Inter Press Service Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 29 Jan 2015 00:43:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Teenage Girls in Argentina – Invisible Victims of Femicide Wed, 28 Jan 2015 23:11:55 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet On average, 21 adolescent girls in Argentina are victims of femicides every year, a growing phenomenon linked to domestic violence on the part of current or ex-boyfriends and husbands. Credit: Juan Moseinco/IPS

On average, 21 adolescent girls in Argentina are victims of femicides every year, a growing phenomenon linked to domestic violence on the part of current or ex-boyfriends and husbands. Credit: Juan Moseinco/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

The murder of a young Argentine girl on a beach in neighbouring Uruguay shook both countries and drew attention to a kind of violence that goes almost unnoticed as a cause of death among Argentine adolescents: femicide.

In most Latin American countries, the lack of broken-down official data on femicides – a term coined to refer to the killing of females because of their gender – makes it difficult to identify the victims by their ages.

But in the case of Argentina, some independent reports, such as one by the local non-governmental organisation La Casa del Encuentro, have begun to make it clear that not only are there more gender-motivated killings, but the number of victims under 18 is increasing.

“Between 2008 and 2014 we saw the number gradually rising, and this has to do with gender violence among young unmarried couples or sexual abuse followed by death,” the NGO’s executive director, Fabiana Túñez, told IPS.

A report by the “Adriana Marisel Zambrano” Observatory on Femicides documented 295 cases in 2013 in Argentina, a country of 42 million. Between 2008 and 2013 there were 1,236 gender-related murders of women, equivalent to one femicide every 35 hours.

Other Latin American countries

In Mexico, a country of 122 million people, the Network for Children’s Rights (REDIM) reported in December that 315 girls and teenage girls were murdered in 2013.

“Cases of violence against women in Mexico have been on the rise,” reported REDIM, which complained about a lack of actions by the government to prevent domestic violence. “Much of the increase is among girls and adolescents who are victims of violence that in many cases ends in femicide.”

In El Salvador, population 6.2 million, the national police registered 261 femicides in the first 11 months of 2014, 28 of them girls or adolescents 17 or younger.

In Panama, meanwhile, with a population of 3.9 million, three out of 10 victims of femicide are minors, according to the office of the public prosecutor.

From 2009 to 2014, 343 women were killed in Panama, and 226 of the murders were classified as femicides.

According to the Observatory, in that six-year period, 124 adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 18 were victims of femicide – an average of 21 a year – according to statistics gathered from newspaper reports. But the real number could be much higher, because in a number of cases the victim’s age was not reported.

The release of the report coincided with a case that shocked the nation: the murder of 15-year-old Lola Chomnalez, who went missing on Dec. 28 while on vacation in her godmother’s house in a Uruguayan beach town.

“They found the dead body of the Argentine girl who went missing in Uruguay,” feminist activist Verónica Lemi wrote in Facebook under her pseudonym Penélope Popplewell. “They keep killing us and there are still people asking what one of us was doing walking alone on the beach. You hear on TV: the killer saw a pretty young girl and took advantage of the situation.

“If we have to be protected, carry pepper spray or be accompanied just to take a walk on a beach, then women are not free,” she wrote with indignation. “If we act like we have the same rights as men, we increase the risk that we’ll be killed just because we’re women.”

Sometimes the perpetrators stalk their victims on the street: outside of a discotheque, or on their way home from school or university. But in most cases the victims know their killers.

According to Túñez of La Casa del Encuentro, half of all femicides involve sexual abuse followed by murder. The other half are associated with violence among couples, cases that are often referred to by the media as “crimes of passion.”

The local statistics are in line with a global tendency. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that three out of 10 adolescent girls suffer violence at the hands of their boyfriends.

The causes, according to Túñez, are the same as in adults. “The male perpetrator controls, dominates, has jealous fits. And the adolescent girls who are in the first stages of idealising love believe they can change things but they start to get caught up in a big spider web from which they find it impossible to escape later.”

She stressed that it is necessary to raise awareness among adolescent girls to “denaturalise” this kind of behavior.

“It’s not normal for boyfriends to be overly jealous, for girls not to be able to go out on their own, for their boyfriends to control their movements, snoop on their cell-phones, insult them or hit them,” Ada Rico, co-founder of La Casa del Encuentro, told the local media.

On her Facebook page, “Acción Respeto: por una calle sin acoso” (Operation Respect: for harassment-free streets), the 26-year-old Lemi tries to “denaturalise” this “aggressive, sexist culture” whose worst expression is femicide.

“On one hand we have the progress made with respect to women’s rights, but on the other, in terms of idiosyncracies, we are still living in a very ‘machista’ or sexist society in Argentina, where saying something embarrassing to a 15-year-old girl on the street is ok because it means they like you,” the activist told IPS.

“The supposed sexual freedom goes only so far,” she added. “Because every time a girl is abused, the media and commentators say ‘she must have been a little slut’. When a woman exercises her sexual freedom she’s considered a whore.”

Lemi said it is necessary to combat in society “the man-woman relationship where the man is dominant and the woman is submissive, and to counteract the culture of blaming the victim.”

“There is so much violence against women, not just physical, but also in language, at a symbolic level. Violence against women continues to be justified. In that context it is only logical that femicides are committed,” she said.

Natalia Gherardi, executive director of the Latin American Justice and Gender Team (ELA), said the apparent increase in the number of femicides could be linked to greater media coverage.

“There is greater visibility, which is why we hear about more cases and deaths, when it’s too late to turn to the authorities,” she told IPS.

Argentina is among the Latin American countries where the most progress has been made in raising awareness on gender equality and women’s access to education and decision-making positions.

In 2012, the Argentine legislature passed a law that stiffened the penalties for gender violence, although it does not include the category of femicide, as in the case of legislation passed in other countries in the region.

The Argentine law provides for life in prison when the murderer is the victim’s current or ex husband or boyfriend, or when the woman is killed for gender-related reasons.

“Progress has been made in terms of insertion in the labour market, in education…but that in itself is not enough to change the ‘machista’, patriarchal culture,” Gherardi said.

The director of ELA said there were shortcomings in implementation, oversight and evaluation of public policies such as the Comprehensive Sex Education law, which takes gender aspects into account.

“I would like to see political leaders, women and men, engaging in meaningful discussions about the violence, above and beyond grand gestures, when appalling things happen,” Gherardi said.

She stressed the fundamental role played by the media in the fight against sexist violence, and added that there are media outlets and journalists who send out messages “that counteract gender stereotypes and others that perpetuate them, putting women in humiliating roles.”

“There are an enormous number of situations of subtle day-to-day violence, before things reach the stage of beatings or femicide,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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OPINION: Russia’s Friendship University, Educating the Developing World for 55 Years Wed, 28 Jan 2015 22:07:20 +0000 Somar Wijayadasa

Somar Wijayadasa, a former Representative of UNAIDS, and a former delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly, is a PFUR educated international lawyer.

By Somar Wijayadasa
NEW YORK, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

People’s Friendship University of Russia (PFUR), which celebrates its 55th anniversary on Feb. 5, is known worldwide as a major academic and research centre. During the last five decades, PFUR has educated 80,000 students from 145 countries.

In keeping with its socialist tradition of helping developing countries, Premier Nikita Khrushchev opened the Friendship University, in February 1960, just three years after he opened the former Soviet Union to the world with the 1957 Youth festival in Moscow which was attended by 30,000 foreign guests from 130 countries.The landmark event that influenced the opening of this University is the liberation of many Asian, African and Latin American countries from colonial rule.

On Feb. 22, 1961, the university was named after Patrice Lumumba – the Congolese independence leader and the first democratically-elected prime minister of the Republic of Congo. In 1992, following a major reorganisation of the university, the Russian government reverted to its original name – People’s Friendship University of Russia (PFUR).

1960 was ideal time for the Soviet Union not only to show the world its radical transformation of the country that was ravaged by the World War II with a loss of over 20 million of its people, but also to display its many scientific and technological advances including its Space Programme – already ahead of the United States.

But the landmark event that influenced the opening of this University is the liberation of many Asian, African and Latin American countries from colonial rule.

This mass decolonisation began after World War II when the principle of “equal rights and self-determination of peoples” was enshrined in the United Nations Charter (Chapter XI, Articles 73 and 74), and the United Nations began to fight for the liberation of these countries.

In 1945, the U.N. consisted of 51 member states and by 1965, the number had more than doubled to 117, as the newly independent nations joined the organisation.

These newly independent states, having suffered under foreign rule and exploitation for centuries, embarked on the arduous struggle to win economic independence, develop their national economies, raise their cultural levels and identities and achieve social progress.

Thus, the strategy behind opening PFUR was to educate hundreds of young people from developing countries by providing higher education in medicine, engineering and other sciences that was most needed for the development of these nations.

Among its prominent graduates are: Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the PLO; Michel Djotodia, President, Central African Republic; Hifikepunye Pohamba, President, Namibia; Bharrat Jagdeo, Former President of Guyana; Yousuf Saleh Abbas, Former Prime Minister of Chad, many ministers, judges, professors, ambassadors, doctors, and engineers who make a dedicated commitment to the development of their communities.

This magnanimous and unprecedented assistance continued while Western universities gave only a few one-year scholarships such as Rhodes or Fulbright scholarships to a selected few from developing countries. PFUR gave several hundred five-year scholarships including tuition, a stipend, hostel accommodation, plus passage to and from Moscow which was a bonanza for poor students from developing countries.

The biggest beneficiaries of Russian higher education have been graduates from African and Latin American countries. Since their literacy rates in the 1960’s were very low, graduates of PFUR went back to occupy top positions in their countries.

Today, the University is administered by its Rector, Prof Vladimir Filippov (1973 alumni of PFUR), member of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Education, who was Russia’s Minister of Education from 1998 to 2004.

In 1960, PFUR had 539 students from 59 countries. Today, it has over 29,000 graduate and post graduate students – including 6,000 international students from 145 countries.

PFUR occupies 125 acres and hosts 27 buildings, enrolls students on fee payment and on scholarship basis, and offers a variety of Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D degrees in 76 disciplines.

While education worldwide is expensive, a four-year Bachelors Degree at PFUR costs about 4,000 dollars a year which is heavily subsidised by the Russian government. Education at PFUR is indubitably a quality higher education at a comparatively affordable price.

An added bonus is the opportunity to obtain fluency in Russian and a double-degree from an affiliated university.

In 2014, a four-year course of undergraduate study in an American University ranged from 18,950 dollars a year in a state university to 42,500 dollars a year in an Ivy league university.

However, both Russian and American universities offer many need-based and merit-based financial aid – making it possible for poor students to obtain a higher education.

Details of PFUR can be found in its website. Interested students from any country should apply directly to the university.

PFUR maintains inter-university cooperation with foreign universities, and is associated with many international educational institutions and organisations such as UNESCO and UNHCR.

In 2009, when PFUR established a joint Master’s Degree Programme on Human Rights with UNHCR, its High Commissioner Navi Pillay said that, “The Friendship University is probably the only place where real multicultural atmosphere exists and human rights are fully respected. The PFUR graduates will for sure occupy the leading positions and it’ll be not only because of the education received, but also because of their life in this multicultural environment.”

According to Rector Filippov, “More than 80,000 graduates, and more than 5,500 doctoral (PhD) holders of the University work in 170 countries worldwide.” They not only obtained a university degree to fulfill their professional ambitions, Filippov said, but also gained invaluable experience in dealing with different cultures, and broaden their social and cultural horizons.

Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

People’s Friendship University has provided higher education to thousands of children from developing countries who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to receive a higher education – especially in a foreign country.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Antiguan Shanty Dwellers Ask if Poverty Will Be the Death of Them Wed, 28 Jan 2015 19:06:04 +0000 Desmond Brown Terry-Ann Lewis fears that this drain which runs through her community could lead to catastrophe if it is unable to handle heavy storm runoff. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Terry-Ann Lewis fears that this drain which runs through her community could lead to catastrophe if it is unable to handle heavy storm runoff. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
GREEN BAY, Antigua, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

It was early on a Saturday morning and there was no sign of life in the community. The shacks erected on both sides of the old, narrow road that winds through the area are all surrounded by zinc sheets which rise so high, it’s impossible to see what lies on the other side.

