds were marooned by raging rivers that swept away homes and animals.

For instance, this year’s floods in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo Province left 300 pupils marooned at Lundi High School, leaving mostly girls stranded after the Runde River burst its banks and flooded dormitories. About 100 homesteads were also hit by the floods in the country’s Chivi, Bulilima and Mberengwa districts, according to the country’s Civil Protection Unit.

Based on this year’s February update from the country’s Department of Civil Protection, at least 117 people died since the beginning of the rainy season in October last year.

And for many Zimbabweans like Churu, who were earlier hit by the El Nino-induced drought, it is now double trouble.

“We already have no crops surviving thanks to the floods, yet we have had our crops destroyed by El Nino the previous year, and so suffering continues for us, with drought in the midst of floods. It hurts,” Churu said.

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Perez-Guerrero Trust Fund Calls for Project Proposals for 2017

2 March 2017 - 12:47pm

By an IPS Correspondent

The Perez-Guerrero Trust Fund (PGTF), which has been funding small scale projects in developing countries since 1983, is calling for new project proposals on an April 30 deadline.

The Fund has so far supported 291 projects with a total allocation of $13.7 million benefiting 127 developing countries as direct participants/beneficiaries in PGTF-supported projects and 141 developing countries as collective participants/beneficiaries.

In a letter to the New York-based Permanent Missions of developing nations, the PGTF says the maximum amount of support available for any given project in 2017 will be US$35,000.

Prospective applicants should fully fill in the mandatory project proposal model format and summary checklist in any of the working languages of the Group of 77 (Arabic, English, French and Spanish).

Applications that are not submitted fully in compliance with the requirement of the model format and summary checklist will not be considered.

In the case of nationally executed projects, applications should be accompanied by letters of endorsement from the countries that will benefit directly and/or participate in the activities of this project. Such endorsement letters should contain a clear indication of the institution, as well as name, position and signature of the person providing the endorsement.

In the case of project proposals submitted by institutions (e.g., non-governmental organizations, regional and sub-regional organizations, etc.), a copy of the relevant decision of the respective governing bodies and countries involved in the project should be provided.

The letter advises applicants to familiarize themselves with the Guidelines for Utilization of PGTF before preparing and submitting a funding application.

Applications should be delivered to the following mailing address:

Executive Secretariat of the Group of 77
United Nations Secretariat Building
Room S-0518
New York, NY 10017
United States of America

A copy of the application may also be submitted electronically to the following email address:

The objective of the PGTF is to provide seed money for (i) financing pre-investment/feasibility studies/reports prepared by professional consultancy organizations in developing countries members of the Group of 77; and (ii) facilitating the implementation of projects within the framework of the Caracas Programme of Action on ECDC.

The list of eight priority areas set in the guidelines, as spelled out in the Caracas Programme of Action, include trade; technology; food and agriculture; energy; raw materials; finance; industrialization and technical cooperation among developing countries; plus in the Havana Programme of Action, South-South cooperation, mainly in areas relating to education, health and environment.

Women’s Rights Activists: “Nevertheless, We Persist”

2 March 2017 - 11:40am

The theme of the 2017 UN Commission on the Status of Women will be economic empowerment. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

Human rights groups have expressed concern for the future of global negotiations on women’s rights in a climate of restrictive policies ahead of an upcoming annual UN meeting on the status of women.

While discussing the 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), organisations highlighted the importance of intersectionality in the discussion of women’s rights and implementation of relevant social and economic policies, referring to the importance of considering the many different ways that women can be marginalised.

“You need to look at issues of education, issues of mobility, issues of violence in the workplace, issues of sexual and reproductive rights of women…as a precursor to employment,” said President of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) Françoise Girard.

Negotiations have begun to create an outcome document for the CSW, whose main theme for 2017 is women’s economic empowerment.

“We feel very strongly that you cannot talk about women in a world of work globally without looking at the other factors that keep women from decent work,” Girard told IPS.

However, the initial draft failed to address these issues adequately with no mention of girls’ access to education or young women’s access to reproductive health care, she said.

“If women don’t have access to education or ethnic minorities are discriminated in the school system…or [lack] the ability to control their fertility and reproductive health…that will have a huge impact on their ability to be in paid work,” Girard told IPS.

Co-Director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) Eleanor Blomstrom also noted the “disappointing” lack of language around climate change.

“If we don’t address [climate change], then we don’t have a planet on which to live where women can exercise their full rights,” she said during a press conference.

Girard and Blomstrom also expressed alarm at the implementation of policies that further restrict women’s rights and thus economic empowerment.

The global gag rule, reinstated by the Trump administration, forbids non-governmental organisations receiving U.S. global health funding from working on issues around abortion regardless of other sources of funding. It also blocks recipients from participating in any national discussions on abortion.

Under the Bush administration, the policy only applied to family planning funds. This is the first time the condition has been applied to all global health assistance which makes up USD 9.5 billion, including funding for HIV and maternal health.

Girard cited the example of Kenyan organisation Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET) which receives approximately USD 200,000 to provide a range of reproductive health services including the treatment of postpartum haemorrhage. However, they are now left in a precarious position of whether or not to limit their services.

“Now they are having to choose—they cannot provide comprehensive health care anymore if they accept U.S. government funding, but they don’t want to stop training providers for postpartum haemorrhage,” said Girard.

Girard and Blomstrom noted that including such intersections of women’s issues in the CSW outcome document will help pave the way for governments to implement longer-term, detailed plans that allow for positive development opportunities and outcomes for women.

And there has been some progress, they added, with governments contributing to a new draft that views women’s participation in the world of work in a more holistic manner.

The new draft has thus far pulled language from the Paris Climate Change Agreement to address the intersections between women’s economic empowerment and environmental and climate change concerns, and highlighted the “crucial” need for men and boys to share household work and work towards a fair division of labor.

“I am pleasantly surprised at this early stage that there is real recognition (of these issues),” Girard said.

She also noted the important mobilisation around the world for and after the Women’s March on Washington which saw millions of protestors gather for women’s rights.

“I see the energy is very high, people are mobilised, the actions are continuing and we’re not going away, we’re not going back,” Girard told IPS.

The organisers of the Women’s March have planned a women’s strike on March 8, which also falls on International Women’s Day.

“In the same spirit of love and liberation that inspired the Women’s March, we join together in making March 8th A Day Without a Woman, recognising the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system—while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity,” the organisers state.

And in that same spirit and despite the potential disagreements that are expected to occur as CSW negotiations proceed, “nevertheless, we persist,” said Girard and Blomstrom.

The term is a play on words after U.S. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, said ““She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” in reference to U.S. Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren, after Warren was told to stop reading out loud a letter by Coretta Scott King – the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. – earlier this month.csw

Governments and civil society from around the world will be convening for CSW at the UN Headquarters in NY from 13 to 24 March to discuss and implement plans to promote women’s rights.

“Women in the UN Working Together to Improve the Lives of Women Worldwide”

2 March 2017 - 4:35am

Credit: FAO_Cote d'Ivoire

By Chitra Deshpande
ROME, Mar 2 2017 (IPS)

This International Women’s Day we celebrate women in the changing world of work, recognizing the need to fully realize women’s working potential in order to achieve Agenda 2030. We know that when women earn money, they spend it on feeding their families and educating their children. It is estimated that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.

Women worldwide carry the double burden of domestic labor and income-generating work outside the household. Despite working typically 12-13 hours per week more than men in developing countries in Africa and Asia, working women usually go unrecognized. Women in rural areas spend more of their time on domestic chores such as collecting water and firewood, preparing food, transporting goods and caring for children, the elderly and sick. They also work on family farms – spending on average three hours more per day than men on unpaid agricultural work. Equitable access to decent employment opportunities for women is critical to the well-being of their families and communities. Yet most rural women are either unpaid family workers, self-employed or hold precarious jobs for low pay.

In the United Nations, many women are committed to removing the barriers that women face in developing countries. The Joint-Programme on Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women (RWEE) is one example of how women from different UN agencies – FAO, IFAD, UN Women and WFP – are securing rural women’s livelihoods and rights in seven countries. Through the efforts of many women and men, but particularly – Clare Bishop-Sambrook and Beatrice Gerli of IFAD, Susan Kaaria and Libor Stloukal in FAO, Venge Nyirongo of UN Women, Veronique Sainte-Luce of WFP, and Azzurra Chiarini the Global Coordinator – RWEE has supported over 22,500 women and their households by enabling 2,150 women to access financial services; 5,200 to receive business development support; and training almost 4,000 women in improved agricultural technologies. As a smallholder farmer in Nepal, Chandra Kala Thapa faces many barriers to improving her agricultural productivity and income. RWEE provided her with seeds, fertilizers and equipment, and helped her access credit. Engaging the men in the community has resulted in Chandra’s husband helping her with the household work and farming. The increased income from diversifying her crops to fruits and vegetables has allowed her to educate her sons and pay for medical care. As President of her Women’s Farmers’ Group, Chandra also brings women together to find solutions to farming and family problems.

Credit: IFAD_Nepal

Rural women often work under conditions that are hazardous to their health. In Cote d’Ivoire, as in much of West Africa, women smoke fish in poorly ventilated rooms. Traditional smoking releases carcinogenic contaminants that lead to respiratory, eye and other health problems for women and their children. With the expertise of Yvette Diei-Ouadi, FAO Fishery Industry Officer and the support of Oumoul Khairy Ndiaye, from FAO’s office in Burkina Faso, FAO collaborated with the National Training Centre for Fisheries and Aquaculture Technicians in Senegal to develop the Thiaroye or FTT fish smoking technology – a system consisting of a dual-function oven and mechanical drier. This was designed to help small-scale fish processors, who are mainly women, prepare and market safe, high-quality food. According to Dion Somplehi, President of a cooperative of women fish processors and fish mongers, “We have seen the advantage of saving time in fish smoking and this is really important because in our communities, women are at the same time engaged in household chores – taking care of children, working in the kitchen – while carrying out fish processing activities.” The FTT oven also improved the quality of Ivorian smoked fish to meet the high food safety requirements of the European Union.

Theresa Panuccio, at childcare centre of FAO headquarters. Credit: FAO

When you invest in a woman, you invest in a community. Therefore, to fully unlock a woman’s potential, it is critical to include her family. IFAD uses household methodologies to promote equitable intra-household relations and shared decision-making. In IFAD-funded projects in Uganda, originally led by the Country Programme Manager Marian Bradley with the support of IFAD’s gender team, the household mentoring approach was used to assist Biribawa, a married woman with nine children, who struggled to support her family. A trained mentor helped Biribawa and her family formulate a vision and outline the steps to achieve it. Today her children are in school and, through improved farming and mat weaving, they have realized the family vision to build a permanent house.

In order for women working in the UN to help women in developing countries, they also need a supportive work environment to take care of their own families. In her former positions at FAO and IFAD, Theresa Panuccio was instrumental in establishing on-site child-care centres which improved women’s work-life balance. As we know from our projects, on-site child care can significantly improve women’s productivity by reducing absenteeism and the travel time to collect children.

Women worldwide are daughters, mothers, and wives as well as workers – farmers, entrepreneurs, laborers and experts. To unleash our full potential, we need to join together and support one another to care for our families and perform our jobs to the benefit of our communities, societies and countries.

A Last Call to Protect Our Children

2 March 2017 - 3:54am

By Reaz Ahmad
Mar 2 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

On the first day of April in 1930, a law came into force in the then Indian subcontinent restraining child marriage. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, made it absolute that marriage solemnised before one reaches the minimum marriageable age would be seen as a violation of law and thereby, a punishable offence.

“Whoever, being a male above twenty-one years of age, or being a female above eighteen years of age, contracts a child marriage shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to one month, or with fine which may extend to one thousand Taka, or with both,” reads Article 4 of the law.

In independent Bangladesh, we inherited that law and it is still in force. Once the president gives consent to a new bill passed by the parliament on Monday (February 27), this over-eight-decade-old law would be replaced by The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017.

The idea behind the new law formulation was to make it more stringent and time befitting. And in many counts it is truthfully done. Provisions are incorporated keeping higher degrees of punishments for the offenders both in terms of fine amount and jail term.

The time lapse for taking such offence into cognisance is one year in the 1929 Act, and that has been extended to two years in the new bill that the parliament just passed. Meaning, any court can take a child marriage case into cognisance within two years of the solemnisation of the marriage.

Motives, so far, stand clear that the government wants to give a message to all and sundry that child marriage is a big offence in Bangladesh and no one can get away with it without facing tougher punishments.

This strong message should have been well celebrated particularly in a country where 65 percent of women (of 20 to 24 years of age group) get married before the age of 18. And this day (February 27, 2017) should have been marked in the history as a red letter day, especially in a country which has the world’s highest rate of marriage involving girls under the age of 15.

But unfortunately, there is very little to cheer about. And one single aberration in the would-be law spoiled the very spirit of a stringent Child Marriage Restraint Act. While our colonial rulers nearly a century back kept no leeway and made the minimum marriageable age (18 and 21, respectively for female and male) absolute, the government of the day thought it otherwise. In the Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2017, it has kept a provision permitting parents, and in absence of parents, the guardians of under-age children, to get their wards married off with a court of laws consent for the ‘best interest’ of the children under ‘special circumstances.’

When the government first envisaged such a plan two years back to keep a small ‘window’ open for girls to get married before the age of 18, it had proposed for a 16-year ceiling and showed some socio-economic contexts as pretext. And the ‘window’ was meant only for under-aged girls then.

Very unfortunately, as many voices were raised from civil right and child right platforms from home and abroad against keeping any ‘deviating provision’ in the new law, the subsequent months saw further deviation in the bill designed by the Women and Children Affairs Ministry and scrutinised by the parliamentary standing committee on this ministry. Instead of paying any heed to all those protesting voices, the ministry let go of the 16-year ceiling, practically making it possible now for children as young as 15, 14 or even younger to get married under this so-called ‘special circumstances’ provision.

More unfortunate is the role played by the parliamentary committee, which thought it wise to give an equal ‘opportunity’ to boys as well. So the members of this committee, who attended the bill scrutiny meeting and incidentally all of whom are women lawmakers, recommended the special ‘window’ be kept open for both boys and girls, meaning that by applying the ‘special circumstances’ provision parents and guardians can now attempt to get their male and female child married at any minor age.

There has been a thought process in circulation within the government circle that pregnant adolescent girls, particularly in rural areas, would be ostracised by their communities if they cannot marry. Allowing marriage in ‘special cases’, such as pregnancy, is their proposed solution. But marriage does not protect girls. Research consistently shows that child marriage goes hand in hand with dropping out of school, losing out on job opportunities, and experiencing domestic violence. And then the question arises, what on earth is their logic behind keeping this ‘special circumstances’ provision applicable for a male child too? No one in this lawmaking process ever bothered to explain before the nation what prompted them to think that they must have such provision of marriages for under-aged boys. This is disturbing to say the least.

Girls who get married before the age of 18 have an increased risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth and are more likely to be exposed to violence and abuse. Child marriage negatively impacts schooling and reduces a child’s opportunities in life. Unicef says child brides are less likely to receive medical care during pregnancy than women who marry as adults. In Bangladesh, only 16 percent of girls (those married off before 15) get proper medical care during pregnancy, compared to 47 percent women (those who get married after 18 years).

Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, for example, covers the right to protection from child marriage in Article 16, which states: “The betrothal and marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage….” The right to ‘free and full’ consent to marriage is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that consent cannot be ‘free and full’ when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner. Although marriage is not mentioned directly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child marriage is linked to other rights – such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to protection from all forms of abuse, and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices – and is frequently addressed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. More than one in three – or some 250 million – were married off before they turned 15. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence. Young teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s; their infants are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life.

Maternal deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are an important component of mortality for girls aged 15–19 worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths each year. If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 percent, greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19.

When girls are married off young and they get pregnant young, a stiff and uneven competition ensues between the child-mother and the fetus for whatever food the mother intakes. In this competition, the fetus obviously gets defeated by the mother, who, in most cases, is herself malnourished. In the process, the babies of such under-aged mothers are given birth to see the light of this world with low birth weight and poor disease-resistance capacities. This cycle of undernutrition goes on and on.

The writer is Assignment Editor of The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Valuing Women’s Unpaid Work

2 March 2017 - 12:03am

Credit: MJF

By Shaheen Anam
DHAKA, Bangladesh, Mar 2 2017 (IPS)

Women’s work remains unaccounted for even though the issue of unpaid work carried out by women is being discussed globally at the policy, academic as well as practitioners’ levels.

Defined as “unpaid care work,” this includes taking care of children, elderly and the sick, cooking and cleaning, plus agricultural activities such as preservation of seeds, thrashing and drying paddy, poultry and cattle rearing, etc.

These discussions are yet to translate into policy changes, leaving most of what women do uncounted and outside the realm of national statistics or GDP of all countries in the world. Economists have not been able to come up with an alternative calculation of the System of National Accounts (SNA) which is determined globally.

This has led to the non-recognition of the work of a vast majority of women around the world, ultimately resulting in their devaluation, lower status discrimination and often violence.

The undervaluation of women’s work is a global phenomenon. Research shows that women produce 60-80 percent of basic foodstuffs in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and perform over 50 percent of the labor involved in intensive rice cultivation in Asia.

Women head 60 percent of households in some regions of Africa and meet 90 percent of household water and fuel needs. They also process 100 percent of basic household foodstuffs. However, in spite of these statistics, 500 million women in the world live below the poverty line in rural areas.

Shaheen Anam

The progress that women in Bangladesh have made in the last 20 years is well known now. Besides an increase in labor force employment, they have made substantive gains in political and social participation. Today there are far more options available to women than ever before as they venture into non-traditional careers such as police, peacekeeping or even flying fighter jets.

The success of Bangladesh in meeting the MDG goals of education and health is proof of the strides women have made. However, having said that, women’s decision-making ability is severely constrained by traditions, norms and customs, leaving millions of women disempowered.

Women continue to face discrimination and violence in their private and public lives. The BBS study in 2015 reported that 72 percent of women experience some form of violence, while 49.6 percent face physical violence by their spouse or close relatives. 52 percent (UNICEF) of girls are married before the age of 17 or 18. According to a report by the human rights group Ain O Shalish, a total of 671 girls and women were raped and 191 were murdered by their husband or relatives from January 20 to November, 2016.

It is a matter of great concern that in a country with women leaders in top positions since 1991 has not been able to reduce violence and discrimination against them. Women continue to be perceived and treated as per patriarchal norms and values which dictate their roles and responsibilities.

In spite of the gains women have made, the attitude of society by and large has not changed. Even today, the birth of a girl brings less joy than the birth of a boy. Families continue to hold onto the traditional belief that it is the male child who will grow up and take care of them when they are old.

However, the truth is that daughters and sisters are leaving homes in the thousands and getting employed in the garment sector and sending back their hard-earned salaries to support families all over Bangladesh.

While violence and discrimination are symptoms, the issue revolves around the status and dignity of women. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is women have lower status in Bangladeshi homes and society. Their lower status results in violence and discrimination against them. On the other hand, this lower status is due to the persistent perception of women being weak, dependent, unreliable, non-productive — and the list goes on and on.

What is needed is a fundamental change in the way women are perceived. This can happen through sustained campaigns and education to change negative attitudes and perceptions about women. Women’s contributions to families and society should be highlighted and their work in all its dimensions, both paid and unpaid, brought to the attention of families, society and policy makers.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030” .The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will also discuss this theme this year.

This means “work” should be redefined to include the work of women, both productive and reproductive, paid and unpaid. If we are serious about the economic empowerment of all women, then their work in all its dimensions has to be recognized, evaluated and accounted for. Unless that happens, the economic empowerment of women will remain just a dream.