But behind those walls is a story of life on the margins: poverty and fear for women. In spite of noticeable improvements in the overall quality of life in Antigua and Barbuda, inequality and deprivation continue to challenge development, with pockets of extreme poverty in some areas.“Whenever the rain comes, it floods my mother’s house, it floods my house and it floods my daughter’s house.” -- Cynthia James

For Cynthia James and other women living in this shoreline community on the outskirts of the capital St. John’s, hope is all but lost.

“A politician came here once and called me a dog,” James said as she stood outside her gate holding her one-year-old grandson. “The politician said all of us in here are dogs and are not used to anything good and we will always be dogs. I will never forget that. When you get hurt you never forget it.”

The two main political parties here hold differing views about the level of poverty and unemployment in the country. The Antigua Labour Party (ALP) has consistently placed the poverty level at around 35 per cent but the United Progressive Party (UPP) placed the percentage of the working population living on less than EC$10 a day at 12 per cent, the lowest in the region.

“The highest is in Haiti: 79 percent of the population, that is eight out of 10, live on approximately EC$10 a day. Guyana, 64 percent; Suriname, 45 percent; Jamaica, 43 percent; Dominica, 33 percent; St Vincent & the Grenadines, 33 percent; Grenada, 32 percent; St. Kitts, 31 percent; Trinidad, 21 percent; St. Lucia, 19 percent; Barbados, 14 percent; Antigua, 12 percent,” said former legislator Harold Lovell, citing World Bank figures. Lovell served a minister of finance in the former administration.

James, 53, does not care much for the numbers being debated by politicians. For year now, she and the other women living in this vulnerable area have been watching a drain which runs through the community wreak havoc on their modest dwellings whenever it rains.

James, her 78-year-old mother Gertrude and 28-year-old daughter Terry-Ann Lewis all live on the same street. Their biggest fear now is that the drain which runs through the area will one day cause their deaths.

Antiguan resident Cynthia James said a politican once called her a dog. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Antiguan resident Cynthia James said a politican once called her a dog. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

“When I was a little girl they would always come and clean out the gutter, they would send the prisoners to clean up the area, but all of that has stopped,” James told IPS. “Whenever the rain comes, it floods my mother’s house, it floods my house and it floods my daughter’s house.”

The dozens of families here have thought about moving to safer communities but they say they are just too poor to relocate without assistance.

In 2014, the issue of poor drainage that leads to flooding in this and other communities across the country came into focus with a series of community consultations led by the Environment Division.

Senior Environment Officer Ruleta Camacho said the aim was to establish a sustainable financing mechanism and develop a climate adaptation project that could bring about significant changes to affected communities.

“Due to the impact of climate change we are having exacerbated drought and exacerbated rainfall – we are having large amounts of rain in a short amount of time and what we need to do at this point is to make sure our waterways and drains can handle that volume of water,” she said.

Terryann Lewis is anxiously awaiting the commencement of the promised project. She recalled her brush with death on Oct. 13, 2014 when Tropical Storm Gonzalo passed near Antigua, tearing roofs from people’s homes and knocking down trees.

For several hours, heavy rain and strong winds lashed Antigua, which bore the brunt of the storm as it cut through the northern Leeward Islands. Downed trees blocked many island roads and people lost power or reported that the storm damaged, or in some cases destroyed the roofs of their homes.

“I went to sleep that night and when I woke up, I was in water. I had just come home from work and I was tired so I just went to sleep but when I woke up the whole place was flooded. Everything gone; everything was soaked or washed away. I lost everything and I had to start fresh again,” Lewis told IPS.

“The gutter that runs through this community collects waste from all over the place so everything ends up right here in this community.

“That gutter is going to kill all of us; that is the only thing I can tell you. The gutter is blocked so whenever we have rain the water is not free to run. The drain is clogged up so the water quickly overflows. Whenever it rains this whole area is like a beach,” she added.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne, whose administration came to power just seven months ago, said his government will focus on improving human development, putting people first. He has consistently said he intends to make Antigua the region’s economic powerhouse, a Singapore on the Caribbean Sea.

“We will focus on building our human capital into internationally competitive individuals capable of driving the growth and social development of our nation state,” Browne said.

“We will concentrate on youth empowerment, providing our youth with employment, the opportunity to own a piece of the rock under our land for youth programme, a home under our home for youth programme or his/her own business through a dedicated entrepreneurial loan programme, that will commence in 2015 at the Antigua & Barbuda Development Bank.

“Our main focus of human development will be through education and training. No one will be left behind,” Browne added.

The International Monetary Fund anticipates growth in Latin America and the Caribbean in the region of 2.2 percent for 2015. This represents something of a rebound for the region, as growth in 2014 was estimated to be 1.3 percent.

But whether that figure will translate into improved living conditions for the poorest and most vulnerable remains to be seen.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Marginalised Groups Struggle to Access Healthcare in Conflict-Torn East Ukraine Wed, 28 Jan 2015 09:25:19 +0000 Pavol Stracansky Social worker in the flat of a drug addict in Donetsk doing outreach work. Drug addicts, like other marginalised groups, including Roma, are victims of the collapse of the health system in East Ukraine. Credit: Natalia Kravchuk/International HIV/AIDS Alliance Ukraine©

Social worker in the flat of a drug addict in Donetsk doing outreach work. Drug addicts, like other marginalised groups, including Roma, are victims of the collapse of the health system in East Ukraine. Credit: Natalia Kravchuk/International HIV/AIDS Alliance Ukraine©

By Pavol Stracansky
KIEV, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

With international organisations warning that East Ukraine is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe as its health system collapses, marginalised groups are among those facing the greatest struggle to access even basic health care in the war-torn region.

The conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has affected more than five million people, with 1.4 million classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and human rights bodies as “highly vulnerable” because of displacement, lack of income and a breakdown of essential services, including health care.

Fighting and accompanying measures imposed by both sides have led to medical supplies being severely interrupted or cut off entirely, hospitals destroyed or battling constant water and power cuts, and crippling staff shortages at health facilities as medical staff flee the fighting.

A complete lack of vaccines is threatening outbreaks of diseases such as polio and measles, while there are concerns for HIV/AIDS and TB sufferers as supplies of vital medicines dry up and disease monitoring becomes almost impossible.Fighting and accompanying measures imposed by both sides have led to medical supplies being severely interrupted or cut off entirely, hospitals destroyed or battling constant water and power cuts, and crippling staff shortages at health facilities as medical staff flee the fighting.

Massive internal displacement because of the conflict – latest U.N. estimates are of 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) with the figure rising by as much as 100,000 per week – has also left hundreds of thousands living in sometimes desperate and unhygienic conditions, creating a further health risk and the chance that infectious diseases, such as TB, will spread.

But while there is a threat to healthcare provision from collapsing resources, some in the region are facing extra barriers to accessing health care.

Ukraine has one of the worst HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world and the spread of the disease has been fuelled mainly by injection drug use. But, unlike in many Eastern European states, the country has been running for more than a decade an internationally lauded range of harm reduction programmes which have been credited with checking the disease’s spread.

These have included opioid substitution therapy (OST) programmes available to drug users across the country. These are particularly important in East Ukraine because the majority of Ukraine’s injection drug users come from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

But local and international organisations working with drug users say that addicts’ access to life-saving treatment in those areas has come under increasing pressure since the start of the conflict and that it could be cut off entirely within weeks as supplies of methadone and buprenorphine used in the treatment run out and cannot be replaced.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance Ukraine which runs many OST centres as well as other harm reduction programmes, has said that stocks of antiretroviral drugs, OST and other life-saving treatments will have run out by  February.  More than 300 OST patients in Donetsk and Luhansk have lost access to treatment since the conflict began, while a further 550 patients on methadone will run out of drugs soon if emergency supplies cannot be delivered.

U.N. officials in close contact with international organisations helping drug users as well as doctors in Donetsk have confirmed to IPS that clinics have only a few weeks’ worth of stocks of methadone left.

One doctor in Donetsk working on an OST programme, who asked not to be named, told IPS:  “There are serious problems with medicine supplies. The last shipments came in September last year and some patients have already had to finish their treatments. Many had been on it for a decade and in that time had forged new lives, put their, sometimes criminal, past behind them and had families. It was absolutely tragic for them when they stopped.”

It is unclear what will happen to all those no longer able to access OST treatment. Doctors say some have gone into detoxification, while others have moved to other cities in safer areas of Ukraine in the hope of continuing OST.

But with 60 percent of those receiving OST also being HIV positive, according to the Donetsk doctor, and reports that many are now turning to illicit drugs and needle-sharing again as access to OST is cut off, there are concerns that the disease, along with Hepatitis C which is rife among injection drug users, and tuberculosis, could be spread, and that the lives of many drug users will again be at risk.

OST patient Andriy Klinemko, who was forced to flee Donetsk with his wife when their house was destroyed in bombing last summer and who is now in Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, told IPS: “OST patients in East Ukraine are being forced to move, but not all of them can and even those that make it to other regions may not be able to continue OST because there is no money left to run such programmes. It’s a bad situation and at the moment I really can’t see any way it’s going to get better.”

But drug users are not the only marginalised community struggling to access health care.

Historically, the estimated 400,000-strong Roma community in Ukraine has, like Roma in many other Eastern European states, faced widespread discrimination in society, including in employment and education.

They have also always had limited access to healthcare because many Roma lack official ID documentation which makes it difficult for many to obtain official health care, while widespread poverty also means services and medicines which require any payment are also inaccessible to most. Meanwhile, many Roma settlements are in remote locations, far away from the nearest health centres.

Dr Dorit Nitzan, head of the WHO’s Ukraine Office, told IPS: “Even before the conflict, Roma in Ukraine had limited access to curative and preventive health service. As a result, Roma children have extremely low vaccination coverage. Moreover, rates of tuberculosis and other communicable and non-communicable diseases are higher among Roma than in the general population.”

Discrimination is also a problem. Zola Kondur of the Chiricli Roma rights group in Ukraine, told IPS: “In terms of healthcare, Roma are among the most vulnerable in the country. They are treated badly because of their ethnicity.”

However, the problems for Roma have dramatically worsened since the conflict began. Some human rights groups have said that since the separatist regimes took power in the region, Roma have faced systematic violent and sometimes fatal repression.

According to a report this month of an international mission to monitor human rights

by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Roma living in separatist-controlled areas have been “subjected to open aggression from militants ….[who] have carried out real ethnic cleansing” against them. Many have fled and become IDPs, subsequently facing health struggles.

Dr Nitzan said: “As in every crisis, if not given special attention, marginalised and vulnerable groups are at higher risk. In Ukraine, many Roma lack civil documentation, and thus cannot be registered as internally displaced persons and are not included in the provision of any health services.

“Moreover, their inability to pay ‘out-of-pocket’ limits their ability to procure medication and/or services. Compounding this is that many Roma IDPs are residing at the margins of society, in remote geographical locations, where no services are available. All of these factors make health services inaccessible to Roma.”

Local rights groups say that Roma who have managed to flee to safe areas have often ended up homeless and starving after facing problems accessing aid because of a dismissive attitude from volunteers and staff at social institutions, while their lack of identification documents also prevented them from accessing any official help.

However, even those who have managed to find treatment have sometimes faced further problems.

Kondur told IPS: “In one case a Roma family moved from Kramatorsk to Kharkiv. A little boy had a heart problem brought on by the stress of the fighting and he was taken to hospital. One night, a group of young people broke the window of the boy’s hospital room, shouting ‘Gypsies get out’. The boy had a heart attack.”

Edited by Phil Harris

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When Ignorance Is Deadly: Pacific Women Dying From Lack of Breast Cancer Awareness Wed, 28 Jan 2015 04:15:08 +0000 Catherine Wilson Local women's NGO, Vois Blong Mere, campaigns for women's rights in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Local women's NGO, Vois Blong Mere, campaigns for women's rights in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

Women now face a better chance of surviving breast cancer in the Solomon Islands, a developing island state in the southwest Pacific Ocean, following the recent acquisition of the country’s first mammogram machine.

But just a week ahead of World Cancer Day, celebrated globally on Feb. 4, many say that the benefit of having advanced medical technology, in a country where mortality occurs in 59 percent of women diagnosed with cancer, depends on improving the serious knowledge deficit of the disease in the country.

"While cancer is included on the NCD [non-communicable diseases] list, very little attention and resources are specifically addressing women and breast cancer awareness." -- Dr. Sylvia Defensor, senior radiologist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services in Fiji
“Breast cancer is a health issue that women are concerned about in the Solomon Islands, but adequate awareness of it among women is not really prioritised,” Bernadette Usua, who works for the local non-governmental organisation, Vois Blong Mere (Voice of Women), in the capital, Honiara, told IPS.

Rachel, a young 24-year-old woman living with her two children, aged three and five years, in one of the country’s many rural villages, did not know what breast cancer was when she detected a lump in her breast in August 2013.

But the lump grew larger prompting her to travel to Honiara several months later to see a doctor.

“She went to the central hospital and was advised to have her left breast removed, but due to the little knowledge that she and her husband had about what it would be like, both were afraid of the surgery,” Bernadette Usua, who is Rachel’s cousin, recounted.

“So they just left the hospital without any medication or other assistance, and went home,” she continued.

Rachel tried traditional medicine available in her village, but the cancer and pain became more aggressive. Usua remembers next seeing her cousin in July of last year.

“She was sitting on her bed night and day with extreme pain, unable to lie down and sleep. But she was still brave as she nursed herself, washed herself and cooked for her children. She cried and prayed until she passed away in September,” Usua recalled.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and in the Solomon Islands, where it accounted for 92 of more than 200 diagnosed cases in 2012. But its incidence in the developing world, where 50 percent of cases and 58 percent of fatalities occur, is rapidly rising.

Low survival rates of around 40 percent in low-income countries, compared to more than 80 percent in North America, are due mainly to late discovery of the disease in patients and limited diagnosis and treatment offered by under-resourced health centres.

Last year Annals of Global Health revealed that of 281 cancer cases identified in women in the Solomon Islands in 2012, 165 did not survive, while in Papua New Guinea and Fiji fatalities occurred in 2,889 of 4,457, and 418 of 795 diagnosed cases, respectively.

Insufficient public knowledge about the disease is an issue across the region.

“Currently public health education and promotion is focussing heavily on the control of NCDs [non-communicable diseases] as a whole. While cancer is included on the NCD list, very little attention and resources are specifically addressing women and breast cancer awareness,” said Dr. Sylvia Defensor, senior radiologist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services in Fiji, a Pacific Island state home to over 880,000 people.

In the Solomon Islands, mammograms, or x-rays of the breast, will now be free to all female citizens who comprise about 49 percent of the population of more than 550,000. This is after installation of digital mammography equipment, funded by the national First Lady’s Charity, in Honiara’s National Referral Hospital.

Dr. Douglas Pikacha, general surgeon at the hospital, explained that mammograms were vital to early detection of breast disease and the saving of women’s lives through early treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

Mammography is considered the most effective form of breast cancer screening by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with some evidence that it can reduce subsequent loss of life by an estimated 20 percent, especially in women aged 50-70 years.

But with more than 80 percent of the population residing in rural areas and spread over more than 900 different islands, Josephine Teakeni, president of Vois Blong Mere, is deeply concerned about the fate of many women who are located far from the main health facilities in the capital. An estimated 73 percent of doctors and all medical specialists in the country are based at the National Referral Hospital.

She says that reliable breast cancer screening and diagnosis is urgently needed in provincial hospitals if the mortality rate is to be reduced. Most patients must travel an average of 240 kilometres to reach the National Referral Hospital, commonly by ferry or motorised canoe, given the prohibitive expense of internal air services.

There is also a critical shortage of health care workers in the country with 0.21 doctors per 1,000 people and Teakeni claims that “while waiting for an operation the delay can result in full advancement of the cancer and death.”

However, there is a further challenge with almost half of all women diagnosed with breast cancer refusing a mastectomy, which involves the partial or entire surgical removal of affected breasts, even though it may result in the patient’s recovery, the Ministry of Health reports.

“Many prefer traditional treatment to mastectomy because they believe it is more womanly to have their breast than to live without it,” Pikacha said.

The high risk of cancer mortality is another factor impacting gender inequality in the Pacific Island state where entrenched cultural attitudes and widespread gender violence, experienced by 64 percent of women and girls, hinders improvement of their social and economic status.

Teakeni believes that an urgent priority is dramatically improving “awareness among women about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and even simple tests that women can do themselves, such as checking the breast for lumps while having a shower,” as well as the importance and impact of medical treatment.

Still, the installation of the new mammogram machine gives women on this island something, however small, to celebrate.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.S. Ally Yemen in Danger of Splitting into Two – Again Wed, 28 Jan 2015 00:23:18 +0000 Thalif Deen Yemeni protesters in Sanaa carrying pictures of arrested men. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

Yemeni protesters in Sanaa carrying pictures of arrested men. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

By Thalif Deen

When North and South Yemen merged into a single country under the banner Yemen Arab Republic back in May 1990, a British newspaper remarked with a tinge of sarcasm: “Two poor countries have now become one poor country.”

Since its birth, Yemen has continued to be categorised by the United Nations as one of the world’s 48 least developed countries (LDCs), the poorest of the poor, depending heavily on foreign aid and battling for economic survival."This double game was well known to the Americans. They went along with it. It is what allowed AQAP to take Jar and other regions of Yemen and hold them with some ease." -- Vijay Prashad

But the current political chaos – with the president, prime minister and the cabinet forced to resign en masse last week – has threatened to turn the country into a failed state.

And, more significantly, Yemen is also in danger of being split into two once again – and possibly heading towards another civil war.

Charles Schmitz, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, was quoted last week as saying: “We’re looking at the de facto partitioning of the country, and we’re heading into a long negotiating process, but we could also be heading toward war.”

In a report released Tuesday, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the fall of the government has upended the troubled transition and “raises the very real prospect of territorial fragmentation, economic meltdown and widespread violence if a compromise is not reached soon.”

The ousted government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was a close U.S. ally, who cooperated with the United States in drone strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) holed up in the remote regions of Yemen.

The United States was so confident of its ally that the resignation of the government “took American officials by surprise,” according to the New York Times.

Matthew Hoh, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), told IPS, “I don’t know if Yemen will split in two or not. [But] I believe the greater fear is that Yemen descends into mass chaos with violence among many factions as we are seeing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, all nations that have been the recipient of interventionist U.S. foreign policy.”

According to an Arab diplomat, the Houthis who have taken power are an integral part of the Shiite Muslim sect, the Zaydis, and are apparently financed by Iran.

But the country is dominated by a Sunni majority which is supported by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, he said, which could trigger a sectarian conflict – as in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Ironically, all of them, including the United States, have a common enemy in AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the recent massacre in the offices of a satirical news magazine in Paris.

“In short, it’s a monumental political mess,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, told IPS it is very hard to gauge what will happen in Yemen at this time.

“The battle lines are far from clear,” he said.

The so-called pro-U.S, government has, since 2004, played a very dainty game with the United States in terms of counter-terrorism.

On the one side, he said, the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and then Hadi, suggested to the U.S. they were anti al-Qaeda.

But, on the other hand, they used the fact of al-Qaeda to go after their adversaries, including the Zaydis (Houthis).

“This double game was well known to the Americans. They went along with it. It is what allowed AQAP to take Jar and other regions of Yemen and hold them with some ease,” Prashad said.

He dismissed as “ridiculous” the allegation the Zaydis are “proxies of Iran”. He said they are a tribal confederacy that has faced the edge of the Saleh-Hadi sword.

“They are decidedly against al-Qaeda, and would not necessarily make it easier for AQAP to exist,” said Prashad, a former Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut and author of ‘Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.’

Hoh told IPS: “Based upon the results from decades of U.S. influence in trying to pick winners and losers in these countries or continuing to play the absurd geopolitical game of backing one repressive theocracy, Saudi Arabia, against another, Iran, in proxy wars, the best thing for the Yemenis is for the Americans not to meddle or to try and pick one side against the other.”

American foreign policy in the Middle East, he said, can already be labeled a disaster, most especially for the people of the Middle East.

“The only beneficiaries of American policy in the Middle East have been extremist groups, which take advantage of the war, the cycles of violence and hate, to recruit and fulfill their message and propaganda, and American and Western arms companies that are seeing increased profits each year,” said Hoh, who has served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and on U.S. embassy teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When the two Yemens merged, most of the arms the unified country inherited came from Russia, which was a close military ally of South Yemen.

Yemen’s fighter planes and helicopters from the former Soviet Union – including MiG-29 jet fighters and Mi-24 attack helicopters – were later reinforced with U.S. and Western weapons systems, including Lockheed transport aircraft (transferred from Saudi Arabia), Bell helicopters, TOW anti-tank missiles and M-60 battle tanks.

Nicole Auger, a military analyst monitoring Middle East/Africa at Forecast International, a leader in defence market intelligence and industry forecasting, told IPS U.S. arms and military aid have been crucial to Yemen over the years, especially through the Defense Department’s 1206 “train and equip” fund.

Since 2006, she pointed out, Yemen has received a little over 400 million dollars in Section 1206 aid which has significantly supported the Yemeni Air Force (with acquisitions of transport and surveillance aircraft), its special operations units, its border control monitoring, and coast guard forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. military aid under both Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme has risen substantially, she added.

Also, Yemen is now being provided assistance under Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, De-mining, and Related programmes (NADR) and International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) programmes.

According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Justification – U.S. support for the military and security sector “will remain a priority in 2015 in order to advance peace and security in Yemen.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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U.S.-India Partnership a Step Forward for Low-Carbon Growth Tue, 27 Jan 2015 20:44:06 +0000 David Waskow and Manish Bapna President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India travel by motorcade en-route to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India travel by motorcade en-route to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By David Waskow and Manish Bapna
WASHINGTON, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

India garnered international attention this week for its climate action.

As President Barack Obama visited the country at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation, the two leaders announced a new U.S.-India agreement on clean energy and climate change.With the U.S.-India partnership, the world’s three-largest emitters—China, the United States and India—have all made strong commitments to curbing climate change and scaling up clean energy.

The agreement will help turn India’s bold renewable energy targets into reality.

Rather than relying on one major plank, the collaboration is a comprehensive set of actions that, taken together, represent a substantial step in advancing low-carbon development in India while also promoting economic growth and expanding energy access.

This agreement comes just two months after the U.S-China climate agreement.

While expectations for the two agreements were quite different — India’s per capita emissions are a fraction of those from China and the United States, and India is in a very different phase of economic development— Modi’s commitments are significant steps that will help build even further momentum for a new international climate agreement.

Prime Minister Modi’s new government has made a significant commitment to sustainable growth in the past several months, setting a goal of 100 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity by 2022 and considering a new target of 60 GW in wind energy capacity.

The Indian government has also created a new initiative to develop 100 “smart cities” across the country, aimed at building more sustainable, livable urban areas.

The U.S.-India collaboration takes a multi-pronged approach to turn these promising pledges into concrete results. For example:

Setting a renewable energy goal

Building on India’s 100 GW solar capacity goal, Modi announced India’s intention to increase the overall share of renewable energy in the nation’s electricity supply.

Setting a percentage of overall energy consumption that will come from renewables can not only help India reduce emissions, it can also play a key role in expanding energy access.

Roughly 300 million Indians—nearly 25 percent of the country’s population—lack access to electricity.

Solar power—which is already cheaper than diesel in some parts of the country and may soon be as cheap as conventional energy—can put affordable, clean power within reach.

Accelerating clean energy finance

Given that the entire world’s installed solar capacity in 2013 was 140 GW, India’s plan to reach 100 GW by 2022 is nothing short of ambitious.