Another Town in El Salvador Votes No to Mining

1 March 2017 - 5:31pm

Voter at Cinquera Consultation, Feb 26. 2017. Credit: Aruna Dutt

By Aruna Dutt
Cabañas, El Salvador, Mar 1 2017 (IPS)

The citizens of Cinquera municipality in Cabañas delivered a resounding vote against mining, on Sunday February 26th, when 98 percent of residents voted in favour of becoming El Salvador’s fifth “territory free of mining.”

“Mining companies have a wide field with major extension in other countries, and often they need to use the comparative law of other countries to be able to apply their practices here in El Salvador. But the truth is that El Salvador is a country so small that industrial mining is not viable,”Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, Wulan Iraheta told IPS.

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but also has the highest population density, with 300 people per square kilometer. It is also the fourth most vulnerable country to climate change according to GermanWatch, with 95% of the population living in a high-risk zone.

Ana Marina Alvarenga, FMLN, speaking at Cinquera mining consultation. Credit: Aruna Dutt

Last year, the national government declared a water emergency. The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) concluded that only two percent of the country`s surface water is fit for human consumption and for the growth of aquatic life. Currently, those living in rural areas pay to have bottled water shipped by private companies. El Salvador’s environmental crisis and contamination of the population’s water, two-thirds of which comes from the Lempa River, has also been caused by the disparaging practices of metal mining in northeastern El Salvador.

The case of the Canadian mining company, Pacific Rim, and San Sebastian River pollution are the most visible examples of this destructive legacy.

Acid Drainage from Abandoned mine in San Sebastian River, Credit: Aruna Dutt

Between 1998 and 2003, 29 exploration licences were granted to mining companies, the most prominent being the Canadian company, Pacific Rim – now OceanaGold. When the government of El Salvador refused to provide mining permits to Pacific Rim’s proposed El Dorado mine because it failed to meet the government’s environmental requirements, the company sued the Salvadoran Government in 2009 for $77 million through a World Bank trade tribunal, the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes. Such demands are based on provisions of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Salvadoran Investment Law. The Salvadoran Government won the lawsuit last October after spending millions on defense, but Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold has yet to pay up.

Even though the State of El Salvador recently won the case against the Canadian/Australian mining company, Oceana Gold, the struggle of the Salvadoran people for the defense of their environment continues.

“Currently it is the executive government, the president, who has been refusing mining projects, but there is no guarantee that these projects will be stopped in the future without a law,” said Ana Marina Alvarenga, FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) congresswoman for the department of Cabañas at the Cinquera consultation.

“The position of our FMLN party supports the creation and passing of a law at the national level that definitely prohibits mining in our country. It is part of the legislative agenda or of the legislative platform for the FMLN 2015 to 2018 period to approve this law of prohibition of the metallic mining.”

International Observers at Cinquera Consultation, Feb 26th, 2017. Credit: Aruna Dutt.

As a way to pressure the Salvadoran government to implement a law definitively banning mining in El Salvador, social movements together with organised communities have been organizing to bring community consultations.

“Cabañas is located in the upper basin of the Lempa River, and in this sense any mining project that is in Cabañas, unfortunately will bring negative consequences for all departments through which the river Lempa runs, which is the majority,” said Alvarenga.

Since 2005, coinciding with the emergence of opposition to mining in Cabañas, the El Dorado Foundation has been operating in Cabanas as the public face of Pacific Rim/OceanaGold in El Salvador.

The foundation makes donations to local schools, sponsors health clinics, offers computer and English classes, and promotes business training for women, among other activities allowing the mining company to act as a benefactor to the surrounding communities.

“Mining Contaminates and Kills” Mural in Cinquera. Feb 26, 2017. Credit: Aruna Dutt


“The communities understand the impacts of mining but have become dependent on these services they provide,” says Vidalina Morales, President of the Association of Economic and Social Develop (ADES), who is also a member of the National Round-table against Metal Mining in El Salvador (La MESA) and has worked directly on mining issues as an organiser in Cabañas communities since 2006.

The foundation’s work is intended to enhance the company’s public reputation and cultivate support for the proposed El Dorado mine project.

Of particular concern is the threat of angry and potentially violent reprisals from people or groups receiving benefits, or who expect to receive benefits, should the mining project proceed. As determined by the regional court, Pacific Rim has been responsible for violence in Cabanas which has already claimed five lives, including three environmentalists: Marcelo Rivera, Ramiro Rivera, Dora Sorto and her unborn baby, and Juan Francisco Durán. The climate of fear resulting from these assassinations and other threats of violence is still palpable in the communities today.

“Although these companies may have financial and resource capital, the capital we have is community organising” said Pedro Cabezas, a representative of International Allies Against Mining, and the Association for the Development of El Salvdador (CRIPDES).

Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, Wulan Iraheta, overseeing the Cinquera consultation process. Feb 26th, 2017. Credit: Aruna Dutt

The election on Sunday was historic for the municipality of Cinquera, being  the first municipality of Cabañas, a largely agricultural territory bordering Honduras,  that initiated this process of popular consultation (consulta popular). Organised by the mayor’s office, along with the social organizations of the municipality of Cinquera, the direct vote resulted in 52% participation and 98% of votes against mining.

Community consultations (consultas) are a new phenomenon in El Salvador, but not a new phenomenon in Latin America. There have been consultas all through Mexico, Central America, South America, and there are different legal figures which communities utilise to hold consultas. A figure in El Salvaor’s municipal code allows local municipalities to hold referendums to consult with communities on issues that truly affect them in their personal or family life.

Counting the votes, Cinquera, Feb 26. 2017. Credit: Aruna Dutt

Consultations are also a strategy to keep communities engaged and maintain the debate on both a national and local level. They involve an extensive organising process including petitions, campaigns, and work in every community in the municipality Said Cabezas.

It is also a process of educating the population at the grassroots level and keeping them informed about the issue of mining and involved in the process of using local democracy tools to defend their territory.

Vidalina Morales, ADES, at Cinquera Consulta, Feb 26, 2017. Credit: Aruna Dutt

“The subject of mining is seen to bring development to the communities. If the companies come, it’s true, they bring it as a profit: by units of work, development to the communities,” Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, Wulan Iraheta told IPS.

“But that is only the beginning – and at the end is a disaster. They deplete natural resources and at the end, only leave disaster for the communities. Since this directly affects communities, they must take into account, and have information on both sides of the argument to be able to decide what is viable for the community. ” Iraheta said.

Bernardo Belloso, President of CRIPDES which was part of the preparation of the popular consultation, said that it is not enough to have this municipal ordinance.

“We hope that this experience will also serve for other municipalities, ” said Belloso, “We want a more secure society for our future generations. It is important that the entire Salvadoran population take a position in order to defend the territory and defend the few natural resources that remain and our sovereignty, ” he said.

Caribbean Leaders Want Swifter Action on Climate Funding

1 March 2017 - 7:14am

Prime Minister of The Bahamas Perry Christie says special consideration needs to be given by international financial institutions to the unique circumstances of his country. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
ROSEAU, Dominica, Mar 1 2017 (IPS)

When Tropical Storm Erika hit the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica on Aug. 27, 2015, it killed more than two dozen people, left nearly 600 homeless and wreaked damages totaling more than a billion dollars.

The storm dumped 15 inches of rain on the mountainous island, caused floods and mudslides and set the country back 20 years, according Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. The island was inadequately prepared for a storm such as Erika. Many roads and bridges were simply not robust enough to withstand such high volumes of water.“It is critical that there must be relatively quick access to this Fund by those it is intended to assist." --Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit

In a national address shortly following the storm, Skerrit said that hundreds of homes, bridges and roads had been destroyed and millions of dollars in financial aid were needed to help the country bounce back.

“In order to get back to where we were before Tropical Storm Erika struck, we have to source at least 88.2 million dollars for the productive sector, 334.55 million for infrastructure and 60.09 million for the social sectors,” Skerrit said.

Dominica’s neighbours in the Caribbean were the first to deliver aid in the form of medical assistance, telecommunications engineers, and financial aid, and were followed by essential supplies and manpower from Venezuela and doctors and nurses from Cuba.

Now, 18 months later, Skerrit said the island is still in the initial recovery stages of the devastation wrought by the storm, and he is pleading for swift action from international funding agencies for his country and its Caribbean neighbours which have been impacted by severe storms in recent years.

“Of particular importance to us is the Green Climate Fund (GCF) which has been established to assist in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change,” Skerrit told IPS.

“It is critical that there must be relatively quick access to this Fund by those it is intended to assist. As laudable as it is, it will be of minimal impact if disbursement is as sluggish as has been the experience with other institutions and agencies.

“The increasing intensity and frequency of these climatic events force us to face the reality of climate change. Hardly any of us in the region has been untouched in some form by the effects of the phenomenon and this emphasizes the need for the implementation of the measures contained in the Paris Agreement,” Skerrit added.

The GCF was established with a mission to advance the goal of keeping earth’s temperature increase below 2 degrees C.

The Fund is a unique global initiative to respond to climate change by investing in low emissions and climate-resilient development.

The GCF was established by 194 governments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, and to help adapt vulnerable societies to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Given the urgency and seriousness of the challenge, the Fund is mandated to make an ambitious contribution to the united global response to climate change.

The Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) was accredited as a regional implementing entity by the Board of the GCF in 2015.

CCCCC Executive Director Dr. Kenrick Leslie said it speaks to the high caliber of work being done in the region and the strength of the centre’s internal systems.

“We will now move forward with a set of ambitious and bankable projects that we have been developing under a directive from CARICOM Heads,” he said.

As the first regionally accredited organization, the CCCCC is now the interface and conduit for GCF funding to the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the Caribbean.

Skerrit, who wrapped up his tenure as chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in February, said he visited Haiti and The Bahamas during his chairmanship of the 15-member regional grouping to see first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew.