The Modi government estimates that scaling up its 2022 solar target from 20 GW to 100 GW will save 165 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent emissions of about 23 million American households’ annual electricity use.

The U.S.-India announcement reveals a clear commitment from both countries to stimulate the public and private investment needed to achieve this bold target.

Improving air quality

Of the 20 cities with the worst air pollution, India houses 13 of them.

The cost of premature deaths from air pollution in the country is already 6 percent of GDP, and it’s poised to worsen as the urban population increases from 380 million to 600 million over the next 15 years.

The U.S.-India plan to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AIR Now-International Program can help cut back on harmful urban air pollution, improve human health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Modi’s plan to establish 100 “smart cities” can support this initiative by designing compact and connected rather than sprawled urban areas, which are associated with a heavy transportation-related emissions footprint.

Boosting climate resilience

India is already one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change: rising sea level threatens 8,000 kilometers of coastline and nearly half of its 28 states.

The U.S.-India deal builds on both countries’ previous commitment to climate adaptation, outlining a plan to better assess risks, build capacity and engage local communities.

With the U.S.-India partnership, the world’s three-largest emitters—China, the United States and India—have all made strong commitments to curbing climate change and scaling up clean energy.

This action is not only important for reducing emissions in the three nations, but also for building momentum internationally. Obama and Modi have created a direct line of communication, a relationship that will be important for securing a strong international climate agreement in Paris later this year.

Prime Minister Modi made it clear that he sees it as incumbent on all countries to take action on climate change.

Rather than being motivated by international pressure, he said what counts is “the pressure of what kind of legacy we want to leave for our future generations. Global warming is a pressure… We understand this pressure and we are responding to it.”

Modi is tasked with confronting not just global warming, but a number of immediate threats—alleviating poverty, improving air quality, expanding electricity access and enhancing agricultural productivity, just to name a few.

Many of the actions under the U.S.-India agreement will not only reduce emissions, but will also help address these development challenges.

With the new agreement, India is positioning itself as a global leader on pairing climate action with economic development.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Young People in Latin America Face Stigma and Inequality Tue, 27 Jan 2015 20:43:39 +0000 Marianela Jarroud Young Chileans in one of the numerous mass protests demanding free quality education in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Young Chileans in one of the numerous mass protests demanding free quality education in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

Young people in Latin America now enjoy greater access to education. But in many cases their future is dim due to the lack of opportunities and the siren call of crime in a region where 167 million people are poor, and 71 million live in extreme poverty.

“We are concerned, even alarmed, at the situation facing Latin America’s youth,” Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told IPS.

“We believe young people should be the central focus of the next regional meetings, but with a different vision this time, not just focusing on drugs and violence,” she added.

According to ECLAC figures, one out of four of the 600 million inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean is between the ages of 15 and 29.

Despite that, spending on the young is relatively low, especially if you compare the region’s public and private investment on post-secondary education with what is spent in emerging countries of Southeast Asia, or in Europe.“Young people aren’t necessarily the most violent – we have to fight that stigma. Youth should not be identified with violence, with detachment from the institutions. Young people want to work, they want to study, they want opportunities, new utopias, and they have new ideas.” -- Alicia Bárcena

The report, Social Panorama of Latin America 2014, presented Monday Jan. 26 in the Chilean capital, revealed significant advances in educational coverage among Latin America’s young people, but also found that they continue to suffer from higher unemployment rates and lower levels of social protection than adults.

They are also the main victims of homicides in the region, where seven of the 14 most violent countries in the world are located.

The ECLAC report shows that the progress in reducing poverty has slowed down. Poverty continues to affect 28 percent of the population in the region, while extreme poverty grew from 11.3 to 12 percent, based on the 15 countries that provided up-to-date statistics.

However, inequality has been reduced in nearly every country.

There are some 160 million young people in this region of 600 million. And although the population has begun to age, the young will remain a significant proportion of the population over the next few decades.

The report says that “Despite these major attainments in terms of education coverage and lower inequality, there are still large structural divides in capacity-building opportunities between the region’s young people.”

Bárcena said it’s not just about achieving greater social spending on education, housing or health, but also about things that are less tangible but no less important, such as improving participation by young people in the design of public policies.

“Transparency and information have to go farther than what is happening today,” she said.

Although they have greater access to education, inequality is still a problem for young people in the region.

For example, people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the three lowest income quintiles have unemployment rates between 10 and 20 percent, compared to rates of five to seven percent among young people in the two highest income quintiles.

And only 27.5 percent of young wage earners between the ages of 15 and 19 are enrolled in the social security system, compared to 67.7 percent of adults aged 30 to 64.

ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena (centre) with other ECLAC officials at the presentation of the Social Panorama of Latin America 2014 on Jan. 26 in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Carlos Vera/ECLAC

ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena (centre) with other ECLAC officials at the presentation of the Social Panorama of Latin America 2014 on Jan. 26 in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Carlos Vera/ECLAC

“The idea is to advance in social policies that take into account the complete cycle of life and the different priorities that arise throughout a person’s life,” Daniela Trucco, social affairs officer with ECLAC’s Social Development Division, told IPS.

She said the assessment and analysis of public policies in the region should take into account the differences between sub-regions, because Latin America is very diverse.

For example, “the Southern Cone countries are much more advanced, with a much more educated young population that has unemployment problems similar to adults,” she said.

By contrast, “in the countries of Central America young people aren’t even finishing secondary school. A large proportion of adolescents and young people are outside the educational system, and that is where we have the worst problems of violence and gangs.”

Trucco said there are key areas to be addressed among the young, such as education and employment. But although these are the most important, they are not the only ones, she added.

“There is a proportion of young people who don’t fall into these areas, but it’s not because they aren’t doing anything; they’re often employed without pay, for example, in domestic or care work in the home, a very important question for young and adult women,” she said.

The Social Panorama reports that 22 percent of people aged 15 to 29 in Latin America were neither studying nor in paid employment in 2012. Of that proportion, a majority were women engaged in unpaid care and domestic work.

Another essential area to be addressed, besides health, is participation, with the aim of involving young people themselves in the formulation of better public policies targeting that segment of the population.

“We have to think about the issue of participation in a modern, up-to-date manner,” Trucco said.

“There is a great deal of interest in political participation, but not the traditional politics linked to political parties. The question of social networks, and digital inclusion, also has to be considered,” she said.

She stressed the work carried out by ECLAC to combat two kinds of stigmas faced by young people: those who neither work nor study, and the question of youth violence.

And although the main victims of homicide are between the ages of 15 and 44, the stigma of youth violence distorts public policy options, the report says.

“We see that adolescents do participate significantly [in the violence], but young adults do too,” said Trucco. “They are young people not incorporated in other forms of social inclusion, or maybe they are, but with different expectations, and caught up in contexts of violence or inclusion in other groups.”

The expert called for “a change in approach to the problem of violence to figure out how society can overcome it and what alternatives can be offered in terms of development and opportunities.”

A prejudiced approach makes people forget that young people are the principal victims of crime, as shown by the fact that on average, 20 percent of young people in the region say they have been the victims of crimes, four percentage points higher than adults.

The proportion of victims who are young people is higher in the countries with the highest crime rates, such as the seven that are on the list of the world’s 14 most violent countries: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Colombia, in that order.

Mexico is in the process of joining that list of violent countries, Bárcena said in her interview with IPS.

The head of ECLAC said greater comprehension is needed with respect to violence among the young.

“Young people aren’t necessarily the most violent – we have to fight that stigma. Youth should not be identified with violence, with detachment from the institutions. Young people want to work, they want to study, they want opportunities, new utopias, and they have new ideas,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Developing Nations Write Hopeful New Chapters in a Toxic Legacy Tue, 27 Jan 2015 20:35:56 +0000 Kitty Stapp Remediation crews clean up some of the worst contaminated homes in Dong Mai, Vietnam. Credit: Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth

Remediation crews clean up some of the worst contaminated homes in Dong Mai, Vietnam. Credit: Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth

By Kitty Stapp
NEW YORK, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

The village of Dong Mai in Vietnam’s agricultural heartland had a serious problem.

To boost their meager incomes, its residents – former artisans who once produced and sold bronze casts – had taken to cannibalizing old car and truck lead-acid batteries and smelting them by hand in their own backyards. As a result, the 2,600 people living there had some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded."Concretely: We know how to change the situation because we have done it." -- Stephan Robinson

Dong Mai’s water and soil had become terribly contaminated — 32-36 times higher than the acceptable limits. People were getting sick, including children. One home assessed with an X-ray Florescence (XRF) analyser had lead levels 50 times the higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard.

Local government knew of the problem, but the cost of cleaning it up – expected to run into the millions – was daunting. Then, a collaboration with the Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth found ways to remediate the lead for much less: about 20 dollars a person.

Once major remedial work was completed, in February 2014, lead levels in the population fell by nearly a third in six months.

“Political will takes time to build,” Rich Fuller, Blacksmith’s president, told IPS. “Governments need solid data on the scope of problems, and how to solve them. Most governments are just starting to build their teams for pollution, and those NGOs that provide support, rather than criticism, have really been a huge help.”

Together with Green Cross Switzerland and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), the Blacksmith Institute released a report Tuesday highlighting cleanup success stories like Dong Mai’s.

Top Ten Countries Turning the Corner on Toxic Pollution notes that pollution kills more than 8.9 million people around the world each year, most of them children, and the vast majority — 8.4 million — in low- and middle-income countries.

To put that figure in perspective, it is 35 percent more than tobacco-related deaths, almost three times more deaths than malaria and 14 times more deaths than HIV/AIDS.

Women in Senegal didn’t know their toxic jobs were poisoning themselves and their families. Credit: Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth

Women in Senegal didn’t know their toxic jobs were poisoning themselves and their families. Credit: Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth

“Contrary to popular belief, many of the worst pollution problems are not caused by multinational companies but by poorly regulated small-scale operations like artisanal mining, small industrial estates or abandoned factories,” Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland told IPS.

“However, high-income countries are indirectly contributing by their demand for commodities and consumer goods to the issue as many of these small-scale operations produce the raw or precursor products,” he added. “They thus support many of these smaller industries, adding to the severity of pollution problems in low-income countries.”

Lead, the culprit in Dong Mai, is especially devastating for children. It can damage the brain and nervous system, cause developmental delays, and in cases of extreme exposure, result in death. Children also tend to have higher exposures because they play in dirt and put their hands and other objects in their mouths.

The economic toll of pollutants on poor and middle income countries is high: the costs of air pollution alone range between six and 12 percent of GDP.

Previous Blacksmith reports had focused on the 10 worst toxic hotspots, but this year, the groups chose to look at practical, replicable solutions that don’t require a vast amount of resources to implement.

“There is so much to do,” Fuller said. “Only a few countries have started down the path. We wanted to give them credit, and have them be examples for expanding work on pollution in other countries.”

In the case of Dong Mai, mobilising the active participation of villagers and local officials was key.

Instead of removing the contamined soil and carting it off to landfills, the backyards were capped with sand, a layer of geotextiles, 20 centimetres of compacted clean soil, bricks, and finally, concrete on top, safely sealing away the lead.

After an educational campaign, 50 villagers took on the task of remediating their own yards in this way. What could have cost about 10 million dollars was accomplished for 60,000.

“GAHP members are encouraged to help their neighbours,” Fuller said. “Often, a success in one country can translate into a project in another.  This is certainly true of lead poisoning and e-waste. The GAHP model is collaborative between international agencies, and between countries, all helping each other work out how to solve these awful problems.”

The other success stories in the report were led by Ghana, Senegal, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, Indonesia, Philippines, the Former Soviet Union and Kyrgyzstan.

In Thiaroye Sur Mer, Senegal, lead battery recycling was replaced with profitable hydroponic gardens.

In Mexico City, a contaminated oil refinery was turned into an urban park with one million visitors a year.

In Agbogbloshie, Ghana, informal e-waste recycling by burning electronic scrap that released toxins is now performed safely by machines.

Bicentennial Park is located on the site of a former oil refinery in Azcapotzalco, Mexico. Credit: vladimix, Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved

Bicentennial Park is located on the site of a former oil refinery in Azcapotzalco, Mexico. Credit: vladimix, Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved

“We worked hard to find solutions that would work for the local recyclers,” Kira Traore, Blacksmith’s programme director for Africa, says in the report. “Simply banning burning wouldn’t help them earn an income. Rather, forbidding burning in Agbogbloshie might push the practice elsewhere, thus expanding the pollution and the number of people affected by it.”

Experts note that local sources of pollution – particularly heavy metals like mercury and arsenic – are often very mobile and can have health impacts thousands of kilometres away.

“Mercury from unsafe artisanal gold mining and coal plants travels the globe and is found in our fish which, e.g., we eat as sushi in London,” Robinson said. “DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is found in the body fat of the inhabitants of Greenland, though there was never agriculture in Greenland.

“Contaminated air from China and elsewhere can be measured in other countries. Radionuclides from nuclear disasters, like Chernobyl, have reached other countries in most of Europe,” he noted.

In essence, rich countries have not only a moral obligation but a vested interest in helping poorer nations address pollution.

“Western nations have had success in cleaning up their toxic and legacy pollution over the last 40 years and can transfer technology and know-how to low- and middle-income countries today. Concretely: We know how to change the situation because we have done it,” he said.

“Pollution problems can only be solved by organisations joining forces and bringing in what they are best at…These are stories proving we are on the right track, and moving forward. But we need to do more with industrialisation in full swing around the world.”

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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OPINION: The Corporate Takeover of Ukrainian Agriculture Tue, 27 Jan 2015 13:20:34 +0000 Frederic Mousseau

In this column, Frédéric Mousseau, Policy Director at the Oakland Institute, argues that the United States and the European Union are working hand in hand in a takeover of Ukrainian agriculture which – besides being a sign of Western governments’ involvement in the Ukraine conflict – is of dubious benefit for the country’s agriculture and farmers.

By Frederic Mousseau
OAKLAND, United States, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

At the same time as the United States, Canada and the European Union announced a set of new sanctions against Russia in mid-December last year, Ukraine received 350 million dollars in U.S. military aid, coming on top of a one billion dollar aid package approved by the U.S. Congress in March 2014. 

Western governments’ further involvement in the Ukraine conflict signals their confidence in the cabinet appointed by the new government earlier in December 2014. This new government is unique given that three of its most important ministries were granted to foreign-born individuals who received Ukrainian citizenship just hours before their appointment.

Frédéric Mousseau

Frédéric Mousseau

The Ministry of Finance went to Natalie Jaresko, a U.S.-born and educated businesswoman who has been working in Ukraine since the mid-1990s, overseeing a private equity fund established by the U.S. government to invest in the country. Jaresko is also the CEO of Horizon Capital, an investment firm that administers various Western investments in the country.

As unusual as it may seem, this appointment is consistent with what looks more like a takeover of the Ukrainian economy by Western interests. In two reports – The Corporate Takeover of Ukrainian Agriculture and Walking on the West Side: The World Bank and the IMF in the Ukraine Conflict – the Oakland Institute has documented this takeover, particularly in the agricultural sector.

A major factor in the crisis that led to deadly protests and eventually to president Viktor Yanukovych’s removal from office in February 2014 was his rejection of a European Union (EU) Association agreement aimed at expanding trade and integrating Ukraine with the
EU – an agreement that was tied to a 17 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

After the president’s departure and the installation of a pro-Western government, the IMF initiated a reform programme that was a condition of its loan with the goal of increasing private investment in the country.“The manoeuvring for control over the country’s [Ukraine’s] agricultural system is a pivotal factor in the struggle that has been taking place over the last year in the greatest East-West confrontation since the Cold War”

The package of measures includes reforming the public provision of water and energy, and, more important, attempts to address what the World Bank identified as the “structural roots” of the current economic crisis in Ukraine, notably the high cost of doing business in the country.

The Ukrainian agricultural sector has been a prime target for foreign private investment and is logically seen by the IMF and World Bank as a priority sector for reform. Both institutions praise the new government’s readiness to follow their advice.

For example, the foreign-driven agricultural reform roadmap provided to Ukraine includes facilitating the acquisition of agricultural land, cutting food and plant regulations and controls, and reducing corporate taxes and custom duties.

The stakes around Ukraine’s vast agricultural sector – the world’s third largest exporter of corn and fifth largest exporter of wheat – could not be higher. Ukraine is known for its ample fields of rich black soil, and the country boasts more than 32 million hectares of fertile, arable land – the equivalent of one-third of the entire arable land in the European Union.

The manoeuvring for control over the country’s agricultural system is a pivotal factor in the struggle that has been taking place over the last year in the greatest East-West confrontation since the Cold War.

The presence of foreign corporations in Ukrainian agriculture is growing quickly, with more than 1.6 million hectares signed over to foreign companies for agricultural purposes in recent years. While Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont have been in Ukraine for quite some time, their investments in the country have grown significantly over the past few years.

Cargill is involved in the sale of pesticides, seeds and fertilisers and has recently expanded its agricultural investments to include grain storage, animal nutrition and a stake in UkrLandFarming, the largest agribusiness in the country.

Similarly, Monsanto has been in Ukraine for years but has doubled the size of its team over the last three years. In March 2014, just weeks after Yanukovych was deposed, the company invested 140 million dollars in building a new seed plant in Ukraine.

DuPont has also expanded its investments and announced in June 2013 that it too would be investing in a new seed plant in the country.

Western corporations have not just taken control of certain profitable agribusinesses and agricultural activities, they have now initiated a vertical integration of the agricultural sector and extended their grip on infrastructure and shipping.

For instance, Cargill now owns at least four grain elevators and two sunflower seed processing plants used for the production of sunflower oil. In December 2013, the company bought a “25% +1 share” in a grain terminal at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk with a capacity of 3.5 million tons of grain per year. 

All aspects of Ukraine’s agricultural supply chain – from the production of seeds and other agricultural inputs to the actual shipment of commodities out of the country – are thus increasingly controlled by Western firms.

European institutions and the U.S. government have actively promoted this expansion. It started with the push for a change of government at a time when president Yanukovych was seen as pro-Russian interests. This was further pushed, starting in February 2014, through the promotion of a “pro-business” reform agenda, as described by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker when she met with Prime Minister Arsenly Yatsenyuk in October 2014.

The European Union and the United States are working hand in hand in the takeover of Ukrainian agriculture. Although Ukraine does not allow the production of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, which ignited the conflict that ousted Yanukovych, includes a clause (Article 404) that commits both parties to cooperate to “extend the use of biotechnologies” within the country.

This clause is surprising given that most European consumers reject GM crops. However, it creates an opening to bring GM products into Europe, an opportunity sought after by large agro-seed companies such as Monsanto.

Opening up Ukraine to the cultivation of GM crops would go against the will of European citizens, and it is unclear how the change would benefit Ukrainians.

It is similarly unclear how Ukrainians will benefit from this wave of foreign investment in their agriculture, and what impact these investments will have on the seven million local farmers.

Once they eventually look away from the conflict in the Eastern “pro-Russian” part of the country, Ukrainians may wonder what remains of their country’s ability to control its food supply and manage the economy to their own benefit.

As for U.S. and European citizens, will they eventually awaken from the headlines and grand rhetoric about Russian aggression and human rights abuses and question their governments’ involvement in the Ukraine conflict? (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Zimbabwe Battles with Energy Poverty Tue, 27 Jan 2015 12:59:47 +0000 Tonderayi Mukeredzi Wood market in Chitungwiza. Twenty percent of the urban households in Zimbabwe do not have access to electricity, and rely mainly on firewood for their energy needs. Credit: Tonderayi Mukeredzi/IPS

Wood market in Chitungwiza. Twenty percent of the urban households in Zimbabwe do not have access to electricity, and rely mainly on firewood for their energy needs. Credit: Tonderayi Mukeredzi/IPS

By Tonderayi Mukeredzi
HARARE, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

Janet Mutoriti (30), a mother of three from St Mary’s suburb in Chitungwiza, 25 kilometres outside Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, frequently risks arrest for straying into the nearby urban forests to fetch wood for cooking.

Despite living in the city, Janet’s is among the 20 percent of the urban households which do not have access to electricity, and rely mainly on firewood for their energy needs.

Worldwide, energy access has become a key determinant in improving people’s lives, mainly in rural communities where basic needs are met with difficulty.

In Zimbabwe, access to modern energy is very low, casting doubts on the country’s efforts at sustainable development, which energy experts say is not possible without sustainable energy.

In an interim national energy efficiency audit report for Zimbabwe issued in December, the Sustainable African Energy Consortium (SAEC) revealed that of the country’s slightly more than three million households, 44 percent are electrified.“In rural Zimbabwe, the economic driver is agriculture, both dry land and irrigated. The need for energy to improve productivity in rural areas cannot be over-emphasised but current power generated is not sufficient to support all the energy-demanding activities in the country” – Chiedza Mazaiwana, Practical Action Southern Africa

They consumed a total of 2.7 million GWh in 2012 and 2.8 million GWh in 2013, representing 34 percent of total electrical energy sales by the Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution Transmission Company.

According to SAEC, of the un-electrified households, 62% percent use wood as the main source of energy for cooking, especially in rural areas where 90 percent live without access to energy.

A significant chasm exists between urban and rural areas in their access to electricity. According to the 2012 National Energy Policy, 83 percent of households in urban areas have access to electricity compared with 13 percent in rural areas.

Rural communities meet 94 percent of their cooking energy requirements from traditional fuels, mainly firewood, while 20 percent of urban households use wood as the main cooking fuel. Coal, charcoal and liquefied petroleum gas are used by less than one percent.

Engineer Joshua Mashamba, chief executive of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) which is crusading the country’s rural electrification programme, told IPS that the rate of electrification of rural communities was a mere 10 percent.

“As of now, in the rural areas, there is energy poverty,” he said. “As the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), we have electrified 1,103 villages or group schemes and if we combine that with what other players have done, we are estimating that the rate of rural electrification is at 10 percent. It means that 90 percent remain un-electrified and do not have access to modern energy.”

Since the rural electrification programme started in the early 1980s, Mashamba says that 3,256 schools, 774 rural centres, 323 government extension offices, 266 chief’s homesteads and 98 business centres have also been electrified.

Zimbabwe Energy Council executive director Panganayi Sithole told IPS that modern energy services were crucial to human welfare, yet over 70 percent of the population remain trapped in energy poverty.

“The prevalence of energy of poverty in Zimbabwe cuts across both urban and rural areas. The situation is very dire in peri-urban areas due to deforestation and the non-availability of modern energy services,” said Sithole.

“Take Epworth [a poor suburb in Harare] for example. There are no forests to talk about and at the same time you cannot talk of the use of liquefied petrol gas (LPG) there due to costs and lack of knowledge. People there are using grass, plastics and animal dung to cook. It’s very sad,” he noted.

Sithole said there was a need to recognise energy poverty as a national challenge and priority, which all past and present ministers of energy have failed to do.

Zimbabwe currently faces a shortage of electrical energy owing to internal generation shortfalls and imports much its petroleum fuel and power at great cost to close the gap.

Demand continues to exceed supply, necessitating load shedding, and even those that have access to electricity regularly experience debilitating power outages, says Chiedza Mazaiwana, an energy project officer with Practical Action Southern Africa.

“In rural Zimbabwe, the economic driver is agriculture, both dry land and irrigated. The need for energy to improve productivity in rural areas cannot be over-emphasised but current power generated is not sufficient to support all the energy-demanding activities in the country. The percentage of people relying entirely on biomass for their energy is 70 percent,” she adds.

According to the World Bank, access to electricity in Southern Africa is around 28 percent – below the continental average of 31 percent. The bank says that inadequate electricity access poses a major constraint to the twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in the region.

To end the dearth of power, Zimbabwe has joined the global effort to eliminate energy poverty by 2030 under the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative.

The country has abundant renewable energy sources, most of which are yet to be fully utilised, and energy experts say that exploiting the critical sources of energy is key in closing the existing supply and demand gap while also accelerating access to green energy.