Last year, Hurricane Matthew rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to hurricane status as it moved over the Caribbean Sea. Matthew continued to intensify to a Category 5 storm and into one of the strongest in Atlantic basin history, which made landfall and devastated portions of The Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba, and the eastern United States.

“In both countries, the extent of the damage was severe,” said Skerrit, who was accompanied by the CARICOM Secretary-General, Ambassador Ambassador Irwin LaRocque and the Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), Ronald Jackson.

He noted that the Government of Haiti reported more than 500 deaths along with 1.5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, including 120,000 families whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

The worst of the devastation occurred in the agricultural belt, which affected the food supply of the country.

“Agriculture and fishing were also badly affected in The Bahamas along with homes and infrastructure on the three islands which were hardest hit,” Skerrit described.

“The damage was estimated at more than 500 million dollars. It is my hope that the recovery process is well underway to reconstructing the lives and livelihoods of all those affected.”

Prime Minister of The Bahamas Perry Christie described how his country also faced a 600-million-dollar assessed impact from a Category 4 hurricane (Joaquin) in 2015 and encroachment by the sea with Hurricane Matthew a year later.

The Bahamian leader said special consideration needs to be given by the international financial institutions to the unique circumstances of the country.

“Our people are spread over a hundred thousand square miles of ocean [and] as we modernize we began to feel the effects of having rich people in our countries drive our economy and the measure of our economy on the basis of per capita income. And we were being graduated to the point where we are not qualified for concessionary loans,” he explained.

“There is this paradigm that lumps the country together and does not take into consideration the unequal development that exists in our country. The people who live on the island of New Providence are entirely different to those on the remote islands.

“We are judged harshly. When there is a 600-million-dollar assessed impact from a hurricane, and an encroachment by the sea as happened with Hurricane Matthew, the country has to withstand the impacts and then you are downgraded because they say there is no assurance you are going to be able to have the revenue. These are the challenges that the countries in our region face,” Christie added.

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Of Meet-ups, Start-ups and Bootstraps

1 March 2017 - 3:28am

By Editor, Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
Mar 1 2017 (The Sunday Times - Sri Lanka)

Confused by the heading? Well, this is the golden age of the millennials. Many moons ago while discussing small and medium scale businesses with a young entrepreneur, he referred to start-ups and a new ecosystem.

Intrigued and pursuing further led me to one of the meet-ups ( a regular meeting of people having the same interests) of the start-up community at a Colombo café, resulting in an energetic conversation on a new generation of entrepreneurs who are taking on the world, without waiting for government facilitation, banking handouts or too much mentoring.

Bootstrap, bitcoins, artificial intelligence … these are all new terms that have come into the vocabulary in recent times mostly due to the entry of millennials into the creative and innovative workspace. Along with that new job titles and designations are emerging like chief innovation officers, chief information officers, etc. Many years ago the chief information officer of an organisation was the public face of a company and from whom the media could get information and developments of a company. That title, description and role have changed dramatically to communications officer while the chief information officer is generally nowadays regarded as the ‘brains’ in an organisation, particularly a tech-heavy one. It may even be something else, such is the rapid pace of development.

“Mahattayo, mokade mey bootstrap kiyanne? Boot eka denawada?’ asked the gossipy Kussi Amma Sera, as usual butting into a phone conversation I was having on this subject.

Most of today’s start-ups have emerged through bootstrapping where an entrepreneur starts a company with little capital, often raised from personal finances. This is unlike the generation of small and medium scale industrialists in the late 1970s to the 1990s where entrepreneurs resorted to bank funding.

However, the generation of entrepreneurs born before the Second World War walked the streets or rode bicycles selling their wares funded through their own resources, later turning to be successful, millionaire businesspersons across the world including Sri Lanka. Some of those businesses in Sri Lanka have been taken to the second and third level through the millennial generation, bringing in new ideas and creative thought.

Start-ups are developing rapidly in Sri Lanka, at a faster pace than the emergence of SMEs in the 1970s-1980s for multiple reasons: They start young, don’t wait for bank funding or government handouts or a regulatory framework.

In fact, in most cases across the world, governments see this ecosystem as a useful tool of revenue to bring in all kinds of taxes because traditional businesses also do complain of the need for a level playing field. In the recent budget, taxing online travel platforms was one of the measures.

However, governments like in the Sri Lankan context are neither tech savvy nor clearly understand how start-ups work and pounce on them through rigid systems and taxes which could “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs”. For that matter, quite a few proposals in the budget were not properly thought of and seen as knee-jerk reactions as the desperation to collect revenue overrode any rationale decision-making or thought.

Over the past fortnight there have been two discussions on tech-related sectors and the evolution of the start-up community, raising some interesting issues. In a conversation with senior journalists last week, Krish Canekeratne, co-founder Chairman and CEO of Virtusa spoke about where the world was heading, in fact rapidly, in today’s .com generation.

Millennials are driving societies, businesses, cultural change and norms. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult to predict the future, so much so that at an interesting discussion on start-ups at the monthly meeting of the Sunday Times Business Club on Wednesday in Colombo, Deputy Chairman of John Keells Holdings Ajit Gunewardena – when asked what businesses would look like in the next two decades — said some of us would be fossils and not survive in a business environment that is unpredictable and is changing so fast, unless you keep up with the times.

Wednesday’s discussion brought together Ajit who is also Chairman of Pickme and involved in funding a few other start-ups and Thilan Wijesinghe – Director/co-founder and Director/co-founder SLIIT, both of whom after years of experience in the organised corporate world, plunged into the start-up ecosystem.

Joining them on the panel were Lahiru Pathmalal – CEO and co-founder of Takas Pvt Ltd and Mangala Karunaratne, Founder/CEO – Calcey Technologies, LLC. This discussion looked at how the start-up community has evolved in Sri Lanka, its progress, how the government perceives this new ecosystem and its future.

Interestingly, both Lahiru and Mangala come from families with entrepreneurship in their veins and succeeding after a long struggle. The formative years of and Calcey were the same – some struggles, a lot of frustration, despair and ‘tearing your hair out’ situations.

The point they made in the discussion is that success doesn’t come overnight and multiple factors can stymie promoting new ventures. The poor education system or the way it is structured kills entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka and is the cause of many start-up failures, according to Thilan while Ajit’s simple take on the success of start-ups is: Proper execution of a business plan, finding funding sources and a mentor in the absence of business experience.

No doubt, millennials are taking on the world. New ideas, different work ethics, shifting cultural norms – some of which are frowned on by the baby-boomer generation like casual dress in the workplace, too casual indeed –, and a lot of money in their pockets.

In fact according to real estate developers, many of the investors in apartments today are young, wealthy business professionals – some making their first million bucks as young as 20 years – and buying 2-3 apartments for rental purposes.

Where the real estate market is heading with growing numbers of new apartments coming up – 10,000 units according to some estimates – and whether it could lead to a possible bubble in the rental market, no one knows and probably should be the focus of the next KAS column. Maybe we should check this phenomena in coming weeks.

In many of the tech-savvy companies, millennials rule the roost and are the dominating force. At Virtusa for example, 80 per cent of its 10,000-strong workforce comprises millennials.

The start-up ecosystem is disrupting business practices like never before. Acquiring huge infrastructure like machinery, vehicles or even computers is becoming a thing of the past. For example, at least three to four of the richest people on the planet like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have little or no assets unlike the oil magnates and car manufacturers in the 1950-60s. Just like for example Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce web, Alibaba, and the second richest person in China.

In the US, rather than acquiring, farmers are hiring tractors and farm equipment. Outsourcing is the name of the game. Rental car companies like Hertz, probably the largest car rental company in the world working in 150 countries, are finding it tough against Uber-type companies that don’t own vehicles, offer more competitive rental rates and are driven by mobile apps and limited human contact. Kodak collapsed with the entry of smartphones sans films while Fuji films moved to other product lines. Innovation and creativity are the new mantra. Innovate or go bust just like Ajit’s assertion that if you don’t embrace today’s technology and move with the times, we become fossils.

Not a comforting thought, though to baby boomers. On the topic of the model of new business entrepreneurs being hiring, outsourcing and connecting suppliers and vendors with customers and clients, another futuristic thought that emerged in these conversations is that millennials are not in the habit of acquiring assets for personal use just like the disruptive business model. For example, this generation is bound to be living in different cities, on the move and with no fixed abode. Thus acquiring a property or owning an apartment, a priority today, is not on their radar. So will the property bubble burst? Maybe, maybe not but something to think of as Colombo’s skyline changes rapidly and won’t be the same in the next five to 10 years. Millennials indeed will decide what we eat, what we wear, what we own and how we live. Last but not least, how we think, too.

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

Public Hearings Can Fight Corruption

1 March 2017 - 1:57am

By Nasiruddin Ahmed
Mar 1 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Bangladesh is a lower middle-income country with a promising and stable economy. The economy of Bangladesh continues to maintain its sustainable growth momentum with a healthy 7 percent-plus growth rate in FY 2015-16. The gead count poverty rate declined from 31.5 percent in 2010 to 23.2 percent in 2016 while the extreme poverty rate decreased from 23.2 percent in 2010 to 12.9 percent in 2016 (BBS, 2016). The foreign exchange reserve shows a steady increase and the exchange rate of US dollar remains stable. The country’s remarkable steady growth is possible due to a number of factors including macroeconomic stability, population control and openness of the economy. Building on its social-economic progress so far, the government has taken up multifarious initiatives to elevate Bangladesh to a knowledge-based and technology-driven middle-income country by 2021.


However, despite economic progress, corruption remains a formidable problem in Bangladesh. According to all major global indicators of corruption, namely Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), World Bank’s Control of Corruption, World Economic Forum’s Irregular Payments and Bribes and Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index, Bangladesh finds itself among the most corrupt countries in the world. Empirical evidence from a number of countries shows a strong correlation between government effectiveness and the level of corruption. Highly corrupt governments usually have big problems in delivering public services, enforcing laws, and representing the public interest (Fukuyama, 2014).