By 2018, Zimbabwe hopes to increase renewable energy capacity by 300 MW.

Mashamba noted that REA has installed 402 mini-grid solar systems at rural schools and health centres, 437 mobile solar systems and 19 biogas digesters at public institutions as a way to promote modern forms of energy.

A coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) led by Zero Regional Environment Organisation and Practical Action Southern Africa is calling for a rapid increase in investment in energy access, with government leading the way but supported in equal measure by official development assistance and private investors.

Though the current output from independent power producers (IPPs) is still minimal, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) says that contribution from IPPs will be significant once the big thermal producers come on stream by 2018.

At the end of 2013, the country had 25 power generation licensees and some of them have already started implementing power projects that are benefitting the national grid.

Notwithstanding the obvious financial and technical hitches, REA remains optimistic that it will deliver universal access to modern energy by 2030.

“By 2018, we intend to provide rural public institutions with at least one form of modern energy services,” said Mashamba. “In doing this, we hope to extend the electricity grid network to institutions which are currently within a 20 km radius of the existing grid network. Once we have electrified all public institutions our focus will shift towards rural homesteads.”

For CSOs, achieving universal access to energy by 2030 will require recognising the full range of people’s energy needs, not just at household level but also enterprise and community service levels.

“Currently there is a lot of effort put in to increasing our generation capacity through projects such as Kariba South Extension and Hwange extension which is good and highly commended but for us to reach out to the rural population (most affected by energy poverty, according to our statistics, we should also increase efforts around implementing off grid clean energy solutions to make a balance in our energy mix,” says Joseph Hwani, project manager for energy with Practical Action Southern Africa.

Practical Action says that on current trends, 1.5 billion people globally will still lack electricity in 2030, of whom 650 million will be in Africa.

This is some fifteen years after the target date for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which cannot be met without sustainable, affordable, accessible and reliable energy services.

Edited by Phil Harris  

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African Leaders Clamp Down With Impending Elections in 10 Countries Tue, 27 Jan 2015 10:03:26 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

(GIN) – It’s election time in nearly a dozen African countries and the wish of some leaders to fiddle with the constitution and have a forbidden third term in office is sending tremors through the fragile states involved.

Ten elections are coming up this year – among them Nigeria, Burundi, Togo, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and the African Union should be a backstop for free and fair polls, said Yves Niyiragira, co-editor of the AU Monitor and a fellow at Fehamu, a pan-African umbrella organization for movements that focus on social justice.

“We are observing a trend where sitting heads of states and government are either attempting to change constitutions or attempting to extend their term of limit in many countries,” Niyiragira said. “The attempt was done in Burkina Faso, it did not succeed.

“There are attempts to do so in many countries, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congo, Benin, Sierra Leone and many others which are going that route.”

The African Union insists it supports free and fair elections, noting that it sends observer teams to countries holding polls, and advises member states on how to address election-related problems.

Later this week, the African Union will name a new president and there is near unanimous certainty that it will be Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe, Africa’s oldest president at 90 going on 91 next month, is the current chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). To lead the African Union, he has the support of the 15 SADC members, including South Africa, to succeed Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, one of the AU’s lowest-profile chairmen for some years.

“This is a way of honoring President Mugabe and his record,” said Kaire Mbuende, a Namibian and a former SADC executive secretary, when asked about the reasons for choosing someone so controversial to be the face of Africa in its political interactions. “Zimbabwe has everything it takes to rise from the ashes. It has the human capacity — the only questions are about time and resources.”

Meanwhile, civil groups in Burundi have been pleading with African leaders to prevent President Pierre Nkurunziza from seeking an unconstitutional third term in the May and June polls.

“Hundreds of civilians have been killed or disappeared,” said a group calling itself ‘The AU We Want Coalition.’ “Evidence that Burundi will revert to atrocities and ethnic violence is glaringly present.”

In Nigeria, polls are scheduled to open on Feb. 14 even as some 30 million people have not yet received their voter cards. The elections will be the first where Nigeria’s 68.8 million voters must have a biometric cards, a measure introduced to guard against fraud that has plagued past polls.

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Five Journalists Killed As Gunmen Ambush Convoy in South Sudan Tue, 27 Jan 2015 09:57:24 +0000 an IPS Correspondent By an IPS Correspondent

Reporting in war zones continued to prove hazardous once again as five journalists were killed on Sunday when unidentified gunmen ambushed an official convoy in South Sudan’s Western Bahr al Ghazal state, according to news reports.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CP) was quick to condemn the attack and called on authorities to apprehend the perpetrators and hold them to account.

The gunmen ambushed a two-car convoy and shot 11 dead, including the journalists, according to news reports and outgoing Information Minister Derrick Alfred, who spoke to CPJ. Some individuals survived the attack.

The convoy, which included James Marodama Benjamin, commissioner of Raja County, was returning to Raja after visiting families of individuals killed in another attack by unidentified gunmen on January 22 in Sofo town, local journalists told CPJ.

The journalists were Musa Mohamed, director of the state-run radio station Raja FM; Adam Juma, presenter and reporter for Raja FM; Raja FM reporters Dalia Marko and Randa George; and Boutros Martin, cameraman for the Western Bahr el Ghazal branch of South Sudan Television, or SSTV, according to Alfred, Deng Alor, representative of the Western Bahr el Ghazal journalists’ union, and the local privately owned daily The Citizen.

The motive behind the attack and its perpetrators are unknown. Phillip Aguer, spokesman for the South Sudanese army, claimed Ugandan rebels were behind the attack, while state governor Rizik Zachariah claimed the perpetrators were part of the rebel group led by former Vice President Riek Machar, according to news reports.

“The murder of five journalists is a devastating attack on South Sudan’s already beleaguered press corps,” CPJ East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes said. “We urge Western Bahr el Ghazal authorities to do their utmost to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice, and to ensure journalists are allowed to carry out their duties safely.”

Press freedom in South Sudan has deteriorated since the country gained its independence in 2011, according to sources who spoke to CPJ in late 2014. Government security forces raided and briefly shut down numerous media outlets in Juba in 2014, and local journalists told CPJ they feared covering sensitive topics and censored themselves. The most censored topic, they said, was coverage of rebels.

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U.S. Green Berets to Assist Africa in Counter-Terror Operations Tue, 27 Jan 2015 09:35:56 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

(GIN) – U.S. Army Special Forces, America’s highly-trained operatives in unconventional warfare, direct action, reconnaissance and counter-terrorism, are preparing for one of their biggest exercises of the year in Africa.

Under the name “Flintlock 2015”, the exercise is a multinational training of troops in several West African countries including Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Tunisia. It kicks off Feb. 26 in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.

Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad are all frontline states battling Boko Haram, the insurgent group that kidnapped hundreds of girl children in Nigeria and which has extended its field of operations outward to the neighboring states.

According to the online Defense News, the exercise will bring together approximately 1,300 troops from African and NATO countries, including 673 African forces, 365 NATO forces and 255 US personnel who will take part in a variety of tactical engagements to improve interoperability, communication and humanitarian response capabilities.

Special Forces, also known as “Green Berets,” date back to 1952, when they began to build their reputation in counter-insurgency actions in Vietnam, El Salvador, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, and in Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa.

Last March, the Los Angeles Times reported on dozens of U.S. military deployments in Africa, often to tiny and temporary outposts. Small-scale operations by the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), the paper wrote, reflect an effort to avoid “blowback” or deadly actions against the U.S. sparked by the activities of U.S. troops abroad.

U.S. operations in Africa initially met strong opposition from some leaders and the African public.

“We’ve got a big image problem down there,” a state department official told The Guardian newspaper in 2007. “Public opinion is really against getting into bed with the US. They just don’t trust the US.”

US economic incentives, including the prospect of hundreds of local jobs, failed to persuade leaders in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Djibouti, among others.

But with the advances of Islamist groups, national leaders may have quietly welcomed U.S. military units, abandoning hope for African solutions such as the African Union serving as the continent’s common security structure.

In an interview with the NY Times, Brig. Gen. James B. Linder said: “My job is to look at Africa and see where the threat to the United States is… I see Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Libyan problem set, Al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Benghazi and Darna.”

“We have a real global threat,” Linder said. “The problems in Africa are going to land on our doorstep if we’re not careful.”

Despite what AFRICOM officials say, wrote Nick Turse in Mother Jones magazine, a careful reading of internal briefings, contracts, and other official documents, as well as open source information, including the command’s own press releases and news items, reveals that military operations in Africa are already vast and will be expanding for the foreseeable future.

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Cuba and U.S. Skirt Obstacles to Normalisation of Ties Mon, 26 Jan 2015 20:15:35 +0000 Patricia Grogg and Ivet Gonzalez The Cuban (left) and U.S. delegations on the last day of the first round of talks for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, Jan. 23, in Havana’s convention centre. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The Cuban (left) and U.S. delegations on the last day of the first round of talks for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, Jan. 23, in Havana’s convention centre. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg and Ivet González
HAVANA, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

The biggest discrepancies in the first meeting to normalise relations between Cuba and the United States, after more than half a century, were over the issue of human rights. But what stood out in the talks was a keen interest in forging ahead, in a process led by two women.

After a meeting with representatives of Cuba’s dissident groups, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson reiterated on Jan. 23 that the questions of democracy and human rights are crucial for her country in the bilateral talks, while stressing that there are “deep” differences with Havana on these points.

But the head of the Washington delegation said these discrepancies would not be an obstacle in the negotiations for restoring diplomatic ties – a goal that was announced simultaneously by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on Dec. 17.

In her statement to the media after her two-day official visit to Havana, Jacobson added that her country’s new policy towards Cuba is aimed at greater openness with more rights and freedoms.

Nor does independent journalist Miriam Leiva, founder of the opposition group Ladies in White, believe the U.S. focus on defending human rights and supporting dissidents will be a hurdle. “The Cuban government knew that, and they sat down to talk regardless,” she remarked to IPS.

In her view, the important thing is for the normalisation of ties to open up a direct channel of communication between the two governments. “This is a new phase marked by challenges, but also full of hope and opportunities for the people. Of course it’s not going to be easy, and the road ahead is long,” she added.

The Cuban authorities have consistently referred to opposition groups as “mercenaries” in the pay of the aggressive U.S. policy towards Cuba.

Nor are they happy when U.S. visitors to Cuba meet with opponents of the government. And they are intolerant of the relationship between dissidents and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which is to be turned into the new embassy as part of the process that got underway with the first round of talks in the convention centre in the Cuban capital.

Jacobson and her Cuban counterpart, Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry’s chief diplomat for U.S. affairs, addressed the issue of human rights during the talks on Thursday Jan. 22.

The high-level U.S. diplomat described the process of reestablishing bilateral ties as “long” and “complex.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, the head of the Washington delegation in the first round of bilateral talks, between the two countries’ flags. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, the head of the Washington delegation in the first round of bilateral talks, between the two countries’ flags. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In a written statement distributed to reporters in a no-questions-allowed media briefing, Jacobson said: “As a central element of our policy, we pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression.”

Vidal, meanwhile, said “in our exchange, each party laid out their positions, visions and conceptions on the issue of the exercise of human rights.”

She said the word “pressure” – “pressed” was translated into Spanish as “pressured” – did not come up in the discussion, and that “Cuba has shown throughout its history that it does not and will not respond to pressure.”

In the 1990s and early this century, the question of human rights triggered harsh verbal confrontations between Havana and Washington in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and since 2006 in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Havana complained that the U.S. used the issue as part of its “anti-Cuba” policy.

Vidal said she suggested to Jacobson that they hold a specific expert-level dialogue at a date to be agreed, to discuss their views of democracy and human rights.

Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry's chief diplomat for U.S. affairs, arriving at the convention centre in Havana, where the first round of talks for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Washington was held. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s chief diplomat for U.S. affairs, arriving at the convention centre in Havana, where the first round of talks for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Washington was held. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Jurist Roberto Veiga, who leads the civil society project Cuba Posible, told IPS that “the circumstances that have influenced the issue of human rights should be considered in any bilateral talks on the issue, to avoid mistaken judgments that could stand in the way of possible solutions.”

In his view, during the process that led to the 1959 triumph of the revolution, which was later declared “socialist,” there was a “struggle between a vision that put a priority on so-called individual rights to the unnecessary detriment of social rights and inequality,” and one that put the priority on social and collective rights.

As a result, in this Caribbean island nation what has prevailed up to now is “a conception [of human rights] that favours equality and social rights at the expense of certain freedoms, and of this country’s relations with important countries,” he said.

Veiga said Cubans must complete the effort to find a balance between individual rights and social equality. It is important to discuss this issue “for the development of Cuba’s political system and the consolidation of our civil society,” he argued.

The two delegations also addressed possibilities of cooperation in the areas of telecommunications, national security, international relations, people smuggling, care for the environment, responding to oil spills, the fight against drugs and terrorism, water resources, global health, and a joint response to the ebola epidemic in West Africa, among others.

In the first part of the meeting, the two sides analysed the practical steps to be taken for the opening up of embassies, which will basically follow the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in effect since 1964.

Reporting the results of the first meeting, aimed above all at laying the foundations for the process, Vidal stressed that following the Convention “implies reciprocal respect for the political, economic and social system of both states and avoiding any form of meddling in internal affairs.”

The date for the next round of talks was not announced.

The meeting was preceded, on Wednesday Jan. 21, by a round of follow-up talks on the migration accords reached by the two countries in 1994 and 1995.

Most Cubans are sceptical and even incredulous about the surprising decision to “make friends” with the United States.

“I think both sides are demanding a lot of each other,” 37-year-old Ángel Calvo, a self-employed driver, told IPS. “Both countries have completely different politics, which it is best to respect in order to start reaching agreements.”

Manuel Sánchez, 33, who described himself as a worker in the informal economy, said both countries “will make more progress towards improving relations than in the past, but they’ll never have the excellent ties that many people are hoping for.”

What is clear is that the talks led by the two high-level officials in Havana have raised expectations.

As renowned Cuban writer Leonardo Padura wrote in a column for IPS earlier this month, after the historic Dec. 17 announcement, “with our eyes wide open, we can catch a glimpse of the future, trying to see shapes more clearly through the haze.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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OPINION: Looking Two Steps Ahead into Saudi Arabia’s Future Mon, 26 Jan 2015 20:08:41 +0000 Emile Nakhleh King Abdullah (left) and his younger brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is now king. Credit: Tribes of the World/cc by 2.09

King Abdullah (left) and his younger brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is now king. Credit: Tribes of the World/cc by 2.09

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

Much has been written about King Abdullah’s legacy and what Saudi Arabia accomplished or failed to accomplish during his reign in terms of reform and human rights. Very little has been written about the role that Muhammad bin Nayef, the newly appointed deputy to the crown prince, could play in the new Saudi Arabia under King Salman.

King Salman is 79 years old and has reportedly suffered one stroke in the past that has affected his left arm. The next in succession, Crown Prince Muqrin, is 69 years old.The future King Muhammad also will have to deal with high unemployment among Saudi youth and the massive corruption of the royal family.

Muhammad bin Nayef—or MBN as he is often referred to in some Western capitals—is only 55. As age and ill health incapacitate his elders, MBN could play a pivotal role as a future crown prince and a potential king in the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia, but more importantly in the kingdom’s regional politics.

The uncomfortable truth is that under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia maintained a terrible human rights record, undermined the democratic ideals of Arab Spring, and supported dictatorships in Egypt and Bahrain. It also promoted ugly sectarianism, preaching an ideology that gave rise to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other terrorist organisations. The kingdom supposedly did all of these things in the name of fighting Iran.

The equally inconvenient truth is that the Obama administration in the past four years has barely objected to Saudi Arabia’s undemocratic, corrupt, and repressive policies. The Saudi noose around the American neck should no longer be tolerated. MBN, two kings down the line after Salman and Muqrin, could reset Saudi Arabia’s domestic and regional policies and free Washington of Riyadh’s burden.

As king, MBN would be the first such monarch of the second generation of al-Saud. As a relatively young ruler, he would be comfortable in entertaining new ideas and communicating credibly to Saudi youth. I base this analysis on interactions I had with him during my government service several years back.

I discerned several characteristics in MBN that could help him as a future king of Saudi Arabia to nudge the country forward and perhaps usher in a period of real reform. He has a sophisticated knowledge of the root causes of terrorism and radicalisation and how to combat them. He also has a pragmatic approach to regional politics, especially Iran’s role as a regional power, and the linkage between regional stability and Saudi security.

Counterterrorism and deradicalisation

According to media reports, MBN started a comprehensive deradicalisation programme in Saudi Arabia with an eye toward persuading Saudi youth to recant radicalism and terrorism. His two-pronged strategy has exposed youth to moderate Islamic teachings and provided them with jobs and financial support to buy a house and get married.

MBN believes that extremist ideology, economic deprivation, and hopelessness drive young people to become radicalised. Despite the relative success of his programme, however, more and more Saudi youth have joined the ranks of radical groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS.

MBN must have realised by now that the roots of radical Sunni ideology come from the mosque sermons and religious fatwas of Salafi-Wahhabi Saudi clerics. Even as he receives hundreds of thousands of dollars to get settled in a home as a married man with a job, a young Saudi continues to be exposed to the poisonous ideology spewed by some religious leaders just outside the walls of the deradicalisation “school.”

Lacking a position of national authority beyond his counterterrorism portfolio, MBN could not really address the source of radical ideology without bringing the wrath of the Saudi religious establishment down on his head. As king, however, he might be able to tackle this sensitive issue.

MBN will face huge obstacles if he decides to address this issue—politically, historically, and culturally. Conservative, intolerant radical Sunni ideology has existed in Saudi Arabia for a long time and can be traced back to the 18th-century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Since then Saudi culture has been imbued with this interpretation of Islam.

However, as a king representing a younger, Western-educated generation of royals and cognizant of the growing desires of Arab youth for freedom, MBN might feel more empowered to face down the religious establishment in the country.

Furthermore, he might feel less bound by the generations-old agreement between the founder of Saudi Arabia and the al-Shaykh family, which gave al-Saud greater leeway to rule and reserved to the Salafi religious establishment the authority to act as the moral guardian of Saudi society.

Domestic and regional politics

Significant segments of the Saudi people want economic and political reform. They have expressed these views in petitions, on social media, and in action. Shia activists have protested systemic regime discrimination for years. The Saudi government has illegally jailed these activists, convicted them in sham trials, tortured them with impunity, and even killed them.

The future King Muhammad also will have to deal with high unemployment among Saudi youth and the massive corruption of the royal family. In order to avoid a “Saudi Spring,” which is destined to erupt if current policies continue, MBN will have to inject large amounts of money into job creation projects.

He will also have to provide a new kind of education, which would allow Saudi job seekers to compete for employment in the technology-driven, 21st-century global economy. Despite the astronomical wealth Saudi Arabia has accumulated in the past half-century, Saudi education still produces school graduates unqualified to compete in the global economy. As a modernising king, MBN will have to change that.

Regionally, MBN realises that Gulf stability is integral to Saudi security. For Gulf security to endure, he will have to accept Iran as a significant Gulf power and search for ways to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with his Persian neighbour. Iran could be a helpful partner in helping settle the conflicts in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other spots in the region.

If the P5+1 bloc concludes a nuclear agreement with Iran, the United States and Iran would embark on a new relationship, with which Saudi Arabia will have to come to terms.

MBN will also realise, for example, that continued conflict in Bahrain will ultimately destabilise the Gulf region, which will harm Saudi interests. As such, he would have to push al-Khalifa to institute genuine political reform in Bahrain, end systemic discrimination against the Shia majority, and include them in the economic and political process. As a first step, he would have to withdraw Saudi troops from Bahrain, where they have failed to quell anti-regime protests.

Will MBN be able to do it?

Based on MBN’s knowledge of the region and of the terrorist threat to his country, the chances of instituting real political and religious reform during his future reign are 60-40 at best. As a prerequisite for success, he will have to consolidate his power vis a vis the conservative and powerful elements within the royal family. Most importantly, he will have to overcome the opposition of the religious establishment.

His success could be historic. But his failure would be catastrophic for the future of Saudi Arabia. Al-Saud and other Gulf ruling families would not be able to maintain control forever over a population that is increasingly alienated, unemployed, and constantly yearning for a more hopeful future.

The United States should also pay close attention to MBN’s chances of success and should tacitly encourage him to move forward with courage. Regardless of the party controlling the White House, Washington can’t remain oblivious to what’s happening in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Africa’s Rural Women Must Count in Water Management Mon, 26 Jan 2015 18:58:21 +0000 Miriam Gathigah Africa's rural women must be brought into the post-2015 water agenda. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

Africa's rural women must be brought into the post-2015 water agenda. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

More women’s voices are being heard at international platforms to address the post-2015 water agenda, as witnessed at the recently concluded international U.N International Water Conference held from Jan. 15 to 17 in Zaragoza, Spain.

But experts say that the same cannot be said of water management at the local level and countries like Kenya are already suffering from the impact of poor water management as a result of the exclusion of rural women.

“At the Zaragoza conference, certain positions were taken as far as water is concerned, but the implementers, who are often rural women, are still in the dark,” environment expert Dismas Wangai told IPS.

Wangai gives the example of the five dams built around the Tana River, the biggest in Kenya. “It is very important that the so-called grassroots or local women have a say in water management because they are the most burdened by water stresses and are the best placed to implement best practices” – Mary Rusimbi, executive director of Women Fund Tanzania

He says that the dams have not been performing optimally due to poor land management as farmers continue to cultivate too close to these dams.

“This is a major cause of concern because about 80 percent of the drinking water in the country comes from these dams, as well as 60 to 70 percent of hydropower,” he says.

According to Wangai, there is extensive soil erosion due to extensive cultivation around the dams and as a result “a lot of soil is settling in these dams and if this trend continues, the dams will produce less and less water and energy.”

Mary Rusimbi, executive director of Women Fund Tanzania, a non-governmental organisation which works towards women rights,  and one of the speakers at the Zaragoza conference, told IPS that women must be involved in water management at all levels.

“It is very important that the so-called grassroots or local women have a say in water management because they are the most burdened by water stresses and are the best placed to implement best practices,” she said.

According to Rusimbi, across Africa women account for at least 80 percent of farm labourers, and “this means that if they are not taught best farming practices then this will have serious implications for water management.”

Alice Bouman, honorary founding president of Women for Water Partnership, told IPS that a deficit of water for basic needs affect women in particular, “which means that they are best placed to provide valuable information on the challenges they face in accessing water.”

She added that “they are therefore more likely to embrace solutions to poor water management because they suffer from water stresses at a more immediate level.”

According to Bouman, the time has come for global water partners to begin embracing local women as partners and not merely as groups vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change.

Water partnerships, she said, must build on the social capital of women because “women make connections and strong networks very easily. These networks can become vehicles for creating awareness around water management.” She called for developing a more comprehensive approach to water management through a gender lens.

Noting that rural women may not have their voices heard during international water conferences, “but through networks with civil society organisations (CSOs), they can be heard”, Rusimbi called for an end to the trend of international organisations bringing solutions to the locals.

This must change, she said. “We need to rope the rural women into these discussions while designing these interventions. They have more to say than the rest of us because they interact with water at very different levels – levels that are very crucial to sustainable water management.”

Wangai also says that rural women, who spend many hours looking for water, are usually only associated with household water needs.

“People often say that these women spend hours walking for water and they therefore need water holes to be brought closer to their homes” but, he argues, the discussion on water must be broadened, and proactively and consciously address the need to bring rural women on board in addressing the water challenges that we still face.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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Renewables Can Benefit Water, Energy and Food Nexus Mon, 26 Jan 2015 16:48:33 +0000 Wambi Michael The Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the United Arab Emirates covers an area the size of 285 football pitches and generates over 100 MW of electricity for the country’s national grid. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

The Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the United Arab Emirates covers an area the size of 285 football pitches and generates over 100 MW of electricity for the country’s national grid. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

By Wambi Michael
ABU DHABI, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

With global energy needs projected to increase by 35 percent by 2035, a new report says meeting this demand could increase water withdrawals in the energy sector unless more cost effective renewable energy sources are deployed in power, water and food production.