In Bangladesh, citizens have to travel long distances, often multiple times, incur high costs and endure considerable delays and hassle to access public services (PMO Bangladesh). Systemic corruption sufficiently undermines a state’s ability to carry out its basic functions such as supplying public goods and services (IMF, 2016).

With the help of a social accountability tool, such as public hearing, it would be possible to deliver corruption-free public services to citizens. Article 7(1) of the Constitution stipulates that all powers in the Republic belong to the people. This study is based on the corruption experiences of about 1000 people who participated in 42 public hearings conducted by the Anti-Corruption Commission in collaboration with Transparency International Bangladesh, JICA and the World Bank in 37 upazilas of 36 districts and 5 offices in Dhaka, namely RAJUK, BRTA, Passport, three offices of AC (Land) and three offices of Sub-Registrar and a follow-up of public hearing on RAJUK.

The Cabinet Division in a circular issued on June 5, 2014 authorised the Anti-Corruption Commission to conduct public hearing for improving integrity and preventing corruption in public offices.

Public hearings are formal meetings at the community level where citizens express their grievances on matters of public interest to public officials and service providers try to address their grievances. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) conducts public hearings at the upazila level for ensuring the accountability of public officials and also transparency of their work. Public hearings can be thought of as a way of removing asymmetric information and thereby, empowering citizens with information, who can be expected to be in a better bargaining position than before. Second, anecdotal evidence suggests that the presence of a large number of citizens in the public hearing creates collective pressure on public officials who respond to the complaints raised by the citizens and tries to address their grievances. The public hearing invites public officials of a few government agencies and citizens of the same locality and allows them to question the officials directly on issues of corruption, and other hassles they face in service delivery. According to the World Development Report 2017, the three key conditions include transparency, which makes information available, publicity which makes information accessible, and accountability which makes information actionable. The ACC organises public hearings in collaboration with its Corruption Prevention Committees at the district and upazila levels, and Transparency International Bangladesh and development partners (World Bank, JICA and GIZ). The focus of public hearings is on land management (land registration, settlement and administration), health and rural electrification. The reason for selecting these organisations is that these services are essential for larger sections of households and, further, the ripple effect is even more. Based on the feedback received from public hearings, the ACC is holding dialogue with government organisations for improving service delivery through business process reengineering. Thirdly, public hearings attempt to fulfil the three key conditions for bringing accountability in public offices through citizen engagement.

The Anti-Corruption Commission in collaboration with Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) conducted an information fair and public hearing for the first time in Muktagachha, Mymensingh from December 28-29, 2014. A large segment of common people attended the programme. It was found through these public hearings conducted by the ACC that every public office is vulnerable to corruption; the system hardly works for public service delivery, and systematic corruption prevails in public offices, land management, health, and rural electrification appear to be the most corrupt departments.

The major reasons behind corruption are the lengthy and cumbersome process of public service delivery, many intermediaries, little transparency and accountability, absence of exemplary punishment for corrupt practices, heavy reliance on manual system and so on.

The existing irregularities and corruption may be controlled if the following measures are to be taken like undertaking business process reengineering for better service delivery, introducing online public service delivery, recognising the champions of accountability in public service, developing partnership with government organisations, NGOs, civil society including media, introducing decentralised governance, bringing the corrupt officials to justice, etc.

The ACC works to achieve the two objectives of building effective citizens against corruption and improving the system of public service delivery. In this regard, public hearing and its follow-up appear to be effective instruments of corruption prevention. The ACC has decided to take follow-up action of public hearings already conducted and document the success stories. The ACC and TIB will jointly undertake a research work to assess the effectiveness of public hearings. However, the challenge is to institutionalise public hearings and other social accountability tools in the system of public service delivery.

The writer is commissioner, Anti-Corruption Commission.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

In Defence of Women’s Shelters

1 March 2017 - 1:46am

By Rafia Zakaria
Mar 1 2017 (Dawn, Pakistan)

Many of the women’s shelters currently operating in Afghanistan have been founded and funded during the Nato/US presence over the past decade.

Rafia Zakaria

As is well known, the United States based part of its justification for the invasion of Afghanistan on the premise of liberating Afghan women from the misogyny and brutality of the Afghan Taliban. The then first lady Laura Bush announced that the war required the support of all civilised people because it was a war for women’s liberation, and at least one female congresswoman donned a burqa on the floor of the House of Representatives, going on to detail how claustrophobic she found the garment.

It followed from all this that in the run-up to the invasion and in the months and years after, programmes and development focused on Afghan women received a lot of attention in the international media, including pictures of Afghan women going to school and walking on the streets of their country without the burqa that the Taliban had made mandatory.

Indeed, in 2015, over a decade after the invasion, the New York Times was still publishing articles touting how American-established shelters were the only thing standing between abused Afghan women and the men who would kill them.

It is unfortunate that women’s shelters are viewed as a product of a Western feminism that contravenes culture and religion.

There is a lot of truth to that premise. In Afghanistan (as in Pakistan) family and tribe are the venue of refuge and recourse. This means that women who rebel against tribal mores, be it those who are accused of sexual crimes or those victimised by men (often from their own family), have no place to go. With nowhere to go, many women would either have to put up with the abuse or take their own life. Until the establishment of shelters, no third choice was really possible.

Unsurprisingly, everyone, except the women living in the shelters, has been critical of their presence. When the whole structure of society, specifically the project of making women ascribe to the rules and whims of men, is predicated on the fact that they have no choice but to obey, it follows that anyone or anything that offers them an option is going to be viewed less than favourably.

Even Afghan government officials, who have otherwise been eager to take help and funds from the Americans, view the presence of these shelters with scepticism. As scholar Sonia Ahsan quotes in her ethnographic study of Afghan women’s shelters (called khana-yi aman), even the Afghan justice minister described the shelters as encouraging girls to disobey their fathers and family members, their presence conveying that they did not have to worry, they could run away and stay at shelters and did not have to bother with what their family members thought.

On top of all this, Ahsan notes, the fact that these women are runaways, imagined or known to have been abandoned by their families, lends further ambiguity to the moral status of the shelters themselves. The places that provide shelter to women accused of being disobedient or depraved are hence imagined as venues of disobedience and sexual promiscuity.

All the problems afflicting women’s shelters in Afghanistan exist also in Pakistan. The absence of choices for abused or accused women is just as instrumental in ensuring that they comply with everything and anything that is demanded of them. Similar to Afghanistan, Pakistani women’s rights organisations have been helped by international donors over the past decade. The idea, as in Afghanistan, has been to provide options for women who otherwise have none. Government-run shelters in Pakistan have to contend with the same criticism, often facing accusations of immorality just because they are seen as intervening in private matters where the family and their agendas are supposed to have complete sway and supremacy.

As long as state and society remain intractable, the need for women’s shelters will be there. In Pakistan, the scale of urbanisation and demographic change has meant that more women are in need of such venues when marriages and parental relationships become abusive.

However, while the newspapers are full of pictures of dead women, of women who had nowhere to go and were killed for honour or disobedience or some other reason, neither Pakistani nor Afghan society seems particularly concerned with seeing women’s shelters as a necessity. Rather, these are viewed as a product of a Western feminism that contravenes culture and religion. As funding from external sources dries up, such a recalibration is absolutely imperative in both countries. Unless lawmakers take steps to indigenise the idea of women’s shelters, and present them as crucial to the welfare of women, such a change is unlikely.

If the developments of the past few weeks are a sign of things to come, Pakistan is moving in the wrong direction. The recently passed Alternative Dispute Resolution Bill, 2017, which grants legal legitimacy to decisions made by jirgas and panchayats, is a huge blow to women’s welfare. These male-dominated extra-legal bodies, which have been known to promote the abuse and persecution of women and deny them choices, are one of the biggest enemies of institutions such as women’s shelters.

As international aid dries up in the coming years, women’s shelters in Pakistan and Afghanistan are likely to face existential issues that will threaten their survival. Unless there is urgent and immediate recognition of the need and importance of these institutions, even those that exist are likely to be no more. The consequence, and one that is sadly meaningless to many Pakistanis, will be more dead women, killed simply because they could not run and had no place of safety where they could take refuge.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2017

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

General Assembly President on the Crucial G77 Role in Upcoming SDG Events

28 February 2017 - 3:43pm

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 28 2017 (IPS/G77)

Addressing the Group of 77, the President of the UN General Assembly Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji said he plans a series of high–level meetings over the next few months in which the G77, joined by China, is expected to play a crucial role.

The upcoming meetings include the UN Oceans Conference; a High-Level SDG Action Event; a High Level Meeting on ‘Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Agenda’’; a SDG Financing Lab; a ‘High-Level Event on Innovation and Connectivity;’ and a High-Level Event on Education.

Firstly, he pointed out, all of the events have been selected to address means of implementation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or to drive cross-cutting action for SDG implementation.

Secondly, they all aim to help increase global awareness of critical implementation challenges, to identify concrete solutions, and to bring together all key stakeholders – across Government, the international community, civil society, the private sector, and academia.

And thirdly, the success of each of these events relies on the engagement of all partners.

“In this regard I call on the G77 to participate actively, and at the highest possible levels, to ensure their success,” he said.

“As a former Chair of the G77, I am keenly aware of the importance of progress on a number of key issues and processes during the 71st Session, to advancing the interests of the Group,” Ambassador Thomson told delegates.

“Indeed, as we enter the second year of implementation of the 2030 Agenda, it is essential that we continue to work closely together to build momentum, collaboration and partnership between all stakeholders, and to keep the wheels of implementation turning,” he noted.

Paying a tribute to the current G77 chair, Ambassador Thomson said he would like to take the opportunity to commend Ecuador on the priority theme for its presidency of the G77 – strengthening international cooperation in tax matters.

Implementing the 2030 Agenda will require mobilising all forms of finance, including by increasing private investment, and enhancing the capacity of countries to mobilize domestic resources through taxation.

“In our changing development cooperation landscape, characterized in particular by the declining levels of international development assistance, international cooperation to build human and institutional capacity, strengthen governance, and combat tax evasion and illicit financial flows, takes on even greater importance”, he declared.

In line with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, he will support efforts aimed at increasing international cooperation on tax matters.

In this regard, the ECOSOC Special Meeting on International Cooperation in Tax Matters, to be held in April, provides an important opportunity to take forward these discussions.

“They might also be included in the discussions at the SDG Financing Lab, which I am organising in April,” he added.

Ambassador Thomson singled out the UN Oceans Conference, to be convened from 5 to 9 June this year, as a historic milestone in building global momentum for the implementation of SDG 14.

“The Ocean Conference represents our best opportunity to reverse the cycle of decline into which human activity has pushed the Ocean.”

The Conference will catalyse political support through a strong ‘Call for Action’; and it will secure the game-changing voluntary commitments and strategic partnerships necessary for the achievement of SDG14’s noble targets.

“In this regard, I underline the importance of the online registry for voluntary commitments that has been launched and which can be found on the Conference’s website. I urge you all to register your commitments in support of SDG14 without delay.”

The other upcoming meetings include:

An SDG Financing Lab, scheduled for April 18, will promote global discussions on sustainable financing. The event will include workshops showcasing strategies for leveraging private and public financing for the SDGs, and demonstrate how capacity-building can help these efforts.

A ‘High-Level Event on Innovation and Connectivity‘, on May 17, will discuss ways to harness the power of technology to solve critical challenges in support of SDG implementation.

On 28 June, there will be a High-Level Event on Education to raise the importance of inclusive and equitable quality education as a pre-requisite and driver of opportunity for all.

And in August, there will be a High-Level Meeting on UN Habitat.

He said the General Assembly will also soon begin preparations for a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, following the recent finalisation of consultations on the modalities resolution.

The modalities resolution is set to be adopted by the General Assembly at the conclusion of the Fifth Committee’s budget processes.

“Given the time-sensitivity of this process, I urge you to support the swift consideration of the budgetary implications of the modalities resolution in the Fifth Committee, so that the process can move forward, consistent with the timeline envisaged in the agreed modalities,” he added.

Stemming Illicit Financial Outflows

28 February 2017 - 11:59am

Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates that in 2013, US$1.1 trillion left developing countries in illicit financial outflows. Credit: IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb 28 2017 (IPS)

International capital flows are now more than 60 times the value of trade flows. The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) is now of the view that large international financial transactions do not facilitate trade, and that excessive financial ‘elasticity’ has been a major cause of recent financial crises.

Illicit financial outflows
Illicit financial flows involve financial movements from one country to another, especially when funds are illegally earned, transferred, and/or utilized. Some examples include:
• A cartel using trade-based money laundering techniques to mix legal money, say from the sale of used cars, with illegal money, e.g., from drug sales;
• An importer using trade mis-invoicing to evade customs duties, VAT, or income taxes;
• A corrupt public official or family members using an anonymous shell company to transfer dirty money to bank accounts elsewhere;
• An illegal trafficker carrying cash across the border and depositing it in a foreign bank; or
• A terrorist financier wiring money to an operative abroad.

Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates that in 2013, US$1.1 trillion left developing countries in illicit financial outflows. Its methodology is considered to be quite conservative, as it does not pick up movements of bulk cash, mispricing of services, or most money laundering.

Beyond the direct economic impact of such massive haemorrhage, illicit financial flows hurt government revenues and society at large. They also facilitate transnational organized crime, foster corruption, undermine governance and decrease tax revenues.

Where does the money flow to?
Most illicit financial outflows from developing countries ultimately end up in banks in countries like the US and the UK, as well as in tax havens like Switzerland, the Cayman Islands or Singapore. GFI estimates that about 45 per cent of illicit flows end up in offshore financial centres and 55 per cent in developed countries. University of California, Berkeley Professor Gabriel Zucman has estimated that 6 to 8 per cent of global wealth is offshore, mostly not reported to tax authorities.

According to GFI, Malaysia lost US$418.542 billion during 2004-2013, losing US$48.25 billion in 2013 alone. The illicit capital outflows stem from tax evasion, crime, corruption and other illicit activities. Malaysia is fifth among the top five countries for illicit capital flight, after China, Russia, Mexico and India, but tops the list, by far, on a per capita basis.

GFI’s December 2015 report found that developing and emerging economies had lost US$7.8 trillion in illicit financial flows over the preceding ten-year period, with illicit outflows increasing by an average of 6.5 per cent yearly. Over the decade, an average of 83.4 per cent of illicit financial outflows were due to fraudulent trade mis-invoicing, involving intentional misreporting by transnational companies of the value, quantity or composition of goods on customs declaration forms and invoices, usually for tax evasion.

Stemming the haemorrhage
Many tax avoidance schemes are not illegal. But just because it is not illegal does not mean it is not a form of abuse, fraud or corruption. To tackle the corruption at the heart of the global financial system, tax havens need to be shut down, not reformed. ‘On-shoring’ such funds, without prohibiting legitimate investments abroad, will ensure that future investment income will be subject to tax as in the US and Canada.

If not compromised by influential interests benefiting from such flows, responsible governments should seek to enact policies to:
• Detect and deter cross-border tax evasion;
• Improve transparency of transnational corporations;
• Curtail trade mis-invoicing;
• Strengthen anti-money laundering laws and enforcement; and
• Eliminate anonymous shell companies.

New Antibiotics Urgently Needed to Combat Resistant Bacteria

28 February 2017 - 11:19am

Credit: WHO/Jim Holmes

By IPS World Desk
ROME/GENEVA, Feb 28 2017 (IPS)

The United Nations health organisation has just published its first ever list of antibiotic-resistant “priority pathogens” – a catalogue of 12 families of bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health.

The list was drawn up in a bid to guide and promote research and development (R&D) of new antibiotics, as part of the World Health Organization (WHO) efforts to address growing global resistance to antimicrobial medicines.

The list highlights in particular the threat of gram-negative bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. These bacteria have built-in abilities to find new ways to resist treatment and can pass along genetic material that allows other bacteria to become drug-resistant as well, WHO reported on Feb. 27.

“This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs,” says Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation. “Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”

New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability, and death.

Without effective antimicrobials for prevention and treatment of infections, medical procedures such as organ transplantation, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management and major surgery (for example, caesarean sections or hip replacements) become very high risk.

Three Categories According to Urgency of Need

The WHO list is divided into three categories according to the urgency of need for new antibiotics: critical, high and medium priority.Key facts
• Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.
• Antibiotic resistance can affect anyone, of any age, in any country.
• Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals is accelerating the process.
• A growing number of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gonorrhoea – are becoming harder to treat as the antibiotics used to treat them become less effective.
• Antibiotic resistance leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs and increased mortality.
Source: WHO

The most critical group of all includes multidrug resistant bacteria that pose a particular threat in hospitals, nursing homes, and among patients whose care requires devices such as ventilators and blood catheters.

They include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various Enterobacteriaceae (including Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia, and Proteus). They can cause severe and often deadly infections such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia.

These bacteria have become resistant to a large number of antibiotics, including carbapenems and third generation cephalosporins – the best available antibiotics for treating multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The second and third tiers in the list – the high and medium priority categories – contain other increasingly drug-resistant bacteria that cause more common diseases such as gonorrhoea and food poisoning caused by salmonella.

Tuberculosis – whose resistance to traditional treatment has been growing in recent years – was not included in the list because it is targeted by other, dedicated programmes, says the UN specialised body.

“Other bacteria that were not included, such as streptococcus A and B and chlamydia, have low levels of resistance to existing treatments and do not currently pose a significant public health threat.”

WHO explained that the criteria for selecting pathogens on the list were: how deadly the infections they cause are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people in communities catch them; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options remain; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the R&D pipeline.

“New antibiotics targeting this priority list of pathogens will help to reduce deaths due to resistant infections around the world,” warned Prof Evelina Tacconelli, Head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen and a major contributor to the development of the list.

“Waiting any longer will cause further public health problems and dramatically impact on patient care.”

WHO elaborated a Global priority list of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to guide research, discovery, and development of new antibiotics.

The United Nations and the Religious Right​

27 February 2017 - 11:30pm

Tolerance. Credit: Rebecca/Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

By Andy Hazel

Religious advocacy groups have a long history of working with the United Nations, pushing back against progressive interpretations of the terms ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ as enshrined  in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That effort was seemingly rewarded in 2016 as more people voted across the globe for political parties promising conservative interpretations of both, in stark contrast to moves by some countries in recent years to legalise same sex marriage and enhance protections for LGBTQI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex] people.

In 2017, the battle to define these terms both as they appear in the declaration and in law is growing increasingly fierce.

Like most advocacy directed at UN or Washington policy makers, lobbying by religious groups typically takes place behind the scenes, with success often measured in terms of whether or not progressive social policies get adopted.

Two of the most active and successful players are the World Congress of Families (WCF) – with its longstanding ties to African, Russian and Eastern European governments, as well as conservative US  politicians –  and the legal advocacy group the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has  had many successes in international courts defending Judeo-Christian rights. Both organisations cite their consultative status at the UN as a key to their reputations.

WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs says that, given the current political climate, WCF and its supporters have cause for optimism.

“There’s been a fundamental denial over the last 50 years that the family is needed,” he told IPS, referring to the diversification of family structure away from the ‘traditional’ or nuclear model favoured by conservatives towards a more open interpretation. “Much of it is a result of the agenda of sexual revolution lobbyists,” he added, a view also shared by many involved in religious social policy.

“I think one of our greatest successes is protecting Article 16.3 [The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State]. Other groups are trying to redefine existing mandates in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the idea that family is ‘natural’ is one of our biggest successes.”

Pope Francis echoed these sentiments during his address to the United Nations, describing the family as “the primary cell of any social development”. While Pope Francis has preached acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality, he has never shown support for the non-nuclear family or gender fluidity.