The report, titled Renewable Energy in the Water, Energy & Food Nexusby the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), says that integrating renewable energy in the agrifood supply chain alone could help to rein in cost volatility, bolster energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to long-term food sustainability.

The  report, launched at the International Water Summit (Jan. 18-21) in Abu Dhabi, examines how adopting renewables can ease trade-offs by providing less resource-intensive energy services compared with conventional energy technologies. Integrating renewable energy in the agrifood supply chain alone could help to rein in cost volatility, bolster energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to long-term food sustainability

“Globally, an energy system with substantial shares of renewables, in particular solar photovoltaics and wind power, would save significant amounts of water, thereby reducing strains on limited water resources,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin.

Unfortunately, he said, detailed knowledge on the role of renewable energy at the intersection of energy, food and water has so far been limited.

In addition to the water-saving potential of renewable energy, the report also shows that renewable energy-based desalination technologies could play an increasing role in providing clean drinking water for people around the world.

Amin said although renewable desalination may still be relatively expensive, decreasing renewable energy costs, technology advancements and increasing scales of deployment make it a cost-effective and sustainable solution in the long term.

Dr Rabia Ferroukhi, Deputy Director of IRENA’s Knowledge, Policy and Finance division, told IPS that “water, energy and food systems are inextricably linked: water and energy are needed to produce food; water is needed for most power generation; and energy is required to treat and transport water in what is known as ‘the water-energy-food nexus’.”

She said deployment of renewable energy is already showing positive results in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with an over 50 percent cost share of global desalination capacity.

Some 120 kilometres southwest of Abu Dhabi lies the Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, which generates over 100 MW of electricity for the United Arab Emirates national grid.

Shams 1, which was designed and developed by Shams Power Company, a joint venture among Masdar (60 percent), Total (20 percent) and Abengoa Solar (20 percent), accounts for almost 68 percent of the Gulf’s renewable energy capacity and close to 10 percent of the world’s installed CSP capacity.

Abdulaziz Albaidli, Sham’s Plant Manager, told IPS during a visit to the plant that the project reduces the UAE’s carbon emissions, displacing approximately 175,000 tonnes of CO₂ per year.

Located in the middle of the desert and covering an area of 2.5 km² – or 285 football fields – Shams 1 incorporates the latest in parabolic trough technology and features more than 258,000 mirrors mounted on 768 tracking parabolic trough collectors.

By concentrating heat from direct sunlight onto oil-filled pipes, Shams 1 produces steam, which drives a turbine and generates electricity. Shams 1 also features a dry-cooling system that significantly reduces water consumption – a critical advantage in the arid desert.

“This plant has been built to be a hybrid plant which allows us to produce electricity at very high efficiency, as well as allowing us to produce electricity when there is no sun. Also the use of an air-cooled condenser allows us to save two hundred million gallons of water. That is a very important feature in a country where water is scarce,” said.

In addition, he continued, “the electricity we produce is able to provide twenty thousand homes with a steady supply of electricity for refrigeration, air conditioning, lighting and so on.”

Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar – the majority shareholder in Shams 1 – told delegates at the just concluded Abu Dhabi World Future Energy Summit (Jan. 18-21) that “through Masdar, we are redefining the role our country will play in delivering energy to the world.”

“From precious hydrocarbons exports to commercially viable renewable energy projects,” he said, “we are extending our legacy for future generations.”

Morocco is another country aiming to become a world-class renewable energy producer and is eyeing the chance to export clean electricity to nearby Europe through the water, energy and food nexus.

Its first CSP plant located in the southern desert city of Ouarzazate, which is now operational, is part of a major plan to produce over 2,000 megawatts (MW) at an estimated cost of nine billion dollars with funding from the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank.

Meanwhile, South Africa is taking advantage of a solar-powered dry cooling system to generate power. In collaboration with Spanish-based CSP technology giant Abengoa Solar, the country is installing two plants – Khi Solar One and KaXu Solar One – that will generate up to 17,800 MW of renewable energy by 2030 and reduce its dependence on oil and natural gas.

Dr Linus Mafor, an analyst with the IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre, told IPS that there is an encouraging trend across the globe with countries implementing projects that aim to account for the interdependencies and trade-offs among the water, energy and food sectors.

He said that the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) is one of the promoters of the water, energy and food nexus in six Asian countries which are integrating the approach into development processes.  According to Mafor, such initiatives will see more affordable and sustainable renewable energy deployed in water, energy and food production in the near future.

The Austria-based Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) is one of the supporters of the nexus among clean energy, food production and water provision. Its Director-General, Martin Hiller, told IPS that understanding the inter-linkages among water resources, energy production and food security and managing them holistically is critical to global sustainability.

The agrifood industry, he said, accounts for over 80 percent of total freshwater use, 30 percent of total energy demand, and 12 to 30 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

REEEP is supporting countries like Kenya, Indonesia, Kenya and Burkina Faso, among others, in developing solar-powered pumps for irrigation, with the aim of improving energy efficiency.

Edited by Phil Harris  

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When Oil Prices Drop, Some Lose & Some Win Mon, 26 Jan 2015 09:50:49 +0000 Alexandra Zevallos Ortiz By Alexandra Zevallos-Ortiz

The question of how the oil market is going to rebalance itself in 2015 is going to be one of the most challenging ones for the oil industry.

Since June 2014 oil prices have slumped by more than 60 percent due to global oversupply, the strong dollar and less demand. By then the most volatile commodity known to civilisation was almost $115 a barrel. For the first time since 2009, it now stands close to $50 a barrel.

As the sharp decline in oil prices is expected to persist in 2015, there will be significant income shifts from oil-exporting to oil-importing countries.

Cheaper oil is going to act like a shot of adrenalin for the economies of rich oil-importing countries and could mean a $1.5 to $2 trillion transfer from oil-exporting countries to oil-importing countries.

In its bi-annual Global Economic Prospects report, released on January 13, the World Bank said lower oil price will help to lower inflation worldwide.

“The lower oil price, which is expected to persist through 2015, is lowering inflation worldwide and is likely to delay interest rate hikes in rich countries. This creates a window of opportunity for oil-importing countries, such as China and India,” Kaushik Basu, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice President said, noting the World Bank’s expectations for India’s growth to rise to 7 per cent by 2016.

But the global oil price fall is also going to have negative impacts: around the world, oil companies are cutting budgets and cancelling projects. Since last June, the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. has tracked 21,917 US job cuts by oil and oil-related industries.

The most vulnerable ones are low-income oil-producing countries whose budgets are dependent on a high oil price, such as Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria. Iraq and Libya are also going to be affected as their oil output is increasing with nearly 4 million barrels per day combined.

With oil production scaling up rapidly in the Middle East, oil prices risk to fall even more, especially if Tehran and Washington reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) latest economic outlook, published on January 19, Russia’s economy, already hit by Ukraine-related sanctions, will shrink by 4.8 percent this year. Russia, a non-OPEC member, is the world’s largest oil supplier with production in excess of 10 million barrels per day or 13 percent of global crude production.

The most vulnerable African countries include Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sudan, as well as developing nations such as Algeria, Libya and Egypt.

Nigeria, Africa’s top crude exporter is trying to adjust to crashing prices. The oil sector represents 95 percent of export earnings and 75 percent of government revenues. The Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, announced on January 20 that Nigeria plans to double its value-added tax and cancel government projects if oil prices continue to slide.

Last week Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro was touring across Asia and Russia searching for supportive measures to bolster oil prices. On January 15 Maduro announced that he is planning to create a “formula that impacts the oil market and restores the normalisation of prices” with OPEC and non-OPEC members.

Venezuela’s oil revenues account for about 95 percent of export earnings, the most among the OPEC members.

According to the report on the world oil outlook released by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2014, oil demand of non-member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will be greater than the demand of member states in 2015.

“Demand is going to increase clearly in developing countries, with an annual rise of 1.1 mb/d,” the report says. Of the demand increase, developing Asia accounts for 71 percent of the growth in developing countries.

Although OPEC’s official mission states that their goal is to “unify the petroleum policies of its Member Countries and ensure the stabilisation of oil markets” the organisation, which controls about 40 percent of the world market, has failed to do so.

According to Thomas E. Donilon, former National Security Advisor and a member of the Center on Global Energy Policy’s Advisory Board, there is a simple reason for that.

“OPEC is Saudi Arabia, this is a central point,” Donilon said, speaking about the recent oil price collapse, at a seminar at Columbia University on January 21.

“Saudi Arabia made it very clear that it is not going on unilateral basis to reduce production. It is about sending a signal that others would have to participate,” he added.

Over the past weeks, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have said repeatedly that the organisation would not cut output to halt the biggest rout since 2008. Though Saudi Arabia has enough resources to do so, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz decided in November 2014 not to sacrifice their own market share to restore the price.

The passing of King Abdullah is going to increase uncertainty and increase volatility in oil prices in the near term according to Neil Beveridge, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., Bloomberg reported on January 23. “I would not expect a change in policy in the near term to be known, but the passing comes at a challenging time for Saudi Arabia.”

If Saudi Arabia, a country that produces about a third of the OPEC total production (10 million barrels per day) would curb production, the main benefits would go to their main adversaries: Russia and Iran.

So far, the market has recognised the core dynamics of Saudi Arabia’s decision and the global reduction in demand. But there is another factor that must be taken into consideration: the dramatic increase in supply of the United States.

Due to the discovery of shale oil, which is a substitute for conventional crude oil, the American oil production has been boosted by a third to nearly 9 million barrels a day.

Goldman Sachs even speaks about a “new oil order”. “We use this term to describe the transition that the market is going through,” Jeff Currie, global head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs said in a video posted on their website which explains how the U.S. shale revolution has changed the global energy landscape.

Because of the very flat supply curve that is generated out of these shale technologies OPEC has lost much of its pricing power, according to Currie. “If OPEC adds oil on the market or takes oil off the market it does not have a significant impact like it did previously.”

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UNDP Sees Seeds of Opportunity in 2015 Mon, 26 Jan 2015 09:28:23 +0000 Leila Lemghalef By Leila Lemghalef

The future of sustainable development has promise — and that promise is now, according to the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“At UNDP, we see 2015 as a huge opportunity to advance the global sustainable development agenda,” said Helen Clark, at the opening session of the UNDP’s Executive Board meeting in New York.

The agenda’s focus is on a new framework for disaster risk reduction, financing for development, and tackling climate change.

Through a series of processes, the international community will come up with post-2015 agenda agreements.

The key upcoming events this year include the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March in Japan; the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July in Ethiopia; and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in December in Paris.

“The outcomes of each of these processes will be more powerful if there are synergies between them. It is widely accepted that eradicating poverty, building resilience, and reducing carbon emissions must go hand and hand”, said Clark, pointing out the potential for “a once in a generation opportunity to set a transformational global agenda for sustainable development.”

She mentioned the “agenda is expected to be broader and more transformational than the MDGs were”, referring to the eight Millennium Development Goals.

“The MDGs run their course at the end of the year, and U.N. Member States are due to agree in September on the Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide global development priorities for the next 15 years.”

Sustainable development encompasses the equitable use of natural resources, the protection of the environment, and an accent on social justice and economic growth.

Clark addressed today’s crises, including Ebola, Ukraine, Yemen, South Sudan, Central African Republic, but first and foremost, the four-year crisis in Syria and its impact on Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.

“The fighting has drastically rolled back the country’s human development and pushed over three-quarters of the population into poverty – 4.4 million people are estimated to be living in extreme poverty,” said Clark.

Her statements also revolved around the axis of the UNDP’s 2014-2017 Strategic Plan, which is committed to “Helping countries to achieve the simultaneous eradication of poverty and significant reduction of inequalities and exclusion”.

In this vein, despite the many challenges, 2015 presents a unique opportunity to move ahead on the goal of eradicating poverty.

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