The WCF coordinates conservative groups and has been linked to major international policy shifts, such as Russia’s law prohibiting the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’, and Hungary’s ‘family-friendly’ policies. These moves have been linked to a rise in persecution of and violence against LGBTQI citizens. Members and associates of the group have been linked to the passage of laws outlawing homosexuality throughout Africa, and the failure of the Estrela Resolution to pass the European Parliament, a proposal to treat abortion as a human right and standardise sexual health education.

“We need to ensure that cultural reasons or ‘traditional’ values aren’t used to undermine the universality of human rights principles, or equal application of existing law in regards to everyone,” -- Outright’s UN program coordinator Siri May.

In the opposite corner to these groups, but likewise  drawing on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  as the foundation for its  work, is  LGBTQI advocacy group Outright Action International. Outright argues that denying the expansion of ‘family’ beyond a nuclear structure and ‘marriage’ beyond a heterosexual union violates human rights.

“We need to ensure that cultural reasons or ‘traditional’ values aren’t used to undermine the universality of human rights principles, or equal application of existing law in regards to everyone,” says Outright’s UN program coordinator Siri May. “We felt very grateful for the support of [ex- UN Secretary General] Ban Ki Moon. He became a strong advocate for universality.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom joined the World Congress of Families in UN consultative status in 2014, with its declared aims to “help craft language that affirms religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family. Chief counsel Benjamin Bull wrote: “ADF can now have a say when UN treaties and conventions are drafted that directly impact religious liberty and important matters related to the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.”

“No person – anywhere – should be punished simply for holding to Christian beliefs,” says Bull. Bull opposed Former UN Secretary-General Ban’s support for Ban’s LGBTQI rights arguing that it privileged “the demands of sexually confused individuals over the rights of other individuals.”

Cases for which ADF have advocated in the United States, Europe and in the Global South, most notably in Central and South America, have drawn accusations of human rights violations.

One key act during Ban’s tenure was the creation of a Special Rapporteur for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Inaugural appointee Professor Vitit Thingburam has been charged with identifying instances where human rights are violated based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Thingburam only narrowly kept his role after the legitimacy of the office was challenged twice by the United Nations General Assembly, reflecting deep divisions within the UN’s membership on this issue.

“Vigit has a very focused brief so we’re excited to be working with him and other mandate holders,” says Outright’s May. “We’ll be looking to provide him and other experts with the best information available.”

WCF’s Larry Jacobs is keen to point out that, despite being designated a ‘hate group’ and ‘virulently anti-gay’ by both mainstream news media and human rights advocacy groups, he does not condone violence.

“We are not anti-gay. Homosexuals are the people that need a natural family the most. We are the ones that want to help the victims of the sexual revolution, the victims of divorce, the victims of people who have lived a promiscuous lifestyle. I think the question about homosexuality is ‘how do we deal with brokenness?’ ”

But May contests this. “We know throughout history that family units are not about one man, one women and two children. That’s quite a western construct. There are many examples of same-sex couple families with children that provide love. Human rights are applicable to the individual, and family units are very important, but they should never trump the right of the individual.”

“What we know about gender-based violence and LGBTQI rights are that they’re needed to protect an individual that might be at risk from their family. They have rights and obligations within human rights law and those rights should never be used to privilege heterosexuality.”

Despite their marked differences, both Jacobs and May are cautiously optimistic about the UN’s approach under new Secretary-General António Guterres, a man who forged his political and diplomatic career balancing socialist beliefs with his Catholic faith.

“We’d expect the incoming Secretary General would have the same interpretation of human rights law and traditional cultural values as Ban Ki Moon,” says May. “We feel very encouraged about his statements.”

“It’s a very exciting time,” concurs Jacobs. “Even when his party went against him on abortion, Guterres stayed true to his faith and his values. He wasn’t afraid to talk about the sanctity of human life from conception to death, so this is an exciting time.”

A Day to Remember That Every Child Deserves a Chance

27 February 2017 - 11:18am

Emina Cerimovic is a disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

By Emina Ćerimović
NEW YORK, Feb 27 2017 (IPS)

The day I met Julija she was playing cheerfully with her baby sister on the floor inside their room in Kragujevac, a small town in southern Serbia. When she saw me – a stranger — on the doorstep, she smiled widely and stretched out her hands, offering a hug. As I held her, I could hear how difficult it was for her to breathe. I looked at her, she smiled and touched my face with her hands and only then did I see that Julija’s fingers were webbed.

Julija was born with Apert Syndrome, a rare genetic condition. Children with this syndrome have fused skull bones, resulting in distorted facial features, vision and hearing loss, trouble with breathing and eating, and learning difficulties. In Julija’s case her fingers and toes were not separated either, which made holding a spoon or picking things up difficult.

Her parents – Jasmina and Ivica – told me about their struggle to provide Julija with the health care she needed to stay alive and to develop. For three months following Julija’s birth in 2012, her parents used every penny they had to ferry their daughter across the country in search of specialists who could help. The repeated advice they received was not helpful: Place your child in an institution. It’s best for you and her. “One doctor even told us that it will be a torment for us to keep her with us and that we might not get anything back in return,” Jasmina told me. “As if my child was a burden for me. None of these doctors were thinking about what is best for the child.”

Emina Ćerimović. Photo Courtesy of HRW

By the time she was barely older than 3 months, Julija had undergone surgery twice on her head and had spent a month in intensive care with pneumonia. Because of her severe breathing problems and her need for frequent specialist treatment that Julija could not receive in her hometown, her parents decided, with heavy hearts, to place her in an institution for children with disabilities in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, where she would have access to emergency care.

However, after only two days, her parents noticed a drastic change in Julija’s spirit. “She was no longer the child she used to be,” Jasmina told me.

After Julija spent 10 months in the institution with only short visits home, Jasmina and Ivica decided to bring her  back home. “When Julija is at home with us, she is one child, and when she is in an institution, she is a different child,” Jasmina said. “She has made much more progress [at home], in terms of her weight and everything else. Her intellectual development, too.”

With Julija back home, her parents worked tirelessly to find help. Ultimately, a relative in Australia made contact with a specialist at the Australian Craniofacial Unit in Adelaide. Supported by private fund raising efforts and the unit itself, in 2015, Juljia underwent life-changing surgery to reshape her skull to make more room for her brain.

When I met Julija in November 2015, surrounded by her loving parents, toys, and a baby sister, she was thriving and happy. Her parents told me she had put on weight and learned to sit, which she was unable to do when her parents brought her back from the institution. A few months after my visit she learned to walk  on her own. In November 2016, her fingers were unwebbed in a hospital in Belgrade.

A child’s ability to access health care needed for survival and development should not have to depend on their parent’s ability to fight for it. Every child has a right to health and health services.
However, Julija’s journey has only just begun. She will need professional support to learn to use her fingers. Her teeth are not growing properly. She still needs another facial and skull operation. She understands everything, her parents told me, but she doesn’t speak yet. And her breathing and her eyes have to be managed constantly.

Julija was not the only child I met in Serbia who was struggling to get much-needed health care. Hundreds of children with developmental disabilities, the majority of whom have a living parent,  are placed in large residential institutions where  they are separated from their families.  Unlike Julija, they don’t have someone who is working tirelessly to ensure their lives are the very best they can be. Instead, they are often neglected because there is not enough staff, and in some cases confined to beds for their entire lives, without any stimulation. Long-term placement of children in institutions leads to  stunted physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development.

A child’s ability to access health care needed for survival and development should not have to depend on their parent’s ability to fight for it. Every child has a right to health and health services.

On February 28, more than 80 countries worldwide are marking the tenth international Rare Disease Day, including Serbia. The Serbian government – and every government around the world– should mark this day by committing to provide all children with disabilities access to the health care they need to stay alive and to grow and develop just like other children. Julija – who was deemed a hopeless case at birth – just celebrated her fifth birthday with family and friends.

These Women Cannot Celebrate Their Day

27 February 2017 - 9:18am

Belinda Mason, Silent Tears “Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, public health pandemic and serious obstacle to sustainable development.” Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Feb 27 2017 (IPS)

This is a story that one would wish to never have to write—the story of hundreds of millions of life-givers whose production and productivity have systematically been ‘quantified’ in much detailed statistics, but whose abnegation, human suffering and denial of rights are subject to just words.

It is the story of those women who witness their children die while fleeing wars, or are kidnapped to sell their organs, or recruited as child soldiers.

It is the story of those women who fall prey to human traffickers and are sold as sexual slaves. (The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that women and girls comprise 71 per cent of human trafficking victims.)

And it is the story of those women and girls who become victims of abhorrent violence by their male relatives; whose rights as workers are routinely abused by their employers, and are even killed by their partners. (In some countries, up to 7 in 10 women will be beaten, raped, abused or mutilated in their lifetimes, according to UN Women).

It is the story of millions of young girls who are forced into inhumane early marriage and pregnancy; of those who are subjected to female genital mutilation. (The UN recognises this practice as a human rights violation, torture and an extreme form of violence–Female genital mutilation denies women and girls their dignity and causes needless pain and suffering, with consequences that endure for a lifetime and can even be fatal, reminds the UN Secretary-General António Guterres.)

“We envisage a world where all women and girls have equal opportunities and rights by 2030. Step It Up asks governments to make national commitments that will close the gender equality gap – from laws and policies to national action plans and adequate investment. NOW is the time to Step It Up!” Credit: UN Women.

Africa and the Arab region are among those areas where FGM is commonly practised. (The African Union concludes that it is an excruciatingly painful practice that violates basic human rights).

Its impact on young girls and women is multi-faceted and touches various aspects of their lives, including their physical, psychological and social well-being, with scars lingering on for the rest of their lives.

It is the story of millions of girls who have no access to education, and when they have it, most of them flee school because of the lack of sanitary services. (A study by the UN human rights office (OHCHR) covering the years spanning 2009 to 2014 reports thousands of attacks against schools in at least 70 different countries, many of which were targeted for advocating girls’ education.)

It is the story of nearly two-thirds of world’s inhabitants who suffer from lack of proper access to reproductive and maternity health care services. (The UN Population Fund stresses that universal access to reproductive health affects and is affected by many aspects of life. It involves individuals’ most intimate relationships, including negotiation and decision-making within these relationships, and interactions with health providers regarding contraceptive methods and options.)

Credit: UNODC

It is also the story of very young girls who are abducted by terror groups to brutally satiate their sexual appetites and blackmailing, such as has been the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

And it is the story of those indigenous women who care for whatever remains of their lands, which guard 80 per cent of world’s biodiversity, but whose rights and ancestral knowledge are ignored and even disdained.

It is the story of those women farmers who produce up to 80 per cent of food but have no right to own their land, to agricultural inputs, resources or small credits.

And of those millions of domestic workers whose rights were lately acknowledged – though not sufficiently applied.

And it is the story of a flagrant growing inequality. (OXFAM estimates that, at current trend, it will take women 170 years to be paid the same as men are…Let alone the fact that half of world’s health is in the pockets of just eight individuals—all of them men).

This year’s International Women’s Day will be marked on March 8 under the theme “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50by 2030”.

The United Nations says that it will be “a time to reflect on progress made, to consider how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the long awaited goals of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.”

Credit: International Women’s Day 2017

The world body has set some key targets of that 2030 Agenda:

• By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.

• By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

• End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.

• Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

• Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

The United Nations also notes that the world of work is changing, with significant implications for women. “We have globalisation, technological and digital revolution and the opportunities they bring, and on the other hand, the growing informality of labour, unstable livelihoods and incomes, new fiscal and trade policies and environmental impacts—all of which must be addressed in the context of women’s economic empowerment.”

All these words and good wishes sound great.

Yet International Women’s Day will represent, above all, another slap in the face of humankind who is still unable (unwilling?) to duly, effectively honour those who gave them life.

Avoid Patent Clauses in Trade Treaties that can Kill Millions

27 February 2017 - 9:12am

Credit: Bigstock

By Martin Khor
PENANG, Feb 27 2017 (IPS)

Recently a very interesting article on why there are inequalities in access to health care and how  medicine prices are beyond the reach of many people was published in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world.

The authors, who are eminent experts in development and public health, pinpointed trade and investment agreements for being one of the greatest health threats.

Reading their powerful commentary leads one to think:  What’s the point of having wonderful medicines if most people on Earth cannot get to use them?   And isn’t it immoral that medicines that can save your life can’t be given to you because the cost is so high?

The article picks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), together with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as the worst culprits.  It says the TPP’s chapter on intellectual property is “particularly intrusive to health and restricts access to the latest advances in medicines, diagnostic tools and other life-saving medical technologies.”

Martin Khor

This agreement, say the authors, contains many provisions that “strengthen patent protection that provides monopolies and inevitably leads to high prices.”   They mention provisions that extend the patent terms beyond 20 years required by the WTO; lower the criteria of what can be granted  patents; and “data exclusivity” provisions that put up barriers to generic manufacturers entering markets after the expiry of patents.

This viewpoint article was co-authored by Prof Desmond McNeill (University of Oslo), Dr Carolyn Deere (Oxford University); Prof Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (The New School, New York, and formerly the main author of the UNDP’s Human Development Report for many years), Anand Grover (Lawyers Collective India and formerly the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur for the Right to Health); Prof Ted Schrecker (Durham University, UK) and Prof David Stuckler (Oxford University).

They said that growing evidence suggests that the agreements “will have major and largely negative consequences for health that go far beyond earlier trade agreements.  This situation is particularly disturbing since the agreements have created blueprints for future trade agreements.”

The Nobel Peace Prize winning medical group, Medecins Sands Frontieres (MSF), is even more scathing in its criticism.  “The TPP represents the most far-reaching attempt to date to impose aggressive intellectual property standards that further tip the balance towards commercial interests and away from public health….  In developing countries, high prices keep lifesaving medicines out of reach and are often a matter of life and death.”

This condemnation is just as relevant despite President Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the TPP. There are efforts underway for the remaining 11 countries to put the TPP into effect without the US.

Moreover, these countries have prepared changes to their laws and policies to comply with the TPP’s provisions, and may implement these even if the TPP actually never comes into effect.

This would be an immense tragedy for public health, because most of these countries did understand that the chapter on intellectual property would have negative effects, but they accepted it as part of a bargain for getting better market access, especially to the US.

Since the TPP is now in suspension, it does not make any sense for the countries to change their patent laws when the benefit of market access is no longer available.

During the TPP negotiations, the other countries managed to dilute some of the very extreme demands of the US, but only to a small extent.  The final intellectual rights chapter still reflects the extreme proposals of the US.

With the TPP in limbo and perhaps in perpetual suspension, there is really no reason why the provisions that have adverse effects should be implemented in the countries that had negotiated the TPP, when there are no benefits to be obtained to offset them.
Moreover, the major developed countries can be expected to make use of the TPP’s intellectual property chapter to inject into negotiations for new trade agreements, for example the RCEP, the Asian regional agreement.

Negotiators, especially from developing countries, and civil society groups should thus be vigilant that the TPP’s provisions that have adverse effects on health are not reproduced in other trade agreements.

Members of the World Trade Organisation are required to implement its intellectual property agreement, known as TRIPS, but they are not obliged to take on any additional obligations.

There are many provisions in TRIPS that allow a country to choose policies that are pro-health.  The TPP has clauses that prevent a country from making use of many of these options because they are “TRIPS-plus”, going beyond what the TRIPS obligations.

First, there is a TPP provision that lowers the standards a country can adopt to grant a patent.  Some patent applications are not for genuine inventions but are only made to “evergreen” a patent, to enable its term to continue after it expires.  Under TRIPS, a country can choose not to grant secondary patents for modifications of existing medicines.

The TPP (Article 18.3) requires countries to grant patents for at least one of the following modifications:  new uses of a known product, new methods for using a known product or new processes for using a known product.  Examples include a drug used for treating AIDS is now granted a new patent for treating hepatitis, or a drug in injection form is given a new patent in capsule form.

Second, a provision that enables extending the patent term beyond the 20 years required by TRIPS.   Most countries now count this 20 years from the date of filing the patent application.

The TPP requires the patent term to be extended beyond that if there are “unreasonable” delays in issuing the patents (Article 18.46) or if a delay is caused by the marketing approval process.”  (Article 18.48).     Extending the patent term means delaying affordable treatment for patients for so many more years.

Third, a provision (Article 18.50)  to create “data exclusivity” or “market exclusivity”, that prevents drug safety regulators from using existing clinical trial data to give market approval to generic drugs or biosimilar drugs and vaccines.   Under TRIPS, the clinical test data of a company can be used by a country’s drug regulatory authority as a basis to give safety or efficacy approval for generic drugs with similar characteristics, thus facilitating the growth and use of generic drugs.

Under the TPP, the data of the original company is “protected” and approval of similar drugs on the basis of such data is not allowed.  The period of “exclusivity” is at least 5 years for products containing a new chemical entity, or 3 years for modifications (a new indication, new formulation or new method of administration) of existing medicines.

Fourth, a provision on Biologics (Article 18.51).  For the first time in a trade agreement, the TPP  obliges its members to undertake data protection obligations for “biologics”, a category of products for treating and preventing cancer, diabetes and other conditions.  They are very expensive, some priced above $100,000 for a treatment course, and the clause will enable the prices to remain high for longer periods.   The exclusivity for biologics is for at least 8 years, or 5 years if other measures are also taken.

These provisions on exclusivity give drug companies extra protection, even if the product is not patented or if the patent has expired.  The drugs will be out of reach except for the very wealthy for longer periods.

Fifth, a provision (Article 18.76) that requires TRIPS-plus extra enforcement of intellectual property.  Countries are obliged to provide that the right holder can apply to detain any imported product that is suspected to be  counterfeit or having “confusingly similar trademark”.

This can block legitimate generic medicines from entering the country.   There have already been many cases of drugs being detained and later released when no infringement was found, thus needlessly delaying treatment to patients. The provision will increase the incidence.

All in all, these TRIPS-Plus TPP obligations would make it more difficult for patients to obtain cheaper generics. If these clauses are widely adopted in other trade agreements and made into national laws, this would shorten the lives of millions of people who would be denied treatment.

For example, many millions of people worldwide are afflicted with Hepatitis C, which can lead to liver failure and death. They need the new medicines that have nearly 100% cure rates close but the prices are over $80,000  for a 12-week treatment course.  Even with discounts, very few can afford this.

Some developing countries, making use of TRIPS flexibilities, are able to provide treatment with generic drugs at around $500 per patient, a very small fraction of the original drug’s price. But if the TPP clauses are translated into domestic law, this access could be blocked.

People in the developing countries are the most affected by patent over-protection, but patients in developed countries are not spared. The mainstream Time magazine in October 2016 listed the need to “Reform the Patent Process” as one of the issues the US Presidential election should address.

The Time article commented that many people believe drug companies are “gaming” the system.  “Instead of focusing on developing new cures, they are spending millions tweaking the way existing drugs are administered or changing their inactive ingredients.  Those moves have the effect of extending a drug’s patent and upping the amount of time it can be sold at monopoly prices, but they don’t necessarily help consumers.”

It is high time for a re-think to the system of drug patents.  At the least the situation should not be allowed to worsen further, which would happen if TRIPS-Plus measures are adopted.

The lives and health of millions are at stake.  Sometimes this is forgotten or put as a low priority when pitted against the promise of getting more exports in a free trade agreement.

But with the TPP in limbo and perhaps in perpetual suspension, there is really no reason why the provisions that have adverse effects should be implemented in the countries that had negotiated the TPP, when there are no benefits to be obtained to offset them.

More generally, in all countries, policy makers and people should be on guard not to agree to TRIPS-plus clauses in the trade agreements that they negotiate or sign.